Music, Violence, Truth

Ben Watson

This piece was originally commissioned by Rob Young at The Wire in the aftermath of the Twin Towers suicide attack on 11 September 2001. It was deemed "not to fit" with other contributions (The Wire, no 213, November 2001 ). After Young voiced the opinion that US bombing had created "a happier Afghanistan ... music and song are returning to that devastated land" (editorial, The Wire, no 214, December 2001), it seemed unlikely that the anti- imperialist sentiments voiced above would find favour, so it was placed on Esther Leslie's website ( The current publishers found it there and decided to issue it in pamphlet form: it was expanded for that purpose in May 2002 (hence the inclusion of a Taylor/Oxley/Bang-On-ACan concert review). Thanks to Harry Gilonis for the quotes from Julia Spinola's article ‘Monstrous Art’ from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 18 September 2001.

After the devastation in Manhattan on 11 September 2001, what can radical music mean? Einstürzende Neubauten - whose name translates, prophetically, Collapsing New Buildings - earned their avantgarde stripes in Britain by applying pneumatic drills to a stress-bearing beam at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

After 11 September, such transgressions surely pale into insignificance. Indeed, any comparison might seem offensive. At No Future, an academic conference on Punk held in Wolverhampton in late September 2001, an American delegate announced that after 9-11 the relationship of music to violence and shock needed to be rethought. The whole Punk and Noise ‘transgressive’ aesthetic, one he'd subscribed to throughout his youth, needed revision. Like watching the late Linda Lovelace, born-again and demure, denouncing porn and sex-before-marriage on a TV chat show, such reversals in ideology cannot be taken at face value. These rifts and contradictions indicate a clash of tectonic plates at a more fundamental level, something violently mismatched in the relationship of music to truth and conscience.

Musically, America responded to the pain and loss of 9-11 with a fund-raising telethon which drew on the sombre substratum of hymn-singing which underlies corporate pop, and which unites country, soul and reggae. Music written for church performance - unmediated, involving, communal and local - inevitably became kitsch and false when delivered by top-selling super-stars for international broadcast. These songs are made for internal reflection, not personal adulation. The economics were hypocritical too: the artists may have waived their fees, but as with Live Aid, it's obvious that the global exposure they're achieving is worth more than any fee. However, in such a context of harmonic maturity and low-key sentiment, the concept of ‘audio terrorism’ does appear silly and adolescent. Should the noisy end of the avantgarde shut up, and confess its misdemeanours were all a ruse?

The avantgarde registered its own peculiar response to the disaster. Rushing in where angels fear to tread, Karlheinz Stockhausen voiced what some may have felt in the instant, but none dared say. For him, the crashing planes and collapsing towers felt like art: "What happened there is - now you must re-adjust your brain - the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos. Minds achieving in a single act what we in music can only dream of, people rehearsing like mad for ten years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying. You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 people who are dispatched to the afterlife, in a single moment. I couldn't match it. Against that, we - as composers - are nothing." Surely the guy is crazy? In Stockhausen's defence, he did go on to admit the attack was a crime, because part of the ‘audience’were ‘not consenting’. This demur didn't soften Gyorgy Ligeti's retort: "Stockhausen should be locked up in a psychiatric hospital".

A comment by one TV reporter - that the image of the planes crashing into the towers "repeated in the memory like a nightmare loop" - was distinctly strange. You didn't need to repeat the images in your head, TV did nothing else for days on end. As usual, the mass media materially create the psychic conditions which they then proceed to moralise. But what should artists do when reality outdoes them? Stay quiet? Admit anti-art destructivism was just a tease? Confess that these tumultous, apocalyptical events we call ‘radical’ were really just conjury with lutes and viols, a luxury product ornamented with frissons of phony danger?

Such evasions smack of the brittle repression of married couples who banish their teenage metal and pop albums to the attic and call their yen for music a ‘passing phase’. For us, giving up on extreme music can't be the answer. Quite the opposite: it's by paying closer attention to the internal structure of radical music - ‘violence’and all - that its historical and social meaning might be decoded. Stockhausen's equation of art and terror  
- "this leap from security, from what's ordinary, from life" - may be poor consolation for inhabitants of Manhattan who have lost loved ones, or now feel desperately insecure. However, his weird outburst did touch on something deep. Why is it that, since the modernist revolts of the early twentieth century, composers and improvisors have continually shouted noise, crisis and violence?

The crucial point is that art is an attempt to tell the truth about the world, the whole world, not simply to provide baubles for those in the comfort-zone of privilege. The economic pressures and national conflicts that create world wars and mass starvation and genocide are still in operation. The operations of global capitalism, and its political face-savers, those blue-suited bastards Bush and Blair and Berlusconi, mean that the inhabitants of Burundi, Beirut, Belfast and Baghdad (I use alliteration to limit the list) have long suffered the terror and chaos which the suicide hijackers brought to Manhattan. Edgard  
Varèse brought the noise of sirens and bombs into music in the 1920s, a response to the terrors of World War I. His Hyperprism predicted the Nazi strategy of the Blitz, when civilian populations first became long-distant targets of military hardware. Unlike his ‘objectivist’ follower Iannis Xenakis, Varèse bent the shapes he heard into organic ovaloids which speak for the suffering ear. This is why, of all the pre-war orchestral composers, only Varèse has a non-salon, yet humanist ruggedness: a realism that moves the blood and shakes the entrails. Sonically, Varèse can stand comparison to Coltrane and Hendrix, who provided lasting testimonials to a different noise: a struggle against racial oppression in America and genocidal war in Vietnam.

These moments of musical truth weren't easy to achieve, nor were they facile, attention-seeking stabs at ugliness or excess. They were not the sound of George Antheil seeking to be a ‘bad boy’ of the avantgarde by slamming his fists on the pianoforte keyboard, or of the japanese Noise artist Merzbow producing fashionably catatonia-inducing, all-enveloping drones (to steal a name from Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau and then recycle the shocks of a degraded surrealism deserves some kind of critique). According to his wife Naima (talking to C.O. Simpkins, his best biographer), John Coltrane systematically studied scales from all over the world, and tried to pack every musical system into his music. If the results sound ugly, that is because you are too wedded to your partial musical identity, to your comfort- blanket of familiar harmony: heavenly universality sounds like hell to closed-in ears. For his part, Hendrix was intensely loyal to classmates who had been drafted and to 101st Airborne, the regiment he'd served in. Eric Burdon was amazed at his rightwing stance on the Vietnamese war when he reached England in 1967. Music journalist Karl Dallas challenged him in print. Reaching an anti-US position was painful and slow, yet by Machine Gun, it happened. Hendrix's rainbows of audio-feedback revelled in spaces which brought pain to the repressed and rigid: in the ears of GIs, they were incitements to immediate pleasure, to disrespect for authority, and to outright mutiny (‘fragging’).

Coltrane and Hendrix did not invent this dialectic between musical shock and political liberation. It had been the major theme for Beethoven and his followers. Romantic music was a call to revolution that now languishes under the idiot term ‘classical’. The exhilarating allegri of the symphony - the hoofbeats, the jangling bridles, the crack of loading musketsare not about hunting, as Roger Scruton fondly imagines. They are about bourgeois revolution - "to arms, citizens!" - discovering common aims, seizing the castle keep, liberating the prisoners, letting in the light of reason, sweeping away the cobwebs of feudal reaction. After 1848, when the bourgeois class made its historic pact with state power and landed interests, the excitement turned sour. In March 1871, the French state slaughtered the Communards in tens of thousands, and drove the voice of universal truth and reason underground. In Wagner, massive chromatic transitions invoke myth and fate: surrender to the madness of the stock market as to a natural force. By Mahler, the revolutionary allegri are hollowed-out, febrile, a nostalgic memory that relates to erotics rather than history. But this radical subjectivity had consequences.

By rationalising the brain-bending chromaticism of Wagner and Mahler, Schoenberg and Webern forged a music whose freedom of note combination rejected the respectable, bourgeois world of repression and exchange. Their negation of tonality in Twelve Tone, born through logic, is painful; its parallel in the Blues, itself born through pain, is alluring. These twin attacks on the tempered key system stalked each other through the twentieth- century, fighting, aiding and abetting, fusing and swapping places (see Muhal Abrams, Frank Zappa, James Blood Ulmer, Derek Bailey). The struggle for authentic music resembled political resistance to war and inequality and mass starvation. Its history is likewise fugitive and unofficial: stark glimpses of a different order in a black night of violence and lies. When Mark Sinker, writing in The Wire (no 211, September 2001),worried that the offensive volume of rock can be mobilised to confirm conservatism, he needed to pay more attention to the music's economic base. Noise organised for extraction of surplus value isn't noise, but silence at high volume: rock as spectacle blocks its liberating essence, its democratic release and insurrectionary energy (hence the necessity of Punk etc.) As usual in bourgeois thought, idealism links to positivism: Sinker's decibel-counting cannot handle the fact that ‘noise’ in music is an aesthetic fact concerning collective human experience and individual response, not a quantitative measure.

Take the example of Cecil Taylor. In carrying out zappologist Marco Maurizi's dictum that the dialectic of Modern Art is "mediation criticised by immediacy", Taylor explodes the meaning of the piano - that prime embodiment of bourgeois tonality - from within, seemingly bending notes which the machine was designed to deliver straight and even, transforming pianistic mastery into a battlefield of physical tensions and clashes. Taylor has reduced pianism to lightning rhythmic nuance and bounding sonic volume. Encyclopedic harmonic knowledge is balanced like an inverted pyramid on the nose-tip of the moment, causing a frictive density and horrid power which make lovers of civilised tinkling flee the room.

Why this cataclysm at the heart of musical creativity? Because the reputation of the classical ‘masterpiece’, this civilisation, is the accumulation of the sweated labour of legions of composers, musicians, concert organisers and concert-hall builders, all those who have worked to make these moments possible. Taylor's intent is to inject the spontaneity of the instant - his actual presence at this moment in front of you now in this particular hall - into the frozen monolith, to explode the tempered key system into a million scintillating fragments, to make the process of playing the point of us gathering, and not the congealed kudos of the past. Taylor is the most refined and gentlest of people - to underline the point, he even recites poetry and wears pink fluffy slippers at recitals - yet ears trained by radio and film musics, used to music which fails to address the listener directly, shout "Violence! Violence!! Violence!!!" every time they hear it.

A recent performance at the Barbican (13 May 2002) is a case in point. Invited to write a concert piece for performance by Bang On A Can All-Stars ("a fiercely aggressive group, combining the power and punch of a rock band with the precision and clarity of a chamber ensemble" according to the New York Times, who appear to have swapped genuine music criticism for promotional falafel), Cecil  
Taylor questioned the fetish of the written masterpiece by appearing in person with the group. His ‘score’was an A4 photocopy of some derisory doodles containing randomly scattered letters and musical signs. His ‘rehearsal’ consisted of a thirty-minute seance at which the musicians were instructed to make “no sound” while Taylor explored the limits of the auditorium by slowly moving up the aisle (the pianist tinkles some notes and is admonished, leading to a backstage war in which she is finally banished from the performance). Then the musicians were themselves sent into the auditorium to test the space, exhale air and pronounce a word. When they turn this into a clever improvised event, cooing and chirping at each other (as they do ‘downtown’), Taylor upbraids them and tells them to slow the tempo to near silence. Worse even than gagging the All-Stars, he imports drummer Tony Oxley, insisting Oxley is "the best drummer on the planet" (thus bouleversing decades of careful negotiation between Black Nationalism and American patriotic hard sell to make ’Jazz’a global cultural hegemon).

In their performance, Taylor and Oxley upset any notion of received harmony or rhythm, forcing the three members of Bang On A Can who dared show up to improvise what they are rather than what they know. The improvisation tore spaces in the fabric of ‘community’, and created a genuinely new and unheralded musical construction with the materials to hand. Like a John Cage piece performed in the midst of a set of new minimalist hack- works, Taylor and Oxley proved that all the careful notations by Tan Dun, Hermeto Pascoal and Don Byron (pieces which had occupied the first half) were so much tepid filmscore twaddle, trivial evasions of what playing music in front of people really is.

The rhythmic relationship of Taylor and Oxley brought in something vocal and authentic that was completely lacking in Bang On A Can's finicky reproduction of strategies from Henry Cow, Curlew and the Mike Post Coalition. The fusion of ‘rock power’and‘chamber clarity’ promised by the New York Times proved to be ersatz class-reconciliation, a postmodernist sales pitch indicating a consummation devoutly to be wished by harrassed arts promoters (ie ‘bums-on-seats’ plus ‘high- class tone’), but nothing at all in terms of musical micro-substance in the hearing. Bang On A Can's clumsy attempts at rock and samba were exceedingly ugly, notes as illustrations of the idea rather than the thing-for-itself, cluttered and awkward. Their performance revealed the absolutely empty character of academic musical values: all the music said was "we can play these dots", there was no motive force, no message to the bowels, no meaning.

For musicians to deliver "the word with its theme intact, the word permeated with confident and categorical social value judgment," they must also provide the next term in V.N. Voloshinov's argument: "the word that really means and takes responsibility for what it says" (these are the closing words of Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, 1929). This means developing a personal voice on your instrument which sheds the chameleon- like pseudo-universality of the competent orchestral interpreter - the musical equivalent of the polite dinner-party chatter which pretends to talk freely of anything, but remains scared witless by economic or sexual reality - and risks genuine expression: what Leroi Jones called the ‘stance’ which defines the authentic jazz saxophonist.

Taylor and Oxley provided ‘stance’in such abundance that their presence felt like a volcanic eruption of directness and immediacy, sending the Bang On A Can musicians into gibbering recall of adolescent Halenesque electric-guitar (the artificiality and fragility of the sexual equality induced by classical training was revealed when the two female members of Bang On A Can failed to show up; this was a punch-up any female free improvisor would have loved, and shone in... fans of trombonist Gail Brand's amazing performance at the V&A Merz Nite riot were reduced to imagining what she could have done in this context).

However, just because musical truth sounds violent and unacceptable to the status quo, it doesn't follow that literal devastation and violence are art. Stockhausen's enthusiasm for the Trade Center attack could just as well be the futurist Filippo- Tommaso Marinetti praising war ("the world's only hygiene"). Stockhausen combines Baader-Meinhof's elitist concept of spectacular political action with neo- Wagnerian megalomania: he doesn't realise that art and revolution are not a physical force, a firestorm (despite the images currently used by halfwits to promote ‘Ecstatic Jazz’), but powers mediated via human intellect and will. In other words, the ‘power’of great music is its truth content, its proposed relation to the totality of society and the cosmos, not brute force. Music is not real violence, but a discourse of affective states, one that creates opportunities for judgment about feelings. The split between intellect and emotion is transcended. This can't be done with a bludgeon, any more than revolutionary seizure of the state by the proletarian class can be achieved by individual acts of anarchist violence (Trotsky's critique of Narodnik terrorism still stands).

Varèse and his handful of authentic orchestral inheritors - namely James Dillon, Simon H. Fell, Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana-Maria Avram - make music which short-circuits merely intellectual appreciation (the tight clean shape of a Haydn Quartet or a pop song), and at moments speaks directly to the body. It maps out the flow of blood, the rustle of nervous synapses, the creak of bone. Yet these musics don't neglect the intellectual thrill of graphing such biological realities, nor twinges of anxiety and guilt. This emotional science steels the brainpan, giving us the resolve to regard the world in its true colours. The political corollary is not aesthetic awe before the actions of suicidal hijackers, but comprehension of the motives that drive global conflict. Not Deleuze & Guttari's facile and rhetorical "surrender to the primordial Other", but Enlightenment: Freud's "Where Id was, Ego shall be".

9-11 was not radical music, but an atrocity inflicted by conspirators trained by the CIA for destabilisation projects in foreign countries. They applied what the CIA had taught them in pursuit of their leader's power struggle with the Bush dynasty concerning the price of oil (Cecil Taylor cites the fact that San Franciso's mayor was warned not to fly on 11 September, maintaining that Bush organised the attack to consolidate a lost-in-fact election: you can hear Taylor's tough, Burroughs-like disassociation from liberal unctuousness in every note he plays). Even if they inevitably gain the applause of arab populations suffering under US-backed repression, Al-Qaeda have no plan beyond revenge, using the civil populations of the enemy state as targets (they're like the USSR backed with a ‘people's bomb’ that will wipe out the workers of the world they should be uniting with). Al-Qaeda's actions do not help to create an independent working- class politics which could overthrow capitalism, but instead invoke the logic that led to the bombing of retreating Iraqi troops on the road to Basrah, and deaths in tens of thousands. Al-Qaeda are no more to be supported than Cecil Taylor's alternative ‘axis of evil’(George Bush, Wynton Marsalis and Philip Glass, as if you couldn't guess).

Political violence conceived as conflict between national or religious blocks is a species of psychic repression, akin to conceiving sex in terms of individual gratification, or music in terms of a quantitative measure (‘genius’, ‘outreach’, ‘sales’). It fails to find any agency for saving the human race (isn't it funny how the well- heeled are so prone to political despair?) It reduces history and culture to a spectacle that is no longer carried out by people capable of reason: for example, the myth that the Arab/Israeli conflict is the fruit of thousands of years of difference (one peddled in a recent headline by the supposedly progressive french newspaper, Libération), rather than a US strategy to put pressure on Arab states and keep down the price of oil. Religious and national pseudo-explanations obscure the rational dynamic of capital and its reproduction (mangetouts from Kenya, silicon chips from South Korea and the multi-coloured metropolis are all highly explicable phenomena), naturalising anglo wealth and afghan poverty. Alice Coltrane's millionaire mysticism retains the worst part of John Coltrane's legacy: its living part is its global integration of musical codes, its refusal of religious and national divisions. Free music is the song of the New International.

By facing the horrors of an unbalanced world, by making us experience its terror and violence and sorrow, radical music offers the satisfaction of truth rather than the blandishments of comfort. It arms the psyche for reality. This will become increasingly necessary as the weaponry and trade-deals sold by the First and ex- Communist Worlds to the Third send us their refugees, their anger and their despair. The grief-stricken of Manhattan should be allowed to bury their dead in whatever manner they wish, but sombre hymns and TV-studio candles are not the final word: only a courageous assessment of global realities - musical and political - will allow us to shape a future worth hearing.

May 2002

Ben Watson

June 2002

Copyright: Ben Watson, 2002 contact

Published: Ian Land and Andy Wilson

The Dolphin Pub, Hackney, London, 2002 contact