"Avowing the Unavowable": On the Music of Composition

Thomas Rickert and Byron Hawk

Enculturation, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1999

About the Author
Table of Contents

To compose . . . is to give to do, not to give to hear but to give to write. The modern location for music is not in the concert hall, but the stage on which the musicians pass . . . from one source of sound to another.
(Barthes, “Musica Practica”)

We know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theoretical’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and crash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.
(Barthes, “The Death of the Author”)

To confront music is to address the issue of being composed. Such a statement seems counterintuitive, perhaps. But ever since Nietzsche located the best of a culture from out of its eruptions through music, and ever since Adorno diagnosed the worst of a culture through its music, the close link between music and its hearing seems less secure. The legacy of Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style and Marcus’ Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century is to extend the modern location for music beyond the concert hall, and also beyond the stage, to the text. The move is not only from one sound to another, but from one semiotically rich scene to another, one genealogy to another, one legacy to another, and all in search of new sources, new links, new writings.

For Cixous, “Writing is the delicate, difficult, and dangerous means of succeeding in avowing the unavowable” (Three Steps 53). And this is doubly so with music. In a fashion unlike other subjects, music is hard to write about. Unlike the landscape of the written text, the soundscape is noticeably deterritorialized. A soundscape, in the terminology of Deleuze and Guattari, is a smooth space of writing/music/culture rather than a striated space of writing, music, culture. This trinary complex, this smooth space, is not to be taken as our creation. Rather than a creation of writers, it is a creation of writing. Heidegger has told us that language is the “house of Being,” and in that “house” it is language that speaks us. But music does not speak, nor does it speak us. Music is neither composer nor composed; rather, it is a sound-image that composes--creates compositions, assemblages, links. Music composes us when we listen to it and when we write about it.

As a deterritorial force, music has no meaning. Meaning is written into music. Because music does not speak, various cultural, political, and/or economic discourses try to territorialize it, make it speak with an Author-God meaning. Geoff Sirc, in “Godless Composition, Tormented Writing,” quotes Bataille’s Guilty: “Writing’s always only a game played with ungraspable reality . . . ” (qtd. 549). On various levels, all of the pieces in this issue are dealing with the way culture comes in to write this ungraspable excess, music, and by extension those who consume it--live in it. Best and Kellner address the way Rap gets written into the political landscape. Erickson examines the difficulty criticism has had with its attempts to territorialize music. Whalley investigates the way avant-garde music is territorialized by the university structure, and is taken away from its mass cultural context. Robe, on the other hand, shows how avant-garde technique’s can function within a mass cultural context without necessarily being territorialized. In the content and style of his writing, Schneidermann creates an analog for the deterritorialized position he ascribes for music. Both Cole and Isaksen discuss the way music, image and style write either dominant or resistant identities--the way music composes us. For Gray, resistant readings are coded by the cultural context in such a way as to subvert a decisive reading. Pattie examines the quality of “authenticity” and shows how it gets constructed and written into music/culture. Similarly, White investigates the way the author-function codes our reading of music, and how that function can be called to our attention.

Because only language speaks, it must speak for music. And when we write about music, we can only do so through a discussion of its relationship to culture. Again, music is not composed, not just a composition, but an active force in composing new relations, new evocations, between self and other, between language and mood, between culture and individuals. As it arranges and assembles, language glides over the mobile surfaces of these junctions, setting into writing cultural nodes of musical meaning. But this process of writing elides how music is in itself already a writing in everything but name--it writes us as it composes. The question is more than just one of perspective, but one of traversing the very conceptual field that defines what music and writing are, and that holds them within a particular boundary of each other within that field. As Sirc points out in “Godless Composition,” “[c]omposition never seems to ask the question (to paraphrase Duchamp) whether one can make works which are not works of writing” (543). Pattie, for instance, notes that music is designated authentic or inauthentic via a series of performances. A performance constitutes a composition not only between the performer and the audience, but also between the performer, critic, and audience. Both the musical performance and the written performance of the critic are equally writings--attempts to produce territorializations of sound that arise precisely from the interplay of musical affect and performativity.

Whalley, for example, discusses the way the University structure actually performs a decomposition, separating avant-garde music from possible compositions with an audience. The isolation of this music, the limited purview of its compositional potential, functions to decompose music as the performance of cultural writing, or at least to confine it to the culture of the university. We are reminded here of what Gregory Ulmer says in “The Object of Post-Criticism,” that “[u]nlike Heidegger, who declared that art ‘speaks,’ Derrida insists on the muteness of the series, or on its capacity to work without concept, without conclusions” (93). Whalley tells us that regardless of how a music is confined and limited in its capacity to perform its composition with a social body, it nevertheless continues its compositional work beyond the threshold of the concept and far from the defining limit of the conclusion. Its compositional purview, that is, transcends all conceptions we might have of audience, reception, and definition. Music composes us, but not solely on the basis of who we are as an audience, as a social body, as a culture; rather, its compositional force stems precisely from its muteness, its demand to evoke from us both speech and affect. Its power lies precisely in its incommensurability with language, but this incommensurability cannot nevertheless be said to preclude its compositional force as a form of cultural writing.

Perhaps a more specific discussion of the mode of composition in practice is in order here. As part of its territorialization of avant-garde forms, the university provides composers with technology--the synthesizers, the studios, the spaces for performance. The “sound machine,” as Deleuze calls it, is not a machine for reproducing sounds. Rather, it

molecularizes and atomizes, ionizes sound matter. . . . By assembling modules, source elements, and elements for treating sounds (oscillators, generators, and transformers), by arranging microintervals, the synthesizer makes audible the sound process itself, the production of that process, and puts us in contact with still other elements beyond sound matter. (A Thousand Plateaus 343)
In other words, the synthesizer is not simply about reproducing sounds, but about creating compositions. It is an interface between the composer and the process of composition--musical, social, and aesthetic--that makes the excess of music speak.
It unites disparate elements in the material, and transposes the parameters from one formula to another. The synthesizer, with its operation of consistency [composition], has taken the place of the ground in a priori synthetic judgment: its synthesis is of the molecular and the cosmic, material and force, not form and matter, Grund and territory. (A Thousand Plateaus 343)
We think that this aspect of synthesis--its existence as a compositional assemblage, not as the notational writing of music--is music’s writing, and that it is most evident in “electronic” avant-garde music. Punapau, for example, creates compositions in Deleuze’s sense through its (his) found-object-sound approach. By bringing in sounds from the global computer-scape, the music creates linkages that call attention to music’s composed nature, that call attention to music’s deterritorialized state. d’Iberville, too, is more interested in soundscapes than pop forms. Music confined to a pop form just sounds territorialized. The open form of avant-garde electronic music positions it in “the place of the ground of a priori synthetic judgment.” Its formlessness is the ground of compositions.

As Dave Rieder notes in his review of Pan(a)Sonic, it is the formlessness of the body-without-organs that provides the basis for compositions. For him, Pan(a)Sonic’s music is more about the body than the ear--the “listener” senses it as much as hears it. These soundscapes function on a plane of immanence to “break the body down into a series of resonating zones of affection.” The body becomes a tuning fork for bleeps and waves. Berthier (d’Iberville) notes that one listener christened his music “blip-hop.” But perhaps paradoxically, “composing” the music is more detached for him than the immersion of playing in a rock band. He notes that he feels more like a listener when he is linking blips and waves of sound over beats. But perhaps his position would seem less detached when considering his composing process. He constructs his tracks by letting the computer make the sounds, then selecting bits and pieces to add to or subtract from. In describing this process he notes the materiality of sound, and how the writer/composer must listen to it, feel it, ferret out its hidden order. The composer must let the sounds determine their own form, rather than force them into a pop-song format. The composer “traces a history without words,” building a track out of sounds. And when subtracting from a sound-image, the composer removes layers of sound to “unconceal” a new sound, make a new sound more visible, bring out its compositional potential. For us, this process is a bodily immersion in sound that provides a way of “avowing the unavowable”--it becomes “a game played with ungraspable reality.” Mario Menzerolf seconds this “feeling,” this affection, in his selection of the name Punapau as the signifier for his art work. The name was taken from a spot on Easter Island that looks out over an endless ocean; his experience there made him think (feel) how “imagination changes perception.” Perhaps we can see that this imaginative change in perception is already on the way towards a transformation/composition not only of sound, not only of experience, but of a world.

When we put out the call for papers for this Issue, we had little in the way of preconceptions beyond the feeling that we would be getting a good reading of the current state of music writing. As might be expected, Cultural Studies remains the dominant influence for articulating links between music and culture, and there is accordingly a definite slant toward the political in the submissions we received. But as much as Cultural Studies offers, we find ourselves most fascinated with how the music itself tends to create alternate compositions within that framework, threatening the dissolution of the very methodology used to make it speak. The music asks that we listen to it, and when we listen with the ears to hear it, we are changed. From the politically-charged voices of the rapper and the riot grrrl to the more ephemeral qualities of New Zealands’s avant-garde and the post-rock eloquence of Tortoise and Pan(a)Sonic, the music itself challenges received boundaries, meanings, and definitions. If Cultural Studies as an established methodology is a boundary limit, then its object in this issue, the music, functions to stretch that boundary as well. But it is necessary to see that such a stretching of boundaries is already a politics by another name. Recall that Nietzsche understood Socrates’ deathbed wish that he would have learned to play a musical instrument as a form of recantation from the rational rigor of philosophy. How are we to understand this except that music is itself already a form of social transformation, a politics of the uncanny, the unsaid, the unthought. And writing this politics is precisely a writer’s work. As music composes us, newly and differently than we were, we too recompose ourselves as we write these musics.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image/Music/Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Noonday Press, 1977. 142-48.

- - - . “Musica Practica.” Image/Music/Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Noonday Press, 1977. 149-54.

Cixous, Helene. Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Trans. Sarah Cornell Susan Sellers. New York: Columbia U P, 1993.

Deleuze, Gilles and Feliz Guatarri. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. 1979. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambride, MA: Harvard U P, 1989.

Sirc, Geoff. “Godless Composition, Tormented Writing.” JAC 15.3 (1995): 543-64.

Ulmer, Gregory. “The Object of Post-Criticism.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1983. 83-110.

Copyright © Enculturation 1999

Home | Contents 2:2 | Editors | Issues
About | Submissions | Subscribe | Copyright | Review | Links