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 Unmanifesto of Music

1. Basics

There are different ways of meeting the world. These include visually, intellectually, with your ears (aurally), and your body (rhythmically).

Music is what happens when the aural and physical senses are engaged in the activity of patterned sounds. This includes creating, playing, listening and otherwise responding.

But music is not only this abstract formulation.

Symbolically speaking, it is also the language of the gods (and possibly the demons). It is the entrance to other worlds. It is an accompaniment (or soundtrack) to action (more or less meaningful). Due to its ultimately (but usually concealed) referential qualities it affects our emotional and intellectual life and feelings. It contributes to our sense of who and what we are, to our identity. At worst it can bore or irritate us, and at best it can inspire or uplift us. This list is not in the least exhaustive.

It would seem reasonable, therefore, that music should be handled with care.

However, being too careful can produce the worst music. If music really is that important it should be treated with a degree of abandon. People who are over-respectful towards music have not yet learnt how important it is.

Music should therefore strive for disciplined abandon, or disorderly precision.
2. Histories

Music has many histories, as many histories as there are peoples who have played it, and there is no people that has not had its own music. Each musical history is both distinctive and part of the general picture. We should teach and understand music that way, as a mass of unique traditions located within the broad picture of music as a species trait.

(There is no such thing as “world music” outside marketing and a disguised form of benevolent, gentle racism. For other purposes – especially educational - it should be dumped where it belongs – in the bin marked “imperialism”.)

Music’s many histories should be told individually and collectively. They are, in effect, its traditions.

For us in the West in the 21st century too much or too little tradition are both musical disasters. Cutting edge jazz musicians from the 1960s onwards often achieved an inspiring balance. Sun Ra was the greatest. While many classical avant-garde high modernists were doing their best to ignore, destroy, bury or get round tradition, African American jazz musicians saw that eradicating their tradition amounted to abandoning their history. However, they also sensed that being hidebound by tradition was tantamount to being stuck in history. The old wisdom applies: understanding the past helps you understand the present which helps you have a hand in your future.

What if you don’t like your history?

Answer: look harder – in the nooks and crannies. Don’t necessarily accept the received version. Look outside the box. Apply critical thinking.

History is the story of how you got where you are. If you hate where you are, you hate yourself. If you uncritically love where you are, you uncritically love yourself. If you know that where you are is complex, paradoxical, challenging and never the less excellent in all respects, then that is what you think of yourself. You are in an excellent state to create music.
3. Unmanifesto

The next musical gesture, from a single note in an improvisation to the complex sounds in a large-scale composition, is always in the realm of the unmanifest. The unmanifest cannot be directly perceived, but if it did not have some kind of existence nothing at all could happen next. The next musical gesture does not come out of nowhere, no matter how much it may seem so.

Paying attention to that which cannot be directly perceived is, therefore, a good training and practice for the creative person – musicians included. Is there anything that can be said about how to do this? Being too prescriptive may muddy the waters, but this is my baker’s dozen.

1. Learn to hear, and listen to, “quiet voices”.

2. Abandon all dogma and reach for the value in all forms of musical experience…

3. …but carefully nurture critical faculties.

4. Cultivate audacity in musical activities. Audacity is the most precious quality an artist possesses.

5. Notice, over long periods, what you are putting in your musical suitcase. Whenever you arrive at a new destination you are likely to unpack the same things, although you may be able to use them differently in a new context.

6. Musicians have a right to their own clichés. In the spirit of 5 (above) value these, but also make constant efforts to subvert them.

7. Engage with the (social, political, artistic, local, national, international – etc.) world. There is no defence for ignorant art.

8. Discipline and freedom are the two sides of the same coin. Disciplined exercises put into the realm of the unmanifest the basis for freedom in action.

9. However, there is no rule as to which discipline(s) to choose, but don’t die choosing.

10.As Cornelius Cardew wrote: notation is a means of getting people to move. Develop appropriate skills for getting your ideas across: standard notation, adapted notations, written words, computer technologies and recording studio skills, or simply become a good communicator in speech.

11.Music can be thought of in terms of composition, impression and improvisation, distinctions originally listed by Kandinsky in relation to his own paintings. Composition is fixed and repeatable; improvisation is non-repeatable (other than by recorded means). Impression refers to that vast majority of the world’s music which rests somewhere between the two. It s a good idea to cultivate all three.

12.New music technologies make the development of aural skills and sensibilities more, not less, important.

13. Pay attention to music’s roots – however they may be defined.

Sam Richards
2005, revised 2007


An Unmanifesto?

Why an Unmanifesto? Why not a straightforward manifesto? Two answers…

First, our musical world is complex. Individual musicians find their own way through the intricacies of the situation. It is naive and unproductive to write a prescriptive manifesto in the manner of the Futurists, Dadaists and Surrealists of old. The issues and ideas raised in what follows may not be as single-minded as such more traditional manifestos, but they may be useful for nurturing responsibility and provoking thought.

Second, as the music of the future has, by definition, not yet happened it is not yet manifest. Yet the future does not appear out of nowhere. It is latent in the present. It is not yet manifest because circumstances have not yet conspired to draw it forth from the sea of possibilities. The music of the future is, thus, unmanifest, and always mysterious. Discussion of the future, therefore, is about ideas and values, not about concrete realities. However, the former help to shape the latter, even if the details are beyond our ken.


The dreams of Luigi Russolo, Edgar Varese, John Cage and others came true.

In his 1913 manifesto “The Art of Noises” Russolo dreamed of an art made up of “noise-sound”, replacing traditional orchestral and chamber instruments with rumbles, whistles, whispers, screeches, percussive and vocal noises. He praised the virtues of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds over the “Eroica” or the “Pastoral”. He sought a “new musical reality” over “more or less snobbish or second-hand ecstasy”.

In similar vein, in 1937, in his “Credo: The Future of Music”, Cage famously wrote:

"I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard."

These musical prophets and agitators have been proved correct. Sound art, the use of noise, electrical and electronic instruments, the still new world of computer technology – are now all commonplace features of music making.


From today’s perspective, however, the prophets of noise were flawed on three crucial points.

1) Vienna-centred bourgeois musical tradition - so-called “classical” music, in other words – was their ultimate reference point, even if only in a negative sense. It was the tradition they consciously saw themselves as needing to be free from.

2) Most of these advocates of a noise-dominated musical future rarely referred to other musical traditions, even from within their own countries. As for the music of the rest of the world, it was hardly known in the West, although one advocate of noise, Henry Cowell, was a pioneer in this field.

3) Related to this, none of these composers bothered themselves with the developing idioms of Western popular music derived, as they mostly were, from Afro-American culture.

These three weaknesses are understandable in the context of the early twentieth century, but are unacceptable now in the early twenty-first century. However, by unpacking them and understanding why they are inadequate we shine a light on our own times.


The gradual assimilation of more and more dissonance, leading to the possibility of “noise” as musical material, was an internal development of the baroque-classical-romantic harmonic language. Predominantly the musical language of mid-Europe (more particularly German/Austrian, and even more particularly of Vienna), this music was primarily associated with the wealthy classes. The Baroque music that survives was the music of roughly the top 2% of the population. This percentage did not hugely alter during the classical and romantic periods, and definitely dipped even lower in relation the twentieth century modernist music, although the class demographic did not remain as clear-cut.

Putting “classical” music in this kind of context, as the music of a powerful minority, is not to belittle it. The magnificent music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven et al is not threatened by contextual socio-historical understanding. The internal composition of the minority was not one dimensional, and in any case, minorities, even very small ones, often have greater and wider significance than their numbers would suggest. The contextualization of “classical” music does not endanger the music itself any more than, say, Gaelic psalms, Arnhem Land aborigine music, or urban blues, are destroyed by social and historical perspectives. Understanding and enjoyment of these musics can only be enhanced by knowing more about them and by being able to put them in a framework. However, they are, by these means, demystified.

It must also be said that composers of the classical era (such as Mozart) were often at their very best when standing at an ironic distance from their cultural mileau, or when breaking free of it (such as Beethoven).

The hegemony of “classical” music has largely been maintained by mystification including the formation of 19th century academies which now continue into the 20th and 21st centuries, highly partial conventional historical narratives, ideologies of greatness and genius, assumptions of class superiority, the aura created by a class of specialists, plus a downgrading, simple avoidance or ignorance of other kinds of music. This hegemony was eroded over the latter part of the twentieth century. To finally dump it entirely is a prerequisite for drawing the practice of music away from the grip of privilege, crushing conservatism and an all too narrow view of the realities of the world today – social, political and cultural, as well as musical.


Harmony, Dissonance And Noise Is Not Everyone’s Problem

It is this tradition of “classical” music and its localised, and mainly Viennese crisis, which informed the philosophies and ideologies of musical modernism as well as those of the advocates of “noise-sound”. Russolo’s 1913 manifesto presents musical history as running from primitive sounds produced on pierced reeds or stretched strings through to the “complicated and persistent dissonances that characterise contemporary music”, via chords and dissonances – the classical history, in other words.

Cage struggled early on in his composing career with serial methods as a way of circumventing Western harmony. Again, in an unwittingly Eurocentric, perhaps Viennese, certainly bourgeois view of music, he saw harmony as the motive force of composition, a force that had now fallen apart – or needed dismantling. Significantly, he later chose to study with the Viennese Arnold Schoenberg whose serial innovations were driven by the same perceived problem of harmony, although coming at it from a different viewpoint.

Henry Cowell was one of the few pro-noise composers who were aware of greater vistas in music. This was due to the oriental, Irish and American folk music in his family background, plus his training with the American ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger. Cowell went on to dip into African, Javanese and Indian music. However, although one of his most famous students was John Cage (another was George Gershwin) there is little real depth in Cage’s understanding of non-Western or folk music, despite his citing of “the nine permanent emotions of Indian philosophy”, Zen and the I Ching. Cage’s point of departure was western “classical” music, and the solutions he employed for the rest of his life were his responses to the perceived crisis of composition of the early twentieth century.

The likes of Russolo, Cage and Varese made a logical observation. In strict music-theoretical terms, modernism had pushed music into a world of what was previously considered “noise” (dissonance). If all was noise then surely the time was ripe for any and every sound to become available to music. This theoretical position matched well with the Futurist admiration for the modern industrial and urban environment as the basis of a new aesthetic. It was shared by composers such as Varese, Cage, the mid century musique concretists Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, Stockhausen and many others. It also became the basis of “sound art”.


The standard view of music as outlined above (the dissolution of harmony leading to modernism dissonance) had the advantage of being a simple, single pointed narrative which acted as justification not only for “noise-sound”, but also for all modernism (up to 1945) and later the high modernists (post-1945) who saw themselves as ahead of the game. It was a view that was current throughout the 20th century up until the 1970s. At that time, gradually at first and accelerating during the 1980s and ‘90s, it became apparent that this was only one history, only one way of telling it, and, even within its own terms, capable of more than one outcome.

One powerful alternative that emerged from within aspects of American aspects was minimalism. According to the established modernist account, pulse, regular rhythm, harmony based on 3rds and 5th (triadic), repetition as well as standard playing techniques on instruments were now superseded. Minimalism’s reinvestigation of these elements, even including scraps of melody, was totally disruptive to the neat history-as-progress model of modernism.

Once the Eurocentric grip had been weakened, mainly through minimalism but perhaps also via some developments in popular music, it became possible to see the twentieth century’s art music in a new way. Composers who had not previously fit neatly into the modernist canon were rehabilitated or, in some cases, assimilated for the first time. Scott Joplin, Erik Satie, George Gershwin, Percy Grainger, Astor Piazolla, Arvo Part and many others found themselves the subject of serious musical enquiry and, in many cases, revival. I would wish to also include Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Ernesto Nazareth, Hector Villa Lobos, and others who understood the value of "roots".

However, it was not only art music that did not fit into the standard modernist history. Indigenous to the countries that were prominent in modernist music, such as the USA, Britain and Europe, there were folksong and music traditions that had to be described by very different histories. Theirs was not the history of church and state, or of the wealthy bourgeois houses of High Culture. Nor was it the history of an ever-expanding harmonic language that eventually fell apart. Theirs were the histories of peasants and workers on the land, ordinary soldiers and sailors, highwaymen and criminals, and subsequently industrial workers in mines, mills and factories. It was the history of clansmen, chieftains, slaves, diasporas, outlaws, wanderers and mingling cultures.

Instead of the story of the rise and fall of harmony there were broad historical periods reaching back to traditions in which oral composition was the norm. Print and, many centuries’ later, recording technology forced changes. Melodic, stylistic changes happened when disparate traditions came in contact such as the influx of Irish tunes to England in the early nineteenth century, or the grand melting pot of nineteenth century New Orleans leading to the development of jazz.

These dynamic moments in history did not only belong to the last few centuries. They could be traced back to ancient migrations and assimilations throughout the world.

In many countries there were folk revivals that propagated this music – which belonged roughly to the last two hundred years or so. It is true that these revivals tended to be ideologically motivated and relied on constructed performance styles that gave the appearance of authenticity but often bore little comparison with the styles encountered in fieldwork. Still, the revivals succeeded in putting folk music (an endlessly contested term) on the map, telling a radically different history from that of art-music modernism.


In the 1950s and ‘60s a handful of record companies such as Folkways and Nonesuch brought to the attention of the Western world musical traditions from much further field. These musics, from the frozen North, the Far East, the Indian, African and Australasian continents, again, had very different histories, aesthetics and social contexts. Furthermore, as the complexities and skills associated with these “other” traditions became better known in the West it was no longer plausible to maintain the position which typically saw Western art music as the pinnacle of mankind’s musical achievement. Nor, therefore, could the West’s exclusive version of musical history, including its modernist aspirations, continue to make any viable claims for exclusivity or universality.

In countries such as Britain where there was a sizeable immigration it became progressively more untenable to maintain mythic, and often unwittingly racist, fictions about Indian, Oriental or Caribbean peoples and their musics. It becomes impossible to continue the myth when the reality is living next door. As a result of multiculturalism many traditional musics could now be found in one place such as the UK. The way they told their stories and histories was, again, very different from the model offered by Vienna-centred classical music.

For Western musicians the de-normalisation of Western “classical” music, along with the opening up of global perspectives, had far reaching implications. One of the characteristics of modernism, and especially the high modernism of the 1950s and 60s, was the limited cultural constituency it addressed itself to. Knowledge of many other traditions from around the world potentially widened this constituency. This tackled one of the fundamental problems of high modernism. The small minority who appreciated it was often cited as the problem, but much more important was the fact that the music itself addressed a remarkably small area of concerns – the organisation of sounds or pitches according to systematic processes, the transformation of sounds, the continuation and confirmation of the existing concert tradition. It was as if our music had little to say to anyone else. Yet, of course, it held to its illusions of universality for some time.


The history of popular music stretches back centuries, but the advent of sound recording in the very late nineteenth century and the introduction of electrical recording in the 1920s enabled popular music to become a pervasive, media-based cultural force. Its twentieth century history is a story of occasional artistic quantum leaps. In my university teaching I call these the Three Friendly Invasions - jazz initially in the 1920s, rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, hip-hop in the 1980s. (One can also trace this roughly 30 year rule back to Ragtime in the 1890s, Music Hall and early Vaudeville from the mid century onwards, and Minstrelsy from the 1830s onwards.) Technology plays an indispensable part in this history. Popular music (or rather musics – plural) is now the most pervasive music, and any approach to the challenges of music today that ignores it is akin to the proverbial ostrich.

In accounting for Western popular music two distinct broad histories are primary: one is that of localised folk musics and their developments into music hall and vaudeville. These were crucial to the developing story of popular music in the West. To these must be added the very special case of Afro-American music including worksongs, folk ballads, blues, gospel and other religious song, all the forms of jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, hip hop and today’s urban styles. Again, these histories are entirely different from the standard music history of Western art music. They involve tales of enforced diaspora, struggles for freedom, and interaction with various white traditions – Jewish, French, British, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and so on.

As with the relativity demanded by deepened acquaintance with musical traditions worldwide, it is no longer possible or desirable to downgrade popular music or to ignore it, nor to see it as anything other than a vital strand in current cultural life. This is particularly so because popular music, like all other broad umbrella terms, covers a wide variety of idioms and genres. It has its “folk” realm as in karaoke or line dancing, its mainstream majority “pop” realm, and its “art music” as in prog rock, or the work of bands such as Sonic Youth or Radiohead. There is simple, party-going pop, and there is experimental, minority “popular” music – a terminological minefield that has driven scholars wild: how can unpopular music be popular?.

Particularly since the development of the most recent musical technologies the possibilities for the homemade, the experimental or the non-commercial within the popular realm have grown apace.


In beginning by challenging the orthodoxies of “noise-sound” modernism I have, in effect, begun to describe the present, highly complex, multicultural, diverse musical landscape in which old hierarchies are apparently less firmly established than hitherto. The dreams of Russolo, Cage, et al have come true but with a peculiar twist that they could not have been foreseen.

Not only are all sounds now available through sampling, electronics, computers and ever more sophisticated software, but also all musics have likewise become available, partly through these technologies, partly due to actual migrations, and also through the efforts of fieldworkers and ethnomusicologists whose researches have shown how rich and varied mankind’s adventure with music really is.

All musical traditions have their own histories and their own stories to tell, and, not so strange to tell, none of them result in the abandonment of pulse, regularity, repetition, melody and their own standard instruments. None insist on the complete fracture with the past that the old manifestos and philosophies of modernism demanded. In the light of this it could easily appear that modernism really did signal the end of “classical” music, and was the convoluted, unpopular fag end of the tradition, as Henry Pleasants argued in 1955 in The Death of a Music. This was not the case (see 1, below), but the argument is still worth confronting.

With reference to many of the points I have made some cautions and counterbalances are in order. I will list eight.

1.Thinking of Western classical music: an entire musical tradition must not be written off simply because, in general, it has been so appallingly taught. Its internal struggle is related with crucial issues of our time – art, aesthetics, social relevance, the tension between individual freedom and collective appeal, degrees of acceptable and unacceptable compromise, and so on. Politically and culturally the struggles of Western art music have much to say as they rise above their traditional history and take their place in a new context.

2. It is entirely false to seriously believe that we have in-depth knowledge of the world’s musics. There are a huge variety of musical traditions that the Western world has little knowledge of. There are even such traditions on our own doorstep. How many musicians in Britain at the beginning of the twenty-first century know anything of Gaelic psalm singing, or gypsy “tuning”, or local carol singing in Cornwall or South Yorkshire? Outside a handful of committed enthusiasts the number is small. Yet the folk revivals, festivals and clubs, all supported by magazines and radio shows – especially those obsessed by the “world music” ticket, can give the impression that we really do know the folk music of Britain. If this kind of searching analysis is applied to much more remote regions of the world it becomes clear that “world music” is little more than a commercial and now an educational tag. It conjures up illusions of a liberal multiculturalism that often have a buried, but insidious, ethnocentric edge.

“World Music” originated as a marketing term invented by a group a record companies. As a term it describes nothing – at least nothing musical. “Jazz” might be taken to refer to Afro-American rhythmic music with a degree of improvisation. “Baroque” music might be taken to describe the music of Bach, Handel and their contemporaries and may be described in terms of stylistic features. “World Music”, however, simply generalizes the music of all those “others” scattered around the globe who are not Us. It is racist and inaccurate. It gets in the way of a deeper appreciation of the musical traditions of the world and should be dropped. This is especially so in the world of education.

3. It is wrong to abandon all hierarchies of value. Even though the hegemony of “classical” music is now reduced, relativism-gone-mad treats everything as valid therefore equal. By this view, to invent a fanciful example newly composed pieces in the style of Mozart could be a perfectly valid form of contemporary composition. Relevance cannot be jettisoned in favour of an inclusive-sounding ultra liberal philosophy that deskills and leaves the musical landscape bland, featureless and, quite possibly, at the mercy of commercial forces.

4.It is worth accepting that the broad distinctions of folk, popular and art music, although horrendously hard to define, still exist and probably will for a long time. The supposed blurring of the boundaries between the three arises from mechanistic, reductive definitions in the original instance. It is fashionable to suggest this dissolution of old boundaries, but the probability is that the lived situation is little different from what it always was. Folk, popular and art exist in symbiotic, holistic relation to one another.

5.Despite its obvious virtues, musicians need not be seduced or bamboozled by technology.

6.The possibility that old disciplines may be in question doesn’t mean that there should be no discipline at all. Ideas of hands-on easiness must be combated without descending into the elitism that served the old ideologies of music. Two of the twentieth centuries greatest advocates of musical freedom, John Cage and Sun Ra, continually emphasized the need for discipline.

7.Window dressing, marketing, packaging and making the old (or new) music sexy is hardly a viable response to the present situation.

8.Multiculturalism and postmodernism can lapse into a valueless, phoney relativism. The widening of the musical landscape needs to be accompanied by a deepening sense of responsibility and integrity.


My reasons for calling this document an “unmanifesto” are given at the beginning: I do not wish to be prescriptive, and the music of the future is forever a mystery until it is made – at which point it is no longer the future. None of the following remarks, therefore, are intended to prescribe or impose specific musical ideas or styles. They are, however, intended as statements in response to the musical present with its challenges, problems and strengths.


A musical landscape that presents itself as a melting pot of local, national and international traditions (as ours increasingly does) may be vibrant, but it may also be dull and bland. Our melting pot must avoid becoming a cultural grey-out in which the dominant voices, for all the idealistic claptrap that they might utter, are those nearest to the centres of power. Thus, one prerequisite for a vibrant melting pot is the ability to listen to and respect quiet voices. Quiet voices are those with little power other than their own integrity, or with little desire for power, or those we miss if our ears are numbed by those who shout louder.

The many ingredients in the melting pot need to find ways of maintaining their integrity without lapsing into phoney authenticity on the one hand or rip-off on the other. They are musical material and resources, not sound effects. The wonders of plunderphonics notwithstanding, every flavour in the melting pot deserves respectful treatment.


Audacity, for artists, has little to do with shock value. It is the ability to see clearly what you need to do and to do it with integrity and without compromise. It is art as dare, the bold statement, although the dare is for art’s sake rather for dare’s sake. Dare for dare’s sake is not audacious. merely sensationalist. Artistic dare, boldness or courage is audacious. Audacity grows with confidence, but it is not the same thing.

To illustrate: art teachers often comment on the timid child’s tendency to make very small images at the bottom of the paper, or the novice’s shyness resulting in undersized gestures perhaps in the middle of the paper. This illustrates a lack of audacity. The preferred solution is to make big, bold gestures – or perhaps, if small gestures are desired, to make them really small. This is audacity. In my experience it can also be absent initially and then cultivated in music improvisation classes. Improvisation is a superb practice for the development of musical audacity.

For all I have subjected Russolo and Cage to critique, their greatest quality was their audacity. Had they not been audacious we would not be discussing them all these years on.

Great musicians are always audacious. Frank Sinatra was audacious with
phrasing and timing. Miles Davis was audacious even with his own career, insisting on changing (or developing) his musical direction when artistic necessity dictated. Sun Ra, theatrical though he was, was a master of audacity. Satie. Webern, Bartok, Thelonius Monk, The Beatles, Stockhausen, Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger, Kurt Cobain, Morton Feldman – all were audacious musicians of recent times. Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock Festival was one of the most audacious musical gestures of the century in the Western world. Audacity is the quality that unites these disparate musicians. One of the most audacious musicians I ever knew was an Exmoor sheep farmer who knew exactly how to grab an entire pub full of people by the scruff of the neck when he sang his often bawdy songs.


In 1952, in a celebrated fit of bombast, the composer Pierre Boulez wrote the following.

" assert that any musician who has not experienced…the necessity for the dodecaphonic language is USELESS. His whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch."

The exclusive position Boulez credited to “the dodecaphonic language” (twelve tone music) was never relevant to more than a small coterie of high modernist composers in Europe and America, and now appears dated. Boulez’s spirited commitment “to the needs of his epoch”, however, brims with a passion for relevance which is still pertinent.

The problem with all narrowly drawn, highly prescriptive artistic views is that they insist on a particular favoured stylistic approach, whether dodecaphonic or, for that matter, socialist realism. Today’s musical climate must surely be able to accommodate both as well as all degrees in between. Artistic engagement for musicians is not a matter of fixing what or how they ought to play or compose. Nor is it useful for musicians themselves to regard their own styles and genres as in some way ahead of the game or superior, all others being viewed from a tolerant (or intolerant) distance.

Musical styles, genres, idioms are coded experimental solutions to the precarious business of living both as individuals and collectives. Their reach can be great or small. In the complex, dangerous and demanding times we live in we cannot afford to denigrate or dismiss whole styles, or any of these solutions. The more the merrier, for they create a fund of human ethical capital, although this relies, to a degree, on good faith and intention.

Engagement is not a matter of making music explicitly political, although it is worth re-emphasizing that all art exists in contexts (social, cultural, historical, educational) and always serves interests of some kind and is therefore implicitly political in these senses. The stances that individual musicians take in relation to these are ultimately their own business.

Engagement in music, as in all the arts, is a matter of awareness of the artist’s location in the challenging, dangerous, threatened, divided, beautiful, joyous, unique world we inhabit, and of what kind of creatures we are. Music, at best, is a way of participating in rather than avoiding the world. Only the very dullest music encourages retreat into the stultifying nothingness of escapism. The worst New Age music, for a time, cultivated this type of ultra-quietist avoidance.

In a previous paragraph I cited the fanciful example of writing a piece in the style of Mozart. The reason this is irrelevant is that Mozart wrote music that was engaged with the era he lived in. Times and culture changed and so did music. There is little point in writing music that is engaged, albeit in a voyeuristic, parasitic, mythic way, with Mozart’s time when we are self evidently living in our own time.

This example is extreme, but it does illustrate a point. There is music that seems to inhabit pastures that are too well trodden, too associated with a particular set of cultural concerns that are now remote from our own. Reinvestigation of a past style is another thing. There would seem to be little point in creating carbon copies of The Beatles other than to make money as tribute bands. The clear and creative influence of The Beatles on Oasis, however, is an entirely different matter. The style developed in the ‘60s by The Beatles was creatively recycled and used as an audible anchor for further developments.

Music as an engaged practice must be of its time. It must show an awareness of the cultural questions of our time. Music should dump all that dated pretentious twaddle about genius, masterpieces and abstract, divine inspiration, and see itself as a vital creator and reflector of the real world.


Contrary to popular belief, new musical technologies, hands-on, technocratic and increasingly user-friendly, makes it more, not less, important than ever to be a skilled and sensitive musician. Now that anyone can doodle on a keyboard and have it notated and printed out immediately the necessity for high levels of musical discernment increases. Now that on-screen composition, with a large palette of sounds and tricks, is available to anyone who can click a mouse (and afford the technology) the urgent need for aural skills increases. These new technologies are a powerful, compelling addition to the musician’s tool kit. The most basic tool, however, remains the ear.


Funding for music and the arts in Britain and elsewhere has reached the level of a fetish. Funding schemes are, inevitably, constructed to fulfil agendas that have nothing directly to do with the creative process of making music.

The danger with funding fetishism is that funding itself becomes the primary factor in the creative process. It can set the agenda and demand results that are, in point of fact, unpredictable. Music itself is the primary practice of music, not funding schemes.

Our musical and artistic climate must urgently demystify the funding fetish that currently stifles creativity and threatens to reduce all to blandness.

To emphasize: it is funding fetishism that is to be rejected, not all funding per se.


There are times when it is not clear to me whether institutional music education can be justified at all, especially at the higher education level. In many other times and places, throughout history and throughout the world, those who wanted to be musicians found a Master from whom they learnt directly. Musical institutions, on the other hand, invite students to study not with a Master but with a team of teachers, and accept a curriculum, an agenda (usually implicit rather than explicit), and an examining system – none of which are necessarily of direct value.

Further, conservatoires do continue to perpetrate a narrow view of music that is over reliant on the Western classical model, and often marginalizes folk, jazz, popular, ancient, ethnic and global traditions. Canons and studies of a selected literature are thus socially, ideologically and culturally biased.

The problems created are highly complex. If and when music education institutions accept a non-classical form of music as a valid study there is a marked tendency to decaffeinate the music itself. The case of jazz and the jazz colleges is a perfect example, often producing that frequently observed phenomenon of technically excellent music with “no soul”. One almost wishes that the academies would keep their deathly hands off the more vernacular, popular or grass roots styles.

However, when the case is really examined it becomes apparent that it is not only the introduction of popular styles that produces the problem of decaffeinated music. The problem is endemic to the conservatoire/university/college ethos. Definable goals, the telling of traditional narratives that constitute music history, institutional and dry competitiveness, a sense of removal from everyday life, and, most notably, an obsessive and dysfunctional need to examine and assess everything all create a climate in which musical, artistic creativity can have a hard struggle to keep alive. This is the institutional culture that clashes with rock or jazz, but on close inspection it is also the culture that clashes with classical music. One reason why classical music is often unpopular is that it is generally perpetuated via these dry attitudes. More progressive institutions may feel that they are now beyond such criticisms, but this cannot be the case while the frameworks of assessment and examination remain in place.

A further problem in the educational sphere occurs if the gates are open to all styles and genres. In many university courses in the UK, students are now entitled to submit work in popular, rock, jazz or other non-classical idioms for composition or performance degrees.

To take an imaginary but very typical example: if a student offers for assessment rock music without adding anything significant to the rock music that is created seven nights a week, fifty-two weeks a year, up and down the country in clubs, pubs and bars by non-academic, non-student musicians it is fair to ask on what basis are students to be awarded degrees? Surely, a groundless elitism based wholly on who happens to be in higher education is thus created. Otherwise, why not give degrees to everyone?

Yet if we insist that students make a more sophisticated version of this music, one that shows evidence of three year’s study, we risk creating a kind of elite campus music to a greater or lesser extent divorced from its roots. It becomes clever, cerebral and distant rather than direct, physical and immediate.

The problems go even deeper. It is not merely a question of making popular styles academically acceptable. Classical music is made into a special case if it is not included in this critique. As with popular styles, there are many classical musicians, perhaps those often (but patronizingly) described as “amateurs”, who participate in music making, and about whom the same argument applies. Why not grant degrees to all of them?

The point is that in all styles and genres of music there is grass roots participation, often at highly accomplished levels. A proportion of this musical population turns up on higher education music courses as students. If these students are to be awarded qualifications it is not unreasonable to ask that their levels of accomplishment be in advance of the widespread non-academic population. If we do this, however, we wilfully create hierarchical stratifications that risk some loss of contact with the commonality of music practice everywhere other than in colleges and universities.

Are there ways through these dilemmas? Much comes down to values, and these may be expressed as questions.

1) Are students training to be better musicians than anyone else?
2) If not, why are they training?
3) If so, is the creation of a class of specialists useful or detrimental to music? (It may be argued that specialists have existed in traditions worldwide for centuries, in which case it is fair to ask whether this is a perennial of music, or whether today’s culture has special issues in relation to this question.)
4) Alternatively, is the training of students a functional matter of preparing them for musical jobs?
5) Does multicultural music education risk superficiality by merely dipping into a number of cultures rather than getting to know one in depth?

Music education does not necessarily need answers to such questions. Ti needs new strategies. Attempting straight answers to questions of class, elitism, social role and so on, important though they are, is likely to perpetrate ever decreasing circles of thought which risk getting nowhere.

Currently universities and colleges teach composition, performance skills, history, perhaps twentieth century music, notation, the use of technology and media, and so on. Where, outside ethnomusicology, are the cross -cultural studies of musical instrumentals including single instruments such as the violin? Where are the cross-cultural, multi-historical studies of composition and the roles of composers, or of improvisation and its many frameworks, or music and dance, or music and magic, ritual or courtship? One can imagine classes on the singer-accompanist encompassing Greek epic singers with gustle and the modern day singer-songwriter with guitar, pausing to examine the division of labour (singer-accompanist) in Schubert songs en route to the present.

One can imagine seminars on the practice and history of listening and attention with emphasis on when and how listening to music, motionless and silent, became the accepted way of receiving music. Classes could discuss the different types and styles of listening. There could be classes on the nature of musicianship and how it changes according to culture and genre. Or the historical roots of the idea of genius and the masterpiece, linking this with Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven. What about music and social class? What about the politics of funding?

If it be objected that such questions are already included in musicology and ethnomusicology, and are not immediately relevant to the actual practice of composing or playing music, my answer would be that such matters are relevant to the practice of music, that ignorant musicians are rarely good musicians, that understanding and engagement are the keys to good performance, composition and genuine innovation.

As far as actual performance goes, in the past (and still to a great degree in the present) students are asked to show a depth of repertoire in such events as final recital programmes. Perhaps students could be encouraged to create genuinely innovative programmes which show some awareness of, and engagement with, the contemporary world with its many aesthetic, musical, social, ethnic and political dynamics. There are some examples on CD – Jimi Tenor, Joanna MacGregor’s experiments in cross-cultural, cross period programming, Lester Bowie’s re-investigations of old or pop tunes, Bjork, Sonic Youth, DJ Shadow.

Teaching music to students is a golden opportunity to discuss and educate through controversy, activity and aesthetics. The passing on of skills is, of course, essential. So also is a fostering of awareness of the cultural and educational agendas those skills are placed within.

Examinations and assessments are obstacles to real education, but encouraging students to see the nature of, and ideological reasons for, these obstacles can be a constructive process. It may, for some students, even help them fulfil requirements.

Ideally, in a musical Utopia, colleges and universities would be laboratories for enquiry and experiment, and workshops for practical skills and interactions. They would be open to all. They would advertise their courses. People would sign up and pay for individuals modules or courses and would then be expected to attend all classes, unless the class was one in which group attendance was not necessary. Individuals could continue their education throughout their lives, taking new courses as they arose. Certificates would be issued to people who had completed the various courses and modules, but there would be no examinations and no assessments. There would, however, be constant, constructive feedback based on given tasks.


Ultimately, the question for musicians is not which style to compose in, which music to play or which ideology to subscribe to. Indeed, I am sympathetic to what Buddhist activist Ken Jones, in his book “Beyond Optimism”, called “ideological disarmament. Beyond all these questions is the simple one of how to lead a musical life? Each musician answers this question individually, but avoidance, denial or ignorance of it is not conducive to the creation of vibrant music.

Personally speaking, a musical life is one in which music is a primary and constant concern. I buy recordings of all kind of music and listen to them constantly. My waking thoughts are of musical tasks such as composition, practice, lesson planning or writing. I seek out musicians, listen to them, combine and campaign with them for mutual benefit. I feed my musical life in any way I can even when music is far from my thoughts – which it rarely is. I see all my other interests as vital to my musical life.


1. The musical landscape now available to us is more vast than before, highly complex and multifaceted. The more of it we take in the more exciting it becomes.
2. The melting pot must be vibrant.
3. Musicians need to discover their audacity.
4. Music must be a practice of being engaged with the world
5. As far as technology goes, be a maker not an extension of the tool.
6. Resist funding fetishism
7. Music education needs new strategies
8. Live a musical life!


Society echoes music. Music echoes society, and so on in an unending spiral. If we are content with the society we have there is no need for new music and new ideas of any kind. If we really feel there is no room for improvement, nothing wrong with the world, and no need to engage with it, music can be left alone. Its work is done.

If, on the other hand, we take the view that our world can always be improved, that there are always injustices, miscalculations and threats to survival, or that there is always more to say about our human-ness, then new music and ideas are not option. They are vital.

sampointing.jpg Sam Richards Powered By Thinking Arts