Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Stockhausen died last week. I lent my copy of Stimmung to my son's teacher, who played it to the class today.

In 1995, BBC Radio 3 facilitated an exchange between Stockhausen and several young composers. Stockhausen listened to some of music from each composer, and provided some comments and suggestions. In particular, he thought there was too much repetition.

One of the composers, Daniel Pemberton, responded thus: "I know what he means about loops though; that’s because I haven’t got much equipment."

Oh dear, poor Danny. As I pointed out in my earlier post Art and the Enterprise, Stockhausen and his contemporaries didn't exactly have much equipment either. Sometimes innovators have to build their own tools, or forage their own materials, before they can create what they want to create. And sometimes that turns out to be an essential part of the creative process.

Stockhausen is a major figure in twentieth century culture - reviled by those who hate the avant guard on principle, but admired by some of the most popular figures in twentieth century pop music - from Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock, from the Beatles to Pink Floyd, and from Frank Zappa to Sonic Youth.

Ninety-nine percent perspiration.

Sources: Advice to Clever Children (The Wire, November 1995)
Wikipedia: Karlheinz Stockhausen

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

School of Rock

Interesting programme School of Rock by British DJ Andy Kershaw on BBC Radio, talking about the role of British universities in fostering new bands in the 1970s. Kershaw himself was a student (and Entertainments Secretary) at Leeds University, then one of the most important rock venues in the UK.

According to Kershaw, the emergence of British rock music in the late 1960s and early 1970s was strengthened by several interlinked factors.

1. Universities provided significant clusters of "early adopters" - students willing to listen to new bands playing new styles.

2. Amateur entertainment secretaries, willing to take risks with new bands.

3. A common source of information about new bands - the DJ John Peel, who tirelessly championed new bands.

4. A rapid feedback loop connecting 1, 2 and 3. John Peel would play a new band, the university entertainment secretaries would then book the band, confidently expecting the students (having heard the band on John Peel's show) to turn up to the concert.

Of course, Kershaw may be exaggerating this effect a little (as a former participant in this process, and as the inheritor of John Peel's role at the BBC). But I'm not too bothered about that right now. What I wanted to talk about is the comparison between the 1970s and the 2000s, and the possible relevance to innovation more generally.

1. Universities are perhaps not such closed social systems as they were in the 1970s. Thanks to the telephone and the internet, students have much greater contact with friends and relatives away from university. Furthermore, students may see university as a place to consume education rather than as an all-embracing social institution, and students have many other loyalties and affiliations. Therefore the university may not be such a dominant clustering force as it used to be.

2. The role of entertainment secretary is not taken by a student elected to the post for a year or two, but by a professional manager who takes a job for many years. Professional events organizers are more risk-averse, and perhaps more predictable.

3. Before his death, John Peel felt he was being pushed out. (Andy Kershaw himself talked about this shortly after Peel's death.) His slot on Radio One got shorter and later, and the audiences got smaller. There was no longer a national community of Peel listeners.

4. And the feedback loops got longer. Concerts were booked long in advance, there was less room for rapid initiative, and the music business regained control.

Some people are hoping that the Internet will play a major enabling role in the emergence of new bands and new styles of music, and challenging the power of the music establishment. Some of the factors that were dominant in the British music scene in the 1970s might now possibly be reappearing in cyberspace.

And what (if anything) does this tell us about pockets of innovation in other domains?

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Art and the Enterprise

Artistic Innovation

Sometimes artists produce amazing innovations, with painstaking labour. Subsequent technology makes this painstaking labour unnecessary. We can recognize two separate innovations - the product innovation (what the artist produces) and the process/production innovation (what the technology produces).

What is the linkage between these two innovations? To what extent has the artistic innovation stimulated the technological innovation, established a proof-of-concept which technologists can then implement. Great art changes the way we perceive the world, and this may include changing our understanding of the possible.

One example I have quoted a couple of times is Karlheinz Stockhausen and the synthesizer. In the 1950s, Stockhausen and other composers produced some innovative pieces of electronic music, for which every sound had to be hand-crafted. Once the synthesizer had been invented, similar music could be easily produced with a few quick knob-twiddles. As a result of the widespread use of synthesizers in popular music, as well as the many rock musicians (Beatles, Can, Zappa) who pay explicit tribute to Stockhausen, a piece like Kontakte sounds a lot less strange to the modern ear than it did to the contemporary ear.

On this point I disagree with Brian Eno, who once commented that "Stockhausen was an example of a charismatic theoretician who inspired a lot of people but whose own work is generally unlistenable." [source: MOJO April 1997, interview with Andy Gill]

Does this familiarity diminish the striking originality of Stockhausen's work? Or should we regard Stockhausen's achievement with greater respect, because of his lack of tools, and his (arguable) influence over later technology as well as (acknowledged and unacknowledged) influence over later music-making.

Update: I should also mention the BBC Radiophonic Workshop here. The brilliant Delia Derbyshire produced the original theme music for Doctor Who using hand-made equipment - music that today still sounds utterly wild and futuristic. (Sadly, the BBC no longer uses this version, and now plays a tame remix recorded with modern equipment.)

Similar examples can be found in the visual arts before the invention of photography. Many artists developed styles of painting and perspective which predated the modern camera.

Enterprise Innovation

I think there are three important patterns here that may be relevant for enterprise innovation.
  • Innovation before automation. Don't automate something until you have understood it, simplified it, improved it. (This principle is sometimes known by the slogan: Don't pave the cow-paths.)
  • Retain the capability for further innovation. Automation should not eliminate the possibility of hands-on creativity. Lewis Mumford (in Technics and Civilization) argues that it is generally beneficial to retain some 'craft' production alongside automated 'factory' production, as a source of 'education, recreation and experiment' and 'as a means to further insight, disovery and invention'.
  • Invent in order to innovate. A composer such as Thomas Dolby, who sets out to invent new tools for producing music (including building new hardware and software), may thereby be able to produce music that is different to what everyone else is producing.

For previous discussion of Stockhausen, see my posts on Lightweight Enterprise, and Thomas Dolby's keynote speech at the 2005 Rational Conference.

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