It’s this crazy weather we’ve been having
Communication, Music, and Donald Trump
My newest work is an homage to the American poet John Ashbery. Its title, Crazy Weather, suggests two related meanings.
First, it provides an archetypal example of a contingent, causal force which acts on us, violently. As such, if we wish to combat ‘crazy weather,’ force is our only viable option. We don’t waste time trying to convince hurricanes to change course, we build dams and shelters which provide a sufficient force in the opposite direction.
‘Crazy Weather’ is also a cliché, a bit of small talk you might use when you’ve nothing meaningful to say. Engaging in small talk isn’t genuine conversation. Phrases like “crazy weather we’ve been having” are uttered in an attempt to avoid the possibility of misunderstanding, while genuine conversation demands the presence of exactly this possibility. When we small-talk we aren’t looking to begin a dynamic engagement with another, gradually working toward some shared understanding, we simply want a social interaction to work — like a dam or an umbrella works — without the possibility of understanding or misunderstanding coming into play.
Ashbery, and his poetry, is sometimes interpreted as seeing language in this way, as weather or as small-talk. The clichés and quotations in his poems are taken as suggesting that texts and utterances can only have meaning in how they relate to other texts or utterances, while his use of fragments and uncanny juxtapositions are seen as highlighting the ways these meanings shift and bump up against each other in a decentered and fractured linguistic space. Under such an interpretation, the meanings of Ashbery’s poems are not his, but are supported solely by their placement within a vast intertextual web, which is itself but a small whirling fractal deep within the enormous hurricane of culture-at-large.
I think Ashbery’s actual view of language is much more complex than this, and agree with the philosopher Frank Farrell that, “to understand language as Ashbery does is to see how the synthesizing activity of the individual consciousness in relation to the world is not simply deconstructed, even if we are more aware of energies of fragmentation.” A view of language as ‘crazy weather’ precludes poets or readers from achieving any genuine grip on the meanings of poems; language moves through us or acts on us under such a view, the way a storm might move across a landscape.
I hope that my work for 15 musicians, with its stolen title, can be similarly misinterpreted.
It, too, contains some strange juxtapositions and quotations, including a somewhat blatant quote of the very beginning of Gérard Grisey’s Partiels. This quotation, like the title, contains two related meanings. For one, it functions as a bit of composer-small-talk, demanding only recognition, not understanding. A second meaning comes from Partiels’ reputation as one of the defining works of an approach to music composition known as ‘spectralism,’ which, in the words of Joshua Fineberg, defines music as consisting purely of “sound evolving over time.”
A ‘spectralist’ approach to musical composition is not, of course, as homogeneous in theory or in practice as its having a label suggests. But it does exemplify for me, however unfairly, a desire one can observe in composers of all stripes to objectify music. That is, a desire for music to be the sort of thing — whether it be spectralism’s pure frequencies, Schaeffer’s sonic object, Cage’s ‘just sounds,’ or Reich’s ‘gradual process’ — that can work on a person, like a drug or a gust of wind or a bit of small-talk might.
In contrast to the Grisey quote, my work also contains a quote of four measures of Josquin’s beautiful choral work La Déploration de Johannes Ockeghem, written as an homage to his deceased teacher. The performers in my work play these four bars on a loop, repeating them eight times. However, the attention of each performer is largely not being occupied by Josquin’s beautiful counterpoint. Instead, the performers are absorbed in a strenuous and dynamic application of a specified set of memorized modifications to how those four bars of counterpoint are performed at each moment. (More details on the same technique in a different work can be found here.)
This technique is my musical way of producing what Michael Fried has called ‘absorption’ in the pictorial arts. Fried’s term refers to the depiction of painted or photographed subjects as so deeply absorbed in thought, or in some task, that they seem unaware of the beholder. The result is a heightened awareness by the beholder of the consciousness of the absorbed subject, perhaps raising the question: What is that subject thinking? From there, the beholder is further encouraged to engage with the work in the same way one might engage another person, as if in conversation. The meaning of such a work of art, like the absorbed subject it depicts, demands understanding — and could be misunderstood — in a way that cannot be reduced to how the painting works on us, or how it makes us feel, or what sets of quantifiable particulars can be identified in it.
The reason I create such an unusual performative situation with the Josquin quote is that absorption is so commonplace in musical performance. Going to a concert hall and observing a pianist deeply absorbed in her performance of a Beethoven Sonata, for example, isn’t likely to spur a restructuring of the listener’s intuitions about the nature of artistic meaning. In the Josquin section of my work, however, it gradually becomes clear that the absorption one observes in the uneasy, ever-shifting performances of the musicians on stage is more heightened than in ordinary performative absorption. In this section one can more easily observe that the particulars of pitch, rhythm, timbre, etc. are not exhaustive. The particulars of Josquin’s musical material loop inertly on the surface, while the inward absorption of the performers — on that ‘strenuous and dynamic application of a specified set of memorized modifications to how those four bars of counterpoint are performed at each moment’ — point listeners beneath the music, as it were, and toward the minds of the performers.
The subjective orientation encouraged by this absorptive presentation of a Josquin quote — one which points in the direction of the performer’s minds, and by extension, hopefully, in the direction of the composer’s — demands from the listener an attempt to understand what is being communicated by the work. This is music as conversation.
In contrast, the subjective orientation encouraged by the Grisey quote — one which points either toward a flattened, causal meaning-relationship of one musical ‘text’ bumping into another or toward a musical object built out of frequency spectra — demands from the listener only recognition (“Hey, was that Partiels?”) or static, quantitative inquiry (“Was it an exact quote, or did you alter some pitches?”). This is music as small-talk or weather.
Appreciating the difference I attempt to underscore in the contrast between the Grisey quote and the Josquin quote, the difference between small-talk and conversation, is profoundly important for artists today.
Donald Trump, for example, appears to lack entirely such an appreciation. Like many people, I am reticent to ascribe anything like a coherent worldview to President Trump, as his words and actions so often betray no discernible structure or meaningful connection either to each other or to the world. However, describing Trump only along fragmented lines — as, for example, some jumbled ideological collage of racism, sexism, and nationalism — fails to offer a fundamental explanation of his behavior. Furthermore, the best explanation of his behavior cannot be that he is simply irrational, or mentally ill. Such conclusions may be compelling, but they are not explanatory. Instead, I believe that Trump’s personality and behavior coheres most when explained by a genuine lack of appreciation for the difference between genuine conversation and small-talk.
That is to say: Tump does not appear to appreciate the difference between conversation and violence.
One can infer this from how he uses words like ‘persuasion’ or ‘negotiation’ instead of ‘conversation’ or ‘communication,’ but it’s basically the central thesis of The Art of the Deal. Indeed, there is not much about Trump this doesn’t explain: his admiration for authoritarian leaders, “grab them by the pussy,” “good people on both sides,” his allergy to press criticism, and even the gilded kitsch which fills his apartment.
None of this is to say that Donald Trump isn’t really a racist or a sexist. He is clearly both. Nor am I saying that Donald Trump isn’t really confronting our country’s problems with virtually no rational tools. He is clearly winging it. And I am not saying that his words and actions don’t really advertise a disturbing range of psychological pathologies. He is clearly a liar, narcissist, and sadist.
What I am saying, however, is that when someone views human interaction as consisting solely of competing forces — acts of violence which, as such, cannot be understood or misunderstood—the path to racism, sexism, or tribalism is cleared of obstructions. Irrationality is a feature of such a worldview, not a bug, as one is free to say or do anything that might work in achieving your aims. Lying follows easily from there, as does narcissism, complete with the libertarian free-market fantasies which turn it into a virtue just as they necessitate a sadistic pleasure in being the winner instead of the ‘loser.’
There is a harrowing scene in Michael Haneke’s film Code Unknown in which the protagonist, an actress, reads for a role in a sadistic horror movie. In this film-within-a-film, she has been trapped in a room, with absolutely no way out, by a man who calmly informs her that he will watch her die in that room, and that there is nothing she can do to change that. She reacts as anyone would in such a situation, banging on the walls, screaming at the windows, and desperately attempting to negotiate with her captor. She tries every conceivable strategy to persuade him: seduction, intimidation, bribery, pity. Is she telling the truth when she tells him she has children waiting for her at home? Does it matter? Such is the world Donald Trump lives in, and such is the only kind of freedom he can imagine.
Haneke’s works are filled with many such opportunities for the viewer to engage with this relationship between violence and conversation. And his implication of his own artistic work in this political and ethical space — in this case with a film-within-a-film — is equally important. Haneke’s films are thoroughly ethical and political works of art in that they not only contribute to the ethical/political conversation, but are themselves available for appraisal as artworks within an ethically-saturated, conversational space of aesthetic criticism.
The materials of music are different, however. For one, music seems to resist the causal attachment to reality so easily secured by a film camera. This resistance often seems to lead either to an eschewal of any such worldly connection (ie: music as ineffable) or to an over-zealous insistence on one (ie: music as object). Neither extreme posits a music which can be understood: of the former we cannot speak, and we can only describe, recognize, or be affected by the latter. What’s more, the presence in music of a multiplicity of translational junctures — between composer and score, score and performer, performer and instrument, performance and audience — makes the prospect of communicating some meaning through each of these junctures seem all but impossible.
How, then, can we resist writing music that merely works, rebuffing a guarantee of worldly connection? And having done so, how can we go on to write genuinely communicative music, when attempting such a task seems both practically and historically naive?
One way, I think, is to find in the stubborn muteness of music a profound opportunity to confront anew something we face already each day: the indispensable possibility of misunderstanding — and thus of understanding — each other. Communicative music-making and music-listening are, under this view, more like reading a face or learning a first language than they are like dictating or receiving fixed messages. Just as the breath anticipating speech from an interlocutor draws one with it into a pregnant, triangulated commitment to understanding each other, so too can music situate us conversationally — face to face— and help us to interrogate what it means to understand one another.
This is what music can offer us politically and ethically. Not a refuge, and not a vessel for some subversive slogan, but a precious opportunity to strengthen and to make thick and beautiful the foundation that genuine conversation, politics, and ethics require, to flesh-out a normative space so many of our political leaders lack an appreciation of, and to not merely contribute societally, but to become leaders ourselves— unabashedly, as artists — in the long march of progress.