for a good music
On Saturday 27th November 1999, Sadie Coles HQ and Cabinet Gallery presented
a Rock 'n' Roll gig at the Scala, London. Most of the performers
were artists, playing Pop rock music in front of an art crowd. Artist
Angela Bulloch of Big Bottom was tediously marking and counting the beat...
Artist and curator Mathew Higgs was dancing in front of the stage... Artist
Wolfgang Tillmans was taking photos... I wondered if it was comedy...
but I seemed to be the only one to laugh. The music reminded me at the
time of Michael Nyman's or Steve Martland's easy listening new
music, sometimes too of a not-so-loud reference to noise music, then of
a more straight rock gig. What did they play?
When Frieze editor Mathew Slotover is quoted in the Evening Standard's
article 'Artful Rockers', saying that Rock 'n' Roll "still carries connotations of rebellion and nonconformism"
and "some artists are still attracted to that kind of glamour" is it opening or closing up the debate?
If music theory is often avoided in art talks because it is too specialised
and formalist, and Pop music only dealt with from the consumer's
point of view (that's what the music people - and artists - like)
then one is left with a safe realm, a realm where "glamour and connotations
of rebellion" can be performed through yet another nice tune on a
I can't deny the pleasure of all the people who enjoyed the gig.
But can music - which I would formally define as creation of order
(any order) in sound or noise, in what we hear - be only a question
of reference, taste, or a majority of taste?
In Noise1 J. Attali argues that in all culture
noise is associated with destruction, disorder, dirt, aggression, that
noise is violence. For him, to make music is a channelisation of noise,
therefore a form of sacrifice. Since it is a threat of death, noise is
a concern of power and the function of music is first ritualistic, it
creates political order: "The game of music thus resembles the game
of power: to monopolise the right to violence. It provokes anxiety and
then provides a feeling of security..." Attali considers the production
of music as the creation, legitimisation and maintenance of a form of
In Western cultures, the making of music was for a long time the responsibility
of performers/musicians. In Antiquity they were often slaves, but mythology
endowed them with supernatural powers (Orpheus domesticated animals).
Throughout the middle-ages, musicians remained outside of society, condemned
by the Church where music had started to be written. They were itinerant,
creating music and were circulating it within all classes of society.
From the 14th century, Church music became secularised and autonomous
from the Chant, and nobles would pay musicians to play them light songs,
solemn songs, to celebrate victories and to dance. Musicians became professionals
bound to a single master. Within three centuries, the jongleurs had been
replaced by salaried musicians playing scored music.
The notated tonal music produced in Western Europe from the pre-Renaissance
to the end of the 19th century has been developed mainly through two groups,
the hegemonic religions (Catholic and Protestant churches) and the hegemonic
social classes (initially the aristocracy and later the bourgeoisie).
What today we call 'classical music' was created around the
Platonic theories placing musical sounds on the continuum of order/disorder.
The fact that certain notes or chords sound 'right' with others
was explained by mathematical rules.
But one should not confuse the mathematical calculations of ratios with
the way they are applied to the creation of music and how they are used
as a legitimisation of a specific order: in fact their use value within
the Western practice of music is more at a cultural level than an influence
on music itself. In the Theory of Harmonics2 in 1784, Keeble writes that "as their principles are in nature, they
must be fixed and immutable", claiming the universal validity of
the Western musical system. Until the end of the 19th century, so called
'classical music' was composed around those rules.
Then composers and musicians started to take non-western music more seriously,
questioning the rules of tonality and regularity of rhythm as the only
way to hear and make music. The ratios within sounds did not change: it
was their use values. It is not because Western ears are used to certain
arrangements of notes and chords - around the concept of the tension
and the resolution of the tension - that composers have to develop
music only around those rules.
To simplify to the extreme a complex evolution I will mention only some
of the formal changes:
Chromatism (initiated by Wagner and Debussy) replacing diatonism, the
loss of hierarchy within the degrees, complex chords and aggregates instead
of chords in the traditional harmony, dissonances that are not used to
put the stability of the consonance into focus but played for their own
sound; Schonberg developing a system of series as composition structures;
Jazz introducing another form of scales; Industrial noises regarded as
musical sounds by the Futurists; Noises into composition, Varese; Pierre
Shaeffer using the recording techniques to create a "musique concrete" through the editing of tapes, opening the way to electroacoustic music;
Boulez and Stockhausen following Schonberg's work on systems of series
and developing it into a 'total serialism' (rules for heights,
lengths, intensities); Xenakis using the computer for statistic calculations
as composition principles to create a scholastic music funded on a structure
of mass; Cage working on the idea of chance to create a 'non-interventionist'
music; Reich and Riley using the repetitive process to challenge the experience
of music in time; La Monte Young and Max Neuhaus transforming spaces into
musical instruments; Improvising musicians extending the technique on
a variety of sound producing bodies as well as traditional instruments,
reclaiming the performance of music outside the hegemony of the composer's
The composition rules that defined the natural rightness of music and
which were the base of 'classical music' are the ones used for
what I call Pop (which is different from popular). Tonal composition on
regular rhythm are to be found from traditional to Progressive Rock, easy
listening Jazz or reinterpretation of classical melodies, most Dance music
(Techno to Trance), to what I would describe as the "musically-politically
correct Pop" of the Scala's Gig. Of course Pop is not consciously
'about' sounding 'right' and is not openly concerned
with the ratios within sound mentioned earlier. It is nevertheless the
way sound is used, as notes ordered on a classical scale (sometimes with
some so called "ethnic" influences) and arranged in tonal chords
and melodies on top of a metronome pace. The instruments are not clearly
the ones from the traditional orchestra (except that we see more and more
violins around, and that keyboards are built on the traditional tonal
The other formal aspect of Pop that is in accordance to the principles
'of the right music' is the regularity of rhythm. Rhythm in
Pop is the choice of rhythmical sequences repeated throughout a piece,
always on the 4/4 structure (some exceptions in Drum & Bass on 3/4),
marking the first beat. There are of course variations in the way the
sequences are produced and the pace but not, as far as I know, in the
reducing concept of rhythm as a repeated pattern. We all know the overwhelming
experience of a repeated pattern of rhythm, it is physical, it makes us
want to move, to dance. In Western cultures, people dance in very defined
circumstances. They don't always dance when they hear Pop - they
might think about it or remember dancing to certain music; but the argument
that Pop is based on regular rhythm because it is good to dance to does
not seem to be relevant to most situations where music is heard.
I am often given the example of African music as the ultimate justification
for the "natural and universal" value of a regular rhythm. There
is no Pop music that would slightly approach the complexity of traditional
African rhythms and on the other hand dance and music making in traditional
African Cultures are "interrelated components of the same process" as Olly Wilson puts it in her article The Association of Movement and
Music as a Manifestation of a Black Conceptual Approach to Music-Making3.
She writes that "the Western assumption of a division between consciously
organised sound (music) and movement associated with that sound (dance)
usually does not exist there... The music is the dance and the dance is
the music." We are far from being able to compare those practices
with DJs playing for a crowd of dancers.
There are of course innovations (or noise) within that Pop grid of regular
rhythm and tonal melodies: the rhythmical specificity of Punk was to accelerate
the pace of Rock, the way Rock had quickened the pace of Blues. Blues
was cleaned by Rock of its complexity and danger, and the melodies of
Rock were simplified by Punk. But the fact that the musicians didn't
play their instruments in the traditional way, over-amplification, noise,
unsharp tuning or a raw voice created what I call 'noise' within
the Rock structure (and what I find interesting in Punk), endangered it
in a way. But the formal grid was not fissured.
In Drum & Bass, the rhythm is created mostly by the repetition of
looped samples. There are real variations and accelerations of pace through
the juxtaposition of sequences, but within an overall structure of extremely
regular beats. In fact, the implacability of the beats created by electronics
tools is not endangered by the rhythmical innovations (even if sometimes
the drumming samples invert the traditional hierarchy of instruments by
creating the body of the music - the only noise added to the frame).
Some dance music goes back to a rhythmical structure where the first beat
is not accentuated within the rhythmical section by playing only the pace,
the metronome becomes the instrument. A simple melody (often in 4/4) would
do the subdivisions. It is as if the first bar of a dance piece or maybe
a piano piece for children of the classical period was quantized, sampled
and looped. The level of sound and the qualities of the chosen sounds
change so that bits of classical music can wear a contemporary sound and
can be danced to.
The composition concept has moved from the writing of a long musical sentence,
with tensions and the resolutions of tensions, to the repetition of shorter
and shorter musical phrases.
In fact, the formal complexity of classical and contemporary music can
not be compared with Pop: the term becomes irrelevant. It is the reason
why Pop is usually talked about from the audience point of view, within
cultural studies and not in formal terms. The fact that the musical tonal
development is reduced is obvious, the fact that rhythm is the repetition
of a few patterns is clear, and this is not about value judgements. Can
the choice of ordering notes in a classical way and repeating them on
the base of identical rhythmical sequences be neutral? How can such a
choice avoid the reference to the political statement of the "right
order in music for the right sort of music?"
It seems to me that Pop music does not need to legitimate its own order
through an 'explanation', a musical development, a sentence,
a dense contrapuntic evolution, a long evolution towards a resolution.
It doesn't need to build itself from a simple order (the right platonic
one, the enlightenment one, the natural one) into a more complex order
(the simple order fully developed and illustrated through for example:
a symphony), it just needs to repeat itself because it is not about representing
a fixed order or power: it is power.
I hear Pop as a totalitarian formal device, a well tested musical structure
where power exercises itself. As it does not illustrate, justify, question
or endanger the order within music, it plainly states it and loops it.
Pop has its strength in its ability to integrate slight changes, stylistic
variations, so called new sounds. What I think Pop does is clean the dirt
in music: Pop silences music.
Pop today is a formidable power tool that co-opts opposition. Opposition
within music (no atonal Rock but progressive, avant garde Rock, never
ever a rhythm that is not a repeated pattern) and opposition within the
political potency of music. It is the slight flexibility of the frame
that makes its strength. If it were rigid it would break. It manages to
carry and then annihilate social opposition, political revolts, youth
rebellions, identity or gender demarcations and ethnic differences because
what it does within the space of music, it also does within the social
realm. If classical music used to represent social and gender order, I
claim that Pop music now silences people, musicians, listeners and everybody
who hears it. What it states is just become 'normal', obvious,
Pop carries its legitimisation in its name: Pop-ular. But Pop is not popular,
it is the prerogative of Pop to be popular. It is a 'simplification/repetition'
of the class-representation structure, the class-ical one. It uses the
support of the majority principle - which is difficult to question
without going into a political analyses of the idea of democracy. It also
uses the support of centuries of tradition (which goes unnoticed or is
even negated): Pop is rarely acknowledged as the dressed & looped
samples of the Platonic and Enlightenment theories of music, but rather
as the expression of a youth culture that it has the luxury or duty to
Pop benefits from the legitimisation of the revolt of a generation and
it sits comfortably on the credibility of a repressed minority of Black
American musicians through its roots in Blues and Jazz. A lot of people
who were not heard otherwise chose the Pop medium "to express themselves".
It is difficult to split the music and the visual spectacle of Pop. What
Madonna, Boy George, Kurt Cobain and many others address in terms of sexual
and body politics is more at a textual and visual level than a musical
one. The political aspect of their practice is probably quite successful
because it uses a medium that is in itself not dangerous and usually not
critical, but what is said in the other physical space which is sound
is about obedience to a power structure. They might not have any problem
with that power but I do. I do not trust a message that tells me "be
sexually free... dress the way you want... disobey the rules... fuck the
power;" when the subtext is: "There is a beat and it will be
regular for ever... This is how sounds should be put together as it is
in nature, and it has been so for centuries and centuries... This has
always been the power of music and this is popular."
As a product, Pop doesn't need to create markets. Dance music for
example is left to grow and evolve in clubs by the work of young musicians
and DJs who bring innovation into the frame. The consumer's reaction
is instantly tested in the space where the product is actually reinvented
in the context of a quick changing (life-time of a piece of music before
its come back?) but safe realm.
Pop is the ideal capitalistic product: started with the recording industry,
no heavy inputs, no research, self feeding, self tested, adaptable to
quick adjustments (but never really changing), same products for a majority
of consumers; recycling friendly with the come-backs and nostalgia phenomena;
widely cross fertilising other economical sectors: from fashion ('listen
to his clothes!' as Frank Zappa had it4),
home recordings and music equipment, sonorous decoration for supermarkets,
images for any kind of stationery goods to the constant feeding of certain
I am often told that a lot of small labels keep a real subculture of Pop
alive, that even if the industry holds a monopoly in terms of production
and distribution, other kinds of Pop music are offered outside the few "majors." Progressive or avant-garde Rock and their opposition
to the recording industry (or their non-acceptance by it) do not weaken
the economic and political power of the Pop business. On the contrary:
they feed it, they create its solid ground, its vital, "healthy" and quiet opposition. The 'creative' investment of the overall
Pop industry is taken care of by those who think they can work without
the economic power of the entertainment industry. The small labels are
the guardians of the temple as long as they produce a music according
to the same ruling principles. Their strictly musical input as well as
their political positions are quickly sucked out and managed, if not with
the very same people, then with more flexible individuals who will reproduce
the product: the music, the 'attitude' and the sub-products.
The structure is strong: The periphery regenerates the centre.
The actual making of music becomes marginal to fit the given instruments,
the given tonal and regular rhythm grid and the capitalist structures
of distribution - the making of music as we saw it at la Scala fitted
the given instruments, the given effect pedals and samplers, the given
tonal system, the given rhythmical grid. The power of Pop music is not
only about production, centralisation, colonisation and total distribution
within capitalism: it is the fact that its form is in total harmony with
it all. There is a shift from the representation of power to the unquestioned
exercise of it. As Alice Creicher writes in her article The Genius in
the Bourgeois Society5 "the
star doesn't deliver representation anymore because it is promiscuous
like the media itself, it doesn't hide capital anymore, it states
On a practical level, Rock standards, strictly Pop bands tracks, dance
music and all their stylistic variations, easy listening classical music,
reinterpretation of traditional jazz pieces, artists' Pop bands,
and all the other costumes of Pop are occupying most social aural landscapes.
Everything with a regular beat that sounds right. It's on television,
in the streets, in shopping malls, inside the shops, in bars, in pubs,
in public places, in cars, in parties, in video art, in performance art
clubs, in galleries, in music venues rented out by galleries. There is
only one space outside of specialised venues where a non-Pop music is
represented: cinema. There, lyricism, the uncanny, the frightening, the
diabolical, the alien, the ridiculous are very effectively edited with
contemporary-style compositions or extracts of contemporary music pieces.
Music is mimicked or reduced to a melody, a stylisation, a phrase, a song
or an effect, into what Adorno would call the fetishization of musical
pieces. Except for the cinema sound track, every other space where there
is a social link between people is occupied by Pop. H. Draxler writes
in the exhibition catalogue for "Market" by Group Material:6
"Today the media's
mass rituals of subjugation guarantee domination outside politics...".
The ability to depoliticise the message of Rock into Pop has become openly
exposed: Janis Joplin's Blues makes a perfect sound track for a Mercedes
TV ad. Soft Drum & Bass for a bank, Jimmy Hendrix for another car...
a strings ensemble plays an atonal chord for the flu symptoms: the message
In Unmarked7 Peggy Phelan writes that if
visibility was an equalling power, then almost naked women would rule
the Western Culture...
Pop music - the notes arranged to sound right on a regular rhythmic
pattern - fulfils the aural space. It states power through the reassertion
of a fixed order to the people who share the hearing. The social relations
become defined by the power stated through the music. It doesn't
represent the divisions within society any more but it creates unquestioned
links between a redefined audience, a new social contract. It co-opts
opposition and empties political statements, the principle of the right
order in music for the right sort of music is disguised in popular fun,
in body politics through visual signifiers... in sonoric subjection.
1. Jacques Attali, Noise, the political economy of music; Manchester University
2. John Keeble, The theory of harmonics; London 1784; (quoted by Richard
Leppert, in The sight of sound, Music, Representation, and the History
of the body; University of California Press).
3. Olly Wilson, The association of movement and music as a manifestation
of a black conceptual approach to music making, in More Than Dancing,
Essays on Afro-American music and musicians, ed. by I.V. Jackson.
4. Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book.
5. Alice Creicher, Das Genie als Bederfnis der bergerlichen Gesellschaft,
in Akademie, 1995.
6. Helmut Draxler, exhibition catalogue for "Market", Group
7. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked, the politics of performance.