Photograph by Sarah Resnick for Kranky Records

Photograph by Sarah Resnick for Kranky Records

In Tim Hecker’s work, variously described as drone, ambient, or micro sound, track names seem inadequate (especially in a standard 10–12 track format collecting three- to five-minute chunks) for describing music in which the movements are distinguished through glacial motion and incremental development and apparent but illusory stasis. The sonic characteristics of Hecker’s “Hatred of Music,” a two-part piece on his 2011 album Ravedeath, 1972, themselves are not particularly distinct from those that comprise the rest of the album. Hecker’s work, especially when accompanied by the aforementioned genre tags, is resistant, if not incongruous, to label as pop music (the ostensible topic of this blog). Thus the “Hatred of Music” Hecker invokes could be seen as a simplistic modernist rejection of the quotidian music that surrounds us. While this interpretation can perhaps be read in an interview Hecker gave at the time of the album’s release, there’s clearly more going on than such a simplistic critique:

[Music is] this thing that fills everyone’s lives all of the time, but it’s this thing that is completely taken for granted, and it’s also totally fickle and it’s infuriating and it’s overloading you and it’s often not good . . . It’s often not done very well and there’s also a system of production that doesn’t reward people who do it well, so it’s kind of fucked up in a lot of ways.

Such remarks are often taken to mean pop music is dumb and its audience is also dumb, but such a reading is reactionary — as reactionary as the offending point of view would be. It seems rather that Hecker is referring to a tension between how popular music is often experienced — as a joyous, affirming, community creating thing — and the real vile web of exploitation and banality that it is built upon. That popular music and its associated complex of media and industry is considered by many to delineate the very definition of what can be considered music on an affective level has some very serious implications with regards to normativity: creativity becomes a synonym for commercial success, and the act of expression is part of a monetization process. In such an environment passive limitation are imposed on what is even worth thinking. At the same time, the modernist position that such delineations should be continuously smashed has a fascistic and exhausting tendency.

Macon Holt is an academic cultural theorist, writer and musician. He writes a monthly column for Full Stop on pop music as a utopian political project.

Macon Holt is an academic cultural theorist, writer and musician. He writes a monthly column for Full Stop on pop music as a utopian political project.

These tension can be heard in the album’s sonics, between utter noise abstraction and sampled instrumental concordant harmony. Indeed many of the source recordings were gathered from a church in Iceland, and there are few institutions that encapsulate both the importance and the corruption of music more than the church. While Hecker’s work speaks to an anxiety about the saturation of our culture with music produced under particular conditions and for particular ends, its sonorous qualities (derived largely from the Organ at the Frikirkjan Church in Reykjavík) add to this a historical perspective. The problems of popular music as it exists in the culture industry exacerbate problems of materiality that music has always presented.

All but one of the posts I have written for Full Stop have been related to music, but none of them have attempted to talk about the music itself. I think this is because what has always interested me is the particular way music seeps into people’s lives. It is a strange thing, especially when stripped of the accompanying iconography, although for many this may be intrinsic. In physical terms it is an atmospheric presence, the experience of precise changes in air pressure over time. However, the experience of these pressure changes by the nervous, societal, and cultural systems of human beings has garnered such significance that music has come to involve those who consume its present, often commercial form in a vast and intricate web of technology, ideology, exploitation, artistry, and much more. It is an economy of desire and fantasy charging the atmosphere. The presence of such a web can be found in a great deal of art, however there is something odd in the case of music. Adorno wrote in Aesthetic Theory that “music betrays all art,” and putting aside his complex dialectical method and taking this statement at face value, I think this is a useful way into thinking about the hatred of music.

Music has no need for narrative or any semantic language (it can use these but it is not essential) that many of us are used to considering as the constituents of thought and expression. It happens over time[1], but unlike forms such as dance and theater, it can be stored for reproduction with very little reduction and, unlike film or video, it can seem to exist everywhere at once rather than emanating from a fixed point. This is not simply to say that music is different from other art forms, which of course it is, and its not to say that these are firmly distinct categories of expression, but rather to look at the ways music can be experienced as different from other forms that are also called art. It’s in this space of difference that I think we find Adorno’s betrayal and the source of Hecker’s hatred. Music’s materiality is ephemeral; it is about immediate change, loss, and anticipation. Historically, one could look at performers as the source of this hatred, then storage devices (vinyl, tapes, and CDs) but now, with the appropriate permission of Apple or Spotify, it’s often beamed straight from the cloud — a place that also houses your parents’ phone numbers, as well as a lot of other information. If a particular musical experience annoys you, you may point to a speaker as the source of your irritation, but the irritation is really in the movement of the air all around you, in the air that you breathe.

It is a difficult thing to experience annoyance and have nowhere to direct it. When Hecker says music is “totally fickle and it’s infuriating and it’s overloading you and it’s often not good,” to what is he attributing this criticism? Nicki Minaj? That would seem somewhat unfair. This speaks to the concerns I raised above: that popular music as it is mass produced acts as a force of normativity, delimiting right thinking in terms of expression as a primarily commercial act. There are echoes here of the discourse surrounding the apparent dissolution of power that has characterized the development of neoliberalism. Indeed as Jacques Attali wrote in his interesting (if historically dubious) work Noise: the political economy of music (1985), as music became separated from its fixed human originators and diffused throughout society, it foreshadowed the same motion in the changing shape of power. Paralleling the development of our contemporary systems of power, the evolution of music bears a striking similarity to the movement from a tyrannical sovereign or dictator through perfunctory democracies that would eventually be made up of faceless bureaucrats beholden to the forces of global capital, on which we are apparently dependent for nearly every aspect of our lives. It’s important not to take Attali too literally, however his larger point is that there has been an epochal change towards apparent decentralization which, despite the claims, has not been synonymous with liberation.

With the hatred of music, to even get close to what such a position could mean introduces myriad questions about so much more than the changes of air pressure, or the surrounding technical and theoretical apparatus that we use to describe it. These are questions that encompass thousands of years of civilization as vitally as mere moments of apparently personal minutiae. I think Hecker may have found some answers on Ravedeath, 1972, but it may well take a while to work out if it is possible or even helpful to communicate them as words.

 


1. Of course everything does, it takes time for light reach a painting and bounce to your eye, but music, as we know it, only exists when time moves forward thus allowing for changes in air pressure to be experience as such.