This topic makes little sense, but is nonetheless critical to upcoming statements regarding interpretive positions and the future of music as art in an Internet environment. Basically, Baudrillard framed the subject in his Simulacra and Simulation, although his approach to aesthetics (and many other things) is not mine. In a world where our perceptions are increasingly formed from what we perceive secondhand via TV, the Internet, or various other means, we not only begin to lose sight of the reality behind the images, but the images become more real than the "reality" itself, and ultimately detached from that nonexistent reality. This is Baudrillard's basic idea, and to say it has become increasingly correct would be a dramatic understatement. He also details the history of this relationship, one which certainly enters medieval music and its interpretation in more than one way. Besides noting such a provenance, I will use my own terms here, namely misdirection. I break this down in two ways: deceit, intentional or not; and, numbness from overstimulation. The first divests one specifically from a grounded existence, and the second demands only polite innocuous statements. Both have a tremendous effect on what one can say and what one is expected to say. Ontology per se is not as cut & dried as just circumscribed, but I assert that there is no transcendence without an underlying reality of some kind, and I want to highlight the source and interpretive ramifications of demands for innocuousness.
I am definitely of the "say what you mean; mean what you say" school of thought, but I lose step with the naïve literalists quickly. It is fine to attempt to say everything as simply as possible (maybe implying a corresponding exegetical position), but before long the statement which appears simplest does not result in actual communication. Not only are some ideas complex by nature, but some statements are immediately interpreted as something other than what they are. People have all manner of established misconceptions, and if one is to alter them, one must dodge them somehow. That people are now immersed in such a tremendous & insipid tub of overstimulation makes the situation nearly impossible. Their established routes of thinking are very established, and very imprecise, analogous to taking a finely braided silk rope and heating it until the strands melt together. An absurdly circuitous route is often the only way to communicate, and it probably will not succeed anyway, short of some instantaneous happenstance insight (most effectively achieved, I increasingly suspect, with a good blow to the head). So this is basically an apology for postmodern composition? One can say it is not very "real" and that it is confusing nonsense, but at least it is our music. It is not us in the past, rather the past as image. It is not the same things said because someone else said them first until we are numb to them.
One can assert that there should be a unified tradition, or rather a constant affirmation of someone else's patterns of thought. Such a thing is elevator music at a (maybe) somewhat more advanced level. On the other hand, meaningless postmodern rhetoric is, I assert, the ultimate nature of sophistication per se. The two notions seem like poles, but they also coincide in their own extremes to form one pole of "misdirection" against which I shall place real expression. The former is indeed misdirection, because it becomes detached from itself and then unreal, like watching the news on TV. With the dominance of historical performance, the situation for music of the past is increasingly misdirected, in that it becomes less ours. It becomes mythical & unreal, with the long-dead composer cast as hero behind an artificial museum-style interpretive stance. It is interesting, oh yes, but is it really art at that point? It is a simulacrum of art, even more removed from us on recording, and no cure for numbness. (This is not to say that persisting non-HIP, Romantic-style performances tend to be any less simulacra today. The idea that classical performances become increasingly bland is certainly not lost on many people.) If we can talk about falsifiability for art, we are not feeling, but misdirecting yet again. We can say nothing, but we can ask many questions. No one is offended by that. To complete the breakdown, the stance even leads to deceit, unintentional in the ready misapprehension of the audience regarding what authenticity is or could be. I assert now the great irony of medieval music's increased popularity: Through all of these reflections, the public perceives it as so divested from itself that it satisfies exactly the craving for innocuousness which would seem to be impossible given its intense rhetoric and dogma. It is not ours at all, not felt at all. Indeed it is seen as almost cute.
We are far beyond any utility for art which "softens the blow" of reality, since we have very little reality left anyway. There are innumerable ways to sleepwalk, if one so desires. No, the only function remaining is to rip away the veil of misdirection and image. This is why there is so much open offensiveness, of course, but although it may seem simpler, it cannot be effective (pace the discussion of necessary circuitousness). Where once we had scandalous political satire expressed in song, the idea has entirely lost its edge. The vestige is "stand up and scream" popular music which only increases numbness. In order to sidestep these issues, a composer must consider creating music which sounds totally different, a situation obviously fraught with peril. Art music is at once isolated from the general public and being crushed under the weight of its own history, such that tearing all asunder is one of the few outlets, both personally & professionally. This is what links anarchy to art so closely today, in a conundrum completed by the basic thrust of the present topic: removing misdirection from expression.
The forgoing remarks are not intended to provoke despair, but rather to illustrate some points. We have quite enough despair surrounding us already, and it is easy to see why: not because the world is a worse place to be, and indeed the technophiles will immediately assert that it is much better, but because it has become such a difficult place to effectively communicate. To me, this is one argument for simply being quiet, since people's lives are OK as they are. But nothing is really quiet today, and so... what is it, personal vanity driving us? The situation can perhaps be recast in terms of "entropy of art" as everything becomes at once more dispersed and more the same. Struggling only seems to make it happen faster, a situation from which the easiest outlet is the pure relativism I reject. Such a release does nothing to address the underlying issue, which is not so much a lack of communication as a lack of communion. This is precisely where directness in expression is critical. As it becomes impossible to feel, it can be tempting to utter strong opinions only for the sake of being pilloried for them, i.e. to attempt to feel. However, such an approach quickly becomes misdirected yet again, and ultimately impractical. The value of directness in expression is that it cannot arise from an easy axiom, that it cannot be accomplished by erring on one side or the other, that it cannot be circumscribed.
Administrivia: Next column in three weeks.
To TMM Editorial index.Todd M. McComb