Art & Music: David Briers Sees Increasing Links between Contemporary Music and Visual Art

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ARTICLES BY CHRIS TOWNSEND IN TWO RECENT ISSUES OF ART MONTHLY (AM310, 312) HAVE DESCRIBED HOW THE PRACTICE OF VIDEO ART HAS LATELY MADE INCURSIONS INTO THE WORLD OF STAGED OPERA, THEREBY OFFERING OPERA 'OPPORTUNITIES FOR RENEWED HISTORICAL RELEVANCE' COUNTER TO 'THE DISABLING PROPERTIES OF VISUAL SPECTACLE'. Those articles were written by a self-confessed opera lover. I am not an opera lover, as it happens, but I am a close follower of festivals of contemporary music. Such festivals, which provide platforms for new modernist and postmodernist composed concert music, are as different from performances in opera houses or large mainstream concert halls as chalk and cheese. Performances at contemporary music festivals are given before closely attentive and completely silent audiences, an equivalent condition to the archetypal white cube that acts as a neutral ground on which to place a new work of art. In contrast to the world of opera, these are almost anti-spectacles. Here, however preoccupied the music is with randomness and other playful compositional strategies, it is essentially experienced as a form of serious intellectual discourse. In this discrete world I have observed over a number of years an increasing contiguity with aspects of contemporary visual art practices.

To some degree, this encroachment is happening because of the prevalent awareness of the phenomenon of sound art, currently flourishing as a popular artistic practice and curatorial favourite, and heading towards institutional respectability as an academic discipline, with its own contextual theory, history and historiography. For some years it has uncomfortably positioned itself taxonomically between fine art practice (most practitioners who are happy to be called sound artists trained on fine art courses) and contemporary music, in the way that the many attempts to devise a theoretical context for live art used to founder somewhere between its dual contexts of art history and theatre history. When the paradigm of the latter shifted from having been considered a subspecies of theatre, and contingent upon it, live art became, according to Philip Auslander, 'a subset of a still larger category reasonably called performance'. In a similar way, the tendency now seems to be to consider sound art and composed music both as subcategories of sound culture. There are still, of course, many blurred borders between these and other multifarious practices within sound culture: experimental music, electroacoustic music, low tech sound sculpture, performance art, sound poetry, radiophonic art, turntable culture, noise music, soundscape design, field recording, acoustic ecology, psychoacoustics and the philosophy of sound.

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All of these featured in one way or another at the 30th Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (HCMF) in November, to a greater degree perhaps than previously at this event. There are many established and nascent international festivals and gatherings specialising in sound art, free improvisation and noise music--for example, the Happy New Ears Festival at Kortrijk in Belgium, Krakow's annual autumn Audio Art Festival and the forthcoming Soundwaves Festival in Brighton. There are not so many international festivals of contemporary concert music these days, though some new ones have come into being in recent years, like Klangspuren in Austria, the Gothenburg Art Sounds Festival and Dublin's Printing House Festival. The most substantial contemporary music festivals have been going the longest: the Warsaw Autumn since 1956, and the Zagreb Music Biennale since 1961.

HCMF is equivalent in importance in the contemporary music world to Documenta or Ars Electronica. Like those manifestations within the art world, HCMF concentrates on presenting new work within an international frame of reference, and is conditioned to some degree by the ideas of one director. HCMF's initiator and director until 2000 was Richard Steinitz, composition lecturer at Huddersfield University, who fostered a climate of considerable openness tempered by academic rigour and complete seriousness. …