Do You See What I Hear?: If I am a Musical Thinker

CarmenChan_If_I_am_a_Musical_Thinker_LaMamaMusica2016_imagebyAdamCasey.jpg
If I am a Musical Thinker. Photo by Adam Casey

The latest installment in Carmen Chan’s experimental music/visual art/performance art project Do You See What I Hear? took place on someone else’s stage. La Mama squeezes its music series around the scenery and props of current productions, leaving Brigid Burke’s projector, Warren Burt’s tangle of electronic gear, Adam Simmons’ arsenal of wind instruments, and Chan’s cello intimately perched in front of an enormous screen.

The American composer Benjamin Boretz originally wrote If I am a Musical Thinker in 1981 for his graduate students at the University of Texas. The aesthetic, social, and spiritual credo is one of the most influential documents of 1980s experimental art and was here spoken by Clinton Green alongside improvised music and video.

I have to confess that I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Boretz’s text. It wasn’t part of my own graduate program and I haven’t had the opportunity to chase it up since the concert. As such, what follows relates only to what I remember from the concert and is probably a misrepresentation of Boretz’s actual words.

The text begins with a phenomenological epoché, a momentary suspension of all preconceptions about musical experience. “If I am a Musical Thinker,” the audience heard, “I want to know what it is I am thinking about.” The musicians strike up a beautiful and spacious atmosphere: whisper-soft clarinet, rubbed clay pot and the odd electronic sound. Boretz heads straight for a teleological or ends-oriented definition. Music is a medium of expression. Like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, Boretz begins If I am a Musical Thinker at the farthest reaches of his journey and then has to find his way home by an unfamiliar route (but hopefully in less horse carcasses). If music expresses, what does it express? Identity. How? In one of my favourite lines Boretz asserts that expression is not just “raw evacuation” of identity. Instead, we form our selves in relation to and through pre-formed musical conventions. Boretz posits a dialectical world of musical discourses negating one another. Against this headlong pitch into abstraction a recording of Boretz’s text is layered and amplified in a trippy web of voices.

Eager to return the individual into the mix, Boretz turns to the experience of listening to these discourses. When we listen we recompose the music we hear, reacting to it insofar as its forms are already within us. For this performance Burt has sonified the ink blot illustrations throughout Boretz’s text and turned them into a bank of different sound effects. Like ink blots, we try to match music to our ever-evolving and complex bank of musical experiences. In this way “music,” Boretz argues, “expresses us.” I understand this in the same way that something enrages us. The external object resonates with a pre-existing bias. We do not use the term “enjoy” in the same way (one enjoys something, not the other way around), though I think it would be nice to say that a piece of music “enjoys us.”

The essential musical unit is then not the musical work, but the musical occasion where this magnificent process of reflection-recomposition takes place. The reason for the musicians’ live semi-improvised performance then becomes clear. While Boretz is arguing that all musical experience follows the model of the musical occasion, an improvised performance provides the opportunity for a form to be dredged out of one consciousness and—hopefully—communicated to another. The black and white drawings and text of Burke’s projections give a hallucinatory, half-significating feel to the swirling mass of musical forms taking place before us.

Boretz opens the discussion out, making some judgements about music education. He claims that in the brow-beaten world of conservatorium education the urge to express oneself is transferred on to the need for external approval. Discipline replaces engagement. And so Boretz finds his way home a little wiser and a little bloodier, claiming that his original decision—that music is expression—is important because expression is the key to our musical salvation.

But this is precisely the problem with Boretz’s method. His return journey is only used to justify—rather than question—his original decision. This method will be familiar to anyone who has walked to a 7-Eleven for milk and returned with a jar of Nutella. When Boretz set out on his thinkspedition he already knew deep down that he wanted Nutella, so that’s what he got. Evidently he had pre-formed opinions on the hot-housing methods of some music institutions and fabricated the scenario of an unbiased phenomenological investigation to bolster them. I would like to see this text turned around. A future Do You See What I Hear? performance could start at the end, looking for the reasons behind musician burn-out. They could ask why musicians emotionally disengage from their musical experiences when placed in a highly critical environment, coming to the conclusion that they have divorced their need for musical expression from their musical practice (it all seems fairly redundant and self-explanatory this way around doesn’t it?). Then, instead of the walk of shame, they should walk straight out into the wilderness asking the tough questions: Are composing, playing, and listening really comparable experiences for the individual? How about for different people? To what extent can two people claim to have the same musical experience? Does Boretz discount experiences that we might like to call “musical,” but which do not correspond to affective states at all? These are huge questions raised by just the first sentence of Boretz’s text. I think I’ll leave them until I get back from the shops.

If I am a Musical Thinker
Do You See What I Hear?
La Mama Courthouse Theatre
15 February 2016

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