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Book Review

Jacques Attali

Noise: The Political Economy of Music by Jacques Attali

Noise: The Political Economy of Music

Translated by Brian Massumi
Originally published in 1977 with the title:
Bruits: essai sur l'economie politique de la musique
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1985
ISBN 0816612870
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The relationships of music to the politics and economics of the societies in which it is composed and performed are rarely given serious study, but a moment's reflection will convince us, I think, that this is an important subject for anyone interested in music to look into. An activity which gives so much enjoyment and arouses so much passion in so many people must have important consequences in the rest of society, and the other areas of society must in turn impinge on it in many crucial ways.

Jacques Attali, a French economist who was a Special Counsellor to President François Mitterand, proposes a number of theories on the political economy of music in this book, some quite bold and difficult to accept at first encounter, others more readily convincing. His principal thesis in the former category is that changes in the basic character of music throughout history have foreshadowed subsequent fundamental revolutions in political and economic structures, from which he concludes inductively that changes taking place in music today predict the future shape of our society. Whether or not one agrees with this claim, and many readers of his book have apparently had a hard time with it, the connections he makes between the various kinds of musical activity in history and the social matrices surrounding them are fascinating and almost always quite illuminating.

His argument is structured by four types of music which he regards as fundamental: "sacrifice," "representation," "repetition," and "composing." Although these four types have appeared successively in history, they have not replaced each other; each one has been superimposed on and mixed with the former ones, making the role of music in society increasingly complex.

These terms have special meanings in Attali's argument, which need to be clearly understood in order to grasp properly what he is stating. By the term "sacrifice," he is referring to the anthropological theory of Rene Girard's that ritual sacrifice served in the earliest human societies to channel and substitute for the general violence which would otherwise have torn them apart. (No need to point out that this is an ever-present threat in every society, including our own.) According to this theory, "the majority of ancient societies lived in terror of identity; this fear created a desire to imitate, it created rivalry, and thus an uncontrolled violence that spread like a plague" (Attali, p. 26). To control this threat, society was forced to designate scapegoats, which were actually or symbolically sacrificed to channel this potential violence. As a result, hierarchies and stable societies were erected.

How is music connected with this process? Attali argues that the earliest essential social role of music was to serve as a substitute or simulacrum of sacrifice and perform the same function. First, he states that noise is violence: "To make noise is to interrupt a transmission, to disconnect, to kill. It is a simulacrum of murder" (ibid.). Then, music is a "channelization of noise," a way of controlling and vanquishing noise by creating a harmonious order in the realm of sound. And by doing this, it helps to buttress and legitimize the social order in general, although the presence of "noise" or dissent at the margins of society can never be completely eliminated.

Thus, music has from the start been an important tool of the governing class of every society and its opponents, as Attali argues by referring to a number of historical periods. For example, he quotes the Chinese writer Ssu-ma Ch'ien: "The sacrifices and music, the rites and the laws have a single aim; it is through them that the hearts of the people are united, and it is from them that the method of good government arises" (p. 29). The story of Ulysses and the sirens, as he interprets it, is a struggle against the "noise," the order-threatening sounds, of the sirens; in this crisis, although the bound Ulysses, a symbol of the sacrificed scapegoat, cannot command his men, they voluntarily make themselves deaf to the sirens' song in order to keep society afloat. Similarly, the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin testifies to the power of music either to support or to threaten the social order.

Indeed, Attali stresses that, at any given time in any society, a struggle is taking place between the "official" music, which symbolizes the existing order and works to channel people's aggressive feelings into harmony with that order, and a subversive counter-music, which expresses the anger of those who are excluded from power and are struggling to define a new form of society. At this point, we may begin to understand how he could come to the conclusion that changes in music express the creation of a new vision of harmony, and hence of social structure.

In any case, Attali does not seem to believe that there was any fundamental change in music from this early period in which it acted as a substitute for sacrifice until the rise of capitalism in late medieval and early Renaissance Europe. He sees the transformation of the wandering jongleurs and troubadours into minstrels and court musicians as one of the earliest examples of the change from the feudalistic to the capitalist economy, and refers to it as the stage of "representation." Now, more and more, music is not improvised on the spot by performers, but carefully written and performed by employees of the kings and nobility, to their specifications and for their pleasure. Later, of course, musicians escaped from the role of domestic servants of nobles and became "free" producers of music, now living mainly from the sales of printed music and concert tickets to the wealthy "middle class," but the pattern of first writing pieces and then performing or "representing" them continued. Underneath, of course, the "sacrificial" aspect of music also went on: the struggle between music that affirmed the harmony of existing power relationships and, for example, 19th century romantic protest.

Throughout these pages, Attali supports his argument with many fascinating references to musical history, which I must omit in this skeleton outline. His discussion of 19th century music, both popular (especially in France) and "classical," is especially illuminating. With the invention of recording and broadcasting came the next important form of musical activity, which he calls "repetition." Now, the techniques of the industrial revolution became applicable to music; it could be "canned" and mass-produced in millions of identical copies, to be consumed by individuals in the privacy of their homes. In other words, it tended to become a commodity, like shoes and toothpaste, and its economic role was increasingly no different from theirs. To keep the music industry going, enormous efforts are required to maintain demand for the mass of commodity recordings which flow from the factories; thus we see the constant, almost monthly, change in musical fashion and the control by corporate conglomerates, not only in popular music, but to a large degree in "classical" music as well. (The recent books of Norman Lebrecht, strongly attacked for their somewhat cavalier relationship to the facts, but nevertheless basically rather convincing, obviously fit in here.)

Having arrived at the present, Attali presents his vision of the future in the form of what he calls "composing." But haven't musicians been composing for a long time already? Yes, but Attali uses this word in a special meaning: a step forward from the rather frozen, lifeless world of "repetitive" music, produced and sold like laundry soap and consumed just as mechanically, passively, and thoughtlessly. Composition is an activity "in which the musician plays primarily for himself, outside any operationality, spectacle, or accumulation of value; when music, extricating itself from the codes of sacrifice, representation, and repetition, emerges as an activity that is an end in itself, that creates its own code at the same time as the work" (p. 135). He continues:

"Composition thus appears as a negation of the division of roles and labor as constructed by the old codes. Therefore, in the final analysis, to listen to music in the network of composition is to rewrite it: 'to put music into operation, to draw it toward an unknown praxis,' as Roland Barthes writes in a fine text on Beethoven. The listener is the operator. Composition, then, beyond the realm of music, calls into question the distinction between worker and consumer, between doing and destroying, a fundamental division of roles in all societies in which usage is defined by a code; to compose is to take pleasure in the instruments, the tools of communication, in use-time and exchange-time as lived and no longer as stockpiled. (ibid.)"

Thus, Attali is looking forward to a radically changed society in which all activity is free from the rigid molds of capitalism. The image of this future utopia in contemporary music he finds in such phenomena as an increasing number of amateur musical organizations, free jazz, and new orally transmitted and improvised music bubbling up from the oppressed margins of society ("the workers of the big industrial cities, Black American ghettos, Jamaican shantytowns, Greek neighborhoods, etc." (p. 140). We must remember that he was writing in the 1970s; what he would have to say about the situation two decades later, and especially about the possible effects of personal computers and the Internet on music, is hard to tell.

This part of the book will of course arouse intense controversy among its readers, for here his historical argument merges with the political battles of the present. But no one who carefully reads and ponders this books will, I think, deny that he offers us a great deal of enlightenment on the essential connections between music and society. Everyone interested in the fate of classical music in the 21st century, especially, will find Attali's book a good starting point for further investigation.

Copyright © 1998 by Jon Johanning.