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TUESDAY TUNES: SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY?

The bass drum alone is worth the price of admission. That tubby, flabby bonk, produced through a tightly tuned and what I’m assuming is a quite thin drumhead, sounds simultaneously ludicrous and the purest expression of the spirit that animates The Bad Plus. Combined with the metal snare drum, also stunningly resonant, the sound of the band feels as though it has reached, with this fourth album, the heart of what they aspired to do when they began, although they wouldn’t have known it.
I don’t have the words quite to explain what I mean by this. From the first album through, TBP synthesized their music out of a variety of ostensibly opposed musical sensibilities: the avant garde and the popular, the swinging and the rocking, the hilarious and the earnest, the free-wheeling and the delicately arranged, the fun and the devastating. Something about these paradoxical forces is present in the sound of Dave King’s bass drum alone: bombastic and powerful, but also cartoonish, graceful at times, and always landing in the place you didn’t know you wanted it to. The first sound on the album is that one drum, and for good reason.
Are you not convinced? Listen to the intro of “Rhinoceros is My Profession” and tell me that bass drum isn’t animating the entire band. Or else, what about scooting up to 4:30 in “Let Our Garden Grow” and waiting until 5:00 when those two–precisely two– beautiful punches punctuate a momentary and miraculous silence, the eye of the storm that constitutes the unbound collective improvisation in the middle of this track. Did you hear how they flew in that space like they knew it was coming? A clairvoyant bass drum, the sound of deep knowing. While you’re here, why not stick around until the end of this track? There is a drum solo there, and, though briefly, you can hear the whole kit in its full eccentricity, always threatening to clip in the mix.
If I had to guess, I’d say that I learned 34% of what I know as a musician by listening to Dave King play the drums. But of course, what makes him so magical is also the context that he’s responding to, or rather, that he is helping to create. You hear things on a Bad Plus record that you just don’t hear elsewhere. For this reason, they captivated me when I was in high school (thanks, Tom), and to this day, I’m not sure I know any other albums as well as the first three of theirs that I got ahold of.
Have you ever heard a tune like “Knows the Difference”, where the piano and bass seem to move through the song together, but magically so, because there is no tempo, at least not from the drums, which seem off in their own universe, paying no attention to the music that’s happening? But of course, King is paying attention, and magically the music hits together at certain key moments, entirely inexplicably. It’s pure chemistry and experience that gets the band there, nothing more. The song is out of time and chaotic, but it anchors itself every so often, just often enough to ground your ears in a pulse. And then out of nowhere, nowhere at all, two snare hits clue everyone into a beautiful groove. Just like that, after five full minutes of chaos, an irregular but absolutely compelling riff takes hold. The song as it was completely disappears from view, and something new takes over.
Have you ever heard, for that matter, a tune like “Lost of Love”, which repeats its own form indefinitely, where nothing happens on paper but where the emotional affect swells until it’s unbearable? Sure, it modulates upwards over time. But that alone can’t account for the force of this song, this song where nothing and everything happens over 10 whole minutes. This one you can’t skip around. You have to listen from beginning to end, and you won’t get it until you do. The commitment that it takes on their part must be matched by commitment of your own. That’s the only way it works!
No. No you haven’t, is the answer. You haven’t heard a tune like that or anything approaching it. This album is the sound of a singularity. Out of time and in time at once. The silliest and the most compelling sound you never imagined.
It is especially interesting to revisit this album now, after the release of Never Stop II and Activate Infinity, both of which maintain a quite different energy from the rest of the band’s discography, and not just because they have a new pianist. Orrin Evans certainly puts a new spin on TBP’s trademark sound, but there’s also the fact of the band’s response to the music that Evans is contributing. Part of how the band is adjusting has to do with the way that they’re recording, which in the two most recent albums, produces a much more contained fire, a sort of delicate, compressed energy that crackles low in the mix. The bass drum in question here is gone, because the entire project has changed. The bombast you hear on Suspicious Activity? was dependent on that time, that place, those players; it expresses a context as much as anything.
If you’ve come with me this far, you know you’re going to listen to “Forces”, too. You’ll listen when you know you’re alone, when no one is going to tap you on the shoulder or text you for at least ten minutes. You get six or so for the song, and an extra four for what comes after. Before too long, I bet you’ll be back.

BIG FEELINGS, QUEER PHENOMENOLOGY, AND THE OPHELIAS

I’m giving a lecture on The Ophelias next week for an entire hour. I am really excited about this, not only because I will be able to try out some new ideas for the first time in public, but also because I’ll get to talk about many of my favorite things: feminist rock, music history, Rancière, Ahmed, and affect.
My basic aim is to start thinking seriously about feminist indie rock that is not the riot grrrl movement–that is, indie rock that a) doesn’t sound like punk, b) doesn’t have an explicit politics, and c) nevertheless produces political affects through their sounds. My working hypothesis at this point is that this type of music can be thought of through a large umbrella concept I call “Big Feelings”. This is a term that aims to describe how lyrical content centering the feelings of women and girls comes together with a certain sound to create feminist affect in the absence of an overt feminist position. I am still in the process of researching what this “certain sound” is, and when/how it appears in feminist rock. But at this point, it has a lot to do (in my mind) with chord extensions.
In the early 1990s, Susan McClary famously argued that classical music contains a sexual politics in its formal qualities insofar as it a) narratively constructs a conflict that is staged and eventually overcome; and b) insofar as this conflict is gendered. Building on her analyses of opera characters and the music that helps to construct their narratives, McClary shows how chromaticism and minor-key movements are coded feminine and are presented as challenges that both male protagonists and (coded male) tonic key centers must overcome. In middle movements, where  “madwomen”, “hysterics”, or sexually deviant female characters present conflict in the narrative, the eventual triumph of the male character is musically signaled by the return and re-assertion of tonic major, read as sanity, moral clarity, masculine rationality, and so on.1 As Anne Carson writes, this dynamic stretches to the Greeks, and has to do with the way that (gendered) sound factors into the notion of sophrosyne, a certain model of virtue and sound-mindedness that translated differently for men and women.2
I see something of a similar dynamic happening in feminist indie rock. Of course, it is not expressed in the same way as in classical music, and it does not mean exactly the same things. One of the central premises of all my work (e.g. 20182020) is that music is fundamentally relational, interdependent, and contingent. Therefore, this framework of thinking gendered sounds can’t be uniformly applied to all genres, but must shift into each respective social context, changing in the process. In the context of indie rock, that means two things: 1) feminist excess will be achieved through different musical means, means that conform to the inside/outside conventions of the rock genre; and 2) each band that participates in or produces this feminine excess will do so in different ways.
My theory is that feminine excess, centered around emotionality, expresses itself in many ways, but that one of the important commonalities (in rock music) is the chord extensions that intrude on or break through the relatively diatonic sonic space of masculine rock. This excessive sonic emotionality is not only coded feminine, but is overtly expressed as such, given that it is premised from the very beginning as coming from a woman’s voice and is not necessarily subject to the same types of compositional control that feminine excess was in classical music (because, in short, this  “excessive” emotionality is appropriated and polemically deployed by feminist groups). The type of feminine excess that I call “Big Feelings” is also not the same kind of excess that riot grrrl bands produced, which had more to do with co-opting explicitly masculine sounds from punk and post-punk. The sound of Big Feelings is something different.3
I think that The Ophelias are one of the bands that produces such a feminist affect. How they do so, however, is extremely distinct. As I will address in my talk, their music produces, in my view, a sophisticated musical version of Ahmed’s “queer phenomenology” where our bodies are directed differently in (social/musical) space. That point starts to bring this post into new territory, and so I’ll leave it here for now.

1 If this sounds like a stretch to you, consider “The 1970 edition of the Harvard Dictionary of Music, for instance, [which] includes the following entry:
Masculine, feminine cadence.  A cadence or ending is called ‘masculine’ if the final chord of a phrase or section occurs on the strong beat and ‘feminine’ if it is postponed to fall on a weak beat. The masculine ending must be considered the normal one, while the feminine is preferred in more romantic styles (in McClary 1991, 9).
Later, McClary elaborates: “Similarly, chromaticism, which enriches tonal music but which must finally be resolved to the triad for the sake of closure, takes on the cultural cast of ‘femininity.’ The ‘feminine’ never gets the last word within this context: in the world of traditional narrative, there are no feminine endings” (16).
2 “Female sophrosyne is coextensive with female obedience to male direction and rarely means more than chastity. When it does mean more, the allusion is often to sound. A husband exhorting his wife or concubine to sophrosyne is likely to mean ‘Be quiet!’” (Carson 1995, 126).
3 Other bands I hear in this “different” vein include Land of Talk, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, Japanese Breakfast, Fazerdaze, Van Dale, Alvvays, Yuck, Girlpool, Broken Social Scene and more. One interesting challenge is to think about why this affect seems to emerge from 2010 on, and on what historical developments it is predicated (including riot grrrl, grunge, shoegaze, post-punk, etc).
Works Cited
Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.
Carson, Ann. 1995. Glass, Irony, and God. New Directions Paperback.
McClary, Susan. 1991. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

TUESDAY TUNES: CIRCLES

Circles is breathtaking.
 
Mac Miller’s posthumous release is a concise and devastating statement that both encapsulates his musical vision and attests to developments cut short. As everyone who has commented on this album agrees, it is all but impossible not to read into Circles, to hear Miller sing “There’s a whole lot more for me waiting on the other side” and not wonder if or how he felt that some darkness was catching up to him. But such haunting meditations alone are not what makes the album so compelling; each individual song and the album as a whole are incredibly well-built from beginning to end. It is a moving statement with a coherent identity, mood, and sound.banner-art

This coherence has a lot to do with the
weird and lovely collaboration between Miller and Jon Brion. You can hear Brion’s signature touches in the percussion tracks1 (the vibraphone that rings out at the end of “Circles”, the marimba that you hear bouncing along in “Good News”) but also in the structure of the songs themselves: the chord progression in “Good News” loops indefinitely, never resolving, and the last chord in the sequence (the second half of the fourth bar) is a diminished chord that feels particularly Bion-esque to me. It’s the kind of “song-writer’s” harmonic movement that one might expect more in jazz or folk music, and which feels all the more magical in this context (I feel the same way about “That’s On Me”). More than magical, it’s also smart–the cyclicality invoked in the album’s lyrics is often built into the songs themselves through structures that repeat and have no clear point of tension or release. 
 
I have not been listening to Miller for a long time, nor do I know the ins and outs of his career. I was turned on to Swimming when I saw his Tiny Desk Concert and was struck by what a great band he had. I didn’t get his approach at first, but I kept listening to the background music. Eventually, Miller himself got to me. His phrasing, timing and delivery are not about being sloppy or mumbling so much as they are laying back on the beat, intentionally playing with time, displacement, and rhythm. This approach also makes its way into his singing, which repeats phrases (or moves in new directions) at unexpected times. This is especially true on Circles, where repetition is stitched into everything.
 
This whole ambitious project is laid out in the opening track, a repetitive introspection that spends most of its time bouncing between two chords. The landscape is clear: it’s just a subtle atmosphere for Miller to riff over, mostly bass and a few resonant notes from a vibraphone. In this understated space, with no drums at all, Miller feels at the top of his game, wise and reflective. The first line is right away brutal: “Well/This is what it look like/right before you fall.” The last line on Circles (“Once a day, I try, but I can’t find a single word”) is similarly affective because that word he’s looking for gets cut off–the album stops suddenly, totally unresolved, leaving the listener missing something. And yet, if you’ve got it set on a loop, the break perfectly sets up the beginning of the album. Before you’ve noticed, you’re listening again.
 
 
 

BRIEF UPDATE AND TUESDAY TUNES

  1. I wrote about postmodernism, neoliberalism, and jazz in a recent review for BLARB. You can read it here.
  2. I really enjoyed working on that review, and have decided to keep up doing them on this blog. I’ll post short reviews here periodically, starting next Tuesday.1
  3. This spring, I’ll be presenting early research on feminist indie rock at three talks: Pop Culture Association (Philly), IASPM-US (Ann Arbor), and the Penny Lecture Series at Miami. The latter is taking place March 2, from 6-8 in 001 Upham Hall.

1 I have stolen the phrase “Tuesday Tunes” from Hannah Segrave.

FOUR PROPOSITIONS RE: FEMINIST ALT-ROCK

I am starting to do some work around feminism in indie-rock. This spring I’ll be road-testing some ideas, primarily through conference presentations on the music of The Ophelias. I’m sure I’ll write more about this band here at a later point, but I also want to think through where I see a band like The Ophelias fitting in a broader popular music context. To this point, my thinking on that context looks like this:

  1. In the earliest days of grunge, women were centrally involved in the genre both musically and politically. This is partially due to how grunge overlapped or was entwined with other genres (post-punk and post-rock, specifically, and later, what would become the riot grrrl movement).
  2. Popular music discourses (as they played out in mainstream institutions such as Rolling Stone, Billboard, etc) were unable/unwilling to deal with this complexity, and as a result bifurcated what was happening in rock, giving us two apparently mutually-exclusive categories (Strong 2011): grunge (written about and understood as a masculine genre space) and ‘riot grrrl’ (written about and understood as basically any women playing any type of rock music). 
  3. From there, “rockism” continues to stand for rock writ-large, and remains popular music (arguably) until recently, when its hegemony at the top of the charts has been replaced by pop and hip-hop influenced music. Meanwhile, the riot grrrl movement was quickly appropriated (Spiers 2015; Schilt 2003), leading to the corporate, neoliberal version of (post)feminism that we are familiar with today.

    In my head, the process can be represented as I have drawn below, where the black text represents an actually-existing complexity, and the colored texts (maroon, purple, pink) represent media framings that became reified. The most controversial point might be the blending of the purple line into the pink, or the idea that riot grrrl ‘gave way’ to neoliberal postfeminist music. The reason that I have represented the relationship in this way is only because of widely-known statements from Tobi Vail and others, attesting to the fact that their message had become perverted and commodified; that is to say, there seems to be awareness within the riot grrrl community itself that this shift had in fact taken place, even as the movement or elements of it continued to exist outside of mainstream appropriations.

  1. Most scholarship on women in 90s alternative rock has focused on the riot grrrl movement because of its explicitly feminist aesthetic and political project. But overlooked in this framing are the women playing rock who did not recognizably fall into the riot grrrl camp, whether considered from the media’s perspective, or from the way that these bands sounded. Riot grrrl bands were explicit about their politics, and more often than not, sounded their politics through an aggressive co-option of overtly masculine, punk-derived sounds. But women were active in other forms of rock all along, rock that was neither explicitly political, nor which sounded like riot grrrl rock. Whether post-rock, grunge, or otherwise, I am interested in thinking about women’s roles in these other alternative rock spaces, or put another way, in that other sound. I am also interested in tracking how that sound has continued, evolved, and influenced a current flourishing in women-centered rock bands (Wye Oak, Snail Mail, Land of Talk, The Ophelias, Girlpool, and others). In a pop-music world in which rockism has all-but collapsed, this flourishing that has existed outside of mainstream media attention has risen to the surface. That is: the sound of independent, local rock bands with women at the center is now the sound of rock period. And it warrants further study.

Sources

Gill, Rosalind. 2007. “Postfeminist media culture: elements of a sensibility”. European journal of cultural studies, vol. 10, no. 2: 147-166.


Kristen, Schilt. 2003. “’A Little Too Ironic’: The Appropriation and Packaging of Riot Grrrl Politics by Mainstream Female Musicians”. Popular Music and Society, Vol. 26, No. 1: 5-16.

Spiers, Emily. 2015. “‘Killing Ourselves is not Subversive’: Riot Grrrl from Zine to Screen and the Commodification of Female Transgression”. Women: A Cultural Review, vol. 26, no. 1-2: 1-21.

Strong, Catherine. 2011. “Grunge, Riot Grrrl and the Forgetting of Women in Popular Culture”. The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 44, No. 2: 398-416.

A VERY PRELIMINARY IDEA

I am curious to know when and how extended chords1 appear in rock music, specifically from the 90s onward. Chord extensions are certainly not unheard-of in rock, but nor are they standard or even common, depending on what sub-genre we’re talking about.2 And that’s the curiosity that I have: when, where, and why do extended harmonies appear? Are there common uses or chords (I△7 for example) and uncommon ones (ii-9)? Do they perform a specific type of affective work when they do appear? In other words, are extended harmonies summoned for particular purposes? And if we tracked these purposes and compared them to one another, would a picture emerge regarding how extended harmonies function in rock music? Of course, when I say “function”, I mean: culturally, affectively, semiotically, emotionally–that is, how they function in our social world, not how they function from the perspective of tonal harmony.

What would I find if I followed extended chords around, noting where they appear in the space of this genre? If what we know from popular music studies is that sounds carry both affective (pre-conscious) and semiotic force, this means that certain chord qualities (both functional qualities such as dominant or minor as well as expressive qualities like timbre) accrue social meanings, values, connotations, and functions within the space of a given genre (and its associated meanings, and so on outward). My question is: does the intrusion of an extended chord introduce a new element into a genre space in which such sounds are still the exception rather than the rule? Put another way: we are used to thinking about musical genres as a set of (musical/social/stylistic/philosophical/aesthetic/political) conventions, which are both expressed and partially constituted through sound. From a certain perspective, extended chord qualities can be understood as “unusual” for the genre of rock. And if that’s the case, do they constitute a kind of rupture or momentary irruption when we hear them in the context of rock? For me, the idea of some songs purposefully introducing an external element into their own genre space is a compelling possibility.
1. Because of rock’s firm grounding in the power-chord, I consider “extensions” here to include the 7th.

2. Obviously, the dominant 7th chord is the major exception, given rock’s ties with the blues. But that’s the exception that proves the rule: are we as accustomed to hearing any other extended chord quality in this genre?

MUSIC AND TIME, OR: THE INESCAPABLE PRESENT (?)

In case you missed it, my essay on the popular music of the great recession was published on Sounding Out! a couple of weeks ago. I’m really happy with how it turned out, and really grateful for everyone who’s taken some time to read it.

As you may be able to tell from that piece, I’ve been thinking a lot about questions of temporality lately. In the above essay, I was trying to talk about a temporality that is created by “post-crash party pop”. This temporality, in short, mandates a presentist timespace that is both celabaratory and nihilistic, because the threats to our future are experienced intensely through the everyday process of living–living through climate crises, living through economic recession, living through austerity politics, and so on…Whether through foregrounding limited time (as in “it’s all about tonight”) or in extending the “now” forever (as in “the party never stops”), the compulsory presentistm of PCPP is a survival strategy, an impossible project that opts for a pleasurable oblivion over one beyond our control.

But at the end of that essay, I also gestured towards a different type of temporality, a different kind of presentism, actually, which is the one I’d like to pick up thinking about here. It is not an original argument, but one famously theorized by Frederic Jameson and elaborated by Mark Fisher. It is the kind of presentism that occurs when our culture is no longer capable of situating itself in an historical lineage, the kind of presentism that emerges as the result of an incapacity of the attention-span. In a postmodern culture, defined by the surface image that today scrolls ceaselessly by in our various “feeds”, we become addicted to the next micro-stimulus, and the next, in a forever-succession that prevents us from grasping a deeper level of reality undergirding such images. Jameson even argues that the function of the news media–insofar as it is invested in the next story, the next scoop, the current speculation–is to help us forget the events that up until just a moment ago occupied our attention.

In a presentism such as this, and for various interconnected reasons having to do with, above all, the stage of “late capitalism” inaugurated by the 1980s, pastiche becomes the ultimate mode of cultural production. In this mode, tropes, genres, forms, ideas, images, and sounds all appear as interchangeable or “fungible” because they are no longer wedded to a material reality. In this sense, Jameson’s formulation has something to do with Baudrillard’s simulacra: when images, copied from copies we can no longer trace, become autonomous, they become more real (hyperreal) than any notion of an original could ever be.

As Fisher puts it:

On the one hand, this is a culture that privileges only the present and the immediate – the extirpation of the long term extends backwards as well as forwards in time (for example, media stories monopolize attention for a week or so then are instantly forgotten); on the other hand, it is a culture that is excessively nostalgic, given over to retrospection, incapable of generating any authentic novelty. It may be that Jameson’s identification and analysis of this temporal antimony is his most important contribution to our understanding of postmodern/post-Fordist culture (Fisher 2009, 59).

Such an “antimony” seems to be more relevant today than it has ever been, given our news culture’s inability to move beyond surface appearance (the appearance of “both sides” objectivity, the “optics” of a given press conference) and our utter failure to keep all but the most insane stories in our consciousness for more than a day or two at a time. At the same time, if I read Jameson correctly, this temporality is not a universal condition, but a kind of hegemonic formation, a cultural outgrowth of late capitalism. As such, other experiences of temporality are not prohibited from existing, but rather struggle against the hegemonic postmodern mode, waxing and waning, or thriving in certain capacities while being eclipsed in others. Where music is concerned, for example, it seems to me that the tradition of Great Black Music is predicated on a deep and radical understanding of history, even as it samples, references, signifies, and assembles materials that could be understood as postmodern pastiche were we to forget about the cultural specificity of their deployment. Or else: even assuming a cultural landscape where sonic signifiers of previous eras are merely fodder for practices of postmodern pastiche, it is still not the case that musicians reference the past for the same reasons, in the same ways, or with the same affective consequences. Cornel West and bell hooks have both written about this, and that’s my next stop.


Sources

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. 0 Books, 2009.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

ONTOLOGY AND MUSIC

Ever since I first read it in the spring of last year, I have returned time and again to Marie Thompson’s brilliant essay, “Whiteness and the Ontological Turn in Sound Studies” (2017), not only because it lays out an incisive argument against a certain strain of thinking in sound studies, but also because of its implicit critique of the notion of “ontology” itself. In this article, Thompson considers recent turns towards questions of ontology in sound studies, arguing that they disturbingly reproduce ontology as a colonialist, invisibly white ground. I find this argument both faultless and compelling. At the same time, it (along with similar arguments, discussed below) forces me to re-evaluate my own understanding and use of “the ontological.”

By way of beginning, Thompson raises recent turns to questions of ontology across multiple disciplines, and the ways in which their “turns” are justified through a dismissal of scholarship seen to focus too heavily on questions of “the social.” Ontology, new materialism, or the focus on (for example, in sound studies) the “sound itself” is seen on this view to offer new and exciting lines of inquiry that move beyond current scholarship’s apparent fixation with questions of sociality, of meaning-making and power within discourse.

However, as Thompson notes, the ontological has historically been a fraught space for many post-colonial thinkers, precisely because of its incapacity to deal with questions of difference. She writes,

Sylvia Wynter, for example, has shown how secular ontological accounts of the human emerge with colonial conquest; and how being, subsequently, is equated with the overrepresented ethnoclass of western, bourgeois man, resulting in the obfuscation of other modes and possibilities of being (Thompson 2017, 267).

Fanon and Fred Moten are also cited as thinkers who note and extend the colonial nature of ontological projects.

For Fanon, the colonial history of race and of racialization inhibits blackness from inclusion in the white-defined realm of being. Instead, blackness and its subjects are banished to a field of non-being.The ontological, meanwhile is naturalized as universal ground, obscuring the realm of non-being upon which it is predicated. Thus where the ontological has come to signify ‘a realm of apparent liberation from the miasmas of the social world’ in much realist and new materialist thought’, Fanon regards ontology itself as ‘a mystifying form of appearance that posits itself as outside of social inscriptions of race, when in fact this very positing is integral to the dialectics of racialization itself’ (268).

Thinking in this vein, Thompson goes on to outline how recent (re)turns to ontology in speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, and new materialism obscure not only the ontological/material aspects of the “cultural” or social work against which new materialisms position themselves1, but also any consideration of the social questions involved in ontology. Thus, “The erasures of these bodies of work in the ontological turn’s origin myths have led Métis scholar Zoe Todd to assert that ‘ontology is just another word for colonialism’” (268).

Thompson then focuses on the work of Christoph Cox, who argues for a kind of new materialism in sound studies. In his work, sound art (as opposed to music) is a privileged site for thinking the ontology of sound, or for helping us to uncover the “nature of sound” in order to “think sonically.” Thus, in sound, the ontological turn described above goes like this:

Where music is thought to obscure material being of sound by virtue of its cultural, representational and meaningful content, experimental music and sound art is understood to interrogate the affective, non-representational and non-discursive dimensions of the sonic. As a result, ‘materialist’ sound art has been credited with exposing the ontological specificities of sound-itself (270).

In other words, if music represents the social, sound “itself” represents the ontological, before it becomes attached to/decoded for its connotative meanings, its affects, its cultures. And it is this type of rarefied sound that, for Cox, is dealt with in sound art practices. However, Thompson argues that this position is not actually made possible through an analysis of sound that is situated somehow “outside” of culture;

Rather, as Cox himself makes clear, it is indebted to a particular European philosophical lineage (Leibniz, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Deleuze), coupled with a Eurological and patrilineal ‘dotted line’ of sonic experimentation that stems from the ‘greatest forefather’ [sic] of sound art, John Cage (271).

In other words, the reasons that Cox turns to sound art for his ontological arguments are not because sound art in fact embodies the ontology of sound in a way that music does not; rather, Cox approaches this history precisely because it strongly inherits a specific posture towards thinking sound, a posture that emerges from a specific history that is ties to (most notably, among others) John Cage.

But this link betrays its own premise, for as any Cage scholar knows, his views on sound and music never managed to escape their Eurological 2 lineage, as evinced by his attachment to an albeit revised “work concept” and by his often-unacknowledged racial politics.3 In order to trace and identify this lineage, Thompson builds on Nikki Sullivan’s notion of “white optics”, formulating a corollary concept called “white aurality”, a concept that gives name to this particular Euroligical framework as it manifests in sound.

Drawing upon Sullivan’s notion of white optics, white aurality can be understood as not just relying upon but actively producing a series of bifurcations in its ‘hearing-with’: it amplifies the materiality of ‘sound itself’ while muffling its sociality; it amplifies Eurological sound art and, in the process, muffles other sonic practices; it amplifies dualisms of nature/culture, matter/ meaning, real/representation sound art/music and muffles boundary work; all the while invizibilizing its own constitutive presence in hearing the ontological conditions of sound-itself. White aurality is not an ahistorical, unchanging perceptual schema, insofar as whiteness and aurality are both material-discursive composites that shape and are shaped by one another and in relation to a particular environment, but nor is it simply the product of individual bias. Rather, recalling Sullivan’s description of perception as shared and occupied rather than possessed, white aurality can be understood as co-constitutive with, amongst other things, Eurological histories, practices, ontologies, epistemologies and technologies of sound, music and audition (274).

Thompson then concludes (well, I’m skipping a lot in there) by arguing that sonic ontologies (among others) need not be abandoned, but should rather be situated such that they acknowledge their positionality vis-a-vis other ontologies. “Situating rather than simply dismissing sonic ontologies enables us to ask how ‘the nature of the sonic’ is determined – what grounds the sonic ground – while remaining open to how it might be heard otherwise” (278).

This position seems to me, as I said upfront, both compelling and inarguable. But if that is true, it is true because it revises my understanding of “the ontological” itself. In other words, one cannot socially position an ontological perspective in conversation with other perspectives if that ontology is worthy of its name; in order to do so, ontology itself would have to be revised into a concept that is fundamentally and inextricably social. Indeed, that seems to me to be the presumption behind Thompson’s arguments. It is also a position argued by Brian Kane in his essay, “The Fluctuating Sound Object” (2019).

At a certain point, I find myself weary of the promotion of this or that ontological position about sound. Most ontological claims are less arguments than assertions or commitments. They often smack of circularity, where this or that ontology is adopted to promote foregone conclusions. The reason this occurs–to promote my own blunt assertion–is that ontology is secondary, not primary. In contrast to the classical tradition, I do not believe that ontology describes the way the world IS. Rather, ontologies emerge by acpturing the ways that agents and actors understand, totalize, substantialize, and engage with the shared historical, geographic, cultural, scientific, and political situations in which they find themselves. But that does not make ontology irreevant. Rather, if ontology is secondary, then ontological “arguments”can be extraordinarily revealing…such assertions make legible the epistemic and axiological views of those who do the positioning.

This amounts to an argument about what the word “ontology” will identify, refer to, or signal in the future, a kind of intervention aimed at revising or revealing the term’s usage. I think that it is an argument worth having, but one which might be just beginning, at least in sound and music studies. One of the reasons that I keep returning to Thompson’s article is that I find myself needing to think about this question, given my work argues for a certain ontology of improvisation. But I’ll return to that topic later, as this post is long enough already.


1. For more on this point, see Ahmed 2008.

2. “Eurological” is George E. Lewis’ term for a kind of “musical belief system” that emerges from European musical practices, and which is ideologically, discursively, and materially constructed. For more see Lewis 2004.

3. For more see Piekut 2012 among others.

Sources

Ahmed, Sara. 2008. “Open Forum Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the `New Materialism'”. European Journal of Women’s Studies vol. 15, no. 1: 23-39.

Kane, Brian. 2019. “The Fluctuating Sound Object”. In Sound Objects, edited by James. A Steintrager and Rey Chow, 53-72. Durham: Duke University Press.

Piekut, Benjamin. 2012. “Sound’s Modest Witness: Notes on Cage and Modernism”. Contemporary Music Review vol. 31, no. 1 (February): 3-18.

Lewis, George E. 2004. “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives”. In The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue, edited by Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble, 131-162. Wesleyan: Wesleyan University Press.

Thompson, Marie. 2018. “Whiteness and the Ontological Turn in Sound Studies”. Parallax, vol. 23, no. 3: 266-282.


WESTERN MUSIC SURVEY(?)

I’m working on a syllabus for a western music survey course, the course that music historians are still overwhelmingly expected to teach in music and musicology departments across the nation. The problem I’m having is the same problem that any self-critical music scholar has when faced with the assignment: the conflict between university expectations (to cover the cannon) and, on the other hand, the discipline’s increasing acknowledgement of the problematic nature of said cannon.

Even places like Harvard are now at least paying lip-service to decolonizing their approaches to music education. There are serious and legitimate questions being raised about how to do so, whether they are doing so beyond overtures to the corporate university’s “diversity and inclusion” language, and whether or not it is even possible to decolonize a discipline that is housed within the university system. These are larger questions that the field is and has been grappling with, questions well studied by many of the articles in, for one example, this recent issue of Current Musicology. What is true in any case is, at this moment in time, the existence of a tension between the university’s expectations and our desires to be better educators.

Every teacher has to come at this problem in their own ways, hopefully with the help of a like-minded community. At the moment, the way that I’m synthesizing this problem for myself, given my areas of research, is through toying with the idea of blending a western art music survey with an American popular music survey. They would both be less comprehensive than either standing alone; but at the same time, by placing two different musical discourses/traditions next to each other, I wonder if places of resonance and dissonance would emerge in a more forceful and useful way. (Hi, comparative studies.) That idea, of course, depends on an understanding of music as a cultural/discursive product as much as a creative one.

I am genuinely unsure if this is a good idea. But one reason that I think the experiment is worth thinking about is this: I do believe that using popular music gives more students access to music studies by taking advantage of literacies that they already (might) possess. So at the very least, I’m going to finish the syllabus. This is my introduction so far:

As the editor of Current Musicology put it in his introduction to the spring 2018 issue, “The academic study of music and sound is facing an array of political and intellectual challenges, prompting a pointed moment of critical self-reflection, what Stuart Hall might call a break—a conjuncture in which ‘old lines of thought are disrupted, older constellations displaced, and elements, old and new, are regrouped around a different set of premises and themes.’” This course approaches said conjuncture by positioning American popular music as dialectically interlinked with European art music, both as a provocation and as an opportunity: not only does this course propose a relation between the two traditions, but it also argues that studying each at the same time will enhance our understanding of both. Through comparative analysis, this course brings into greater relief the cultural, formal, and historical elements that are critical to understanding both musical traditions and our own sense of identity. Fundamentally, it approaches music as not only a creative practice, but one that is always situated in specific socio-historical cultures.

TWO TERMS

No, not those kind.

These are two concepts I’m working on at the moment. They should appear in a short piece soon.

Compulsory Presentism: any condition whereby the past and future are prohibited from being ‘officially’ recognized by the rules of the discourse in question; the totalizing over-prioritization of the present, whether by the explicit installation of rules or by the inability to meaningfully cognize any temporality beyond an ever-renewing now.

Post-Crash Party Pop (PCPP): a strain of popular music (ca. 2008-2012) that responds to the 2008 financial collapse and the broader context of climate devastation by instituting a compulsory presentism that is characterized as a frenetic, extreme, nihilistic celebration, a never-ending party that is in fact the last party (before the end of the world). E.g. “Til the World Ends”