Digital Music Revolution: Cacophony, Sound, and (the Bestowal and Withholding of) Pleasure

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“The obvious meaning is always the revolution.” —Sergei Eisenstein  

(Note:  this essay was envisioned as a listener response to the contemporary classical music blog, “I Care if You Listen,” http://www.icareifyoulisten.com/)  

When Marcel DuChamp exhibited, in 1917, his readymade urinal “The Fountain,” he ushered in a century-long practice of dematerializing art (sense) from aesthetics (idea), a development to which music, whose smallest units of meaning—phonemes—are aural rather than semantic (morphemes) has not been immune.  Modernist serialism in all art forms concerned the formation of history, art, and subjectivity through conscious decisions (and revolts) about how to mark and preserve form, in time.  From Pythagorean theory, to the compositional modes of the Hebrew Scriptures, to the symbolism of cabalism, to neo-Platonism and Spenserian allegory, numeration remains the primary model of marking time, in tension with the temporality of social life and its manifold voices, instruments, and practices:  it is the movement between seriality and chronicalism in not just music but narrative that powerfully orders, records, and gives meaning to our lives.  Fast forward a millennium (almost), two world wars, and, flush up against the information superhighway, music’s “formal” dematerialization in a post-production economy today increasingly takes the form of digital manipulations and re-mixes, overturning not only what it means to create, and the politics of intellectual copyright and property, but the contract (fiduciary and of pleasure) established (and dissolved) between a listener and composer:  a relationship once mediated by the performer or performers, but now more frequently through a machine.

While conceptual art and music prides itself on its auto-critique of its own medium or form, modernist art critic Clement Greenberg said as much when he introduced the idea of medium specificity in his 1960 essay “Modernist Painting,” opining that each art form had to “determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself.” [1]  Modernism’s love affair—extenuated in the sphere of music—not just with medium specificity, but formalism, developed in opposition to the aims of the Romantic and Classical eras, when composers, artists, poets, and philosophers were struggling to structurally integrate rather than isolate music from other discourses and artistic forms.  In 1839, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe described architecture as frozen music, as a possible commentary on both the architectural forms of his time (utilitarian-based Bidermeier neoclassical architecture, to Russian and Gothic Revival) and the music, transitioning from Baroque (the first musical form to use tonality in the modern sense) to the orchestral suites of Mozart and Haydn.  Considered the crowning achievement of French architect Le Corbusier’s career, which gained national attention with his theory of the “five points of architecture” outlined in his book Vers une architecture, the Modulor, in 1950 (a stylized human figure with one arm raised, standing next to two vertical measurements, a red series based on the figure’s navel height then segmented according to Phi, and a blue series based on the figure’s entire height, double the navel height, similarly segmented) was inspired by the work of Vitruvius, Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the work of Leone Battista Alberti, and other attempts to discover mathematical proportions in the human body and use that knowledge to improve both the appearance and function of architecture, was based on human measurements, the double unit, the Fibonacci numbers, and the golden ratio; Le Corbusier described the Modulor as a “range of harmonious measurements to suit the human scale, universally applicable to architecture and to mechanical things.” [2]

This organic relationship between mathematics, architecture, and music, privileging symmetry and harmony, (in concert with the ancient Greeks, for whom harmony and melody, defined by Henri Bergson as the “experience of time” were interrelated), was soon to be dissembled by modernity’s eschewal of figuration, content, and euphony for abstract form; our generation bears witness to the slow reassembly of aesthetic and critical practices based on the valuation of form as well as beauty, meaning, and pleasure rather than disinterestedness and coded, technical definitions of “noise,” “music,” “silence,” and “sound.”

During Le Courbusier’s time, monumental changes were taking place in music composition that would set the stage for modernism and forever distance music from its traditionally harmonic and mathematically unified origins, beginning with musical serialism.  The groundwork for serial or “dodecaphonic” music was prepared decades before, in 1923, when composer Arnold Schoenberg developed the twelve-tone system.  Instead of using just five notes, Schoenberg used all 12 notes in the octave (five black and seven white notes on the piano keyboard):  this form of “composition” (not favoring any particular chord or pitch as central) was diverse in its application, from modal organization to alternate scales, sometimes within a tonal context (jazz).

When Theodor Adorno criticized modern music’s “fetishization of means,” he was in part referring to the development of 12-tone technique, which he likened to the arrangement of colors on a palette, not the creation of a painting or artwork itself:  “The composition begins,” he said, “when the tonal arrangement is finished.”   The word tonalité—from Greek tonos:  a stretching of muscles and strings—indicates a system of music in which orders hierarchical pitch relationships are based on a key “center,” or tonic, usually Major-Minor tonality (also known as diatonic or functional tonality).  Tonal centricity is integral to the establishment of sound intervals and cadence which in tonal music, can be either harmonic (a progression of at least two chords that concludes a phrase) or rhythmic (a pattern indicating the end of a phrase).

The ghost of cadence (a formal way of achieving resolution in tonal music) as well as the ghost of euphony (pleasing sound) remains absent from contemporary music performing spaces.  Edward Lowinsky referred to cadence as the “cradle of tonality”; reasons for cadence’s disappearance in atonal music may best be described albeit through another medium in Language poet Lyn Hejinian’s 1985 essay “The Rejection of Closure,” in which she likens the rejection of lyric poetry itself to the rejection of closure in a poetic text, referring to both the lyric and a “closed text” as “coercive” and “epiphanic.” [3]   The history of music and the history of the text (poetic or narrative) follow parallel lines, as Roland Barthes elucidates:  “We know that today post-serial music has radically altered the role of the ‘interpreter,’ who is called on to be in some sort the co-author of the score, completing it rather than giving it ‘expression.’  The text is very much a score of this new kind: it asks of the reader a practical collaboration.  Which is an important change, for who executes the work?”  The act of listening (phoné), according to Barthes, “bears within it the metaphor best suited to the “textual”:  orchestration, counterpoint, and stereophony (a sound-reproduction system that uses two or more separate channels to give a more natural distribution of sound), and, as an act of pure attentiveness, it has, like reading, “no limit or articulation.” [4] The composers who preceded serialism (Bach, Haydn), wrote their scores in accordance with harmonic progressions, melodic lines, and a sense of pulse or rhythm; in serial music, the listener is only aware of unrepeated and unpredictable “events” which dissolve in and out of each other in an apparently random fashion.  [5]

Prior to Bach and Haydn, modern music’s break with tonally ordered compositional structures arose as a protest to classical music’s 350-year allegiance to an idiom of tonal centricity and triadic relations, the latter having been considered throughout the history of Western music the condition for musical “understanding,” based on the physiology of the ear and the relationship between tones and overtones.  This tradition centered on Wagner’s theory that music’s purpose was to give form to our shifting states of mind and emotion, and Brahms’ notion that music was essentially architectural, as elaborated in tonal structures. Wagner and Brahms’ 19th century philosophic contemporaries, German idealists Schopenhauer and Hegel, were quick to hierarchize the forms of sensual perception in their philosophies outlining the subject and object of knowledge, psychology, the state, history, art, and religion.  Their ranks vary marginally, with Hegel privileging poetry (dramatic, followed by epic and lyric) foremost, followed by music, painting, sculpture and architecture.  Schopenhauer, who believed all art forms to manifest the Platonic Ideas those art forms convey in strata of complexity and structural unity, as manifestations of the will’s phenomenal expression, ranked music at the top, as music was best able to provide a pure mimesis of the Ideas and thus make them “intuitively perceptible” to others.  Following music for Schopenhauer was poetry, sculpture and painting, landscape gardening, and architecture (in the classical paradigm of the five senses, the third sense is hearing, but hearing was first in importance in the Middle Ages, as it was for Schopenhauer).

The history of serial music is rife with the political undercurrents endemic to modernism:  serialist pioneers Pierre Boulez, Anton Webern, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Luigi Nono were composing in the aftermath of World War II, during which many composers, such as Richard Strauss, had had their music appropriated by the Third Reich. In order to avoid this happening again, these composers, many of whom were associated with the Darmstadt School in Germany, attempted to create a new style of music to which no ideological meaning could possibly be attached.  [6]  Boulez believed music serialism to be the form that allowed for maximal permutations and maximal creative freedom; those permutations and that freedom were not infinite, however, but bounded by the constraints of 12 pitches.

Musical serialism’s break with musical language based on classical tonality was purely mathematical:  scientific and philosophic, even, as “tonal thought,” according to Boulez, is based on a universe defined by gravity and attraction, and “serial thought” on a universe in continuous expansion.  Refuting “merely pleasing” harmonic compositions based on the closed totality of an exchange-based society and bourgeois and nationalist sentiment, the growing autonomy of modernist serial music not only from other art forms but from its own formulaic structures and compositional aims, according to Adorno, soon formed a recursive loop, raising a chance-based ordering principle to the status of veneration.  In 1949, Adorno warned against the self-referentiality of “emancipated music” as a “blind, alienated, artwork tautologically referring to itself,” employing dissonance and polyphony in place of harmony and melody, as a means of liberation of form.  Serial music, for Adorno, was in danger of becoming a monadic closed form that imitated rather than transcended the very superstructures it sought to critique.

Avant-garde pioneer John Cage’s 1954 work “4:33” (in which he asked the audience to listen not to “music” but their own breathing and ambient sounds), stripped an audience of stimuli, presenting a powerful counterexample to music serialism being made during his time, as the element of chance was not to be found in the musical “form” but the individual listener’s particularlized response.  “I do not disturb your center, nor you mine,” said Cage, who, by inviting collaborations by performers left opportunities for random effects, a scrambling of the order of the score, and improvisation, radically altered the paradigmatic structure of how people perceived “sound.”  Cage’s music experiments were a way to preserve the tonal center of the listener’s inner ear not by enchanting them with symphonic rhapsodies or assaulting them with atonal cacophonies, but by creating for the audience an auditory space to allow for resonance between the sounds emitted and the tuning fork of the listener’s ear.

This method was derived, in part, from Cage’s study of Zen Buddhism:  unlike Boulez, whose aim wasn’t to liberate sound, or the listener, but to grant total control of the musical elements to the composer, Cage believed that the artist must utterly abdicate control over the work in order to “let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments.” [7] Boulez’s theory of “guided chance” (emphasizing the composer as producer) and Cage’s, of “pure chance” (in which the listener produces the meaning) merged on the following point:  is musical notation of any kind an outmoded way of organizing rhythmic patterns that are inherently unpredictable, because embodied in the listener, and concretized in intervals of space and time?

Boulez turned to film to shape his thinking about “free form,” comparing, in a 1964 interview, guided chance to the work of the metteur-en-scène, who reconciles chance and composition through the invention of a labyrinth with a set number of paths.  In Boulez’s essay “Sonate, que me veux-tu?” (1960), he elaborated the idea of the maze in the modern work of art, characterizing it as a productive antimony to the conception of the artwork as a single object of contemplation, in relation to which the spectator adopts her (perspectival or critical) position.   In a subsequent interview, Boulez expressed that he saw the evolution of film form as comparable to that of contemporary music, which had moved beyond a closed Copernican conception of the universe to “un univers de formes relatives” where it was perceived to be in “révolution permanente.”  Rejecting Western classical music’s disavowal of active audience participation, Boulez viewed aleatory music (with parameters) as a phenomenon that allowed its listener to understand the work only by following its course with total, constructive attention.

The methodology and politics of controlling the senses is central to the history of cinema as well.  The cinema presents us with a view of action that is completely under the control of the director (or in the case of music serialism, the composer) at every moment.  Our eye cannot wander across the screen, as it can in a painting or the stage.  The camera is an absolute dictator, said Barthes, “showing us a face when we are to see a face, and nothing else.”  Much of the passive consumption (and passive production, vis-à-vis technology) of contemporary art today, in Cage and Boulez’s time, was radicalized in forms of guided or pure chance in music and film as well as painting:  Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian developed highly sophisticated forms of “serial painting,” based on the relationship between formal parameters and the proliferation of interpretations.   Klee, a trained violinist, used the word “polyphony” to describe music containing parts of equal significance played simultaneously, a word which referred to a new form of artist composition he developed that harnessed a variety of formal elements such as color and graphical structures.  “Polyphonic paintings,” defined by Klee as a harmony of forms in which color takes on a specific significance, had the potential to be even more complex than polyphonic music:  “Polyphonic painting is superior to music insofar as the temporal element has more of a spatial quality.  The sense of simultaneity emerges in an enriched form.”  Many of Klee’s paintings bear witness to his mastery of this style, most particularly “Dynamic—Polyphonic Group,” “Palace Garden,” “Northern Room,” “Tendril” and his opus magnum, “Ad Parnassum.” [8]

Electronic music’s furthest outposts today (e.g. the Automated Harmonization of Melody in Real Time, an interactive computer system that combines realtime melodic analysis and harmonic accompaniment) can be seen as an outgrowth of serial music composers’ interest in the relationship between notation and recursive forms of repetition based on tonal centers, and the formal introduction of elements of chance, moving us both closer and at the further remove from Carl Dahlhaus’ characterization of post-Wagnerian instrumental music:  “the prototype of an alternative world.” [9]  From the late 1960s on, music (in part because of the affordability of electronic and electromechanical sound producing devices such as the telharmonium, electric guitar,  Theremin, sound synthesizer and computer) shifted the means of its production from compositional forms to digital production, though early reverberation units and tape recording devices (e.g. the late 19th-century invention of the phonautograph and the phonograph, analogues of the ear canal consisting of a recording surface and a motor).  The rationale of musical nominalism (no compositional formulae nor contrapuntal forms) has given rise to an era of music mediated by computers and electronica, wherein music strains beyond the sounds emitted from traditional instruments to the wide-ranging sea of “effects” that can be generated from synthetic sounds and industrial noises.

The electronic music of today (cutting a broad swath internationally from the 70s on, including electronic art music, musique concrète, the industrial music and synth pop styles of the 1980s, italo disco, techno, house, trance, electro, breakbeat, jungle, drum and bass, and experimental and home listening forms of electronica such as IDM, glitch, and trip-hop, and, after the proliferation of personal computers and the MIDI interface beginning in the 1980s, chip music or bitpop) encourages listener interactivity by collapsing the spatio-temporal boundary between composer and listener, giving listeners putative agency in the creation of the sound, through mobile apps facilitating song requests and remix competitions, to the ability to become part of a light show or even contribute live sound during a performance.

The question of meaning remains as pertinent today as it did fifty years ago:  as Robert Hullot-Kenter said, modern music’s refutation of received meanings and ideological entrapments led to its subservience not to the emancipated production of meaning, but determinate contradiction, at best, and determinate negation, at worst. [10]   The ongoing politics of engaging with versus productively alienating an audience, remain central to digital technologies, given that meaning as a co-constitutive agreement between performer and audience is only progressive if it literally “means something” for a listener—for it is from the ability to interpret music as meaningful that we discover, through active listening and new performance theories, the ability to respond.

One must soberly ask, in light of the enthusiastic rhetoric that surrounds new forms of postmodern audience participation:  are these forms of “agency” designed to empower the listener, creatively or critically, or merely offer the simulated (“technical”) illusion thereof?  The mimetic replication of urban and post-industrial noises reinscribes the very determinisms that all art forms both inherit and strive to overcome, and while on a neurological level the ear enjoys assimilating unfamiliar sounds, and harsh noises generated from dissonance, punk, heavy metal or electronic music, can induce an “unpleasing” cerebral pleasure, the sustained withholding of aural pleasure from the listener may be the last insidiously lingering form of 21st century authoritarian “control” of all.

Whether we relocate the human need for pleasure in forms of music (Cage’s “4’33”) that confound our very idea of sound, or a commitment to qualifying all sounds (euphonic, atonal, “natural,” and synthetic) as music, the act of withholding pleasure from a listener has aesthetic and social dimensions, which, if made conscious, could help make the evolution of music and listening today an act of cultural rebellion:  a return to the intimate contract established between a composer and a listener, and the pleasures and responsibilities of meaning-making outside of hollowed-out factories of emptied (and easily reproducible) husks of content:  the ghostly traces of intention, subjectivity, and form.


[1] Greenberg, Clement.  Art and Culture: Critical Essays.  Boston:  Beacon Press, 1971.
[2] Cohen, Jean-Louise.  Le Corbusier, 1887-1965: The Lyricism of Architecture in the Machine Age.  Berlin:  Taschen, 2005.
[3]  Hejinian, Lyn.  The Language of Inquiry.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2000.
[4] Barthes, Roland.  Image-Music-Text.  Trans. Stephen Heath.  New York:  Hill and Wang, 1978.
[5] Notation of any kind is a modern invention, of course:  it didn’t exist in medieval music or the music theory of Pythagoras, nor in monastic music, though some medieval composers wrote a form of serial music using isorhythm, a rhythmic pattern that repeats successively regardless to which melodies it belongs.
[6] Since the end of World War II, the Darmstadt School has continued to serve as a historically important meeting place where musicians from around the world discuss, debate, and explore approaches to composition and performance, theoretical analysis, and music technology.
[7] Cage, John.  Silence:  Lectures and Writing.  Middletown:  Wesleyan Press, 1961.
[8] Düchting, Hajo.  Paul Klee:  Painting Music.  New York:  Prestel, 1997.
[9] Dahlhaus, Carl.  The Idea of Absolute Music.  Trans. by Roger Lustig.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1991.
[10] Adorno, Theodor.  Adorno:  Philosophy of New Music.  Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor.  Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press:  2006.
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