Friday, 20 November 2015

Music and Meaning

Today I am... empty. Worthless. Meaningless. Irrelevant. Invisible. I knew this would happen. Some weeks ago on this blog I even predicted it and spoke of "Fall" and how, for some, this season is literally that. But knowing something intellectually or as a fact is not to feel it or to experience it with emotion. I also said at that time that I expected my music to become... worse. And it has. Its not anything I'm doing. I'm not trying to be worse. Or to not be worse. Its like an internal collapse that renders me irritable. The pathways that once poured forth of their bounty have run dry and only a viscous poison now leaks out. Putridly. And so now to make music is to sow poison or to administer my own death by a thousand infected cuts.

I was on a walk one day this week, one of my semi-regular attempts to give my mind time, space and fresh air. Suddenly, it occurred to me, quite by itself, that all my music is as nothing. Rubbish, empty, meaningless waste. This was a shocking but somewhat unsurprising thought. It was unsurprising because, as you will know if you have read some of my previous blogs, I am not one of those people who sees meaning in the universe, at least not the kind which is fixed, inscribed in the heavens and stable. Temporary, contingent, here-today-gone-tomorrow meaning I will grant you. But what use is that? In that moment, none at all. I felt adrift, in the void.

My music, I came to realize as I continued on my walk, the thoughts racing and the connections being made with every step, had become a place where I located meaning. Everything I release has some kind of personal meaning and some kind of internal sense and reason for its existence in my mind. It is the only way I can make anything at all. If I listen back to something I can tell you what it means and, often, what I was feeling at the time and why. But so what? My own personal monologue in sounds is neither profound, worthy nor meaningful in the end, right?

This week I have also started reading a book by Jacques Attali. The book is called Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Within the book, Attali attempts to set music and its uses within a historical and political context, showing first where it came from (ritual murder) and in its various places throughout history from the ecstatic cult of Dionysus as something wild, inspirational and dangerous, through its use by Jongleurs to the privilege and patronage of courts and kings, the liturgy of churches, the means of asserting wealth and power and to the present day as a marketable commodity. My description there is not quite complete but, if you're interested in music, you should get hold of the book and read it in any case. 

I have to date only read the first chapter of the book but Attali uses this first chapter to set out his total thesis in any case and then uses the remaining chapters to flesh out the fuller details which give his final points the substance to go with their sharpness. Now the book itself is not without its difficulties and its vocabulary, one which you need to tune yourself into. The book was first published in 1985 and was written originally in French by a French academic of the economy. I am finding it to be a fertile land for my own thoughts to grow into - without necessarily having to swallow the whole of what Attali says. But he is certainly suggestive. Incidentally, I became aware of this book earlier in the year when there was a BBC report about music and its current crisis as something becoming increasingly worthless in monetary terms. Attali, in this very book, had, it was said, predicted this crisis in 1985, a crisis of proliferation. Basically, he had said we'd get to a point at which there would be so much music it would become a worthless commodity.

And, indeed, even in his first chapter, Attali is talking about music "as commodity". This quote stands out from the first chapter:

Fetishized as a commodity, music is illustrative of the evolution of our entire society: deritualize a social form, repress an activity of the body, specialize its practice, sell it as a spectacle, generalize its consumption, then see to it that it is stockpiled until it loses its meaning.

Now you need to know his full thesis to get all the sense of that quote for it is a miniature history of music in his argument. But the final phrase is the key one here. Music stockpiled until it is literally meaningless. And is that not the case today? Is there not so much music that it literally becomes as nothing? Maybe you will reply that there is lots of music that means a lot to you. I wouldn't dream of denying it. But the music you personally are aware of is but a drop in a very large ocean. And think of all the music that means literally nothing to you. If you think about it I think you will find yourself agreeing with me and with Attali. Music, says Attali elsewhere in chapter 1, "goes anonymous in the commodity". Get a social media account and become friends with lots of other musical people, as seems to happen quite a lot for reasons I'm not quite sure of, and you will soon find yourself thrust onto the horns of a dilemma as each one of them produces music you are invited to listen to. Some you will like, some you won't. Some you will hate. But the overall picture will be one of music constantly being churned out, factory-like on a continuous conveyor belt of production. It is neither an appealing nor an appetizing image. 

The "industry" metaphor is picked up on by Attali as well. Of course, many people hate the title "The Music Industry". It bespeaks of commerce and business and factories and production. But are these negative or positive connotations? Well when music is a reflection of the society that makes it and an instrument of power for those who publish it (both themes Attali takes up) it is something that cannot be ignored either way. Attali talks of music as "a play of mirrors in which every activity is reflected, defined, recorded, and distorted". For him listening to music "is listening to all noise, realizing that its appropriation and control is a reflection of power, that it is essentially political." Of course, Attali wouldn't be the first person to think that all music is political. Music has been political at least since the first jesters and jongleurs wrote ballads mocking the powerful. Today we have the notion of the protest song. But music's political nature is much more insidious than that. What music you listen to, purchase or give your support to says something about your society and your place in it, about what sort of society you want there to be. Do you want it to be edgy, questioning, democratic or do you want it to be conservative, supportive of the status quo, stable, secure? Do you want music to be the tool of those who control it on a business model or a medium for vitality, revolution and freedom from authority?

Attali attacks this latter point when he speaks of sound generally. We have only been able to record sound at all for about 100 years. Before this point music as a commodity was a physical impossibility so the idea that it could be is equally new. But with this new technical ability comes the ability to eavesdrop, to record, to censor - and to use these things as weapons of power. But equally recorded sound and recorded music could also be used by these same powers to enforce their message (in sound) upon the people. The Nazis, for example, had a favourite type of music, folksy songs called Schlager which, incidentally, still exists as a style of music in Germany today. It was thought by the Nazis that this kind of music inculcated the ideas, values and beliefs that they wanted to propagate, wholesome, family music. After the Second World war, at the end of the 60s, it was this kind of music, as well as American rock and blues, that German musicians such as Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream wanted to get away from. Thus, they produced a new electronic music that sounded nothing like any of those kinds of music which, for them, spoke from and to another kind of people and a different set of ideas. But the thinking is clear: music contains a message. In its very sound and style it can act very clearly as a megaphone for a set of values, attitudes and beliefs.

So when you listen to your Saturday night TV show such as The X Factor do not think this is a meaningless act. By doing so you are taking part in a political game. You are giving legitimation to a form of music and to its message. Most obviously you are supporting commercialism as an idea and the idea that music is about "stardom". This is, as Attali notes, an agenda in which "Music now seems hardly more than a somewhat clumsy excuse for the self-glorification of musicians and the growth of a new industrial sector." But is that what music is - just one more thing to be packaged and sold, a device to make a few thousand people much richer than you? That's certainly what Simon Cowell would like you to think. By listening to such music and such shows you are literally rubber stamping the idea that Cowell deserves to be where he is socio-politically and you where you are in turn. Needless to say, I've never watched the show and never would. This is because I neither stand for nor want to promote the kind of society that this music promotes and evangelizes for. "Art bears the mark of its time" is another quote from Attali. We should have the insight to see what the music we listen to, the music our society promotes, says about us individually and as a group.

But there's one more point there before I wrap this blog up. And that is that there is only so much time in the world. To listen to one thing is not to listen to another. To accept the commercialized, packaged music that those at the top of the socio-political order want to spoon-feed you, the kind which is unthreatening, is to reject other kinds. If its true that music is political then its true that your choices are political too. You can support or not support society as it is right now in the music you listen to and promote, in the form of society you legitimate by your listening choices. Attali points out that political power has always had to ban subversive noise "because it betokens demands for cultural autonomy, support for differences or marginality". This is a musical as well as a political argument. What kind of music do you make? What kind do you listen to? It is a very straight three minute pop song? Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, repeat to fade? Does it have words? Is it unchallenging? Primarily about melody? Maybe its in a strange time signature, non-chromatic, abnormal? You will never hear the latter on TV or in film either. And whilst there is the odd radio station that plays non-standard music it is a minuscule proportion of the overall total and to a tiny audience. As Attali puts this "They are direct translations of the political importance of cultural repression and noise control."

And so, as Attali sees it, "What is called music today is all too often only a disguise for the monologue of power". And he is right. People want to be stars. They see music as a way to make money and take their proper place in the pantheon of capitalist commercialists, winners in a society of "richest is best". As such, music is but a reflection of the society it finds itself in where even the losers can only dream of being richer. For that is how you win. Am I the only one who sees this as a trap and a great big empty void?

In the last few months I've been searching Bandcamp for modular synth music. Now, besides the gripe that a number of people seem to list their music on Bandcamp as "modular synth" when it is anything but (false tagging is a bugbear of mine), I have noticed that maybe 80% of the people who do have modular synth music on Bandcamp have charged money for their albums. One direct repercussion of this choice of theirs is that I will never hear it. I can't buy things online since I don't have a bank account and so I don't even bother to listen. But I do wonder why so many people, none of whom I, or the world as far as I'm aware, have ever heard of, feel the need to charge money for their music. And its here that we see the insidiousness of the politics. All of these people live in a commercial world. They have been taught, with their mother's milk, that work comes at a price. It would be betraying their modern, commercialist society to "give stuff away". Perhaps it also makes them "feel like a pro" to charge money too? I think so. Isn't that just self-deceptive ego?

Now don't get me wrong here. I fully agree that anyone can charge anything they like for their music. One album I saw was $999. I wonder how many takers they had? All I'm saying, in line with some thoughts that Attali helped foster in my mind, is that giving your music a price is a political act. It endorses and encourages a capitalist society and all the necessary thinking that goes with that. "A worker is worth their pay", right? Maybe. But first of all you have to take the step of thinking that work is something you should be doing and that music is work at all. These are two steps that I don't accept at all but they are steps that a capitalist, commercialist society would love to encourage, not least those who think that music is a product you sell, a most modern thought.

Given all this context maybe its not so surprising that I felt empty, worthless, meaningless, irrelevant, invisible, after all. For I make music that is free and in a way that I hope no one would ever mistake it as a "product" that you pay for. My music is not just an expression of my own personality but also of a different politics and a different set of values from those of the society I find myself in. It encourages its listeners to think differently and not merely be dragged along with the stream of history, a stream always directed by others for their benefit. It asks its listeners to think for themselves and act in their interests.

But maybe its just easier and more convenient to listen to The X Factor. But what of the question I asked back near the beginning of this blog? "My own personal monologue in sounds is neither profound, worthy or meaningful in the end, right?" Well, maybe it is. Maybe all those "personal monologues in sound" are. Maybe the strength of music is not its popularity, its sales figures or how rich its makers are. Maybe its in its diversity, difference and relationship with other musics and its makers. Maybe we here alone on this rock in space only have each other for company to make sense of the void. But what will you value? Commerce, which homogenizes due to market forces in support of "the way things are", or diversity and difference which brings the chance for an encounter and a chance to open your mind to new and other ways of being and understanding?

This is the final article written in support of my latest music, Industrial Sounds For The Working Class, which is available now at

No comments:

Post a Comment