J-S Bach
John Zorn
John Cage


Music and/as (Dis)Order

[1] Point of departure: music and noise. Music vs. noise. Music constitutes the positive term, noise comprises the negative term. The negative of musical sound is noise. Noise is an undesirable sound, the static on a telephone, the unwrapping of cellophane candies during Mahler. Noise is any sound that interferes; it contaminates what we want to hear. Music is often defined as a pattern of organized sounds, deliberately created in order to produce certain effects, while noise is thought of as sounds that occur naturally or randomly. The steady periodical, stable vibrations of music are in clear contrast to the non-regular and fragmentary vibrations of noise (cf. Nattiez, p.45. cf Murray Schafer, p.5).

[2] In Noise, French thinker Jacques Attali apparently develops a similar outlook. According to Attali, the history of music can be seen as the history of the ordering of noise in codes. However, the impact of music goes beyond this. Attali regards the ability of music to bring about discipline among its major functions. Music can be regarded as an affirmation of the possibility of establishing order in the social. Music is used and produced in an attempt to make people forget the general violence, to make people believe in the harmony of the world, and to silence and censor all other human noises (Attali, p.19). When music banishes noise, it (symbolically) proscribes violence in a more general sense. Thus, music simulates the accepted rules of society. An example. To Attali, the entire history of tonal music amounts to an attempt at making people believe there is harmony in order. '[Tonal] music made harmony audible. It made people believe in the legitimacy of the existing order' (Attali, p.61). Dissonances (conflicts and struggles) are forbidden, unless they are merely marginal and resolved in a higher order and ultimate harmony.
Make people forget, make them believe, silence them. In all three cases, music is an instrument of power. Attali especially sees supporters of totalitarianism as being very appreciative of music as a politically and socially regulative tool: 'They have all explained, indistinctly, that it is necessary to ban subversive noise because it betokens demands for cultural autonomy, support for differences or marginality' (Attali, p.7). They advocate a concern for maintaining tonalism, the primacy of the melody; they distrust new languages, codes, instruments, and refuse the abnormal. Even so, Attali further expresses, in democracies, music is no less used as a 'bulwark against difference', as an instrument for controlling noise, as an institutionalization of the silencing of others. The disciplining capacity merely takes on a less violent, subtler form in these societies. In both cases, however, the normalization and disciplining of and by music means the exclusion of noise, of disorder.

[3] The other of music is noise. In an historical overview, Attali observes that noise is long regarded as a 'threat of death'. Noise is considered a symptom of destruction and pollution and, on a physical level, a source of pain. Beyond a certain limit, it can become a deadly weapon: 'Noise is violence: it disturbs. To make noise is to interrupt a transmission, to kill. It is a simulacrum of murder' (Attali, p.26). If noise is the auditory devil, then music is the ministering angel: 'The whole of traditional musicology analyzes music as the organization of controlled panic, the transformation of anxiety into joy, and of dissonance in harmony' (Attali, p.27). Tonal music in particular absorbs noises and restores order by repressing the tragic dimension of lasting dissonances. Repeated dissonances are prohibited and a tonal piece can certainly not have a dissonant ending. Dissonant music would be the expression of a deficiency and the failure of the channeling of violence. The term, dissonances, in Attali's argument should be viewed, however, in the broad sense of all unwanted sounds and any serious infringement on the existing order. And when Attali addresses music's standardizing and disciplining function, he not only refers to (tonal) music: it includes the educative role of conservatories, the hierarchical organization of orchestras, the passive stand of audiences, the rise of all kinds of organized interest groups, the standardization of production processes, etc. All of these help to banish dissonances. Consequently, a music world develops, one that has no use for disorder or noise. It might even be better to say that certain noises are neutralized immediately after they are introduced into the institutionalized music world, where they are deprived of any harmful impact and adapted into a comforting and reassuring order.

[4] Attali conceives of music as a form of sublimation. Music can be regarded as an echo of the sacrificial channeling of violence. Dissonances are removed from it in order to keep noise from spreading. In this way, it mimics the ritualization of murder in the space of sound (cf. Attali, p.28). However, it is precisely in this 'channeling of violence' and in this 'ritualization of murder' that music can no longer maintain itself as the other of noise, as the exclusively positive term opposed to noise as negativity, as order vs. chaos, as culture vs. nature. (A wide range of oppositions could be added to these.) Gradually, an orderly analysis becomes disrupted. Several signals interfere with the reception of Attali's message. And he is aware of it. Early in his book, Attali already refines his argument on the disciplining function of music. 'A subversive strain of music has always managed to survive, subterranean and pursued, the inverse image of this political channelization: popular music, an instrument of the ecstatic cult, an outburst of uncensored violence ... Here music is a locus of subversion at odds with the official religions and centers of power ... Music ... is simultaneously a threat and a necessary source of legitimacy' (Attali, p.13-4). The subversive element is no less a characteristic of music. An aspect of music that Attali still tries to displace to the margins of music history (he mentions certain pop music or music played at Dionysian feasts) seems to reveal itself precisely through the ritual aspect that music carries with it as a phenomenon that permeates all music. Music's ambiguous role as integrator and subverter leads to Attali's somewhat casual, but important remark 'the rupture music contains within itself'. Music affirms society and disciplines quality. But at the same time it is imbued with subversive elements, always already carrying the other (noise) with it. Every association that was connected to noise - destruction, disorder, aggression against code-structuring messages - turns out to be inseparably connected to what seemed to be diametrically opposed to noise, i.e., music. (Incidentally, this is not a new or remarkable phenomenon. In Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge, Lawrence Kramer writes that especially in the 18th and 19th century, music was almost exclusively thought to be representing the subversive, the disorder, the other.)
'With noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world. With music is born power and its opposite: subversion' (Attali, p.6). This should not be understood as the positive term that nonetheless brings about its own negative with the negative remaining outside of it. Rather, the negative is always already a part of this positive term; it is not situated next to, but right in the middle of it.

[5] Ultimately, Attali observes a new music emerging towards the end of the 20th century, a subversive music. Music turns against itself. As yet subject to the power of the economy that music itself helped to create, 'the seeds of a new noise', a new music, loom up. The entry of noise into music (Attali mentions Luigi Russolo, John Cage, and Jimi Hendrix as examples) represents only a first stage of this development, the liquidation of the old codes. Attali points to another practice: making music on one's own without having a preconceived goal, without holding on to already existing codes and rules. It is a practice that is concerned more with the process of making music and mutual communication than with results (cf. Teaching a Supplement). He calls this practice 'composition': 'Composition ... plugs music into the noises of life and the body, whose movement it fuels. It is thus laden with risk, disquieting, an unstable challenging, an anarchic and ominous festival, like a Carnival with an unpredictable outcome. This new mode of production entertains a very different relation with violence: in composition, noise is still a metaphor for murder. To compose is simultaneously to commit a murder and to perform a sacrifice. It is to become both the sacrificer and the victim, to make an ever-possible suicide the only possible form of death and the production of life' (Attali, p.142-3). Music and noise, order and disorder, stability and instability. They have become one here, inseparably connected to one another. An order is established in the act of making music, but this order is once-only, unique, singular, non-compelling, variable. In 'composition', stability is perpetually called into question. 'Composition' is inscribed in the permanent fragility of meaning. This music is at the same time, noise. It is at once a setting of rules and a questioning and undermining thereof. The same and the other simultaneously. The other within the same.
In her afterword, Susan McClary calls Attali's book 'noise'; it is a noise (non-sense, disruption) against the neat ordering of institutionalized music scholarship and traditional (formalistic) musicology (cf. Attali, p.149). To make a slight distinction from McClary's view, however, it should be noted that this disorder also contains a clear order. Following linear musical historiography, Attali distinguishes four stages in the development of music from the ancient Greeks to the 20th century. The disadvantage of such a model, such categorizing thoughts, is that it excludes exceptions, it has to exclude music that does not fit in these stages. Does Attali leave out the noise? In complete accordance with the imperative logic of belief in progress and a certain unifying pursuit that disallows any subversive or deviant elements, Attali sketches a series of changes in music and in the music world that leaves little room for alternatives. Ultimately, however, Attali's order becomes permeated by a disorder. He describes the final stage of the musical development, 'composition', as 'the permanent affirmation of the right to be different ... the right to make noise, in other words, to create one's own code' (Attali, p.132). If this can be understood as doing justice to the other, the particular, the singular, then there can be no conceivable coordinating order that would encompass this. 'Composition' has become an ambiguous term, an undecidable in which order and disorder intermingle and merge.

[6] Music vs. noise. Order vs. disorder. It is not that simple. Order and disorder are both present within music. Music is order and disorder.
What about the negativity of noise? Despite its connection to 'a threat of death' and 'a simulacrum for murder', to Attali noise is not an exclusively pejorative term. Noise is the source of mutations in structuring codes. 'A network can be destroyed by noises that attack and transform it, if the codes in place are unable to normalize and repress them'. And he continues: 'Despite the death it contains, noise carries order within itself' (Attali, p.33, my italics). Noise is not meaningless; it creates (new) meanings. First, noise signifies the interdiction of the transmitted meaning; it signifies censorship and rarity. Second, noise, by unchanneling auditory sensations, frees the listener's imagination. The presence of noise makes meaning. It makes possible the creation of a new order, of a new code, another network (cf. Attali, p.33). Noise is no longer pure disorder, but is itself always already permeated by its opposite, order. While music in its quality of channeling violence always already carries the violent with it, noise always already contains a certain order. A constant crossover takes place on the border between music and noise that was once well defined and aptly controlled. 'Catastrophe is inscribed in order, just as crisis is inscribed in development. There is no order that does not contain disorder within itself, and undoubtedly there is no disorder incapable of creating order' (Attali, p.34). Noise clearly does not lead towards anarchy, but to new order recreating a system of differences on a different level (Attali, p.34). A profound identity between noise and differences. Remarkable. Earlier in his book he describes music in the exact same way as he sets music and noise alongside each other: 'Music responds to the terror of noise, recreating differences between sounds' (Attali, p.28). This last comment already seems to indicate a reversal of the earlier statement that music is a 'bulwark against differences' (see above). Does music function as an opposition against indifference (noise) or rather, against a radical difference (noise)? Or, is noise an opposition against the indifference of an existing code that has already become weak through use? Moreover, there is this statement: 'First, music - a channelizer of violence, a creator of differences, a sublimation of noise, an attribute of power - creates in festival and ritual an ordering of the noises of the world. Then - heard, repeated, regimented, framed, and sold - it announces the installation of a new totalizing social order' (Attali, p.23). Here, music is first presented as the instigator of differences (Between noise and music? It remains unclear here.) only to subsequently suppress each and every difference (noise?) with brute force. Attali regards music 'as a succession of orders (in other words, differences) done violence by noises (in other words, the calling into question of differences)' (Attali, p.19). Music should perhaps be associated with a stable maintenance of differences, whereas noise would represent the development of a new system of differences. However, when this is about an internal liquidation of codes where music creates the internal conditions for its own rupture, the distinction between noise and music becomes very unclear again.

[7] Attali proves to have varying thoughts in several passages about music, noise, and how they relate to each other. Could it therefore be appropriate to think of Attali's book as a 20th century composition in which the transmission of a message is disrupted (willfully or unwillfully) by a subversive noise? The noise of deconstruction? In a most general sense, the first notion that presents itself to the reader of Noise is the idea of putting music in opposition to noise. Noise is the radical other of music. The statement, 'Music is inscribed between noise and silence' (Attali, p.19), reads as though the borders of music, noise and silence are clearly marked or can be clearly marked. Three coexisting entities. Above, I outlined the ways in which the borders between noise and music dissolve in his argument. While noise is characterized by the adjective 'subversive', music, too, turns out to have a subversive side. Where initially noise is equated to disorder, it also brings on order from within its own core. In yet another passage, Attali seems to want to label noise as a secondary category that merely exists by the grace of an antipodal positivity: 'A noise is a resonance that interferes with the audition of a message in the process of emission. A resonance is a set of simultaneous, pure sounds of determined frequency and differing intensity. Noise, then, does not exist in itself, only in relation to the system within which it is inscribed: emitter, transmitter, receiver' (Attali, p.26-7, my italics). Here, much more emphatically than in the preceding remarks, noise seems to merge as negativity into a general category of music, a hierarchical relation in which noise is designated a less prominent place constituting a negative part of music. In the same paragraph, however, Attali writes, 'All music can be defined as noise given form according to a code' (Attali, p.25). Here, Attali defines noise as the general category of which music is a subspecies. Music seems to require noise in order to define itself. 'The fundamental status of music must be deciphered through that of noise: Noise is a weapon and music, primordially, is the formation, domestication, and ritualization of that weapon as a simulacrum of ritual murder ... In the space of noise it symbolically signifies the channeling of violence and the imaginary, the ritualization of a murder substituted for the general violence, the affirmation that a society is possible if the imaginary of individuals is sublimated' (Attali, p.24 and p.26-7, my italics). And in the same part of the text, he calls music 'a channelization of noise'. In these citations, noise precedes music. Or, noise seems to reveal itself here as a kind of arche-noise in which music, noise, (and silence) become manifest as (hardly) distinguishable categories. Arche-noise. This also legitimizes Attali's pronouncement that 'the theory of noise ... should thus precede the study of the artifact that is the musical work ... The political economy of music should take as its point of departure the study of the material it highlights - noise' (Attali, p.26). The road to music runs through noise; better yet, noise is the road that leads us to the music since the codes for music rest in noise (cf. hierarchical oppositions).

[8] What characterizes noise and music - both contain order as well as disorder - also applies to the musician. Especially the social position of the musician reveals a certain ambivalence, an equivocality that is not an oppositional pair, but rather, a mutual pervasiveness.
In many pre-Socratic cultures, musician, priest and officiate was often a single function. The distinction between musician and non-musician, clergy and laity represents one of the first social differentiations and divisions of labor. Shaman. Musician. He holds a special social function, an exceptional position, a unique status. He is a part of society as much as he is outside or above it: 'The musician is at the same time within society, which protects, purchases, and finances him, and outside it, when he threatens it with his visions. Courtier and revolutionary' (Attali, p.11). On one hand, the musician affirms the existing order through his alliance with political power, while on the other hand, his music, in its quality of transcending the everyday, remains dangerous, disturbing, and subversive. 'The musician, like music, is ambiguous ... If an outcast, he sees society in a political light. If accepted, he is its historian, the reflection of its deepest values. He speaks of society and he speaks against it' (Attali, p.12).
Ancient cultures produced a caste of musician-priests who were endowed with supernatural or civilizing powers; reputed medicinal effects of music allowed musicians to function as therapists. In other ancient civilizations (Islamic societies, Persia), musicians were often slaves or prostitutes who were not allowed to sit and have dinner with common people at the same table. But even in these societies the musician's status was dual, simultaneously excluded (relegated to a place near the lower end of social hierarchy) and superhuman (the genius, the adored and deified star) (cf. Attali, p.12).
The musician. Part of society and outside it, often at the same time. In many respects, the musician resembles the pharmakos that Derrida speaks of in 'Plato's Pharmacy' (Dissemination, p.128-134). Therefore, it is not remarkable that Attali also refers to this figure: 'The musician: the sacrificed sacrificer; the worshipped and excluded Pharmakos; Oedipus and Dionysos' (Attali, p.30). Like the pharmakos, the musician, too, is on the borderline between saint and cursed, benefactor and criminal. He assuages people and grants them a temporary escape from everyday life, but at the same time he remains an outcast prone to scorn and humiliation. In medieval times, the Church adopted an ambivalent stand with respect to his magical practices, recognizing him as beneficial insofar as he healed, harmful insofar as he incarnated the powers of evil. In the Dionysian rites of ancient Greece, the musician was a subversive, at odds with the official religions and centers of power. Sometimes, however, society tolerated these rites, or attempted to integrate them into the official religion (cf. Attali, p.13). Musician and pharmakos: both are on the borderline of being tolerated, even appreciated, and expelled.
Throughout the 18th century as well, the musician found himself in the dual position between order and subversion. On one hand, he still maintained a certain loyalty towards his patrons. Linked to courtly powers, 'his music is a reminder that, in the personal relation of the musician to power, there subsists a simulacrum of ... an order imposed on noise' (Attali, p.48). On the other hand, he becomes aware of the fact that he could associate himself with economic powers other than just the courts. A burgeoning autonomy allows the musician to relate to the existing powers in a far more critical manner than before (cf. Attali, p.50).
Although Attali recognizes and situates the duality of the musician's position primarily in the pre-industrial era, the same characterization holds true for many contemporary musicians. Many pop stars, for example, function as idols or even gods in our secularized society. Adored and worshipped. Many fans want nothing better than to take on the role of pop star. As they develop from small time musicians to star celebrities, these pop stars represent the idea of 'the American Dream'. By doing so, they confirm an existing hierarchical order that allows anyone to reach the top if they adhere to the rules of the political and social game. Still, the same musicians relate to subversive elements that remain inseparably attached to music, a rebellion against the existing order (free sexual morality, use of drugs, obscene or blasphemous lyrics, etc.). The musician is the symbol of the marginal, of disorder, and of subversion as well. Often, this is precisely why he is envied. Protector and criticizer of the existing order and at the same time neither one, nor the other. At once music and noise.