A. Williams, New Music and the Claims of Modernity

📜 Williams, Alastair. 1995. New Music and the Claims of Modernity. New York: Routledge.

NMatCoM (as no-one calls it) is on the serious side of books reviewed for Games for Music so far; a philosophical work based on critical theory, with the main point of reference being Theodore Adorno. The author eloquently relates and interprets earlier theories, with the philosophical considerations being from time to time intersected by a “music to words” translation (here stylistically rather incongruous, but a standard in musicology).

As this background yields, music is analysed here in the context of the society and broader culture. The results are given with a lot of consideration to detail, and for academic researchers of music-games-related areas the book might be useful, or if you want to go deep into the topic. The ludic aspect is tackled directly only once (see below), but the notion of indeterminacy is considered thoroughly and of course the critical social context might be the most worthy result of the lecture.

As for musical references, Pauline Oliveros appears briefly with Sonic Meditations (p. 129) and that input is the closest as the book gets directly to the area of participatory text scores like ours. John Cage and Pierre Boulez are maybe the most often visited, György Ligeti is maybe presented in the most favourable light, and the ending is spent with Wolfgang Rihm, but the book also follows Beethoven, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and others to a lesser extent.

In an effort to reconstruct Adorno’s Stravinsky critique, James L. Marsh has attempted to reverse many of Adorno’s judgements, asking of Histoire du soldat why it should be infantile rather than childlike, schizophrenic rather than playful, or regressive rather than progressive (March 1983). It is more likely, however, that Histoire occupies a forcefield defined by these terms and does not side irrevocably with any of them. A childlike response to the world, unsullied by the reality principle, is at the heart of Adorno’s aesthetic thought, yet he realizes that such innocence cannot avoid social mediation. The condition Adorno’s writings on art aspire to emulate is close to the characterization he gives of Berg: ‘He successfully avoided becoming an adult without remaining infantile’ (1991a: 34). Adorno also recognizes a double-edged sword in the invocation of play in art: ‘Play in art’, he comments, ‘represents both a renunciation of instrumental rationality and a regression behind it’ (1984a: 437), The problem is that while play eludes a purposeful rationality, it risks succumbing to an invariant order through the repetition and reproduction of reified forms. Both sides of this equation are meshed together in Stravinsky’s music: the end result is neither unambiguously regressive nor progressive.1

Apologies (or not?) for a lengthy quotation. This paragraph (from p. 34) is given in full for scale; it not only is rather relevant for our topic as a whole, but also showcases a few recurring features of the Williams's text which:

  • while being far from broadly accessible, on average improves in that regard on the source material,
  • is intertextual and rich, but sometimes the border between referring and own critique may not be 100% clear,
  • usually assumes the knowledge of musical works (which is an efficient solution unfortunately not always used),
  • has a somewhat prescriptive character.

The quoted sole play-based analysis is delivered in the context of the neoclassical period of Stravinsky, when techniques based on openness remained unused. Quite many remarks from the composers working closer to our times were delivered on the way. Here are two of the more interesting ones, but again it’s not easy to distil how much advanced authorial interpretation was used without following the threads to the source.

Boulez compares the mobility in [the central section of the Third Piano Sonata] to that inherent within a map of an unknown town (an image that stands in stark contrast to the postmodernist emphasis on a familiar urban space surrounding the subject): one’s choice is limited by the layout of the streets but one can decide which route to take within those boundaries (1986a: 151; 1976: 82). This formalist representation of space ties in with Boulez’s ‘conception of the maze in work of art [as] one of the most considerable advances in Western thought’ (1986a: 145), and his stated wish to escape a model of departure and arrival in music (1986a: 144). (p. 61)2

Ligeti saw well the potential for chance procedures to destroy the autonomy of art, yet he was sensitive to the antinomy of constructions and aleatoricism that was being played out in new music during the 1950s and 1960s […] astute about the need to find a passage for artistic expression between subsumptive form and indifferent openness. (p. 90)

There are a few general considerations for our field that arise from reading NMatCoM. In the context of titular modernism as a historical period, there are hints throughout the book to interpret it broadly, with distinct phases − the matter is not settled, but even postmodernism is mentioned as possibly best treated as the most recent phase of modernism (by the way, Jacques Derrida weighs in on the conversation since the chapter Modernism Inside Out, about halfway through the book). The characteristic feature of the postmodern phase would be to operate strongly on a meta- level, not only treating concepts as a base material of art, but also blending the difference between aesthetic theory and artistic practice.

Post/Modernism is a challenging area of classification for game pieces. Early and high modernism, despite directing towards formal and abstract interests (the book would stress the “non-mimetic” aspect of that), were operating on principles and concepts familiar from before, like autonomous/absolute art, organic works of art (“every element working in the context of the whole”), with increased, but certainly not unique, stress on the newness and originality.

When looking at game pieces from the point of view of music (including when e.g. insisting on a word “composer” to be used for music game creators), we place ourselves ‘far out’ of traditional musical practice − in the sphere of the abstract, with many proxy layers between the described piece and the musical result (if there’s any). Quite “post-”…? But compared to the usual composition of game pieces, music gaming approach locates the aesthetics closer to the earlier trends; typical game piece being more postmodern than a typical music game. This can be examined by looking at the terms like meaningful choice, rules elegance (both related to organicism), or game balance. These old-school criteria and techniques are applied to advanced material, a bit like a classic sculpture made of algorithms and choices.

Instrumental reason is one other interesting term to consider our practice against. This notion was critiqued by Adorno mainly in Dialectic of Enlightenment. And here, design thinking works against the preferences of critical theory. The whole iterative design process (for example) is very purposeful and methodical, even if the final aim is not defined as part of it. On this note we could “defend” the game approach as an effort to shift the focus from the level of a concept towards the actual participants’ experience, but it gets worse. If we operate with goals, we even expect players to succumb to instrumental reason too. Needless to say: Adorno wouldn’t be a fan, and it’s an open question if we’d place before or behind jazz. Worth stressing though, that Adorno’s philosophy is not irrational.

the design of Adorno’s philosophy is to attain a mode of rationality in which the attributes of phenomena are not eliminated by the imposition of universal concepts; but conceptual thought ensures that the world is not perceived as a collection of random objects. (p. 10)

Mass culture and its relations to music game design is left as the last “difficulty” that arises for the field. Some care is needed to avoid the pitfalls of commercialism (if one wishes to indeed avoid it). When working close to art establishment, the artist might be able to sustain themselves without risking the uniqueness of their game, but current financing models in that sphere are based on gatekeeping of creators and also drastically reduce the reach of the game it could otherwise have.

Generally, making the game “better” might be understood as improving the delivery of the game's essence3 to players. Presumably, that core is honest, original and worthy on the part of the creator, but it’s tangled up in the player's own actions and cognitive or cultural capacities; also it needs to be experienced (and not for example be read about on a description card), so playtesting is the best known way to make it possible. But there are incentives to use this same method to render the game just “more commonly likeable”, especially without institutional backing, if the income depends on the number of items sold. The landscape is changing quite quickly though, and what is the best way to bring a game to life is an open and interesting question.

If the challenge for popular art is to defy the culture industry; the task for autonomous art is to avoid becoming a celebration of its own techniques and institutions. (p. 123)

Finally, there is a certainly possible affinity between the field of music games and the book in the general area of political thought. Open music is a fruitful field if you intend to dismantle the traditional “power structure” between composers and performers or if you wish to make performance available to broader groups of people. Also, let’s not forget the educational potential of music games, to consider in terms of social capital etc. Of course it’s far from obligatory to approach game pieces from the activist side, and the field is broad enough to be used by activists of many stances (maybe even contrary to yours, unfortunately). But the potential is there, and the book neatly connects the past critical thought with a more contemporary musical context.

The utopian dimension in Adorno’s aesthetics of music becomes understood in a more transformative than absolute sense: the social content of music can constitute a form of resistance to dominant and deceptive ideologies, and may anticipate social structures in which individual fulfilment is congruent with the everyday organization of life. (p. 147)

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