Tuesday, March 8, 2011

music + violence (part i: silence)

Recently, issues of violence, control and suffering have weighed heavy on my mind. I think about the ways in which we do violence to ourselves, how we induce suffering on others, how we are bound to prevailing, subversive cultural systems intended to control our bodies. Obviously there are no bullet points and no simple strategies for resistance.

I cannot help but consider the violence we do to our bodies in the interest of (all forms of) beauty. I am reading Naomi Wolff's The Beauty Myth, and I find profound resonance with the text. We are implicated in this system of control wherein our own bodies are used against us. We feel a strange combination of shame and guilt for our success, and induce psychological and physical suffering to compensate. Wolff argues that this attitude has been fostered by the (patriarchal) institution as a backlash to the successes of the second wave.

Given my current work in eighteenth century cultural/disciplinary machinations, I began to wonder about musical performance as an inherently violent act. If I wanted to wax poetic on the subject, I might suggest that, to interrupt silence with sound is to disrupt the immaculate and ineffable with an inevitably inadequate (and often sullied) expression of being. Going on, I might say, that it is in our nature to destroy this perfect quiet. We cannot remain complacent in the subtle luminescence of silence. Shimmering, it is a microcosmic representation of the infinite--a contemporary analogue to antediluvian moments of quietude preceding the big bang. We are, from the moment of our inception, conditioned by the urge to move forward, to incite catastrophe. If I wanted to wax poetic, that is what I would say.

So how is this intrinsically violent act manifested, resisted, or understood over time? A huge topic to be sure. I've written about an obvious example--Cage's 4'33"--before, however it deserves further visitation in the context of our present discussion of sound as intrinsically violent and catastrophic. Although I would hate to fall into the composer-biography trap, in Cage's case--considering his historical moment and his espousal of (all forms of) silence--it seems appropriate. Given his identification with Buddhist philosophy, could we read Cage's 4'33" as musical pacifism? Cage, not wanting to participate in inherently violent discourses of and about music, creates a "musical" work designed to resist--through silence--the intrinsically violent nature of music.

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