Steps towards a general theory of counterpoint

Steps towards a general theory of counterpoint that is at the same time a provocation to compose radical music.

Some proposals as though absolute but are really only hypothetical.

1. Counterpoint is about relations between people. In fact counterpoint is about productive and reproductive social relations. To go one step further counterpoint is relations between people. It is not ‘about’ social relations because it does not signify relations that exist in some space outside of itself. It is in fact the coordination of human subjects in the production of music. Counterpoint is the division of labour in musical production.

2. The fact that musical counterpoint is not in truth a fundamental productive relation for our time (it is neither at the heart of social reproduction nor is it a decisive sector of the economy in terms of balance of forces, such as finance capital), in no way means it is relegated to the status of an object outside of social relations that by some unknown process comes to represent the social relations of the epoch (some floating ‘superstructure’ that is a mirror of the base). Instead, music’s (and therefore counterpoint’s) abstraction from the social whole is a product of the development of the social whole itself.

3. In its mythical and real origins, counterpoint is the coordination of an entire social production of music. An entire community participates in its song and dance, both confirming its social bonds and contributing to the development of each and all. That confirmation and development is what counterpoint produced. It was a very rudimentary counterpoint, but of course corresponded to the rudimentary nature of the broader DOL.

4. With the rise of class society (and in particular with the rise of ‘ideology producers’, the church in whatever form) a much sharper division of labour takes root, in which a small subsection of the population become experts in music making, and the majority of the population is relegated to more passive participation in the music (or non-participation), or active involvement in a ‘subaltern’ music (folk musics). Thus the division of high and low art (of course not a hard and fast division). In high music, a much more complex counterpoint could be developed (furthering ‘real human development’), but at the cost of its disconnection from the majority and its role as a reinforcer of the status quo (confirmation of the social). Low music could be connected to the majority but at the cost of its simplicity.

4. With the development of capitalism, even this degree of separation of music from the social whole is overtaken. The commodification of music fundamentally shatters communal cultures of both high and low music and replaces them increasingly with a logic of interaction based on money exchange. This happens in two stages (of course not cleanly successive, and certainly not on a global scale, where it is in fact ‘combined and uneven’): the formal subsumption of music under capital, and then the real one.

5. The process of formal subsumption involves the creation of commodified modes of dissemination of the music: ticketed concerts, recordings. Where this formal subsumption exists, and almost always in its initial phases, there can exist a non-alienated set of musical practices that are largely independent of the now commodified forms: music get-togethers, informal teaching and learning, music in the home, amateur practices, etc. In fact at at this point, the commodified forms rely on the non-commodified forms and not the other way around.

6. The real subsumption of music under capital is where these practices either: a) are themselves commodified, or b) become geared towards the servicing of the now ‘official’ musical culture, alienated from its people. This is an ongoing process, a general trend, and there are always counter-trends. In the first instance a practice like music get-togethers are turned into for-profit festivals, or musical transmission becomes an institutionalised service for a fee. In the second case, we see a change in the non-commodified practices that remain themselves. They are amateur insofar as they are not professional, however, they adopt the form of the official culture in their isolation, etc etc.

7. This creates a situation in which music is at once abstracted from social relations, and fetishised as a thing in itself (not a social practice). This twin abstraction-fetishisation leads on the one hand to the possibility of an even further complexified counterpoint and to the rise of a both simplistic and alienated ‘popular music’, reproducing the ‘high-low’ distinction but within a different dimensions. High art bears in this new context the possibility of a future reconciliation of the social by way of its counterpoint (as an instance of non-dominating social relations liberated by abstraction itself), but at the cost of no participation in its production beyond its immediate producers. Commodified popular music (because of its psychological/physiological connection to the mass of listeners) has the capacity for being injected with political content, but its form is one of stultification and pacification (resistances to this on a formal level, insisting on mass participation in simple counterpoint – e.g. Pete Seeger – is possible, but increasingly this too requires explicit political content to salvage its authenticity).

8. Still further, art music’s trade-off between irrelevance and refinement itself begins to break down. As soon as art music is liberated from even its previous social function (confirming class rule), and has the possibility of a further refined counterpoint, counterpoint itself starts to slip away. By its abstraction/fetishism art music increasingly loses the preconditions for a coherent counterpoint: a stable identity of the individual part and a stable schema for the relation of part to whole. The development of art music then is predicated on the dismantling of all that has not been sufficiently abstracted/fetishised, i.e. tonality is destroyed/abstracted and pitch relations fetishised (serialism), the pitch is destroyed/abstracted and the spectrum or sound fetishised (spectralism), the instrument is destroyed/abstracted and the concrete gesture fetishised (Lachenmann, etc), the work is destroyed and chance fetishised (Cage, etc). There is a particular dialectic of concrete and abstract at play in all of this, where ‘to abstract from social relations’ means ‘to push deeper into the concrete materials’.

Ok. So far so good. But now it gets very difficult. So the next points are put forward more hesitantly and sketchily… Hopefully the line of logic from critique to prescription will become clearer…

Music has, at this point, become completely un-self-evident. And yet, the forms by which it continues, (spectralism, instrumentalism, etc) present music in simplistic blocks or unilinear processes: self-evident in their form. The lack of counterpoint in this music reinforces a flat conception of reality that neither is true to the divisions within the social, nor present the possibility of real human development. Moreover, the extreme abstraction of material from pre-capitalist social relations makes the music increasingly frictionless and meaningless, wall-paper design as Adorno notes.

How to overcome this? Prescriptions: a) art music must take back the contrapuntal conception and present it consciously; b) it must be predicated on the extreme abstraction of music, and therefore undermine its own conditions and be a form of quasi-counterpoint, non-systematised; c) just as the fight for socialism should respect the indigenous struggle for preservation, art music must at the same time fight against abstraction by recuperating bits of pre-commodified music (something stuck, not fully reduced); d) and yet everything in the work must be mediated and no longer present any self-evident elements or simple unities, etc; e) it must also fight against abstraction by allowing for music to directly represent the political and not cede the space of art music to right wing or liberal ideology.

Ultimately, this kind of counterpoint must both plunge deep into the commodity that it is, abstracting the abstractions themselves and fetishising what they had repressed – and at the same time resist the process of commodification by reclaiming pre-abstracted materials, but now mediated by a hyper-abstracted context.

This should all unfold over time in a form that allows for counterpoint to flourish. Since counterpoint is a global non-systematic system, and not present in any one texture, it must move through multiple textures to realise itself (and yet the differences between these textures cannot be schematic).

(This is in fact commensurate with a political program of increasing the participation of all people in music making, however simple or complex, and reclaiming off capital the musical cultures that it destroyed and stole.)

With a global socialist revolution not yet impossible, there remains the possibility that broader social relations will themselves change and as new unalienated musical cultures are born (as part of this struggle and not purely as a result of it), and high music’s program be changed, yet gradually, over time. There remains the possibility that the most complex counterpoint becomes organically connected to the people as a whole and, going even further than the primitive counterpoint, is integrated into the entire sphere of production and reproduction of life, and ceases to exist as such – but one facet of a total process of real human development.