In my artistic practice, I have found myself on two sides of a fence. The word music has been both suitable and unsuitable, often simultaneously.
I am certainly not the first to have this problem. The composer Mauricio Kagel dreamt of what he called “music for all senses”, but his work has often been labelled as theatre.
In my own practice, I see three kinds of hybridity:
- playing together with “non-musical” aspects of the environment (hybrid situation or place);
- a performer who plays instruments or sings, but also does other things (a hybrid performer);
- sculpture that can be used as an instrument (a hybrid object).
Such hybridity is not a problem in practice, one simply does it. Practical challenges take practical solutions. But when I tried to find efficient terminology to address such hybridity, I located a serious problem in language instead. The concept of music turned out to be the obstacle. Theory could not grasp practice.
Why? Because there is no definition of music that really works.
I do not have time to go through a variety of attempted definitions, but let’s take a well-known one for an example. Edgar Varèse said that music is organized sound. But the problem with that is, of course, that it includes almost anything imaginable: speaking, walking, driving a bus, eating, clapping hands; not to mention whale- or birdsong. In fact, to exclude anything from this definition of music, it would have to be totally silent, or totally unorganized (or both). The latter is fairly difficult to find: ever since chaos theory and emergence it has been problematic to prove that a given thing is not organized in some way. Improvisation and chance operations have long been used by composers.
All definitions of music fail. I believe Luciano Berio and Jean-Jacques Nattiez have already exposed the truth: “music is everything that one listens to with the intention of listening to music” (Berio 1985), “music is whatever people choose to recognize as such” (Nattiez 1990).
It is what we say it is. That sounds a lot like dogma: “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” (New Oxford American Dictionary 2005–2009).
Dogma is not up for grabs; an opinion doesn’t affect it, only the word of the authority in question. In this way, dogma is immune to perception: the authority that gave the dogma would be questioned, if something other than said authority can affect the statement.
The late Finnish artist Kimmo Kaivanto made a sharp comment with his bronze sculpture Dogmaatikko (’Dogmatist’, 1979). The Dogmatist only sees what he says: his dogma speech bubble covers his eyes. Everything is like he says it is, he is blind to everything outside the speech bubble.
Jaco Pastorius and the role of the bass: an anecdote on dogma
>>> (pick up the bass and start playing; improvise)
I’d like to share a brief example of how exposing dogmatism in our thinking can be beneficial.
It was possible to play soloistically on the bass guitar before Jaco Pastorius came along. He wasn’t even the first bassist to take the frets off.
Neither did he didn’t invent the bass guitar solo. What he did was that he showed how the bass guitar had been confined to a particular role, not because of the limitations of the instrument, but because of the limitations of the thinking concerning the instrument.
Pastorius exposed the dogma that had been limiting the use of the bass guitar.
>>> (play a stereotypical root-fifth bass line)
The dogma: the bass guitar is supposed to be played in a certain way. It is not the instrument for a star soloist.
>>> (pause playing)
Pastorius put on display the non-dogmatic truth: the bass guitar can be used in a variety of ways – supportive, soloist, anything in between.
>>> (resume improv)
This is a practical matter. There are limits – highest note, lowest note, the number of strings – but practical limits do not stifle creativity, they encourage it.
>>> (finish improv; then put the bass down)
When it comes to the bass guitar, the “dogma” concerned the playing, not the words used.
But language itself can have a dogmatic limitation. Such is the case with the word music. It is both hopelessly bland (it means whatever) and too rigid (it doesn’t mean anything else, just itself).
Arguing over words can be endless and equally useless. I do not wish to do that.
My motivation is this: as an artistic researcher, I need language for practice. As an artistic researcher, I found myself in need for language, for discourse that would be unhindered by the useless dogmatism of the word music.
Logically, we have three options.
Option 1. Our current situation in Western culture: calling some things music but some not. This option, as I explained, is not helpful regarding artistic practice that happens on both sides of the conceptual fence. It is also entirely a matter of power. What music is depends completely on whose definition has the most influence, and this varies from one social sphere to the next.
Option 2. Everything is called music: the Pythagorean / Ancient Greek option. Since music is dogma, this option is rather horrible: it is not only absurd, it is also totally pointless. If everything is dogma, there is a single opinion that overrules everything – Hellenist totalitarianism. This is what Wagner dreamed of in Artwork of the Future; this is what Antiochus IV tried to impose but the Maccabean revolt successfully resisted.
In my dissertation, I present a third option:
Option 3. WHEN NOTHING IS CALLED MUSIC.
Calling nothing music does not mean forbidding violins or blowing up opera houses.
This concerns language. How would it be, if we didn’t call violin playing ’music’, if we didn’t call the song on our phone ’music’? How would such a change affect our conversation, perhaps even culture and society?
I propose that such a change would be beneficial. Our discourse would be better suited to discuss practice. My own artistic practice is only a niche example of this.
When knowledge is found through artistic practice, the discourse concerning this knowledge needs to be, similarly, practice-derived. In other words: abstract talk cannot really grasp practical things.
Art as togetherness
The etymology of the word “art” is fascinating. Behind the widely known Latin root word, ’ars’ (’work of art; practical skill; a business, craft’), there is a Proto-Indo-European root: “ar-”, “arti-”, ‘to fit together’.
(Proto-Indo-European is a reconstructed language, thought to be the common root of the languages of the Indo-European language family. Indo-European languages include English, Spanish, Hindi, and Persian; almost half of the world’s population speaks an Indo-European language.)
This fascinating root suggests the idea that a work of art is something that’s fitted together: for example, for a painter, fitting together visual forms and colours; for a writer, fitting together words. A composition, an arrangement, of pre-existing things.
Is not our society a ‘fitting together’ of a larger scale?
Could it be that how we think about togetherness in the arts reveals how we think about togetherness on a larger scale?
Togetherness within an artwork, togetherness in society: these are connected to one another.
In the artistic component of my dissertation, an essay film called Töölönlahti: A Parable in Landscape, there are scenes where I asked some instrumentalists to improvise in relation to their environment. Here is a short clip.
(VIDEO CLIP – EXCERPT FROM “TÖÖLÖNLAHTI: A PARABLE IN LANDSCAPE.” Dr. Simo Hostikka, Associate Professor of Fire Safety Engineering at Aalto University, playing a snare drum with trains; Sibelius Academy Graduate M. Mus. Juulia Pölönen playing a kantele with street noise.)
These examples show that creative expression can connect with something that we usually do not call creative expression. This suggests that maybe the conceptual border between them is artificial.
If we admit that everyone is creative in some way, to some extent, it follows that how we think of creativity is how we understand togetherness of humankind.
If our language concerning this togetherness is dogmatic, we run the risk of building a dogmatic totality, an oppressive system. Remember the conflict between Antiochus IV and the Maccabees: forceful assimilation versus a distinct identity.
Now more than ever, we need to find new language to better understand the togetherness of different forms of creative expression, togetherness that is not dogmatic, not oppressive assimilation. There must be room to disagree, to be distinct.
Abstract comes after, not before
The expression “laws of physics” presents the idea that first there is a “law” and then there is nature that obeys said “law”.
But that is backwards.
Surely gravity preceded Newton.
The atom precedes atomic models (by Bohr, Heisenberg/Schrödinger)…hence the word model.
Abstraction is a tool of description, not a preceding principle.
Music is an extremely abstract word, so much so that it fails to describe reality. It comes from a static view of the universe – which, we know, is not static but moving very fast. Why should we rely on an abstraction that fails to describe the world?
A static universe is hopeless, because there is no change. This is why escapism is so prevalent in what I call the “musical worldview.”
We know that the universe is not static, it is expanding. Why should arts and culture remain in antiquity while even the natural sciences have long abandoned such antiquitous models?
It is time we updated our discourse to better understand our practices.
It is high time to seek a discourse that can understand togetherness without falling again into a dogmatic pit.
This is where I see the unique significance of artistic research.
This past summer, ten different art education and research organizations published The Vienna Declaration on Artistic Research, wherein they say:
“Through topics and problems stemming from and relevant to artistic practice, AR [Artistic Research] also addresses key issues of a broader cultural, social and economic significance.” (The Vienna Declaration on Artistic Research)
Artistic research can reveal the areas where theoretical discourse has abstracted itself, that is, withdrawn, from the things it is supposed to concern.
Summary and conclusion
To conclude with a summary – in my research, I have shown that
- there is artistic practice that challenges the usefulness of the word and concept ”music”;
- there have been languages that have no corresponding words or concepts (Gourlay: African pre-colonial languages; Ancient Hebrew; probably Armenian, maybe Old Finnish… etc).
Therefore, if ’musicless language’ has been done before, it can be done again. I believe this would be highly beneficial. Connections between forms of creative expression would be refreshed. Togetherness could be better understood in ways that can avoid oppression.
There is a very important condition to this: going to a ’musicless’ language can only be voluntary (hence calling this the “the third option”, in the dissertation on page 20), and as a consequence, it will be diverse, in process, and in constant need of translation (contrasting with the imposition of dogma).
This is not a utopia. As Richard Taruskin has pointed out, “utopianism, it would appear, always entailed a body count” (Taruskin 2009).
A musicless mindset is not a utopian ideal. It is only an improvement, a step towards a better world.
Berio, Luciano. 1985. Luciano Berio: Two Interviews. London: Marion Boyars Publishers, 19.
Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. 1990. Music and Discourse: Towards a Semiology of Music, trans. by Carolyn Abbate. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 47.
New Oxford American Dictionary, s.v. “dogma,” Apple Dictionary application 2.1.3, 2005–2009.
Taruskin, Richard. 2009. “Preface: Against Utopia,” in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, xi–xii.
The Vienna Declaration on Artistic Research, Signatories: AEC, CILECT / GEECT, Culture Action Europe, Cumulus, EAAE, ELIA, EPARM, EQ-Arts, MusiQuE, SAR.
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