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Who Listens If You Care

Essay by   •  June 4, 2017  •  Essay  •  3,227 Words (13 Pages)  •  425 Views

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In 1977, Chris Maher, composer and massage artist, articulated his vision of what he termed "Marxist music." His idea was simple: no musical material could be owned——all music makers should be able to take whatever they want from whomever they want and use it as they see fit. "Material" could range from a melody, a sound, a formal principle, to an entire piece of music (as in Maher's "New Improved Morton Feldman," in which Feldman's spare sonic world is "enhanced" through the use of digital delay). Maher contended that only in this way could music-rather than an individual's musical career-grow and develop freely. By invading and destroying the notion of musical "property," the scope of musical possibilities would be infinitely expanded. An indi­vidual's "piece" would still exist and could still be valued, in any and every sense, but, more importantly, his or her ideas-or, more precisely, any real or imagined musical ideas that could be construed from his or her piece-could be built upon, taken in unexpected directions, used by all.

We were young then, and despite the well-known historical precedents for this position——famous borrowers such as Handel (melodies), Barry Manilow (chord progressions), and Webern (formal principles)——I remember that we found the idea somewhat scandalous and terrifying. This was tied into the seeming impossibility of making careers for ourselves as composers: the task seemed to be "finding a voice" or coming up with some kind of original or innovative structural idea. This daunting task was achieved through "the work" one put into one's music-not simply time or deep thought but some ineffable blend of the two, of quantity and quality. This work was what ultimately mat­tered: our pieces-the product-would be perfect reflections of it, and, in tl1e course of time, this work-if we but had tl1e strength to persevere tirelessly would be recognized, lauded, rewarded. Our dedication would magically be transformed into stunning, creative work, and from there glory and achieve­ment would be ours. There was a hidden, mystical equation: talent ("quality") times work ("quantity") divided by fate would equal good fortune, fame, success.

The inevitable disillusionment from our naive faith did not result from any inherent failing in this equation. Most of us ultimately were able to do what we wanted to a greater or lesser degree, and the fact that various bozos managed to get famous on a gimmick didn't seem very irksome once we got used to it (none of us lost 1riuch sleep over the Milli Vanilli thing, for example).What caused the destruction of this Calvinistic world-view was rather that 1faher's dream became reality, in a far more encompassing way than even he could have imag­ined. For, as we now all know, the need for new products to market and sell has combined with the digital ability to refashion everything under the sun, and this very un-Marxist combination of consumerism and technology has led to the fulfillment of Chris's dream.

In a deeper way than ever before, all music is available to all people, all the time. In the West, this simple and delightful fact has been patently obvious since Karlheinz Stockhausen's 1966 Telemusik, a musique concrete piece for which the source material is traditional music from dozens of cultures, all of whom, the composer asserts, "wanted to participate in Telemusik ... not 'my' music, but a music of the whole world, of all countries and all races." But this early harbinger of things to come, like Brian Eno and David Byrne's 1980 My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a pop version of the same thing, has turned out to be a relatively primitive form of musical imperialism compared to the present state of musical multi-nationalism. Across the globe musicians are begging, borrowing, and stealing from each other at a rapacious pace. Brazilian muzenza ensembles are singing praise songs to Bob Marley, Gambian koro players are rushing to finish commissions for the Kronos Quartet, and hordes of rock icons are scurrying around searching for newer, hipper even more undiscovered grooves.

In the West, this process has involved the merging of every concept of musi­cal "otherness": exotica has been annexed, declared null and void. Up until now, the maintenance of any mainstream-be it the standard concert reper­toire, top-40 radio, swing, academic modernism, etc.-included a notion of its opposite, the "out there." This is what allowed Cab Calloway to describe bebop as "Chinese music," or Pierre Boulez to pronounce that "the non-serialist com­poser is useless." Such statements help define a genre, to alert people to accept no substitutes.

The boundaries of any particular mainstream are by nature always in flux, shifting and indeterminate. Even so, such defining gestures-this is music, that is not-are possible and necessary. Territory can expand, but a line has to be drawn somewhere: language must be employed to corral, tame, and ultimately include or exclude the new sound under scrutiny. One can appeal to nature (as does Rameau in justifying his use of chromaticism in "L'Enharmonique"), to morals (saying, for example, that certain types of music are "corrupting" or "degenerate"), to common sense ("My 3-year-old could do better than that"), or to taste and sheer willfulness ("I don't know much about music, but I know what I like").

Nowadays such posturing is less viable, because the very notion of "oth­erness" has become a marketable commodity, incorporated into the aesthetic. Before, depending on who you were and where you stood, the "other" could be a lot of things: non-Western music, early music, computer music, etc. Now all these things have merged, and a typical "new age" recording might use synthesizers imitating Shona mbiras, Balinese genggong imitating synthesizers, all in the service of evoking a fictional Druidic ritual. As critic Joshua Kosman points out, the "authentic performance" movement has caught on partially because it can be recorded digitally and marketed as the "latest thing." People don't give a shit where the music they like comes from, when it was written, for what purpose, by whom, or how it's played. It's the end of history, in a way Francis Fukuyama could never have anticipated. A sampled mbira is as good as a real one-we know what it's trying to sound like, so what possible differ­ence could it make. There's no point in asking if it's live or Memorex anymore. "Otherness" in Western music is now nothing more than a quality of sound to be lifted and used as quickly as possible.

This point is brought home by the obvious irrelevance of today's copyright laws. The musical material most likely to be borrowed is clearly not pro­tectable-a quality of sound, a rhythm, an inflected phrase. If worse comes to worst, give your music away (just keep the nude, transsexual pictures of rock stars off your CD cover and the industry will probably never even notice).

Whether one's motivation is fun or profit, the end result is the same: an imperialistic groove, under which any and every form of music past or present can be subsumed. "The groove" can be defined in a number of ways-as a steady 4 / 4 disco beat, suitable for DJ mix-and-matching, as a new age wash of sound, suitable for the inducement of bliss and calm, or anything else that feels good. Music thus becomes a service industry, providing listeners with a pleasurable, regulated, and non-threatening surface wash of sound. This results in another Marxian quandary: the byproduct of Maherian/Marxist music is that the listener is now completely cut off from the "means of production," and basically couldn't care less-if I hear the Harmonic Choir on the radio, it is at this point completely irrelevant to me whether David Hykes does it acousti­cally, electronically or whether it's him doing it at all. And why should I care——such issues are of anecdotal value only, useful in building a reputation, adding to a resume, writing a feature article in Ear Magazine.

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