This is an homage to a piece I’ve been reading in Mass Effect, a massive compendium of essays about art in the post-digital age edited by Lauren Cornell and David Halter for MIT Press.
Right in the center of the book, on page 303, is an ink-and-paper copy of Alix Rule and David Levine’s 2012 essay “International Art English”. This controversial essay is a rigorously crafted, serious exploration into the language use of the art world. Rule and Levine compiled a large corpus of curated press releases from arts media giant, e-flux: thirteen years’ worth of press writing about art and artists, all in what they’ve termed IAE. Their report appears in full here, in a smoothly haptic, fully hyperlinked, landscape-mode Web 2.0 experience.
Reading it through, you may realize—as I did—that International Art English is a close cousin to INME. International Art English, as reported by Rule and Levine, shares an astonishing number of recognizable features with the new music language we read in program notes, artist bios, ensemble mission statements, and both academic and independent critical writing about experimental music. As Gilda Williams notes somewhat severely in her book for Thames & Hudson, How to Write about Contemporary Art , International Art English is marked in the following ways:
+habitually improvising nouns (‘visual’ becomes ‘visuality’)
+hammering out fashionable terminology (‘transversal’, ‘involution’, ‘platform’)
+ abusing prefixes, with para-, proto-, post-, and hyper- leading the pack.
There is a distinct language that composers and performers use to describe themselves, their works, and their interests. This idiosyncratic language both reflects and performs the goals and identities of experimental music communities: its use indexes knowledge, authority, connection with an experimental lineage, and perhaps most importantly, a sociolinguistic connection with other practitioners.
This language can be a social marker. It aligns itself with other users, who perhaps have similar interests, experiences, aims. It can differentiate between people. It can create a feeling of familiarity for an audience member, when printed and distributed in the form of a program note. It can help write grants. It can connect composers with performers, practitioners with venues, ensembles with potential donors. It can be approximated poorly. It can be teased and imitated, both playfully and inanely. It can index and form a constellation of genre features and intellectual orientations and social habits and personal histories and performance practices that make up post-digital experimental music.
The following is my first attempt to provide a rigorous answer to the question of how new music practitioners define themselves, in a most literal sense. In the absence of a major art news portal like e-flux, I had to get a little more DIY with my corpus. I am beginning this project with “self-definition” in mind: I looked specifically at artist statements, mission statements, and bios.
I trawled the websites of composers, performers and ensembles to create a few related but distinct linguistic corpora, then performed a few basic corpus-driven analysis techniques to triangulate what I am calling International New Music English. I used various text analysis tools, primarily those available through TAPoR 3.0, including the incredibly fun and free corpus analyser Voyant Tools 2.0 with a built-in visualization tool.
This piece provides a small sample of the inferential knowledge about experimentalism that can be gained through examination of the aggregated online self-definitions of artists, and to practice analysis skills for future study. The next step is to expand this understanding of INME with the creation of new corpora. I’m especially interested in opening this up to composers’ and performers’ writings about their own works, i.e. program notes.
At first, I focused on the current Chicago experimental music scene. I derived a comprehensive corpus composed of the available online bios, artist statements, or ensemble mission statements for major Chicago-based or Chicago-affiliated ensembles, players, and composers, both independent and university affiliated.
For a quick taste of what’s at work in the scene, here’s a graphic from that corpus on wordclouds.com, a free online word cloud generator:
Bigger words are used more frequently, smaller words appear less frequently.
The sorting tool is case sensitive. <New>, as in New York Times or New Music, is more frequent than <new>. <Quartet>, as in Spektral Quartet, is far more frequent than <quartet>. <Orchestra> and <Festival> are capitalized; these mostly refer to a specific orchestra or a specific festival.
Floating in smaller print are some individual names that Chicago-based practitioners list most frequently on their websites.
This simple graphic provides a clear visual of the people, institutions, places, and concepts that Chicagoan new music practitioners use to form their associative networks when crafting online professional identities: the stars with the greatest gravitational pull in the constellation of Chicago experimentalism.
Next, I expanded the field of study and limited the scope.
Again I compiled individual bios and statements from ensembles, players, and composers, but this time drew the corpus from a much wider, international network. I balanced self-identified performers and composers, and used about five times as many of these individual sites as I used ensemble sites. This time I decided to really target “self-definition”: I removed most proper nouns (all names of people and works, university affiliation, festivals, awards) in the interest of finding what descriptive language these practitioners use.
To be clear, I recognize the immense importance of teachers, primary collaborators or commissioners, university affiliations, festival participation, and awards in identity formation. These associations are critically relevant, not only because they shape how musicians see themselves and others, but also because there is a tradition of including them in a privileged place in artist bios. I also recognize the debate over the inclusion of these associations in artist bios. This piece is not intended to participate in that debate.
This method explores “self-definition” in the most literal sense imaginable: how do new-music experimentalists define themselves, in words, in absence of their accomplishments and works? What language do they choose for themselves when crafting their online identities? And what does that say about them?
- Who are they?
This pool of new-music experimentalists commonly describe themselves as—in descending order of frequency—<advocate>, <artistic director>, <practitioner>, <musician>, <soloist>, <improviser>, <founding member>.
Group affiliation words are critical: the phrases <core member>, <featured member>, <founding member>, <a Ph.D candidate at> and <featured ensemble> are at, or near, the top of the most frequent overall phrases.
They tend to describe themselves— in descending order of frequency— as <flexible>, <passionate>, <dedicated>, <engaging> (adjectival use), <bold>, <catalyst>, <<central>>, <collaborative>, <strong>, <superb>, <versatile>, <adventurous>, and <risk-taking>.
Some highlight that they are <young> and <emerging>.
Most are interested in <object/s>, <material/s>, <experience>, and <process>.
Many—in fact, almost all—of the artist statements establish a dichotomy, a duality of some kind, then situate themselves at the “meeting point” or “border” of the two concepts. INME users feel themselves and their work practices to be interstitial, between worlds, embodying contradictions. Below are a few high-frequency conjunctions, arranged alphabetically:
<and the act of>,
<and the archaeology of>
- What do they do?
This group of experimental musicians refers to their work as <new music>. The term <new music> is the highest frequency phrase of any length across the entire corpus, and is used about twice as often as the term <experimental>. <avant/avant-garde/avante garde> appeared only three times in the entire corpus.
They are intensely interested in performance: in descending order of frequency, <perform-/performance/performer/performed/performances/performers/performing/performs/perform/performative> occur 197 times in this corpus.
They perform <work/s> (125 instances counted) more than <piece/s> (23) and definitely not <song/s> (0).
- How do they do it?
New music practitioners portray themselves to be deeply invested in collaboration. <Collab-> words, such as <collab-/collaborative/collaboration/collaborated/collaborations/collaborate/collaborating/collaboratively/collaborates/collaborator>, are among the most frequent across the entire corpus. <Relationship> phrases—such as <relationships with>, <relationships to>, and <relationships between>—are also high-frequency. <Relationship> phrases tend to describe interpersonal relationships and conceptual relationships. A very small number describe institutional relationships.
Here are the most popular two-word phrases, in descending order of frequency: <new music>, <in demand>, <ability to>, <aesthetic values>, <an accomplished>, <performance practice>, <sound worlds>, <collaborative work>, <connections between>, <genre bending>, <of physicality>, <long term>, <live electronics>, <our projects>, <a body>, <a central>, <a collaborative>, <a core>, <a doctorate>.
This collection of phrases points to shared concerns with personal skill, taste, education, and aesthetic orientation.
They are interested in <genre bending> (with a strong strain of interest in <punk>), the <connections between> things, and <a collaborative> process. Again, academic affiliation appears in <a doctorate>.They overwhelmingly prefer <sound worlds>; <sonic spaces> is another high-frequency phrase that didn’t happen to make the top 20.
- What can we gather about the musical + aesthetic concerns of this group?
As noted above, <collab-/collaborative/collaboration/collaborated/collaborations/collaborate/collaborating/collaboratively/collaborates/collaborator> is the by far the biggest aesthetic constellation.
Again, <object/s>, <material/s>, <experience>, and <process> are also highly relevant.
There is a deep interest in <time>, <sound>, <space>, <research> and <art>. <electronic> is far more frequent than <acoustic>; the set of related forms <electronic/electronics/electro/electromechanical/electronica> is among the highest-frequency.
The constellation of <phys-/physical/physicality> is very frequent; and <bod-/body/bodies/bodily> occurs almost as often.
<aesth-/aesthetic/aesthetically> occurs 11 times.
<rhythm/rhythmic> occurs five times.
<melod-> occurs once, in the form of “melodic”.
<harm-> (as in “harmony”, “harmonic”, et c.) does not appear at all.
Here’s another simple wordcloud.com graphic for the second corpus. It includes many words that I didn’t discuss above, words that are critical, indicative, revealing.
This essay provides a few rough snapshots of self-definition in post-digital experimental music. It is the beginning of an understanding of International New Music English. This language emerges from the life and conditions of new music practitioners: their working methods, their education and their feelings about that education, their feelings about themselves and their work and their colleagues. It is a marked language use, recognizable in its vocabulary, inextricable from entanglements with academics, deeply related to its users’ knowledge of the languages of art and postmodern philosophy.
A few potential topics to expand upon: first, to expand this corpus and dive deeper into it, looking further at key concepts, syntax, popular lexical items that are unusual relative to standard English, find further connections with art and academic/philosophic language; and then, to extend this method of analysis to critical writing about new music and program notes, to explore the idiosyncrasies of the language by which practitioners define and discuss their work.