We might not think about the past or future much when we’re making music - in fact, many music-makers say this is exactly what they like about it. While composing, playing or producing, we stop looking at the clock and almost forget what day it is; only the pocket universe of musical time exists. But as soon as it’s done, and our music has to find its way in the world, its relationship to the past and future becomes an issue, and if we don’t bring it up, someone else will. Attitudes to yesterday and tomorrow, with their accompanying metaphors of progress and retreat, litter our conversation; from the casual (‘fresh’), to the complex.
‘Her songs don’t so much feel like the product of her experiences as they do some hard-to-measure leap beyond them - a message in a bottle that’s come bobbing back from somewhere in the future.’
This excerpt from a review of an album by Kelly Lee Owens is a little obscure, but we can safely guess that it’s a compliment, since it suggests that her ideas come more from the future than the past. Artists who repeat, reheat or recycle their memories, musical or otherwise, are fine. But the really special ones ‘innovate’, are ‘forward-thinking’, and sometimes find that they’re ‘ahead of their time’ - though this is not as much fun as it might first sound.
‘Baby that’s why
I ain’t making no paper
‘Cause I’m an innovator
That means the cash comes later…’
LA rapper Reverie’s verse tells us that she’s not making cash money now - or not much. But she will, at some point in the future. As far as rap boasts go, this might seem a little odd - more like an excuse than a claim to fame. But we all know what she’s really saying; not that she’s great despite the fact that she’s not getting paid, but that she’s not getting paid because she’s great. It’s a new version of an oft-told fable in the world of music and popular culture; the one about the artist doing something in the present that will only be understood in the future. For certain kinds of people, as Reverie surely knows, to be seen to be doing this is actually far more impressive than to be seen to be doing well now.
The image she conjures combines three powerful tropes into one, each supporting the other. The first is the image of the artist as a forward sentry, who risks danger for the sake of some future hope. That is, she’s willing to endure the very real risk of not having money, and therefore not being able to eat, in order to do something new, now. As historian Eric Hobsbawm points out, this idea sustained at least two generations of composers, painters and poets in the early 20th century, convinced that their outsider status was a kind of prelude to the eventual acceptance and understanding of their futuristic art and music. To critics and friends who complained to Picasso that his portrait of Gertrude Stein didn’t actually look much like Gertrude Stein, Picasso said ‘she will’. Stein herself was firmly convinced that her own ‘modern composition’ was weird and confusing to most people because it was modern, but that folks would, given time, come around to her way of thinking. As it turned out, she was right (to some extent), but she had no way of knowing this - or did she?
“The light of the future is the light which is to be
The wisdom of the future is the light of the future, see?”
The second ingredient in our art-historical cocktail could be described as the idea of clairvoyance - our feeling that the forward-thinking artist is sustained by something more than simple faith - that she knows, somehow, that her music or ideas will find a home in years, decades or centuries to come. This doesn’t have to be magic or science fiction; Surrealist poet Andre Breton’s prescription, that art ought to be “vibrated by the reflexes of the future” is perhaps a better description of how it works. When Grace Jones writes in her autobiography that Andy Warhol ‘knew what was coming’ in media, music and art, she doesn’t necessarily mean that Warhol peered into some kind of crystal ball, caught a glimpse of Kylie Jenner, Sunn O))), and Youtube unboxing videos, and made his art accordingly. We could think of him as something like a business trend forecaster, someone who extrapolates visions of our future from tendencies in the present - an image Warhol himself, with his anti-romantic idea of art as business - would probably have been ok with. But the next part of her statement clarifies things - “Andy knew what was coming - he shaped what was coming.” As Jones rightly points out, the artist is not a passive observer of developments, but actively pushes them in a certain direction - he places a bet on the future, and then throws the game. According to composer Daphne Oram, this is the least that artists and music-makers can do. "Do you think it is the role of music always to reflect the life of the day? Personally, I think it is much more than that… I think it should not only reflect the life of the day but show the possibilities for the future.”
Romance is the final ingredient - the romance of adventure, but also - weirdly - the romance of failure. The forward-thinking artist suffers for the same reason all romantic heroes do - because the world just won’t measure up to their dreams. But where some romantics escape into an imaginary past, or dream of being redeemed by ideal love, others locate their redemption in the future. That this future might never arrive, or might materialise only after the artist is dead, isn’t really important. What’s important is to suffer, and to suffer for the sake of something impossible. If this sounds a little self-serving and sentimental, that’s because it is - and there’s happily very little trace of it in Reverie’s freestyle or Jones’ memoir. But Don McLean’s easy listening favourite ‘Vincent (Starry Starry Night)’ is soaked in the stuff.
Now I understand what you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they'll listen now
McLean’s song about Vincent Van Gogh is a typical portrait of the artist out of (or ahead of) his time, a martyr for the sake of art’s future, and as such, a variation on all the stories told above. It’s a story artist and composer Yoko Ono was taught at an early age, and believed all her life. “I was brought up to think that Van Gogh was great”, said Ono in 1996, “I always thought if you’re a true artist, you’re only going to be appreciated after you go.” But McLean adds a moral dimension, in which the artist fights for ‘freedom’, but is prevented from realising it during his lifetime by ‘they’. Who are ‘they’? ‘They’ are the public, but one that doesn’t include us. ‘They’ fail to see the truth in Vincent’s vision, make mean jokes about Gertrude Stein’s use of repetition in her prose, and nag Picasso with silly demands that his portraits look like the people he’s painting; and 100 years later, they’re still screwing it up. What’s wrong with ‘they’? It’s easy to make fun of this slightly hysterical view of the artist as a martyr to the future, with the public cast in the villain’s role (and I’ve chosen a particularly icky example for emphasis). But who hasn’t shaken a tiny fist at a more-or-less imaginary ‘they’ when the track doesn’t blow up, when the submission is rejected, when the music is great but people do not dance. Who hasn’t consoled themselves, when things are not going great, with a vision of a future in which they do? To do this might be natural; to make the leap, having done so, to wondering if the reason for this is because your music is better suited to the future than the present is cultural - but no less powerful for it.
This particular way of thinking and talking about artistic effort in relation to time is typical of what Claude Levi- Strauss called a ‘hot’ society, one with a sense of historical self-consciousness, whose record of its own past has accumulated to the point where it can’t help but project itself; whether confidently, hopefully, or anxiously, into the future. It’s important to remember that this isn’t the only game in town - plenty of human societies have gotten along perfectly well without the idea of progress - and might (as Levi-Strauss believed) have been better off for it. But in our world, a succession of powerful thought-models, from the teleological scheme of the old testament to the scientific optimism of the 18th century, Marxism to modernism, have largely convinced us of the idea that tomorrow will be in advance of today. The artist who hopes to be ahead of her time, the fan who admires her for her ‘forward-thinking’ approach, the public (‘they’) that can’t comprehend it, the critic who judges her work and others’ in terms of progress, stasis and regress, are all caught up in this scheme; even as they hope to transcend it.
“I don’t make music that most people would see as ‘classical’. It’s certainly not represented in major concert halls… You know, I make avant-garde music. I make music for the future!” (Lea Bertucci, interview, 2017)
At Loop 2018, in Hollywood California, a group of music-makers and writers got together to talk about our idea of music in relation to historical time. Not to try to predict or anticipate the future, but to take stock of our mental models of history and our place in it, and to discuss the experiences - both personal and cultural - that have shaped these views. The venue was significant; East West studios on Sunset Boulevard is the kind of place that invites us to think about what happens next, simply because so much has already happened there; from Peggy Lee to Janelle Monae, Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ to Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’. To make a chronological playlist of hits recorded there over the past half-century is to start writing a story and wonder how it ends; or at least what the next chapter has in store. What kind of tale is this - a romance or a tragedy, a story of decline and fall, or a slow but steady march toward perfection? Is the story we think we see really there, or something we impose on it, so as to make sense of something senseless? Friedrich Nietzsche spoke in 1886 of “that horrifying domination of nonsense and contingency which up to now has been called ‘history’...” Is that, as Peggy Lee would say, all there is?
None of the panellists would go this far - all proceed from the idea that they work in a tradition, and that this tradition means something, all have, at one point or another committed themselves to musical progress, though all define this slightly differently. Gavsborg and Shanique Marie of Equiknoxx describe themselves as being members of a ‘forward thinking’ musical collective, and part of a long tradition of innovation in Jamaican music which virtually demands that they re-invent the tradition itself. Maori-Samoan rapper, writer and activist Coco Solid is deeply committed to a future vision of musical culture renovated by voices and faces so long left out of the pop-cultural conversation. As she argued in her talk earlier in the Loop weekend, “music’s constant hunger for a revolutionary sound, I think can be satiated by - can only be satiated by - inclusion; taking those too commonly ostracised and involving them”. And UK music journalist Simon Reynolds literally wrote the book on music history-as-progress; several of them, in fact. His histories of post-punk and rave, Rip it Up and Start Again and Energy Flash, are both chronicles and manifestos, celebrations of youth culture’s rush to invent the future over two generations; while his more recent book, ‘Retromania’ laments what he sees as the disappearance of this impulse in the 21st century. And yet, while they all place their faith - to some extent - in ‘tomorrow’, all four share a curiosity about the ideas and influences, myths and memes that lead us to do so, and that continue to shape our idea of what that tomorrow should sound like. In East West’s Studio 1, where so much of music’s history was made, Reynolds, Coco Solid, Gavsborg and Shanique Marie joined me to talk about what we expect of its future - and more importantly - why.
Keep up with Simon Reynolds on his website
Follow Equiknoxx on Twitter
Follow Coco Solid on Twitter