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.

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

Wild Productivity in the Age of Evaporation: A Brief Outline in Self-Situation


Following on in the spirit of the ‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie At Your Peril’ post this is another quickly written piece I’m posting ahead of a research seminar to be given at Newcastle University on 9th November, serving as both a preparation and preview of the talk itself (for anyone who feels inclined to read this beforehand) and a digest wherein the essence of the ideas I want to get across might be distilled at least to a sufficient degree that they can be taken on board, carried forward, disputed or extended. Writing a few days before the talk, I’m trying not to be too aware that my talk will (have) take(n) place the day after the most troubling and perplexing US presidential election in history, sensing that no matter what the outcome there’s trouble ahead. However, the conditions that have led to such a bizarre scenario as the Clinton/Trump race are not unrelated to what I intend to address here. The following is an attempt to articulate some of the complex ideas I’m trying to negotiate with regard to situating what I do within a broad critical framework, not after the fact but part of the fact (of cultural production). I don’t want it to be an account of what I do, as if simply for the record; I want to articulate the central concerns and the various ideas that drive the work in a way that says something to someone else – ‘else’ as in apparently operating in a different area or discipline.

 In terms of the seminar itself, the task at hand is to give an account of my research as primarily a creative practitioner but also as a writer who is trying to negotiate a pathway into publishing a particular, personal brand of critical musicology that seeks to avoid, for the most part, conventional academic avenues of publication and dissemination. Above all I want to be able to present abstracted principles drawn from how I’ve been making music for the past 37 years in a manner that is transparent and provocative enough for those whose interests normally lie far outside my frames of reference to feel impelled to either ask questions about them or, better still, feel compelled to take issue with them. My reasons, by the way, for wanting to sidestep conventional academic avenues of publication are quite simply because I don’t want to contribute to academic discourse as my primary objective per se: if what I write ends up being taken up by other academics at some point along the way, so much the better, but it’s not them I wish to speak to first and foremost; the readership I’m seeking out consists of those whose lasting preoccupation in life is Music with as broad a scope as daily audition allows, but for whom it is never a culture that operates in isolation from, indeed is wholly immersed in and intertwined with, all other human matters; a readership that shares my sense of adventure in trying to feel as connected to, and in touch with, the cultures and politics of now, and wanting to make some kind of sense of, or extract some meaning from, them. As I’ve said so many times in class, music is philosophy, music is politics – not merely reflective of them or related to them. It’s all very well for me to stand up and say that, but managing to articulate how philosophical, political or other discourses are manifest in how music is made and how it sounds is a lot harder to do than one might at first imagine, especially when trying to convince anyone for whom ‘politics’ (or any other kind of commentary) in music can only be conceived in terms of lyrics (‘message’), or, moreover, anyone who has learnt music according to the Western European, notated frameworks of harmony and counterpoint.

[About The Title]

The research seminars at Newcastle tend to follow the same form as those at other HE departments: at least ¾ of the seminars in a given year are presented by invited speakers, usually academics from other departments, in a programme that tries to meet as broad a range of research interests within the department as possible. The rest of the programme tends to be made up of in-house speakers – members of the faculty or (increasingly seldom for some reason) doctoral candidates. I was well overdue to give one of these, so when asked this year, I accepted. However, I was asked quite late in the day (I’m not complaining) and was required to offer a title fairly swiftly. As I’ll explain below, my research is really just about one thing; I had no idea initially how I would talk about that one thing and from what angle to approach it. I came up with the title ‘Wild Productivity in the Age of Evaporation’ for the following reasons, which I will outline by breaking down each component of the title itself:

  • Wild Productivity has to do with an awareness that not only is the proliferation of new music in the digital environment increasing exponentially as the technology for producing it becomes more accessible and easier to use, but that such accessibility and facility mean that emerging artists are increasingly likely to produce new material at an exponential rate. Consider how the producers featured in Tim & Barry’s excellent documentary I’m Tryna Tell Ya, about Chicago’s Footstep scene, talk of making ‘four beats a day’ (‘beats’ here understood to mean, essentially, complete tracks).[1] Or a recent FACTMAG interview with Icelandic producer Bjarki whose headline proclaimed, ‘Icleand’s Bjarki makes 10 tracks a day and has Nina Kraviz on speed dial.’[2]

    – …wild, because accessible digital technologies allow us to make music wholly outside established infrastructures; through resisting commodity and project, while pursuing nonknowledge[3] in performance and expression, music can be produced as if from the wild, as if growing out of the very wastes and structures that the monster of industrial and consumer society leaves in its wake, like buddleia growing out of neglected British brickwork, or feverfew sprouting at the fringes of domestic thoroughfare, and the blackbirds infusing a town’s air with delicately nuanced, pure ontology.[4]

    I also wanted to pitch productivity against creativity as a preferred term for making music spontaneously and quickly.

  • in the Age of Evaporation alludes directly to the conclusion of the film The Mindscape of Alan Moore, in which the comic book author of Watchmen, Swamp Thing and From Hell riffs on what he refers to as the ‘theory of period information doubling,’ which seems to be derived from the mathematical concept of ‘period doubling bifurcation’:

The period speeds up—between 1960 and 1970, human information doubled. As I understand it, at the last count human information was doubling around every 18 months. Further to this, there is a point sometime around 2015 where human information is doubling every thousandth of a second. This means that in each thousandth of a second we will have accumulated more information than we have in the entire previous history of the world. […]History is a heat, it is the heat of accumulated information and accumulated complexity. As our culture progresses, we find that we gather more and more information and that we slowly start to move almost from a fluid to a vaporous state, as we approach the ultimate complexity of a social boiling point. I believe that our culture is turning to steam.[5]

In freely translating ‘vaporous’ and ‘steam’ into ‘evaporation,’ I simply speculated that, a year on from his predicted ‘boiling point,’ we’re now on the other side of Moore’s forecast, beyond saturation – ‘our culture’ has already turned into steam and we’re evaporating – and that the level of socio-political turbulence we seem to be experiencing with the miscalculations surrounding Brexit or the insane rise of Donald Trump in the States might actually be due to that, suggesting there’s worse to come. In the introduction to his recent documentary, Hypernormalisation, Adam Curtis suggests that our time is subject to ‘extraordinary events’ in a manner that implies irrationality and a loss of vision and control:

We live in a strange time. Extraordinary events keep happening that undermine the stability of our world: suicide bombs, waves of refugees, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin… even Brexit.[6]

The idea for me, here, was to propose that, in an age where we’ve supposedly moved beyond the point of evaporation, art can only really function by immersing itself into the very fabric of daily functionality, responding to perpetual shifts instantaneously, moment-to-moment, in order for its voice to bear any relevance or meaning; which is not to say that it has to be disposable or transient, but that it needs to be uncatchable and unexchangeable. Wild productivity can generate commodities in order to leave them behind to reek potential havoc with the mechanisms that would seek to contain their essence and energy; such havoc may never transpire, but that’s no reason not to try. And a paradox lies in the fact that to record music on the fly, then make it available on the web lends it an archival irreducibility that subsequent (re-)discoveries can recontextualize and resuscitate.

Above all, I want to try and show that the time-honoured model of the ‘gifted,’ elite individual working in isolation to produce refined works endowed with a hubris of exclusivity and conclusivity (too frequently attributed the mark of genius), while having always been detrimental to free creativity[7], is simply unworkable in the post-digital, post-networking conditions for cultural production. By extension, the resistance that many academic practitioners choose to exercise in the face of those conditions is directly synonymous with that of old-style party politics which finds itself on the wrong side of social consensus in a precarious 21st century where things are no longer concretely discernible or identifiable.

[My Research: All One Thing]

Having said all that, and in view of all that’s to follow, in terms of research I’m still only trying to do one thing: namely to make sense of what I found myself to be as a musician and artist (productive element) by the time I was paying any real attention to what I was doing (which is to say, in late adolescence, needing to consider a pathway). The formation of what I found myself to be was apparently set in motion and shaped by three hindsight-discernible evental sites[8]:

  • innocently chancing upon Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd at the age of 7;
  • accidentally discovering the joys of recording albums without bothering to write songs at the age of 13;
  • and walking into a Paris cinema in 1989 to watch a matinée screening of Do the Right Thing, totally unprepared for what the film, and Public Enemy’s title track, would do to my perception of, and perspective on, music and politics.

Before trying to formulate all that in the final section of this post, I just want to deal with a couple of dichotomies and talk about where I orient myself between them…

[Productivity vs. Creativity]

I’ve long felt an intuitive antipathy for the term ‘creativity’ in so far as such a thing should ever be thought of as distinct from simply living; although I accept that its common usage is probably necessitated by the fact that so many people today live so uncreatively, which is to say that a significant majority of people in a country like Britain are prone to surrendering individual and collective agency to distraction providers like Sky TV and Netflix while similarly letting what they eat be prepared by monster gloms[9] whose primary concern is maximum profit. I’m not a fucking hippy. So much of what ‘hippy’ is meant to stand for is grounded in stuff that is good; but its legacy seems to have ossified into the image of scruffily attired middle-class drop-outs with long hair indulging in some fantasy of a better world that, due to the extent to which the ideological framework is ultimately predicated on self-interest, manages to ignore the true the fact that their freedom to act as they do depends on being part of an order that mercilessly oppresses and exploits the poor and defenseless communities of the world (both those within bourgeois-imperial countries like Britain and those in the far flung reaches of what we call the Third World). But I believe in the immanence of ‘creativity’ as a principle of self-definition and self-determination, which is why everything I ever eat at home (except for things like cheese, honey or peanut butter) is self-prepared from raw ingredients; and why I usually have at least five or six different sprouted seeds on the go which make up a substantial part of my diet.[10] I’ve never been called a hippy because I don’t look like one and I’ve never preached to people about lifestyle and food. My approach to how I eat and carry myself generally came through music – more specifically through having become what people usually call an improvisor (I’m going to have a go at that word, too, in a moment) and extending the logic of spontaneous musicmaking to a daily, integrated practice.

Someone who springs to mind whenever I equate food with music is James Baldwin, a writer, thinker and activist (and much more besides) whose work remains really important to me. In The Fire Next Time, he equates the grimness of contemporary white, exploitative culture, with the food industry’s synonymous corner-cutting for maximum profit:

The word ‘sensual’ is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the act of breaking bread. It will be a great day, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous tastless foam rubber that we have substituted for it. And I am not being frivolous now, either. Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become.[11]

There’s so much to unpick here, it’s such a loaded passage. The whole book is like that. Even Baldwin’s novels are like that, while being so lucidly written that they’re beautiful and effortless to read. When he suggests that ‘[s]omething very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions,’ it makes me think of where we are now, as a global society preoccupied with the hyper-vanity purveyed by social networking, and how politics has become so totally immersed in doublespeak that any kind of protest or speaking out merely becomes entangled in the same kind of endemically relativist duplicity:[12] you can equally take or leave anything said by Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen as anything by an activist protesting against islamophobia, racism, homophobia and corporate greed – it’s all about consumer preference based on serving one’s self. ‘Thank you for using Sainsburys self-check-out’ as a gracious epitaph for mass suicide.

But, apart from the food reference, its the ‘present in all that one does’ that resonates most closely with what I’m trying to say here: there should be no distinction between creativity and living. And perhaps such an overt commitment to self-prepared nutrition wouldn’t be so necessary were we to manage to live together without screwing each other over for personal gain; in which case the abundance of real bakers would mean I’d be able to use my bread-making time (about 90 minutes on a Saturday morning) for something else. But under the present conditions, the agency afforded through increased self-determination requires me to make art as a means to escape forces of exploitation that are so pervasively ingrained on all levels of our daily experience, extending that to food as part of a recognition that it’s actually the same thing. Although I should say that the bread-making hour is loaded with research value: it’s one of my times to listen properly to new music – I’ve never owned a bread machine and never will; the ritual and the techniques are fundamental to it all.

[Composition Vs. Improvisation]

For some while (since around 2006-2007) I’ve tended to have a problematic relationship with the term ‘improvisation.’ It’s not only that I want to resist association with so much musicmaking that flaccidly indulges aimlessness, formlessness and a residual vagueness in performances bastardized from a misapprehension of music made by the best improvisors – while creating a performance framework whereby indeterminacy becomes an excuse not to make something happen. I have also come to realise that what I have been pursuing in terms of method since the age of 13 has little to do with the intended openness and open-endedness that improvisation, through its many long-established and deeply rooted traditions in diverse cultures and civilizations, represents. What I’ve been doing all along has been composition as distinct from improvisation, in so far as the intent and focus have always been concerned with form and formal structures that are clearly envisaged at the point of departure, and intended to be heard as forms, even though none of it has been written down, either in words or staff notation. Getting a glimpse of Lil Wayne’s methodology in Adam Bhala Lough’s excellent documentary, The Carter, was a revelation to me: here was someone who was recording new music compulsively, every day, but who neither wrote lyrics down, nor improvised.

 I’m slow: I could’ve come much sooner to an understanding of how using spontaneity, lack of prescription and recording was distinct from improvising – after all, I was listening avidly to ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ aged 7. When I started working in Newcastle (initially at Northumbria) and started going to the record shops, I discovered that Ben Jones from Jazzfinger was working at Steel Wheels Records where the Haymarket Wetherspoons now is. I already knew Jazzfinger’s music having read their interview in Bananafish #14, and was a fan. In introducing myself to Ben, I said something about being ‘an improvisor, too’ – Ben reacted very gruffly saying something like, ‘I don’t do improv!’ His tone took me aback, and revealed for the first time a suggestion that not all performers who make it up on the spot see themselves as improvisors.

 While I do enjoy improvising (in the more recognized sense) for myself what I realise I’ve long been practising is an approach to composition that does away with prescription, preparation and rehearsal. Instead, the ‘rehearsal’ is the real thing, there’s no ‘later,’ there’s no time to improve and get something ‘right’: improvement comes through honing the facility to perform in any context, at any time, without preparation. From the very beginning, Radioactive Sparrow (my first ‘proper’ band, though there was never much proper about it) recorded songs without writing or rehearsing them so has to have the recordings; making ‘albums’ was the primary purpose for even picking up the instruments.[13] Because our intention was for those ‘albums’ to sound like rock music, fairly conventional song forms were instinctively followed, although, again, this was never planned or discussed.[14] The point is that, for me, ‘total improvisation’ became a method whereby tracks were recorded with an internalized form, either already envisioned, or capable of mutating at any point during performance. Part of the trick became to carry ourselves like a regular band and never advertise that we were making it up on the spot – most of the time people were none the wiser; we almost exclusively played for audiences who either expected a regular band or assumed we were a regular band. Yeah You do exactly the same, and for the most part people don’t tend to realise. In order to achieve this, especially nowadays, with Yeah You, in a performance environment that has radically diversified since the 1980s, you need to be very focused and tight. In that regard, while I’m making a case for distinguishing what we do from improvisation per se, I’d also say that I’ve never really subscribed to the idea of ‘jamming,’ which to me also suggests a resistance to commitment – really great free improvisation, on the other hand, is always razor sharp, while being wholly committed, but without any preconception of form.

 If one is to accept ‘improvisation’ as a sound principle, then the logic has to extend to all forms of cultural production: in so far as the presentation (publication, performance, exhibition) of new work requires the artist at some point to commit to the work’s completion. The non-improvisor can scarcely ever be less anxious about presenting the work ‘wrong’ or ‘badly’ than anyone making it up on the spot at the very point of public presentation. In short, the ‘composer’ has to commit to finishing and releasing a work to the scrutiny of public display at some time or other (they have to make that leap of faith); traditionally the composer crafts and perfects a single statement over many months (or years) in order to guarantee as far as possible the ‘success’ of the work; the ‘improvisor’ spends just as much time, if not more, crafting and perfecting not the single work but the facility to make something new at the point of performance every time, which means rather than meticulously planning to insure against a failure, the improvisor must commit, regardless of the consequences, every time they play. I’m sure Cornelius Cardew wrote somewhere that performing improvised music was like committing suicide; I thought it was in ‘Towards and Ethics of Improvisation,’ but I can’t find it in there.

 Ultimately, every artist, every composer, anyone who sets out to make or produce something has to make a decision about when it is done – ready to dispatch, to be let go of, to be turned over to consumers and critics. For the non-improvisor that is the point of final commitment; for many it’s a step burdened by insecurity and anxiety. For the improvisor, as for the wild producer, no such trauma taints the threshold of publication and distribution, because the process of making and producing has been woven into the fabric of daily operation – production and productivity become synonymous, the ritual of projecting is always-already in play from the point of departure, not deferred to some privileged future stage.

The advantages are numerous: not only is the trauma of completion never an issue, but the facility to produce new work in response to ever-shifting contexts and settings is instilled and advanced through a practising that never procrastinates: you have to act now, and it has to be for real. While I learned to approach art-making in that way through a set of intuitive and accidental revelations, I gained my trust in it from Hip Hop and Jazz. One thing that defines both those forms, and which they have in common, is commitment. Commitment to the quest, to making the moment mean something, but also commitment to a quest for heightened understanding, for the Absolute, for the spiritual realm beyond the artifice of material and biological realities.

 Perhaps the greatest advantage I have found in performing in this way, while maintaining a commitment to presenting something as if preconceived, is that it has proven to be much less alienating than the conventional expert/virtuoso/gifted-artist model. Over the years, I’ve often been told, ‘when I watch you perform, it makes me feel like anything is possible’ or ‘I could do anything,’ or something of that sort. I couldn’t hope for a greater affirmation or encouragement; because this isn’t about being approachable and ‘down-to-earth’ (a notion I’ve always hated: I posted an early blog circa 1998 in which I said I’d rather be full of shit than down to earth – I remember my mum being somewhat dismayed), or a ‘nice guy.’ Entertainment without alienation establishes a porousness between artist and audience that allows the art work to inhabit and permeate the social context wherein its essence returns to the real-life context it sought to never depart from in the first place. That’s awkwardly put – what I mean is: if one’s approach to music- and art-making is as wholly integrated into daily routines as possible, then its public presentation, rather than inducing reflective contemplation and the affirmation of art’s separateness from ‘life,’ speaks directly to people in the shared moment without intermediary codes and protocols of reverence and deferment – alienation and reverential distance have no place. This is vital, since the result is an identification on the part of the audience with the artist, even though the latter is doing some radical and unhinged stuff – it presents contradiction and heresy with radical candor. Such a context is also ripe for intuitively unselfconscious collaboration.


 The wild producer is naturally collaborative because it’s a simple matter to extend the principle of spontaneous intuitive performance to yielding a porous engagement with parallel elements and elemental forces. Free music disavows the traditional isolationism of the Europeanist composer. In fact the model of the isolationism of specialist practice is not unrelated to the expert-professional framework that, among other things, has led to the chasm that has formed between governments and the people they’re meant to represent. The bourgeois-individualist, lone-genius model of cultural production was never a good thing because of the harm it could do once extended to the institutions markets and pedagogy; but now it’s wholly unfeasible – because for the first time in history everyone can, in principle, talk to each other, which means, on one level, they don’t need to be told what to do, what to like, what to think. Although by and large, the social instinct is to still rather be told, but the sources of didacticism are now, perhaps infinitely, multiple, diverse and even spurious – and, as it happens, if one considers Adam Curtis’s story about Vladislav Surkov’s antics in Putin’s Russia, actually nefarious. I don’t necessarily see this unfolding scenario in either utopian or catastrophic terms; and I’m not being naïve about the extent to which the usual forces of exploitation will generally prevail, even if the oppressors are now of a different species – we’re already well into that stage, anyway.

What am I actually trying to do with this? In trying to advocate the total integration of artistic practice into ‘daily life,’ thus resisting the institutionally endowed notion that art and music are separate from the ‘serious business’ of quotidian affairs, I feel like I’m instituting a ‘right/better’ vs. ‘wrong/worse’ way to compose music or make art. And of course, in one sense I am; but in the context of Higher Education humanities research, I think that anything that smacks of polemic is generally off limits. I don’t want to necessarily be seen to stand before colleagues and say, ‘you’ve got it wrong,’ or ‘you’re overlooking something crucial.’ Yet ‘something crucial,’ or something fundamental, or something deadly serious, is not generally considered a factor of ‘popular music’ studies at university. Which is to say that popular music (nonclassical) studies has, by and large, historically been regarded by established (literally ‘old school’) academia as defined by the kind of trivial pap you’ll encounter in any 1970s rerun edition of Top of the Pops, which in turn creates a context whereby advocates for what nonclassical music cultures really are (including those of non-Western societies) find themselves having to overstate the case for their legitimacy – only to fall on deaf ears, even then.

 When situating a conversation about music in the realm of discussion inhabited by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Adam Curtis and Alan Moore, it seems perfectly natural to talk about stuff like anarchy, magic, Gnosticism, conspiracy or the constancy of imperialism, racism, patriarchalism and institutional misogyny and homophobia. From the perspective of those discussions, it’s clear as day that everything that Tesco and the monovalent high street stand for is ‘evil’ (if that isn’t too bluntly emotive a word), in so far as their duplicity as forces of rapacious, unscrupulous exploitation (of consumers and producers alike) masquerading as altruistic providers of sustenance and satisfaction, is virtually imperceptible. But when you re-enter the world of the ‘normal,’ the ‘everyday,’ the ‘ordinary,’ where most regular folk are just getting on with the bland, if often fraught, routine of survival impervious to concerns about a greater sense of meaning or purpose beyond what Tesco/Sky/BBC/Apple/Facebook[15] can provide, any attempt to revive discussion around, for example, how meat is actually produced, or what it really takes to keep the shelves full of competitively priced nutrients (of often questionable nutritious value), is met with apathy or suspicion, if not derision and offence.


I wanted to make this a ca. 3,000 quick post; I’ve made it quick, written over the weekend before the seminar, but it’s getting out of hand, and will most likely be more like 6,000 words. And while writing it I’ve had major doubts about my sanity in even trying to present this stuff (in the seminar) and summarise it (here), while several times laughing out loud whenever I realise how silly the title is. So I’ll just pause here in order to outline a few other points, then I’ll eject in order to pick up some of these strands elsewhere in different discussions.

Firstly, one of the main reasons for establishing a discursive space for non-improvised, free/spontaneous/immediate/process-defined composition, more than simply forging a paradigm to fit what I do, is to accommodate a wild productivity, largely centred around Ableton Live, that is prevalent within the most progressive and adventurous electronic music emerging from club-oriented scenes around the world. This explosion of free creativity, described in the Norient’s 2015 book Seismographic Sounds, shares both the intuitive, counter-project, nonknowledged approach, along with the proliferation of tracks, with what I’ve described here.[16] Seismographic Sounds seems to be relaying a moment in music’s evolution akin to Hip Hop and the kind of developments in African American music that emerged through Bebop and the AACM. Those musics were born of an engaged and socially integrated daily-operation commitment to reinventing and reconfiguring the conditions of real lives. What we’ve been taught to call ‘Jazz’ was never a style nor was it an aesthetic – that’s a Europeanist misappropriation. Jazz was always a mode of philosophical critique characterised by ontology, epistemology, phenomenology and, above all, dialectics. Jazz is improvisational not due to some arbitrary whim to make it sound freer (and cooler) for the sake of it but because it is discursive, dialogical, dialectical – because it is philosophical debate. Ableton Live, along with other similarly intuitive, accessible technology (like early versions of Fruity Loops which spawned Grime’s distinctive sound), has provided a viable platform for artists working completely outside, and way beyond, Europeanist conventions born out of religious, secular and bourgeois settings that gave us a classical tradition that became a kind of exaggerated orthodoxy, in a manner, and within social contexts, that are conducive to compulsive, quotidian, and wild productivity. Such contexts yield spontaneity as inevitable, shaped by nonprescriptive engagement in the matter of experience and survival. The greatest, most important, most relevant music makes itself out of social necessity: this was the lesson of the Blues, of Jamaican sound system Dancehall, Hip Hop, Disco, House, Techno and the still emerging tradition of the UK Hardcore Continuum, whose own influence is still evolving in electronic musics from around the world.



[Seminal-Consensus vs. Solipsism]

The unviability of individualism when making or writing about art that is relevant: the logic of consumerism, which forges bogus networks of ‘personal taste,’ ‘preference,’ and ‘choice,’ yields a false sense of advocacy whereby people feel entitled to decide whether a cultural product is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ regardless of how many other people disagree. Of course, there may be numerous critical narratives that vindicate any such position, but the problem lies in the fact that once a cultural product (a movie, a novel, above all a song/video or album) seizes hold of a market, its aesthetic and material content become definitively seminal, and its influence and capacity to shape an emerging generation’s perspective on musical and artistic worth are hopelessly beyond your control.

[Cardew Vs. Individualism]

… what Cardew was aiming at in his polemic ‘Stockhausen Serves Imperialism,’ but he replaced individualism with a clumsy deployment of rigid Maoist dogma; in terms of music, the crudeness of this transition was manifest in his shift from the modernist, graphically scored obscurantism of Treatise to the exceedingly patronising and muddled attempts to write ‘music for the people.’ But as Keith Rowe pointed out in the Channel 4 documentary on Cardew that was shown in the early 1990s: he couldn’t tap his foot to a beat…

[Buffalo Jumps]

Picking through entanglements of undergrowth grown strawish and rigid through time and disinterest one might hope to find a tooth, like those bovine teeth you’d have come across occasionally when strolling through pastures. Sharp, jagged molars you’d scarcely believe ever resided in a mouth. But then a cow can decimate the epidermis in licks alone.


[1] Tim & Barry, I’m Tryna Tell Ya (2012) accessed 4th November 2016.

[2] Ben Murphy, ‘Icleand’s Bjarki makes 10 tracks a day and has Nina Kraviz on speed dial,’ (FACTMAG, 26th October 2016)

[3] I’m lifting these terms and their attendant meaning in this context from Bataille’s Inner Experience, (Trans. Stuart Kendall) (Albany: SUNY Press; 2014)

[4] How funny that the word ‘ontology’ is actually in ‘ornithology’…

[5] Alan Moore in DeZ Vylenz, The Mindscape of Alan Moore (Shadowsnake Films; 2005)

[6] Adam Curtis, Hypernormalisation (BBC, 2016) accessed 4th November 2016.


[7] ‘Free creativity’ is a term that remains in my lexicon ever since reading CLR James’s Notes on Dialectics, where he talks of the ‘free creativity of the proletariat.’

[8] To borrow from Badiou.

[9] I wanted to use this word as an abbreviation of ‘conglomerate’ then was surprised that Word didn’t underline it as a spelling mistake, so I looked it up and found that it was an accepted American slang term (verb) meaning to steal or to grabbed. And yes, I realised then that I’d read it somewhere before with that meaning. But I liked the elision of definitions, so I kept it.

[10] It’s incredible that seed sprouting is not far more widespread – like you won’t find a sprouting jar in Tesco or a regular high street shop. I want to write about sprouting but I’ve not worked out how yet.

[11] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (London: Penguin; 1963) p. 43.

[12] Curtis’s Hypernormalisation addresses this condition in a very illuminating way.

[13] The Radioactive Sparrow story can be read through the serialization of their albums posted at – in order to read/follow/listen in the right order, you’ll need to scroll to the bottom of a very long page to work your way back up, backwards so to speak.

[14] Still going today, with a line-up that has remained constant since the late ’80s, it still hasn’t ever been discussed… Sparrow’s only hard and fast rule was that we should never discuss what we would do, although during periods when we were gigging a lot we would sometimes say, ‘let’s do a song about such and such,’ or ‘let’s do a song called this or that’.

[15] This is a random clutch at provider-culprits that could of course be wholly substituted by any of many others; I wanted to have an object that had at least some familiarity rather than using ‘monad’ or ‘monster’ or ‘monolith,’ or any combo of some such, simply because that would defer its identity to something perceptibly ‘other,’ ‘not me.’

[16] Theresa Beyer, Thomas Burkhalter, Hannes Liechti Ed. Seismographic Sounds (Bern: Norient; 2015)


Wild Productivity in the Age of Evaporation: A Brief Outline in Self-Situation

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie at your Peril (Language & Voice as the Primary Site of Resistance Part I)


I’m writing this piece quickly in order to try and rekindle an old habit of knocking out 1,500-2,000- word posts for the dear, legendary ICMUS Hub. During the Hub’s heyday (2007-2011) I was still commuting from York to Newcastle. Back then, I frequently wrote a whole piece of that kind of length during the hour-long train journey home, my brain fizzing with whatever vital discussions around music and the philosophies it embodies I’d been privileged to engage in that day, before tidying it up before bed and posting around midnight which would be the time most the participating students would be logging on. I’m not one for nostalgia, but those were fucking great times (I should probably devote a post, here, to a reminiscence, at least to indulge myself and the likes of Sonic Fidelity, Eli Jenkins, TheArtist & Co.) Since starting this blog, with the intention of using it to tinker with the engine of my writing as well as to simply try out ‘ideas’ in a semi-formal context, I’ve tended to self-consciously work pieces up to a more formal completion, or ‘properness,’ than I ought to (several of which are forthcoming). Yet through my experience in making (for me very successfully) the kind of art I’ve always made, I know how crucial it is to get things wrong, to make mistakes, to be reckless in pursuit of an essence, to perform the text, actually. For me, writing comes from seeing, hearing, feeling something, or a intersection of things, in a way that throws up an insight forged from the various parallel interests, occupations and histories that forge individual consciousness and perspective. Their recognition is momentary and fleeting; in my experience they must be seized and articulated quickly otherwise the trivia of obligatory routines will let them slip away beyond grasp. This piece is an attempt to do just that, without allowing the thing to swell and bleed into grander narrative discussions, a tendency to which I’m currently way too prone. The kind of performative articulation I used to revel in, performing text, is best illustrated in the fourth paragraph, where, for better or for worse, I allow the materials I’m channeling to take over, come what may. So, on with the piece itself…

The idea that words themselves are fixed is a fallacy, one which is fundamental to perpetuating systems of coercion, oppression, enslavement and exploitation. Yet words are possessed of autonomous energies. This is what (partly) defines poetry: those energies capriciously re-tethered to new, unlikely partners so as to seem to spill traces of such hidden energies here and there, most commonly in a carefully controlled way; yet it’s not the energies words possess as such that we are habitually taught not to see (hear) but that they are concealed and that they do possess them, and that they can, and ought to be accessed beyond the ritual institution of poetics; or, indeed, ultimately, that words and voice are fallaciously, and detrimentally, distinguished and separated from each other. [1]

In becoming a disciple of the composer, performer, bandleader and philosopher Sun Ra, one develops the habit of unfixing words and freeing up language. One tendency that Sun Ra had with regard to words was to never overlook the apparent coincidence in a single word (or identical words) having distinctly different meanings, or seemingly unconnected interpretations. I would suggest, by the by, that for Sun Ra this came from what was probably initially an intuitive resistance to separating language from voice, but that through such an intuition he developed a capacity to see, hear and feel the dynamic movement that words and language possess independently of the imperative they may appear to serve according to what element (the writer, the orator, the narrator, the dictator) is using them. Sun Ra would frequently riff on words and meanings that would draw this out:

Take the word convict. Convicts get convicted. And this also moves over into conviction. Now when you get to that word, it moves somewhere else. Because a person will have a conviction about something; and they’ll have an idea about it. You see? So now, therefore when you have words that move two ways on you, then you have to be careful. Because here you have this word convict, convicted, conviction… Now this word conviction moves over, if you have an idea about something, you’ve got an impression of something; you have knowledge concerning something. Then an impression moves over into the image, or reflection, well… reflection? A person can reflect on something, they’re thinking about it. A reflection moves over into the image. All these things affect people, it doesn’t matter if you know about them or not. [2]

He goes on to elaborate on idea as thought and suggests that the word thought comes directly from Thoth the Egyptian name for their God of Knowledge and Writing. From Thoth, he extracts ‘oath,’ then, through oath he arrives at ‘vow’ which he extends to vowel and avowal; he goes on to posit vowels as inherently divine in so far as they represent the fluid movement between consonants and within words themselves – physically enunciated as pure breath without an impedance or interference by the mouth. He freely indulges in a logic of association that affords itself an independence of mind that takes its cue from extensive, eclectic reading – it’s partly this independence exercised in riffing on words and meanings that is the point: inhabiting language and speaking from within its movement, fluidity and dynamics is a discipline of self-determination, freedom and emancipation. Sun Ra talks early on in the lecture about the importance of The Egyptian Grammar, Alan Gardiner’s 1927 textbook on Ancient Egyptian language as traced through hieroglyphic texts, a groundbreaking study that remains important for contemporary scholars, which draws together image, text and sound (phonology and its phonetics). It gets really wild once Sun Ra starts riffing on the use of the letter ‘h’ in Gardiner’s Roman alphabet transcriptions of words sourced from hieroglyphics – the lecture itself, for which Sun Ra was engaged to speak on music, despite barely mentioning ‘music’ itself, is a demonstration of the meaning of improvisation. What’s crucial, for my purposes here, is the tendency he adopts (one which any follower of Sun Ra consequently also absorbs) to never overlook a word’s aural similarity to another (or indeed identical words having very different uses), even if their divergent meanings seem opposite according to common usage or general understanding.

The conditions of my life, my work, my employment thus far in life have meant that I can claim to be only a scant disciple of Sun Ra; but my dabbling has provided enough of an unfixing in order to feel one’s consciousness levitating above the surface hum of equivalences, to which our acquiescence is a vital motor for exploiting, repressive powers. For the moment, for this short piece with which I hope, for my own purposes primarily, to work out how to use this Sun Ra-bequeathed insight, I want to try and illustrate that words, in their being possessed of not only these autonomous energies but also an overlooked sovereignty, are not necessarily slaves to be subjugated into a representation of facts, truths or deceptions (such as they overwhelmingly are, usually for mundanely practical reasons), but that they are as if places, zonal emanations, moment-objects, and yes, in some ways machines (thinking of how Deleuze & Guattari tried to break it down); except, in English at least, machine suggests an engineering, the work-of-men – I would resist it whenever possible because men have forever sought to reduce the wild freedoms of the Earth to something they thought up in order to enslave it (equivalence and exchange); while there’s an inevitability to that, given Man’s material inseparability from Earth’s manifest continuum, words and language as utterances of the breath are the unseizable (thus unpossessable) essence of humanity’s fleeting ‘existence,’ its moment, its time to play among the elements. I use the gender distinction deliberately here, by the way, because patriarchy must be seen as predominantly responsible for the state we find ourselves in at this stage in human history, purely by dint of the fact that since at least the establishment of our current civilization (going back at least to the Roman Empire) it has been men making all the key decisions. Wrongness is phallussy.

My pathway to Sun Ra was through Hip Hop. As I’ve increasingly come to realize, the Hip Hop epiphany I experienced in a Paris cinema during a matinee screening of Do the Right Thing in 1989 had profoundly course-altering consequences. In needing to understand how and why such a dramatic intervention on my cultural consciousness happened, my enquiry eventually happened upon Sun Ra. But this has never been a linear pursuit, rather one that continually expands and enriches while gradually dismantling the cluttering junk our brains are (my brain was) perniciously used to dump by dominant institutions.[3] Eventually arriving at Sun Ra via a substantial accumulation of Hip Hop suddenly provides deeper understandings of what you’ve been absorbing for years in the run-up. To the extent that it no long becomes arbitrarily coincidental that the word ‘sword’ is identical to the word ‘word’ with the elementary addition of the letter ‘s’ which, in English, is how we make plurals, accepting the universal logic that denoting the change from singular to plural is achieved by putting the ‘s’ at the end. But that’s just English, which it shares via its shared heritage with some French; and the fact that it is English and that the place of English/British in the wider scheme of things, historically and politically, ought never be overlooked… So, suddenly, a verse like:

Ruler-Zig-Zag-Zig-Allah jam is fatal,
Quick to stick my Wu Tang sword right through ya navel,
Suspenseful, plus bein’ bought through my utensil
The pencil.[4]

… explodes into a multiplicity of hitherto unheard interwoven meanings. The whole idea of the Wu Tang Clan appropriating the legend of Shaolin monks from 1970s Hong Kong Kung-Fu flicks is applied to the art of MCing and battle-rhyming; the sword here, is expressly meant as a metaphor for RZA’s, the MC’s, skillfully incisive, critically dismantling, use of words. And that’s just the obvious bit, it barely scratches the surface. RZA’s words, as those of all real (great) MCing, are full of movement; ‘Zig-Zag-Zig’ is a phonetic impression of the movements required to inscribe the letter ‘Z’ which, in the Supreme Alphabet of the Five-Percent Nation, also has a three-stage, progressive meaning in ‘knowledge-to-wisdom-to-understanding’[5]; that movement then courses back into the raw materials of the MC’s craft, ‘suspending’ metaphor in order to channel the sword-words through the pencil, to tool used to compose the verses which communicate the idea and its power.

This comes just moments after we’ve heard Inspectah Deck rap

I leave the mic in bodybags
My rap style has the force to leave you lost like the tribe of Shabazz’
Murderous material made by a madman
It’s the mic-wrecker, inspector, bad man.[6]

While also recalling other memorable examples of Rap’s ability to turn words, rhythm, semantics, melody and materiality inside out, such as Rakim’s

I start to think and then I sink
Into the paper, like I was ink.
When I’m writin’ I’m trapped in between the line,
I escape when I finish the rhyme.[7]

The word I want to single out for this post is ‘lie.’ In doing so, I would allude to the fact that different languages nurture subtly different kinds of understanding which, when one considers how language (and its voicing, or muting) is the primary site of our enslavement as civilians and national subjects, thus it follows that it ought to be the primary site of resistance. A good example is the English word power. It occurred to me a few years ago (and I have no idea whether anyone has written on this, though I’d be amazed if someone hasn’t) that in English (as well as in Spanish, the second language of imperialism, thus the second language of imperial repression) our word for power is relatively impenetrable and irreducible, relatively short on evident connotation (I originally wrote ‘lumpen,’ notwithstanding its use in Marxian vocabulary, in so far as it is an indigestible, thus hard-to-break-down, lump in our parlance). The only other thing that power means apart from the idea of someone having power over something or someone else (and the way that is manifest in administration and government) is the stuff that comes out of our electricity sockets into electrical appliances, i.e. a similarly ethereal, unseizable element in our society and its day-to-day functionality. Yet in German and French, languages of cultures from which some of the most penetratingly insightful and incisive critiques of post-Enlightenment society and politics have emerged, and which both carried out successful revolutions to overthrow monarchies (none of which, I feel, is necessarily coincidental), their words for power are the same as their verbs ‘to make’ or ‘to be able’ (French pouvoir and German machen; OK, so ‘power’ in German is Macht, but that’s the third-person singular machen, essentially the same thing). My suggestion is that in a (probably) very subtle way, the manner in which those cultures’ subjects are inducted into the constricting machinery of language leaves just that little bit extra space for movement around the ways in which the idea of power can be manifest; by making it equivalent to a universal entitlement, those languages instill a sense (albeit subtle and slight) of one’s being able to access the mechanisms of power as of right, rather than being trained to think of it as beyond one’s grasp.

The impetus for writing this piece came from starting to re-read Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. I say ‘re-read,’ but I’m really reading it (as if) for the first time. I last tried it some thirty years ago at a time when my faculties would have struggled with it (I know I didn’t get very far) and, besides, this was a time when I would read without writing – reading without writing is, by and large, one of those imprisoning dynamics which keep us trapped by language, and is the preserve of bourgeois leisure, a successful device in maintaining unchallenged exploitation. Towards the end of epigram 6, I managed to interrupt my own internalized flow in reading the following passage resulting in an instance of the Sun Ra language condition suggested itself (as it is so often, now, prone to):

In the case of scholars, to be sure, in the case of really scientific men, things may be different – ‘better’, if you will – there may really exist something like a drive to knowledge there, some little independent clockwork which, when wound up, works bravely on without any of the scholar’s other drives playing an essential part. The scholar’s real ‘interests’ therefore generally lie in quite another direction, perhaps in his family or in making money or in politics; it is, indeed, almost a matter of indifference whether his little machine is set up in this region of science or that, whether the ‘promising’ young worker makes himself into a good philologist or a specialist in fungus or a chemist – he is not characterized by becoming this or that.[8]

Now, the whole quote embodies a version of the narrative dynamic I’m tracing here, one that pits a propensity to fixedness versus a commitment to movement and flow; the careerist scholar is the scourge of any ‘drive to knowledge’ (‘… wisdom-understanding,’ Zig-Zag-Zig), one that is rife today since the academic infrastructure is set up to encourage them to seek short-term rewards in preference to investing their work with any hint of genuine meaning. But the bit that I got snagged on was when I stalled momentarily when reading ‘[t]he scholar’s real “interests” therefore generally lie -’ very briefly understanding ‘lie’ as the verb pertaining to mendaciousness. According to the dismantling tendency of a Sun Ra-affected mind, I’d not yet considered the divergent meanings of the word ‘lie.’ One habit that develops when allowing the material of language to move more fluidly is to start assuming that if a word has several meanings, those meanings, no matter how different they seem, must in some distant point in their evolution have shared a semantic origin – they must somehow actually mean the same thing, or their sameness must somehow be telling is that they could be seen to cooperate. So, here, the mind immediately starts considering that the primary reason for lying to someone about something is to make that someone let a sleeping dog, that is its truth, lie; by the same token, one lies in order to make an adversary or rival lie down rather to continue to compete; to lie is to nullify the threat to one’s own position. Now, I’m aware that this all might sound a bit silly, but then that has so often been the scholarly response to the kinds of thing Sun Ra says, which in turn has allowed our cultural establishments to consign him to the category of the eccentric outsider, a figure of fun whose extraordinary work thus fails to challenge narratives of the ruling order, even though that’s actually what it does. What I’m suggesting then is that the word ‘lie,’ here, shows itself to be a contestable (contest-ed, contest-ing) space, a zonal emanation, a moment-object, even, yes, a territory (thinking of Deleuze & Guattari again). Recognizing it as such (any word, in theory) turns it into a force field whose energies can be unlocked, reuniting the word with its origin as an utterance of voice, tongue and breath.

Ultimately, it feels weird (in so far as it might’ve been pointless?) to have devoted over 3,000 words of articulation to making that observation along with any attendant points that emerge along with it. But the exercise, for me, was vital in trying to regain a fluency of thought-to-text I’ve allowed to diminish since a) the demise of the ICMUS Hub; and b) no longer commuting for two hours a day. The use of commuting as an opportunity to nurture creative agency is in itself an act of resistance to mechanisms of demeaning routines otherwise beholden to some institutional agenda; but it’s also an instance of grasping the interstitial glimpses that daily life continuously offers, but which a regular capitulation to normativity and equivalence generally trains one’s consciousness not to seize upon. It’s also why I wanted to leap through the seemingly irrelevant gap that very briefly opened when I misconstrued ‘lie’ as ‘fib’ – the multiple streams of thought that flow through the mind all day long suddenly cross to produce a momentary axis that ties into some underlying formation of insights that otherwise occupy a subconscious level of masticating preoccupations – illuminating cud. Those gaps close again very suddenly, and the rush of insights you caught when you briefly looked through it must always be noted immediately, if not actually fully articulated (which I made myself do here), because before you know it their fleeting nature has whisked them away.

When writing the previous paragraph, I actually ‘accidentally’ wrote urgency for ‘agency,’ momentarily distracted by something out the window. My guess would be that there’s no official, scientific etymology that suggests a common root to those two words, yet their assonance offers precisely the kind of suggestion I’m putting forward here: that their similarity in terms of utterance, the oral mechanics, the breath and the ‘divine’ vowels it takes to say them can point towards an interwoven, simultaneous meaning, the importance of which in this instance would be in reinforcing the urgency of agency – our Europeanist-institutionally dulled minds train us to think of ‘creativity’ as something which requires regulating through rituals of structuring, rudimentary technique and professional formality, orders within which urgency is severely abated. And yet it’s with that very urgency with which we must seize on moments that interrupt the cyclic bullying we mostly submit to day-to-day.

[1] The theme of artificial divisions that separate (and distinguish) creativity from the functional implementation of order and organization is one that I want to play out in other posts on Claws & Tongues; in fact that’s one of the things the title Claws & Tongues alludes to.

[2] My transcription from a recording of a class given by Sun Ra at UC Berkley in 1971. My copy is on the second CD of a 2-CD release called The Creator of the Universe (Transparency; 2007). However, it’s possible to find it on youtube, e.g. (accessed 7 May, 2016).

[3] By ‘dominant institutions’ I mean primarily ‘education’ and ‘culture,’ the latter to include press, TV, cinema, music, art etc.

[4] Wu Tang Clan, ‘Wu Tang: 7th Chamber,’ Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers (Loud/RCA, 1993). ‘Zig-Zag-Zig’ is the verbalization of ‘Z’ in the Supreme Alphabet which is part of the doctrine of the Nation of Gods & Earths (the ‘Five-Percent Nation’) of which the Wu were probably Hip Hop’s most comprehensive exponents; the RZA breaks his name down, in accordance with the Supreme Alphabet, as ‘[R]-Ruler/[Z]-Zig-Zag-Zig/[A]-Allah.’ Allah in NGE doctrine is the self-as-God, not the omnipotent celestial deity of Judo-Christian/Islamic monotheisms.

[5] Lest we forget that the Supreme Alphabet is itself a hugely elaborate act of Signifyin(g) on the alphabet of those civilzations that became the dominant imperial powers of the Renaissance, Enlightnemnet, Industrial/Post-Industrial and high-capitalist age(s) and were responsible for the atrocity of the brutally forced African Diaspora.

[6] Wu Tang Clan, ‘Wu Tang: 7th Chamber.’

[7] Eric B & Rakim, ‘I Know You Got Soul,’ Paid In Full (4th & Broadway, 1987). Rakim was the first avowedly, explicitly, Five Percenter MC to break into the mainstream consciousness.

[8] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (London: Penguin Classics; 2003) pp. 37-38

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie at your Peril (Language & Voice as the Primary Site of Resistance Part I)

TRYING TO TEACH POPULAR MUSIC AS A RESEARCH-LED SUBJECT IN HIGHER EDUCATION: II The Endless Struggle with Indoctrinated Taste: Towards a Pedagogy of Virtuosic Subjectivity

This post is meant to tell a very simple story about how student composers working within a pop medium (what I’ve long bracketed as non-notated composition, performed live and/or studio realized, out of necessity and convenience) perennially find themselves trapped within a bogus dichotomy between what they perceive as the accessible-commercial, popular mainstream and its ‘left-field,’ ‘underground,’ ‘alternative’ (avant garde, experimental) counterpart. A relative majority have tended to gravitate towards the former, while one small minority gravitate towards what that majority perceive as accessible-mainstream (without acknowledging the dichotomy), and another small minority gravitate towards the left-field in apparently express opposition to the perceived ‘commercial’ (thus maintaining the dichotomy). Any would-be composer setting out from such a dichotomy – which, I must repeat, is utterly bogus – is embarking on a pursuit from a false premise whose perceived existence is an illusion symptomatic of what Guy Debord terms ‘spectacular society.’ For those who truly succeed in pop (by which I mean musicians and entertainers whose work transcends the business-moment of its short-term promotion)[1], there is no commercial vs. underground, there is no mainstream vs. alternative; there is just a fascinatingly deep history of great records and great performers (that includes all recorded music, mind you, not least classical), whose provenance is beautifully unpredictable; and they’ll look wherever they can to find music that does the job, regardless of what the corporate industry is gratuitously and mercilessly foisting on the rest of the consumer public at any given time. Thanks to the nature of mass culture, however, and its need to appeal (you can only get so far by pumping cash into lame product), the commercial mainstream not only manages to produce a lot of those great records and performers itself; it’s those great records and performers that play the dominant role in motivating each subsequent generation of artists. Yet, to succeed, composers and performers still need to navigate within that framework without being tricked by the mythic promotional narratives through which the corporate industry reaps its rewards and keeps a firm hold on proceedings. Moreover, in a further twist, the corporate structure relies on precisely the maverick tendency that disavows its values in order to keep refreshing its production line.

The nature of pop and its mechanisms present a fascinating nexus of cyclic loops, multiple contradictions and dialectics. From a pedagogical perspective it’s an incredibly difficult thing to get across, above all because most of the students who sign up for a degree in pop music have long since been sold on the model that the industry instills and they are generally very reluctant to let go of it; a lot of them have also been unfortunate enough to have had their initial impetus to pursue music distortedly shaped according to the clumsy logic of a European classical tradition grotesquely mutated to fit its own misappropriation and misunderstanding of pop.[2]

In Part One of this series, I frequently alluded to the way in which corporate power shapes and directs the course and content of pop music to, essentially, two intertwined ends: to maximize profit; and, as a way of optimizing the conditions for continuing to both maximize profit and secure its gains, by promoting, instilling and reinforcing an ideological framework of which such corporate interests are not only a part, but actually are that framework – our epoque is one wherein the State incontestably and unambiguously represents the interests of multi-national, corporate industry; to all intents and purposes, governments and corporate power are indistinguishable. Put more simply, pop instills and reinforces dominant, ruling ideology; it could even be argued that that is the primary corporate reason for investing in pop, not least given the relatively small returns it yields and how relatively uncertain such investment can be. Even without putting it in such broad-brushed terms, the extent to which music is used as a means of control is far too frequently overlooked or ignored altogether – most people unwittingly collude in the notion that music just grows out of soil manifest in the beings of ‘gifted’ individuals.

Now, I possess no expertise in either politics or economics, and at this stage I can’t afford to pursue an attainment thereof, devoted, as I am, to exploring avenues within music/art practice and musicology (as both researcher and research-led educator, not to mention trying to carry on making art). My knowledge and understanding of how a 21st century corporate-global economy affects our lives and the culture industries we partake in comes from a variety of sources: film/TV documentaries by Adam Curtis, John Pilger, Nick Broomfield and others; editorials in, usually, The Guardian or The Independent; books by Noam Chomsky and others; online sources such as youtube for interviews and web documentaries; novels; and, not insubstantially, my own empirical, critical reflection on daily experience, itself informed by all these things and everything else I (have) experience(d), not least actual musicking. In addition to all that comes a lifetime (well, an ongoing adolescence[3]) of listening to music, making music and reading philosophy; I’ve maintained in class for years that music is philosophical discourse, albeit (if you insist, which I don’t) in the abstract which is to say (and it seems silly to say, since it ought not need be pointed out) that the very substance and material of music, how it’s conceived, crafted and articulated is always doing something, always saying something, it always renders. Over the last two decades my thinking has been influenced by a number of writers and critical commentators such as Nietzsche, Badiou, Benjamin, Sadie Plant, Chantale Mouffe, Nathaniel Mackey, Robert Musil, Ishmael Reed, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin… I’m reeling off a list now, and wondering how much point there is in this laborious self-justification while embarking on Part Two of this series Trying to Teach Popular Music as a Research-Led Subject in Higher Education. Except to say that, at a certain stage of engaging relentlessly in the parallel pursuit of new (great) music and the historical human endeavour to make sense of things, the two things cease to be parallel and become the same thing: listening, again, to different versions of ‘Chasin’ the Trane’ from the Complete Village Vanguard Sessions becomes synonymous with reading, again, ‘One-Way Street.’[4]

The thing is, whenever I stand up in front of a class full of composer-artist-performers, I set out with the base assumption that they must all be au fait with the understanding that what we call mainstream pop is inevitably a standard-bearer and mega-communicator (Debord’s ‘monologue’) for the political, economic and ideological interests of the corporations that invest in and promote it. Surely? Or that they have a fairly good grasp of what Tesco (or any of the supermarket chains that dominate UK retail) stands for, how they make their money, and what they’re actually doing when they offer you two-for-one or loyalty-card air miles, or that their motive for giving you what ‘you want’ or ‘your choice’ isn’t grounded in some wellspring of unlimited, unconditional altruism… Yet so often I’ve tried to set out on a narrative around what pop music is and how they, the students, can try to orient themselves within it, by taking such recognitions as a given, only to be met with facial expressions that betray both doubt and perplexity (expressed on the surprisingly rare occasion with actual questions or challenges). So, year-in, year-out, I’ve found myself having to backtrack and dissect the context in increasingly fine and tangential detail in order to get them to at least see what I mean, let alone actually entertain the notion that I may be right, even though being ‘right’ isn’t what I’m interested in (the absurdity of the situation creates a false polarity) so much as being able to proceed, individually and collectively, with as clear an understanding of what the real conditions are so that we may negotiate, together, a realistic pathway through them.

It still amazes me how successful (and increasingly so, with the passing of time) the music industry has been at instilling a sense that the products it peddles are made of music that just happens to emerge, somehow naturally occurring, like coal or diamonds (‘talent’); that Dark Side of the Moon is merely a great record (which it is[5]) and not also the result of lavish expenditure; or the fact that Roger Waters’s lyrics on that album are a firm espousal of middle-English bourgeois values is just incidental; and that the manner in which its music and sound reinforces a sense of the monetary value of investing in luxury space is an insurmountable condition for creative expression. Dark Side of the Moon is, of course, a ‘great record’ (and for me, personally, was one of those seminal mainstream gateways into music itself), but it oughtn’t be the Rock blueprint it became, nor the industry-institutional standard for Rock music’s production; nor was it healthy for anyone critically or politically switched on to continue luxuriating in its sumptuous opulence without acknowledging its place in the wider socio-economic scheme of things (what it’s meant to be), which is to say without factoring in that for the vast majority of the millions who bought it, and loved it, it was a source of relief from the imperative to fear, doubt or question one’s participation in, and contribution to, mass human misery. Among so many more things, yet fundamental, for emerging composers to understand, Dark Side of the Moon’s greatest legacy was to establish a template for a music product that, today, is synonymous with the leather-upholstered SUV with all mod cons; what I mean by this is that the manner in which products made on that template are produced reinforces a sense of financial and professional inaccessibility to its mechanisms (you have to achieve a recognized standard and you have to spend a sizeable sum of money), while it sells its consumer a luxurious sound-space experience that feels comfortable, propserous and justifiable, enhanced by lyrical content that soothes, smoothes, unpins and obscures. It’s subtler, though, than that: one of the magic ingredients of the bourgeois-imperialist order is that enough of those oppressed and exploited within it are disinclined to make a serious attempt to overthrow it because while it rules there remains that slim chance that they, as individuals, could themsleves rise to the top of it – the American Dream is the most fulsome manifestation of that magic-logic: the Dark Side of the Moon blueprint reaffirms affluence while simultaneously goading prosperity and self-interested hope.

Above all, it’s crucial for anyone taking contemporary composition seriously (which is to say they aspire to be taken seriously) to extricate themselves as rapidly as possible from the psychological tangle that market-driven consumer taste instills in regular folk; at the same time it’s equally crucial that they retain an ability to genuinely enjoy records made to be enjoyed (which counts for just about every ‘mainstream,’ ‘commercial’ release, if not all music[6]) even when they critically acknowledge that it’s either ‘bad’[7] or that its raison d’être is suspect or derisible (which generally means appealing to the lowest common denominator in pursuit of maximum profit[8]). To become a producer (in the broader sense) you have to both disentangle yourself from the manipulative forces of consumerism, while preserving your capacity to be wooed by its wares… It is very difficult, much harder than one might assume – a challenge certainly worthy of HE scholarship. As a student, I was initially utterly perplexed when I first read the transcript which appears in Cornelius Cardew’s polemic Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, of a talk John Tilbury gave for BBC Radio 3 before a broadcast of a concert performance he gave of John Cage’s Music of Changes whose bourgeois-imperialist origin and orientation he damningly critiques from a (then) Maoist perspective:

… there is no such thing as an artistic conscience which is not governed by world outlook. In a class society such as our own an artist observes, selects, refines, in short, creates not simply according to his own needs, but, more importantly, to the needs of a particular class – the musical ideas which created the Music of Changes are necessarily ideo- logically rooted and it is only within the context of ideology that the question of the true nature of a work of art can be meaningfully answered.


The Music of Changes [is] a pianistic masterpiece rooted in bourgeois individualism, anarchism and reformism. And what is its value? To the working and oppressed people it has no value, it bears no relation to their life. Its value is to the ruling class, it serves the stability of that class and is a weapon in their fight against revolution. Its value, therefore, is its counter-revolutionary value to the status quo, to imperialism; this, in the last analysis, is its true nature.[9]

I admit that at the time I was a little shocked… How could this mild-mannered, congenial and humorous man (who, as my piano teacher at Goldsmiths provided my first introduction to the music of Morton Feldman’s music, along with that of Cage’s New York School circle, like Christian Wolff, as well as the circle of composers associated with Cornelius Cardew, such as Howard Skempton, Dave Smith and John White) completely undermine a piece of music before performing it as convincingly and as faithfully (as truly-to-itself) as possible? Back then, it never occurred to me that one could value or respect something musically, even really like something and care about it artistically and aesthetically, while being critically aware of its flaws, or even the manipulative evils of its ideological-political bearing. As a world-renowned interpreter of New York School piano music, Tilbury has continued to perform that music all over the planet in the decades since.[10] One of the few truly great moments in my ill-fated single-year sojourn at Goldsmiths was being invited, along with a handful of his other students (in all, five or six of us) in 1988, to listen to him play through Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus (then a fairly new work) before he was to play it at (as I recall it) a ‘Marxist-feminist conference in Italy.’[11] Afterwards, he joked (as I paraphrase it from memory), ‘if they knew what Feldman’s politics really were they’d have me thrown out the window!’ What I remember especially of that performance was how Tilbury’s manner was so utterly devoid of the gestural rhetoric so typical of concert pianists who so often seem to make every demonstrative effort to underline the professional rigour of their virtuosic merit through facial expressions, muscular tensions and an often overbearing anality.[12] Obviously such histrionics are very often natural and intuitive (I guess…); but in so many cases they’re wholly contrived.

A further twist on this subjective-taste-consumer schematic was provided by my PhD supervisor, Bill Brooks, when he said at his inaugural postgraduate composers’ seminar at York that he was seldom ever interested in a piece of new music unless he initially found it irritating; the suggestion was that the origin of such irritation surely reveals a flaw in his critical receptivity, emerging from some possible shortcoming in his capacity to hear what the music was doing, or communicating, and that it required a certain virtuosity of listening to arrive at some viable understanding of the piece, regardless of whether it turned out to be any ‘good’ in the end. For me, the natural consequence of this train of thought is learning to assess the merits of a given piece of music initially according to the terms of its own frame of reference, then according to the extent to which it succeeds in arresting an audience’s indifference. What we call ‘commercial pop,’ designed, above all, to appeal to as many consumers as possible, has to be judged on those terms – in fact, regardless of an artist’s original or true intention, the effect a piece has on its audience becomes an irreducible element in its defining character.

Brooks’ attitude actually suggests a deeper tendency that responds to new, unexpected and potentially contradictory-antagonistic pronouncements, emanations, and positions by allowing their logic to (at least transitorily) persuade, so that one understands its logic from the inside. Kind of an internalized game that says ‘what if they were right…?’ There’s a very simple reason why this is a much more useful way to behave: in a population of over 7 billion, the world and its actions, ideas and excitements will be racing beyond you, all the time, to an infinite extent: what you, as an individual, like all individuals with our crude limitations, are able to understand of the world at any given moment is utterly bound to be hopelessly, even insurmountably, limited. The only hope is to see and hear what the world is, what it is being, what it’s saying, and try, from each fractional moment to moment, to formulate positions based on what you’ve grasped so far and as much of what you can cope with from the wildly esemplastic, endlessly multifarious now. In an attempt to use this paragraph to mete out some practical advice, I’ll say this: try and spend as little time as possible (once you realize you’re in their company) arguing with people whose position is immovable (devoid of questioning) because what they’re bringing to the table is a neatly wrapped box of treasured findings whose interest for them has always been their capacity to reassure and reaffirm tenets they cling to out of fear. Fear of what need not concern you; generally one must imagine it will likely be fear of failure, fear of being ‘wrong,’ or fear of being exposed as inadequate or unqualified or some other such bullshit. But if you’re reading this and you fully understand what I mean, then you’re already someone who has long since not given a fuck about ‘looking like a dick’ or being seen to fail anyway. In the introduction to her Routledge guide to Deleuze, Claire Colebrook relates how the philosopher couldn’t bear to sit at a table in a café or restaurant if it was next to one where two or more people were having an argument between opinions[13]; most of us will have had someone say to us, at least once in our lives, ‘well, that’s just your opinion’ – the brilliantly unwitting tragedy of that reasoning is that it automatically cancels out the opinion of whoever says it. As Method Man, Charles Bukowski and countless others have enjoyed telling us over the years, opinions are like assholes; ‘everybody gotta have one.’ It’s a dictum whose accumulated triteness obscures its cutting pertinence: opinions really are like arse holes because both produce waste matter… Except of course that’s unfair to both anuses and shit, since they both serve innumerably more useful purposes than opinions ever could. None of which should confuse ‘opinion’ with Hegel’s category ‘understanding,’ denoting a point-arrived-at which will hold the weight of our pursuit long enough for us to cleave its immanent dialectic, and thus move forward.

As a quick aside, I should expressly banish from my argument, right now, what has become a popular apologism known as ‘guilty pleasure,’ a consumer valve that pretends there’s ever anything to be guilty about in enjoying music while reinforcing a sense that what we should properly like ought to be indissociable from our ideological outlook. Nor is it about addressing some balance between subjectivity and objectivity. I don’t recognize any true capacity in humans to be objective, trapped as our consciousnesses are inside such crude cranial caskets, at the unreliable mercy of our five means of sensory perception and what ‘learning’ we can store; while subjectivity, insanely complex, is far too commonly hijacked by the exponentially sophisticated mechanisms of spectacular culture, trying to get people to even begin to entertain the idea that they are likely to have played little, if any, autonomous part in forming their own ‘taste’ – that they ever had much control over what they ‘like’ – is virtually impossible. It seems obvious to the point of simplistic to even bother devoting any space to the observation here, except, again, I need to keep reminding myself (and the reader) that in my experience trying to proceed from all this as a given is virtually impossible.

Taste is a core contrivance of consumer marketing; talent is a cultural myth. The whole purpose of trying breach the gap between what we like to listen to and what our critical faculty elevates or denigrates according to ideologically forged criteria is, above all, to blow open the territory of pop music production, by definition commercial (whether corporate backed or DIY self-organized ‘subculture’) in order to be liberated from completely bogus parameters that restrict, reduce and demean artistic endeavour. Ultimately, in trying to teach composition to students at any level of the ‘learning’ process, my prime concern has been to illustrate as fully as possible the extent to which they have thus far been taught to close down avenues of creative potential, rather than to recognize that, when an artist stands on the threshold of producing any kind of work at all, absolutely anything is possible; the only thing constricting an artist’s potential is, in theory, the measure by which they impede the flow of their own ideas, and such impediments are manifest as a result of constant interference from the myriad micro-authorities that tamper with our daily experience of the world and all the other people in it.

What I need to do at this stage is provide a reasonably sound illustration of the bizarre context that consumer ‘taste’ precipitates among a fairly sizeable proportion of would-be and emerging composers. There are complexities that cannot be untangled here, which have to do with the ways in which styles, traditions and subgenres are manifest as myriad subcategories of pop music as a whole, functioning on multiple points on the spectrum between the extreme ends of ‘mainstream’ and ‘underground.’ For all manner of different reasons, the vast majority of musicians identify with a particular style or aesthetic subcategory of pop. It’s pretty obvious to observe that this has a lot, if not everything, to do with identity formation and the diverse ways in which distinct identity groups are authored and nurtured from within spectacular culture. So, nowadays, supposedly ‘outsider’ or countercultural subgenres are as much a part of corporate industry’s investment in malleable identity as the more visible, highstreet affiliated big screens. There are, though, zones of pop music productivity that function outside of such a variegated, subdivided infrastructure, and I will come onto those at a later stage.

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that generic subcategorization is a ‘bad thing’; more often than not subcategories provide a very useful cultural framework for musicians to establish themselves through and within. Moreover, there’s nothing to suggest that any musician need ever necessarily become a defector from whatever scene they start out from – tradition is a very powerful thing, and defining one’s self within a tradition’s strict borders is among the toughest challenges, yet most rewarding, in art – almost as tough as the ultra-commercial imperative to craft a commodity that millions want to buy. But far too often, and wholly unnecessarily, musicians get trapped within paradigms for no other reason than their having never been encouraged to consider the limitlessness of expressive, creative potential. Working within the protocols of a given style is the most widely pursued approach, and there is nothing wrong with that at all; but it’s amazing the degree to which certain styles are prioritized at the expense, or complete ignorance, of others – indeed, at the expense of other styles and scenes that have a much greater contemporary relevance than those pedagogically selected for attention. Consider for a moment the perceptibly vast and established history and culture of Hip Hop that gets taken as a foundational and ongoing given in the 2015 hit movie, Dope: three key characters discuss the culture from separate, no less learnèd perspectives: the film’s protagonist, Malcolm, is a self-styled scholar and aficionado of 1990s Rap; his ’hood’s principle player-dealer (played by A$AP Rocky) takes a historically broad, contemporarily savvy perspective on a discuss of the music early on; while towards the latter part of the film, Malcolm expressly disavows the older-generation, semi-legit, respectable druglord (played by the enigmatic Roger Guenveur Smith) of his presumptions of contemporary Rap in relation to an orthodox Old Skool. Absolutely none of what the three characters discuss will have ever made it onto any school music curriculum (except for the odd patronizing, hermeneutic misrepresentation that seeks to justify and assimilate it with European ‘standards’), and yet they’re talking about music that has dominated the choices of a majority of global music fans for decades.

One of the main reasons for this ongoing inconsistency within music pedagogy and scholarship (setting aside historic issues of race and imperialism) is that the vast majority of people at the centre of significant new developments, those who are relevant, have developed their sound and style completely independently of any formal, conventional learning, creating the bizarre situation that HE pop music educators face wherein a significant proportion of students who sign up for a pop degree are those unwittingly caught in a no-man’s-land between what’s really happening in music and arbitrary frameworks of musical formalism derived from the archaic protocols of the European classical tradition. Too often it’s the ones who’ve been duped early on (instrument lessons during formative years) who wind up even enlisting. None of which is to ever suggest that registering for an HE pop degree is a bad idea; quite the contrary – but in trying to teach them, educators have to provide a realistic framework that genuinely reflects as closely as possible where the culture has reached and where it’s heading; lamentably, that’s not generally the case.

Another unquestioned regime is that which teaches epigonality – diligently following the example of established figures. Under the European classical model, this approach can be seen to make a certain kind of sense, given that a substantial proportion of the canon will have been subject to generations of scholarship and analysis, scrutinizing perceived masterpieces, endlessly reassessing the merits of Beethoven String Quartets, Wagner’s music theatre, Stravinsky’s stylistic shifts etc. But with pop, the tradition, as such, is, on the one hand ebulliently and exponentially contemporary, and on the other so manifestly subject to corporate investment and marketing that a very unreliable and distorted view of what any equivalent ‘masterpieces’ are, by whom and according to what criteria. The most obvious reason for not teaching epigonality in pop is that the practice of imitating the material style and substance of what’s already firmly established through proven industrial success is a mean trick to play on pupils and students; people graft tirelessly to perfect their rendition of songs by bands from the 70s and 80s, paying lip service to their elevated place in an often bogus hierarchy, devoting hours to mastering something whose relevance (such as it might have been) has long since come to pass. Furthermore, using a canon of corporate Rock classics as a curriculum manages to overlook the fact that when they were originally made, they needed to be ‘new’ music as per their purpose within the industry they were crafted for; the only viable way to conceive of a pedagogic framework for such an environment would be to assess a student musician’s ability to do the same.

Now, of course, music hopefuls all round the world have dreams and desires of emulating the heroes that inhabit their private experience (usually) courtesy of multinational corporate promotion, and a huge amount of them will never get anywhere for many more varied and complicated reasons than the fact that what they dream of has already come to pass. However, they’ll also far too often get nowhere because a) no one has bothered to point out the absurdity of disproportionately lauding such dull and unimaginative (‘simple and plain’[14]) human specimens as Bono, Chris Martin or Hetfield/Ulrich, and b) because the way in which the spectacle works is to forge paradigms out of promoted commodities in order to reinforce a justification of their perceived value and secure for future efforts the territory upon which any success was won. Among many other things, out of this comes the ridiculous pantomime that perennially surrounds the New Album by any one of an increasing amount of past-it white men who incredibly don’t seem to have moved on creatively (or imaginatively) from what they were trying to do in their teens and early twenties. I always loved AC/DC; but in the 1970s when I was originally one of their fans as they emerged from a hard-gigging underground to mainstream success, Angus Young was apparently a vital human being whose passion for John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins translated convincingly into a distinctive expression of white working-class experience (in Melbourne or Glasgow and beyond), molded into a sound whose frankness, wit and raw instrumental urgency carved a space which disavowed the affluent hubris of corporate Rock while avoiding the facetiousness that defined the caricature of DIY that the music industry hastily foiled Punk as with great success. What starts out as an exciting and relevant response to music born of a particular historical, socio-economic and racial experience in the United States, becomes a depressing affirmation of the nihilist fixity that characterizes dominant Europeanism: they found a product that worked, corporate business invested in it, and thereafter, instead of remaining people who were excited and motivated by what people could do, and be in the world as a response to it, their efforts were rigidly focused on reliably (‘professionally’) delivering the same commodity, decade-in, decade-out, in a trajectory marked only by an increasingly savvy trade cynicism.[15] Are we to concede that an Angus in his late 50s has really nurtured no evolving, incremental, keening interest in music since Back In Black?

But there again, I wouldn’t want to be seen to advocate that a group or an artist cant keep trying to pursue and perfect the same vision, which has historically shown to be as earnest an approach to art as any other; but more often than not, rigorously remaining focused on a specific trajectory (in the manner of Badiou’s ‘evental site’) has been marked by a tendency for the work to sometimes significantly change and its forms to mutate: an extreme example would be John Coltrane, whose steep incline from Giant Steps to Ascension and the work with his final (post-quartet) group could, despite its apparently dramatic shifts, be seen to remain true to some intangible pursuit of an unattainable absolute in Coltrane’s spirit. A less extreme, though no less poignant, example, would be Joseph Haydn’s lifelong devotion to the string quartet, through which the most intricate details of his creative insight can be seen to have grown and flourished against a backdrop of more prominent works such as the symphonies and the late, great masses.

Returning to the sphere I set out from, the kind of commitment to material and form displayed in the Haydn quartets is no less characteristic of Slayer’s unfolding output since their inception, despite many passing, surface similarities to the monster commodity Metallica. Among many other subtle differences, it is that consistency of vision that sets Slayer apart, a vision that is, in part, characterized by a certain ironic distance from the material content of the music, the violence, angst and aggression is played out much more cartoon-comic style. This is what allows Tom Araya to chant ‘God hates us all!’ with such relish despite his avowedly devout Catholic faith; it’s also why we never witnessed, and never will, in Slayer, the disintegration of aesthetic focus heralded by Hetfield’s sudden plunge into facile introspection with the lyrics, ‘Never opened myself this way…’[16] (‘integrity’ is one of those bogus attributes unduly valued by bourgeois culture). As a consequence, compare the kinds of billing and kinds of festival-show each band is now most likely to perform: in May 2012, Slayer were invited to headline an All Tomorrow’s Parties weekender at London’s Alexandra Palace co-curated by the band Mogwai; the remainder of the bill (typically diverse and contemporarily relevant for ATP) featured only 3 or 4 other acts you could associate with any Metal subgenre. In 2013 Metallica played an awkwardly self-conscious headline set that foregrounded their peripherally seminal early material on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, greeted with mild controversy, but hailed by a Guardian-reader public as some kind of magnanimous embrace of Heavy Metal by the discerning mainstream. I thought it was awful and embarrassing, albeit entirely apt for the context and setting; I wrote a review of it for the old ICMUS Hub which I may post on here some time if it feels worthwhile doing so.

Just to once more remind the reader, none of this is about my taste, my rules, my opinions. For what it’s worth, I bought Metallica when it came out, listened to it a lot and liked it. But in my teaching job at the time, suddenly it was the 8- and 9-year-olds who were into it and wanting to learn ‘Enter Sandman’ and ‘Nothing Else Matters’ (the easiest ever intro to teach a beginner). In one respect that was great because the more engaged and interested pupils would then go out and look for the earlier records, which in turn could then lead them to Exodus, Suicidal Tendencies, Pantera, Sepultura and who knows what else. Above all it clearly reflected the agenda of those who were marketing it (with the wholehearted collusion of the band themselves): make more money, expand the market younger. It worked, but the price they pay is that their legacy bears none of the influence Slayer can be seen to have had, which extends very broadly – Drum & Bass, Free Jazz, various hardcores and numerous avowedly countercultural subgenres (or even relatively mainstream acts like Mogwai). To view Slayer now, they still come across as artists – including in the replacement of the late Jeff Hannemann with Gary Holt, significantly not a session musician or some guitarist nerd from a younger generation of fans[17] – while Metallica remain just blokes.

Bloke Rock covers a large proportion of predominantly white male, middle-aged acts whose careers are increasingly steroid-pumped by corporate investment. The absurdity that they occupy a zone of creativity that is somehow to be taken more seriously than, say, Miley Cyrus or Britney Spiers, in what the pop meritocracy allows, betrays a deeply entrenched conservatism that pervades established commercial music; and, worse still, the absurdity that it dominates how pop music is taught, amazing and depressing in equal measure, presents major problems for academics seeking to establish pop as a viable HE subject area. On what grounds are they prioritized? Presumably because they can be seen to be working ‘hard’ to make their own (limited and puerile) models: Metallica and Coldplay are like Good Husbands who are handy round the house, always able to fix the washing machine or tinkering away over some hobby-project in the garage (model railway, vintage car etc.), handy with the barbecue – the bulk of their output is commensurately mundane. And I wouldn’t want to let my ‘Good Husband’ tag not stick to the likes of James Hetfield simply because he’s had a candidly documented battle with drugs and alcohol; such embellishments lace the sauce like a dash of cayenne or the odd raw chilli – they make an otherwise morbidly quotidian tale marginally more spicy, quite apart from the fact that his personal crisis can always be exploited by his investors as a handy parable about ‘overcoming demons’ and, ultimately, renouncing deviance and daring of any kind on the understanding that one can only come a cropper.

Guy Debord’s analysis deftly articulates the amplified ordinariness in how celebrity is crafted in order that people might identify with key figures within their sphere of interest while guaranteeing that no sense of autonomous agency or self-definition is inspired:

Stars — spectacular representations of living human beings — project this general banality into images of permitted roles. As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations that they actually live. The function of these celebrities is to act out various lifestyles or sociopolitical viewpoints in a full, totally free manner. They embody the inaccessible results of social labor by dramatizing the by-products of that labor which are magically projected above it as its ultimate goals: power and vacations — the decision making and consumption that are at the beginning and the end of a process that is never questioned.[18]

Debord touches on a common willingness to identify with composite constructs of personality designed to market and manipulate in equal measure. The tenor of his critique is negative for obvious reasons, in keeping with the entire project of the Situationist International. Yet, while the issue of the ‘never questioned’ is central to my position, it is crucial that we acknowledge how the cultural products in which the spectacle is manifest inevitably become part of the soil from which any new agency might grow; for just about every potential musician or artist, the starting point is the materiality of the spectacle itself (like those 8- and 9-year-olds who could gravitate from Metallica to Exodus, to Wolf Eyes to Moondog to Diamanda Galás to Varèse etc.). During the formative process set in motion by a first encounter with music (or more truly the gradual absorption of it from a formative environment) people apply an intuitive intelligence to incorporating its meaning and materiality; so long as they’re, then, not meddled with by institutional regulation and reductionism, they have a realistic chance of making something socially and culturally worthwhile from it. This is why the most important and influential innovators in pop emanate from proletarian, under-resourced and neglected settings – they’ve been left alone, beyond the mercifully cynical reach of institutional hampering, often to forge their own agency out of raw necessity. LA rapper Vince Staples describes this scenario perfectly in a remarkable interview he gave Frannie Kelley and Ali Shaheed Muhammad for their NPR show, Microphone Check:

At a very young age, I could look at people and tell that everyone was, in a sense, worthless in their own mind. And you couldn’t trust anyone. No one was good. My mom wasn’t good. My dad wasn’t good. My grandmother wasn’t good. My grandfather was good to me, but if you ask around, he done some stuff. No one’s good or bad. And then I understood it was a trick. I knew we was being fucking tricked. At a young age.[19]

I have a six-year-old great-nephew who seems to have been switched onto music from a very young age. He sings incessantly and remembers the words to everything; when he gets around any musical instrument (even just a pair of drumsticks) he becomes animated in a way that can only be a result of how music (pop) is woven into the daily fabric of regular (and regulated) entertainment (including, I’m guessing, flicking between music video channels on digital TV) – as far as I’m aware he’s never been exposed to anything musical beyond what the spectacle provides. The fervor of his animation around anything music-related is remarkable, though, and reveals what I myself can remember being inspired by: despite the level of sanitization, dilution and reductionism required to render ‘manufactured’ chart music palatable on a mass scale, it must retain a fairly substantial element of the kind spontaneous energy and urgency redolent of improvised social engagement and performance (the centrality of improvisation to pop’s antecedents in both folk and blues is too often overlooked). He’s obsessed with Ed Sheeran; at his age I was into the Osmonds… A year later I became obsessed with my sister’s Pink Floyd LP, Dark Side of the Moon, which became my jump-off point into a far more exciting and precarious musical discovery.

The point is that the corporate-invested mainstream will always be the most likely entry point for most musicians, no less so for those whose imagination and adventurousness are subsequently allowed to run free – the result usually being a career in what most people are given to view as the ‘leftfield.’ As I indicated above, in the case of those conservative students whose stated intent to produce ‘mainstream, commercial’ music, their attitude towards chart pop is even more scornful than it is to the supposed ‘avant garde.’ Such a paradox is symptomatic of the overbearing indoctrination they’ve been subjected to by either established, official music pedagogy and by a dominant-ideology laden music industry that promotes a kind of vacuous white-male, Protestant rock-band hierarchy as the arena for ‘serious’ musicians. According to this imposed schematic, chart music is trivial and shallow. It’s crucial, in trying to teach pop, to fully embrace all its elements in order to be able to work realistically with what gets handed (well, rammed) down (people’s throats). Much as we may hate the extent to which pop and rock are ‘manufactured’ by corporations, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid their material ubiquity and the effect that has on daily life; corporate pop is daily life.

Ultimately the trick is to rid one’s self of the framework of prejudices and protocols with which the popular media and music curricula have so successfully petrified and putrefied musical experience. The long-standing success of such interference and dominance can be put down to the same methods with which MacDonalds make their Big Mac so irresistible: a cunning balance of excess sugar and salt, which in music is manifest in the sweetness of pop’s sensual-emotional appeal and the salt of the assumed seriousness of professionalism, seemingly essential because it’s good for you…

Expressly commercial pop deals in what Peter Sloterdijk terms ‘invasive sensualities,’ an irresistible sweetness that actually penetrates the subject in order to take control of it:

The most basic luxury food is suitable to convince me that an incorporated object, far from coming unambiguously under my control, can take possession of me and dictate its topic to me. If a banal case of sugar consumption already hollows out the subject through the flaring up of an aroma presence, however, and makes it the scene of invasive sensualities, what is to become of the subject’s conviction that its destiny is self-determination on all fronts? What remains of the dream of human autonomy once the subject has experienced itself as a penetrable hollow body?[20]

Rather than warding us off commodities designed to lure us into a specific programme, resulting in further elitism, an observation like this should better equip us to handle forces bent on exploitation that seek to entice us through pleasures, desires and anxieties. Composers setting out to find a viable space within the broader context can’t afford to restrict themselves to narrow aesthetics and hierarchies; they need to be able to accommodate the reality of invasive sensualities so as to be able to control them and redeploy their energies productively, not just for their own personal, material gain, but in order to help expand the social-collective capacity for meaningful agency.

Picking up the tenor of the Sloterdijk quote, centred around an apparent assumption that everyone ought to be aware of ‘the subject’s conviction that its destiny is self-determination on all fronts,’ there’s surely no need to acquiesce to the grotesque ‘being for others’ that the corporate-institutional model so overwhelmingly insists on and implants. And yet it’s pop, more so than almost all other element among mass media, that so effectively instills such acquiescence. Music is the site of almighty struggle for power and control over individual thought. As Badiou suggests,

[The world of merchandising] is an anarchy of more or less regulated, more or less coded fluxes […] thought at least must be able to extract itself from this circulation and take possession of itself once again as something other than an object of circulation.[21]

Badiou advocates reclaiming control of one’s own capacity to think autonomously as a vital matter of general principle. In the case of those who are seeking to contribute actively to the cultural framework of ‘more or less regulated, more or less coded fluxes,’ the imperative becomes a matter of urgency, for the benefit, above all, of the composers themselves. For me, teaching composition has always been about removing impediments rather than increasing them for those pursuing an advancement of their expressive-creative potential. In order for this to be possible, a wholesale questioning and dismantling of everything taught and sold to date is unavoidable; the biggest challenge should be to see how far back in the process of a lifetime of interference and indoctrination the emerging composer is prepared to go.

So, if you’re ‘teaching’ pop as a creative discipline, what do you replace bogus protocols and hierarchies with? Well, the priority becomes listening, and developing the instrumental virtuosity in listening I suggested earlier. Listen to anything and everything with an ear that learns to hear what the music is saying (in an abstracted, aesthetic sense, not translating it into inadequate verbal pronouncements) and doing (to yourself and others); and a critical faculty that, on the one hand respects all artists’ motivations no matter how foreign, shallow or trivial they may seem to the identity-set you’ve found yourself caught up in and settled into, and on the other hand maintains a clear sense of who funded a recording’s production and distribution and what, besides money, their interest was in it (and if it is just money, then that needs to be clear, although that’s rare and actually has tended to produce some bizarre results[22]). If you have the time, motivation and inclination to learn Western notation and harmony, it may be useful (it is, after all, just a technology, like Ableton Live or analogue multitracking, one which presents certain, distinct possibilities), but it’s not essential or important, and it’s definitely not an orthodoxy or a mandatory drill; indeed, given the urgency of the situation, it may be crucial to proceed with an overt disregard for it. Above all, remember what it is, and has been, politically and ideologically, and make sure you’re in control of its place in your own scheme, i.e. that it can in no way take the form of a predominant rule system, and that it isn’t being imposed on you from some ulterior authority.

After the immersive listening comes the doing and the making and this should be a daily operation[23]; by making something new everyday, a reliance on authority and prescription begins to dissipate. The most important thing to remember is that through as total an immersion in music as possible, making new material constantly allows your own actions to become part of the same dialogic flow in what you’re listening to – it becomes part of the same thing to the point where your unconscious drive to create becomes a (first internal, then externalized) discussion with everything else that’s happening (including all the perpetual happening of what’s gone before – historical chronology became irrelevant with the inception of the record industry).

To conclude, then: while my main intention here has been to relate some of the more problematic conditions of trying to teach pop music as a higher education practical discipline, negotiating the tricky bridge between damning the provenance of mainstream, corporate pop and Rock, while simultaneously advocating not only an accommodation of its material content but also an embrace and absorption thereof, ultimately it would be far simpler to say that the best artist-musicians will always have one thing in common: a passion for finding great records and a passion for making them. In the end, whether we’re talking about the most austere noise music or chart-oriented pop, it has to be good if it’s to stand a chance of rising above the surface of a churning industrial morass, and staying above it. So how do you tell what’s ‘good’ and what’s not? Absurdly, that’s what I’ll be taking on in Part III.

Finally, I feel kind of annoyed to have felt it necessary to make some of the points contained in this post. When I started at Newcastle in 2004, I not only didn’t realize that so much pop music teaching was so narrow and backward-looking, but I’d also never have guessed that a decade or so down the line things would be utterly unchanged, if not worse. At that time, Trevor Wishart’s excellent formulations (originally published in 1985) on how recording and computer technologies had significantly altered the landscape for artists working in the media of music and sound, seemed like old hat – for the staff and students I was working with, their familiarity with (and acceptance of) the analysis set out in On Sonic Art was taken as a given. In writing this, I quickly opened an old Word doc of quotes I copied out while studying for my PhD; here’s a casually grabbed selection of examples that more than adequately reinforce what I’m saying:

The principle point I am going to develop is that the priorities of notation do not merely reflect musical priorities – they actually create them. […] What I am looking for are experientially viable criteria for making music. A preoccupation with conventional notation can lead us into formalism, a situation where there is no longer any experiential verification of our theories about how to compose music. (p. 11)

It is music’s intrinsic irrefutability, its going behind the back of language, which has caused it to be viewed with so much suspicion and disdain by the guardians of socially-approved order. (p. 17)

The conception of music as consisting of fixed-pitch, fixed-timbre entities called ‘notes’ is extremely persistent. It even imposes conceptual limitations upon the design of digital musical instruments (where such traditional conceptions are no longer necessary). (p. 25)

… the codification of motivic practice, starting first with neumic notation, is part of a certain puritan thrust apparent in Western civilization! (p. 112)[24]

What I’ve written here is a report rather than the articulation of a specific argument or position. I have what I consider far more interesting things to say (and I will be saying them). I’m not overly enthusiastic about getting bogged down in issues of how pop music is actually taught at university; but the current situation in the main is so dire, I genuinely wonder where an advancement can come from. This is partly because most of the hundreds of thousands of people involved in music who already do know, and for whom the ideas in On Sonic Art are not only old hat but don’t even need pointing out, the idea of even bothering with pop within an HE music department is utterly irrelevant. In which case, you may well ask, what am I doing in music academia? Naivety takes a long time to cure, I suppose. Except I would revisit what I said in Part I: around 10% of each year group comprises musicians already switched on, clued up and who are already good; another 10-20% have genuine potential and are ready and willing to be rescued from the constrictions previously imposed by the media, school and tutoring (often this comes from a restless intuition that there must be more to all this); the remaining ca. 70% are too preoccupied with the institutional procedure of getting good marks and a good degree result to be sufficiently swayed towards making half decent music. Over the years I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to teach and collaborate with some really amazing artists, so I’m a long way from personally complaining about any of this. In addition, there are other departments that have successfully moved far beyond the sorts of constraints I’m talking about, and there are many great people at various different points in an academic career, around the world, to connect with and develop exciting ideas and projects with. But the fact remains that, as a sector, we’re still woefully behind the game.

Addendum concerning some responses to Part I

In Part I of this series, in relation to the ethics of teaching pop music at HE, I suggested that ‘it is the duty of those who are engaged to teach [students who register for a pop degree] to try and make it worth their while, to deliver a degree that is as intellectually and professionally commensurate with, first of all, other Humanities subjects, but also with those in the sciences, engineering and so on.’ I shouldn’t need to extend that – but for the purposes of driving the point home I feel compelled to – by saying that such an undertaking absolutely requires that those teaching it should really know their subject very thoroughly indeed (as per being commensurate with other, unrelated, yet broadly comparable, disciplines). In the light of the kinds of narrownesses and limited thinking I’ve written about here, in Part II, one finds more often than not that pop degrees are being taught by people who a) subjectively, substantially, favour a particular style, attitude and aesthetic over others; and b) in tending to unquestioningly apply the logic of a Europeanist musical perspective, they don’t even manage to get a decent grasp of their own preferred style and aesthetic. As one of my PhD students said to me recently, ‘they don’t even like pop…’ To which I would add, they’re just the same as all commodity-culture consumers: they’re fans and they have favourites. And I’m afraid that’s useless in a Higher Education context.

I also stressed the unifying principle of new knowledge across all HE subjects and disciplines. It seems blatantly obvious to me that applying and grafting on systems and structures from an established historical tradition (i.e. the European Classical tradition, which has little direct connection with the field of research behind pop music) to a field above all characterized by proliferate, multifarious expansion, thus constantly pegging back our understanding of it, is a pointlessly backward tendency, and can only serve as a significantly damaging impediment to developing salient and pertinent insights. The development of such insights is at the very heart of what drives new knowledge as a fundamental concept.

Finally, there was a brief flurry of tweets in which the lame old adage about ‘learning the rules in order to break the rules’ was repeatedly made or alluded to. But what rules? By what logic can one justifiably elevate the European notation tradition to the status of ‘rules’, not least when the most relevant and penetrating work in the field is being done by artists who never gave such supposed ‘rules’ a first thought, let alone a second? The same flurry of tweets included a defence of that position by arguing that it was wrong to deny students access to the European tradition since that would be to deprive them of a broad view. Let me be as clear as I can: my position isn’t one that seeks to deny, obscure or eradicate Western harmony and its system of notation; I am simply arguing that it has no place as an overriding orthodoxy in the study of pop music and should in no way be presented as taking any kind of precedence over other approaches, not least in an age when current practice significantly undermines its value(s).

[1] Who am I talking about here? I’m thinking of music that has been both commercially successful and critically acclaimed and which has continued to sound good, sound relevant and sell well for a reasonable period after its initial release. Such criteria yields a list that would include David Bowie, The Beatles, George Clinton, Kate Bush, Radiohead, Prince, Miley Cirus, Madonna… I’d be inclined to stop there: the undertaking is a stupid one, since the list is necessarily enormous; after several decades of recorded pop, there are thousands of acts whose music fits into this dual category and that’s as it should be given that the nature of the game, ultimately, is to make great records

[2] I’ll continue to take a hard line on this. It is true that an imaginative, intelligent and musical teacher will always know how to integrate the European systems of notation and harmony, but sadly such a teacher is very much in the minority. And I’m not targeting the more regular kind of teacher on an ad hominem basis here – they are as much a victim of their own muddled education themselves. Above all, my position advocates a demotion of the European tradition to one among the world’s many, rather than the de facto orthodoxy it has been taught as for too long.

[3] On the nature of an ongoing adolescence, see Gustav Thomas, ‘The Eternal Fire of Darkness: Black Metal, Gnosticism & the Body (

[4] John Coltrane, The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse, 1997);

Walter Benjamin, ‘One-Way Street,’ 1935-1938, Selected Writings (Harvard, 2006).

[5] Apologies for this kind of parenthetic aside: I’ll write later on in more detail about how my attempts to loosen the grip of spectacular culture immediately, and often irreversibly, precipitates and assumption that I ‘hate’ mainstream culture and that I’m slagging off the likes of Pink Floyd, U2 and Coldplay – among so much more, the spectacle teaches dualism and reinforces polarity, a crucial dividing tactic that has always been crucial to bourgeois-imperialist administrative government.

[6] With the possible exception of certain substrata of Noise and Power Electronics, or even Black Metal, not withstanding that its adherents still do ‘enjoy’ their pain thresholds and willfully bleak or harsh coldnesses.

[7] To address what’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in any determined way is generally avoided, sort of a no-no – Part Three of this series will be devoted entirely to that issue.

[8] The extent to which such music is generally seen as a ‘bad thing,’ unworthy of serious consideration or attention is also a major obstacle I’ve found almost insurmountable – this will be addressed further down the post…

[9] John Tilbury, ‘Introduction to Cage’s Music of Changes, in Cornelius Cardew’s Stockhausen Serves Imperialism (ubuclassics Edition, 2004 – pp. 42 & 45 respectively.

[10] Like I say, I was shocked; I was naïve. And, given the position I now find myself in, being charged to ‘teach’ non-notated composition to aspiring artists, you’d maybe suggest I expect the same naivety as them. Well, on the one hand, of course I have to, and I account for that and accommodate it into my approach; however, on the other hand, what Tilbury was discussing was music written by John Cage, an artist whose work was never aggressively promoted (corporate-playlisted etc.) to a mass audience and therefore has to this day remained very much in the tighter margins of common experience. In dealing with pop music, we’re not even dealing with a matter of choice or erudition: it’s around us and in us everywhere, every day, and for no more less natural or no more mysterious a reason than its violently forced into the public’s consciousness.

[11] Morton Feldman, For Bunita Marcus (for piano solo, 1985). I’ve tried to find an online reference to this concert/conference, without success.

[12] When I was thrown out of Goldsmiths at the end of my first year, John Tilbury took me out to celebrate and congratulated me, saying, ‘Now you can get out on the road and get on with it.’ His attitude to the hokum of professionalism was easily as critically incisive as Christopher Small’s. As a fan of Radioactive Sparrow, he once persuaded me to write to Jim O’Rourke (providing me with his home address) suggesting we collaborate, the latter having been in touch with John, himself, as a fawning admirer; I never heard from him – I always put that down as symptomatic of professional hierarchy (I was signally ‘no one’), but I could be wrong, of course… I usually am.

[13] Claire Colebrook, Gilles Deleuze (Routledge Critical Thinkers) 2002 – I’ll source an actual quote and page ref once I can get back to my copy of the text…

[14] To quote Chuck D in ‘Fight the Power’ (just in case anyone doesn’t have the reference already built in).

[15] The evolution of such a cynicism during the period between the real shit and the real shit can be fascinating, illuminating and even hilarious to observe: I always felt AC/DC’s brilliant and most confused ‘low’ came with albums like Fly on the Wall and Blow Up Your Video, which end up being favourite LPs as a perverse consequence. The penetratingly relevant influence such inept heights can have inadvertently is a truly worthy avenue for further exploration…

[16] Metallica, ‘Nothing Else Matters,’ from Metallica (Vertigo, 1991).

[17] Gary Holt emerged from the same nascent Californian Thrash scene as a guitarist with Exodus.

[18] Debord, Society of the Spectacle, thesis/statement 60. Italics in original.

[19] Vince Staples, interviewed on NPR, Microphone Check, July 1, 2015. [accessed December 12, 2015]

[20] Peter Sloterdijk – Spheres. Volume 1: Bubbles. Microspherology (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e); 2011) pp. 93-94.

[21] Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought (New York: Continuum; 2005) p. 36.

[22] During my years of regular crate-digging, some of my favourite finds were LPs like Staff Carpenborg & the Electric Corona’s Fantastic Party, The New World’s Trumpet A’Gogo and soundtrack music for porn films; such records could contain wildly anarchic and off-the-wall material simply because the musicians making them realized that the fat cat funding the release was so singly bothered about making any (whatever) product to sell, he actually couldn’t care less about the music on it.

[23] Gang Starr’s decision to name their second album Daily Operation reflects precisely this ethos within Hip Hop.

[24] All from Trevor Wishart, On Sonic Art (New York: Routledge; 1996)

TRYING TO TEACH POPULAR MUSIC AS A RESEARCH-LED SUBJECT IN HIGHER EDUCATION: II The Endless Struggle with Indoctrinated Taste: Towards a Pedagogy of Virtuosic Subjectivity

Trying to Teach Popular Music as a Research-Led Subject in Higher Education: Part I – Free Creativity as a Vocational Imperative

Brief Introduction

The following is the first in a three-part series in which I relate some of the key issues I have encountered trying to teach popular music (both practice and theory) at Newcastle University over the last 11½ years. Everything I’ll be writing on this blog for the foreseeable future will basically be stuff I’ve been saying out of my mouth in class during that time. Having now started putting that stuff onto the page in a manner that is intended to be read and, hopefully, argued with and talked about, I’m gratified to see that all that talking wasn’t a total waste of time and breath, since all the things I’ve been formulating and trying to get across remain very much in tact in a part of my brain that opens up easily when I try to access it.

This series, Trying to Teach Popular Music as a Research-Led Subject in Higher Education, is meant as a kind of report on my experience of teaching non-notated (i.e. devised/improvised performance and recorded-media) composition to honours-level students (which is to say, all such classes have been populated by students choosing to pursue non-notated composition, usually with the genuine intention of trying to pursue its inherent disciplines, to as realistically viable a standard as possible). The idea to write the series started with wanting to report on the intense struggles I’ve engaged in with students regarding their relationship what we call the mainstream – essentially the corporate, market-driven culture of commercial pop. In essence, those struggles concerned a commonly perceived and what they felt was a suspect leftfield avant garde, which, given the kind of music most of us teaching those modules were known for, they felt somehow obliged to emulate, albeit reluctantly, in order to ‘get a good mark.’ I’ve always maintained, (because I damn well know) that such a dichotomy is a fallacy. It’s this ‘report’ that makes up the majority of the second part in the series, while the third part attempts to outline a methodology for discerning ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in pop. This first part, however, tries to set the scene, and the tone, for those two pieces, while offering a glimpse of the context that we, as those charged with teaching this stuff, found ourselves in.


Free Creativity as a Vocational Imperative

It was inevitable that so-called popular (henceforth ‘pop’) music (I’ll hazard an attempt at a broad definition, as a necessary part of my argument, below) would become integrated into the institutional framework of higher education (henceforth HE). Inevitable, primarily on two fronts: firstly, pop is a huge global industry, which, as a cultural phenomenon affects so many lives in so many ways, and serves the multiple interests of those who invest in it, financially and ideologically – its multifarious, universal importance makes it too enormous to overlook; secondly, with each passing decade, and each evolving stylistic proliferation, an increasing percentage of people (not just school-leavers) are willing to think of pop music as a realistic subject to commit a university career to. Where that lands them, exactly (or even approximately) after three years is anybody’s guess, but it is the duty of those who are engaged to teach them to try and make it worth their while, to deliver a degree that is as intellectually and professionally commensurate with, first of all, other Humanities subjects, but also with those in the sciences, engineering and so on. In terms of how a pop degree sits alongside any other HE subject, the issues concerning the balance between intellectual and vocational is perennially tricky, and I’ll explore this a little more later on; but for me, whether vocational or intellectual, the agenda must be research-led and research-oriented – that is to say, the imperative to pursue new knowledge with the same discipline and rigour as other subject areas is essential.

People interested in studying popular musicology at university initially found a home within cultural studies, media studies, communication studies (which is the one I remember being prevalent in the early 1980s, when I was leaving school) as well as in anthropology and human geography; even more commonly, those wanting to carve out careers in pop music itself (i.e. as a practical discipline) went primarily to art college if they went anywhere at all. To a large extent, many of those students still operate very happily in any reasonably appropriate faculty outside music, not least Fine Art. Conversely, most well-established music departments have proven relatively inappropriate, even unrealistic, settings to take on pop music pedagogy, not least given the significant, and signally overlooked, differences between the logic of conventional classical music disciplines and their counterparts in pop. I am making this comparison between classical and pop pedagogies because ever since pop music was first introduced to the GCSE music syllabus in the late 1980s, its incorporation into the broader music education structure has been continually compromised by being cramped into technical frameworks long established within the European classical tradition. As someone who, like so many millions, began making music spontaneously and intuitively in response to the pop that I liked, completely bypassing any formal tuition, it still truly amazes how entrenched the counter-intuitive approach to music-making that defines classical music pedagogy still is in any curriculum that seeks to embrace pop. It amazes me more, even, how seldom it seems to have occurred to people that artificially, or retroactively, (re-)imposing the logic of classical music on pop, in the manner of some archaically out-of-touch, near-geriatric pedagogue of yore, is so pointless, useless and counterproductive, maintaining a deeply-ingrained imperial arrogance instilled in the citizens of European societies; learning to purge one’s self of an inherited, inculcated, imperialist world view is much harder (and requires much more subtly nuanced reflection) than most people seem to realize – in the case of too many self-styled pop music educators, it hasn’t even begun to occur to them. As a result, pop music education at UK universities is still in a fantastically confused state. I used the word ‘fantastically’ with a note of intended enthusiasm, since taking all of this on has been, and remains, a lot of fun, even if it involved, as it does, a heck of a lot of bashing one’s head against a brick wall – a brick wall erected by the institutional collegiate body as much as by truculent students. Speaking of which, I should stress that each year-group has always had at least 10% of students who totally ‘get it,’ although they’re very often the ones who’ve been involved in making their own music for several years – which, incidentally, is one of many factors which distinguish pop music studies from just about any other subject area: it recruits people who have already reached a fairly high level of maturity, which in turns comes with a relatively advanced understanding of the materials and their inherent challenges.

In taking up my own position as an educator within this field in 2004, I was aware of some of the inherent issues and contradictions, a legacy of 16 years as a peripatetic music teacher who’d frequently been co-opted as the resident pop music sub at several private schools whose music teachers (rightly) felt ill-equipped to tackle the incoming requirements of the newly devised, pop-inclusive GCSE syllabus. But developing a sense of how to deal with them in a realistic and productive way has been a long process subject to years of scrapping with them on the frontline, pursuing ever more persuasive and convincing methods of prising open the doors that both the market and the schooling have long managed to seal so tightly shut in the minds of so many students who sign up for a ‘pop degree’ (or indeed those who’d signed up for the ‘classical’ degree but who wanted to specialize in pop disciplines, which has always been an option during my time and for some time before it). It was a good few years before I discovered the immeasurable support available for such challenges in the writings of Christopher Small. In particular, his Music of the Common Tongue became something close to a bible for me, its incisively insightful and illuminating critique of the European classical tradition’s professionalist acquiescence to, and reinforcement of, bourgeois ideology set alongside his exploration of the musicalities and core cultural dynamics of Africa and the African Diaspora.[1] Prior to discovering Small, I had long sought a commentator who was responding to African American music in a similar way to me, which can be pithily summarized for the moment as a ‘this-changes-everything’ scenario. What was, actually, an unlikely route into African American, and more broadly African Diasporic music[2] had started with a wholly unexpected Hip Hop epiphany when I went to see Do the Right Thing, just after it came out, on my own during a stop-off in Paris; in pursuing an auto-didactic scholarship of Hip Hop, needing to know what ‘Jazz’ was, starting with needing to know what all the fuss about Coltrane was, became imperative. Part of that pursuit led me to Music in a New Found Land by Wilfred Mellers, which, by extension, led me to the work of Richard Middleton. In the folklore of HE popular musicology Mellers is the Father of the discipline and Middleton, who studied under the former at York, his anointed heir; a crudely conceived lineage, but not wholly inaccurate – before Mellers, musicologists really didn’t bother to try and carve out a scholarly, high-critical space for pop as a serious subject for HE (or otherwise) research.

Unlike Christopher Small, Richard Middleton continued to pursue the development of a viable and relevant pop musicology firmly, and officially, within the higher education infrastructure. His professorial appointment to the staff at the Newcastle University music department in 1998, where he was expressly charged with developing a popular music degree, may yet prove to be a significant historical step. Well, actually, it may be that the extent to which it does so might well depend on the extent of my own commitment to, finally, trying to establish myself as a listened-to voice in the field of popular musicology; if not that, then surely some of the amazing people whose PhDs I’ve supervised… It was during the last phase of his institutional academic career at Newcastle that I was appointed. My appointment was grounded in a vision of popular music studies through which Middleton regarded it as essential for pop music practitioners to become the foremost popular musicologists, recognizing, as he did, that a purely historical-theoretical bearing could seldom penetrate the discourse deeply and knowingly enough for any resulting texts and formulations to be of use to any community of intelligent musician-thinker-fans who really know ‘what’s happening’ because they’re living it, breathing it and bleeding it.[3]

When I joined the staff at Newcastle, the second-ever cohort of students taking a two-year top-up (to their Further Education diplomas), as part of widening-participation scheme that Middleton established, had just graduated. I got to know the seven of them who went on to study for their masters (four of them funded) fairly well, not least since my initial appointment was funded by the European Social Forum to teach creative practice at masters level. Three of them went on to PhD, and two of them now work in HE themselves. It’s worth noting that neither of those two, nor four of the other five, had any formal, notation-based education prior to their undergraduate degrees, whether classical or otherwise, and the two AHRC-funded PhDs completed their doctorates without ever having to make up for that in any way. Far from being any kind of happy anomaly, this scenario was not only exemplary of how to study non-classical music at HE, but, I thought then, that it would signal a seismic shift in how HE music in general would begin to recruit and educate increasingly switched-on and in-touch student cohorts. Those were fantastically exciting times; a close colleague and I (charged with the task) shaped a pop music curriculum which attended to the emerging agendas of the students themselves, complemented by our own knowledge and interest in pop music that, in keeping with my definition below, happily ignored genre boundaries, stylistic parameters and any imposed reading of any culture as being defined as ‘high’ and ‘low,’ ‘underground’ or ‘mainstream.’ Thus my first few years at Newcastle were characterized by engagement (practical and musicological) in the worlds of Techno, Hip Hop, Rock, free improv, chart pop, Folk, Country, Blues, Funk, free jazz, Noise… and much more – anything, without considering any styles or traditions as hierarchical or definitively orthodox. For those students who signed up, the department served them very well (and a good while before getting ‘their’ money’s worth, courtesy of New Labour’s launching of tuition fees, was a factor); Middleton’s influence at Newcastle had yielded a staff body distinguished by an historico-intellectual inclusivity that integrated up-to-date and relevant critical theory, near-encyclopedic knowledge of pop/rock history, cross-cultural dialogics, ahistorical performance practice and imaginative rethinkings of recorded pop music’s legacy to date. Tuition fees and 2008’s economic down-turn might have put paid to that vibrant and cooperative ethos; they certainly brought about a dramatic change.

What we were crafting during that time was an approach to teaching pop that treated the subject as a field marked by constant expansion, proliferation and diversification. In some respects, it’s easy to see how one might argue that the very idea of taking on such an unfathomably huge subject area is ridiculous. Except that the majority of institutions setting out a stall to teach it don’t regard the field as being any broader or more complex than what can be surveyed on an HMV top sales list, i.e. mainstream music that has made it into the charts, primarily in the UK and the USA along with its historical antecedents established through the same protocols. Out of this, a clear hierarchical lineage can be traced from the early-1960s post-R&B (almost exclusively male and white) band-culture explosion flag-shipped by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the baton of whose centrality is then taken up Pink Floyd/Led Zeppelin, U2/Nirvana, Oasis/Blur, Coldplay/Metallica,[4] while parallel developments in various tangential directions are treated as useful (Prince, Rap, Fatboy Slim…), and sometimes intriguing (Björk, Kate Bush, Tom Waits…), so long as they can be seen to fit the template of a professionalism in tune with corporate logic. As a result, the vast majority of pop music teaching, both in schools and universities, is geared towards being a kind of music-industry training programme – there are ‘correct’ ways to do things (rules) and the blueprint for that correctness is handed down by market-governed standards. Yet the history of pop music in the recorded era has been consistently shaped by genius daring to work outside and beyond the narrow confines of what ordinary consumers are continually ready to settle for without doubting the authority of advertising and corporate radio playlisting.[5]

When my colleague and I started working together in 2004, we knew that pop always was, and would continue to be, a domain defined by multiple anarchies generated by two principle anarchies at its core: the anarchy of the market itself, ready and willing to back anything that would sell substantially (so long as it didn’t propose any serious ideological challenge or inspire genuine subversion) – Laurie Anderson’s ‘O, Superman,’ as much as Clive Dunn’s ‘Grandad’; and the anarchy inherent in the drive among individuals and communities that seek to define themselves in contradistinction to an alienating mainstream culture bloated, as it is, on corporate steroids. Fortunately, Internet 2.0, which has yielded open platforms such as Bandcamp and Soundlcoud, has made such anarchies the prevalent dynamic in pop, re-setting the coordinates of ‘success’ to account for the infinitely diverse ways in which people are prone to be attracted to sounds, grooves and songs without the bullying hector of what Guy Debord terms the ‘monologue’ of power.[6] As a consequence of the dramatic shifts brought about by the digital revolution, ‘commercial’ music is now defined far more truly by the myriad sub-generic scenes that emerge from countless autonomous infrastructures of DIY organization, promotion and administration represented by club nights, labels, zines, radio stations, blogs, online journals and brands (Rinse FM, NTS, TTT, Low-End Theory, Boiler Room, Dischord, Pitchfork/Fader/Factmag/Boomkat/Quietus etc. – in fact, the new ‘establishment’). Such micro-economies are characterized by the same tendency that drove Mark Zuckerberg’s inception of Facebook[7] – learning to read what people want rather than coming up with something to ram down people’s throats with incessant monster-moneyed advertising and promotion. I’m not going to go on about the digital revolution, here, except to say that its effect on what pop music is and can be seems to have had little influence on how it’s taught anywhere, at any level. Sure, all institutions are happy to embrace the technologies of contemporary production and dissemination (everyone uses Soundcloud), but the overwhelming tendency is to emulate the rock industry’s use of them to maintain archaic musical forms and frameworks– a world in which Kasabian and Mumford & Sons are allowed to be considered relevant. We knew from the start that a research-led degree in pop music should be concerned with what any music might be two years any given hence, rather than instituting non-existent paradigms based on the incredibly narrow and reductive industry model foisted via radio, TV and the web onto an otherwise disinterested public.[8]

Far from excluding the industry paradigm, however, I understood completely, not least from my own formative experience, that mainstream (corporate-fuelled) rock and pop ushers most people’s initial introduction to any music and, moreover, will have provided the beginnings of their own desire to be a part of it in some way. When a child first shows interest in music, and even starts asking for an instrument, their desires are already, usually, starkly etched into their psyche in an industry-mapped image. Already at a disadvantage, therefore, well-meaning parents arrange for that child to have music lessons. Given the utter backwardness of music education generally, but for non-classical musics especially, the vast majority of music teachers that such kids will be sent to will immediately start closing doors of enquiry, imagination and adventure rather than opening them as wildly wide as possible – through an immediate imposition of technical dos and don’ts, rules and rudiments. And of course, thanks to the parameters already imposed on what they think they want, it all seems perfectly natural. I don’t intend to make any further case for this claim here[9]: I worked in that environment for 16 years since when I’ve gone on to be involved in the development and education of literally hundreds of people who went through such a system, quite apart from all the countless record store employees I’ve talked to over the decades who harbored a lifelong regret that they’d been prevented from becoming musicians by teachers who told them they were unsuitable for it (tone deaf, unmusical, lacking rhythm etc.). Actually I can be no more eloquently and articulately damning of this age-old scenario than Christopher Small himself:

The circle of control is complete. The professionalization of music and the insistence on selection, examination and certification within the classical culture has effectively cut off most people from their ability to do anything more than sit and listen to what is presented to them; even their ability, and their right, to hold opinions without reference to the professionals is in doubt. Amateur performers scarcely dare to make an appearance in any public place, and certainly not in the company of professionals, while amateur composers, even if their existence is recognized at all, are usually figures of fun, at best eccentrics.[10]

Small is exposing the absurdity of the historically observed classical music pedagogy; within the teaching of pop music, it should be the ghost of a memory virtually forgotten for good – incredibly, it remains very much prevalent in the experience of most people setting out with a desire to play an active part in music; the lamentably sterile rock, pop and jazz pastiche compositions that comprise the syllabi of pop music exam boards are testament enough to this. More depressing still, however, is a colleague’s recent suggestion to me that, in defence of maintaining compulsory music notation training for all first-year pop students (having by then moved to a full, three-year programme), there may well come a time in their future professional lives where a technical knowledge of harmony and how chord progressions work in relation the European harmonic system might be expected of them and therefore a firm grounding in such disciplines would preclude any shame or embarrassment.[11] It’s a bit like telling a drama student that they should learn to give good head since it might well be the best way of landing a decent part in the future. Yes, that is flippant and impertinent, but one of the core essences of all rock and pop music, historically, has been grounded in the intuitive, trial-and-error guesswork inherent in hearing something and wanting to make something sound like it, or in a similar vein, out of which has emerged, since at least the beginning of the recorded pop era, the most original, unexpected and innovative developments in the pop’s evolution – courtesy of precisely the ignorance of technique that formal tuition is intended to overcome; if ‘trial-and-error guesswork’ sounds a bit haphazard, let me be as clear as I can that what I’m referring to is an overriding tendency amongst non-classical, informally grounded, musicians to acquire an advanced aural virtuosity, wherein their ears take priority and the connection between those ears and their owner’s creative intelligence is kept as clear and unhampered as possible. Unfortunately, I don’t have my copies of either volume of Morton Feldman essays/interviews to hand (I’ll update this blog once I do), but for the moment I’ll paraphrase a famous quote: ‘All I ask is that composers learn to wash out their ears.’ I should stress that I have never been actually opposed in any way to using Western notation as just one among many technologies; but if one is to take seriously the task of establishing a viable, realistic and relevant pop music pedagogy, then its place as a predominant orthodoxy must be supplanted – not just because it doesn’t hold sway in the real world of pop production, but also, moreover, it is a system of codes associated with a very specific historical and political context, namely the post-Enlightenment bourgeois era that saw the rise and dominance of European imperialism and all of its globally rapacious implications. I would also remind the reader that the place of European harmony in pop music itself has its roots in the various manifestations of the colonial era, not least, of course, various European folk forms (especially Anglo-Celtic); but the various movements derived from a more definitively African Diasporic heritage (above all Hip Hop and the various post-Soundsystem club forms) have increasingly challenged European harmony’s dominance. In post-Hip Hop, post-digital rock music (white-male, guitar-centric, bloke-group culture) doesn’t anyone hear how like Anglican hymns the ploddingly laborious balladeering of Coldplay and their ilk sound?

I will have lost some readers with that apparently blunt and crude drama-student fellatio analogy, but I’ve no inclination to apologize because in terms of how important this is, I’m deadly serious. I must insist on being as strident and forthright on this as possible – because in all honesty there’s simply no excuse for such backward thinking; not just backward, mind you, but counter-intuitive and imagination stunting, if calling it ‘thinking’ isn’t itself too generous an assessment. No excuse, that is, especially within the context of a ‘research’ university; herein lies the beginning of a perceived dichotomy between the vocational and the research-oriented intellectual approach to studying pop music: this defeatist and negative preparation-for-donkey-work-session-playing model cannot, ever, provide access to ‘new knowledge,’ for which read ‘new insight, new understanding, and (potentially) independent thought.’ To help cultivate the right developmental tendencies in emerging pop musicians – i.e. to teach that, in so far as one can – the principle task is to disavow them as quickly and as completely of as many of those fallacious rules and protocols they’ve thus far been indoctrinated with; in short to force open as many of those doors as possible, long since bolted shut. Just to be clear, before I proceed, my own education, along with my lifelong passion for discovering great music, wholly embraces the European classical tradition; Haydn, Mahler, Ives, Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Hindemith, Messiaen, Feldman, Xenakis, Ligeti, Lachenmann… remain as important to my dialogic imagination as anyone or anything else. My point, here, is that the position of primary orthodoxy that the European classical tradition retains, even today, in how music is taught just about everywhere on the planet is not only wholly irrational (to the point of absurdity) but it unwittingly maintains the principles of a cultural encoding that is indistinguishable from the very bourgeois ideology that has led humanity into its darkest recesses (fascism, capitalism, imperialism, neo-liberalism, perpetually apologist genocides). A regular companion text to Small’s Music of the Common Tongue, has been Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. In his formulation of ‘the spectacle’ to denote the particular conditions through which a post-20th century mass culture preserves the ideological cohesion needed by ruling oligarchies to maintain their hold on antisocial, global power, Debord provides the crucial insight with which to apply Small’s critique to the contemporary, technocratic environment we find ourselves in today. In his preface to the third French edition, he perfectly sums up the way in which deeply entrenched, supposedly natural values can be seen to prevail as a matter of inevitable consequence; the supposedly natural predominance of European diatonic harmony in Western music has been as fundamental (perhaps, in its unchallenged subtlety, even more so) to instilling and reinforcing those values as anything else:

This striving of the spectacle toward modernization and unification, together with all the other tendencies toward the simplification of society, was what in 1989 led the Russian bureaucracy suddenly, and as one man, to convert to the current ideology of democracy ­ in other words, to the dictatorial freedom of the Market, as tempered by the recognition of the rights of Homo Spectator. No one in the West felt the need to spend more than a single day considering the import and impact of this extraordinary media event ­ proof enough, were proof called for, of the progress made by the techniques of the spectacle. All that needed recording was the fact that a sort of geological tremor had apparently taken place. The phenomenon was duly noted, dated and deemed sufficiently well understood; a very simple sign, “the fall of the Berlin Wall,” repeated over and over again, immediately attained the incontestability of all the other signs of democracy.[12]

So, returning to the matter of teaching pop music at HE level, there arises a problem with regard to a perceived discrepancy between a ‘vocational’ teaching/learning agenda and one that is deemed more in keeping with an HE research environment. The received opinion, certainly during my early years at Newcastle, was that the ‘industry training’ curriculum referred to above was akin to the kind of vocational training undergone by apprentices of such trades as carpentry and plumbing. There’s a truth in that, of course, but to leave it there (and thus proceed with an agenda that consciously seeks to circumvent the vocational) would be to overlook the fact that most conservatory training of classical musicians has been vocational in precisely that way, preparing them for the kind of professionalized environment critiqued by Small. Having initially subscribed to a view that a vocation-skeptic approach required a vaunting of underground, alternative and countercultural pop that could be presented as ‘serious’ art as opposed to pop-trivia pap (or whatever the opposite was), I have, in the last few years, adjusted my approach to one that is more overtly and avowedly vocational, but vocational in the most true and realistic sense as possible: in other words, in recognition that training producers to imitate how Pearl Jam or Red Hot Chilli Peppers records were recorded, or training composers by pretending that Queen, U2 or Metallica represented a culturally didactic orthodoxy, was in fact to do them a profound injustice on the grounds that all of those ships have long since sailed, a pop music pedagogy should seek to inculcate the core dynamics of the kind of free creativity that can lead to unexpected outcomes, not least to the people producing them – that the primary pedagogical imperative, actually, should be a thorough unlearning and unsettling of techniques and their governing protocols. For no more straightforward or simple reason than that’s how it’s actually done. Which is to say, that’s how it’s done in a real world of intuitive, collective and commercial music-making that exists beyond the parameters of corporate investment, notwithstanding that it’s precisely those organic and communal scenes that the corporations habitually plunder in order to maintain the appearance of freshness and novelty in commodity production.

To close this first part, then, I will offer the following attempt to define ‘pop music’ as promised at the start and as befits my purposes in trying to speak on such a field as a subject area within Higher Education:

Pop music is any form of music whose composition, improvisation and performance emerges from a spontaneous desire to make it on the part of individuals and communities for whom its production feels both essential and inevitable. For the most part, I use the term in reference to music of the recorded era (in the ‘age of mechanical reproduction’ to borrow from the title of Walter Benjamin’s most famous essay). The story of recorded music is one defined by an increased (and exponentially increasing) accessibility to the machinery of cultural production whereby the dominant place occupied by European classical harmony, which is inextricably tied to the rise of capitalism and its parallel narratives, has been eroded to the point where any musical tradition beyond it can now assume institutionally equal status. Historical models of musicianship and musical inclusivity that have always functioned outside of European-ordained culture, especially those of Africa and the African Diapsora enforced through the imperial slave trade, have, since the explosion of the recorded pop industry associated with post-WW2 Rock & Roll, become the dominant forces in music’s production, a progression that has only become increasingly influential since the emergence of Hip Hop and the rise of DJ culture.

Pop music is any music whose momentum is accumulated through the force of people wanting it and wanting, needing, more. At the mid point of the 21st century’s second decade, such a momentum is as likely to be generated through digital networking as it is through the older avenues of corporate industry investment (which takes from anywhere it can and remains the most dominant force) and local entertainment infrastructures like DIY gig scenes and club nights. Wherever it emerges from, real pop is marked by two core dynamics: irresistibility and inevitability… the logic of such an inevitability was never better summed up than by Ghostface Killa, in part of a radio interview inserted into the track sequence on the Wu Tang Clan’s debut album, Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers):

‘Cuz right about now, I ain’t braggin’ or nuthin’…? But the Wu, the Wu got somethin’ that I know that everybody wanna hear… Cause I know what I been waitin’ to hear, y’know wha’m’sayin’?’[13]


[1] I failed to acquaint myself with Christopher Small for far too long, courtesy of a misrepresentation provided by a widespread tendency among musicologists to reduce his proposition concerning the idea of ‘musicking’ to bland, self-serving jargon.

[2] I always feel obliged to include this term in order to be able to include Jamaican pop (most notably the Reggae tradition) and the Afro-Caribbean British post-Reggae/Dub forms that eventually led to the UK Hardcore Continuum (to borrow the phrase made popular by Simon Reynolds). My knowledge of any broader forms, such as those present in South American and Latin American cultures is very scant indeed.

[3] This comes from the regrettably few conversations I had with him in the staff common room before he cleared off.

[4] Yes, I’m hazarding here: my point is that there’s a global, corporate-pumped industrial standard that the vast majority of institutions take as a God-given.

[5] Putting it this way reminds me of Tony Gage saying to me, not long after he joined Radioactive Sparrow in 1988, that part of what shaped his worldview (and how that drove his art) was that he couldn’t believe how little people were prepared to settle for.

[6] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle taken from a free PDF downloaded from

‘The spectacle is the ruling order’s nonstop discourse about itself, its never-ending monologue of self-praise, its self-portrait at the stage of totalitarian domination of all aspects of life.’

[7] I don’t feel terribly comfortable citing Facebook in this way, given its having assumed the position of monster-corp, but its inception is redolent of a new mode of entrepreneurial practice; the modern economic model that the internet has made into the new global paradigm is one which finally caught up with a pattern established by the feted soundsystem DJs of 1950s Jamaica which can be seen to have been replayed countless times since with Hip Hop, Techno, House etc.

[8] This ‘disinterested public’ aspect of the pop music market and its products will be discussed in more depth in the second part of this series.

[9] I will almost certainly get around to it, however: during my time as a peripatetic music teacher I enjoyed some amazing encounters with kids who responded even more positively than I’d imagined they might once I acquired the confidence to be ‘that teacher’ who opened such ‘doors.’ In some instances, the results were actually, brilliantly, terrifying.

[10] Christopher Small, Music of the Common Tongue (London: Calder/New York: Riverrun; 1987) p. 179.

[11] I learned with horror a couple of years ago that this colleague had actually been drilling them on augmented 6ths! If you’re good enough to not know what those are, go and find out: so quintessentially part of the post-Enlightenment, bourgeois culture – in fact very idiomatic of the First Viennese School – nothing to do with ‘music’ per se.

[12] Guy Debord, Preface to the Third French Edition of Society of the Spectacle.

[13] Wu Tang Clan, Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) (Loud/RCA, 1993). The radio interview insert used to come between ‘Protect Ya Neck’ and ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’’ on my original tape, but I’m aware that later versions of the CD and such rejigged the order somewhat…

Trying to Teach Popular Music as a Research-Led Subject in Higher Education: Part I – Free Creativity as a Vocational Imperative