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Music and Utopia
by Oliver Schneller

The importance of utopian ideas in music changes over time as it does in society. What does retain constancy however is the occurrence of what I would call the "utopian moment", the motivation to bring something forth from within the ever growing density of possibilities, something that is yet un-thought of, yet unfulfilled, unperceived, and perhaps at times even unwanted.

The musical score - a virtual universe ?

The progress required in moving from the sketches and general formal planning of the pre-compositional phase to the actual writing out of the musical score is mirrored in the progression that moves from the reading of that score to its execution in the act of performance. In both cases an imaginary "script", mediated by different modes of notation, is to achieve a preliminary concretion: from the vast repository of pre-compositional ideas a musical score is extracted that concentrates the still largely utopian content in a focal point and fixates it through musical notation. Similarly, the execution of the score by the performer is a realization of notated ideas: its placement-in-time as currently sounding music. If the utopian content of these compositional processes would be conserved in unmodified form throughout these progressions, then composers would find themselves in a very unfortunate position, since the henceforth perpetually vexing discrepancy between score and performance - imagined and sounding music - would solipsistically isolate the ideal, but unrealizable musical score in the mind of its creator.

The point is therefore for the composer to utilize the "utopian moment" as ignition - as "inspiration", if you will - for beginning the work. Then, during the process of composition and concretion -

pre-composition -> score

- the utopian content must be dissolved by transformation. From this point on imagination and craft (technique) become one and the same. The combination of the components and the realization of the underlying concept (this, also, is a meaning of componere ) within the interactive context -

score -> performance

- eliminates the (conceptual) utopian content by turning it over to its concretion as art.

And as if this were a facile process! That's why doubt, the tentative, and perhaps even the experiment are often more productive than the rigorous pursuit of utopian content; at least as far as the conventional understanding of the term utopia is concerned: something that can be clearly envisaged by the mind and that is either secretively or militantly (as ideology) thought of as ultimately realizable. The totalitarian resonance that resounds in this definition of the term is reductive and largely excludes - in the realm of art at least - the idea of the "utopian moment" where the idea is not realizing the utopian content but transforming it into concretion as a work of art.

Utopia of distant sounds

Composing, understood in the context of western music, is always a more or less violent struggle between systems of rules found within the available material and personal freedom. The musical conscience is under the permanent obligation to redefine itself radically - a completely utopian project… In a society that imitates and represents itself, proud of viewing itself as its own projection, composed music must insist on finding its own relationship with the world. It must invent its message simultaneously with its language and hope to be received by as many people as possible before the rapidly advancing atrophy of listening becomes a chronic condition.

Art - as I would want it to be understood - does not strive to reiterate what is anyway and merely affirm it in its existence, but always seeks to express something previously un-thought of by activating the potential of the "utopian moment".

The eutopia of art and science?

In recent years musical applications of computer science have played a leading function in the desire to systematize, formalize, and even automate compositional processes. The models and structures used in this field are based on detailed analyses of the physics of sound and sound behavior on the one hand and criteria of aural and cognitive human perception and orientation on the other - a combined science known as psycho-acoustics. The speed and scope with which these scientific insights have been recently integrated into the compositional processes of specific composers or even certain aspects of the general practice of music certainly represent a productive and dynamic development that sheds new light on the ancient quest for a universal language as basis of science and music.

It is the positivistic insistence, however, with which (already!) implementations of scientific insight are insisted upon, that increase the risk of writing music which largely suspends aesthetic reflection in favor of a scientific zest and fascination. Compositions made up of fast-paced series of acoustic realizations of scientifically derived models or structures - usually quite impressive to hear at first instant - often seem to try to cover up the underlying lack of creative ideas, which prompts composers to rigidly derive, transcribe and fixate musical structures with great technical competence, without however, being too much concerned with their aesthetic relevance or content.
But more often than not it is indeed the avoidance of coercion, the deliberate subversion of rationalized techno-structures that is essential to art. In the cracks and seams within our agreed upon and scientifically sanctioned reality resides the potential of the "utopian moment" that can manifest itself in the structures, illusions, or even revelations of art.

Future: listening

The contribution of the universal computer in the field of composition could really be revolutionary. Besides its uses as an instrument for analysis, transcription, modelization and simulation in the disciplines of sound research and psycho-acoustics the commercial applications of this medium has profoundly influenced the practice of music. Software like "Virtual Composer" and "Instant Music" guarantee users - even those with no previous knowledge of music - the instant production of a piece through the assembly of ready-made components. In the broadest sense this heralds the de-hierarchization, even democratization, of the activity of musical composition. Perhaps the question to ask is no longer what will make music new but how and by whom it is renewed. Everybody will compose their own musics - and as cyber-composers distribution will not be the problem.

What will however most likely present a problem is the availability and quantity of what is offered. Generally, these software packages contain too many pre-manufactured elements. Their sounds, rhythms and harmonizing functions merely cater to the desire to create pastiches out of well-known components instead of creating an open environment in which to work upwards from the very building blocks of sound itself. The user of these programs finds himself choosing casually and half distracted from huge arrays of sound banks and templates that enable him at most to combine them in unusual ways but never really to create his/her own sound.
But what, then, happens to the relative autonomy of the imagination? How does the ear react? Like the human, turned into a giant ear, about whom Nietzsche's Zarathustra pokes fun? Openness here has become defenselessness; the permanent sonic bombardement through solidified structures and semantically immobile icons has made the ear unconditionally obedient, stifling the power of its individuality.

My personal hearing-utopia would be a mode of listening that would be able to abstract from cultural predetermination or habit and thus would remain open. Its openness would differ from Nietzsche's ear in that it is able to listen without being constantly (pre-)configured, and to make autonomous and creative aesthetic judgments by defying obedience.

First published in: "Universalmaschine". Frevert, T.; Schwarte, L., Ed.
Oliver Martin Schneller is a composer living in
Berlin. Most of his works combine instruments with
computer-generated synthetic sound. His primary
interest lies in finding new relationships between
instrumental timbre and spatial diffusion.
Among the ensembles that have performed his works in
Europe and the USA are Ensemble modern, Court-Circuit,
Ensemble Intercontemporain, MusikFabrik, Speculum
musicae and the Antares Ensemble.

© Peter Grahame Woolf