The sound of things to come

The future of music is debated at the TEDx conference in Suffolk.

The "future of music" is a beleaguered term. In recent years you would most likely find it lurking within much new music editorial, alongside a picture of the latest hyperbole-pumped group, destined for the predictable slump out of favour in six months time. It is as if music's future is pinned on short term hopes instead of long term solutions.

What might happen to music, how we might make, listen, and distribute it in the years to come, is not usually deemed a topic worthy of public discussion. Saturday's TEDx (the grassroots little brother of the philanthropic behemoth TED) conference at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, looked to approach the problem afresh.

Though it was an event that looked to compel the audience to ruminate on the possibilities of tomorrow, there were links to local past. Thomas Dolby, the LA-based, one-time synthpop star and digital music entrepreneur who chaired the day's proceedings, told of how his great, great grandfather Newson Garrett had built the Maltings at Snape in which the conference was taking place: later, his grandmother had been an assistant of Benjamin Britten's during the Aldeburgh Festival's first years. The parents of William Orbit, the English producer who was here interviewed by Dolby, retired to the Suffolk coastal town, and attended Britten's early concerts.

The conference's blue-sky, Silicon Valley-inspired evangelism jarred with the earthy, autumnal Suffolk setting, yet there was a common thread that connected the event with the Aldeburgh Festival project, begun by Britten and Peter Pears in 1948, which resulted in the creation of a permanent venue at the disused maltings in 1967 and the evolution of Aldeburgh Music. Britten's ideal was one of breaking down boundaries, eschewing the exclusivity of some avant-garde practice and moving away from the structures within classical music that deter people from exploring the more disciplined yet rewarding aspects of it.

It is a tradition carried on by Aldeburgh's Faster Than Sound team, who helped run the day, and a viewpoint most forcibly expressed by the Anglo-American conductor and infectious speaker, Benjamin Zander, who almost provoked an ovation with his pre-recorded speech that argued that classical music should be for everyone. One requirement of TEDx is that films of past TED lectures are shown. In an earlier film, a familiarly twitchy David Byrne discussed architecture's role in music making, taking in CBGB, Carnegie Hall and the iPod.

There was a lot of rhetoric about bringing people together to form a big, unified conversation, yet often the speakers were so narrowly stuck to promoting their own projects that they they resembled Gold Rush-era salespeople, there to ensure that their work be considered part of this unknown future. The composer/professor/inventor Tod Machover, introduced us to various fruits of his 25 years at the forward thinking MIT Media Lab in Boston, such as his hyperinstruments like the hyperbow (played by cellist Peter Gregson ahead of this weekend's Spheres and Splinters performance) and his robotic opera Death And The Powers, talking at a slamming pace. A besuited Martyn Ware rifled through the huge amount of impressive projects he has been working on, such as Breathing Trees, before an audacious - and quite funny - plug to come and see his reformed group, Heaven 17.

It was the young British loose cannons that distinguished TEDx from the slicker TED events. Sarah Nicolls showed off a deconstructed piano that she had made, complete with bicycle wheel, external strings and reverse keyboard. Tim Exile and Imogen Heap flew the flag for scatty English oratory as they paced the stage befuddledly during their respective talks, the former blowing more traditional minds with his inventions such as The Mouth, the latter explaining in great, meandering detail her internet-savvy approach, from auditioning session musicians online from a pool of fans, to getting her Twitter followers to write the press release for her last album.

Though there was plenty to chew over after the conference had finished, it was not quite the march forward into brave new territory that some might have expected. Many innovations smacked of the opportunism that we are fed daily: you couldn't help but be slightly disappointed that Ware was showing off the work that he had produced for the soft drink company, Fanta.

But that is the reality today - and what have creators of challenging music such as Ware always been but wheeler-dealers and hustlers? To bestow upon music a sense of dignified permanence is to fabricate its position. At the start of the day, over creeping, ambient noise, the opening speaker David Toop ambled through such territory elegantly, summing up the problem one faces when approaching a discussion of this kind. "Objects, images and writings can be preserved for centuries, for millennia, giving us a visible and tactile connection to the physical continuity of history," he said, revisiting his recently published book, Sinister Resonance. "Sounds, on the other hand, fade into air - ghosts to haunt tangible reality."

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution