Snd-ctrl 1995 – more from the vault

The Revolutionary Structure of Sound: experimental musings.

Most popular music could hardly be described as revolutionary in the old (and still urgent) sense, yet to dismiss musical production and its associated pleasures as irrelevant to revolution would make for exceedingly dull practice. Most contemporary musicians, and even or perhaps especially those who claim to be ‘political’, are hardly capable of a revolutionary politics sufficient to pose a challenge to capitalism at this time. This, of course, will not be news. It is necessary only to refer to the ways in which the anti-establishment ethos of much rock and roll is so easily absorbed into the logistics of transnational entertainment sales and corporate bureaux to recognise the dominance of the market here. The Rolling Stones tour of Europe sponsored by Volkswagen would be an obvious example of the way the Industry is calibrated with the dollar for even the most decadently wasted punks. Lydon’s Sex Pistols bartered their way into hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of record and movie contracts and settlements on the basis of a few chords and some well-aimed abuse of, among many, the old batty Lizzie herself (she with metal hat). In the USA gangsta rappers (Dre, Snoop, Warren G) and preppy message-mongering hip-hopsters (like Arrested Development) alike are in it for the money (and with some justification – look out for Dipa Basu’s work on Black business in Hip-Hop. Salt n Pepa sing ‘we wanna get paid’ for all the right reasons). And the examples can be multiplied – its a sad joke to think there might possibly still be a band somewhere slogging along the pub circuit night after night just doing that shit for a meagre living and not someday hoping for that famed ‘discovery’ which leads to contracts, mega-sales and limousines (or at least free tickets to the MTV awards). Stranger things could happen I suppose, but we’d all laugh.

Yet there is room to think about music as revolutionary in other senses. There is much to be said for those musicians who attempt to provoke their audiences to think about contemporary issues, or at least to think at all. And while too many fans of Billy Bragg will sing along to the workers’ flag without stopping to consider the context and history of that song (and there are other less obvious examples), the place of popular music within the cultures of the Left has a significance that should be fostered. We all like to dance, well many of us do (sorry those who are complete klutzes and know it. Myself, I will happily make a fool of myself on the dance floor – I don’t get thrown off too often). The problem is, however, that the Left and music still seems to be mired in a simple equation of folk and message and militant content (arcane form).

But the revolutionary place of music requires more justification than as some kind of mass communication shorthand capable of reaching those who have been dissuaded from purchasing Left literature on the High Street by Newspaper-sellers from hell. Nor can it be just some kind of cultural therapy cum release valve for after the demo and/or to raise money for jailed comrades/campaigns/printing presses and so forth. There are more interesting things going on in clubs, homes and the ‘scene’ (wherever that interzone reality is today – SimCity 2000 I guess), and most excellent, for example, has been the evolution of the campaign against the criminal justice bill/act from being a gut-reaction defence of right to party into a wider youth politicisation which recognises Government as the racist, capitalist, bigot-enemy trying systematically to renovate a tired imperialist backwater… Yeah yeah . But there must be more that is revolutionary about music for it to survive ever-present commercialisation and make it worthy of our continued support. What might this be? Perhaps at a time when the modes of communication, presentation and dissemination are transformed exponentially, music can still also be a means to think differently. To think otherwise than we do now – and excuse the clichés – to move beyond the instrumental and repetitive thinking we have been taught, and teach ourselves, and to listen for something other than the same old tunes. Hey Ho, Hey Ho….

This is not some Pied Piper evangelism but something rather more modest or experimental. I propose to consider music and sound as disharmonious accompaniment to the conventions of Western metaphysical thinking, or at least as a possible contrapuntal melody which could sound out a critique of capitalism. This would be well beyond the conventional folksy version of lefty music, but in some degree extrapolated therefrom, and certainly requiring studious attention to the minutia of Marxist argumentation (too often the dull and grim struggle of the sloganeering Left allow people to skive off the hard work of having to read those old texts. No easy task, but there’s no avoiding it either).

Basically the first and most general step in my argument is that music is not just there. Its a communal thing, produced, performed and heard in a context. Today that context is, to a lesser or greater extent, at the productive margins of Capitalism – be it rave/tekno or bhangra/jungle, banned or platinum, big megabucks production or four-track amateurs, Ice T or Kylie M, or even your local garage grunge/party DJ dreamer, whoever you know. But wherever and whatever it is, music can be considered over against, even resistant, to commerce and the contexts of the market. Not always, and often only barely, but there is – still – something excessive in sound, something surplus. So, in order to rethink this context it might be useful to suggest that the sounds we consider, say under the formation ‘popular music’, as like classical music, even musical notation, or even like writing, as a record, are co-constituted in time with audiences as presence. (text and eye, instrument and ear). People together in the contextof sound. Now just what is music? We have been taught of late to think of it as product, but what do we mean? Music is a context of sound. We hear it, but it is not the hearing. We play it, but not just to play. The context of music offers us an immediacy which has been broken down into contituent, and marketable, components. In part of the double deceit of capital music seems now contained in the performed or recorded ‘nature’ of sound in the context of purchase, and we have come to believe – mostly through the privileging of presence in writing – that the recording is a way of retaining sound and the performance is a presentation of sounds (and visuals since MTV, Madonna etc). The disruptive point to introduce here – so subtle – is that the presentation or the recording suggests a level of articulation of music which is not music itself. A kind of echo of music in the market. This double structure has been a silent facility in the commercialisation of sound (a role deployed to the performers skill or memory, or to musical notation in live performance, but most significant since the development of vinyl, the cassette tape and the CD).

To demonstrate this more clearly it is easiest to consider the technology. The point is that a recording inscribed in the form of minute grooves on vinyl or strings of numbers on a three-inch circular diskette capable of laser translation (or whatever – how do they do that?) is not yet music. There must always be a playing and a listening for there to be sound – and this listening is not the simple consumption of clichéd economics. There are moments of consumption, but what is required, in the age of digital reproduction, is an evaluation of the repetitive listenings brought into availability by these technologies. With a CD, but also with musical notation, with the vinyl album, and even with the rehearsed performance, the sound is remade over and over by each listening, just as each reading of a text is a new bringing forth. Endlessly. This must be dealt with in terms of the labour theory of value as understood by Marx in the latter sections of Capital (and modified in part given new understandings of the status of endless playings of a CD and the availability of on-line clips down on radio.cyber.caf – again given the co-constitutive ‘labour’ of the listener). The labour that is required to produce an object, or objects – in this case a CD, CD player, speakers and all other costs – is labour that has been stolen from labourers by capitalist investors. Although the co-ordination of capitalism enables mass production and distribution, it is on the basis of this co-ordination, and ownership of the means of production, distribution etc, that capitalists are able to exploit the inequity of a process where work is not paid according to its return, the value it creates on the market. Basically, a very long story which must be read in detail, amounts to the theft of labour by a bunch of old men in suits, and others not so old, with ponytails and sportscars, but also in suits. This theft of value extends, I think it can be argued, to the various forms of ‘work’ it is necessary for you to do in order to be in a position to be a listener, and so make music. This co-constitution of sound requires us to rethink consumption as production subsumed within a capitalism which colonises all aspects of life (Marx’s ‘real subsumption’ discussed in Capital vol 3 would be usefully elaborated – a reading offered by the lyrical Antonio Negri begins this work – see Marx Beyond Marx). Hmmm. That sounds too difficult, check it out though. It may be right. And it makes us focus upon the communal context of music in a more sophisticated way than previous lefty-folky musicism. Get back to me.

Instead of exploring the endless permutations and distinctions of this part of a sophisticated labour theory of value project (its too long and winding a road, but I am trying to get back to it), it is possible to draw in other interesting works for similar ends. In a related register it might also be suggested that a recording is a kind of negative. Not only as a product, but certainly essential for the structure of capital which requires a purchase and a development on the part of the listener/consumer. It is clear that a recording is not yet the sound, and never can be, and must be decoded or – excuse the German – ‘aufhebung’ if it is to become sound. A performer must play the piece, read the notation, or a CD must be put into the player and the play button pressed, etc. Further development of this point would require a difficult contemplation of the ontological status of the negative (check out the down rhythms of Giorgio Agamben’s Language and Death) and its relation to the dialect-ic (see that old beat philosopher and techno DJ Martin Heidegger who asks in Sein und Zeit ‘why does every dialectic take refuge in negation…’ 332). The recording as somehow the negation of sound itself negated to produce sound. The diamond stylus in contact with the grooves of vinyl is an easier representation of this, but the digital complexity of the CD is not so far removed from the notations of a Beethoven and so on.

“23914034u2pjdfsdr034130eu 3-434 4230423052054909483ru 2u2340032409 23 23984092374523 402934 0923420394 32r428r4209357v3875oieuwr4999435 v 8u5 34 340475 30035734057 [549890583589–459] -348543895h47h493n9j4999″ (fifth symphony, first two bars)

The point is not to abandon all recordings (a rerun of the fun of dumping televisions out of apartment windows – not revolutionary in itself, but fun…) but to rethink music as mutual co-production in need of a recovery operation to undo the negative appropriations of capitalism and Industry. The task of a revolutionary rethinking of sound then might attempt to link the anti-establishment ethos of (some, admittedly not enough) popular music to this scene of negativity with a view to transformation. Not that everything must be understood as moving in a negative dialectic (since some might even call this break-beat), and neither is it the case that a simple overcoming of outmoded musical styles will help settle old scores – at least not without considerable practice. But the rethinking of the negative in music as a part of a dialectical movement, although within the thinking of Western metaphysics, as negative invention, should offer the possibility of thinking otherwise – and so through a mass movement help manifest an alternative to capitalism or at least the possibility of disruption and dysfunction within the neat crisis-reconstruction-crisis cycle of the corporations. It is the beginnings of this that some may recognise, intuitively, in the links between music and politics made explicit every now and then. The next step would be to base this explicitly on a further reasoning of music politics that goes well beyond manifesto-poseurs and the star-syndrome of pop. Dancehall, Rave, Jungle begin a more inclusive politics of sound. Subsequently the overcoming of exploitative (negative) capitalist relations would thus initiate a revolutionary transformation of life – with a beat you can dance to. That’d be cool. Music, Amusement, the Muse bemused.


footnote one. Is sound-voice something more primary than the language which both depends upon it and is made possible by it, but which is separate from it? Language in itself has no voice. Language is, but needs more to sound itself. Without this negativity – the non-immediacy – of language/sound there would be no way of distinguishing voice/music. In immediacy every possibility of indicating the event of language disappears, hence without negativity (or abstraction/separation?), no language, no music, no culture, no exploitation, no war, no death, no thought, no ice-cream. All knowledge presupposes the voice, but must be separate from the voice. From sounding. This makes music priory and contra capital.

John Hutnyk – first published in Versus Magazine, issue 4, 1995.