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Music, Violence, Truth

Ben Watson
Music, Violence, Truth
Ben Watson
After the devastation in Manhattan on 11 too: the artists may have waived their fees,
September 2001, what can radical music but as with Live Aid, it's obvious that the
mean? Einstürzende Neubauten - whose global exposure they're achieving is worth
name translates, prophetically, Collapsing more than any fee. However, in such a
New Buildings - earned their avantgarde context of harmonic maturity and low-key
stripes in Britain by applying pneumatic sentiment, the concept of ‘audio terrorism’
drills to a stress-bearing beam at the does appear silly and adolescent. Should
Institute of Contemporary Arts. the noisy end of the avantgarde shut up,
After 11 September, such transgressions and confess its misdemeanours were all
surely pale into insignificance. Indeed, a ruse?
any comparison might seem offensive. At
No Future, an academic conference on
Punk held in Wolverhampton in late You didn’t need to
September 2001, an American delegate repeat the images in
announced that after 9-11 the relationship
of music to violence and shock needed
your head, TV did nothing
to be rethought. The whole Punk and else for days
Noise ‘transgressive’ aesthetic, one he'd
subscribed to throughout his youth,
needed revision. Like watching the late The avantgarde registered its own
Linda Lovelace, born-again and demure, peculiar response to the disaster. Rushing
denouncing porn and sex-before-marriage in where angels fear to tread, Karlheinz
on a TV chat show, such reversals in ideology Stockhausen voiced what some may
cannot be taken at face value. These have felt in the instant, but none dared
rifts and contradictions indicate a clash of say. For him, the crashing planes and
tectonic plates at a more fundamental collapsing towers felt like art: "What
level, something violently mismatched in happened there is - now you must re-adjust
the relationship of music to truth and your brain - the greatest work of art
conscience. imaginable for the whole cosmos. Minds
Musically, America responded to the pain achieving in a single act what we in music
and loss of 9-11 with a fund-raising telethon can only dream of, people rehearsing like
which drew on the sombre substratum of mad for ten years, preparing fanatically
hymn-singing which underlies corporate for a concert, and then dying. You have
pop, and which unites country, soul and people who are that focused on a performance
reggae. Music written for church performance and then 5,000 people who are dispatched
- unmediated, involving, communal and to the afterlife, in a single moment. I
local - inevitably became kitsch and false couldn't match it. Against that, we - as
when delivered by top-selling super-stars composers - are nothing." Surely the guy
for international broadcast. These songs is crazy? In Stockhausen's defence, he did
are made for internal reflection, not personal go on to admit the attack was a crime,
adulation. The economics were hypocritical because part of the ‘audience’were ‘not
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consenting’. This demur didn't soften and violence?
Gyorgy Ligeti's retort: "Stockhausen The crucial point is that art is an attempt
should be locked up in a psychiatric to tell the truth about the world, the whole
hospital". world, not simply to provide baubles for
A comment by one TV reporter - that those in the comfort-zone of privilege.
the image of the planes crashing into the The economic pressures and national
towers "repeated in the memory like a conflicts that create world wars and mass
nightmare loop" - was distinctly strange. starvation and genocide are still in operation.
You didn't need to repeat the images in The operations of global capitalism, and
your head, TV did nothing else for days its political face-savers, those blue-suited
on end. As usual, the mass media materially bastards Bush and Blair and Berlusconi,
create the psychic conditions which they mean that the inhabitants of Burundi,
then proceed to moralise. But what should Beirut, Belfast and Baghdad (I use alliter-
artists do when reality outdoes them? ation to limit the list) have long suffered
Stay quiet? Admit anti-art destructivism the terror and chaos which the suicide
was just a tease? Confess that these hijackers brought to Manhattan. Edgard
tumultous, apocalyptical events we call Varèse brought the noise of sirens and
‘radical’ were really just conjury with lutes bombs into music in the 1920s, a
and viols, a luxury product ornamented response to the terrors of World War I.
with frissons of phony danger? His Hyperprism predicted the Nazi strategy of
the Blitz, when civilian populations first
became long-distant targets of military
Heavenly universality hardware. Unlike his ‘objectivist’ follower
Iannis Xenakis, Varèse bent the shapes
sounds like hell to he heard into organic ovaloids which
closed-in ears speak for the suffering ear. This is why,
of all the pre-war orchestral composers,
only Varèse has a non-salon, yet humanist
Such evasions smack of the brittle ruggedness: a realism that moves the
repression of married couples who banish blood and shakes the entrails. Sonically,
their teenage metal and pop albums to Varèse can stand comparison to Coltrane
the attic and call their yen for music a and Hendrix, who provided lasting testi-
‘passing phase’. For us, giving up on monials to a different noise: a struggle
extreme music can't be the answer. against racial oppression in America and
Quite the opposite: it's by paying closer genocidal war in Vietnam.
attention to the internal structure of radical These moments of musical truth weren't
music - ‘violence’and all - that its historical easy to achieve, nor were they facile,
and social meaning might be decoded. attention-seeking stabs at ugliness or
Stockhausen's equation of art and terror excess. They were not the sound of George
- "this leap from security, from what's Antheil seeking to be a ‘bad boy’ of the
ordinary, from life" - may be poor consolation avantgarde by slamming his fists on the
for inhabitants of Manhattan who have pianoforte keyboard, or of the japanese
lost loved ones, or now feel desperately Noise artist Merzbow producing fashionably
insecure. However, his weird outburst did catatonia-inducing, all-enveloping drones
touch on something deep. Why is it that, (to steal a name from Kurt Schwitters’
since the modernist revolts of the early Merzbau and then recycle the shocks of
twentieth century, composers and improvisors a degraded surrealism deserves some
have continually shouted noise, crisis kind of critique). According to his wife

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Naima (talking to C.O. Simpkins, his best madness of the stock market as to a natural
biographer), John Coltrane systematically force. By Mahler, the revolutionary allegri are
studied scales from all over the world, hollowed-out, febrile, a nostalgic memory
and tried to pack every musical system that relates to erotics rather than history.
into his music. If the results sound ugly, But this radical subjectivity had consequences.
that is because you are too wedded to
your partial musical identity, to your comfort-
blanket of familiar harmony: heavenly Noise organised for
universality sounds like hell to closed-in extraction of surplus
ears. For his part, Hendrix was intensely
loyal to classmates who had been drafted value isn't noise, but
and to 101st Airborne, the regiment he'd silence at high volume
served in. Eric Burdon was amazed at
his rightwing stance on the Vietnamese
war when he reached England in 1967. By rationalising the brain-bending
Music journalist Karl Dallas challenged chromaticism of Wagner and Mahler,
him in print. Reaching an anti-US position Schoenberg and Webern forged a music
was painful and slow, yet by Machine whose freedom of note combination
Gun, it happened. Hendrix's rainbows of rejected the respectable, bourgeois world
audio-feedback revelled in spaces which of repression and exchange. Their negation
brought pain to the repressed and rigid: of tonality in Twelve Tone, born through
in the ears of GIs, they were incitements logic, is painful; its parallel in the Blues,
to immediate pleasure, to disrespect for itself born through pain, is alluring. These
authority, and to outright mutiny (‘fragging’). twin attacks on the tempered key system
Coltrane and Hendrix did not invent this stalked each other through the twentieth-
dialectic between musical shock and century, fighting, aiding and abetting, fusing
political liberation. It had been the major and swapping places (see Muhal Abrams,
theme for Beethoven and his followers. Frank Zappa, James Blood Ulmer, Derek
Romantic music was a call to revolution Bailey). The struggle for authentic music
that now languishes under the idiot term resembled political resistance to war and
‘classical’. The exhilarating allegri of the inequality and mass starvation. Its history
symphony - the hoofbeats, the jangling is likewise fugitive and unofficial: stark
bridles, the crack of loading muskets - glimpses of a different order in a black
are not about hunting, as Roger Scruton night of violence and lies. When Mark
fondly imagines. They are about bourgeois Sinker, writing in The Wire (no 211, September
revolution - "to arms, citizens!" - discovering 2001), worried that the offensive volume of
common aims, seizing the castle keep, rock can be mobilised to confirm conservatism,
liberating the prisoners, letting in the light he needed to pay more attention to the
of reason, sweeping away the cobwebs music's economic base. Noise organised
of feudal reaction. After 1848, when the for extraction of surplus value isn't noise,
bourgeois class made its historic pact but silence at high volume: rock as spectacle
with state power and landed interests, the blocks its liberating essence, its democratic
excitement turned sour. In March 1871, release and insurrectionary energy
the French state slaughtered the Communards (hence the necessity of Punk etc.) As
in tens of thousands, and drove the voice usual in bourgeois thought, idealism links
of universal truth and reason underground. to positivism: Sinker's decibel-counting cannot
In Wagner, massive chromatic transitions handle the fact that ‘noise’ in music is an
invoke myth and fate: surrender to the aesthetic fact concerning collective human
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experience and individual response, not at recitals - yet ears trained by radio and
a quantitative measure. film musics, used to music which fails to
Take the example of Cecil Taylor. In address the listener directly, shout "Violence!
carrying out zappologist Marco Maurizi's Violence!! Violence!!!" every time they
dictum that the dialectic of Modern Art is hear it.
"mediation criticised by immediacy", Taylor A recent performance at the Barbican
explodes the meaning of the piano - that (13 May 2002) is a case in point. Invited
prime embodiment of bourgeois tonality - to write a concert piece for performance
from within, seemingly bending notes by Bang On A Can All-Stars ("a fiercely
which the machine was designed to deliver aggressive group, combining the power
straight and even, transforming pianistic and punch of a rock band with the precision
mastery into a battlefield of physical tensions and clarity of a chamber ensemble"
and clashes. Taylor has reduced pianism according to the New York Times, who
to lightning rhythmic nuance and bounding appear to have swapped genuine music
sonic volume. Encyclopedic harmonic criticism for promotional falafel), Cecil
knowledge is balanced like an inverted Taylor questioned the fetish of the written
pyramid on the nose-tip of the moment, masterpiece by appearing in person with
causing a frictive density and horrid the group. His ‘score’was an A4 photocopy
power which make lovers of civilised tinkling of some derisory doodles containing randomly
flee the room. scattered letters and musical signs. His
‘rehearsal’ consisted of a thirty-minute
seance at which the musicians were
Taylor’s intent is to instructed to make “no sound” while Taylor
inject the spontaneity of explored the limits of the auditorium by
slowly moving up the aisle (the pianist
the instant into the tinkles some notes and is admonished,
frozen monolith leading to a backstage war in which she
is finally banished from the performance).
Then the musicians were themselves
Why this cataclysm at the heart of sent into the auditorium to test the space,
musical creativity? Because the reputation exhale air and pronounce a word. When
of the classical ‘masterpiece’, this civili- they turn this into a clever improvised
sation, is the accumulation of the sweat- event, cooing and chirping at each other
ed labour of legions of composers, musi- (as they do ‘downtown’), Taylor upbraids
cians, concert organisers and concert-hall them and tells them to slow the tempo to
builders, all those who have worked to near silence. Worse even than gagging
make these moments possible. Taylor's the All-Stars, he imports drummer Tony
intent is to inject the spontaneity of the Oxley, insisting Oxley is "the best drummer
instant - his actual presence at this on the planet" (thus bouleversing decades
moment in front of you now in this particular of careful negotiation between Black
hall - into the frozen monolith, to explode Nationalism and American patriotic hard
the tempered key system into a million sell to make ’Jazz’a global cultural hegemon).
scintillating fragments, to make the In their performance, Taylor and Oxley
process of playing the point of us gathering, upset any notion of received harmony or
and not the congealed kudos of the past. rhythm, forcing the three members of
Taylor is the most refined and gentlest of Bang On A Can who dared show up to
people - to underline the point, he even improvise what they are rather than what
recites poetry and wears pink fluffy slippers they know. The improvisation tore spaces

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in the fabric of ‘community’, and created orchestral interpreter - the musical equivalent
a genuinely new and unheralded musical of the polite dinner-party chatter which
construction with the materials to hand. pretends to talk freely of anything, but
Like a John Cage piece performed in the remains scared witless by economic or
midst of a set of new minimalist hack- sexual reality - and risks genuine expression:
works, Taylor and Oxley proved that all what Leroi Jones called the ‘stance’ which
the careful notations by Tan Dun, Hermeto defines the authentic jazz saxophonist.
Pascoal and Don Byron (pieces which Taylor and Oxley provided ‘stance’in such
had occupied the first half) were so much abundance that their presence felt like a
tepid filmscore twaddle, trivial evasions volcanic eruption of directness and
of what playing music in front of people immediacy, sending the Bang On A Can
really is. musicians into gibbering recall of adolescent
The rhythmic relationship of Taylor and Halenesque electric-guitar (the artificiality
Oxley brought in something vocal and and fragility of the sexual equality induced
authentic that was completely lacking in by classical training was revealed when the
Bang On A Can's finicky reproduction of two female members of Bang On A Can
strategies from Henry Cow, Curlew and failed to show up; this was a punch-up any
the Mike Post Coalition. The fusion of female free improvisor would have loved,
‘rock power’and‘chamber clarity’ promised and shone in... fans of trombonist Gail
by the New York Times proved to be Brand's amazing performance at the V&A
ersatz class-reconciliation, a postmodernist Merz Nite riot were reduced to imagining
sales pitch indicating a consummation what she could have done in this context).
devoutly to be wished by harrassed arts
promoters (ie ‘bums-on-seats’ plus ‘high-
class tone’), but nothing at all in terms of The fusion of ‘rock
musical micro-substance in the hearing. power’ and ‘chamber
Bang On A Can's clumsy attempts at
rock and samba were exceedingly ugly,
clarity’ proved to be
notes as illustrations of the idea rather ersatz class-reconciliation
than the thing-for-itself, cluttered and
awkward. Their performance revealed the
absolutely empty character of academic However, just because musical truth
musical values: all the music said was sounds violent and unacceptable to the status
"we can play these dots", there was no quo, it doesn't follow that literal devastation
motive force, no message to the bowels, and violence are art. Stockhausen's
no meaning. enthusiasm for the Trade Center attack
For musicians to deliver "the word with could just as well be the futurist Filippo-
its theme intact, the word permeated with Tommaso Marinetti praising war ("the
confident and categorical social value world's only hygiene"). Stockhausen com-
judgment," they must also provide the bines Baader-Meinhof's elitist concept of
next term in V.N. Voloshinov's argument: spectacular political action with neo-
"the word that really means and takes Wagnerian megalomania: he doesn't
responsibility for what it says" (these are realise that art and revolution are not a
the closing words of Marxism and the physical force, a firestorm (despite the
Philosophy of Language, 1929). This images currently used by halfwits to promote
means developing a personal voice on ‘Ecstatic Jazz’), but powers mediated via
your instrument which sheds the chameleon- human intellect and will. In other words,
like pseudo-universality of the competent the ‘power’of great music is its truth content,
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its proposed relation to the totality of countries. They applied what the CIA had
society and the cosmos, not brute force. taught them in pursuit of their leader's
Music is not real violence, but a discourse of power struggle with the Bush dynasty
affective states, one that creates opportunities concerning the price of oil (Cecil Taylor
for judgment about feelings. The split cites the fact that San Franciso's mayor
between intellect and emotion is transcended. was warned not to fly on 11 September,
This can't be done with a bludgeon, any maintaining that Bush organised the attack
more than revolutionary seizure of the to consolidate a lost-in-fact election: you
state by the proletarian class can be can hear Taylor's tough, Burroughs-like
achieved by individual acts of anarchist disassociation from liberal unctuousness
violence (Trotsky's critique of Narodnik in every note he plays). Even if they inevitably
terrorism still stands). gain the applause of arab populations
suffering under US-backed repression,
Al-Qaeda have no plan beyond revenge,
Political violence using the civil populations of the enemy
conceived as conflict state as targets (they're like the USSR
between national or backed with a ‘people's bomb’ that will
wipe out the workers of the world they
religious blocks is a should be uniting with). Al-Qaeda's actions
species of psychic do not help to create an independent working-
repression class politics which could overthrow capitalism,
but instead invoke the logic that led to
the bombing of retreating Iraqi troops on
Varèse and his handful of authentic the road to Basrah, and deaths in tens of
orchestral inheritors - namely James thousands. Al-Qaeda are no more to be
Dillon, Simon H. Fell, Iancu Dumitrescu and supported than Cecil Taylor's alternative
Ana-Maria Avram - make music which ‘axis of evil’(George Bush, Wynton Marsalis
short-circuits merely intellectual appreciation and Philip Glass, as if you couldn't
(the tight clean shape of a Haydn Quartet guess).
or a pop song), and at moments speaks Political violence conceived as conflict
directly to the body. It maps out the flow between national or religious blocks is a
of blood, the rustle of nervous synapses, species of psychic repression, akin to
the creak of bone. Yet these musics don't conceiving sex in terms of individual
neglect the intellectual thrill of graphing gratification, or music in terms of a quantitative
such biological realities, nor twinges of measure (‘genius’, ‘outreach’, ‘sales’). It
anxiety and guilt. This emotional science fails to find any agency for saving the
steels the brainpan, giving us the resolve human race (isn't it funny how the well-
to regard the world in its true colours. heeled are so prone to political despair?)
The political corollary is not aesthetic It reduces history and culture to a spec-
awe before the actions of suicidal hijackers, tacle that is no longer carried out by peo-
but comprehension of the motives that ple capable of reason: for example, the
drive global conflict. Not Deleuze & Guttari's myth that the Arab/Israeli conflict is the
facile and rhetorical "surrender to the primordial fruit of thousands of years of difference
Other", but Enlightenment: Freud's (one peddled in a recent headline by the
"Where Id was, Ego shall be". supposedly progressive french newspaper,
9-11 was not radical music, but an atrocity Libération), rather than a US strategy to
inflicted by conspirators trained by the put pressure on Arab states and keep
CIA for destabilisation projects in foreign down the price of oil. Religious and national

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pseudo-explanations obscure the rational
dynamic of capital and its reproduction
(mangetouts from Kenya, silicon chips
from South Korea and the multi-coloured
metropolis are all highly explicable
phenomena), naturalising anglo wealth
and afghan poverty. Alice Coltrane's mil-
lionaire mysticism retains the worst part
of John Coltrane's legacy: its living part
is its global integration of musical codes,
its refusal of religious and national divisions.
Free music is the song of the New
International.

Free music is the song


of the New International

By facing the horrors of an unbalanced


world, by making us experience its terror
and violence and sorrow, radical music
offers the satisfaction of truth rather than
the blandishments of comfort. It arms the
psyche for reality. This will become
increasingly necessary as the weaponry
and trade-deals sold by the First and ex-
Communist Worlds to the Third send us
their refugees, their anger and their
despair. The grief-stricken of Manhattan
should be allowed to bury their dead in
whatever manner they wish, but sombre
hymns and TV-studio candles are not the
final word: only a courageous assessment
of global realities - musical and political -
will allow us to shape a future worth
hearing.

May 2002

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This piece was originally commissioned by Rob This piece was proposed to Rob Young at The Wire
Young at The Wire in the aftermath of the Twin in the aftermath of the Twin Towers suicide attack on
Towers suicide attack on 11 September 2001. It was 11 September 2001. Unfortunately, it did not fit with
deemed "not to fit" with other contributions (The other contributions to a special issue (no 213,
Wire, no 213, November 2001 ). After Young voiced November 2001): it was too long, and all the rest
the opinion that US bombing had created "a happier were on-the-spot responses by local New Yorkers. In
Afghanistan ... music and song are returning to that the next issue, Young voiced the opinion that the top-
devastated land" (editorial, The Wire, no 214, pling of the Taliban seemed to have created "a hap-
December 2001), it seemed unlikely that the anti- pier Afghanistan ... music and song are returning to
imperialist sentiments voiced above would find that devastated land" (Editorial, The Wire, no 214). I
favour, so it was placed on Esther Leslie's website concluded that the anti-imperialist thrust of the essay
(www.militantesthetix.co.uk). The current publishers would never find favour, and so published it at
found it there and decided to issue it in pamphlet www.militantesthetix.com. In May 2002, Andy Wilson
form: it was expanded for that purpose in May 2002 and Ian Land found it there and offered to issue it in
(hence the inclusion of a Taylor/Oxley/Bang-On-A- pamphlet form. When the launch of Music, Violence,
Can concert review). Thanks to Harry Gilonis for the Truth (at the Dolphin pub in Mare Street, Hackney,
quotes from Julia Spinola's article ‘Monstrous Art’ on Tuesday 25 June) was posted to The Wire dis-
from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 18 September cussion board on Yahoo, Young e-mailed me to point
2001. out that, far from censoring left viewpoints, he'd
made his own anti-Bush remarks in his editorial for
January 2002 - an anti-imperialist stand for which he
took "a hell of a lot of personal abuse from American
readers". It was outrageous to portray Young as
hawk and censor simply because he didn't care to
print my personal musings on 9/11. I apologise to
Rob for misrepresenting him, and hope this makes
everything clear.

ben Watson
June 2002

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Copyright: Ben Watson, 2002
contact www.militantesthetix.co.uk

Published: Ian Land and Andy Wilson


The Dolphin Pub, Hackney, London, 2002
contact andyw@dircon.co.uk