Thursday, July 20, 2006

Trumpet of Sedition

I just got the new/old Wire magazine (their website shows a new issue already out), which I do every month, because, when all is said and done, I really like the Wire magazine. This month I was curious to read the review of David Borgo's Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age (Continuum), which sounds like the kind of book I would enjoy. Unforunately, it seems like another missed opportunity to properly contextualize improvised music. According to the reviewer, Borgo opts for a very safe focus on the "music itself" that skirts socio-political pressures on creative production.

Sometimes a piece of improvised music demonstrates so powerfully the embeddedness of music within social processes that one wonders how anyone could stick to old-fashioned text-analysis myopia. Such is Mazen Kerbaj's "Starry Night," a brilliant piece of music recorded during the recent IDF air attacks on Lebanon. Kerbaj is a Lebanese trumpet improvisor who lives in Beirut. Along with many of the most interesting contemporary trumpeters (Axel Dorner, Franz Hautzinger, Greg Kelley), Kerbaj specializes in small sounds, breathy noises, and back-pressure/metallic resonance-sourced sustained tones. In interviews, Kerbaj has discussed the impact that military sonics had on his developing musical imagination growing up during Lebanon's long civil war.

It is one thing, of course, to hear links to traumatic aural memories in the extended techniques of improvisors or composers (many of the barely-there extended techniques favored by European improvisors-- breathy white noise, bowing of the wood and tuning pegs of string instruments, etc.-- are also common in the politically committed music of composers like Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann, and Helmut Oering), and another to listen to an mp3, transmitted via fiber optic cable from Beirut to Baltimore to Texas, of a hushed and contemplative trumpet improvisation interrupted at unpredictable intervals by the sound of bombs exploding.

Because the trumpet is an instrument played with the breath, and because Kerbaj's breath is more present in his playing than most (classical technique in fact tries to remove the breath, that material trace of human subjectivity, from the trumpet's sound, even though synthesizer designers have to replicate it via added noise so that simulated trumpets sound authentic), the stakes of a duet for trumpet and Israeli Air Force bombing civilians are high. Already over 300 mouths have stopped breathing. CNN and The New Republic and the United States Congress would have us believe that this is something about which we ought not care.

The trumpeter's breath somehow communicates to us something that the voice (allegedly the ne plus ultra evidence of the subjectivity of the Other), speaking language, English or Arabic or French or German, could not. We who live in the world of improvised music have grown used to hearing the sound of breath and bow-hair and electronic static over the last few years. It's possible that some of us have forgotten how rare a luxury it is to expect an hour (or five minutes) of uninterrupted silence as a precondition for music-making...

If power of the bureaucratic State to circumscribe creative production was the spectre that loomed over the international artistic community in the 20th century, the new phantom haunting our musical lives may well be the permanent-emergency State. It will not issue edicts and black out encyclopedia pages... it will maintain a constant ambience of volatility, threat, and menace... Will we make the same kind of music when we don't know when the bombs will fall?

There is something remarkable about hearing Kerbaz persist in his practice amidst terror and catastrophe, an aesthetic overlay that brings a clarity and poignance-- a poetics of witnessing-- to his music that I am not sure I have heard before in a recorded improvisation. It should spur us to solidarity with the War on Terror's victims of "collective punishment" and to outrage and revulsion towards those who would condone displacement and brutalization and murder.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Totality, dude

The Marxist tradition gives us many useful terms, but we are too often guilty of using the same three over and over again. "Totality" is one term that gets less play than it should. It helps us focus on the real difference between Marxist political economy and the bourgeois variety, and it additionally helps us name a crucial aspect of alienation, which most of us experience as a response to the degradations visited by capitalism on the human spirit.

Martin Jay wrote a great book on this topic called Marxism and Totality. He distinguishes between "normative totality" (the idea that fullness, completeness, and integration are goals to which individuals and societies should strive) and a second, for lack of a better term, "methodological" conception of totality. "Methodological" totality is an intellectual imperative: it derives from the insistence that social scientists and philosophers can hope to gain an "adequate understanding of complex phenomena" only by appreciating their "relational integrity" (23-24). When we examine a complex phenomenon such as contemporary bourgeois society, we should insist on treating all of the seemingly disparate and unconnected elements, of which it is made up, as parts of a whole (24).

How does "totality" help us understand anything about music? Well, let's distinguish between the spheres of production and consumption. "Normative" totality maps nicely onto the activity of listening to music, while "methodological" totality helps us understand the processes by which music is made, performed, recorded, and distributed.

Rock writers like Simon Reynolds have long treated the "listening" part of music as connected to "totality" in the realm of "bliss" and "jouissance"-- that is, music as a kind of sonorous envelope, chora, or womb in which the listener feels complete, integrated, and bathed in powerful feelings. Deleuze's notion of the ritornelle should be viewed within this framework, not as some flaky, metaphysical-poetic croissant. Music works on the model of the lost child in the woods walking in a circle, singing herself a little tune that repeats itself infinitely. As such, a space is created that forms a real enclosure (the return, the round) superimposed on heterogeneous space (the forest). The enclosure of the ritornelle is like the science fiction trope of the enlosed space (the phone booth, the closet, etc) that seems tiny from the outside, but infinitely vast once one enters inside its walls. Instead of the existential fragmentation that characterizes everyday life, then, we experience in music a sense of wholeness, plenitude, and abundant affectivity.

Turning to the sphere of production, we can think about totality in an entirely different way: as an alternative to the ethos of acquisitive individualism that prevails in capitalist culture. Capitalism encourages us to pursue our own self-interest, and ignore collective social responsibility. An ideological corollary of this ethos is a belief that politics, culture, economics, religion, etc. are all discrete and unconnected. For the capitalist, the sum of society's parts never add up to a whole. As Margaret Thatcher once said, "there is no such thing as society, only individuals." This is one reason that totality is only ever present in the conservative imagination as a paranoid fantasy of coherence-- conspiracy theories about the Trilateral Commission or jewish bankers or evangelical insistince on the orderliness of chaotic world events as signs of the coming Rapture.

Capitalism's hacks-- Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, George Gilder-- have always been consistent about one point-- a collectivity of individuals narrowly pursuing their own self-interest in a market society will always result in the greatest good. For capitalism, the only totality that matters is the market, which is properly the subject of theological rather than scientific inquiry.

Leftists err, however, when they identify market-worship as the only ideology of capitalism. It is, arguably, the central belief-system of speculative finance-capitalists and hedge-fund managers, and others that 19th century populists and socialists used to group together as parasites on the wealth produced by labor. But for the rest of the billions of people who work under capitalism, the market is secondary to a more elementary deity, which might be best identified with the Lacanian term "the Big Other": the symbolic order, in toto. The hidden hand, supply and demand, "politics", Jesus, the Federal Reserve, the American Way... an oozing mass of confusing and contradictory forces. Understanding how the whole thing works seems as daunting as figuring out why tornados happen, and assuming that this knowledge will be helpful in making decisions in one's daily life is obviously crazy. We divide labor in our society, and others are supposed to know about economics and tornados. We leave the thinking to the Big Other, while we do our work, live our lives, etc. (which, incidentally, is also justified in the name of the Big Other).

Marxism takes aim precisely at the assumption that economics is primarily a technical science like meteorology, inaccessible to all but an expert class of technocrats. The reason is this: human history (virtually irrelevant to making sense of natural phenomena) reveals the hidden secrets of capitalism. Tracing the transition from one economic form to another exposes the continuity of themes in economic life: class exploitation and struggle, protection of forms of property and the development of legal superstructures, and conflicts over the distribution of the surplus produced over and above the demands of subsistence. Within this framework, we can indeed think of totality as a sum of social processes, not a mystical chaos as unknowable as the flows of numbers and symbols on LCD stock tickers.

If we accept the insights of Marxism, we can no longer accept individual self-interest as a rational basis for a just society. I cannot pretend that the seller of goods with whom I deal as a buyer is somehow a different individual than the person with whom I deal as a neighbor, a friend, or even as a seller of my own goods. As artists and musicians and music-lovers, at some point we have to stop pretending that economics is akin to the weather, something that somebody else will interpret and tell us about... and take stock of the material processes and relationships that make us rich or poor, powerful or powerless, productive or burnt-out. We should go one step further, and situate our activities and survival strategies within the singular totality of Western capitalism. What is nice about this totality is that while total, it is also plastic and volatile. As the man once said, people do make history, if not under circumstances of their own choosing.

Having sufficiently buried the lead, I can now reveal it: to the degree that we subscribe to a competitve, individualistic, opportunistic ethic, we, as experimental artists and musicians are making a bad kind of history. The "devil takes the hindmost" attitude among avant-garde musicians is utterly counterproductive.

The mandarin fallacy. This is especially true when we think of ourselves as some sort of elite class of cultural saints, deserving of support and patronage from wealthy individuals and institutions. We should insist on differentiating between the social contexts of free improvisors and jazz musicians and rock bands, visual artists and composers, the academically affiliated and the not academically affiliated. Experimental/improvised music is domain of those who either lack or have chosen to reject conventional training in music production. This is a politically charged choice-- the renunciation of musical skill as an exchange-value, and the recovery of a process of music-making outside the power relations of capitalism (even the power relation that says: hold your drumstick like this, sing your song with this kind of vibrato, subordinate creative impulses to the demands of received forms, etc). It is what I like most about improvised music.

But it also means that I have chosen to foresake financial compensation for my music, (since audiences are rarely larger than 30, it sucks to charge more than 5 bucks, and usually there are between 4 and 8 performers who need to be paid, plus expenses, venue rental, gas, strings, picks, dinner out and wear and tear on instruments) in exchange for the possibility of a more authentic interaction between me and my listeners. Because the music is demanding, and is by nature set up to fail a lot of the time, I appreciate the attention of listeners who tune in. At times, I think that this attention is all the payment I can really expect from people... which is fine, except for the fact that one needs to eat and survive and all the rest.

Anticipating the question that pesky Mr. Lenin always asks, here is what is to be done: improvisors should ally with working stiffs, not art-elites. We should accept that music-making is an activity we do alongside working for a living, not a vocation that will somehow become financially viable in the not too distant future. We should acknowledge that so long as we all live under capitalism, the majority of people who work must work jobs that are idiotic, brain-sucking, and for the benefit of others, and that therefore hours should be limited, paid vacation-time should be ample, and health-care should be universal. My desire to play an improv show is not different than my co-worker's desire to attend a model-train convention or go hiking with her kids.

Since American capitalism is currently staying afloat via the capture of employee benefits for the sake of profitability (plus a huge debt to overseas lenders), musicians are well-situated to make common cause with others who recognize this taking for what it is: class struggle. But as capitalists acheive record profits by stealing pensions and ramping up workweeks to Dickensian levels, a terrible alternative lurks: that we musicians will look to this new class of aristocrats for handouts, instead of joining the fight against the radical redistribution of the social product to a tiny fraction of property-owners. If that happens, we will truly be the court jesters of the new barbarism.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Screwed Down in H-Town

Since I figure that all who would want to read this post have likely done so, I am going to put it in the witness protection program. From now on, it will be living as Mike McCormack, a systems analyst in Bangor, Maine. Wait, am I not supposed to reveal that information?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Revise and Re-Submit 2: Jews Choose Confusing Ruse

Another example of the "transference" tendency (Jewish artists coping with the catastrophe of the Holocaust by creatively engaging with radically evil personae) noted in the previous post on Lemony Snicket and Gene Simmons? Why not!

Today's subject?: Scott Ian(Rosenfeld)'s 1980s thrash/hardcore band Stormtroopers of Death.

I recall seeing a review of SOD's album "Speak English or Die!" in Guitar World magazine when I was 13. The band name and title terrified me. At the time, I knew a little bit about about neo-nazi oi bands like Skrewdriver (talk about irony: the name of the most antisemitic genre of music ever, "oi," sounds like the universal Ashkenazic expression of resigned disgust) from other kids in junior high who would go on to embrace skinhead/white supremacist ideology more sincerely in high school, and I was freaked out to discover that heavy metal was a place I could expect to encounter xenophobia and racism. Shortly thereafter, Axl Rose sang about "immigrants and faggots" on the G'n'R Lies record, and Sebastian Bach wore an "Aids Kills Fags Dead" t-shirt at a concert. Except for the speedy instrumental variety, I was done with heavy metal.

At around the same time, Public Enemy started attracting attention for their vaguely antisemitic lyrics. It is no wonder that I abandoned the typical antisocial musics (rap, metal, punk) of adolescence for a while around my Bar Mitzvah (punk I was already wary of because I had been many times to the punk head shops on Yonge Street-- their booming business in swastikas and German iron cross pendants unsettled me, and I didn't know how to make sense of songs like the Sex Pistols' "Belsen Was a Gas" which made light of concentration camps).

So, in the 8th grade I started searching out alternatives to adolescent anomic musics: delta blues, bluegrass, bebop, whatever. It took a while for the aversion to heavy metal, rap, and punk to wear off, and, to be honest, I am not sure it ever has. For example, now I make exclusively instrumental music (or collaborate with lyricist/vocalists who write sensitively about their feelings in a manner that could offend no one, save perhaps for Ted Nugent). And not just any kind of instrumental music, but a kind of instrumental music that is devoid of literal meaning and narrative, deliberately esperantic, inclusive and utopian. I can't say that my attraction to this form of creative expression was not motivated by early traumatic encounters with aggressively particularistic music.

OK. Let's transition to the next point: I don't think that sticking with my 13-year-old's aesthetic framework is useful. Condemning aggressively particularistic music for its biases and petty hatreds gets us nowhere, especially if our ids remind us we sort of like objectionable music while our super-egos command us to resist its charms. We live in a world full of evil and pain, and we shouldn't ask culture to be a refuge from engagement with difficult topics or an oasis of contradiction-free, pre-authorized party line pablum. Finally, we shoudn't neglect the vitality of "transference" as artistic strategy. Snobby culture critics tend to deny that popular music performers and listeners have the intelligence to neogtiate this strategy. These critics are pretty cavalier with their evidence, or, more precisely, they muster no evidence whatsoever besides haute-bourgeois disdain for pop culture consumers.

Let's return to Stormtroopers of Death. SOD was a thrash/hardcore side project that Scott Ian started to supplement the more metallic music of his main band, Anthrax. According to the wikipedia entry on SOD, the inspiration came from sketches that Ian scribbled while killing time in the recording studio. In the tradition of so many American Jewish comic book artists (who more or less dominated the comics biz in the postwar era), Ian created a character who embodied radical evil : Sargent D. While SOD singer Billy Milano did not take on the voice of Sargent D, the band seemed to channel his psychopathic militarism and bloodlust.

How offensive were SOD's lyrics? Pretty offensive. For instance, "Speak English or Die":

"You come into this country
You cant get real jobs
Boats, and boats, and boats of you
Go home you fuckin slobs
Sellin hot dogs on the corner
Sellin papers in the street
Pushing, pulling, digging, sweating
Where you come from must be beat

You always make us wait
You are the ones we hate
You cant communicate

You dont know what I want
You dont know what I need
Why must I repeat myself,
Can't you fuckin read?
Nice fuckin accent
Why cant you speak like me?
What's that dot on your head,
Do you use it to see?

You always make us wait
You are the ones we hate
You cant communicate

Now, of course these are hateful and obnoxious words... but we are not evaluating here whether we want to have SOD as keynote speakers at the Porto Allegre World Social Forum. The key point is that the status of the voice that delivers these lyrics is unstable. If Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits can sing "in character," why can't SOD? And the voice that is channeled is not one with which we would imagine short, skinny, heavy metal musicians (by the 1980s a thoroughly "nerd" subculture, as Will Straw noted in his seminal essay on metal fandom) named Rosenfeld and Milano. In fact, we can imagine the grandparents of Rosenfeld and Milano being taunted with these very nativist slurs, and that the memory of this racist intolerance (which incidentally compromises America's nauseating self-congratulation vis-a-vis its history of openness to immigrants) inflected the world-views of young Rosenfeld and Milano as they grew up in the 1960s and 1970s.

We can leave it at that, and still have a productive re-contextualization of SOD. It is possible that the impulse to embody the hateful intolerance that, a generation earlier, tormented their ancestors in the United States is straight-up Stockholm Syndrome. Or, like the Israeli producers of Rambo movies, the editorial board of Commentary, Antonin Scalia and Carmella Soprano, SOD simply reflect the trend of once-victimized ethnic Americans jumping at the chance to identify with a conservative movement that happens to include them in the "us" rather than the "them" (gays and lesbians, Arabs, urban African-Americans always, etc.) against which ideological battle is waged. Perhaps SOD predicted this trend with their screed "Fuck the Middle East," which sounds like a distillation of every prejudiced morsel of bloodthirsty orientalism I ever heard from Zionist counselors at summer camp. I am still unsure whether Rosenfeld was sending up the idiocy of anti-Arab hate-mongering, or slumming in its sludgy waters...

I will conclude with a final thought, one which my training in anti-racism makes me hesistant to even contemplate. Is there anything valuable in art that minimizes the hurtfullness of racial intolerance by mocking it or otherwise making it ridiculous? I recall a moment in a video of Norman Finkelstein's recent lecture at Yale, where he was assailed by angry students who asked questions along the lines of: "antisemitism is on the rise in France-- how can you justify doing scholarship that endangers Jews?" Now, Finkelstein seems like a complicated guy, and I am not sure I like all of his tactics, but I have great respect for him on a lot of levels. His response, which seemed more off the cuff than usual, was to point out that "anti" sentiment is universal in pluralistic societies (and, one might add, very difficult to measure). Should we be concerned with the inevitable presence of antagonisms based on difference, or with the real crises that bring about death and misery for millions of people?

And should we not be interested in the process by which a banal antagonism (such as the vaudeville racism of stereotypes and caricatures) becomes the fuel for a pogrom or a mass slaughter? Clearly, the accepted wisdom regarding this continuity-- that is, the idea that ideology and action form a seamless continuum-- proved itself to be an aid to genocide in the 1980s and 1990s, not a means to prevent it. Samantha Power is very effective at showing this in her book A Problem From Hell. She notes that Clinton et al's belief that "ancient hatreds" were at the root of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or Rwanda or the Congo stymied efforts to prevent catastrophe (when Western diplomats and NGO agents on the ground were desperately trying to convince the State Department that rapidly changing, non-predetermined conditions over which the US government might have exerted influence, but didn't, were about to escalate into mass murder).

From this we might conclude that "ancient antagonisms" ought to be taken less seriously-- indeed, that the banalization of petty racism might be an effective tool in the fight for a more just and egalitarian society. From Mel Brooks to the Marx Brothers to Jerry Lewis and beyond, we can certainly see a strain of this banalization in American comedy. And in the work of certain European satirists, such as the slavic band Laibach and the brilliant Russian/British/Jewish comedian Sascha Baron Cohen, we can behold a less timid approach to underminining the power of racist symbols and attitudes.

I have no idea whether SOD can be included in this category, and more research would definitely be needed to figure out the ramifications of their "politically incorrect" gestures. It is conceivable that they were merely irresponsible jerks who congratulated the bonehead prejudices of other irresponsible jerks. But maybe not.

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