By Pete Teo
Some midget in dark-rimmed glasses trotted up to me one day. “Hey Pete,” she growled. “You’re so uncool.”
Huh? Whatever did she mean? I’ve read ‘Karl Marx For Dummies’. Twice. If that’s not cool, what is? “Dump that shitty music you do and get with us avant-gardes. We’re radical and cool.”
“What? You mean John Denver isn’t cool? Damn. And eh, avant what?” I was gutted. Years of singing along to ‘Country Road’ came to nothing. If I weren’t so chicken shit, I’d have topped myself. Still, I did the next best thing – I went shopping.
Shopping is cool, especially if you were buying avant-garde credibility. So it was that I scanned the freezer section of my local bookstore desperate to acquire my passport to radical cool-dom. Momentarily, I picked out a book on John Cage and zapped the content into my noodles in 3 seconds flat.
In 1952, a young pianist walked onto the stage at the first ever performance of a John Cage composition entitled 4’33”. He placed a blank score on the piano and sat motionless. Shortly, he signalled the commencement of the first movement by lowering the lid of the piano. As he measured time with a stopwatch, he duly turned the pages on the score. Then he raised the piano lid to signal the end of the movement. There were three movements in all. Taken together, they amounted to exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.
That’s right. Silence. I concluded that Cage was a fool. But that’s harsh. See, he saw art “not as something that consisted of communication from the artist to an audience but rather as an activity of sounds in which the artist found a way to let the sounds be themselves.” Thus, the apparent silence of 4’33” was in fact a backdrop that allowed the audience to hear ambient sounds in the background (e.g. people coughing, birdsong, or passing bus). In other words, his was art wherein silence itself was revelatory.
How cool is that?
Still, in order to get to the source of radical cool, I zapped myself back a century or so to Old Europe; to a time when rising secular rationalism ushered in an intellectual paradigm in which everything hitherto deemed sacrosanct was questioned; to a time when artists and thinkers like Picasso, Loos, Camus, Sartre, Marx, Nietzsche, Weber and Wittgenstein threw critical knives against the legitimacy of classicalism; and to a time when a composer by the name of Arnold Schoenberg rejected the language of classical music and in the process gave birth to the avant-garde.
Let me explain.
You see, conventional music engages a lexicon of key, harmony, form, scale, meter etc. These are the structural vocabulary upon which composers construct their expressions and the language through which meaning is transmitted from music to listener. But Schoenberg wanted no a priori language to cramp his style. So he threw everything out. Result? His compositions had no form, structure or any recognisable harmonic consistency.
Here’s how you can do an approximation: hammer your fists randomly on the piano – the consequent discordant cacophony is pretty much it. As you can imagine, it was pretty controversial. Detractors called it anarchy.
Apologists called it ‘atonal’.
But there was a problem. Aside from being pretty damn boring, Schoenberg soon found that atonal music could not transmit meaning due to the fact that it did not have any vocabulary to facilitate communication. And because he ultimately believed the transmission of meaning was central to the arts, he had to eventually reject atonality too. In its place, he invented a compositional method that principally consisted of utilising all 12 notes available to western music instead of the 8 dominant ones normally used. This in turn became the staple of avant-garde music for decades even though composing with 12 notes was never really very radical because Indian classical music had been using twice as many notes for at least a millennium. Anyway, Schoenberg later taught John Cage. Twenty years on, Cage would compose a tune that not only made no sound, but also when put alongside atonality, would put an end to radicalism in avant-garde music.
Well, think about it – how can music be more radical than atonal anarchy on one hand and silence on the other? Fact is, when the dialectical opposites of no-sound and anarchic-sound has both been breached, everything else in between is either regurgitation of the same or rationalised compromises. It is thus Schoenberg and Cage reached the utmost in compositional radicalism and we can now only explore music within the polar limits defined by them. In other words, the frontiers won’t move anymore and the avant-gardes have run out of real estate to radicalise. The rest is just circle jerk.
Not that this stops avant-garde wannabes from claiming radicalism at the drop of a hat though. These range from pop bands like Gang Of Four (who used anti-capitalist dogma to radicalise their work while they negotiated with EMI), to artless art bands (who think that making meaningless and discordant noise is somehow revolutionary), to cool-affected hipsters with bad episteme. Granted, some of these people actually make interesting music, but to claim that they are radical or in any way truly avant-garde would be rich indeed.
It was thus I placed my radical passport back onto the bookshelf and abandoned my search for avant-garde cool. You see, there are only two types of art in our post-modern world: one that tries to communicate meaning, and one that doesn’t. Neither is new or truly radical. To claim otherwise is simply intellectually sloppy. And being a pretty honest sort of guy, I’d rather be uncool than sloppy. Besides, I reckon if I waited long enough, being uncool will soon cycle back into fashion. After all, we do live in the age of the disposable cool.
This article was first published in Pete Teo’s column in Klue, issue #71, Oct 16, 2004.
Pete Teo has to go back to making uncool music. So this is his last column for a while. But you can read more of his ramblings at his blog – www.peteteo.com
First Published: 24.11.2004 on Kakiseni