This is the talk I gave at the Oxford Radical Forum last week, having been asked to say something about Utopian possibilities in music. Don't take the pompous title too seriously, it's pretty informal, broad strokes, shorthands, a conversational style - it's a very basic introduction to the work of Christopher Small and some musics that could be considered a bit Utopian (obviously this is something a really thick book could be written about). It goes into a bit more detail on some of the background ideas that were hinted at in my Fear of Music review and critique of contemporary classic, taking them to their conclusion. Though it's at times overtly political, the subject of Utopia - taken here simply as quite a vague aspiration - is of course at quite a remove from the detail of contemporary political issues.
What has music got to do with radical Utopian politics? I think you’d be forgiven for thinking that when it comes to the task of imagining, planning and working to build freer or more egalitarian societies, music would come out as a peripheral issue. After all, music, we are led to believe, is an art form, just a kind of entertainment. Its role in our lives, no matter how intensely we may enjoy it, is decorative. At the most music seems useful as a form of propaganda, a vehicle for progressive or even revolutionary ideas, generally as expressed through words set to melody and harmony. It can give ‘a voice’ to a cause or a people. But surely the most important task facing progressive activists is that of finding new ways of living and working, new forms of social organisation, not to mention that of questioning and changing the current status quo. It would seem realistic to say that we should establish these societies first, and only then worry about what tunes to put on.
Well music, in any and all of its forms – and actually particularly in its most general sense – has so much more political resonance than most people realise. You might even go as far as saying that mainstream Western society has been conditioned, over the last two centuries, to believe that music is largely apolitical. It’s a form of false consciousness, perhaps, that would have you believe that music doesn’t really matter to our lives – that it’s a semi-autonomous art form that sits next to painting, sculpture, film, theatre, fashion, possibly also cuisine and perfume (if we’re being honest) in the historicised museums of Western cultural achievement. You might love it, it might even be the source of your professional career, but if you were to make the claim that music was highly meaningful as a core mechanism of society and even itself a method for planning new forms of society – you’d probably be thought of as a bit over-enthusiastic, a bit radical. Actually, I’d like to make such a claim today.
Let’s try to go back to square one, then, and ask ourselves what I think is one of the most fascinating and important questions in contemporary cultural studies: what is music? This is a question that philosophers, cultural theorists and, lately, musicologists have been asking ever since such forms of thought began, and it’s still quite a burning issue today, and it will be, I’m sure, for many years to come. It’s one that constantly haunts the discipline of ethnomusicology, in particular. Because in actual fact the question ‘what is music’ bases itself on one crucial assumption – that music is a thing.
You see, there are many languages throughout the world that don’t actually have a word for music. This is usually because a culture has no concept of music as an abstract noun that needs to be signified. These aren’t the languages of societies and civilisations that don’t have any practices we in the West might interpret as musical – such activities are found in varying forms throughout the world’s populations – far from it. For centuries, Westerners have grown up with the idea that music is an abstract thing. This handling of musical activity gives rise to the belief that music is separate from, and floats above, everyday life - at best reflecting it, reminding us of it, rather than residing in the real world and embodying it. This abstraction has led to claims that untexted music is a pure art form that does not communicate or express meanings, to claim that music is essentially meaningless. Nothing could be further from the truth, but more of that later.
Let’s run with the assumption that music is a thing, for a moment. What do we do with this thing, music? That’s a question that tends to have different answers at different periods in Western history. Today, if I were to ask some randomly selected person what it is that you do with music, they’d almost certainly say that you ‘listen to it’. This seems obvious and natural to most people. You might also hear the answer ‘you play’ or ‘perform it’. Go back in history to a time before recording technology to nineteenth-century Europe, and you’d probably find that a higher percentage of people telling you that music is something you play, and as you go further back in time you’d probably hear more and more people saying that music is something you sing. Today in Western culture, the belief that music presents a passive experience is stronger than ever before, and this seems to be in direct proportion to the increasing tendency to regard music as a thing. Recording technology plays an important part in this epistemic shift, of course, because with recording technology music becomes something that you can hold in your hands and manipulate in various ways, the most important being the ability to turn it on and off according to your own personal whim. Related to this is the musical score – musical notation developed as a set of relatively vague instructions back in the Dark Ages, and became more and more precise in its demands and control over the performer until in the late nineteenth and twentieth century it started to be treated as an object that embodied the essence of something people regarded as ‘the music itself’.
What is music, then, if it’s more than a thing? Let’s discard the Western reifications and say that music is a word that refers to a range of activities. This brings me to the most important thing I’d like to impress upon you today: music can be, indeed, music is, so much more than something you listen to. Music is more than sound. Music is something you do. Music is an activity that you participate in. And if your knee-jerk response to those statements is, ‘but I don’t participate, I listen’, or ‘but I'm more of a listener than a participator’ then that is exactly what is troubling, unequal, and crippling about the cultural assumptions surrounding music and its power of social organisation, and social motivation, in Western society today.
At this point I’d like to introduce everyone to the work of the radical musicologist Christopher Small. Small’s career has been dedicated to exposing and challenging the restrictive and oppressive ideologies of Western musical culture and aesthetics, particularly in relation to non-Western and non-classical musical traditions. I’d recommend his books to anyone interested in reading a politicised anthropology of music-in-its-broadest-senses, whatever musical or musicological education you may or may not have.
Small was so convinced that the reification of music as a commodifiable art form that is held to be largely detached from human social interaction was crippling not just our understanding of music, but also foreclosing in ‘listeners’ an awareness of the systems through which musical activity is ideologically controlled by elite classes and by capitalism, that he reinvented music as a verb. Audaciously stating that there was no such thing as music, he called his third book, published in 1998, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. This is how Small defines musicking:
To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing… To pay attention in any way to a musical performance, including a recorded performance, even to Muzak in an elevator, is to music… It covers all participation in a musical performance, whether it takes place actively or passively, whether we like the way it happens or whether we do not, whether we consider it interesting or boring, constructive or destructive, sympathetic or antipathetic.In this way, Small turned the limited concept of music, the abstract noun, into a broad social activity, provocatively revealing a huge amount about the cultural role of music in the process. If one person is performing music and another is listening or dancing to the sounds, music is a divided and fragmentary activity, amenable to alienating reifications. The genius of musicking is in completing the picture of human musical activity: one person is playing, the other is listening, but both are engaged in the mutual activity of musicking. Throughout the book, Small focuses his analysis on the event of the symphony concert as performed by a professional international orchestra in a metropolitan concert hall – the whole event amounting to a rich example of musicking. Musicking is so much more than the abstract sounds made by the instruments, he noted, it’s also in the architecture of the concert hall, the lights in the auditorium and the uniforms of the performers. Small put the audience, the community and the social occasion back into the musical picture, where before they had been ignored, divided and rendered epistemically invisible before the Spectacular object that is Music – or in other words, distorted by the ideological value system of Western industrial capitalism.
Musicking, as an activity that occurs in thousands of different forms, is a vantage point that reveals a lot more about the social relationships involved than the abstract noun music, which is easily detachable from life, does. Small introduces such observations thus:
The act of musicking establishes in the place where it is happening a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies. The[se relationships] are to be found not only between those organized sounds which are conventionally thought of as being the stuff of musical meaning but also between the people who are taking part, in whatever capacity, in the performance; and they model, or stand as metaphor for, ideal relationships as the participants in the performance imagine them to be: relationships between person and person, between individual and society, between humanity and the natural world and even perhaps the supernatural world.Small finds that musicking is none other than good old anthropological ritual, and that this is the case whether we’re listening to the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, dancing with friends in a club, listening to an iPod or communicating with our dead ancestors in Sub-Saharan Africa. They’re not at all that different. Referencing the influential anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Small puts it this way:
Ritual is a form of organised behaviour in which humans use the language of gesture, or paralanguage, to affirm, to explore and to celebrate their ideas of how the relationships of the cosmos (or a part of it), operate, and thus of how they themselves should relate to it and to one another. Through their gestures, those taking part in the ritual act articulate relationships among themselves that model the relationships of their world as they imagine them to be and as they think (or feel) that they ought to be… when we take part in a ritual act “the lived-in order merges with the dreamed-of order”…[rituals] are patterns of gesture by means of which people articulate their concepts of how the relationships of their world are structured, and thus of how humans ought to relate to one another. Such ideas held in common about how people ought to relate to one another, of course, define a community, so rituals are used both as an act of affirmation of community (“This is who we are”), as an act of exploration (to try on identities to see who we think we are), and as an act of celebration (to rejoice in the knowledge of an identity not only possessed but also shared by others).’ He later sums it up with ‘ritual can be thought of as metaphor in action.The idea of musicking as a metaphorical socialising process that affirms, explores and celebrates a set of idealised social relationships, a way of saying ‘This is who we are’, is the refrain of Small’s book, and it’s one that directly appeals to our own experiences with music, even in the passive West. No matter how much we may try to rationalise music as an intellectual exercise, as a pure, abstract, largely meaningless art form, as a technical craft, it’s still ultimately a mechanism of social affirmation, both on a personal level and on a communal level. It works in different ways and through different structures, but it’s always a badge of social identity, for middle-aged, middle class people at an avant-garde classical concert just as much as for teenagers using small speakers on public transport. As such, musicking, is a highly important process, crucial even, in society. That it’s been reduced to a peripheral, semi-autonomous pastime in Western society actually conceals and denies the political importance of musical activity.
Because of course, if musicking is a way of affirming, exploring and celebrating social relationships between people, then it’s an activity with a huge degree of political resonance. It’s a lived-in metaphor for politics. Small observes:
Since a social order is a matter of relationships between human beings, the performance of this or any other ritual act together is a powerful means of ensuring social cohesion and stability. That being so, we need not be surprised to find that it is commonly used, often deliberately and sometimes even cynically, by those who rule to maintain the acquiescence of those over who they rule. It is obviously appropriate that the rituals used for this purpose should appear ancient, even timeless, for in this way it can be made to seem as if the present social order is legitimated by generations of ancestors, independently of political economic or social forces and of any trace of historical contingency.By zooming out from music-the-art-object and so coming to see musicking-the-ritual (which involves everyone that’s feeding off the musical activity, especially the audience), Small is able to make a devastating critique of the wildly uneven power distribution that is affirmed, explored and celebrated in the musicking of the Western Classical symphony concert tradition. What does it say about Western industrial, capitalist society, bourgeois society if you like, if one of its most highly prized social rituals (or certainly the most highly prized in the field of music) involves an elite group of highly trained professionals dressed – let’s face it – as servants, at a social and spatial remove from an audience who have paid to attend, and are compelled to sit silently and only participate at the end with their applause? Even the grand (you could almost say religiously grand) interior architecture of the concert hall enforces this relationship – seats at one end, the music-generating machine at the other end. Performers and audience come in through separate entrances, and are generally not expected to meet and socialise. Small concludes:
A ritual in which the majority watch and listen in stillness and silence, unable to influence the course of the event, while a minority acts can be a vivid representation of certain types of political relationship; many of the rituals of the modern nation state are of this kind. Guy Debord coined the phrase “the society of the spectacle” for such a state and pointed out that in such rituals or spectacles, “one part of the world represents itself to the world and is superior to it”; such rituals emphasise the separation and powerlessness of isolated individuals rather than their unity as an active community.According to today’s aesthetic ideologies of Western classical music, and any other music that’s generally considered ‘artistic’, one’s attention is intended to be focused solely on the sensually pure sounds of the music, and not its reality as a ritual composed of an assemblage of different sense experiences. You still find that people who claim to be serious about music will tell you that the best way to ‘appreciate’ the music is to shut one’s eyes and concentrate, effectively removing music from the real world it comes from. This is actually quite an unnatural mode of listening, and it runs counter to the normal channels of human psychology. It’s generally pretty unique to industrialised societies, and it’s a quite recent development, even in Western classical music. For centuries, classical music was a background decoration for aristocratic or bourgeois social events, events where people would talk quite openly throughout, and vocally show their appreciation during the performance. In the late eighteenth century, as the paradigm shift towards this passive mode of listening was under way, Mozart wrote excitedly to his dad that during one of his concerts people actually shut up and listened to his composition. Even operas were full of people chatting away right up until the nineteenth century.
The effects of this can be disturbing – several years ago I was at a Prom concert at the Royal Albert Hall, where the BBC Symphony Orchestra were playing Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite. That’s quite a famous piece of music, and I was sat across from a guy with Downs syndrome who was probably familiar with the music and was quite vocally showing his appreciation throughout the performance. This continued for a while, but eventually, he was forcefully removed from the concert by two black-suited security guards, he was literally dragged out of the concert hall kicking and screaming. He was excluded from the social ritual of the concert because his behaviour was breaking the sacred concentration and appreciation of the passive listeners. Most people there, including myself at the time, probably thought that this was simply a shame, that it was one of those ‘difficult situations’, even perhaps that it really had been necessary to remove the guy. But this was only because the idea that we were all there to listen and appreciate specifically chosen sounds in silence was so unquestionable to us. Had I been aware at the time of what was really going on as that guy was being dragged away, socially and politically, in that concert hall, outside of the ‘abstract music’ that was distracting us, I think that I would have starting making some noise myself.
While he stops short of mentioning Marx, Small’s observations on the social relationships in Western musicking have close parallels to theories of commodity fetishism. If music can be reduced from a social ritual to a thing, an object, then it follows that it can be bought and sold. To achieve this, music-making had to be professionalised, and this too, is a state of affairs that isn’t questioned enough. Small writes,
For the modern musical profession to emerge and with it the institution of the modern concert, several ideas had to come together. All these ideas are taken for granted today, but none of them is in fact an essential or universal element of musical performance. The first is the idea that music is for listening rather than performing, and linked with that is the second idea, that public music making is the sphere of professionals. Amateurs may perform in the home and in certain other limited fields – for example, choirs – but in the public domain the dominance of professionals is virtually complete. The third idea is that of a formal and independent setting where people come together solely for the purpose of performing and listening to music, and the fourth is that of each individual listener’s paying admission to the place where the performance is taking place, with the ticket of admission as the sign of having paid.This brings Small to one of the most revolutionary ideas in his book: that musical participation, even musical performance is something that everyone, all human beings, can and should do. The generally accepted idea, which seems so natural in the industrial West, is that performing music is the preserve of a talented few. This is especially true when it comes to singing – the majority of Westerners claim that they ‘can’t sing’, and have very little confidence when it comes to singing. People have systematically been taught that they cannot and must not sing unless they have some remarkable and singular talent. TV shows like X Factor reinforce this notion. The same is often true of dancing, many people, particularly men (and this also has a lot to do with dance being seen as a female sexual performance), are under the impression that they cannot and must not dance, even though it’s an active form of musicking. Most pernicious is the myth of ‘tone-deafness’, being an affliction whereby its victims cannot distinguish or recreate musical pitches and melodies. If you were genuinely tone-deaf in this way, you would not actually be able to understand speech, both because in speech, pitch has a crucial expressive function, and because vowel sounds are identified by the subtle characters of their frequency spectrums, what are called formants.
This idea, that everyone has the ability to take part in active musicking, doesn’t mean that everyone is secretly a virtuoso performer. Here’s what Small says:
...if musicking is indeed a facet of the great unitary performance art we call ritual, and is thus an aspect of the language of biological communication that every living thing, as a condition of survival, has to be able to understand and to use, then it must follow that all human beings are born with the gift of musicking, no less than they are born with the gift of speaking and understanding speech. Both gifts, of course, have to be cultivated; while in the West today we take for granted the informal learning and practice in speech that all but the most desperately deprived young children receive within their families and peer groups long before the formal process of schooling begins, there are, alas, few parallel opportunities for such informal and continuous cultivation in musicking. True, many parents encourage their children to perform, on occasion, and in the early years of schooling, at least, musicking plays a part; but what no longer exists in industrial societies is that broader social context in which performance… is constantly taught and musicking is encouraged as an important social activity for every single member of the society. Many people are taught to play, but very few are encouraged to perform… Individuals are assumed to be unmusical unless they show evidence to the contrary. This assumption, which is widely disseminated through the media of socialisation and of information, places the stars, whether of popular or classical music, in a world or glamour and privilege from which everyday people are excluded’ Small contrasts this with traditional African societies where the ‘social and conceptual world is not divided into the few “talented who play and sing and the many “untalented” to whom they perform but resembles more a spectrum that ranges from little musical ability to much, but with every single individual capable of making some contribution to the communal activity of musicking.You may have been lead to believe otherwise, but everyone in this room has the power of active musicking and can develop it, a power which permits us to affirm, to explore and celebrate social relationships in metaphorical form.
Musicking pointed towards Utopia
So finally I reach the main subject of this talk. Small’s theory of musicking has shown us the political stakes involved in ritual musical activity, its politically resonant, society-building function. The ritual of musicking can be thought of as a mutual signing of a social contract. Perhaps, then, we can find a mode of musicking that serves as a metaphor for, and a rehearsal of, the set of social relationships we expect from a better, freer, more egalitarian society. This is the use that music has for politically progressive activism.
Note that in Small’s theory musicking affirms, explores and celebrates an ideal or idealised set of social relationships, a set of social relationships that the community taking part in the ritual aspires to. This is why I am using the word ‘Utopian’ here, to refer to music or musicking that is radically progressive in its social agenda. Utopia is the goal, the hypothesis, the theoretical endpoint of progressive politics. The word actually means ‘no place’, it’s forever fictional, theoretical, hypothetical only. It’s only come to mean ‘good place’ through a misunderstanding – the Greek homophonous prefix eu means 'good', 'pleasant' as in 'euphemism' and 'eulogy', but Utopia is an idealised place, it doesn’t, perhaps couldn’t, really exist. I’m using it here in its most well-known capacity as ‘good place’ however, as it is toward such a good place that progressive politics aims.
So is there, or could there be, a musicking that points towards Utopia, that enacts the social relationships that we would like to see, ideally, in our concepts of Utopia? A Utopian music? I hope so. I don’t think I would describe myself as a full-blown Anarchist when it comes to the usual channels of political thought, but I do think that it’s important for progressivists to investigate and create forms of musicking that enact metaphors for radical political systems such as anarchism, communism or anarcho-syndicalism. Musicking provides a generally safe rehearsal environment for testing, and perhaps most importantly, learning, practicing and teaching such systems of social relationships.
Slightly more important than the sonic specifics of Utopian music, then, would be the matter of how the musickers are arranged in the act of musicking. It’s indicative of the ideological primacy of music as an object, rather than as a social ritual, that progressive musicians have focused on sonic concerns rather than the social relationships involved in the musicking they instigate. You might think atonality (that is, the freeing up of melody and harmony) or free rhythm (that is, freedom from a pulse) are fantastic metaphors for freedom or subversion, but it counts for nothing if the other musickers have been rendered unable to participate actively. The emancipation of sounds, as composers such as Arnold Schoenberg put it, is all very well, but it has quite a limited revolutionary capacity unless it emancipates people in the act of doing the musicking
So what could the characteristics of a Utopian music be? Firstly and simply, all participants would be on an equal footing in terms of their interrelationships, there’d be no top-down hierarchies involved. Ideally, all the musickers would be actively involved, performing the music together. Different musickers may well be doing different things within the musicking, but theoretically power would be shared laterally. There wouldn't be any passive listeners, no servile or elite performers. Anyone could take part, it would be easy to learn and the activity would have no cost of any kind. It wouldn’t require the purchase, ownership or manufacture of musical instruments – in any case a mixture of voice, dance and noises like clapping and stamping more than suffices for a rich, involving and enjoyable musical experience. If the latter were to apply, then it could be set up instantaneously, in any sort of space at all, and would not require artificial energy sources. The sonic and ritual content of musicking would arise spontaneously as improvisation, created by the participants themselves, and develop along particular channels that have been collectively generated and agreed upon. The instructions involved in achieving this would be simple, certainly nothing as complex or potentially authoritarian as sheet music. It would be an activity that could involve just one person or tens of thousands of people gathered together.
Hypothetically, if such a form of musicking were to become popular and widespread, it could be revolutionary. For the people with whom this Utopian musicking became the dominant form of musicking, it would mean that collecting CDs and mp3s or aspiring to unlikely stardom no longer held the same ideological attraction. Such people would have no need for a music industry because they’d see recording or objectifying their music as a fixed and specific pattern of sounds to be pointless, a pointless misunderstanding. Their musicking would be free in the broadest, deepest sense of the word.
(The controversial conclusion of this line of thought, of course, is a Utopia in which there are no musical workers paid to carry out the actual musicking itself, no matter how skilled they may have become. Personally, I’m still ambivalent about such a scenario, as I’m sure many of you would be. It depends on your beliefs and other details of the Utopian society in question. It’s possible to imagine though, if you wanted your Utopia to include a wage system, that someone could be paid to teach this kind of musicking while still participating. The fact is, it’s thanks partly to feudalism and mostly to capitalism that musicking was turned into an industry in the first place).
It’s both surprising and ultimately unsurprising that this Utopian mode of musicking doesn’t really exist in the West. In any case if it did, mainstream capitalist ideology would deem it to be worthless (this is part of the point, surely). You might argue that singing, perhaps when you’re drunk or watching football, without any recordings or instruments involved amounts to what I’ve described, but it’s still an activity that’s strictly controlled and delineated. Such singers are recreating the highly specific song, not aiming to perform a creative cover version of it, and in any case, the song is very likely to be one that none of the singers have created themselves, certainly not on the spot and with any structural diligence.
One important concern here is that the arrangement of the musickers might be Utopian, but the content of their music might be far from it, as political progressives might think it. Some group of people might achieve what I’ve outlined above and be having a whale of a time singing, dancing and making noise all equally and without a carbon footprint, but it would defeat the purpose, of course, if they were using the ritual to affirm, explore and celebrate racism, imperialism, sexism, or intimidate other people. This is a concern I will return to later on.
Another thing I should emphasise is that I’m not naïve enough to suppose that such Utopian musical activity will lead straight to a more Utopian society without complication. Communal musical activity might show and teach us better ways of relating to one another, but I would be surprised indeed if a musicking could be developed that would show and teach us how, for example, to feed, clothe and house people in a free or radically equal society, or what to do in instances of harmful or coercive activity. This doesn’t mean that musicking couldn’t have a crucial and crucially underrated role to play in preparing people for a more Utopian society, however.
One of the most challenging consequences of the dilettante nature of this Utopian music, apart from the lack of payment, is that we must radically change our aesthetics of music, that is, what music or musicking we consider to be valuably enjoyable. To put it crudely, Utopian music wouldn’t be ‘good music’ in the sense that we currently understand it. Small indicates that if we were taught to use our innate musical skills more, and we had more practice at them, we would on average be far more accomplished musicians than we are today, but it would also be unlikely, I’d say (thought some don’t), that every session of musicking was a complex and nuanced masterpiece of the kind we have been led to expect from the heavily ideological canons of Western classical music, pop music and jazz etc. We’d have to get used to what today we might take to be a slightly rougher standard of ‘musical quality’. There are three responses to this: firstly musical quality was never objective in the first place, even though capitalist Big Other ideology tends towards to the contrary. We would have to move from what we conventional think of as ‘good music’ to an aesthetic of ‘ritually satisfying music’, whatever that consisted of. These aesthetic standards could even be applied today, actually – you see them in people who don’t really care, relatively speaking, what specific sounds they’re dancing to, as long as they can make a good night of the musicking ritual that is ‘going dancing’. Secondly, ultra-high quality music is precisely the ruse of the market capitalist Spectacle we should hope to avoid, and thirdly, the fact that you yourself are now participating in this music on an everyday level surely makes up for this slip in ‘standards’.
Before I continue on to look at some examples of what might be the Utopian music I describe, I’d like to look at one more issue. I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that the subtleties in the content of the musical objects we all know and love don’t matter. We need not discard the idea of the musical object, and with it our favourite tracks and our ways of appreciating them for what might be starting to look like (to put it cynically) a sweaty amateur song-and-dnace that prioritises mucking in over outmoded ideas of art with a capital A. I for one have built my blogging and writing career on lavishing verbose praise on specific musical objects. Now, an iPod can be thought of as a box that carries all your treasured musical objects, and because of this it’s a way of arranging musicking that very useful to capitalism. Perhaps the Utopians would consider these musical objects and our love of them to be dangerously ‘bourgeois’.
I don’t think musical objects are too dangerous, however, as long as we can ‘zoom out’ and see them as a part of the broader and vital ritual of musicking. If the Utopian musicking I’ve described were socially endemic, entirely displacing the popular basis for a music industry and making musical recording irrelevant, iPods and record collections would also be aesthetically irrelevant. We wouldn’t have a stash of favourite tracks, but perhaps that was always too much like commodity fetishism anyway. Perhaps a different Utopia and/or a different theory of musicking would find a way to incorporate such musical objects without the adverse effects they can have on the communality of music-making.
Utopian musics today: Punk
So, what forms of musicking existing today approach the Utopian, in contrast to the Western Classical concert tradition and commercial pop? One of the first to come to mind is punk. In the late seventies, punk was a minor revolution in music, as a popular movement embodying a do-it-yourself ethic, that developed into a major subculture. Punk can be seen as a reaction to the mannerism of hard and prog rock, as well as to the kitsch that tended to fill the charts at the time. Conventional musicianship didn’t come into it for punk bands – notoriously, many of them could only play a handful of chords, and as long as you had the instruments and the spirit, you could form a band. This was a message that spread throughout the Western world, encouraging people to have a go at performing their own music. It’s because of punk that many middle class teenagers these days, usually male, have a go at starting a rock band, almost as a rite of passage. It would be rare, though, to find one of these bands, however much they lacked diligence, that played their music purely for the enjoyment of themselves and their communities, who harboured no trace of the widespread fantasy of stardom and commercial success that hovers over every ‘unsigned’ band. Even the increasing popular currency of the phrase ‘unsigned bands’ is a reflection of this teleological, commercial fantasy of music-making.
Because ultimately, punk was very easy to commercialise. Much punk, however, and particularly today, shuns such commercialisation. Its continuing popularity in radical political circles is probably something to do with the fact that it can still be the voice of protest, difference and radical alternatives. Punk was not just empowering, active musicking (and the liveliness of its audiences was maybe unprecedented in the West), it was also fiercely iconoclastic in its messages – the Sex Pistols sang ‘God save the queen, the fascist regime, they made you a moron’. The cover of their album ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’, their swearing on the Bill Grundy show, it was all part of the music, that is to say, all part of the musicking. You could even say that punk was and still is social iconoclasm as ritual.
It’s because of this that although punk may be radical, even progressive, it isn’t typically Utopian – surely in a Utopia, there would be no need for the iconoclastic figure of the punk? And besides, though they’re a lot closer together in terms of community, punk’s performers and audience are still apart. Gigs are still usually held in specific venues intended to house music, you still usually have to pay to see it (though there are some punk bands who don’t follow these patterns) and you’d probably have to pay for (or at the least acquire) the instruments and plug them in.
A slightly more recent musical movement that’s similar to punk and also has a certain Utopian appeal would be rave. Also popular in radical political circles, rave is an intensive and often drug-induced collective dancing experience. That the initial explosion of raving in the UK in 1988 and 1989 was called ‘the second summer of love’ is indicative of its almost classically countercultural presence. Rave alleged to be a Utopian music in as much as it wasn’t racist or sexist, and emphasised positivity and collectiveness. Indeed, in its early years rave was arguably an upbeat melting pot of all races, sexes and classes.
One of the most interesting things about rave from a musical point of view is that it guides listeners through its temporal structure quite explicitly, through controlled build-ups and releases of tension using volume, texture and frequency filtration, through regular time signatures and bar structures divisible by two, four and eight and through certain recurring structural formulas. This puts the dancers very close to the music (as opposed to alienated from it), even to the point where it’s easy to dance to and feel a strong sense of musical anticipation in tracks you’ve never heard before. As anyone who’s been raving will tell you, anticipating the arrival of the full force of the tune, a beatless segment, or the return or amplification of certain parts, can be a very appealing and intimate collective experience indeed.
I’m going to play you excerpts from two tracks to demonstrate this effect from two different substyles of recent rave music, where these structural procedures are particularly pronounced. The first is ‘Disko Rekah’ by Loefah, a classic dubstep track released in early 2007 with an almost unusually formulaic opening structure. It starts with a relatively simple drum pattern which suggests dancers move quite slowly on the first and third beats of the bar. This goes on for a very regular sixteen bars, which can be subdivided into four iterations of a four bar drum pattern. The drums in the sixteenth bar cut out, signalling that something else is about to come in. Right on cue, it arrives, it’s a four bar vocal sample which, in a traditional manner related to Jamaican MCing, assures us that ‘we’ are going to ‘wreck the discothèque’. The echoes, or delays, put on this sample set up a quaver pulse, allowing dancers to move a bit quicker if they so wish. This goes on for a further sixteen bars, with a break in the drums at the midway point. In the last two bars of this sequence the drums cut out entirely, which is a major signal of the approach of the track’s main material. Then we get the money shot (and as someone who’s growing tired of the monosyllabic and grimly teleological aesthetic priorities of recent ‘dubstep’ and its new dude-based audience, I do very much intend the innuendo of that phrase): the bass drop, or the arrival of the bass riff that tends to be the aesthetic focus of dubstep music. When everyone hears this, the dancing begins proper and its arrival, however you feel about it, is an intense collective experience. See what you reckon.
The next track I’ll play you I’ve chosen largely because it was a hugely popular and much-hyped track from last summer. It’s Joy Orbison’s ‘Hyph Mngo’. It has a different character, and it sort of became emblematic of the current move away from the dark bass of dubstep towards a more euphoric or at least a far less bass-oriented sound, in many ways it’s the opposite of dubstep. ‘Hyph Mngo’ is actually a very simple track, but it is very effective. At the beginning you can hear low-pass frequency filters being opened up, creating that sense of anticipation. Its main synthesiser riff then enters, it’s just a pair of harmonically inconclusive chords floating weightlessly without percussion. Here the ‘drop’ doesn’t deliver a bassline – this track’s modest bassline is just on the threshold of audibility – but rather a short percussion loop. What the track manages to do, though, because of its unresolved harmony, is make the sense of anticipation last throughout the entire track. The guiding structures are there, but there is no ‘arrival’ as final and conclusive (boring?) as your typical dubstep bass drop.
These sorts of structures are common in forms of dance music that you might not conventionally call rave – house music, for example, Daft Punk are a prime example. But rave, I’d argue, has a particularly strong sense of community that transcends the sonic dimension. Ravers are primarily focused on and dedicated to energetic, collective participation in the music.
Sadly, while the form of the musicking in rave is more pointed toward the Utopian than many Western musics, the matter of its content does leave the door open for things that we may not consider Utopian at all. Occasionally there have been links between rave and organised crime, and as with punk, the subversively violent energy of hardcore dance has been useful to various fascists looking for a way to affirm, explore and celebrate their values. One of the most widespread inequalities affecting rave music, however, occurs along gendered lines. It occurs in two senses.
Firstly, there’s more to this than pointing out that there are far more men at dubstep and drum n bass raves than there are women, and there are lamentably few women producers in rave as a whole, though this is of course an issue. It deserves further investigation, and the links between sound, gesture and meaning are far from fully understood in musicology, but there seems to be something about the darker forms of rave centring on a powerful bass that threatening male behaviour responds to. I say this not to foster stereotypes – there are male bassheads who are some of the most Utopian people you could imagine – but because I recently encountered a 12 inch record by a rising star of dubstep who calls himself Borgore. Side B featured a track called ‘Act like a Ho’. Like the Loefah track I played you it built up to a bass drop, but this time it featured some shockingly misogynistic rapping over the top, concerning the separate ways women should behave in bed and in public. When it arrived the bass was monstrously loud and complex, far more so than the Loefah bass, and in the moments before it was dropped, Borgore orders his ‘ho’ to ‘do the dishes’. I decided not to play this track for you today. I find it difficult to believe that whoever appreciates this music, and probably Borgore himself, doesn’t realise that such announcements are unacceptable. It’s the wrong sort of iconoclasm, but perhaps there’s even supposed to be some irony in there. This of course is no excuse – even if you dance to it, finding it nice but naughty, a bit risqué, you’re still deriving a kind of enjoyment from a threatening picture of deeply unequal relations between the sexes. Lunatic though he may be, Borgore is not on the fringe – his single can be bought on the popular online music store Boomkat, and last week he appeared at the top of the bill for a night at one of London’s major rave venues, Corsica Studios.
Secondly, even without a text, rave very often falls victim to a more subtle kind of sexualised male gaze. Samples of ‘rave divas’, that is, quite erotically-charged female vocals often taken from soul and R&B, electronically cut up and manipulated and put into a new track, are commonplace in many areas of dance and rave. You heard some in the second track I played, and they’ve been in rave for about two decades. Male ‘rave divas’ are comparatively rare – where male voices do appear they’re MCs, and are often mildly, sometimes overtly threatening. In a lot of rave, men stand for the world, industry and competition, while women represent emotion and sensuality. The largely male-led practice of sampling, appropriating and manipulating women’s voices, usually without their consent, can fragment and objectify women’s bodies to the point of fetishism.
If this makes you uncomfortable, consider this. In an essay on the role of women in dance music called ‘Sampling Sexuality’, the feminist and musical anthropologist Barbara Bradby examined the case of Black Box’s 1989 house dance hit ‘Ride on Time’, which got to No. 1 in the UK and was indeed the UK’s best-selling single that year (I don't think many people would say this is a rave track, but still). ‘Ride on Time’ sampled a 1980 soul disco song by Loleatta Holloway, manipulating her vocal in such a way that only a machine could have delivered it. Not only did the male-led Black Box never intend it to be public knowledge who the original singer was, but they employed a young Afro-Caribbean model to lip-sync the older and larger Holloway’s vocal on stage and in the official video (below), as if she were the singer. After a court case, Holloway eventually received a percentage of the song’s profits. Though Bradby did see in this the possibility for a certain kind of empowerment along the lines of the subversively fragmented cyborg in Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’, it must be said that this was something done to women by the male producers of the music, without their consent.
Now let’s look at a more unusual form of musicking: free improvisation, or free improv. Similar to but distinct from free jazz, which has a more African-American basis, it developed partly from avant-garde classical music in the late nineteen-fifties in Europe. As you might have guessed from its name, it’s a musical context in which anything can happen sonically. There are no musical structures like scales, harmonies or formal architectures through which to channel the improvisation, that is, the spontaneously generated sound. Depending on how it occurs, improvisation is a technique that subverts recording and notions of a stable musical object. If you were to own a recording of an improvised performance, you would only repeatedly hear one single outcome of a variable context. The radical left-wing composer Cornelius Cardew said that a musical work that incorporated improvisation is like a city. You can either visit the city and appreciate its life and movement, or you can simply see photographs of it in certain places, at certain times of the day and year. Improvisation discourages the purchase of recordings in this way, it’s music beyond recording.
Normally free improv is played by a group of performers on generally conventional Western instruments, although voice is not particularly common. Free improv’s adherents and practitioners claim that there is a strong element of collectiveness in its performance, that the performers carefully listen and respond to one another, but as the sounds are theoretically free, this is a difficult process to follow or verify. Crucially, Free Improv is open to anyone to perform, although the community and discourse surrounding this music does hold certain standards of skill to be important. Again, if the sounds made in the music is theoretically free, quite what the parameters of that skill would be is unclear – either there would be no hierarchy of value in ability, or it would not be completely free.
But then again, Anarchist society is not, and can never be, a simple matter of everyone being absolutely free to do whatever they want. If there were just one rule, it would be co-operation without coercion, and then there are rules of human existence. And it would be difficult indeed to imagine a Utopia in which individual skill was not valued by the collective.
Many of Free Improv’s adherents claim that it enacts metaphors for a free society through sound. Fredric Rzewski, another radical left-wing composer put it this way:
…the difficulty of living in the present moment is somehow related to the difficult of creating an egalitarian society. Both of these things are perceived as ideals, only partially attainable, if at all, in reality. Improvised music has something to do with both of them. Certainly it has to do with being present. It also has to do with democratic forms and equality, at least in a group situation. It can function as a kind of abstract laboratory in which experimental forms of communication can be tried without risk of damage to persons. The great improvised music of the twentieth century may be remembered by future generations as an early abstract model in which new social forms were first dimly conceived. Improvisation tells us: Anything is possible – anything can be changed – now.Let’s listen to some of this. This is a track by a Free Improv band called AMM that they’ve called ‘Ailantus Glandulosa’
Using a conventional way of listening, it can seem pretty alienating can’t it? This is not to say that you can’t learn to listen and appreciate the sonic intrigue going on there, but for most people at the moment this music would feel inaccessible.
Actually, one of the things I find lacking in Free Improv, and I think one of the reasons that it didn’t catch on with a wider audience, is that Free Improv is not a style of music. It is the radical absence of musical style. You see a style implies a specific set of rules or parameters for how the music could be, and maybe that’s not free, but in order for the ritual of musicking to really mean something, there has to be a certain level of stylistic stability, something to hold on to, a specific language to learn. The avant-garde composer Anthony Braxton said this about improvisation and rules:
If you look back at the last twenty years, what has freedom meant? For a great many people, so-called freedom music is more limiting than bebop, because in bebop you can play a ballad or change the tempo or key. So-called freedom has not helped us as a family, as a collective, to understand responsibility better… So the notion of freedom that was being perpetrated in the sixties might not have been the healthiest notion… I’m not opposed to the state of freedom… But fixed and open variables, with the fixed variables functioning from fundamental value systems – that’s what freedom means to me.One of the things Braxton is saying here is that there are more opportunities to be free in the infinite number of musical structures that allow flexibility than in the blank slate of free improv – his examples of such structures are tempo and key. A totally ‘free’ music would never have built those structures in the first place.
Now this is where different visions of Utopia and of anarchism will come into conflict. Paradoxically, in an utterly free society you would have the freedom to capture and own slaves. I know that’s not how Anarchism works, but perhaps this is why bands like AMM never use a priori musical structures, and instead make a beeline for atonality, free rhythm and unconventional playing techniques. They don’t ‘backtrack’ to any form of music in which rules play a part.
Free improv may be free sonically, but this freedom rarely branches out into the wider social ritual. There are still passive listeners. I can think of at least one band, however, that does cross this line. Lucky Dragons, otherwise known as Luke Fishbeck and Sarah Rara from Los Angeles, combine experimental indie-pop and free improv, and at their concerts they hand out instruments to the audience. In a review of one of their gigs, Nick Richardson wrote,
After ten minutes of loose laptop beats and gnomic chanting, the Californian art/music duo handed out a bunch of CD-Rs and switched on an overhead projector. The crowd grabbed and dangled them in the beams of light, casting fractal rainbows onto blank screens overhead. Then came woolly snakes: blanket-clad cables with metal contacts on the end, that audience members could play by holding hands and creating a circuit with anyone else who held one. When activated they triggered clustered tones that grew more hectic the longer you stayed connected. Slowly, the crowd worked out how to play and control the new instruments, and the number of people holding hands increased, their learning curve dictating the dynamics of the performance. It was fun. And Lucky Dragons turned listeners into sound producers, making electronic music communal and tactile.Note that the refracting rainbows made by the CD-Rs had nothing to do with sound (in a literal sense at least). This is an example of the non-sonic element of musicking, the music beyond the sound. But what a revolutionary act – handing instruments to the audience. That’s what I’d call free improv, free improv for all the musickers present, and it’s free improv where the presence of a priori musical structures – in this case the ‘woolly snakes’ – had a satisfying and bonding effect. Perhaps the way they do it is infantilising, even patronising, but all the same – holding hands is not something that would be an integral part of an AMM gig.
Central African Polyphony
Now we come to what I’m tempted to call the most Utopian music that I know of. It’s the ancient musical tradition of tribes of ‘pygmy’ hunter-gatherers who live in the rainforests of Central Africa (pygmy is a derogatory word I use here for identification only). Their music has been celebrated as the musical equivalent of a world heritage site ever since the middle of the twentieth century. As you might expect given the Western tendency to reify music that I’ve described, talking about their ‘music’ isn’t quite as correct as talking about their musicking.
Musicking for these tribes is a part of everyday life. The entire tribe is involved in the musicking, and different forms of musicking correspond to different activities within the life of the tribe: funerals, coming back from a hunt, sending off the soul of a dead elephant, children’s games, the birth of twins and plain entertainment. Some groups believe in general that music is a process of awakening and pleasing the forest environment. The music involved is basically improvisational, and there is no notation involved, but it’s a highly complex polyphony of densely, closely interlocking constituent parts with structures that reach a complexity and specificity that rivals that of the most challenging examples of Western classical and avant-garde music. Anthropologist Colin Turnbull said this of the Mbuti tribe from the Congo region:
An examination of Mbuti song form not only reveals areas of concern to the Mbuti, such as their food-getting activities, life and death, but it also reveals the concern of the Mbuti for cooperative activity. Each type of song requires a group of people to sing it, and if there is a solo it is sung over a chorus, and the solo is passed around from one individual to another. This is similar to the Mbuti rejection of individual authority and their concern for dispersing leadership as widely as possible. There are certain parts of certain songs that are sung by youths, hunters or elders, strictly according to age, and song form thus reinforces Mbuti concern for the age differential as an important element of their social structure. The songs are most frequently in round, or canon, form, and the hunting songs, in order to heighten the need for the closest possible cooperation (the same need that is demanded by the hunt itself), are sometimes sung in hoquet.
Hoquet, there, referring to rapid musical question and answer phrases on the offbeat. And the Grove Dictionary of Music describes their music in this way:
The texture is built up from continuously varied repetition of a short cyclical pattern, with different voices entering informally and filling out the texture with parallel melodies, variation and ostinati… In many other styles of African music there is often a clear division of the melody between a leader and a chorus; however, in Pygmy singing this division is usually absent or obscured by the high degree of overlap between parts, by the passing around of central melodic figures from one person to another, and by a considerable freedom to improvise solo within the metrical and harmonic constraints of the pattern. Some observers see in this improvised yet structured song style a model for democratic, non-hierarchical social values.So let’s hear some of this amazing music. This is a song of joy after a hunt, sung by the Babenzele tribe. Listen out for the closely interlocking parts of the flute and voice at the opening. And for anyone who’s worried that Utopian music would amount to bad amateur music-making, listen to the level of skill involved in the musicking of these non-professionals.
This song is from the Aka tribe, it’s for entertainment and social cohesion, it’s called Dikobo Damu da Sombe, which has been translated, bizarrely, as ‘The hair of my pubes is dense’ – fertility being a major theme in Aka song and philosophy. Here it’s being sung by the entire village.
And here are two recordings of the song sung by just two people, so in some ways the song is divided into some of its constituent parts. Notice again the close interlocking textures.
Here’s a rendition of song by two shy young girls. Listen to the complex structure of their improvisation and interaction.
This singing involves the whole community and maximises social cohesion. No money is exchanged in order to make it happen. There are no professionals or elites performing or controlling the music. Everyone has striking talent because everyone practices often and from an early age. There is considerable freedom of movement within the music but there is an a priori structural framework. And musicking is inseparable from the world and from everyday life.
It’s been very easy for anthropologists and musicians to over-romanticise Central African polyphony and the societies in which it’s based as an Eden-like Utopia, and anyone who’s seen the film Avatar will know what I mean. They’re seen as noble savages, primordial others, the true face of humanity, etc etc. They’ve been attractive to New Age movements, they’ve been sampled and turned into saccharine chillout and house music.
Perhaps their musicking fulfils some people’s criteria for the Utopian, but I think there is at least one flaw here, and it’s gender again. There are roles within the music that women cannot adopt, and there are instruments and songs that only women are allowed to play and sing. Of course, this is because there is such a gender divide in the life of the tribe – you guessed it, it’s the men who do the hunting, and the women who stay at home and rear children (although women do have a song that calls the men back from the hunt). While I don't believe there's a systematic violence toward or oppression of women in the tribes, this is a deal breaker for me. I’m not so keen on the idea of hunting and killing wild animals such as elephants either, there's no reason why a Utopia should entail such a 'return to Nature', but that depends on your Utopia. Another problem is that the music could almost be seen as too complex – it would take years of frustration to teach Westerners how to do it up to a suitable standard.
New Utopian Music
So perhaps there isn’t a suitably Utopian form of musicking that exists at the moment. However, we have seen the importance of musicking for practicing social relationships, and we have seen some forms of musicking that have a certain Utopian appeal - let’s set ourselves the task of designing one. This is a project I’m casually working on, and I invite everyone here to consider doing the same.
I’m far from finished designing a Utopian style of music, but I will share with you some of my ideas. I’m aiming for all the qualities I outlined earlier in the talk to come together in something that would be, to put it crudely, a cross between rave, free improv, central African polyphony and experimental music. Firstly, no instruments would be involved and all the musickers would be arranged in a horseshoe or incomplete ring shape. This is so that they can see each other clearly but also leave a space for newcomers to join in. A horseshoe shape would also be difficult to film or put on stage, so as to be made into a spectacle for outsiders.
The musicking would resemble a game far more than it would a conventional musical performance. I’m thinking of a more complex, sonic version of a game like hac-e-sac, in which a sack of sand is thrown around a circle. It would be an intuitive game – ideally, you could learn the rules slowly by joining in, without conversation – and it would be based on a handful of basic but well-calibrated rules. It would be somewhere between a game of football and a game of chess in complexity. It would be a very physical game involving dance, so it would be a good form of exercise. You could imagine healthy controversy among commentators as to whether it was a musical performance or indeed a just a game.
One thing that could help with this is that the music would have little to do with specific pitches. There are many reasons for this. Matching pitches is something that does require some skill. Physiologically speaking, everyone has different vocal chords and pitch ranges, and this introduces inequality into the musicking. Crucially, vocal pitch is something that can tend to create a dividing line between women and men. I’m not saying that vocally generated sound would play no part, though alternative sounds like clapping or stamping can provide a rich sonic palette, and dancing is also a major part of musicking, but singing as we know it wouldn’t be involved. Another reason is that without a conventional approach to pitch, which has arguably been the most important sonic variable in Western music to date, the music would sound unusual indeed, it’s be a taste of something completely alien and alternative.
Ultimately this form of musicking must be approachable and above all fun. I hope that it’d make people smile, laugh and bond in a way that sitting in a room with a free improv group like AMM rarely can. It needs to be something that people would want to do over and over again as a pastime, like free-running or impromptu games of amateur football. I imagine people doing it for fun in their homes and in public spaces. It could even be used in protest.
Well, before I finish, I should say that it hasn’t escaped my attention that I’m up here performing, while you’re all here passively listening in just the mode of the musical oppression I’ve been going on about. Sometimes events like the Oxford Radical Forum can be accused of preaching to the choir, that’s not fair I don’t think, but in any case I want to hilariously make that metaphor a reality and turn you all into one big choir. Like Lucky Dragons I’m going to hand over my power to the collective and we’ll finish the talk by joining together as equals in a simple singing piece that has a certain Utopian quality.
Don’t worry, I’m not here to coerce anyone, I’m not going to force anyone to sing, that wouldn’t be Utopian at all. But if you’ve understood my message today, you’ll appreciate that a lack of confidence in public singing is the symptom of a culture that has made musicking a peripheral and often highly unequal social activity. It is your right and your power to sing and be an equal musical performer within your society. Don’t feel persuaded otherwise.
I’d like us to have a go at a simplified version of a composition by the aforementioned Cornelius Cardew, ‘Paragraph 7’ from his experimental, improvisatory work The Great Learning. The original text is from Confucius, but I’ve derived the text here from the three functions Christopher Small sees in the ritual of musicking.
There are three phrases of text:It’s a bit like a game isn’t it? As you can see, the piece has an element of mutuality to it in that you are performing and listening to each other at the same time. Don’t worry too much about being exactly precise in matching other people’s pitches – that takes a certain skill, and in fact creative mistakes are what keeps the music in this piece fresh. Anyway, the main point is that you’re involved. Listen closely to the notes that those around you are singing, but also listen to the rich harmonies and textures that the piece generates as we all fall out of sync and swap notes.
At the signal to begin, start singing the first word, softly and slowly, stretching it out for the entire length of a breath, and stop when you run out of breath.
When you run out of breath, inhale, then start singing the next phrase in the same way, but choose a new note which matches a note that you can hear someone else singing.
When you run out breath again, repeat the process, moving on to sing the next phrase.
When you reach the end of the third phrase, i.e. your third breath, go back to the first phrase, but still choosing, as before, a new note which matches a note that you can hear someone else singing as you do so.