On Music Resistance

This is the transcript from an hour-long talk I gave at the 2014 UNM festival in Malmö, Sweden. The theme of the festival, and of the talk, was ‘Music Resistance’. In my review of the festival, I explore some of the ways in which some of the pieces in the festival programme engaged with this theme. This talk was written during the festival, and was partly inspired by this programme, so I’ve indicated examples where relevant that link to my review. The talk also followed lectures by Johannes Kreidler and Jennifer Walshe, and preceded a debate with UNM composers on the theme of music resistance. As well as an attempt to engage with, unpack and explode this idea, the talk functions as a revision of some of my previous ideas – particularly ‘the manifesto’ of 2011 – and should function as the most direct statement of my particular critical/artistic ‘project’ to date. 

Seminar at UNM

This is an attempt to tackle the subject of ‘music resistance’ head on. I should affirm, to begin with, the importance of the notions of ‘reflexivity’ and ‘situatedness’ to my position, which I will continue to return to.


I have come to understand my practice (both critical and compositional) in terms of a BELIEF IN THE POSSIBILITY OF POLITICAL MUSIC. What is most important to me is the political potential of music.  I have taken this on as my own system of valuation – as opposed to more familiar ways of evaluating whether music is ‘good’ or ‘successful’ or ‘valuable’ – but I hope that I’ve done so reflexively, in as full an awareness as possible of my adoption of these categories, what they mean: what ‘political’ means, what ‘potential’ means, etc. This is not an arbitrary thought experiment though; it is a way in which I personally evaluate art. I believe in the possibility of art to change subjectivities, to change the way we perceive the world, the way we relate to the world, and thereby change the world.

I don’t really care about good or bad music in any other sense, although obviously I might like or love music for other reasons, but I’m concerned with the possibility of political music and also the necessity of political music, which is tied into it. I would define ‘political music’ as music that is only political music, i.e. it only succeeds as ‘music’ (or it only succeeds as being music) by way of its being ‘political’ (having some inescapable political effect on whatever level, ‘political’ perhaps meaning: having to do with the possibility or necessity of [social] change and the distribution of the power to effect those changes). It is my aim always to be as reflexive and self-critical as possible, but in light of which, to continue to affirm this belief. If my faith in this belief is justified then it should feel somewhat resistant to some of your beliefs, opinions and practices, but I hope that through your resistance to my resistance, we can all clarify our positions, and become mutually more reflexive.


As well as reflexivity, there is the importance of ‘situatedness’. The key question for this talk, and surely for any adequate treatment of the idea of ‘music resistance’, is the question: ‘Resistance to what?’ It is my belief that critique and resistance has to be made within a particular situation (á la Badiou) – that the identification and interrogation of a particular situation must precede any functional resistance or critique. It is always possible to simultaneously position ourselves within many different situations that overlap. For me, this means that I can only really talk from within my own situations, some examples might include: the UK classical music world, the UK new music world, the London music scene, contemporary British culture, late capitalism in the West, global multinational capitalism, patriarchy, etc etc. Some of these might overlap with you, others might resemble situations that you can position yourselves within, but differ crucially and instructively. For this reason, there may be limits to the relevance of what I can say here, but I’m going to say it anyway and see what happens.

In this talk, I’ll move through a few ways in which notions of resistance have arisen within elements of my own practice, and the ways in which they relate to different situations in different ways, and some of the contradictions that result when we ask: ‘Resistance to what?’ Then I’ll lay out why I believe political music is both possible and necessary, and talk about some of the things that I believe we might consider resisting in new music, in order to help make the possibility of political music a reality.


The first thing I need to talk about is my blog, the biting point, and in particular the first thing I wrote for it which was a rather long ‘manifesto’. I don’t want to focus too much on it, because I wrote it in 2011 when I was 22, and still a kid, and I would now reject most of it for various reasons, but I’ll talk about it a bit, partly because I assume it was one of the reasons I was invited to talk in the first place, and also because I know that some of you at least have read it, or at least skimmed it.

I wrote this thing when I’d just come out of a three-year undergraduate studying music at Cambridge University, and I was going crazy as were many of my friends there and at Oxford. Although it was very good in many ways and I learned a lot there, I found it quite an oppressive intellectual environment. Pretty unreconstructed. Uncritiqued value categories and constitutive ideologies. I found a lot of the course there to involve the employment of quasi-empirical analysis to ‘prove’ what were still idealist value systems about why music still mattered, why it was worth studying, why the course still needed funding: a whole preservationist structure set up to reproduce the uncritiqued necessity of the department and subject retaining support from institutions. The oppressiveness I felt there can be summed up in my fear of admitting that I didn’t like Bach. I don’t like Bach’s music. I just don’t like it. Even now, it feels like I’m condemning myself by saying that. How can you consider my opinions on music worthwhile if I don’t understand how to appreciate Bach? You probably don’t actually care at all, but it’s a feeling that’s so deeply ingrained. At the time, it felt important to interrogate these feelings: not my feelings about Bach’s music, but my feelings about my feelings about Bach’s music, which led to actual self-censorship.

None of these are original objections, and Cambridge is quite an exceptional situation in some ways, but I felt them deeply back then. So I wrote a load of sub-Bordieusian critique of value categories, addressed at the ‘classical music world’, or the ‘UK classical musical world’ in general, in which I felt that I was situated.

To summarise this manifesto: new music is marginalised by society because it’s not ‘relevant’ enough. This situation is reproduced by ingrained ideologies within the mainstream classical music world – which is increasingly in thrall to economic rationality as funding is cut and these big organisations need to justify themselves to tax payers in terms of crude ‘use’ value and uncontroversial value categories (great works, masterpieces, canons, popularity, music historical ‘importance’). They all resort to pre-empting audience expectations, establishing an a priori idea of musical value and then delivering it in a way that it can be clearly recognised and appear authentic. But I also wrote about new music not being ‘relevant’, compared to parallel contemporary art production, basically the old line about alienating audiences, ‘difficult’ music, accessibility, autonomy, which is still an issue if not a problem.

I also ascribe an almost Messianic quality to pop music – or what I called independent pop music – prescribing it as a positive model in every aspect (to take as material, to pillage for structures, platforms, infrastructure, performance practices etc.), in order to reconnect with people and the world – which can be linked to a belief in the idea of popular modernism which I do still maintain.

In putting forward this argument, I made use of a lot of heinous terms like brand identity, relevance, reform – words that I would never use now. Unforgiveable words. Instructively, one word I didn’t use in the whole Manifesto was ‘capitalism’. My outlook and politics have changed a lot since then, and the rest of the blog content since then has been a progressive qualification or critique of that originary outburst.


In a sense though, I think the whole thing can be understood as an exercise in bad taste: just writing all the things that I wasn’t supposed to in that situation. I think bad taste can be very instructive. The idea of taste can conceal things. I think writing a manifesto itself can be bad taste – to state one’s aims in a way that can be measured so readily, to make claims for art or music generally, to presume to know any kind of generalisable truth. Talking about music and politics can also be bad taste – boring, didactic, anachronistic; people consider that conversation long since exhausted. In fact, talking about music at all can be considered bad taste, I think, especially in general rather than in terms of one artist’s own understanding of their own work.

I keep the manifesto up on the blog, though, because at the time I did believe in that stuff. It was as authentic an expression as any. Perhaps (and certainly partly thanks to Cambridge) my knowledge of the new music world, of recent music history, theory and philosophy was relatively cursory. I was fairly naïve. But I actually think that’s why it’s valuable. The opinion of the non-specialist, the non-professional, the amateur in the sense of its etymology (having to do with love of something), I think this can be a very marginalised voice in new music.

Resist mainstream classical culture

So, what was I resisting back then? Well, the ‘mainstream classical world’, really. And I now perhaps understand better how these institutions, in the UK at least, have to show themselves to be fulfilling certain criteria – in terms of institutionally-recognised standards of judgment – as well as showing good business skills as an organisation (innovative marketing strategies, market research and whatever it takes to keep the people who come to concerts coming to concerts), along with certain criteria derived from more economistic discourse (innovation, creativity, job creation) and in line with more literal manifestations of what the reigning ideology of the time recognises as the social use of music, with community projects etc etc. And this all to justify themselves to their funders, and to the State AKA ‘the taxpayer’. I understand this, and I understand that within these boundaries they do try and find certain standards of integrity for themselves.

I understand all this, I understand it’s not just ‘elitism’, but at the same time, to understand is to explain and to normalise. To some extent, we should probably forget we know this, and keep asking why it has to be this way. Why? And critique their answers.

Or possibly, we should just not care. For example, with the Bach thing. You probably don’t care whether or not I like Bach. I advocate ‘separatism’ in the manifesto, for ‘New Music’ – which perhaps I’d now call ‘autonomism’, from institutions and from an infrastructure that relies on problematic funding streams – but the new music world is already separate. I acknowledged that in the text itself. So in a sense the whole thing is pretty circular. What this means, for me, is that – from the position of a composer especially – to resist the mainstream ‘classical’ music world is perhaps possible, but it is not the only possibility, and maybe it is not our most pressing concern. There are other situations, which are quite different, in which the composer finds themselves and one is obviously the new music world. There is also the ‘music world’ in general, or ‘the culture industry’ as the Frankfurt School had it, and a lot of the conscious resistance in music over the last century has of course located itself within this situation: ‘late capitalism’ (the West) and ‘the culture industry’, i.e. culture within a totalitarian ‘rational-technical’ capitalist machine. In fact, to an extent, I’d say that a foundational category of the new music situation is its assumed resistance to these other things – long since internalised and not really re-interrogated.

Resist neoliberal music culture

Recognising the situation within which you choose to resist is fundamental, because of course many of the aspects that might be taken for granted or uncritiqued within the mainstream classical music situation can be perceived as resistant within another situation. I want to turn to the book I recently wrote, a photo essay with a photographer called Dimitri Djuric, about the ‘alternative classical scene’ in London: We Break Strings. And it’s interesting because there are a lot of people doing different things which might be more or less ‘alternative’ to whatever is imagined as the ‘default’ or ‘normal’ – which might be the big institutions, the big organisations, the hegemonic practices and discourses – but there is still a sense of cohesion amongst those involved, which comes from a kind of pragmatism. A common response to another situation.

I interviewed thirty of the people who I perceived to be significantly involved in this scene. I very much wrote it from a fan’s perspective, and what was included and excluded was consciously limited by my own and the photographer’s experience as people who like music in London, and don’t really like concert halls that much, but the book was focused largely on three organisations: Nonclassical which is Gabriel Prokofiev’s label and live gig series, Kammer Klang which is the new music night at Café OTO, the experimental music venue, and the London Contemporary Music Festival which is only two years old but pretty paradigmatic for the book. Some of these people had similar institutional criticisms as me, and had been doing more stuff outside of the more formal venues for reasons vaguely connected to ‘relevance’, ‘audiences’, ‘elitism’ etc. There were people who just liked music better on a smaller scale and wanted to write pieces for other spaces and other situations. And there were people who were just doing it for pragmatic reasons.

What I realised quite recently is that a lot of the stuff I advocated in the Manifesto was coming to pass anyway, and it’s been accelerated as part of the fall-out of the reigning cultural logics of our current socio-political situation, within ‘post-Fordist’ systems of production and consumption, under neoliberalism and permanent austerity in the UK, and particularly in London as a neoliberal city. The big structures, the big organisations, the inflexible funding streams seem increasingly anachronistic. Certainly any belief in a kind of general social contract by which the state would have a fundamental role in encouraging musical ‘progress’ as something that might be beneficial to society as a whole, that was out. That was too paternalistic. If people liked something, they should be allowed to like it, and if they didn’t then it shouldn’t be forced on them. Any suggestion that it is ‘improving’ is authoritarian anyway. Instead, the market can decide what people actually want to go and hear. If only a few people want to go to your night, you’ll put it on and a few people will come and it will have to stay small, and you’ll have to write small music for it.

The music will have to be flexible as well, and streamlined. This makes it a good time for improvisatory practice and composer-performers who can tour their own work solo, as well as music that involves electronic elements which removes the need to pay multiple musicians. ‘Entrepreneurial’ musicians will explore the potential of cross-disciplinary collaborations to afford new venues and audiences to appeal to. New music is adopting many of the platforms and formats of independent pop music, because it has little choice but to fit into these models in order to sustain itself. Perhaps these changes were determined by this neoliberal logic influencing the ideology behind arts policy, or perhaps – like in my manifesto – artist were inspired to take on and to engage with the new values and subjectivities within this situation.

In the book, I suggest the presence of a crisis. Not just a financial crisis, but a crisis in innovation (the production of newness, which is itself the ‘surplus value’ of new art, and quite a real concrete one in terms of culture as an industry, and ‘soft power’ and international prestige). I could certainly diagnose ‘temporal and spatial fixes’ everywhere (à la David Harvey) – fixes in innovation which took on a spatial or a temporal characteristic: new spaces, new ways of hearing old notes, the rise of the curator. Technological fixes have obviously had a massive role in terms of saving resources. Was this the big institutions outsourcing innovation to young and flexible entrepreneurs?

And there are certainly institutions who are happy to look to the private sector for finance, under the Randian belief that corporate investment – desiring only of pure innovation to be associated with its brand as a return – is less meddlesome than the ‘box ticking’ of government funding, which must rely on some very arbitrary criteria in order to give the impression of ‘transparency’: as though any such judgement could really be transparent in the bureaucratic way they desire.

Within this situation – cultural production in the neoliberal city – there were examples of resilience and examples of resistance. Interestingly, within this situation, of course, a lot of the old-school aspects of music culture (aspects which, from this perspective, you could actually align as much to social democratic values as to bourgeois or aristocratic values) seem very resistant. Conservative perhaps, but resistant. Art music, with its long durations and abstractions and demands on our time and our attention, and its discourses of absolutism and idealism, are all quite oppositional when placed alongside primary aspects of the logic of postmodern subjectivity and the experience of the subject under neoliberalism.

And I find myself agreeing with Adorno in many ways. I do think there is a structural resistance to classical music practice, and to new music, and to the idea (although I don’t think it can ever really exist) of an autonomous artistic sphere. I think the coming together of musicians for a single project on something as strange and apparently ‘irrational’ (and ‘irrelevant’) as a new orchestral piece is a beautiful thing. I also see some gigs in clubs and rock venues, where they play Xenakis or Stockhausen or Berio, and maybe they pipe some avant-garde tape piece over the PA, and I think it can also be resistant. It is not a rehabilitation of contemporary classical music, bringing in new audience; it is an occupation of the club or the pub, by an alien force, which is why not so many new audiences actually do come pouring in. It is the problematisation of the space. It is this music, which has been enclosed for so long in a safe academic, institutional chamber, finally at work in the world, and perhaps for some people who wander in, it might for a second reclaim the critical potential that some people still assume it to have: frustrating our ideas of what music is and culture is and everything we thought we knew about anything.

[For more on this, see the sample chapter I recently posted from the book: ‘(Non)Classical/(Non)Pop’.)

A formative recent experience for me has been working with the opera company, Opera Erratica, which is my day job even though it is very part-time. We do a lot of free improvisation – long improvisations, largely physical with musical elements or whatever comes out – and seeing these performers doing the most strange and pointless things with such seriousness for so long is really invigorating. We have a permanent ensemble company, and many of these opera singers have been through years and years of training in order to get the requisite prestige to be considered professionals, to have the possibility of having ‘careers’ in opera singing, and for that reason can be very ruthless with the kind of things they should and shouldn’t be doing, in order to keep on the ‘straight-and-narrow’ and work towards the roles they want to sing on the stages they want to perform on. The biggest difficulty with our company is that people can be frustrated by the idea of taking the time to do something so apparently pointless, but I also think it is the most valuable thing we do, much more so than the ‘finished’ pieces themselves at the moment. For us, it is a little bit of prefigurative politics – a kind of strange heterotopia (or ‘Other Place’, à la Foucault) in which anything is possible and we can confound ourselves with our own nonsensical, expressive potential. And I admire the work of the musicians – the Scratch Orchestra, Musica Elettronica Viva, these free improv groups for amateurs – in which ‘music’ was just purely a process, a space of pointless free activity. But it is a commune. It’s an enclave. It is only made possible through privilege. We needed to already have a certain level of financial support, and cultural capital, which we certainly have, in order to create and enjoy this space. As a space prefiguring a perfect world of freely shared creativity, its resistant power is very limited, just like all communes that are able to endure.

And there are other paradoxes. In many ways, orchestras are quite extraordinary in that the musicians can retain a fairly strong union power. By relying on another discourse – the orchestral tradition, the necessity for these great pieces to be performed as they were intended to be heard etc. – they can evade the anti-union rhetoric which has torn UK labour power apart, and has completely reconfigured our general political attitude towards class antagonism and the necessity of solidarity and collectivity. The musicians’ unions can stay relatively strong and can maintain the orchestra as a resistant structure for a while, but without the possibility to legitimately take action in solidarity with other workers whose interests do not appear to coincide with theirs, and largely without the inclination as well, it would seem. In fact, the strength of the musicians’ unions, without concurrently undermining the basic economic logic of the UK, can only function in further restricting the possibilities of programming in these large organisations, because of the resultant financial pressures, and therefore the potential for radical, transformative music to take place within them.

In this way, as with the large unions and political parties in general, and many of the more unwieldy structures of the days of social democracy, they can actually become barriers to a new vital engagement with the real problems of the new situation: a reconstitution of aims and infrastructure around a new class composition, or a new kind of subjectivity (whether it’s post-’68 or post-’89 or ‘Millennial’), or a new cultural moment. Instead, I’m interested in the potential of a musical autonomism to start up from amongst these entrepreneurs, to find a space which might be more free of the pressures that come with large established structures and funding streams, to make critical or protest art.

But why does this matter? Perhaps there are ideas of ‘creative freedom’ and ‘experimentation’ which are foreclosed by some of these restrictions.


Firstly, I believe all music is necessarily political, in that it is necessarily social; it is not natural, as a category it is artificial and has been formulated over generations, by those who have the power to make such formulations.

Secondly, it is political because it is art, and art within ‘liberal democracies’ is a privileged space for free expression, one of the fundamental criteria for us to continue to believe that we’re living in a liberal democracy. Music is deeply implicated in this criterion. Our continued belief that critical art could be made without censorship (and would be made if there was anything wrong with society) is fundamental to our faith that nothing is wrong with society. It is all an illusion of course, but we must pretend that we don’t know it’s an illusion. That’s where art’s power comes from – leveraging on that shared pretence that we don’t know it’s an illusion, and pushing those in power to prove how liberal they really are.

Thirdly, I believe there are massive problems with the world. Massive structural inequalities which could be fixed if we totally overhauled the way in which the world was structured, given our accumulated wealth and expertise as humans, especially over the last few centuries. I believe many people have already suffered and died at the hands of those who had the power to determine the way society would be run, and what it would mean, and what we should think of it, and I believe many more people will continue die, at a faster rate, if we don’t change things in an extreme way, very soon. I believe critique and change begins ‘at home’ within our own situations, our own local communities, our own national structures, our own cultures. And I believe those who have the privilege to make those changes, to articulate problems and solutions, have a responsibility to take actions which will eventually destroy that privilege.

So we come back to composers, who I think are incredibly privileged in a certain way. Any art ideally creates a free space for the free articulation of some idea or thought, and the composer gets a lot of space to themselves, given the ‘time-based medium’ of art, and the residual faith in the composer’s intentions to be observed closely in order to realise the ‘real’ art work. People are encouraged to listen very hard indeed, and there are other people highly trained to render what you ‘say’ as ‘faithfully’ as possible.

I also think that music has quite a few affordances as a medium that should render it very useful for the articulation of a political viewpoint. It creates a space in time in which a voice, idea, concept or story could be represented which might be marginalised in the media or in the world. It has an affective quality – along with an established codex of signs which function in a very visceral manner – which can comment on the voice, idea or concept in a variety of ways, and also force a physical reaction to some extent, within a certain shared listening culture. But it also functions as a malleable, reflective medium which can be made to relate to things in the real world which have similar qualities. The composer is incredibly privileged to be afforded the chance to fill this time, and organise this medium, in whatever way they feel fit, and have the result listened to very carefully. It’s most certainly a privileged space, one of very few in an era in which the taking up of someone else’s time is seen as a cardinal offence, and everyone should be able to choose what they want to do when they want to do it and never be made to wait for anything ever.

I think the combination of these factors would already theoretically suggest that composers might have a responsibility to use their time and space to do what they can to alleviate the suffering of the world, and destroy their own privilege in the process. On the other side of things, one might reasonably interpret the composer’s decision not to make such statements as an affirmation of the status quo. To find something – some sound or some process or concept – in the world and present it aesthetically, or else to use a socially-sedimented medium within a socially-contingent listening situation, and make something which doesn’t disturb that situation – that could be and often is heard as an affirmation of that situation. A representation of its own unproblematic self-representation.

However, this is not – as you all know, I’m sure – how it really works. Because you can’t actually do anything as a composer. For one thing, you have to make music, otherwise you wouldn’t be a composer, and so – even if you’re playing fast and loose with definitions of music – you still have to be able to convince some other people that what you’re doing might instructively be considered ‘music’, in order to get it included in the music world – the music situation – in the first place. And the definition of music, and of ‘good music’ or ‘successful music’ or ‘valuable music’, has been defined and redefined by those with the power to define such things, who also happen to be those considered authoritative enough to define such things. The control over the delimitations of such a category is obviously an immensely powerful position, in that it admits and rejects entry into this free expressive zone, and delineates whose work is worth listening to and whose work isn’t. Who gets funding and who doesn’t. Who gets to teach and who doesn’t.

Resist the new music situation

So, obviously, both these limitations – the restrictions on the definitions of music and the immense privilege, and power, of the composer figure – have been conscientiously attacked by composers throughout the twentieth century. This is perhaps one definition of the Avant-Garde. Composers have resisted the definitions of music in order perhaps to critique the status quo, through immanent critique, and in so doing to hopefully encourage critique across all aspects of life (to make visible the assumptions and ideologies which enclose such reified categories, their historical provenance through acts of power, and the inequalities which are maintained by them). Composers have widened the field of perception by removing all the old clichés of expressivity and meaning, bringing into frame the filtered-out sounds and gestures, other details of the ‘musical’ act, and in doing so, forcing the listener to work more consciously in the act of interpretation, which is perhaps also supposed to have a kind of pedagogical aspect in its broader applicability to life.

Composers have also attempted to remove their own limiting clichés of expression, by finding more ‘objective’ ways to generate sounds, which again heightens the responsibility of the listener in the act of interpretation and potentially makes space for some new experience inaccessible outside of the old expressive clichés. And, of course, composers have offered up all the sounds of the ‘world’ to be interpreted as music, to be reheard with an aesthetic ear.

[Max Wainwright’s Living Character provided a good, knowing example of this at UNM – see my review here.]

The problematic position of the expressive composer with some idea worthy of communication – the arrogance and ignorance that there might be some way to transfer an ideal version of the piece straight from their brain to yours – is replaced by an almost total responsibilisation on the part of the listener for interpretation. We are allowed to take what we want from a piece or from a sound; there is no ‘real text’, no authority. At the same time, the assumption that music resides in the pitches and rhythms, that we have to make every other aspect of the listening situation transparent in order to perceive it correctly (and thereby fulfilling our own expectations about what we are going to hear) is equally destroyed, as we are offered up every aspect of the performance for aesthetic consideration.

There are limits to this progression, obviously, and internal contradictions. The two critical ‘fronts’ of 1) destroying the subjective composer and 2) destroying musical medium both reach certain fundamental limits, which are insurpassable limits of disciplinarity. But at the same time, they cancel each other out. As Johannes Kreidler pointed out in his lecture, Helmut Lachenmann’s ‘critical composition’ loses its critical edge when we start to listen to these sounds with the kind of generosity that, in turn, is cultivated by John Cage. ‘Letting sounds be themselves’ defuses Lachenmann’s critique, which requires us to have our expectations frustrated and our bourgeois complacency chastised. At the same time, if we don’t hear the pieces of Lachenmann’s works as the fragments which we are nevertheless forced to hear as part of ‘a musique informelle which reflects a shattered world’, in other words a work wrought by an expressive subject (à la Adorno), we are free to enjoy their exoticism and uniqueness. Critique is replaced by a kind of pluralist, relativist positivism: the aestheticisation of all sound.

[I discuss this further in my thesis on critical music, which I will post to this blog soon…]

And what keeps coming back, what cannot be totally surpassed: on the one hand, the figure of the composer, who is always reimplicated however hands-off they become. Cage’s 4’33” may be either the concept of the silent piece, or the ambient noise apparent in this so-called ‘silence’, but either way it is primarily a piece by Cage: his concept, his silence. The more ordinary the noise, the more strongly the composer returns along with the title. This limit is a function of a Western concept of art that has so far remained unsurpassable, as it is incredibly tightly attached to our very self-understanding as subjective individuals. It’s funny how this differs from pop music actually, where music is functionally produced by a lot of different people, although I would argue that it is heard as the expression of a singular ‘imaginary’ vocal subject: the voice within the song (which is the basis of my ongoing series on my other blog The Night Mail). However, in art music, even when a lot of people have actually produced the music (as, for example, in Cardew’s Treatise) we still hear it as ‘Cardew’. So perhaps the figure of the composer is something to be resisted.

On the other hand, what also keeps coming back is the notion that music is fundamentally to do with sound: that it has sound deep down in it, and that there is a kind of sonic surplus or result to whatever larger set of practices the music has to do with. This is to do with the limits of music’s disciplinarity. Music, as a discipline, has been thoroughly enclosed by so-called ‘visual art’, especially as it’s expanded into performance art, and this has meant that music’s disciplinarity is always very much at stake. If music’s identity as music, as distinct from art, were to disappear then we’d all have to compete with ‘visual artists’ for funds and for institutional support, for claims to originality and newness and uniqueness, and there are a lot of artists out there who’ve been doing a lot of crazy things for a long time. This is why the notion of conceptual music is so interesting, because – like Fluxus – it’s right on the edge of conceptual art and really risks falling into it. Hence its remit, the kind of concepts it can explore while remaining conceptual music rather than conceptual art, must either reaffirm the fact that it’s to do with sound, or it must reference some other aspect of music history, music culture, the music archive, music practice, etc.

Sound is the irreducible remainder of music, which allows music to be music, and the composer can never fully disappear within our institutional systems and ideologies, and why does any of this matter?


I believe that ‘music’ is defined as apolitical. It cannot be music, or certainly not ‘good’ or ‘successful’ music, if it cannot also stand up ‘on its own’ as pure sound – as the autonomous medium of sound heard aesthetically which is experienced as music in the listener’s perception. According to this definition, there cannot be such thing as good political music, because if it is essentially, fundamentally political, it is not music. It is something else.

We must (so the theory goes) be able to strip away all the details and the process and the framing and the words and the dramaturgy and the gestures, and listen in to the sounds and, in the end, judge them on their own. This must be a possibility in real, good music, even if we are willing to consider it holistically as a multi-sensory, multi-disciplinary experience as well. For music to be music, it must give us the option to reduce it to its sonic elements and judge it as such (even if those sonic elements are imaginary, they are imaginary ‘pure’ sounds) and therefore the idea of ‘political music’ is a contradiction, an oxymoron. Music must be also apolitical music if it is to be music.

[Exceptions to this, i.e. ‘music’ which cannot be reduced to sound, are permissible either when the composer responsible for them has already proven their ability in the past to compose this kind of ‘good, real’ music,  or when the structures/performance/context explicitly refer to something overtly ‘musical’: a conspicuous score, a conductor, a classical genre form, an Italian term, an instrumentalist sitting in front of an instrument. This is the kind of convention that permits reviewers to favourably describe a work as ‘musical’ – that ubiquitous, conveniently-meaningless cliché which allows music to ‘claim’ a non-sound-based work.]

This concept means that it is possible to ‘listen around’ the politics in any piece, and enjoy the ‘music’ in spite of them, just like listening to an opera on CD. You enjoy the music in spite of everything else, because the music – so another common ideology goes I think – is the piece. In most cases, the staging can change, the music can’t, it must be realised precisely in the composer’s precise terms. The problem with all political art is that it can be enjoyed despite itself, and it therefore lays itself open to – and even demands – to be judged and validated despite itself, as a ‘pure’ example of the medium as well as any ‘political’ criteria that it might suggest. And this basically radically limits its potency in any situation. It can have a kind of effect – in can bring to light issues and stories, and provoke a little bit of research or curiosity – but it cannot demand such an engagement in order to be ‘legitimately’ apprehended and enjoyed.

Music is defined as apolitical. This is what we must resist against, first and foremost. I believe one of the most resistant thing you can do as composers, which is why so few people to do it, is to say unequivocally: ‘Music can be political. My music is political. If you think you’ve enjoyed it or appreciated it in spite of its politics, you’re wrong. You haven’t experienced the piece at all.’ This is a crazy thing for someone to do, of course. As I said before, one of the key ideological aspects of the moment is responsibilisation of experience and interpretation. Everyone can take what they want from the piece, or what they can, but the composer shouldn’t push an interpretation. An open text is a generous text and an ethical text, and that leaves open the possibility that any uncomfortable political content can be ignored or appreciated in some aestheticised way.

[Two composers at UNM who did affirm a political dimension to their work, in different ways, were Hampus Norén and Henri Sokka – see my review of their pieces here.]

I don’t think it’s a surprise that music is defined as apolitical. The status quo must guarantee the continuing of the existent power structures. If there was such a thing as political art and political music, it would be banned. In some countries it is, because to make and distribute art in the way we do in the UK certainly would disrupt the distribution of power – or at least there is some official fear that it would. Art must be defined to serve its purpose, meaning that its political efficacy must be limited while maintaining the impression of criticality and autonomy. Music is defined and redefined in order to entrench the power positions which benefit from its definition as such. If political music was a possibility, as in music which had the power to change the world and undermine the ability of those people to define what music is and can be and do, then it would do that.

I don’t however think that music could never be political. Music can be anything; it’s not a natural category. It’s not an empirical phenomenon. It has been fought over for centuries. And one of the things about successful political music is that it won’t exist until it does exist, and then it will exist, which will be great. How much further does the world have to go downhill, how many more crises, before actually some of these structures and categories don’t seem so sturdy anymore? I think, the quicker we can tip the balance the better.

Resist the definition of music as apolitical

What does this mean, practically? I can imagine one ultimate scenario, which perhaps seems crazy but isn’t so much more crazy than a lot of things that have happened in the world over the last hundred years. Composers in a particular music situation all begin to write political music. Unbearable political music. Didactic, hectoring political music that can’t be enjoyed as pure sound. And they continue to affirm: ‘This is music’. ‘This is the new music that I’m writing’. All the composers who are already in the system. The competitions are flooded; no-one can find anyone who will accept a commission without the inclusion of these heavy political elements. Tasteless elements. They put them in concerts and people can’t bear to endure them. In this situation, it would reach a critical mass where the organisations in charge would have to decide whether they were going to functionally censor this huge proportion of what was always known as the new music world, or whether they were going to be forced to accept this redefinition. And in the event that they did censor these works, music could no longer function as a comforter for liberal democracy, guaranteeing free expression, and one of the foundational myths of late capitalism would be in jeopardy.

This would be a kind of composers’ general strike, and like any general strike, it would rely on collectivity. And this is where this fantasy strategy comes up against another of the deep-rooted values of the new music situation, which is pluralism. Anyone should be free to use whatever language they want, to make something of it. This is prevalent across so much new music now, and obviously very evident in this festival. And it’s linked into a very neoliberal, individualist notion about being allowed to express ourselves and our identities as we see a fit, and no-one should criticise anyone on the way they choose to express themselves, and that’s been very important in a lot of spheres of life. But it allows you to feel happy with the choice to not write political music, to not feel the responsibility to write political music, because of the ethical imperative not to make anyone feel bad for expressing themselves in the way that they feel is most authentic to themselves.

This is really vital, I think, for a lot of people now. No more manifestos, no more declarations of intent, no more ‘shoulds’; but might this also be something we could resist? What if composing music within the contemporary music culture isn’t actually analogous to ‘living authentically’ and being allowed to ‘express oneself’? What if we imagine it as something else – a form of socio-political discourse, or labour in the service of a particular class or the state, or the ethical exercising of an exceptional privilege. Because pluralism is a lie anyway. You can’t write in literally any style. You can’t be too naïve, without being knowingly so. You have to show a knowledge of music history and place yourself in relation to it. You have to demonstrate a certain amount of good taste and expertise in writing for certain forces. And you have to satisfy certain definitions of quality, originality, beauty, musicality, rigour etc, as applicable to whatever style you seem to be pledging allegiance to, in order to be given the time and money to have your music realised and heard. Moreover, in the UK at least, it helps if you’re from an economically- and culturally-privileged background, and it helps if you have aspirations to be a ‘professional composer’ and are prepared to take the institutional steps to dedicate time and money with the idea that this professionalism will emerge as a consequence.

[Linking into many of these ideas, and back to the contradictions of the Cagean musical limits, Joakim Jalhed’s video piece imagiMusic: Basics acted as an excellent intervention into the UNM festival programme – see my review here.)

The idea that such instances of expression are somehow to be understood as authentically connected to you as subjects, that to criticise your musical style is to criticise your right to be yourself, is basically a way to deny the historicity of style and to make critique impossible. And that is very sad, of course. In the perfect world, everyone would be free to explore all the music they wanted to make, and everyone else would come and listen, but in the perfect world, as far as I’m concerned, that freedom (as well as the resources and education connected with it) would be automatically open to everyone all the time. There’d be no such thing as ‘professional composers’, or ‘professional’ anythings. For now, though, the situation is very different, and I think this attitude is something which we might resist, if just to return a sense of responsibility to the discourse, which is uncomfortable, but that’s the point.

Other things to resist? (i.e. good taste)

Supposing to know – Alongside a refusal to tell people what to think or what to believe, there is a tendency against informing or educating, which is nevertheless replaced by the personal responsibilisation of knowledge. We are all already supposed to know. If we don’t know, we should be embarrassed. We shouldn’t admit it. We should have looked it up on Wikipedia. Because of the possibility of total knowledge, I find in a lot of new music and new music discourse, the pressure to already know. It might be the history, other pieces, other references, ideas, texts. It’s a kind of functional counterpart to the responsibilisation of interpretation. We’re all supposed to be able to interpret it ourselves, but we’re all also supposed to be able to interpret it correctly. But supposing to know is, certainly in my situation among my friends in the UK, one of the biggest barriers to political engagement as well. There is a sense that, even if it seems like something is wrong or bad, there must be a reason for it, which we don’t know or aren’t told, but we could know if we found out, and then we would probably understand. Why else is it that no-one is really speaking up about it – the experts, the technocrats, the consultants, the professionals – those who we suppose to know better than us?

The worst thing would be to be wrong or appear ignorant – to stick your neck out, and risk finding out that there are things that you don’t know, but if you did know them, then you would understand. We suppose that it’s rational. We suppose that someone somewhere knows more than us. We suppose that there are ‘two sides to every story’ (at the very least). We suppose that there must be a reason why things are as they are, and that it’s our own responsibility to find out more about it and then make a judgement when we know everything, which basically amounts to an imperative to empathise with every situation completely, and uncritically.

For example, as a critic or a writer, I feel the imperative to know everything about new music before I can say anything. Learn why it is like it is, and then form an opinion. But I believe this is wrong. I believe non-musicians’ opinions are just as valid, if not more so. This might mean taking responsibility for interpretation out of their hands a little bit more, and doing a bit more direct mediation. Music is always already mediated, of course, by our own situation – our ideas about what music is/should be, our experience of music, the taste cultures that we belong to, by the connotations we receive from the situation and from the sounds themselves, and every other aspect of the performance. Listening is always ‘prepared’, but normally the preparation is unconscious and loaded by a social system which requires music to fit into a certain structure. To engage with this situation and attempt to wrest some control back would be no bad thing. I believe you should most of all try not to care about the opinions of people who do know everything – teachers and institutional people and specialist critics and especially each other – because it is in these people that we imagine the ‘big Other’ of the new music situation, which is certainly something to be resisted.

[I found that Marcela Lucatelli’s UNM contribution, TUNING TIME, functioned as an excellent critique of this pressure to know how to interpret new music correctly – see my review here.)

Professionalisation – As I’ve intimated, I’m sceptical of the idea of professionalisation, or being a ‘career artist’ in any respect. My own beliefs about the nature of work and wages and stuff would preclude the possibility of this really being a thing. I think ‘professional artist’ is a contradiction, or I would like it to be a contradiction. I’m interested in work with amateurs, the possibility of work with ‘non-musicians’ and amateurs being part of a primary practice, not a secondary outreach project. I think this would be something to resist – the notion of professionalisation. I know for a lot of you, that might seem impossible and possibly insulting, but I think that’s another reason why maybe it’s something to resist. I don’t believe you should have to be a professional composer or a trained composer or an established composer to make valuable music.


Thinking about other things that we might resist, there are some that are mutually contradictory. I talked about the idea of de-skilling – of legitimating musical production by people who don’t have the many years education and the vocabulary and the specialisation and the many names of teachers and schools in their brochures to testify to their authority – but I also like the idea of super-skilling, which is a very New Music thing. I think there is something resistant in these virtuoso practices which stands against trends in automation, against technology which is all about making things easier and easier for some reason, about the hubristic desire to build robots that will be cleverer than humans as if to excuse us for all our terrible decisions and our refusal to rectify them, and instead spending a load of money building robots that will be cleverer than humans. Robots don’t matter, humans matter, and I think a continuing affirmation of virtuoso practices can be testament to that.

Another contradiction is about the composer’s relationship to the performer. It is quite common now for the composer to thematise, parody or deconstruct their own power over the performer in quite violent ways, perhaps as an exercise in self-flagellation. I often really like these pieces, and I think they can be quite critical still. I also think there’s some critical potential in pieces, like Johannes Kreidler’s Fremdarbeit, which potentially invalidate themselves through their own exploitativeness. To some extent, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter whether we like or don’t like the result of this ‘outsourcing’ piece. Either way, the sounds are implicated. It is impossible to just listen to them, or even enjoy the concept, with a clear conscience. It is a critique both of the musical system and of contemporary production relations. Even if you call it a ‘bad piece’, as many people resort to in the case of political music just to get out engaging with its political discourse, you’re still implicitly criticising the process through which it was created. In that way, it’s proofed.

[I talk more about this in my thesis. One piece from the UNM festival that seemed to employ a similar mechanism, to great effect, was Jeppe Ernst’s Rekviemsee my UNM review.]

But is it only possible to make these pieces through real exploitation or some kind of ethical compromise on the part of the composer? We’d hope not, I think. The composer’s relationship with the performers is also a very difficult issue. How to have solidarity with our comrades the performers, with whom we have a political relationship, but who have perhaps different ‘class interests’ in some ways, if we can call it that? At any rate, how to balance responsibility as composer with responsibility to the performer? Do we go as far as to share power, even share authority over the piece? Dissolve ourselves into collectives of composer-performers with collective identities? It’s another thing to think about.


I’ll reign it back a bit. I think it’s important to talk about awkward things but even for those composers who do accept the responsibility to engage with a socio-political context and try and make some kind of intervention, these strategies might seem too much. So to boil everything down to more reasonable possibilities – despite the fact that I think the very notion of reasonableness is an indicator that it wouldn’t threaten anything structurally – even so, here are a few to sum up:

Reflexivity – This is everything. Interrogate every assumption, critique every decision, and if you’re happy with the reasons, then affirm them. If you reject this notion of responsibility, why do you reject it? This level of reflexivity can also be bad taste, because it calls for stating aims and intentions, and intentions gives others parameters by which to judge us. What did we want to achieve with this piece? Was it successful? But the very notion of ‘successfulness’ is something to be resisted. Such aims will never be achieved fully, successfully, or else they would become irrelevant. No longer aims. Or replaced by new aims. Or else, no more composing. I think, at the least, we have a responsibility to reflexivity. Even if your stated aims are then to be completely free and intuitive, to defy everything – especially what people like me think – and be as free as humanly possible and then even freer, at least know that and justify that.

Situatedness – Seeing resistance from the point of view of a particular situation. I’ve been talking a lot about the new music world as a situation, but actually maybe all that is irrelevant. Maybe the best thing to do would be to look at your own socio-political situation – your immediate local environment and the struggles going on and the people who are marginalised or whatever – and then use every tool at your disposal, musical or non-musical, to engage with that situation in the way that is singularly appropriate for that situation. This is a musical ‘compositionism’ (à la Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi) – based on the reality of class composition and the reality of intersectional struggles in a real place at a real time, rather than taking inspiration first from political musics of the past, or from political analyses of the past.

Diversity of Tactics – This kind of goes against what I was saying before about pluralism. Music can do a lot of things. Let’s try them all and see what works. How can you politicise your own practice? And how can we best learn collectively from our various approaches? If we try enough things, eventually something is bound to have some kind of effect. Moreover, the effect (albeit minimal) of such a strategy is to maintain a tradition of the possibility of the idea of political music – the ‘political music hypothesis’ (after Badiou’s ‘communist hypothesis’) – which we’ll keep alive. And in more general terms, the affirmation of committed politicisation in any form of culture (which is very bad taste in the UK, I can tell you, unless it filtered through certain romanticising nostalgic myths) is an affirmation of the possibility of caring about these things, or at least the necessity of having an opinion.

The Beginnings of Music – Finally, some aphorisms that are always worth repeating. The history of music (or recorded music, at least) has only just begun. There’s a lot more to be written and to be worked through. Things are going to be very different again and again. Nothing is natural or self-evident or immutable; anything is possible/probable.

There’s a video of the talk available here: http://bambuser.com/v/4887027

This entry was posted in theory and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to On Music Resistance

  1. Pingback: Music Resistance at UNM 2014, Malmö |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s