What is Critical Music?

What is critical music?

In my book, After Sound: Toward a Critical Music, I use the term critical music to describe socially engaged art practices that reconceive music beyond the limits of sound. I look at a collection of artists from the global visual and performing arts of the past ten years – Pussy Riot, Ultra-red, Hong-Kai Wang, Peter Ablinger, Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, and others – who intervene into political and philosophical conflicts by exploring music’s unique historical forms.

What does critical music sound (or look) like?

It might sound like Pussy Riot staging their infamously quashed Punk Prayer in central Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. It could take the form of a video by artist Hong-Kai Wang that documents listening and recording exercises conducted by retired sugar factory workers in present-day Taiwan. Or Ultra-red’s AIDS interventions (presented alongside performances of John Cage’s 4’33”), John Baldessari singing Sol LeWitt’s 1969 Sentences on Conceptual Art, or artist Raphael Sbrzesny playing a drum solo version of Histoire du soldat on the back of a horse.

What’s the difference between »sound« and music, and what’s »new music«? How do you distinguish between »sound art« and music, broadly conceived?

Music and sound are independent forms with distinct yet intersecting histories. For me, music is a historically mutable, contingent, and ultimately revisable art form that, when radically conceived, exceeds any strict adherence to specific mediums or material forms including sound itself. Nevertheless, sound studies and sound art theorists often see the relationship between music and sound as inclusive. Music, they contend, is a special case of sound formalized through an essentially autonomous, even hermetic syntax. Meanwhile, musicologists and other scholars criticize sound’s epistemological construction as disciplinarily biased (e.g. Brian Kane’s »musicophobia«) or ahistorical (e.g. Georgina Born’s »year zero« phenomenon). I’m interested in a more fundamental distinction between the sonic and the musical.

»Sound art,« as illustrated by the subtitle of the 2012 ZKM exhibition Sound Art: Sound as a Medium of Art, is typically understood as a medium of contemporary art. Importantly, the term sound art began to appear in the 1960s, just as conceptual art began its radical challenge to the privileged status of medium. Sound art thus represents the reemergence of a medium-specific logic in a contemporary art otherwise marked by the progressive destruction of art as an ontology of mediums – that is, painting, sculpture, video, and, yes, sound. In the wake of medium – and following Rosalind Krauss’s critically termed »postmedium condition« and its recent rejoinders (especially those from David Joselit, Peter Osborne, Craig Dworkin, and Juliane Rebentisch) – »sound art« appears anachronistic if not regressive. Music, I argue, remains productively problematic.

»New music,« the universally accepted heir to Western art music, is formally homologous to sound art. For new music uncritically inherits an unreconstructed concept of absolute music: the equating of music with (nonconceptual instrumental) sound. But music had not always been understood this way. Before the introduction of absolute music in the early 1800s, in fact, music was understood as harmonia, rhythmos, logos – or harmony, rhythm, and language; or rational thought. Note the presence of language in that trio and the absence of »sound.« Ultimately, artists working today are left with two versions (new music, sound art) of the same constraining category: sound.

As an intervention into the deadlock that has emerged through the conflicting contexts of »new music,« »sound art,« and »visual art,« I have proposed the concept of critical music, a category that I elaborate in After Sound. Critical music, I argue, breaks from the formal adherence to sound encountered in sound art and new music, and expands to engage with a broader social, political, and artistic universe. Beyond sound, the artists I discuss use social practice, conceptualism, and activist strategies that radically refigure the notion of music as autonomous sound.

How does this relate to critical or political (art) practices?

For me, criticality is important, but we might try considering it first as a question: is criticality possible today? In the historical present, in which everything up to and including thought itself has proven commodifiable, is the notion of a critically engaged practice itself a naïve and outmoded concept? I do see contemporary art and its related discourses as an area in which the problem can, at the very least, be posed. I’ve written about the recent calls from figures like Suhail Malik for an »exit« from contemporary art. Still, I think that certain practices that take from the legacy of conceptual art, along with the strategies of critical negation inherited by the historical avant-garde, become – at best – capable of intervening in a broader cultural and political field.

Contemporary art, as Peter Osborne has argued, is postconceptual art, an art beyond medium that is constituted by (and an instantiation of) concepts and language. Here I suggest that forms found in music – long considered the nonconceptual art form par excellence – prove to be, paradoxically, worth reconsidering. Composition might be thought of as one of these forms. Borrowing from Bruno Latour, we can think of composition as a process of assembling radical forms of commonality.