Monday, 14 April 2014

The Utopian Blues

Why is the spirituality of the musician in "High" cultures so often a low-down spirituality?

In India, for example, the musician belongs to a caste so low it hovers on the verge of untouchability. This lowness relates, in popular attitudes, to the musician's invariable use of forbidden intoxicants. After the "invasion" of Islam many musicians converted in order to escape the caste system. (The Dagar Brothers of Calcutta, famous for their performance of sacred Hindu music, explained proudly to me that their family had not converted in Mughal times -- for worldly advantage -- but only much later, and then as Shiites; this proved that their conversion was sincere.) In Ireland the musician shared the same Indo-European reputation for lowness. The bards or poets ranked with aristocrats and even royalty, but musicians were merely the servants of the bards. In Dumezil's tripartite structure of Indo-European society, as reflected in Ireland, music seems to occupy an ambiguous fourth zone, symbolized by the fourth province of Munster, the "south". Music is thus associated with "dark" druidism, sexual license, gluttony, nomadry and other outsider phenomena.
Islam is popularly believed to "ban" music; obviously this is not the case, since so many Indian musicians converted. Islam expresses grave reservations about art in general because all art potentially involves us in multiplicity (extension in time and space) rather than in the unity (tawhid) by which Islam defines its entire spiritual project. The Prophet criticized worldly poetry; he criticized realism in art; and he relegated music to social occasions like marriages. (In Islamic societies the minstrels who supply such festal music are often Jews, or otherwise "outside" Islam.) In response to these critiques, Islamic culture developed "rectified" forms of art: -- sufi poetry (which sublimates worldly pleasure as mystical ecstasy); non-representative art (falsely dismissed as "decorative" by western art-history); and sufi music, which utilizes multiplicity to return the listener to Unity, to induce "mystical states". But this restitution of the arts has never entirely succeeded as an uplifting of the musician. In Tehran in the 1970's, one of the more decadent sufi orders (Safi-Ali-Shahi) had enrolled the majority of professional musicians, and their sessions were devoted to opium smoking.

Other musicians were known as hearty drinkers or otherwise louche and bohemian types -- the few exceptions were pious Sufis in other, more disciplined orders, such as the Nematollahiyya or Ahl-i Haqq. In the Levant, Turkish sufi music leaked out of the tekkes and into the taverns, mixed with Greek and other Mediterranean influences, and produced the wonderful genre of Rembetica, with its witty odes to whores, hashish, wine and cocaine.
In the rituals of Afro-American religions, such as Santeria, Voudoun, and Candomblé, the all-important drummers and musicians are often non-initiates, professionals hired by the congregation -- this is no doubt a reflection of the quasi-nomadic "minstrel" status of musicians in the highly evolved pastoral-agricultural societies of West Africa.
Traditional Christianity places a high value on music but a low value on musicians. Some branches of Protestantism tried to exclude professional musicians altogether, but Lutheranism and Anglicanism made use of them. Church musicians used to be considered an ungodly class of beings, a perception that survives in the reputation for naughtiness of choristers, choir-masters and organists. Thomas Weelkes (1576 - 1623) represents the archetype: brilliant but erratic (praised justly by Ezra Pound for his wonderful arrhythmic settings of "cadenced prose"), Weelkes was fired from his job at Chichester Cathedral as a "notorious swearer and blasphemer" and drunk, who (according to oral tradition) broke the camel's back by pissing over the organ-screen onto the Dean's head.
Christianity and Afro-American spirituality combined to produce the "Spiritist" churches where music forms the structure of worship and the congregation attains "professional" artistry. The ambiguity of this relation is revealed in the powerful links between sacred "gospel" and worldly "blues", the outcaste music of taverns, and "jazz", the music of the bordello (the very word evokes pure sexuality). The musical forms are very close -- the difference lies in the musician, who, as usual, hovers on the very edge of the clearing, the in-between space of the uncanny, and of shamanic intoxication.
In all these cases the music itself represents the highest spirituality of the culture. Music itself being "bodiless" and metalinguistic (or metasemantic) is always (metaphorically or actually) the supreme expression of pure imagination as vehicle for the spirit. The lowness of the musician is connected to the perceived danger of music, its ambiguity, its elusive quality, its manifestation as lowness as well as highness -- as pleasure.
Music as pleasure is not connected to the mind (or purified elements of spirit) but to the body. Music rises from the (inarticulate) body and is received by the body (as vibration, as sexuality).

The logos itself must be given musical expression (in chant, e.g. Koran, plainsong, etc.) for precisely the same somatic reason -- the influence of body on spirit (through "soul" or psyche -- imagination). Chant is music which sublimates the body.

Paradox: -- that which is "holy" is "forbidden" (as in the Arabic word haram which means either holy or forbidden, depending on context). As Bataille points out, sanctity and transgression both arise from the fracturing of the "order of intimacy", the separation of the "human" from "nature". The "original" expression of this violent break is undoubtedly musical -- as with the Mbutu Pygmies, who produce as a collectivity the music of the "Forest" as an expression of their closeness to (yet separatedness from) the wild(er)ness. Subsequent to this "first" expression, a further separation begins to appear: -- the musician remains involved in the "violence" of the break with the intimate order in a special way, and so is seen as an uncanny person (like the witch, or the metallurgist). The musician emerges as a specialist within a still non-hierarchic society of hunter/gatherers, and the musician begins to take on the sign of the taboo to the extent that the tribe's undivided culture or "collective self" is affronted by this separation or transformation. The undivided culture (like the Mbutu) knows no "musician" in this sense, but only music. As division, and then hierarchy, begin to appear in society, the position of the musician becomes problematic. Like "primitive" society, these hierarchic "traditional" societies also wish to preserve something unbroken at the heart of their culture. If society is "many", culture will preserve a counter-balancing cohesiveness which is the sign of the original sacred order of intimacy, prolonged into the deepest spiritual meanings of the society, and thus preserved. So much for music -- but what about the musician?

Hierarchic society permits itself to remain relatively undivided by sacralizing the specializations. Music, inasmuch as it is bodiless, can be the sign of the upper caste (its "spirituality") -- but inasmuch as music arises from the body (it is sublimed -- it "rises"), the musician (originator/origin of the music) must be symbolized by the body and hence must be "low". Music is spiritual -- the musician is corporeal. The spirituality of the musician is low but also ambiguous in its production of highness. (Drugs substitute for the priest's ritual highness to make the musician high enough to produce aesthetic highness.) The musician is not just low but uncanny -- not just low but "outside". The power of the musician in society is like the power of the magician -- the excluded shaman -- in its relation to wildness. And yet it is precisely these hierarchic societies which create "seamless" cultures -- including music. This is true even after the break -- in the western tradition -- between the "oneness" of melody and the "doubleness" of harmony. And note the reciprocal relation between high and low music -- the various Masses on the "Western Wynde", set to a popular tune; the influence of melismatics on the madrigal; the pop influences on Rumi and other Sufis. The ambiguity of music allows it to drift between high and low and yet remain undivided. This is "tradition". It includes the subversive by excluding the musician (and the artist generally) and yet granting them power.


Traditional music always remains satisfactory (even when not "inspired") because it remains unbroken -- both the high tradition and the low are the same "thing". Indian brass bands -- Mozart -- the same universe. In Mozart's own character (reflected in his "servant" characters like Leparello) we again discern the figure of the outsider, the gypsy-wunderkind, the toy of aristocrats, with a strong link to the low culture of beer-gardens and peasant clog-dances, and a fondness for bohemian excess. The musician is a kind of "grotesque" -- disobedient servant, drunk, nomadic, brilliant. For the musician the perfect moment is that of the festival, the world turned upside down, the saturnalia, when servants and masters change places for a day. The festival is nothing without the musician, who presides over the momentary reversal -- and thus the reconciliation -- of all separated functions and forces in traditional society. Music is the perfect sign of the festal, and thereby of the "material bodily principle" celebrated by Bakhtin. In the intoxication of conviviality in the carneval, music emerges as a kind of utopian structure or shaping force -- music becomes the very "order of intimacy".

Next morning, however, the broken order resumes its sway. Dialectics alone (if not "History") demonstrate that undivided culture is not an unmixed "good", in that it rests on a divided society. Where hierarchy has not appeared there is no music separate from the rest of experience. Once music becomes a category (along with the categorization of society), it has already begun to be alienated -- hence the appearance of the specialist, the musician, and the taboo on the musician. Since it is impossible to tell whether the musician is sacred or profane (this being the perceived nature of the social split) this taboo serves to fill up the crack (and preserve the "unbrokenness" of tradition) by considering the musician as both sacred and profane. In effect the hierarchical society metes out punishments to all castes/classes for their shared guilt in the violation of the order of intimacy. Priests and kings are surrounded by taboos -- chastity, or the sacrifice of the (vegetal) king, etc. The artist's punishment is to be a kind of outcaste paradoxically attached to the highest functions in society. [Note that the poet is not an "artist" in this sense and can retain caste because poetry is logos, akin to revelation. Poetry pertains to the "aristocratic" in traditional societies (e.g. Ireland). Interestingly the modern world has reversed this polarity in terms of money, so that the "low-caste" painter and musician are now wealthy and thus "higher" than the unrewarded poet.]

The "injustice" of the categorization of music is its separation from "the tribe", the whole people, including each and every individual. For inasmuch as the musician is excluded, music is excluded, inaccessible. But this injustice does not become apparent until the separations and alienations within society itself become so exacerbated and exaggerated that a split is perceived in culture. High and low are now out of touch -- no reciprocity. The aristos never hear the music of the folk, and vice versa. Reciprocity of high and low traditions ceases -- and thus cross-fertilization and cultural renewal within the "unbroken" tradition. In the western world this exacerbation of separation occurs roughly with industrialization and commodity capitalism -- but it has "pre-echoes" in the cultural sphere. Bach adapted a "rational" mathematical form of well-temperedness over the older more "organic" systems of tuning. In a subtle sense a break has occurred within the unbroken tradition -- others will follow. Powerful "inspiration" is released by this "break with tradition", titanic genius, touched to some extent with morbidity.


The bohemian life of the modern artist, so "alienated from society", is nothing but the old low-down spirituality of the musician and artisan castes, recontextualized in an economy of commodities. Baudelaire (as Benjamin argued) had no economic function in the 19th century society -- his low-down spirituality turned inward and became self-destructive, because it had lost its functionality in the social. Villon was just as much a bohemian, but at least he still had a role in the economy -- as a thief! The artist's privilege -- to be drunk, to be insouciant -- has now become the artist's curse. The artist is no longer a servant -- refuses to serve -- except as unacknowledged legislator. As revolutionary. The artist now claims, like Beethoven, either a vanguard position, or -- like Baudelaire -- complete exile. The musician no longer accepts low caste, but must be either Brahmin or untouchable.

Wagner -- and Nietzsche, when he was propagandizing for Wagner -- conceived of a musical revolution against the broken order in the cause of a new and higher (conscious) form of the order of intimacy: -- integral Dionysian culture viewed as the revolutionary goal of romanticism. The outsider as king. Opera is the utopia of music (as Charles Fourier also realized). In opera music appropriates the logos and thus challenges revelation's monopoly on meaning.

If opera failed as revolution -- as Nietzsche came to realize -- it was because the audience had refused to go away. The opera of Wagner or Fourier can only succeed as the social if it becomes the social -- by eliminating the category of art, of music, as anything separate from life. The audience must become the opera. Instead -- the opera became . . . just another commodity. A public ritual celebrating post-sacred social values of consumption and sentiment -- the sacralization of the secular. A step along the road to the spectacle.
The commodification of music measures precisely the failure of the romantic revolution of music -- its mummification in the repertoire, the Canon -- the recuperation of its dissidence as the rhetoric of liberalism, "culture and taste". Wave after wave of the "avant-garde" attempted to transcend civilization -- a process which is only now coming to an end in the apotheosis of commodification, its "final ecstasy."


Is there actually a problem with the commodification of music? Why should we assume an "elitist" position now, even as new technology makes possible a "mass" participation in music through the virtual infinity of choice, and the "electric democracy" of musical synthesis? Why complain about the degradation of the aura of the "work of art" in the age of mechanical reproduction, as if art could or should still be defended as a category of high value?

But it's not "Western Civilization" we're defending here, and it's not the sanctity of aesthetic production either. We maintain that participation in the commodity can only amount to a commodification of participation, a simulation of aesthetic democracy. A higher synthesis of the Old Con, promising "The Real Thing now" but delivering only another betrayal of hope. The problem of music remains the same problem -- that of alienation, of the separation of consumers from producers. Despite positive possibilities brought into being by the sheer multiplication of resources made accessible through reproduction technology, the overwhelming complex of alienation outweighs all subversive counterforces working for utopian ends. The discovery of "3rd world" music (i.e. primitive and traditional) leads to appropriation and dilution rather than to cross-cultural synergy and mutual enrichment. The proliferation of cheap music-synthesis tech at first opens up new and genuinely folkish/democratic possibilities, like Dub and Rap; but the "Industry" knows very well how to fetishize and alienate these insurrectionary energies: -- use them to sell junkfood and shoes!

. . . . So we admit it -- there is a problem. All is not necessarily for the best in the world of too-Late Capitalism -- Music reminds us of one of those cinematic-vampire-victims, already so drained of life as to be almost one of the Undead -- shall we abandon her?
Does any "solution" exist to this problem, any cure which is not a form of reaction, of bombing ourselves back into some ideal past? Is it even valid to base our critique on the assumption that music was or will be "better" at some point in time? Is "degeneration" any better a model than "progress"?

In the first place, is "music itself" in question here, or should we be focused instead on the production of music, and on the social structure which informs that production? In other words, perhaps music (short of sheer kitsch) should be considered "innocent", at least by comparison with the constellation of alienation and betrayal and monopolization sometimes called the Industry -- the musical arm of the Spectacle, as it were. By comparison, Music is the victim, not the cause of the "problem". And what about musicians? Are they part of the Industry, or are they too (like their Muse) mere victims? Part of the problem, or part of the solution? Or is the whole concept of "blame" here no more than the ideology of a subtler Reaction -- an incipient Puritanism -- another false totality?

If we want to escape any vicious circles of retributive resentment (or musical revanchism) we need a wholly different approach -- and if our approach (our strategy) is not to be based on "History" -- either of music itself or of production -- then perhaps it must be rooted instead in a utopian poetics. In this sense, we should not adopt any one utopian system as a model -- which would mire us in nostalgia for some lost future -- but rather take the idea of utopia itself, or even the emotion of utopia, for a starting point. Music, after all, addresses the emotions more immediately than other arts, filtered as they are through logos or image. (This explains in part why Islam distrusts music.) Music is the most border-permeating of all arts -- perhaps not the "universal language", but only because it is in fact not a language at all, unless perhaps a "language of the birds". The "universal" appeal of music lies in its direct link to utopian emotion, or desire, and beyond that to the utopian imagination. By its interpenetration of time and pleasure, music expresses and evokes a "perfect" time (purged of boredom and fear) and "perfect" pleasure (purged of all regret). Music is bodiless, yet it is from the body and it is for the body -- and this too makes it utopian in nature. For utopia is "no place", and yet utopia concerns the body above all.


Read Hakim Bey Full Essay at The Hermetic Library

Author / Source:  Hakim Bey at The Hermetic Library