Perfect Sound Forever

Breaking the Sound Barrier


The Classic Book, Forty Years Later
by Daniel Barbiero
(October 2021)


Like many of us during this strange year of being more-or-less confined to quarters, I've found myself going through years of accumulated things--stay over thirty years in the same house and see how the stuff can pile up, much of it acquired absent-mindedly--sorting through them with an eye toward giving away what I no longer need. Most of what I've collected over the years are books. While going through them, looking for items to deaccession, I came across a book I was ready to consign to the giveaway pile as a historical curiosity that was no longer useful. But then I reconsidered...



In 1981, there appeared an anthology of essays, statements and other writings on new and recent trends in music by various authors, all of them figures active on the music scene in one capacity or another. Composers and performers were represented, of course, but also critics and musicologists. Before being collected in Breaking the Sound Barrier: An Anthology of New Music--for that was the name of the book--most of the writings had previously been published in various journals or other outlets between 1966 and 1979. The majority dated from the second half of the 1970's, giving the book a sense of timeliness and even urgency at the time it came out.

Breaking the Sound Barrier was one of a number of critical anthologies edited by Gregory Battcock, a New York painter-turned-writer whose sudden death occurred shortly before the music anthology was published. Like Breaking the Sound Barrier, these other anthologies collected new and recent writings on the major avant-garde art movements of the 1960s and 1970s; many of the volumes in the series remain the best collections of primary sources on their subjects. Beginning with 1966's The New Art: A Critical Anthology, Battcock edited anthologies dedicated to the new American cinema (1967); Minimalism (1968); conceptual art (1973); Super Realism (1975); and video art (1978). The final installment in the series was a critical anthology of performance art, published posthumously in 1984, which was completed by Robert Nickas, who had been Battcock's research assistant on the project.

How does Battcock's anthology of writings on contemporary music look now, forty years later? It seems to me that it remains a valuable document not only for what it tells of a certain period in the development of Western art music--which was its particular focus--but for what it shows of some of the continuities linking the relatively near past to the present.


A Period of Transition

Perhaps the most striking thing about Breaking the Sound Barrier is the evidence it gives of the pluralism of the new music scene at the time. As many of the pieces reveal, the 1970's were a period during which art music seemed to let a hundred schools of thought contend--perhaps not always cordially, but usually productively. We can see the period now as a time of transition, when practices and artists established in the immediate past--the period from, say 1950-1970--were still active, flourishing and in some ways dominant, although becoming less so as a result of challenges coming from once-marginal artists and sounds making their way closer to what remained of the musical mainstream.

Interesting in this regard is the way a number of the pieces collected in the book frame the music of the present and future in the context of the avant-garde musics of the past. In fact, the book begins with a section titled 'History and Theory.' In addition to several pieces on general questions of musical practice, it contains an article on Futurist music and a piece by art critic Peter Frank that looks at Fluxus as a historical episode now largely concluded, yet still influential. Elsewhere in the anthology are other pieces written from a historical perspective, most notably Jerry Davidson's "Synthesizers and the Evolution of Electronic Music," Herbert Russcol's "Music Since Hiroshima: The Electronic Age Begins," and Josef Rufer's "Schoenberg--Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow."


The Persistence of Serialism and Dodecaphony

Rufer's contribution is fascinating for what it says about the continued importance of serial composition even as late as the 1970s. There is some controversy over how dominant serial composition and serial composers really were in the postwar period--some non-serial composers studying or beginning careers at the time claim that serialism was an orthodoxy that stifled other possibilities; some apologists for serialism claim that "serialism" covered what in fact was a richly diverse set of compositional practices and that its proponents never had the kind of institutional power its opponents assert it had--but whatever the case actually was, twelve-tone music (or perhaps better yet, twelve-tone musics) was a force still significant enough to merit representation in a book about contemporary music.

In addition to Rufer's piece on Schoenberg, an article by composer Earle Brown, best known for graphic works like the classic December 1952, discussed "Serial Music Today." Although the article's "today" belongs to the receding, ever-distant past, it remains interesting for showing what in retrospect may appear to be either the cracks beneath the surface of serialism--assuming, for the sake of argument, some truth to the myth of a unitary method for composing with twelve tones--or evidence of the plural and dynamic approaches to dodecaphony that characterized the postwar period. For Brown, writing in 1965, serialism had expanded its vision to take into account developments not only in so-called "aleatory" music, but the larger problems of "freedom and iconoclasm" as well. Brown's article is particularly poignant for its focus on what we might call the indeterminacy at the heart of serialism's purported systemic, total organization--the role that contingency, or the accidents of what Brown terms "response" "Everything can be serialized except...the response of [the composer] to the series, the musician to the notation, the listener to the results of all of these, and [the composer's] own response to the inevitable difference between what one wants and what one gets." As such, the "response" plays in what we actually hear. This is a quite different thing from the matter of what system or method was used to create the script for what we eventually, and by the grace of intervening factors foreseen and unforeseen, will hear. In fact, so much of the discourse surrounding serialism then and even now had to do with the methods used for the organization of pitches and other musical parameters; Brown's article is refreshing for redirecting attention from the methodological dimension of serialism to what we might think of as the existential dimension of serialism. The serialist score may represent the output of a more or less rigidly designed system for performing operations on the inputs of pitch, duration, rhythm and so forth, but in order to be realized, the score has to be read and translated into specific musical gestures--all of which are points along what Brown recognizes as an "ambiguous continuum" of cause and effect, and each of which involves a choice, which is to say a human, interpretive response, with all of the uncertainties, idiosyncracies and fallibilities that that entails. Brown's insight is to find even in serialism the irreducibility of human involvement and what he correctly identifies as "contextual freedom of action."


New Forms

If there still was something like a hegemony of serialism and serialist composers in the 1970's, an article like Tom Johnson's "Notes on New Music," originally published in three parts in the Village Voice in 1978, shows how circumscribed that hegemony actually was, or at least had become, by the late 1970's. Johnson's article provides a classic overview of the state of art music in America in the late 1970's. Thomas De Lio's "Avant-Garde Issues in Seventies Music," also included in the volume, fills in some of the details relevant to Johnson's more general observations and thus serves as a good companion piece to Johnson's.

Johnson identified a number of salient developments, some of which would have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for the sound and practice of new music. He grouped what he found into the three broad categories of new forms, new tonality, and something he called "documentary music." Of the latter two it's enough to say here that the resurgence of tonality, albeit in the loose, liquid form Johnson describes, after the dominance of dodecaphony was, in its own, supposedly counterrevolutionary way, revolutionary. Certainly, it seemed to cause some upset at the time; George Rochberg's work from the middle-1970s, in which the formerly serialist composers reintegrated tonality into his work, was notorious for the controversy it caused. And Johnson certainly wasn't alone in noticing the return of tonality, as Richard Kostelanetz's "Two Tonal Composers," a discussion of Alan Hovhaness and Philip Glass included in the book, attests. Although "documentary music" is fairly nebulously defined, what Johnson saw was a real trend getting started in the 1970's and which in its current guise of field recording and allied forms continues to be practiced by a committed community of artists.

Of the new musical forms Johnson noticed, there's much to say. If in fact twelve-tone music was the postwar period style that may claimed it was, it was by the 1970s in decline in terms of influence (whether or not it also was in artistic decline is an entirely separate issue). The new forms Johnson saw arising around him were: multimedia works--pieces combining music with dance, film or video projection, and/or other performing arts; works for instruments and electronic fixed media--at the time, largely tape; hypnotic music; and musical performance art pieces, often of an autobiographical nature. Johnson's observations were perceptive, as most of these categories of work have become staples of musical practice, often in forms that, thanks to technological developments, have evolved since the 1970s but nonetheless are still recognizable in Johnson's descriptions.

Take for example what Johnson called "the performer-and-tape form." In the 1960's and 1970's, a number of composers wrote works for solo instruments or small ensembles involving prerecorded sounds on fixed media to be used in combination with the performers' acoustic orchestral instruments. In fact one of the pieces in Breaking the Sound Barrier, composer Elliot Schwartz's "Electronic Music and Live Performance," discusses three of the composer's works for instruments and tape as well as one work for synthesizer and orchestra. Given changes in electronic technologies since the 1970's, the performer-and-tape format has evolved into a more encompassing performer-and-electronics format whereby the old analogue storage-and-playback systems have largely been supplanted by sophisticated digital systems of sound production as well as reproduction. In recent years, the old performer-and-tape template has often been configured in terms of an acoustic orchestral instrument sonically transformed by interactive or other types of electronic programs, some of them custom-written for the particular work or occasion. At a more mundane, even demotic level, we can see the performer-and-tape template exemplified in the instrument-and-pedalboard combination.

This latter observation raises an interesting point. Because of the development of affordable, accessible and reasonably easy to use electronic technologies and tools, many of the musico-technological innovations of the 1970's long ago escaped the confines of the well-funded institutional laboratories and conservatories and have filtered down to artists outside of the professional music infrastructure. In fact, as long ago as the 1980's, contemporary variations on the performer-and-tape model have been and continue to be an important presence in the freelance and DIY experimental music communities. A similar observation can be made of another one of the forms Johnson discusses, the hypnotic music form. The hypnotic music of 1970's art music, as Johnson describes it, consisted of long pieces of repetitive patterns and quick, unvarying rhythms--essentially, what we now would recognize as classic Minimalist music. Contemporaneous with this kind of Minimalism was a different but in some ways related kind of hypnotic music, also comprising long--and sometimes very long--pieces but made of truly minimal musical material: single, slowly changing tones or static modes or drones. La Monte Young, who notoriously composed a piece consisting solely of a B and F sharp held for a very long time, is the prototypical composer of this type of music, which Dick Higgins discusses in the 1968 essay "Boredom and Danger," also included in the book. Hypnotic music of this type has--appropriately enough--enjoyed a long persistence, carrying through to the present and like performer-and-tape music has, particularly in its purely electronic form, made its way down into the experimental underground, where it continues to maintain a significant presence. Much contemporary ambient and especially dark ambient music, for example, arguably traces its lineage to the hypnotic art music of the 1960's and 1970's, particularly to Young by way of John Cale and the Velvet Underground, as much as to the more obvious precedent in Brian Eno's ambient work of the 1970's.


New Technologies

The role of electronics is key here; much of the successful propagation, persistence and even popularity of some of the forms Johnson identified is due to the development of affordable, accessible electronic technologies. Add to that the appearance of generations of people native to computers and other electronic devices, and the future of certain strains of music seems in some ways to have been a matter of a destiny freely made with the tools at hand.

In fact where Breaking the Sound Barrier seems most prescient when read today is in its devoting an entire section to new technologies. Four of the five contributions address themselves to electronic technologies--synthesizers, computers, sound recording and reproduction technologies, and so on. One of the truly revolutionary developments in new music is to be found precisely here, in the introduction of electronic tools through which composers could work directly within the medium and performance could be as simple and direct as flipping a switch or pushing a button--without the intervention of a fallible performer between the composition and its realization. The analogue technologies of the 1970's--the tape machines and room-size, early synthesizers, which now seem so quaint and antiquated, not to mention awkward and unwieldy--opened up possibilities that have become more easily realized and extended with the digital technologies on hand. And as noted above, the affordability and relative ease of mastery of these technologies have helped to spread ideas and practices once confined to a small and rarefied world of avant-gardists to a wider population of experimental artists and would-be artists. In fact the ubiquity of electronics and electronic literacy has made for a paradoxical situation: the creation of a popular avant-garde. We can see the beginnings of this in, for example, the thriving underground network of largely amateur experimentalists trading tapes of home-recorded electronic music in the 1980's. No less important was the broad dissemination of the concepts associated with composing with the new technologies. An important channel in this regard was Eno, whose classic 1976 essay "Generating and Organizing Variety in the Arts," included in Breaking the Sound Barrier, was especially influential in popularizing the systems aesthetic that lay behind some of the experimental work of 1960s and 1970s.


But Notation Is a Technology Too

The one essay included in the New Technologies section that doesn't concern electronic technologies is Allison Knowles' reprinted brief introduction to the canonical 1969 book Notations, which Knowles co-edited with John Cage. That notation is a form of technology is often overlooked, but it certainly counts as one, and its inclusion in a section devoted to new technologies helps underscore the fact that changes to something as seemingly simple and taken for granted as the notation of music can, no less than changes to musical hardware, have remarkable implications for how music is made and interpreted.

Despite their relative brevity, Knowles' remarks are revealing for what they tell of some of the motivations behind the adoption of graphic notation at the time. Essentially, these were based on an egalitarian rejection of what was understood to be a hierarchy in which the composer was placed above the performer; the performance-independent objecthood of the work was placed over its actually realized sound; and the formalized, literacy-based practices of musical transmission associated with the Western art music tradition were placed above non-Western and other oral and practical traditions of music transmission. If Breaking the Sound Barrier framed graphic and other non-standard forms of notating music (or simply of inspiring musical performance through unconventional visual cues) as a new technology, it was a technology for reimagining, and consequently reorganizing, the traditional relationships of priority characterizing Western art music that had developed since the Renaissance.

If Knowles' piece encapsulated some of the philosophical or ideological reasons undergirding the postwar turn to graphic notation, Cornelius Cardew's 1976 essay, "Wiggly Lines and Wobbly Music," provides an in-depth consideration of graphic scores from the point of view of how they may facilitate the notation of suggestive yet (deliberately) imprecise musical concepts and intentions, and the problems of interpretation they raise. Cardew, who was the composer of the classic mid-1960s graphic score Treatise, a visually elegant composition that he describes in the essay as an intermedia "cross between a novel, a drawing, and a piece of music," was well-positioned to offer such a practical perspective on the possibilities afforded by graphic notation. Graphic scores may have arisen initially as a reaction against what was perceived to be the rigid organization of all musical parameters by postwar serial composition, and they may have embodied the egalitarian spirit of the 1960's, but as Cardew points out, there were, and are, some musical ideas that are more effectively communicated by non-standard notation than by traditional music notation.

Both Knowles and Cardew touch on some of the reasons that graphic scores continue to be an important part of contemporary musical practice. Knowles' piece, with its egalitarian assumptions, is especially intriguing for the hints it gives of one possible rationale, in addition to those she mentions, for the persistence of graphic notation into the present: they are well-adapted to what musicologist Richard Taruskin has described as musical post-literacy. In a period in which electronic tools for music composition and storage have in many cases attenuated or even eliminated dependence on traditionally-notated scores for codifying and transmitting musical works, literacy in traditional music notation no longer is the sine qua non skill of musical practice. Graphic scores, seen from the perspective of musical post-literacy, would offer a kind of middle way or tool for bridging the gap between composers and performers skilled in the creation and interpretation of traditionally-noted scores and those who, never having had the need to develop them, do not possess those skills. To be sure, graphic scores require their own kind of literacy, but it is a literacy that in many cases can be acquired without traditional musical literacy as a prerequisite, and may in any case depend most of all on the intuition of the interpreter. That graphic notation may be the paradigmatic form of notation in a post-literate world touches again on the notion of a demotic avant-garde facilitated by the dissemination outward of experimental music conventions and practices.


Yes, You Can Get Here from There After All

That many of the contributions to Breaking the Sound Barrier still have relevance today is evidence that the 1970's were something of an inflection point in the history of Western art music. Pluralism of form, the disruptive potential of new technologies of sound production, storage and reproduction, and the democratization of the avant-garde were already forces in place, as shown by a number of the book's essays. Even something as important to music today as the role of the internet in making available essentially the whole of the history of recorded music in one eternal, coexistent present, and in facilitating global collaboration and cross-cultural influence, represents less a qualitative break from the innovations and other developments covered in the book than a quantitative intensification. We've already seen the emphasis Breaking the Sound Barrier gave to the new electronic technologies, and while globalization as such wasn't explicitly addressed, it's worth noting that the book includes two short essays by Steve Reich that do discuss the composer's interest in exploring the rhythms of African and Balinese music, as well as offering advice on possible ways of integrating non-Western influences into Western compositions without falling into cliches or superficialities that would sell short these musics.

One topic left largely uncovered is the challenge that rock, pop, jazz and other musics posed to art music. Many contemporary composers, having grown up with them since the 1970s, have been deeply influenced by these types of music. Gaynor G. Jones and Jay Rahn's contribution to Breaking the Sound Barrier examines definitions of pop music, but its inclusion seems something of an afterthought, and it doesn't address the important issue of pop music's potential influence on new composition. Similarly, the rise of extended performance techniques as a significant factor in both the presentation and composition of new music is undiscussed--surprisingly so, since the appearance, beginning in 1974, of the University of California Press's 'New Instrumentation' series of books on new performance techniques for selected instruments already seems to indicate acknowledgment of the importance of these techniques for new music--an importance that has grown to the point where their routine integration into art music has made for a kind of contemporary common practice. Also lacking are any essays devoted to contemporary developments in jazz and improvised musics which, besides being worthy of attention in their own right, were already serving as potential sources of forms and practices for new music.

Nevertheless, in laying out what was felt at the time to be the salient issues and possibilities for new music, Breaking the Sound Barrier provides the contemporary reader with a kind of prehistory of our own time, albeit partial one. But that's as it should be; the past always looks incomplete to the future. Of course, the purpose of the anthology wasn't to predict the future of music, but rather to collect essays and other documentary material representative of a given moment. Still, forty years after its publication, the volume not only remains an excellent sourcebook bearing witness to its time, but also helps us trace a line, sometimes wiggly and sometimes wobbly, and maybe not always unbroken, that takes us from there to here.


Hear Daniel Barbiero's music at his Bandcamp page


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