Is That a Real Reality, or Did You Make It Up Yourself?
"Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited. So Damon tells me, and I can quite believe him; he says that when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them."-- Plato, Republic IV.
"I saw my dreams come true; I saw America changed by music." -- Harry Smith. 
When we were young first-year students in a music college in nowhere zen New Jersey, we were made to take certain classes designed to tune up our basic skills. One such class, "Rhythmics," took fifteen weeks to ensure that we could perform on sight a set of exercises from a snare drum rudiments book. (A teacher's lot is not a happy one.) As luck would have it, our rhythmics teacher was Joel Thome, a composer and conductor of great vision and awe-inspiring dedication. Joel took rhythm, and music in all its aspects, very seriously. He said that if we weren't practicing our instruments for at least five hours a day, we were wasting our time. He lectured spontaneously on the ontology of the now. He covered the blackboards with lists of books that we were to read, and recordings and scores that we were to study. He told me that a Baroque lute duet that I was then practicing was of world-historical importance. But the thing he said that has stuck with me the most was that music was going to save the world.
The idea that music can transform reality predates by many millennia the category "music" as we know it. Before art was understood as a phenomenon in itself apart from its ritual application (a relatively recent and culturally specific development), what we now call music was indistinguishable from magic. There is a wonderful, intoxicating romance that runs from Pythagorean harmonics through Platonic musical ethos to Boethius's codification of Greek tunings, then into the Renaissance cosmologies that prefigured modern astrophysics, on the idea that a change of music is a change of consciousness, culture, and even physical reality. And it's not just an old fantasy, a lot of serious thought and investigation has gone into it. For present purposes, I'd like to sketch a few lines that touch upon music and cultural change.
I began to understand the power of music to work change when, at the age of seven, I stood onstage at the Labour Club talent show in my Lancashire home town, opened my mouth and sang a song, and the feeling in the room changed. The same thing happened a decade later in my American high school where in the space of three minutes I went from an immigrant misfit to something else entirely, purely on the power of song and the voice that I had inherited from my father, who'd had a reputation in the Manchester pubs as a good turn. Music, it seems, worked a shift in the various social mileux in which I found myself, and this sense of music as a kind of subtle magic expanded to encompass larger and larger contexts as time went on. Many wonderful music teachers contributed to this, and then a particular watershed moment came when another magician from a different field of music came to the college and I was asked to accompany him in performance.
Subsequently, over the course of two decades, I performed internationally with Allen Ginsberg in every imaginable type of venue, and through him I met and worked with other socially-conscious artists -- those whom Amiri Baraka calls "culture workers" -- whose work had played a part in the twentieth-century cultural shift that we now link back to "the sixties," but whose roots really go back through centuries of social change in which the arts played a role.
All of the artists with whom I worked, from the internationally famous to the virtually unknown, had in some way embraced the ancient idea that music held the power of transformation. Their politics, however were not those of Plato. He favored oligarchy over democracy, and as can be seen from the above epigraph, advocated that the government ban new forms of music (by which he meant all of the arts) as a threat to the state. As my band mate in the Fugs Tuli Kupferberg paraphrased it, "when the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake." If our culture, as seems to be the case, has in some ways preserved Plato's sense of musical affect, the mid-twentieth-century push against the oligarchical tendencies in the state could be expected to champion new modes of music toward what Ginsberg called "democratization in the arts." 
Do new forms of artistic activity point to deep transformations in society? A lot of serious thought has gone into exploring this question, and much of it occurred in the mid-twentieth century, when social scientists began to look closely at the relationship between particular forms of performance practice and the larger social forms in which they take place.
When computers first became widely available for social science research, anthropologists began compiling databases through which various culturally-specific customs and practices could be sorted and compared. It became possible to see broad patterns of relationship, on a global sale, between economic activities, religious practices, social norms, and forms of art.
In the 1960s, musicologist Alan Lomax developed a research program for applying these methods to song (Cantometrics) and dance (Choreometrics). He concluded, perhaps not surprisingly, that the favored song and dance forms of a particular group tend to reflect the major economic activities of the group. For example, in societies where the majority of the food supply is provided by the solo male hunter, the favored dance and music forms tend to feature the solo male, and where much of the food is provided by women working in groups to gather or garden, show biz tends to favor female choral song and group dance that looks like horticultural labor (bending, dipping, reaching, etc.).
This may seem rather obvious, but Lomax extended his conclusions to a level of detail relating, for example, the sound quality of the singing voice to customs regarding sex. He believed that a tight-throated vocal sound is heard in societies where sex is strictly regulated and largely unavailable outside of marriage, and that an open-throated sound is heard where sex is more readily available. (On this view, the sound of Gregorian chant would seem to support centuries of gossip about the secret life of Christian monastics.) Lomax's work has been criticized as biased, too selective of facts, and too sweeping, but relating art form to social form is not easily dismissed. It has been the case, for example, that U.S. country folk accustomed to manual farm labor in coordinated teams of men and women under the direction of a single male supervisor tended to go in for square dance.
Other theorists extended this relating of musical practice to socio-economic practice beyond Lomax's interest in what he called "traditional cultures" to include modern societies. Ortiz Walton, for example, pointed out that during the era when the U.S. economy was based on large-scale manufacturing, the most prestigious form of musical ensemble consisted of a large group of musicians organized into departments (sections), each one with a supervisor (first chair), all led by a single manager-in-chief (conductor), and realizing a plan (score) provided by a designer (composer). He also pointed out that the workers in this musical ensemble punched a time clock and belonged to a union.
More recently, Jazz historian Ted Gioia has connected the emergence of "free jazz" in the 1960s to the "freedom riders," "freedom schools," and larger freedom movement brought on by the civil rights activism of the same period -- a breaking of old boundaries and the empowering of a multitude of voices exemplified on the bandstand by ensembles unconstrained by a composer, a song form, an arrangement or prescribed tonal framework, and the whole taking place without regard to the large recording corporations that have just caught on to the last wave of cool and want you to play be those rules.
So it seems that art forms tell us about how our society is organized, and new emergences in the arts can speak to us about changes in larger social structures, but they can also instruct us about the changing nature of our sense of self. Literary theorist Paul Oppenheimer has written that the invention of the sonnet in the 13th century - a form of poem tending to topics of personal reflection and meant to be read silently to oneself when verse had been spoken or sung aloud since ancient times - heralded the "birth of the modern mind." But which came first, the new poem or the new person? Is art merely illustrative of cultural conditions, or does it play a role in motivating cultural shift?
The anthropologist and performance theorist Victor Turner noted that music is universally associated with heightened states of consciousness, what he calls communitas, a feeling of oneness that both affirms and erases everyday boundaries, which is invoked in "liminality" (from limen, threshold). Liminality refers to being between states, or in a transitional phase. In a medical context, it can refer to being between life and death. For anthropologists, it indicates the in-between state an initiate experiences in a rite of passage from one social status or existential level to another. In the context of performance theory, it is a space of indeterminacy and flux opened up in, for example, mass-participatory music/dance performance, where cultural shift can occur.
In a performance, tension is generated between normal reality and the impulse toward threshold. Music/dance is the repetition of the impulse to push boundaries, and is a generative agency of what we call culture and a presentation of the potential for the shift which is cultural change. The blurring of boundaries in participatory performance generates a collective in which the individual is de-centered, rendered into something larger or less fixed than her conventional social role. In the music/dance, the assumptions by which we are regulated are, if only intermittently, suspended. This state, says Turner, "is almost everywhere held to be sacred or ‘holy,' possibly because it transgresses or dissolves the norms that govern structure and institutionalized relationships and is accompanied by experiences of unprecedented potency." 
Turner based his research in settings where a whole village might participate in a music and dance event, but his observations could be applied to many contexts.
I experienced this sense of reality shift most potently at various alternative rock venues in Europe and America in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It happened at my first ever show with the hardcore band False Prophets at CBGBs. Having come from a more formal performance world, I was at first put off by the people sitting on the stage, in what I thought of as "my" space, seemingly unaware that musicians might need some room in which to work. But twenty seconds into the first number, all at once a wave went through the crowd and all of space exploded into what folklorist-alchemist Harry Smith (a regular at our early shows) later called "the most ecstatic dance I ever witnessed." I remember thinking at that first show, "this is what music is for."
Later, when my tours with the band yielded a book-in-progress that led to graduate studies in ethnomusicology, I discovered that Turner had accurately described the feeling I had experienced in the punk clubs, the sense of being in-between, neither inside of nor outside of myself, in a place where individual identities are not lost in undifferentiated wholeness, but rather seem to phase in and out. This sense of a flux of personal boundary is not anxiety producing. It is ecstatic, and as Turner notes, uniquely powerful. It is an electrical charge punctuated by the stunning visual effect of flashing colored lights and wild motion in a dense mass of bodies, rendering what I can only describe as a living, swirling, psychedelic impressionist landscape -- Monet's garden at Giverny waving wildly in the real world and constituted in (by, as) incredibly powerful sound.
I also found in my studies that our experience of the anarchist collectives, particularly in Europe, that hosted many of our shows, seemed to reflect the scholarly literature on musical style reflecting social style. Among people who valued and practiced this music and dance, community business tended to be conducted in non-hierarchical group settings, what the organizers at the Flora Squat in Hamburg called "hard-core breakfast."
Clearly, here was a style of music whose practitioners were committed to radical social shift.
Economist Jacques Attali has described one of the more radical theories of music and cultural change. He argues that when social shift is about to occur, it shows up first in the music. The more a particular style of music is prophetic of change, the more it will be regarded not as music, but as noise. Upon reading Attali, I reflected how, when the Beatles first broke on the radio in my home town, 30 miles from Liverpool, my parents (along with many elders and critics of the day) said, "that's not music, that's noise." Then, after the civil rights movement and the ‘60s counterculture produced advances in civil liberties and new demands for greater democratization of society, rock became the soundtrack of the mainstream, and today, the Beatles' music seems tuneful, benign, and not so far removed from the jazz-inspired songs of the previous generation.
If we accept that music enables change by challenging norms, we can also see a connection between music and language that helps to give poetry its prophethood of change.
In the late 1960s at a conference, the linguist Roman Jakobson was asked: what makes a verbal message into a work of art? His answer is instructive.
First, Jakobson described what he called six functions that are present in all verbal communications. Most of our communications feature the denotive function, where the emphasis is on the speaker and a simple message, such as, "I'd like you to be at that meeting on Wednesday." Also common is the conative function, which delivers more or less the same information, but emphasizes the hearer, "Please be there." There will also be an emotive function, which will dominate when the hearer thinks, "Woah, what was that about? It sure wasn't about that Wednesday meeting." The phatic function dominates when the communication is really about contact rather than content, as when Judy and I talk about the Wednesday meeting just so we can interact, but the denotive content is not at all important. Our talk might as well be about the man in the moon. The metalingual function dominates when the conversation is about the conversation, "What did you mean when you said . . . .?" And somewhere, usually buried under all this complex message mix, there is the sense that one is getting a message. This is the poetic function.
The poetic function doesn't dominate very often. We're usually too busy trying to do the ordinary business of everyday communication to be concerned about "Oh my God, I'm getting a communication." Ordinary speech tends to play down the poetic. But language art, Jakobson says, is distinguished from other types of speech by its emphasis on the poetic.
Jakobson associates this function with musical affects, pointing out that the impact of a simple phrase may be boosted by poetic constituents such as rhyme and rhythm, as in the slogan "I like Ike" or Julius Caesar's "Veni vidi, vici." But the poetic function doesn't just make a message memorable, it also works a split. It gives you a message and at the same time tells you that it is giving you a message. In effect, you're getting two messages. With "I like Ike," you're getting a simple message -- "this guy voted for Eisenhower," and you are getting the more troubling message that words, what linguists call "signs," are strange things. The poetic function makes language appear strange.
At a certain level of emphasis on the poetic, the speaker and the hearer seem strange too. Writers such as James Joyce and Gertrude Stein made a point of repeatedly pushing this button. It is simply not possible to read Finnegan's Wake or The Making of Americans and get lost in the story. The story is hard to track, or may be non-existent, because the language is more like music than speech. When the means of delivering the message calls attention to itself apart from what it appears to be saying, the listener can experience a sense of instability. When linguistic meaning goes into flux, it can invoke a liminal state.
Julia Kristeva, a linguist and psychoanalyst who has built on Jakobson's work, has written that music pluralizes meaning, and that poetic language is therefore threatening to conventional categories of self and state. What we commonly call the self, or the "I," or "the subject" is, according to Kristeva, a subject-in-language. "I" she says, "is quite literally the subject of a sentence."
We learn to organize our world according to pre-existing categories, such as those described by personal pronouns ( I, you, he, she, etc.), that are built in to language. "I" is not a constant or particularly stable thing, rather it is instantiated at each thought or utterance of "I." It is a product of repetition, a kind of insistence on a certain category of meaning which is given by our culture. Music can invoke a condition prior to speech, before our enculturation into the "I" and its macroscosmic partner, the state. The poetic function troubles the conventional categories of self and state, and so is an agent for change.
"Poetic language . . . is an unsettling process -- when not an outright destruction -- of the identity of the meaning and speaking subject. . . . On that account, it accompanies crises within social structures and institutions -- the moments of their mutation, evolution, revolution, or disarray."
Another theorist linking art with a sense of strangeness and potential for change was Theodor Adorno, for whom art's revolutionary potential lies in its sense of being artificial and incomplete. The totalitarian impulse wants to portray its view of the world as real and complete -- indisputable and immutable, all settled and sewed up. Conservatives are "realists." Liberals are "sadly deluded idealists." Systems that favor the rightist mindset are portrayed as natural and correct, something to be conserved, not changed.
Art destabilizes this sense of certainty and fixity by saying, in effect, "Look at me, I'm an invented reality, I'm arbitrary, artificial, completely made up." By doing this, art hints that maybe the rest of our reality is arbitrary and made up too. And if reality is a made thing, then it can be made differently. Adorno's metaphor for art's incompleteness was Penelope's tapestry, which she wove all day and picked apart all night -- the never-completed task she used as an excuse to put off her suitors. Art is never complete. The poem and the painting can be experienced a thousand times, differently each time. In this sense, art instantiates flux. This is why fascists try to control it or kill it.
As an artist, I take apart reality. It's not so much that the artist proposes an alternative reality, but rather that the abstract categories "I" and "reality" continually deconstruct in art. This doesn't mean that I don't take out the garbage, or feed "my" cat, or love "my" wife and child, and what some would call "my country." It means that I believe that the state of humanity is necessarily and always liminal. We are and always have been in transition, and the reality of change is visible and audible in the changing modes in which we have expressed our various concepts of self and society at various places and times.
If the world is to be "saved," it will happen in the realization of the necessity of change on all fronts, a shift from a paradoxical model that claims to be conservative while acting destructive, to one that recognizes that conservation can only occur in change. This is what music has to teach us. This is what Joel meant when he said that music would save the world.
1. In 1991, Harry Smith was given the Chairman's Certificate at the Grammy Awards ceremony. The presenter of the award noted that Smith's 1952 Folkways Records edition, The Anthology of American Folk Music, had inspired a generation of musicians, and that Harry had demonstrated a lifelong commitment to the idea that music can be a vehicle for social change.
2. Personal communication, 1993.
3. Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1982), p. 128.
4. Julia Kristeva, "From One Identity to an Other" in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), pp. 130; 124-25.
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