Thursday, September 06, 2018

You can't hold music still


That photo shows Brian Eno's installation 77 Million Paintings at the Sydney Opera House in 2009. In his essay for the 6 CD box Music for Installations Eno muses on the ephemeral nature of his installation as follows:
That was interesting for me, getting into the frame of mind where I felt I didn't have to hold on to everything, that I could just enjoy it and let it pass into history. For somebody whose career had, thus far anyway, been built around capturing ephemeral things and making them permanent - recording - this was a big conceptual shift. I accepted that it was going to keep changing and it was going to keep surprising me, and that no moment of it was more important than any other. And that was also what I found with the music. You just have to enjoy it as it passes away into memory. You can't hold it still.
Brian Eno's revelation that you can't hold music still resonates with the proposition derived from quantum physics that the same music strikes the same listener in different ways on different hearings, because the act of hearing collapses the wave of inherent probabilities in different ways. The short step from quantum physics to metaphysics leads to the Buddhist teaching of impermanence. The act of listening to music sews countless karmic seeds, and these seeds have ripened by the next time the same piece is heard, profoundly changing the way it is then experienced. Impermanence is a key cultural dynamic, as the Argentinian anthologist Alberto Manguel's explains:
'What we believe a book to be reshapes itself with every reading. Over the years my experiences, my tastes, my prejudices have changed: as the days go by, my memory keeps re-shelving, cataloguing, discarding the volumes in my library; my words and my world - except for a few constant landmarks - are never one and the same'
But that vital dynamic of change is being stifled by the personal comfort zones created by social media's filter bubbles and algorithms, which reinforce rather than challenge tastes and prejudices. In January 1968 John Tavener's dramatic cantata The Whale was given its first performance, as was Luciano Berio's Sinfonia in October 1968*. So the respected critic William Mann was almost certainly being deliberately provocative in his Times review of the Beatles' White Album in November of the same year when he concluded with the assertion that:
But these 30 tracks contain plenty to be studied, enjoyed, gradually appreciated more fully, in the coming months. No other living composer has achieved so much this year.
Deliberate or not, that kind of provocation is sadly lacking from the art music narrative in 2018, where anything other than unquestioning worship of celebrity musicians and a few overexposed composers is deemed heretical. Much, possibly too much, has been made of the influence of the Buddhist teaching of impermanence on the iconoclastic John Cage. But despite this, Brian Eno's revelation that we don't have to hold on to anything can be viewed as pure Buddhism. However, when a an earnest young musician asked Robert Fripp “Is Brian Eno a Buddhist?”, the King Crimson guitarist replied “No, he’s naturally bald”. Despite this, there is much we can learn from the assertion that music is impermanent and therefore can't be held still. Binary thinking is native to our digital age: everything must be rigidly categorised as 0 or 1, good or bad, classical or non-classical, like or dislike, friend or unfriend. Forcing music and other artforms into these inflexible binary boxes inhibits change, and without change music is dead.

* This was a four movement version of the Sinfonia. The final five movement version premiered at the 1969 Donaueschingen Festival.

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