13 October 2013

Hearing Modernity (ii)

More from an essay by Ian Power:

Here was the bedrock for scholarly work that was not about analyzing music formalistically; it was about analyzing the lines between music and daily life, the ways music was controlled and distributed—in studying a modern music politics, it began to become clearer that it wasn’t just music that was political, so was everything surrounding its dissemination. ...Music, seen through this lens, now appeared as a minor cog in the wheel of sound. ...Studying only music restricted us to studying a leisure activity in the face of mounting evidence that the study of sound was always already the study of politics and power, environment and experience. In studying music, we had been studying the actions of a minority of aesthetes; studying sound is, almost by definition, studying everyone.

Again, an omission of sorts that it takes a musician to get bent out of shape about: when we read "analyzing music formalistically" in this context, we of course know that the author really meant "jacking off to magic squares," and not "the instrumentalist's conscientious preparation of musical work(s) for performance." The latter is, after all, something only that pesky "minority of aesthetes" is silly enough to bother with anymore, trapped as they are in the Victorian, Darwinist clusterfuck of determinacy and willfulness, and burdened by the outmoded belief that the intentional refinement of a musical creation in direct reflection of one's own predilections and experiences enhances (potentially, at least) that product's intrinsic value, brightening an irreparably dark world ever so slightly.

In any case, if that's the musical framework that you live (or are trapped) in, you probably have no more patience than the Soundists do for the particular varieties of formalistic musical analysis that have prevailed in American academia. Even so, there certainly is a species of what can only be called analysis that you and everyone else you live (or are trapped) with in this world of music necessarily engage in when it comes time to give a public performance. People like us grew up associating such seemingly commendable abstract values as personal pride and respect for others with the drive to prepare and refine our work; for us, the most destructive force known to music, aesthetically as well as socially, is permission to dispense with them. Such an erosion of standards seems an awfully steep price to pay for something as silly as molding the sonic world into a slightly more idealized political allegory, especially when there's a "real" world of people and institutions out there that could use a bit more attention than it gets through this maneuver alone.

Not all aestheticism is politically naive: if one's musical desires are so destructive (but are they really?), does it not make sense to seek a padded cell for them to inhabit? Without such an outlet, the strictures of accepting the world of sound precisely as it is, simply presented with no hope for change, becomes a form of oppression, and the study of how the world got to sound the way it does becomes deterministic and empty. Aestheticism, meanwhile, was only ever a threat when tastes became institutionalized, just as determinacy is only inherently destructive when accompanied by spectacular deficits of consciousness which both music and sound, I hate to say for the second time in as many paragraphs, are hard-pressed to remedy on their own.

We are all aesthetes, even if only a minority of us are awake to it. The notion that "studying everyone" would be more politically appealing seems to me to overvalue the privilege of being studied while undervaluing that of sonic self-determination. Such a thorough distrust of intentionality and refinement threatens to trap us in the world as it sounds at the expense of how it might sound. Aestheticist music-making, conversely, is less about exerting control over others than about exerting it over one's own soundworld; about being the change you wish to see in that world, as the saying goes.

For its part, analysis (the type does matter, but not for the moment) is part and parcel of being a music-maker, i.e. a practitioner, or at least one worth his or her salt in any musical tradition that still permits its members their own value judgments. It's important to recognize that grain of civility lying at the heart of an early American musico-academic framework that was indeed to go precipitously off the rails in so many other ways. That such institutions can no longer possibly cover enough stylistic ground to make any claim to comprehensiveness in the contemporary musical environment is its own rather separate issue; the exclusive classical music emphasis never suited me either, but the aspiration to achievement sure did, and I certainly find it too important to be sacrificed as collateral damage in the postmodern theory wars. May benevolent willfulness find a way to coexist with Sound as well as Music, and nihilism thus be kept at bay for a little while longer.

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