On experimentation and truth in music

Over the last few weeks I’ve had a number of very interesting artistic experiences, including the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, the ELISION concert ‘An ocean beyond earth’, and reading Jordan Lacey’s Sonic Ruptures as well as Rebecca Solnitt’s A Book of Migrations. These together have provoked some reflections on musical creation that I’ll try to sketch out here. These is only some early thoughts and make no claim to coherence.

I think the main thing that came out of the BIFEM weekend was that I have something of a renewed interest in the concept of ‘truth’ or ‘truths’, in particular ‘experiential truths’. Being a pretty big fan of the work of Alain Badiou, I’ve for a long time been keen on his idea of truths as creative processes that construct a new order by following a kind of logical progression from an axiomatic point of rupture with the status quo. Musically, however, for a while I have been kind of avoiding this category of truth in favour of novelty and experimentation. In the latter idea, experimentation becomes an end in itself, and the act of experimenting becomes liberating in and of itself. The argument runs something like this: the status quo imposes fairly strict ideas about what music is and could be, stultifying the development of our aural sense and the emotional and intellectual content that goes with it. But by exploring aspects of music that are hidden from or by this status quo, we expand and diversify our experiential world, and that makes us better as human beings, richer, more fulfilled, more open. The benefit of this idea is that it doesn’t require any stark dualism between a false music and a true one: all musics are good, but the greater the diversity of musics experienced, the better for the human individual and their community. ‘New Music’ – in the sense of music that is self-consciously exploratory – simply is a particularly useful vehicle for this diversity of experiences. I recently read Jordan Lacey’s book Sonic Ruptures, and I think his emphasis on the ‘diversification of affect’ is a good expression of this basic idea.

What I began to think though, while at BIFEM, and in particular in the discussion session ‘What’s Your Fetish?’, was that perhaps the idea of ‘truth’ should not be abandoned in favour of this diversity/novelty hypothesis. I began to feel that something was lost if we drop this aspect. Without this idea of truth we can very easily get lost in a ‘fetishisation of materials’ (someone brought up this idea of the fetishisation of materials during the BIFEM discussion, but seemingly only to suggest that we should inject direct political or social content into our music, which I think is a somewhat simplistic solution). Because in essence, the diversification-novelty idea is a purely formal question, and does not deal with the issue of content. Forms are explored as ends in themselves, with the overall horizon being that of human development, which is in any case a purely formal conception by this stage.

This is all quite fine as a defence of new music and diverse music practices (and certainly as a defence of arts funding, since it is acceptable to a liberal discourse), but the thing I began to realise over the BIFEM weekend and the following week is that I feel experimentation should have a telos or aim. Experimentation (as in the sciences) is experimentation for something. You experiment to try to achieve a result. That this result is not fully understood or conceived before the experiment does not change the fact that something is aimed for beyond the experiment itself. Some experimentalists may be so committed to the diversity-novelty idea that there is or should no criteria for judgement of an experiment’s success (which is an admirable perspective, and useful at times, but I think insufficient), but mosts artists will form a judgement about whether something ‘worked’ or not. It is here that the concept of truth needs to be raised, in order that the criteria for judgement of an experiment’s success does not just rest with the order of things as they are.

The concept of truth that I’m toying with here therefore shares something in common with Badiou’s formulation in Logics of Worlds that “there are only bodies and languages, except that there are truths.” There are only criteria of judgement for music based on physiological-psychoacoustic research or based on stylistic norms (and their institutional support), except that there are experiential truths that are not sanctioned or guaranteed by these criteria. As with Badiou, obviously these truths are exceptional and not very frequent.

On the other hand I’m not using the idea of truths quite like Badiou, insofar as I’m currently not considering the truth-procedure aspect, including the evental rupture, trace, fidelity, construction of a subjective body, points, etc. On the other hand, I’m hesitant to say that the idea of truth here is one of representation or revelation, whereby an experiential truth represents in an immediate way a pre-existing, but somehow inexpressible experience, which is of course a common idea of the arts and something like a theory of catharsis. Or, shall I say for now that I think there is this aspect, where a truth is revealed, but at the same time, a truth is constructed and always something new and adds to our experience. It doesn’t just represent or reveal experience, it also creates experience. It changes us as much as it reveals us to ourselves.

I guess what I’m trying to avoid here is thinking a stark division between content and form. Content in this view is not something that pre-exists form, but form viewed from the standpoint of its web of relations (resonances, metaphors) to our experiential lifeworld. (Perhaps this is what Adorno means when he speaks of ‘mimetic comportment’.) Which is also to suggest that this web of relations 1) always already exists, and 2) that it is sufficiently socially stable to have something more than just ‘personal truths’.

Anyway, I don’t know how defensible or interesting all this is philosophically. The point is that, for an artist, experimentation is an activity whose purpose is to try to reveal-create an experience or experiential mode that neither our mere bodily tendencies nor our stylistic constructs can reveal or create. There is therefore something mystical about experiential truths, something beyond what can be rationally conceived or articulated, even if rationality plays a large part in constructing or revealing them. I guess this is the sublime aspect of art. It reminds me of that Rimbaud quote: “I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer.” Which is not to say that I think we need to see ‘beyond’ a false reality into a ‘true’ one, perhaps some kind of aesthetic state allows us to experience fully the reality that is already here. “One must be as radical as reality itself”; “the Kingdom of God is the present moment”.

Something like the idea I’m trying to get at is found in David Metzer’s book Musical Modernism at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, where he talks about ‘compositional modes’. For Metzer, 20th century music is characterised by a number of different ‘lines of enquiry’ into some essential compositional states: purity, the fragment, modern silence, lament, etc. I take these to be experiential truths. Of course the truths are not reducible to these concepts, but the concepts provide the best method to group them and talk about them. I increasingly like this way of looking at things (as long as it plunges into the technical-formal dimension and gets past the merely impressionistic) because it avoids suggesting that there is a ‘stylistic’ element to truth, or talking about musical truth in the singular, or talking about it as entirely negative (truth as that absolute ‘beyond’ of reason). For instance, Liza Lim’s music tends to reveal something about the experiential truth of tangledness, of obscurity of relations, and the occasional burst into clarity, where the clarity becomes conversely just as obscure, even more so, as the dense moments. This is some essential experience of the subject, individual or collective. This was particularly obvious in her recent How Forests Think, premiered by ELISION a few weekends ago at BIFEM. Aaron Cassidy’s The Wreck of Former Boundaries, as with much of his music, was an attempt to get at some kind of truth about experiential intensity, though I’m not quite sure it succeeded.

What’s clear here is that the musical structures reveal-construct truths of broader human experience by way of some formal mimesis. What exactly the dynamic is here is something to think about some more, but increasingly I don’t agree that music only has ‘musical truths’, but that it can only partake of experiential truths – great music somehow links into, as a kind of synecdoche, our whole experiential or affective world.

At the same time, music is not capable of delivering economic or political (or scientific) truths. Music is not a means for ‘consciousness raising’ or agitation, but connecting with the total experiential world conditioned by these economic and political processes. This is always an obscure, irreducible relation.

It is not that music has no role in social change, though. It’s just that its role is through the liberation of human affect through the construction of experiential truths. This is allied, at the horizon, with the attempt to decommodify human relations, and to build a new world. And my argument today is that, since we human beings are ‘amphibious’ (always both universal and particular), no fundamental social transformation will be possible on the back of reason and political struggle alone, but will need a cultural dimension that is true to its own nature.

I guess the last thing to make clear is the experimentation-liberation nexus I raised earlier. My thinking at the moment is to suggest that there is a link between experimentation, liberation, and experiential truths. Experiential truths cannot be constructed without experimentation on materials from a starting point subtracted from, or exterior to, the demands of style and what ‘suits’ our perceptive capacities. Likewise the inverse is the case, without an attempt to manifest some experiential truth, experimentation and material innovation lose their ontological ground.

The main consequence of this shift from the diversity-novelty idea of music to that of the revelation-construction of experiential truths is a switching of ends and means. Whereas in my research over the last year or so I have conceived of counterpoint as a means for exploring new realms of sound and performance (insofar as it allows the ‘thinkability of a world’), now I think that exploring new realms of sound and performance are themselves different means to understanding the experience of simultaneity. I’m trying to find the best way to express what the experiential core of this is. I think it has something to do with the experience of the presence of heterogeneity, where one is forced to ask themselves (not necessarily consciously), “how do both of these things belong?” Obviously it isn’t as simple as just putting two heterogeneous sounds together; one must have an ear for the conflicting experiential resonances of materials and also the understanding of how to explore what the identity of these differences in fact is.

One final point is that music would be one of the few artforms (along with dance, I suppose) that would be capable of presenting this experiential truth. Obviously literature and poetry can describe a state in which there is heterogeneity, but the form itself is diachronic and unilinear (one concept at a time). Painting can present simultaneous heterogeneity, but can’t handle simultaneous motion. Film has a slightly greater capacity, but it is also limited to what action can be on the frame or field of vision at once.

That turned into a very large rant, and perhaps no one has made it this far. But it’s been useful for me in clarifying a few thoughts, so too bad. Hopefully I’ll come back an clarify this a bit more and talk about practical implications soon.

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Liberated territories

I have been thinking a bit lately about the relationship between the world and the subject in musical composition. I’ve always tried to compose a ‘subjective’ music in the sense of an allegorical form of development, etc. But this I think comes to an impasse: neither does it allow you to step back sufficiently to think about your actual materials, nor does it offer particularly radical structures. In fact, in the name of ‘subjectivity’, you end up writing music with often quite 19th century formal presuppositions.

I’ve been listening to and reading a lot about the development of post-war serialism lately, and despite what we’ve all been told about how awful this approach to music is, I’m finding it very stimulating in rethinking the subjective and objective dimension of music making.

Ultimately, I’m thinking now that the question of the subject needs to be displaced from the formal-allegorical level, to the level of the construction of the musical space itself (which is not the same as the individual composer and the act of composition). While I had already begun to make this move in my composing, I hadn’t really come to a viable alternative theory. This was largely because I was so wary of the idea of music conceived ‘spatially’.

Why am I now talking about musical space? Here’s a very useful definition of the serialist project from Richard Barrett that shows the significance of thinking in this spatial way:

I would encapsulate this way of thinking thus:

(a) identifying the parameters which are to be the focus of a composition, the “dimensions” in which it will exist;

(b) assigning minimum and maximum values to these parameters and in doing so establishing a “space” with those dimensions;

(c) making musically-significant movements across those parametric dimensions, or to put it another way, making a journey of discovery through the space they create.

It’s not a question of relating everything to a “series” but of relating everything to everything else. (http://richardbarrettmusic.com/Stockhausen2012.html)

The-Bathing-PoolThis mirrors very closely the topological conception of a ‘world’ by Badiou in Logics of Worlds, and it makes me think of the example he gives of the painting The Bathing Pool that he analyses in Book III from this standpoint. In this way parameters are the ‘id-levels’ of the elements within the work. Things can things appear with maximal intensity or minimal intensity or somewhere in between, according to various dimensions. These dimensions could be the relative blue-ness of different blues or the degrees of eroticism of various figures in painting; they could be the degrees of rhythmic periodicity between figures in a work of music. This gives a space, and a certain type of time, a ‘time of the world’, which is made up of the various id-functions of the different dimensions.

This equation of serial parameters with Badiouian id relations would take some work demonstrating, but it could certainly be done (more or less).

But isn’t the whole problem there that you would be simply (re)presenting a world and not what changes the world? I.e. Aren’t you falling into the trap of being radically a-subjective as Nicolas (not unlike Adorno) accuses the serialist project of being? In creating a topological space and moving around in it, aren’t you simply rearranging the objects of this world, in a kind of nihilistic glass bead game? Would we not end up creating ‘official art’ in Badiou’s terms?

Official art describes the glory of what exists. It’s an art of victory. I think that is the most important point. An official art with an ideological determination is an art not of weakness but of strength. A militant art is the subjective expression, not of what exists, but of what becomes. It’s an art of the choice and not an art of victory. An official art is an art of affirmative certainty. A militant art is an art of contradiction, an art of the contradiction between the affirmative nature of principles and the dubious result of struggles. (http://interactivist.autonomedia.org/node/13795)

My answer would have to be that a great work of serialist thinking doesn’t create a world but a body, in the sense of that which “In the context of a becoming-subject … the world (which as such does not allow for any subject) is represented by a body.” (Badiou, LOW, p. 80).

What do I mean by this? I simply mean that if the work, through this (broadly conceived) serialist method, helps liberate the music from conventions and affirms something new, even (or especially) in its undecideability or its instability, it builds a space from a free starting point, a starting point that is not ‘of this world’ (or is, but in affirming something repressed within it). Or, shall we say that it retrospectively builds this starting point from its own structuration. In any case what you have is the process of defining of a liberated territory, in a sense.

A body, or a ‘liberated territory’, is still ‘worldly’ in that it can be objectively determined, but it manifests a kind of vector that points resolutely beyond this world, and in doing so, forces (in Badiou’s language from Being and Event) something new to be added to it.

(Whether this neatly fits Badiou’s category of the body or not doesn’t really worry me, it’s more a matter of thinking from this basic starting point).

I think that at this moment in the history of art music (and of politics), this liberated territory, this world-of-the-subject, should be expansive and should not be negatively defined and turned in on itself. It should be affirmative in the Badiouian sense. It should attempt to appropriate as much of the world as possible into itself, but transforming each element by the imaginative application of a rigorous dimensional structure, forcing something new out of it. Like James Connolly said: “For our demands most moderate are / we only want the earth.”

A work should, “think through [that is, demonstrate in time] the ‘worldly’ unity of all these differences which set forth the appearing of” this liberated space.” (Badiou, LOW, p. 200)

It’s not that the formal approach of serialism is objective and formal and it needs to be filled with subjective ‘inspiration’ and ‘content’. The point is that any inspiration would be already within the research that this serialist thought represents, and any ‘content’ or ‘material’ would just be the local structures thought through in this manner (no form-content distinction holds in this method). Am I saying, again in Badiou’s terminology, that the ‘serialist subject’ is still alive? Perhaps a different subject to the one he and Nicolas identify, one perhaps less linked to Boulez and more to Stockhausen, Xenakis, etc? Am I also suggesting that ‘material progress’ is also still possible contra Harry Lehman? I think Richard Barrett would essentially say this. At this stage I’m much more in agreement than I thought I’d be 12 months ago.

Regardless, the next step in this is to think through what this means for my idea of ‘counterpoint’, linked as it is to an idea of ‘multi-temporality’. It is not an entirely new point of departure. I have been thinking in terms of ‘identity levels’ for some time, but much more vaguely, and without the recognition of the inherently spatial aspect of this.

Badiou nails it: Individual and collective

This recent short interview with Badiou is really excellent.

Not simply because he clarifies that an event “is a dialectical category,” in a sense resulting (albeit in an unforeseeable way) from the crystallisation of phenomena in the situation. Also not just because he makes this startling statement: “the organisation we need can’t just be an insurrectionary combat organisation, but must also allow for a new way of managing the state across a long transition period,” which is seemingly a long way away from his espoused ‘politics at a distance from the state’, even if he is still totally opposed to a bureaucratic or ‘statist’ socialism.

It is also awesome because it very neatly summarises the relationship between the individual and collective in a proper idea of communism:

Emancipation is the emancipation of all humanity; and humanity entails a vast range of differences, which will still continue to exist. There will still be men and women; there will still be Finnish speakers and Anglophones; there will even still be different jobs, even if we aim at versatility; and so on. Communism has to be a vision that incorporates such differences and, at the same time, affirms a universal community even within each of them. I would say that communism is not necessarily an identity; it’s not an identity that envelops all the other identities, but rather a movement, a new form of coexistence and commonality among all that is different.

On a musical level, my basic thesis would be this: this idea of communism also provides the ideological starting point for a contemporary idea of counterpoint. Replace ‘women’ and ‘men’ with ‘violins’ and ‘tubas’ (random examples, I’m not essentialising), and replace ‘Finnish speakers and Anglophones’ with ‘post-tonal pitch construction and folk-derived harmonies’ and ‘different jobs’ could be ‘different relationship to the metre’, or whatever – do that, and you’re getting a pretty good idea of what I’m trying to get at musically. A unification of musical lines that does not negate their identities – thus a counterpoint.

Of course, it is complicated, not just because one has to use a lot of imagination to work out the musical techniques and forms that would accord with this idea, but also because in my view an artistic rendering of this idea must take account of its current absence and its current status as a struggle. But that’s a refinement of the basic idea, it hardly negates it.

Music, politics, government: truth procedures and their linkages

It occurs to me now that I haven’t written a blog post for over a month. That’s largely because I have been knuckling down finishing piece for solo piano and tape for Alex Raineri. But, now that that is finished, I have a lot I want to rant about on this blog: the medieval motet and counterpoint in early music, composing my piano piece, ideas for my new pieces, more on Ferneyhough’s approach, OpenMusic software, etc. So expect all that pretty soon. But for now, I just want to take up (again) the music-politics relation, and move outwards from there to the relationship between truth procedures and government.

This is all just thinking out loud, so don’t hold me to any of this, and apologies for its sprawling length. Nonetheless, I feel there’s something in the below line of thinking…

François Nicolas recently gave a presentation at a conference in Tunisia on music and politics (which he kindly sent to me). In this he spoke about the need to recognise the irreducibility of art to politics and vice versa and what it means to be both a musician and a political militant, to live in this divided space. It helped me to clarify some thoughts and frustrations I’ve been having for a while. If you read French and want a copy of this paper, let me know, and I’ll send it to you. If not, well, hopefully I’ll translate it soon, and post it here.

Anyway, I find myself agreeing (increasingly, again) with both Nicolas (and Badiou, the philosopher with whom he has worked for many decades) that music and politics represent distinct ‘truth procedures’ (the best introduction to this is, of course, Ethics). The relative autonomy of the one to the other is nothing new or particularly interesting, but what I’m curious about is the idea, that Nicolas makes explicit, that to draw proper links between the two procedures, on condition of their irreducibility, you need to be ‘subjectivated’ twice, both as a musician and a political militant, in two different truth procedures.

Accepting this idea, I would add the following ‘liberal’ sounding thesis: political art is not something to be encouraged in and of itself. Political activism is something to be encouraged. Musical (or artistic) commitment, commitment to the development of the ‘art itself’ (a contested idea, to be sure, but one that can be demonstrated in a materialist manner, albeit with a large grey area), should be encouraged on its own terms.

What has always got me about this idea of Badiou’s of artistic truths, is that it seems to let artists off the hook: obsessed with their art and the construction of its truth, the artist participates in a subjective procedure that seems to give them a free pass for ignoring anything that falls outside of this domain. Of course, this more or less Romantic-Modernist reading is just one possible reading of Badiou’s idea, and not a necessary one, but it is one that comes up when people suggest the idea of a self-validating artistic practice, or a truth content to art that is irreducible to anything else.

On the contrary, I would like to affirm (precisely by severing the artist and the art) that being musically subjectivated, for instance, offers no excuse for avoiding political subjectivation. What this means is that musicians should as a human being and not an artist, independently of their art, put themselves to a political cause. That is, they should, just like anyone in any other job (be it nursing or construction or teaching or whatever) should, to the greatest extent possible, take up political activism – daily organising of demonstrations, meetings, strikes, debating positions and tactics, etc, in the service of a political-social cause. What I’m suggesting, therefore, is the totally sensible point that, while art may contain its own truths, an artist as a human being does not therefore live in truth. An artist is not the art-subject; according to Badiou, this is the work. An artist is instead an arts-worker, an economic subject linked in this sense to the political (though not for all that naturally ‘politicised’, far from it).

I often feel composers decide to make ‘political art’ without having entered into a political subject themselves. That is, they take up a political issue because they are interested in politics and have read a bunch of theory about art and politics and think that, by doing their art, they can do some kind of politics. Yet these people often have never organised a demonstration, debated the best demands to take up, held public forums on political issues, tried to build a democratic political organisation, etc etc. What they end up dealing with are political opinions, and not politics. In general, these days, they are reduced to some kind of critical art, all the more powerless both artistically and politically. (Since politics means one thing to them, and another thing to the militant, you can have a conversation with them and completely miss each others’ meanings. A frustrating experience).

I am not suggesting that if one is subjectivated both musically and politically, that then a genuine political art will flow. Not at all. Political art is always difficult and unstable and always changing depending on the conjuncture. But, nonetheless, we can hazard a basic thesis: Without political subjectivation, political music will be insincere and incorrect, without artistic subjectivation, political art will not function as a universal bearer of human development.

Instead of the category of ‘political art’ then, perhaps we need a category for the organic emergence of the political truth procedure into the domain of arts, or the organic formation of (unstable) relations between the two fields.

Switching the arena a little, this goes some way to offering a left government (understood in the anti-capitalist sense) policy on the arts – a revolutionary government should not directly support ‘political art’, but instead support the people’s participation in both political truth procedures and in artistic truth procedures. To be clear: the political truth procedure should make sure that it organises itself on the institutional terrain of the arts (for instance, conservatoires and arts colleges/universities should be sites for organisation of students and lecturers, etc), but this in no way amounts to a take-over of the artistic form itself, which should retain its relative autonomy. At Darmstadt last year, I organised along with some other musicians-militants, an Open Space workshop on ‘Music and Protest’. If I went again, I might well simply organise some workshops on some political topics, since the idea that Darmstadt should be immune to politics or that it should only be taken up as a (never ending) discussion about ‘music and politics’ – this idea should by no means go unchallenged.

All this is quite close, of course, to Trotsky’s position, although I’ll have to return to that and check the specifics… I’m not as convinced anymore of his support for a kind of ‘withering away of the arts’ on condition that all life becomes art, the breakdown of the division of labour, etc. I suppose if that ever took place, it would have to do so organically, and not from the state, and that this would happen in such an unforeseeable future, that it is really not a theoretical issue for today. Yet the historical materialist perspective which locates the emergence of art and its various historical modalities as historical phenomena based (in the final analysis) on particular economic factors (alienation, division of labour, class division, commodification) does provide an important counterweight to reifying the distinction between the ‘artistic’ and the ‘economic’ and, by extension, the ‘artistic’ and the ‘political’ (which is to say that there is something always already economic in art, and something always already political (at least in the sense of ideological) in there too).

Moving on, though, accepting for the moment a relative stability in the present of the distinction between truth procedures, we could draw upon Badiou’s four-fold distinction (no doubt in a way that he would detest) in this broader sphere of left government.

Following the logic so far, the policy of a left government would be to support each of the four truth procedures independently, but not to attempt to take the position, nor encourage any particular way, of uniting them (which would likely result in a Stalinist terror). A left government should support people’s involvement in politics (that is, by increasing civil liberties, taking the side of the people in their struggles, providing resources to people’s organisations, changing school curricula, arresting climate change, etc), in arts (through increased funding, opening up new spaces, expanded education, etc), love (through increased rights for women, LGBTIQ, etc, women’s shelters, challenges to inheritance, undermining the normativity of the family unit, etc – all of which would increase people’s capacity to respond properly to love events), and in science (through funding, education, pulling support from institutions that are anti-science, etc). All this means a left government would be nourishing – through these measures, and through general social policy (i.e. alleviating poverty, etc) – the truth procedures already underway, not usurping them, and not forcing a state ideology of their unification. Their unification (or better, their various linkages and fusions, themselves transient and subject to change) will come from organic experimentation between people who are subjectivated in two or more of the truth procedures.

(This distinction between government and truth procedures is an interesting one, which I would like to explore some more. It implies also that the party is not in itself a political truth procedure, but merely one expression of it. It somehow brings Badiou and Poulantzas together, who, in his late years, came to believe both that the social movements should be allowed some distance from the party, and that not everything is political. But this is a political question to tease out later).

Back on music and politics: There remains in all of this the problem of popular music or folk music. Are they elements within political truth procedures, or musical events themselves? Badiou (and seemingly François, though I have to check) has no theory of popular musics as sites for truth procedures. He remains rather Eurocentric and elitist when it comes to art. Protest music, for François is part of the political subject, not the musical one. I tend to agree. But what would the conditions of it travelling into a musical subjectivity be? Surely not its taking up of Western art music’s formal qualities and institutional structures. This will be a big challenge to overcome: think of popular musics and art musics in the same way, not as qualitatively different phenomena.

All of this remains meta-level and barely begins to suggest the specific relationships musicians should be forging between music and politics today. Nonetheless, what it does is provide an ethics for the musician-militant (as François calls it). It clarifies that there is no substitute for political action proper, and that there is no substitute for artistic development on its own terms. From a political point of view, it proposes that the institutions of musical production and reproduction first of all should be considered sites of struggle, that is, prior to the conscious entrance of politics into the art form itself. It also suggests that nothing is precluded in linking these two fields of truth, but also that there will never be theory or practice of the relationship between the two, since it will always be a matter of starting at the historical conjuncture of each.

Music and Interpellation

Just read the bit in Althusser’s Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses that deals with the idea of ‘interpellation’.

I am interested in exploring how the concept of ‘interpellation’ relates to music, and specifically polyphonic or contrapuntal music. What I want to know is how the listening subject recognises himself in the music. This is important, since I want, on a theoretical level, to show that there are stakes in the composition of music, and that it relates to how people define themselves socially. I also, naturally, want to create music that has an effect on people, that isn’t ‘a-subjective’.

So, here’s some unordered thoughts:

I only wish to point out that you and I are always already subjects, and as such constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition, which guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects.

Connection to idea of ritual in Small’s ‘Musicking’. Ideology is not just ‘text’ or ‘ideas’ propagated through written media or whatever. Ideology is more fundamentally the ritual practices through which we recognise ourselves as subjects (for better or worse).

The second point here is that we are ‘always already’ constituted as subjects. From the moment of birth we are surrounded by rituals (including being named) that form us into subjects. I would add that we are surrounded by music from birth and it helps ‘subjectivate’ us; it trains us to behave and see ourselves in certain ways.

Music, as Small points out, is a particular configuration of human bodies and their products in a representation of ideal relations, so it is in a very profound sense, ideological.

As a first formulation I shall say: all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject.

We are ‘hailed’ as subjects to music in an almost literal sense. The music ‘appeals’ to us. The sound is eerily compelling, from the get go, before we are conscious of it, and certainly before we work out why (if we ever do). “We are the music, while the music lasts” as T.S. Eliot has said. But the structures that musical practices instil in us are connected to many other ideological structures that certainly do last after the music stops.

The question then is what are the structures (the sets of relations) to which music interpellates us? I’d say there’s two basic dimensions, the borders between which are hardly immutable, if nonetheless real. Firstly, there’s the ‘external’ relations: the structure of the venue, the ticketing system, the bar, the parking, the wages of the cleaners, the seating arrangement. Then there’s the internal relations: the harmonies, rhythmic structures, polyphonic arrangements, gestural language, formal procedures, and so on. In between these two, connecting them, is the mode of participation of the human beings engaged in the ‘musicking’. I am tempted to put the ‘mode of participation’ in the category of ‘external relations’, but it is so bound up with the particular form that it is hard to extract from the internal relations. It is perhaps the immediate and largely inseparable ‘frame’ or the ‘internal margin’ of the work.

I shall then suggest that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’

I think this relates very much to this question of the mode of participation. The term ‘recruit’ is a giveaway: how does a particular music ‘recruit’ its participants, and what does it ‘recruit’ them to do? Sit down, shut up and listen? Sing along? Dance? Tap the fingers on the steering wheel? Feel miserable about themselves? Hate the opposite sex? And so on…

“ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’. It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology.”

Music is incapable of being fully self-conscious. This is not a wholly lamentable fact. Firstly, I don’t agree that there is a simple division between ideology as ‘false consciousness’ and Marxist science as ‘true consciousness’. Reality is much more complex than that, and do we not need to create utopian ideals, heroic figures, symbolism, and so on for ‘the left’? Of course we do. There will be no moment when musicking will be replaced by science.

for you and for me, the category of the subject is a primary ‘obviousness’ (obviousnesses are always primary): it is clear that you and I are subjects (free, ethical, etc….). Like all obviousnesses, including those that make a word ‘name a thing’ or ‘have a meaning’ (therefore including the obviousness of the ‘transparency’ of language), the ‘obviousness’ that you and I are subjects – and that that does not cause any problems – is an ideological effect, the elementary ideological effect.

Music, insofar as it has an interpellative function, will tend to be ‘obvious’. This self-evidence can be used by the ‘culture industry’ to create subjects of capital, or it can be the result of more authentic social practices (folk can represent a continuity with a pre-alienated time, or it can represent the forging of collectivity from within an alienated situation (workers’ songs for instance)). Or, in the case of modernist art music, it can take the breakdown of the social as a starting point and attempt to start from something other than obviousness, but it must maintain a relation to it.

It then emerges that the interpellation of individuals as subjects presupposes the ‘existence’ of a Unique and central Other Subject, in whose Name the religious ideology interpellates all individuals as subjects.

This is complicated. I’d like to say that the musical ‘subject’ or ‘theme’ in classical music represents the Subject as absolute that guarantees the subjects that are interpellated. This is what François Nicolas argues is thematism’s function: a representation of self-consciousness, and Yearsley hints at the relationship between the Fugal or Canonic subject and the Sovereign subject. However, if all music ‘interpellates’ this ‘Subject’ (should such a thing really need to exist) probably has more to do with the univocity of the musical discourse, which is in part a function of its fetishisation. Insofar as the music ultimately tends towards unity, it tends to interpellate its subject to a sovereign Subject. But this shouldn’t imply that any music that is fairly univocal in its language is therefore reactionary: that’s a libertarian delusion. Musics that bring people together to sing, or to dance, or whatever, are good. These (at this stage of history) need to be simple and univocal. We need more of that. It does become a problem when individual subjects have no real option but to see themselves in the relations set up by the culture industry.

The real aim, at the end of the day, is for the people to collectively ‘interpellate’ themselves into their own musics. That is to say, to have control of their own dreams, not have dreams thrust upon them by those in charge of the record industry, the big venues, marketing agencies, etc, etc.

As far as new contrapuntal music goes, as I see it, it needs to reckon with how the listener is interpellated into its unfolding discourse. Unlike Mahnkopf, I am not interested in seeing polyphony primarily in terms of a multiplicity of abstract parametric procedures and morphological types. I am interested in a counterpoint where listeners follow lines and their interaction, and hopefully, get a sense of the freedom, the alienation (from themselves and each other), the tension, and the triumph that these relations imply. Does this make me less ‘radical’?