Searching for new sound: Serious music and redefining authenticity

In the 1960s, Pierre Schaeffer — influenced by Edmund Husserl —introduced the idea of reduced listening, consciously based on dissociating music from its cultural and historical background, the source of the sound and instruments, for improved reception of and identification with it.

Pierre Boulez and Schaeffer’s own students criticized this idea for being only applicable to Schaeffer’s electroacoustic form of music called musique concrète. They believed it normal for listeners to look for the source of sound, that a work is the product of many elements that reflect on the way it is listened to and that reduced listening lacks objectivity.

Many listeners presumably practice reduced listening unconsciously, and some critics settle for impressionistic criticism, ignoring the most important elements of a serious work, which I will try to define in this article.

Recently, Arabic music criticism has gained momentum. (Ma3azef is a serious attempt, as well as sporadic attempts on other websites that reflect great interest in the matter. Writers are exploring different methods of criticism, and this article is one such attempt.)

It’s therefore necessary to address some factors that may help expand the scope of the critical process. Many music critics resort to literary criticism, neglecting the music itself and the technology, production and creative process. They often get consumed in lyrics analysis, reflecting personal impressions irrelevant to the music. In other contexts, criticism sometimes takes an ideological approach, only referring to music’s relationship with the industry, its independence and how “revolutionary” it is, as a means of resisting a certain system or monopolizing entity. While this context is an important part of music criticism, reducing music to ideology usually results in overly subjective criticism.

This article is a search for serious music and its elements, beyond Adorno’s elitist view which limits serious music to works descended from Western classical music.

Benjamin’s authentic work and its relationship with technology

“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be,” wrote Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin believed that an artwork’s authenticity is related to how much its time and location are evident in it: Authentic music reflects its history, geographic location and cultural context. He also believed the audience should ideally be present when the artwork is created, in order to complete it.

Time and place remain a concern for those adhering to the traditional definition of authenticity, skeptical of modern technology. This can be applied to Benjamin’s criticism of technology and mechanical reproduction. “The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical — and, of course, not only technical — reproducibility,” wrote Benjamin, finding mass reproductions to produce cloned, unauthentic music. Authenticity thus derives from live performance, assuming that it’s impossible for mechanical reproduction to transfer the sound of a place or space to the listener’s room: “The desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.” (This dilemma is discussed in my Recorded Music and the Pursuit of Perfection (parts one and two) and also in The Relationship between the Place and the Development of Music — all in Arabic.)

Recorded music imitates and represents the original work, and I believe it transforms its spatial dimension into a virtual space, maintaining the individual and artistic identity of the artist and the work’s history. Through virtual time and place, the work’s authenticity remains intact. After all, reproducing original work is possible in many ways, even without mass technological production.

In Opera and the Long-Playing Record (1969), Adorno likewise criticizes Benjamin, seeing a wide range of potentials offered by technology and music recording, which contribute to the process of production itself. There is the possibility of repeated listening, with higher concentration and in isolation from any external factors. Repetition allows varied listening experiences, enriching the critical process, and thus the production of new sounds. “The LP also makes it possible to possess music,” wrote Adorno, “a possession which is not, however, dismissed as mere commodification since for anything unmediated to come into the world, even in art, there is almost no alternative to ownership or reification.” He also discussed this in About the Musical Use of the Radio (1963).

Recording devices and music formats, such as magnetic tape, the gramophone and digital software — all means of mechanical reproduction — make it possible to produce and create sounds unheard before, new music genres and new playing techniques. An example is sampling, as used in hip hop, trip hop and electronic music: Through the mechanical reproduction of prerecorded samples a new work is produced (like collage in visual arts). New roles have emerged in music production, like the music producer and the sound engineer, for instance. These roles add to the artist’s creativity, and contribute to a new sound.

What threatens the authenticity of the work is not mechanical reproduction or technology, but the imitation of an old sound.

The idea of authentic music is thus expanded from Benjamin’s definition to include the use of modern technology, which contributes to new production: It is possible for an original artwork to acquire a new sound through technology.

One should not, though, disregard the historical context of Benjamin’s essay, which was written in the 1930s during the rise of fascism and which required “a criticism of enlightenment.” His cautious attitude toward modern technology comes as no surprise. Along with the first generation of the Frankfurt School, he believed fascism and capitalism to be the main beneficiaries of artworks’ mass reproduction, hence his radical ideas concerning the authenticity of the work, and its relation to time, place and technology — countered by Adorno’s writings on in the 1960s.

Authenticity’s relationship with time and place

“The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable,” wrote Benjamin.

“Guardians of authenticity” insist that music should be related to the artist’s original history, geographic location and cultural environment. But authenticity is relative, since time and culture are changeable, according to Benjamin himself. Sayed Darwish’s music is not authentic because it’s part of our heritage now, but because it is unique and presented a new sound compared to what preceded it.

“Authenticity is not a fixed point in the past to which we must return in order to establish our identity. It is rather a constant capacity for movement and for going beyond existing limits towards a world which, while assimilating the past and its knowledge, looks ahead to a better future,” says Syrian poet Adonis.

This can be applied to place also. With the development in technology and communication, the artist gains access to new and other places and cultures, which was possible in the past on a much smaller scale. As mentioned, the technology used in music formats, recording methods, and the Internet transforms place into a virtual place integrated into music. These factors open up a larger cultural environment, which the artist can assimilate into his own consciousness and culture.

The sound produced in this process emerges as the music’s “authentic” culture and place expands the scope of new sounds, with a reliance on technology. Consequently, insisting on the classical authenticity of place, culture and time — which are all relative — is a restriction of music, or at best a reduction of music into folk to resist different cultural and technical elements. This results in the obstruction of music development, through a fixed pattern that makes it inevitable that “new” works copy this “authentic” music.

Approaching different cultures and technologies can be likened to Benjamin’s approach to quoting. In the preface to Benjamin’s Illuminations, Hannah Arendt describes how he deals flexibly with everything in his cultural environment, quoting others to come up with his own ideas, which adds to rather than undermines his authenticity.

Serious music and redefining authentic music

We can safely say then that authenticity is not about preserving heritage, or original place and time, but about introducing new sounds. Authenticity is capable of integrating modern technology and everything in the music’s realm, actual or virtual, in terms of environment, place, culture and class.

So apart from recordings, seriousness and authenticity are lost when an authentic work (a new sound) is copied without addition or development. I will therefore analyze other types of reproduction and their ability to produce a new sound.

Forms of reproduction

Benjamin mentions that, “[in] principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men. Replicas were made by pupils in practice of their craft, by masters for diffusing their works, and, finally, by third parties in the pursuit of gain.” This may result in an identical reproduction, an entertaining work that complements the original, or a musician may add a new sound to a reproduction.

With repeated reproduction and accumulated attempts to change original work, a new sound occurs, especially if new technology is used. This can be seen in the development of punk rock to post-punk and new wave in the 1980s, of rock and psychedelic rock leading to progressive rock, and in the formation of post rock through the mass reproduction of Brit rock.

There’s another type of reproduction, which deforms the original work while attempting to reproduce it, producing clichéd versions of the music: like Hany Shaker’s clichéd attempts to reproduce Abdel Halim Hafez’s music. There are also many attempts to reproduce hip hop in Arab countries, producing deformed works that don’t survive long.

Examples of serious music

A serious work contains the elements of authenticity, as defined as producing a new sound. Examples are abundant: in hip hop, which reflects its original culture, and used the available technology to introduce a new sound by employing samples; and in Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky’s experimentation with folk music, which produced unprecedented sounds.

Steve Reich also falls into the same category. His minimal music mainly depends on the basics of Western classical musical, and more precisely on counterpoint, combined with the playing techniques of African music and gamelan using Western instruments, relying on technology, and producing a sound very different from preceding concrete music and serialism.

Certain works by Oum Kalthoum and Abdel Wahab, which some consider “inauthentic,” are a good illustrations of new sound, for they rely on oriental melodies with a new music production and composition, influenced by Western music and completely different from Arabic classical patterns. In the introduction to The Arab Avant-Garde: Musical Innovation in the Middle East, Kay Dickinson refers to the 1932 Cairo Congress of Arab Music, to which Western musicians were invited. This event played a big role in the new sounds later introduced by Oum Kalthoum and Abdel Wahab. She also points out that Salah Ragab’s works were not identical reproductions of jazz, but rather introduced a new sound to jazz using oriental rhythms and maqams, without deforming the genre. This also applies to Halim al-Dabh, whose work fuses serial music, oriental maqams and African rhythms.

Each decade King Crimson introduces new sound to its music, and David Byrne does the same every couple of years. New sound may also be generated by a music producer, as in the case of Brian Eno, who has a unique approach to the studio: His sounds can be traced in the way he produces, edits and mixes instruments.

The distinguished sound of all these works reveal their authenticity.

Mahraganat music, which originated in the past decade, is also serious work, entirely different from Arabic hip hop. Mahraganat is influenced by hip hop elements, as seen in the singing, dances, and the nobatshi, who plays the role of MC. Yet it depends on folk music and technology in a different way from hip hop, through sound effects, auto tuning and rhythm sections. The result is a new sound, taking folk music to another level. Mahraganat did not try to imitate or deform hip hop, or limit itself to the traditional patterns of folk music.

Production companies, serious music and shifting balance

A few years after the emergence of this genre of serious music, signs that a new sound was being introduced within it started to show, through combining mahraganat with other genres, or introducing different production modes. But as mentioned in The Contradictions of Independent Music, the market’s huge production umbrella — including commercials, Sobky film productions or forms of alternative production, like 100Copies — reproduces this locally and internationally popular music. These reproductions often do not add much to it.

Serious production, production capable of producing a new sound, is as important as a serious artist. Independent (collective or DIY) production or alternative production, replacing mass and state productions, are more capable of new sounds than the huge production companies, because they are freer and more adventurous, and do not abide by market rules and patterns. Then begins the resistance of market mechanisms, and assimilation by big production companies. If alternative companies practice the same assimilation, it is on a much smaller scale.

This does not mean that big production companies are incapable of producing serious work — the Beatles and others prove this is possible. Moreover, there are alternative production companies that rely on big companies in distribution only, so the latter don’t interfere in the product. Huge companies may make serious production possible in an indirect way, through contesting them. If they fail to assimilate serious music, they try to negotiate with it, which shifts the balance of power.

Due to technology, Internet, radio and digital recording software, musicians are no longer interested in big studios, and no longer fight to reach the larger companies. So the same tools provided by the capitalist system make it possible to shake this system, despite its efforts to control them. There are loopholes and alternatives in any system (with the exception of fascist regimes), which can be used to achieve serious music. Although recording software and music websites, like iTunes and SoundCloud, play a role in mass production, they also provide room for experimentation and introducing new sounds through small, independent production.

Considering these elements is as important as technical musical criticism, and creates a view different from the mere scrutiny of lyrics and criticism, which reduces music to ideology. An objective approach avoids the binary of good/bad, as well as personal impressions, generating debate and discussion on the seriousness of the work. Redefining the concept of authentic music as serious music capable of introducing a new sound, expands the scope of our listening experience and evaluation of music.

It is the responsibility of the music critic or critical listener to point out new sounds or lack of them. Through examining the relationship between a work and the sounds that preceded it, the available technology, and the actual or virtual time, place, culture and environment of the music, one can decide whether it is a reproduction, how much it adds to music, and whether it is indeed a serious work.

Other references:

This article was originally published in Arabic on Ma3azef.

Rami Abadir 

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