amplify #86 - Stephen Graham on Contemporary Music and the economy
A discussion with Stephen Graham, Head of School of Arts and Humanities and Senior Lecturer in Music at Goldsmith’s University of London about new music and its relationship to the economy.
Read the interview transcription
Jonathan Grimes: Stephen, perhaps start by telling me a little bit about your journey in music and how you ended up on the research path you're currently on.
Stephen Graham: Well, when I was a teenager, I think I knew I wanted a life in music one way or the other, by hook or by crook. And I had visions of being either a huge rock star or a fantastically successful composer. I got to UCD to study music, and after a year or two, I realised that actually musicology was the path I was really, really interested in. I could see myself lecturing, I could see myself happily ensconced in a music department, thinking about music, talking about music and so on. So that’s the path I followed. I ended up doing the research I do because I’ve always been interested in music that seems to fall between cracks. So the music that I was really, really interested in was contemporary classical. That was unusual and strange in more ways than one. So not just in how it sounded, but sort of where it was listened to, how it was made, how it was written about and where it was written about. So The Wire magazine was sort of my bible for a long time. And in that magazine and in places like that, you would get all sorts of music jumbled together.
SG: And I didn’t see that mix of music reflected in the categories, the big buckets that people put music into. So you would get classical, contemporary, classical, folk, popular, but all this stuff seemed to be new and strange and sort of homeless to me in a strange sense. So I tried to map out what that might look like as a category or as a bucket. And that’s where my first book came in, Sounds of the Underground, which is about what I call fringe and underground music, which goes across everything from noise to extreme metal to free improv to some forms of experimental and contemporary classical. And that sort of started me off on the journey I’ve been on for the last eight or nine years on.
JG: The theme of this podcast and what you’ve come in to discuss today. It’s really about the relationship between contemporary music and the economy or society. How would you begin to describe that relationship?
SG: Well, I was interested in talking about this with you today because I think when you look at contemporary music broadly understood, particularly how contemporary music ensembles and musicians present themselves and present themselves to audiences construct experiences in concerts and so on. You start to see an interesting link or maybe embodiment of how sort of broader pressures in society work their way through. So things like having to brand yourself, having to present yourself in social media, having always to sort of innovate and be flexible in order to get a gig. So it’s the gig economy thing. There seems to be a parallel between how contemporary musicians and ensembles do their work, present their work, bring audiences in, and how people in general in society are encouraged to do that for themselves as workers or as just as individual entrepreneurs on social media. So there’s a very interesting parallel between those two areas - contemporary music and contemporary society. And it sort of brings up that age-old question: are musicians acting independently from social forces in society and maybe able to challenge and critique those social forces, or are they merely repeating them?
JG: And what’s your answer to that question?
SG: Well, it’s a very complicated thing and lots of people have written about this. I’m by no means the first person to think about even this question of how contemporary music has this very particular position within society. The book that really came to mind for me when we were talking initially about doing this was Mariana Ritchey’s Composing Capital. And this is a really interesting book where Mariana Ritchey looks at all sorts of contemporary musical figures from the composer Mason Bates and his sort of YouTube symphony orchestra projects to ensembles like Bang on a can. Her essential sort of thesis or arguments is that when you look at ensembles like that and figures like that, the way they present themselves is usually in terms of being DIY. In some sense being open and accessible to audiences, being sort of flexible and entrepreneurial in how they are presenting their concerts or their music. And she draws a connection from that to the same pressures we probably all feel to be entrepreneurial and adapt to society in order to promote ourselves, whether it’s through social media or it’s through our work.
SG: And her point really would be that all these contemporary music ensembles and composers and musicians who are embodying this sort of entrepreneurial spirit to promote themselves and to be sort of “innovative” and providing experiences to audiences that are accessible and open and that don’t require prior reading or don’t require sort of decades or years of tuition and education to understand the codes. They’re just open to anyone who is a reasonably engaged member of our society. People like Mason Bates, Bang on a Can, within our context, people like Crash [Ensemble]. Their emphasis is really on an experience that is accessible to all. And you can trace that history back a long way. But really, I think some good examples would be the way in the labels like Nonesuch, Bang on a Can who I’ve already mentioned, Philip Glass and David Bowie’s collaborations. They all started to create this sort of flat, sort of gentrification of indie, or sort of hipsterification of classical, where the sort of indie world and the classical world started to meld together in a way that was consumer friendly. So if you were a sort of a chic hipster and you wanted to be reading the right things, be going to the right films, listening to the right music, you might go and see Koyaanisqatsi by Philip Glass, or you might go to see David Bowie, but not necessarily draw a line between those two experiences.
SG: A lot of people have written about that. There’s a really good article by Jeremy Grimshaw who compares the marketing of some of Philip Glass’s work to the marketing of someone like David Bowie. And what you start to see with Philip Glass is you don’t necessarily get the performers on the front of the CD case. You just get Philip Glass in a very different way to something like a Beethoven symphony, which would say the Philadelphia Orchestra, whatever. And so he really thinks through the marketing as much as anything else, you start to see a flattening between the worlds of indie rock and contemporary classical music. So that’s sort of stage one of the journey, you might say, in a very crude way. The thing I’ve been really interested in is the sort of stage two that happens beyond that, which is and this is what I was writing about in my Sounds of the Underground book, where you get all these musics. These really exploratory, challenging music, noise, extreme metal, contemporary classical. But contemporary classical, that’s that sort of new discipline area where it’s all about the theatre and the physical and the visual.
SG: It’s not just about the sort of sonic. Again, there’s a sort of a melding and a melting away of boundaries between different areas of culture. So between contemporary classical, new forms of theatre, new ways of making film, performance art, all these things are sort of happening in the same place, in the same festivals and so on. So you get this journey that goes on. And that’s sort of a long route around back to Mariana Ritchey and Composing Classical, where she says, because of all this melding, because of this sort of flatness between different forms of cultural experiences, you get music reflecting the pressures of I suppose you could call it capitalism or just society. To be entrepreneurial, to present yourself in a way that’s accessible to all, that you don’t require specialist training and so on to get into. And her diagnosis in the end is that these new music ensembles, these composers, claim in some sense to be radical and to be resisting capitalism. But actually she thinks in their ways of working and in how they present themselves and in the sounds they make. Because her other point is that a lot of these figures, like Mason Bates, are innovative in how they use technology, perhaps, but actually the musical language is very sort of neo-romantic.
SG: And so she would say, actually, what you’re getting here is an aesthetic proposition that is very safe. In actual fact, it’s not challenging society, it’s just merely reflecting the power structures of society back to the audience in a way that sort of put in a sort of a radical container. But at its heart, it’s the same sort of power that’s going on in the music as it is in society. So her critique is that that’s something that is dissimulated or that is not owned up to by the musicians. Right. They’re seeing themselves as challenging, as transforming, as being radical, but actually they’re just finding a new way to package up power and existing roles and behaviors in society.
JG: And how much is the structure as a factor in all of this? For example, the funding structures I mean, we’re all very familiar that a lot of contemporary music exists through funding commissions, grants, etc. So how much of that sort of funding structure that has been created, I guess, in the post-war period has contributed towards that?
SG: Yeah, it’s no accident that the examples that Mariana Ritchey gives in her book Composing Capital tend to come from the sort of American, the Anglosphere. So in territories where there hasn’t been the same kind of social democratic infrastructure around culture that you get in places like Germany, France, the Netherlands and so on, there is more of a some would call it neoliberal, you could just call it capitalist philanthropic sort of model where culture needs to operate in the marketplace and therefore to be entrepreneurial. To promote yourself is necessary because the funding structures are not necessarily there to support ensembles and composers and musicians to create art in a sort of an independent non market-driven way. So the funding structures, and I suppose some would say the political economic framework of the society you’re living in is absolutely pivotal in shaping the way you make your art.
JG: But still, in terms of funding, there is also an onus on the promoter or ensemble to show something in terms of audience figures and attendance and stuff like that. Presumably that also drives these ideas that you’re just talking about.
SG: Yeah, absolutely. And if I were running a contemporary music ensemble, I would want to get an audience to come and watch my concert. I think there is a tendency of critics and theorists to step back and to point out, for example, the ways that contemporary musicians might actually be contemporary capitalists and say that, well, there’s something counterfeit about that or there’s something wrong with that. And I understand that point. But at the same time, on a sort of a human level of wanting to make culture and wanting people to see and hear that culture and respond to it, I think it’s very understandable that people have chosen to lose in some senses the apparatus of classical music that can be a little bit off-putting and exclusionary. That thing of having to know exactly when to clap, having to know how to follow a piece of music for 30 minutes without break, having to know the sort of narrative or the story structure of a symphony, which is a specialist thing. But it’s very, very difficult for people who are used to consuming culture in a way that doesn’t require specialist training. So they’re used to going to the cinema or hearing music on the radio or reading books, which of course, we know that they’ve spent decades enculturing into.
SG: We know that they’ve spent decades listening to popular music and getting used to its language. It’s not as if they’re born and they understand how pop song works, but that’s not a real way to think about that. Nevertheless, the kinds of enculturation or the kinds of getting used to culture that people do around pop music or the cinema or TV or novels or social media forms like TikTok, these things are there in everyday life in a way that classical music necessarily isn’t. So given all that, I think it absolutely makes sense that, you know, Kirkos or Crash or Bang on a Can we mentioned earlier, or the Manchester Collective over in the UK. It makes total sense to me that you would want your work to be accessible to those kinds of audiences. So I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with wanting to be open, with wanting to create work that doesn’t require decades of specialist training. It is also the case, having said all that, though, that there is something interesting when you just parallel the ways that these kinds of ensembles are presenting themselves and the ways that marketers often present advertising or “experiences” in contemporary society.
SG: There is something interesting, and I’m not sure what it means ultimately, but there is something interesting in the parallels between the two.
JG: Just picking up on what you just said there about experiences, creating experiences and this idea of the experience economy. Can you talk a little bit more, expand on that, and perhaps give some kind of examples in contemporary music about what this actually means or relates to? Or how it relates to it?
SG: Yeah. So I think at its heart the experience economy is the situation that we’ve probably all encountered, whether it’s advertisers or whether it’s big arts organisations where they found a way to package up an experience and sell it to us as if experience isn’t the thing that we’re all having every second of our lives. So the experience economy is one where an art show on the Tate Modern or a gig as part of a new music festival is presented in such a way that the audience expects to get a unique sort of immersive - and I think immersive is the key term - unique, immersive, unrepeatable experience out of. This is a structure that happens all the time. I just walked through Temple Bar and there was lots of tourists standing outside pubs, particularly the Temple Bar, the pub on the corner, taking pictures of themselves. And that’s an example of the experience economy because they’re trying to package up an experience they’re having as something that can be sort of sold and consumed and not necessarily literally sold, but they will probably put it on one of their social media platforms in order to get approval from their peers.
SG: Right? That’s the experience economy at its heart, trying to package up life in a way that is consumable. In contemporary music, the example that you could use is … I mentioned the Manchester Collective. A friend of mine, Roddy Hawkins. He’s an academic based in the University of Manchester. He’s been writing about this recently and he’s been paralleling the way that people have marketed big, huge, immersive art shows in the Tate Modern with the way that the Manchester Collective present themselves and the gigs that they put on as experiences. Where you come along, you get to immerse into this absolutely unrepeatable experience, where it’s almost like a punch drunk theatre show, where it’s immersive theatre, where you’re in there. There isn’t necessarily the performer on stage. It’s sort of more of a collective thing that you’re all circulating in this, as I said, unrepeatable experience. I think that’s some of the ways that contemporary music has maybe unwittingly participated in this experience economy, but it’s almost everywhere you look in contemporary music. So a figure like Heiner Goebbels who creates these very strange, almost decentered theatre pieces, both as a composer and also as a theatre director.
SG: What Goebbels is trying to get away from is the idea of a hierarchy of sort of perception, where you’ve got an audience who are mute and they’re watching this character and the story being represented on stage. He thinks, actually, that’s an old way of making art. What you really need is to decentre, you really need to create experiences where there isn’t a work, there’s just an event or an experience. There’s a recent book on Goebbel’s called Curatorial Composing by Ed McKeown, and one of his arguments is that Goebbels and figures like him are not actually creating musical works, they’re not composing works, they’re composing encounters between audiences and musicians. I think this is really interesting because it’s quite similar to the Jennifer Walshe new discipline idea some listeners may be familiar with. So it’s this idea that a lot of very disparate figures in the new music world are creating works or experiences where the physical, the visual, the theatrical are just as important as the musical. And Jenny Walshe really cites a lot of different people in this concept of the new discipline right across the spectrum, right across the world. And for her, the new discipline is sort of a way of working. It’s not necessarily a school of composition, it’s just a way of working, which sort of sees all music as music theatre in a sense. It takes sort of dataism and Fluxus and Cage as a given and says, right, we’re no longer going to make work in which there’s this quasi Godlike figure who has all the authority - the composer - and the audiences are the passive recipients of that. We’re going to create these experiences that are very physical, that are very embodied and that are very theatrical.
SG: So that’s very common in contemporary music. That’s a version of the experience economy. Right. Again, I’m not criticising that. But there’s an interesting parallel there when you start to see the way things are marketed to audiences outside contemporary classical in the art world, in how cultural events are put on: “Come along, you will get a unique experience. You will immerse into this. You will get to escape the everyday. You will get to feel something new and different.” It’s an interesting parallel between that and what all these different figures in the New Discipline, Goebbels, all the figures that Mariana Ritchey’s writing about, the Manchester Collective I mentioned, there’s some Irish examples as well that are doing this.
SG: If I could just read out one really quickly. So Kirkos ensemble. Fantastic. If you look at their website, and I think the ‘About’ statements on ensemble’s and composers’ websites are always so, so fascinating because they give you keys into how they think about themselves and they also give you keys into, actually the ways in which these ensembles and these musicians are feeling the pressure to present themselves. So Kirkos say, “Kirkos are a new music group from Dublin, Ireland, as well as the operator of Unit 44, a DIY venue in Stonybatter with a radically open approach to programming”. So we’re already getting some of the Experience Economy like language there -the radically open approach to programming, a DIY venue in Stonybatter. So you’re already seeing how that apparatus of virtuosity and specialism of classical music is broken down completely. "We focus on high-concept performance and on trying to develop the ecosystem that thrives at the fringes of Irish new music. Threading the line between experimental music and contemporary classical music. We rarely do straightforward concerts, preferring to incorporate every part of the audience’s experience into our thinking about music. Work devised collaboratively and influences from theatre. Visual art and performance arts are a big part of what we do. So everything in there is reflective of both the New Discipline stuff I was talking about, but also that more general pressure in society to create these unique immersive experiences.
JG: You mentioned pressure. Is that pressure or is that, just, as you said earlier, just reflective of how these artists and these musicians, these composers are thinking now? And another question I would have about this is what is the role of technology? And let’s say, for example, how different generations have engaged with technology and how central it is to their lives and how that then needs to reflect out into the “real world”, in terms of these experiences that you talk about.
SG: Yeah, I mean, it’s a sort of a chicken and egg situation, isn’t it? And this is where you get to the heart of why this question how does music reflect or stand outside society? You get to the heart of why that question is so impossible to answer because is it a chicken or egg? Is it music and then technology, or is it technology and then music? Is it music and then society, or is it society and then music? To put it in a sort of a slightly crude way, you can never get to the origin point. These things are folded over each other from the get go. So the ways in which I imagine the people in Kirkos, for example, or lots of different examples just in the Irish context, as there are everywhere else, you can imagine the ways that they all grew up absolutely immersed in technology, where technology was at right in that moment, immersed in really all forms of music making. Because these figures would have been surrounded by all sorts of different kinds of music and culture growing up. And what they’re doing is very natural. They’re trying to reflect that in their work.
SG: What comes out in their work is what went into their experiences as human beings being surrounded by popular music, all sorts of music and so on. So the question of technology is a really good one because music and technology, music and the wider world around it, these things are just folded up together in a way. And so it’s completely natural and normal for ensembles and musicians to operate in the way they’re operating, using technology, using different ways of presenting themselves that reflect wider ways of self-presentation in society. It all makes complete sense. And it’s very difficult then to hold up a musician and to criticise them and maybe somehow to say you should be stepping outside of these structures and these pressures. That’s a very difficult thing to say to a musician because after all, all they’re doing is making their music in a way that their life and their music works together and complements each other rather than somehow music having to stand outside life and be something different to it. And we’re back to Beethoven there because does music stand outside life and critique it, or is music one other form of agency within life?
JG: Just focusing in on this idea of musicians working more collaboratively. And you also mentioned earlier about the notion of a composer as the godlike figure. Going back to the tradition and mentioning Beethoven and so forth. Talk to me a little bit more about that kind of more collaborative way of working and how this is reflected in these examples that you’ve given.
SG: Yeah, the whole push, I think, is away from the single nucleus at the core of the ensemble. This goes back again, long history. Beethoven’s a great example of probably where this image of the sort of composer God and the performer priest there to transmit the message from God really, really bedded into society and culture. Although it was there before that in different ways, putting together this long history in the sort of 250 years since then. What you get in the 20th century is figures like Cage who actually tried to create work in a different model. So they tried to create work which didn’t rely on the authority of a composer, but actually was based much more in collaboration. And Cage himself a great example where a lot of the tensions were not resolved because he still put his name on his works. He still was recognised as the great figure. The legacy of Cage is similar to the legacy of Beethoven in the sense that it’s a story about one person acting on history or acting on society. So 4’33“ is a really interesting piece, of course, because everyone knows it’s the ”silent piece", but really it still obeys all the sort of protocols of the concert hall because there’s a score now it’s published.
SG: There is a situation where there’s a performer and an audience in pretty much every single way you can imagine except the actual sound of it. It’s a musical work. There’s not that much difference between 4’33“ and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I mean, there’s a lot of difference, obviously, but looked at in certain ways, they’re identical in the structure that they create between audience and performer and composer. In some of his later work, particularly from 0’00” that piece onwards, and in his later sort of happenings and in Music Circus and things like that, there is that Heiner Goebbels like thing of creating spectacles that you enter into, and there isn’t one plane of meaning where there’s a thing happening here and everyone’s witnessing the thing and interpreting it. There’s things happening everywhere. And the things that are happening are not fixed. They’re about actually a collaboration between the environment and the people in it. And they’re not so much about even performers and audiences collaborating. Performers and audiences become the same thing, in a sense. And so that’s in a way, a long-winded way of sort of giving an illustration of where the centre of music making sort of shifts from the authority of the composer creating autonomous music that’s separate from the everyday experiences of people consuming it or receiving it to a situation where a lot of people are creating work that is knottier and stranger and doesn’t necessarily have that hierarchy in it. And so a lot of these ensembles that we’ve been talking about, I think, are operating in the spirit of trying to decentre the great man, I guess, and trying to work as a collective and trying to collaborate both across the ensemble, but then also with the audience and so on. Crash’s description is great because it says something like amazingly ordinary people creating extraordinary experiences. And I get that. I understand that. I understand the compulsion to see yourself as just an ordinary person creating extraordinary experiences. That’s a great hook. That’s a really good way to think about your ensemble because it’s both very leveling. But it’s also one in which you protect the specialness and the uniqueness of what you’re creating for audiences. I can understand where the collaboration and the flattening and the collective thing comes from. Even though, and I think Mariana Ritchey would say this you still get a sense of separation, autonomy of music from life and of the aesthetic going on there. And that’s where the sort of contradictions maybe come in because you go to Kirkos, you go to Crash, you go to Heiner Goebbel’s performance and there is still a centre of meaning which is in each audience member’s head. Remember, Goebbels is really against the centre. He really wants meaning to be operating everywhere and circulating. But you still get centres of meaning, which is each audience member and you still get a sense of passivity and action. The audience is not as active as the performers. Even though you’ve tried to collapse that relationship, there is still a sense of separation. So you could say that actually there isn’t that much difference between going to a concert hall, hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or going to a theatre and being part of Music Circus by Cage. There’s different things going on. But again, you might say it’s sort of old wine and new bottles kind of thing.
JG: And also a lot of these ensembles are operating within a tradition. Like they’re still performing in traditional halls, traditional venues and festivals and so forth. So there is that contradiction, too.
SG: Absolutely. And it’s so funny, isn’t it? Because people say such grand things about whether it’s Cage or Jenny Walshe, who’s amazing. Jenny Walshe is a great, great artist. I love her work. I will be the first in the queue to see any new presentation from her. But at its heart, it’s not that different. And probably she wouldn’t claim it’s that different in a sense, perhaps. I mean, Heiner Goebbels is such a great example. His whole stick is, okay, I am not going to be the great figure. Even as a theatre director. He just lists his name amongst lots of other names who’ve worked together on the piece. And that does create a different feeling and it does send a different message, I think. But he’s still the great figure, sort of bestriding European culture. I went to see a talk from him recently and it was an hour-long experience of sitting and listening to him expound on why we shouldn’t have great figures in art. And you sort of go, well, hang on. What’s happening here? Is this just a new way to package the same old set of social relations? And that’s why, again the music and society question is so vexed because how do we step away from individuals and so on. We don’t live in a culture where there isn’t named individuals because there have been many cultures like that where there isn’t an individual author figure. There is a tradition and a collective that operates. We have not been that for hundreds of years. We have been a culture of individuals creating work. And that is still going on in all these ensembles no matter how much the emphasis is put on collectivity and collaboration. Maybe this is a way to get us beyond the individual creator. Maybe this is just a slow process of chipping away, not death by 1000 cuts, but life by 1000 cuts almost. Eventually we’ll get to a place that’s truly post-composer. It doesn’t feel like we’re there yet. And it’s really interesting and rich to live in that contradiction between how these ensembles present themselves, how audiences experience the works and then actually the reality that it’s maybe not that different to how they’ve been experiencing works for decades.
JG: Indeed. And one of the things that strikes me is if you take composers who are working with those kind of ensembles and in that way, collaboratively, in maybe sort of non-traditional venues and ways of working, a lot of them are simultaneously working within a tradition as well. So they might be working with an experimental or their own group, but they might then be commissioned to write a string quartet performed in a festival. So it must take a lot of having to go between one field and the other.
SG: Yeah, it’s a strange one, isn’t it? And if you take perhaps I don’t really want to take individuals as examples, but I know a few people who absolutely operate in those two worlds. So I’ll mention a friend of mine, Seán Clancy, who’s a great composing musician. He absolutely operates in those two spaces and in a way that practice, if you will, that sort of going across these different worlds is completely normal and natural to figures of his generation. People born in, say, the 70s, early 80s. I would say it feels normal to Seán to play in a basement with eight people watching while he makes essentially electronic music that could really have been made by someone without his education and specialist training, not detracting from the sounds he was making. But you could conceivably get electronic musicians who absolutely just operated from their bedroom and then got on labels and then released music. There’s not a fundamental aesthetic difference in their musical language. But then he will still create commissioned work and work within institutional structures like the Contemporary Music Centre or the Arts Council or Birmingham Conservatoire where he works. And that’s just an example.
SG: I’m not picking on Seán to say that he’s any kind of an outlier in any way. That is typical. Ergodos, Ben and Garrett’s label. The way it packages itself, you could read that as an indie label, you can step to another angle on it and go, well, that’s a contemporary classical label. There’s an absolute flatness between these worlds. We started off talking about the ways that all these things have sort of blurred together and that’s true of figures like Seán. They’re working in these two worlds without contradiction, necessarily. But as we were saying, perhaps this is a step in the path to moving beyond a post-composer world where there isn’t the pressure to work with ensembles and to list your credentials on your website and to get commissioned and so on. I’m not sure. We’re in this sort of murky, confusing place that we weren’t necessarily in 50 years ago. There is a strange reveling in the sort of rubble of older cultural categories going on there. We’re not really sure what’s going to be erected in their place.
JG: Interesting. That brings me to, I suppose, the final question in this very big subject where you see this ending up and some of your predictions for the future.
SG: So one of the reasons I wrote that book, Sounds of the Underground, is because I was really interested in the fact that the centre of gravity, of exploratory music making, seemed to expand or maybe shift lanes somehow at some point in the 70s and 80s in the everything that we’ve talked about in terms of all these ensembles presenting themselves in a kind of an indiesque way or a kind of an experience economy adjacent way, that whole world grew out of a change that seemed to happen in music - 70s, 80s, 90s. That change probably came from a broader social change in places like the UK, Ireland, the US, to some extent Europe, to some extent places like Japan. There seemed to be a shift from a social democratic model where the state would pay for culture into either a mixed model or a purely sort of market-based or philanthropic model where you had to sell in order to make … Or at least you had to be patronised by someone who was rich in order to make. In other words, be beholden to private interests in one form or another, whether it’s the market or rich people.
SG: So this shift seemed to happen very slowly. It’s not a black and white thing. It’s not the case that from 1976 on there was no longer state support for the arts. There’s still massive state support for the arts. It’s not that there was a watershed in 70s and everything’s changed, there’s this really complicated social process that’s happening, which seems to be that state support for the arts, that model of making culture, shifted into something that’s more independent and market-based in some places. And my hypothesis in that book Sounds the Underground was that essentially what you’re going to get is … It’s like the king is dead, long live the king. High art is dead, long live high art. So the older ways of making and protecting high art, which were all about those entrenched institutions like universities, music schools, concert halls, which themselves were at one point fledgling and new, but by now are old and entrenched and established. Those things are maybe changing their role and losing some of their authority. What you’re getting is that innate human desire to make challenging new art and music, which I think is innate. I think it’s probably in us, no matter what happens, that need to create things that feel like they reflect the world in a new way.
SG: I think that that is spreading across to contexts that it previously didn’t really exist in. So that’s what I mean by high art is dead. Long live high art. There’ll always be a form of art which is not necessarily friendly or accessible to all, but it feels like that’s happening in places that are less funded now, that are more independent, that are flatter with sort of popular culture. In other words, they exist more in a more permeable way with popular culture. That’s where I feel like things are going and I feel like everything we’ve talked about in terms of the experience, economy and all these new music ensembles are a reflection of that. So in terms of your question, where is it going to go? One way to look at this would be to say that our ability to fund culture in a public infrastructural way is going to decline even further. And what’s going to happen is the spirit of the new is going to have to transform into newer, less institutionalised contexts. That’s what I think has been happening with Noise Music, for example. That’s the form that I’ve probably written most about. I’m so interested in it because it’s a form of radical, challenging, avantgarde culture that essentially happens without state support. I mean, people are still on social welfare, they still use the electricity grid, they’re still part of society, so there is social backing for what they’re doing, or social support, but it’s very different to the composer in a university or getting commissioned to create new works. I think that’s where it’s heading. I think there’s a sort of a mongrelification of new music where there will still be some state support, there will still be, hopefully, the Contemporary Music Centre and so on, but their role is maybe slightly different and they have to find a way to exist in this wider ecosystem. Sound and Music are a great example in the UK. I had this conversation with Susanna Eastburn about seven years ago, the outgoing sort of director of Sound and Music, where she talked about why they use the word composer. And actually they see it as a much more broader term than some people might, because they’re trying to bring in forms of music that are not necessarily written down, because that music can’t appeal to the marketplace, because it’s not friendly or accessible.
SG: But nevertheless, it hasn’t had the access to the kind of arts council support or state support that more traditional forms of new music have. So I think people like CMC, Sound and Music, they’re going to have to sort of find a way to frame and understand the broader musical ecosystem that’s coming out of everything we’ve talked about - the experience, economy, the collective collaborative feel, the weird position that composers find themselves in. 1ft in this camp, 1ft in the other, find a way to reflect that and maybe cultivate it in some sense and themselves to become something new.
JG: Stephen Graham, thank you so much for those thoughts and ideas.
SG: Thank you.