This set of texts comprises an attempt to analyze some of the difficulties that living composers face under today’s global economy. The author introduces a number of interrelated, speculative thoughts on the nature of aesthetics in order to push the reader to challenge common, reified views of music as nothing more but a tool to perpetuate reactionary means of social reproduction. Ultimately, a metaphor ('watermelons hitting a wall') is used in order to suggest that New Music can exist as a projection of future, unknown material realities.
Watermelons (Or The Limits of Capitalist Materiality)
Let us open this essay with two separate texts. On the left, a brief, original metaphor in the form of a short story. On the right, an excerpt from Peter Kropotkin’s definition of ‘anarchism,’ published in the 1910 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica [emphasis added]:
Picture a thick wall made of concrete. This wall is also very tall; let us assume it is one hundred meters tall. Let us also assume that the wall has infinite length. This wall separates two realms and there is no way for us to travel directly to the other side. Our realm contains a gunpowder cannon, facing the wall, at a distance of approximately ten meters from the base of the wall. This cannon uses watermelons as projectiles. Let us now assume that the cannon shoots a series of watermelons, one after the other, to the top of the wall. Due to the nature of the cannon, plus its location in relation to the base of the wall, it is physically impossible for the projectile watermelons to travel to the unknown realm that lies on the other side of the wall. All that the naked eye can see is that every single watermelon that hits the wall at such a high speed is pulverized instantly. However, with a bit of luck, depending on weather conditions such as wind direction and speed, a few particles from the crushed watermelons may end up flying, in a rather chaotic fashion, to the other side of the wall…
ANARCHISM (from the Gr. ἄυ, and άρ𝛘η, contrary to authority), the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government — harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being. In a society developed on these lines, the voluntary associations which already now begin to cover all the fields of human activity would take a still greater extension so as to substitute themselves for the state in all its functions. They would represent an interwoven network, composed of an infinite variety of groups and federations of all sizes and degrees, local, regional, national and international temporary or more or less permanent — for all possible purposes: production, consumption and exchange, communications, sanitary arrangements, education, mutual protection, defence of the territory, and so on; and, on the other side, for the satisfaction of an ever-increasing number of scientific, artistic, literary and sociable needs.
Moreover, such a society would represent nothing immutable. On the contrary — as is seen in organic life at large — harmony would (it is contended) result from an ever-changing adjustment and readjustment of equilibrium between the multitudes of forces and influences, and this adjustment would be the easier to obtain as none of the forces would enjoy a special protection from the state.
If, it is contended, society were organized on these principles, man would not be limited in the free exercise of his powers in productive work by a capitalist monopoly, maintained by the state; nor would he be limited in the exercise of his will by a fear of punishment, or by obedience towards individuals or metaphysical entities, which both lead to depression of initiative and servility of mind. He would be guided in his actions by his own understanding, which necessarily would bear the impression of a free action and reaction between his own self and the ethical conceptions of his surroundings. Man would thus be enabled to obtain the full development of all his faculties, intellectual, artistic and moral, without being hampered by overwork for the monopolists, or by the servility and inertia of mind of the great number. He would thus be able to reach full individualization, which is not possible either under the present system of individualism, or under any system of state socialism in the so-called Volkstaat (popular state).
The impulse to create art today stems from the problem of materiality, or, to be more specific, from the urge to surpass the limits of capitalist materiality. The project to transcend prevailing forms of materiality is the ultimate political endeavor, to the extent that in the most apparent contradiction, the project’s overwhelming ambition requires the pursuit of a field different from that of politics: aesthetics. Here, aesthetics substitutes politics. Through this lens, aesthetics becomes an interstitial field; it is neither from this world nor from that which may exist beyond known materiality; it is both a product of existing material conditions and a token of pure possibility. [i]
However, aesthetics, even in its most critical and advanced stages, remains a largely unproductive terrain for actual material change. It repeatedly fails to channel the entirety of the material sphere into the infinite realm of pure possibility. Projecting—visualizing, imagining—a given (original) structure of the universe different from that which is more apparent does not lead to the establishment of such a structure, let alone the collective experience of that structure. To put it in more concrete terms, writing a science-fiction novel about the end of capitalism does not end capitalism. To end capitalism and the forms of oppression it perpetuates, political organization is required.
Aesthetics is nothing but a pointer.
Tangents of Pure Possibility
What is pure possibility? In our present context, it represents an image of the totality of existence: all events and combinations thereof; past, present, future; material and beyond; necessarily undefinable at this moment in time. Pure possibility is alluded to by a number of philosophers. It is targeted by Aristotile’s entelekheia. For Schopenhauer, it is reached through the abnegation of the will. For Hegel, it is foreshadowed by the dialectical struggle. Heidegger’s notion of aletheia (‘un-concealing’), understood as a condition of great art, fosters the discovery of new worlds, a phenomenon which somewhat parallels Badiou’s événement (‘event’) as a trigger of unforeseen logics. Even Adorno’s mammoth attempt at a Nichtidentität (‘non-identity’), with its hostility to the positivism of dialectics that stems from the Hegelian tradition, cannot manage to eradicate the projective nature of human thought. In short, the desire for pure possibility appears to be an inescapable constant.
The distinction between politics and aesthetics can be developed further by virtue of a historical example:
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known as “Lenin” (Russia, 1870-1924). Political theorist and leader of the Bolsheviks.
Arseny Mikhailovich Avraamov (Russia, 1886-1944). Experimentalist composer and music theorist.
Lenin handled a field of complexity (politics) that ranged from the most visceral impulses of individual human beings to the particularities of early 20th-century political economy in the international theater. Avraamov managed a more surgical, decontextualized domain (aesthetics) wherein pure possibility was adumbrated by the formal properties of his music.
The resistance to change according to certain human wishes is self-evident whether it is to take place in politics or aesthetics. However, the number—and particular quality—of variables involved in politics is often far greater and more chaotic than in its counterpart. To use Tariq Ali’s term, the dilemmas of Lenin (e.g., the consolidation of the Cheka [ii] after counterrevolutionary activity in 1917, the implementation of the New Economic Policy [iii] in 1921…) stemmed from conditions antagonistic to the socialist revolution, or the capitalist resistance to major changes in the social relations of production and resource distribution in Russia. [iv] [v] Whether Lenin made the right decisions—‘was a secret police needed?’, ‘was it necessary to return to a market economy?’—is not very relevant to the present context. (Considerations along the lines of political strategy and ethics, while of utmost importance elsewhere, must be put aside here.) Instead, one may prefer to concentrate on the conflict of interest that inherently exists in class-based hierarchical nations, and the exceedingly problematic position of those who are pushed to make decisions which will inevitably have an impact on the collective lives of such stratified societies. Put simply, politics can lead to matters of life or death.
The creation of art tends to operate in far less risky terms. Avraamov’s use of ‘factory sirens, barge foghorns, soldiers’ footsteps, artillery fire, workers’ songs, steam whistles, and proletarian shouts’ (99% Invisible) in his Symphony of Sirens, which received its premiere in the city of Baku for the fifth anniversary of the Soviet Republic in 1922, might have been a shock to the ears of many, but in truth none of those sounds put an end to earlier ‘bourgeois music.’ The development of certain types of musical ideas can radically alter prevalent logics—e.g., Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method—but it will not completely stop musicians from using materials that belong to earlier aesthetic principles (Badiou, 2009). Actual attempts at eradicating certain cultural products is a political endeavor that necessitates the tools embedded in authoritarian forms of state power—it is not an aesthetic matter.
With that, what unites Lenin and Avraamov is their shared urge for a projective modus operandi capable of disrupting logics deemed to be insufficient. The ultimate goal of both projects, political and aesthetic, is quite similar: that is, the creation of a new ontological paradigm, shaped by tangential understandings of pure possibility, which in turn has its origins in the potentialities and limitations of prevailing material conditions.
Let us now address aesthetics in the field of New Music. [vi] A contradiction stems from the space between a specialized education in music and the goal of the composer committed to an art that challenges the structures that bring it to life; that is, an art as ‘protest against reality’ (Trotsky, 1938). In the context of this contradiction, the technical procedures that the bourgeoisification of specialized music education renders available to the composer who has—or manages to earn—the socioeconomic means of accessing this knowledge are repurposed so that they do not simply reiterate a reality deemed to be flawed. (It follows that if the material reality were ideal, there would not be any need for art or music whatsoever.)
During the process of making music, creative tools, which are learned within the structures of bourgeois education, are often used outside of the most immediate domain of the traditions from which they unfolded, in the hopes of ultimately triggering a pledge of a more meaningful existence than that offered by the current political economy. The ‘conscious composer,’ so to speak, is aware of that; the composer who is not also seeks this meaningful existence, but does not realize that it is the very nature of society-as-it-is-today which, through the alienation and precariousness it produces, feeds into their need to generate a music whose primary goal is to provide the conditions for escapism.
One could speculate that this music, through its internal materials as well as in the way it is presented to audiences, carries a certain aura whereby actual material change is generally nonviable. On the basis of this assumption, the politics of this type of artistic projects morphs into the realm of aesthetics. Here, aesthetics represents a space for (naïve) hope, where one longs for the possibility of material change through individualized experiences of the musical work. Aesthetics then becomes something that could be categorized as the failure of politics, or, if we are to take a less catastrophic position, ‘politics delayed.’
Again, aesthetics is nothing but a pointer.
Music made under social democratic (Boulez) or Keynesian regimes (Cage) can evolve into an art form which appears to have little room in the life of today’s precariat. After all, who is capable of engaging in seemingly obscure, complex aesthetic experiences after a long day searching for work in the so-called ‘gig economy’? Nevertheless, much of this music—i.e. the soundtrack of the productive economy—is a symbol of the impressive creative possibilities rendered available when basic human needs and relative stability are met, so that composers can primarily focus on the development of their work.
A discrepancy is born: on the one hand, the métier of the middle-class composer, through the benefits of bourgeois institutionality, can evolve into the aesthetic project of material transcendence; on the other hand, the acquisition of intellectual tools that would allow the majority of the working class to critically engage with and perhaps benefit from the work of the middle-class composer is jeopardized due to the increasing precariousness of material life, which sucks the imaginative potential out of workers and forces them to invest most of their energy in the struggle for better labor conditions. Additionally, the bourgeois class, increasingly committed to profit through market competition, is also unable to determine the use value in this musical genre, for the capitalist logic does not discriminate anyone when it comes to the fabrication of profit-oriented modes of consciousness. The wealthy, in this sense, are as mentally obtuse as the poor, themselves being targets of their own creation. Lack of imagination prevails and critical thinking is universally obliterated.
In the context of this society of abundance—though not of wealth redistribution—the composer develops the ability to create sophisticated music which, due to its very inquiring nature, becomes less relatable to many of those who inhabit highly commodified communities, accustomed to the phenomenological limits established by the culture industry. This raises fundamental challenges to the creative work of the composer, who ends up meandering in the awkward spectrum that goes from bourgeois apologetics to genuine attempts at making a ‘new’ music for the commons. In fact, the very societal development of the so-called New Music composer, either as a member of that layer of the working class that falls prey to the illusion of social mobility under capitalism, or as a bourgeois constituent part, leads her or him to shift their focus from the necessity to generate critical, collectives modes of consciousness to personal (individualized) forms of artistic self-care. No one should deny that art as self-care is certainly necessary in such an unhealthy social landscape; after all, living with no creative outlets at all is a suffocating experience, even for the numbest minds who only engage with neoliberal forms of cultural production.
An alternative, hopefully one that pays more attention to critical music, remains to be built. It is rare today to find composers or other types of creative musicians who are actively invested in the production and dissemination of transformative art, not only through their creative work, but also through critical pedagogy and political organization. Much of so-called ‘contemporary music’ still takes place either within bourgeois institutions or throughout the precariousness of underground venues largely populated by the woke children of middle and upper-middle class families. Those handfuls of collective initiatives that attempt to build the aforementioned alternative for the creation of New Music outside of the above dichotomy shall be celebrated!
From the perspective of revolutionary politics, New Music is one of many representatives of the potential embedded in human beings. A question thus crystallizes: Could we imagine what our species could envision had we the time and energy to fully develop our creative potential? From the opposite perspective—that of the cynical reactionary mindset, more common within the field than one would think—this music is nothing but useless elitism, a pitiful act of resistance against the tenets of commodified cultural production: easy, simple, predictable, and replaceable.
The project to transcend capitalist materiality through music hopes to bring about a break in the space-time continuum of commodified existence as a means to ultimately provide a peek into the realm of pure possibility. Unfortunately, much of this endeavor turns out to be ineffectual due to the equivocation that stems from the data embedded in and around the musical work, and the limitations of deficient intellectual frameworks not only unable to imaginatively engage with such unfamiliar data, but also to use that data in order to effectively expand one’s scope of possibility. This issue puts this music in an uncomfortable locus that exists in transition from this world to a future theoretically open to absolute contingency. This is a ‘proto-material’ music, in the sense that it points to a hypothetically prospective materiality—Marxists would probably think of it as ‘socialist materiality’—while simultaneously having emerged from capitalist material conditions.
ex abundanti cautela
Let us also address the question of technology in the project to surpass capitalist materiality through musical means. Technofetishism represents a constant in the development of some types of compositional priorities. It is not a new phenomenon, as it can be tracked back to the use of new or improved instruments [vii] for exhibitionistic reasons. Today, many composers use notation software. Others synthesize computer-generated sounds never heard before. The wide public use of relatively advanced technologies has even led a number of composers to make pieces based on their cultural ramifications, to the extent that some of these pieces could be defined as meta-commentaries on today’s compositional procedures in relation to technology.
It is undeniable that technological advancements provide composers with a growing number of resources. The palette of musical possibilities has been increasing for centuries. Today, some composers can apply the most groundbreaking developments in computer-assisted composition to their work, while others may deliberately restrict themselves to the old-fashioned use of pencil and paper. (Or, a single composer may pursue both paths, depending on their particular interests at a given time). [viii]
However, vast amounts of new technology do not necessarily lead to the challenge of capitalist materiality. Quantitative accumulation does not bring change in the qualitative conditions of the current political economy. It did not happen with textile machinery; it did not happen with Ford assembly lines.
It is contended here that making scores with pencil and paper may have greater potential to point to the transcendence of prevailing forms of materiality than the pursuit of private missions to colonize Mars promised by a billionaire whose ultimate goal, for all of his corporation’s technophilic appearance, seems to be closer to bringing society back to feudal authoritarianism (Wong, 2017).
Let us be watermelon particles.
99% Invisible. Symphony of Sirens, Revisited. [Online] Available at: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/episode-79-symphony-of-sirens-revisited/. [Accessed 14 September 2018].
Adorno, T. W. (1966) Negative Dialektik. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Ali, T. (2017) The Dilemmas of Lenin. London: Verso.
Aristotle. (2016) Metaphysics. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
Badiou, A. (2006) Being and Event. London and New York: Continuum.
Badiou, A. (2009) Scholium: A Musical Variant of the Metaphysics of the Subject. In Badiou, A. Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II. London and New York: Continuum. pp. 79-89.
Boorstein, E. and R. (1990) Counterrevolution: U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: International Publishers Company.
Grant, T. (1997) Russia: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution. London: Wellred Publications
Hegel, G. W. F. (2010) The Science of Logic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Heidegger, M. (1960) The Origin of the Work of Art. In Cazeaux, C., ed. (2000) The Continental Aesthetics Reader. London and New York: Routledge. pp. 80-101.
Kropotkin, P. (1910) Anarchism. [Online] Available at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/kropotkin-peter/1910/britannica.htm (Accessed 19 July 2018].
Pàmies, J.A. (2016) Alternative Means of Musical Operation: Repurposing Sonic Creativity Within and Beyond Capital. D.M.A. dissertation. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University.
Pàmies, J. A. (2016) New Music Is Not (Necessarily) Contemporary Music. NewMusicBox. [Online] Available at: https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/new-music-is-not-necessarily-contemporary-music/. [Accessed 17 December 2017].
Schopenhauer, A. (1969) The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I and II. New York: Dover Publications.
Trotsky, L. (1938) Art and Politics in Our Epoch. [Online] Available at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/06/artpol.htm. [Accessed 19 July 2018].
Wong, J. C. (2017) Tesla factory workers reveal pain, injury and stress: ‘Everything feels like the future but us’. The Guardian. [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/18/tesla-workers-factory-conditions-elon-musk [Accessed 2 December 2017].
[i] See: Pàmies, J.A. (2016) Alternative Means of Musical Operation: Repurposing Sonic Creativity Within and Beyond Capital. D.M.A. dissertation. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University.
[ii] Soviet secret service police.
[iii] A proposal for a market-oriented economy, subject to state control, meant to foster capitalist growth after the Russian civil war (1918-1922).
[iv] For insight into the nature of counterrevolutionary measures before and after the 1917 insurrections, see: Grant, T. (1997) Russia: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution. London: Wellred Publications; and Boorstein, E. and R. (1990) Counterrevolution: U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: International Publishers Company.
[v] Beyond the Soviet example, counteractivity seems to be a recurrent issue during and after historical processes that challenge the capitalist status quo in fundamental ways. It has taken place in revolutionary contexts (Castro, Ho Chi Minh) but also in more reformist situations (Allende, Nkrumah).
[vi] For a definition of New Music, see: Pàmies, J. A. (2016) New Music Is Not (Necessarily) Contemporary Music. NewMusicBox [Online] Available at: <https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/new-music-is-not-necessarily-contemporary-music/> [Accessed 17 December 2017].
[vii] The case of the valve double horn in relation to the early natural horns is paradigmatic. The modern French horn provides composers and performers with a wider variety of possibilities than its predecessor.
[viii] The extent to which these creative decisions are fully intentional and not products of socioeconomic accessibility, or lack thereof, to a range of technical resources is somewhat unclear, but it is patently evident that only a handful of composers in the entire world benefit from the resources that leading institutions provide. (Institutions, including orchestras, ensembles, research laboratories, and universities, generally remain spaces for only a tiny professional elite.) This reality is often alluded to by neoliberal apologists, especially in Anglo-American academia, who seem to prefer race-to-the-bottom policies meant to shove everyone into the allegedly egalitarian structure of the free market. (The alternative argument—i.e., granting greater general access to publicly-funded resources—is often dismissed as a form of elitism.)
About the Author:
I make music for acoustic instruments, voice, electronic means, and theater. I seek loci for emotional experiences and critical thinking through my work. Some of my pieces bring the very process of artistic production to the surface of the musical discourse in order to address issues of commodification and alienation. Other pieces examine manifold, non-standard notational procedures that allow acoustic compositions to become spaces for complex score interpretation.
Since 2007, I have resided in the United States, where I pursued undergraduate studies at the New England Conservatory of Music (Boston, Massachusetts) and a doctorate at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois). I owe much gratitude to my teachers and mentors, Hans Thomalla, Jay Alan Yim, Chris Mercer, Stratis Minakakis, and Hèctor Parra.
I hope my music provides access to uncharted phenomenological territories.