Unanswered questions about "Rough Music"

Charivari is one of the many names (which vary from country to country and region to region) for an ancient and widely diffused act of popular justice, which occurred everywhere in similar, if not identical forms. Such forms are also used as ritual punishments in the cyclical masked feasts and their extreme offshoots, the traditional children's begging rituals; one may therefore immediately draw upon these for an interpretation for charivari-like phenomena. A closer analysis shows that what at first sight seemed to simply to rough and wild acts of harassment are in truth well-defined traditional customs and legal forms, by means of which, from time immemorial, the ban and proscription were carried out. -- Karl Meuli, Gesammelte Schriften (1975), quoted in Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, emphasis added.

A highly evocative phrase, "rough music" doesn't sound difficult to figure out. It must refer to a kind of music, right? -- a form of music that is noisy, raucous, impolite, crude, coarse, unrefined, unpolished or harsh to the ear. Rough music must be another name for certain forms of American popular music (the blues, gospel, free jazz, rock 'n' roll in all its forms, etc. etc.), right? Maybe it doesn't need to be either American or "popular" to be rough music, which might refer to musique concrete or electronic music made in England, continental Europe or Asia. Maybe rough music has nothing to do with style, genre or instrumentation, but instead refers to the recording process, to the stage at which a particular piece of music has been developed in the studio. Musicians and sound engineers speak of "rough takes" of songs and "rough mixes" of albums, don't they?

Significantly, rough music -- at least as the term is used in folklore, ethnography, dictionaries of regional dialects and social histories of England in the 18th and 19th centuries -- has nothing to do with music at all. According to E. P. Thompson, who published a landmark essay in 1972 called "'Rough Music': Le Charivari anglais," and went on to include a whole chapter on the subject in Customs in Common, his 1993 companion to the landmark volume, The Making of the English Working Class, rough music is a generic term for a wide variety of popular rituals in which an embarrassing punishment (we might call it "naming and shaming") is meted out in public to an individual, couple or group of people who have offended the community as a whole, not simply members of it. Coined in the late 17th century, the phrase is the British equivalent of the French charivari, the Italian scampanate and the German haberfeld-treiben, thierjagen and katzenmusik. In 18th and 19th century America, performances of rough music were called "shivarees" and sometimes included tar-and-feathering or riding someone out of town on a rail or pole.

British performances of rough music were, at times, quite elaborate. Thompson notes that the ritual "might include the riding of the victim (or a proxy) upon a pole or a donkey; masking and dancing; elaborate recitatives; rough [sic] mime or street drama upon a cart or platform; the miming of a ritual hunt; or (frequently) the parading and burning of effigies; or, indeed, various combinations of all these." But "beneath all the elaborations of ritual," Thompson writes, "certain basic properties can be found: raucous, ear-shattering noise, unpitying laughter, and the mimicking of obscenities." Elsewhere in his chapter on the subject, Thompson defines rough music as "noise, lampoons, [and] obscenities," "noisy, masked demonstrations with effigies and obscene verses," and "noise and ridicule." To generate the noise, all kinds of instruments (musical and otherwise) were used: pots and pans, marrowbones and cleavers, tongs, tambourines, kits, crouds, humstrums, chains, ram's horns, empty or stone-filled kettles, whistles, rattles, bells, guns and, of course, the human voice, which can be used to yell, scream, howl, grunt, hiss, boo, chant, etc. etc.

And so, we are confronted with a fascinating paradox: performances of rough music involved or were centered upon noise, not noisy or discordant music. As Thompson notes, British performances of rough music didn't involve the tuning, harmonization or even coordination of the instruments in the band, and the performers didn't desire their ritualized gathering to be entertaining or amusing. They were instead trying to make such an unsettling noise that the people to whom it was directed would do whatever was necessary -- pay a stiff fine or move out of town immediately -- to make the rough band stop playing and go away. (Thompson notes that some instances of rough music involved as many as nine nocturnal performances in front of the home of the intended victims.)

But why continue to refer to something as "music" when it is in fact noise, which is the opposite, negation or total absence of music? Why not call it "rough theater" instead? Isn't theater a better approximation of ritual than music? Note well that this paradox isn't the result of bad translations or cultural differences. One of the German equivalents (Katzenmusik, or cat music) also specifically refers to music. Unfortunately, Thompson himself wasn't struck by this paradox, and gave it no attention. He was interested in politics, not music, and so he focused on rough music as an instance of "social self-control," as a custom "in which justice is not wholly delegated or bureau-criticised, but enacted by and within the community."

As a result, Thompson left the musicians among his readers with at least two unanswered questions.

1) What is the relationship between what Thompson calls the "conscious antiphony" of rough music and the self-conscious beauty of the classical symphony? Despite the fact that both were products of the 18th and 19th centuries, rough music and the classical symphony were very, very different from each other. Unlike the classical orchestra, the "rough band" made extensive use of both tuned and untuned percussion instruments, and so bore a certain similarity to bands of African drummers and other musical groups from from "primitive" or "rough" cultures. Unlike the classical orchestra, the rough band had no "conductor" or leader, no specialization of roles, and no internal hierarchy. It didn't play or interpret an already composed song or score: it improvised, collectively, under its own direction, as it went, in the manner of a situationist symphony. And, unlike the classical orchestra, which (merely) appeared and sounded very "respectable," the "anarchic" band of roving musicians had the force of morality (the judgment of the community) behind its performances.

2) What is the relationship between rough music's use of deliberate noise and the deliberate noise "played" by a variety of contemporary musicians, including avant-garde composers such as John Cage, jazz musicians such as Sun Ra, and rock musicians such as Lou Reed? Unlike the performers of rough music, who presumably had no fans or musical admirers at all, these contemporary musicians attract people, not repell them, by playing (recording and releasing) unlistenable noise. Some of this modern noise is made by all-percussion bands (see, for example, Public Image Ltd's album, The Flowers of Romance, released in 1980). Can we attribute this apparent reversal to the possibility that there is no longer a social stigma attached to noise? Or to the simple fact that -- with the possible exception of the English punk band the Sex Pistols, which set after the Queen on a boat during Jubilee Week in 1977 -- bands of contemporary "noise" musicians generally do not camp out in front of houses occupied by people the community has judged to be in the wrong?

At issue in these questions is the value or utility of "harmony." In the classical symphony, harmony and the dramatic resolution of tension are the most important musical concerns. But in both "traditional" rough music and modern-day noise, tension is created but never resolved or dissipated, and harmony is replaced by (a)rhythmic repetition. Indeed, the very desirability and "naturalness" of harmony is gleefully trashed. And so, to the extent that music "itself" is a metaphor for, model of and ideological force within society as a whole -- in other words, to the extent that the political order depends upon "music" to provide a natural analogy for a "social harmony" that is in fact totally artifical and constantly called into question -- both traditional rough music and modern-day noise are deeply subversive. They show that society without "harmony" is possible.

It seems that, with the possible exception of John Cage, contemporary "noise musicians" are aware of the political significance of their work and see themselves as working in open opposition to the criminal justice system. They do not use their noise to publicize and moralize about the petty crimes committed by other members of the community, but to expose and denounce those who commit the more serious crime of claiming to speak for the whole community, while actually speaking for themselves alone. Perhaps this is the case because most contemporary noise musicians have learned all-too-well from personal experience that, as a result of the completely irrelevant fact(s) that they are either African-American and/or involved in experimentation with illegal drugs, the criminal justice system has already identified them as suspected criminals (rowdies, ruffians or "rough types"). See, for example, Clifford Odets' classic Broadway play from the mid-1950s entitled Sweet Smell of Success, which draws upon the efforts of Harry Anslinger's Federal Bureau of Narcotics (predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Administration) to round up thousands of American jazz musicians who smoked marijuana. In response to such targeting, some of these "roughed-up" musicians have given their noise an overty oppositional dimension, or have emphasised those elements in it that were already oppositional. And so we have "rough music by and for rough people," a growing awareness of the subversive powers of noise.

Ironically, the practioners of traditional rough music saw themselves as supplementing or filling in for the criminal justice system, not condemning and opposing it. For example, Andrew Marvell's 18th century pamphlet Last Instructions to a Painter defines rough music as "a Punishment invented first to awe/Masculine wives, transgressing Nature's Law/Where the brawny Female disobeys,/And beats the Husband till for peace he prays;/No concern'd Jury for him Damage finds/No partial Justice her Behavior binds;/But the just Street does the [...] House invade" (emphasis in original). Thompson goes to great lengths to show that performances of rough music didn't always enforce "patriarchal" or puritan sexual mores, and were sometimes used to punish police informers, dishonest traders, strike-breakers or "scabs," and landlords who had illegally evicted his or her tenants. But, despite the noise they made, all of the practioners of traditional rough music were fulfilling an essentially conservative social function: i.e., preserving the boundary or "harmony" between what the community judged to be tolerable and intolerable.

To Contact NOT BORED:
ISSN 1084-7340.
Snail mail: POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998