Music as an Invitation to (Co)Responsibility

Marek Piaček
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The main questions, and the main problems which I want to present, and also the main topics of my contribution to our discussion are music as an invitation to (co)responsibility, aspects of stress and intimidation in the process of composing, performing and reception of music nowadays, dependence and fear in the musical life (not only in the society of the Western civilization), and finally the position of a young (Central-European) composer nowadays. The dependent person is a product of today’s society – dependent on authorities, religions, leaders, bosses, nationalities, food, self-support, spouse, musical styles, performers, computers, Internet… – a dependent, intimidated, stressed composer, performer or recipient. Of course, this is true not only in “My country” but for the whole Euro-North-American cultural region. We are a civilization of fear or intimidation. We are stressed, attacked by advertisements, (social) adjustment, customs, society… Jiddu Krishnamurti says: we are a civilization of fear.

For instance, an advertisement warns: if we use just a common wash-powder, our shirt will remain dirty. And we live in fear. If we do not conform in music to common customs, we will stay at least hungry. And the composer lives in fear.

We are not threatened by regulations of the music culture, of composing, of performing, of listening, but we are threatened by participants of the musical life and its social conditions, institutions, conservatism, and the authorities of powerful interest groups.

I am naturally interested in the very old interrelationship between the composer, performer and listener. In my opinion the atmosphere at concerts is not relaxed anymore – neither in performing music, nor in it’s reception. My question is – is the atmosphere relaxed in the process of composing music? A person who deals with music, who manages music, is exposed to similar, or maybe the same stress as from the mass media, e.g. advertising. If a music does not correspond to a collection of traditional ideas of music it is not all right, we reject the possibility of “otherness”, of being different, even in music. We prefer envy and fear.

One way how to relax a listener is to give him/her the possibility to cooperate. A listener should cooperate in the process of composition, in music, in a work. Instead of fear, a listener should have the chance to be responsible for the composition, music or work.

The solution is in transforming all that fear into responsibility, mutual responsibility. Instead of fear, instead of being threatened by music, music should be an invitation to responsibility.

A notion of SPACE WITHOUT CENTRE, without hierarchy, should intervene in our mode of composing, musical thinking (similar to social thinking).

The way out (for us, young Central-European composers) of the dependence, fear, intimidation, etc. could be just in understanding and maybe practical realization of the concept of SPACE WITHOUT CENTRE, so that we can exclude the intimidation both by the West and East and, last but not least, by ourselves (we can start practicing it in the fields of music or arts). Is this anarchy? No, this is a really syncritic (non-reductive, non-fundamentalistic) position of the participant of music culture generally. Where there is no centre, there is no periphery. Music should help us to flee ourselves from our own dependence, and fixation (or fixed thinking) on traditions.

What does a young composer see around himself/herself and how does he/she react and respond to that? E. g. advertisements or MTV: you can watch MTV almost all around the world. Does this fact act as an example of togetherness? In my mind, there are two basic possibilities of how to react to the reality around us. To confine oneself, to shut oneself from everyday reality and to write the so called independent music, intentionally, full of deep, profound “universal” and “philosophical” messages. Of course, it is possible to make works of value – with self-development. This way at last ethos can be developed – and one has the possibility to change the world.

But I prefer to open myself face to face to reality, to represent this reality, to spiritualize this reality, that means to change it into meaning, into sense, into spirit, to make commentary on this, to take into account the active performer and listener, who are naturally attacked by this same reality.

A composer of today should exploit reality, elements of every-day life and culture, e. g. allusions to pop-music, he should re-create (re-compose) music all around us – also the music of old masters. Old masters should not be a taboo. For a composer of today there should be no difference between the music of good old masters and the kitschy, superficial music of mass media today because even a work of such an old master is treated in a very superficial and kitschy way in mass media. (Here I am talking about e. g. the CD series of the “music you like in our advertisements” which was made by TV companies like RTL or Pro7.) Art is a culture-creating activity, giving space, sphere, universe to a composer, where something neutral, even trivial, aggressive, bad is changed into something good, better, of a greater value – briefly, something that makes sense.

So a composer should transform all that reality which could even be bad, into something full of sense.

And now I would like to introduce some ideas how to represent this reality in music, I mean the techniques of composition, musical language, not the content, the ideology of music. Expansion of the musical reality may be conducted with the help of extra-musical elements and phenomena: scientific fields like biology, physics, mathematics, politics, statistics, nature, toys, and everyday life, too. Transforming the musical shapes with the use of the structures of biological processes, chance operations, political manifests, natural images, etc.

The next question is: who is the person or institution with which a young composer can collaborate? There is a closed circle of devoted performers and composers associated with the experimental ensembles of new music (in Bratislava e. g. members of VENI ensemble, Požoň sentimental). There is also a wide circle of professional musicians who will perform your new piece almost in a professional way (if you pay). I want to stress the following fact – one of the best possibilities for a composer today is to collaborate with non-musicians.

They have no prejudice, they can experiment, they have lots of new ideas, they have more time to practice, they do not need to be paid, and mostly they are not familiar with music at all (by that I mean e. g. the youth from electrotechnical field). One good possibility for collaboration are non-professional, amateur musicians. They are also willing to participate in concerts of new music, in experiments. I personally have good experience in collaboration with some rock musicians. Even better than with the students of Music Academies.

The possibilities of working together are small. But it depends more on the young people themselves than on the social or economic situation. A Slovak student, unlike the English one, for example, shows a lack of interest in collaboration with others, in workshops, festivals, in presenting of own works. But finally, if there is an interest to work, to organize something, then it is quite possible to do something. Even if it is not paid for.

And now, a more detailed view on some ensembles or institutions in Bratislava with which a young composer can come into a positive contact.

VENI ensemble was founded in 1987 on the initiative of several young enthusiasts from the ranks of composers and performers studying at the time at Bratislava Academy of Performing Arts, linked by a desire to express their own musical ideas and opinions. VENI is an open collective of musicians. The core is formed by a number of permanent members who invite others to join them for individual performances as needed. Their activity is for the most part comprised of concerts and festivals of new music, both at home and abroad. Apart from this, the ensemble occasionally records for local or international companies.

VENI’s core repertoire is made up primarily of works by composers close to the group, works of young authors from abroad, who share similar opinions, as well as compositions from music personalities of the 20th century (such as E. Satie, Ch. Ives, J. Cage, M. Feldman, T. Riley, Ch. Wolff, J. Tenney and others) whose work has provided inspiration towards the birth and formation of the musical styles of these younger composers. Recently the ensemble was reduced to a quartet which performs as The VENI Quartet.

Radio RAGTIME is an institution which pays attention to alternative cultural styles and gives the space and possibility to broadcast twice a month an exclusive program of contemporary experimental music. Many composers and ensembles active both in Slovakia and abroad were profiled in the program.
Another institution which is active in the sphere of contemporary music in Bratislava is the Experimental Studio of the Slovak Radio which organizes workshops, seminars, conferences, concerts and festivals of new experimental music. Young composers are offered the possibility to work in their studio under supervision of professional technicians.

Finally, as an example of the general situation of musical life in Bratislava as seen by young composers, I would like to describe the ideology of an experimental ensemble.

POŽOŇ SENTIMENTAL is an open music ensemble. It was formed towards the end of 1993 in effect of a fusion of members of many ensembles in Bratislava (VENI ensemble, Vitebsk Broken, Ospalý pohyb, Zabudnutý ohyb, Tuleň). (Note to non-Slovak audience: the word Požoň is a Slovak-spelled version of the original Hungarian name for Bratislava.) Its formation was preceded by long conversations, which is important to mention because it expresses the role of Bratislava and widely the role of Central Europe in contemporary society. I mentioned above that the way out (for us, young Central-European composers) of dependence, fear and intimidation could be just the understanding and maybe the practical realization of the concept of SPACE WITHOUT CENTRE so that we can exclude the intimidation by the West and East and of course by Ourselves.

Attention of the public towards the end of the 20th century is turned to the topics of the so-called inter-cultural dialogue or polylogue to which Bratislava in the past was, in the present is, and in the future will be, favorably situated.

With its position in the heart of Central-European region, in the lee of Vienna, it is predetermined to grasp the group (collective) psychology of different nations.
The entire philosophy of the ENSEMBLE POŽOŇ SENTIMENTAL is in making comments on the events of the past, present and future, on the fact that these events are related to Bratislava, even though very loosely.

It is linked up with the atmosphere of the old Pressburg before the First World War and between the wars. It is linked up with the time in which Bratislava was in one state formation with such historical towns as Trent, Trieste, Pécs, St. Pölten, Kutná Hora, Slavkov, Zakopane. Inspiration of the linking up with this formation is one of the starting points for the ensemble.

During the 20th century we are witnessing the direct interaction of both AngloSaxon and American traditions in our Central-European region in different parts of culture – in philosophy the representatives are F. A. von Hayek, Wittgenstein, Popper, in music Schoenberg, Zawinul, Křenek, in cinema A. Schwarzenegger, Olinka Bérová and others. The Foucault’s Pendulum by Eco, the work of Luciano de Crescenzo and the Manzoni’s Engaged Couple belong to the evident sources of the ideological values of the ensemble. In Hungarian culture the representatives are: Béla Bartók – the master of modem classical music, Victor Vasarelly the master of modern op- and kinetic-arts and Hans Bruno Selye – classic of the theory of stress.

It is not necessary to stress the immense, the vast influence of the great dynasty of Strauss. After such a bow, after having presented all the seemingly interfering influences, it is not very astonishing that the ensemble’s poetics simultaneously reflects the power of such personalities as Mario Adorf, Igor Stravinsky, Aurel Stodola, Sinnead O’Connor, Jean Tinguely, Jan Železný and Hugo Portisch.


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Piaček, Marek: Music as an Invitation to (Co)Responsibility. In: Višňovský, Emil – Bianchi, Gabriel (ed.): Diskurz, intelektuáli, sociálna komunikácia. Bratislava : VEDA, 1997. ISBN 80-224-0516-7, s. 274–278.