Authors: Marvin Lin
In other words, by trying to define
as “something,” things just got more confusing. It felt like we were suppressing all the dynamic processes involved in the album’s conception and reception, as if the cultural elements that informed our understanding of it didn’t matter, as if the temporal implications had to be encapsulated into an easily transmissible exchange. Rather than an album proffering the interconnectedness and continuing hybridization of subcultures from the bottom up,
instead became an album through which critics would exercise their atomization skills top down, mirroring the capitalist tendency to isolate, alienate, and devour. If
was indeed an “aberration,” then
it was one that was compartmentalized to fit within the strategies of the free market. And with everyone spouting their own version of what
“is,” I can sympathize with those who might throw up their hands in defeat and sigh, “music is just music!”
But perhaps the real problem here lies beyond the difficulty of pinpointing attributes and deciding where an album like
should be filed in a record store. Perhaps the inquisition into its aesthetics is working under a false conceit to begin with.
To investigate, let’s first step back 150 years in time.
Art has become something which is only related to objects, and not to individuals, or to life.
On the morning of August 12, 1853, an excursion train and an outbound train were traveling on a single-track line toward each other on the Providence and Worcester Railroad near Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The conductor of the excursion train was behind schedule, traveling at 40 miles per hour to reach the switch where the single track became a double, just beyond a sharp curve. The outbound train started moving at the usual time, heading slowly toward the same curve. But because the conductor’s watch on the excursion train was too slow (by two minutes, according to accounts), the trains ended up violently crashing into each other.
The next day, the
New York Daily Times
published a report with the headline, “AWFUL RAILROAD ACCIDENT; FOURTEEN LIVES LOST. Thirty
or Forty Seriously Injured.” Within a month, the conductor was charged with manslaughter. Not for being reckless or for being drunk, but
for carrying a faulty watch.
The ruling may seem trifling at first, but it’s particularly significant in the historical context of time. Before the railroads, our sense of time relied on internal and external cues — the phases of the moon, the rising and setting of the sun, the cycles of hunger and sleep. While industrialization had led to an increased presence of clocks by the mid-nineteenth century, your clock might have read 10:20 a.m., another clock down the street 10:23 a.m., and the one in Mom’s house 10:30 a.m. None of them were “incorrect.” Time was simply localized (some states even had three different official times). But with the increasing number of train crashes, as well as the necessity of a uniform time to operate efficiently, the railroads insisted that its standardized “railway time” — reflecting the industrial values of punctuality, efficiency, and rationality — should be everyone’s time.
Not everyone agreed. “Time wars” started occurring throughout the US and UK — including in Oxford, Radiohead’s hometown — with locals protesting the imposition of railway time. They even took to the streets, demonstrating against its uniformity and rigidity; they saw the loss of local time as a loss of identity, as a loss of temporal autonomy. But by the late nineteenth century, dissent was quashed, and the cries of the most roaring protesters were silenced by
the weight of capitalist expansion. Time soon became standardized and synchronized, leading swiftly to international time, time zones, the day’s exact length, Greenwich as the zero meridian, and, significantly, a stark division between public and personal time. Eyes were directed away from the “natural” world and toward the clocks on the wall; nature’s rhythms were replaced with a mechanized ticking; and schedules were dislodged from a localized position to one of more global significance. Our conception of time itself had changed.
But isn’t time universal and static? In its practical definition, time is used for sequential coherency, to measure duration and intervals of events, for quantification purposes. We treat time, socially and culturally, as if it were a given, “in the nature of things,” something that’s simply relegated to the background and used as an organizing principle — time for this, time for that, make time, waste time, save time, schedule time, spend time, kill time. It makes sense from a practical standpoint: by synchronizing time and treating it as universal around the world, long-distance communication can be organized and movement controlled.
Operational definitions, however, fail to answer one troubling philosophical question: What exactly
time? Is it a dimension through which events occur in sequence, as Sir Isaac Newton believed? Is Immanuel Kant correct by calling time an
intuition? Classical mechanics says time is universal and constant, but if it wasn’t until the Enlightenment that
time shifted from the medieval, Judeo-Christian view (in terms of salvation) to its current secularization (as natural history), are we expected to ignore time’s conceptual instability and the social and cultural baggage dragging behind? And if even the definition of the second has changed — from being 1/86,400 of a day, to the time of a one-meter-long pendulum swing, to 9,192,631,770 transitions between the hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom — is there any absolute standard with which to assess the passage of time?
Maybe not. When Albert Einstein published his theories of relativity, stating that time is actually dependent on the relative motions of objects — that is, a properly functioning watch on a jet will
mark time more slowly than a watch in a little rowboat (a phenomenon called “time dilation”) — not only was time repositioned on a single continuum alongside the three dimensions of space, but his theories dealt with time as an
, not as an absolute.
Here’s what I wonder: If “time” is an abstraction that can be so easily redefined, so easily mutable, could the same be true about music? And what implications might this have on albums like
* * *
It’s 2002, two years after
was released. I’m riding in a 1991 Buick Park Avenue with a couple friends on our way to band practice. Pretty standard setup — two
guitars (primarily) and drums. After playing together in various bands throughout our formative years, we did what many bands tend to do: we fucked with the formula. To us, this meant being strictly improvisational with an emphatic stress on collaboration — that is, we spent more time trying to predict where the music would go through visual and sonic cues than by trying to be “virtuosic” or by “composing.” If we wanted to play organ for one song, we played organ; if one of us started barking like a dog, the rest of us would be howling by the next measure. I didn’t really know what we were doing, nor did I know what to call our specific brand of music. All I knew was that, despite acknowledging that we weren’t necessarily tearing up the rule books, it felt completely different from the song-based approach of our previous bands.
Anyway: we’re heading from Minneapolis to Rochester, where our practice space (a.k.a. my parents’ basement) is located. I’m sitting in the backseat, reading the prelude to a book entitled
, by New Zealand musicologist Christopher Small.
Small starts the book harmlessly enough, describing various settings and occasions centered around music — in a supermarket, on headphones, for a housewife — but he soon begins assessing the difficulties that surround the idea of music itself. “What is this thing called music, that human beings the world over should find in it such satisfaction, should invest in it so much of their lives and resources?” After setting up why there are no satisfactory answers to such questions
as “What is the meaning of music?” and “What is the function of music in human life?” he proffers his own explanation:
Those are the wrong questions to ask. There is no such thing as music. Music is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do. The apparent thing “music” is a figment, an abstraction of the action, whose reality vanishes as soon as we examine it at all closely.
This was one of those rare EUREKA! moments for me, a complete paradigm shift, my very own ontological train crash. All my hang-ups about the “commodification” of music — the interest and subsequent boredom aroused through repetition, the so-called “power” that music possesses, etc. — were all becoming clearer in my head. Even the methodology of our band started making sense to me: We weren’t simply making some “thing” called music — there was no end product or clear goal, no characteristics that could be attributed and enforced. And judging by how often we meandered and fumbled in live settings, we weren’t really performing any “songs” either. Rather, we were emphasizing music as a verb, music as something that we “did.” We were musicking.
* * *
Applying Small’s concept of musicking to improv/free/automatist-based musics, like my band, is simple enough, but applying it to Radiohead, a group so entrenched in the virtues of composition, isn’t quite as clear. To gain a better understanding, we first need to ask: What is it about Western culture that continually reinforces the notion of music as a thing rather than an activity?
According to Small, “This is the trap of reification, and it has been a besetting fault of Western thinking ever since Plato, who was one of its earliest perpetrators.”
The fallacy of reification, in its most basic definition, is to treat an abstract belief or hypothetical construct as if it were “real,” as if it were a “thing” (reification is, in fact, a fancy word for “thingification”). Reifications are so omnipresent in Western history that they appear not only commonplace, but “in the nature” of things. We reinforce it every day in our language:
makes us do weird things;
heals all wounds;
touches our souls. Nicholas Cook, in his essay “Music as Performance,” points to this linguistic bias too: “[The] basic grammar of performance is that you perform something, you give a performance ‘of’ something.” We, therefore, speak of music
performance rather than music
performance, under the assumption that the two exist independently of one another.
While this Platonic conception of music has been perpetuated throughout history — particularly in the Romantic idealism of musical “autonomy,” in which
music becomes divorced from social relations and regarded as a floating “thing” that exerts mysterious powers (think the bombastic music of nineteenth-century composer Richard Wagner) — it finds its most tangible reinforcement in Karl Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, which is itself a form of reification. Here, we can envision music on a conveyor belt, in a pressing plant, repeated infinitely as a product for mass consumption. Because we’re not fully conscious of the relationships involved in commodity exchange, Marx argued that we become alienated from the product and even start fetishizing it as if it had
value. As French theorist Jean Baudrillard put it, “We make believe that products are so differentiated and multiplied that they have become complex beings, and consequently purchasing and consumption must have the same value as any human relation.”
By conceptualizing music as a thing, we assume that albums like
should be judged not in a cultural context but according to its own value system, self-contained and removed from social relations. Never mind the socio-political implications or the aesthetic traditions with which it negotiates; never mind its conception or reception; never mind our interpretations and intellectual biases that influence how we listen to, talk about, and even purchase music. Here,
is viewed as successful
because of its notes and rhythms and the seemingly magical combination of the two, a synthesis that somehow, someway, was perfected and subsequently channeled. Music becomes
sanctified, and the artist deified. Music becomes “just music.”
Reification works wonderfully in a vacuum, but once we put ourselves (i.e. the audience) in the picture, the idea shatters. In fact, this is where music gains a clear temporal dimension. If music is not a “thing” but an “activity,” the phenomenon we call music must extend beyond the notes and rhythms, beyond being “just music.” Some groups in Africa, such as the Douala of Cameroon, don’t even have a word for music, as the idea of musicking is so ingrained in their social practices that there is no need to delineate a term for it. But in Western society, the ideological divisions between artist and audience, producer and consumer have become so pronounced that we overlook the fluidity of these relationships and the music itself, negating the relationship between music and time. But how we listen to music, how we consume music, how we experience music over time is crucial to understanding just how fluid our conception of music, like time, really is.
In his essay “Deforming Rock,” Mark B.N. Hansen attempts to tackle this temporal relationship in terms of listening:
Radiohead returns the question (what is music?) to the domain of listening. If, in the wake of its experimentation, any sound (noise) can potentially become music, what makes a sound music has something fundamental
to do with the body, with the process through which sound is embodied. What Radiohead learns, in a sense, is that music is the embodiment of sound. Put another way, it learns that music is a temporal object.
Hansen asserts that accounting for “music as a temporal object whose origin is listening” makes any constructed binary — rock vs. electronica, music vs. noise, authentic vs. artificial — pointless, because if music “comes into being through the embodied process” of listening, then
sounds are used or
classifications are employed are inconsequential: it is the
act of listening
that makes music quintessentially “music.” That is, “listening quite literally produces the music.” This notion of listening-as-performance is at the heart of Small’s concept of musicking: he wasn’t simply talking about the performance of music; he believed that when we “do music,” we are creating meaning, affirming identity, celebrating humanity, and creating structure for our experiences, whether as an artist or listener. In other words, we are together articulating sets of relationships that create the very “meaning” of the work.