Sterilisation and redemption

“These bastards took our music from us and sold it back!” You know, it sounds funny, but I am really deeply upset about the commodification of music. It really is an awful thing. Folk and amateur musical cultures are so very vital and yet now they have at best become small sites of resistance, or at worst become false solutions to people’s alienation. Often both.

The standardisation of meter and tempo is particularly grotesque, because it goes to the essence of music as the construction of human time. You listen to folk music recordings from early in the 20th century and the singers are always adding and dropping beats and the tempo is always fluctuating. It’s got a sense of ‘musical prose’ about it – there’s something rugged for sure, but there’s also something very nuanced and refined at the same time. In pop music today the 4/4 beat and tempo and the 4-bar phrases have become so enforced that nothing really can challenge it. Where a song does, it often sounds false: like it’s just ornamental and an attempt to be clever and different, it sounds petty bourgeois or elitist – which is *not* how these old folk musics sound. In fact, the best test is to listen to a recent rendition of an old Woody Guthrie or Leadbelly song, or a Pete Seeger song, and hear how all the creases have been ironed out, how the spots have been washed off, how the lyrics have been alienated from the music and only linked by the most clichéd of emotive musical tropes. Ok, this does not entirely negate all this music, no matter how false. There’s a kernel of truth in all music, because it is the kernel of participation – even if it is simply the parts of your brain associated with dance lighting up when you hear a song on the radio as you go about something else. This is still a distant reflection of the truth, which is activity, collective activity and participation.

I think much new music today has something to learn from this though. If we’re a-metrical, then we have achieved a standardisation and sterilisation of time not far from mainstream pop music. We’ve reached the same result from a different route, and it’s really just as wrong. The root cause is the same, the removal of music from an organic practice of a people, and its transformation into an object for sale on the market (and thus the transformation of its process of production to one of production for sale).

Another aspect to all this is that folk music today in a sense has to reside in a political space. This is not mechanical or absolute – not every piece has to be political – but the performer has to position themselves politically. The gesture of making folk music has to be political. Why? Because folk music is about participation and ownership of musical production, and this is an anti-capitalist thing. As Pete Seeger says: “Participation, that’s what’s going to save the human race.” But the folk music practices of today are still embedded in a capitalist context and will come across as an obfuscatory palliative to society’s alienation. That is to say, they will make you think you’re healing your soul and connecting with people but you’ll just be further mystified about your ongoing alienation (Woodford Folk Festival). So, this is why they have to become self-consciously political. This isn’t absolute either, since them becoming political doesn’t mean they’re no longer in a capitalist context, but it does go some way to allowing authentic content of these musical practices to re-emerge.

Something I realised today is that the same goes for high music (‘classical’ or ‘modern’). While its political positioning is harder and will likely be far more mediated by the music’s form, advanced chamber music, which is also about participation (staging participation this time, rather than collectively enacting) still needs an element of this. I’m in the process of working out what degree and how ‘actual politics’ should enter into the music. You know, sure Adorno is right, music if it insists on its autonomy is by its form alone a critique of capitalism. But this does not (or no longer) take place without a dialectic of internal and external. The abstract artwork has become so frictionless that it needs an external idea to enter into its immediate frame in order for tension to reemerge and in order for the form itself to find some redemption from sheer semblance and false consciousness.

Context is very important. Orchestral music today is, by and large, moribund and reactionary and there’s no way out of this. Yet, a fundamental break with the status quo today, opening up a revolutionary process, could certainly return the orchestra to a place of staging participation and reclaim something true.