Can (orchestral) music predict our future?

Juha Torvinen, 25.9.2008

Speech at the Nordic Orchestra Conference

To begin, I would like to make one thing clear about the title of my speech, that is, about the question "Can orchestral music predict our future?". My aim is not to outline any straightforward or even possible answer to this question. Rather, my intent is to ponder the relevance of this question: Why is it important for us to pose such a question in today's cultural climate?

I would like to ask you to keep in mind this starting point of my speech. Instead of answering the question (Can music predict the future?), I am scrutinizing the philosophical prerequisites and the cultural significance of such a question. This means to reflect the importance of the named question itself and the motivation that the contemporary world offers for asking such a question.

That question itself – of music's ability to prefigure future – has played a significant role in the philosophical thinking about music since the very beginning of such music philosophical pursuit, albeit the question has usually been only implicit and not explicitly discussed as such. From the times of the philosophers of the Ancient Greece and Confucius to the more recent thinkers such as Theodor Adorno, we have been told that music is essentially a mirror of society, and that the music is capable of shaping the state and the mentality of its citizens. Therefore, music has often been regarded also as a threat from the point of view of those holding power.

The ways to deal with this threat have been numerous. Whereas the famous Greek philosopher Plato wanted to turn the unwanted musicians away from the ideal state in a quite polite manner, the more recent totalitarian societies have often adopted very violent methods in controlling the musical life – as is evident in the extreme case of Stalinist Soviet Union, for instance. In either cases mentioned, the main reason for the exclusion of certain musics and musicians from the society, was in the belief that music is able to shape the society and powerfully affect its citizens and, therefore, is able to shape the future of the state. This means that music is able to shape the future of a state in a way that may be against the interests of the rulers. This is exactly why music is often considered dangerous.

In our contemporary Western, or, in our case, Nordic world, the attitude towards music as something that has to be watched over, controlled and regulated has not actually changed a lot – if viewing the matter philosophically. The ruling power of today, the faceless Money, excludes, in quite a violent way, certain musics. Also, it forces musical institutions to shape their musical practices according to economical-political ideologies and thus moulds the musical practices into a certain predetermined direction. In the commercialized culture, where everything is measured first and foremost by economical standards, money has become a metaphysical standard of our existence governing all aspects of life. As an example one might think of the Export of culture, which is one of the main trends in current cultural policy, at least in Finland.

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with cultural export as such, on the contrary. However, what worries me a bit is the ideology and metaphysics that it reflects and that spreads to the cultural life as whole. This problem manifests itself also in the conceptual obscurities related to the given meanings of the term "culture". For example, how can "culture", a defining factor of a nation or group of people, be considered equal with other exported goods like cell phones, paper and wood? Can culture be a saleable commodity, which can be measured, exchanged and traded? Cultural export is, in the final analysis, only an export of cultural products, and the idea of production is itself a question of commerciality. Philosophically speaking, the problem is bound with the fact that in the export of culture, money is not actually serving the culture, despite the fact that we are perhaps told that it is. On the contrary, in the export of culture the "culture" is, I am afraid, at the service of the Money.

This is the context, where we have to ask, what kind of music could predict our future and how – or if – this prediction could be executed in the world that is dominated by the technology of the market forces. And furthermore, what kind of future the music in question can predict?

In my brief survey, I will discuss the relationship of music and future from four points of view:

1) Predictions on the future of music

2) Reflections on the end of music

3) Music itself as the predictor of the future

4) Orchestral music as the predictor of the future

I Thoughts on the Future of Music

In 1961, composer György Ligeti gave a course on new music in Alpbach, Austria. At the end of the course, he was asked to give a speech on the future of music. Ligeti declined the request, because he thought he had no idea of music's future. Finally, the organizers of the event managed, however, to make Ligeti agree to give the speech by saying that it does not matter what he says or does. So, Ligeti decided to stay silent in front of the audience for the ten minutes that was reserved for the speech.

However, the audience did not stay quiet, and Ligeti started to write some comments and instructions on the blackboard in order to control the noises and movements of the audience. The reception of these acts by Ligeti was quite confused and ambiguous, and there were apparently also efforts to drag Ligeti off the stage. Later Ligeti included this happening-like incident in the list of his works with a title called The Future of Music – a Collective Composition.

Naturally, Ligeti is not the only one who has tried to predict – or who has been asked to predict – the future of music. The futurist manifestos à la Luigi Russolo written in the early decades of the 20th century and, for example, John Cage's writing The Future of Music: Credo dating back to 1937 depict a musical future where, in Cage's own words, "the point of disagreement [--] will be [--] between noise and so-called musical sound" and not between "dissonance and consonance" like in the past.

If we lend an ear to our contemporary musical surroundings, it is clear that Cage's prediction has turned out to be true and has become a commonplace. Namely, the distinction of dissonance and consonance is nowadays only one possible guideline for the musical organization of sound, and the question of the borderline between music and non-music (or: noise) has become a very relative question indeed. In our world of numerous styles, genres and materials of music, the answer to the question "what is music and what is not", is strongly dependent on a person who asks and also on the context of these questions.

This subject matter is related to the fact that the role of music in the life of an individual has changed rapidly during the recent decades. Technological developments, such as the internet and distribution of music by file sharing and like, have made the listening, making and buying of music more easier and, at the same time, have turned music into a more personal and private issue and also into something that is potentially available to everyone.

Like the French sociologist Antoine Hennion has stated, the tremendous increase in the amount of non-professional musicians during the last half of the 20th century has extracted music from its previous "magical" functions as an art or as a collective vehicle for carrying cultural values. For Hennion

the professional is no longer in the service of a community in a trance, in prayer or in transports of joy, but finds himself, like it or not, in the service of a market composed of an immense majority of amateurs, not in the sense of amateur instrumentalists, but in the sense of music lovers who are also music users.

One might even state that all the musical genres and styles of our contemporary Western world are in the near future, perhaps even already, marginal because of their immense number. There is no mainstream culture in the old way, but rather a massive amount of sub cultures, or network of sub cultures, related more or less tightly to each other. The periods of non-marginality of one genre or style will probably get shorter and shorter – at least in the area of so called popular music. Accordingly, these short non-marginal lives of music are and will be guided by business.

From the point of view of an individual this means, at the same time, that music has turned into an instrument for one's need to define one's identity.

II Is music at its end?

Now I move to the second point of view outlining the relationship between music and future, namely, to the reflections on the end of music. Accordingly, is music at its end?

Music's new role as one of the defining factors of one's identity has as its counterpart music's inability to unite people, and the latter is actually the main reason why some writers have talked about music's death. Of course, music is still, today, an important social phenomenon that unites people for example in concerts, churches or bars. However, these are only temporary events, and in our global world of technology, music has ceased to unite people as a society or community in the sense of values, nation, religion, or state. Music does not unite people in the sense of shared culture – and this means "culture" as a precondition of a human being, not as some collection of products that can be measured, or exported.

Another obvious reason for the laments on the death of music is the end of Modernity, that is, the end of linear history of one great musical narrative. Postmodern pluralism has created variety of musics (in plural), and the idea of one primary form of music as an evolving historical phenomenon has come to its end. The end of music in this sense means actually the end of one dominating form of music.

However, the first kind of reason for music's supposed end, namely the music's inability to be a uniting cultural force, is, perhaps, more interesting because it is related to the ritual function of music. And here, when touching the topic of music as ritual, we once again confront the question of music as a social force, and further, the relation of music to violence.

Cultural theorists, such as Rene Girard most notably perhaps, have pointed out, that a human being is violent by nature. In this perspective, cultural rituals are necessary for the existence of society. According to Girard, a ritual makes the cultural unity, i.e., a society possible by taking the violence away from human relationships. It is precisely the rituals that create a sense of unity and in a very fundamental way work as a kind of glue for social structures not threatened by ubiquitous violence. In order to work as such an eliminator of violence, the ritual always needs a sacrifice – whether concrete or symbolic.

Therefore, if we attend, for example, a concert of orchestral music, we attend a ritual, which is necessary for us as members of a community. Furthermore, in the ritual of a concert, the sacrifice is the music itself.

The end of music as a uniting cultural and social force is, finally, an end of music's ability to work as a sacrifice and as a channel for the violence that is latent in every individual. Fortunately, we have many other forms of rituals left to channel our violent nature. Nevertheless, the plurality of music in recent decades can be also seen as a sign (or a prediction) of an increasing violence and competition among the members of the society.

Now, let's turn back to Ligeti's work mentioned at the beginning of this speech. I find it very tempting to make an interpretation of the work, an interpretation that is most probably nothing Ligeti that himself thought. In contrast to composers like the futurists or John Cage and in contrast to some musicologists and philosophers, Ligeti did not say anything about the future of music. Instead, he let the music itself make the predictions. And he did this in two ways: at the level of the actual event with the confused audience and by including the event in his list of compositions.

The performance by Ligeti can be interpreted in many ways, relating to the question of how it predicted the future of music. Because there were no sound in his performance (he stayed silent through the performance), it could be interpreted to mean that in the future, there will be no one ruling way to organize sound, i.e., one ruling mode of music. Second point that could be made is related to the fact that Ligeti gave instructions to the audience on how they should behave, and people were annoyed about this. This tells that in the future, people will not accept that the music would construct their world in a collective sense. It also demonstrated that in the future, from the point of view of the 1960ies, music will not work in a sacrificial function: the object of the violence and anger was, namely, not music but Ligeti as a person.

III Can music predict the future?

If we forget the speculation on the end of music and believe, like I do, that music continues to be an important part of our culture also in the future, we can return to the question I have referred in the title of my paper. This implies that we have to, in a way, take one step further: instead of pondering the future of music or the end of music, we have to ponder how music could predict the future in general – not just its own musical future but the future of the whole culture.

Among the writers who have scrutinized the relationship between music and reality in general, an interesting and exceptional writer, deviating radically from the other writers, is Jacques Attali. Attali is a French economist who has worked, for example, as an economical adviser for François Mitterrand (the former president of France), and as a professor of economic science. He has also published about 40 books on various subject matters, from economical treatises to children's novels.

The book by Attali, which deals precisely with music, is called Noise: The political economy of music. The basic argument in the book is that music is able to predict changes in social organization. According to Attali, music can react to the social and cultural tendencies faster than any other cultural instance or agency. Furthermore, different political and economical systems can be seen, or heard actually, sensed, in music earlier than in any other social structure. This means that music always comes first. This is the case because music is, Attali claims, always fundamentally organization of noise according to certain code. Noise, for its part, compares to social violence and chaos. Therefore different forms of music as controlled noise reflect different possible ways and modes to mould the social chaos into politico-economical systems.

IV How about orchestral music?

Now I will move on to the last part of my speech.

Following everything I have said so far, we could say that the multiplication of musical genres during the 20th century is a sign of the increasing general interest in individuality in Western culture and societies. At the same time, like I already mentioned, the vast amount of musical genres have led to a cultural situation where practically every genre is, principally, marginal, the non-marginal genres being those that are only temporarily brought up by market forces.

As we know, Western classical (orchestra) music is said to be nowadays marginal in the very sense on the term. The conventions of a typical concert of Western classical music have their roots in the 19th century, or even earlier in the history. Therefore it is quite understandable that they have been criticized a lot. In Finland, for example, composer Eero Hämeenniemi has demanded great changes in the practices of orchestral concerts. No doubt, the orchestral concerts may be even oppressive in their inflexible and old-fashioned nature. No doubt, some people want however also to maintain these old practices, perhaps, for some ideological reasons.

Actually, the tradition of orchestral music should have died a long time ago: it is marginal, it is old-fashioned in its practices, it takes too much time to listen, it is usually played with age-old instruments, and its overall timbre dates back to pre-technological era. It is not up-to-date in many respects. And it is so much against today's ruling political and economical ideologies, for instance.

So, why haven't it died? I think that the orchestral music hasn't died because it is, actually, ahead of its time. The things the critics usually consider the drawbacks of classical orchestral music and its culture can actually be considered as well its advantages and its strengths. Orchestral music forms a marginal, which the Western culture cannot be without – a marginal that is a marginal only in the sense of quantity. Qualitatively it affects the whole society.

To conclude, I will outline few characteristics of the contemporary orchestral music, characteristics that criticize our society and culture and, possibly, also predict a different kind of future. My list is not, naturally, comprehensive.

1) Slowness and ineffectiveness

Opposing the current politico-economical trends that admire efficiency, speed, competition, success and productivity, the orchestral music (in listening, composing, performing) allows us to concentrate on one thing, to stop for a while, to rest, to think, feel and experience on a temporal scale that is hard to find (and that is hardly allowed) in other parts of our culture today. Orchestral music uses the scale of temporality that is, compared to the most of the other areas of the contemporary world, more bearable to human being.

2) Silence

In his recent book A Manifesto for Silence cultural theorist Stuart Sim suggests that silence should be made in to a political question. In contemporary urban world of constant noise people should have a right and freedom to choose silence like they have, for example, a freedom of speech. In a world of noise one should appreciate the possibility to choose what one hears what one has to listen to, and possibility listen to it in silence. Orchestral concerts and orchestral musics are rare events of so called "tuned" silence, which should not be forced to change.

3) Affectivity

If we take a look at the history of Western music, we can see – even with the risk of oversimplification – that the "affective unit" of music has become shorter and shorter in the course of the history. By the term "affective unit" I mean the shortest affective element in music that engages the listener, performer or composer with music. In musical system of Ancient Greece this unit consisted of the whole musical scale, in Baroque era it consisted of a theme of a certain composition. Later on, it narrowed down to themes, motives or leitmotifs, reaching its shortest peak in integral serialism, where the affective unit of music equals with a single tone and, at the same time due to its affective "over-engagement", makes musical works affectively chaotic and possibly even oppressive to listen to those who are not familiar with the technical and aesthetic details of the work.

However, new symphonies (and other orchestral works) with wider and longer affective units are being composed all the time and, as far my impression is correct, even with increasing rate. This might be seen as a prediction of a future with less haste and busyness, and with increased communality. (Whereas integral serialism of the 1950ies was perhaps a prophecy of contemporary society based on individualism and selfishness.)

4) Noise

Like Attali's ideas suggest, noise is not just an acoustic phenomenon, that is, a chaotic and disturbing sound with all the possible pitches ringing at the same time. Noise is also a disturbance and critique of a certain established system or order of things. Therefore a triad chord, for instance, can be considered noise in the context of serial music as well as a serial passage in the middle of a tonal piece. Today, orchestral music, as a marginal genre in the total context of all music genres in the world, can or could be noise in the positive, fertile sense in the culture as a whole. In this sense, orchestral music might be able to offer different kind of modes of affective, cognitive and other experiences that cannot be found or that do not exist in other areas of musical and cultural practices. The orchestral music may convey new kind of experience and new kind of political or cultural statements. The orchestral music has a great possibility to illuminate our future, and comment and criticize the flaws of our society.

My sincere hope is that now and in the near future this possibility will be given to music, composers and musicians by those social and cultural agencies that hold the Money and the Power.


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