Sunday, December 16, 2007

OK, here's a short essay I've been writing on Jacques Attali's "Noise" and particularly what he calls "composing". It wasn't written for this blog, so the style may sound a bit odd.

However, it does explain the new name and header graphic.

Attali takes a look at the "political economy" of music and makes the bold claim that music "heralds" or prefigures new "codes" (modes of organization) of political / economic life. The claim is explained (reasonably, I think) by appealing that music has, for the historical period Attali discusses, tended to be far more "virtual" or less material than other trades. Hence, if a new economic code is starting to become available, the musician is less weighed down by physical paraphernalia from adopting it.

Undoubtedly Attali's thesis is open to debate. But there are several aspects I find compelling. Of particular interest is the short, final chapter in which he tries to diagnose the future from the musical developments of his times. (The late 70s.) In this chapter, Attali foresees a code he calls "composing" in which a break is made with the preceding epoch of mechanical (mass) reproduction of music. "Composing" is a, perhaps utopian, vision of a code wherein music ceases to be based on an economic division of labour between musician and audience, but is made by individuals for purposes of self-expression. Attali took "free jazz" as an indicator of this. An area where he also saw a rebellion of musicians against studios, record labels and any other intermediaries that provided the economic context for musical production.

Surveying his times, Attali also noted "there is a resurgence in the production of popular music using traditional instruments, which are handmade by the musicians themselves - a resurgence of music for immediate enjoyment ... music is no longer made to be represented or stockpiled, but for participation in collective play, in an ongoing quest for new, immediate communication, without ritual and always unstable"

He was not wholly deterministic in his historicism. The utopia could be waylaid. He worried : "should we read this emergence as the herald of a liberation from exchange value, or only of the emplacement of a new trap for music and its consumers, that of automanipulation? The answer to these questions, I think, depends on the radicality of the experiment. Inducing people to compose using predefined instruments cannot lead to a mode of production different from that authorized by those instruments"

People must create their own instruments to create their own music. Not all new technologies are emancipatory. His fear is embodied by a kind of karaoke : recorded "instrumentals" of popular songs for the buyer to sing over. Here is a new product which gives the user a false sense of individual creation and expressivity; it includes the user in the production of music, but keeps the user on the tramlines dictated by the manufacturer.

Had the book been written ten years later, with an eye on the developments in the late 1970s and 1980s, the analysis could perhaps have been impressed by a number of technological and cultural developments; in particular :

- Cheap cassette recorders enabled the first wave of civil disobedience against industrial mass-commercialization of music through "home taping", while allowing listeners to start discovering a more curatorial relationship with music through making their own mix-tapes.

- Hip-hop appropriated the record turntable and converted it into a new musical instrument entirely.

- By the mid-80s, the digital sampler encouraged musicians and non-musicians to treat other musical recordings as a resource to be picked-up, (re)mixed and matched and repurposed. (Often, it should be stressed, while explicitly referencing or "citing" the earlier sources.)

I would argue that sampling (and subsequent repurposings of music, video, electronic equipment etc.) corroborates Attali's predictions of a break-down between musician and (non-musician) audience, and the creation of new instruments - even if not in the way he intended. And it further succeeds in heralding the wider political economic shifts that were to come with the growth of the world-wide web in the succeeding years.

Jazz musicians invent ideas as self-expression, but will then borrow and elaborate on the ideas of their co-performers. "Trading" licks is perhaps a misnomer; the situation is closer to reciprocal gift-giving. The sample-based electronic dance culture that started in the 1980s is similarly concerned with opportunistic borrowings and repurposings of other people's ideas. And, if the musicians sometimes hope to get rich, the scene is nevertheless a teeming, but largely under-funded ecology of pirate radio, underground clubs, indie record labels and MP3 swapping, where most participants are in it for fun. (And a little fame.)

In another passage from the last chapter of Noise, Attali has a fascinating claim. He sees that a new technology is necessary for a new code, and while he still thinks music is premonitory he also imagines that the recording of personal images and a kind of personal "television" is going to be the natural development of "composing". He concludes : "The new instrument thus emerging will find its real usage only in the production, by the consumer himself, of the final object, the movie made from virgin film. The consumer, completing the mutation that began with the tape-recorder and photography, will thus become a producer and will derive at least as much of his satisfaction from the manufacturing process itself as from the object he produces. He will institute the spectacle of himself as the supreme usage."

Unsurprisingly, Attali missed on the technical detail, but the similarity between "institute the spectacle of himself as the supreme usage" and the evolution of the web with millions of blogs and tens of millions of personal home-pages on social networks such as MySpace and Facebook (complete with photo-galleries, embedded video etc.) is striking.

I would like to say that "composing" can be more tightly defined as a combination of these elements :

1) spontaneous creation for the purpose of self-expression (and desire to create, desire to gift, even to show off)

2) opportunistic appropriation and repurposing of these creations as raw material for further creation and further self-expression (compare response videos, parodies on YouTube etc.)

3) making your own instruments (often also via appropriation and repurposing - not only "sampling" other instruments, but hip-hop repurposing the turn-table, “circuit-benders” using other electronics to create new sounds)

4) breaking down the economic distinctions between musician and non-musician / performer and audience / star and fan / zone of production and zone of consumption

Composing should be contrasted with a planned production of music through co-ordinated division of labour, well defined roles and property rights.

This new political-economic mode is, of course, now widely acknowledged and researched under such names as "peer-production" or "the architecture of participation". It is usually associated with the increased visibility of the Free Software movement in the 90s or "blogging" in the 00s (bloggers are great opportunistic "samplers" and "citers" of other online resources). But it is clearly of a continuity with these earlier musical activities.

And looking outward, it is increasingly invading more "serious" parts of the economy. Companies are today exhorted to learn how to turn their customers into co-creators of their products and services. John Hagel and John Seely Brown talk about "Pull Platforms" in which the organization of any kind of production is increasingly driven by the consumer opportunistically pulling products through the manufacturing process. The end game here could be Bruce Sterling's "Spimes" (objects which don't exist until someone decides she wants one.)

However, as the economy shifts in this direction, we also encounter variations on the threat that Attali warns of. The karaoke that produces the appearance of free expression but keeps the audience well within the existing boundaries : simulacra of participation such as "reality" TV that gives the audience a limited voting role and MMORPGs / virtual worlds whose "architecture of participation" is abusive; or similarly cavalier orchestrators of participation like Facebook who encourage you to contribute your social connections only to blatantly resell them to advertisers.

Anyway, that's the rough outline. To re-iterate "composing" is personal production, largely motivated by self-expression, but plugged into a web which makes accessing and appropriating other people's creations easy. That situation occurred with improvised music about 40-50 years ago. with digital sampling about 20 years ago (and so changed the shape of music). It was only 5 - 10 years later in the mid-90s that it started making it's effects felt in software development as Free Software went mainstream. By the 00s it had become a challenge to mainstream media of all kinds (blogs vs. journalists, MySpace, YouTube vs. television, file-sharing vs. pushed distribution channels)

It is coming to the manufacturing of physical stuff too.

Global process networks are getting more flexible; OEMs are flourishing. Johnny Chung Lee demonstrates impressive inventions that can be made at home by repurposing the Wiimote. (Of course this is because more of our stuff is now "software" wrapped around generic computers and input / output devices.)

If those trends continue, and I think they will, we will see more generic building blocks for technology (DIY powertools with multiple drill-bits), more small scale, small run, user pulled, "desktop" manufacturing mash-ups.

All of this is "composing" in Attali's sense ... and that seems to be what this blog is about (and sometimes *doing*) so it's a suitable name

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