Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Violence and Music

Alex Ross has a new article up for the July 4 issue of the New Yorker, which has this stunningly absurd cover:

Which reminds me of this one from 1976:

Except that the second one was meant to be a joke. I think. Ironically, John Cleese, the most famous of the Monty Python silly walkers, was very much in favor of Brexit.

But on to the Alex Ross piece. The New Yorker, never hesitant to tell us when we don't quite live up to their standards, seems to have changed the headline from "The Sound of Hate" (which still appears as the title on the browser tab) to the more neutral "When Music is Violence."

Alex Ross is a fine writer and a good critic with just one fateful flaw: he is a faithful foot soldier in the Gramscian March Through the Institutions, meaning that he always has to take the official Party position on issues. Of course, if he were a dissident he would not have the job he has. One aspect of the ideology is that civilization in all its manifestations always contains terrible flaws that oppress the innocent and this, rather than the benefits, must always be the focus. Let's see how that plays out in this article:
When music is applied to warlike ends, we tend to believe that it has been turned against its innocent nature. To quote the standard platitudes, it has charms to soothe a savage breast; it is the food of love; it brings us together and sets us free. We resist evidence suggesting that music can cloud reason, stir rage, cause pain, even kill. Footnoted treatises on the dark side of music are unlikely to sell as well as the cheery pop-science books that tout music’s ability to make us smarter, happier, and more productive. Yet they probably bring us closer to the true function of music in the evolution of human civilization.
Yep, there it is in a nutshell. He adroitly opposes "standard platitudes" against the Marxist critique. I believe this is the Straw Man argument so beloved of so many public commentators? Well, yes, it does make one's job rather easier. But the worst is yet to come. It turns out that, for Alex' purposes, music can be equated with the sounds of war itself:
Daughtry underscores something crucial about the nature of sound and, by extension, of music: we listen not only with our ears but also with our body. We flinch against loud sounds before the conscious brain begins to try to understand them. It is therefore a mistake to place “music” and “violence” in separate categories; as Daugh­try writes, sound itself can be a form of violence. Detonating shells set off supersonic blast waves that slow down and become sound waves; such waves have been linked to traumatic brain injury, once known as shell shock. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are often triggered by sonic signals; New York residents experienced this after September 11th, when a popped tire would make everyone jump.
But Alex Ross is certainly no hack and alongside The Narrative, he does cover some basic truths as well:
Humans react with particular revulsion to musical signals that are not of their choice or to their liking. Many neuroscientific theories about how music acts on the brain—such as Steven Pinker’s notion that music is “auditory cheesecake,” a biologically useless pleasure—ignore how personal tastes affect our processing of musical information. A genre that enrages one person may have a placebo effect on another. A 2006 study by the psychologist Laura Mitchell, testing how music-therapy sessions can alleviate pain, found that a suffering person was better served by his or her “preferred music” than by a piece that was assumed to have innately calming qualities. In other words, music therapy for a heavy-metal fan should involve heavy metal, not Enya.
Having to stick to a strict ideological position means that Alex Ross can only select as examples of musical torture acts by the USA and its allies:
Jane Mayer, a staff writer at this maga­zine, and other journalists have shown that the idea of punishing someone with music also emerged from Cold War-era research into the concept of “no-touch torture”—leaving no marks on victims’ bodies. Researchers of the period demonstrated that sensory deprivation and manipulation, including extended bouts of noise, could bring about the disintegration of a subject’s personality. Beginning in the nineteen-fifties, programs that trained American soldiers and intelligence operatives to withstand torture had a musical component; at one point, the playlist reportedly included the industrial band Throbbing Gristle and the avant-garde vocalist Diamanda Galás. The concept spread to military and police units in other countries, where it was applied not to trainees but to prisoners. In Israel, Palestinian detainees were tied to kindergarten chairs, cuffed, hooded, and immersed in modernist classical music. In Pinochet’s Chile, interrogators employed, among other selections, the soundtrack to “A Clockwork Orange,” whose notorious aversion-therapy sequence, scored to Beethoven, may have encouraged similar real-life experiments.
The fact that the true masters of torture during the Cold War were the Vietnamese, the Russians and the North Koreans is passed over entirely. The masters of the disintegration of a subject's personality were the Communists, who invented "brain-washing".

I am not in any way advocating the use of music to torture, by the way. It seems both absurd and ineffective. I wonder though if its use weren't a clumsy attempt to forestall criticism? After all, strapping someone to a steel grid and torturing them with electricity (an ever-popular scene in Rambo movies) seems rather in a different class of cruelty than forcing them to listen to Christina Aguilera.

Here is a criticism that certainly seems well-founded:
Pop music in the American tradition is now held to be the all-encompassing, world-redeeming force. Many consumers prefer to see only the positive side of pop: they cherish it as a culturally and spiritually liberating influence, somehow free of the rapacity of capitalism even as it overwhelms the marketplace.
Alex Ross concludes that:
What to do with these dire ruminations? Renouncing music is not an option—not even Quignard can bring himself to do that. Rather, we can renounce the fiction of music’s innocence. To discard that illusion is not to diminish music’s importance; rather, it lets us register the uncanny power of the medium. To admit that music can become an instrument of evil is to take it seriously as a form of hu­man expression.
 There is a very clever technique being used here that I call the "argument from hidden agency". Can you see what it is? He talks about the "fiction of music's innocence" which seems very wise and progressive. But the basic moral error is that music in itself has no moral agency. Music can no more be innocent or guilty than can a sunset or a chair or electricity. Only persons with the capacity for moral judgement have moral agency. A person can be innocent or guilty, not music. The use of the Rosamunde march in Nazi concentration camps does not condemn the march as guilty, but only the persons who used it for a vile purpose. Marxist cultural theory makes a specialty of hiding the real moral agents and this paragraph is an excellent example. Of course music can be used for evil purposes, but the agency does not belong to the music, but to the persons who use it. Just as another person can use the same music for a good and useful purpose.

Marxist cultural theory, in its need to smear all the accumulated fruits of civilization so that it can blame the establishment for oppressing the people, has to avoid the real moral question. Instead, moral clarity is replaced with confusion, which is why the writing is so often tortured.

Let's listen to some music. How guilty is this music, the Symphony no. 29 in A major of Mozart performed by The English Concert conducted by Trevor Pinnock:


Andrew R said...

I disagree with your assessment. While there may be much to critique, I don't think your hidden agency applies in that way here. I read him as disagreeing with the idea that music has independent moral agency, precisely as you are. "Music", he seems to say, is not an embodied force of good or positivity. Instead, he appears to emphasize its instrumental nature as a "medium", or a "tool". To me, that very much reinforces the same idea that it is not music which is a directed force, but it is the use to which it is put by composers, performers, advocates, etc, that matters.

The long section about sound as a weapon--the use in torture etc--was a method to reinforce the fact it is an instrument and not an embodied force for good (or bad), but a tool, used in one of those ways by moral agents.

Bryan Townsend said...

Andrew, thanks for your comment and welcome to the Music Salon. You may be right, but I don't see Ross as saying that in the present text. He does say, "To admit that music can become an instrument of evil is to take it seriously as a form of hu­man expression" which offers some support to your interpretation. But this is that odd, convoluted kind of arguing against a Straw Man. No-one to my knowledge was saying that music cannot be used as an instrument of evil. Nor was anyone saying that it should not be taken seriously as a form of human expression. So who is he arguing with?

Marc Puckett said...

"Despite the cultural catastrophe of Nazi Germany, the Romantic idealization of music persists"-- ha. I get the impression that Mr Ross wants me to go through a checklist each time I enter a concert venue, recognising all my various privileges, noting my awareness of this evil possible and that evil done, and that, and that other. Pft. I knew that name Quignard seemed familiar; 'one astonishing sequence', Ross says, in his book ends in St Peter soundproofing each of his homes... am going to constrain myself to shaking my head. The Gramscian march, indeed (whether or no Ross himself may be at least vaguely aware of his servitude to it). Houellebecq's Soumission describes perfectly those sorts of quasi-humanist and pseudo-intellectual cadres in its bathetic protagonist François.

I have just discovered Ignaz Moscheles's La Marche d'Alexandre, op 32, with its variations, speaking of marching. Indeed, had never heard of him before Monday, although I must have seen his name because he figures in the biographies of both Beethoven and Mendelssohn, evidently.

Bryan Townsend said...

Very nicely put! Thanks, Marc.

Yes, Moscheles, one of a number of Jewish musicians, was in Vienna during Beethoven's lifetime. He is perhaps better known as a piano virtuoso than a composer.

Must read Houellebecq sometime.

Marc Puckett said...

Having run out of amusing bits about poor Mr Corbyn-- it's slow at work and I'm taking a break from OBF today-- I went to the Guardian's classical/opera section where the headline "My music can be quite heavy, some people faint" caught my eye, now that I'm sensitised by Mr Ross's lesson on musical violence. "Why I want to manipulate people is not important. What is important is that my manipulation works." You can't say fairer than that, can you? [https://goo.gl/ykhujW]

Bryan Townsend said...

Listening to Nils Fram playing the piano with his toilet brush, It rather reminds me of Moscheles with a frontal lobotomy.

Andrew R said...

I very well could be being overly generous to his argument, but he was arguing with a trite, popular misconception about music. He may not be arguing as much with any in-depth aesthetics, but more with a mass view. As quoted from the end of the introduction:

"To quote the standard platitudes, it has charms to soothe a savage breast; it is the food of love; it brings us together and sets us free. We resist evidence suggesting that music can cloud reason, stir rage, cause pain, even kill. Footnoted treatises on the dark side of music are unlikely to sell as well as the cheery pop-science books that tout music’s ability to make us smarter, happier, and more productive."

He loosely ties it to the certain Romantic thinkers as emphasizing this significance, vs earlier Greeks etc:

"German thinkers in the idealist and Romantic tradition—Hegel, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Schopenhauer, among others—sparked a drastic revaluation of music’s significance. It became the doorway to the infinitude of the soul, and expressed humanity’s collective longing for freedom and brotherhood." (I think you could more appropriately combine this with the self-importance of Romantic artists' conceptions of their own projects).

I think people like you and your readers already take the power of music seriously, and so find the point obvious or unnecessary to state. It did not seem like heavy handed Marxism to me, nor about any sort of privilege-checking, but merely to actually take the medium, with its use and intentions, seriously in a popular conception that ignores it beyond a nicety.

Bryan Townsend said...

Andrew, thank you very much for this perspective. You could be quite right and it is certainly a good thing to read Alex Ross' essay with a sympathetic ear.