Perfect Sound Forever

CHRIS CUTLER ON "PROBES"


PROBES subjects- Hans Barth, Ferrant & Teicher, Julián Carrillo

Questions and introduction by Jonas Vognsen, Part 2
(April 2017)


Q: References to the role of necessity and chance in history appear throughout the programs, either directly or implied. Taking one concrete example, you mention that once experimentation with extended techniques on the piano had begun taking place it was "inevitable" that someone would arrive at a piece where the instrument is not touched at all (#7).

In more general terms, how do you assess the respective importance of those two forces? And what are the places we would necessarily end up sooner or later, and what are the places we've ended up in more contingently?

CC: Difficult. There's a third category I think, and that's choice. The essay that laid out my first attempt at a theory to account for the forms music takes - which was written for the inaugural conference of the newly formed IASPM in 1981 - was called Necessity and Choice in Musical Forms. It argued that there are limits to what musicians can think or do at any historical moment, and that these depend on what is conceivable in the intellectual and analytical climate of the time, combined with what existing technologies make possible. Together, these exert a predictable pressure on the way music is both produced and reproduced. Constraints would include such factors as materials, instrument design, the laws of physics and, most critically, memory systems. Two highly significant musical revolutions have been fuelled by the introduction of new memory systems. The capacity of biological memory, for instance, and the means through which it recovers information, constitute an absolute limit to the forms that music mediated by biological memory alone can take. Such musics must evolve through error and forgetting; they are memetic and, since they are unable to exist outside an ever-vanishing present, ceaselessly recreate themselves.

Writing, on the other hand - a memory system with very different qualities - overturns those limits, imposing new limits of its own. One can easily trace how, in response to the application of writing to music, radically new forms evolved: polyphony, harmony, orchestras, new families of instruments, equal temperament and common tonality – these are some of the products of writing. And yet it's a memory that's deaf to sound. Recording technology, on the other hand, which remembers sounds themselves, and specific performances, although it overcomes the limits imposed by writing, produces limits of its own out of its particular generative qualities. The fact of recording, for instance, explains why timbre has come to occupy such a central place in recent musical life; why music that is unplayable - and may well not have been played - has become increasingly common, and why personality – the singer, not the song – has come, in many contexts, to be more influential than musicality as such.

But you asked about chance, which plays an equally vital part in the evolution of music by introducing a life-giving random evolutionary dynamism to the body musical. Chance uncouples necessity from determinism, and choice from omniscience, so that outcomes are neither inevitable, nor under anyone's final control.

In a climate of experiment, one idea naturally leads to another. You can see that the logic of writing, when applied to music, leads to a kind of measured visualization: melody reads horizontally, harmony reads vertically and rhythm is quantized into identical units – all of which are easily spatially deployed and align themselves naturally to the logic of the eye. Since a row of notes can be read forwards, backwards or upside down you can be sure, sooner or later, it will be. And since the page makes no restriction on the number of lines or parts that can be assembled, writing will deploy interrelations infinitely more complex than any person with only a wetware memory could conceive or retain. And writing endures; nothing is lost and nothing changes. From these observations I could say that it would be inevitable, under the right conditions, for music to arrive at equal temperament – if only in order to make the notes that you see on the stave the same as the notes you hear when they're played. That may seem counterintuitive, because we all grew up thinking that tuning was something given and that the notes as we have them are, just there. But they're not. Really natural tuning – that is tuning by ear, rooted in physics and whole-number ratios – is quite different. Properly modal scales, have to be derived from a single starting note, projecting thereafter through the natural harmonic series - and instruments have to be tuned accordingly. Unfortunately, the laws of physics decree that the note C derived for one mode is not quite the same frequency as the note C in another and, in order to make all the Cs in all the modes exactly the same, it's necessary to adjust every note in the scale, just a little, to equal out the difference - making them all, technically, out of tune. This makes every modulation possible but also effectively reduces the whole pitch-base of music to just 12 notes. That's been standard practice for the last two hundred years, and now we think it's normal. We do it because notation has revealed to the eye musical possibilities that were unrealizable in the world of the ear. So the world has had to adjust.

I'd also say that it was inevitable, once writing became a primary mediator of composition, for devices like retrograde, inverted, and inverted retrograde melodies to appear – as they did in the C13 and have never gone away since: C20 serialism is still rooted in these four ways of reading a tone-row. Writing also made it inevitable that the piling up of parts on paper would lead to the emergence of stratified orchestras and the musical factory system we now take for granted: worker musicians, shop manager conductors and production-line-designer composers. I could give more examples, but I'm sure you get the point. Such practical, explorative workings-out of the innate potentials of technologies I would consign to the category inevitable. On the other hand, Beethoven, Mozart, Messiaen, Varese and Stockhausen - or The Beatles, Sun Ra, Sinatra, and Thelonius Monk - are purely contingent.


Q: You're describing the results of musicians and composers adapting to technological changes and the problems that arise from these. I'm struck by how much of the music in the programs that is creatively successful - beautiful or simply exciting. But it seem to me that there's also an opposite movement, where new technologies lead to worse outcomes, or artistic dead-ends, by proposing easy fixes, that in fact shortcut the need for creative solutions. One example could be a technical deskilling coming from the many tools of digital technology, leading to a loss of musicianship and lazy thinking. Would you agree?

CC: That's an interesting and very large question to which I can only give a short answer. First, I'm glad you find the music mostly beautiful and exciting. Me too - and that's why I wanted to make these programmes. But I should also say that since I have a responsibility to be thorough - and because not all probes are necessarily all that interesting or successful - I do have to select very carefully from what's available in order to find the best and most persuasive examples - to the extent that I make what would otherwise be unacceptable edits and elisions. The examples have to be short. Two minutes max – while the pieces quoted from may be anything from 3 to 100 minutes long and have several important or intriguing passages, all of which, ideally, need to be represented. So I snip and paste. For the auxiliaries which are designed for continuity and listening pleasure as much as simple illustration - I treat them as little compositions - I take even greater liberties; to the extent I could imagine some composers being affronted. Though I can say that those with whom I am in touch have not complained so far. So. If, in the transcripts and playlists, I write 'extract' after a title that means it's an unbroken sample; if I write 'extracts,' plural, that means I've sewn two or many parts together. What I hope, of course, is that people drawn in by something will go on to seek out and listen to the entire piece.

More critically, you ask about worse outcomes as well as better. And of course you are right. But Probes is concerned with the experiments composers and performers have undertaken in search of new expressive or formal possibilities. In other words, with what is gained rather than what is lost - though, as you point out, much is being lost. Notation, for instance, makes possible complex structures, orchestrated effects and counterintuitive synchronizations; but it also suppresses improvisation and adaptation. Plato, in the Phaedra, complained that writing would erode memory and lead to the substitution of an appearance of knowledge for wisdom. And he was right. But writing also meant that his thought remained accessible, exactly as he set it down, two-and-a-half thousand years later. In the same way, we can be sure that digital technology is radically refashioning our memories - and the way we think, make and understand. Both the dire predictions of digital dementia and the dewy-eyed promises of a new Eden are, in parts, demonstrable and true, My story, however, is only concerned with opportunities seized, and not what's being lost in the process. Probes doesn't offer a broad overview of existential state of music; it just follows the work of the sappers and boffins, whose efforts, collectively, are always focused forward.

From a wider perspective, yes I can see that there is extinction and environmental degradation in the intellectual and cultural spheres; and that it is accompanied by a seemingly voluntary capitulation to the hegemony of machines - with the concomitant loss of human interactivity and creative improvisation. As you say, that includes de-skilling and the atrophy of curiosity as we accept, in the interests of convenience and speed, the making of choices in place of the making of real decisions; I mean the unquestioning construction of work through the combination of readymade, built-in or programmed solutions - rather than the working through of more difficult assessments based on our personal state-of-knowledge and acquired skills. There's going to be a huge bill coming in for that. And we may not be able to pay it.


PSF: Some of the highlights of the series for me so far have been the episodes on extended techniques of the human voice. In #10, you bring up practices from extreme metal, which you credit with a number of innovations, for example the bringing of a wide range of inhaling techniques into the Western song form. You also make the point that the various genres in this field have been much overlooked, if not actively disliked, in the musicological discussion. How did you yourself become aware that something interesting is happening here? And could you say a bit more about what you think it is that's worth paying attention to in these genres?

CC: A generation of young people in the late '50's and early '60's suddenly, and for no obvious reason, took up music – not at the conservatory and not as part of their local communities, but because the medium of recorded music and an emerging market aimed at teenagers had begun to feature a genre of music they accepted as theirs – and which indeed - for a while - was theirs, superimposing an authentic youth culture onto the more sordid business of business. In part, this was because the strand of music that sounded so different to them had come up from below, mainly through black American musicians and small, specialist labels - reaching its new public through the entrepreneurial luck of industry outsiders who found themselves able to use radio and the new purchasing power of teenagers to promote artists and styles that that were supposed to have stayed quietly in their 'race' niches, where they could do no harm. The breakthrough artist was probably Elvis, and behind him a string of black musicians – many of whom were taken for white on the radio - though, arguably, Chuck Berry exercised a stronger, and longer, influence, musically. The moral panic that accompanied Rock and Roll only made the new music more attractive, and the market, predictably, decided to follow the money: teens had serious purchasing power. On the principle: hold your nose and fill your pockets, the major labels all jumped in - and Rock and Roll was Here to Stay, even redistributing the power in a small way, away from label executives and Tin Pan Alley professionals toward an independent nexus of artists and fans. It was around this question of ownership that popular music would dance for the next two decades. In the main, musicians innovate and hacks imitate, so where the power lies rests ultimately on the demand for innovation in the public at large.

In Britain, the ambition to play, rather than just to buy, came from the craze for skiffle – the name taken from an early and long forgotten C20 black American party music, traditionally played with whatever bits and pieces came to hand: guitars, banjos, washboards, kazoos, comb and paper and, perhaps, a bass rigged from an empty tea-chest, broom handle and some string. It took no skill or money to skiffle - and that was the key. Our version, based on American folk and blues songs, came to Britain on the back of the craze for New Orleans jazz - which we called trad - and was the pet project of trumpeter Ken Colyer, who introduced sessions of what he called 'race blues' into the interludes of his jazz sets in the 1950s. He also released the first British 'skiffle' record with the legendary Alexis Korner in 1954, although it was Lonnie Donnegan who, a year later, had the hit. A massive hit which led to thousands of skiffle groups popping up all over the country. That's no exaggeration. From nothing, Britain was suddenly full of teenagers making music - with a guitar (a rare sight at the time) as their instrument of choice. And then at exactly the right moment, along came the electric guitar - and with it the practical academy of the guitar instrumental, championed in the UK by The Shadows. Melody, chord accompaniment, bassline and drums: Music 101. We were now in uncharted territory, ripe for occupation, it was just a matter of who got there first. Electric instruments had almost no history and all their possibilities remained still to be discovered. Parents didn't like them and proper musicians didn't take them seriously. The same applied to the music they made, leaving the field wide open and un-policed for a now primed generation of musicians who felt the instruments belonged to them, and that they could write their own rules. Much research was done, mostly in the form of acquiring obscure records, especially by black Americans, and copying them. And soon not only black Americans - when the music comes to you on a record and you learn by imitating, the original source is really neither here nor there - so, slowly, ideas began filtering in from all imaginable genres: folk, jazz, classical, ethnic, electronic and, over the span of a decade or so, new hybrid forms began to germinate and incubate in bedrooms and village halls, like a mycelium first growing underground and then fruiting in clusters – appearing as if from nowhere. Between 1961 and 1969, you could easily trace the growing cascades of new forms, new sounds and novel techniques that were laid out on stages and in recordings by ever-more confident bands in search of peer and public approval. It was a long moment in which offering something new was the best way to attract attention – and garner respect - from a still-engaged rock community; a long moment in which innovation was paramount. The Beatles' career - from early '60's pop to the experiments of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and Revolver - is a reflection of this culture-wide engagement with experiment and novelty. At its peak - between early 1967 and mid 1968 – you'd find not only great technical virtuosity - think Hendrix, Cream, The Nice – but also the emergence of multiple hybrid forms, awash with new ideas - Soft Machine, AMM, the Incredible Stringband, Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd, Arthur Brown, Fairport Convention... Then, after the peak, there was a plateau of consolidation followed by rapid dissipation, as momentum slackened – or a moment passed – and the industry began to reassert control. In not much more than a year, experimentalism had declined into pomposity and a fixation with C19 classicism – think 'prog.' At the same time technique ceased to be the highway to novelty and expression and became – in jazz-rock and 'prog' especially - a love affair with itself. By 1977, the flab had grown so excessive that it only took a handful of punks to bring the whole lumbering structure down. Punks restored a lost energy and enthusiasm but they also loudly rejected technique as effete and elitist. The more catholic New Wave, which rode in on their coat-tails, substituted machines and attitude for the exercise of technical virtuosity – which quickly became, and remains, a niche interest. At this point innovation went underground, taking a handful of forking paths, never, until now, to return to the mainstream. One of these breakaway communities was Metal, which had emerged in the era of high technique as an extension of the blues and which, by 1968, had become firmly entrenched with the formation in Britain of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and in America, Blue Cheer. Metal bands may have vanished from the mainstream but they still outsell almost everyone else. And since successive generations of punks/new wavers/retro-rockers/ Brit-poppers/grunge and revival bands have continued to eschew virtuosic display and technical innovation, metal remains one of its last redoubts - a highly competitive forum in which anything faster, harder, heavier, more extreme or more difficult is recognized, respected and valued.

In pursuit of that narrow aesthetic, metal continues to raise the technical bar for its participants. Speed, volume, growling, screaming and pig-squealing - to anyone not a fan - might seem rather one-dimensional - and the harsh timbres, relentless histrionics and sheer volume are not especially endearing either. That's part of the reason why metal, in its many varieties, is ignored and reviled by the mainstream. But it's not necessary to like something in order to recognise its qualities. My work in the Probes series is not to play and speak about things I like, but to trace the probes and innovations that have extended the vocabulary and grammar of music over the last 140 years. Metal has certainly done that. And its innovations, like all innovations, are seeping into other fields and creating new expressive possibilities.


Q: You mention film music briefly in the series a few times and I'm curious to hear more about how it fits in with your story. It would seem to relate very clearly to your main themes: a new medium poses a new line of problems and challenges for composers to work out, promising some creative breakthroughs. In #8 however, you take a darker view, saying that movie soundtracks have essentially locked our way of listening to dissonance into a very narrow interpretation:

  "It's hard to imagine how deeply depressing it must have been for Schoenberg to hear his 'air from other planets' so quickly become a trope for ugliness and horror. Even respectable critics start pontificating about angst and neurosis as soon as early probes into dissonance are discussed. Perhaps this should just be seen as an instinctive reification of their own failure to shake free of prejudice and habit? More egregiously though, such critics are existentially misreading utopian desire for dystopian commentary. And tragically, it seems that film composers and the general public for the most part agree with them. It was Wittgenstein who defined the meaning of a word in terms of the way it can acceptably be used; and one thing film composers certainly seem to know is how, acceptably, to use dissonance."
  Focusing on the composers, more than the critics and the audience, do you have any thoughts on why this should be so? And what do you think are good examples of soundtracks that avoid the pitfalls you mention and break new ground creatively? 

CC: You raise an interesting point. Yes, film composers are in a special league. They are not blazing their own trail and putting up work to make aesthetic statements, or even following their own expressive agendas; their job is to serve the film and make it work using whatever means necessary. They are not 'the artist,' they are just the artisan; and very often they are the last person to be called and have to work to ridiculously short deadlines - with no second chances. It's not a job for everyone. And because films come in many shades and genres, the best film composers also have to be generalists, fluent in many musical languages. Think of Bernard Herrmann's 1941 score for Citizen Kane, which includes huge orchestral passages, ragtime, and a facsimile operatic aria; then his eerie, largely electronic, score for the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still and the jazz theme, and dark atmospherics, for Taxi Driver, in 1976.

In film, the normal logic of composition has to be set aside, because the music has to be written at the level of the individual scene - whatever its length or content - with the understanding that all or any of what is produced may or may not be used in the final cut - because, at the editing stage what matters is the overall shape and rhythm, which means the music may not survive as written, or at all. So egos have to be checked at the door. Not only because composers can have no control over which parts of their work will be used – and how - but, more importantly, because their contribution is not there to be listened to. Most filmgoers pay scant attention to the soundtrack and if asked afterwards say, they don't remember, or they didn't really notice.

On the other hand, the fixed dramaturgy of film provides cues, inspiration, content and creative opportunities for composers who like to solve problems; and every new job, potentially, with its unique demands, can be an opportunity to experiment with new solutions. So generally, composers who choose to work in this tough environment – and can survive it – tend to be those with chameleon skills and highly developed musical imaginations; the greatest of them finding ways to speak directly to the filmgoer and, at the same, time support - or drive - the action. Think, for instance, of Bernard Herrmann's exceptional score for Psycho, not only persuasive in its own right - and highly original - but also inseparable from the overall affect of the film. Even Hitchcock said: '33 percent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music'. Orson Welles went further, and said the score for Citizen Kane accounted for 50% of its success.

Another point to consider is that great film music calls for sensibilities closer to the world of recording than to the world of composing. That is to say, it is concerned with the empirical crafting of very specific combinations of timbre, rather than notes and rhythms. That's why Herrmann, against standard industry practice, always insisted on orchestrating and conducting his own scores. He recognised that if you can control the sound, then you can compose with it. After all, in its final form a film exists, and has to work, as a recording - what I call an event-object - and must be constructed as such. That's not a world with which many composers are familiar, in spite of the fact that most of the technological innovations and developments in sound recording - at least since the advent of talking pictures in the late 1920s - have been driven by the film industry. Plenty of opportunities for experiment and originality, then – but not so many takers.

And here's why. In the first part of the question you spoke about 'locking in expectation'. Well, the first thing to say is that this is to a certain degree inevitable; it's written into the job description. It's precisely because of its role as a setter of mood, driver of narrative, engine of affect and subliminal announcer of desired reactions, that film sound has to work so closely with expectation - in other words, to conform to the established language of film. Ostinato additive rhythms are associated with tension. So to use them under a love scene would imply a dissonance – either in the portrayed relationship, or with accepted film discourse – which, in the latter case, would disrupt the film. Failure to follow convention - unless the film itself is disruptive – is highly risky, because we know how to read a film, and what doesn't fit, doesn't work. So while musicologists continue to debate whether or not music is a species of language, at the movies it's just an empirical fact that it is: in general, film music is – and has to be – a string of clichés. Sidestepping or subverting them is a challenge only to be taken up by the bravest. When a director hires John Williams, it's most likely because they want the kind of score he's famous for writing; the 'locking in' starts there, before the composer is even off the blocks. It's like employing Cary Grant: you don't want him to play a character you want him to play Cary Grant. Only character actors are offered character parts, and the same is true of the great (and lucky) film composers - like Herrmann - who manage to escape typecasting. Mostly, however, unless you invent a rule that works - you have to follow the rules that already exist. And these predate even soundtracks. The musicologist Philip Tagg has written extensively about the music-libraries of the silent film era, which codified exactly what instruments and what musical styles should be associated with what mood, environment, character or action. I remember him once demonstrating how engrained these relationships are. He played various musical extracts and asked his audience 'What kind of film is this?' and 'What is happening in this scene'. They guessed almost everything correctly: it's a Western, this is a chase scene, we're in a bar, that's a romantic encounter... It worked because the links are so firmly established that the music cues act primarily as triggers. So, to refer back to your question... once dodecaphonic music became associated with insanity and horror – the key scores probably being Leonard Rosenman's The Cobweb, in 1955 and Benjamin Frankel's Curse of the Werewolf, in 1961 - it was hard to turn back. And every subsequent use merely reinforced the connection - because it worked. But so did Scott Bradley's much earlier use of serial techniques in The Cat that Hated People - a 1948 Tom and Jerry cartoon. The difference was that nobody followed it up - and these innovations are like memes; they need to copied to take hold. But, once in place, they are almost impossible to shift.

So, there are good scores that use the conventions in a brilliant and original way. There are scores that flout the conventions and still work well - usually because the film is doing the same thing. And there are scores that invent new conventions and establish unfamiliar relationships between what is seen and what is heard. When they get it right, the language changes and in time, new clichés are born. That's why, for new understandings, we will always need new people and new ideas.


Q: You mentioned earlier that the task of Probes is to reconstruct a historical narrative, not to recommend music. Perhaps this interview, then, could be the place for a few recommendations.

Looking at all the lesser known or ignored artists you bring up in the series, I'd like to focus on just one, Juan García Esquivel. He's clearly right in the middle of many of the issues you discuss with his mix of experimentation and pop, his use of exotic instruments and his exploration of advanced studio techniques. More personally, what do you enjoy about his music? And are there any of his works that you particularly recommend?

CC: What I enjoy about Equivel's music is his humour, his optimism and his distain for moderation and good taste. Nothing was unthinkable for him - and he was a truly inspired arranger and orchestrator, a quality often obscured by critics' snobbish confusion of exuberant creativity with kitsch. Although popular biographies seldom mention it, he trained as an electrical engineer - only straying into music as a profession because he loved it, and it paid well; but it was that training that allowed him to translate his unconventional musical ideas into extraordinary recordings, not least because he took disposing sounds in space as seriously as disposing them in time. For instance, to ensure total signal separation for his 1962 release - Latinesque - he meticulously calculated interlocking parts for two completely independent groups, located in two different studios, linked by closed circuit television and synched with click-tracks. Then he mixed for maximum directionality and movement. It took confidence and a wide range of integrated skills to carry that off; and an Art approach to problem-solving. Not least, it meant breaking conceptually with decades of would-be hi-fi realism to explore a radically alternative conception of spatiality: no longer understanding a pair of loudspeakers as a framing device to simulate 'the real,' but as two wholly independent sound sources that can conjure an artificial, left-right, ping-pong, 'sound you can follow with your eyes' experience of the unreal.

As a musician Esquivel! was self taught and therefore unencumbered by common practice or notions of what can and can't - or should and shouldn't - be done. So he followed his imagination, in clear defiance of professional norms and conventional good taste, reveling in inconsistent instrumentation, extreme dynamics, constant shifts of texture and timbre, outlandish combinations of instruments and the distribution across several instruments of a single melody, hocketed and layered in ways alien to all but the most avant-garde compositional practice. He was also a gifted and highly original pianist, but preferred texture, percussion and sprays of colour to solos and technical display. On top of all that he was a perfectionist. Unfortunately this meant increasingly high budgets, which, over time, cost him the support of an industry that only wanted to pay if the returns were high. So I suspect a lot of great work was lost when the funding ran out and he was no longer able follow the logic of his recording work further – but check, for example, his 1960 recording, See it in Sound – deemed too uncommercial for release when it was recorded, it finally saw the light of day 38 years later through the accident of a sudden retrospective fashion for hi-fi stereo, exotica and lounge music.

I'm a fan because the music he produced was a miracle of detail and - by luminous example - suggested new avenues to explore. And because his recordings are larger than life, joyful and very easy to like. They are also hard to categorise - and even harder to assess, since there is no ready basis for judgment. But also it's hard for serious critics to get past his garish, hyper real aesthetic. Even today, after his 'rediscovery,' Esquivel's innovations are routinely recast as eccentricities, which I suppose is understandable coming from casual listeners, but from musicologists, I think it's pretty unforgiveable.


See Part I of the Cutler interview

Also see our 1997 interview with Cutlter and his article on indie downloads



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