The First Situationist Symphony

Henri Lefebvre's Introduction to Modernity: Twelve Preludes has been translated into English by John Moore and published by Verso (London and New York, 1995). In his introduction to the book, Lefebvre writes:

That this book is intended to have musical qualities should be obvious. It is constructed like a piece of music. Its wish is to be understood in the mind's ear, to be a cry, a song, a sigh, and not simply to be read as a theoretical and discursive statement. However, the subtitle Twelve Preludes in no way implies any kind of reference to music ancient or modern. It is not inspired by Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, or by dodecaphony, although the presence of the number twelve is by no means fortuitous.

At the end of the book, it is quite clear to the reader that the apparently mystical number twelve is in fact a reference to the twelve-tone scale as it was developed by Arnold Schoenberg. In the early twentieth century, Lefebvre writes elsewhere in Introduction to Modernity, "Schoenberg was dismantling the monolithic structures of classical harmony; and regardless of whether we like the twelve-tone scale or not, we must admit that it was a revolutionary direction for music to take." The problem for Lefebrve -- writing between September 1959 and May 1961, during the period of his "love affair" with Guy Debord and other members of the Situationist International -- was that the "revolutionary direction" taken by music into the twelve-tone scale had turned out to be a dead-end. Not only was the music unlistenable, but the ideology surrounding it had become untenable.

Do we need to begin again? So soon? Perhaps the most memorable meta-musical theme developed by Lefebvre appears in "Towards a New Romanticism?" which is the last of his book's twelve preludes.

We could take this analysis much further -- but where is it leading? To a proposition and a theory. In the eighteenth century (particularly in the second half) and in the nineteenth century (but especially in the first half) there was one avant-garde art, [which was] the driving force behind the other arts: music. It was an art which was to undergo profound changes. The conditions and circumstances of this transformation were manifold: technical inventions (the harpsichord, the pianoforte, equal-tempered tuning), scientific discoveries (the study of resonances and harmonics), social developments (changes in the composition of the public and its taste), even movements in politics (the revolutionary crisis in France and in Europe). The debates this transformation provoked centered on philosophical concepts (the concept of nature, for example) and lasted for more than a century, often erupting in fierce quarrels, with significant repercussions. Music gives a far-reaching impetus to the other arts, to thought and to science, to life and manners and love and ways of living: harmony becomes the universal goal, everyone's desire, everyone's ideal way of life [...] We will go so far as to say that this creativity [of musical harmony] produced an upheaval which spread from music into poetry, painting, and finally -- in France and thanks to Stendhal -- into literature and ways of living. It was a tidal wave which became swollen with the ideological flotsam and jetsam it swept up in its path, and before finally dying away it had changed the way the world was perceived, and even ways of loving and satisfying the senses.

This is a catchy little tune about the revolution of everyday life, but Lefebvre doesn't want us humming it all day: "Instead we will concentrate on the following question: what impetus could create a comparable tidal wave capable of sweeping through aesthetics (leaving the social and political domains to one side) in the second half of what we conventionally call the twentieth century?" In other words, "What art, what form of thinking could assume the function of an avant-garde or a 'homing device'?"

Significantly, Lefebvre's book leaves music behind and begins to move on toward architecture and town planning: these could assume the leading roles of "pilot art," that is, "if they can be rescued from the prejudices of neoclassicists and functionalists." What happened to music? "Music?" Lefebvre echoes. "But what kind of music? Atonal? Concrete? Electronic? It would appear that modern music has still to find its direction; it can no longer claim to have the leading role of 'pilot art' it enjoyed in the old romantic era. Unless, one day soon, composers manage to pull something unexpected out of the hat . . . ." Needless to say, there is no point in sitting around, waiting for "composers" to do something really unexpected, for composers -- as a privileged and specialized class of musical laborers -- were only revolutionary within the "old romantic era" that had, by the early 1960s, been over for nearly a half-century.

Perhaps we should be astonished that -- for a polymath such as Lefebvre, writing during the years that PFC Elvis Presley was stationed in Europe -- "modern music," even the generic category "music," does not include rock'n'roll, or any other form of popular music. When Lefebvre asks himself about the kinds of music that are current, all his answers come from the field of "serious" music, from the world of High Art. Lefebvre presents himself as completely uninformed about (or completely uninterested in) the various forms of popular music. Why doesn't he think to mention the blues, or jazz, or soul? This question should be asked in unison with another question, one about Guy Debord's film La Societe du Spectacle: why is the only music in it a few short and unimpressive passages from a fucking violin and harpsichord sonata written in the 19th century by Michel Corrette?

It seems that for both Lefebvre and Debord -- as well as for the rest of the Situationist International, which systematically explored every "pop" art form available to it, except for music -- most (if not all) of the "revolutionary" musical developments of the twentieth century are merely evidence of the larger process of spectacular cultural decomposition under capitalism. Furthermore, it seems that this lack of interest in musical forms marks a regression from the advances made by Isidore Isou's Lettrists in the early 1950s. As our Lettrist Poetry cassette (BSQR #1, 1995) makes clear, the Lettrists weren't simply interested in the concept of modern music: they were dedicated to and very good at making modern music.

Fortunately for all concerned, the progress of music isn't dependent upon and doesn't wait for the development of theory: the dialectical unfolding of the practice of music has its own autonomy. Each new musical instrument -- even each new modification of an old instrument -- facilitates the extension of musical technique; every time it is extended, technique offers new ideas of what kinds of music are now (and only now) "possible." In the words of Chris Cutler, drummer for such experimental "jazz-rock" groups as Henry Cow and the Art Bears, and author of File Under Popular: Theoretical and Critical Writings on Music (Autonomedia, 1993),

Each discovery or 'solution opens the door onto a new potentiality and a new set of 'problems,' and in this way music organically develops and transforms: its techniques and vocabularies expand; its concerns change. None of these things can be called back or proscribed. If ignored they will not go away, undo themselves or cease to exert their transforming pressure on the whole.

Thus our purpose here is to update -- if not actually produce -- the situationist theory of music in the context of the developments in musical practice that have escaped the notice of our intellectual predecessors (in particular, Lefebvre and Debord). This (updated) theory will aspire to identify what is immanent in modern music and to hear the future as its exists in the music of the unliberated present. We are motivated in these efforts by Situationist Symphony, No. 1: The First Situationist Symphony, which we ourselves recorded on 4 May 1996.

To begin yet again: unlike Henri Lefebvre, we do not think that one fine day music was suddenly catapulted into the role of the central art of the times; we do not think that music, prior to that event, was not already the central art of the times; and we do not think that music is no longer the central art of our times. Music was, is and will always be the avant-garde art form. And that is because the human facility of memory is paradoxically the best at suggesting what the future might be like.

Like Chris Cutler, we see "a clear dialectic at work [in Western musical history], and that from quantitative changes within one form comes a qualitative change, a negation of that form, and this transformation accompanies, or rather is an aspect of, a revolutionary transformation in society in itself." Within this dialectic, we may discern three analytical and historical categories or levels of musical discourse: 1). the feudal; 2). the capitalist; and 3). the situationist.

In the feudal stage of music, the human body is the medium in which musical memories are stored, as well the primary instrument with which musical sounds are created. Musical practice is an "expressive attribute" of the whole community; the purpose of music is collective participation. As a result, no piece of music is ever "completed" and thus available to claims of personal ownership. In any case, in feudal music there is no productive distinction between musical composers and musical performers: specialization of roles has not yet occurred. Since no one is an "expert," improvisation plays an important role in the generation and perpetuation of this music.

In the capitalist stage of music, written notation is the medium in which musical memories are stored. Because of the precision of notation, new instruments are now in constant demand; indeed, under capitalism, the design and production of musical instruments becomes a central (even industrial) feature in the life of music. Musical practice becomes highly specialized: composers of music and performers of music begin to split into two groups, giving rise to tremendous advances in technique, but also to the loss of a common musical vocabulary and understanding. Notation also creates the necessity for "completed" works of music, "definitive" scores and copyrighted reproductions that can be circulated and stored as commodities. Music becomes spectacularized by capitalism, for notation (or the phenomenon of "musical harmony") is a primarily a visual medium, while music is fundamentally aural. Improvisation, by definition, is impossible, as is participatory enjoyment on the part of the audience.

Finally, in the situationist stage, recording is the medium in which musical memories are stored. No "new" musical instruments are necessary for music to be played or to progress any further. Recording technologies themselves can be "played" as if they were instruments, rather than simply functional devices; they can be used to "memorize," analyze and manipulate their own sounds as well as any sound (created by a properly musical instrument or not) that has ever been recorded and made available. As a result, recording flattens out any distinctions that might have once been drawn between the "high" forms of Art Music and the "low" forms of Folk and popular music. Anyone with a machine capable of playing the recordings has access to (effective possession of) the memory of all of music. Indeed, anyone with a combination tape player/recorder can now be a "composer" or a "performer," as well as a mere consumer of musical commodities. The unity of player, instrument and community is reestablished. Improvisation again becomes something that everyone -- even "composers" -- can do; recording allows the extension of improvisation (back) into musical composition.

Where in this dialectical unfolding are we today, in 1996? It would appear from the longevity, creative vitality, cultural visibility, and resilient popularity of hip hop music -- which is founded upon such recording-based techniques as sampling, scratching and looping -- that we have reached the stage of situationist music. We have reached the stage at which relatively large numbers of groups of people -- fans of "alternative" rock as well as hip hop -- are carrying out revolutionary transformations of the relations of production, circulation and consumption of music. These groups satisfy the minimum requirements sketched out by Chris Cutler: they embrace and put to creative use the newest and the potentially most expressive media technologies; as egalitarian collectives, they unite within themselves the functions of "composer" and "performer"; they function as financially independent organizations, free from the dictates of controlled distribution; they bring to bear extra-musical skills and resources, such as theories of their own practice; and they are rooted in Afro-American musics, which somehow possess the ability to speak "to all the victims of the new economic order [of capitalism], whether they [are] conscious of their oppression or not" (Cutler).

But on the level of political economy, we are still at the capitalist stage. Let us remember that "classical" or Art music only came to command deep and universal cultural authority because its innate, evolutionary potential perfectly matched the ideological and aesthetic needs of the rising class, the revolutionary bourgeoisie. For situationist music to sweep aside the ideological flotsam and jetsam of what remains of the classical tradition of musical practice, and thereby have room to grow unimpeded, the proletariat -- the class whose precise historical mission is the abolition of class society -- must fight and win its own revolution. Truly situationist music can only exist when there is nothing to prevent it from developing, when society itself has become situationist (that is, truly classless). Needless to say, this has not yet happened, though it grows ever more necessary.

We sing in unison a theme -- developed by Chris Cutler -- that sounds as if it's a tune from Lefebvre's Introduction to Modernity.

This is the critical point: ours is a [capitalist] culture saturated by commodities, a culture that is to say whose acts and products are characterised by the alienation intrinsic in the form of the Commodity. Any analysis that fails to take this into account will never be able to do more than grapple with outwards forms and appearances [...] This alienation permeates all cultural exchanges; it militates to atomise every aspect and element of them; it renders 'meanings' optional; and its ideological effect, though invisible, is devastating. For instance, commodities encourage, in place of active critical engagement, a passive absorption by their consumers of whole and undigested 'quanta' of information, opinion, values, -- so long as they are acceptably wrapped -- later to be regurgitated, still whole and undigested, but now as their own information, opinion or values -- seemingly the product of evaluation and contemplation, actually a kind of involuntary [second-order] commodity-exchange. Of course, such an uncritical process can only work when it reinforces or elaborates what is already installed. 'Quanta' which 'don't fit' will be rejected or simply eliminated.

Thus we should be wary of premature celebrations of the first stirrings of situationist music. "The alienation inherent in the relations of commodity exchange will not be overcome until commodity exchange itself disappears," Cutler warns; "We shall [in the meantime] be able to do no more than struggle towards new relations of consumption, no more than strengthen liberating forces."

Situationist Symphony, No. 1: The First Situationist Symphony may be taken as (was designed to be) a good case in point, or, if you prefer, a point of departure. Technically speaking, the Symphony is a tape recording of a 30-minute-long performance that brought together in a single, flowing collage a very diverse assortment of commodified sounds. Inspired by the apparently trivial or alienated realization that our apartment is filled with a variety of modern sound-making devices, the Symphony was simultaneously composed and performed (that is to say, totally improvised) by "playing" at least two, but no more than three, of these "meta-musical instruments" at the same time. Thanks to the low cost of what the spectacle calls "consumer" electronics, we found ourselves in possession of no less than four very different and very versatile modern sound-making devices: an AM/FM radio; a stereo television set with remote control; a conventional radio/tape-player; and a new fangled combination radio/tape-player/CD-player. Each one of these situationist musical instruments is capable of transmitting or reproducing an immense -- and ever-growing -- variety of recorded sounds, voices, musics and noises. Indeed, the only factor that limited the range of the musical elements that we could call upon for our Symphony was the relatively small size of our collections of tapes and CDs. And yet -- small as they might be -- those collections were more than enough for one very rich symphony.

Precisely as if we were our own record-buying audience -- even though no exchange of money for product took place -- we listened to the play-back of the symphony we'd just performed with the surprise and delight that only a first listen to a piece of music can bring. Inevitably, we most enjoyed the parts that -- despite their apparent internal logic and cohesion -- were the results of fortuitous accidents, chance operations, and the aleatory. But who can believe now that these "inspired decisions" -- to have John Coltrane take an alto sax solo right in the middle of an Indian war call, for example -- were in fact pure accidents? Paradoxically, we ourselves can't believe it, even though we know better than anyone else that no one "composed," "wrote" or "intended" any of those moments to take place in the way that they did. And so we are energized and excited by the very existence of the hidden possibilities of which we've caught just a glimpse. We yearn to perform yet another symphony -- we yearn to perform the "same" symphony another time -- without knowing or even caring if there is in fact a difference between the two. We yearn to make a whole symphony of situationist symphonies, to lose ourselves in a never-ending concert of the most beautiful music we can imagine. In a word, we yearn!

But until such time as our Situationist Symphony can be freely circulated and played on the radio and in concert halls, without fear of anyone being sued by the owners of all the copyrighted material we have appropriated, that is all we can do.

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