Future Hymn: Contemplations

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  • The apocalypse won’t come with eternal music

    A-teleological, anti-apocalyptic, eternal music.

    This text is part of “Future Hymn” – an artistic research project by artist Tomas Nordmark.
    It was published on this website October 31st, 2017 – exactly 500 years after Martin Luther published his 95 theses in Wittenberg.

    The Belgian musicologist Wim Mertens argues in his publication ”American Minimal Music” that minimal, or repetitive music (Mertens focuses mainly on the composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass), is a-teleological – ie, without a purpose – as an effect of the non-directness and non-narrative approach in opposition to ”traditional” music:

    ”The traditional work is teleological or end-orientated, because all musical events result in a directed end or synthesis” [1]

    Further on he eloborates:

    ”The music of the American composers of repetitive music can be described as non-narrative and a-teleological. Their music discards the traditional harmonic functional schemes of tension and relaxation and (currently) disapproves of classical formal schemes and the musical narrative that goes with them (formalizing a tonal and/or thematic dialectic).” [2]

    One can argue that the philosophical discipline of teleology might not be the most adequate for this analysis but Mertens comes to an interesting point when he refer to the music critic Ron Rosenbaum who calls the repetitive music anti-apocalyptical as it discards teleological and dramatic elements which is examplified in La Monte Young’s work as he has ”removed finality, the apocalypse, from his music, and what is left is mere duration and stasis, without beginning or end: eternal music.” [3]

    It is an intriguing notion to label music as ”anti-apocalyptical”. Even if Rosenbaum uses the term in a rhetoric metaphorical way, one cannot escape the biblical origin with how the apocalypse was described in the Book of Revelation; as the final end. When Young (who, as many other ”minimalists”, studied and practices Buddhism) describes his music, he uses the term ”eternal music” as it has no beginning nor end.

    It is plausible to ask the simple question if music without purpose (a-teleological) and without time (anti-apocalyptic, eternal music) can be meaningful for the individual listener. First of all, the question somehow makes the answer obsolete; if there is no meaning, how can it then offer meaning? But what one could suggest, is that it shifts focus from the work to the listener, who creates the meaning, or purpose, herself. From no purpose to meaning. John Cage stresses this kind of objectivity in ”Silence” from a composer point of view, to ”provide a music free from one’s memory and imagination[4] and thus leaves the listener to her own ”true” experience. Steve Reich also argues that the importance of his composing process lies in it’s impersonality ”…once the process is set up, it inexorably works itself out…[5]

    To use a term from Deleuze and Guattari’s seminal work ”A Thousand Plateaus”, one can suggest that the a-teleological and anti-apocalyptical music de-territorialize[6] itself from the traditional work by discarding elements such as beginning and end, and set out on a line of flight towards an ephemeral state. In the text ”An Ethnography of Spirituality” Kythe Heller refer to descriptions of the works of another ”minimalist” composer, Estonian Arvo Pärt, that are ”…constant efforts to access the fleeting and the ephemeral, since listening generates the present from the memory of the past and through the anticipation of the future, yet is nevertheless now” [7]

    It is intriguing to move into the works of Arvo Pärt, a devoted Orthodox Christian, with the notion of an anti-apocalyptic music, but one should do so carefully. The compositional techniques carried out by the American minimal composers differs from Pärt’s, though reminiscent in some ways; Pärt’s ”tintinnabuli” technique is for example formed around the repetition of few notes in a simple chord and it’s inversions, but it’s also explained as ”the idea of a sound that is simultaneously static and in flux[8] – a formulation that breaths the same air as La Monte Young’s ”eternal music”. There is a very poetic point to be made here that the works from both Young and Pärt, Buddhist and Orthodox Christian respectively, formulates a similar notion; the apocalypse won’t come with eternal music.

    Tomas Nordmark, London, October 31st 2017

    [1] Wim Mertens, American Minimal Music (Kahn & Averill, 1983), 17.
    [2] Ibid, 17.
    [3] Ibid, 88-89.
    [4] John Cage, Silence (London, Marion Boyars, 1978), 10.
    [5] Wim Mertens, American Minimal Music (Kahn & Averill, 1983), 48.
    [6] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (The Athlone Press, 1988). The concepts of de-territorialization and re-territorialization is present throughout the whole publication.
    [7] Ed. Laura Dolp, Arvo Pärt’s White Light (Cambridge University Press, 2017), 144.
    [8] Eds. Morton and Collins, Contemporary Composers (St James Press, 1992), 729