Herbert Brün
When Music Resists Meaning

(Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004)

Review by Roger Johnson
  When Music Resists Meaning is a collection of writings of Herbert Brün (1918-2000) from the period between 1952 and the mid-1990s. While much of it is published here for the first time, several of the pieces have been reprinted from a variety of journals released during 1960s through the mid-1980s. Included also are drawings, poems, two short spicy scripts, program notes, and even a CD of some of his compositions. The book appears to be an homage to a favorite professor prepared by one of his graduate students, Arun Chandra, now teaching himself at Evergreen State College.

First of all, Brün’s work has very little to do with popular music, despite a few fragments I discuss below. Perhaps the most immediate connection for those interested in music and cultural studies is that his writing fills out a little more—and a little differently—some of the perspectives on music and culture generally associated with Theodore Adorno. Key among the differences is that Brün was much more deeply trained and active as a composer, and was also an early exponent of electroacoustic and computer music.

Like Adorno, Brün was at his core a European modernist. Born in Berlin from—in his words—“a very bourgeois background,” and deeply influenced by what he termed “the German-Jewish-Berlin-culture pretenses,” (83) he fled Nazi Germany for Jerusalem in 1936, “the last good moment to leave,” he says in an interview. (102) There he came in close contact with Stefan Wolpe, whom he calls his “second great influence.” (85) A student of Webern and deeply immersed within the interrelated worlds of modernist art and leftist politics, Wolpe seems to have been both a mentor and catalyst for the young Brün. In fact, much of the book is about Brün’s own increasingly complex—and sometimes critical—relationships with Schoenberg and the pre-war German Expressionist culture on the one hand, and its post-war rebirth and increasingly formalist and academic development into the 1960s and 70s.

With a year at Columbia (1948-9) and then some time immersed in the artistic re-awakening in Europe (Paris, Cologne, Munich), particularly the early experiments in electronic music, Brün was invited to the Center for Advanced Computation at the University of Illinois by computer music pioneer Lejaren Hiller in 1962. He was soon appointed as a professor in the music department and remained based there for the rest of his life. This is where he wrote most of the material found in the present collection, and also established a devoted following of students, a number of whom remain deeply committed to the—partly heroic, partly quixotic—attempts to extend the twilight of esoteric, composer-based “new music.”

The present collection is divided into four main sections: “Listening,” “Composing,” “Composing with Computers,” and “Cybernetics,” followed by a shorter section, “Poetry and Plays,” an eight-part set of appendices, and the CD itself with 16 tracks, each cited in at least one of the articles. Brün’s primary concern here is with theoretical and analytical issues of the kinds of systematic and experimental music with which he was involved. He also shows a strong interest in philosophy, aesthetics, linguistics, and in fostering a deeper foundation for the musical revolutions he and his circle were so deeply committed to. This is perhaps clearest and most developed in a reprint of a 1989 article under the title “For Anticommunication,” a term he defines as “an attempt to say something, not a refusal to say it . . . an attempt at respectfully teaching language to say it.” (63) Later he says that with “such language one has to either create new words or add and attach new meanings to old words.” (64) He does note that the former is easier to do, though in some cases—and certainly with “new music”— it is much harder for people to accept.

This idea that they were creating a fundamentally new stage of musical evolution, and through it a revolution in consciousness, were powerful credos for Brün and this circle of Avant-garde composers and philosophers. This aspect of his work is particularly evident in the sections labeled “Composing with Computers” and “Cybernetics.” For Brün, the computer was primarily a means to explore new systems and escape from old habits. Like Milton Babbitt in his famous article “Who Cares if You Listen?,” Brün sees music composition as a form of pure research, idealized most easily in mathematics. Interestingly, this “visionary” stance is still quite evident in the manifesto describing the Composition/Theory department at the University of Illinois where it exists as a part of very classical, conservative and tradition-bound School of Music. I would not be at all surprised to learn that Brün himself had a major part in its writing.

To me—and I assume to the majority of readers here—the most interesting piece from this collection is a reprint from Keyboard Magazine (1985). It is referred to as a “Guest Editorial,” drawn from the transcript of a telephone conversation between Brün and the magazine’s editor at the time. It is the closest thing here to something targeted for a more “general reader,” in this case keyboard and synthesizer players engaged in popular genres. The article is divided into a series of short pronouncements on topics such as high volume, background music, repetitive rhythm, commercial influence, at the end of which he imagines a kind of utopia where “musicians would play new music, would be in chamber ensembles touring the States with new piece, all kinds of pieces, among them also here and there a rock piece. It would be a paradise . . “ (119) In his mind popular music is only played to make money, and he is eager to speak to its practitioners.

Addressing the issue of loud, over-driven volume, Brün notes what many others have as well: that amplified or electronic music has a much richer harmonic content, that it needs to be played close to the threshold of pain, and that if the volume is turned down “the sounds turn into the familiar realm of the church organ.” He ends by noting that “the charm of these sounds—and we speak now only of sounds, not yet of music—is that they really are not natural.” (117) He is less sympathetic of another fundamental aspect of popular music: periodic rhythm. He opens this segment with his simplified version of an avant-gardist’s manifesto:

I would like to say loudly to everybody who wants to listen: as long as most radical, progressive, and wonderfully musical band musicians keep up the beat, the repetition of forms, the loop-like repeat, then they are doing a disservice to the development of music. And no text [lyrics] can liberate them from the verdict on the musical level. Now, I don’t want rocks thrown at me. However, I would like to hear from reasonable and thinking musicians in the rock scene. How would they dispute this thesis, apart from its just being not comfortable? In a world of automated misery, how could they defend artists who reaffirm the automatism of the periodic beat? (118)

He then goes on to argue that this creates a refuge for “less-talented musicians to substitute repeat loops and steady states for imagination and know-how,” doing a “repetitive round dance” filled with “pseudo-passion.” (118) Then comes the most revealing of all, something of a fundamentalist’s attempt to purge the “original sin” of rock ‘n’ roll:

It’s always at its peak, trying to imitate this chauvinistic picture of the man who has a steady erection for twenty-four hours a day. I resent this. I would like to make it quite clear that I’m in no superior position myself. You put me in a disco or some such placed and I’ll nod along like any moron. I can’t resist the steady beat either. I wish it wasn’t there. There are certain temptations, like periodic rhythm, that I do not want to deal with any more, even though I fall victim to them. And this is not a purist attitude; it is political. Downbeats at the predicted moment have a kind of cheap appeal to my thoughtless pulse and heartbeat, making me simply another vibrating instrument. Rock has sophistication to it that requires sophisticated listeners, while at the same this it also offers the drug of repetitive rhythm which irons out all the nuances. (118)

He follows up on this Freudian outburst by saying that without rigorous effort we simply repeat our old, low-down habits. The other bad one is, of course, commerciality. It “has everything to do with it. It is the most motivating power behind music.” (118) For Brün, popular musicians are mostly limited by “the accumulated routines of their instruments . . little licks of a well-known original.” (120) And then he echoes a point that John Cage had also made, that “I have to sit down and very carefully compose in order to avoid my own preferences,” (121) or as he describes it in another interview, “the inherited musical universe that harbors me instead of me harboring it.” (220) “You compose when you want to get rid of yourself and become something else.” (121)

Brün ends the interview with another nemesis he shares with Murray Schafer, by arguing “that in public places we (should) have no smoking, no stinking, no farting and no Muzak. . . and that it “should be considered as poisonous as smoke. It is not only the noise level, the decibel, it is also the predictabilities of rhythm. We should not disregard the enormous power of the acoustic rhythmic universe around us. It dulls us. We don’t need dulling any more. If anything, we need more alertness. End of tirade.” (122) We can assume he felt a lot better after that that phone call.
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