Transcript for David Stubbs on Experimental Art vs. Experimental Music

Jim Fleming: David Stubbs is the author of “Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don't Get Stockhausen.” In the book, Stubbs argues that Avant-garde music doesn't get the same respect that Avant-garde art enjoys. Stubbs got the idea for the book while he was watching, for what may have been the twelfth time, the 1961 film “The Rebel,” starring the British comedian, Tony Hancock.

David Stubbs: He's kind of this aspiring artist, and he goes to Paris, but he's actually rubbish, but, yeah, awfully kind of Avant-garde there and sort of take it in by him. He thinks he's invented this wonderful, new, infantile school of art. But, you know, in fact, he doesn't really know an awful lot himself. But it occurred to me that, at one point, he sees a piece of abstract Expressionism on somebody's wall, and he sort of goes: “Blimey, he's gone raving mad here, then.”

Fleming: [laughs]

Stubbs: And it occurred to me that the joke really wasn't actually on the piece of art, the joke was on him for not, sort of, appreciating that this qualifies as art. And this is like, you know, what, fifty years ago. Already then, there was a kind of acceptance of contemporary, abstract, non-figurative art as being valid. But still now I find that, you know, the kind of precise, sort of, musical equivalent — Stockhausen or whatever — still completely confounds people and they still consider it risible. They just think, you know, it's just silly plinky-plonky music. So, you know, people sort of feel licensed to be philistine about contemporary music in the way that they've long ceased to be about contemporary art.

Fleming: So, if someone like star of The Rebel were to make that comment about a piece of art, we'd all recognize it as a joke, but if they made it about a piece of Avant-garde music, we would agree with...

Stubbs: Yeah. This is it. I think, you know, for a lot of people, yes, the joke would be on the music, not on the idiot that made the remark.

Fleming: Yeah. It's strange, isn't it, that modern art has somehow managed to achieve acceptance while music is ignored, because they were developed, more or less, the same time, weren't they? They were both born, essentially, in the 1920s.

Stubbs: Yeah, like they both came from a sort of... same sort of wellspring of kind of cultural energy at a certain time the dawn of the 20th century. Yeah, there was a sort of synergy at the time, and people like Schoenberg, Russian Kandinsky the painter, they always, like, recognize each other's kindred spirits. Kandinsky looked at Schoenberg and think: “Well, that's what I'm doing in painting,” and Schoenberg looked at Kandinsky and said, “Yes, and vice versa.” That was how strong the kind of interconnection was. You know, things like Futurism didn't just give rise to a kind of new, dynamic way of looking at art. But also, Luigi Russolo wrote the “Art of Noises” manifesto, which is profoundly influential on the development of 20th century music.

So, yes, initially, there was this kind of very strong interconnection between the two things.

Fleming: Didn't Schoenberg and Kandinsky even promise to work with each other at one point?

Stubbs: They did. They were going to have some sort of synergize event.

Fleming: Actually, I'm beginning to wonder whether we simply haven't listened enough to Avant-garde music. The Avant-garde art is sort of all around us, whereas Avant-garde music is still restricted.

Stubbs: Yeah. It is marginal. I think abstract art is easier to consume. That's one thing. I mean, it's sort of a difficult canvas [unclear] a rough go. You go to, say, the Tate Modern and see something like that or Museum of Modern Art in New York, or whatever, and it's within your field of vision. You can spend as much of your time in front of it as you please. It isn't kind of all-enveloping, you know.

You can spend five minutes in front of it, contemplative, do whatever, you know, art is supposed to do to you, although I'm always slightly doubtful about the idea that art has got an aura and emanates, and that elevating art raises someone to be a better human being — that was another question. But anyway, you can spend just a few minutes in front of it ” it's within your field of vision. Music, of course, it's not like that. In music, say, in a piece by Stockhausen, you might be there for ninety minutes; you're in for the long haul.

Fleming: Right.

Stubbs: It's [Sigmandian].

Fleming: Well, I was thinking about it in... and realizing that when I see a piece of art that I don't understand, I can look at it, think about it, close my eyes, look at it again, and go through that process several times until it begins to make some sense. You don't have that experience with Avant-garde music because it is all around you. It's almost as though it interferes with your ability to think about it.

Stubbs: Yes, in a sense. I mean, you said you can close your eyes because you have eyelids, but you don't have the earlids.

Fleming: [laughs]

Stubbs: And yes, music can be... it has that kind of possibility of being distressing and invasive, especially with people like Stockhausen. Sometimes, he would arrange the speakers for some features that he did. It wouldn't just be something that was just in front of you, coming at you in front of you ” he would arrange it all around the auditorium, so the music is coming at you from all the sides.

And maybe that kind of goes back to, kind of, very early cavemen days or whatever, where any sort of “sub-noise,” unexpected noise, is going to sort of strike fear into you. And I think that probably is still the case even now. And, of course, music can sometimes have that distressing, invasive effect — especially Avant-garde music, because it's inherently, and formally, it's meant to be kind of surprising, unexpected, coming at you from somewhere unexpected.

Fleming: But I want to go back to those early days, in some ways, because both mediums were new. The painting was new; the music was new. And there was a fuller range than I think we recognize now. You talked a little bit about the Futurist movement: the Futurist painter Luigi Russolo and Frank Zappa (everybody knows Zappa), but there was also Edgar Varese, who wrote “Ameriques,” the sort of classic work, which is not as disturbing, if you will, as Stockhausen or as Schoenberg. It's new and it's different, and it challenges you, but it is not as random, I guess.

Stubbs: Well, that's right. I mean, that work, Ameriques, is... about 1918, that sort of timeline '18, 1921, I think he sort of spent some time over it and eventually revised it. Within that piece, you get a sense of the transition of music from the 19th to 20th century, almost, because it starts off in a very sort of Debussy-esque, Stravinsky-esque sort of way, in the sort of  “dawn” of the piece, as it were. And then all of a sudden, the music suddenly erupts from this kind of vertical crescendo.  It's very American, very New York  — almost like skyscrapers, kind of, emerging music, whatever.


There was that sense of kind of a new, urban, contemporary 20th century beginnings, and it really reflects a sense of [unclear] American, where the classical music really happened [unclear] before, not even really people like Charles Ives and such.

And of course the basic thing we've got is the siren, you get these kind of sirens wailing through, and obviously they're kind of, you know, he's had his window open and it’s probably the Hudson River as he was writing it and these sounds sort of come wafting in through his window and there's... So there's a couple of things going on there.

One, it’s the idea of like — which I think is the heart of the Avant-garde projects [unclear] collapsing the walls between the art and life like a natural elements of life incorporated into the music in the way that Picasso incorporates clippings of the Figaro in, you know, his collage pieces, and stuff like that. And then also, you've got the idea of the pitch. This pitch that incorporates the element of noise into music. Something way beyond the sort of twelve-tone system, etc., etc., which is something that I think that [unclear] earlier Luigi Russolo, he initiated that idea in his “Art of Noises” manifesto — the idea of admitting noise as an element within music.

Fleming: Do you think people would find it more approachable if they could think about it in visual terms?

Stubbs: Possibly. It’s curious. I think that people accept a great deal more visual chaos than they do aural chaos. I think a lot of contemporary music does sometimes try and give a, you know, kind of, sort of digital imagery, whatever, to give it a kind of visual component. And I think that can work and I think that's one of the ways in which the [unclear] kind of synergize. Certainly in the late 20th century” the 21th century.

So that could be a form of assistance. But another reason I think people have problems with Avant-garde music is because they think it’s kind of like a cryptic crossword or something like that — they think they have to decipher something. And you actually don't It’s not like some sort of complex mathematical or algebraic formula rendered in sound.

It’s simply a case of being receptive to the idea of sounds not becoming, you know, sort of... fall in the normal orthodox pathway or whatever. It's really not necessarily about having to kind of interpret anything.

Fleming: You don't have to figure it out; you just have to accept that it’s not what you're accustomed to hearing.

Stubbs: Yeah, yeah, just accept it as it, yeah... what it is, yeah, yeah...

Fleming: Brings us to Stockhausen because Varese is a little easier, a little more familiar if you will, even though it does structure itself in ways that are completely unexpected — it still sounds, at least at the beginning, that our sounds were accustomed to. Stockhausen really made his breakthroughs in electronic music and that's not music that we knew much about at the time that it began to stake its claim on the world.

One of his most famous works is called “Kontakte.”

Stubbs: “Kontakte,” yes.

Fleming: Kontakte. Can you tell us about that?

Stubbs: Which means “contacts.” Well, yes. It was written about fifty years ago. He arranged it so that, like, the audience is in the center and the music comes by four channels which are arranged like in... speakers, where in each kind of corner of the sort of square within which the audience is sitting.

And even at some point he uses some sort of rotation table at one point. So he had all these various mikes which he can kind of like fling even... other sounds at the audience that kind of listen to it.

So, it goes back to what I was saying before: it’s the idea that there isn’t any kind of preset, sort of pathway — the way it’s constructed allows for sounds to come from absolutely any angle, take any kind of sort of shape or duration or pitch or intensity or whatever. It’s opening up music completely.

And in fact Stockhausen, — I think he actually functions as a composer better than, say, other people working in electronic music or Musique concrète because I think he has a kind of innate sort of symbolic sense and this great, innate sense of drama, so...

It isn’t like he’s just sort flinging sounds randomly. Obviously it’s extremely, conceptually, it’s extremely kind of constructed by it. I think that he actually has almost like a conventional sense of musical drama.


I think the reason that people fixate on arts by contrast, why something like the Tate Modern is so hugely possible. I mean, there's various reason, but I think one of them, I think, is the idea of the awe of the original. And there isn’t really an equivalent for the “original” in music. You got maybe a mass [unclear] you've got a sheet in which was composed, whatever, but there isn’t the original, you know, it's essentially about reproduction or replications through performance or whatever. So that's missing.

And of course the original in art, obviously, has tremendous economic value, you know, at least so [unclear] whatever, you know, selling for 30, 40, 50 million pounds, so people could go gobble-eyed at those kind of figures. And obviously, with these new [unclear] work of art in question. People can expose. So that... So on the one hand, there's the tremendous financial value attached to modern art, and I think there was also this kind of “auratic” element, you know, the idea that these tremendously valuable, precious pieces, if you somehow... if you stand near them [unclear] somehow art raise or emanate from them somehow and inspire or elevate in some way. It’s difficult for me to accept this match, this thing, as the “original,” and I think that's certainly why music lags behind in terms of its public profile — contemporary music, certainly.


Fleming: David Stubbs is the author of  “Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko but Don't Get Stockhausen.”


Comments for this interview

Abstract Music Lovers (Philip, 03/30/2012 - 6:46pm)

Hi Anonymous. I was wondering if you know of any online sources about the abstract music lovers that you can direct me to. I'd like to learn more about this community and possibly even connect with them. I tend to listen to a lot of instrumental music (ranging from classical to indie to world), and I like to listen (that is, I value listening in general) to sounds that I might never have heard before. But abstract, avant garde music still is new to me, but I am more open now to listening to it. Thanks.

Animated Notation (Ryan Ross Smith, 03/25/2012 - 10:44pm)

Great show, excellent points made by David.
He mentions at one point how the visual element in 20th and 21st century music may help the listener to connect with music that may be more abstract than one is used to.
Along those lines I would like to point you toward some work being done in this realm by myself and small group of composers throughout the U.S., Iceland, and Europe.

These notations, or at least the way I use them, are intended to activate performers by communicating complex compositional ideas in a simple way, but not necessarily with the aim of engaging the audience. However, a nice byproduct is that it seems to draw people into the music more so than if the score weren't projected.

Again, great show!

Hi. Love the show. I listen (Anonymous, 03/25/2012 - 4:46pm)

Hi. Love the show. I listen every week in Tucson, AZ. I have a comment about whether or not experimental music is harder to digest than experimental art.
I myself have dedicated years to developing an ear for experimental music of all types for the very reason that it IS a more difficult art to digest. It pleases me so very much when I hear something that throws me just a bit off my everyday orbit and after researching this community, I have found that there are A LOT of abstract music lovers all over the world. - more than enough to construct an entirely new segment dedicated to the culture and fans of avant garde music. You guys should do it!!

thx for the topic, this music is the way of the future