Lars Graugaard: Venus
17 October 2015
A Closer Listen
Among the various strategies against the concept of representation in music that the avant-garde has deployed we can find the ‘scientific’ approach. Best exemplified by many mid-century U.S. electronic musicians like Vladimir Ussachevsky, or by the spiritwith which someone like Milton Babbitt wrote his infamous essay “Who Cares If You Listen?” in 1958, this philosophy lays down the stakes of musical research as belonging entirely to the domain of scientific knowledge. Parting from sound as natural event, it was mostly uninterested in its cultural and historical associations, searching in its organization a truthful path different from that of good old acoustics. While this endeavour to find the laws of music might seem quixotic to many of us now, it’s nevertheless important for the experimentalist (in the full, scientific meaning of the word) mind-set with which it’s subsequently graced many an artist producing highly creative, engaging work like Lars Graugaard’s own.
The Danish composer lives up to the task by having programmed a piece of software that correlates all aspects of a music (notation, performance, physical properties) with the emotion it causes in listeners. This means, in a way, a reinterpretation of the scientifically-grounded notions of the aforementioned artists that basically puts them on their head: no longer are relations (between a note and the response to it, the performance of a piece and its capacity for producing knowledge) pushed far down into the research agenda as mere distractions to the discovery of truths about nature, but made the centrepiece to generate knowledge on human nature.
Venus integrates orchestral arrangements, soloists under very particular circumstances, and electronics into four pieces that sometimes feel simple, sometimes complex, arranging an ambient-like mode whose richness depends on the listener’s commitment. Thus, it feels like a system, as if the musicians were the program itself, coding away musical setpieces procedurally made to interact with the user in ways that make sense, that articulate the music as something that reflects him/her as much as it exists independently. Emotions being data, the side of the equation that’s replaced properties and has embraced relations instead, the intent of the program is to provide a way to directly deal with a core truth of expression, to enable the composer to write no longer in musical terms (this melody represents that) but in strictly emotional ones.
With this in mind, the role of the soloist in “Book of Throws” becomes an element of experimental risk, of not completely subordinating everything to a pretension of universal knowledge, since the sole requirement made of the pianist was that he didn’t know anything about the piece beforehand. He played (with pretty great results) by completely improvising his part, having no background in either essays, access to the score, and so on, being guided solely by the program’s functioning around him. The soloist provokes a singular question – even if this is a formula in which emotion and sound organization are equal, you can’t take away considerations of context, an element of entropy in the perfect environment a program supposedly provides. The soloist is the way through which Graugaard distances himself from a fully scientific idea of access to laws grounded on universal truths, coding in relations – and therefore, relativity – in a way that makes the system imperfect.
It’s this imperfection, this focus on the scientific reduction of the human, what grants Venus its wings, proving that the avant-garde ventures of old are not quite dead yet, and more importantly, that their suggestions are far from being exhausted. This is new music, to be sure, and the program that lies behind it, full of intricacy, will surely provide many more of quite exciting, revealing musical thoughts. We might never find the law of ‘sadness’ or ‘feel-good’, and it’s arguable that composers will never be able to write in emotions, but the quest itself is more than worth the effort. Like Venus, it provides us with an endless desire to renew and discover pleasures both familiar and unknown.