Let me start with a straightforward confession. When I started organizing concerts almost twenty years ago, to introduce myself as a music curator—to use the very word—was at best a pretentious maneuver putting me in front of a long, flat silence; at worst—a starter of a usually meandering discussion leading me to desperate analogies, reckless metaphors, and far-fetched arguments. I think people simply did not know what curating could possibly mean in music. Or rather, whatever it was that I was doing, I think they did not know why I wanted to call it music curating. I still remember I would do anything to set up a theoretical construction showing differences between organizers and curators; managers and curators; promoters and curators—up to a point where I thought curating was anything but organizing and promoting. The last distinction I heard that agitated me was at Donaueschinger Musiktage. One of the Very Important Persons ruled: “Es gibt keine Kuratoren in der Neuen Musik – es gibt nur Festivalmacher.” More or less around that time, I decided not to think about this word anymore.
Until quite recently. It was not that long ago when I realized things had changed. Not that the Festivalmachers [festival makers] disappeared, no, not at all—but curators definitely did arrive at New Music festivals. And nobody raises their eyebrows anymore when I happen to introduce myself as a music curator. Nobody is even asking what that is. People really seem to know now what the job is. I don't. But they do. That scares me. It was a blink of the eye—fifteen years, actually less—for music curating to emerge from ridiculed non-existence to an established job of a fixed range of competences. It all happened too quickly, just a little too quickly not to get suspicious. Will it take another fifteen years for curators to become Festivalmachers? Or has it already happened?
The only thing I have to say here is very simple: I think know-how of festival programming, podcast mixing, album producing, or playlist making does not exhaust the curatorial area. Nor does it exhaust the questions curating brings about. As simple as that. I think, for example, that Vitruvius was an amazing curator when he hid resonant vessels in ancient amphitheaters making voices of actors more present. I think Franco in Spain was a perfidious curator when he was trying to silence people with unique posters promoting secrecy and with horrifying gossip spreading fear. I think that a cross-generational board of 16th-century Spanish urbanists and 20th-century Italian motorbike distributors unintentionally curated the soundscape of the Spanish Quarter in Naples. Or earbuds producers, which have turned today's cities into ghost towns. I also think “4'33''” is an amazing piece of curating—is it not even more a piece of curating than a piece of composing? Or the cards of George Brecht? Like the one for three gap events: missing-letter sign, between two sounds, meeting again? Where are those happening, the gaps I mean? Do they happen in the presence of the audience? Or what is it anyway? And who is the performer? What is the sonic material? Is there any? Can it be missing, too? And if we are here—I think Franz Kafka is among the greatest sound curators who chose writing to deal with the sounds which are fundamentally inaudible. From architecture to writing, from sound design to politics, this is all management of vibrations in the air; they spring up from various utilities and tools, they set stages anew, they find audiences that we never dreamed of, they refine the sound, they deepen the silences, they change relations between people—they simply reconfigure processes of hearing. And they are pieces of curating that belong to the same milieu as selecting line-ups of festivals.
In a kind of homage to all of those mentioned above, I obviously don't intend to pin the notion of curating down, I don't want to set a definition or fix it in any other sense; my intention is the contrary—to complicate it, to take it out of the scheme of what is associated with curating these days, of what people know when they hear the phrase “music curator”; my intention is to perplex it or to blur it to some unreasonable point where it becomes uncommunicable, maybe useless, stupid, or even imaginary, hoping that this would also be the point where curating means proliferating possible relations in the sound field rather than in music business.
In order to do that, I decided to do everyday workouts or exercises in minor curating. I find this term—minor curating—quite useful, even if slightly misinterpreted. It rests on major curating, for sure. It uses the same vocabulary. It is by all means neglectable. But it can only be neglected in that entirely different way that an unattended gig can be. It can also be used in major curating. But it rarely is, and this is for serious reasons, I believe. Perhaps it is a kind of natural fertilizer, hummus, of which the majority fades out unnoticed. Or it is just entertainment. It can also be killing time. Or none of those. But at least it is free, in a financial sense, of course. And it can have an intellectual backing, in a paraphrase of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: minor curating is about the impossibility of not curating, the impossibility of curating in a major way, the impossibility of curating otherwise.
Here comes one of the workouts.
I am sitting in a mustard-colored armchair, in a small room, on the second floor of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice (NOSPR). In a few days, I will be in Kraków, attending a couple of concerts and lectures within the framework of Unsound festival. Yesterday, I was two floors down from where I am now, for the opening of the season, in the Main Hall. They played Beethoven's 9th. Can there be a better moment to practice a bit of minor curating?
Yesterday, everything went fine. What particularly got stuck in my memory were the four gigantic SUVs just in front of the building, one of them red. There were also four young women in short skirts and high heels, kind of in the back of the cars, just in case somebody decided to buy one of the latter ones, I guess. All the cars had engines on, nice sound, actually—and a nice mix it was, not too dominating, more like an “undersound” of a pack of animals ready to jump any moment. I have to say, when Ode to Joy had its first prefigurations in the concert, I regretted that the Main Hall is soundproof. But since it is, we can hope that the exterior world will never interfere with Beethoven and the other pieces performed there. Speaking of which—when introducing the concert, the director of NOSPR said she chose this piece for the opening of the season because it brings hope. I guess it was referring to COVID-19, but I couldn't help wondering what would be the social content of the kind of hope that sounds like Ode to Joy. To be very honest, I thought there was more hope and less imperialism in the sound of the engines. Or at least I knew exactly what this hope was for. Ah, and the music—yes, it was performed well last night.
I am here not as a curator. I was not invited to do any project for NOSPR and given a room upstairs. I came here with my girlfriend, who is just now mounting her sound installation in a foyer. There, it is not so easy to forget that the music is only rarely surrounded by silence. But this silence—not only or even not mainly acoustical silence—I guess it is a sine qua non of the major kind of curating. It is the silence of the surrounding world. The world needs to disappear to some extent, even if only to be mirrored from the stage, just like it always does during the time of the carnival. There are, of course, different sorts of silences; I guess I will experience an entirely different one at Unsound, in just a couple of days. It is indeed a funny combination of festivals that I am in the middle of. The music, I am sure, will definitely be different in Kraków, a different world will need to be silenced. But years ago, when I was at one of the Unsound concerts in ICE (Kraków Congress Centre), I also passed by a huge Volvo in the foyer of the building. As far as I remember, it was silent.
This, in some twisted way, brings to my mind one more advantage of blurring the notion of curator. If it is not defined by the precise scope of job competences, you can start to question who really is curating. A very simple question. Surely, the curators-curators. But I think the choices are somehow restrained, for example, by journalism, in particular so-called influential journalism. And labels—another example—which functionally speaking have a similar status for a festival. We all know there must be a star at the festival. A headliner. And emerging artists. Rather not the real unknowns. All this is not really decided by the curators. They alone don't have that power, even if some of them may dream about it. Just like they alone cannot decide about the money. There are festivals that are turned into national showcases. I understand that. It is a serious money issue. But the point is that even if you understand curating as a job, it is a strongly colonized territory. And so I do wonder what is the real content disseminated by this kind of cross-sectorial curating. Or if there is some higher intelligence in this tacit curatorial alliance? I am wondering if perhaps beyond declarative festivals' themes and curatorial statements, there is a kind of über-curatorial idea or statement that is communicated via the very concept of today's festival as such—with such important roles for PR, marketing, journalism, fundraising? And could it be possible that this über-curatorial idea is much stronger and more influential than any theme or topic reflected by the artists? I am not trying to be nasty here. And it is not about resentment. I also organized festivals. I am an addressee of these questions, too. Actually, I really do think that curators tend to be overestimated in exactly the same way politicians are. Simply for the fact that most important things that get communicated through their job are something completely beyond their control. Is it not some kind of basic, inert, usually passive competitiveness—not necessarily on a personal level, actually not at all on that level. The competitiveness I am seeing is rather akin to the one we face on the supermarket shelves, which have a magic ability to make all the washing powders look exactly the same, despite all the apparent differences. You have a slot now, this stage, 45 minutes, next. Next. Surely in the end you choose the best one. Is anyone capable of organizing a festival and bypassing this feeling these days?
I am sitting in a guest room of NOSPR, on the second floor, it is furnished with a bed, a mustard armchair, a music stand and a corkscrew—musician's essentials. On one side, there is a small window overlooking the highway which—even if closed—lets in a constant roar of the cars. From the other side—with no windows directed towards the Main Hall—comes only a profound silence. Yesterday, it was the silence of Beethoven’s 9th. But I wasn’t here, in the room, I was down there. Today I am in the armchair, and I will be here while they will be playing Telemann. The topic of the concert, I learn while reading the program, will be gender issues in his music, so I can’t help thinking that the cars with women in high heels are here today, too. I just can't see them. Nor can I hear the hum of the parked cars—in my armchair, there is only the roar of the passing ones, everybody knows the kind of sound I mean. There is also a low and pleasing ventilation hum, like everywhere, not very interesting though, just pleasing; sometimes a creak or crack, like in any other room; rarely a reappearing fridge, perfectly ordinary. All utterly boring yet inconspicuously selective. They could all be recorded with highly advanced audio gear; they could be marketed as “The Real Sounds of the Philharmonic.” I can even see it in Deutsche Grammophon layout, released, 180-gram vinyl, red, I guess. And then someone mixing it live at Berghain.
But then I think these are all useless ideas. The problem I find crucial is that we are no longer culturally able to hear these sounds, not anymore. I don't only mean that we are unable to appreciate them or to enjoy them. I quite literally mean that we are unable to hear them. We are either getting bored too fast or—even worse—we are getting too involved with the sonic qualities of the sounds. This is the aftermath of the experimental music approach, or the particular undercurrent of it that fetishizes sound. These sounds need time, and they need a reaction somewhere in between boredom and excitement. Very difficult and unusual kind of listening. Can it be enhanced by curating?
I am imagining a kind of non-fetishistic field recording listening, a kind of listening that would do justice to the boredom and anonymity of the soundscape of this room, a kind of listening that would not get too active or too passive, that would always be in line with the reality of the soundscape of the architectural spread of organic and inorganic life on earth. How to turn these rooms into this kind of experience? The only idea that comes to my mind at this very session is to change the audience, to find a strange form of life, somewhere in the cosmos, a strange form of life that by some miraculous coincidence can react to sound and is able to imagine a different kind of life than itself. Yes, I am thinking of a new Voyager expedition that would carry an mp3 player including hours of the acoustic life of this room on the second floor of NOSPR, an mp3 titled “Sound from Earth,” even if I know they would not be able to read, most probably, or handle an mp3 player. Still, I am considering writing an email to Elon Musk proposing this amazing idea, but I give up on it because things start to change.
I am sitting in this room called “Sounds from Earth,” and everything is white or grey, all neat, except the armchair, of course. It is now 5:30 pm, and I start to hear a slight murmur upstairs, with seldom taps and clicks that I did not notice before. Actually, I only realize that in retrospect after a shocking outburst of the PA system informing me that I was requested on stage. Of course, it is not me. I am not a musician here. But it is a relief to be a misaddressed audience. It rarely happens that it works, but if it works—it is a bliss. To find an audience and address it with something they immediately decode as unimportant. And keep their attention. Or some kind of attention. This would be the ultimate curatorial challenge, a non-fan-like curating, or curating not for pleasing—and here I am in the room, subject to this kind of curating, taken for someone I am not, listening to a signal I do not have to react to, a kind of listening that does not lead to a reaction but remains a provocation.
The signal is a classic electronic tam-tam-like sound with a long reverb. One at 5:45 pm, two of these at 5:50 pm, three—followed by a little childish melody tail—at 5:55 pm. Before that, I didn't even realize there was a loudspeaker here. Even looking for it now, I cannot find it, but a feeling is already irreversible: this room is only a minor part of a major factory. As in all factories, there is order here. And where there is order, there is composition. It is only now that I listen to the roar of taps, and I realize they are all high heels—rushing on the corridor upstairs, passing very close to the ceiling of the room I am in now, on their way down. Unconceivable rhythms. Unique colors. Complexity beyond reason. But not beyond pleasure. Are all philharmonics around the world about high heels? An album called “The Real Music of Philharmonics” pops in quickly followed by a disappointment. We had that, I am sure. Or we did not have that, but we could have had that already, even worse for an idea.
Sometime around 5:58 pm, it gets silent again and I can start to prepare for my listening to Telemann. The room instantly changes into a private auditorium, filled not only with a bed and a mustard armchair but also a bottle of wine—opened. There could be a curatorial series called “Distant Musics – Close(d) Silences.” This would be always for a single person, invited for a concert 45 minutes before it starts, given a room for herself or himself and a bottle of wine (chosen from a short menu—maybe?) to enjoy whatever piece is played in the Main Hall, here always in four movements. Movement one, 15 mins long: irregular hum. Movement two, 15 mins long: three parts, each starting with an electronic tam-tam, filled with various high-heel textures. Movement three: The Silence of the Piece. Movement four: high heels again, coming back to rehearsal rooms with a long and less restrained murmur. A laugh or two, not too many. The question is: should there always be a score to follow in the room, just in case one does not want to get lost? But what is out of the question is the price of the tickets: they should be very expensive.
But this kind of silence—the one that would be difficult to record as such—together with the fact that there is a global decrease in the number of listeners of national radio make me think of the so-called new audiences. Perhaps non-human. Project concerts from stage to empty guest rooms, extreme volume. Or, better yet: install a precise frequency gate set at exactly the frequencies that would be resonant in the room or make the corkscrew tremble on an aluminum plate. The only risk being that a musician gets locked in the room for some strange reason, a perfect nightmare, missing the show, not showing up on stage, and then listening to the playback, without his or her presence, loud, extremely loud.
As I already mentioned, I am here with my girlfriend, and we are talking quite a lot about “missing the show,” especially when mounting her installation. It is mostly about the audience missing the show, being completely unaware that they are part of it, that the situation they are in is really made up, that this is art, but they do not know it. We are also talking about performers missing their shows—there could be so many ways to do that. Not only because you are locked in a room. Also missing the show by refusing to perform, being on stage but making a statement of not performing, by leaving one voice unheard in the piece, or making it inarticulate or impossible to articulate—having everything performed except your own voice.
I am still in this very same room, still white and grey, but now I am lying on the bed, waiting for the deafening loud Telemann to burst out from the loudspeaker. And in this waiting, I am of course feeling a double lack of Telemann: acoustic lack as I hear nothing from the stage two floors down; and broadcast lack in the loudspeaker. In this waiting, I am actually looking for Telemann, a kind of hypothetic listening or phantom listening. It becomes easy just when I have a look at the music stand. It hosted music scores. It faced practicing musicians, many times. Yesterday, three musicians of the orchestra said goodbye; they left the orchestra after 42 and 37 years. Perhaps at least one of them was here in this room where I am lying now, lying with my laptop on my lap, watching the music stand. Perhaps one of them used this very same stand, maybe once; perhaps he or she was practicing Telemann. And now I know for sure—I am in a room which is by all means a single one; actually, this is not only a single room but a room that makes you single via architecture and sound. This is a room that hosts singular voices—bricks that later build an orchestra. This is a room which is an architectural machine for separating performers, a kind of anti-stage. Just like I am now in an anti-curatorial position, imaging myself as curator, so do musicians practicing here imagine themselves on stage. Would it be possible to intensify this feeling without changing the room for the stage?
As I am lying here, in the single room with a white and grey kitchenette and a bed you can only approach from one end, I am imagining a music rendition of the Jérôme Bel piece “Véronique Doisneau.” This would be a proper goodbye for those three performers who had their last stage appearances yesterday, perhaps even a good idea for a small tradition: the final performance of every musician in the orchestra is always in the guest room, on the second floor; the departing musician is asked to play his or her part of the very first piece they performed on the stage downstairs. This could be the third violin of Beethoven's 9th. Here, on this occasion, played as a solo, like in a concert: no breaks, no mistakes, perfect rendition, for their own ears only. No audience. Of course—paid as a soloist, a kind of 13th salary.
As I am still lying on the bed, now much later, having breaks in writing, keeping my eyes closed from time to time, I realize my girlfriend is downstairs mounting her sound installation, and as I am not there with her, I am realizing I am indeed not a curator here, not even in this basic not necessarily understanding of the word. Part of her installation is the vocal sounds mimicking wind sweeping in through a leaky window. During the break of Telemann's concert, we were checking the levels; the wind sounds mix with the crowd so well that they can be very loud and completely unnoticed at the same time. We were talking about the effects a sound makes when unnoticed. And at the moment, when lying on bed, on the second floor, I do as much as I can to actually not listen to anything that is there to listen to. I try to simply let the sounds do the job. I try to turn myself into an anti-audience. Try not to listen. Try not to hear, against all odds, here, now. Of course, you always hear something, there are physical aspects of sound, yes, I also read those books. But try and go beyond what you read, cover yourself with a thick quilt, in a pretty quiet room, this should be just about enough. Then there are only the internal sounds, you will manage with those. Do not listen, as much as it is possible, just concentrate on anything else, smell, afterimages on the inner side of your eyelids, and most of all—get rid of this stubborn voice that reminds you, word by word, not to listen to anything. It is not exactly mute—this voice—not exactly entirely inner, almost like something else in you; surely, think of three gap events by Brecht, perform them, perform them in order to blunt your hearing, but start with getting away from listening, imagine this missing-letter sign, just get rid of the letter in the word you hear now when reiterating do not listen one letter less each time one letter less do not listen and one more until more or less this point here where lexemes are not sounding anymore and you cannot get cheated by anything curated by words.
Michał Libera is a sociologist, curator, and musical dramatist interested in theorizing by means of sound, music beyond the audible, listening and non-listening. He has curated dozens of albums (mainly in the conceptual-pop series “Populista” and a Polish Radio Experimental Studio run), countless concerts for art galleries, theaters, music festivals (incl. HCMF, Donaueschingen), and the Polish Pavilion at the 13th Architecture Biennale in Venice (honorable mention). He is working on a sound monument at the former German Nazi concentration camp KL Plaszow.