Echoic mimicry is a concept in social interaction research, which had been appropriated by artist Paul Carter to describe situations of cross-cultural encounter. In this context it refers to cases where mishearing is directed right back at the speaking subject, which the subject mimics, which in turn contributes towards the speaking subject’s sense of self. Think: mispronunciation of your non-English language name by native English-speaking friends which, over time, after repeated attempts at correcting their mispronunciations, becomes the way you refer to yourself, but not without a sense of humor. In the following, I present three inter-connected cases of echoic mimicries.
English statesman Sir John Barrow was a member of the Macartney Embassy - the first British embassy to China - from 1792 to 1794. In 1804, Barrow published a travelogue that chronicled some of the more curious observations during his short residence at the imperial court in Peking, as well as the rest of the nation. In this book, Barrow included a transcription of an “air” in praise of the flower Moo-Lee, which was said to have been one of the “most popular songs in the whole country.” This was not the first time that the British public had encountered this tune from China. Another version of it had, in fact, appeared in print some eight years before Barrow’s publication. This earlier version of Molihua was published by composer Karl Kambra. In Kambra’s publication, the Molihua melody was accompanied by an original harpsichord harmonization that was added to appeal to contemporary English tastes. Barrow was critical of Kambara’s version of Molihua and considered it inauthentic. Harmonization belonged to the “refined arts of European music,” noted Barrow, while Chinese melodies were plain and monophonic:
“A Chinese band generally plays, or endeavors to play, in unison, and sometimes an instrument takes the octave; but they never attempt to play in seperate parts, confining their art to the melody only, if I may venture to apply a name of so much sweetness to an aggregation of harsh sounds. They have not the least notion of counterpoint, or playing in parts: an invention indeed to which the elegant Greeks had not arrived, and which seems to have been unknown in Europe as well as Asia, until the monkish ages.”
Barrow’s comment on the harshness of Chinese instruments was meant to be read as a subjective judgement call. In contrast, the use of harmony presented itself objectively as a measurement of refinement, of knowledge, and of progress. This notion of harmonic sophistication as a sign of progress is one of the most enduring narratives of Western music. The said narrative goes something like this: the primitive monophonic textures of liturgical chant and folk melodies of antiquity gave way to the development of polyphony in the middle ages, which approached maturity during the Renaissance, and reached its zenith in the work of J. S. Bach. Bach’s ingenuity in harmonic innovation led numerous contemporary commentators to draw parallels between him and Isaac Newton, and by extension between harmony and rationality. This perception of the composer in turn helped to establish the archetypical model of the learned musician as a pseudo-scientist-mathematician, a model that will influence musicians in the centuries that followed. We read in 1801 the following assessment:
“The name of Johann Sebastian Bach radiates supremely and sublimely above those of all German composers in the first half of the past century. He embraced with Newton's spirit everything that has hitherto been thought about harmony [composition] and that has been presented as examples thereof, and he penetrated its depths so completely and felicitously that he must be justly regarded as the lawmaker of genuine harmony, which is valid up to the present day.”
And in August 1750, only days after Bach's death, another commentator wrote:
“...Assuming the harmonies of this great man were so complex that they would not always achieve the intended result, they nevertheless serve for the connoisseur's genuine delight. Not all learned people are able to understand a Newton, but those who have progressed far enough in profound science so they can understand him will find the greater gratification and real benefit in reading his work.”
For Barrow, the absence of harmony was what deprived the music of China the Newtonian spirit of innovation and rationality, which at the same time was also the feature that bestowed upon his version of Molihua a feeling of exotic authenticity - a textbook case of Orientalist Othering.
Looking carefully at the Barrow’s Molihua transcription however, one immediately notices several peculiarities in the lyrics, which, according to Taiwanese ethnomusicologist Huang Yi-Long, were clearly cases of mistranslation caused by misheading. For instance, in the last stanza of the song, 看花人罵 (transcribed as “kan wha jin ma”), which should have been “the watcher of the flowers / (will) scold (me),” was mistranslated into “the flower seen / men will envy.” Elsewhere, the character 待, which in its pre-modern form should be taken as being equivalent to the character 欲 (“to desire”), was misheard as the tonally-similar character 戴 (“to wear”). One could only hope that Barrow’s source was more careful when transcribing the melody itself. When compared to several other surviving transcriptions of the Molihua melody - including a 1821 version in traditional Gongche notation, a 1831 Japanese publication that referred to a tune by the same title that was said to have been brought to Japan by merchants during the Edo period, Barrow’s version was notedly different in both melodic contour and rhythm, while the three “Chinese” versions resemble each other relatively more closely. The commonly circulated modern version of Molihua melody in Greater China, however, resemble Barrow’s version instead of that of the three “Chinese” sources. One possible cause for this is the enormous commercial success of Barrow’s travelogue, which within several years was translated into Dutch and French, and possibly also other European languages, which in turn might have led to the tune being brought back into China in subsequent European embassies. The fact that Chinese music scholarship has traditionally been plagued by the problem of a lack of reliable sources certainly might have contributed to this - who knows. Regardless, the fact remains that it is an English mishearing of Molihua that now constitutes the song’s identity, and by extension, a nation's musical self-perception.
So, is there anything wrong per se with this curious state of affairs - is there an ethical problem somewhere? Has history been misrepresented, has cultural capital been exploited, does there exist a sinister colonial past that stands stubbornly uncorrected? Only if you are actually in the opinion that these events somehow render the commonly-circulated version of Molihua less “authentic” as a cultural symbol. And this, you should really only care, if you are, like Barrow was, trying to sell more books.
I cradled the word “authentic” with quotation marks because we are not talking about literal correctness. We are firmly in the realm of mimetic meta-fiction. Correctness, the paltriest of all virtues, is something to demand of students, not artists. The strange genealogy of Molihua is instructive for you and me both because it reminds us that none of us possesses the ability to hear our voice from outside of ourselves, and so hearing through somebody else’s ear canal - if there ever existed such a thing - might be the only way out of your own fucking head.
In Hong Kong (and in many parts of post-open-door-policy China), the ridiculously romantic and easy-listening world of Kenny G-que pop, which in North America is officially known as “Adult Contemporary (AC),” have become associated with commerce, which is not all that surprising given that its rise coincided with the expansion of the multinational music industry into Asia. And in the same way that commerce cannot be contained, this mutated strain of localized AC also cannot be contained - since 1989, Kenny G’s Going Home has occupied a special status of being the unofficial closing songs for malls, department stores, health clubs, and other commercial premises all over China. AC is also the musical genre of choice for the depiction of sexually suggestive scenes, and the liberal lifestyle of the Western-educated upper middle-class on TV and in films: the immensely popular Hong Kong legal drama series, the File of Justice, which was first aired in 1992, featured as its theme a Dire Straits song, but with all of its vocals and any harmonization that is crunchier than a dominant 7th taken out, thus turning it into a sort of harmonious, unthreatening, Kenny G-que, musical wallpaper. (A side note: if Kenny G is the royalty of AC then Celion Dion is its reigning queen - both of them have performed arrangements of Molihua that have become hugely popular in China.)
The curious thing about AC is that while in North America its softest variant had waned in popularity and had largely been superseded by AC hybrid-subgenres, it never really “went out of vogue” in Hong Kong in the sense that it maintained its artistic relevance and dominance over the airwaves. The soundscape of some of the most recent Cantopop - built with newer synth banks that shine like justice - may feel more contemporary, but there is no mistaking to my ears that they are, at their cores, formalistically, unabashingly sentimental AC ballads. The difference between AC in America and in Hong Kong today is this: in America, AC critics readily and justifiably dismiss the softest of ACs as self-consciously middle-of-the-road, unthreatening and inauthentic, and any surge in mainstream popularity in AC will be described in terms of a “revital.” In Hong Kong, AC managed to retain its potentiality to be sincere: even the edgiest of Cantopop acts have been known to mix more adventurous offerings with a dose of sentimental AC. Like democracy in its pure form, what we have is a strain of AC that is forever young, that is relentlessly committed to the preservation of its integrity, a commitment that has, in turn, produced a new form that is immune to mutating into a caricature of itself. This strain of Hong Kong AC will drive more than a few of my educated American and European friends up the wall. All that said, all that being true - what if I just can’t get enough of AC - what does it say about me, and the wasted years of advanced musical training that failed to unchain my ear from sweet AC hold? Further, what if something that is perceived by you as “period” (yet not old enough to be authentic) is (unconsciously) perceived by me as being a signpost for a sort of “liberal-contemporary-aspirational-feeling,” which, also turns out to be the very thing that constitutes my sense of self? What if the pure form of AC that is being held up on a pedestal is, in fact, musically-speaking, the most Hong Kong thing that one could ever hope to encounter? Should this give you pause, should you be disappointed? Only if you are, like Barrow was, trying to sell more books. My hideously clumsy report on the current state of musical affairs in Hong Kong may be more elegantly summarized with Zizek’s Santa Claus analogy on “the Other’s knowledge,” which goes like this: parents obviously don’t believe in Santa, but neither do the children: the children are just playing along because they believe that they will incur some social cost for violating the expectations of the Others, who believes in Santa in their place. I.e., the Children don’t want to be party poopers.
Anyway, all that was just to impress upon you that I didn’t grow up listening to regional opera or Chinese instrumental music, not on the radio, not on the television, not anywhere. So imagine the cognitive dissonance I experienced when I was confronted with, for the first time, what claimed to be 7th century Chinese music during an Asian Music undergraduate seminar. Togaku is a sub-genre of Japanese Court Music that refers to music that's been imported into Japan from China during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907). According to traditional view held by Japanese court musicians, present-day Togaku represents a perfectly preserved inheritance that has not changed in a thousand years, which is to say, present day Togaku is largely identical to music from the Tang Imperial Court. Togaku is an exquisite and beautiful music that is typified by shimmering and highly dissonant harmony that provides no harmonic progress, and tempi so slow that all sense of passing time is held in suspension. As for its romantic claim of a perfectly preserved cultural inheritance, musicologists have already established that no known form of medieval Chinese melody resembles the melodic features of present-day Togaku. The curious thing is that if you took away all the tone-cluster harmonization that gives Togaku its characteristic dissonant sound, and perform this stripped-down version of Togaku at a sufficiently quick tempo for a melodic sense to emerge, then the result would yield melodies that bear resemblance to the known corpus of medieval Chinese music. The trouble is, we have no reliable primary musical sources that would tell us what Tang Court music really sounded like. So somebody elses’ mishearing is all you’ve got.
How would one go about reconstructing this “lost” music? Turns out, the moment you try to do that, “the Other’s knowledge” gets in the way. Rujing Huang, a doctoral student in ethnomusicology from Harvard, wrote an interesting report on the court music (Yayue in Chinese) “revital” movement in Beijing, which has turned to Togaku, specifically, its complex modal harmony, as a model. It is generally held that traditional Chinese musical works are monophonic. But the yayue revivalists spend considerable effort on the “repatriation” of a Chinese harmonic practice, through speculative theorizing and musical reenactment. According to Huang, the reason behind the revivalists’ emphasis on harmony is twofold: one, to “upgrade China’s image from one of musical primitivism to that of a sophisticated musical hegemon,” to capitalize on the “civilizing force” of harmony (to fight evil with evil); and two, to define a Chinese harmonic practice that differentiates itself from its “Western (tonal) Other” through complex, non-progressing dissonances.
There is something very, very strange going on here in terms of Chinese music’s relationship to the technology of harmony as a symbol of cultural and historical progress. The other half of the harmony as progress narrative, which I omitted earlier, goes like this: Western music became increasingly dissonant throughout the classical and romantic periods, until it reached a breaking point in the music of Richard Wagner, and finally reoriented itself through the new rationality of the 12-tone method that abandoned all sense of harmonic progress. What the court music revivalists managed to achieve, through cherry-picking from music history, is to conjure a story of an ancient hyper-advanced Chinese musical culture - like some Atlantean myth-come-true - where the court musicians of Tang achieved in the 7th century what the second Viennese school of composers had only managed to achieve at the turn of the 20th century. The only problem with this narrative is that historically-speaking, the exact opposite was true: Huang noted that in a 1996 study, Chinese musicologist Zuo Jicheng traced the historical transformation of harmonic practices in China, and concluded that the trajectory is one of constant simplification of dissonant harmonies towards consonance, until it evolved into a strictly consonant harmonic model in the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1912). Now, what sort of anti-hegemonic grand narrative can you build with that?
See? This shit is real. You can’t win. Authentic, true, natural – these are big words that he slaps your face with when he ran out of things to say about the thing itself. He will pick an arbitrary point in time, twenty or forty or a hundred or a thousand years ago, and declare it the Urtext. And you play com'e scritt. What is one to do?
Beautiful accidents of history, these things, they just are - the only good and bad things are people’s various judgements in the face of what it is. In the opening scenes of Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul, we see the Indian protagonist being dressed ceremonially in preparation for a presentation of gift to his colonizer. When Abdul pointed out to the dresser that a belt is not normatively a part of the traditional attire, the dresser insisted that its addition contributed to the costume’s authenticity. Yes, unequal power is at play, and so on and so forth and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Hey, nice try, but you would never ascend above and beyond the role of a good student, a model minority, with that as your rebuttal. Besides, never repay evil with evil - you are better than that. Try instead to think of that belt as a communal invention, as a strange (“special”) but beautiful glitch that we share. The dresser was just playing adlib if you think about it. I rather think this is exactly how things ought to be, all the time, and everywhere.
Note: this short essay was written in response to a series of public lectures curated by Taipei-based curator Jau-lan Guo and supported by the Spring Foundation, which took place in Taipei in March 2018. The title of the series was Sound Matters and carried the subtitle "What Does Sound Want."
0. I am supposed to be asking what sound art wants, in the same way that one could fantasize about what domesticated animals want or deliberate upon a bucket’s secret aspirations.
1. Yoko Ono once remarked in an interview, and here I am paraphrasing, that the history of Western music can be divided into BC [Before Cage] and AC [After Cage].
2. I underlined the descriptor Western to remind us all that we are talking about a very specific kind of music history under a very specific kind of cultural-historical circumstances. I fully accept this condition. I get real tired of people who pretend that they don’t already accept this. OK now that this is out of the way, we may continue.
3. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Cage got it all wrong with Eastern philosophy. Though, I do have some very specific things to say about how he confusingly smuggled what amounted to a modernist notion of authorship into the ancient divination practices of I-Ching, and by doing so, essentially neutralizing the most radical thing that it can say about concert hall’s version ego-centric subjectivity – but I will save that for another time.
3 ½. The sort of tendency [as encapsulated by the Yoko Ono quote] to declare what Georgina Born terms a “disciplinary year zero” vis-à-vis an unexamined and unequivocal celebration of Cage has not been helpful for artists, curators, or scholars interested in talking about and making sound art.
4. Much of Cage’s project has to do with challenging the pedestal on which the European composers of the Canon stood, as well as the unbroken musical lineage that the European modernists claimed. So why are we turning him into a demi-god? Why is sound art institutionalizing a competing but parallel Canon of directly descended sonic royalties, which by the way included only a handful of token Asians?
5. At this moment in time, nobody has really any idea what we are talking about when we call something sound art. I am not convinced that that’s an urgent question [not yet – but there will come a time in the near future when sound art is finally institutionalized, where we would have achieved level of arrogant certainly about what it is, at which point it would be at least fun to talk about definitions again, but until then, I digress]. Though, for something that has proven to be so difficult to pin down, there are certainly no lack of dogmas surrounding it.
6. A certain contingent of the sound art community [not a small one] is plagued by a sort of idealization of sound art’s medium-specificity [i.e., an insistence that sound art is defined by the primacy of the material of sound, and therefore practices that dilute the purity of the material’s condition fail as sound art], as well as a reactive rejection of and break with music [i.e., what Brian Kane termed “musicophobia”]. Douglas Barrett thinks that sound art isin fact our good old friend absolute music reincarnated in the contemporary art context (Barrett 2018). I think Barrett got many things right, and he was certainly correct in calling out the culturally conservative and artistically regressive tendencies of the variant of sound art that idealizes the auditory, as though the sense of hearing occupies an ethically superior position.
6 ½. Let me make another disclaimer. Barrett is [and we are also] talking about a very specific kind of practice, which is the sort of sound art that circulates within the contemporary art context, and are enabled by the institutional, economical and curatorial structures of contemporary art. That is not to say however that strange and beautiful things are not happening in the concert halls of Darmstadt, New York, or Hong Kong; or that a pristinely produced LP of a field recording of the Peruvian rainforest is not in itself radical – it absolutely can be. But these are relatively stable moments in that we think that we know how to create, process, consume or ignore these events and practices. But the real perplexing moment comes when somebody puts that Peruvian rainforest recording in a white cube and calls it an installation, however unqualified that claim might appear. Given the context in which this piece of writing will appear, I assume that this is what you are interested in –
6 ¾. – what’s in it for you, what sound art can do for you. You are not really expecting me to [though, I hasten to add, I would thoroughly enjoy doing so] to break an analytical sweat and perform a close-reading of the field recordings from For Whom the Bell Tolls, are you?
7. Where Barrett got it a bit wrong, however, is to equate sound art with absolute music vis-à-vis their insistence on autonomous sound. The picture is much more fucked up than that.
7 ½. Allow me to elaborate: autonomous sound as an ideal, which bestowed upon music its status as the highest of all arts in the romantic era [a status that still persists in the classical concert hall of today], has its roots in enlightenment thinking, and the Kantian aesthetic of the disinterested judgement of taste, where beautiful objects appear to be “purposive without purpose.” But note that this aesthetic judgement is not in itself medium-specific: we could imagine for instance a musical experience, a “mental free play” that is derived from the comprehension of the objecthood of music, which resides in music’s “text-proper,” i.e., the score. This obsession with the score-as-text, and by extension, as embodiment of musical essence is at the core of what Lydia Goehr terms “the imaginary museum of musical works.” One could argue till the cows come home whether or the aesthetic judgement in question constitute an actual musical experience [and that, paradoxically, is where we might encounter the most hardcore proponents of medium-specificity, the sonic-dogmatist], point being that the act [of unsounding, of silent contemplation of music] does not in itself undermine the said judgement’s commitment to formalism. In other words, if we took Kantian logic to its extreme conclusion, we would have already arrived at a place where “music could become untethered from sound as an autonomous medium, left, at an extreme, without sound” (Barrett 2018).
8. It is not medium-specificity that’s getting the resuscitation in sound art, me thinks, but aesthetic formalism, and more specifically, a particular variant of formalism that contemporary art [if we imagined contemporary art to be an upper-middle class, cosmopolitan, and left-leaning art professional who is well-versed in the insights of the European intellectual tradition] could still live with. Formalism [if we imagined formalism to be an older man with bad hair who embodies the very essence of intellectual conservativism] has never really totally left us. It’s been trying to make a comeback for years under various guises. In music, a more traditional configuration of formalism has been banished to a ghetto of the classical concert hall that is otherwise known as new music – that’s not what we are interested in. What is so special about this new and more palatable version of formalism?
9. Let us make a detour and talk about poetry [bear with me, there is a good reason for this]. Neo-formalism or new formalism in poetry had a brief moment in the United States and the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. Neo-formalist poets privileged metrical artifice, stylization, and above all, musicality – poetry as a ritual language and an “aural technique,” as a formal exploration that is “separated from everyday speech by its incantatory metrical form” (Gioia 1987).
10. Literary scholars and poets alike had been quick to react against a perceived conservative tendency in neo-formalism, at various times calling it “a dangerous nostalgia,” “literary fascism,” “essentialism,” and “[a privileging of] white Anglo-Saxon rhythms and culture” (Sadoff 1990). Neo-formalist poets had also been criticized for using language as a vehicle for establishing cultural authenticity, to signal that “one is on a serious journey among [Canonized] artists” (Dawson 1985). At times, it was aesthetic formalism that was explicitly being contended with:
“The dissociation of sound, sense, and intellect, then reminds us of the danger of art in fin de siècle, the danger of appreciating esthetic beauty formally and thematically, at the cost of the observed, sensory, disturbingly contingent world. As Charles Simic ironically writes, in his World War II poem, Travelling Slaughterhouse: ‘When I close my eyes everything is so damn pretty.’ Closing our eyes while opening our ears create a myopic, unimaginative poetry” (Sadoff 1990).
10 ½. Are the neo-formalists conservative, positivist, and therefore regressive? Probably in some ways, many ways, but to be fair they never demanded a demonstration of correctness of poetic form, like a colonial ruler demands correct grammar of his subjects, but formal innovation [albeit in their terms; that said, to his credit, at least Gioia acknowledged that many of the most important formal innovations in the English language, such as the haiku, were the results of non-Western imports]. Postmodern radical subjectivity placed the free play of form under a kind of ban, or at the very least, made it really uncool. The position can be summed up thus: “to be true to the irreducible uniqueness of personal experience entails avoiding predetermined forms and discursive structures” (Shapiro 1993).
11. So why am I telling you all of this? Well, if our [let me momentarily exclude myself from the plural here] agenda as scholars, artists and curators of sound art is to undo the “great audio-visual divide” (Feld 1996), to open our eyes while keeping our ears open, to the ultimate end of re-centralizing criticality in musical, sonic and compositional practices – if this very specific thing is what we want, then I say we are already there: that’s exactly what sound art had managed to achieve since the time of its popularization as a descriptor of a loose set of practices in the contemporary art context, despite its numerous instances of identity crisis and ontological confusion [note that I am not saying that’s what sound art is, but commenting on what it does]. The battle has already been won, if that’s your fight.
12. But here is a caveat: in the process of realigning sound and music with the some of the progressive agenda of contemporary art, sound art has also managed to smuggle into the white-walled space its own version of neo-formalism as at least one among many valid and current avenues for artistic exploration. Examples abound: I am thinking about the pure sonic shapes of Bernard Leitner, of the contrapuntal and interweaving lines of Cardiff’s 40 Piece Motet, of Susan Philipsz’ voluminous bath of voice as sculptural form, of Ed Osborn’s Sidewinder and other sonic-architectural devices, of all of the abstract multi-channel sound composition that’s ever been produced for and played/exhibited/listened-to/looked-at in a gallery, and of that Peruvian rainforest field recording-as-installation.
13. So should we be alarmed? Should we be weary of sound art’s conservative agenda, its assumptions, its celebration of received forms [can you tell I really don’t care?]
Interlude: a self-interview.
Samson Young 1: What was the first thing that came to mind when you were asked to derive a text for this very specific thing in a set of very specific circumstances?
Samson Young 2: That it sways with the wind – which I think is possibly a cliché, though that’s really how I remembered it. But memories can be deceptive. Maybe it didn’t sway with the wind, maybe it did. But I never saw it and I just assumed that it did so. Maybe my assumption is a romantic notion, a pre-set of the mind, an effigy of the real thing. I can also cause it to sway of course by pushing it, and I did push it around, that I do remember. But is a swaying that is independent of my intervention more honest, truthful, purposeful and good?
SY1: We are talking about a thing, and the way the thing acts upon the world. Why do you invoke categories and judgements of a different order?
SY2: People start invoking notions such as honesty and integrity when they run of out things to say about the thing itself.
SY1: What is the thing itself?
SY2: Well, it depends on what you mean by the thing. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe myself a formalist, though I do enjoy a good close reading, the sort of analysis that breaks a sweat.
SY1: Stop deflecting my questions with fancy quasi-philosophical foot works.
SY2: Yes, but if I am having fun deflecting your questions tell me why I should stop. What do you want from me?
SY1: I want you to stop dancing around the thing and start engaging it. Let us for a moment focus on your physical relationship with the thing. How do/would you interact with the thing?
SY2: I probably shouldn’t push the thing so hard that it caned myself or somebody else in the face – that’s just abusive, and being abusive is never good, and I’d learnt the hard way, but that’s really the only rule.
SY1: Okay, we are getting somewhere. Go on. More?
SY2: I brush my fingertips across the line that the thing forms. Cold, hard, glossy surfaces. I push a few against their will and I observe as they bounce back. Resilient things they are. What lessons do swaying metallic bamboo poles teach me? Do the thing instructs us to be principled, stubborn, or unyielding?
SY1: Here we go again. I’ve had enough of your stuff theory.
SY2: But it’s important, no? What is the formalistic tendencies of cynicism in the thing? Am I mindful of the exploitative tendencies of the material that constitutes the thing?
SY1: I am not saying these are not important things to think about. I just don’t know how they are relevant to our discussion of the thing in question.
SY2: Well, form is how something is put together, relationship among its parts. So, if the thing is the sum of its materials and their effects upon the world, then in the act of engagement I became one with the thing, and by extension, its form. But we are talking about a specific kind of relationship – the pushing, the swaying and the caning. It's not like I am falling in love with the thing, so I guess it makes little sense to speak of a loving or abusive relationship with the thing, no?
14. “If forms always contain and confine, and if it is impossible to imagine societies without forms, then the most strategic political action will not come from revealing or exposing illusion, but rather from a careful, nuanced understanding of the many different and often disconnected arrangements that govern social experience” (Levine 2015).
15. I will end on a hunch that I cannot qualify: the neo-formalism that sound art has smuggled into the gallery space is not the earnest and naïve nostalgia for enlightenment that marked the post-cold war era out of which it emerged. It is, rather, a mourning of the bankruptcy of pure forms as an aspiration, within which is already a full awareness of its utter unattainability – something Seth Brodsky might call an “unconscious fantasy of form” (2017). It is not the act of crafting of form that is being celebrated, but the purity of a kind of crafting that is in spite of itself, a staging of its own negation that doubles as a celebration of its lack. An ethical play between the tolerance for ambiguity, and a hunger for clarity. The effigy and after image of form. A parapraxis, not a praxis. A sideway nod. The thing that sound art doesn’t know that it wants.
Note: this text was written in the aftermath of but not entirely related to the exhibition One Hand Clapping at the Guggenheim in New York curated by Xiaoyu Weng and Hao Hanru which I was also a part of.
The only language that I speak with no detectable foreign accent is Cantonese - that probably makes it my mother tongue if you insisted that I had one. My Mandarin is pretty respectable also, but there is a Taiwanese-Mandarin accent in there. I have also been told that my English is a perplexing mix of mostly Hong Kong-English accent, a tiny bit of British that is only detectable when I am tired, an American accent when I try to sound impressive and intellectual, all mixed with the a small dash of the wider "A" sound of Australian English. I honesty don't remember how these different sounds became embodied - it probably has something to do with the music I listened to, or the TV I watched. But if you think that my clinging onto (or inability to shed) what little British is left in my speech is indicative of anything beyond the company that I keep, then you have an over-active aural imagination. I hear none of these things. I have never heard my voice from outside of my head.
Speaking of over-thinking things - in China, many foreigners learn to speak Mandarin, which I think is admirable, but it is also a necessity - it just makes living easier. In Hong Kong however, the majority of my non-native Hong Kong friends lived for decades comfortably in the city without knowing a word of Cantonese. We in Hong Kong happily converse with our foreigner friends in English, or increasingly also in Mandarin. But you are thinking too much if you thought this flexibility betrayed a lack, a weak mind that is too ready to yield. Historically, Hong Kong is a port city. In trade, nobody wants to be misunderstood because it means a potential loss of business. So we are just being pragmatic.
And if we too willingly spoke English or Mandarin to you, instead of Cantonese, my non-Cantonese speaking friend, it's only because we are a hospitable people. It is not a pledge of allegiance. That said, when I am tired, my friend, you will always detect an accent. When the mind wanders, grammatical errors or incoherent logics or mis-pronounced words creep up behind me, like an effigy of a former pre-linguistic self, a version of me before the trauma of becoming a model minority, or a reasonable merchant.
0. A great many musical traditions do without the need for notation. But notation remains a relevant question so long as we are not ready to relinquish entirely the notion of authorship.
1. Musical notation is a system of signs as ideologies. Like all systems, the system of musical notation includes and excludes, sets boundaries, makes judgements.
2. Here's why musical notation matters politically: it remains one of the most effective instrument for "universalizing beliefs so as to render them self-evident and apparently inevitable" (Eagleton, 1991).
3. Notation is not just visualization. Notation is gnostic.
4. When we speak of notation we refer specifically to the structure of the system of sign. Score refers to an instance of the operative logic of notation, its directives. Score is summoned and willed into being. Something (signs, objects, movements, texts) is a score because somebody meant for it to be read as a score. In John Cage’s Music for Carillon pieces of plywood are willed into a score. Cage had no intention of sharing his authorship.
5a. Notation does not need to result in an action, which is to say, function as a score. The reserve is possible. Other operative logics are equally probable. Notation as transcription is particularly under-explored.
5b. To compose is to transcribe sonic imagination, and to quantize such an imagination according to the priorities of the system of notation in question.
5c. To be more specific: the western musical notation system eliminates surplus information to maximize efficiency. Efficiency is defined thus: unobstructed transmission, preservation, and promotion of values congenial to the system in question. In an ideal universe that does not exist, everyone will be making their own system of musical notation, and we will teach it to each other.
6. The elimination of surplus information is violence disguised as resolution.
7. We now demand a higher level of communicative nuance than that which the western system of musical notation could afford. In the same way that "satellite vision" of the earth from outer-space has fundamentally changed the way we imagine our habitat, "computational hearing" and computer sound analysis has also irreversibly altered the way we hear the world. Spectrograms are constant reminders that listening is always only an aspiration.
8. Consider Messiaen's bird song transcriptions. Messiaen did the best that he could with the tool that was available to him. Rhythm and pitches were the priorities. Certain things have to give. Now we can capture a bird song, loop it, and zoom into its spectral content with sound analysis softwares.
9. John Cage once said of his drawings: they had to be like music. He promised Schoenberg that he would be faithful to music, even in his drawings. What does it mean to be faithful to music? For Cage, I think this meant that whatever he did in the visual realm, he operated in compositional terms, as opposed to musical terms.
10. Everyone can think in musical terms. I have taught children to describe musical shapes and lines with their bodies, and to represent these shapes in drawings. They are incredibly good at it. To think in musical terms is to describe what music is. But if you tried to do this you end up with statements of the most general nature.
11. Music is lines, shapes, patterns, repetitions, relationships, tensions, relaxations – all of these wonderful things. But the real mystery is the way that these forces work together to build the structures of sonic time.
12. You see this very clearly when you look at a Kandinsky. Kandinsky is sensitive to the building blocks of music. He describes them in very general terms. There is immense visual beauty in that description.
13. But if you tried to force a Kandinsky into music it would make little sense compositionally. Musicians have attempted this translation with varying degrees of success. I don’t see the point in it, but on the rare occasion that this works compositionally, it is always the result of the excellent compositional imagination on the musician's part.
14. I once tried to explain to somebody the reason behind my choice of color for a certain sound in my sound drawings. I soon realized that this is an impossible conversation. How do I make you hear C major as a light, transparent yellow? I have no interest in forcing my ear upon yours. What we could agree on, however, is the idea of hearing in colors, and that there is a consistency to the structure of this peculiar experience that is specific to the individual.
15. Here, effective communication seems improbable, but I have always thought that communication is over-rated. What we need instead is an awareness of other consciousnesses, and a sympathy for their many peculiar predicaments.
16. We use words like rhythm, balance, timbre, color across forms of art. This desire to share a common set of vocabularies are symptomatic of common energies, not structures.
17. We could all agree on the universality of the magnitude a loud percussive noise. Or the urgency of an accelerando rhythmic pattern. A motif of few pitches, however, is already culturally-specific.
18. Representation of energies are prelinguistic communicative acts.
19. Meanwhile, Cardew's Treatise is "an attempt to embody the way people actually experience structure in music" (Tilbury, accessed 2015).
20. In Treatise Cardew accompanished a perfect balance between pre-existing symbols and invented semiology. It breaks free, but is not impenetrable. It is a heroic act of resistance against a suppressive and obsolete system of signs.
21. Treatise is the most magical as an unfulfilled interpretative dance that happens only in the mind and never in an actual musical performance. I find the irresistible urge to make comparison - to "verify" a gesture - to be a distraction.
0. Stop telling me to stop dichotomizing the East and the West. I am not done yet. Stop delegitimizing my site of resistance. Somebody else's version of permeability always wins, and then I get pushed to keep moving along, when my lived reality is actually anchored unless I'm pushed or pulled.
1. What does it mean to reproduce the institutions of classical music outside of the West today? What does it mean for an Asian composer to write an "opera," a "symphony," or a "bagatelle" - how does one gain admission into this very specific history of music making, and at what price? Without adequate answers to these questions, contemporary music of the concert hall tradition in Asia will continue to be the farce that it is today. Whether it is stated explicitly or not, the question is always one of inclusion into or exclusion from musical high culture.
2. How is the "museum of musical works" (Goehr) legetimized outside of the West? The universality of music is a lie. It is a lie that has been re-invented by the music industry to legitimatize the dominance of one kind of musical expression over all others.
3. While transnationalism, hybridity, agency and individualism are all useful frameworks, they do not fully explain the persistent attachment to real or imagined cultural identities.
4. We might theorize about a transnational composer, but where is a truly transnational music to be found? Transnationalism ignores the rich contradictions that activate the act of border crossing in the first place: the lived reality is that people stay mostly in one place unless pushed or pulled in another direction (Dirlik). Transnationalism is dangerously suppressive, it renders individual voices indistinct.
5. Meanwhile, post-colonialism has lost its currency and creditability. Its language has lost potency. How does one stage an effective resistance today? Fanon's question must be asked anew: how does one protest in the language of one's perpetrators?
6. The previous generation of Asian composers demanded the world's attention through self-Orientalizing. They became local informants. It is easy to put on a performative masquerade of the picturesque when the world is watching, but it is not always up to you to take it off when the audience becomes fixated.
7. In the context of musical inter-culturation today, certain identity positions are still more desirable than others. If our goal is to reaffirm Chinese composers’ position as individuals, then instead of turning away from cultural politics, we should take a fresh look at the operation of socio-cultural discourse in contemporary Chinese compositions. In particular, we must confront our general reluctance to deal with Chinese composers’ agency and their newfound power in the age of the post-picturesque.
8. Today, Chinese composers are certainly more than just Chinese, “Eastern,” or Oriental. Ethnic artists are undeniably respected agents with individual artistic impulses. But now that these points are self-evident, where do we go from here? Chinese composers might have found their voices, but are they speaking in their own version of a transnational language? If not, then what are the operational logics of Chineseness, under the new circumstances brought about by globalization?
9. John Cage's project has failed Asia. While his philosophies are fully absorbed into the history of art, his music has been swept aside and into the dustbins of musical history. The institutions of the music continue to neglect and negate. Composers outside of the West are invisible in their own concert halls. Meanwhile, the downtown has become the new uptown.
10. Debunking the “East Meets West” binary involves not only a destabilization of the essentialized concept of the East, but also an equally rigorous interrogation of the essentialized concept of the West. We must begin by confronting the very language with which we describe the auditory and the act of composition.
11. What does it mean to "orchestrate" and to "compose"? Could one orchestrate and compose without reproducing the power structures that are implicit in these terminologies? What is the new silence, the new decay, the new reverb, and the new resonance?
12. Music is a system of relationships. Musical notation is a system of symbols as signs as power. How do we revive the mystical and metaphorical power of notation?
13. How does one live outside of one's own musical training and auditory conditioning? Could one hear one's voice outside of one's body?
14. We need to think of the classical concert hall as a “cross-cultural contact zone” (Ang) and a designated space of fantasy. Within such a cross-cultural contact zone, essentialization of the “West” serves two pragmatic purposes – to enable participation, and to allow marginalized groups to temporarily reclaim cultural spaces in a very privileged site within the dominant culture itself.
15. The act of composing therefore must be understood as “cross-cultural free play.” Gestures of appropriation are detached from the origin to which they refer, becoming acts of reconfiguration and misconfiguration. This is in line with what Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence calls “creative misreading” – the way by which a poet clears imaginative space for oneself through deliberately and creatively misreading a precursor. For example, to declare a work an "opera” is to acknowledge an art form and its contradicting set of histories, conventions and assumptions, to give opera a “nod.” But it is also to give oneself permission to misread, misinterpret and reinterpret, and by doing so, reclaim opera as ones own. Through the act of creative misreading, marginality and centrality may be re-imagined, albeit temporarily.
16. How does one resist the demon without giving the demon one's thoughts?