After the End of Music: Listening to Kim Cascone's "Music for Dagger and Guitar"

Many academics and critics over the last century have proclaimed the “end of art”, though not always as a catastrophe. Arthur Danto’s book After the End of Art (1997) anticipates the end of art, but argues that such an end hardly means that art will no longer exist. Rather, Danto argues, the central concern in this new post-art landscape is not whether art has meaning, but how it differs from non-art—that is, reality. The end of art history means an era where any type of art is possible and legitimate, whether perspectival painting, Fluxus installations, cartoons, or candy bars. The only question Danto says we must answer is: What is the essential ingredient that makes art art, if it is not quality, narrative, or meaning?

With some minor adjustments, we can apply Danto’s thesis about the progression of visual arts aesthetics to Western art music. For the past five centuries, Western art music’s chief concerns were with beauty and compositional craft. Divisions between musical sound and sound from the outside world were clear thanks to instrumental and vocal timbre, musical forms and structures, and rituals surrounding music performance and listening. Just as photography instigated a philosophical crisis in visual arts, so too did the introduction of electricity into music-making at the turn of the twentieth century permanently change musical aesthetics. Phonographs resurrected sounds of the past into the present, freeing music for the first time from its imprisonment within the present. Noise and silence quickly evolved from their second-class status as forbidden objects to novel coloristic tools, and then to legitimate musical materials. Like the visual arts world, musicians and music listeners find themselves asking questions quite similar to Danto’s. And just as the new philosophical question in visual arts asks how the artwork differs from reality, the new question in musical aesthetics should be how non-musical, electronic sound differs from traditionally musical sound. Does it carry meaning? Must we hear it differently from the way we would hear it in the real world, simply because it still occurs within an artwork?

Kim Cascone’s Music for Dagger and Guitar (2008) provides a point of entry into such questions. This work departs sharply from the composer’s recent output; it is comprised mostly of field recordings, but occasionally features electronically produced pitches or noise. Cascone packages the recording in a box that looks like a DVD case and that uses a font often seen in movie posters on the liner notes. This reference to cinema continues with two of the inspirations for the work, Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994) and Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent (1989). The influence of Haneke on the work is unmistakable. The Seventh Continent propels its various storylines through brutally unaestheticized editing between scenes, interspersed with a few seconds of a black screen. In MDG, Cascone uses brief sections of evocative material that abruptly cut to a few seconds of silence before starting with new material. The affinities with Sátántangó are less literal, amounting to the slow pacing of the work which allows the listener time to form conclusions without heavy-handed narration. But these parallels are more red herrings than keys to the work. Cascone deliberately refrained from charting a series of correspondences between sound materials and meanings, counting instead on the listener’s own ability to do so. And yet, the work relies on easily recognizable sounds of the outside world—lawn sprinklers, airport intercom announcements—that carry residual meaning. MDG thus skews any easy classification of either its intentions or its genre.

I by no means suggest here that most electronic works of the future will resemble Music for Dagger and Guitar. In many respects, the future after the end of music will seem much like the present. But the appearance of generically evasive works like Cascone’s bring to Danto’s questions a particular urgency. Why would we consider Music for Dagger and Guitar as music? Even less than in Cascone’s abstract microsound work Cathode Flower, it has very little to do with music, and as its packaging and listed inspirations suggest, it may in fact make more sense as the soundtrack for a film.

The uncertainties in MDG underscore the importance of genre in electronic music. If the distinctions between real world sound and sound in the artwork are blurry, the differences between genres and even media are even more so. If all sounds are possible in electronic music, what distinguishes it from non-music? From sound art? If we collapse music and sound art into one overarching category of “Art”, what is the difference between sound in art and sound as a sheer sensory phenomenon? If we could easily classify such works into neat genres, and smugly decode their meanings and intentions, we would return to the sort of philological detective work that Adorno decried—the type of aesthetic interpretation that treats the artwork as a secret code where a particular gesture yields a particular meaning.

Electronic music has dispensed with the sonic barriers that distinguish musical sound from sound of the outside world. But it has imposed another type of barrier, one more invisible and inaudible. Electronic music, or sound art, or sound that we simply happen to listen to with aesthetic interest in mind (what Scruton would call the “aesthetic gaze”), is somehow cordoned off as being interesting not for its meaning or communicative properties, but simply because of its sound. This is a neo-Kantian notion, but it does not mean that we need insist on the disinterestedness of sound. We can hear in sound both meaning and syntax simultaneously. And the experience of hearing in both ways at the same time lends works like MDG a quivering sort of energy. We can never fully relegate it to the world of the concert hall, exhibition space, or museum, because it is already too enmeshed in the real world.