Fail Better

Robert Barry, The Music of the Future

Repeater, 184pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781910924969

reviewed by David Stubbs

In 2010, Robert Barry was among those in attendance at London’s Cafe Oto at an event billed as An Audience With Terry Riley. In the 1960s, in tandem with Steve Reich, Riley had laid the foundations for minimalism in music, with works like In C, works which were ostensibly repetitive but through subtle and incremental variations built in intensity, evolved without conventionally ‘progressing’ in the grand old orchestral manner. These were the foundations of the future. The German Krautrock movement proceeded from American minimalism via Can, and its techniques applied in ambient, post-rock and Techno.

Given this, Barry worked up the nerve to ask this visionary composer a simple but deceptively inane question: ‘how do you imagine the music of the future?’ As Barry had feared, there were a few smirks in the audience, as if Barry were insulting Riley with a facile and sweeping inquiry, of the ‘will-there-be-all-robot-bands’ variety. Riley himself in the past had entertained future visions. The sleeve notes to 1969’s A Rainbow In Curved Air are a Utopian wish-list.

And then all wars ended / Arms of every kind were outlawed and the masses gladly contributed them to giant foundries in which they were melted down and the metal poured back into the earth . . .The energy from dismantled nuclear weapons provided free heat and light / World health was restored . . .National flags were sewn together into brightly colored circus tents under which politicians were allowed to perform harmless theatrical games / The concept of work was forgotten.

Faced with the question in 2010, however, Riley could only laugh, demur and finally respond, ‘All I can say is that I just hope there is a future.’

Riley’s present-day bleakness is widely felt. He was speaking in ecological terms but most musics have long reached an ecological crisis of exhaustion, their progress and evolution at a terminus, now forced to recoil in homage, back to their older forms, engage in acts of fusion, pursue idiosyncrasies that are engaging individually but are insignificant in the scheme of things. Once, the future felt like unexplored outer space; now we are in a post-space age. Instead of space, we have the world wide web, universal since the beginning of the 21st century; instead of space, a dense enmeshment of activity, interconnections, ubiquitous and stifling, through which it seems possible to break through into the good old, black and empty futures we used to know.

Robert Barry’s excellent, exhilarating, free-ranging study relishes, and invites the reader to bask in, its sea of scholarly research and the idiosyncrasies and connections it yields. Its points of reference span from Berlioz to electronica artist Jlin, is not an exercise in futurology or prediction, nor is it one of those increasingly forlorn industry/media efforts to identify and market a Next Big Thing. Rather, it’s a potted history of music’s futures, leaping about from Sun Ra’s cosmological electric jazz to the present-day maximalist overload of Skrillex, from the insidious rise of Muzak to the avant-garde opera of Robert Ashley, from the epiphany John Cage experienced which led him to compose 4’33 (to call this the ‘silent’ piece is to miss its fundamental point) to the Tennessee musician/sound artist Holly Herndon, who, much as Cage used his turntable as a musical instrument, treats her own laptop as a vital intermediary in her work (‘Half of my life is mediated through that machine’).

In a narrative which leaps nimbly about through time, Barry reaches right back to the French revolution and the wildly speculative writings of Charles Fourier, who believed that the polar icecaps would melt and leak into the oceans a liquid that was ‘a sort of lemonade’, and then onwards to the mid-19th century, when, he writes, the very idea of of the future ‘as a space of hope and projection’ was born. The Futurist movement founded in 1909 by Marinetti and his followers was not quite the bolt from the early-20th century blue it imagined itself to be. Liszt and various fellow composers travelled under the banner of Zukunfstmusik (‘future music’). Richard Wagner, for one, though he lapsed into gross anti-semitism, had written up his own text calling for an ‘Artwork Of The Future.’ None of these composers saw themselves as maintaining an over-elaborate and decadent framework, even if the Futurists depicted all that preceded them as such.

Barry contemplates the earliest stirrings of ambient, as foreseen by Erik Satie, who strove to write tunes that would recede and form 'part of the noises of the environment'. However, as Barry observes, when Satie actually did present his 'furniture music' to audiences, he found that they listened to it in a disappointingly non-ambient way. Music, he concludes, was too rare a commodity to be taken for granted in this way. Therein lies the fundamental difference between then and today, when thanks to the unfortunate design of the internet, music is everywhere, everywhen, on tap, and consequently, regardless of its quality, has lost its scarcity value. Maybe, Barry muses, the future of music will be a great silence.

Barry addresses some of the phenomena of music in our present day, supersaturated, over-connected conditions. Its complex relationship with time in an age of downloads and streaming, as well as that of ‘webrot' – the internet already in ruins, pages that have died away like collapsing new buildings, valiantly preserved to the best of their abilities by organisations such as the Internet Archive. Such extraordinary times, beyond our imagination just 25 years ago at a time when music critics like themselves were moaning about supersaturation even then.

Still, Barry’s highly energetic volume never slips into that kind of moroseness. The history of music in futurism may be a history of failures, of dreams that failed to come to pass, but that is no reason not to strive in the same spirit, to maintain the zeal and idealism with which these pioneers conducted themselves, to ‘fail better’ in Samuel Beckett’s phrase, rather than merely to droop one’s head into the dead, enervated sands of postmodernism. There will be a future, after all.