Archive for November, 2012

Music and dramatic diachrony

November 21, 2012

I re-read some of Kofi Agawu’s Playing with Signs the other day. Whilst discussing ‘extroversive semiosis’, i.e. ‘topics’ – expressive content in ‘Classic’ music, whose discursive character and significance, like all signs, emerges from perceiver competence, and evolves over time depending on what Agawu calls the ‘listening/sound environment’ (which was shared by composers and listeners alike in the eighteenth century; a sociocultural, normative ‘meaning context’ for the basic structural rhythms and properties of musical pieces) – Agawu makes a basic point very well.

Counterposing his own topical method of suggestive and interpretative (not exhaustive), narrative topical analysis with motivic analysis of the absolute, intra-musical kind, Agawu points out that motivic analysis is all very well, but that failing to account in even a superficial way (and in this respect Agawu’s analysis is self-consciously superficial) for the referential basis of this music (described contemporaneously in terms of ‘expression’, ‘character’, ‘style’), which as Agawu shows through analysis of both eighteenth century writings and musical pieces was at the centre of how both audiences and composers conceived and conceptualised, and thus on the part of the composers composed, this music, consigns motivic analysis not only to a solipsistic frame, but also to a synchronic, profoundly inadequate mode of investigation. Contrary to what most implicitly claim on behalf of this kind of analysis, musical conventions are not synchronous and meaningless; their sociocultural, processual basis is one their most interesting aspects. Topical analysis, amongst other things, allows the analyst to account in part for the ‘historical specificity’ of musical syntax, thus locating the music’s syntax in a historical continuum. Agawu has a wonderful line here: ‘the idea that syntax exists in a timeless, synchronic dimension seems unduly facile’ (41). Even if motivic analysts do situate their findings in some kind of historical frame (which, at the level of individual and fairly anonymous motives, would be particularly difficult), they miss what is fundamentally interesting about motives; their rhetorical function and significance.

Motivic and other formalistic methods of analysis not only compress music’s diachrony into an artificial, ahsitorical synchrony, they miss the fundamentally human drama happening at the music’s surface and, by recursion, thus deep in its structural background. As Agawu suggests, speaking specifically of his analysis of Mozart’s K.332 sonata, ‘by empirically locating the content of Mozart’s sonata in an eighteenth century sound environment, {he has} provided a point of departure for making sense of that eloquent and richly diversified drama’ (48).

Of course, the common response – of Charles Rosen, for example – that none of the formalistic theorists ever actually held that music emerges in a vacuum, but instead merely adopt this bracketing attitude in order to see what results they can get, is fatuous; if these theorists do not account for context and historical evolution in its fullest sense in their theory, then that theory has to be judged as woefully inadequate, since it cannot even account for the basic referential dimensions of music, let alone model in any meaningful way music’s diachronic, normative historical development as a dramatic, meaningful form.

This music, as with later forms of classical and even popular music, is ahistoricised by synchronic and non-referential analysts of design and motive not as a result of deeply held analytical convictions about what is at stake in discussions of music, but rather simply so analysts would not have to build music into its proper sociocultural context. Music, conceived in a vacuum, could submit to positivistic analysis and would yield replicable, seemingly rigorous results. This was lazy scholarship, essentialising a musical form(at) in order that it could be artificially analysed as a self-complete, intra-conceptual (at best) piece of data. ‘Music’ here emerges as a polemical, malingering coldness, set against its proper proliferatory, hybridic nature. This is of course hardly news, but its bold-faced cheek deserves all the opprobrium it gets! And, I’m not suggesting for a moment that ‘cold’ analysis does not produce interesting results – it does, even if they’re onanistically-inclined – but this kind of absolutist approach becomes deeply problematic when it is conceptualised as a totalising system.

Bernhard Gander, One Direction, and ‘Authenticity’

November 13, 2012

It is common knowledge that ‘authenticity’ is perhaps the most important of the mediating discourses through which musicians/music become associated with different types of meaning and value. Although something like genre discourse is as pervasive as authenticity, its impact is a little more restricted and formalistic – attribution or use of genre labels is rarely as heated or as libidinal an exercise as are struggles over authenticity/credibility/realness (to put some contextual meat on the term’s bones).

Authenticity is important, then. But it is also processual and dynamic. Just as particular artists’ authenticity shifts over time, so do the parameters and contexts of authenticity itself. It used to be (I use the past tense here more aspirationally than in any other respect) that in mainstream western classical music, for example, authenticity was measured in terms of ‘originality’ and ‘innovation’ – in short, was measured according to the floating yardstick of ‘genius’. That is not quite the case today. It also used to be the case that conductors and musicians thought that they could most vividly resuscitate older music by locating through performative interpretation the emotional ‘truth’ of their own ages, as signified through recognisable music-emotional tropes of ‘intensity’ and ‘passion’ (=big orchestras and heavy vibrato), in that earlier music. This is also not the case today – the HIP movement of the 1970s put an end to such ‘romanticism’, replacing it with a modernistic version of positivistic romanticism.

In popular music, it used to be the case that ‘authenticity’ was aligned with ‘real’ instruments, authorialism, albums, and masculinity. Men were rock, women pop. Men made and wrote albums, women (and feminised boys) sang singles. This is not quite the case today. The growth of sampladelic hip hop, built on Roland and Akai samplers and drum machines and out of appropriated musical material from the 1960s and 1970s, alongside the emergence of electronic, acousmatic music of acts such as the Chemical Brothers in the 1990s, slowly put paid to myths built around equations like the following: acoustic=intimate=authentic. The ‘contamination anxiety’ (Lethem) that dominated popular and classical music slowly broke down in the face of postmodernist ‘sublimated collaboration’, which in any case had been pre-echoed earlier in the century by Dadaism, musique concrète, and many other important fugitive movements of appropriation.

In recent years, as postmodernism has accelerated into various crisis stages of disillusionment and collapse, even the hoary old rejection of ‘inauthentic’ pop music, built on Adornian and Marxian notions of ‘alienation’ and ‘standardisation’, has spunked its rhetorical load. Residual anxiety remains for some – seen in the comically anachronistic opposition of ‘manufactured’ and ‘authentic’ made by Matt Cardle, of all people, recently – but in the main audiences seem to have embraced pop unironically. At least to the degree that ‘Call me Maybe’, ‘Superbass’, and other songs are taken to the centre of culture, and acts such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Beyonce are given more respect than they would have been twenty years ago. (HOWEVER, that is of course not to deny the sputtering and impotent rage directed at these acts on YouTube comment boards and other discursive nether regions.) Left secessionism of the sort that sees all popular culture as being equally co-opted by destructive forms of ideological and politico-economic capture, and as such endorses complete rejection of and withdrawal from that culture, has thankfully given way to a more internally dynamic, mobile view, where popular culture is not seen as a corrupted monolith, but instead as a terrain to be fought over.

These changes lead me to ask the rather pompously put question; whither authenticity in 2012, 2013, 2014, and beyond? Composers such as Bernhard Gander and Seán Clancy (and, of course, many others) attempt to move beyond the polystylism and quotational practices of earlier figures, by embedding popular culture into the distributed networks (as opposed to centralised hierarchies) of their creative practices. Authenticity, here, becomes a somewhat redundant critical category.

What about boybands? Take That and One Direction provide salutary case studies in this regard. In the 1990s, as the group reached a commercial and critical peak, Robbie Williams absconded from Take That. Many will be familiar with the story. Sick of what he saw as the tackiness and artificiality of boyband music, like George Michael before him, Williams struck out into the much more culturally ‘valuable’ world of getting drunk with Oasis and writing sickly masterpieces such as ‘Angels’ (to be fair, Williams has made some excellent music as a solo artist). This sort of ‘evolution’ became a canonical narrative of the young, ‘manufactured’ pop star. At a certain point in their career, most pop acts have sought credibility of this fetid kind.

My argument here is that, with the changes surveyed above, this ‘escape into authenticity’ is no longer a viable or even useful option for artists. Even Williams ended up getting back with Take That; Kylie went back to her pop roots. With One Direction, it has never really made sense to try to place them into the canonical narrative of manufactured objects-into-creative subjects. Even as a silly recent article discusses the ‘seven ages of boybands’ – not noticing the key internal contradiction that the act that served as organising metaphor, One Direction, already break apart the typology, since members can already be seen to be sporting tattoos and having affairs and getting drunk, even though they are at most in the prime of their ‘imperial stage’ – we must acknowledge that, as with composers of notated music, the mediating discourse and the mythic narratives that have governed these music cultures in the past are being overwritten by new narratives (even notions of good/bad are becoming ever harder to parse), just as Niall Horan’s voice must be getting continually overwritten in American recording studios by mechanised versions of the same.