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Nathan Budzinski

Music in the gallery: Chin-stroking at the Noise dudes

July 2013

The below is a text modified from a talk given at London's Calvert 22, on a panel discussion called Curating Sound, part of the Sounding The Body Electric: Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe 1957–1984 exhibition. The discussion included artist Aura Satz, exhibition curators David Crowley and Daniel Muzyczuk, The Wire's Nathan Budzinski, and was moderated by Calvert 22's Artistic Director Lina Dzuverovic. The talk was preceded by a short clip from Adam Curtis's film, The Living Dead

Adam Curtis’s films are good examples of how music gets used and abused in all sorts of different ways – and how work like Curtis’s, which is a hodge-podge of different image fragments and ideas, is ultimately held together and moved forward by sound and music.

Increasingly, seductive-yet-serious approaches like this are taken up by contemporary art institutions – particularly in relation to music. Kraftwerk’s recent string of large scale shows at spaces like Tate Modern is a good example of the art world looking outwards to the music industry for engaging, spectacular visitor attractions (and vice versa). There’s a series of events on right now at the South London Gallery that feature a variety of musicians and sound arts practitioners, many of whom until recently would have had limited exposure in smaller, more underground music venues. This slow shift might be accounted for by better funding, infrastructure, and adventurous commissioning in the art world – as opposed to relatively less support for experimental or upsetting sounds in mainstream music culture. But it also goes to show that the general culture is more open and has less defined disciplinary boundaries.

And, at least in Britain and Europe, visitor numbers increase, and as a result many art institutions need to cater for this broad array of interests and tastes, becoming more generalist in how they appeal to the crowds – but at the same time become more specific in their programming so as to make themselves unique and more valuable.

Music can play a driving role in this generalist appeal to mass audiences. Specifically, in its power to give pleasure directly and quickly. There are many assumptions about how music is a communal, even universal, language; about how one is supposed to find it immediately enjoyable, existentially affirming and evacuated of the complexities of life (not to mention the jargon of contemporary art). And it’s these assumptions – on the parts of listeners, creators and commissioners – that allow for music to be so readily accepted and consumed, in a more emotionally direct way than most other art forms.

All culture has some kind of pleasure principle running through it, though the ways that we all express desires and find our pleasures are numerous, surprising, and often upsetting to others. One person’s musical epiphany is another’s annoyance. But shows like Calvert 22’s Sounding The Body Electric and SLG's signal that there’s a growing curiosity in more challenging sounds.

Yet, broadly speaking, there’s still a widespread sonic sensitivity that David Stubbs went towards trying to identify in his book, Fear Of Music, where he asked why people get Rothko but don’t get Stockhausen. Anecdotally speaking, I’ve never been more offended or offending than I have when in a discussion about music – which shows how internalised all of these values about music are.

Performances by musicians like Kraftwerk, Sonic Youth and series like Late At Tate all add an aspect of coolness to the institution that they’re playing in – bringing in new audiences, and trying to show that art galleries aren’t as stuffy as they used to be – echoing the change brought on by the introduction of cafes into museums, music in galleries says that you can go there and hang out, drink a few beers, meet people and be noisy – not just chin stroke at paintings and sculptures. On top of that, groups like Sonic Youth are gateway groups to other, more esoteric, challenging types of music, noise and sound arts. So, largely it’s a good thing. It shifts the focus away from erudite, reverential silence and empty ritual, towards engagement and further discovery in a widely enjoyable way.

But pleasure at what cost? Art galleries’ and museums’ seduction by music’s own power to enthrall can easily forget that these things are not equivalent – that though intertwined, art and music have very different cultures and economies – it’s the difference exemplified by the distance between terms like art world and music industry. All of the desires and challenges, the different vocabularies of different musics, can become lost or forgotten as a sideshow in the din of the fairground. It’s a progress once described by Will Hutson reviewing Pete Swanson in The Wire 335 where the Noise Dude transforms into the Sound Artist, finally growing up and dispensing with goofy band names and adolescent posturing. But this supposed maturing loses much of what’s at the core of this music; the closeness in a small venue, the physical impact of the sound, the irreverence – and not least what Hutson calls the anti-middle class reverse snobbery that’s a part of the Noise scene. These are all things that give this music meaning and give its listeners pleasure.

Another problem, though probably not so new, is that traditional mass media and its entertainment economy is fragmenting, and art institutions are grappling with how they are increasingly being perceived as part of the leisure and entertainment industry – along with the money making imperative that this understanding brings with it. Exclusive academic erudition and jargon can’t protect from this economic process, especially as funding is continually choked and getting money becomes ever more competitive. Arts institutions need to be able to entertain as well as educate – but that education better be entertaining or else the crowds will vote with their feet. And then the money's gone. Much like how Curtis’s work is a piece of entertainment that seduces viewers into deeper (though problematic) arguments, with the sonic components playing a large part in this – music and sound arts seem to be able to play the part of soundtrack to the art institution’s images.

So, my main question: is that part going to be simply as a powerful mood enhancer, or as an equal voice? At the heart of these last examples is the great problem of entertainment: by definition it grabs people’s attention. But can it do justice to its message, and not just let that message get lost?

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