SKETCH OF A NEW AESTHETIC OF MUSICInterview
Bobby Jewell (AA Membership Office) in conversation with Wayne Daly (AA Print Studio)
05 February 2013
Architectural Association, London
Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music was written by the influential yet obscure Berlin socialite and former piano prodigy Ferruccio Busoni in 1907, the essay provides a fascinating insight into turn of the century thinking and is a compelling and prescient manifesto for the possibilities of music once freed from traditional constraints. Bobby Jewell (AA Membership) spoke to Wayne Daly (AA Print Studio) who has recently published a new version of the text, based on the 1911 English translation, updated for modern audiences on his imprint Precinct.
How were you introduced to Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, what made you decide to publish your own version of the text?
The credit for bringing Busoni’s essay to Precinct goes to Adam Harper, author of the first Precinct book, ‘Heaven is Real’: John Maus and the Truth of Pop. Adam mentioned Busoni’s work early on during production of ‘Heaven is Real’, citing it as influential on his own writing, and I learned that Sketch is a seminal work amongst music theorists. The original German text dates from 1907, and the first English translation by Theodore Baker is from 1911. While the original is still perfectly readable, the language is very of its time and we saw an opportunity to make the text more accessible for a modern audience. There have been quite a few reprints of the English translation since it was originally published, but none that have revisited the text to the extent that we have with this edition.
There was also an incentive to reactivate the essay in the context of Precinct’s remit of publishing critical essays on current music artists. This publishing programme draws parallel with the highly active period of critical writing around musical modernism in the early twentieth-century, mainly in Europe, which was widely disseminated in the form of modestly-produced pamphlets. Busoni was a key figure in this discourse and his ideas resonate just as much - perhaps more so - today. The act of republishing the essay is a kind of mission statement for what I hope to develop with Precinct.
Varese and Schoenberg were two pupils of Busoni who shared a lot of his principles; for example, a want for freedom from strict adherence to the 12 tone scale. Are you a fan of what these composers achieved with their music?
Adam Harper refers to a ‘music of the future’ and has written a book on the subject, Infinite Music. It’s this attempt to break from conventional musical form that aligns those earlier pioneers with the most inventive artists today, so for sure there is a close correspondence. My own musical preferences are perhaps quite fragmented and missing a lot of knowledge, but in recent years I have made a more conscious effort to follow threads of musical history and I’ve been rewarded with fascinating finds. Publishing these books with Precinct only helps to amplify this awareness and reflection. A more immediate reaction for me when reading Sketch was how closely Busoni’s ideas relate to those of BS Johnson, a writer who has also undergone a recent reappraisal, but was largely unappreciated in his time. He advocated a continued formal and conceptual reinvention of the novel. In this sense, I think Busoni’s propositions, and those of his cohorts, bleed into other fields.
Pamela Johnston’s notes on the translation highlight the challenges faced when converting a work not only from another language but from another era. How involved were you with the translation?
Pamela is a highly experienced translator and editor, so I left it in her very capable hands. Alongside his various writing projects Adam is currently finishing his PhD at Oxford and has access to a wealth of material, including various editions of Sketch. His research kept uncovering new information to integrate into the final translation, so Pamela and he traded many notes. Pamela’s work was also important in determining much of the typography in the new edition, partly echoing the layouts of earlier versions.
You’re right in saying that it shouldn’t be underestimated just how skilful the translation is. For a relatively short text, there is meticulous attention to detail. The transcription, as Pamela aptly refers to it in her notes, was built from the ground up, taking Baker’s 1911 English translation as a starting point and heavily referencing the original German text. The result is a text that is charged with a new urgency. Adam’s foreword for the book is valuable in contextualising Busoni’s writing, how it applies to music production in the early twenty-first century and what this new translation offers a contemporary readership.
Is there anything in Sketch that you feel especially resonates with contemporary audiences?
Yes, this goes back to the necessity to re-release the text and expose Busoni’s ideas to a new audience. It’s worth pointing out that Sketch was controversial when initially released, and ridiculed by many of Busoni’s peers. But at its heart there is an absolute optimism about the potential for musical development; he beautifully describes music as a ‘buoyant child’. In particular I find the references to primitive electronic instruments (the first synthesisers, essentially) surprising, and presumably were fairly astonishing to read about at the time. The last 15 years or so have been an unstable time for the music industry, which might be the best thing that could have happened, given the new forms of music that have emerged in response to this fluctuating landscape, and indeed that are shaping the landscape. Modes of production and distribution available to musicians, driven by technological advancements, have exploded, presenting a healthy opposition to the mechanisms and practices of previous decades (this, incidentally, also relates to recent developments in publishing).
What can we expect from Precinct in the future?
We have some new essays on the way in the coming months, which I can’t go into too much detail about just yet. Most immediately, we’ll be releasing both the Busoni and Maus titles in e-book format (our first books of the future); this will hopefully be in the next month or so, and an initial step for Precinct in distributing music writing through newer channels.
Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music by Ferruccio Busoni
Foreword by Adam Harper. Newly Translated by Pamela Johnston
174.5 x 108 mm
96 pp, b&w, perfect bound, dust jacket
Published by Precinct, 2012