»New music,« the universally accepted heir to Western art music, is formally homologous to sound art. For new music uncritically inherits an unreconstructed concept of absolute music: the equating of music with (nonconceptual instrumental) sound. But music has not always been understood this way. Before the introduction of absolute music in the early 1800s, in fact, music was understood as harmonia, rhythmos, logos – or harmony, rhythm, and language or rational thought. Note the presence of language in that trio and the absence of »sound.« Ultimately, artists working today are left with two versions (new music, sound art) of the same limiting category: sound.
As an intervention into the deadlock that has emerged through the conflicting contexts of »new music,« »sound art,« and »visual art,« I have proposed the concept of critical music, a category that I elaborate in my book, After Sound: Toward a Critical Music, which will be published this year. Critical music, I argue, breaks from the formal adherence to sound encountered in sound art and new music, and expands to engage with a broader social, political, and artistic universe. Ultra-red, Pussy Riot, Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, Hong-Kai Wang, Peter Ablinger, and Anri Sala: beyond sound, these artists use social practice, conceptualism, and activist strategies that radically refigure the notion of music as autonomous sound.
»Is criticality possible today? In the historical present, in which everything up to and including thought itself has proven commodifiable, is the notion of a critically engaged practice itself a naive and outmoded concept?«
JE/PK: How does this relate to critical or political (art) practices?
GDB: For me, criticality is important. But we might try considering it first as a question: Is criticality possible today? In the historical present, in which everything up to and including thought itself has proven commodifiable, is the notion of a critically engaged practice itself a naive and outmoded concept? I do see contemporary art and its related discourses as an area in which the problem can, at the very least, be posed. I’ve written about the recent calls from figures like Suhail Malik for an »exit« from contemporary art. Still, I think that certain practices that take from the legacy of conceptual art, along with the strategies of critical negation inherited by the historical avant-garde, become – at best – capable of intervening in a broader cultural and political field.
Contemporary art, as Peter Osborne has argued, is postconceptual art, an art beyond medium that is constituted by (and an instantiation of) concepts and language. Here I suggest that forms found in music – long considered the nonconceptual art form par excellence – prove to be, paradoxically, worth reconsidering. Again, composition might be thought of as one of these forms. Borrowing from Bruno Latour, we can think of composition, especially in light of the artists listed earlier (Pussy Riot, Ultra-red, Boudry–Lorenz), as a process of assembling radical forms of commonality.