Some early thoughts on fragmentation and duration

I recently witnessed a conference presentation about Brian Ferneyhough’s Kurze Schatten II for solo guitar. The basic point of the paper was that one can look to the philosophy of Benjamin to help the act of musical interpretation for performance of the work. While I don’t think this is really interpretation, but merely reading what the composer said about the work and then hunting for evidence of this in the score, he was a great performer, and if it’s helping him make engaging performances of this interesting piece, then that’s totally cool.

All that aside, however, what struck me was the poverty of the concept of fragmented time, which was the central aspect of the Benjaminian philosophy dealt with in the paper. Fragmentation was considered as a resistance to the continuity that could only be (according to this musician’s understanding of Benjamin’s philosophy) a continuity of destruction and oppression and a continuity towards barbarism (fascism). Having not read enough Benjamin myself (something I intend to rectify in order to develop my below thoughts), I can’t comment on the accuracy of this interpretation, but I’ll proceed as if it is more or less adequate. (In any case, this idea seems to gel well with a postmodernism that sees fragmentation and collage as a resistance to ‘grand metanarratives’ of history that, in their ‘totalising’ nature, are in essence already totalitarian).

living in the moment

This person is totally living in the moment.

Now, this idea of fragmentation as resistance to the continuity of/to barbarism. This would have already been politically wrong at the time, since breaking with the continuity of barbarism should have meant installing a new continuity – a revolutionary continuity, a continuity that would break decisively (whatever that means concretely) with the given continuity and hold its tension with it until the old was overcome. This is one of the things I like best about the philosophy of Badiou: the emphasis on the creation of a new subjective time and duration. (Something that Rosa Luxemburg and the German communists tried to do). Fragmentation is powerless before real continuity. Fragmentation may have a disruptive effect and open up space for a new continuity, but by itself it appears more as an act of desperation. (This is basically the same for ‘critical art’ in general). This of course is speaking from a political perspective. From within a purely artistic perspective, fragmentation did, to a degree, provide a new way of thinking about form and time in art and cast off old conventions, and therefore liberating new affective resources. That’s fine, but that’s about the best we can say for it. And that is seeing fragmentation in the particular context of emerging from the 19th century hegemonic ideological and cultural practices which insisted upon a certain kind of continuity. People’s experience of time in art, as in life, had been that of a general continuity (punctuated by discontinuities of war, revolution, etc), and the ideology was that of continuity.

Today, however, our subjective time is not that of an immediate sense of continuity. It is highly fragmented and brutally discontinuous and rapid. Our attention spans are in ruins. The whole pace of things is brutally out of our control: capital moves around the globe at lightning speed, so fast that we cannot comprehend; the media cycle and the electoral cycle don’t allow us to think beyond our immediate present; our affective domain is fragmented due to the structure of social media and information technologies and increasingly because of the casualisation and micromanagement of the workforce, and we increasingly switch between different jobs in our precarious ‘portfolio careers’.

Of course, behind all of this, the continuity is ever more that of a progression towards barbarism (and ecocide). But the affective dimension of both the individual and collective subjects is that of a fragmentation. Fragmentation is simply what is. Badiou is right: multiplicity and difference is simply what is. It has no claim to the status of ‘truth’ or radicalism.

It is in this context where Ferneyhough’s fragment form appears at best as a critical presentation of this fragmentation, and at worst as an uncritical and perhaps unconscious replication of the structures of time in the extra-aesthetic world. You can make it sound super profound with all the Benjaminian gloss, but at the end of the day, this is just what the composer thought he was doing. What he was actually doing was perhaps something far less ‘radical’ and far less interesting.

This is why I’m totally uncomfortable with the gestural language of much music labeled ‘new complexity’ and much music that takes as its starting point isolated sound events or playing techniques. It relies on such short-range corporeal gestures. Sure, it tries to build a syntax (maybe) or a global form from these, but I feel that what ends up happening is that this global form is either an excuse for the presentation for the pretty gestures, or the gestures become redundant in the face of the global form of the music. In fact, it often feels to me as both: the gesture becomes both the total focus of the work, because the structure is meaningless or absent, and yet the gesture, because of the lack of a meaningful global structure, feels entirely replaceable at every point. Redundant materials and redundant (or absent) form. It would be possible to argue that this is precisely the condition of affective time in late-late capitalism, with its concomitant ideology not of progress but of ‘living in the moment’.

Now the obvious alternative – Klaus Lang’s meditative time or timeless time, for instance – is to me much too naïve, and much too aloof. It represents a hermetic and spiritual retreat from the world, and not a militant engagement with it. It shows the unity of bad opposites: celebration of fragmentation, celebration of timelessness. Both are an abnegation of historical time (something Benjamin would of course hardly be happy with), its contingency and malleability, and both affirm the ideology of ‘living in the moment’ that is sold to us through advertisements for iphones as much as beer, holidays or tampons. Both are a kind of ‘momentform’ where eternity is internal to each gesture.

You heard them: 'Live in the moment(form)'

You heard them: ‘Live in the moment(form)’

In this sense, while I too am interested in duration and continuity, for me this continuity must deal with the material fact of discontinuity and fragmentation, and it must be a continuity that has the subjective mode of militancy. Not a meditative renouncement, but a construction of an alternative time. What this means concretely musically is hard to exactly say at this point. But this subjective orientation seems important to me.