BY Björn Gottstein in Profiles | 07 AUG 11
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Issue 2

Strg+Alt+Entf – Der Computer und die Avantgarde

On the controversial role of digitization in New Music

BY Björn Gottstein in Profiles | 07 AUG 11

Johannes Kreidler at the 100° Berlin-Festival, 2008

People were already starting to ask themselves whether contemporary art music had finally decided to make itself completely ridiculous. If a full-blown debate on music and the computer can still flare up in the year 2010, the participants can only really be provincials without any idea about the subject. So when Harry Lehmann, the Berlin-based philosopher of music, published a text invoking a few of the remaining untapped possibilities of computerization, he was probably astonished to see it trigger a debate that lasted for months on end in New Music journals, principally MusikTexte, positionen and Musik & Ästhetik. Admittedly, Lehmanns visions of the future were badly overdone. It was to be expected that the idea of a Ferneyhoughizator or a Nonoisator facilitat­ing the automatic production of works in the manner of famous composers at the push of a button was never going to be met with enormous amounts of enthusiasm by composers who otherwise insist on authenticity and stylistic sovereignty.

Lehmann's text also contained a number of daring theses and evidently untenable propositions regarding a future in which all areas of musical life will be given over to the machine and in which even the musicians profession is ear-marked for decline. It was probably also only on a whim that the composer Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf who is renowned neither for his sense of humour nor for his conciliatory attitude published a solemn and polemical reply in which he refused to tolerate this sort of thing, warned of the decline of the West and, incidentally, mentioned that his own work only employs computers as musical symbols of dehumanization. And when the Berlin composer Johannes Kreidler also chimed in, taking sides with Lehmann in praising the digital revolution, things ran their course. Still, the book that emerged out of this, Musik, Ästhetik, Digitalisierung. Eine Kontroverse (Music, Aesthetics, Digitization. A Controversy, 2010), includes a lot of material worth reading.

One should also be aware that Kreidler is a composer who does in fact adhere to Lehmann's longed-for technical Utopia with a certain degree of tenacity. He originally came to prominence in 2008 by registering 70,200 separate samples at the copyright authorities for a piece lasting 33 seconds and driving up in a truck to submit the paperwork, each form filled out individually. This was followed in 2009 with the YouTube video Charts Music, for which share prices from the stockmarket crash were fed into Songsmith, Microsofts music software, resulting in a disturbing contradiction between the unbearably good-mood sounds of the software and the tragic downward inclination of the melodies. Kreidler then realized Fremdarbeit (Migrant Work, 2009) by commissioning a freelance composer in China to write a piece for him in his own style. We can safely say that Kreidler had carved out a clear conceptual lead on his former tutor Mahnkopf as far as compositional approaches to media and technology are concerned. When the debate finally matured into book form, it became even more pointed and occasionally downright tasteless, for instance in the shrill accusation of musical onanism. Other authorities got involved. According to Reinhard Oelschlägel, editor of MusikTexte, it was not strictly correct to speak of a digital revolution at all. Proven pioneers of the open-source movement such as Orm Finnendahl underlined the fact that they had been composing with computers for quite a long time.

The remarkable thing is that this rather tired debate which in terms of its positions somehow reeks of the Rock versus Techno discussions of the 1990's still meets with such lively interest on the part of composers, programmers and radio editors. On the one hand, it quickly becomes clear that New Music, standing on the margins of society and fighting off aesthetic stagnation, is longing for a mighty altercation. Hans Werner Henze and Helmet Lachenmann held impassioned debates over the telos of music history in the 1980's. Would it be too much to hope that Mahnkopf, even if his aesthetic position is ready for early retirement, and Kreidler, whose own approaches are often more brazen than consummate, might instigate such a debate again?

On the other hand, the course of the controversy manifested in innumerable conferences, lecture series and essays clearly demonstrated that there is a need for discussion one going way beyond the misunderstandings of generational conflicts. Even if music was hit early and hard by digitization, the field of art music had for a long time shied away from identifying the consequences of its claim to an avant-garde aesthetic. The purely technical questions dealt with in magazines such as Computer Music Journal are not the issue here. Nor is it a matter of banning string quartets. Rather it is question of whether and how New Music can do justice to the experience of the present. There was a discussion in Freiburg recently about whether the computer is actually an instrument. The American composer Dániel Péter Biró openly admitted that he composes on a computer that goes without saying but he nevertheless wishes technology would disappear again. Why that might be desirable was left open.
Translated by Jonathan Blower

Björn Gottstein ist a music journalist living in Berlin.