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Paper presented at the Symposium `Politics and the Arts: Making Connections in Theory and Praxis´,

organized by POLARTS/ECPR, Berlin, May 2002.

Sounds of world politics: geopolitics of culture

and the displacement of music in contemporary

Noé Cornago
University of the Basque Country


The controversy caused by some disconcerting comments of Stockhausen

about the alleged aesthetic value of the terrorist attack against the Twin Towers
in New York, comes to illustrate unexpectedly how delicate our different
understandings on the complex relationship between late-modern aesthetics
and world politics may be.2 In contrast, the prominent role assigned to pop
music in the national mourning acts organized by the USA´s government, in the
immediate aftermath of 11th. September, seems to suggests a much less
problematic continuity between popular music industry, general public opinion,
and governmental policy designs. Keeping this idea in mind, this paper
presents a preliminary reflection on the changing place of contemporary music
within the narratives of world politics and national culture. In addition, it offers a
discussion about the different ways in which western music and the visual arts
were affected by the historical unfolding of the twentieth century. To this end,
we will be following an almost unexplored path to critically approach the

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Culture & Nation Conference, Lisbon, November,
2000. The author thanks Gracia Territori Sonor, and specially Victor Nubla. for his long-standing and
friendly support.
During a press conference in Hamburg a few days after the New York events, German composer
Karlheinz Stockhausen called 11 . September attacks on the United States the “greatest work of art one
can imagine”, later he apologized, remarking that he meant simply to compare the attacks to a “Lucifers´s
work of art”. See: eyewitness.html

complex interplay between late modern aesthetics, world politics, and the
political economy of contemporary art. This rather unusual angle will enable us
to obtain a greater awareness of the changing political meanings, and the very
different conditions of creation, diffusion and reception that have affected music
and the visual arts during recent decades. This is a question that will have
important implications for our understanding of the political forces existing
behind the successive aesthetic and stylistic alterations adopted within
contemporary music.

Our aim is to reveal the complex circumstances that displaced western art
music from its front line position during the inter-war period, towards its current
position on the peripheries of the art system, as a background element in art
exhibitions, as a commodity for music industry, or as raw material for sound
designers in multimedia super-productions. In addition, this focus will lead us to
a better understanding of the multiple operations employed by musicians in
order to find their place(s) in a socio-economic and political context increasingly
elusive to both the material and symbolic appreciation of their work. However,
in examining this reality we do not depart from the widely extended idea of Art
understood as the consecutive rise and fall of artistic movements, the
succession of Promethean figures, or the chronological listing of extraordinary
aesthetic discoveries. Our discussion adopts instead a contextual approach,
which aims to underline the historical and institutional factors, which are
decisive in establishing that a given object belongs to the art system or not, as
well as the changing conditions which determine its eventual political meaning.
But in contrast with some interesting analyses centered on the place of music in
different local contexts,3 our exploration of what we call the displacement of
music in contemporary art, adopts a sort of geopolitical perspective, one that
tries to show the unexpected links between world politics, the global political
economy, and late modern aesthetics.

Cfr.: Leyshon,A.; Matless,D; and Revill,G (eds.): The Place of Music, New York, The Guilford Press,

This approach is commonly shared within popular music studies, but it is not yet
generally accepted regarding art music. Certainly, this exploration would be
impossible if we were to begin with the most widely diffused introductory
literature on contemporary art, since this generally ignores any systematic
reflection about the place of music in the art world. In fact, this widespread
approach constitutes one of the best illustrations of the problem that we are
trying to sketch.4 Similarly, we find little use for many of the best known
introductory works on contemporary music, comfortably installed as they are in
the belief that contemporary music, with the widely recognized exceptions of
the Entartete Musik during the Third Reich and Soviet music under Stalinism,
hardly has anything to do with politics at all.5 Thus, "against the political act of
depolitizing music"6 denounced by Bohlman, our aim in this paper is to
understand why certain music assumes a particular political significance at a
particular time. Nonetheless, as John Street reminds us, in "examining why
music comes to matter":7

"it is not enough simply to 'read' the politics of a piece of music or a film.
Nor is it just a question of seeing sounds and images as 'reflections' of
their times. The same cultural artifact assumes entirely different meanings
in different circumstances. What is important, then, is to find out how and
why aesthetics and politics coincide in any particular cultural form."8

This is the case of the political narratives of national culture surrounding the
more diverse musical expressions, in the past as well as today, from Italian bel
canto to North American country, from the French chanson to so called Brit-
pop. This coincidence between aesthetics and politics sometimes acquires the

E.g: Lucie Smith, E.: Moments in Art since 1945: Issues and Concepts, London, Thames and Hudson,
1995; Taylor,B.: The Art of Today, London, Beidenfield and Nicolson, 1995.
Among the exceptions, vid.: Morgan,R.P.: Twentieth Century Music, New York, Norton &
Company,1991; 1945, and Whitall,A.: Music since the First World War, Oxford, Oxford University Press,
Cfr. Bohlman,P.V.: "'Musicology as a Political Act", Journal of Musicology, vol. 9, no 4, 1993, p. 411-436.
Cfr. Street,J.: "Invisible Republics and Secret Histories: A Politics of Music", Cultural Values, vol. 4,no. 3,
2000, p. 298.
Ibid. p. 299.

extravagant Hegelian tone of the following introductory note included on the
cover of Alan Rich´s American Pioneers, a true best-seller in the publishing
market of divulgative criticism on contemporary music:

“American pioneers presents a survey of that peculiarly American

innovatory spirit as manifest in the nation‟s music. On the east coast, early
in the twentieth century, this spirit was captured by Charles Ives (whose
music lay virtually ignored and unperformed until the world caught up with
him, forty years later). On the west coast, Henry Cowell and John Cage
encountered similar critical resistance. Their pioneering flair was an act of
defiance: America throwing off the shackles of European tradition and
inventing a new language, seeking to redefine what could or could not be
embraced by the term `music´.”9

However, as Shreffler has pointed out, although “conventional histories of

contemporary music have achieved their clear picture by eliminating much (if
not most) of the century‟s musical creativity from consideration”,10 the blurring
of boundaries and hierarchies between art, popular, and functional music, and
the rapid dissemination of music all over the world, have made it definitively
inaccurate to write a history of music in the last century centred only on the
evolution of concert music and its canonical forms. Solutions to this problem,
adds Shreffler, “will most likely be found less in the composers, and work
centered on the historiography of past approaches than in methods that allow
us to evaluate how music has been valued, disseminated, and received in
different contexts”.11

See cover notes in Rich,A.: American Pioneers: Ives to Cage and Beyond, London, Phaidon Press,

Shreffler,A.C.: “Local Histories, Global Contexts: Writing the History of 20 th Century music”, in http://

The place(s) of music

We will start our exploration by briefly reflecting about the place of western art
music within the context of the social and political turmoil that crystallized, at the
beginning of this century, in the historical avant-garde. In those years, new
voices emerged which were inclined to try out new artistic proposals
characterized, apart from their aesthetic innovations, by their attitude of cultural
rupture and denial of the autonomy of art. Musicians such as Russolo, Satie,
Schoenberg, Stravinsky, or Weill, among others, participated in the front line of
that discussion, offering very different answers to the same question, just as
painters as Kandinsky and Picasso also did. The meaning of this parallelism
between painting and music was remarked upon by Adorno in very precise

“The analogies between painting and contemporary music are evident. In

both spheres the conventionalized language of forms of bourgeois society
finished in collapse (sic). Its antithesis takes root in the effort of the
aesthetic conscience that, however unconscious this was, tries to break
through the blind spot of ideology and to find the essence. The resignation
of pictorial art to the similarity with the object corresponds in music to the
resignation to the scheme of tonality. Both had fulfilled the same function:
to measure the work of individual art with respect to what lies outside its
own formal legality and that is confirmed socially (sic.). When that function
and the immanent exigency of creation were completely dissociated,
obedience to the pre-existing thing was ejected. Viewed from the distance,
both lines were developed in parallel form”12

The debate between the defense of atonal music represented by Schoenberg,

Webern or Berg, and the didactic proposals for a new form of popular music

This is the opening statement in Adorno,T.W.: “Zum Verhältnis von Malerei und Musik heute”, Theorie
der neuen Musik, Musikalische Schriften, V, vol. 18, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1984.

elaborated by Eisler or Weill, is of the greatest relevance to the problem that we
wish to analyze. In fact, this discussion about musical aesthetics also revealed
very different criteria about music‟s political relevance in a context of great
social turmoil. However, in their attempt to redirect art towards a new form of
life praxis, the historical avant-garde had to confront the basic contradiction of
art within capitalist societies. For, although it is true that art can symbolically
express social criticism and popular aspirations to emancipation, it is also true
that the actual social contradictions cannot be resolved in the realm of artistic
creation. Thus, avant-garde art, with is concentration on utopian energies in the
world of aesthetic creativity, was to have, at the end of the day, a double
character of negation of the ruling social order as well as of reinforcing or
affirming it. As Bürger suggests, that contradiction may have provided a pathos
of initial historic progressiveness to its practitioners, but its real weight lies at
the base of the deactivation of the avant-garde in the political context of
European fascism and the outbreak of the Second World War.13 In order to
analyze this process it is essential to consider the deep implications that the
mass migration of European artists to the USA, during the 30´s and 40´s, had
on the cultural world, as well as the radically different way in which that
movement affected visual and musical creation. The most studied case is
undoubtedly the process of degradation that Surrealism suffered during the
40´s. In a few years, its boldest creations were reduced to spectacular
innovations in theatre and cinema sets, and to graphic resources for illustrated
magazines, fashion shows and advertising campaigns. However, this process
didn‟t prevent Surrealism from achieving economic success, as well as
widespread social and institutional recognition. In fact, this whole process had
the support of some of its most brilliant pioneers who, in exchange for their
rejection of any progressive political involvement and the moderation of their
fiery left-wing rhetoric, saw their exile in the USA rapidly turned into an
eccentric and richly provisioned paradise on earth.14

Bürger,P.: Theorie der Avantgarde , Shurkamp Verlag, 1974.
Tashjian,D.: A Boatload of Madmen: Surrealist and the American Avant-Garde, New York,Thames &
Hudson, 1995.

In contrast, the fate of musicians was generally very different. The aesthetic
innovations of atonal music and its certainly disputed contributions to social
criticism were devaluated through the accelerated incorporation of dissonant
elements into repertoire music for radio and cinema, now redefined as a
background soundtrack for movies of horror, science fiction, or suspense, as
well as for what were then called psychological films. Thus, in only a few years
atonal music was burdened with associated meanings that were to impede,
perhaps up until the present day, the unprejudiced reception of the new musical
language opened up by Schoenberg, Webern or Berg. In turn, the hopes for a
music serving the emancipation of the working class, proposed by Eisler or
Weill, was reduced to a superficial renewal of American musical comedies with
German cabaret and commercial jazz elements. In sum, the encounter of
European musicians with Broadway and Hollywood was much more
problematic and certainly much less productive on both the material and
symbolic sides. This process which took form during the New Deal years was
nevertheless considerably worsened when in the early post-war period Truman
established the hysterical anti-communist policies that were to characterize the
North American approach to the Cold War. The best evidence of the lack of
adaptation of many progressive artists to the new ideological climate was,
surely, the controversial expulsion in 1948 from the USA of the German
composer Hans Eisler, after a fiercely disputed investigation into his political
background and professional activities instigated, as a member of the
Committee on Un-American Activities, by Richard Nixon amongst others. The
same politician that forty years later, in 1987, would be honored by John
Adams, the successful minimalist composer, with his opera Nixon in China.

Turning again to the visual arts, the decay of the old European avant-garde in
the post-war years, set the basis for a new aesthetic movement in the United
States, which framed by the ideological climate of the Cold War and by political
design, would drive American arts to occupy the leading world role that its new
superpower status demanded. In this context, it is worth underlining that unlike
the generalized references to Stalin‟s aesthetic impositions on the most daring
Soviet artists, the stylistic evolution of western contemporary arts is still usually

presented as being completely unrelated to the political context. However, the
sudden entrance of abstract expressionism into the art world, led by Pollock,
Rothko or De Kooning among others, beyond its purely and very appreciable
aesthetic dimensions, reveals the political depolitization of contemporary art.15

Nonetheless, it was within the emotional climate of the so-called witch-hunting

period, when the new American avant-garde was internationally presented
through the organization of great exhibitions all over the world. Abstract
Expressionism was firmly promoted by the United States Information
Agency/USIA, with its huge team of well trained propagandists, and the close
collaboration of reputed art critics, prominent collectors and gallery owners, and
the curators of some of the more prestigious American museums.16 After
getting rid of the figurative social contents characteristic of the earlier period‟s
expressionism, the new Abstract Expressionism -with its free appearance
against the formalist and rigid character of Socialist Realism- served the
purposes of a very selective ideological maneuver on a world scale. An
operation directed by the more liberal wing within the U.S. intelligence
community, especially addressed to some European and Latin American
moderate left groups that would end up seeing in the creativity of the new
American art a convincing political metaphor about the excellencies of the
liberal model.

Certainly, this trend initially met with the resistance of many progressive artists,
some of them truly interested in abstract expressionism as a legitimate
aesthetic language,17 but their growing disappointment regarding the totalitarian
character of Stalinism, in addition to the economic incentives and social
recognition offered by the powerful institutional and corporate proponents of the

See Cockroft,E.:“Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War”, in Frascina,F. (Ed.): Pollock and
After: The Critical Debate, London, Paul Chapman, 1985, p. 125-133.
See Guibault,S.: How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art : Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and
the Cold War, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1983, and more recently Jachec,N.: The Philosophy
and Politics of Abstract Expressionism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
See Leja,M.: Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s. New Haven,
Yale University Press,1993.

new language, finally undermined any effective opposition, ending in the
practically general acceptance among North American artists of the new state
of affairs.18 In other words, the rise of Abstract Expressionism represents, in the
final analysis, the increasing functional adaptation of American art to national
security and market priorities during the ideological climate of the Cold War.
Certainly, this extended understanding of the political meaning surrounding
Abstract Expressionism, has been questioned among others by Craven, who
has recently suggested that “there has been considerable exaggeration by art
historians on both the right and the left about the degree of success enjoyed by
the CIA and cold-war liberals in remaking Abstract Expressionism into a mere
celebratory signifier of late capitalism along with U.S. hegemony. These are not
really the values that this art has most often come to signify, either in Latin
America or the United States”. But against Craven´s statement it will suffice
to mention as a mere illustration the organization of two large exhibitions of new
American art in Madrid and Barcelona in 1955, and Madrid in 1958, in the
framework of the recently established diplomatic relations between Franco‟s
regime and the USA, which would lead, after Spain‟s admission to the United
Nations, to the international acceptance of the Spanish dictatorship as a
strategically important member of the western bloc.20

In contrast, the propagandistic value of some audacious attempts to introduce

experimental music in the international programs sponsored by the more liberal
side of the North American ideological establishment during the Cold War,
seems to have been much more limited. The efforts were particularly clear in
the case of the cultural programs sponsored by the United States in Germany

For an interesting approach to this process, see, Crane,D.: "Reward Systems in Avant-Garde Art: Social
Networks and Stylistic Change", in The Transformation of the Avant-Garde, Chicago, University of
Chicago Press, 1983.
Cfr. Craven,D: Abstract Expressionism as Cultural Critique: Dissenting during the McCarthy Period,
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p.20.
Cfr.: Tussell García, G.: “The Internationalisation of Spanish Abstract Art: The Interchange of Exhibitions
between Spain and the USA (1950-1964) “, paper presented at the Art and Culture of the Other Americas
Conference, Liverpool, February 2002. Indeed, it seems that governmental support to abstraction served
also to reterritorialize spanish culture within the early decades of Franco dictatorship: Arnaldo,J.: “España
1950. La abstracción como vuelta al orden”, La Balsa de la Medusa, nº 55-56, 2000, p. 3-19.

during the early fifties.21 In her celebrated book about the cultural Cold War,
Frances Stonor Saunders suggests that the internationally acclaimed
Darmstadt Courses for New Music, were a somewhat reluctant creation of the
American military establishment in Germany in 1947:

"Even the Darmstatd School got off to a shaky start. A bold initiative of the
American Military Government, the 'Darmstatd Holiday Courses for New
Music' nearly ended in a riot after disagreement about radical new music
spilled over into open hostility. One official evaluation concluded: 'It was
generally conceded that much of this music was worthless and had better
been left unplayed. The over emphasis on twelve-tone music was
regretted. One critic described the concerts as "The Triumph of

But the fact was that, under the auspices of the American military forces in
Europe, numerous American composers participated during the late forties and
the early fifties in reeducation programs which tried to establish, through a new
transatlantic network of artists, journalists and intellectuals, the cultural basis for
a new "transatlantic class" firmly rooted in the new values and modes of the
Western bloc.23 The U.S. State Department, the Army, and even the CIA
sponsored during these years the European tours of such prominent figures as
Edgar Varése, Henry Cowell, Elliot Carter, John Cage, and Earl Brown among
many others, helping to extend in Europe a new narrative about American
experimental music in which the aesthetic and political meanings of freedom
were willingly mixed.24 Similar efforts were made in trying to promote American
new music in Italy during the early Cold War years. In 1954, the Congress for
Cultural Freedom announced its commitment to the promotion of avant-garde

See, Boehling,R.: "The Role of Culture in American Relations with Europe: The Case of United States´s
Occupation of Germany", Diplomatic History, vol. 23, 1999, pp. 57-69.
Cfr. Saunders,F.S.: Who paid the piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, London, Granta Books,
1999, p. 23-24.
See Van der Pijl,K.: The Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class, London, Verso, 1984.
See Beal,A.C.: "Negotiating Cultural Allies: American Music in Darmstadt, 1946-1956", Journal of the
American Musicological Society, vol. 53, no. 1, 2000.

composition, through the organization in Rome of a great International
Conference of Twentieth Century Music. The purpose was, according to Stonor
Saunders, to place the Congress firmly on the map as part of the vanguard in
musical experiment "offering the world a rich sample of the kind of music
expressly forbidden by Stalin". The event was subsidized by sources as diverse
as the Italian government, the Fairfield Foundation, and, through the Chase
Manhattan Bank and other intermediaries, even the CIA, and it was
characterized, in this case, by the unexpected commitment to the aesthetics of
European serialism of both prominent and established composers such as Igor
Stravinsky, and Aaron Copland, never associated before with serial atonalism,
and a new generation of American composers, such as the then practically
unknown Lou Harrison.25 According to Jennifer Lois Delapp, the surprising
embrace of dodecaphonism by a mature Copland should be interpreted in the
light of American awareness of communist opposition to twelve-tone
techniques, and Copland´s personal problems with anti-Communists forces.26

Similar pressure was probably felt a few years before by Henry Cowell, the first
American composer to see his works published in the Soviet Union during the
thirties, when, after four years of incarceration at San Quentin, merely convicted
of homosexuality, and immediately after the recovery of his liberty, he accepted
a position as overseas propaganda advisor for the CIA.27 In addition, the Voice
of America and Radio Free Europe hired during the post-war years prominent
contemporary composers as musical editors or advisors on transnational radio
broadcasting. This was the case of Cowell, who acted as musical editor
specialized in non-Western music for various years. Paradoxically, these
subordinate relationships between artists and radio stations during the early
Cold War, set the bases for the so-called radio art that will obtain increasing
artistic attention during the next decades. However, although the relationship of

Saunders, op.cit. p.221,
See Delapp,J.L.: "Copland, Twelve Tone Music, and the Cold War", paper presented at the Musical
Intersections Conference, organised by the Society for American Music, held in Toronto, in november
See Saylor, B.: "Cowell, Henry", in Wiley Hitchcock,H. & Sadie,S.(eds.): The New Groove Dictionary of
American Music, I, London, Macmillan, 1986, p. 522.

artists to the radio apparatus suggests the identification of a territory, it is also
true, as Dan Lander has pointed, that:

“The history of radio art represents a struggle to overcome the

enforcement of the arbitrary boundaries drawn by the paranoid hands of
the state. These boundaries stifle creativity in many ways, including the
political, the aesthetic, the conceptual, the sensual, and the multitude of
creative imaginings that shape the various models of expression and
perception in a diverse cultural terrain.”28

Particularly interesting is the case of mainstream jazz, which in the hands of the
ideologically well-trained DJ´s of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe,
would epitomize the sound of freedom and democracy for vast audiences all
over the world during the forties and fifties; this was in sharp contrast with the
American reality of racial segregation officially supported in the United States
during those years, and was not without its double-edged cutting effects.29 One
can infer from the reading of certain manual on psychological war dating from
that period that both jazz and the so-called serious American music were
expected to make its small contribution to the foreign policy of the USA as more
or less efficient good-will ambassadors:

"What kind of musical fare does the Voice of America provide for its overseas
listeners? The Music Section has found over the years from practical
experience that the best bet is to give its overseas audiences a balanced diet.
The world must learn that America has something besides popular music in
order to disprove the accusation, so often made by our enemies, that our music
is ephemeral and frenzied. So the Voice has been more than anxious to record
all the contemporary serious American compositions that it could possibly get.
... The VOA constantly strives to reach the widest possible audience at all

Cfr. Lander,D.: “Radiocasting: Musing on radio and Art”, eContact, 2.3, 1999, http://
See Van Eschen,P.: "Satchmo Blows up the World: Jazz, Race and Empire during the Cold War", in
Wagnleitner,R. & May,L.(Ed.): Here, There and Everywhere: The Foreign Politics of American Popular
Culture, Hannover, University Press of New England, 2000, pp. 163-178.

economic and educational levels. That means they must attract and hold the
interest of the unsophisticated listener of musical entertainment, as well as the
discriminating listener".30

However, although these efforts were highly influential within the elitist
subculture of European contemporary music, the most important American
musical resource for ideological influence was certainly not such radical
experimentalism, but the much more easily accepted rhythms and tunes of
popular music. Consequently, it was not American experimental music which
served as the preferred musical partner to Abstract Expressionism in the new
American cultural diplomacy, nor was it what would be exported to the rest of
the world by means of the Voice of America and the flourishing industry of
recorded music during the Cold War years.31 It was to be another, different
musical expression, perhaps more genuinely American, which started to stir the
interest of the masses all over the world. We are talking about what would be
finally known as pop music: easy listening, swing orchestras, lounge jazz, doo-
woop, twist, and of course rock´n roll, giving form, both national and
transnationally, to a new form of hip consumerism.32

In sum, in spite of the initial reluctance of the American military towards the
radicalism of new music, American musical experimentalism was associated
during the fifties, and through the Cold War years, with narratives of scientific
superiority, freedom, democracy and prosperity. Even today, Cage´s
renouncing of compositional control through chance and indeterminacy still
being presented as representative of a pretended American antiauthoritarism.33
However, in spite of such seemingly pluralist approach to national culture, it

Cfr. Larson,C.: "Music: A Medium for Psychological Warfare", en Dougherty,W. & Janowitz,M.(eds.): A
Psychological Warfare Casebook, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1958, p. 581.
See Millard,A.: "America on record: Recorded Sound as an Agent of Americanisation", in Melling,P. &
Roper,J.(eds.): Americanisation and the Transformation of World Cultures: Melting Pop or Cultural
Chernobyl?, Lewinston, Edwin Mellen Press, 1996, pp. 155-170.
See Frank,T.: The Conquest of the Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture and the Rise of Hip
Consumerism, Chicago, University Press of Chicago, 1997.
Cfr. Cameron,C.M.: Dialectics in the Arts: The Rise of Experimentalism in American Music, Westport,
Praeger, 1996, p.41

was precisely during this historical moment of the widespread diffusion of
American popular culture all over the world during the Cold War,34 when what
could be referred to as the displacement of music in contemporary art started.
This strange process, boostered simultaneously by market dynamics and
national security concerns, would end up by displacing art music from its
position alongside the visual arts during the years between the World Wars,
towards its current position on the periphery of the art system.


But the displacement of art music was certainly not the inevitable result of
governmental or corporate design, as a sort of naive conspiracy theory of art
would suggest. The growing elitist tone and the bureaucratic drift of art music
during the 50´s also had a prominent effect. During the post-war years
European countries saw the rapid institutionalization of a bureaucratized
musical avant-garde, under the guiding idea of national culture and the
protectionist mantle of public funds, and the generalized aesthetic commitment
to the rigid structures of so-called integral serialism.35 In contrast with the highly
formalistic European approach, in the North American context the
liberal/anarchist figure of John Cage stands out. Rapidly celebrated as the great
solitary and intellectual figure of contemporary music by the art establishment,
his appearances, invested with a special aura of mystic authority, announced a
new understanding of music as indeterminacy in which all would be possible. At
least, that‟s what emerges from seeing/hearing works such as 4´33´´. Along
with Earl Brown or Christian Wolf, among others, Cage tried to overcome the
rigid self-presentation of the European avant-garde, challenging the
relationships between the composer, the performer and the audience. However,
on announcing the naturalization of music, and the end of the Western classical

See May,L.(Ed.): Recasting America. Culture and Politics in the Age of Cold War, Chicago, University
Press of Chicago, 1989, and Abrams,N. & Hughes,J.(eds.): Containing America: Cultural Production and
Consumption in Fifties America, Birmingham, University of Birminghan Press, 2000.
See: Hermand,J.: “Avantgarde, Modern, Postmodern: The Music (Almost) Nobody Wants to Hear”, in
Hoestere,I.(Ed.): Zeitgeist in Babel: The Postmodern Controversy, Bloomington, Indiana University Press,
1991, pp. 192-206.

tradition, the work of John Cage was to open, as we will try to show further on,
as many doors as it closed.36

Although quite different in character and style, the personality of John Cage had
its European counterpart in the very controversial figure of Pierre Boulez. As
Alan Moore reminds us, by the mid 1950‟s it had become a somewhat common
observation that Boulez´s supremely rational processes and Cage´s supremely
irrational ones, where producing equivalent aural results.37 Although quite
different in their procedure both seem to adopt, through extreme formalism or
chance, a certain refusal of compositional responsibility.38 This increasingly
self-referential character of western contemporary music has been analyzed by
Vieira de Carvalho, who suggests that the so-called New Music after the
Second World War:

"based on a complete rationalisation of composing, kept apart from the

life-world and conceived as a self-referential system, should thus
represent not only the logical achievement of the historical development of
European music, but also the universality of Western musical thought in
the more developed countries like the USA, France and West Germany,
its superiority over the music cultures of the whole world".39

We found an interesting illustration of this pretended superiority among

modernist composers in the crude terms in which Pierre Boulez refers to his
then close friend John Cage, in a somewhat bizarre anecdote contained in a
personal letter dating from December 1950:

Cfr: Joseph,B.: "John Cage and the Architecture of Silence" in October, vol. 81, 1997.
See,Moore,A.F.:"Anachronism, responsability and historical intention", in Critical Musicology Journal,
See, Williams,A.: “Mimesis and Construction in the Music of Boulez and Cage”, Benjamin,A., &
Osborne,P.(eds.): Thinking Art: Beyond Traditional Aesthetics, London, Institute of Contemporary Arts,
1991, p. 141-156.
Vieira de Carvalho,M.: "'New Music' between search for identity and autopoiesis", Theory, Culture and
Society, vol. 16,no.4, 1999p. 127.

"I must tell you a little anecdote. Marina Schiriabine was giving a lecture
on contemporary music and its problems. At that point, as an example of
research in sound, your records of dances for two pianos (sic) were
played. All well and good! But afterwards a gentleman got up -for it was a
lecture debate- and said, "What do you think about be-bop? -in all
seriousness. (I hope, by the way, that you have heard of be-bop, which is
the new style of jazz implanted in Paris by Dizzi Gillespie -i.e. "Dis-y
Ineptie ("What Rubbish), "alla Joyce"- and which is causing a storm in St.
Germain des Prés) The gentleman in question was a poètte lettriste who
was making out that your music was be-bop, and that there was no
solution in music for be-bop. By this point, I was crimson with rage, and I
threw the worst insults I could think of at them (sic) we were finally
overwhelmed in front of such stupidity. In the end I replied to them that,
faced by such bullshit, you don‟t discuss, you just insult"40

Definitely, Boulez was not very interested in the radical renewal that jazz
experienced in the late 1940´s, when this music was emancipated from
ballrooms, thus opening up a completely new path for Afro-American music
which would lead, through the 50´s and 60´s, in a rapid cycle, and thanks to
Parker, Coltrane, and Coleman among others, from Be Bop to Free Jazz. 41 This
transition revealed both the opportunities and constraints of jazz music as an
art form and commodity.42 As an illustration of the political climate surrounding
jazz creativity during these years, it is worth to mention that in 1959 Columbia
not allowed Charles Mingus to incorporate the satirical lyrics against Orville
Faubus, the racist governor of Arkansas, he wrote for “Fables of Faubus”, one
of the titles of his Ah Um album. The song was later recorded the way Mingus
did intend in Mingus presents Mingus album released in 1960 by Candid, a
small independent company. The same attitude of resistance is also present in

Letter from Boulez to Cage, 30 December 1950, in Nattiez,J,J.(ed.): The Boulez-Cage Correspondence,
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 88. Transcription is literal.
See Wilmer,V.: As Serious as Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz, Westport, L. Hill, 1980.
See Porter,E.: “Dizzy Atmosphere: The Challenge of Be-Bop” American Music, vol. 17, nº4, 1999, p.

Coltrane´s improvisational style, able to transform the most seemingly non-
political tune –as My Favourite Things- in a masterwork of political jazz.43
However, it is interesting to note that the early free jazz achievements which
obtained corporate support were presented as an artistic form analogous to
abstract expressionism, as shows the Pollock painting included in the cover of
Ornette Coleman album Free Jazz released in 1960. This situation will change
later when free jazz advocates as Archie Shepp or Cecil Taylor, among others,
explicitly refused any attempt to neutralize the specific political content of the

Turning again to the so-called serious music, another interesting but more
restrained version of the mental state of affairs within some post-war
composers is offered by the American serialist Milton Babbitt, who in spite of
the growing isolation of contemporary music from society, expressed in 1958
his strong commitment to the aesthetics of serialism, in a severe modernist

"Granting to music the position accorded other arts and sciences promises
the sole substantial means of survival for the music I have been
describing. Admittedly, if this music is not supported, the whistling
repertory of the man in the street will be little affected, the concert-going
activity of the conspicuous consumer of musical culture will be little
disturbed. But music will cease to evolve, and in that important sense, will
cease to live"44

Certainly, Vieira da Carvalho argues that some particularly committed

composers, such as Luigi Nono for example, rejected this trend, "attempting to
reconstruct within musical communication the feedback to the life-world, and

On Coltrane´s political aesthetics, see, Shapiro,M.J.: “Sounds of Nationhood”, Millenium, vol. 30, nº3,
2001, p. 594-598.
These are the concluding words of Babbitt,M.:"Who Cares if you Listen", in Schwartz,E. &
Childs,B.(eds.): Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music, New York, Holt, Rinehardt and
Winston, 1967.

consciously and ostensibly, to make aesthetics inseparable from politics"45 This
reflection was later also the point of departure for radical composers such as
Christian Wolff, Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, or Cornelius Cardew, who after
their formative years finally regarded both serial formalism a la Boulez and
Cage‟s indeterminacy as equally incapable of aesthetically confronting capitalist
exploitation and political reality. Cardew self-deceptive career represents
dramatically the aporias resulting from the connection between music and
politics in late-modernity. In his highly polemical 1974 book Stockhausen serves
imperialism, Cardew criticize that both Stockhausen and Cage, in their
pretention to distancing themselves from any form of human affect in their
music, were denying any political effect they may have, positive or negative, on
the world around them.46 Interestingly enough, in one of his more widely
diffused works, Cage in person would dedicate a rather ironic reflection towards
such extremist politico-musical attempts:

“Some politically concerned composers do not so much exemplify in their

work the desired changes in society as they use their music as
propaganda for such changes or as criticism of the society as it continues
insufficiently changed. This necessitates the use of words. Sounds, by
themselves, do not put messages across. And when they do not use
words, politically concerned composers tend to revert to nineteenth
century musical practices. This is enforced in Russia and China. And
encouraged in England by Cornelius Cardew and the members of the
Scratch Orchestra.”47

Vieira de Carvalho, op. cit. p.128.
Cardew,C.: Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, London, Latimer New Dimensions, 1974.
See Cage,J.: Empty Words, Middletown, Wesleyan University Press, 1973, p. 183.

Moreover, in a rather strange (inter)nationalist rhetorical style, which
reproduces some of the more conventional elements of the discourse of Cold
War propaganda,48 John Cage wrote the following lines:

“Musical open-mindedness has come about in this century in Europe both

West and East, in the Americas, in Japan, Australia and perhaps New
Zealand. It doesn‟t exist, except perhaps exceptionally, in India, Indonesia
and Africa. (sic.) Musical open-mindedness exists in Russia but is not
permitted exportation. It is politically excluded in China...”49

But aside from Cage‟s unexpected moral cartographies,50 when considering the
failure of artistic political radicalism in the 60´s and 70´s, it is worth once again
recalling Adorno´s early analysis on the shortcomings of both serialism and
indeterminacy. Since Adorno not only denounces "the aging of the avant-
garde",51 due to the rapid replacement of the emancipatory promises of free
atonalism by the rigid structures of integral serialism -whose immanent logic
denies freedom and artistic creativity- but also the naive idea of an art engagé,
as a kind of self-cancellation of the genuine work of art, which as a form of truth
should never take an ideological stance, nor try to replace philosophy.
Ideological music, for Adorno, is no more than a socially determined music
which has no sense of internal struggle within the musical material itself, and
consequently renounces a priori the achievement of aesthetic autonomy.

However, the fact was that Cage´s philosophy of music and sound was very
influential during the 60´s and 70´s, adding a very particular flavour of freedom
to both the North American and European scenes. Against the bureaucratic drift
of many contemporary composers, the figure of John Cage favoured the

The similarity between Cage´s discourse of freedom and musical aesthetics and the Cold War discourse
has been analysed in Andrews,B.: “Not on his wavelength: experiments with radio by John Cage”, in
Abrams,N. & Hughes,J.(eds.): Containing America… op.cit.
See Cage,J.: Empty Words… op.cit. 179.
On moral cartographies understood as the result of complex relationship between space, subjectivity
and ethics at a (trans)national scale see: Campbell,D. & Shapiro,M.J.(eds.): Moral Spaces: Rethinking
Ethics and World Politics, Minneapolis, University of Minnesotta Press, 1999.
Adorno,T.W.: "The Aging of the New Music", Telos , no.77,1988, p.79-93 (1956)

emergence of a great aesthetic renewal which would have ambiguous effects
on today‟s music. Thus, in the 60´s, the Fluxus group promoted, under the
inspiration of Cage, the renewal of art with the introduction of (non) musical
elements in their happenings and encounters. For instance, while Brecht simply
proposes in one of his event-scores placing a vase with flowers on a piano,
Maciounas in another limited himself to tightening the strings of a piano until
they snapped, while Dennis Johnson reduced one of his pieces to simply
writing the word LISTEN on a page. Indeed, in 1969, in a composition which
has yet to be performed, Phillip Corner proposed a piece which simply reads:
“One anti-personnel type-CBU bomb will be thrown into the audience”. Among
the proponents of this new (non)musical aesthetics Nam June Paik deserves
special mention. In one of his witty essays, entitled Postmusic: An Essay for the
New Ontology of Music, now available on line at the official Fluxus website, he
introduce his post-musical approach stressing:

"New American style boring music is probably a reaction and resistance

against the too thrilling Hollywood movies. Post music is as calm, as cold,
as dry, as non-expressionistic as my television experiments."52

Incorporating diverse graphical or plastic elements into their scores, or simply

drawing or painting their instruction notes, many composers saw the
opportunity for obtaining the type of recognition and valuation of their work, that
is usually reserved to the plastic artists. Moreover, scores and other material
artifacts could be bought, framed, exhibited, reproduced, signed or collected,
expanding the sense of music in both aesthetic, institutional and purely
commercial forms.53 Beyond of purely formal aesthetic considerations, this new
situation can be interpreted as an example of the increasing adaptation of many
creative musicians to the diverse constraints that affect contemporary creation
in pure musical forms. As Huyssen has pointed out, "the earlier avant-garde
was confronted with the culture industry in its stage of inception while

See, Paik,N.J.: Postmusic: an Essay for the New Ontology of Music”,
See, Kotz,L.: “Post-Cagean Aesthetics and the Event Score”, October, vol. 95, no. 4, 2001, pp. 55-89.

postmodernism had to face a technologically and economically fully developed
media culture which had mastered the high art of integrating, diffusing, and
marketing even the most serious challenges”.54 Consequently, more than a
simply nostalgical neodadaism, or supposedly radical Anti-Art, Fluxus
performances may be seen, according to Sell:"as a form of perfomative artistic
statement that their representatives conjoined a number of distinct concerns,
including the place of the artist in a capitalist system that was actively
embracing the avant-garde".55 Nonetheless, this kind of formal radicalism was
welcomed among gallery owners, museum directors and collectors. But the
truth was that in order to remain within the art world, many musicians preferred
to renounce music rather than give up being artists. Thus, it can be said that the
Fluxus group, with its simultaneously oppositional and acquiescent practices,
contributed more or less consciously to the displacement of music towards the
outer margins of the arts. In so doing they accomplished in a rather unexpected
way the predictions of John Cage about the self-dissolution of music in the
contemporary arts.56


Aside from some prominent exceptions, such as the transnational activism of

the Cobra Group, and the early European informalism, the leadership of the
American Art world was not threatened until the late 60`s, within the wider
political context of the Vietnam War. In fact, it was only after the political and
economic recovery of Europe that such influential new movements as the arte
povera, or the German new savages, emerged. But, although Abstract
Expressionism had entered on its definitive decline by the middle of the 50´s,
American art found in so-called Pop-Art an excellent tool that would serve for

See Huyssen,A.: After the Great divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, Bloomington,
Indiana University Press, 1986, p. 168.
See Sell,M.: "The Avant-Garde of Absorption: Happenings, Fluxus, and the Performance Economies of
the American Sixties", Rethinking Marxism , vol. 10, nº 2, 1998, p. 1-26.
This North American trend towards naturalisation of music represented by Fluxus sharply contrast with
the European so-called musique concrete that Schaeffer and others were cultivating in France since the
50´s. See, for example, Schaeffer,P.:A la recherche d´une musique concrete. Paris, Seuil, 1958.

the renewal of its hegemony. Coming from a different generation, lacking the
political struggle and social commitment that had shaped the past (white male)
heroes of Abstract Expressionism, the new Pop-Art industry openly proclaimed
its character of celebrating American culture, as well as its full adaptation to the
logic of the world market and consumer mythologies.57

Unsurprisingly, its presentation in society, national as well as international, was

not accompanied by the diverse sounds of the American post-serial composers
of that time, nor by the political sounds of free jazz, but rather by the new pop-
rock experimentalism of the Velvet Underground. Certainly, some of the most
prominent members of this band showed important avant-garde credentials.
Having worked in the past with such early minimalist luminaries as La Monte
Young, Marian Zazeela or Tony Conrad, John Cale´s distinguished art-touch
set the point of departure for a new era of art pop experimentalism. More or
less consciously serving the double functional task of generational
differentiation and celebration of North American consumer culture, Pop Art
thus favoured the replacement of art music by a new pop music vaguely
inspired in some seemingly radical attitudes of 60´s American (non)musical art
experimentalism. Nonetheless, as Walker suggests, although the mutual
interpenetration between pop culture and the art system received a strong and
definitive impulse with the irruption of so-called Pop Art, it is more appropriate
to see this process as an enduring feature of contemporary art.58

It is interesting to note that in this context, only a new musical aesthetic

movement, American minimalism, was able to find a favourable atmosphere for
its development as a school. Furthermore, musical minimalism presents a clear
similarity with the visual arts of Walter de Maria, Richard Serra or Robert
Morris, but in addition it embraces popular culture and rock music procedures
and attitudes. However, the minimalists that finally obtained mainstream
acceptance and even mass success were not the most radical, represented by

See on this Frascina,F.: Art, Politics and Dissent: Aspects of the Art Left in Sixties America, Manchester,
Manchester University Press, 2000.
Walker,J.A.: Cross-overs: Art into Pop/Pop into Art, London, Methuen, 1987.

musicians like La Monte Young, Niblock, or Palestine, but the much more
smooth side exemplified by the mature works of Riley, Glass or Reich.59
Curiously, despite the distance, even apparent antagonism, between high
modernist musical proposals and post-modern minimalism, the aforementioned
aesthetic attitude of refusal of compositional responsibility, exemplified
conspicuously by the mechanic music proposed by a composer like Tom
Johnson, also seems to be present within the distinctive logic of gradual
additions and change in patterns that characterize the most popular American

However, and asides the commercial construction of a post-minimalist

symphonic canon by the music industry, epitomized by the successful figure of
John Adams, the tireless repetitive character of early minimalism music seems
to be highly influential both on the classic and popular music scenes. In fact, it
can be said that the successful coming of repetitive music during the 70´s and
80´s, prepared us for the final displacement of art music in contemporary art.
The step was taken in the early 90´s, when the new and wealthy empire of
Techno boisterously arrived at the top of the art system. With its rigid
substylistic constrictions, the substitution of compositional procedures by
manipulation of pre-set patterns, and the generalised recourse to the so-called
remix, Techno finally came to hold the musical center of the art world. This
trend towards the replacement of art music by dance music was shown in the
Glo-bal Tekno exhibition which took place in the summer of 1995, at the no
longer existent American Center at Paris. Another interesting indication of this
is the growing attention that some prominent international art journals have
dedicated to this music during recent years. In 1999, Art Press, the specialist
French journal with a wide international diffusion, released a special number
devoted integrally to Techno. The 28 articles contained in this special number
show diverse attempts to establish a very questionable line of continuity
between the modernist electroacustic music of the Cold War years, represented

For a rather celebratory approach to American minimalism in: Schwarz,R.: Minimalists, New York,
Phaidon, 1996.
Moore, op.cit.

by composer such diverse as Schaeffer, Xenakis, Berio or Stockhausen, with
techno-house superstars as Jeff Mills, Juan Atkins, Alec Empire or Derrick May.
Nonetheless, the number also contains two interviews with Pierre Henry and
Stockhausen,61 in which both openly confess to being annoyed by the repetitive
aesthetic of dance/chill out techno music.62

Against this trend towards repetitive sounds, which seems to establish the
hegemony of a certain aesthetics of machinal perfection, it is worth mentioning
the growing interests that creative musicians from diverse backgrounds,
ranging from free improvisation to experimental music, free jazz, hardcore,
noise, or electronics, are showing, all over the world, for what Hamilton called
the aesthetics of imperfection.63 However, in spite of this new plurality of voices,
it is interesting to note the persistence, among today's propagandists of national
culture, of the same homogenizing approach to contemporary music that we
found in the early years of the Cold War. Particularly clear is the example
offered by Joshua Kosman in a journal edited by the United States Information
Agency/USIA in 1998. Starting from a very eloquent political contextualization
around the fall of the Berlin Wall, the author sets out a brief examination of the
current musical scene in terms of populist anti-modernism:64

"In 1989, Americans and observers all over the world watched in
amazement as the Berlin Wall crumbled, bringing down along with it an
enormous complex of calcified belief systems. Whether because of
synchronicity or simply the deceptive but irresistible human urge to draw
connections, an observer of the broad spectrum of classical music in the
United States might have detected something similar in that world as well.

Mallet,F.: Interviews with Pierre Henry and Karl Heinz Stockhausen, both in "Techno: anatomie des
cultures électroniques",Art Press, special number, nº 19, 1999, p. 29-35, and 43-47.
Certainly, even for the most sympathetic reader would be disappointing to read in such a prestigious art
journal the following sample of aesthetic criticism: "Another interesting point is that the only way to
distinguish clearly between different kinds of techno is in terms of statistics, or beats per minute (BPM)"
cfr. Wicke,O.: “Techno, death metal, hardcore", Art Press, nº 211, 2000, p. 58.
Hamilton,A.: “The Art of Improvisation and the Aesthetics of Imperfection”, in British Journal of
Aesthetics, vol. 14, no. 1, 2000.
Kosman,J.:"New Music for a New Century", Society & Values, vol.3, n.1,1998,

... Now almost a decade later, U.S. classical music stands on the verge of
an enormous rejuvenation. The process is far from complete indeed, in
some areas it has scarcely begun but the seeds that have sown over the
past years unmistakably are bearing fruit. The music that is being written
today boasts a combination of vitality and accessibility that has been
missing from American music for too long (sic.) the signs of change there
among younger composers struggling to find their own voice in defiance of
old models, among performers eager to make those voices heard, and
among organisations daring enough to give the nation‟s musical life a
distinctively American profile at least. (sic.) Nothing is more important to
this process than the production of new music, and here is where the
picture is at once most heartening and most varied. From the end of the
World War II until well into the 1970s, the dominant vein in American
music was the arid, intricate style that had grown out of early modernism
and continued to flourish in the supportive but isolated arena of academia.
Much of this music was based on serialism, the system derived from the
works of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg ... Even composers whose works
were not strictly serialists, such as Carter and Sessions partook of the
general preference for intellectual rigor and dense, craggy surfaces. The
fact that audiences were nonplussed by this music, to say the least, was
taken merely as an indication that the composers where ahead of their
time ...”65

Later, after showing his great sensitiveness towards the growing

multiculturalism in North American music, Kosman concludes with a sort of fairy
tale in which American national culture seems to emerge once again:

“In the past 20 years, though, two important developments have effectively
challenged that state of affairs. One is the advent of minimalism, a style of
music that in its pure form is based on simple, tonal harmonies, clear
rhythmic patterns and frequent repetition. The other is a movement that


has tried to continue the development of tonal music where it was left by
Mahler, Strauss and Sibelius; this trend has been dubbed 'new
romanticism'... Between them, these two styles, the one with its search for
beauty and simplicity, the other with its emphasis on expressive
communication, delivered a potent reproach to the lofty abstractions of the
high modernist school (sic). On the other hand, some of the most
interesting classical music now being written in America can be seen as a
fusion of minimalism and new romanticism."66

In sharp contrast with Kosman´s insistence on stylistic fusion and tonalism as a

highway towards national musical unification,67 Steve Gibson suggest that there
is in North America a trend nowadays towards self-conscious eclecticism in
popular and art music, a real anti-unification process, which attempts to
undermine the stylized legitimacy of the so-called American avant-garde, at the
same time disrupting the complacency of the American jazz and pop
communities. As Gibson emphasizes, this trend is also marked by musical
extremism -extreme tempos, extreme noise, extreme quiet- and musical
heterogeneity, which seems to suggest a profound break with the structural
unity of the modernist era.68


There is not a predetermined place for music in that set of procedures,

institutions, discourses and artifacts that socially constitute what is known as
the art world. However, the position of music in contemporary art is usually
explained by means of some essential supposed difference between the aural

See also for a similar tale: Smith,G. & Walker Smith,N.: American Originals, New York, Faber and Faber,
Cfr.Gibson,S.:"Two Instances of Musical Postmodernism in Britain", CTheory
instances_ musical.html-

and visual works, which would necessarily confer a different place on them. 69 In
order to understand the growing differentiation between music and other artistic
domains during the last decades, it is usually suggested that technological
developments have radically affected music by throwing the bulk of musical
creation and diffusion into the global industry of recorded music. But technology
does not simply determine music-making since musicians and consumers have
often used technology in ways unintended by those who manufacture it.70
Consequently, the changing place of music in contemporary art cannot be
explained solely on these bases.

As Victor Nubla reminds,71 categories of tolerance in the diverse forms of

communication, and within the arts in particular, are those of the social
education of the senses. Assured institutionally, the reproduction of these
categories depends on their ability to be used as vehicles for the transmission
and reproduction of the dominant culture. Such a mechanism operates also on
a global aesthetic scale. Everyday life constantly reveals constructions of
meaning to us that seem to respond to a hierarchy of senses, establishing
power relations within communicative processes, as well as within the different
arts. Conventional analysis of contemporary art do not usually consider that
problem, favouring a certain misunderstanding about the different meaning of
the visual and aural arts. Moreover, this misunderstanding has frequently been
encouraged from within the Art system itself. In 1980 the Museum of Modern
Art of Paris, organized Écouter par les yeux, a great exhibition whose title
came to confirm the only form in which some art institutions seem able to admit
musical creation within the world of contemporary art. Nevertheless, the

For an introductory analysis of the institutional implications of the basic differences between musical and
visual creation, see: Zolberg.V.: “Displayed Art and Performed Music: Selective Innovation and the
Structure of Artistic Media”, in Foster,A. & Blau,J.(eds.).: Art and Society: Readings in the Sociology of
Arts, New York, State University of New York Press,1989, p. 325-348.
Cfr. Théberge,P.: “Plugged in: Technology and popular music”, Frith,S.; Straw,W.,Street,J.(eds.):
Cambridge Companion to Rock and Pop, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 3.
Nubla,V.: Clariaudiencias, Lisboa, Clube Portugues das Artes e Ideias, 2000. Introductory essay to the
III Clariaudiencias Workshop, held at the Center for Artistic Experimentation Lugar Commun, in
Barcarena, July 2000, organised by the Clube Portugues das Artes e Ideias. Available at the Gracia
Territori Sonor website:
See Levin, D.M.(Ed.): Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision Berkeley, University of California Press,

existing confusion has also been spread from the world of music itself, since a
good part of the musical thought of recent decades has contributed to a great
extent to increasing the confusion that we have mentioned.73 For instance,
William Furlong presents the situation of contemporary sound art as a reality
completely isolated from any other expression of contemporary musical art. In
so doing, he seems to suggest that only when subordinated may music become
a genuine form of art:

“Sound has never become a distinct or discrete area of art practice such
as other manifestations and activities were to become in the 1960s and
1970s. Although it has been used consistently by artists throughout this
century, there has never been an identifiable group working exclusively in
sound, so one is confronted with an area of art practice labelled 'sound art'
in the same way as one might be with categories such as Pop Art, Minimal
art, land art, body art and so on. Another factor is the diversity of functions
and roles that sound has occupied within various artists' works. This
failure of sound to construct a distinct category for itself has in fact proved
an advantage, given that categories in the end become restrictive and the
work cinscumscribed and marginalized. Therefore, in spite of the
frequency with which sound has been utilized within artist‟s work, it
remains remarkably clear of prior associations, historical precedent or
weight of tradition. Sound has in fact provided an additional ingredient and
strategy for the artist with the potential of addressing and informing senses
other than the visual” 74

Douglas Kahn offers another illustration of this perspective, when he prefers to

forget completely the history of music in order to affirm the space for the so-
called sound-art he prominently advocates:

On the so-called sound-art, understood as a non musical art developed by non musicians, see:
Lander,D. & Lexier,M.(eds.): Sound by Artists, Toronto, Art Metropole, 1990.
Cfr. Furlong,W.: "Sound in recent Art", in Audio Arts: Discourse and Practice in Contemporary Art,
London, Academy, 1994, p. 128.

“There is no history of a self-described and autonomous (sound) art in the
way one might think of the history of sculpture, no facade of a purposeful
unity and linear continuity, no ongoing biographical intrigues and libidinal
exchanges of influence. As a historical object, sound cannot furnish a
good story or consistent cast of characters nor can it validate any ersatz
notions of progress or generational maturity.”75

A similar reflection is deserved by the derive of another famous concept, that of

the sound landscape. In confusing sound ecology and musical aesthetic
experience, through the naturalization of music, Murray Schafer and his
conservationist colleagues76 have been promoting what Francisco Lopez has
called the dissipation of music.77 Another illustration is the drift suffered by
concepts such as sound sculpture, or sound installation, from an initial meaning
destined to emphasize the spatial perception of sound to the present
consideration as mere denomination for a visible device that in addition

This trend within the art system sharply contrasts with the spectacular
reconsideration of the value of sound that is increasingly being shown by the
global entertainment industry during recent years. Television advertisements,
Hollywood sound effects, home cinema devices, or sound designs for video-

Cfr. Kahn,D.: Introduction: Histories of Sound Once Removed”, in Kahn,D. & Whitehead,G.(eds.):
Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio and the Avant Garde, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 1992, p. 2
See the very influential Schafer,R.M.: The Tuning of the World, New York, Alfred Knopf, 1977.
Lopez, F.: The Dissipation of Music, unpublished essay in progress.
Sean Cubitt offers an interesting remark, concerning a major retrospective of video installations in
Cologne a few years ago, about the way in which this confusion arises, as well as about its deeper
consequences: "A curatorial problem with having more than one or two exhibitions in a show is that their
sound spaces tend to overlap, producing an unmanageable cacophony in the transition zones between
them. The organisers‟ solution was to equip visitors with infrared activated headsets, which would pick up
the sound from a given installation as you walked into range of its miniature transmitter. It was not just the
abruptness of the transition which offended some of the exhibiting, but the translation of an architectural
into a punctual space. Transmitted through air, sound occupies and creates an environment. Transmitted
directly to the ear, with whatever purity of reproduction, that space is reduced to an optimal (and
imaginary) point midway between the ears. Such a Cartesian soundscape, constructed as a technology in
which aural perspective is focused around an imagined central point of the brain not only returns us to a
residual dualism of mind over sensorium, not only reduces the experience of sound from a bodily to a
purely auricular event, but also remodels the sound space as individuate. The Cartesian headset, in its
pursuit of an imagined ideality of reproduction, deprives the auditor of the fundamental sociality of sound".
Cfr. Cubitt,S.: Digital Aesthetics, London, Sage, 1998, p. 103-104.

consoles. All these come to confirm, along with the new interest in sonic
weapons, the unfolding of a whole new and sophisticated social engineering of
sound, firmly devoted to exploit to the limit all of the possible and imagined
functionality of sound within late modern capitalism.79 In this adverse context,
music has been pushed to gregariously following the directions of national
culture bureaucracies and contemporary arts establishment, or to adapt itself to
the logic of the cultural industry. Thus, art music has been propelled to look for
new ways for symbolic and material recognition through different transnational
operations, in order to assure the survival of music as a form of art.

However, the fact that music was displaced towards different spaces also
allowed that other displacement of creative vitality that continues to be ignored
by the guardians of the dominant culture. Since, fortunately, contemporary
music offers a much more complex plurality of voices than some prominent
members of the international art establishment seems to imagine, and much
more complex aesthetic expressions than the ubiquitous military sounds of
dance music.80Nevertheless, this new pluralism does not necessarily deserve
celebration, as the ability of the art work to separate itself from social forces
affirming its autonomous character is of central aesthetic importance. The
existing confusion about the aesthetic meaning of „high‟ and „low‟ art, and the
new tonal simplicity of much of contemporary „popular‟ and „art‟ music thus
suggests the conflation of culture and advertising seen by Adorno and
Horkheimer as the fundamental symptom of the growth of culture as mere
commodity.81 But, in spite of all the difficulties, in recent decades, at the
margins of the art system, a dense transnational network of art musicians has
crystallized. Place or non-place of encounter for artists from all over the world.
This network is used creatively by different musicians in very diverse contexts,
against governmental and corporate designs. This movement affirms,

See on this, Potts,J.: "Is There a Sound Culture?", Convergence, vol. 3, nº4, 1997.
See Sakolsky, R. & Wei-Han Ho,F. (eds.): Sounding Off: Music as subversion /Resistance/ Revolution,
New York, Autonomedia, 1998; and Corbett,J.: Extended Play: Sounding off From John Cage to Dr.
Funkestein, New York, Duke University Press, 1994.
See Horkheimer, M. & Adorno, T. W.: Dialectic of Enlightenment. London, Allen Lane, 1973.

consequently, in its wide plurality, the refusal to adapt musical art, through its
transformation into design or mere sounding device, to the functional
requirements of the social system. That music arises, in sum, against the
reduction of aesthetic experience to the phenomenology of consumption and
administered life.