Sunday, 27 September 2009
Since I wrote Sirens, I find it impossible to listen to music of any kind.
James Joyce, letter to Harriet Weaver
I finished the Sirens chapter during the last few days. A big job. I wrote this chapter with the technical resources of music. It is a fugue with all musical notations: piano, forte, rallentando and so on. A quintet occurs in it too, as in Die Meistersinger, my favourite Wagnerian opera ... Since exploring the resources and artifices of music and employing them in this chapter, I haven’t cared for music anymore. I, the great friend of music, can no longer listen to it. I see through all the tricks and can’t enjoy it anymore
James Joyce (Ellmann)
By the end of the Sirens chapter of Ulysses, Joyce has had enough of music. As with Luigi Russolo (Art of Noises, 1913) Joyce’s exhaustion, through literary simulation, of the tricks and techniques of Western music similarly culminates, in the chapter, in Leopold’s Bloom’s joyful discovery of noise-music. ‘Sea, wind, leaves, thunder, waters, cows lowing, the cattle market, cocks, hens don’t crow, snakes hissss. There’s music everywhere’. The hatred of music as a kind of discourse or locus of technique, knowledge or savoir-faire, gives way to a joyful revelation of ambient noise-music in which joy is always the joy of the Other.
‘That’s joyful I can feel. Never have written it. Why? My joy is other joy. But both are joys. Yes, joy it must be. Mere fact of music shows you are. Often thought she was in the dumps till she began to lilt. Then know’. (Joyce, Ulysses)
But who or what is the Other, here, that can’t be written, that is inaccessible to language and therefore no longer the locus of the signifier? On the one hand, it is the noise-music that reveals existence, ‘Mere fact of music shows you are’. One’s being, nothing but the pure facticity of music, is never actually there of course but resounds only in the fall of its continual disappearance, death and silence. There is no Other that might confer meaning or organization as with language, just the joyful immanence of a stream of consciousness that, for Bloom, can only be brought to self-consciousness in the apprehension of love and sexual difference that is disclosed in song. Molly’s lilt confers knowledge for Bloom, and the self-knowledge conditioned by desire.
Molly’s memory is jogged and eroticized by the sound of Blazes Boylan’s footsteps – ‘Jog jig jogged stopped. Dandy tan shoe of dandy Boylan socks skyblue clocks came light to earth’. This sound, intersecting with the faint sound of chamber music, sets off an erotic reverie articulated by a pun.
It is a kind of music I often thought when she. Acoustics that is. Tinkling. Empty vessels make most noise. Because the acoustics, the resonance changes according as the weight of the water is equal to the law of falling water. Like those rhapsodies of Liszt’s, Hungarian, gipseyed. Pearls. Drops. Rain. Diddle idle addle addle oodle oodle. Hiss. Now. Maybe now. Before. (Joyce, Ulysses)
Russolo’s six families of noises claim a degree of completeness, but he doesn’t mention the sound of a woman making music by making water into a chamber pot. But doesn’t the pun re-instate the pre-eminence of language in the form of metaphor thereby governing the relations of equivalence? No, on the contrary, the pun is the figure by which significance is subverted by sound into a relation of heterological non-equivalence or incommensurablility. The pun is the figure, the ‘fatal Cleopatra’ through which language loses the world, as Dr. Johnson said of Shakespeare. Liszt is piss and piss is Liszt. This (non)equivalence does not just turn the world upside down in a way familiar from Carnival, through it, language loses grip on the world in the process of becoming music. While equivalence is sought by Bloom nevertheless, this is by way of the science of acoustics and the laws of physics, the little numbers that always seem to pop up when the ways of music need to be justified to reason and its own grasp of the (secular) world.
But Joyce’s urinary eroticism (something which, along with his name, he shared with Freud), that is manifest in the description he gave to his favourite white wine – ‘the Archdeaconness’s urine’ – combines the sacred and the profane in a heterological musical flow, a rhythm in which presence tumbles after the always already before of repetition.
Molly’s chamber pot is pulled out again at the culmination of the novel in the ‘Penelope’ chapter. Molly takes another piss and sorts out her monthly menstruation that is ‘pouring out of me like the sea’. It is a literary critical commonplace to point, from Molly Bloom to Anna Livia Plurabelle, to Joyce’s association of the feminine with streams, rivers, ‘sea, wind, leaves, thunder, waters’, life, etc. etc. All that could be noted here is that in Molly’s chamber pot resides an alternative model of music and the world to rival the rival classical myths of Pindar, for whom the art of aulos resounds to the suffering (both human and suprahuman) or the sound of the turtle shell in which was discovered, in the form of a lyre, the sonic properties of the universe. In Molly's pot, music is neither subjective emotion nor Pythagorian acoustic design, but the resonant, erotic de-formation of form (human and non-human) in a ceaseless flow of expenditure, waste products, pissss.
Saturday, 26 September 2009
At the upper level of the graph, the vector that runs parallel to the locus of sound marks the place of the audio unconscious. The term ‘joy’ should replace Lacan’s term ‘jouissance’, however, just as ‘death’ replaces ‘castration’. Death does not here refer to the empirical end to someone’s life, but to the continuous death of someone or something that music denotes as the defining sound of a life. This does not just refer to the funeral song or desert island discs that one carries around in pleasurable anticipation of death and the celebration and commemoration of one’s life; it refers to the music that for better or worse in joy or agony marks the indeterminable, endless possibility of the death of someone or something. It refers to the music that reduces us to waste, to noise that is framed by the silence of death, which returns from the past in the form of repetition in the clamour for being. It is the music of an indeterminable joy before death.
For Lacan, 'the drive is what becomes of demand when the subject vanishes from it; that is to say, the subject of language, speech. The drive is pure, speechless demand, however, and as such it is usually characterized as silent. A mouth that eats, sucks and gnaws does not speak. Eroticism (of either the anal or genital kind) is also, as Georges Bataille maintains, speechless; like death it is supposedly a zone of profound silence. The place of the drive ($◊D) therefore is denoted by silence.
However, silence is impossible, no doubt in the same way that the experience of death is impossible. John Cage discovered when he was placed in an anechoic chamber that silence is precluded by the noise of the body that inhabits it. Consequently, when Cage staged a piece of music that consisted of a motionless pianist at a silent piano, music became whatever noise could be perceived in the 4.33 minutes that were allotted to the performance. In the withdrawal of music as organized sound noise-music emerged without any principle of organization other than the pre-determined space and time it was given. In this noise-music the noises of the bodies of the audience are conjoined with their ambient environment in the demand for music.
With this piece, then, Cage evoked the music of the drive, the hitherto accursed domain; for while a mouth that eats and sucks and gnaws may not speak, it is still noisy, as is the scene of a successful erotic encounter. In the absence of speech there is silence, but only for it to be filled with noise. A joyful clamour, therefore, tends towards the death that frames and determines it, the silence that is the space of its unfolding and disappearance. This noise is amusical, unlistenable, radically heterogeneous from the music of organized sound that seems to be filled with the promise of meaning. On the contrary, amusic is abject since it consists of the noises of eating, fucking, defecating, noises of the body. This is noise-music as waste, junk, detritus, noise as non-productive expenditure: the singular noise that I am without meaning. It is the noise of an in-different multiplicity that discloses not just that the Other is lacking but that there is no Other. In the place of (S(Ø)), the signifier of a lack in the Other, there is noise. There is nothing Other than the noise of joyful immanence in a clamour for being that is at the same time the clatter of unbinding and disintegration.
Saturday, 12 September 2009
You see many people hated me ... Well I used that hatred as a power, as an energy, and it’s a great power, my God.
In Britain over the past two weeks we have been bombarded through every form of media by a continuous barrage of Beatles copy to mark the re-issue of their complete digitally re-mastered oeuvre. It’s a nightmare. It makes you want to scream, primally. This obsession with The Beatles is as incapacitating to the British as their smug reverence for Shakespeare. The Beatles are, as someone once wrote of the second-rank Elizabethan dramatist, ‘an impassable horizon protecting the Anglo-American world from anything resembling culture’. amusia agrees with Paul Morley who suggested in last week’s Observer Music Magazine, that George Martin could probably have produced the same results with another bunch of random scallies dragged off the streets of Liverpool in the early 1960s, scrubbed-up by their manager; the time was right.
amusia would happily swap the whole of The Beatles oeuvre (digitally re-mastered or not) for Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band, and is delighted to see that she still has the power to disclose, uncannily, the barbarous limits, the acheronta movebo, of Anglo-American culture. In her essay on the use of music as a torture and battlefield weapon, Suzanne Cusick consults various online discussions and exchanges in order to assess the cultural resonance of such usage on the ‘home front’. One blogger wrote, concerning the US’s ‘war on terror’, that ‘You might as well stick panties on the head of everyone in the village. At least THAT would be more human than using Yoko Ono as a weapon of torture’. Another posted a parody of Article 13 from the Geneva Convention to prohibit the use of her music, while yet another wrote:
No dude ... we gotta have some limits ... I mean ... just damn. I mean ... pork fat, shredded Koran, menstrual fluids ... I see the usefulness there. But I gotta draw the line at Yoko. I mean, we’re not barbarians.
Yoko Ono’s appearance in the 1960s did not destroy The Beatles, she confirmed them as Britain’s sacred Thing through the hatred she generated. In interviews John Lennon said he was taken aback at the abuse his wife took and as the testimony of The Beatles’ biographer Bob Spitz demonstrates, it was clearly not just Ono’s foreign appearance, but above all her voice, grating ‘like fingernails on a chalkboard’ or ‘screeching like a wounded animal’ (Spitz, 2007), that provided the extimate point of excruciating dissonance defining British amusia. Even as The Beatles seemed to secure Britain’s imaginary place at the centre of the post-war baby-boomer pop-cultural consensus from the 60s to the present, Ono’s avant-gardism threatened to ‘steal’ it and destroy its iconic band, thereby disclosing the amusial symptom of Britain’s essential decline and discordance in the perception of the unbearable noise, tunelessness, and pain of its misogyny, racism and abjection.
In Yoko Ono’s album that takes the title of her conceptual band (comprised in this instance of Lennon on guitar, Ringo Starr on drums and Klaus Voormann on bass) Yoko adapts her previous vocal style and vocal improvisations from the Fluxus days into a new form. On Plastic Ono Band the sound palette is stretched and extended as it is pitched against amplified instruments, a driving drum and bass beat, echoing and fusing with Lennon's blistering guitar work. Ono takes the basic format of rock and roll into a new direction through changing the function and relationship of the voice and liberating it from the form and structure of the song.
The first two tracks on Plastic Ono Band, ‘Why’ and ‘Why Not?’ were developed in jam sessions during which ‘recording engineers routinely walked out’ (Munroe and Hendricks, 2000). Yet, for Andy Davis, the first track ‘Why seethes with a confrontational menace not heard again in Britain until 1976 punk, Ono’s voice matching Lennon’s ‘scratchy, razor-wire guitar’ which is ‘harder and more experimental than anything he ever managed for his own recordings’ (Clayson, 2004). ‘Why’ and ‘Why Not?’ pitch the question of desire on to an undulating plateau of varying intensities, voice and guitar distorting, extending and deterritorializing the so-called acoustic mirror beyond any point of identification, stability, sense or meaning on a line of continuous variation infused with a suffering and joy that is addressed to no one. The voice and guitar do not imitate each other; they do not construct a sonic envelope but rather engage in a process of constant sonic unfolding, an evacuation of meaning in an ascetic eroticization of the scream.
The solitary good review by Bill McAllister of Record Mirror that was included on the sleeve notes of later pressings of the album emphasises the point of moving beyond aesthetic boundaries, form, reflection and even the margin of excess that delimits and de-forms them. ‘Yoko takes music beyond its extremes, into the realm of non-music you might say ... Yoko breaks through more barriers with one scream than most musicians do in a lifetime’ (McAllister, December 19, 1971). In subsequent tracks the basic voice-guitar-drum-bass assemblage is thickened with tape fragments, sound effects and improv tapes that develop textured audio events that nevertheless exist on the same plane of intensity. For Edward M. Gomez, these tracks are like ‘evocative sound poems [that] blended train, bird, and dog-howl sounds into Ono’s chanting voices, which were multi-tracked in overlapping waves’ (Munroe and Hendricks, 2000). Beyond extremes, Ono generates a paradoxical sound music that is a modality of excess, neither conventional music nor noise, but a form of screaming that renders music completely strange, takes it into another dimension. As Deleuze and Guattari write, as if with Ono in mind: 'It should not be thought that music has forgotten how to sing in a now mechanical and atomized world; rather, an immense coefficient of variation is affecting and carrying away all of the phatic, aphatic, linguistic, poetic, instrumental, or musical parts of a single sound assemblage – "a simple scream suffusing all degrees"(Thomas Mann)'.
Wednesday, 9 September 2009
What’s interesting about music is not the music, actually.
In a short piece called ‘Ambient Music’, one of the appendices to his 1995 diary published as A Year with swollen appendices (1996), Brian Eno reflected on the emergence of the genre that he named on the release of his seminal album Music for Airports in 1977. Eno noticed that in the early 1970s, with the novelty of records and radio wearing off, he and his friends had begun listening to music in a different way. ‘My friends and I were making and exchanging long cassettes of music chosen for its stillness, homogeneity, lack of surprises and, most of all, lack of variety’. Eno and friends wanted music that would surround them and be continuous with, or constitute, ‘the ambience of our lives’. They began to make music in which they could become completely immersed: ‘Immersion was really the point: we were making music to swim in, to float in, to get lost inside’.
That music and environment could become continuous became clear, Eno recalls, in a defining experience in 1975 when he had been confined to his bed following a serious accident. He was given a recording of seventeenth-century harp music by a female friend who put the music on as she left. Alone and incapacitated, Eno
'realized that the hi-fi was much too quiet and one of the speakers had given up anyway. It was raining hard outside, and I could hardly hear the music above the rain – just the loudest notes, like little crystals, sonic icebergs rising out of the storm. I couldn’t get up and change it, so I just lay there waiting for my next visitor to come and sort it out, and gradually I was seduced by this listening experience. I realized that this was what I wanted music to be – a place, a feeling'. (Eno, 'Ambient Music')
What is interesting about this evocative description is the way in which an initially disagreeable situation transforms itself into a seductive and pleasurable one. Clearly in discomfort, unable to move after his accident, Eno is confined to his bed. He is in a passive situation that he is unlikely to have experienced since he was a small child. Dependent upon the comings and goings of nurses, friends and visitors, the female friend in the anecdote compensates for her departure by putting on the harp music at his request. In the anecdote the harp music substitutes for the woman’s absence functioning like the mechanical musical mobiles that were introduced in the mid-seventies, designed to amuse and lull a baby to sleep in the absence of the mother. Initially, the experience is unpleasant. The music is barely perceptible and obscured by the rain outside. The music merges with the rain, but even then the sonic environment remains chilly, even icy and tempestuous. Eno has no choice but to give in to his situation. ‘I couldn't get up and change it, so I just lay there’. Gradually, the storm abates and the ocean settles to produce a more seductive and pleasurable all-enveloping experience, one that changes his relation to music and his understanding of what it can do or be.
The idea that music offers fantasmatic experiences of absorption or immersion is of course not new, not even in 1977. Indeed the idea is picked up by Freud where, at the beginning of Civilisation and its Discontents, he considers it as one of the bases of religious feeling. For Freud the oceanic feeling is a relic of the baby’s sense of continuity with the mother. ‘An infant at the breast does not as yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensations flowing in upon him’. The ego develops its sense of unity and autonomy from the external world through a process of relative privation of maternal care that becomes signified by the cries and screams that mark its departure and summon its return. Further disengagement with the external world is precipitated by ‘the frequent, manifold and unavoidable sensations of pain and unpleasure the removal and avoidance of which is enjoined by the pleasure principle, in the exercise of its unrestricted domination’. Pleasure itself thus becomes a principle of separation and avoidance of pain, the ‘pleasure-ego’ enclosed by the pain that waits at the door of what Lacan would call the jouissance of the Other. Freud therefore traces back the oceanic feeling to the earlier phase of the ego prior to its sense of separation. If the oceanic feeling becomes the support for religion, then Freud can only suppose that this is because even as it seeks ‘the restoration of limitless narcissism’, in which the self is one with the world, this is the correlate of the ‘infantile helplessness’ that desires paternal presence. And Freud ‘cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection’.
There is no obvious reference to religion or fathers in Eno’s anecdote, rather there is the icy harp and rain music of the world. Neither the harmony of the spheres nor a scream passing through nature, but the noise-music of a father who does not know he is dead, the music of his harp-playing angels fading away, indistinct from the rain. Confined to his bed, following his own near-death experience, dependent on the presence and absence of friends and relations, Eno in his anecdote has clearly been returned to a state similar to Freud’s grandson whose famous game with the cotton reel seemed to suggest that the drive conformed to a principle that went beyond pleasure, an ‘instinct for mastery’ that overcomes pain and recovers pleasure via an identification with sounds. From an original position of maternal dependence and passivity, the child exerts itself actively and begins to distinguish and identify himself in relation to a signifier, an utterance, ‘fort!’ with which he can address an imaginary or real partner whom he makes disappear. The exertion of imaginary mastery therefore is a repetition that replaces passivity with activity and therefore compensates for the disappearance of the mother.
There is obviously a temptation to hear in Eno’s anecdote how the harp music, in substituting for the presence of his female friend, takes over the function of maternal presence in the form of a substitute voice, a lullaby perhaps. But there is nothing warm and comforting about it. It is chilly, icy. Following his accident, Eno has been reminded of his own mortality and this rain and harp music has more of the austerity of the symbolic order that is of course cemented by the name and law of the dead father. The music of the harp and rain music is no more an echo of the mother’s voice than the fort! and da! that is uttered by Freud’s grandson as his cries fill the empty space vacated by the mother. For Lacan these utterances are testimony to the violence of the symbol that ‘first manifests itself as the killing of the thing, and this death results in the endless perpetuation of the subject’s desire’.
For Eno, music is not in itself very interesting. Rather, he is more ‘interested in … what happens when music hits its culture, what it does to people, what new types of thought it allows’ (Eno, Presents). It is not, then, the formal qualities of music’s specific organization of sound that is important, nor the timbre, the quality of its ‘voice’. Rather, it is the way music makes a symbolic cut into culture, its impact on thought even more than feeling. In his own anecdote, Eno is describing the symbolic power of sound to change the world, to transform the world into ambient music. Music is no longer something that is composed, performed and listened to, it is all around us, a place, a feeling, that induces calm and ‘creates a space to think ... it must be ignorable as it is interesting’. The music is much less important, therefore, than the space it creates, the effect that requires naming.
The symbolic force of music is not without its sensuous compensations, and as the sounds become more seductive the thought that they solicit quickly turns to symbolization proper and the power of naming. As he struggles with the here-and-there of the notes of the harp coming in and out of hearing beneath the heavy rain, Eno masters the situation in his imagination by synthesising everything into the field of his own ‘pleasure-ego’. Eno’s mastery takes the symbolic form of a whole new function and genre of music. The musical seduction is essentially a self-seduction in which he becomes at one with his environment even as he masters it, imaginarily, wallowing in the oceanic joy of limitless narcissism that is secured by his act of naming: Eno has invented and named the world; it is ambient music.