Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The Musical Revolution Will Not Be Released On CD: Towards a Utopian Music (Talk at the Oxford Radical Forum 2010)


  1. Wow. I'll try and engage with this more fully later (I'm writing a PhD on 'nomadic utopianism'*) and will be using improvising music as a model for nomadic utopia.

    For me, Hakim Bey's concept of immediatism is very useful: there should be no passive consumption; art, food, politics (and life!) should be experienced and never mediated. He actually uses improv (fleetingly) as an example. For me though, it's his verb-ifying of politics that's particularly inspiring: 'freedom is a psycho-kinetic skill, not an abstract noun'.

    *Basically a 'propulsive' utopia which rejects notions of perfection in the future in favour of an immediate, lived utopianism. Deleuze is my primary theoretical base, but I draw on post-left anarchism, postanarchism and the science of complex systems too.

  2. Thanks for posting this here! Having read it twice, it would have been a shame were this limited to attendees of the Forum. The bit about gender in Rave is especially fascinating, especially considering Burial's take on it.

    Also: I kind of wish I could unhear Borgore.

    Thanks again Adam!

  3. Good to see you getting a bit more exposure Adam, looking forward to the book too! Thanks for the above, it's a necessary critical interjection. there's a lot to comment on if I had the time.
    I'm afraid this grates a little though:
    "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."
    For me, though Borgore's music clearly fails to deliver on any level, it's almost precisely because it's NOT offensive, just embarrassingly clumsy. I can't imagine anyone being offended by a pronouncement that wouldn't have been out of place in an episode of Are You Being Served being delivered over a flimsy teen-machismo wubstep beat. I listened to the track through my fingers not because painting such a "picture of unequal relations" is degrading but because it's such an ignorant and flaccid sentiment that unintentionally collapses any energy the track might otherwise have had. Even allowing for ironic macho-not-macho affect, it's beyond camp.
    But I'm guessing you're not a fan of DJ Deeon or 2 Live Crew... Reminds me of this though:

  4. Hi. Thanks for this post.
    Im interested as to how you are reading Small's notion of musicking as a collective activity with utopian possibilities.

    In his essay "gestural critique of judgment" Fred Moten discusses the kind of freedom/utopian drives at work in Black disaporan cultures. These drives for him are always musical. In particular he brings in a notion of a deinstrumentalisation of freedom at work in Black musics. From what I have surmised this is a kind of collective experience of taking apart/disassembling notions of freedom as necessary part of a freedom/utopian project. It kind of brings to mind something like Coltrane's "Ascension" album.

    Im wondering how Moten's suggestion of a structural violence is at work in the utopianism you put forward through Small? Is there a sense in which rupture/break becomes a neccessary part of a musicking project?

  5. Hi whisperingdave, cheers. Firstly, musicking is not a project, and it doesn't necessarily have Utopian possibilities. Musicking is simply a way of describing ANY activity involving music. When you're listening to a concert, you're musicking, as are the people on stage. It's a collective activity, yes, but if 1000 people are listening in forced silence and 1 person is playing, I don't see that as Utopian, but it's still musicking.

    Looking at music as collective musicking in this way puts the listener back in the picture, so now we can see how un-Utopian, how unequal it is. So yeah, in order to make it more Utopian, perhaps a certain 'structural violence' is necessary to dismantle the naturalised structures of passive listening.

    I'd be very interested to read Moten's essay.

  6. hey Toby - it gets lot worse than 'do the dishes', I'd be astounded if some of that were on Are You Being Served...

    Also, 'till the sweat drips from my balls' is still in my head. cheers :-)

  7. Maybe I am elitist enough that I would bemoan the loss of complex, top-down music.

    Perhaps I would just bemoan the loss of the familiar feeling of hearing melodies that I've heard before, and anticipating them.

    I realize that with the sort of Utopian music you're envisioning, the need for complexity would be much diminished, but it still tugs at me that some of my favourite music has been totally inaccessible to me on initial listening.

    Your words on gender are great. When you talk about the fetishization (to the point of machine-creation) of female vocals, I was reminded of crazy old Zizek:

    "Let us recall the example of a (’straight’) sexual relationship. The success of Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape indicates that sex with an animal is today’s predominant form of fantasy of full sexual relationships, and it is crucial that this animal is as a rule male: in contrast to cyborg-sex fantasy, in which the cyborg is, as a rule, a woman (Blade Runner) – that is, in which the fantasy is that of a Woman-Machine – the animal is a male ape copulating with a human woman, and fully satisfying her. Does this not materialize two standard common daydreams: that of a woman who wants a strong animal partner, a potent ‘beast’, not a hysterical impotent weakling; and that of a man who wants his female partner to be a perfectly programmed ‘doll’ who fulfils all his wishes, not a living being? What we should do in order to penetrate the underlying ‘fundamental fantasy’ is to stage these two fantasies together: to confront ourselves with the unbearable ideal couple of a male ape copulating with a female cyborg, the fantasmic support of the ‘normal’ couple of man and woman copulating. The need for this redoubling, the need for this fantasmic supplement to accompany the ’straight’ sexual act as a spectral shadow, is yet another proof that ‘there is no sexual relationship’."

  8. Hey Brian - great quote, thanks. Especially the 'perfectly programmed doll'. Makes Burial seem a little darker.

    Re: familiarity - a) there's no reason why some sort of recurring melodic framework could be a part of a Utopian collective improvisation. It would probably be going a little far to say that pre-existing melodies, even with improvisation acting upon them, are socially oppressive and not welcome in Utopia.

    b) The relationship of the Utopians to their music wouldn't be a familiarity /enjoyment of specific art objects so much a familiarity /enjoyment of games - no two games of chess are exactly the same but people love the game and play it over and over again. And the Utopians wouldn't necessarily just have one game they play either. Listening to the same musical recordings over and over would be seem weird to the Utopians in the same way that watching the same sport events (particular football matches etc) over and over again the way we treat films and CDs isn't really typical behaviour to most of us.

    Re: complexity - I'm sure you could still have remarkably complex music using this Utopian model. The central african tribes are a brilliant example.

    And of course 'inaccessible to me on initial listening' is only a problem within the confines of the repeated passive listening model. The Utopian music I describe is more 'doing music generally' than 'listening just once'. It's a completely different culture of musicking.

  9. I keep trying to distill my thoughts on this, so I might argue myself out of a point within a few minutes here...

    Basically, it seems like the largest problem you have with non-Utopian music is that the rules of the game haven't been agreed upon—they've been socialized in both performers and "consumers."

    As you note, previously agreed upon rules that are easy for a newcomer to learn would still be the basis of Utopian music; only, those rules would be a) flexible and b) agreed upon only by general consensus by all participants (forgive me if I'm misrepresenting your thoughts). Where I get confused is when I start thinking consciously about the roles I assume (both as traditional musician and traditional consumer): somehow being aware of it makes it more Utopian. Every game needs rules, and I think the biggest shame is not realizing you're playing a game.

    On another note, perhaps the post-bar flamenco circles in Spain are close to your model of musicking. My father has told me stories, and it sounds like everyone present takes part according to their comfort level, several guitars are passed back and forth and across the circle (like a game of hot potato), people sing, clap, dance, and cheer as they feel like it; yes, they play in a culturally traditional manner with complex rules and techniques to their music, but it is certainly not exclusive: when a circle of pretty high level players (Paco Pena, etc. etc.) found out my uncle was from Canada they were most excited to hear him play some blues.

  10. Interesting piece,bit high brow for a old bald head socialist, however Pink Floyd, in their early days, done the music score for a French documentary, on one of the last undiscoverd pygmy tribes on our planet 'La Vallee".The album itself is called "Obscured by Clouds'there is one track entitled Absolutely Curtains and if utopia can be expressed in music that is it.A culmination of Floyd and a vocal harmonic by the people of the tribe is a utopian vision of a culture existent today outside the influence of capital.

  11. Thanks for hipping me to Small- the whole passivity of the contemporary classical concert brought to mind a folk gig I was at a few months back. After doing the standard standoffish musician|performer set, the band played the encore while wandering around the tables chatting with the audience- not quite Brecht, but a nice gesture towards what might be nonetheless.

  12. Hey, great article and great blog in general.

    Just wondering, do you think Small foregrounds the socialising function of music at the expense of the material, sensory experience of musicking? Although I agree with a lot of what he says and with his project as a whole, but I do find there is something as problematic and universalizing in his concept of 'musicking' as there is with the concept of 'music' - I'm not too sure it accounts for the multiple modes of engagement and involvement with sound in our lives. Perhaps I'm misreading Small, or resisting him on account of my own hang-ups, but I find that there is often something intensely personal, sensation-driven, synaesthesic about my experiences with music that has little to do with 'ideal social relations' and an understanding of the 'pattern that connects'...

    Be interested to know your thoughts on it!



  13. Hey Adam (with feathers), thanks,

    You make a good point! I agree with you that listening can be really quite autonomous from social concerns, especially for those of us who tend toward the musicological or compositional. But I think Small's system is big enough to take it if some people listen 'more autonomously' than others most of the time.

    Perhaps Small's most provocative idea is that we can never truly remove ourselves from social ideology in listening, and that even when we think we have (i.e. twentieth century classical concert music) we're doing it more violently than ever before - as he put it, 'Nature comes in through the back door'. It implies that when an audience at a Boulez concert claim to be connoisseurs of pure 'sounds in themselves', what they're really doing is putting on their social badges in front of each other, at least to some extent. That's not to say that people aren't deeply enjoying the forms and sounds themselves in a sensual way, and I interpret Small as taking that aspect for granted.

    And you're right, it becomes more difficult to say that listening to music alone on an iPod is a social ritual, but I do think that that too can be socially territorial (like birdsong). We imagine ourselves augmented by and idealised in the music, especially if we like it and play it over and over again - it's us, it's our thing, it's who and where we are - even if we're alone. It's not a complete theory of how and why we listen 100% the time, but it's onto something perhaps. And do remember, autonomous listening is something generally peculiar to the West. I guess when Small noted this, he probably saw a case of many cultures stacked up against one, and so took autonomous listening less seriously in that context.

    Do read Eric Clarke's "Ways of Listening: An Ecological Theory of Musical Meaning" - it's generally great and it'll answer your question with theories a little more finely tuned than Small's.