Vermittlung Magazin

"The Reason Why I am Unable to Live in my own Country as a Composer is a Political One"

The Politics of Self-Alienation in the Music of Chris Newman


Lauren Redhead

Reveived a PhD in composition at the University of Leeds, teaches

university students both composition and musicology at a number of institutions in the north of England. Also works on artistic, music, and theatre projects, and writes academic articles about the aesthetics and sociology of music.

Chris Newman is a British composer and artist. Born in London in 1958, he moved to study in Cologne in 1980, before leaving for Berlin where he now lives. It is often expressed, by the composer and others, that his exodus from the UK was prompted by the lack of engagement with, audience for, and unfavourable reception of, his music. This position is seemingly well-reflected by the title of his 1983-1984 extended piano work, The Reason Why I am Unable to Live in my own Country as a Composer is a Political One. Despite his nationality, Newman’s art work and music remain relatively unknown in the UK and amongst those who do know and support his work it is often still considered challenging. At the series of concerts ‘Music We’d Like To Hear’ in 2009 — at which was premiered a new work of Newman’s for accordion, air fool agony face (2009), by Mark Knoop — the composer and curator Tim Parkinson commented on the bravery of the audience for turning out to listen to the programme. Although perhaps a strange comment to make of a dedicated experimental music audience, Parkinson’s remark does reflect a kind of alienation experienced by even these regular listeners of new music when encountering Newman’s work, and also a kind of self-alienation that I believe the composer wishes to express.

Newman, however, identifies a certain realism in the music and artworks that he creates, stating in his biography that, ‘[the] act of translating later became seminal as in—from one medium to another—from life into an artistic medium’.1 This is something that can be glimpsed in what are perhaps Newman’s most well known works—his New Songs of Social Conscience and Six Sick Songs (well known, perhaps because if the accessibility of the commercial CD release)—whose direct music and sometimes explicit lyrics are set in the surprising simple, repetitive and relentless way that characterises much of Newman’s musical work. Whilst this article won’t specifically discuss these songs, they do sum up Chris Newman well: their performance practice in itself illustrates one reason why Newman’s music has sometimes been described as ‘purposefully bad’. Michael Finnissy’s appearance as a pianist and vocalist on the commercial recording further exacerbates this: Finnissy is known to be an excellent pianist, so to hear him play the piano in a way which seems to lack any nuance or even skill is strange and provocative in the same way as are the lyrics of the songs.

The piece made reference to in the title of this article, The Reason Why I am Unable to Live in my own Country as a Composer is a Political One (from hereon in The Reason Why…), was described to me by Newman as being a piece that at its time of composition was ‘as far as I’d gone’,2 but he later went on to say that, ‘this is the last time I would have thought like that, where each piece is a stepping stone. Now I see my development as a continuous flow and the pieces as examples of that at any one time. But I don’t really see this flow as having a goal. I don’t feel that one day I’ll “get there.” It’s like there are interrelated thoughts swimming along simultaneously, which develop while basically staying the same’.3 Thus, to Newman, all his compositions (and artworks) reflect different aspects of his interests and biography, from different places at different points in time, a bit like a kaleidoscope. It is, then, through his music I propose to examine the issue of his exile.

Newman’s attitude to his own personal history also presents a parallel with his attitude to history as a whole. It is difficult, either from listening to his music or from examining the statement above, to imagine that Newman would subscribe to any notion of linear musical or historical development. To transpose this attitude onto the idea of history itself—that each work of art or narrative is in fact a snapshot of a particular point of view and a particular collection of ideas at a particular time—is an idea which is perhaps not alien to more recent musicology but notably absent in composition, and particularly so in the 1980s. This attitude is one which informs Newman’s readings of other music and other musical elements, and ultimately one which informs his attitude of self-alienation.

This can be seen in the approach to quotation taken by Newman in his work, which also recommends The Reason Why… as a place to begin a discussion of his composition in exile. The piece begins with a quotation from the opening of Sibelius Symphony No. 5, in Eb Major. This is transposed in a way which is distorting to the actual pitch content, as well as distorted in the transposition from orchestra to piano (figure 1):

Figure 1: Chris Newman, The Reason Why I am Unable to Live in my own Country as a Composer is a Political One, p1.

The distortion of this quotation, and its placement at the very beginning of the piece, imply that Newman's approach to quotation is somewhat different to that of his contemporaries. He neither respects the quotation as a ‘material’—and so does not attempt to signal it as a quotation—nor does he consider it an element that necessitates the listener to recognise it as Sibelius. On the use of quotation in artworks, Newman says in an interview, ‘I’m absolutely allergic to [collage]. When you take something from here and there and throw it together, you’ve already lost it before you started. […] What I’m interested in is a new situation that is a model of the inside and the outside—where the space between those two turns into a solid state, into substance.’4 Specifically regarding the quotation that opens The Reason Why…, Newman says the inclusion of Sibelius at the beginning of the music is, ‘the familiar thing […]. I wanted to take something and stretch it as far as I could […] and stretch the stretchings’. This implies that he takes an almost modernist view of his work: that the material itself gives rise to the whole piece. As such, his first distortion of Sibelius can be considered as the single compositional act which defines the work.

Whilst Newman's quotation of Sibelius is already an alienation of Sibelius, and therefore his tradition, in its distortion, Newman has indicated that alienation occurs even earlier in the compositional process: at the point of the selection of the material. He claims, ‘the material I use must be as concrete and plain as possible […]. That’s why Beethoven is so great – he hit the mark, absolutely basic material’.5 He even protests in stronger terms when asked to expand on his compositional process, writing: ‘I don’t initially think about music as music, but potentially anything, and thus the musical material is rock-bottom, grade A1 shit […] these thoughts get concretised into pieces or paintings or whathaveyou’.6 Thus he also states that there is not even a specifically musical goal at the forefront of his process, and refuses to differentiate between his artistic processes and outputs in different media. Even further, he recognises this as an innate process, saying, ‘I don’t want to stand in my own way when I’m doing things. There are many composers who somehow try to realize their idea of sound. For me, the result is only the music or the picture—in the beginning I’ve no idea what it should be like.’7

These numerous quotations are revealing of Newman's attitude to ‘musical material’ and ‘musical language’, both of which are important to a modernist conception of music and composition. Despite the earlier noted similarity between Newman's compositional approach and a modernist one, it is through these perspectives that he deviates from such an approach. Notably, neither music nor composition appear very important to him, but the end result and artistic process make something of what he considers to be the limited resources available. Furthermore, embedded in his statements is the idea that the same results could be achieved with any set of ‘materials’; that the choice of Sibelius is one choice of many, but not in itself a defining choice for the work. This is evidence, then,  that for Newman the musical signifier as ‘quotation’ or as ‘language’ has no inherent meaning or any authority at all.

In Newman’s music almost every part of the work can be in some way seen as a quotation. Even the piano in The Reason Why…, might be: he describes the piano as being ‘simply there’,8 and says, ‘it’s thereness and instantness is what I like’.9 Again, approached from a modernist standpoint this statement is strange: the piano has been seen as a particular problem for composers in the twentieth century. It's long history, position as a symbol of technical innovation and achievement in musical instrument design and building, and strong association with the virtuoso musician have loomed large over new works, and provided a particular tension which, if left unacknowledged, leaves works tinged with a bourgeois historicism. It is in this context that Newman's use of the piano can be identified as a quotation, the instrument becoming part of the material of the work—not in its material sense, as with musique concrete instrumentale, but in its socio-historical sense—and thus is considered equally with the musical material as ‘grade A1 shit’. As such, this approach is markedly different to the ‘collage’ approach to quotation which Newman rejects; it is similar to that which Nicholas Bourriaud calls ‘inhabiting’—the recontextualising as material of objects or ideas that have held other connotations.10

It is in a similar context to this that Michael Finnissy’s works have often been lauded: his extended piano works are detailed, pianistic, and explicating of his very personal relationship with the piano whilst also deeply critical of its role and position in music history. Maarten Beirens observes exactly this about the quotation of folk music in Finnissy’s longest piano work, A History of Photography in Sound, writing that, ‘we aren’t being offered folk music as such, but rather an image of it’.11 This is similar to the way an image of Sibelius is offered in The Reason Why…: Finnissy's quotations are as distorted as Newman's, and can be read as revealing an inherent distortion observed by Finnissy in the music within its original context and presentation. By transcribing fiddle music for the piano, Beirens also notes that Finnissy, whilst bringing to mind the image of the fiddle, ‘paradoxically emphasises the existence of [the] limitations [of the piano]’.12 Again, this seems similar to Newman's relationship with the piano: the limited way in which he approaches the instrument, radically restricting pitch, rhythm, the lengths of sections, and the complexity and the possibilities of gestures, also opens a window onto the historical and cultural limitations of the instrument. For Beirens, in Finnissy's music this becomes synonymous with the idea of creating a ‘personal folklore’,13 and it is equally a folklore that Newman could be said to be creating about himself, in particular with respect to his exile from the UK.

It is clear in Finnissy's oeuvre that he has forged an individual identity. Today his inclusion in Richard Toop's article Four Facets of the New Complexity14 seems an anomaly; Finnissy's work has little to do with what is now labelled ‘new complexity’ except in surface appearance. Of course, such labels are often employed to misunderstand music whose complexity can be found more its multifacetedness than its notation, or to simply to negate other compositional identities to which the composer might be opposed: for Finnissy and Newman in the 1980s, ‘Neue Einfachheit’ and ‘minimalism’ might be two such labels. But rather than explaining what it is not, Finnissy's compositional identity is inclusive. It integrates a number of musical elements, not least including folksongs and early twentieth century influences, in a way which recontextualises them to become parts of the composer’s personal identity, and it is this which itself makes a five hour work such as A History of Photography in Sound compelling despite its great length and limitations as a solo instrument work.

Newman, on the other hand, arrives at a solution to this problem of identity-as-separate-from-taxonomy which could be seen on the surface to be the exact opposite of Finnissy’s and yet shares many characteristics in its purpose. Newman solution is individual: his music is immediately recognisable and differentiable from the rest of what might be called the ‘New Music Scene’. His solution is challenging: perhaps difficult to listen to or digest, but also since at the forefront of his approach is the idea that music and composition should be about more than just musical issues. And his solution is self-alienating: most of his work is distilled down to a point where it could be argued that only essential elements are included. This last point is what I have termed ‘composing against subjectivity’. I do not mean that his music does not invite or allow for multiple readings, or for subjective encounters for its listeners,  but simply that it aims to negate the composer’s own subjective judgements in favour of a larger musical or political goal. This is mirrored in what, in the light of The Reason Why…, could possibly be described as Newman’s most defining artistic action: leaving the UK for Germany. He is often described as ‘exiled from the UK’ but this exile is one which is both self imposed and self-defined. Newman could, of course, return to the UK at any time he wished, but, as described in the title of this piece, in the 1980s he felt that his life as an artist was untenable there, and by building his outward artistic identity on this point he aligns his music with this idea. This also links with his use of quotation. As with use of Sibelius at the opening of The Reason Why… quotations for Newman are often a point of departure: in the sense of the source from which the material of the work is drawn; the actual beginnings of works or sections; and the point from which an understanding of the fully-composed work can be formed. The parallel with his own departure from the UK can then be understood in a similar three ways: it can be seen as a point of artistic freedom, after which he built his career; an act through which the body of is work can be better understood; and a metaphorical and distorting act through which both the UK in Newman's work and his construction of his identity with respect to it are defined.

Newman has described how in the 1980s he began to think about the ‘presentation of self as an extension of the compositional act’,15 and this is clearly an example of such. And so, a kind of circularity within his work and life can be observed: Newman sees his artworks as an extension of himself, but also situated his presentation of himself and construction of his identity as an extension of his artistic processes. In this sense, no real distinction between the two can be observed. This, then, explains and is demonstrated by the relationship between Newman’s visual artworks and his musical work: not only are his fluid transitions between media facilitated by way of being an extension of his compositional presentation of self but this is further marked by his simultaneous presentation of art and music, and by his literal and figurative enactment of this extension, for example through the live creation of artworks, while blindfolded, such as at the Solid State Variations exhibition. However, again this is a point which also alienates the composer in the compositional methodology, as through this approach Newman is defined only in relation to the arterial and its constructs, or in the concept of ‘exile’ rather than a personal, subjective, opinion. He is not in the UK rather than in Germany. The composition of self here is not of an individual but of someone who is inextricably tied into a concept.

Taking this kind of a negative stance also has a bearing on an understanding and reading of the music. His anti-aesthetic processes invite the listener to compare Newman’s music with the ‘new music scene’ or with, for example, the original contexts of his quotations, and find that Newman’s music is ‘bad’. This is a comparison which I believe that in this context he would welcome: if his music is ‘bad’ in this context then it is validated by being in opposition to a construct of history which he is seeking to negate, and to an aesthetic position which has been institutionalised. Such a position can also be found in Jacques  Rancière’s discussion of mimesis: ‘the principle regulating the external delimitation of a well-founded domain of imitations is thus at the same time a normative principle of inclusion. It develops into forms of normativity that define the conditions according to which imitation can be recognised as exclusively belonging to an art and assessed, within this framework, as good or bad’.16 By negating the artistic context in which he could be judged, Newman sets up an alternative discourse for his work. This is what the title of The Reason Why…, as well as his musical oeuvre as a whole reveals: it is the reading of the alienating factors of his visual or musical artworks that allow Newman to make any political statement at all.

This leads to the final question posed by Newman's work: is it possible for composition, or the creation of artworks, itself to be a political act? Rancière writes that, ‘art and politics are contingent notions. The fact that there are always forms of power does not mean that there is always such a thing as politics, and the fact the there is music or sculpture in society does not mean that art is constituted as an independent category.’17 This entertains the possibility that in becoming a political act composition might be removed from a society which considers it as art. Newman's work makes a similar point—often to do with the treatment of art in society—through the act of composition and through the act of self-alienation through composition. Presenting himself as an extension of this act of composition further politicises his position, aligning it with individuals rather than just art: he is exiled, literally, from the UK, and exiled, figuratively, from the political and musical establishment. This is Newman’s overtly political statement: in renouncing even the possible wish for historical importance by composing against subjectivity he renounces the importance of the self or of the author in the artwork; an expression of composition in exile.

  1. Chris Newman, ‘Biography’, in Chris Newman: Solid State Variation (Leonhardi-Museum Dresden: Verlag fuer modern Kunst Nuernberg, 2008), Biography p1.
  2. Chris Newman, Communication with the Author, 13th June 2009.
  3. ibid.
  4. Interview, ‘Chris Newman/Matthias Flügge 9/14/17 October 2008’, in Chris Newman: Solid State Variation (Leonhardi-Museum Dresden: Verlag für modern Kunst Nuernberg, 2008), English Translation, p1.
  5. ibid., p5.
  6. Chris Newman, Communication with the Author, 13th June 2009.
  7. Interview, ‘Chris Newman/Matthias Flügge 9/14/17 October 2008’, p8.
  8. Chris Newman, Communication with the Author, 13th June 2009.
  9. ibid.
  10. Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprogrammes the World (Berlin: Lukas & Sternberg, 2005), p. 15; pp. 85-94.
  11. Maarten Beirens, ‘Archaeology of the Self: Michael Finnissy’s “Folklore”’, Tempo, vol. 57, no. 223 (January 2003) pp46-45; p49.
  12. ibid., p50.
  13. ibid., p55.
  14. Richard Toop, ‘Four Facets of the New Complexity’, Contact, (1988) pp4-50; pp8-18 focus on Finnissy’s work.
  15. Chis Newman, Communication with the Author, 13th June 2009.
  16. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. by Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum (2000) 2009), pp21-22.
  17. Jacques Rancière, ‘Interview for the English Edition’, in The Politics of Aesthetics (2009), p.51.