— Cultural Sources of Newness

The art of explaining cultural sources of newness

One of the things that have been occupying me these past days is how to explain “cultural sources of newness.” The three reviewers of our book proposal with the working title “Valorizing Dissonance: Cultural Perspectives on Newness were very encouraging because they consider the area of research we are addressing to be “lively and emerging.” However, they were concerned that the cultural angle might be outmoded and that the concept of newness appears awkward or “baggy”. The concert I went to this evening, after sending off a response to the publisher this afternoon, brought the topic into focus. At Soundscape East Asia three ensembles with musicians and instruments from Europe, East Asia, South and North America performed at the Villa Elisabeth,  a somewhat dilapidated neo-classical hall in Berlin-Mitte. Their ambition was “to explore the field of tensions between artistic innovation and musical tradition, to invite intra- and intercultural dialogues, to open ears and to tempt into aural adventures.” (program notes Carmen Gräf; translation ABA)


AsianArt Ensemble setting up in Villa Elisabeth, photo ABA

We (the co-editors of the planned volume—Michael Hutter, David Stark and I) explained to the reviewers that in our approach the assignment of the predicate “new” is the result of complex and often contested valuation processes. Valuation, from this angle, is an aspect of innovation processes that has not yet been explicitly addressed. The term “newness” may appear clumsy and awkward, but it has the advantage of focusing attention on the social construction of the new, rather than just assuming that there is consensus. We noted that one of the properties of all items that have not yet passed the test of social valuation is their apparent awkwardness.

We went on to explain that the employment of a “cultural” perspective is a way of linking valuation to dissonance. Far from earlier, ontological usages of the term, the reference to “cultures” is a mode of comparison between differing logics across a wide range of social configurations. Dissonance, as David Stark has argued in The Sense of Dissonance, emerges when multiple logics of worth are applied. Such logics are also determined by their material practices, which positions the emphasis on materiality not against, but within a cultural perspective.

While we believe that we are breaking new ground with our approach, we do not feel completely alone. There is a resurgence of interest in such a relational understanding of culture in sociology that we have observed in conferences – “economic sociology meets cultural sociology” sessions have been standing-room-only events,  association sections dedicated to the sociology of culture have high growth rates among young researchers, and new publications, like the Journal of Cultural Economy, are very successful. We envisage our book contributing to these discussions, moving well beyond simple statements that “culture matters” by illustrating the wide applicability of the dynamics of dissonance with examples from quite diverse fields.


3 ensembles performing Gravity by Il-Ryun Chung (action photo ABA)

What I experienced at the Soundscape East Asia was in fact an example of the dynamics of dissonance with [musicians, instruments and composers] from quite diverse fields. Newness in the making? As the program notes pointed out, a few decades ago such an interaction would have been almost inconceivable. Classical western music was being successfully exported to almost all Asian countries, and some Asian students who were exposed to avant-garde composers in Germany, for example, took impulses back home with them to work with.  But very little attention was paid in the West to new Asian compositions. In the past few years Berlin has been attracting musicians from China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea who are now collaborating with European musicians to create new music.


Helena Winkelman after performance of her "Resonance of Rock" (photo ABA)

The repertoire is still miniscule but the musicians collaborating in such groups as the AsianArt Ensemble are attracting composers who are interested in creating pieces for such unusual combinations of instruments as the daegum, sheng, koto, changgu, percussion, violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet and electric guitar.  Five of the pieces played this evening were world premieres, and almost all the other pieces had been composed after 2003. Imagine being in a small concert hall in Berlin with 8 composers, 3 of whom were women! (Helena Winkelman from Switzerland, Makiko Nishikaze from Japan, and Myung-Sun Lee   from South Korea)


3 combined ensembles for premiere of "Warnings written in the wind" by Sandeep Bhagwati (photo ABA)

Sitting on the edge of my seat during the concert, ears and eyes wide open, catching the slightest flow breath through a reed, feeling the beat of the percussion and the deep rumble of the double bass, I wonder: should we skip trying to write about cultural sources of newness? Wouldn’t it be better to invite reviewers to concerts where they can experience newness in the making, experience the dynamics of dissonance when traditional instruments in the hands of musicians from different continents create new pieces/aural adventures/values for the world?

But then I realize that my instrument is the computer keyboard, my thoughts flow there through my fingers and writing is my art form. The culturalsourcesofnewness blog is a space of possibilities where I can meet readers without waiting for reviewers, just as soon as I click “publish”.

PS: I also realize how much I benefit from reviewers such as the three the publisher chose for our book proposal—they provided encouragement, posed very good questions, and gave us useful suggestions. If I knew who they were, I would indeed invite them to a concert.