Other People’s Music

[Paper presented at „Wirklichkeiten – Kongress, Musik, Interventionen,“ Staatliche Hochschule für Musik und darstellende Kunst Stuttgart, May 20, 2016]


My neighbor’s music is more exciting than mine.

“Other people’s lives are more interesting ’cause they ain’t mine,” a line from a late 90s Modest Mouse song goes. The same logic of desire applies to music, which can always have an at least twofold reality—that of being a living sound, a sound that is perceived as an utterance of life, and that of being an aesthetic phenomenon.

In his lecture Comment vivre ensemble, the French cultural theorist Roland Barthes stressed the difference between a sound, which affects me as a person, and the aesthetic phenomenon, music, which addresses a nameless subject of experience and reflection in myself. In aesthetically experienced music, the affective impact of the living sound has been neutralized. If affects happen, they evolve secondarily, from a musical sound cleansed of mere life (and those affects will likely pertain to a repertory of ‘musical emotions’). “In music, one does not eavesdrop,” Barthes says, “and in a sense, one does not listen.”

This is different when I get to hear someone else listening. Music that reaches my ears through the wall from my neighbor’s apartment preserves, or newly attains, the inter-subjective quality of living sounds. And music to which neighbors are listening, or appear to be listening, exerts an even stronger influence on my listening than music they are making, because the very selection of something to listen to exposes a bundle of intimate motives, some possibly unknown to themselves (whereas what they play is primarily what they are technically able to perform). If a neighbor is moaning during sex, farting noisily on the toilet, quarreling and then making it up again with a partner, talking on the phone to a hearing-impaired mother, or putting on this music at this time: my overhearing will attribute all of these sounds to them personally, and thereby become listening in—a listening that is rich with affective reactions.

I am highly sensitive to the erotic of such music, which has nothing (or only coincidentally) to do with some producer wanting the music to sound sexy because the singer’s image requires this, etc. The erotic here is embedded in the allurements and tensions of neighborhood, of a living next to one another structured by partly permeable walls, which blends separation and togetherness, anonymity and proximity, reserve and involuntary (or sometimes voluntary) exhibition. And it occurs, conditioned by occasional synchronization: Me doing this or that in the course of my day’s composition—being in this or that mood and state of attunement, happening to be lively and animated or tired and dull—determines to a large degree whether the music from next door turns me on or repels me, whether it puts a smile on my lips or causes my face muscles to contort into a grimace of aggression, whether I am tapping my feet along with the groove, or continue typing unaffectedly, or flee to the kitchen banging the door shut behind me.

Thus, disarming the music from next door with music from here sometimes works. Does the compulsion to listen in become annoying, I will activate my own home sound system, turning the volume up to exactly the level that will make the music drown out the neighbor’s music. Unless it refuses casual listening due to resistant artwork objectivity, praised by Adorno, my own music hardly disturbs my working, reading, or surfing the Net; neither will it be an obstacle in nodding off. My attitude towards the music is benevolently neutral. Even when it is only some radio channel, which for the most part plays music I don’t like, the neutralizing effect will still be sufficiently strong.

Permitting listening from a distance, the wall physically keeps me from following the call. And it demonstrates, on a symbolic level, that following is not what is called for. The wall is there, because living here and living there are supposed to go on without a direct connection. As long as I am not on intimate terms with my neighbors (and the fact that I am not may tell us something about life in a big city, about ‘modernity,’ or just about me), I presume that their life does not concern me directly. And they are, as I am assuming, likewise presuming that their life does not concern me directly. They are playing that music for themselves, neither for me nor for a house community, of which they would consider me a member. Most probably, they do not spare a single thought on their music reaching my ears. This is exactly the charge I am bringing up against them when I am losing my temper: the inconsideration of not thinking about me, their neighbor. It is of ironic consistence that one knocks at the wall if ringing at the neighbor’s door in order to complain feels like too demanding in terms of social exchange: employing the element that functions as a membrane and a barrier, a medium of transfer and a partition screen, as a sounding body.

From this point of entry to a reality of music that I find myself participating in, I want to draw two quick conclusions:

1. For the collective reality of music, understanding music as something that happens between listeners seems more important to me these days than the relation between the producers of musical products and those listeners whose plural constitutes their audience. And when I say “happens between listeners,” I do not have in mind a well-meaning political agenda that seeks to turn listeners into co-producers, in the name of ‘empowerment,’ but this is really about people who listen as listeners.

If this or that kind of music is being produced or will be produced, is all the same. It does not matter much anymore, for the better or for the worse. It does not, because a lot of different and a lot of similar music is being produced at this time, and very probably will be in the future, and an increasing number of people who have access to means of production and distribution are getting involved, on whatever professional or amateurish level, in the production of music anyway (whoever wants to empower people in respect to music may do so by handing out more equipment). Of course, it will always be okay to talk about a specific kind of music, about the process of composition and its methodologies, about structure, interpretations, etc. But if we want to approach the collective disposition of music in our time, we ought to expose ourselves to the social, political, economic, and last but not least, aesthetic truth of such a statement: Which kind of music is being produced, is all the same today.

Critical differences can be found in the situations of listening. If I am turning my attention to music in a moment when it is other people’s music—other people, who are or may be listening to it, conveying parts of themselves to me through my listening in on their music—the first thing that happens is that figures of the other are invading, coming to haunt the very corporeality of the music: the figure of the neighbor; the figure of the beloved and its counterpart, the one I hate; the figure of the friend (and a Politics of Friendship); the figure of the ‘fellow so-and-so,’ the fellow member of an imagined community, be it a nation, a region, a ‘hood,’ a scene, a straight or queer identity, which I am claiming for myself or passionately rejecting; the figure of the foreigner, in its variants of the exotic, the mirror-like, the only-human-too foreigner; and perhaps the figure of the refugee, of a contemporary about whom I do not know at the moment of meeting whether he or she has come from afar to rest here but for a short while, before moving on or being deported (which would lend to our encounter the euphoric-melancholic intensity of an event), or whether he or she is a new citizen, a new guy around, a new Swabian, a new German, whose patriotism may soon alienate us more profoundly than the problems with language do now.

These figures of the other are imposing themselves for us, who are listening in, to enjoy them and be annoyed by them, just as in several other contexts were they make us project our affects onto culturally established patterns, sometimes encouraging a (self-)critique of such patterns.

2. In addition to these figures infringing on music, something else happens: We are meeting more and more opportunities for unhinging the ‘pop music principle’ from particular musical styles, formats, and methods of production and distribution. Opportunities for applying the collective disposition of pop to any music that is being listened to.

In his book Über Pop-Musik, German pop theorist Diedrich Diederichsen posits that in the 20th century pop provided new access to the ruined collective forms of folklore and of bourgeois sociability. After WWII those two most prominent fictions of togetherness had become unenjoyable, indeed unbearable, for the younger generations in large parts of the world.

If you remember nationalism and fascism revealing the worst in ‘the people,’ folkloric popularity makes you want to throw up. Moreover, anyone who can afford to recognize this will witness every day how the reality of modern life belies all allegations of a natural, generic bond between human beings (and anyway, the unnatural, for all we know, is the better part in man).

The bourgeois notion of sociability is in similarly miserable condition. In his short story Tonio Kröger, Thomas Mann already depicted the dancing school as a behavioral regime, which, under the thin veil of courtly manners passed on to the merchant class, adapts adolescents to a primitive social-Darwinist pattern of competition. The ‘society’ of social dances translates as the rule of those who are mentally blonde enough to elbow their way to the prey, instinctively. Bourgeois dancehall music delivers the soundtrack for celebrating a type of success that is empty at its core, a mere tautology of factual prevalence, but which disguises as elegance and superior performance.

Pop picks up elements of the compromised folkloric and sociable popularities, but it re-organizes the traditional musical and choreographic material, altering contexts, inventing new sounds, bringing in non-European, especially Afro-diasporic rhythms, deconstructing entities, subjecting the whole to an irony that enables one to cherish some parts. And first and foremost, pop products are essentially reactions to a being-listened-to among equals, who are discovering and creating differences within a realm of principal equality. In respect to this, Diederichsen distinguishes pop music from popular music. Cultural production that aims for popularity will try to find out what many people like, through speculation or statistical surveys, and then succeed or fail with its strategy; and of course, most pop music also feeds into this economy of the popular. Yet, there is something in pop that puts the music into the position of that which someone else is listening to—attributing a reality to this music, which, by origin, is a reality of listening in.

Jazz, one of pop’s sources, knows social affects on the scene of playing music. Jazz exploits the attraction of life’s grimy quality, when the instrumentalists in their musical ‘talking’ traverse a wide range of interpersonal relations, from caress to battle, from courtship and seduction to contempt. Pop transfers this relationality to listening. Played live or from a recording, I am always listening to pop music as though others are listening to it—and not abstract others, the generalized or evaluated target others of commercial populism, but particular others, people like me…but perhaps unlike me in some detail concerning their listening pleasure…and that detail is of crucial importance!

Listening happens in a situation shaped by a sameness, which my listening differentiates in this very same moment. For this reason, pop triggers such an immensely urgent activity of dissociation (one could say that pop sociability is based on dissociation, in an inversion of what Kant called “ungesellige Geselligkeit”: a “gesellige Ungeselligkeit”). Instead of having an integrating impact, pop makes you erect more walls everywhere, in order to turn the people, whose co-presence otherwise would force you to join them in being a people, a society, or an audience, into neighbors.

The walls of pop dissociation are not soundproof. The people do not disappear behind them; rather, they become other people: people on whose music I am listening in, enchanted or enraged, turned on or put off, because in a certain respect that music is more exciting than mine.

The question I am asking myself as someone who is pursuing research on collectivity, is: what to do with this ‘pop principle’?

Which kind of music is being produced, is all the same today, I have said. And I hope I have been able to give you an idea of how I use ‘same’ in a sense here that resonates with a concept of equality: all the same = all equally important or unimportant. Still, if this ‘all the same’ actually unfolds an egalitarian effect, if its cultural-social-political repercussions will help promote equality, depends on how we organize listening in, or more precisely: how we organize listening as listening in.

The Euro-annexational formats of music theater and concert have accustomed us to a situation of listening-togetherness, which disambiguates all concrete constellations that evolve among listeners, either in the direction of a comprehensive, all-encompassing whole or in the direction of self-sufficient subjectivity: ‘The audience’ will always want to have either been one huge body, a billowing mass moving my body like one of its limbs, and sublating my sensual perception in a ‘shared,’ unified experience; or it will want to have consisted in a discrete coexistence of experiential subjectivities, every one being but aware (and merely floating, as it were, inside the juxtaposed bodies that sweat, sag, and itch in the butt crack), and every one inclined towards each other only through a consultation of aesthetic judgments, which takes place in a time and space defined by the possibility of projecting myself in the other’s position—that is to say, potentially anywhere, anytime, and in reality likely nowhere and never.

Both notions of audience collectivity each have a long history of (mostly philosophical) pro and con arguments, which I will not go into here. My final point is the following: They both presuppose that an artistic piece of music, as it is being presented, does and shall have the power to institute the relations between people in the first place, to create them anew every time. The presentation of the musical product implicitly claims to produce the collectivity, too, as though this production of collectivity were a consequence of producing the music.

Therefore most aesthetics of performance, even where they admit to the limits of art, tacitly convey a salvatory message: We are bringing you a collectivity, which will deliver you from vulgar living together. At least temporarily. As an audience-collective you will have been listening together in a quasi-cosmic form of togetherness not available anywhere else.

And the guy who is speaking to you today is the Me who responds to this: Thanks, no, then I’ll rather be staying at home waiting for my neighbor to put on some music. And even as I am leaving my home (and not only thanks to the Internet, I am in multiple places already most of the time) this attitude remains active in my inclination to participate through listening—participating in a life that is filled with music, among other things. The ambiguities of neighborhood to me are the far more interesting reality of music today than the existential origami of folding subjects to the inside and to the outside, and then to the inside again including the outside, in attempts to philosophically pimp up the audience collective.

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