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Interview with Professor of Musicology JOANNA DEMERS: Dark, existential questions about humanity and contemporary music

Joanna Demers writes both scholarly and creative works that explore philosophical issues in recent music. She is Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, where she teaches courses on post-1945 popular and experimental music and aesthetics. She has published two scholarly books: Listening Through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (Oxford University Press, 2010), and Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity (University of Georgia Press, 2006). She has also written two novels: Drone and Apocalypse: An Exhibit Catalog for the End of the World (2015), and Anatomy of Thought-Fiction: CHS Report, 2214 (2017), both with Zero Books. [joannademers.com] Here's our little talk about music with one of the most interesting scholars and writers about this kind of art, JOANNA DEMERS (2017 07 06).

Mindaugas Peleckis
2017 m. Liepos 08 d., 08:08
Skaityta: 217 k.
Interview with Professor of Musicology JOANNA DEMERS: Dark, existential questions about humanity and contemporary music

We have to not call music things which are simply sound-structures. . . . There’s thus a gradation between the domain of raw sound, which starts by being imitative, like the representational plastic arts, and the domain of language. Between, there’s a zone of gradation which is the area of “abstract” in the plastic arts, and which is neither language nor model, but a play of forms and material. Th ere are many people working with sound. It’s oft en boring, but not necessarily ugly. It contains dynamic and kinaesthetic impressions. But it’s not music.

Pierre Schaeffer

Interview with JOANNA DEMERS (2017 07 06).

You write and teach about post-1945 popular and experimental music and aesthetics. Why did You choose this period of time, why its aesthetics are the most interesting to You?

I fell into it after having studied flute performance at a music department (UCSD, the University of California at San Diego) that specializes in contemporary avant-garde music. 

The issues that post-1945 music brings up are very interesting: what makes something art and not, say, background noise or objects. 

Recent art seems to possess a conceptual component that is very exciting for me.

The second book of Yours, Listening Through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (Oxford University Press, 2010), deals with abilities of electronic music. Does everyone now can create music and it suddenly, automatically becomes Sound Art (i do not know if You prefer this term)? There are millions of albums and it is really difficult or maybe impossible to listen even to the best ones. How do You choose which experimental electronic music is "good" and which is "bad"? What are Your criteria?

Oh, that's a hard one! It's extremely difficult for me to keep it; I think that I have given up trying. I don't have criteria for 'good'
or 'bad' a priori. I think that I have a visceral reaction to something - strong love or admiration, or dislike - first. Then, I try to figure
out why I have that reaction. The work I like to write about all shares some strong initial visceral reaction, and the writing is
simply trying to make sense of that reaction.

The first book of Yours, Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity (University of Georgia Press, 2006), is about music as a property. Is music a property, indeed? Where is the line between plagiarism and covers, homages and tributes, and what do You think about global piracy? Many people use torrents and other ways to listen to music before buying a CD, LP or MC (some do not buy). Is it good in a moral sense to do this? At one hand, it is impossible to buy everything even if one is a billionaire - there must be some pre-listening.

STM came out in 2006, just as YouTube was getting started. Things have changed so much since then that I'd really need to revisit my discussions of piracy and theft. YouTube has so changed our expectations of music that, I think, we now take for granted that we can
hear almost anything for free on demand. Of course, there are also Spotify and other services, which are free or nearly free, but consider that YouTube gets us access to an enormous amount of content, for free. Consumer expectations have come to expect instant, free access as a matter of course.

Sampling and covers and other forms of artistic appropriation, on the other hand, are pretty thoroughly policed whenever the resulting
artwork makes money, so a lot of artists make their work for free (Girl Talk, for instance). Touring and merchandising have become
the prime sources of income.  

Pre-listening: well, the labels have been smart about this, insofar as they still release a single or two from an upcoming album
to give listeners a taste. And we seem to have reverted to the earlier model of the record store where browsers could open
up a new one and listen before deciding whether to buy it.  

After the aforementioned scholarly books You began to write novels. Why?

Many reasons. I like scholarly writing very much, but have chaffed somewhat against the assumption that scholarly writing must
not be creative if it is to be serious.

Some of the best writing about music and art are found in novels, poems, and film soundtracks. Michel Houellebecq's writing on art, in La carte et le territoire and La possibilité d'une île, is brilliant!  

The first novel, Drone and Apocalypse: An Exhibit Catalog for the End of the World (2015, Zer0 Books), is about apocalypse that never arrives? Why? What about K. Penderecki's Threnody and D. Lynch's Twin Peaks (especially the eight episode of The Return)? Do we live in post-Trinity times? You've chosen to investigate music of post-1945. Is it a coincidence?

No coincidence! Some of these existential questions in contemporary art could only have come about through thinking about dark, existential questions about humanity (whether we should consider self-annihilation). We have never really left that dangerous place, although post-1991 politics suggested briefly, at least in the US, that we had put all of that scary Cold War stuff behind us. Recent events suggest that we are not done with these questions.

The second novel, which is just released, Anatomy of Thought-Fiction: CHS Report, 2214 (2017, Zer0 Books), deals with post-music of various kinds and is like a memoir of our time. What time is now? What music is now? Is it getting better or worse? Are there any new styles of music, or just many post-post--neo-posts? (Neo-Krautrock, Post-Metal...) It seems it is just a shadow of 1960-1980s music when everything was new and no post-music was needed.

There's certainly a lot of retromania. Simon Reynolds' book on retromania is really the guide to it.

I've asked my students that very question, of what music is original to this particular point in history and not simply derivative.  Some of them used to say dubstep or trap, but not so much these days. 

I think that it was a very positive thing in the 70s and 80s not to have instant access to all music via the Internet. It supported originality in a way that is much more difficult today, when we can listen to anything at any time.

What music do You prefer to listen not as a scholar/writer? A "serious" one, and for relaxation?

I really like the British band Pulp, and French pop (Gainsbourg, Air, Katerine, Tellier). But I'm starting to write about that stuff
too, so relaxation is becoming 'serious' now!

Which philosophers made the biggest impact on You? Or maybe religious figures, artists of any kind?

Hegel is my life's project; I would like to continue to read him for the rest of my life.  Every time I read someone's reaction
to him, I discover a new Hegel, so I could really spend my whole life with him.

Religious figures...I like reading saints' lives, the more mystical or crazier, the better. I am currently reading Valentin Tomberg's
Meditations on the Tarot, which will probably be as important to me as Hegel. I like esoterica, in general, and am happy
to discover new writers all the time in that vein.

Maybe You know something about contemporary Lithuanian music? We have serious composers and experimental music as well.

I don't know nearly as much as I'd like! I have heard some pieces by Kutavičius that are astounding, and would like to know more about minimalism and EDM in Lithuania.

Thank You.

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