Nueva extensa y crítica reseña del libro (sólo en inglés) publicada en el excelente magazine onlineParis Transatlantic, por Dan Warburton. Gracias.

NOISE & CAPITALISM by Dan Warburton

I was wrong when I described Guy Debord as a “much overrated Situationist maître penseur” in a recent Wire review, and reading Bruce Russell’s Towards a Social Ontology of Improvised Sound Work – probably the best written and certainly the most informative of the eleven essays (plus an introduction by editor Anthony Iles) gathered together in Noise & Capitalism – serves to remind me of the fact. Russell’s concise summary of the Situationist key concepts – spectacle, psychogeography and constructed situation – backed up with apposite quotations from Marx and Lukacs, is both clear and clearly relevant to his own practice as an improviser.

Eddie Prévost’s Free Improvisation in Music and Capitalism: Resisting Authority and the Cults of Scientism and Celebrity, complete with de rigueur quotations from AMM playing partners Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury and sideswipes at poor old Stockhausen (once more the inevitable moans about the absurd excesses of the Helikopter-Streichquartett and the “composition” of Mikrophonie I) is a characteristically sober restatement of ideas previously elaborated at greater length in his books No Sound Is Innocent and Minute Particulars – if you haven’t read those this will do just fine as an introduction to his thought, but if you have you might have a distinct feeling of déjà lu.

Indeed, there seems to be a bit of recycling going on here (though I imagine maybe the editors would prefer to call it détournement): Ray Brassier’s Genre Is Obsolete originally appeared in Multitudes #28 in 2007, and Mattin’s liner notes to Going Fragile, his 2006 Formed album with that well-known Noise musician Radu Malfatti, are reprinted in their entirety, with one additional paragraph. No point in recycling my own review of that album, then, since I stand by what I wrote back in July 2006.

Standing by what you write is the springboard Ben Watson uses to dive into a typically vigorous exposé of his ideas in Noise as Permanent Revolution or, Why Culture is a Sow Which Devours its Own Farrow. Taking issue with The Wire‘s Sam Davies for trashing an Ascension gig in Bristol in 1994 only to remember it fondly 13 years later (being able to change your mind and admit that you’re wrong is obviously anathema to Ben’s militant aesthetix), he comes up with some splendidly quotable lines (how about “the courage of youth enables it to look directly in the face of things.. [i]ts folly is to imagine that no-one else has ever done so” and “people who talk about the problems of modern music without talking about capitalism and commodity fetishism are themselves one of modern music’s problems”?), though one wishes he’d spent more time explaining the subtleties of Giambattista Vico (see photo)’s Scienza Nuova – a work I’m not at all familiar with but for which this article has most definitely whet my appetite – than taking potshots, albeit amusing and well-aimed, at his former employers at Wire HQ. Watson writes well – he’s one of the few contributors to this book whose voice you can really hear from reading his prose – but quite why Jaworzyn’s Ascension is “THE answer to dilemmas facing anyone discontent with the musical ready-meals dished up by commercial interests” isn’t explained, and what Tony Oxley, Fernando Grillo, Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana-Maria Avram are doing in a thesis ostensibly about Noise is anybody’s guess.

Matthew Hyland’s Company Work vs. Patrician Raiders can be boiled down to its penultimate paragraph: “Thanks to Ben Watson and the late Derek Bailey for producing (amongst other crucial things) the book digressed from here. BUY IT!” Watson’s Bailey biography has been discussed at great length in these pages already, and not surprisingly the best quotes in Hyland’s essay are extracted from it. “When someone says they’d rather work in a factory than play music they don’t like, it means they’ve never worked in a factory.” Well, quite. If that weren’t the case Mattin would still be making pies in Poole.

Howard Slater’s Prisoners of the Earth Come Out! makes some interesting points, ironically many of them about silence, but to find them you have to wade through a swamp of abreaction, endocolonialism, bios and libidinal skin over which quotation marks swarm like mosquitoes. Actual discussion of music is thin on the ground and the vocabulary is sloppy: Slater might know what abreaction means, but phrases like “the overlong intervals of a Morton Feldman piece” indicate he doesn’t understand what an interval is. And lumping together groups with very different histories and working methods – AMM, MEV and Morphogenesis – to make some point about the “real subsumption of labour” is as woolly as his prose style.

One of the central problems of this book is that it doesn’t (can’t? won’t?) provide the reader with clear definitions of either Noise or Capitalism. The latter is tricky, for sure, but it seems clear that the word means something different now, in today’s Googling, Twittering short-memory-even-shorter-attention-span world from what it did barely a decade ago. And depending on which article you read, Noise can be anything from Throbbing Gristle to Lendormin, from Merzbow (mentioned once or twice, en passant) to Nobukazu Takemura (!).

Mathieu Saladin’s Points of Resistance and Criticism in Free Improvisation: Remarks on a Musical Practice and Some Economic Transformations is like his music: conceptually elegant but flat and dry. The quotations about music – Free Improvisation once more, not Noise – come mostly from Bailey (the inevitable “idiomatic” discussion from the indispensable Improvisation: its Nature and Practice in Music) and Cardew via Prévost, and are far less interesting than the extracts from Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism, a book I expected to see quoted more often in these pages. Instead, throughout the book, we get the usual suspects – Debord, Deleuze, Lacan, Foucault (one intimidating footnote refers us to page 1431 (!) of his Dits et écrits II) and Attali (not as much as you might expect, which is just as well as his Noise is – and here I’ll stick to my guns – much overrated) – but, interestingly, no Lyotard (photo), one of the philosophers who actually talks some sense about music (check out Driftworks, Semiotext(e), 1984).

The worst offender when it comes to pretentious namechecking is Csaba Toth, whose Noise Theory contains several priceless passages like the following: “Noise, at the very least, disrupts both the performer and listener’s normal relations to the symbolic order by refusing to route musical pleasure through the symbolic order (symbolic relations are defined here as an aggregate of guilt, the law, achievement, authority figures). We can call this musical pleasure anti-teleological jouissance, achieved by self-negation, by a return to the pre-subjective (the stage that precedes ego differentiation) – which, in our context, is a sonorous space.” I seriously wonder how many people reading that can put hands on hearts and say they fully understand it. And that includes the author, especially when, two pages further on, you come across a gem like the following: “Noise music, in its many alterations, ruptures conventional generic boundaries: it is often not music at all, but noise” (you don’t say!) and meaningless drivel like this: “if one intrudes into the program itself as Ikue Mori does, one can get totally inside the electronics behind the sound and thereby overcome routinisation (hollowing out) of her intervention and continually shatter the listener’s expectations by not sounding one expects her to sound.” [sic] Seems to me there’s more missing in that last sentence than the word “like”.

This vague waffle would be bad enough in some teen fanzine, but coming from a Professor of History at an American university, it’s frankly inexcusable. Toth may be able to rap on in the college bar about jouissance, but he doesn’t seem to have a clue about what Noise is, or if he does he’s certainly unwilling to venture a definition. But in contemporary academe if you can’t get over the barbed wire fence of hard fact you can at least decorate it with exotic plants and flowers (rhizomes, dispositifs, performative teleologies..) and pretend it’s not there, by throwing in (out? up?) as many names as possible to blind the reader with science: Christian Marclay, DJ Spooky, Philip Samartzis join Lightning Bolt and Wolf Eyes and White Mice and Muslimgauze and Merzbow and Masonna and Einstürzende Neubaten and Throbbing Gristle and Z’Ev and.. you get the idea.

At least Ray Brassier, in his Genre is Obsolete, can cite specifics, though the two outfits he comes up with – Tom Smith’s To Live and Shave in L.A. and Rudolf’s Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock (photo) – are hardly typical Noise acts, and both men, Brassier admits, “disavow the label ‘noise’ as a description of their work – explicitly in Smith’s case, implicitly in’s. This is not coincidental: each recognises the debilitating stereotypy engendered by the failure to recognise the paradoxes attendant upon the existence of a genre predicated upon the negation of genre.”

Brassier’s text is a tough read, but a rewarding one: and he actually describes real albums and performances with enthusiasm and affection as well as extrapolating on their philosophical implications. But lines like “the lack of imagination that characterises much of noise music”, “the crowd-baiting outright aggression (however ironic) of most power electronics” and the “slap-dash, jumbled-together mix of a misplaced genius-complex and self-absorption that characterises much of the Noise scene” in Nina Powers’ Woman Machines: the Future of Female Noise make you wonder whether Ms Powers wants to write about the subject at all. Unlike Brassier, I doubt she’d find anything particularly jouissif about watching Randy Yau throw up into a contact-miked bucket, or Lucas Abela slice his lips to a bloody pulp on a pane of broken glass. Chucking in lines like “Jessica Rylan is the future of noise, in the way that men are the past of machines” would be fine if we were actually given some background information about who Jessica Rylan actually is (“tall, slender, politely dressed, bespectacled” doesn’t cut it, sorry) and how her work relates to the Noise scene. But no, we’re all supposed to know that already, in the same way that we’re all supposed to have well-thumbed copies of Grundrisse, La Société du Spectacle, Philosophie der neuen Musik, Le Séminaire and Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit lying around on our coffee tables.

It’s a welcome relief then to finish the book with some real discussion of the issues involved – including free software and the dubious small print of the MySpace contract – in Mattin’s Anti-Copyright: Why Improvisation and Noise Run Against the Idea of Intellectual Property (I never thought I’d see George Bernard Shaw quoted in a Mattin text – a nice surprise), but one still closes the book with a feeling of frustration, not so much for what it says but for what it doesn’t. Instead of trotting out quotations from books we’ve all read (Bailey, Cardew, Prévost..) and many most of us are hardly likely to, I’d have preferred a probing interview with Carlos Giffoni on the politics and economics behind his No Fun festival, and a seriously critical discussion of how Noise is being quietly absorbed into the mainstream of trendy culture. Instead of waxing lyrical about squats, it might have been instructive for at least one of the writers to visit and report from one, explaining the day-to-day function of a viable alternative economic structure. And how about a detailed investigation of the technological détournement (sampling in Plunderphonics, the recycling of analogue instruments) and a serious analysis of the implications – moral, financial, aesthetic – of download culture? Above all, what’s lacking most in this book is a musicologically coherent definition of what Noise actually is.

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One Response to “Crítica de PARIS TRANSATLANTIC”

  1. dan warburton Says:

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