Master’s Degree Diaries: An Impossible Essay, On Impossible Music

“This essay is an analysis of how pieces of music that are impossible to perform perfectly by a human, fall into the divide of Modern and Postmodern, and how the introduction of context and current culture throws answers into doubt.”

This is the opening statement of Mainstream Etudes: Impossible Works of Art and (Post)Modernism, which might have been the biggest nightmare essay of this entire degree. Believe it or not, this stemmed from ‘Cultural Studies’, the same study unit that resulted in my presentation on sex and videogames. It comes as no surprise that even though this essay is about music, I still mention tampons.

I'm the tall guy at the back, not having much fun. That's my "can we please stop taking selfies and get this lecture over and done with" face.
I’m the stroppy tall guy at the back, not having much fun. That’s my “can we please stop taking selfies and get this lecture over and done with” face.

Unfortunately, due to illness, I was forced to miss the majority of the lectures of this unit (enough that when I unexpectedly turned up to a tutorial, the lecturer called me ‘a bloody hero’. Erm… thanks). It just so happened that those that I missed were the subjects that were most in my comfort zone. Postmodernism is the central subject required for the arts, and I was forced to look up what it all meant. This worried me a lot. I felt that I had an understanding of all of the concepts that I needed, but the context being so different from the lecture notes meant that everything seemed too irrelevant.

The term I used when telling a friend about the gibberish I could potentially churn out was ‘bullshitted’. Assuming that that is what I did, albeit unintentionally, it turned out that the lecturers took a great liking to my bullshit, receiving the highest grade that I got from any assignment on the course. I credit this to the ambiguity (or ‘dangerous ambiguity’ as I called it in the essay) of the term ‘postmodernism’, setting me a blank canvas to do whatever I wanted. I maintain that that wasn’t my frame of mind at the time though. I was a bit too terrified for any mischief.

So, what was all of this about? There is an undeniable hierarchy of authenticity in popular music culture, which traditionally hands the throne to live performance. However, does such a label still apply once inability to perform a piece as written is inevitable? To explore postmodernism, I chose to analyse several musical works that are impossible for the human hands and voice to perform live, at least to a physically perfect standard, and discuss why these may fall under the title of ‘postmodernism’, before explaining the complications with giving pieces of music that seem ideal for the title, the postmodern label. They had varying degrees of mainstream exposure.

A senior lecturer on another course ‘liked’ a Facebook status where I asked for irrelevant sounding words as a challenge to get into the essay. I don’t know whether he was happy with my bravery, or had a feud with my MA lecturers, in hope that I would give them misery. ‘Bubblebath’ and ‘Nickelodeon’ made the cut. I had two particular favourites, in the form of ‘fortissississississississimo’ and a word with just one result on Google – an adjective variant of an already unusual mathematical term. I’ll leave it out here for time being to preserve its rarity.

The pieces were:

1. 4’33” (1952), composed by John Cage.

The entire premise of this infamous piece is for the musician not to play a single note for the entirety of the piece. This has been interpreted in many different ways, with a favourite being that during a performance, it is an opportunity to appreciate ambient, ordinarily unnoticed noise. It is the imperfections of the performance that construct it. This was used to discuss what separates proof of concept from artwork, by how desires of music suggested by Gjerdingen and Lyotard, as a performance of 4’33” has no sense of completion. This rendered the piece as the ultimate example of postmodernism, on the grounds that Lyotard states how postmodernism is “the failure of all master narratives”. Other examples used for lacunae in art included the monochrome paintings of Robert Rauschenberg.

It is later used to discuss intertextuality, and how in Modernist views shared by Cage, such art welcomes scrutiny.

2. Etude 14A (1993), composed by Gyorgy Ligeti.

As intriguing as Ligeti is, he was definitely the most difficult to write about of the four choices, as his repertoire is of such complexity of both sound and concept, that it needed a lot of technical musical buzzwords. As a musician myself, I am comfortable with this, but I could not be sure whether lecturers of a journalism course would be. Luckily, this was alright. Ligeti’s repertoire was used to discuss ‘genrefication’ as a spectrum, rather than binary decision, comparing it to other work of his, such as .Poeme symphonique, discussing the concept of normality and again, proof of concept.

The citations of various other etudes from Ligeti’s repertoire allowed the terms ‘Nickelodeon’ (a term used for an automatic player piano), and the aforementioned personal favourite term of the entire essay: ‘fortissississississississimo’. I managed this when discussing No. 13: L’escalier du diable, an etude infamous for its bizarrely extreme high dynamics. I could have just said ‘high dynamics’, but what fun would that have been?

3. Tamphex (1992), composed and arranged by Richard D. James

Speaking of fun, Aphex Twin’s chaotic ‘intelligent dance music’ was inevitably going to get a nod, and there I felt the need to delve into the more obscure territory, as I brought the weird and wonderful into the mainstream. The piece was Tamphex, a hardcore techno track which heavily sampled an old tampon advertisement. Are you one of those girls for whom time stands still once a month?

This linked heavily with Ligeti, with combating reasoning for the creation of impossible pieces in both classical, and now popular music. For example humour, rebellion, or just ‘because the artist can’ – all reasons accused by some as ‘kitsch-mongering’ as opposed to having artistic merit. This is another collision of the normality selected by modernism, and argument for freedom in postmodernism.

4. Like Spinning Plates (2001), composed and recorded by Radiohead

Here is a track that received a healthy mention during my dissertation on experimental music in popular culture, and couldn’t have been a more ideal example of an impossible piece of music – Yorke learned to sing the song backwards, to make the lyrics relatively understandable when reversed, against the sound of reversed instruments. There is a very different live version played on piano, demonstrating the measures required to create a performance of it without electronic aid. It’s an example of postmodernist views of consciously ignoring live performance during the studio period.

They were used due to their sudden and shocking transition into experimental territory from popular praise, similar to Ligeti, but this time in popular music. Interestingly, Radiohead also returned to Modernist conventions with later albums Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows.

This essay was a success in profiling both modernism and postmodernism, but concluded that with the introduction of context, Modernism could not be completely dismissed, and current postmodernism (shown in lip-synced pop performances and TV talent shows such as The X Factor, yet still accepted by the public). That clash was the biggest issue used in discussing the problem with the postmodern label. This introduced the concept of a compromise, ‘ultra-modernism’, a state that allows eradication of live performance, without necessarily eradicating authenticity.

I won’t go into this now, because it will take me a grand total of forever, as I put to use examples by Adorno, Baudrillard, Gjerdingen, Koehne, Nyman, Reynolds, Searby and Shuker and many, many more.

And now you know.


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