1st September 2018
What kind of music should play on the soundtrack of the revolution? This question has been posed at various points in the twentieth century, and the answers have varied widely. We could consider bold modernist compositions by Dmitri Shostakovitch in the Soviet Union, especially his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk from 1934, which nearly cost Shostakovitch his career and life when Joseph Stalin decided that it was anti-revolutionary. Or, we could turn to the efforts by the Soviet and Chinese Communist governments to support simple, folk-inspired choral melodies through the suppression of anything that smacked of elitism, from atonality to Western orchestral instruments to romantic narratives. More recently, we could turn to an activity that became fashionable in the 1990s in some academic music circles: of imagining what sociologist Theodor Adorno would have to say about edgy, leftist acts like Gang of Four, or Stereolab, or Public Enemy, acts that emerged well after Adorno’s death in 1969. But this inevitably entailed a good deal of imagination, for Adorno was famously critical of one sort of popular music during his own era, jazz – a music that, he felt, encouraged consumption and acquiescence to capitalism. If Adorno objected to the light jazz that happened to make it to Germany during the 1930s, there was likely no chance that he’d be up for anything grittier or more raucous, especially postpunk or hip-hop.
Most music that has been hailed as revolutionary in a leftist or Marxist sense has been so described on the basis of its message. Such and such music, it is argued, is or is not revolutionary on the basis of the content of its lyrics, or the philosophy of the musicians who create it. The discussion often does not treat the music itself – how it sounds, and how sounds themselves can either perpetuate or impede revolutionary progress.
I’d like in this essay to begin not with a piece of music that I then try to fit into some revolutionary template, but instead, start with two strange statements from Karl Marx about time. They both come from the Grundrisse. In one passage, Marx argues that older art works like Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, afford us great aesthetic pleasure, but despite that, we can never return to the social conditions and mythology that made the Iliad possible. True enough, but he ends with a tirade against “the old peoples”, primitive cultures like that of Classical Greece that contained “unripe social conditions” (111). Marx rejects stasis, cycles, and even attempts, like hoarding, to avoid the teleology of capitalism. For that reason, the cultural production of pre-capitalist societies that perceived time differently will remain foreign to us. To quote Marx from later in the Grundrisse, “Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself.” (173) That is, Marx himself is utterly shackled to time, to teleology. The present moment is, for capitalism and for capitalists’ greatest critic, never untethered to the future.
Although he doesn’t say so explicitly, Marx suggests here that he is far more Aristotelian than Platonic in terms of his view on time. Plato’s Theory of Forms distinguishes between the static, pure essences of “forms”, created by God, and their mundane expressions that are temporal and, accordingly, imperfect. The form of “chairness” is eternal and perfect, whereas any phenomenal and temporal expression of “chairness” in the physical form of a chair will necessarily be only derivative. Aristotle, on the other hand, critiques previous philosophers like the Eleatics for denying the existence of change over time. In the Physics, he says,
So they say that none of the things that are either comes to be or passes out of
existence, because what comes to be must do so either from what is or from what is
not, both of which are impossible. (326)
And a bit later, he asserts:
that a thing may come to be from what is not in a qualified sense, i.e. accidentally. (327)
Here as well as in the Metaphysics, Aristotle argues that change is not antithetical to being; to the contrary, change is intrinsic to being. Implicit in this argument is the very definition of time: change happens in time, and being persists through time. Marx’s theory of historical development is Aristotelian (by means of Hegel), meaning that every moment is both the expression of internal and ineluctable forces, as well as a constituent of future moments. Time is everything to Marx, in other words, for it is the parameter by which we measure progress or decline. Most of us are similarly attached to the concept of time. We are incapable of experiencing any phenomenon or invention or enterprise without considering its ramifications. How long will the thing last? How much will it cost or earn? Will it get better or worse?
Now, these questions are pernicious enough on their own, since they already contain the soul of human unhappiness, the restlessness that will be our scourge as long as our species persists. But when these questions appear in the minds of capitalists, there is the additional tragedy that they don’t simply remain talismans of anxiety, but lead to concrete actions. The successful businessman who already enjoys dominance over a market, but who seeks to drive out and destroy his competitor, simply because static coexistence is not enough. The corporation that seeks to triple its already impressive profits, because shareholders always want more, so says the prevailing wisdom. So, the present is forever linked to the future, to multiple futures either terrifying or impoverished or prosperous, depending on whether the right action is taken in the present.
What an awful responsibility to place on the shoulders of the present!
Let us envision now an utter break from teleology and the awful weight of this “economy of time”. This might at first raise Marx’s hackles, and perhaps even make him object that we are trying to return to some Antique pre-capitalist utopia, something to which we have lost access. But the music of the contemporary improvisation group, The Necks, could offer a glimpse of what it would be like to leave the economy of time. And in so doing, it might present a revolutionary potential not even Marx could have anticipated.
The Necks are a trio from Australia, consisting of Chris Abrahams on piano, Tony Buck on drums, and Lloyd Swanton on bass. They have been active since 1987, and have released sixteen studio albums along with several concert recordings. Their music is often described as “experimental jazz”. But even this statement is arguable, for The Necks work frequently with isolated materials – single pitches or chords or rhythms – rather than longer-form melodies or harmonic changes that are often the fare in jazz. Some listeners prefer to characterize The Necks as ambient, or minimalist. Support for these latter designations can be found in their 2001 album Aether, which takes over one hour to develop a few sparse, crystalline chords into a sonorous miasma, immanent and overflowing without seeming to go anywhere.
There is another such ambient moment in The Necks’ latest album, Body. This starts just before 17:00. The recurring double bass with bass drum ostinato (sounding a bit like a heartbeat) seems to float in doldrums of cymbals and piano chord oscillations and organ vibrato. At around 18:21, the heartbeat drops out, and we are left with an octave on the double bass, intermittent undulations in the organ, and some percussion. Only at 19:13 does the heartbeat return in just the bass drum. The other instruments momentarily drop out, before the double bass and bells and piano eventually reenter. Then, we wait as this stasis of intermittent events lingers, events that do not seem to coalesce into any sort of direction or teleology…until they do in a completely unexpected burst, at 24:45, when the freefall vanishes and is replaced by a relentless, motoric groove the likes of which I haven’t heard since The Wedding Present’s “Interstate 5”. This change is completely unanticipated, and powerful because of it.
What I’ve observed here could be said about many other ambient and minimalist works. There is nothing particularly special about The Necks’ approach to timelessness, other than the fact that it’s so beautiful and well-executed. And the fact that The Necks are three white Australian men who, quibbles aside, are characterized as playing in the genre known as “jazz” further renders this normatively apolitical music, a music without a particular identity politics to enunciate. Then again, this lack of specific identity politics might suggest a revolutionary internationalist utopian message, that anyone can play jazz, can stop time, can even make us forget that there is time. It’s worth considering whether The Necks and other musical acts that do feature moments of ambient stasis, or Krautrock-like groove, could be heard in a new way, one that runs against the grain of Marx in order to achieve what Marx might never have imagined, a liberation from the economy of time. In moments like the one in The Necks’ Body, the lack of standard musical development gives us nothing to anticipate, nothing to look forward to, nothing to dread. And it renders the present an eternal present, one immune from the degradations of time.