January 2002

Return to Editor's Cell

Sir Thomas Browne,London, 1642: "There is a musick wherever there is a harmony, order or proportion," thus "even that vulgar and Tavern-Musick which makes one man merry, another mad, strikes in me a deep fit of devotion, and a profound contemplation of the First Composer. There is something in it of Divinity more than the ear discovers; it is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole World, and creatures of God; such a melody to the ear, as the whold World, well understood.

Notes on NOISE, by Jaques Attali, University of Minnesota Press.

by Jocelyn Braddell

Here is a book that should be designated: TO READ, ESSENTIAL...for all musicians, for composers, and the ordinary public. Indirectly the ordinary public are the subjects of this book. The copy I have to hand, issued by the Minnesota Press is from their Series "Theory and History of Literature", the 5th Edition printed in 1996. I suggest it can be held up now for re-evaluation and introduced to a new generation.

The author of this book could be described as a Nietzschean warrior. In the Foreword by Fredric Jameson the fortress of the reader's mind immediately comes under siege."Jaques Attali is a professional economist," and, he observes," the current phenomenon of child prodigies in music and mathematics alike perhaps also suggests the peculiarity of the numerical gift." I should, perhaps, emphasise with italics the word "peculiarity"...

Attali's bold perogative for writing this book is his theory that all music composition is prophetic. "By listening to noise we can better understand were the folly of men and their calculations is leading us and what hopes it is still possible to have." There again "hopes" is another candidate for italics....His theories are related to philosophy and move forward from the spring-board of signs. "In the face of the growing ambiguity of the signs being used and exchanged, well-established concepts are crumbling and theory wavering." He assures us that the results of his reflections will lead us to unusual and unacceptable concepts. Can we assume from this that the barriers to understanding maybe similar to the reactions he expects to encounter in his professional life in politics ?!

His first chapter assaults the nerves with a red hot pace. With the use of italics he urges the emphasis of his demands and the structures of his debate. He offers a collection of theoretical passes that thrust us over the threshold into his mind. Let this be an example: "..among birds a tool for marking territorial boundaries, noise is inscribed from the start with the panoply of power."

What we have here is a clear association he wishes to make in the history of music: composers and musicians have constrained opportunities within the panoply of events with which music has most notably been represented. From the ancient religious rites of the pagan to the nomad life of the troubadour, or the jongleur, as he prefers to call him... from the opera and pantomime of the sovereign courts to the performance in huge stadia of the modern rock star. Attali is fascinated to cast over this elaborate history the shroud of the subversive revolutionary - a paradox. His question is - if music in truth is prophetic, does its performance also signal the reality of the present era of civilisation ? And does the magic of public appraisal, financial, hide the status of subversive possibility ?

His style comprises a method applied to policy documents, i.e. a change of perspective is signalled by a title in bold text. On page 18 we have the title Understanding through Music; the following paragraph begins: "If we wish to elaborate a theory of the relations between music and money..." Would you be surprised? However, let you not sink back or utter a sigh... Signor Attali will not leave off his pace or the grasp he has on your attention.

This book is a slender volume and his natural ability as a mathematician, I suspect, predetermines the brevity with which he demonstrates categories and startling theories. He makes reference to Roland Barthes - that master of other slender publications, who once lamented the practices of music critics in extensive volumes, for the multiple uses of that "poorest of linguistic categories: the adjective."

The cover and frontis-piece of this book is an illustration of the painting CARNIVAL'S QUARREL WITH LENT by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. The subject of this picture is the axis of Attali's concepts as he continues to dwell on the aspects of power which have overwhelmed the purpose and practice of music and has succeeded in trammelling in repetitive reproduction and finance, an art, one of the true wonders of mankind's creative potential, within the industrial concept of "the product." Brueghel's painting depicts a world where the community was yet a rowdy, laughing, musical, roaring and whispering world of differences. These marginalised lives of workers and the crippled nevertheless carried the seeds of freedom into a world the Church was seeking to dominate, a Church that had become the prop and support of political power. The artistry of Attali's writing carries the force of his outrage: " thus a colossal conflict pivots around a well, a point of catastrophy - a conflict between two social orders..." With italics he refers to music as a weapon - a weapon that is a simulacrum of ritual murder. These aspects of his style convey a strong intellectual stimulus to the reader. In the sketch of my first reactions in thought, considering the claustrophobic effects of the rap beat, the pathological and oppressive nature of modern music in every turn of life, in the street, in factories, in the snack bar and at the disco where young people use drugs to excite a community feeling - it becomes obvious that his pessimistic view of the direction civilisation is heading is without scene or sense. For the individual, whose freedom is supposed to be the triumph of our present democracies, infact the result is solitude. A solitude that represses all forms of free communication.

Attali's glance is never careless: the history of contracts, the rites of publication and coprights, the dedication on a manuscript, libraries, sovereign decrees, National Institutes - with a penetrating glance he accesses the import for his equation. Renumeration is the name of this game played out over the centuries by speculators who have laid out sinister traps for the unwary and have seemingly complete dominance today. At the end of this history we find ourselves among those fine musicians of the American jazz scene, who in their turn are being "produced"by white Americans to deploy their music, that is only created in itself by their own relationships within their local communities, into expensive venues of white Americans. The concept of locally created music is the only thread that has emerged from the distant past, from whence all music came.It represents that ancient model of all musical vibrations, play and sport, music for pleasure and the impulse to innovate.

We are now living in a world with reproduction of music as product. Such composers as Philip Glass try to subvert the issue by writing music that "allows the musicians to take an active role.... ...Despite these appearances the musician has never been so deprived of initiative, so annonymous." For indeed we can now no longer find much opportunity to compare actual performances of the classics.Competitions are set Internationally to produce the performers for the product; and the pain this must cause the talented can be imagined. Concert Halls show off Prize Winners who must play schedules on which they have hardly been consulted.



Where are the hopes to be traced that we need to free us from this trap ? The "hope that it is still possible to have"? Are we forced to accept that music today is "in many respects the monotonous herald of death." Noise or Silence - the polarisation and the terminus of one of mankind's most happy variables. Music as a shriek in Silence or the guttural snooze of Noise?

Only quite recently has it been announced that in the not too distant future there will be industrial man-made wombs available to raise the foetus of our child up to birth - will we even maintain the memory of music that "directly transected by desires and drives, has always had but one subject - the body." ?"A great musical work is always a model of amorous relations, a model of relations with the other, of eternally recommenceable exaltation and appeasment, an exceptional figure of represented or repeated sexual relations."

To end these notes I will continue to quote Attali because it is his real demand for the subversive that excites us ultimately. This "subversion outlined here: to stockpile wealth no longer, to transcend it, to play for the other and by the other, to exchange the noise of bodies, to hear the noise of others in exchange for one's own. For my own part I would like to hear the Round Dance in the background of CARNIVAL'S QUARREL WITH LENT.... to signify that everything remains possible."