Rules of the Word Game

January 4, 2006

By Kyle Gann

We call Monet's Rouen Cathedral an Impressionist painting. Imagine a skeptic challenging this statement. "Let us put the painting under a microscope," he says, "analyze it, and determine once and for all whether it is actually Impressionist." Can we go along with his experiment and prove him wrong? No; more appropriate to say, paraphrasing Wittgenstein, that this skeptic doesn't understand the rules of the word game we're playing.

I don't know whether it's symptomatic of the decline of culture, but it seems that most people these days no longer understand the word game of artistic -isms and movements. A term denoting inclusion in an artistic movement is a kind of performative utterance masquerading as a descriptive one. A performative utterance, as J.L. Austin defined it, is one that is itself an act, one that changes the truth value of something by being spoken, like "I pronounce you man and wife," or "I accept your offer." If someone with the authority to make this statement says, in appropriate circumstances, "I pronounce you man and wife," you can't contradict him by saying, "That's not true, they aren't married." The fact that he says it is what makes it true. Of course nothing in physical reality is changed by the utterance. The statement is a command that we should consider something to be changed.

Likewise, using an artistic term is an act of political demarkation; it only pretends to be a descriptive, and that pretense is its power. When critic Louis Leroy, in the April 25, 1874, issue of Le Charivari magazine, dismissed Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir, and others as "Impressionnistes," he was not describing them, as if he had said they were "tall," or "Catholic," or "wearers of berets." The word "Impressionist" did not yet exist; the moment before he wrote it, it didn't mean anything. His intent was to marginalize those painters, by insinuating that they had attached themselves to some deficient and trivial artistic principle (snidely inferrable from the indistinct word "impression"). By coining an adjective that had the appearance of objectivity, Leroy was performing the act of commanding the reader to regard those artists as mistaken and insgnificant.

The artists, however, as often happens, grabbed on to the word and subverted its meaning. They called themselves "Impressionists" in their next group show - not because it was an adjective with specific denotations that accurately depicted them, but as an act of self defense. By calling themselves Impressionists, they were telling the public, "Do not regard us as painters who have tried to master the conventions of realism and failed, but as painters who are working on something new, who have collectively perceived that there could be a different approach to visual phenomena." By calling themselves Impressionists, they protected themselves from what they considered false criticisms, charges of deficiency based on inapplicable criteria. Years later, once those criticisms ceased to be common, they abandoned the term and went back to calling themselves merely painters. But the term itself has lasted in history.

Of course, our skeptic could have said, "There is no such thing as an Impressionist painting, there are only paintings." In a certain trivial sense this is true. But all it really says is, "I refuse to participate in your culture of word games." Today everyone understands that there is nothing metaphysical about the word "Impressionist." It is simply, as defined by its historical usage, a part of cultural literacy.

And so it is with all historical terms which purport to isolate similarities among bodies of art works. Minimalism, coined for music by Michael Nyman in 1968 (these terms never just happen, they always start with an individual), means "Do not criticize this music for having a slower rate of change than you expect based on your experience of other types of music." If Phil Glass doesn't want to be called a minimalist, then he doesn't want to be protected from such criticism, and doesn't want to be seen as agreeing that his music needs any special apology. That refusal is quite within the rules of the word game. But to find the word "minimalism" contentless, to assert that there is some mismatch between the word's chimerical "intrinsic meaning" and Music in Fifths, is merely to betray ignorance of cultural norms. "You haven't been reading the papers." Had Nyman christened the movement "Herbertism" instead of "minimalism," little would have changed. The happenstance that there might be anything minimal about minimalist music is little more than a convenience, a mnemonic device. What is "Fluxus" about Fluxus art? What was "dada" about Dada? Someone coined the word, and we know what it means by how it was applied.

For that matter, what is "jazz" about jazz? Like Glass with minimalism, many Black musicians now reject the term "jazz," saying instead "jazz music" or "the music referred to as jazz," because they no longer want the stigma of seeming to need a special term to protect their music from false criticism. Easy enough to say now; but how would we tell the history of that great art form if, from the beginning, musicians had objected that the word had no validity? The Black musicians understand the word game: now that the music is out of danger, the term seems limiting. Still, it's difficult to imagine how we'd function culturally without it.

Some terms, like minimalism and jazz, are positive, connoting a new technique or perception to which artists are drawn. Others are negative, open-ended, communicating little more specific than "get off my back." The social mores of concertgoing are a cement keeping in place a whole host of listening expectations, from which composers periodically have to forge linguistic crowbars to free themselves. "Experimental music" was a euphemism coined back when the composition of music was hemmed in by a set of unspoken assumptions so obligatory that today we can hardly remember what they were. "Experimental music" meant, "I'm going to step outside those assumptions and try something else, don't give me crap because I'm not doing what you expect." A lot of composers, notably Robert Ashley and recently David Toub at Sequenza 21, have objected to the connotations of the word "experimental." Many others have used the word while admitting that there's nothing experimental about experimental music - just as one of the "New Complexity" composers once candidly admitted in Perspectives that there was no difference between the New Complexity and the Old. "Sound art" is an interesting and still-current subgenre, an island off the coast of music, and a refuge for people devoid of nostalgia for Mozart or even the piano, who don't want their listeners reminded in any way of the world in which tuxedoed conductors shake hands with concertmasters.

"Downtown" is a term of self-defense: "don't criticize me for not notating my music in detail and having the same types of formal contrast and information rate as European classical music, I'm not trying to do that." Accordingly, "Uptown" was coined to relativize the dominant culture. Before "Downtown" appeared, "Uptown" didn't exist as such, and was merely mainstream contemporary music. By assigning it a back-formation, Downtowners were able to make it appear contingent, as arbitrary in its assumptions as any other music scene - which was not only a marketing ploy, but, in fact, a valid insight. In a positive sense, "Downtown" also has the additional advantage of referring to a specific group of people at a time and place, so that we can use it to refer to musicians who performed at Roulette and the Kitchen and Experimental Intermedia in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, with no ambiguity whatever. If you performed at New Music New York in 1979, you're a Downtowner by definition, no matter how many 12-tone string quartets you've written since.

Unlike Impressionism, "Totalism" was not coined by a critic, but by composers in self-defense. In New York circa 1990 there was a group of composers in their 30s who were really into rhythmic complexity and tempo structures, using 4, or 7, or 11 tempos at the same time, looping isorhythms of different lengths against each other, setting up beat-complexities that had never been heard before. Because it was static or highly limited in its use of harmony, newspaper critics, year after year, especially at the New York Times, kept calling this music minimalist, with the clear implication that minimalism had been a 1970s movement, and so this was nothing new. It was incredibly ignorant, tin-eared, dismissive, and unfair. It was driving us nuts. Someone coined the word "totalism." Ed Rothstein wrote an article about it in the Times. I wrote another in the Voice. It was like snuffing out a candle. References to minimalism ceased. As far as I can vouch personally, it was the most successful -ism-coinage in the history of music. Faster than "impressionism," faster than "minimalism," faster than "Fluxus," it put an end to the criticism overnight. It forced a perception, and then an acknowledgement, that we were doing something different. "Marketing," you may call it. "Long overdue perception of the truth," I call it. Most people can't see the truth until you package it for them.

So what do we do with the term now? Who gives a damn? There are a couple of lame rationales for having chosen "totalism" instead of some other word, but it doesn't particularly make more sense than "Dada." One claim the word has is historical authenticity: it's the one the composers used. Another is that totalism as a musical style has been discussed in the leading German reference work Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, in the final chapter of Wiley Hitchcock's Music in the United States, in the book American Music in the 20th Century, in Wikipedia, and on New Music Box. It's true that I wrote all of these - but since no one has ever written about this music besides me, it's also true that 100 percent of the scholarly literature on this music refers to it as totalism. The second person to write about it will have to decide whether to keep the term or come up with another one. If someone comes up with a better term, I'll cheer for it and switch. But since the movement is, as I argue, more or less over, and part of history, the incentive factor for coming up with a new moniker is likely to remain low.

What you can't do is claim that there was no movement. You can't claim that about a dozen New York composers never got interested in the same rhythmic ideas in the 1980s - because I've got the scores to prove they did. You can't claim that some of us didn't sit around Rudy's Bar in 1990 talking about our rhythmic ideas - I was there. You can't claim that none of us influenced each other. You can't claim that, once the word totalism was introduced, the newspaper tendency to refer to our music as minimalism stopped. And since naming a movement is a performative utterance, you can't claim that calling ourselves totalists didn't make us totalists. So the musicologist who doesn't want to acknowledge the word, but still wants to talk about the music, is in a bit of a quandary. You never heard any totalist music? So what? You're ignorant, therefore totalism doesn't exist? If you've never heard Italian Futurist music, does that mean it never existed? Does Mbuti pygmy music not exist if you've never heard it? A tree falling in the forest doesn't make a sound unless you, personally, are present? You never heard the music? Catch up.

There are more movements around than we acknowledge. A few years ago I was hearing interestingly similar pieces come out of the Bonk Festival in Florida, so I briefly wrote about Bonk music. Haven't heard anything from them since, which may be no fault of theirs. One movement that has gained universal acceptance, I suppose simply because it's European, is spectral music, which was self-so-called, self-defined, self-promoted - it's difficult to imagine audiences listening to pieces by Murail, Vivier, and Grisey and noticing family traits in the music. Why spectral music gets celebrated at Miller Theater, while totalism is attacked and disenfranchised from all sides, I can't fathom, judging from the structure and histories of the two movements. And of course pop music, not being suicidal, births a new movement - grindcore, thrash metal, illbient, Euro-house, drill and bass - with every other CD.

The really sad thing is, I think, that the kneejerk adamant resistance to new movements indicates a loss of faith that new perceptions are possible. "I refuse to participate in your culture of word games," means "I no longer want to build this culture up, I'm ready to start tearing it down." Impressionism happened because a bunch of people realized about the same time that realistic art didn't do justice to the way we really perceive color. Totalism happened because a bunch of people realized that, within minimalism's stripped-down context, it was possible for people to perform and keep in their heads several tempos at once. A person convinced that there will be no more movements is a person for whom the history of culture is basically over, a person who believes that everything possible has already been perceived, and that there are no new avenues left open to us. We whine about the sanctity of the individual, but art grows by leaps and bounds when groups of people start to have collective realizations. 18th-century music sprang out of a 30-year slump in 1781 when Mozart and Haydn started copying and combining each other's ideas - neither of them had been able to do it alone. Wagner's music burst into flames when he discovered Liszt's harmonic innovations. Modern art changed forever when the Abstract Expressionists started meeting every night at the Cedar Bar. Occasionally one person creates a compelling new language on his own, but it's extremely rare. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our music, and consciousness of those things is not likely to dawn on only one person at a time. Artists need each other, and the anti-ism diehards want to imprison them each in solitary confinement. A sense of creative community, so crucial to the development of an art, is devalued by the ideology that pooh-poohs purported movements.

Or to personalize it: In the early 1980s, I had a lot of cool ideas about rhythmic structure. I thought those ideas alone would make me the King of Composers. When I got to New York and it dawned on me that Rhys Chatham, Mikel Rouse, Michael Gordon, and Ben Neill had all had the same ideas, I had to jump up off my butt, steal what I could from them, and raise my music to a whole new level to avoid being just one of the crowd. That's how music history happens (even among the so-called American Mavericks) far more often than the more popular lone-genius theory. Now on all sides I've got people assuring me that that whole transaction never happened. It's humorous.


Daniel Felsenfeld: The reason that Totalism gets the short shrift while Spectralism gets often lauded and supported in concert form is simple: one is entirely American, the other strictly European. Silly locals, so afraid of their own cultural non-identity, still needing to piggyback on the great ghost that is Europe. We in America produce music without an opulent accent, and voices without opulent accents do not, by many people's definitions, exist.
Also, if one is a critic who looks unfavorably on a certain movement, and that movement gathers strength and momentum and power, what better way to circumvent it than by pretending it does not exist? I remember reading an article the late Arthur Berger wrote in either the late 1980s or the early 1990s talking about the "two streams" of classical music: neo-Classicism and serialism.
But I am here to tell you Kyle, you and yours do exist!

David Ryshpan: For me, there's two ways to view these "word games." One is to embrace the label which summarizes one's aesthetic most accurately, and use the categorization in an advantageous manner: to open up what can be covered by that umbrella, and to maybe introduce followers of one tradition to another. I have no qualms with calling myself a "jazz" musician, even though I play in hip-hop bands and investigate classical and world music. My approach to every music I play is informed by the sensibilities I have cultivated as a student of "jazz."
The other side of this is to reject labels entirely, but I do not believe this is done in the interest of destroying the culture. More, it's a very matter-of-fact method of trying to get people to think for themselves. And that is a performative statement in itself: "I have created this. Call it what you will. It exists on its own terms."

Alfredo Votta: So nice, a lot to read over here these days. It's always very interesting to read your writings.

jeff harrington: Denying musical history can be a destructive act just as refusing to use language (political/racial) that is chosen by a community. Within the arts world it's typically aimed at disenfranchising musicians, promoting styles, promoting personalities. I know I probably sound like a broken record sometimes, but I really feel it comes down to European hegemony and French/German/British ideas about musical progressivism and their proponents.
American music has ALWAYS been disenfranchised, until the Euros couldn't disenfranchise it any more cuz European artists had finally cannibalized our stuff. (See Feldman/Nancarrow/Ives).
And I'll be even more outrageous and say, that all post-1945 signifcant stylistic achievements have been American. And this bugs Europe. Spectralism is nothing new. Rhythmic complexity (ala new complexity) is nothing new. But their labels get propagated unto acceptance by what mechanism?
The loss of credibility is fundamentally fueling the non-acceptance of not only our language, but our compositions because it exposes their lack of innovation.
I'll now wipe the froth off of my lips and go back to listening to my new Murail MP3.

mclaren: The first and most important task of any Jim Crow system of discrimination is to create the illusion that no discrimination exists. And the easiest way to create that illusion is to rewrite history. During the historic lunch counter sit-ins in the deep south during the late 1950s, the Lexington Herald-Leader steadfastly refused to provide newspaper coverage. 45 years later the paper finally apologized, admitting that it had been trying to erase inconvenient facts from the historical record:
In another 45 years, music history textbooks will likely make the same admission about totalism. And so it goes.
One argument against the use of the specific term "totalism" is that the word carries unfortunate connotations.
The 1989 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China remains one of the best-known studies of brainwashing. That was my first thought the first time I heard the term "totalism."
"In an editorial in the September 16 1937 issue of Zhinka , the political journal of Ukrainian women, Rudnytska used the term `totalism' to characterize regimes that glorify `fanaticism and exclusiveness.'"
These are probably not the associations totalist composers want to create in the minds of prospective listeners.
Myself, I prefer the term "neorhythmic" to "totalism." However, using two radically different words to describe the same musical movement would only confuse the audience. The movement's already been named, and the name has stuck. But the unfortunate historical baggage of the term "totalism" might go some way toward explaining the totalist musical movement's obscurity and/or unopularity among scholars, in addition to the obvious points about totalism's lack of Germanic or French roots.

Samuel Vriezen: Metametrics!
Just the first thing to pop in mind, with a nice superhero sound to it.

Jules: A couple of thoughts.
1. I'm puzzled at the apparent US paranoia here about European movements gaining greater acceptance than their own, eg Spectralism and New Complexity winning out over Minimalism and, subsequently, Totalism. By what measure? What measure actually matters? Name one composer from the aforementioned European movements whose CDs have outsold Steve Reich, Glenn Branca, Laurie Anderson or the Bang On A Can All Stars. Quantify the influence that Murail has had on rock and pop - our current dominant musical paradigm - compared to the impact that the downtown scene in New York of the early 80s has had on the same (through Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, for a start - one of Branca's early supporters). This paranoia really seems like 'the grass is greener' - I daresay the whole post-minimal landscape has forged more new minds than Ferneyhough ever will. On the other hand, seeing that the US has infiltrated the rest of the world's culture for so long now couldn't Europe have just this one, just this once, if it came down to it?
2. I'm also 'total'ly frustrated at the continuing employment here of old cultural polarities - 'downtown' vs 'uptown'; Europe vs USA. None of this makes any difference, and very little sense in fact, to the majority of us here in the world that live outside these centres! It's actually kind of insulting for an artist like myself based elsewhere (Australia, actually) to be continually left out of the mainstream debate in this way. I daresay I feel just like 'downtown' composers feel about the 'establishment'; even within this microcosm of musical debate there is constant exclusion and inclusion.
[By the way, Kyle, love your work. I visit this site daily and have just ordered your new book! Should take a while to arrive, though, being all the way 'down under' n' all ... ]

Copyright 2006 by Kyle Gann

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