“…indifferent to the future…”
After consuming a Ritz cracker, two Valiums, half a can of Tab, and one weak, vodka-based cocktail, a girl named Karen slips into a coma one Friday night in 1979.
Seventeen years later she wakes up and the world has changed. The novel, Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland, from 1998, shares its basic outline with the classic tale of Rip Van Winkle – or, for that matter, a great deal of the nineteenth century’s futurist literature: L’an 2440, Looking Backwards, The News from Nowhere, and countless others. But Karen doesn’t wake up in utopia. The contradictions of capitalism have not resolved themselves in her sleep. If anything, they have got worse.
“I’m not sure I completely like the new world,” she confesses to her friend Hamilton. “The whole world is only about work: work work work get get get … racing ahead … getting sacked from work … going online … knowing computer languages … winning contracts. I mean, it’s just not what I would have imagined the world might be if you’d asked me seventeen years ago. People are frazzled and angry, desperate about money, and, at best, indifferent to the future.” In the seventeen years she spent asleep, something disappeared from the world as she sees it, “‘meaning’ had vanished”.[i]
When I was at university, in the first years of the twenty-first century, it was considered practically a given that music could have no intrinsic meanings. A piece of music may be meaningful to you, or to specific social groups, in certain contexts, under certain conditions, but it does not in itself bear meaning. This notion, of music as mere “form moving in sound,” was not original when the critic Eduard Hanslick so phrased it in the midst of the 19th century’s war of the romantics. In fact, we can trace the idea at least as far back as Adam Smith’s essay, ‘Of the Nature of that Imitation which takes place in what are called the Imitative Arts’, first thrashed out in the years immediately after the publication of The Wealth of Nations made him the prophet of free market capitalism.
“Melody and harmony,” wrote Smith, “signify and suggest nothing.” Without the anchorage of poetry or pantomime, instrumental music was suitable only for a sort of contemplation “not unlike that which derives from the contemplation of a great system in any other science.” And even in the case of a piece of music – such as a song, dance, or opera – which did seem to have specific meanings attached by the association of another art form, the music itself could act only “like a transparent mantle,” which might lend a “more enlivening lustre” to the meanings and sentiments already expressed.[ii]
As the musicologist Lawrence Kramer suggests, the “problem of meaning” is a symptom of music’s modern separation from ritual. Today, he argues, “No ideas about music are more conventional than that music has no meaning, at least in the sense that words do, and that this lack is something to be treasured, something that helps make music special.”[iii] But even as Kramer wrote those words, the question of meaning was raising its head once more.
Just a few years earlier, another American musicologist named Leo Treitler had noticed a sudden avalanche of books about musical meaning. Treitler tells a story in which he is reading a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the New Yorker and is suddenly struck by the line, “Inside the lights burned in the middle of the day and the string quartet was playing a piece by Mozart, full of foreboding.” So alien is such a characterisation – of a music unambiguously “full of foreboding” –to the formal discourse of musicology, that Treitler found himself “sucked into a fantasy in which Marquez is reading the story aloud and has just come to that sentence himself. A squad of young men and women rush up to him, outfitted in black leather boots, breeches, and vests. Their hair is close-cropped or slicked back. Their leader hands Marquez a summons.”[iv]
“…an outbreak of meaninglessness…”
The hyperbolic nature of Treitler’s little tale implies an awareness on the part of the distinguished professor that while most of us will merrily ascribe any number of meanings to all kinds of music without too much thought, the kind of vigilance represented by his squad of bovver-booted young musicologists remained largely internal to the confines of the academy. And there they might well have stayed. But in the last few years, signs of a kind of creeping panic over meaning have started to seep out of the ivory tower and into the world outside.
In 2013, the music journalist Sophie Heawood wrote a piece for The Guardian in which she confessed that since throwing out a record collection which once “drew out the short sharp words of feelings and turned them into illustrated sentences”, the music she listens to via internet streaming services on her laptop now sounds “about as deep as an oatcake”.[v] It is telling that Heawood relates the new depthlessness she finds in music to a change in the technology through which she experiences it. It was in a pit of depression induced by the years he spent embedded in the Palo Alto dot com bubble, writing Microserfs, that Douglas Coupland conceived Girlfriend in a Coma. The malaise was spreading.
As well as being a composer with a penchant for unusual wind instruments, Jaron Lanier was a pioneer of virtual reality who spent the eighties and nineties in the Silicon Valley thick of it, hobnobbing with the heads of Apple, Microsoft, and Google. So it came as little surprise when in 1999 he wrote an essay entitled ‘Piracy is Your Friend’. In this New York Times piece, Lanier insisted that the free distribution of MP3s was “an opportunity, not a problem.”[vi]
But in 2002, writing an open letter to the producer and theorist Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Lanier began to worry that something had gone awry with mainstream pop music in the last decade or so. It was not so much that all the new music was bad; but that there was no new music. Not so much that the content was schlocky; but that there was no content at all. Still he insisted then that file-sharing could not be blamed, that the music industry’s obsession with Napster and the like was “such a crock” and that perhaps, had Napster been given the chance to develop, it could have been just the impetus music needed: a “new electric guitar”.[vii]
Except of course file-sharing has indeed developed, somewhat voraciously. And by 2007 Lanier was admitting, “I was wrong. We were all wrong.”[viii] In a book called You Are Not a Gadget, first published three years after this mea culpa, Lanier wrote extensively about his disappointment with the digital world he had helped to create. He worried that under the influence of social networks and software protocols like MIDI, people are “beginning to design themselves,” – and the art that they create – “to suit digital models” of themselves, and that consequently the ongoing “process of the reinvention of life through music appears to have stopped.” Perhaps, he mused, the ultimate consequence of the seemingly infinite abundance of words and melodies available on the cloud, is to be “an outbreak of meaninglessness.”[ix]
“…if all music had disappeared…”
In 2002, Bill Drummond had already come to a similar conclusion. One day in the spring of that year, the author and former member of arch-pop provocateurs The KLF, stepped through the doors of an HMV megastore in central London and felt a peculiar dread overtake him. Faced with “aisle upon aisle of CDs, rack upon rack in every genre possible,” Drummond thought to himself, “I know whatever I get here, when I get it home, it’s not going to be real. It’s not going to open another door in my head.”
That night, back at home working on his laptop, the feeling got worse. “It was as if every piece of recorded music from the whole history of recorded music – the past hundred and ten years or whatever that it has existed – is behind that screen laughing at me. It was saying, go on, download us!”
Drummond proposed a radical solution, “We’ve got to start all music again. I got into this fantasy in the end: wouldn’t it be great if all music had disappeared? We knew music had existed, but the CDs were blank. You’d go to the piano and you can’t do anything. Drum kits don’t work. It’s all gone. We’ve still got the emotional need to make music, but it cannot be done on any instrument.”[x]
Drummond’s reverie tapped into a strain of hitherto dormant cultural catastrophism that had reared its head in the run-up to the millennium and never quite lain down since. To people still in the midst of the last century, it was pretty much a given that their leaders might capriciously elect to end all life on earth at the push of a button. However, from the phantom Y2K computer bug to the various Mayan apocalypses and ecological disasters (whether ultimately man-made or otherwise) favoured by post-millennial Hollywood film-makers, there lingers a decided whiff of Biblical chiliasm, of Nature’s angry vengeance wrought upon the folly of man. The bomb, at least, maintained a certain deliberate decisionism. It was an apocalypse with agency – no matter now madcap and divorced from the majority of actual people that agency may have been.
Today, though the internationally recognised Doomsday Clock maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists still stands at five minutes to midnight (closer, in fact, than it did for most of the sixties and seventies), we seem to worry little about the bomb.[xi] And yet in a strange sort of way, we live our lives as though the nuclear holocaust had already happened. Culture increasingly resembles not the gleaming fantasia of utopian dreams but the jury-rigged bricolage of post-apocalyptic nightmares.
“…every mark, blotch, and stain…”
An order of monks in a desolate wasteland, patiently copying and illuminating the shopping lists and trivial memoranda of a long-dead electrical engineer onto treated lambskin. The scenario is from a post-apocalyptic fable by Walter M. Miller called A Canticle for Leibowitz, set six hundred years after an atomic catastrophe. But it speaks just as eloquently about our own culture of reissues, remasters, reformations, and gatefold audiophile 180-gram vinyl editions of the long lost demos of some supposedly pivotal rock legend or other. As I read about the desire of Brother Francis (Miller’s protagonist) to duplicate precisely “every mark, blotch, and stain” on the holy relic (an old engineering blueprint) he had discovered in an abandoned shelter, I couldn’t help but think of the discussion between the singer Billy Childish and critic Simon Reynolds in the latter’s book, Retromania, about the fortunes spent on valve studio equipment, the fetishism of antiquated recording equipment and ‘stripped back’ production styles (mono, analogue, live, untreated, etc.).[xii] Reynolds’s book is all about pop music’s hopes for the future being crowded out by a series of compulsions to repeat the past. “Instead of being about itself,” he notes elsewhere in the text, “the 2000s has been about every previous decade happening again all at once: a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel.”[xiii] It’s as though music has been gobbled up by one of the “time prolapses” in Brian Aldiss’s novel from the mid-seventies, The Eighty Minute Hour.
A weird, sprawling ‘space opera’ in which characters spontaneously break into arias set in verse form, the narrative of this novel is set at the very end of the twentieth century, several years after another world war. It seems as though the pollution from so many nuclear explosions has ruptured the very fabric of space-time, creating pockets of the past in odd places throughout the solar system, and leaving various characters lost and stranded in former centuries. “But suppose your references are all wrong!” speculates one of the characters at one point. “Suppose nothing has happened to us and we’re sitting comfortably back home on earth, 1999 A.D., only we’ve all spiralled round the twonk and are so ego-sick of progress that we’re sunk in a mass-hallucination about it?”[xiv] Our situation is more severe. Rather than hallucinating the time distortion effects of a real thermonuclear war; we have hallucinated the war. The fallout, however, is real.
Robert Barry is a composer and freelance writer from Brighton, England. He is a regular contributor to Frieze, Art Review, and The Wire. This is an extract from his forthcoming Repeater book, The Music of the Future
[i] Coupland, D. Girlfriend in a Coma, London: HarperCollins, 1998, p.10, p.153
[ii] Smith, A. The Works of Adam Smith, vol.V, London: T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1811, pp.278-302
[iii] Kramer, L. Musical Meaning: Towards a Critical History,Vol. I, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002, p.1, p.11
[iv] Treitler, L. ‘Language and the Interpretation of Meaning’ in Music and Meaning, Robinson, J. (ed.), New York: Cornell University Press, 1997, p.23-4
[v] Heawood, S. ‘Music has died now I’ve thrown away my CDs and only listen on my laptop’, The Guardian, Tuesday 4 June 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/04/music-died-cds-listen-laptop
[vi] Lanier, J. ‘Piracy Is Your Friend’, New York Times, May 9 1999
[vii] Lanier, J. ‘Where Did the Music Go?’ in Sound Unbound, Miller, P. D. (ed.)
[viii] Laneier, J. ‘Pay Me For My Content’ New York Times, November 20 2007
[ix] Lanier, J. You Are Not A Gadget, London: Penguin, 2011, pp.39, 128, 174
[x] All quotes from interview with the author conducted in July 2006, parts of which subsequently became an article for Plan B Magazine and Drummond went on to write many of the same things in his book 17, published in 2008 by Beautiful Books, London.
[xi] A timeline of the Doomsday Clock may be viewed online at the Bulletin’s website, http://thebulletin.org/timeline
[xii] Miller, W. M. A Canticle for Leibowitz, New York: Bantam, 1961, pp.60-70; Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to It’s Own Past, New York: Faber, 2011, p.270
[xiii] Reynolds, 2011, op. cit. pp.x-xi
[xiv] Aldiss, B. The Eighty Minute Hour, New York: Leisure, 1975, p.75