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— JeanPaul Sartre, Nausea It started when Bono walked into the studio one day with those fly shades…It was like a whole moving into a more ironic point of view. —The Edge, U2 The big players: The big ideas: Schoenberg, Cage, Coltrane, Sex Pistols, U2. Commodification, Authorship, Intensity, Revolution.
To an early twentiethcentury composer, nausea is praise. A retch proved the power of the music; it declared the ability of the composer to overcome a century’s worth of stale rewrites and flaccid additions to the musical canon. The music of Arthur Schoenberg, for example, forced his audience to confront the anxiety of the time, even in a discipline that traditionally had been a stronghold of beauty and order. By dispensing with established musical structures and replacing them with an impenetrable assortment of dissonance, atonality, and finally twelve tone theory, Schoenberg uprooted classical music, and made his audience ill. A potent glory lies in such an accomplishment, but only briefly, because after a time, the composer exhausts his audience. Listeners wander off, perhaps looking to be moved in other ways. Schoenberg lost his lay audience because of his obsessive attention to composing. Designs too intricate to hear sacrifice popularity for intellect, clarity for selfsatisfaction. After Schoenberg, music moved toward an avantgarde that could reach the masses without destroying the integrity of the composer. Had Schoenberg written symphonies aimed at appealing to his audience’s aesthetic sensibilities, his feeling of artistic significance may have been ruined. The music discipline for nearly a century seems to have been yearning for a synthesis of innovation, beauty, and intellect that would have a broad, appeal to the untrained ear. This movement drove the careers of many major figures in twentiethcentury music in Classical, Jazz, Punk, and
Rock, but is perhaps best exemplified in the works of Schoenberg, John Cage, John Coltrane, the Sex Pistols, and, today, U2. Each of these artists, in attempts to reach the best form of music (for both themselves and their audience) had to balance many elements, artistically and personally. They each found ways of coping with the necessary commodification of their music, their authorship of a given piece, the intensity and predictably of their lives and work, the deconstruction of previous rules of music, and the construction of new ones. Over the last hundred years or so, the ways in which artists have addressed these concerns has changed significantly, but their actions seem to be moving away from the obsessive composer alienating his audience, toward the ironic band parodying and commodifying themselves to critical applause. In tracing music from Schoenberg to U2, we will see shifts and cycles from severity to laughter, from the modern to the postmodern, from nausea to elation. This is a piece which never fails to move and impress me, but always leaves me feeling a little bit sick. —Leonard Bernstein, on Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) Schoenberg, in his prime (c. 19001915), did not have to worry about selling records. Young and brilliant, he spent his hours wondering at the reinvention of music. His approach could afford to be purely intellectual, if only because the people he needed to impress were those who could understand what he was doing, and who would (at least temporarily) put questions of euphony aside. The mathematical relationships of one note to another, the exploration of the twelve tones, the use of dissonance concerned Schoenberg more than the broad appeal of his music. His is a deep music, one which pushes beyond the ear, and into the higher functions of the mind. One might argue that Schoenberg brought the modern preoccupation with science into his compositions, discovering the underlying truth of music through a scientific method. In the process of discovering the truth, Schoenberg descended so deeply into his music, he alienated his audience. Possibly, he had no desire to hold onto an audience beyond academics and composers, but his impact on music may have been greater had his compositions been able to appeal to the listener’s sense of beauty and harmony. Instead, obsessed with authorship, Schoenberg wrote music that lingers in the collections of the few who understand what he did to music.1
1Perhaps Schoenberg’s disciples were more concerned with commercial success than the
masters. One of his apprentices, Anton Webern, wrote many extremely short pieces, each just long enough to fill one side (three minutes) of a 78rpm record.
Perhaps angered with the state of his contemporary musicians, and tired of the same old thing, Schoenberg dispensed with the old rules to bring a level of intensity and unpredictability to music. Other artists of the period were engrossed in ideas of banality and regularity. The greatest novel of the period, James Joyce’s Ulysses, chronicles an average man’s average day in Dublin, ironically alluding to Homer’s Odyssey, a epic of heroes and beasts. T.S. Eliot yearned for regeneration of a cultural wasteland, in which people spoke flatly of a cultural tradition they knew nothing about. Schoenberg’s work reacts against the sullenness of culture, challenging audiences to question longheld tenets about the nature of music. The intensity of his work grows because of its unpredictability. Because only the most knowledgeable composers can predict the direction of a given piece, his work to everyone else as a chaotic assemblage of notes. The jarring notes of “Moonfleck,” a portion of his Pierrot Lunaire , are innovative, to be sure, but as Bernstein suggests, they also inspire nausea. To Schoenberg, however, this reaction is not necessarily negative. If he intended to overcome his audience’s sense of unchanging drudgery, nausea is an appropriate response: we can appreciate the genius of the music without enjoying its sound. If someone kicked me—not my music, but me—then I might com plain. But if they kicked my music…then who am I to complain? —John Cage After Schoenberg faded, certain members of the musical avantgarde seemed to realize the danger of obsessing over composition, of losing the ability to laugh at oneself. Composers moved toward methods of including their audiences in the production of the works, a major step that took away the hierarchy involved in one person defining high art for an audience of millions. Where Schoenberg tossed many of music’s rules, and replaced them with complex formulas, the new avantgarde departed almost altogether from composition. In extreme cases, such as some of the work of John Cage, the composer contributes only the idea for the piece, not the specific notes or elements. Cage’s most famous work, 4'33", involved a pianist sitting in silence for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, the only sound being the audience’s. “Compositions” such as these deemphasized the role of the artist while more directly involving the audience, albeit reluctantly, in the production process. Such a reliance on the audience removed the music from the composer’s identity, thereby dissipating the kind of bonds Schoenberg felt toward his music. Where in Schoenberg, the music alienates the audience, in Cage the audience is wrapped up in it, and the composer is alienated. Works such as 4'33" once again reject traditional standards of music, even the recent ones Schoenberg established, but fail to posit a new standard.
The lack of a standard in Cage’s eventually unnerved audiences who perhaps already were uncomfortable at being used as living instruments in his work. Cage’s music, by the nature of it, could not be constant — it changed with each performance — but neither could it be aurally pleasing, mostly because the unpredictability factor rose too high. Since so little endured from one night to the next, an audience could not trace or admire whatever beauty there may have been in his work. Many compositions not only were unpredictable, but mostly random. Based on the sounds of men tuning radios, broken pianos, and the nervous coughs of audience members, Cage’s work evaded all efforts to transpose a logic on top of it. “This logic was not put there by me, but was the result of chance operations. The thought that it is logical grows up in you.… I think…that when we use our perception of logic we minimize the actual nature of the thing we are experiencing,” explained Cage. The absence of logic made it nearly impossible to commodify Cage’s work, a side effect Cage no doubt anticipated. But by this time in the century, commodification served as the primary means of establishing something in culture. If it couldn’t be advertised, mass produced, and purchased, its effects could be only ephemeral. Cage’s music existed only in the presence of an audience. As with Schoenberg, the novelty —perhaps the genius — of Cage’s work lost its audience, which grew estranged with each further attempt to embrace it. With neither the composer nor the listeners identifying with the music, it died. Sometimes, I wish I could walk up to my music as if for the first time, as if I had never heard it before. Being so inescapably a part of it, I’ll never know what the listener gets, what the lis tener feels, and that’s too bad. —John Coltrane Cage’s deconstruction of music occurred along side the rise of a far more melodic music of harmony and ecstasy: Jazz. From the beginning, Jazz was an interactive music, designed to elicit strong reactions from the audience, so they would feel the intensity of the musician. Jazz is a music of people fed up with hierarchies and predetermined definitions of art. Spontaneous, rhythmic, and rebellious, Jazz almost always has been on the avantgarde of the music scene. One of its most talented practitioners, saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, helped revolutionize Jazz with the “cool” and “hard bop” styles, both meticulously composed but augmented with improvisation, and then moved into the deep fury of Free Jazz, a complicated, chaotic form pioneered by Ornette Coleman. Having reached the limits of jazz composition, Coltrane went beyond into previously untested territories. He rejected the tight structure of
earlier Jazz and drove toward a transcendent music, unwritten and unrehearsed, that would propel him and his audience out of elation, through hysteria, and into what he called “unity.” Coltrane on his album Om screams through his saxophone almost without pause for half an hour while a pianist, two drummers, another saxophonist, and a bass player play manically around him. Occasionally, some people grunt “Om,” calling the name of a deity, a symbol of unity. Elvin Jones strikes a cymbal. A sheep seems to bleat, wind or horn cries out. These are the sounds of revolution. “This cry, the characteristic resonant element of ‘free music,’ born in an exasperated tension, announces the violent rupture with the established white order and translates the advanc[e]…of a new black order,” writes critic John Beverley. Taken together, these sounds cancel out concentration. Their intensity cancels everything outside the music — the boring life, the smoky room, the nagging sense of failure all surrender to the blur and frenzy of Om. In some way, Om and music like it collapses the entirety of life into a moment. Being drawn into a music such as this not only rejects old beliefs about the nature and purpose of art, but inspires the doubting of issues outside the music. The sounds go beyond eliciting particular emotions, and into promoting an altered state of being. Somewhere, Coltrane becomes more an instrument than a composer. Music passes through him into the audience without apparent direction or goal. No critic can classify the reaction of a listener. “If you find yourself responding…with any feeling — listen on,” Nat Hentoff wrote in the album’s liner notes. Each of Coltrane’s notes vanish for him as soon as he play them. Although others may record and remember them, the producer of the notes only knows the intense magic of playing. Problematically, the audience seems able to get something from the music Coltrane himself cannot: the ability to hear it objectively. Unable to know or even separate himself from the music, Coltrane cannot objectify it. Where Cage pushed his music away from him, Coltrane (alienated from his own music) yearns to hold onto it, but realizes he can savor only the playing, and gives the music to his audience. Only by playing can he know the intensity his audience feels. Cage once described his own music as “a nonsentient being,” but with Coltrane, the music gains its life through a kind of tacit contract with his audience, in which together they generate an enormous energy. However, Coltrane seems to end up with the lesser reward, because he works while his audience listens, and reacts to the music as they please. The energy generated in the performance could not be commodified. Instead, people in effect commodified Coltrane himself by giving him money to play and elicit some kind of response in them. Once they left the performance, their use for him evaporated, and he was left with no one
to play for him. Heroin was the only agent capable of doing for him what he had done for his audience. Coltrane’s unlikely successors in spirit were the Sex Pistols. A band born of a wily manager’s greed, the Pistols began as a commodity. Packaged, labeled, and marketed to a cynical youth, the Pistols were an ingenious way of capitalizing on a bratty generation’s weak efforts to reject capitalism. In their early days, they were among the avantgarde, and changed the direction of rockandroll, but remained pathetically unaware of their status as consumable goods. Like Coltrane, the Pistols moved their audiences to frenzy, but when the crowds went home, they remained alone and used, blindly navigating their way through fame and wealth. Despite their antics, the Pistols were perhaps the most predictable of all the musicians mentioned here. Though they succeeded in challenging and rewriting music, the Pistols failed to separate their music from themselves, and could not cope with the intensity of their lives when their success finally outgrew their abilities to manage it. They imploded in a haze of drugs and violence. We’re a little more relaxed at this point in time about being a big band, because we’ve turned it into a part of the creative process. —U2’s The Edge Schoenberg wrote brilliant music, but no one could stand to listen. Cage opened his arms to his audience, but then squeezed to tight. Coltrane gave his audience too much, and himself not enough. Gluttony and lack of irony killed the Sex Pistols. The band would have been perfect, but they couldn’t support their own size, and couldn’t laugh at their largesse. A band so big needs awareness of its shortcomings, its excesses, its abilities. They must find the balance between the brilliant and the pleasing; they must receive from their audiences as much as they give. To retain its artistic integrity, a band must change not only what came before it, but change itself over the years, and change what will come after it. U2 is synthesis. Since their beginning, they have changed rockandroll, consistently won critical praise, played with astonishing intensity, and destroyed themselves only to resurge stronger than before. While perfecting their music, they watched the Sex Pistols, and then Punk, shoot skyward and fizzle. Within a few years, U2’s work culminated in Joshua Tree, and they became the biggest band in the world. When the Pistols reached the pinnacle of their popularity, they autodestructed. In the same position, U2 did the same, but only on an artistic level, with Rattle & Hum, an explosion of blues that stunned music and seemed almost entirely removed from anything they had done before. The subsequent release of Achtung, Baby! introduced a wholly restructured band, with a new persona and radically different music.
That album begins with the pounding of drums overloading the input channels on a mixer. With these opening sounds, U2 indicates their newfound sense of irony. They show awareness of their medium, and of the ways to subvert that medium. The drums suggest the band is pretending to be too powerful for the medium, the compact disc is not as sonically perfect as assumed, or they are playing with the limits of popular acceptance. (They repeat this effect in the closing moments of Zooropa, in which an alarm sounds, perhaps to warn of what the next album.) U2 seems to be saying, We can do these things because we are U2. While this would seem at first blush to be a statement of conceit, it is instead one of fact. The band can begin an album with garbage, and move into a display of brilliant talent. The last three U2 albums (Rattle & Hum, Achtung Baby, and Zooropa) clearly illustrate the band’s willingness to innovate. Perhaps they feel as Schoenberg did, that music for too long had survived on rehashings of old forms, or more specifically, that the band was in danger of surviving on rehashed material. This drive toward innovation prevents them from becoming stale, but the band still toys with the notion of themselves as only musical commodities. The lyrics to the title track on Zooropa, for example, derive mostly from advertising slogans. By ironically reappropriating the phrases into their music, the band affirms their originality and their position as consumer goods. U2’s recent tours have further emphasized the band’s ironic representation of themselves. The unprecedented ZooTV tour blended the band’s music with the satellite television images, on stage cellular phone calls, and giant video screens. Tens of thousands see the same image, hear the same words in the same place at the same moment. Guitarist The Edge suggests the band was trying to create “information central, whatever that is.” U2, in some sense, is the information central of music. They have processed history, learned from their own and other artists’ mistakes, considered cultural movements outside their discipline, and handled their fame with a smiling irony. Sources: Jones and Wilson, An Incomplete Education, 1987. John Beverley, The Ideology Of Postmodern Music And Left Politics, Critical Quarterly, 1989. Mondo 2000, interview with U2 Partial Discography: Laurie Andersen, Big Science Laurie Andersen, Strange Angels John Coltrane, Blue Train John Coltrane, Om
Lou Reed, Magic and Loss Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire U2, Achtung Baby! U2,Rattle & Hum U2, Zooropa Tom Waits, Bone Machine
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