Vol. 30 Issue 1 Reviews

Arun Chandra, editor: When Music Resists Meaning: The Major Writings of Herbert Brün

Hardcover/softcover, 2004, ISBN 0-8195-6669-1/0-8195-6670-5, US$ 70.00/29.95, 350 pages, illustrated, CD-Audio; Wesleyan University Press, 215 Long Lane, Middletown, Connecticut 06459, USA; telephone 860-685-7711; fax 860-685-7712; Web www.wesleyan.edu/wespress; distributed by University Press of New England, Order Department, 37 Lafayette Street, Lebanon, New Hampshire 03766, USA; telephone 800-421-1561 or (+1) 603-643-7110; fax (+1) 603-643-1540; Web www.upne.com/0-8195-6669-1.html.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Oberlin, Ohio, USA

Born in Berlin in 1918, Herbert Brün left Germany and went to Israel shortly after the Nazi’s assumed power. In Israel he studied composition with Stefan Wolpe, Eli Friedman, and Frank Pelleg at the Jerusalem Conservatory. In 1948 Leonard Bernstein brought Brün to Tanglewood, in Massachusetts, to continue his studies. Shortly thereafter he attended Columbia University for a year of graduate work. From the mid-1950s until he finally settled in Illinois he worked at the now well-known electronic music studios in Paris, Cologne, and Munich, producing some of the earliest examples of non-serial electroacoustic music. He also gave lectures throughout Europe and the USA on the function of music in society.

In 1962, after one such lecture tour, Lejaren Hiller invited Brün to join the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He accepted Hiller’s offer in part because he wanted to work with the computer systems then available there. Brün entered a compositional environment that thrived on collaboration with other disciplines including electrical engineering, cybernetics, and cognitive theory. He co-taught courses with Heinz von Foerster on cybernetics, composition, cognition, and social change. Mr. von Foerster helped establish the field of cybernetics and, most importantly, developed the notion of a second-order cybernetics which focused on self-referential systems and behaviors. The concepts behind second-order cybernetics, such as von Foerster’s slogan that, “The world, as we perceive it, is our own invention,” resonated with Brün’s own ideas about meaning and perception.

After taking over Hiller’s Seminar for Experimental Music in the late 1960s, Brün began to implement some of his most radical formulations about music and language. He was also a conductor. Included in the many performances of contemporary music that he led are American premieres of György Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures. In the mid 1970s Brün helped the Computer Music Association get its start. He hosted conferences at the University of Illinois in 1975 and 1987, and was the keynote speaker at the 1985 conference (held at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada).

With the recently published When Music Resists Meaning: The Major Writings of Herbert Brün by Wesleyan University Press, the opportunity arises for a re-assessment of Brün’s many contributions to the world of contemporary music. His compositional and pedagogical practices were grounded in information theory, cybernetics, and dispersionist philosophy. He argued for the purposeful recognition of the social and political significance of composition, and against the tendencies of language to preempt thought. At the time of his death in 2000 Brün left behind a half-century’s worth of compositions, playful and polemical texts, computer-generated artworks, and a group of zealously devoted former students.

In 1991, Brün and several of his closest students formed what is now called the School for Designing a Society, a non-affiliated institute based in Urbana, Illinois, dedicated to the critical examination of society, language, and music. Members of the school have collaborated and toured with Patch Adams, the famous clown-doctor and subject of a Hollywood movie starring Robin Williams. Though Brün’s legacy mostly continues in the work of his former students, his thought has significantly impacted many other composers and performers throughout the world.

One of the primary functions of Brün’s compositional praxis was to uncover possibilities for new significance, while at the same time opposing the reification of meaning inherent in the acts of recognition and appropriation. His thoughts on these matters are detailed in various essays, interviews, and prose pieces contained in When Music Resists Meaning, a wonderful compendium of Brünian thought expertly edited and compiled by former student Arun Chandra. Several other former students ably assisted him. This project, clearly a labor of love for Mr. Chandra, began to take shape in 1985. His work consisted of everything from collecting and editing Brün’s articles, interviews, and lectures to writing new output routines to generate Postscript code in order to print Brün’s computer-generated graphics (several of which are reproduced in the book). He also helped produce the accompanying compact disc, which features performances of Brün’s compositions by the LaSalle Quartet, pianist John Tilbury, percussionist Michael Udow, and the Percussion Group Cincinnati, along with three of his best known electroacoustic pieces.

When Music Resists Meaning (WMRM) is divided into six sections: “Listening,” “Composing,” “Composing with Computers,” “Cybernetics,” “Poetry and Plays,” and “Postlude: Appendices.” The first two sections contain unpublished manuscripts and lectures, as well a previously published essay and interview from Perspectives of New Music, a Guest Editorial from Keyboard Magazine, and an important essay, “For Anticommunication,” that first appeared in Words and Spaces: An Anthology, edited by Stuart Saunders Smith and Thomas Delio (Lanham, New York: University Press of America, 1989).

In this latter essay, Brün lays out his argument for new music based upon an idea he terms “anticommunication,” and describes how he attempted this in several of his compositions. Anticommunication is essentially a provisional device used in retarding the natural decay of information, which occurs when the process of meaning assignment, or semiosis, is stalled or comes to a standstill. Brün defines anticommunication as

an attempt at saying something, not a refusal to say it. Communication is achievable by learning from language how to say something. Anticommunication is an attempt at respectfully teaching language to say it. It is not to be confused with either noncommunication, where no communication is intended, or with lack of communication, where a message is ignored, has gone astray, or is simply not understood. Anticommunication is most easily observed, and often can have an almost entertaining quality, if well-known fragments of a linguistic system are composed into a contextual environment in which they try but fail to mean what they always meant. (WMRM, 63)

According to Brün, all musical materials, gestures, and forms inevitably lose what might be called their free-floating signification potential whenever listeners, composers, and/or performers fail to anticommunicate. This was no small matter in Brün’s world because he saw this as a move from playfulness toward violence. He held that “the insistence on communication ultimately leads to social and physical violence… Anticommunication ultimately leads to the insistence on composition and peace” (from My Words and Where I Want Them, 48).

The third and fourth sections of WMRM contain various essays about computers and technology, first published in books such as The Computer and Music, On the Wires of Our Nerves: The Art of Electroacoustic Music, and Composers and the Computer. Brün covers a wide range of topics relevant to composers of computer music, including such things as artificial systems, second-order cybernetics, and algorithmic composition.

The fifth section contains samples of his aphoristic poems and playful theatrical skits. The postlude contains a brief biography, detailed lists of Brün’s compositions and publications, program notes he wrote for many of his compositions, a technical description of his computer-generated graphics, a short glossary of terms, and a poignant essay entitled, “Paradigms: The Inertia of Language,” written by his wife, poet Marianne Brün.

At times acerbic and hard-hitting, WMRM showcases the “brutally charming” (the author’s terminology) notions that Brün first introduced to his American colleagues and students over four decades ago. Ultimately, the sense of bewilderment or alienation in his work served to probe and extend his ideas about freedom and human understanding. I close with a personal remembrance that is emblematic of Brün’s public discourse. I recall a post-concert question and answer session at the University of Illinois at which a student pointed to one of the composers and asked why he had written such a “cold” and “calculated” piece. Before an answer was given Brün turned toward the student and said, “So, you listened without a heart, did you?”

Herbert Brün’s music is published by Smith Publications (2617 Gwynndale Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland 21207, USA; Web www.smith-publications.com). His recordings are available from Centaur, Non Sequitur, Opus One, CRI, and the University of Illinois Experimental Studios labels. His compact disc recordings and books are available from www.nonsequiturpress.com/. For more information, consult the Brün Web site (www.herbertbrun.org).