by Megan Steller
I don’t believe in making New Year’s resolutions, for the most part because I’m lazy and have no follow-through. Also because formulating two or three major commitments at the beginning of the year gives me too easy a get-out to avoid self-reinvention once April rolls around. It’s too late by then; the boat has sailed, and I have yet again allowed myself to not go to the gym, not learn to cook an adult meal, not purchase a computer that stays awake for more than 45-minutes at a time. It’s too much effort, too disappointing. It makes me too aware of my failings. And yet, this year I broke my rule, allowing myself one conceptual resolution to get me through to December. The grand intention? Learn to be okay asking the stupid questions.
When I made it, this resolution felt broad enough to steer my year-long ship to safe-harbour, whilst giving me room to grow and adapt and fail. Of course, since leaving the comfortable womb of study and entering the unchartered territory that is arts practice I had already failed in plenty of colourful ways, but actively chasing failure? I hadn’t yet been bold enough to try that. Now, armed with naive courage and an open (read: empty) mind, I set off into the year ready to acknowledge my lack of knowledge.
First mission was to get a grip on the weird and wonderful land of contemporary art music. My ears full to the brim with Beethoven’s piano works and pop music from the 1980s – one inherited from my mother, the other absorbed through 18 years of keyboard studies – I was ready for something new, something unusual, something challenging. I was fascinated by the idea of a music that constantly chases innovation: in new music, that notion is written into the title.
“New music.” An obscenely broad term that, for the purpose of this essay, I’m going to define as works written since the mid-1970s and that don’t fit the stereotyped “classical music” orchestral sound, but which aren’t really electronic music either. New music borrows bits of both, and far more besides. It’s built on the foundations of old-school classical music, but propelled forward with new sounds, technologies and ideologies. Melody is not completely forbidden, but, granted, there is a distinct lack of earworms in the repertoire. There are multiple sub-genres to explore, but for the uninitiated listener, sci-fi film scores might be a good place to start. “Find a film by Stanley Kubrick,” a wonderful arts writer advised when I asked how to begin my listening, “and turn away from the screen. Listen for texture and unusual effects. It won’t explain everything, but it’ll give you a starting point.”
I should probably tell you at this point that I’m a full-time artist manager and a part-time music journalist – and that means I am no stranger to a) music that you don’t hear on commercial radio and b) spending time at performances that don’t make immediate sense. And yet, prior to my sci-fi initiation, I was only aware of these sound-worlds by reputation. I certainly didn’t know them well enough to construct a firm thesis when asked for my opinion. Like other music graduates, I had been thrust into the world of Boulez and Stockhausen thanks to classes in theory and music history, but back then my bleary-eyed, 19-year-old self was more preoccupied with getting to the pub after class than with the development of the avant-garde.
“How hard can it be?”
“How hard can it be?” I asked myself, not realising how far off the mark I really was. My days were already full of music: as well as my day job, I spent my nights listening to records and going to chamber music concerts. I was, I thought, “high brow”. I could talk about Schubert for hours, and knew quite a bit about Bach and a little of the Renaissance. I owned a coat that was assigned specifically for wearing to The Opera. Full of false confidence, I coasted to the library and armed myself with books on everything from mysticism and eroticism in contemporary sound-art to queer dialects in electronic music. I googled composer after composer until my knees burnt from an overheating laptop. I bought tickets to performances in public toilets and swimming pools and parks to get a feel for new-discipline theatre and post-genre composition. I was committed. I was confused. I asked generous and knowledgeable friends to explain jargon to me: “what’s a split tone?” I would yell, jogging after amiable brass players. “Can you explain isorhythm?” I’d ask unsuspecting composers who accidentally stood still for too long.
But following the final note of any given performance, I’d still scamper away immediately, terrified of being asked what I thought about the works I’d just heard. Sure, I had opinions, but did I have the right opinions? The right conceptual language? The right facial expression that says, “yes, I do understand your point about solipsism and post-Adorno discourse”? I did not – but what I did have was questions. Loads of them. And yet I couldn’t voice them. I would sit on my queries and misunderstandings, promising myself I’d speak up next time, consoling myself that this hadn’t been quite the right time. Then again, would there ever be a right time? Turns out, the right time was the last place I imagined: Darmstadt International Summer Course, the most renowned, widely-intimidating new music festival on the globe.
For more than 70 years now, performers, composers, thinkers and curators from around the world have descended upon an unsuspecting town in southwest Germany to talk high art philosophy and contemporary music. For many participants, getting to Darmstadt is a long time coming: they’ve done the work, they’ve written the theses, they’ve mastered the aesthetic. Composers have poured over the works of Brian Ferneyhough and Helmut Lachenmann until they’re memorised. Performers have grappled with extended techniques and perfected circular breathing, sampling, subharmonics. To attend Darmstadt is to follow in the footsteps of contemporary music’s forefathers (as my colleague aptly pointed out, there are no mothers in this story) and to etch your name into a rich history that – for better or worse – continues to write the new music rules not only for Europe but for the world.
The more I spoke with my fellow participants, the more I understood what I had wandered into. Without thinking, I had skipped those preparatory years, hopping on a plane with my questions and my lack of academic rigour, simply deciding that if I wanted to learn a thing or two about new music, I might as well go to the source. And so I found myself floundering about in a sound-world and a country that were foreign to me, without the language to describe what I was hearing or seeing or feeling. I was in over my head. During the first few days, haphazardly attending concerts, lectures and sound installations, I counted the word “dichotomy” used seventeen times in relaxed conversation. I was hit with thoughts on temporality and spectral analysis, pointillism and the arrière-garde. In a lecture on Nietzsche’s philosophy and its relation to contemporary art music, I scrawled notes that I did not fully understand in a bid to feel engaged and look intelligent. Revisiting those notes, I found I had written only four legible words: “affirmative”, “religion”, “knowledge” and “structure”. Was I not smart enough for this kind of conversation? Was I not good enough to be here?
For a long time, I’ve struggled with where to put myself. Working in the arts throws you myriad skillsets and possible pathways; if you’re lucky, you end up with an exciting and multi-faceted job, but you can often feel like a jack of all trades. This feeling of imposter syndrome is not unique to me, nor is it unique to new music. The concept was first coined in 1978 as part of an article by American psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, who defined the phenomenon as “an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness” felt by high-powered professional women. The syndrome turns up regularly in the arts, where measuring yourself against your peers and colleagues is impossible, yet we do it all the time. The challenge is recognising your own feelings of inadequacy and pushing on regardless of the hurdles thrown into your path. Sometimes you’ll trip over and go flying off-track, but allowing yourself a moment of recovery is the key lesson. The suspicion that I might genuinely be an imposter might never go away, but giving myself permission to look that feeling square in the eye and say “not today!” has allowed me to accept what I don’t know as a positive part of myself.
What I’m learning, then, thanks to time and practice and open conversation, is the validity of asking stupid questions. That as I nervously roll the words around in my head, those same words are circling in someone else’s mind, too. Sometimes their language sounds flashier than mine, but the ideas are often similar, and by stepping forward and owning the bits I don’t know, I allow the people around me to acknowledge their confusions. My questions don’t paint me as ignorant; they make my voice an important part of what should be an ever-expanding conversation.
In new music, as in all forms of shape-shifting and boundary-pushing art, audience involvement is essential. Artists, writers and thinkers need to leave the door open at least a crack to invite in inquisitive outsiders. Entry points should be a requisite part of the art, and questions should be a valued part of the conversation. Over the last two weeks at Darmstadt, I’ve learnt a huge amount: more than I ever thought I’d need to know about the hinterlands of acousmatic practice and the dodecaphonic works of Pierre Boulez. More importantly, I’ve learned that the world of new music is only made stronger by the variety of backgrounds, personal experiences and creativity of all its members. The best way to further art is to further the conversation around it – so here’s to the people who ask the questions and to the people who answer them. Here’s to those who are confused, and to those who shed light.