Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Sam Richards: The Engaged Musician (book review)

This book review first appeared in Tempo magazine, issue #269

The Engaged Musician: A Manifesto by Sam Richards. CentreHouse Press, 2013. £14.99

It has never quite become common to think about political engagement in the world of contemporary concert music, more so than in literature and the visual arts. Certainly, one can compose a piece of music to a political theme, yet the politics often feel a little extraneous to the music itself. Why? For one, music is abstract and evanescent, rather than a carrier of clear-cut meanings which can become permanent presences in discourse. Likewise, musical rituals are temporary things of limited physical effect – one does not occupy a public square with a symphony (at least, not for more than, say, fifty minutes). Furthermore, the ‘language’ of concert music has its own codes, which do not easily map onto those of the world and its struggles. The institutions, especially those of concert music, are often at a remove from the agora; indeed, in order to reach the kind of concentration that such music typically requires, one would generally like to keep the noise of the streets outside of the concert hall and the music school, so that the delicacies of the music can best be appreciated. This makes even the most progressive concert music, even when its ideological programme clearly supports political change, tend to operate in a disengaged manner.

It is precisely this type of disengagement, not on the level of ideological reference but on the level of musical practice, that Sam Richards takes aim at in his book The Engaged Musician, published by CentreHouse Press. In the book, Richards uses an engraving by William Hogarth, The Enraged Musician, as a guiding image. Hogarth’s musician is a learned maestro, standing at the window of his studio, enraged because the world – with its manifold sounds of street life and workers and its popular songs – is interfering with his concentration, boxing his ears in a futile attempt to keep it all out. Richards takes this image from almost three centuries ago as his point of departure to critique the current musical situation, analysing the many layers and details in Hogarth’s picture and comparing them to our present world, arriving at an equally rich range of perspectives from which he formulates his own position, which is that of The Engaged Musician. If Hogarth’s maestro has opened his window in a gesture of impotent ire and frustration, Richards would like musicians to open their windows in order to let the world in.

To do this, the musician should be ‘doctrinally non-doctrinal’ (p.22). Richards himself is a good example of this: his range of musical reference is impressively broad, writing with equal enthusiasm for and serious engagement with classical and contemporary music, experimentalism, jazz, political songs, and the various strains of folksong that he has studied in his capacity as folklorist. Similarly, his politics are identifiably to the left, yet he does not espouse any one final-solution-ideology, eclectically showing influences from anarchism, Marxism, Buddhism, as well as from a diversity of cultural and political critics.

For all this background, Richards’ writing is never academic in tone. Just as the contemporary musician should open the windows, the author does not want his message to get mired in merely academic discussions, believing that ‘practice, not theory, rattles cages’ (p.6) and approvingly quoting McKenzie Wark: ‘What has escaped the institutionalisation of high theory is the possibility of a low theory, a critical thought indifferent to the institutional forms of the academy or the art world’ (p.7). For Richards, this ‘low theory’ is formed of all the various musical practices that take up a political position against disengagement and oppression. Stylistically true to this position, Richards writes in an attractively amiable, informal register, giving the book an explicitly personal voice and making it a pleasure to read.

Being doctrinally non-doctrinaire means that Richards spends most of the book explaining what his idea of engagement is not. It is not some kind of superior spiritual remove from the world. It is not escapism. It does not collude uncritically with existing power structures (‘music-as-consent’). It is not found in any specific form or genre and, indeed, it always questions every definition of tradition, always questioning by what powers, what artistic politics, a tradition has come to be recognised as such. Instead, every time the engaged musician is faced with some artificial boundary separating the ‘worthwhile’ from the ‘worthless’, or ‘music’ from ‘non-music’, he will open the window and try to cross the imposed limits. Therefore, the form that engaged music will end up taking can never be laid out in advance. This also implies that engagement is an attitude rather than a form, and one that can be unpredictable, even to itself. 

Richards includes a very instructive analysis of the career of Cornelius Cardew. Famously, by the seventies, he came to reject all of the radical music that he composed before, proclaiming that Stockhausen served imperialism, and he proceeded – by working with accessible tonal forms and materials taken from protest songs – to create an explicitly engaged music that would be useful to the working class. Yet he never quite lost his middle-class background and outsider perspective when actually designing his music for the workers’ use and, in the end, brought together neo-romanticist musical ideals with political activism in an uneasy marriage, which did not always speak to his target audiences in the ways intended. Characteristically, Richards does not use this analysis to condemn Cardew, but as an opportunity to show that engagement in music operates within a rich variety of stylistic, affective, formal, institutional and social dichotomies, and that each position may potentially have something to offer to emancipatory politics.

Given that engaged music could be anything, what, then, makes it politically relevant? In Chapter 3, Richards offers an analysis of contemporary capitalism, taking his cue from Slavoj Žižek (another writer who has expertly navigated the boundaries between high and low theory), specifically his concept of the ‘end times’. In Richards’ reading, ’end times’ refers to a spirit of permanent crisis permeating capitalism in its present form. As is common in Marxist theory, Richards describes capitalism with equal admiration and revulsion, as a force of great creative power as well as one of oppression and slavery. What makes our days feel like end times is that capitalism no longer seems to be able to believe fully in its own motivating myth, which is the idea that all the sacrifice that capitalist production requires ends up making the world a better place with more wealth for all. These days, a variety of crises (ecological, financial, the erosion of democratic legitimacy resulting from neoliberal policies, and so on) is coinciding to generate a sense of permanent crisis. Our media reinforce this sense by constantly bombarding us with ‘hyper-news’ (p.61). As Richards observes, ‘We are hardly ever without news events that seem epochal’ (p.61), so we are permanently on edge, eroding our ability to believe in capitalism’s promises. Richards believes music must show consciousness of this cultural atmosphere, and be deliberately in opposition to the prevailing defeatist sense that there is no alternative to capitalist oppression and crisis. Music must be accorded agency. For one, music operates as a soundtrack to society, and the music that we play can greatly influence the way we affectively understand what is happening around us. For another, music can also be ‘the main event’: to play something is to act, is to actively create this sound-track, to create possibilities for alternative readings of our situation. To do this by opening any closed window one might come across is the task of the engaged musician. It is a very broad agenda, but also a modest one, working locally and without grandiose schemes.

I highly enjoyed this book. It is an important overview of how music can be used to take an engaged stance - even in our post-historical times, which offer no clear-cut roadmaps for any sort of utopian politics. It did leave me with a few questions. First, the doctrinally non-doctrinaire position is strong, but it could also easily be part of the usual liberal capitalist rhetoric, which would have it that the combination of a free market and democratic freedoms are generators and guarantees of cultural diversity and proliferation of forms. Richards does recognise this danger, and uses one chapter to rail against all the bureaucratic systems that marketeers, but also funding bodies and academia itself, use to simulate this diversity. As he observes, ‘in effect we now have a new enraged musician. The angry figure at the window is no longer a classical musician, but an arts administrator who appears to have let the street in but cannot bear its unruliness. Such a person is concerned to marshal the plethora of sounds into a controllable structure’ (p. 216). Still, the question remains, how exactly is the authentic diversity of music itself to be distinguished from its ideological and commercial simulacra?

For this, one may need to go one step further than being doctrinally non-doctrinaire. I find Richards’ argument that this attitude is a necessary condition convincing, but it is not sufficient to stand as an alternative to market ideology. In fact, the one thing that free market liberal thinking abhors most is precisely the opposite of the non-doctrinaire: a radical dedication to something specific rather than to ‘variety’ and ‘choice’; something that may even look ‘doctrinaire’. The one next step after the acceptance of non-doctrinarism then may well be to take up a seemingly doctrinal position, a radical dedication to specific musical rituals.

Of course, this is what every deeply serious musical practice really does. Though Richards does not explicitly write about musical discipline as a political force, the spirit of that idea is present in the book’s many examples of alternative, counter-hegemonic musical practices. The chapters are interspersed with many highly diverse case studies, ranging from a band made up out of refugee musicians from many countries, through a Tilbury/Prévost-recording, or a protest blues played to disrupt normal proceedings in a bank, to the Soundart Radio channel. Each of these examples is lovingly described and stands as a vital form of engagement, one of the many forms that the engaged position might take on. Put together, Richards’ examples form the strongest argument he has. They are the substance of his ‘low theory’ and, apart from featuring attractively written analyses, the book is worth reading for this small anthology alone.

© Cambridge University Press 2014

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