Archive for Seth Kim-Cohen

Bach + Mantione: Extramusical 2

Posted in Duos, Themes with tags , , on May 25, 2012 by glenncbach

24 May 2012

Hi Glenn,

A few responses below:


I’ve been thinking about our talk, especially your reflections on extramusical ideas. I don’t know if its possible, at least for me, to avoid having extramusical connections or threads. When I say sound for sound’s sake, that’s a listening thing, and, like you said, a given. When I make music, either live or in the studio, it may not necessarily be about something, but it’s always with something.

Let me clarify what I meant about the extramusical and why I find the issue of such relevance.  I’m going to quote Seth Kim-Cohen from his book because he puts it very succinctly:

Music has always functioned according to Greenbergian precepts.  As a practice, music is positively obsessed with its media specificity.  Only music includes, as part of its discursive vocabulary, a term for the foreign matter threatening always to infect it: ‘extramusical.’ Even at the height of modernism, painters did not have a name for extrapainterly elements; filmmakers do not worry about the extracinematic. But in music as an academic, artistic, and performance discipline, there is a perceived need to identify–often to eliminate–aspects of production, reception, or discussion that are not specifically manifest in material form. (In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-cochlear Sonic Art, pp.39-40)

You’ve said you doubt the possibility of being able to avoid having extramusical connections or threads. I don’t think it is possible.  My point is that this idea of avoidance is a modernist perspective that was played out in the visual arts long ago, and yet it still seems to persist in music.  It should really be a non-issue.

I had a conversation with a young composer last weekend (by young I mean 30 something) who was adamant that music should be purely about the beauty of sound…that that’s all that is required or necessary.  My question is: is that all that’s possible and if other avenues exist why not explore them as well? Must there be this insulated environment?  Does the inclusion of ‘extramusical’ ideas make the beauty of sound less beautiful?

I find it interesting that music, one of the few social art forms, has so often chosen to ignore social issues. New music composers have no problem addressing and/or changing the listener’s sensory perceptions or their sense of time…but is that all there is?

I ask the question: Do we have any responsibility as artists beyond appealing to the senses (the listener’s and more importantly, our own)?  It’s funny that music as entertainment (Pop music for instance) is looked down on by many experimental composers as commodified drivel (which in many cases might be true), but many Pop artists have created and encouraged real social change for the better through their music.  The same cannot be said for new music composers, at least not to the same degree.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to enforce my judgment on any other artist.  Nor would I want to lock myself into one way of approaching music.  I’m simply looking inward and trying to reconcile an internal conflict that has both fueled and haunted my work for several years.


Whenever I’m in a live moment, I always try to remind myself to toggle back to the point of view of the audience, hearing it as they hear it. In a sense I take on the responsibility of the overall soundscape, whether or not it’s mine to take, and I invest in its care and quality of life. So, there’s that goal of contributing a worthy addition to the preexisting collection of soundscapes in the world.

But when you “toggle back to the point of view of the audience” aren’t you really still hearing from your own perspective?  How can it be any other way?  How can you group an audience together and conceive of some consensual experience they are having?  And even if you could, how would you determine the difference between that and your own?


So, part of it for me is spelunking deep and wide into the performance to see if there is an opportunity to showcase and celebrate those intense moments of group-mind and audience connection. Is that visionary? Ecstatic? If there is such a thing as a humble and quiet ecstasy, then, yes.

I have experienced this quiet ecstasy…I know what you mean.  It’s magical and addictive, as much as it is rare. Looking forward to achieving some of these moments together, as soon as we find our third collaborator.