Silence on Music and Politics. (thoughts to add to the word hoard)


Silence: on Music and Politics. thoughts to add to the word hoard, and for a Royal Holloway Talk given on thursday about Hip Hop in Europe, focussing on repetitions and the refusal of Paul Simon to give Fun^da^mental clearance to sample his Sounds of Silence track, while he of course made himself into Mr World Music dubbing little guitar ditties over the music of Odulum… (see my earlier rant on Mr Simon here)

So, I start with the theme of repetition, and so the usual starting point… “Elvis said that writing about music was like dancing about architecture” (see C of E book – its Elvis Costello I mean of course). I see a certain category error here which is in danger of rendering writing speechless.

This may be a conceptual rather than technical error. Aldous Huxley wrote of an assault on silence on the part of technology but today silencing seems to shout out to us at every corner – censorship terrorizes us exponentially.

Cage suggests that silence cannot exist except as an ideal, Attali argues that it is the political arrangement of sounds that organizes society, Burroughs wants to tamper with the audio track of control.

It makes some sense then to still think that the politics of music is not to be wholly abandoned to Musicology.

The situation is bifurcated, on the one hand sound offers a critique of the dominant visual privilege in culture, often remarked (see Swedenburg on how hip-hop becomes the vehicle of Muslim youth protest in Europe). On the other hand sound also implies surveillance, eavesdropping, order words and control (Attali, “Noise”) and the ways music is co-opted to the culture industry EVERY time. There is reason to battle over sounds and silence, over censorship and co-option – who will sing these songs of freedom, and on what label?)

I am amused to find that RZA from Wu Tang Clan scored both Ghost Dog and Kill Bill. (See Ko Banerjea in “Travel Worlds” talking about this sort of eastern promise, and also Vijay Prashad’s “Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting”.)

Meanwhile… I am becoming obsessed with backwards messages in music as a way to rethink the whole exoticist fascination/distinction and categorisation obsession of ethnomusicology. Edgard Varese describes an alleged difference between Western and Eastern music – citing one of his Indian students who thought Western music jerky and edgy he writes ‘To them, apparently, our Western music seems to sound much as it sounds to us when a record is played backwards’ and Varese then conducts his own quaintly charming experiment: ‘playing a Hindu record of a melodic vocalization backward, I found that I had the same smooth flow as when played normally, scarcely altered at all’ (Varese 1936 P 20 of “Audio Culture”)

What is it to play a Hindu record ‘normally’? And to then compare it to ‘our’ Western, clearly more dynamic or developmental, music in a way reminiscent of Hegel reading the Gita as described by Gayatri Spivak in “Critique of Postcolonial Reason”

As if George Martin was doing anything strange when reversing tapes for the Beatles White Album experiments (Paul is dead)

Or William Burroughs and Brion Gysin cut up exercises just purchased for the New York archive. Twin Peaks has a room in which all speech runs backwards. We are no longer surprised by this sort of roundabout.

Topsy Turvy world in the “Magic Faraway Tree” books of Enid Blyton was my original reason for wanting to know about anthropology… but the whole repetition/backwards message thing has been done to death – The Beatles not only, also Led Zep, Styx, you name it – The Rutles…

Of course I pointed out how the reversibility of recorded music was crucial to scratching in hip hop – not that we always got to source things back to Bam and Herc. There is much more to riff on here yet… something about the bleating repetitions of the war-mongering types marching up and down the corridors of the West Wing (yes you Prez Barlett!) chanting “War on Terror, War on Terror” – itself a sampling of Ronnie and Nance Reagan when they were there – bouncing on the bed cackling with glee about their “War on Drugs, War on Drugs” – and all this clearly about quotation, plagiarism, copying, so writing, in the age of digital repro-dunkings, and so much in debt to Pynchon
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