If you’ve spent your time growing up around American media and culture, you might have noticed that there is a tremendous amount of value put around the idea of the “life of experience” — that we should all, by the time we die, have “experienced” certain things during our lifetimes else our lives would be void of value and meaning. Some of these experiences may include activities as travel, relationships, vices (sex, drugs, etc.), consumption of goods, tasting of foods, exercise and “wellness”, appreciation of nature, marriage, observing “historical” events, writing a book, learning another language, child birth, work successes, earning wealth, overcoming hardships, engaging in politics, and so on and so forth. Most musical works that gain mass popular appeal, barring a few exceptions here and there, deal with these themes as a way to relate its subject matters to its audiences because these topics tends to resonate strongly with most people living in the United States.

Like most narratives, these tales of life accomplishments and meaning are rooted partly in truth, and partly in mythology. For an entry-level worker just entering the job market, experience is no doubt important since it allows them to gain their foot in the door regarding how things operate in the work force.   And, as the saying goes, there is often no substitute for the experience of doing something yourself, whether its within the realm of your personal, professional, cultural or spiritual life.  These activities, however, can reach a point of excess if care isn’t taken to how they are applied and understood.

The Experience Bubble

A “bubble” can be described as a social phenomenon where something is valued and intensely believed in, to the point where its aims and goals become projective, self-affirming, and an end of in itself.  The housing bubble, for instance, was caused by a deep-seated belief that investing in a home was always a good idea and that it was worth taking out risky, wildly speculative loans in order to finance these types of wants.  Though there is a certain amount of truth to the criticisms that have been lobbed against greedy bankers and irresponsible borrowers, the problem is rooted more in the culture of the American mindset rather than something that can be explained as a problem of procedural transactions.  The decision to invest in a home is always a two-way street: from the borrowers point of view, they were making a wise investment for the future, while the banker would probably be hesitant to deprive a working family of the “American Dream” of having their own home.  It’s probably safe to say that there were mostly good intensions all around while the housing bubble was brewing — as the saying goes, though, hell is often paved with such sentiments.

The concept of the bubble can be extended to the idea of experience itself, where the individual is instilled with the belief that they have to do certain things in this life, regardless if it may actually be a good idea or not.  Examples may include people who get into relationships for the sake of being in one (as opposed to actually liking the person), those who work certain jobs or do certain activities just to say they did (as opposed to doing things that are suited/beneficial for them), or engaging in politics for its power/money (as opposed to participating it for a higher purpose).  In some cases, people will take this idea to the extreme — since overcoming hardships constitutes a “good life experience”, some will go way out of their way to make their life more difficult (usually with awkward or in some cases dangerous results) in order to acquire these types of bragging rights.  In these examples, the idea of experience, as opposed to actual experience, is used as a way to motivate certain actions or project certain impressions into people’s social and professional lives. It becomes something people can document about themselves and claim expert on something, regardless of their ability to perform or talk about it in any meaningful detail.

The ideal home in suburban America, as conceived during the 1950s.

Upon first glance, these types of activities seem obviously irrational and self-defeating, and would be relatively easy traps to avoid if one realizes that they are doing these things. In one way or another, however, most of us have probably gone through phases of the above, if we were to be honest with ourselves.  The motivation for doing these types of irrationalities largely comes from the fact that society puts a tremendous amount of pressure on individuals to comply with certain experiential standards. Whether its within the realm of academics, jobs, relationships, or leisure activities, in many cases it’s a race to the top of who can be the most “rich” in experiences before they reach the end of their life. And the pressure to create these types of appearances can be fairly immense, especially if you’re among people who are seemingly “accomplished” in this way.  As with any bubble, however, these pressures are mostly illusory and will come to an eventual burst.

People generally don’t like to think of their experiences as a form of commodity, but from the perspective of certain industries it’s advantageous for them when people are convinced that their life cannot be “complete” without having or having done certain things — being well-traveled, being “cultured” in certain types of ways, owning a home, attending important sporting and social events, or any other types of experiences that can be labeled as consumable.  This belief relates to and parallels the patterns of recent economic trends: as a whole, society’s consumption experiences rose as the housing bubble inflated and has now dropped sharply in the wake of the financial crisis.  The desires to consume, however, often lingers even after it becomes unfeasible, putting many into situations of debt.  After several decades of habitual consumption, the transition to an economy that has a greater focus on productivity will probably not be easy for most, even among those who consider themselves relatively frugal.

It’s not that consumption is in itself a detriment to a person’s livelihood, but that the distinction between consumption and enrichment is often not made, especially by advertising agencies who have a vested interest in keeping the two things conflated.  Due to the internet and other types of technological advances, however, the public now has a greater control over making better choices in this manner — the burden of responsibility has been shifted out of the hands of the institutions and into the individual making the purchase.  The main difference between the two being: experiences of enrichment is something that appreciates over time, while the value of consumable experiences depreciates, or in most cases, disappears as soon as the act is over.

Experience and Nostalgia

Currently music communities (and art communities in general) in the United States are suffering a similar type of post-bubble disillusionment along with the rest of the world’s troubled economies.  Budget cutbacks and threats of pulling the plug on the NEA aside, contemporary artworks often express pessimistic viewpoints that are rooted in the outlooks of today’s cultural and political climates.  While its mediums and methods of expressions may differ from work to work, there are a few recurring, prominent themes and concepts that tend to come up over and over in the art world: nostalgia and sentimentality, ideas and concepts about memory, psychological analyses of the self or peers, remixing and recontextualizations (of older ideas and styles), and identity politics.  These themes all look toward the past as society’s inspiration and eventual destination to be — they are inherently innate, static and unchanging since they deal with events and ideas which have already elapsed some time ago.

Nostalgia Electrics RFH-900 Retro Series Ferris-Wheel Hot-Dog Warmer

The world of the “fine” arts in recent decades has gained a reputation of being a propagator of this type of conservativism.  In many ways, though, the world of the “classics” have always existed as a tool for the creation and maintenance of social order, so this in itself may not be too surprising.  The popularization of the “retro” aesthetic among the general public, however, is a sign that this sentiment is a widespread phenomenon that affects all part of American society rather than being an isolated trend of a certain industry.  In the wake of the financial crisis, people are, in a general sense, unsure of what to do or how to proceed forward at this point in time.

Art installation works, which has had its origins in “process” and “conceptual” based performances, have also become very popular in recent years.  Because these types of works rely on processes that have no fixed time frame, there are no definite beginnings or endings, just methods that reiterate until the artist stops performing or the audience stops listening.  They are highly individualized, self-affirming, and an end of in itself — sort of like a video game in some ways, but with a narrative that is private, as opposed to a shared narrative that a typical game would provide.  And the appreciation of the artwork is usually based upon the audience’s “experience” of it rather than necessarily any sort of message or statement that can be derived from the medium itself.

Process-based artworks all have an underlying message behind them, which is that it is possible for an individual to create perpetual, self-sustaining systems that go on for an indefinite amount of time.  They inherently contain the ideals of American independence and individual autonomy.  Like all human-created systems, however, these works eventually reach a point where interest becomes exhausted and the need to retire the system arises.  The decision to pop or leave the bubble, then, gets made as a real-time decision during the performance process.

Do these “experiences” of artworks enrich the lives or the audience, or are they merely a form of consumption?  Economists are currently asking this question in regards to our purchasing habits, and it may now be time for artists to ask the same kinds of questions the rest of the world is now asking itself in its own codes of conduct.

Composing Change

In classical music, the idea of “progress” can usually be measured by the composer’s ability to “develop” thematic material, since this process can be seen as an metaphor for the changing nature of society. Say, the familiar theme of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 5th symphony:

The four note theme (ta-ta-ta-taaaa), starting from the beginning until about ~40 seconds or so is a constant reiteration and development of a single idea, morphed into different forms. The slower sections that follow buffers the rapid changes that the first theme attempts to impose within the musical climate, representing a type of resistance to change and development. Like many of Beethoven’s works, the symphony is largely about the Napoleonic revolutions and the rise of the merchant classes of his time period, and the subsequent social changes which were about to follow. There is conflict, drama, and instances where the “tables turn” for the protagonist — it is no wonder, then, that this work has gained such a wide-spread appeal across the board because it contains elements of what most people would consider to be “exciting”.

Richard Wagner’s music can also be considered “progressive” since it was written during a time when Europe was experimenting with the idea of nationalism and nation-building, and the composer was tasked with the responsibility of creating a common narrative that the German people could rally behind. Progress doesn’t always imply “good”, however, since his music often has a brooding, dark undertone to them — there are lots of descending phrases and lines, along with harmonic cycles that tend to meander for long periods of time (hence the extreme lengths of his operas).
These expressions possibly foreshadows some of the anguish, misery, and sadness that would come with the World Wars which were about to follow in the subsequent decades. The modern, “atonal” music of Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School (Alban Berg, Anton Webern) took Wagner’s ideas to the next level, increasing the complexity and dissonance of classical music’s harmonic language.

The tradition of using formal and thematic development as a way to imply “progress”, however, largely ends with the Second Viennese School.  Post-WW2 modernism (sometimes labeled as “high” modernism) advocated a different kind of change — one where the music doesn’t “take” you to places or make you feel emotions that you otherwise wouldn’t be feeling on your own — an approach to life where the individual stays rooted in the existence of themselves, independent of outside influences and motivations.  Some scholars label this as the “formalist” approach, where the form, structure, or materials of the work, in themselves, could be argued to be an end-of-in-itself.  Many of these approaches were devised as a result of the numerous mistakes that came out of late-Romanticism’s nationalistic zeal, and advocates stasis and the unchanging as its means of avoiding disappointment and catastrophe.

Feeling Trapped? Maybe it's time to try something different. Chiharu Shiota, In Silence (2008). Sunhi Mang© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

The result of this aesthetic mindset is that a greater priority is put on the experiential, rather than of the transcendental, possibilities that music performances can provide for its audiences. A byproduct of this approach, however, is that the audience often feels trapped, confined, and bored with themselves since they’re unable to escape the realities of their own existence. The music doesn’t attempt to provide any type of guidance, in fear of being held responsible. Nonetheless, there is a certain passive-aggressive power that becomes exerted within these contexts — like a controlling parent or spouse, depictions of the uglier sides of life are often used in order to scare audiences into being risk-adverse or codependent on the authority of the artist, even if its exertions are not necessarily explicit.

Because clarity and conveyance are things that are typically unemphasized in these types of works, the idea of communal understanding is more or less non-existent — everyone is thinking within their own thoughts, while messages from above instruct the audiences to “listen” to the work, regardless if it makes any sense or if the audience has a clear understanding of what is being said. (The video above, for example, explicitly gives the audience members instructions on how to “appreciate” the work.) These mannerisms are part of the reason why artists such as Glenn Branca accused John Cage and other high-modernists of being authoritarian and attempted to devise an alternative path — at the same time, Cage has also accused Branca of being a “fascist” for daring to inspire the musicians to do things they would otherwise not do on their own.

These contradictions and conflicts are largely the reason why it is very difficult to define what “progressive” and “conservative” really means in today’s cultural climate. Perhaps there was never that much of a chasm between the two to begin with (especially in the United States where the people are bounded together through the Constitution), other than the differences in where people’s loyalties lie and the types of goods and social services they prefer. The idea of formal and thematic development may come back in style in the classical music world at some point in time, if the community feels that they are once again in a position to lead and guide audiences toward better places and better ideas. Until then, people are likely to look elsewhere if change is what they are looking for.

Since society as a whole is in a state of nostalgia, however, it may take some time before this trend begins to emerge — optimism will take a while to develop, and will probably come out of a movement with potential for future growth. What that will be is yet to be determined.