Jennifer’s Jokes: Contextualising ‘The New Discipline’

Jennifer Walshe’s ‘The New Discipline’ was first published in January 2016 in the Borealis festival catalogue. It reads as something between a manifesto and attempt at categorisation, making claims about and to an artistic practice, both describing and beckoning ‘a way of working’. The text has received much attention, being translated into five other languages, distributed subsequently widely, and has been the subject of many other discussions, lots of which include the composer herself.  As such, I don’t think it’s too grandiose to suggest that it’s one of the most well-known and possibly important texts about New Music so far this century. Despite this, The New Discipline is yet to receive any (published) critique, the lacuna from which the following ideas spawn.

Walshe concludes The New Discipline by asserting ‘that it’s not too late for us to have bodies’. Just who is it, I wonder, that might have forgotten that 'we' have bodies? I find it hard to imagine that anyone who was to see a performance of the most 'classic' of classic new music – Ferneyhough's Time and Motion Study II, say, or Lachenmann's Pression – could miss the centrality of the performers' bodies and hear this as ‘mere’, abstracted sound. I'm not sure that this 'we' is me.

Walshe goes on to name nine composers that have adopted the way of The New Discipline. Whilst there’s no suggestion that this list is either exhaustive nor exclusive, I wonder if an interest with the sorts of things listed in the final paragraph invites stylistic similarities. The explicit injections of the everyday across these composers works often draws on irony or humour; perhaps the foregrounding of the ordinary and pop culture would be very difficult if not impossible without these two elements emerging.

The term ‘The New Discipline’ was first used by musicologist Nicholas Cook in 2013 to describe a movement of responsibility of the production of meaning from composers to performers. Walshe makes no note of this reference, but the identical wording seems an unlikely coincidence. Indeed, the term ‘new’ is loaded in this context: the adjective puts the discipline in dialogue with similarly named classifications such as ‘New Complexity’ or ‘New Simplicity’, all as part of the troublesome term ‘New Music’.

I’m not really sure what The New Discipline is doing, then. On the one hand, it says it has to do with bodies but, on the other, those bodies seem to have to be doing everyday, non-new musicky things in order for them to count. If I'm being asked to remember that I've got a body, it's almost as if the sort of body I ought to recall is a surprisingly specific one. But maybe I'm supposed to think. Maybe this is performing the form of a manifesto, when it's actually a Jennifer Walshe piece.

Themes of performance, fictionalisation, and irony are common to Walshe’s work. For example, Aisteach (2015–) is a fictional account of Irish musical and artistic avant-garde practices. It all looks and sounds believable enough, but, here, Walshe lets us in on the secret, and makes it explicit that it’s all a performance of history. The New Discipline appeared just a year later. Quite feasibly, then, this interest in performance – taken in a Nicholas Cook-esque performative sense, even – could have been carried forward when writing this faux manifesto, with the key difference being that it goes a step further, and doesn’t make its fictionalisation explicit. Indeed, a mention of performance is suspiciously absent from The New Discipline, despite being present in all the named composers’ works (perhaps, as I say, essential to injections of the everyday). I wonder, too, if the defensive tone taken in the preamble to The New Discipline on Walshe’s website might be read as a doubling down on this illusion.

The New Discipline looks and sounds like a manifesto or categorisation, but doesn’t perform the functions of either because it doesn’t call for anything that isn’t already firmly established. In fact, taking Walshe’s The New Discipline at face value seems opposed to or a comment on what Cook’s ideas of the same name call for: an assumption that the composer is an authority on their work, believing what they say about it, rather than putting the emphasis on interpretation. To that end, perhaps The New Discipline is a sort of affectionate joke, to be read as tongue in cheek. I wonder, then, and I wonder if it matters, what it might mean if 'we' have been pranked by what's actually a piece and have started to build a practice around what's actually a gag. It would have been a pretty good one, if so.

This text was part of the charm offensive project in issue #138

Ed Cooper
Ed Cooper is a composer and writer based in Leeds, UK. He is interested in a wide range of topics, such as hearts, Hekate, musical bodies, and non-places.