Contemporary Music and Performance
Sogetsu Art Center
Today’s performance world is in imminent danger of spiritual collapse. This is a global trend that stems from the beginning of the twentieth century, when the reproductive arts began to lose their way. By now, they have lost their meaning. Music, too, has been reduced to a ghost of its former self. The flamboyant manner in which so many concerts are currently performed leaves me with a sense of total emptiness. Musicians have become little more than the salarymen of music; the performers lack a music of their own. The majority of them seem to be engaged in music only out of sheer force of habit. I cannot imagine that this style of performing, lacking as it is in independence, can be sustained much longer. It is, after all, an unbalanced form of music that divides creativity and performance. This is an unbearable situation for musicians with any backbone, and it is being broken down all over the world by a small group of people with new ideas. But the majority of musicians maintain a sentimental attachment to the old musical mold.
Until the beginning of the twentieth century, contemporary music played a vigorous spiritual role. The era in which the so-called virtuoso exercised his authority and performed vibrantly by trusting his own feelings marked the apex of reproductive music. After that, performers allowed themselves to be subjected to a miserable set of conditions. As they came to accept the ironclad rule that performance follows creation, they were abandoned by historical change and deserted by music.
As society became ever more industrialized, music was rationalized, and emotion and empathy were banished from performance. With its origins in Schoenberg’s work, music cleaved ever more closely to its underlying mathematical structure, and as it grew increasingly elaborate, its performance required the utmost in rigorous precision. In contrast to performance conventions of the past, which allowed for emotion and sensitivity, the new music demanded performances founded on rigid logic. But, content with the style of the past, performers did not actively attempt to make this new music their own. They approached it with the reproductive spirit that was rooted in retrogressive classical and romantic music. Thus, performance succumbed to mannerism. The gap between performer and composer widened, and the gulf between contemporary music and its audience deepened. At this point in time, when reproductive music has completely lost its meaning, what exactly is performance? And how should it be conducted?
I believe that without merging performance and the creative act, music exists only as a form. In the past, musical creativity and performance were clearly separate: performers produced the sounds, but they did not play their own music. It is necessary for performers to free themselves from this wrestling match with other people’s music. They must refuse these engagements, which are devoid of autonomy and akin to reciting someone else’s texts. The slight differences in intonation that distinguish one performance from another no longer have any meaning. Such performances represent the kind of uninspired repetition that can be entrusted to machines. In music based on indeterminacy, sounds are not predetermined, and performers are given a place to explore their inner potential. In this new type of performance, in which such an exploration is expressed as a musical act, performers are liberated from their subsidiary role of the past.
The twentieth century was marked by wars, revolution, the atomic bombs, massive labor strikes, and more. Each of these cataclysmic events encouraged people to question their values and join the struggle for freedom. The creative arts, too, underwent a variety of changes in response to such events, and old conventions were quickly cast aside. In light of this history of quick responsiveness to changing times, it is incomprehensible that today’s performers sit with their legs crossed beneath the protective shield of reproducible art. The important creative developments that occurred in music during the twentieth century are inseparable from performance. Through the invention of the tape recorder and the emergence of electronic music, for instance, composers were able to create sound using only a machine. Music could be made and heard without the medium of performance, provoking serious discussions about the redundancy of the performer. But even when performance was challenged in this way, performers themselves reacted with indifference, if at all. As long as performance is forced to follow in the wake of creativity, the performative realm will continue to degenerate. The only hope lies in the emergence of a type of performer with the ability to integrate and at the same time guide the composer. It is perfectly obvious that there is a need for a revolution in performance.
Originally published in Sogetsu Art Center Journal 31, May 25, 1963. Translated into English by Christopher Stephens