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“So, did you like that?”

Patrick Leterme on I Hate New Music

Patrick Leterme
Reading time
6 min.

Do you like that?” She asks rather nonchalantly, after a succession of hysterical shrieks, neurotic vocalisations, vowels and consonants dispatched in every possible direction, parcels of strange, oblique, absurd – in a word, bizarre sounds. BiZaRrE, bIzArRe, BI-ZAR-RE, B I Z AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA R RE!!!!!

Well, no, we don’t like that. Of course we don’t. It is nonsensical, it is deconstructed and totally unpredictable. No refrain, no melody. No orchestra, no piano – because, you see, she is performing all alone too! People like comfort, stability. And believe me: a soprano who offends the ears with a whole succession of BI-ZAR-RE sounds while you lean back in your seat in the stalls, is anything but that. So of course we don’t like it!

At the end of the Second World War, democracy had to be rebuilt on Europe’s smoking ruins. That was a civilisation project, and therefore a cultural project, and therefore also a musical project. Launched in 1946, the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik – International Summer Courses for New Music – were held in Darmstadt, to the south of Frankfurt, first annually and eventually every two years. As the nerve centre of musical modernity, a dizzying procession of people (or rather, “of men”, because it was still very much a man’s world) were soon passing through the city. If not all already legendary, they soon would be: Luciano Berio, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, György Ligeti, Iannis Xenakis, Wolfgang Rihm, John Cage, Edgar Varèse, Morton Feldman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, to name but a few.

Henri Pousseur, David Tudor, Heinz-Klaus Metzger, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez in Darmstadt (1956)
Henri Pousseur, David Tudor, Heinz-Klaus Metzger, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez in Darmstadt (1956)

In the wake of Theodor W. Adorno, a philosopher and musicologist as much as a composer (and that is significant), musical experimentation clashed head on with the very foundations of the language of music. The obsession with creating new musical structures meant that everything was put under the microscope: phrases, sounds, chords. Penser la musique – thinking music – soon became Pierre Boulez’s mantra (and the title of one of his books: Penser la musique aujourd’hui). In the distance, the great Richard Strauss lay on his death bed. His sublime Vier letzte Lieder are steeped in a sense of being one of the last representatives in a time-honoured line of Great Master Composers: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and Wagner. Soon he, too, the last of the melodic Mohicans, would cross the Great Divide. Baroque music, classical music, romanticism. Post-romanticism. Post-post-romantism. Post-post-post-romanticism. Stop! That’s enough! With the war over and Europe on its knees, the great dramatic phrases, the tonal line and passionate lyricism are fractured and the floor of musical creation is littered with their debris.

Or at least that was what a new generation claimed. A generation scarred by the horrors of war (Ligeti lost almost his entire family in the camps, while Stockhausen served as a stretcher bearer transporting corpses), a generation that refused to resort to the pathos that had been complicit in so many disasters and to the kind of emotional exaltation that had so often colluded with nationalism, or at any rate been exploited by it. That new generation aspired to a new music, consisting of new concepts, which, untainted by state cultures, would lead to an international style that transcended wars and borders. That (aesthetic) recovery plan was crucial; the stakes were high. Hence the feverish, fraught and fiery debates at Darmstadt. But was this oh-so-serious and profound reflection on the foundations of a new music not in danger of eventually giving way under its own weight? The answer to that question (or rather, to that warning) would become clear a generation later.

In 1963 György Ligeti enjoyed a brief association with the Fluxus movement, in which humour and mockery played an important role, and displayed a certain affinity with the ideas of Marcel Duchamp (“Anything is art”), John Cage (liberation from musical structures, connection with Asian spirituality) and Yoko Ono.

Ligeti’s compositions included a Poème symphonique for… 100 metronomes. Not being entirely compatible with the broadcaster’s aesthetic musical criteria, the pre-recorded television broadcast was cancelled and replaced by… a football match! Ligeti’s concept was indeed novel, slightly whacky and embellished with foolery. Impassioned by the strange, absurd and impossible, Ligeti had always cultivated a scholarly mischievousness. His 100 metronomes was his way of saying that music had taken itself far too seriously. Desacralize art (it is not that important). Shake things up. Go mad! (You will go so much further if you don’t think it all matters so much.)

In 1966 Luciano Berio wrote his third Sequenza (in a series of compositions for solo instruments, each exploring the boundaries of these instruments). Sequenza III is written for the voice (so solo singing). Consonants, vowels, vowels, consonants: the score requires true virtuosity, of a kind unheard of at the time. The explanation of the notional elements at the beginning of the score, which Berio had devised specially for the piece, lists 15 different techniques: “salvoes of laughter”, “teeth chattering”, “tongue trilling against the upper lip”, etc., as well as 44 agogic markings (stress or emotional nuances), such as “dreamy”, “far away” and the highly scenic “fading away”.

Sarah Defrise enjoys dipping into the repertoire of that time. Into the ‘new music’ of the 1960s. New music of the sixties? Compared to the music of 1946, it was new when it was written. And it still is, even for us, in the 21st century! Such was the audacity of that second post-World-War-Two generation that decades later their music still sounds very new. Too new? “New” is not necessarily a compliment. Because: WE – DON’T – LIKE – IT.

Besides which, when this Sequenza per voce is over, Sarah is no longer quite herself. The singer becomes a spectator. And she thinks just like us. “I don’t know if you liked it, but personally I didn’t: I really didn’t like it!” Everyone breathes a sigh of relief: oh? Are we allowed to say it out loud? Great! Well, at least it’s out now. So can we go home? Can we? Oh? No. SHE’s the one who’s going. With a pneumatic drill. Methodically. Going to debunk the clichés, one by one. We’re only just getting started.

New music is serious? Wrong. Q.E.D., as demonstrated above: you discovered, much to your surprise, that in the 1960s some composers were learning to laugh at themselves.

New music is awful? She goes on to sing a simple, melancholy song by John Cage. The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs is a beautiful maritime chant evocative of the night:

night by silent sailing night
wildwoods eyes and primarose hair

A sweet but sombre song whose melody is based on just three different notes, words by James Joyce and some drumming on a closed piano.

how all so still she lay
’neath of the white thorn
child of tree
like some lost happy leaf
like blowing flower stilled

New music is complicated? Wrong again! The demonstration continues (and goes much further than in the above-mentioned works: we are now in the year 2000) with Georges Aperghis’ PUB2. Every era has its obsessions. Ours is the bombardment of our available brain time with advertising.

Leave stubborn stains
To soak
For long-lasting freeeeeshness

No, not James Joyce this time. And yes, it is liberating, almost as if the soprano is letting herself go, removing the stains (with a good stain remover, please) of the torrent of advertising on the radio, newspapers and television.

New music isn’t sexy? Just you wait! Well, no: you don’t actually get to see anything. That would have been embarrassing. But you do get to hear everything. And when we say everything, we mean… EVERYTHING. Erwin Schulhoff incorporated every conceivable vocalization of pleasure, every moan, groan and sigh, into the score of his Sonata Erotica (1919). And the composer has some sound advice – you might even say his recommendations are imperative! For those who intended to skip the prelude: no way! The instructions in the score are clear:

I: Prelude. Ruhig beginnen (Prelude. Begin gently)
II: Wieder ruhig beginnend! (Begin again slowly!)
III. Finale. Etwas konsterniert im Ausdruck (Finale. With a slightly disconcerted expression)

The scene is carnal and lasts a good nine minutes. The audience looks on, beaded with sweat.

The soprano reaches a climax. Artistically speaking, of course! Because her goal is clearly to break the ice (and after nine hormonal minutes, who would dare disagree that it is ‘mission accomplished’)? Did you think that music was just that (notes, melodies, major and minor chords) and nothing else? Did you think that a singer can only sing when she is accompanied, like a bride being led to the altar on her father’s arm? Did you think she can only sing dialogues (opera) or beautifully rhyming poems (Lieder)? Having now reached the age of respectability (50 plus!), this new music pushes back boundaries and opens up new horizons. Yes, the horizons of the voice – that’s every existing vowel and consonant. Yes, noise is music. Yes, explosive language is still language. Everything is music, just so long as over time our taste, conditioned by everything it is bombarded with, does not allow itself to be lulled into complacency in a confined space.

Sarah Defrise is there to de-limit. Not to mark out boundaries, but to erase them. And she removes one more: the frontal boundary that separates the artist (who performs the music) from the audience (who is silent). That boundary is also the dividing line between an artist who has mastered a score (a specific document that she is able to study) and an audience that is only allowed to receive that score. Well, not here: everything is music, yes, music is committed to paper, but first and foremost music is created. When you want it, as you want it. That’s what we’re aiming for. Together. Let’s hear it! Higher, lower, louder, quieter. And not so very far from Ligeti and his opaque textures (Atmosphères, Lux Aeterna, etc.), the audience discovers that it can improvise on the spot, produce sound, and even better: express itself. It can, and it has every right to do so!

I Hate New Music begins with Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III per voce, dedicated to the singer and actress Cathy Berberian, his wife. We have come full circle. At Darmstadt there were hardly any (hardly any) (hardly any!) female composers, remember? Cathy Berberian is an icon. You have to see her, this tall, well-dressed woman, this comely middle-class lady, standing in her living room between music stand and mantlepiece. She looks as if she’s about to speak…. Perhaps about… I don’t know... the advantages of electric domestic appliances. Or about the Korean war. Or her boys’ success at university. Something nice and respectable, you know. Well, she doesn’t. She stands up straight in her well-cut suit and makes noises: “Aaaaaaaaaa”, “ARRRRRGRRRR”, “BLOMP” and even a “GRUNT SNUF GLAB SBROOM KRUM HISSSSS” (the translation is still uncertain, despite all the years of intensive scientific research).

© Aurelie Ayer

Sarah Defrise rounds off her one-woman show with Stripsody (1966), created by Cathy Berberian (accompanied by comic-style images of onomatopoeia), and more specifically with one final sound: archive footage shows Cathy Berberian turning towards the camera, coming a few steps closer and raising her right hand. With outstretched fore and middle finger, she mimics a pistol and the room echoes with the concluding onomatopoeia: “BANG!”

BANG! Eyes fixed on the camera and staring straight into it, that final bullet is fired without hesitation through the heart of all the misconceptions and preconceived ideas.

Like the freedoms in our societies, art is subject to collective liberticidal waves. The territory of the acceptable (or authorized) fluctuates between openness and closedness, between the expansion and curtailment of what is possible.

This at least is the message we have inherited of this now Vintage New Music: we need diversity, curiosity, poetry and mild madness. So let’s not be afraid, let’s approach it with an open mind.

And rest assured: we are not here to be bored to ****!

**** It’s true, you know!