April 30, 2009

The Pleasure Resort


“The music-and if possible it should be the same music for everybody-is the most important ingredient. Its function is to prevent thought and conversation.”
“The Pleasure Resort” George Orwell

When one thinks about music today and inquires about its character one is ultimately left with dogmas of both subjectivity and universality that grease the wheels of a neoliberal/capitalist spirit of consumption. A little inverstigation about why these beliefs are indeed dogmas and why these dagmas exist can provide a powerful account of wether aestehtic pleasure can exist under a late-capitalist society. Under such a society, music, behind masks of choice or transendance, serves only the most primary instincts of men and is almost devoid of any other type of communicative capability.

The dogma that music is universal seems to be a post-romantic taboo inherited from Schoppenhaur (but ofcourse its roots can be traced all the way to Plato) about music having the ability to reach the essense of things, or the thing-in-itself. However unlike the popular belief I am deeply convinced that music does have a sort of language one can listen, ignore, not understand, or even learn. That music extends traditional boundries or influences and somehow transcendes the listeners bringing up or background is the biggest illusion a capitalist society plays on us. When the Turkish Presidential Orchestra went to a village near the Eastern part of Turkey to preform the first piano concerto by Brahms, the villagers reacted by saying it was the worst thing that had ever happened to their town. It is foolish to assume that even if they liked it that they will like it the way a trained ear does. It is even more foolish to assume that they can fully deconstruct meaning from the music the same way they could had they known more about the cultural background of the music. Indeed what can make music subjective at all, what creates the oppurtunity for aesthetic choice is that it is not completely subjective. The fact that the song is part of some discourse gives the song some sort of social character which then can be interperted subjectively. This is why for music to be communicative at all it has to be not completely universal and neither be completely subjective. These dogmas arise because every where we are presented with variations of Western harmony, of what is correct and incorrect of what is harmonious or inharmonious. Like every other word the verb to “like” is a tool that makes sense only within the social cases within which it is used. Where the verb “to like” has been described by the products of commercial production “an approach in terms of value judgements has become fiction”. Where “the person finds himself hemmed in by standardized musical goods, he can niether escape impotence nor decide between the offerings where everything is so identical that preference infact depends merely on the biographical details or on the situation in which things are heard”.

The spirit of most modern popular music is reflective of the spirit that consumption is carried out in. The music tries to reach some false sense of pleasure and transcendence which has supposedly cut all its relations from earthly topics and as the music looses its language and its character, more and more, the concepts of aesthetic pleasure and choice rot away until the only choice one is left with is indifference. This is true for techno as it is for dodecaphonic music. The conception of the whole in a piece is denied to achieve some sort of essence in an attempt to divorce the music from earthly influences. Yet in this false effort we find music and especially popular music such as techno, dominated by some of the most basic instincts and the most earthly motivations there are. In capitalist times, what made music autonomous, the momentary dissonance, the deviation from the whole or from what is conventionally harmonious now have turned against autonomy. “The delight in the moment and the gay façade becomes and excuse for absolving the listener in to the acquiescent purchaser. No longer do the partial moments serve as a critique of the whole, instead they suspend the critique which the successful esthetic totality exerts against the flawed one of the society.” Since aesthetic pleasure becomes commodified in such a system, music often becomes accessible to anyone rich enough to pay for the cd, thus starting the false perception that music is without language. And to be fair, most popular music really has no language for all it focuses on is the absence of its own meaning cutting the tongue out of what is known as music, leaving it with nothing to say. Whilst there are small variations in rhythm, not much occurs harmonically there is little to be seen of melody no avant-garde techniques are tolerated if they are too creative and the general atmosphere is one of the early tribal communities with loud drums and a heavy bass sound accompanied by dance and alcohol to provide a false sense of transcendence.

It is true that a historical account of music is a necessary component for a complete account of music, but it is not enough by its own. Therefore a neoclassical yearning for the old style of music being championed over new ones is also incomplete, for the social conditions that have created the previous musical style no longer exists. Of course one could still sing along to Bach’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”, but few actually mean or feel the same way as the original performers, and more importantly the function music plays in society which partially defines our enjoyment from it, is different. To completely understand art one must both recognize the internal dynamics of the work and the socio-historical dynamics that gave these a meaning. Music is a product of the society as much as the society is a product of music and to try and reach closer to the meaning of the work one must evaluate music out of the tension between these two forces. “Truth content is the way in which an artwork simultaneously challenges the way things are and suggests how things could be better, but leaves things practically unchanged: Art has truth as the semblance of the illusionless”
As culture takes a commercial character, commercialism too becomes the very thing we call culture. The value of art, which is inherently subjective is measured against it’s market value and efficiency as society itself becomes more and more obsessed with the accumulation of more capital. This article does not aim at championing the Kami Lounge Big Band gigs over Top Banana but rather to acknowledge that under the current system we continuously make aesthetic choices to find our selves a place to live, an oasis for our intellect, but only to be burnt right back down by it again until it becomes questionable to talk about aesthetics.

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