Low Art/High Art: A Continuously Oscillating Satire
Chapter One: Rooms for Progress
How and where do we listen to the music of our time? Is “Music” something distinct from “Entertainment”? Does where we listen to music affect what it is has to say? Do the works of, for example, IR, Mejla Hlavsa, and Alois Haba share anything in terms of artistic intent and what important differences (apart from spacetime coordinates) exist in their approaches? To what extent do musical differences physically require different means of presentation, and what is the best method to create a conceptual conversation between works of different genres or periods? What about the really old stuff, what do we do with that now, were do we put it, and has it got anything important to say to us? Such questions are contestable as the length of coattails at the opera but much more important. Rather than idle afternoon banter of an Oscar Wilde, or the bar room thesis of a Charles Bukowski, these questions frame a region for contemplation of the role of space in our ever-evolving cultural condition.
In some museums, gallery barriers serve to protect our “important works” of cultural production from ourselves (or possibly to protect us from the works). The barriers themselves are in some cases define space in a manner very like works of contemporary sculpture. They are efficient and vacuous, defining an untouchable area. Musically speaking the situation is quite similar. Is it an increased aural consciousness of our environment that presents environmental sound framed as music, or might it also epitomize frustration with the musical experiences possible in the available venues? Perhaps, as is the case in visual art, our music has slowly begun to delineate the contextual limitations imposed on it, if so, could this in turn mirror restrictions on movement that we place on ourselves?
For the creators of new work where to present is also a question of how to work. Venue determines structural aspects of the production, and because common practice is to simply use what is offered, available, or already there. Our musical experiences are largely defined by the venue in which they are presented, and a feedback loop exists between music, venue, and audience – who in turn often define themselves, implicitly or explicitly, by or with the cultural productions they involve themselves with, and are therefore reticent to accept a change that threatens their identity. Yet mobility is a hallmark of our time, and, though requiring of effort, suggests ways of prying open a window onto the landscape of what is possible in music .
Music already happens in spaces not formally designated for concerts. In Prague last summer we organized a Ruinu/Martin Klapper/Core of the Coalman record release party in a tunnel. There were several concerts in passageways, and in various outdoors locations, in addition to the riverside venues that have developed. Concerts are happening in laundromats, restaurants, and optician’s shops. Sound of all kinds can be diffused on home made sound systems. As with Placard and Meziuchi, sound can be broadcast for headphone listening. Concerts needn’t even be concerts as we know them, but can instead be some yet to be imagined situation. Everything is possible, but effort is necessary if music is to escape the constraint imposed on it by its venues, and the boredom that results.
photo courtesy of
Perhaps artists are more willing to cross stylistic and social boundaries in search of new experiences, but is the audience prepared to go with them? Two idealized examples serve to illustrate extreme positions. A visit to a classical concert features a large door charge booked in advance followed by arrival into an antiseptic and silenced, climate-controlled hall. One sits in one’s chair, erect and forward-facing, generally listening to music written by people not seen on main street for 200 years, keeping one’s mouth shut until the end. At the close of the concert, the audience collectively breaks for the door like a herd of stampeding buffalo to turn on mobiles and ascertain what important communication opportunities where missed during show
Meanwhile, down this hypothetical alley, one enters an uncomfortably cold/hot DIY venue and after an excruciatingly long wait is blasted with some music that battles for audibility with the shouted conversations in the space. One may move, or come and go as one pleases, but probably can’t sit down. For the musicians, it is difficult to work with a full dynamic range, or in some cases, anything below a roar, sensitivity is limited. The sound system is only partially-functioning sound systems and so what is broadcast at not predictable. A refreshing sense of the unexpected for both performer and concertgoer is present, and a positive by-product of the fight for sonic survival is an acceptance of chance, and an ability to improvise. A great deal of musical innovation is happening in DIY venues, with the simple problem is that in many cases it can’t be heard in detail.
Meanwhile, the concert hall has it made. Hearing loss is avoided, and a potentially wide range of volumes and frequencies of sound can be heard. Unfortunately, the audience is resistant to new or innovative works, or even the works of living artists, making a comparison between concert halls and tombs seem especially apt. An audience accustomed to DIY venues would prefer not visit such tombs, with their overpriced drinks and designated bathroom breaks.
Compromises are attempted, but in most cases organizers and audiences seem to select the worst, rather than the best, of both worlds. DIY concerts presented with an enforced requirement of impossibly total silence result in a denial of the world around us, rather than the intended heightened state awareness. On the academic front one finds a willingness to occasionally abandon the proscenium stage, but only in favor of a huge multi-channel surround system that comes at a cost equal to the budget of a small nation. Sounds swirl and weave around the listener in an attempt to hide their utter lack of life. “Is it live or is it Memorex?” In most cases, it unfortunately tends to the later.
What is necessary is a re-orientation on the part of both artists and audience as regards the proper venue for listening. Concerts can and do happen almost anywhere, and when this is the norm the excitement will come back. As artists, presenters, and audience members, we need to be courageous and energetic to make it happen.