After summarizing the work on diversity and inclusion, led by Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner, SEAMUS President Ted Coffey presented the following remarks at the SEAMUS 2019 Awards Banquet:
I want to move to a related topic, and by way of introduction, I’ll read a bit from the statement I wrote for your consideration of my candidacy. I want to read it now because I appreciate that probably no one read it at that time LOL, and it still has a lot to do with where I’d like to see SEAMUS heading.
SEAMUS composers are in a position to cultivate some of the most rarefied musical objects possible within the structure of our national scene, irrespective of market forces (beyond those of our academic economy). It makes sense that we safeguard subtle, crystalline articulations available to music, for example, for solo performer and computer-mediated live electronics, uniquely informed by immersion in one or another of the world’s music traditions. But just as certainly, spectro-morphological thinking is not the superset of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN; or, more broadly, at a moment when almost every music we hear is electro-acoustic in significant ways, we have more to gain than to lose by increasing the circulation of other rigorous, experimental, and artful musical poetics, wherever we might find them.
Along those lines, I support ever deeper and more significant dialogue with other artistic disciplines, with musicological and other critical and comparative studies, and with partners in technology. Beyond the obvious value of invigorated self-reflection, such relationships grant us a bigger tent, having more to talk about with colleagues outside our discipline.
I am devoted to the traditions of electro-acoustic music, to the music itself, and to the living community of practitioners we are. Reviewing the list of SEAMUS Award recipients, it is impossible to miss the astonishing scope and range of their collective work. They express imagination, wit, invention, technical rigor, hipness, play, punk, elegance, satire, generosity, immanent and transcendent species of beauty. I hope that 10 years from now we find ourselves in the midst of musical poetics as diverse, truly experimental, and rich as what we find in that list.
First, that was lucky, predicting the Pulitzer Prize winner. Second, it reads a little pedantic, but I hope it doesn’t seem to presuppose more than a little skepticism.
That statement is in part a gesture advocating for our increasing currency, earned by reinforcing relationships between our artistic practices and our cultural moment. And “our cultural moment” would include the kinds of discourses that are wide awake in our neighboring disciplines — for example, analysis of power relations in general and power relations as cast into categories such as race, gender, age, ability, economic and cultural class, &c.; but also, power relations expressed by the technologies we make and inherit, and the modes of interaction they beg, the ideologies the media we use project, &c. By “spectro-morphological thinking is not the superset of DAMN” I meant to decenter any one poetics (in general) of electro-acoustic music — and maybe particularly scientistic ones. If spectro-morphological thinking is the rightful heir of the Western musical tradition, what’s its stable boy? Speaking of which, just because physics can describe the motion of everything, including horses, doesn’t mean it’s the most interesting or beautiful way to think or feel about horses.
Put another way, how many pieces have we heard over the past two days that seem to be about sex? Compare that to where visual art is at, or dance, or literature, or film — not to mention popular forms of art. And not to suggest that, as a person who has long witnessed the guileless and rather literal way those in our community, myself included, have given compositional treatment to the soundworld of infancy and early childhood, I would advocate for a SEAMUS conference comprised of works that grapple with the subject of sex.
My point is, when it comes to projecting critical awareness of the ideological content of our expressive ways and means, on the whole, I think we have some headroom.
On the other hand, to retake the bow, the bit about cherishing electro-acoustic music’s “subtle, crystalline structures” couldn’t be more sincere. There is nothing better, really nothing better than work that manifests that level of care, of material and formal intentionality, of micro-particulate sonic grace, that certain rare examples of acousmatic music achieve. It’s why many of us are here. And as no other territory of artistic and cultural production in the world produces such things, they truly are precious, and importantly they’re precious to us, they’re ours.
So there is really nothing better than these works, but of course there are things that are as good. There are things that make as many super-fine distinctions, that are as rigorously and exhaustively considered, are as textually and intertextually rich, are as moving and beautiful.
I point in the statement to the work of the SEAMUS Award winners, because there is such diversity among these composers — of presuppositions, of poetics . . .. They’re in conversation with diverse practices, diverse exemplars, they’re built of diverse primitives, they beg diverse measures of excellence. The SEAMUS Award recipients tend to make models rather than practice model composition — or make models and then practice model composition. Part of what we admire is the art we find in their distinct propositions about what music can be — as well as the technique used to realize those propositions and make them swing.
Let’s call the proposition about what music can be the ‘what-to-do space’, and the details of how you compose and make music given this particular situation the ‘jelly filling’.
Given a musical saw and your own homemade circuits, what kind of music will you make? Well, Gordon Mumma has a few ideas about that. The design of the what-to-do-space is generous, is wondrous. It also happens to be materially fascinating. And what Gordon does, how he plays within that space, is no less impressive. The jelly filling is articulate and insistently structural. It evinces a seriousness that recasts how we read the musical saw. It makes us wonder what other possibilities we might be overlooking.
The interaction of what-to-do space and jelly filling is itself a potential field of artistic expression. The enunciation of humanity can be encoded there. The situation is complex.
I mention this because the Ramones are profoundly disciplined. To dismiss them for lack of harmonic complexity is to apply the wrong evaluative criteria, maybe due to lack of familiarity with the context and terms of their work. Of course, just as there are shoddy acousmatic pieces there are shoddy bands that lack harmonic complexity; but the Ramones are not one of them.
(So) when we evaluate the work of our fellow human beings, due diligence requires that we spend some time getting to know their what-to-do spaces, and to appreciate ‘technique’ in relation to them. What technique is proper to this space? What are the poetics? What are the meaningful terms, and how does it speak on its own terms? Any legit attribution of quality can only happen subsequently.
This good-faith engagement has something to do with socio-demographic diversity — though relationships between aesthetic diversity and socio-demographic diversity aren’t simple, and resist simple, reductive correlations.
One way, I think, to attract more and more diverse people to our organization, is to pronounce a more inclusive class of our own artistic practices as proper to SEAMUS, to speak more varieties of our own work through SEAMUS, to take risks in doing so, to make SEAMUS consistent with the whole of our creative selves. Perhaps that would provide more handles into our community. Ask not, What does ‘electro-acoustic’ mean, but What can it mean. That’s what, in this year’s review process, the question, Is this piece SEAMUS typical <—> atypical? is about. Just to get that question out there: Well, what does that mean? — What do we want it to mean? That’s for us to define, collectively. We’re SEAMUS-typical by definition.