Rhythm and Trance

My latest piece for my column at Nomos Journal is up.  It’s an analysis of the Afro-Atlantic legacy of contemporary popular music, specifically in light of two interrelated aspects of Afro-Atlantic music: rhythm and trance.  The use of polyrhythmic beats in the spirit possession rituals of Afro-Atlantic traditions parallels the structure of the trance experiences that those beats occasion.  The beats mix two-pulse and three-pulse beats and the experiences likewise manifest liminal mixtures of humans (possessed) and deities (possessors), as well as mixtures between conscious and amnesiac states, between performer and audience members, between ritual and art, between humans and animals (e.g., the horses we become when we are possessed/mounted by gods)….

I’m always bothered by the inadequacy of the terminology of music theory.  Polyrhythm is a better term than syncopation, a striking-together wherein one beat is considered regular or normal, against which the irregular “off”-beat strikes.  Such a hierarchy is missing in Afro-Atlantic music; neither duple meter nor triple meter is heard as primary or regular.  In fact, there is no abstract meter at all, only the play of multiple meters.  Along those lines, polyrhythm seems like a much better term, since it does not assimilate the plurality of rhythms into a hierarchy of regular/irregular beats.  However, as Mikel Dufrenne points out in The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, polyrhythm is still an inadequate concept for describing the phenomenon itself.  It presupposes a mono-/poly- distinction that is not present in the actual performance or experience of the music.

I’m reminded that there is a magic formula that many of us are still searching for, a formula that would equate the singular and the plural, mono- and poly-, the one and the many, monism and pluralism.  My commitment to pop analysis follows along those lines, listening for the truth of to hen in the music of hoi polloi.

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Sounding Sacred: Religion and Popular Music

I recently started writing a column on religion and popular music (“Sounding Sacred“) for Nomos Journal, an online journal covering multiple approaches to the study of religion and popular culture.  My first piece went up a few days ago.  It introduces “two, too loud pops” into religion: 1) the pop expressing the loud, noisy, sonorous aspects of the sacred and 2) the pop of popular culture.  In short, music and the multitude.  It’s a fun topic, but it’s also extremely important.  Profound encounters with sonority and intimate psychoacoustic relationships are of crucial importance for the ongoing composition of a shared world, a world “belonging to the people” (popularis) (and nonhuman and more-than-human persons are welcome!).

Heidegger said that only a god can save us now, but I don’t think he ever heard rock, hiphop, psytrance, bubblegum, metal, house, acid, country, synthpop, ska, punk….

Tool, Deleuze-Guattari, Dionysus

For about a year, I’ve been slowly developing a pop analysis (Deleuze and Guattari) of the music of Tool, particularly with reference to Nietzsche’s hope for a Dionysian future of music.  The good people at Nomos Journal have published a short piece I wrote on that topic (thanks, Seth).  You can find it HERE.

Five Theses for Emancipatory Music

1.
Music is the art of the hope for resonance: a sense that does not make sense except because of its resounding in itself.
Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening (Fordham UP, 2007), p. 67

2.
No music has the slightest esthetic worth if it is not socially true, if only as a negation of untruth; no social content of music is valid without an esthetic objectification.
Theodor Adorno, Introduction to the Sociology of Music (Seabury Press, 1976), p. 197.

3.
Percussion music is revolution. Sound and rhythm have too long been submissive to the restrictions of nineteenth-century music. Today we are fighting for their emancipation. Tomorrow, with electronic music in our ears, we will hear freedom.
John Cage, Silence (Wesleyan University Press, 1961), p. 87.

4.
In music the hegemony of the 2/4 & 4/4 beat must be overthrown. We need a new music, totally insane but life-affirming, rhythmically subtle yet powerful, & we need it now.
Hakim Bey, “Post-Anarchism Anarchy” (AOA Plenary Session, 1987).

5.
You really should be able to feel the higher power of music and be moved by it, rather than listening to me waffle on and having to explain it.
Maynard James Keenan, quoted in Steve Morse, “Sonic Evolution With the Use of Tool,” Boston Globe (11.15.96), p. D14.