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The Meaning of My Avant-Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music

© Henry A. Flynt, Jr.

I drafted this essay in January 1980 and have revised it in 2002.  I have wished to preserve some of the 1980 agenda; I note in brackets where that becomes important.

I was born in Greensboro, NC in 1940.  All of my formal education in music was in European classical music.  The instrument I studied was the violin.  Until mid-1961, I was a composer of “modern” music of the post-Cage generation. But in the years from 1958 to 1962, my attitude toward music underwent a total change. The first sources to inspire this change were Ali Akbar Khan, John Coltrane, and blues singers such as Robert Johnson.  La Monte Young would bring to my attention Nazakat and Salamat Ali Khan, and later Ram Narayan.  In the mid-Sixties I began listening to field recordings of African tribal music and to Bismallah Khan.

Meanwhile, my philosophical researches gave me an intellectual basis to reject the claim of cultural superiority which musicology made for European classical music.  These claims have a vast literature, including dispensations by Schoenberg and Adorno.  Perhaps it is enough to quote Luis Diez del Corral, The Rape of Europe (original Spanish 1954; English 1959), page 219:

In the acoustic field too, Europe has discovered a music characterized by tonality with a profound, coherent, and purposeful structure, like that of architecture or painting, which is therefore not just another sort of music, but can lay special claim to universal validity.  ‘Tonality acts upon us like a physical law.  But like a physical law sanctioned by human sensibility. . . . The laws by which a movement of a Beethoven sonata are constructed are the same laws that govern sensibility and life.’  W. Furtwängler, Entretiens sur la musique, Fr. trans., Paris, 1953, 148.  [italics added]

My researches also gave me a basis to reject the presumption that non-European or ethnic musics could be analyzed in the categories of European musicology.  That presumption is every bit in force today; I may cite the course “Music, Meaning, Reception,” Katharine Ellis, New York University, Fall 2001, course number G71.2198.  Her syllabus says,

The majority of case study seminars cover Western Classical music only, but students will be encouraged to consider how course issues are pertinent to, and may fruitfully be extended to, other musics.

As if the analysis of “other musics” is a byproduct of the universal truths established at the Western core.  (I don’t really like the term ‘Western’, because it assumes that there is a bloc civilization which skips from ancient Greece and Rome to post-Averroist Europe without the mediation of Islam.  But one has to say ‘Western’ when writing for a lay audience.)

[[To be candid, I crossed over musically in Cambridge, MA after I left Harvard; I had to learn the music of my native region of the U.S. as an assumed identity.  I never had significant social contact with the people who created the musical language I use.  The only “hillbillies” and “rednecks” I fraternized with were my relatives, who would not appreciate those labels, and were not musical.  I had the theory of new American ethnic music long before I learned to play as I wished.]]

I was inspired by the image which Ornette Coleman had at the beginning of his career:  the image of the untrained “folk creature” as avant-gardiste.  (An image celebrated in A. B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business, 1966.)  At the same time that I was discovering Coleman’s records, in 1960, I met La Monte Young in person.  In addition to being an avant-garde composer, Young was a state-of-the-art jazz saxophonist.  I had to come to Manhattan, to the milieu presided over by John Cage, to hang out with a musician who had jazz chops.  (Chops—jazz slang for what Indians call knowledge of raga.)  Young was also a pianist, and had created a rhythm part in which he “comped” for forty-five minutes or longer.  He developed it to support Terry Jennings’ alto solos.  I had the opportunity to play line instruments with his piano, rehearsing with him in 1961 and recording with him in January 1962.  This is my earliest performance suitable for release.  (For a fuller treatment of “La Monte’s Blues,” see my essay “La Monte Young in New York, 1960-62.”)  La Monte’s example showed me that a departure from ethnic music could take a direction different from the quasi-atonal direction that was surfacing in jazz with Coltrane’s “Ascension” and Coleman’s Free Jazz.  The expanded role which Young gave to riffing, in jazz that was tonal, almost modal, was highly important to me. Young’s well-known, but unpublished, saxophone playing in the Sixties made jazz entirely modal while opening it to “eternal” melodic exploration.  [It would be more than fifteen years before I followed Young in this direction, with “C Tune.”]

I was aware of the rock ’n’ roll explosion as a violin student in the Fifties, even purchasing the sheet music of “Hound Dog” and “I’m In Love Again,” but I did not begin to listen to rock as a fan until I purchased my first Mississippi blues LP and began having reservations about jazz.

Rock was not the fusion of rhythm & blues and hillbilly music that the pundits said it was.  What really happened was that R&B and doo-wop went mass-market at the same time that rednecks began to cover R&B, also for the mass market.  (Elvis’ recordings of hillbilly standards never had the popularity of the rest of his work.)  A broadly based interracial music emerged in which the same hits topped the charts in rock, R&B, and C&W.  Meanwhile, rock’s novelty records displayed a sort of sonic experimentation not permitted in “trad” ethnic music.  I loved “Transfusion,” “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” “Willie and the Hand Jive,” “Bumble Boogie,” etc. 

Aggressively ethnic instrumentals such as “Night Train” and “Green Onions” clarified my unease with jazz and its cocktail-lounge cachet. (What its devotees took to be its sophistication, the addition of the sixth to the triad and all the rest.  Of course, Young’s jazz had independently broken away from the cocktail-lounge genre.)  The pop instrumentals only needed to be opened to extended improvisation, I thought.

In this golden age of rock, the regime of commercialism had a conducive role.  Music needed justify itself only by sales (give or take payola and bowdlerization).  That allowed a physically powerful music with wacky sound effects to surface and to play to animated audiences.  The ethnic genres would otherwise have remained timid; they needed the strengthening.  Without commercialism, the music which I based myself on would never have surfaced.  But, as we will see, commercialism, like democracy, was a two-edged sword.  It was inevitably the servant of any interest a leader was able to crystallize.  And in fact, the window for commercialism’s favorable role was a relatively narrow one.  What rock displaced, in fact, was an era of artificial, propagandistic blandness which commercialism was responsible for also.

For me, the golden age of rock was cut short by the success of the Beatles, which could be dated either 1964 or 1966.  UK artists had contributed important hits to the pop field—but the triumph of the Beatles formula shifted pop away from the breakthrough of the late Fifties.  The Beatles were essentially a music-hall “kid” act, limited to a four-square, discrete-pitch vocabulary.  (They knew American ethnic music only by rumor.)  They found and crystallized the segment with the best numbers—early teens who wanted something more bland than actual rock.  At this point, the regime of maximum sales backfired, as one might well have expected it to.

The “youth” craze of the Sixties became increasingly dubious (from flower power to Altamont), and the Beatles and their imitators morphed, leading their fans to a mystique of consumerist dissipation.  (Carnaby Street and “Yellow Submarine.”)  For me, the Beatles’ consummate song was “Revolution,” which begins “If you wanna make a revolution, count me out.”  It served as the anthem for all the mediocrities who responsed to the stresses of the late twentieth century by embracing institutional co-optation.

After the Beatles seized the market, white pop ceased to interest me except for the flukes.  When Bob Dylan added electric instruments and blues chops to his act for “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” that impelled me to my initial rock efforts of 1966 (with Walter De Maria on traps).  Given my political engagement, I had been waiting for an impetus to try songs with “revolution” lyrics.

In general, the ascendancy of the Beatles, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., ended ethnic-rock—the ethnic impulses reverted to the segmented R&B and C&W markets.  After the mid-Sixties, rock-pop no longer had ethnic chops—could I have been the only one who was musicological enough to realize that?  Rock-pop became uniformly loud in a way which was vulgar, mechanical, and bloated.  (There was no more of the profundity, and I mean profundity, of a Chuck Berry or of “Be-Bop-A-Lula.”)


There were musicians, mostly somewhat younger than me, who could claim some of the same influences I have listed, and who became successful and even famous.  There were artists who had never wanted to be anything but pop musicians, Michael Jackson, Madonna.  There were rare individuals who learned music academically and then crossed into pop, mainly John Cale.  (And there were the art students who turned to rock.)  They all had entertainment careers, and were acclaimed by society as the icons of the second half of the twentieth century. 

There were many American and British musicians who claimed the same influences I do—but I drew very different conclusions from those influences.  (If immediate and conclusive proof is necessary, it is furnished by the scores of my compositions.)  I arrived at an idiosyncratic musical vision—as sophisticated as my philosophy—which increasingly isolated me from the trends that enjoyed success, even when those trends had points of similarity with my direction.  Other musicians were successful and became superstars, while I remained almost invisible.  So much the worse for me if I wanted recognition.  My pursuit of music proved to be an eccentric hobby.  At the beginning of 1984, I stopped playing. 

Only with the new millennium did any of my music become legitimately commercially available.


I am trying now [as of 1980] to understand the individuality of my musical perspective, and its connection to my philosophical perspective.  I may also ponder why I bother with music at all, given my 1962 rejection of art as a mode of activity.

In the beginning I assumed that the duets I played with La Monte Young—and my solo work and early rock of the mid-Sixties—could be a commercial success.  I assumed that my playing would entail commercial success as a byproduct.  Today [1980], as I write a mission statement for what I was doing, I discover that commercial success is not a part of the definition.  I was competing with musicians for whom the last step in composing a piece is the sale—musicians for whom a bad piece that sells is a good piece—and it is time to be clear about this.  My mission statement makes it evident that my purposes were hopelessly out of step with what the market was rewarding.


My music is a sophisticated, personal extension of the ethnic music of my native region of the United states.  In all of my experimentation, I assert myself as an autochthon (colloquially, a “native” or “folk creature”)—siding with the emotional experience and the musical languages of the autochthonous communities.  In particular, I assert that the objective sound elements of blues and country music are demonstrably incommensurate with the categorization of sound in European musicology—as for example in the use of an unaccented glissando on the beat as a “note”—and in non-arithmetical division of the beat.

[[What my philosophical inquiries hardened me for, in fact, was working with expressions of incomparable or incommensurate standpoint.  What academia considers to be provincial or rudimentary expressions, able to be subsumed under universal principles established at the Western bourgeois core, are in fact expressions of incommensurate standpoint.  (Contrary to what Katharine Ellis would lead us to think, the Chinese language is not broken English.  The tones are not untutored pronunciations of English vowels.)  The obstacle is experienced by me the same way, whether I am formalizing a logic of contradictions, codifying a non-bourgeois economics, or exploring ethnic music.]]

For me, innovation does not consist in composing European and academic music with inserted “folk” references.  It consists in appropriating academic or technical devices and subordinating them to my purposes as a “folk creature.”  An outstanding prototype of this approach was Bo Diddley’s use of the electric devices of pop music to project the Afro-American sound.  This approach strikes in the opposite direction from that of the era of picaresqueness and nationalism in classical music.  (Most annoying to me, I suppose, is classical pop, the gypsy rhapsodies, “Bolero,” “Sabre Dance.”)

Although I originally positioned my music in contradistinction to European classical music, I have learned that European music and its devotees are not my only competition, or even my main competition.  Would that Adorno were the only nemesis!—he certainly isn’t.  It was when commercialism backfired, and unleashed the youth rebellion industry, that my biggest stumbling block appeared.  At that point, I could say that my nemesis was commercially exploited mass taste and centrally manipulated mass culture.  I converge with Adorno here.

When Adorno was writing, again, the problem with mass culture was its artificial, propagandistic blandness.  But as of 1969, commercial mass music began a one-way march toward grotesquerie and defilement.  Popular music metamorphosed into what is called the “youth rebellion industry”; a more accurate name would be the “youth self-disintegration” industry.  (Cobain, Hoon, and now Layne Staley.) 

In general, there has been a one-way march toward what is most crass and most gross.  If today’s culture pundits equate the rambunctiousness and earthiness of Fifties rock with the mystique of self-defilement and self-disintegration of post-punk, it is only more proof that Western civilization cannot self-correct; the situation is irremediable.  Commercial mass culture has placed all of the accomplishments of ethnic music on the defensive, including India’s greatest traditional music.  In America and Europe, mass culture has overrun the autonomy of rural and intellectual audiences alike.

To continue defining my purpose, I intensify and elevate the American ethnic musics to produce a sophisticated music whose nearest correlative would be Hindustani music.  (Or one might simplify by saying that I did for hillbilly music what Ornette Coleman did for jazz.)  Speaking in general, I aspire to a beauty which is ecstatic and perpetual, while at the same time being concretely human and emotionally profound.  The specificity of sentiment and passion to which I am committed requires for its expression an ethnic musical language, a musical language which embodies the tradition of experience of autochthonous communities.

But there are no easy rules for producing music which enchants me.  For music to have ethnic associations does not guarantee its quality, of course.  Nor can music’s quality be guaranteed by a connection to rock ’n’ roll, or to Indian music, or to Coltrane, or to “modal harmony,” or to Leftist politics.  And least of all is it easy to give rules for enchanting music in contemporary Western society, because there is no existing, coherent audience in our society which already encourages the beauty to which I  aspire.  The music which I admire can only arise through an act of iconoclasm, through an atypical and insulated vision. The quality of music is determined by the quality of the composer’s taste and selectivity, the incisiveness and emotional profundity of the sensibility which orders the music.  An illustration of what I am saying is that in spite of all of Coltrane’s fame, and all of the saxophonists who imitated him, his sensibility was not perpetuated by well-known performers.  Coltrane’s personal dedication, which made his esthetic values possible, has proved to be irreplaceable so far as publicly available music is concerned.  [In 2002, I would go even farther.  Afro-American community music was an honorable culture in the sense that any proficient performer was worth hearing.  Coltrane depended on that collective and relatively anonymous achievement.  All the same, his great performances were unique to him—I would call them flukes.  After I studied with Guruji, the difference became obvious as between an artist who had a full grasp of his inspiration and one struggling to stay afloat in a poisoned environment.]

Let me continue defining the beauty to which I aspire.  The music should be intellectually fascinating because the listener can perceive and participate in its rhythmic and melodic intricacies, audacity of organization, etc.  At the same time, the music should be kinesthetic, that is, it should encourage dancing.  [I choreographed club dances to many of my compositions.  By the way, I consider early break dancing to have opened up important possibilities.  Then the commercial, hysterical environment of New York turned break dancing frantic and labored, and it disappeared.]  Most of all, the music should have an emotional profundity which comes from specificity of sentiment and passion.  What is more, intellectual and emotional interest cannot be in competition with one another, because cleverness cannot captivate unless it is displayed in an emotionally appealing context.  Then, to be emotionally profound, music must be fiery, but at the same time it must have charming surprises and encourage intimacy.

It seems to me that some of the esthetic values which I have affirmed are shared by Indian music.  It also seems that some of the overall technical characteristics which belong to my music are shared with Indian music.  From the start, I wanted to open up blues and country music for forward-sweeping melodic improvisation.  I often eliminate chord progressions in my music, because I experience changes of root like stoplights on a highway.  Instead, I employ tonic pedal-point harmony.  Then, I treat the melodic modalities of blues and country music literally as ragas, with extensive use of glissando and melodic ornamentation.

But my music has major differences from Indian music.  My approach to rhythm and syncopation over short durations owes more to Afro-American sources than to Indian sources.  (“Jumping,” Recorded CD.)  And I usually strengthen the forward-sweeping and perpetual quality of my performances by not segmenting them with metrical cycles and changes of tempo.  I do not use drones.  [This was January 1980, before I began the experiments with the Hennix tambura tape.  I resisted playing with a drone for many years.]  When I use tonic pedal-point harmony, I introduce chords other than the tonic as passing chords; and I emphasize a characteristic feature of country music:  voice-leading in glissando.  I also use raucous timbres and non-arithmetical rhythm.  Then, my music would not be faithful to me if it were naively traditional.  To make my music more audacious and delirious, I have created “avant-garde” techniques which can subsist only in the ethnic musical language—examples are “flexing” in boogie rhythm and “slipping pulse” in conga rhythm.  (“Hoedown,” “Jumping,” respectively, Recorded CD.)  In general, I do not want to be as tidy and arithmetical and droning as Indian music.  [I had to retract the last remark after “C Tune,” Locust CD.]  It is the American style to be informal and audacious and slightly raucous—to have the charm and idiosyncratic complexity which come from being self-taught rather than academically taught.  Indeed, this music has a class-struggle dimension precisely because it derives from the entertainment of non-privileged autochthonous communities.  My compositions also have a lot of diversity, ranging from sophisticated tape music and intimate music to jazz-rock instrumentals and rockabilly songs.

My principal instrument is the electric violin.  I do not like the thin whine which is the traditional sound of the violin, especially jazz violin (“Hot Canary,” 1951); and so I have reinvented the instrument.  I have transformed the timbre, using a new kind of bow articulation; and I have invented a bluesy-country system of dyadic progressions (over an implied tonic pedal point) which I employ when playing extended passages in rapid double stops.  I have spent a great deal of time transferring to the violin the melodic modalities of the electric guitar, saxophone, steel guitar, etc. (including their attack/decay characteristics).  I have also transferred to the violin musical ideas from Hindustani music; and I have taken note of Rumanian, South Indian, and advanced European approaches.

At first, my rejection of the European categorization of musical sounds was so uncompromising that I did not want to notate music.  However, as I began to realize that my music would not easily get published in recordings, I felt an urgent need for a mnemonic—both in order to be able to repeat my performances and in the hope of giving my music a better chance of survival generally.  And there was another reason for notation:  as I proceeded, I wanted to organize thematic material in ways that required manipulation of a spatial representation of the tones.  (That is, I took advantage of notation to contrive structures which could not be calculated “by ear.”  Opaque structure.)  I modified European notation extensively to make it applicable, and began to notate my music, striving for more and more detail and precision as time went on.  In fact, one of the tangible differences between myself and other musicians who have been influenced by some of the same sources is that I have accumulated many pages of notation of American ethnic music.  Further, unlike all other attempts I have seen to notate American music, my transcriptions show on paper the features of the sound elements which are characteristically ethnic, thus demonstrating explicitly that the music has a systematic structure which is incommensurate with the European categorization of musical sounds.

Some of my song lyrics are humorous or personal [whimsical].  But starting in the Sixties, I thought that I should address the public from a standpoint which represents the real interests of the majority and of the communities which are the sources of my music.  At that time (Cuba, Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement), I affiliated with the official Left as an ongoing and expanding tendency, and sought to produce songs “in the spirit of the movement.”  But, referring to that aspiration, no type of song is less convincing esthetically than the slogan lyric, especially if it is set (as it usually is) to child’s music.  I never wrote slogan-songs.  The most convincing way to express a political thought in a song is to capture the listener’s attention with a specific, or personal, action or experience which has intense symbolic value.  Indeed, when a political thought is being voiced spontaneously by people who have lived it, they express it by way of symbolic experiences.  The listener is engaged by being invited to supply the generality that is being suggested.

Starting in 1967, my unpublished essays in political economy display a growing suspicion that the Soviet Union was not and could not be as advertised—it was too much like a welfare state with fascist controls on the population.  Even so, I continued to express a sort of fantasy Communism in the Seventies.  Even as late as 1979, I was impressed that the USSR was a technologically self-sufficient nation not under U.S. control.  By century’s end, however, it was time to connect what I had long known as an economist with the verdict of history.  “Actually existing socialism” had been a monumental, vicious bluff.  Its leaders pretended to possess theory and know-how which they not only did not have, but could not have comprehended if it had been handed them on a sliver platter.  They did not have even a definition of socialism which could pass muster intellectually.  The sort of utopian leap made by the French Revolution was not in the cards in the twentieth century.  Thus, there are no millennarian answers today for those in lower classes or castes.  Politics today remains entirely in the era of bourgeois-democratic reforms (such as land reform where that has meaning).  I don’t want to repudiate my “revolution” lyrics, but I take them today as fantasy.


Given my views on art, why do I bother with music at all?  The reasons cannot be separated from the reasons for my commitment to ethnic music, for if the possibilities of music were limited to academic and modernist tone-play, then I would have abandoned music after my February 1961 concerts in New York.  It has become clear that the foremost consideration in my musical activity is my own satisfaction:  to assert my dignity, to elevate my morale.  (Hillbilly music began as the self-entertainment of isolated farmers.)  Here I refer to my practice of music, but equally to my continuing appreciation of figures who preceded me.  [Cf. my tribute to Pandit Pran Nath, completed 2002.]  The utopia in human relationships to which my philosophy is directed is unattainable in the foreseeable future.  Activities are worthy, then, whose contribution is to keep the dream alive.  To ennoble the cultural media of a non-privileged, autochthonous community is a way of ennobling the community itself.  As for sound art specifically, it physically inundates you while unfolding in time; it is visceral and kinesthetic; it bypasses verbal concept-recognition and belief-systems.

Again, why do I specialize in ethnic music when I am competent in various options enabled by modernism, including my own “audact”?  (See the postscript.)  Certainly I do not claim that all ethnic traditions in music are equally interesting, or that for a composition to belong to an interesting ethnic tradition will guarantee its interest.  As a matter of fact, the music of Southern whites leaves a lot to be desired, and I have had to reconstruct it from inside out to bring it to the level of the best ethnic music.  (As Rose Lee Goldberg said, I took the fascism out of bluegrass.)  The result is that my fellow “folk creatures,” who mostly want to hear traditional or mass-cultural clichés, find my music puzzling.

But ethnic music has a unique significance in contemporary society.  Again, let it be clear that I am not speaking about what the ignorant call “folk music,” but about Hindustani masters such as Ram Narayan, about Buddy Guy or Coltrane, even about African field recordings which were never ensconced in any canon.  Simply, such music preserves heights of the spirit which cannot be rebuilt from the sterile plain of modernity.  Commercial-mechanistic-impersonal civilization is progressively crushing people’s spirit.  What emerged [in the late Sixties] is a culture devoted to fads and synthetic identities, a culture of smirking self-disgust and degradation.  Mass culture is a facet of the horrible symbiosis which exists between the manipulators and the underlings.

Ethnic music has a vision of human possibility which has not been impaired by the demeaning forces of modernization.  (Yet again, let it be clear that I am not speaking about what the ignorant call “folk music.”)  These repertoires are the voice of the unsubjugated autochthon.  In certain times and places, non-privileged autochthons did not have a separate language, or a visual art, or an architecture, and music was the only creative medium which they made their own.  The best of the musical languages which embody the tradition of experience of autochthonous communities are uniquely valuable for their specificity of sentiment and passion, their holistic engagement, their expression of extra-ordinary and elevated human possibilities.  They transmit something which I am not willing to ignore.

If comparing ethnic music with “educated” or “scientific” music means comparing Robert Johnson or Buddy Guy or Pran Nath with academic tone-play, we must judge academic tone-play to be abominably impoverished and dehumanized.  This judgment stands even if the academic tone-play drones or has a beat or borrows other superficial aspects from ethnic music.

Of course the musical languages of the autochthonous communities need to be renewed—to absorb new techniques and to respond to changing social conditions—and they also need to be refracted through an iconoclastic sensibility, an ennobling taste.  [We know from the guitar solo of Libby Flynt on “Hellcat Rock” that rockabilly was still reinventing itself as of June 1980.]  If the process of renewal of ethnic music has been generally thwarted by the domination of commercial mass culture, that is a measure of the contemporary erosion of the spirit.


When I announced the brend theory in 1962 and after, I did so on the grounds that value in art is in the last analysis purely private.  Ironically, the fact that “the people” did not embrace my “popular” music confirmd that 1962 position.  I must say now, however, that the brend theory is valid only at some distant horizon.  As long as our spirit is on the defensive against the demeaning forces of modernization, we cannot afford to dismiss the inspiration offered to us by ethnic music.

Having thought my situation through, it cannot be a surprise that my music remains invisible.  [As of 1980 and for twenty years thereafter.]  There are no successful musicians today whose example inspires me to play and to play better.  And there is no existing, coherent audience which already encourages the beauty to which I aspire.  The situation is unfortunate for me, because the entertainmental, kinesthetic, and political dimensions of my music demand interactions with a supportive audience to be fulfilled. 

But I have to believe that the audiences which support the deluge of crass, gross music experience a far greater misfortune than I.  Again, if ethnic music is being drowned out, it is because people’s spirit is being crushed by contemporary civilization.

Under the circumstances, the horrible symbiosis represented by mass culture cannot be upstaged by one iconoclast.  People do not want to be disturbed by the call of ennoblement when they lack the inner resources or the life-circumstances to respond to it.  The Cobains, Hoons, Staleys, and Osbournes will pander, will earn, and will earn more if they overdose.

If I have foregone the success as a musician which a number of my contemporaries have sought and found, the deprivation has been worth it, insofar as I am satisfied [1980 or 1984] that what I do is still vital.


Theodor Adorno, Introduction to the Sociology of Music (1976) ML3797.1.A3413

Paul Morris Hirsch, The Structure of the Popular Music Industry:  the Filtering Process Whereby Records Are Selected for Public Consumption (1969) ML3790.H669


Postscript:  Audact

When I announced audact, in late 1960 or in 1961, I was trying to solve a specific artistic problem that arose as serious modern music contemplated the precedent of jazz and the questioning of all “laws of art.”  There was nothing that obliged the convention that serious modern music had to issue as a script for a performance, typically produced by manipulation of a spatial representation of the tones (e.g. the tone-row), which was then “read” by performers.  There was no reason why a performer should not crystallize the music while performing it, as jazz musicians did.  At the same time, modernism had taught us that all of sound was fair game for music.  The scientific laws of structure which had become the obsession of serial music were in fact a stupid fad.  If one wished, one could produce music without a pre-existing language of any sort.  Indeed, if one did not produce a series of related pieces to establish a genre, then a given piece had no musical language at all.

What to do when everything was permitted?  The absence of formal canons made improvisation hard to do well, and easy to do badly (it gave a field day to self-indulgence).  One wanted a bounded audio program which presupposed one’s full attention and offered gratification in return.  All the same, “gratifying” did not need to mean saccharine.  (Nor was one required to “appreciate,” as serial music demanded, the anxious combinatorics of the tempered scale.)  Somebody said, then there are no objective criteria, value is totally subjective—how do you know what is good and what is bad?  To give that offhand remark the reply it deserves requires answering all the leading questions of esthetics.  What the questioner may mean, without articulating it, is that some traditions are honorable in the sense that any proficient practitioner can deliver a gratifying result.  That means, in fact, that the formal canons largely guarantee gratification relative to the intended audience.  Another feature of traditional art is a shared language with intended effects.  Indian music addresses this aspect explicitly with the concept of rasa—European art music is content to shrug it off as romanticism.  In any case, to become a competent listener to Bruckner, for example—to grasp what its effect is on the intended listener—one may indeed have to undergo an education.  To receive such an education is not necessarily a favor—I call it psychic brutalization.

That having been said, what criterion other than subjective gratification do you imagine you possess for art which does have canons of form?  Or—abstract painting lacks rules as much as audact does—I know, I have occasionally been an abstract painter.  Are the “criteria” you search for the pronouncements of art experts?  In fact, the abstract painting establishment occasionally pretends that one or another painter has an abstruse language which the laity is unequipped to decode.  That is sheerist charlatanism, of course.  If there isn’t any language then there isn’t any language.  The same applies to audact.

The veil of authority is lifted, and all that is left is subjective gratification.  It brings us to the threshold of the brend theory. 

What, again, are the advantages of sound art?  It can physically inundate you while unfolding in time; it can be visceral and kinesthetic; it bypasses verbal concept-recognition and belief-systems.  Returning to the problem which audact poses for itself, a gratifying piece has to find generic effects which can reach the untrained listener—in theory, audact must be far less opaque than Bruckner.  (In practice, the number of people who will be willing to entertain this genre is smaller than Bruckner’s audience.)  Audact will also appeal to the classic considerations of unity, and of variation or surprise.  I can give you another hint:  the most successful work was done acoustically, whether or not you could tell that the sounds were acoustic.  The “electronic” composers had preconceptions which made everything they did sound like a sound track for a science fiction movie (and sound bored with itself).

As I worked with audact, I arrived at performances which had stable patterns, even written mnemonics—although the detail was supplied in performance.  I also progressed to pieces created in the listener, who no longer had the role of auditor of a composed program. 

The Central Park Transverse Vocals.  Free Alto. 

[to be released on a Locust CD.]

—Audart Composition (May 1961). 

—Audart:  A Way of Enjoying a Non-Controlled Acoustical Environment (July 1961). 

[Texts whose first sponsored publication was in Henry Flynt, “Concept Art:  Fragments and Reconstructions,” Backworks, 1982.]