HIGH POP: THE AVANT GARDE AS EAR CANDY
by KENNETH GOLDSMITH
New York Press, New York, Aug. 27-Sept. 2 1997
Illustration: Gary Lieb
One night last November I attended one of the oddest New Music shows I'd ever been to. The ST-X Ensemble, with guest DJ Spooky, was performing the American premiere of lannis Xenakis' 1968 Kraanerg at the Great Hall at Cooper Union. The auditorium was packed with hipsters: gorgeous girls, tattooed guys, dreadlocks, shaved heads, black leather. For 75 minutes this crowd sat quietly on the hard wooden seats as the ST-X careened through some of the most forbidding, hair-raising High Modernism ever composed. When it was over, the crowd went nuts as Xenakis, conductor Charles Bornstein and Spooky all took multiple bows and curtain calls.
Personally, I was less than overwhelmed. Spooky had missed a few cues, and while the ST-X performed magnificently, the sound in the Great Hall was horrible. Most annoying was the image of Spooky taking bows with Bornstein and Xenakis, being treated like a goddamned soprano. To my knowledge he did nothing more than what hundreds of people had done for 30 years--he ran the tape. Big fucking deal. Also, a pre-concert interview with the reticent Xenakis bombed.
Something about the event, though, struck me; something about "American New Music" had changed...
Then last spring I went to a record sale at a library on York Ave. It was advertised that there would be some classical records to pick over. When I arrived, the stuffy little basement was packed with horn-rimmed electronica types rifling through cardboard boxes. Over the dull thud of those records flipping, a quiet mantra could be heard: Stockhausen, Stockhausen, Stockhausen....
Early this summer I walked into Other Music on E. 4th St. In the back of the store there's a wall of rare and pricey vinyl. My eyes caught a Deutsche Grammophon release. Stockhausen's Hymnen, 1966, double LP. Great record--but I couldn't believe the $125 price tag. I just had found my second copy of it at a flea market for $5 the week before. I told a store employee I thought it was an outrageous price. He replied that Richard James--aka Aphex Twin--had been in the week before and wiped the store out of its avant-classical vinyl. Thus the hefty price on what was left...
Finally, I was doing my weekly radio show on WFMU one morning this summer when a volunteer brought me a cup of coffee. The slick red and black mug had a flash of silver lettering--that name again. It was a promo for Ecstatic Peace!'s new release of Stockhausen's Kontakte for piano, percussion and electronic tape. I was drinking my coffee out of a Stockhausen tchotchke!
What's going on?
Through an unprecedented coming together of marketing, DJ culture and rock 'n' roll, hipsters are flocking to dusty atonalists like Stockhausen, long marginalized by popular culture. There've been flirtations before--Stockhausen made an appearance on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, and "Revolution 9" was certainly influenced by the Beatles hanging out with John Cage via Yoko's Fluxus connections. But while Apple did give a one-shot record deal to John Tavener in 1970 to release The Whale, the Beatles / ex-Beatles pretty much stopped supporting experimental music (although they continued dubious excursions into the "classical" field like McCartney's horrid Liverpool Oratorio). And while Zappa, similarly, always endorsed Edgard Varése and Pierre Boulez, neither Bizarre Records nor any other Zappa imprint ever released or promoted anything by Boulez or his Serialist cronies.
Thirty years later, two new pop-based labels are pushing the avant-garde. The ultra-hip Asphodel label has released Xenakis' Kraanerg, featuring DJ Spooky, while Thurston Moore's cooler than-thou Ecstatic Peace! label has put out a vintage 1978 performance of Stockhausen's Kontakte. Never before has the avant garde been so sexy or so seductively packaged. It's too early to say how the records are selling, but Asphodel told me that Kraanerg was already showing up on the North American college charts.
While New Music--long wanting for an audience--could use the help, some old-timers I know are terrified that their long-standing counter-cultural agenda could be twisted into the "next big classical thing" a la Arvo Pärt or Henryk Górecki. And they have a point, judging from the heinous marketing job Deutsche Grammophon recently did to Olivier Messiaen, taking what they considered to be his most "spiritual" compositions and churning them out as a new-age CD flakishly entitled Mystic. It's one of their biggest-selling contemporary discs, but it's a strange posthumous twist for one of the most forbidding and experimental composers of the 20th Century. I mean, the guy wrote the edgy, atonal chamber work "Quator Pour La Fin du Temps" while interned in a concentration camp.
One strength of the two new releases is the way they resist that kind of smoothing out. Kraanerg is a teeth-grinding sonic assault, sheets of electronic sound mingling with an orchestra trying its damnedest not to sound like an orchestra. Bassoons fart, piccolos squelch, the brass screams like car alarms. It's stunning--or as they used to say, "difficult but rewarding." And the ST-X Ensemble is as tight and smoking as the James Brown horns circa 1969. Though it's out on Asphodel, I don't think you'll be able to put it on at the office like you do with your ambient - sombient - illbient stuff. Your ass'd be canned within the first three minutes this disc hit the player.
The project started with the 92nd St. Y, which sponsored the Cooper Union event. Six months earlier, the Y had invited Xenakis to New York for a stunning ST-X show at 92nd St. Xenakis called it "the best concert of my music I have ever attended." George Steele, director of the series, wanted to do it again. Xenakis was up for it--his works are rarely performed in this country, never mind performed well--as was Charles Bornstein, conductor and founder of the New York-based ST-X. Bornstein, an ambitious character, dropped a contract with the venerable Mode Records for something more, shall we say, visible. Together they cooked up a U.S. premiere of 1968's Kraanerg, a 75-minute cataclysmic sound collage that pits a live orchestra of 23 musicians against a quadraphonic tape.
The next move was to find a tape operator. Bornstein suggested Spooky. Evidently, Spooky had been independently interested in Xenakis; as a kid his folks played Xenakis in the house, and deep within the strata of his own thick mixes were Xenakis samples.
Steele took Spooky into a studio where he restored a crumbling 30-year-old analog tape. The magnetic tape had always been a problem in the piece. Originally, an operator would just switch it on and let it roll. Due to the tape speeding up or slowing down, inevitably the orchestra would get ahead of itself or fall behind; it was always scrambling to keep pace. Spooky made separate digital sections he could click on and off when cued by the conductor in performance, creating a "soloist" role for himself where there never had been one before. In addition, he enhanced some of the quadraphonic qualities of the original tape, which includes majestic architectural sweeps as the sounds jump from speaker to speaker in the auditorium--a great example of Xenakis's "sound as architecture."
The result is stunning and definitive. Asphodel's Kraanerg blows away the only other existing recording of the piece that I know of, recorded in 1988. In their reworking, Spooky and Bornstein have redefined the composition forever. Asphodel has a superior distribution and marketing system to many of the smaller and "purer" New Music labels. Soon, Kraanerg could be sitting next to Aphex Twin and Prodigy in mall across America.
It's been a long time coming. Minor mall heroes Sonic Youth have been opening ears for nearly 20 years. In their wake, every pop band incorporates at least a modicum of noise and dissonant chords. It's not a far leap from there to Stockhausen or Xenakis. What was once forbidding is now quite expected, creating a revolution in common listening habits. Ecstatic Peace! has been quietly releasing challenging outsiders like wild jazzman Arthur Doyle for years, and put out the Sonic Youth/Yamataka Eye TV Shit, with an appropriated Stockhausen cover complete with the original German liner notes.
DJ culture, meanwhile, has had its own large impact on the fetishization of older music. After plundering every other source imaginable, DJs finally got around to the 20th Century avant-garde. The record companies have caught on and are marketing re-issues of product that used to be considered unsalable. Stores like Kim's Underground and Other Music now display experimental music so seductively you'll drop $22.99 on an arcane German import just for the sake of coolness.
Jeff Gibson, co owner of Other Music, also set up the record shop at Kim's. When I ask about the $125 price tag on Hymnen, he takes an unapologetic hard line, saying that DJ culture has pushed vinyl prices through the ceiling. Despite the prices, he says, sales of avantist material are booming, and even older experimental labels like Lovely Music and Mode are benefiting from the trickle down. Mode reports strong sales on its own two ST-X Xenakis releases. Luciano Berio. Pauline Oliveros, Mauricio Kagel and other avant composers are also benefiting.
In the 80s, Kronos Quartet was marketed as "challenging music for yuppies." Their Laurie Anderson haircuts and slick designer suits brought some fierce mass-marketing hype to experimental music. There's an obvious downside. I can't tell you how many "adventurous" lawyers and architects I've known who've gone to BAM to hear Kronos and walked out halfway through, horrified by what they heard. Kronos may occasionally toss off a Hendrix cover, but their George Crumb and Morton Feldman marathons don't exactly make for most people's idea of Saturday night fun. Their European counterparts, the Arditti String Quartet, don't have the hype, but they don't need it--people in Europe fucking like high culture.
So it's hard to say whether the avant-is-cool trend will last. Asphodel is talking about releasing some interesting electro-acoustic work, and Spooky says he's planning to resuscitate more stuff. I'm reminded that when asked in the early part of this century who his audience was, Marcel Duchamp answered that it was for a generation 50 years hence. He turned out to be right.
And last time I checked, the $125 copy of Hymnen was gone.
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