Perfect Sound Forever

Between a Rock and an Experimental Place

Holger Czukay

The convergence of rock and avant music since the 1990's
interviews by Jason Gross

PRO's/CON's- Will this merging of styles help with the recognition of music
that hasn't been considered commercial before? Will it maybe water-down some
of the more challenging aspects of certain styles of music?

Holger Czukay (composer/musician/producer, Can, solo)

not sure though. The merging of Ethno and Western music was more leading to Ethno Tourism in my oppinion. Nothing which wants me let to hear that a second time.

Fred Frith (composer/guitarist/author/teacher)

It'll either be good and challenging music, or it won't. The whole issue of something popular helping to bring recognition to something less popular is pretty much of a crock as far as I'm concerned. Do you think Sonic Youth fans rushed off to buy records by Christian Wolff and Pauline Oliveros? I very much doubt it. I think Sonic Youth are to be congratulated on taking the risk, but what does it add up to? Do they do the composers a service other than fatter publishing checks? It's kind of like the Clash imagining that they would make political converts - it's just a fantasy, that's not what the people who liked their music were using it for..

Kyle Gann (writer/author/composer)

I feel that those composers who have used rock materials in their music for the sake of gaining a wider audience, however hip they are represented as being in the critical literature, have nonetheless met with pretty limited success in finding larger audiences. People who want pop music generally really want it, they aren't looking for some substitute that sounds like pop music but is more subversive or structural. If you grew up with rock, and its instruments and riffs are in your blood, then by all means make your "cultivated" music using those materials. But if you were a conservatory student who practiced Mozart every day, and now you're going to write electric bass riffs into your music because you think it's the hip thing to do, you're probably just going to sound stilted. I don't think there's any inherent danger of watering down the challenging aspects of composed new music; I can write just as subversive polyrhythms for electric guitar as I can for clarinet. As for whether the merging of styles can really create a new audience, the jury's still out, but early indications (perhaps themselves adversely affected by corporate inertia) don't seem terribly promising.

Paul Lansky (composer)

I don't think so. I see the music that you're referring to as always limited to a small audience. You do certainly see some aspects of 'experimental' and 'avant-garde' expressions creeping into more popular genres, such as IDM, but even there no artist would dare work without a heavy rhythm track despite the wierd noises going on.

Alan Licht (composer/author/guitarist)

I don't think any of it's resulted in commercial music per se--there's still not much in the way of hooks or a steady beat. It's more in terms of widening awareness. I think someone like Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo made the connection between the early Half Japanese recordings that he loves and free jazz, and that's part of why YLT has been working with free jazz musicians--so other people who may love YLT and/or Half Jap might also be exposed to free jazz as a result, if they're not familiar with it already. There;s a wider audience for even indie rock than free jazz or modern classical, so automatically a rock group referencing it will potentially reach more listeners than it would otherwise. Also check out Silva's comments on Ayler's Love Call, whose shortened tracks were aimed at a rock audience...

Simon Reynolds (writer/author)

my take is actually the opposite: that the convergence between the avant-garde and leftfield rock/electronica will remove what's excitingly impure about things that happen in the pop or semi-popular arena. if you look at the kind of music covered by the Wire, increasingly it is becoming entwined with Official Culture: museums, art galleries, venues in the UK and Europe like Queen Elizabeth Hall, academic symposia, conventions, etc. Especially with the area of glitch/sound design, it appears this music is consciously being developed as the junior wing of High Culture. People talk about music events and festivals being "curated", an interesting semantic tic which really reveals where their heads are at. Not to glorify pop music as an excitingly turbulent free market of competition etc, but i'm suspicious of music that relies on institutional support and governmental subsidy. Anything connected with museums tends to reek of sterility: keep your voice down respectfulness, edification, the absence of real subcultural energy or social resonance. So for me what's interesting is when pop music on its own terms and through its own path starts resembling avant-garde music (which is what happened with techno and rave in the early 90s, hip hop at various points in its history, rock with psychedelia, krautrock, postpunk), rather than through directly linking up. obviously there are connections via the influence of art schools, musicians who went to music college, or the dissemination of ideas (like john cage being more influential as a writer than for his actualy music; and being so influential on Eno, who in turn...). but when rock/electronica or whatever actually gets in bed with Offical High Modernist Culture i sense the spectre of creeping irrevelance. Black musics like dub, dancehall, hip hop, and the entire UK hardcore (rave>jungle>garage) continuum, etc are particuarly strong examples of how the opposite syndrome works so effectively: they all follow this Jamaican model of Social Darwinist cultural production (fierce grass-roots competition to achieve economic power and aesthetic triumph, producers trying to come up with ear-striking "fresh" sounds, both to lure consumers and to win innovator-kudos among your producer peers). This typically generates better results than what you could call the French model of top-down patronage and governemntal subsidy (IRCAM etc). To my ears at least.

Matthew Shipp (pianist/composer/writer)

music has always been about the merging of styles. Bach to jellyroll Mortan etc have merged many stylistic elements. Whether this will result in more comercial recognition is more a question of society and if different outlets to expose a certain type of music - radio formats-etc happen. people are always looking for something new and fresh and corporations are always looking to sell as much of an established formula as possible.

David Toop (musician/author)

I can't recall a time when there was a greater division the so-called mainstream and the so-called margins. In the UK, mainstream media are devoted increasingly to what used to be called light entertainment and the proliferation of non-mainstream music, despite its volume and viability, thrives at a level of complete invisibility and inaudibility as far as the general public are concerned. There are a few exceptions - Bjork is one, though even she seems to hang on to high visibility by a thread these days. Media fragmentation has had a lot to do with this and I can't see that trend being reversed any time soon. Some hybrids that manage to add a degree of accessibility to previously ignored musical approaches will break through that visibility ceiling but I don't believe that will solve the overall problem. It's an issue of delivery systems, not cultural content.

Other interview topics:
Rock/avant convergences in 1990's
Maintaing the integrity/identity of music styles
the future of rock/avant convergences

Also see the original Between Rock and an Experimental Place essay
and a partial listing of rock/avant collaborations since the 1990's.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER