This article is written in response to Adrian Smith’s thought-provoking interview with composer Raymond Deane, published in the Journal of Music on October 3rd 2018.
In its interrogation of prevalent trends in Irish contemporary music, their discussion finds the status quo markedly deficient in “events”, or rather, lacking tangible examples of what Žižek refers to as the “surprising emergence of something new which undermines every stable scheme.” The interview moves to compare “stasis, the absence of events, the absence of conflict” with the “end of history”, contending that a large proportion of Ireland’s leading young composers appear to be “working within the same narrow premises” and are thus flinching from “violations of anti-dialectical dogma.”
Approaching new music from an improvisatory perspective, this conversation appears to me itself situated within another, altogether more subtle, variety of “stable scheme”. Lamenting that “composing large orchestral works or operas doesn’t appeal to many younger composers in the first place” nostalgically evokes a practise of music-making that is defined and bordered by Eurocentric codes of cultural practise, depending intimately for its historical existence on a symbiotic relationship with the infrastructure of the state.
The state as an entity is defined by its territorial and judicial borders. It is both a geographical space circumscribed by a frontier and a political space delineated by regulations proscribing reasonable limits to social behaviour. The actions of the state become animated upon the crossings of these borders, by transgressions, deviations, incursions…just as in ‘Of Hospitality’ Derrida asks “What does that mean, this step too many, if, for the invited guest as much as for the visitor, the crossing of the threshold always remains a transgressive step?”
In ‘Noise: The Political Economy of Music’, Attali echoes Plato in positing that music functions as a harbinger of societal change, observing that the growth of the orchestra during the industrial revolution was as much a reflection as an alignment – “the representation of music is a total spectacle. It shapes what people see; no part of it is innocent. Each element even fulfils a precise social and symbolic function: to convince people of the rationality of the world and the necessity of its organization. In accordance with the principles of exchange, the orchestra in particular has always been an essential figure of power.”
Derrida would define the hidden relationships of power that are concealed by tradition as those “from which we receive the concepts, the vocabulary, the axioms that are elementary and presumed natural or untouchable.” Therefore, if we are truly searching for a music that is “something new”, we must presume nothing, and touch everything. Reaching outwards, it is only through fully inhabiting the complete biodiversity of our musical ecosystem that we can hope to find resilience moving forward; a living space for music that gives voice to its time and has, perhaps uniquely, the power to “undermine every stable scheme.”
As Joyce well knew, the “end of history” is also its beginning. To look always anew at a nascent generation of Irish composers in search of works of originality, innovation and individual expression, is to seek Serres’ “timid and green emergence of the new” not only in that which is perceived, but also in the paradigm of the perceiver. A music that moves, with us, our world, is to be found in the ear of the beholder alone.
Music is listening, it hears us. It is everywhere to be sought – it lives, it breathes, it perspires. Listening to new music that touches Ireland, whether from within or without, one hears a reverberant depth that echoes across the world and back. Learning to look in the right places, to listen in the right way, music is everywhere to be found.
By necessity, as a cell, the state is porous. The system is never stable; it lives, just like us, in a state of critical instability, ever bobbing on waves of events that are unceasing, constant, animating. History repeats, for people and their planet are creatures of habit. Events from the past recur, repeat and resound into the future through the resonant space of the present. Nobody really makes music anew – our atoms were also the first atoms.
If Attali is right, and music is truly a harbinger of change – if music is capable of presaging a transformation in society – then it will speak in its own language, to those that are listening. Learning to hear, here, begins upon understanding that language itself is tied to the past, for words are the genes of history.
Reading any one sentence, from a single page, of a single book, in the immense library of new music in Ireland, or anywhere else for that matter, makes sense only as a part of a syntax that is encompassing in its multiplicity, one that Dufourmantelle might describe as “soliciting what ceaselessly escapes its form toward a future never future enough.”
In a time of global criticality, drawing ever closer to the edge of political and environmental catastrophe, we no longer have the luxury to assume positions of stolid pessimism. What use is it to bemoan, when we most desperately need to educate, to transform and to prepare? That there is music in the world, at all, should be cause for hope. If you hear music anywhere, you will find it everywhere…not only in the concert halls of the world, but in its streets, its classrooms and its forests.
I began this article intent on engendering debate, to attempt to counter what I felt were reductionist statements made about the work of many of my friends and colleagues, and also to try and include those that I felt had been excluded from the discussion altogether. Unfortunately, unto this aim I have failed almost entirely, ending up very far from where I intended to land…I suppose that there is a good reason that I am not a writer…
However, I will conclude with this – perhaps if our definition of what it is to be a composer embraces not only those who write symphonies and operas, but also those who write and create any new music, including those who compose spontaneously, in the vernacular, then we are far more likely to find cause to be optimistic about the future of music on this island, and for that music to effect a change in our society. For me, all Ireland’s greatest living composers, or artists of any description for that matter, are to be found at the edges, between definitions, at the places where the “crossover” takes place, at the threshold of one or another, ever taking a step beyond.
Nick Roth is a saxophonist, composer, producer and educator.