The Impossible Vs. the Unthinkable: A Sequel to ‘Wild Productivity in the Age of Evaporation’

 People underestimate the extent to which music is fundamental to everything. It is fundamental to everything because, if nothing else, it’s a manifestation of the human spirit: no matter what you choose to call it, there is something in us that is not made of physical matter, yet is inseparable from our corporeal state; that not only animates our perishable biology but, through its immateriality is able to flow between our otherwise distinct and separate bodies.[1] This is commonly referred to as the Human Spirit, and how we seek to use its immanence to shape and enrich our experience of ‘life’ is what our ‘world’, including its cultural production, is all about. Music, in its capacity to express and communicate beyond language and to move between souls with what feels like immediacy to our crude biological mechanics (at the speed of sound), is the most powerful conductor of the human spirit. The manner in which such a fundamental and essential power is manipulated, perverted, twisted, subverted and abused makes for a fascinating phenomenon to immerse one’s self in and, for those of us fully immersed long term, to endlessly discuss and share thoughts about. I can accurately say that I have been pathologically preoccupied by music, especially recorded music, since I was 6, when I bought my first 7” single.[2]

That’s a first attempt to state clinically something I’ve never tried to directly articulate before, but which underpins every other attempt I’ve made to formulate ideas about music according to what I’ve felt, known, experienced and learnt over the years. And in years, that’s probably the best part of 50 (my current age) since I’m aware (from an old tape recording) that I was already imitating the sound of electric guitar from the radio, with my voice, before I was 3 (the same cassette contains a recording of me begging to listen, again, the ‘Tell the Boys,’ which was the b-side of Sandy Shaw’s Eurovision-winning ‘Puppet On A String,’ whose pale blue Pye Records centre label I can still picture now

In the past, when I’ve tried in class to embark on a subject like Hip Hop or Jazz with such a conception of what music is as understood, I’ve often used the emergence of the Blues from a human context that was defined by the experience of the most extreme oppression, exploitation and deprivation by a population already, initially, enslaved, then subsequently ‘emancipated’ into socio-economic conditions that were in many ways worse (as they even continue to be today), as proof that, despite how we’re taught in our post-Enlightenment culture to think of music as some kind of luxury-for-later or, as such, something to be put aside when dealing with the ‘serious’ business of day-to-day functions, management and administration, when the human spirit is compromised to the most bitter extremes imaginable short of actual death, music becomes the last essence and hope in which the human spirit invests. In terms of teaching I’ve tended to use this ‘proof’ as a means of laying the ground for conversations about the emergence of phenomena like Hip Hop or the Black Arts Movement (with a specific focus on movements such as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1960s Chicago), suggesting that similarly brutal conditions in the South Bronx in the early 1970s or the South side of Chicago in the mid-1960s, forced communities to use any means necessary to forge their own meaning in the face of socio-economic adversity.

The extent to which music’s power to carry the human spirit between its mortal souls can be twisted and perverted in order for historically dominant powers (in our post-Enlightenment age, so far, white patriarchal imperialists) to continue perpetrating unrelenting oppression and exploitation is no better illustrated than by the manner in which Hip Hop was taken from its origins as the West’s most intense manifestation of ‘the free creativity of the proletariat’[3] to a monstrous cash cow that peddles bullshit which emphatically reinforces the principles of unscrupulous self-interest, sexism, misogyny and homophobia. I still love Hip Hop and Hip Hop has never been more intensely beautiful and exciting than it is now: even in the worst cases there’s still so much greatness in what Hip Hop is and what it represents… I’ll never blame the artist: I’ll always blame the backer. As a way of expanding on the themes I’m alluding to here, I can do no better than recommend Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow[4] as an account of American racism’s successful undermining of the small gains made by the Civil Rights Movement.

In the previous post (to which this is intended as a direct follow-up), I mentioned how, in terms of my academic research profile, although I’m primarily categorized as a ‘creative practitioner’ (which means that, for me, for the time being, to any centralized, state assessments of academic research I submit actual art works for appraisal rather than written articles, chapters or books, which for most people are more recognizably ‘Research’ (with a capital R). While I suggested that I wanted to largely sidestep formal academic infrastructures for presentation and publication of critical musicology, if an opportunity arises (like a conference) to which I feel I could make a contribution, then I’ll go for it. In June I gave a paper at Cambridge for their first official ‘Hip Hop conference’. The paper, ‘Find the Self, Then Kill It,’ discusses the challenges I’ve come up against as a teacher on African American culture in addressing deeply entrenched racial biases that my largely white, European class cohorts inherit and absorb through the twin institutions of schooling and the market. The whole experience was hugely affecting for me: initially overwhelmed by the staggering opulence and presence of historic, old money of Cambridge itself (I’d never really been to the university at all); but then, waking up on the morning of the second day, the day I was scheduled to talk, to the unexpected and stunning EU referendum result. I felt I couldn’t give the paper I planned to (I intend to post it here soon, framed by an account of my experience of the whole conference), due to a combination of my reaction to Cambridge and the new social context that the Brexit vote delivered, and instead hastily prepared a stripped down version that accentuated the core dynamic which was significantly informed by Michelle Alexander’s account of ‘mass incarceration in the age of [American, supposed] colorblindness.’ While it was OK, and I don’t think I made too poor account of myself, I didn’t turn on the style I’d hoped to, coming in from a certain left-field to mainstream academic discourse on African American music. But I did get my key points across. During the ensuing Q&A, an African American PhD student from the United States briefly remarked on some things I’d related about Nathaniel Mackey, before referring directly to my comments about the prevalence of an undefeated institutional racism in the USA today (again, read Alexander now if that formulation seems in anyway over-reaching), essentially affirming my take on it, before asking, with no small urgency, ‘… but what’s it going to take?’ I think I had some kind of answer to offer, but due to the panel’s chair deciding that we’d take all the questions at once (his was the first, there were four more after him) rather than letting me answer them one by one, I never got the chance before we ran out of time.[5]

So – what is it going to take? And what is it that we’re trying to achieve in trying to work out what it will take? What’s what going to take? And what part can musicians, musicologists and music’s pedagogies play in any of it?

Well, one of the underlying implications in my talk, as in the previous post, is that the way we (as Europeans and citizens of Europeanist, post-Enlightenment cultures) are taught to think of, and respond to, music whose mechanisms and the purposes it serves, lie outside the remit or the reach of, respectively, ‘daily life’ and general activity, thus severing for many people a vital connection with the agencies that music can help nurture through the ‘free creativity’ it gives access to. By turning music into a professionalist specialism, on the one hand, and the ultimate in fetishized commodity on the other, we not only strand vast sections of the population outside infrastructures of power and entitlement, by cutting off the their most effective channels to agency and self-determination; we also manage to reinforce people’s sense that they are powerless to overturn the grim conditions they find themselves living in – meaning they’re easy to mobilize by lying to them about both the causes of, and projected solutions to, their ills.

It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to extend the principle of elitism, expertise, profressionalism and exclusivity so overwhelmingly expounded in both music’s pedagogies and its fantastically over-inflated marketing to all other areas of daily human concern (which people generally attend to with greater attention and ‘seriousness’), such as politics, economics and critical-philosophical discourses. Which prompts two further, only semi-rhetorical, questions: just how low, despite the evidence, do far too many people regard music’s status in the overall human experience? And just how much are ‘they’ prepared to underestimate its power? And I’m using the term very broadly here; for how much longer will we be reading the likes of Slavoj Žižek (who has apparently forged himself an especially tricky perspective on Trump from which to speak) call on the European classical canon (if they call on music at all) to flesh out their theoretical positions, rather than the likes of Curtis Mayfield or Etta James? Or Kate Bush and Nicki Minaj… ?(!) Well, that’s already long overdue if you (they) stop for a moment to consider the place of what is still lamentably delineated as ‘popular music’ (a term that has become as grating as ‘light entertainment’ used to be on BBC Radio 3 in the 80s) in most people’s lives: the extent to which the profressionalist and scholarly hierarchies in music (as Christopher Small so brilliantly illustrated) have continued to condescend and patronize the majority of people (my italics are intended to emphasize a refusal to use adjectives such as ‘ordinary’ and ‘regular’) is directly linked, not just similar to, how our professional, expert and career politicians, administrators and managements (in short, governments; in short the state) have lost touch with people with what could prove to be a devastating consequences.

In the age of evaporation, it’s possible for Donald Trump to stand before the whole world and proclaim that his victory signals a fantastic upturn in the fortunes of millions of poor Americans (‘everyone’) – just like that, at the click of his greedy fingers – and not be laughed voluminously off the podium under a hail of rotten eggs and vegetables. And shoes. And soiled underwear.

So what? I’m blaming music? And musicians? It sounds stupid, right? But, in part, yes, I am. And I reproach myself as much as anyone for having failed, and continuing to fail, to convince, for my own miniscule part. Except when I encounter people (students, fellow musicians, and many who aren’t either) who take life seriously because they really love it and they’ve glimpsed what’s to really love about it, then there’s no convincing required. The convincing is required for all those that are hopelessly tangled up in the endlessly duplicitous, multiple interpellations and connivances of spectacular society.[6]

I definitely feel like I’m getting into much deeper water here than I’d like to, for the purposes of this talk. I need to grapple this back to what the whole exercise is/was meant to be about. Of course, in terms of what I advocated in the original post about daily operation and wild productivity being driven by a need to respond to the turbulently shifting conditions of human experience, then it’s entirely appropriate for me to write this stuff now (for all its flaws) in light of the dramatic US election result.

One thing we can do within music pedagogy and research right now is collectively agree (if far too late) that while the European Classical tradition has produced some of the greatest testaments to the human spirit and, for me as for many others I’m sure, its capacity glimpse the absolute beauty of life and earthly existence, it can no longer be regarded as an orthodoxy of any sort, nor should it any longer be considered as somehow separate from (even superior to, God forbid) all other musical endeavors on the planet, either now or at any point in the past or future . No matter how hard you try to convince yourself otherwise, it’s the world and the majority of the population have long moved on without you.

Now, it wasn’t my intention at all to write or say anything of this sort at my research seminar. But the bitter irony of finding myself once again expected to formally address colleagues and peers about my ideas on the day of another cataclysmic paradigm shift, means I was determined to be as transparently emphatic as I possible can. In other words, for all the theoretical prevarications and nifty turns I might have tried with regard to Bataille’s notions of project and nonknowledge, or Sun Ra’s advocating a quest for the impossible, Trump’s terrifying supporters (the fact that there really are so many of them), have forced my hand. Despite my worst intentions, I’ve had to come out and say what I mean, rather than dancing a fiddly jig loaded with vainly provocative implications.

With music, as with anything else, not least politics, you can’t just tell people what to do. By doing great things in a manner than neither patronizes nor alienates anyone, you might just achieve something worthwhile and meaningful. Else before you know it, all the things you hated have become the world.

One of many chilling chants emanating from the Trump supporters celebrating this morning was ‘Jail Obama!’ If that’s not evidence enough that we’ve finally roused the dragon of fascism to being fully awake and on the move, then what more will it take to convince you? And will I be jailed for this post? I’ve long tried to remind students not to underestimate the extent to which fascism always was deeply encoded in the DNA of bourgeois, post-Enlightenment society and its glorious cultures. Which leads me to the much more starkly simple, yet unfathomably complex to deal with, question: ‘Now what?’ Or as Travis put it in Cambridge on June 24th, 2016, in Cambridge, England: ‘What’s it going to take?’

[1] Unless, of course, you concede, as Sun Ra would, that our sense of ‘empty’ space, filled with air, as something that isn’t actually substance, which case we’re constantly in physical contact with each other, but that concession itself only reinforces the fundamental value of music anyway.

[2] Which was ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ by Lieutenant Pigeon. I bought it because it was number 1 in the charts; which was why I bought my second record, a version of ‘Amazing Grace’ played on bagpipes. I proceeded from there.

[3] To reference once more to (and not for the last time) C L R James’s Notes On Dialectics, whence this term came.

[4] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press; 2011)

[5] As an aside, which reinforces some of what I’m saying in this post, I talked at two conferences this year – the Cambridge one and the Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium. At Cambridge, out of over 100 speakers, there were maybe no more than five or six people from music departments; at Guelph I was literally he only one.

[6] To use Guy Debord’s perhaps overused terminology.

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The Impossible Vs. the Unthinkable: A Sequel to ‘Wild Productivity in the Age of Evaporation’

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