Encounter between Christopher Williams and
Berlin, July 2018
1. The Concert Series KONTRAKLANG
To begin with, I wanted to propose we talk about my activity as a curator, because I think it speaks to the topic of this issue. In Berlin, I co-curate a monthly concert series called KONTRAKLANG (www.kontraklang.de). In a place like Berlin where you have a higher concentration of people doing contemporary music than anywhere else in the world, and at a very high level, it happens that people specialize, and they don’t necessarily see themselves as part of a bigger ecosystem. For example, some people in the sound art scene might go to galleries or have something to do with the radio, but they don’t necessarily spend much time going to concerts or hanging out with composers and musicians. Then you have, as you know, composer-composers who only go to concerts of their own music or to festivals to fish for commissions, or occasionally to hear what their friends are doing. And then you have improvisers who go to certain clubs and would never go to conventional new music festivals. Not everyone is like that of course, but it is a tendency: humans like to separate themselves into tribes.
There is nothing wrong with that?
Well, I mean, there is something wrong with it, if it becomes the super-structure.
Yes. And within the improvisation world you have also sub-categories?
Yes. Even though the pie is small, people feel the need to cut it up into pieces. I don’t mean to dwell on that as a permanent condition of humanity, but it is something that’s there – and which we wanted to address when we started KONTRAKLANG four years ago. We wanted to derail this tendency and to encourage more intersections between different mini-scenes. In particular, we gravitate toward forms of exchange, or work that has multiple identities. Sometimes, often actually, we have two-part concerts, one set – break – one set, in which these two sets are very different aesthetically, generationally, etc. But they might be tied up with similar kinds of questions or methods. For example, a couple of years ago we did a concert about collectives. We invited two collectives: on the one hand, Stock11 (http://stock11.de), a group of composers-performers, mainly German, who are very much anchored in the “Neue Musik” scene; they presented some pieces of their own and played each other’s works. And on the other hand, we presented a more experimental collective, Umlaut (http://www.umlautrecords.com/), whose members do not perform together regularly, but they are friends; they have a record label, a festival, and a loose network of people who like each other, but don’t have necessarily have a common musical history. They had never actually played a concert together as “Umlaut”; and now we asked them to perform a concert together. I think there were five or six of them and they made a piece together for the first time ever. So, the same theme applied to both sets, but it manifested under very different conditions, with very different aesthetics, very different philosophies about how to work together. This is the sort of thing we dig. Even when there is no nice theme to package the diversity, there is usually a thread that connects the content and highlights the differences in a (hopefully) provocative way. This is something that has been very fruitful for us, because it creates occasions for collaborations that wouldn’t normally be there, you know with festivals or institutions, and also I think, it has helped develop a wider audience than we would have if we were doing only new music, or improvised music, or something more obvious like that. We also invite sound artists: we have had a few performance-installations as well as projects involving sound artists who write for instruments. Concerts are not necessarily appropriate formats for people doing sound art, because they generally work in other sorts of spaces or formats; performance is not necessarily part of sound art. In fact, in Germany, especially, it is one of the walls, let’s say, that historically has been constructed between sound art and music. It is not that way in other places necessarily.
Is it because sound artists are more connected to the visual arts?
Exactly. Their superstructure is the art world, generally speaking, as opposed to the music world.
Also, they are often into electronics or computer-generated sounds?
Sometimes. But, as an American, my understanding of sound art is more ecumenical. I don’t really know where to put a lot of people who call themselves sound artists but also do music or vice versa. Nor do I really care, but I mention it to provide a background for our taste for grey areas in KONTRAKLANG.
2. Public Participation
It seems to me that for many artists who are interested in sound matter, there is a need to avoid the ultra-specialized universe of musicians, which might be a guarantee of excellence but a source of great limitations. But there is also the question of the audience. Very often it is composed of the artists, the musicians themselves and their entourage. I have the impression that today there is a great demand for active participation on the part of the public, not just to be in situations of having to listen to or contemplate something. Is this the case?
Are listening and contemplating not active? Even in the most formal live concert situations, the audience is physically engaged with the music; I do not really relate to the concept of participation as a separate layer of activity. Everything I do as a musician is quite collaborative. I almost never do something by myself, whether making written pieces for other people or making pieces for myself, or improvising, even when it’s ostensibly “alone”. There is always some very clear aspect of sharing. And I extend that notion of course to listening as well, even if listeners are not voting on what piece I should play next, or processing my sounds through their smartphones or whatever. Imagination is inherently interactive, and that is good enough for me. I don’t really spend too much time on the more overtly social participation that is hyped in pop music or in advertising, or even curating in museum contexts nowadays. I am quite skeptical actually. Did you ever come across an architect and thinker called Markus Miessen?
He wrote a book called The Nightmare of Participation, in which he takes apart this whole idea, and critiques the kind of cynical mindset behind “Let the people decide.”
Yet active public participation seems to me to be what constitutes the very nature of architecture, in the active adaptation of spaces and pathways by users, or even their actual modification. But, of course, the process is as follows: architects build something out of a phantasm of who the users are, and then the users afterwards transform the planned places and pathways.
Well, architecture definitely offers an interesting context for thinking about participation, because it can be present in so many different ways.
Usually, the public has no choice but participating.
They have to live there. Are you familiar with Lawrence Halprin’s work?
Yes, very much. “RSVP Cycles”.
As you know, I wrote a chapter about it in my dissertation and I have been dipping into his work over the last couple of years. I also took a dance class with Anna Halprin, his wife, who was equally responsible for that whole story. She is ninety-eight now and still teaches twice a week, on the same deck where she has been teaching since the 1950s, it’s amazing. Anna still talks about RSVP Cycles a lot. Her view of RSVP is simpler and more open than her husband’s: he had a more systematic idea about what it should do and how to use it. It is fascinating to compare the utopian sense of participation in his writings with how he actually implemented it in his own projects. In her book City Choreographer Lawrence Halprin in Urban Renewal America, Alison Bick Hirsh views Halprin’s work with sympathetic eyes. But she also offers a critical view of the tension between his modernist sensibilities and his need for control and, on the other hand, his genuine desire to maximize the potential of public participation at different levels.
The project I use in my dissertation to unpack the principles of RSVP is the Sea Ranch, an ecological community in Northern California. If you saw it, you would recognize it immediately because the style of architecture has been copied so widely: unfinished wood siding with very steep roofs and big windows – very iconic. He developed this kind of architecture for that particular place: the slanted roofs divert the wind coming off the ocean and create a kind of a sanctuary on the side of the house not facing the coast. The wood siding derives from a feature of historical regional architecture, the barns that were built there by Russian fur traders before the land was developed. He and his many collaborators also drew up ecological principles for the community: there were rules about the kind of vegetation to be used on the private lots, that no house should block the view of the sea for any other house, that the community should be built in clusters rather than spread out suburb-style – these sorts of things. And pretty soon this community became so sought after, because of the beauty and solitude, that basically the real estate developers ran all over his ecological principles.
Ultimately they let him go and expanded the community in a way that totally contradicted his original vision. This project was based on the RSVP Cycle, that is, on a model of the creative process that prioritized a transparent representation of interactions between the Resources, the Score, the Value-actions, and the Performance. But the power of purse hovering over the whole process, which kind of rendered everything else impotent at a certain point, is not represented in his model. This asymmetrical power dynamic was apparently a problem in more than one of his projects. It was not always based on money, but sometimes on his own vision, which wasn’t represented and critiqued in the creative process.
That’s the nature of any project, it lasts and suddenly it becomes something else, or it disappears.
Some of his urbanist projects were extreme in this way: a year’s worth of work with the community, meeting with people, setting up local task forces with community representatives, organizing events, and taking surveys… and then ultimately he would shape the project to reach the conclusions that he wanted to reach in the first place! I can understand why it would be the case, in a way, because if you let the people decide complex issues, it can be hard to reach conclusions. He didn’t do that, I think, because of his training and his strong aesthetic ideals, which were very much rooted in the Bauhaus. He studied at the Harvard Graduate School of Design with Gropius. He could not, at a certain level, escape his modernist impulses. In my experience, authorial power structures rarely disappear in these kinds of participatory projects, and it’s wise to accept that and use it to the collective advantage.
In that same chapter in my dissertation, I talk about a set of pieces by Richard Barrett. He is an interesting guy, because he’s an illustrious composer-composer, who’s often worked with very complex notation, but he has also been a free improviser throughout his career, mainly on electronics; he has an important duo with Paul Obermayer called furt. Fifteen years ago or so Richard started working with notation and improvisation together in his projects at the same time, which was kind of unheard of in his output – it was either one or the other up until that point. He wrote a series of pieces called fOKT, for an octet of improvisers and composers-performers. What I find interesting about this series is that his role in the project is very much that of a leader, a composer, but by appealing to the performers’ own sound worlds, and offering his composition as an extension of his performance practice, he created a situation in which he could melt into the project as one musician among many. It was not about maintaining a power structure as in some of Lawrence Halprin’s work. I think it is a superb model for how composers interested in improvisation can work. It provides an alternative to more facile solutions, such as when a composer who is not an improviser him/herself gives improvisers a timeline and says: “do this for a while, then do that”. There are deeper ways to engage improvisation as a composer if you don’t adopt this perspective of looking at performance from a helicopter.
In the 1960s, I experienced many situations like the one you describe: a composer who included moments of improvisation in his scores. Many experimental versions were already available in the form of graphic scores, directed improvisation (what today is called “sound painting”), not forgetting the processes of aleatoric forms and indeterminacy. At the time, this produced a great deal of frustration among the performers, which led to the need for instrumentalists and vocalists to create situations of “free” improvisation that dispensed with the authority of a single person bearing creative responsibility. Certainly, today the situation of the relationships between composition and improvisation has changed a lot. Moreover, the conditions of collective creation of sound material at the time of the performance on stage is far from being clearly defined in terms of content and social relations. For my part, over the last 15 years, I have developed the notion of improvisation protocols which seem to me to be necessary in situations where musicians from different traditions have to meet to co-construct sound material, in situations where musicians and other artists (dancers, actors, visual artists, etc.) meet to find common territories, or in situations where it is a question of people approaching improvisation for the first time. However, I remain attached to two ideas: a) improvisation holds its legitimacy in the collective creation of a type of direct and horizontal democracy; b) the supports of the « visual » world must not be eliminated, but improvisation should encourage other supports that are clearly on the side of orality and listening.
3. The Question of Immigration
To change the subject and come back to Berlin: you seem to describe a world that is still deeply attached to the notions of avant-garde and innovation in perspectives that seem to me to be still linked to the modernist period – of course I am completely part of that world. But what about the problem of immigration, for example? Even if at the moment this problem is particularly burning, I think it is not new. Do people who don’t correspond to the ideal of Western art come to the concerts you organize?
Actually, in our concert series we have connections to organizations that help refugees, and we have invited them to our events. Maybe you know that many of the refugees – besides the fact that they are in a new place and they have to start from scratch here without much, if any, family or friends – they don’t have the right to work. Some of them go to study German, or they look for internships and the like, but many of them just are hanging around waiting to return to their country, and of course this is a recipe for disaster. So, there are organizations that offer ways for them to get involved with society here. We have invited them to KONTRAKLANG, and it is a standing invitation, free of charge. The venue offers them free drinks. Occasionally we have had a crowd of up to twenty, twenty-five people from these organizations, and some of those concerts were among the best of the season, because they brought a completely different atmosphere to the audience. Imagine that these are mostly kids – say between eighteen or even younger up through their mid-twenties – many of whom, I suspect, have never been to any formal concert, much less of contemporary music. The whole ritual of going to a concert hall, paying attention, turning off their phones, seems not to be a part of their world. Sometimes, they talk to each other during the concerts, they get up and go to the bar or go to the bathroom while the pieces are being played. It is distracting at first, but they have no taboos about reacting to the music. I can remember the applause for certain pieces was just mind-blowing – they got up and started hooting and hollering like nobody from our usual audience would ever do. And they laugh and make comments to each other when something strange happens. Obviously this is refreshing, if sightly shocking, for a seasoned contemporary music audience. Unfortunately, these folks don’t come so often anymore; maybe we need to get in touch again and recruit some more, because it was a very positive experience. However, some of them did come back. Some of them kept coming and asking questions about what we do, and that is very encouraging. But, of course, this is an exception to the rule.
Do they come with their own practices?
Well, I don’t know how many of them are dedicated or professional musicians, but I have the impression that some sing or play an instrument. Honestly, it’s something of a blind spot.
More generally, Berlin is a place that is particularly known for its multiculturalism. It’s not just the question of the recent refugees.
It’s true that there are, here in Berlin, hundreds of nationalities and languages, and different communities. Are you curious why our concerts are so white?
It is about the relationship between the group of “modernists” – which is largely white – and the rest of society. It has to do with the impression I have of a gradual disappearance of contemporary music of my generation, which in the past had a large audience that has now become increasingly sparse and had a media exposure that has now practically disappeared, all this in favor of a mosaic of diversified practices (as you mentioned above), each with a group of passionate aficionados but few in number.
In Berlin you get better audiences than practically anywhere else, in my experience. Even though you may have only fifteen to twenty people in the audience at some concerts, more often you have fifty, which is cozy at a venue like Ausland, one of the underground institutions in improvised music. They have been going for fifteen years or so, and they have a regular series there called “Biegungen”, which some friends of mine run. The place is only so big, but if you get a certain number of people there, it feels like a party; it’s quite a lively scene. But then again you have more official festivals with an audience of hundreds. KONTAKLANG is somewhere in between, usually we have around a hundred people per concert. So, I don’t have the impression at all that this type of music and its audience are dwindling per se. What you are talking about, I think, is rather the disconnect between musical culture and musical practice.
Not quite. To come back to what we said before, it’s more the idea of a plethora of “small groups”, with their own networks that spread around the world but remain small in size. It’s often difficult to be able to distinguish one network from another. It is no longer a question of distinguishing between high art and popular culture, but rather of a series of underground networks whose practices and affiliations are in opposition to the unifying machine of the cultural industry. These networks are at the same time so similar, they all tend to do the same thing at the same time, and yet they are closed in the sense that they tend at the same time to avoid doing anything with one another. Each network has its own festivals, stages, concert halls, and if you’re part of another group, there’s no chance of being invited. The thought of the multitude of the various undergrounds opens up fields of unlimited freedom, and yet it tends completely to multiply the walls.
The walls! Yes, that is what I mean by musical culture: how people organize themselves, the discourses that they are involved in, and places that they play, magazines they read, all of this stuff. To me, it is obviously extremely important, and it has a major impact on practice, but I don’t think that the practice is bound by it. There is a lot of common ground between, for instance, certain musicians working with drones or tabletop guitars, and electro-acoustic musicians, and experimental DJs; similar problems appear in different practical contexts. But when it comes to what is called “Vermittlung” in German, the presentation, promotion, dissemination of the music, then swshhhh… they often fly by each other completely. What interests me more, as a musician who understands the work on the ground, is how practice can connect different musical cultures, and not how musical cultures can separate the practices. Musical culture has to be there to serve the practice, and this is one of the reasons why I am interested in curating, because I can bring knowledge of the connectivity between these different practices to bear on their presentation. Too many of the people running festivals, institutions, schools, and publications don’t have that first-hand perspective of working with the materials, so they don’t see these links and they don’t promote them. Sometimes they might dare to bring seemingly incompatible traditions together for isolated encounters, like Persian or Indian classical musicians and a contemporary chamber ensemble. These things happen every so often, but more often than not they are doomed by the gesture of making some sexy cocktail of presumed others. What we try to do in our series is to explore the continuities that are already there but may be hidden from view by our own presumptuous music-cultural frameworks.
5. Artistic Research – A Tension between Theory and Practice
This brings us to the last question: the walls that exist between the academic world of the university and that of actual practice. Music practitioners are excluded from higher education and research institutions, or more often do not want to be associated with them. But at the same time, they are not completely out of them these days. It seems to me that you are in a good position to say things about this.
Well, I am lucky to have one foot in academia and one foot out, so I don’t have to choose, at least at this point. I have always been interested in research, and obviously I’ve always been interested in making music for its own sake. In my doctorate I developed a strong taste for the interface between the two.
Then, the notion of artistic research is important to you?
Yes and no. The contents of artistic research are important to me, and I am very fond of the idea that practice can do things for research that more scientific methods cannot. I am also fond of the potential that artistic practice – particularly experimental music – has for larger social questions, larger questions around knowledge production and dissemination. I am also interested in using research to step outside of my own aesthetic limitations. All of these things are inherent to artistic research, but on the other hand, I am ambivalent about the discipline of artistic research and its institutions. The term “artistic research” suffers a lot of abuse. On the one hand, the term is common among practitioners who cannot really survive in the art or music world, because they don’t have the skills or the gumption to live as a freelance artist. On the other hand, there are academics who colonize this area, because they need a specialism. Perhaps they come from philosophy or the social sciences, art history, musicology, theatre studies, critical theory, or the like. For them, artistic research is another pie to be sliced up.
Yes, I can see.
So, there are conferences and journals and academic departments, but I can’t determine if or how many people in the world of artistic research really prize practice as practice. You can probably sense my allergy to this aspect of artistic research – sorry for the rant! Let’s just say I care less about promoting or theorizing artistic research as a discipline, and more about doing it. I suspect most of the people who do the best work in the field feel the same way. This topic has been more in my mind lately than it ever has been, first of all because I’d like to have some sort of regular income; this freelance artist hardship number is getting tiresome!
Indeed, the relationships between the different versions of artistic careers are not entirely peaceful. Firstly, independent artists, particularly in the field of experimental music, often consider those who are sheltered in academic or other institutions as betraying the ideal of artistic risk as such. Secondly, teachers who are oriented towards instrumental or vocal music practice often think that any reflection on one’s own practice is a useless time taken from the actual practice required by the high level of excellence. Thirdly, many artists do research without knowing it, and when they are aware of it, they often refuse to disseminate their art through research papers. Many walls have been erected between the worlds of independent practices, conservatories and research institutions.
Well, in terms of just the limited subject of improvisation, more and more people who can do both are in positions of power. Look at George Lewis: he’s changed everything. He paid his dues as a musician and artist, and he’s constantly doing interesting stuff creatively; and meanwhile he’s become a figurehead in the field of improvisation studies. Through his professorship at Columbia University, he’s been able to create opportunities for all kinds of people and ideas which might not otherwise have a place there.
At Columbia University (and Princeton), historically, Milton Babbitt was the figurehead of the music department. It’s very interesting that now it’s George Lewis, with all of what he stands for, who’s in that position, who’s become the most influential intellectual and artistic figure in the department.
You did your PhD at Leiden University. It seems to be a very interesting place.
Yes, for sure. There are lots of interesting students, and the faculty is very small – it’s basically Marcel Cobussen, Richard Barrett (my two main advisers), and Henk Borgdorff, who is an important theorist of artistic research. My committee chair was Frans de Ruiter, who ran the Royal Conservatory in The Hague for many years before founding the department in Leiden. I believe Edwin van der Heide, a sound artist who makes these big kinetic sculptures and lots of sound installations, is also involved now. It is a totally happening hub for this kind of stuff.
Concerning my search for a more stable position, I am sure something will pop up, I just have to be patient and keep asking around. Most of these kind of opportunities in my life have happened through personal connections anyway, so I think I have to keep my hands on the wheel until the right person shows up.
Our encounter is ending, because I have to go.
Thank you very much for this nice meeting.
1. 2010 Markus Miessen, The Nightmare of Participation, Berlin: Sternberg Press
2. See Lawrence Halprin, The RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes in Human Environment, G.Brazilier, 1970. RSVP cycles are a system of creative and collaborative methodology. The meaning of the letters are as follows: R = resources; S = scores ; V = value-action; P = performance. See en.wikipedia.org
3. Alison Hirsch, City Choreographer: Lawrence Halprin in Urban Renewal America, University of Minnesota Press, 2014. (https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/city-choreographer)
4. “Ausland, Berlin, is an independent venue for music, film, literature, performance and other artistic endeavors. We also offer our infrastructure for artists and projects for rehearsals, recordings, and workshops, as well as a number of residencies. Inaugurated in 2002, ausland is run by a collective of volunteers.” (https://ausland-berlin.de/about-ausland)
5. See Leiden University – Academy of Creative and Performing Arts.(https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/humanities/academy-of-creative-and-performing-arts/research)
Christopher A. Williams (1981, San Diego) makes, organizes, and theorizes around experimental music and sound. As a composer and contrabassist, his work runs the gamut from chamber music, improvisation, and radio art to collaborations with dancers, sound artists, and visual artists. Performances and collaborations with Derek Bailey, Compagnie Ouie/Dire, Charles Curtis, LaMonte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, Ferran Fages, Robin Hayward (as Reidemeister Move), Barbara Held, Christian Kesten, Christina Kubisch, Liminar, Maulwerker, Charlie Morrow, David Moss, Andrea Neumann, Mary Oliver and Rozemarie Heggen, Ben Patterson, Robyn Schulkowsky, Ensemble SuperMusique, Vocal Constructivists, dancers Jadi Carboni and Martin Sonderkamp, filmmaker Zachary Kerschberg, and painters Sebastian Dacey and Tanja Smit. This work has appeared in various North American and European experimental music circuits, as well as on VPRO Radio 6 (Holland), Deutschlandfunk Kultur, the Museum of Contemporary Art Barcelona, Volksbühne Berlin, and the American Documentary Film Festival.
Williams’ artistic research takes the form of both conventional academic publications and practice-based multimedia projects. His writings appear in publications such as the Journal of Sonic Studies, Journal for Artistic Research, Open Space Magazine, Critical Studies in Improvisation, TEMPO, and Experiencing Liveness in Contemporary Performance(Routledge).
Williams holds a B.A. from the University of California San Diego (Charles Curtis, Chaya Czernowin, and Bertram Turetzky); and a Ph.D. from the University of Leiden (Marcel Cobussen and Richard Barrett). His native digital dissertation Tactile Paths: on and through Notation for Improvisers is at www.tactilepaths.net.
From 2020-2022 he is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Graz.