It’s been an interesting exercise just to think on the term ‘Sonic Radicalism’ as a jumping-off point for this gathering. What might we mean by this term? What’s radical about sound? When does it become radical? Or is that radicalism by way of the sonic? As the blurb for this event asked, can sound subvert? I’d like to propose that it does, and that sound can be a vehicle for radicalism, but that this subversion should go beyond mere sound and reconnect with music, or rather, a radically broad definition of music.
One of the most significant and even epoch-defining debates going on in underground music criticism right now is of course that of ‘the new’ in music. Some commentators – spearheaded by Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher – claim that the production of music with a radical identity and some degree of sufficient novelty has slowed, usually in favour of a revision of musics of the past. Others, such as myself, would argue that the new is present in contemporary music, but that it’s subtle or intensive, or, when framed according to the aesthetic standards of the past, misunderstood or even invisible. Infinite Music argues for such a more relativistic understanding of musical novelty, pertaining at any scale from the infinitesimal to the infinite, and constrained only by our capacity to detect meaningful change within the listening imagination. It aims to oil the joints of whatever machines generate and detect musical novelty, removing the prescriptions, proscriptions, positivisms, essentialisms, typologies and centres through which their function is filtered and qualified. But at the same time as disagreeing that we can ever truly pin down the new (or, on the other hand, that we can ever truly escape it), it calls for it in the strongest possible terms. It’s in broad agreement that more musical novelty is needed, that novelty for its own sake and in the nth degree should be imagined, and that a return to the emancipatory logic of modernism should be encouraged, even as we refuse to fix any parameters of its progress.
But why argue for the production of the new in music at all? In the West since Plato we have always believed that music expresses something about human culture, and thus has a measure of power over it. But here we should tread carefully around the Romantic narrative that music expresses emotions, particularly the most private ones, of a distanced individual and the imagined community he (and it is a he) apparently speaks for. As I’ve said in various places elsewhere, this is the bourgeois alibi for an extreme division of labour that distributes musical production unevenly between the massed, passive consumers of musical objects and the few privileged individuals seen fit to generate them, leaving the majority musically powerless and blind to it, because music is only an ephemeral, abstract, private concern, and nothing to do with political possibility. But though this myth, this ironically industrialized expression of transcendent emotion, dominates our understanding and expectations of musical meaning and constitutes our most dismally cherished image of music-making, I assure you that it has no exclusive rights to the mediation of musical communication. (Nor, by the way, are its products entirely useless to radicals, as left-wing music critics from Adorno up to the present day have shown).
Still we believe in a relationship between musical sound and an alleged non-musical world. Instead of being merely some magical transmission of human expression (that is, cultural capital), we might say more broadly that music uses different metaphors (and is itself a metaphor) to depict this world, or another one. To say that music is an artform is not to exalt it. Speech is an artform. Nor is music a more privileged art form of greater purposes owing to its alleged abstraction – perhaps this is just a cleverly ironic way of selling a non-logocentric artform (i.e one that doesn’t privilege words) in a logocentric system, in much the same way as how a sexist, patriarchal culture might appear to put women on a pedestal. Music, simply put, is a relationship between information and the imagination, much like anything else, and we shouldn’t be quick to assume anything more specific than that. Music, again, much like anything else, is the symbolic structuring of our world, but it also has a capacity to dissolve symbolic structures with new ones. Joining anthropologists and sociologists, we might propose a homological relationship between the information in and around musical performance and the systems of representation and self-representation in the societies that produce them – be they in relative stasis or, crucially, undergoing political or ideological change. Music offers a homology of the world, that is to say, an image of it. Much like anything else.
In the terms of the twentieth-century philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who had a decisive hand in Infinite Music, you could say that music breathes the winds of territorialisation and deterritorialisation. It establishes spaces of information and imagination and then modifies or expands them. The excessive use of repetition (i.e. territorialisation) within this system can hide from us or, ironically, make us forget the true breadth of musical – that is, social – possibility. Our imaginations can be territorialized by repeating images of musical aesthetics outside our interests, and we can do this ourselves to others. So it’s to Deleuze’s most fundamental guiding principle – difference – that we should pay attention and encourage. Music must make a difference. To modify Mahatma Gandhi’s most famous bumper-sticker, music must be difference we want (and need) to imagine in the world. Music, we hope, can constitute and emancipate this difference and potential difference in society, which is hidden and denied underneath the territorial regime of the current symbolic order. It represents – and voices – difference in ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, lifestyle and, ultimately, being. And of course, different music is none other than new music, as mentioned a minute ago. This is why new music and new art in general, together with its true elucidation on the part of its supporters, is such a left-wing concern.
We need new music like we need a new society. We must hold out the hope that it can represent a new society and better ways of being by exploring as much difference as it is in our capacity – technological, psychological and discursive – to generate and to recognize. This we must do without divorcing or differentiating it excessively from the world it’s bound up in, for to do so is to dramatically constrain its apparent zone of influence. And it is this constraining of music to a particular dimension that I would like to critique today. With sincere apologies for trolling the title of the symposium that has been so kind as to invite me, this is the dimension of the sonic, and my critique is of the assumption that music is, or is only, or should be, a sound. In Infinite Music I call this assumption ‘sonocentricity’. It assumes an independent, fixed sonic object, and we could call the theoretic or artistic acceptance that music is and can be more than a discrete fixed sonic object ‘the death of the sonic object’.
Playing devil’s advocate slightly – what could be a more radical philosophy of sound than one which dissolves the individual primacy of the concept? What could be a more radical sound than non-sound? If we look back to the concept of music, we might note that the history of modern music has been an antagonistic tension of what was considered ‘music’ and what was considered ‘non-music’, with ‘music’ expanding its territory into non-music, or rather deterritorialising what was previously marked as non-music. People used to say of Monteverdi, Rameau, Beethoven, Wagner, Jazz, Schoenberg, Rock, Stockhausen, Punk, Techno, they used to say ‘it’s not music’ or perhaps they’d use the milder categorization ‘it’s not musical’. That changed as the new possibilities for musical creativity expanded. Eventually, for some thinkers, most notably the mid-twentieth-century composer John Cage, music became everything, one and the same with the Cosmos, ultimately undifferentiable from it. Music, Cage said, is everything we do. Now this is a radical ontology of music, and we can think of the tension between sound and non-sound in the same way. At a high-point of his crypto-modernist frustration, the earlier twentieth-century composer Charles Ives said ‘My God! What has sound got to do with music?’ – we think this statement fundamentally violates the definition of music, but he does have a point. Ives’s philosophy was derived from Idealism and Transcendentalism; he saw the imperfect, mere sonic actualization of music as having little to do with its quasi-spiritual truth, but without the nineteenth-century flavour his statement still speaks to the greater space into which music expands or can be abstracted out from its merely sonic trace.
The most common definition of music might be ‘notes, melodies, instruments, that sort of thing, properly arranged into a piece’. A much wider definition, that of the composer Edgard Varese, would be that music is organized sound. This suggests the more conventional hierarchy between sound and music, which could be shown in a superset-subset arrangement:
Looking back at the list of non-sonic processes that twentieth-century theorists put back into the picture, we see everything that the Romantic narrative, the nineteenth-century white Western male bourgeois, industrialised, commodifying aesthetic ideology undermined or sought to bracket off as a private, non-collective, depoliticized concern. All that remains is that sonic object, most perfect as a recording, that trace, that commodity, ontologically removed, alienated, grandly and merely empirical, its properties fixed and inviolable. And this is now, is still, the way many of us think of what music is, even – sometimes especially – among the Marxist left. It is a narrowly empiricist image of music-making that constrains it all the way down to a discrete, mobile, saleable chunk of repeating sound, finite, shuttling forever down the one narrow sensory dimension and stretch of time allotted to it, blind to the rest of the cosmos. What is now forced outside of the sonic object’s borders, clamouring to get in, is not entirely invisible to us, because we’re humans, we’re not, or not yet, online robots living exclusively within the informational confines of the iTunes music store. We still know that music opens another dimension. But it is to the aura of the detached, assuredly independent sonic object that all other, more readily politicisable elements are usually subordinated. So this doesn’t mean that everyone should stop making records – they’re the language of our time, and we still need to be able to talk. But these records should be expansive, whether demonstrably beyond the sonic or as homologies of greater possibilities in the worlds outside them.
There are two complimentary senses in which we can think about music being more than sound, both touched upon in Infinite Music, falling under the titles ‘Music Before Sound(s)’ and ‘Music After Sound(s)’.
Music Before Sound(s)‘Music Before Sound(s)’ expresses the notion that the infinite variability of music or musical objects pertains prior to its actualization or apparent discretisation as a certain pattern of musical information (that is, the division of the music’s identity up into apparently absolute chunks – we could also call this quantization).
Firstly, the infinite variability of music or musical objects prior to its actualization. In Infinite Music I describe music in terms of variables – notionally independent ways in which musical information differs within or between specific musical performances. You can think of it like this – variability is what creates sounds. Sounds don’t exist independently of the activity of the variables and values that might specify them. There’s no such thing as a particular sound that exists before it can be described by variables such as volume, pitch, timbre and duration, or as part of a broad network of various degrees of difference that encompasses the whole connected, continuous universe. It’s not like a specific musical object, an instrument, a chord, a musical style even, is absolute and permanently fixed and then it is passed down to us composers to do something different with it. The variability, which we can indeed call ‘music’ although it isn’t distinct from the vitalist currents of all of being, is what creates the object in the first place, it comes before sounds, not vice versa. It’s the activity of combinations of variables and their values that actually creates or constitutes in the first place what we may then identify as (certain) sounds.
It is this continuous difference and this relationship with the more macroscopic and microscopic currents of being (Deleuze would say ‘becoming’ because he sees no absolute fixing of anything into a ‘being’) that we initially perceive that makes it difficult to describe sound or sounds as coherent, singular musical entities. From Infinite Music:
When multiple sounds and attributes are interrelated, especially if they occur simultaneously or closely together across a variable such as time or pitch, they can be said to combine and become other, ‘bigger’ or ‘higher’ sounds or sonic structures, which in turn go to make up the ‘single sound’ that we might call a piece of music. It works the other way too: take ‘one sound’ and it can usually be described as an aggregation of smaller sounds or sonic structures and silences, right down to the point of the vibrating of atoms and molecules in the air (or whatever else) that serves as the medium for sound waves. There isn’t a single absolute sense in which we can isolate what we normally think of as a single sound – we can conceivably describe any single sound as being composed of a multiplicity of smaller sounds, or as a constituent part of a larger sound (such as the Universe itself). Naturally, we can put up potentially arbitrary borders for the sake of convention and functionality that tell us what certain sounds are to relatively limited degrees of specificity, but as we’re dealing with the maximum possibilities of musical form here, such categorical borders will melt away. These borders are an illusion that limits the way we imagine music’s variability as a continuous whole that applies prior to specific, individual categories.So this is why we shouldn’t consider it possible to ultimately divide music into fixed chunks and to impose that particular categorization.
Back to Infinite Music:
Since ‘sounds’ ultimately become difficult to pin down as coherent, singular musical entities, it’s easier and more constructive to describe music fundamentally in terms of variables, in terms of changing attributes and ‘settings’, rather than individual sounds as such. Far better for composers, then, to concern themselves with music’s variability itself, its ever-changing attributes, and not the slippery being of ‘sounds themselves’. Manipulate the variables and the resulting sounds will take care of themselves: they’ll arise through the perception of composers and listeners by means of music’s fundamental variability, rather than from a certain collection of static sounds that somehow exist prior to music and then become subject to variability.There is a second implication to ‘Music before Sound(s)’ that further underlines the importance of thinking about music in terms of variables and variability. This we could label ‘Music Above Sounds’ (if you consider differentiation and actualization to be a top-down process) or ‘Music Beneath Sounds’ (if you start from the sonic surface and work progressively beneath it). This is the idea that there are many objects we could consider musical that aren’t specifically sound-making. They don’t make specific sounds. They are musical objects with no fixed sound or, for example more particularly, no fixed or assigned timbre. Because of the legacy of twentieth century electronic music, especially musique concrete, we often tend to think of music as composed of particular sound objects, or sound-making objects, and we tend to forget that there are other, less concrete musical objects and processes to be observed in the compostion and listening of music. The electronic composers in and around musique concrete would splice together and arrange sound objects as materialized on lengths of magnetic tape. Indeed, this bias towards concrete sound objects probably comes from recording technology, and probably drove Edgard Varese, himself a composer of musique concrete, to describe music as ‘organised sound’ rather than ‘organised information relating to sound’ or even ‘organised information relating sound to the world’.
What are these musical objects - for composers, these musical tools – that don’t make specific sounds? They’re pretty basic, really. Here are some examples: a volume of 60 decibels – it doesn’t itself constitute a sound. The process of increasing volume by 20 decibels could be a musical object, tool or motif in a performance. A pitch or frequency of 440Hz doesn’t make a sound without an instrument. We could think of rhythms and riffs independently of the instruments and sounds through which they’re actualized, as, if you like, ‘pure rhythms’ and ‘pure riffs’. The structure of notation displayed on sheet music is a musical object, but it doesn’t make a sound. Naturally, the activity and perception of these musical objects aren’t the exclusive preserve of notated and/or performed musics. Many – theoretically, all – of the variables and values in any piece of electronic music-making hardware or software don’t actually make a sound in themselves. One of the most interesting musical objects in this world might be MIDI code itself, which codes musical information such as pitches and velocities ready to be passed between hardware and software devices. The sonic non-specificity of MIDI code can be heard in much of Zomby’s music, especially the standalone track ‘Mercury’s Rainbow’, in which the riff as musical object not only changes timbre regularly and dramatically, but also its quantization in measured time, causing pitches to be filtered out of the sequence. (Click here to listen to 'Mercury's Rainbow') The musical object that is the riff of ‘Mercury’s Rainbow’ has a radically different identity and pattern of internal change than we usually see, much like, broadly speaking, the radically different identities and concepts that the left hopes society will recognize and provide a space for.
One logical endpoint to this idea, which I suggest in Infinite Music, is that in fact music doesn’t need to actually make a sound at all to be considered music, that is, to be primarily related to the production of sound, as per my definition of music. Being primarily related to sound doesn’t mean that a sound actually has to be made. Much religious worship is primarily related to transcendental beings, but these beings arguably never actually appear in process. In the same way, the sound in these non-sonic musics could be metaphorical (which is anyway what was always the case with musical communication), or ‘imaginary’, just as the non-sonic elements of music are ‘imaginary’. I’m putting imaginary in scare quotes so as not to suggest that imaginary sound, sound inside our heads, isn’t sound. What might this apparently non-sonic music be like? My favourite example is the graphic score that is Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise.
Treatise, p. 3
Although its mass of complex shapes and cryptograms are supposed to be interpreted by a performer, my reading is that this act of positivistic mediation is practically impossible and its results are frankly arbitrary. The music itself is on the page, ironically quiet, there to be read like a novel or a poem, an artwork, a jumping-off point for imagination, a metaphor for the production and symbolization of music. I’d back this theory up by pointing out that in the score there are very few actual notes clearly written in – here’s just one – and that what you see much more often are many kinds of empty spaces in which sound can be imagined. I think it would be wrong to deny that the experience of Treatise, performed or not, is musical. There are many other works like Treatise, not usually very famous, but we could imagine whole genres and whole traditions of non-sonic musics like this – perhaps even not so abstract as the shapes in Cardew, many drawing on other semiotic systems, or even developing their own, and possibly reintegrating with sound every once in a while.
Music After Sound(s)
As I’ve already said, it’s not really news to anyone to say that there is a non-sonic element to music. We do, however, see non-sonic elements subordinated, seen as arbitrary or potentially interchangeable, not specific to the music, and not, crucially a ‘part of the music itself’. ‘Music after Sounds’ is a more basic idea than ‘Music before Sounds’. It simply suggests that we can consider non-sonic elements to be part of the ‘music itself’, perhaps at a greater degree of specificity than we normally consider. For example, while the principle of ‘Music Before, or Above or Beneath Sounds’ might suggest that there can be different variabilities or sonic actualizations of the same musical object, the idea that there are parts of the music ‘after’ the sound would offer the possibility of the reverse, and would encourage us to consider the possibility that a performance of the same song in two different physical circumstances would result in two different musical objects. So music can be both more abstract (before sound) and more specified, more concrete, more actual (after sound) than we might previously have believed. There is musical continuity on both sides of the sonic object’s borders.
Following the terminology of Infinite Music, the forms of difference that occur after sound can be called non-sonic variables. Most broadly speaking, they can describe who or what produces the music or parts of it, and when, where and how it’s produced – all of these in ways that notionally have no effect on the sound. So these might describe the musical venue, the presentation, or any number of other elements that would formerly have been considered merely contextual. The famous and quite artistically deliberate costumes of acts such as
can be considered part of their music, and are certainly part of what they communicate to the world.
In many cases the costume and the presentation can have a decisive effect on the message and the perception of the so-called ‘music itself’. When Lady Gaga dresses as a man, and an exquisite example of machismo at that, and sings ‘there’s something about lonely nights and my lipstick on your face… your muscle cars drove a truck through my heart’, as she did while singing ‘Yoü and I’ at the MTV awards last year, it literally queers the merely sonic version you hear on the CD and proposes a non-heteronormative possibility. One key non-sonic variable that can dramatically alter the images we perceive of music and the homologies it can give rise to is its title. There are thousands of examples of these. One reasonably complex example might be the eighth track on David Bowie’s 1977 album Low, entitled ‘Warszawa’.
Another key non-sonic variable that can radically change the musical stakes is the venue and organisation of a musical performance. Some contexts can carry so much more socio-cultural weight than the normal contexts of home listening or the concert. On February the 21st this year, one punk group radically deterritorialised the image of sacred and secular music-making that is quite literally policed in Russia, in order to protest against the ongoing rule of Vladimir Putin. The band Pussy Riot sang their song ‘Punk Prayer’ flashmob style in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow.
There is another sense in which we can think of ‘Music After Sound’, which can remind us of just how broad and collective our cultural project of music is. It hints at what remains continuous after the discretised sound has supposedly finished. Just as art expands beyond the borders of the gallery, we can expand the borders of the musical performance to merge with life itself. Our whole world is an interconnected musical performance, spread across the little bubble universes we suppose discretised sounds and performances are. Musical style is one such musical object that occupies this broader plane, it’s a living musical performance whose breaths we are living in between, experiencing its change as multiple composers, and ourselves, participate. This, ideally, is the thought that strikes you as you leave a concert of John Cage’s 4’ 33”, or as you leave a rave featuring your favourite subgenre of electronic dance music.
Can sound subvert? Unless we count its material effects, the disruption caused by its vibration, sound itself cannot subvert. It is sound playing its role within music, as just one sensory component of a symbolic system that orders and reorders the way we see the world – that is what subverts.