Perfect Sound Forever

CHRIS CUTLER ON "PROBES"


Photo by Jason Gross

Questions and introduction by Jonas Vognsen, Part 1


Beginning in 2012, Ràdio Web MACBA – the online "non-profit research and transmission project" of The Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art – has been hosting "Probes", a series of podcasts curated by Chris Cutler, founder of ReR Megacorp and drummer of Henry Cow and Art Bears.

The program delivers a comprehensive history of new musical developments over the last more than 100 years. As such, it deals not only with changes in technology and material circumstances, but is also a study in the life and spread of ideas.

Ràdio Web MACBA introduces the aim of "Probes" as follows:

"In the late nineteenth century two facts conspired to change the face of music: the collapse of common practice tonality (which overturned the certainties underpinning the world of Art music), and the invention of a revolutionary new form of memory, sound recording (which redefined and greatly empowered the world of popular music). A tidal wave of probes and experiments into new musical resources and new organisational practices ploughed through both disciplines, bringing parts of each onto shared terrain before rolling on to underpin a new aesthetics able to follow sound and its manipulations beyond the narrow confines of 'music'. This series tries analytically to trace and explain these developments, and to show how, and why, both musical and post-musical genres take the forms they do."
Using part of Marshall McLuhans's conceptual framework as a starting point, the series has to date described various movements in the music of the industrialized world where composers and musicians shifted from a focus on pitch to more broad experimentation with timbre. Topics explored include prepared instruments, extended techniques, the use of ancient, folk and exotic instruments, portamenti and noise, as well as in-depth looks at the human voice, harpsichords, gamelan and exotica – with new instruments, non-musical objects, amplification and electrification coming up on the horizon.

A recurring theme throughout the programs is the highlighting of people or movements that have been ignored, somehow not given due credit or otherwise left out of the history books. In this regard Hans Barth (#1), Julián Carrillo (#1.2), Don Ellis (#1.2), Ferrant & Teicher (#5), Leo Ornstein (#7), Erwin Schulhoff (#9.2), extreme heavy metal (#10), Antoinette Vischer (#12), Juan García Esquivel (#12.2), Ken Colyer (#14), Ron Geesin (#16.2), Sandy Bull (#16.2), Takeshi Terauchi (#17.2), Música Urbana (#18), John Mayer (#20), Embryo (#20) and many others are given a spotlight.

In episode #13, Cutler explains:

"[O]fficial histories tend typically to gloss over whatever is inconvenient or apparently marginal to their teleological narratives. The ubiquitous Alex Ross is only the latest to have captured the imaginations of concert programmers and documentarists – and all of those who find it easier to take a kings-and-queens approach to musical history, treating its footsoldiers and forgotten masses as so many inessential bystanders whose aesthetics and innovations just complicate their tidy narratives. As Brecht remarked: 'Caesar defeated the Gauls. Did he not even have a cook with him?'"
"This series is for the cooks," Cutler states.

"Probes" is a unique resource, not to be missed by anyone interested in our contemporary world of music – and how we got here.

In addition to the programs themselves, the accompanying pdf-files of transcripts and further information are also well worth careful study. Everything can be found – for free – at the website of Ràdio Web MACBA: http://rwm.macba.cat/en/probes_tag

Chris Cutler answered questions via email November 2016 - January 2017.





Q: "Probes" has now been running for more than four years and according to the outline in #5 there is still much left to cover. I think it's fair to say that this has been an epic undertaking. Could you say a bit about how it came about and what your thoughts were going in?

Chris Cutler: In 2011/12, Jon Leidecker made an excellent series for Radio Web MACBA - a department of the Museum of Modern Art, Barcelona - called Variations; a comprehensive survey of Plunderphonics. When they asked him for an article to accompany the series, Jon suggested I write it - I think because my 1994 Musicworks essay (Plunderphonia) had, by then, become a standard text; and Jon had already made his own updates and expansions in the programmes themselves. He thought I might have another angle to pursue, which in fact I did, so I'm very grateful for that suggestion.

Shortly after the new article was published, the editor at RWM, Anna Ramos, asked if I had any ideas for broadcasts and I took that opportunity to propose Probes – the content and structure of which was loosely based on a course I had taught in 2000 at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I knew it would probably never be finished, but that was no reason not to start. Right now we're at programme 40 - and the end of the first topic is maybe 10 more episodes away.

The series is my take on the way music evolved over the last 130 years. It's different from other histories both theoretically and methodologically - which is why I wanted to make it: it's a musician's history. Where most accounts separate and specialize - concentrating on a single discipline, as if music were not a collective cultural practice but a collection of self-determining communities: classical, contemporary, jazz, folk, rock, and so on - Probes works from the premises that in the age of mass communications, innovations in technique, technology and style, no matter where they originate, circulate freely; flowing not only between genres but also across the diversity of cultures in a connected world. And where, for the most part, existing histories have focused on the most prominent survivors - the big names who are assumed somehow to have fed their unique creations back into the broader musical and intellectual pool - I try to understand innovation and experiment as a collective, cross-cultural, endeavor in which the numerous experiments of the many coalesce into the eventual successes of the few. From this perspective the big names - the survivors - are understood as collators and synthesists first, and visionaries second.

Probes approaches its subjects from the bottom up - identifying the specific practical and theoretical problems musicians think they need to solve - and then surveying the solutions they propose. These might be the fruit of hands-on experience, or integrative borrowings from other genres, other cultures... even other disciplines: for instance film, sculpture, painting, mathematics or physics. The programme also tries to understand the ways in which new technologies inspire and empower not only technical innovation, but original thought. In short, it addresses music as a whole, as a collective practice that operates at a level deeper than its factions and genres - although, of course, it still respects the integrity of those factions and genres as coherent discourses. At least, up to a point. That point is where they merge or mutate into genuinely new forms, as we now see happening. I just read Jennie Gottschalk's Experimental Music since 1970 - a book purportedly about music, in which practically no music is mentioned - there's sound art, installations, soundscapes, listening experiments, conceptual art, Fluxus scores, think pieces ... . but precious little music. That says to me we need urgently to rethink what we want the term music to mean; and meanwhile we have to stop blindly trying to cram everything made of sound - or in Cage's mischievous suggestion, silence – into the same box. Pink and orange are not red. We need more subtle - and therefore, more analytical - thinking, adequate to the new conditions of life. And for that we need functional theoretical underpinnings. Old terms and theories left over from the age of writing and the horse-drawn carriage just won't do. So where to start? Probes starts at the end of the C19, when two seemingly minor disruptions kicked off a rolling avalanche of unstoppable consequences. The first - solely in the world of art music - was the collapse of common tonality; the second was the invention of sound recording. Together these challenges drove music into a paradigm-shift that is still working itself out in a smorgasbord of confusion, research, repetition and experiments. Hence Probes - the term Marshall McLuhan coined to indicate a testing, experimental, 'tool-kit' approach to research. Those were my thoughts going in.


Q: While you have published in academic journals and taught at universities, I guess the best way to describe you would be as an independent researcher without any particular institutional affiliation. How does this position influence the way you work and especially the way you present your research in Probes? And have you had any response to the series from the mainstream?

CC: Probes is written for a general public, so I'm not obliged to legitimate what I write by using the academic codes by which club members recognize one another; I also only have to cite sources for direct quotations and not for all my background research. That gives me a freer hand. It also means I can follow my own path through the data without long justifications and proof that I'm aware of what the academic consensus is, and who the recognized authorities are because - although that's important to insiders, it's not relevant to my listeners or my exegesis. So, I exercise rigour but I don't have to show that I exercise rigour.

As for responses... I've had mails from individual academics, but only in the form of personal encouragement and thanks. There's been no formal or critical reaction from the world of academia as such, nor in any publications. But then, I'm an outsider and these are quite closed institutions.


Q: We're in a place today where the floodgates of information have opened to an astounding degree. The amount of music available to anyone with an Internet connection is quite mindboggling. How do you see the function of a historical overview like Probes – and curation more generally – in this reality?

CC: There are two answers to this, I think. First: the more stuff there is, the harder it is to find anything – unless you know what you are looking for. Back in the 1960's, you could go into a record shop and read the music press and pretty much have an overview of what was out there. There weren't so many record labels then and there weren't so many releases. Also, the public sphere was constantly generating an informed mainstream that kept itself abreast of what was going on. Information was filtered in and then picked up and passed around through connected public channels – press, radio, television, &c. – which, in the main, understood it as their social or patrician duty to collate, inform and circulate. Today, in the world created by the www, this model has changed completely. The old mainstream of publishers, record companies and broadcasting outlets know that specialists can find what they want online, so there's no longer perceived any duty to inform. That's a major cultural change. Now it's market rules that apply, which is why most of the old traditional media are fighting to survive by locking themselves into commercial, lowest-common-denominator, mass-appeal content - because that's what attracts advertising. For everything else there are the myriad elective communities of the www, a medium with no brain, no agenda, no imperative to organise and no sense of social responsibility. So, although the internet is a space in which everyone can find what they want, there's no collation point, no public discourse and no general visibility. And there's so much material out there that you need maps, insider knowledge or peer recommendations to find your way around.

As W.B.Yeats wrote, in 1919: 'Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.' So it is with the www.

On the other hand, as you say, the Internet tips an amazing amount of material into the public domain for free, including things so obscure or long-out-of-print that in the pre-internet world you would have had a very hard time finding them at all; now they're all lined up waiting for someone to hit search. So, of course, Probes couldn't have been made without the vast encyclopedia of the www - although, having said that that, some of the recordings I needed I had to chase all the way back to the composers and their private archives, and two or three of them had to be made specifically for the series. In short, it's what you look for that counts, not just what's there. My task is not to review or recommend music, it's to try to reconstruct an historical narrative and illustrate it with examples - and, to that end, I could also say that Probes could not have been made without books, because books contain more thorough, more reliable and more joined-up content than most websites. Plus they have indexes, references, bibliographies and they cite verifiable sources. Most of them have also been peer reviewed. That's important, as Jimmy Wales has been finding out.

Nor could Probes have been made this way by anybody else, because it's not the materials - as such - that drive, but the narrative they illustrate, and that comes from a lifetime of listening, thinking and working in the field. Probes introduces unknown material and makes unmade connections. And there's no amount of scouring the worldwide web that would put the pieces together in this particular way because - however vast - the www is just a tool; while a human being - however small - is a mind.

So Probes is my path through the data. I put in the time and these are the results of my thoughts and investigations. Now I share them. That's the function of the series and, I suppose, of curation in general.


Q: Many of the topics in Probes are things you've explored in writing over several decades. Turning the analytical framework of the series back on itself, what was the impact of the podcast format? How was it different from presenting these ideas in text?

CC: By text, I understand print, not speech - because speech is a medium of the earand text is a medium of the eye. And that's the key: I need the ear. Of course, I could have made Probes as a series of public lectures and played all the music examples. But the reach of a lecture is a roomful of people and all that remains of it afterwards are individual memories, all of them different, and quickly fading. It took writing – another kind of memory – to give human communication – and, more importantly, human thought - the possibility of permanence. And that changed everything. Because it's only through the ability to recover and compare thoughts, and to construct arguments away from the heat and pressure of personal interactions, that complexly ordered bodies of knowledge can be assembled - and not only assembled, but frozen into enduring objects that can be stored, compared, consulted and shared. Once information is no longer tied to any particular person, location or moment, new structures of knowledge and social organization grow up that are directly rooted in the conditions of the new technology. That is how we entered the world of books: universally available compendia of research, analysis, argument and cross-reference, the composition and consumption of which intrinsically guide and favour ordered thought.

On the downside, writing can only speak to the eye. And it's a code – in order for it to work, things in the world have to be translated into words, stripping them of their defining qualia. Words can describe, but no description can approach sensation. So, although millions of books have been written about music, they are all silent. A text can construct a narrative to explain the way music grows – perhaps citing individual genius, social or historical, forces, external influences, &c. - but, as far as the music - as music - is concerned, all it can do is encourage readers to go elsewhere to listen. And that's not easy when the music described is scattered to the winds, hard-to-find, expensive or simply unavailable.

For the Probes series, I wanted the sounds themselves to tell the story; not to describe but to show the way that music after 1877 mutated and adapted in its struggle to come to terms with the shifts from writing to recording, pitch to timbre, tradition to modernity - and so on - leaving words only to comment, explain, position, connect and contextualise. Twenty years ago, I might have turned to terrestrial radio, because radio can at least overcome the limitations of physical space. But it still falls at the hurdle of time. You hear a programme or you miss it, then its gone - and therefore can't contribute to the library of accumulated knowledge. Fixed carriers - LP's, tapes, cassettes and CD's - can, but there's little precedent for academic work in these media and, even if there were, negotiating copyright clearances would be a complete nightmare. So, print, radio and recorded media, though each fit some of the needs, none fits all. But the internet does. Not only is it universal - and equally at home with text, image and sound, but it's always on - for anyone, anywhere, anytime (at least, so long as no-one turns the power off). Its format - digital files - can include transcripts, playlists and pictures as well as sound - all of which can be copied and downloaded without limit - and for free. That's amazing. Looked at this way, it's easy to appreciate how prescient MACBA have been to exploit this still contested medium for educational, academic, documentary and historical purposes - and in such a way as to play a living part in an ongoing debate about art, free for the public. That's the very model of what our public institutions are supposed to do.


Q: You say that a leitmotif of the series is "how easily we forget, and how often we therefore climb the same hills over and over again." (#7). I see an interesting contrast here to those ideas or developments from which there is no retreat, as you say about modernity (#17). Where else do you see the main points of no return in the period you are describing? And why exactly is it that we can't go back?

CC: There's a limit to what the brain, unaided, can retain, and of course genetics, former experience, and the way information is filed and accessed makes a significant difference to what gets stored and what can be recovered - and how. The thing we call thinking is mostly done for us, involuntarily - ideas and recollections just pop into our heads coloured by whatever associations they bring with them, and often causing cascades of other, equally involuntary, associations to spark chains of connections that parade unbidden before us. The sum of these sensations and associations - and a certain amount of introspection, of course - is what we call experience; it's cumulative and, by definition, constantly reconfigures as new sensations and data come in, recalibrating the delicate balance of triggered reactions. Since just about everything we experience is filtered through this mechanism, what we think are 'natural', direct, or unmediated responses are, in fact, anything but, since they are all emotionally and rationally weighted as they pass through this congeries of innate, automated and associative processing. And this is only further compounded by the tool we use to ratiocinate the contents of our experiences, which is to say the language we inherit from our peers – a tool that defines as much as it describes, since it comes pre-loaded with meanings and biases that we seldom think to question. Since all these mechanisms are structural and biological and outside our control, by what means could we ever 'go back' to any previous state? It's not thinkable.

When we forget, we don't revert to an earlier condition; we forget selectively in order to reinforce a current position - and to eliminate contradictions. That's why Heraclitus wrote that: 'No man can step twice into the same river'. You can never go back.

That's one reason.

Another is that, for humans - if not for some of the equations of physics - time only moves in one direction: forward – as mooted by the second law of thermodynamics, the so-called law of entropy, which until now, has never been proven wrong. And this matches our experience; time always moves forwards. You might imitate Bach, but you can never be Bach. Jorge Luis Borges' story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" - about a man who sets out to rewrite from his own experience (not to copy) the Quixote – explains this better than I. Effects are inseparable from causes, and when the causes are everything - and everything is constantly in flux, then the next step is always the only possible step to take. In fact, forward and time are just words we've invented to express this ineluctable fact. We can have revivals and Britpop and Back to Rock and Roll, but these are imitations, not solutions. The originals grew naturally out of the minds, states of technology and questions facing the pioneers who broke through to them, but the world in which those questions and problems were immanent no longer exists. They answered their questions, and we can learn from their answers - and possibly take inspiration from them - but our own situation poses different questions. The Beatles, Bebop, Serialism - those were solutions. They changed the thoughtscape and the language - and we are, in part, knowingly or unknowingly, their products. That's why Probes starts by asking: what problems were musicians trying to solve; what tools, including mental tools, did they have at their disposal; how do new ideas appear in the world and why do they appear where and when they do; what are the relations between these ideas and what comes next, and in what way do they change the contents of creation, ambition and imagination? One can research the past to learn from it, indeed that's vital, but one can never be there. Because there isn't there any more - you can't go back because there is no back.

Can I add a note to 'how easily we forget, and how often we therefore climb the same hills again and again'? I just meant that many innovations go unregarded in their own time, or impact only on a handful of contemporaries, before they vanish from general consciousness. Then the same discoveries are made again - usually for different reasons and under different conditions. Or it may be that forgotten innovations are rediscovered and given a new - or different - significance. Nobody saw Duchamp's Fountain in the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 - because disapproving organisers hid it from view. Alfred Steiglitz took a photograph of it - and then the original exhibit was lost. The rest was a slow climb into awareness through the surviving photograph, writings and physical reconstructions. In 2004, it was voted the most influential artwork of the C20. Obviously, it's important not just that something is done, but that it is seen - or heard - to be done and that it influence what others do. There are many reasons why, at least initially, this might not happen - amongst them obscurity, public indifference and ignorance. Think of Gregor Mendel, whose studies on inheritance were published in 1866, and then ignored - not even reaching Darwin, who really needed them - until their re-discovery and independent verification some 30 years later.

The less attention we pay to history, the more we go round in circles - or wind up duplicating existing discoveries and techniques rather than being able to build on them. A useful by-product of the Probes series, I hope, will be to filter some of the past back into the present - and there's more past accessible now than there ever has been, if you can only find your way through it. Because, although you can't go back, you do need to know back, in order to be able then to go forward.


See Part II of the Cutler interview

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


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