24/7: freedom fried - Programme Note

Busy, busy, busy. If we're shopping for food at 3am, is this a testament to modern convenience or an indictment of our over-crammed lives? If we have time to think, will it be about our career, family, i.e. the serious stuff, or about art (which should be a pleasant distraction, not yet another challenge, right?)?

But art and entertainment are not synonyms.

"The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part." (In Praise of Idleness, Bertrand Russell)

If true in 1932, when Russell wrote this essay, then it is perhaps even more so today. An important question is to what extent this phenomenon occurred naturally as opposed to being manipulated, and if at all the latter, then by whom? Russell in the same essay writes:

"In the West, we ... have no attempt at economic justice, so that a large proportion of the total produce goes to a small minority of the population, many of whom do no work at all... We keep a large percentage of the working population idle, because we can dispense with their labour by making the others overwork. When all these methods prove inadequate, we have a war: we cause a number of people to manufacture high explosives, and a number of others to explode them, as if we were children who had just discovered fireworks. By a combination of all these devices we manage, though with difficulty, to keep alive the notion that a great deal of severe manual work must be the lot of the average man."

No news there. Many people would recognise this social structure as fundamental to our modern 'democratic' societies. Others see it rather as oligarchy, plutocracy. Whichever it is, the distractions of over-work and a media system offering more cud for the chew than that which is our due seem to be working well:

"what the democratic mind requires, above all, is time; time to consider its options. Time to develop the democratic virtues of independence, orneriness, objectivity, and fairness. Time, perhaps ... to ponder the course our unelected captains have so generously set for us, and to consider mutiny when the iceberg looms. Which is precisely why we need to be kept busy. If we have no time to think, to mull, if we have no time to piece together the sudden associations and unexpected, mid-shower insights that are the stuff of independent opinion, then we are less citizens than cursors, easily manipulated, vulnerable to the currents of power." (Quitting the Paint Factory, on the virtues of idleness, Mark Slouka)

So what has all this to do with my piece of music? Everything and nothing. Everything because both my imagination and indignation are fueled by social injustice and this feeds the creative urge. Everything because I do not want to be "putting art to the service of suppression and the propagation of a false sense of security" (Helmut Lachenmann). Nothing because (diminuendo...) the driving generative and structural force of the piece relates to the title in another, infinitely more abstract way:

A viola player uses the four fingers of the left hand to stop the strings; there are 24 possible permutations of the four fingers; of these 24 there are 620448401733239439360000 permutations, only seven of which are used in this piece (thankfully, you might say), memorised by the performer and superimposed--generally as fast as possible: busy, busy, busy--onto various transpositions of seven basic tetrachords on each of the seven strings of the viola d'amore...

And "freedom fried"? From the embarrassingly childish jingoism of the US House of Representatives in renaming their French Fries as Freedom Fries after France's refusal to join the 2003 Iraq crusade. From the perversion of the very idea of freedom, something which can now apparently include frying innocent Fallujahns in burning white phosphorus: not, according to the military and the media, a chemical weapon, and certainly not remotely as wicked as the infamous chemical attacks Saddam inflicted on Halabja. Of course not; on the contrary, simply a fair price to pay for good ol' democracy.

24/7: freedom fried was written for Garth Knox.