Conceptual Listening Johannes Kreidler - Das "DING" an sich

Conceptual Listening

May 29, 202010-13 minutes read

Written by:

Johannes Kreidler

Edited by:

Andrei Rusu

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In the course of my compositional work I have become more and more aware that sounds are filled with linguistic knowledge, indeed deeply interspersed with it. Beethoven sounds wonderful, but it also sounds like Beethoven. A piano sounds beautiful, and it sounds like 'piano'.

A largo sounds like a largo.
Music sounds like music.
Beethoven does not sound like non-Beethoven.
A piano does not sound like a non-piano.
A largo does not sound like a non-largo.
Music doesn't sound like non-music.

Language precedes hearing. In the beginning was the word.

New Music

As long as new sounds could be found, it was possible to escape this. The “absolute music” of the 19th century owed its existence to in-exhausted soundings such as the grand piano, which was modern at the time, the new clarinet, the innovative ventile brass instruments or new constructions such as the contrabassoon. Similarly, the completely abstract aesthetics of Gottfried Michael Koenig, the pioneer of synthetic electronic music in the 1950s and 60s, have developed; he used devices with which entirely new sounds could be generated. But the thesis is: this is coming to an end, unused sounds are becoming extremely rare, just as the periodic table of the elements has hardly increased by one entry in the last decades.

Most recently, there were the extended playing techniques of New Music and the possibilities of digital sound synthesis and processing. In the meantime, however, even the extended playing techniques have been almost completely researched, catalogued in books, provided with universally valid notation symbols, and have become a standardised subject of compositional training. Likewise, in the field of audio software, one sees the optimisation and refinement of established categories, principles, and methods of production, discussions about canonised application histories, and is aware of historical and cultural localisation. It can hardly be said that an actually unheard, fresh sound comes out of the speaker. In pop, the music journalist Simon Reynolds generally diagnoses "Retromania" as one only remixing past achievements again and again.

The more the sounds are there and remain, the more they are conceptualised, their goal and fate, the tendency of the material is nominalisation. This can be observed paradigmatically in the genres of pop music: I am not a metal music expert, but a simple Internet search yields around 70 different metal genres, among which: Death Doom Metal, Drone Doom Metal, Speed Metal, Heavy Metal, Happy Metal, Japanese Power Metal, Flower Metal, Epic Hollywood Metal.

With the list, I composed a piece that presents those names in alphabetical order, as an Introduction to the sociology of music, and for each genre mentioned, a short snippet of a presumed example is played; presumably because I had simply entered “Melodic Death Metal” as a search term on YouTube, for example, and had taken the first hit without further verification - and thus with all style names. In any case, the question remains, to what extent the linguistic naming is or will become aesthetically isomorphic with the sounding - or not. First of all, I work out the sound designations that society produces, on this side of academic music theory (which has a name for every melodic fact). Besides metal genres there are also countless house music styles (Balearic Tribal House, Kwaito House, Microhouse...).
Johannes Kreidler -
Johannes Kreidler - "product placements"

Music precedes listening to music.

We have always already heard music, our memory is already well filled with it, and any additional music has to find a place in it, in addition to all that already exists. Wouldn't it be better to delete something? In Minusbolero that was exactly the compositional work. The idea was to erase all melodic elements from Ravel's Boléro, so that only the accompaniment can be heard. What remains is a kind of karaoke version of the well-known piece, with the melody no longer present, existing only as memory, as an inner melody.

The result contains something of minimal music, a kind of second piece of music, a readymade, which was hidden under the known melody. But there is a political dimension, as I only realised in the rehearsals before the premiere: in Ravel’s piece, the first flute, first trombone, first violins, etc. play the melody, and the second flute, second trombone, second violins play the accompaniment. The hierarchical structure of the orchestra is reflected in the hierarchy of melody and accompaniment, and this is turned upside down when suddenly only the accompaniment sounds as a new melody. Which, of course, a certain part of the orchestra did not appreciate at all. In addition, there was in any case the discussion as to whether there was a “composition” at all, because I had not written a single note, and precisely did the opposite, removed notes alone. And although every note in the score comes from Ravel, my piece is something categorically different. Incidentally, I have been working on the piece as long as no other piece so far. For 5 years I have carried the idea around with me and wondered whether this is a veritable compositional concept at all; and I probably listened to the Bolero over 1000 times and tried to imagine how it would sound without a melody. Listening work.

Conceptualists are far from producing just ideas and sentences, it is preceded by a lot of work and many concepts require a lot of effort of realisation. For the piece Product Placements, for which I composed a short, 33-second electronic piece containing 70,200 third-party samples, I printed out 70,200 forms for 6 weeks - because these were necessary to correctly register the piece with GEMA, the German institution for royalty administration. This was, of course, an action to show the backwardness of copyright practice in digital times.

A similar investigation like researching in metal music styles concerned the customer reviews of bicycle bells on Amazon. Some bicycle bells get more than 100 reviews in the comments column, in which their sound is described and discussed - "Music Discourse in a Nutshell" so to speak, based on a single tone. In the mass of comments, for example, there are various onomatopoeic descriptions for the sound of bells, such as "Ding", "Ting", "Ring", "Bing", "Ping", "Pling" - including the question of gender, as well as arguments about history, when the earlier "Ritch-Ritch" bell was, in the opinion of some reviewers, more effective (and more beautiful) than today's one-tone tinkle. From this commentary treasure it was easy to write an almost cabaret-like number: The 'THING' in itself.

Composing then means not to compose with sounds, but on the level of their names. To talk about sound means to make music. Here, of course, the tables are turned: one thing is to collect existing sound names; but when I arrange them, pronounce them and bring them together with sound itself, creation is created.

Prepared Hearing

What is added to this in art: we do not only perceive a designation, appropriation, creation of sound, but also the act of designation, the power over the material and its resistance. Language speaks - of the interval between language and sound. The aesthetic mode is auto-reflectivity. Conceptualism is a lot about framing and frameworks, concerning one's own conditions.

In 2009, at the climax of the financial crisis, when stock prices around the world were plummeting, I transcribed their graphical representation into melodies and fed them into Songsmith, a children's composition software that had just been launched. The application turns every input into a happy sound, and so does with the data from an economic disaster. It becomes absolutely clear here that the music was not intended to be cast in the way it was shown in the resulting video: every semitone down the innocent tootling equals billions of dollars lost. So this is not a data-true sonification, but a musical interpretation through a contradiction that is real: after the crisis, one pretends that nothing has happened. Crisis is part of capitalism, its periodic recurrence has occurred again and again, according to Marx' analysis. After the crisis is before the crisis. Therefore, let's play a drum loop.

In this case, the connotation of melody and stock market price was created by the simultaneity of sound and image.

In another case, language preceded what was heard in terms of performance. In my piece Fremdarbeit I have commissioned a Chinese composer and an Indian audio programmer to compose pieces that should imitate pieces of mine. This concept has two aspects: that of authorship - who composed this? It sounds like my music and yet it is not, because the contributors don’t share the same cultural background and they weren’t active in avant-garde music composition. They have performed a job to the best of their ability, but the differences could not be eliminated in terms of profession alone. There is also the aspect of globalisation and exploitation, since the subcontractors were hired from low-wage countries. It was very affordable for me to have the score produced this way, while I myself received a standard Western European fee for the commission, which was about ten times higher. And this is linked to our idea of ​​the value of music.

Naturally this concept had to be communicated during the concert, therefore I have prepared a speech in advance. Now this sequence of language and music gives enormous effect: at the premiere I tended to be sarcastic and spoke in a rather condescending tone, intentionally trying to dismiss the efforts of the subcontractors - “now you just hear what the Asians tried to achieve” - and as predicted the audience found the results to be poor. In another performance I tried the opposite: I presented with maximum appreciation that we were now allowed to hear what the Far Eastern craftsmen had achieved - and promptly the audience’s judgement was positive.

I call this phenomenon “prepared hearing”. Just as John Cage prepared the piano and intervened in the sound generation in advance, you can also pre-adjust the hearing and in turn make it recognisable. Our hearing is prepared and preparable. We always bring along concepts, expectations, a framing, the preludes of the music.
Johannes Kreidler -
Johannes Kreidler - "Earjobs"
It is on this level, the awareness of the existing conditions of music, its elaboration, design and reinterpretation, that I compose music. Money is a particularly suitable means of doing so: the established premise is that money provides power and privilege. In Earjobs I have set up a listening station where interested people can earn money by listening to music. The punchline is that the 'job offers', spanning among modern classics and contemporary works by composers of New Music, also include a Muzak title that is ten times higher paid than the rest of the works. The job seekers can decide for themselves which listening work they want to take on.
Johannes Kreidler -
Johannes Kreidler - "Ear jobs"

The audience is challenged here - how easily can you be bought, and what effect does it have on hearing when it is declared a job, a wage labour, instead of an appreciation of a work of art? And how does the sheer valuation of every piece of music with a fee affect our values? Especially since you’re not paying the value, but getting paid instead?

Listening is conceptual and becomes more and more conceptual, hence composing becomes more conceptual. It stimulates the imagination and aesthetic consciousness on what music can be. Whenever we move from being occupied to occupying and performatively drawing on contexts and, above all, linguistic means, music is no longer just sound that we perceive in our heads, but also something that exists in its rendition and composition. Even if listening remains the objective and the idea of music as a cultural and historical artefact is the object of artistic interest, we are at least dealing with an expanded concept of music, and consequently perhaps even with a dissolved concept of music. In that case everything can serve as media art, which for conceptual reasons and backgrounds it is using this or that medium, and if you happen to be especially interested in music, then you create media art with music.


*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN.
About the Author

Johannes Kreidler

Johannes Kreidler is a composer, concept and media artist based in Berlin. He teaches as professor for composition and music theory at the Academy of Music in Basel, Switzerland.

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