Musical microcosms and the political economy

Unedited verbal (oral) part of presentation at IASPM conference, Rome, July 2005
by Philip Tagg


The title of this presentation is `Musical micrososms and the political economy'. According to conventional wisdom, it's a very silly title. How, for example, can the four notes we'll be discussing shortly [..Intel Inside..], be meaningfully related to, say, the problems of developing countries, or to global warming? Well, they can't, because most of us have been indoctrinated, not so much explicitly as by institutional inference, that there can be no meaningful relation between something so small and musical, on the one hand, and massive physical, political and economic mega-phenomena, on the other.

Now, I have trouble with this widely held assumption that size necessarily matters in epistemic categorisation. I mean, no-one questions the legitimacy of atomic physics as an area of serious inquiry, even though atomic particles are very small and atomic power is very large. Public consenus in our tradition of knowledge imagines no major conceptual dichotomy between analysing atomic particles and running an atomic power station, simply because both activities are seen as belonging to the same mega-category of human activity: science. If, however, you spend just a few days analysing the four notes of the Intel Inside jingle, you'll qualify for epithets like `whackademic' or, as one colleague told me, `complètement fou'.

What categories are we talking about?', you may well ask. I am referring to the kind of culturally constructed concepts that Lakoff (1987: 12, ff.) calls functional embodiment, and which he explains as follows.

`[C]ertain concepts are not merely understood intellectually; rather they are used automatically, unconsciously, and without noticeable effort as part of normal functioning. Concepts used in this way have a different, and more important, psychological status than those that are only thought about consciously.'

It is in this sense of `category' that science, microscopic or macrocosmic, is always `science'. But, personally, I would like to know why, by the same token, any social activity, be it small, as in the case of four mass-disseminated notes, or large, as in the case of corporate globalisation, does not automatically belong to the category `social activity' in the same way as atomic particles, power stations and bombs belong to the category `science'. Now, I think the answer to this question is partly musical or, rather, musicogenic. I will use a piece of library music, appropriately called Atomic Power Montage #1, to illustrate this point. Please note that this 45-second track by John Cacavas (who, incidentally, wrote most of the underscore for the seventies TV series Kojak) has been given the in-house description `tense, menacing, research' and that each of his six Atomic Power montages on the same album, also from the 1970s, are characterised in a similar way. I should also point out that, in order to put over the full impact of this musicogenic category, I have added a sequence of still images, culled from the web.

Clip 1: AtomicPower.mpg

When adding visuals to this piece of music, it did not matter whether I chose pictures from pro- or anti-atomic-power websites: the message remained the same -- the minutiae of atomic physics, of men in white coats in laboratories, of incomprehensible formulae, of control rooms full of sci-fi knobs and dials, of power station views, of nuclear explosions, of anti-nuclear protests, and of the human consequences of radioactive fall-out, all belong to the same culturally and musicogenically constructed category of science and the future as uncontrollable, incomprehensible, threatening, inhuman and dystopian. Accounting for the way in which John Cacavas produces the musical message underpinning this view of science would involve the use of musicological jargon which I am trying to avoid in this presentation. Nor do I intend to discuss here if atomic power is good or bad: that is not the point of the example. The point is that, by aligning appropriate visuals with the music we have just heard, I managed to create a little statement of anti-nuclear propaganda that would have been unthinkable without music generally perceptible, in mainstream Western culture of the 1970s, as belonging to the category `tense, menacing' and scientific `research'.

Did I say `propaganda'? How did we suddenly jump from assuming that a few notes of music cannot sort under the same category as political economy to realising that just a few notes can form the basis of an ideologically loaded piece of political propaganda? Siegmund Freud's US nephew, Edward Bernays, provides part of the answer in this next clip.

Clip 2: BernaysEngTit.mpg

`Groups of individuals' and playing on `irrational emotions' are key phrases here because mass-consumerist propaganda (also known under the euphemisms `public relations' or `advertising') relies entirely on two empirically demonstrable assumptions, one totally acceptable, the other equally cynical. The first is that various communities of taste, value, preference, attitude and behaviour exist within any society and that such intersubjectivity is, at any time within any given culture, a socially objective fact. The second is that, thanks to the alienation of labour and to the bizarrely irrational division of social activity into ostensibly exclusive categories like public or private, work or leisure, serious or fun, science or art (including entertainment), etc., many individuals in the Western world are unable to grasp the objective character of their own emotions and personalities. It is these repressed aspects of the self which the propagandists of consumerism exploit in order to get women to smoke, or to brainwash most of us into consumption that is in neither our own interest, nor in that of the planet we all inhabit. As Adbusters put it:

Clip 3: ProductYou15aEngTit.mpg

So, perhaps the analysis of `irrational and emotional' messages -- the sort of thing music is supposed to do so well -- may not be such an incongruous joke after all.1 Now, I am fully aware that questioning assumptions about the mutual exclusivity of `subjective' and `objective' will not go down well with those whose livelihood depends on the existence of separate faculties for arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and so on. In addition to such heresy, I am also advocating a pluralism of symbolic systems to be used in the analysis, discussion and criticism of messages, musical or otherwise, circulating in the mass media. In fact, the rest of this presentation consists mainly of music and the moving image to highlight issues that would take hours of verbal explanation to put across. I insist on this point, not just because of time efficiency but also, and more importantly, because the deconstruction of audiovisual messages demands the literal deconstruction of the very materials presumed to carry those messages. Such deconstruction should not be seen as amusing audiovisual icing on a serious verbal cake but as an equally intrinsic and valid part of the explanatory process.

The three short extracts that constitute 95% of the rest of this presentation illustrate three easy-to-understand concepts about the semiotics of music in the media: (1) transscansion, (2) vocal persona, (3) gestural interconversion. Here I can only give basic definitions of those terms: the presentation that follows should clarify the rest.

  1. Transscansion (from trans=across and scandere=climb/scan): type of sonic anaphone involving the transfer of the prosodic (scanable) elements (rhythm, accentuation, intonation) and timbral qualities of a word or words from speech into music according to similar principles as those used for talking drums.
  2. Vocal persona (personare = to sound through, referring to the individual being represented behind the actor's mask): personality, often archetypal, conveyed primarily by non-verbal vocal means.
  3. Gestural interconversion: two-way process by which: (1) objects and movements outside the individual are internalised and appropriated, by the intermediaries of gesture, touch or bodily movement, as corresponding to particular states of mind; (2) particular states of mind are, by any of the same intermediaries, projected on to external objects and movements.

Play DVD (13 mins)

Now there is a lot to be said about each of the three examples just shown, for example that, according to `Intel Inside's' composer, Austrian Walter Werzowa, (1) marimbas and xylophones `sound corporate' and (2) that after struggling with the commission for two days he found it all fell into place when he read the words `Intel Inside' aloud to himself.2 I should also add that although the number of vocal persona commutations possible for De Niro's question in Taxi Driver was severely restricted by the fact that I had to lip sync, the variety of personalities presented still illustrates the main point. As for The Dream of Olwen and The Sound of Music, it is just as well there is no time, having written about seventy pages about waves, nature and romance in Ten Little Title Tunes, as well as a twenty-page article entitled `Gestural interconversion and connotative precision'.3

Three things should nevertheless be clear from this presentation.

  1. Culturally constructed musicogenic categories definitely exist and carry considerable ideological clout but, like most cases of functional embodiment, we have no established vocabulary allowing us to identify and designate them efficiently.
  2. Vocal persona and gestural interconversion are expressive and semiotically loaded forms of non-verbal expression contributing massively to the construction of musicogenic categories. As with the categories themselves, we have no established vocabulary on which to construct a taxonomy of these means of expression.
  3. Transscansion, vocal persona and gestural interconversion require absolutely no formal musical training to identify, analyse and discuss. With a little bit of `delogocentrification' (sorry!) and with a little help from affordable audio and audiovisual software, anyone can cobble together the sort of examples I have just shown.

Yes, those of you who have had to hear me speak at IASPM conferences before will know that I always underline the fact that this is an association for the study of music. This time I'm aiming that message at the association's majority, at those that have no formal musical or musicological training. I can only think of three reasons why you would not find the issues I have presented worthy of your professional attention.

  1. You don't agree with me that the issues are important. That's your privilege but I strongly contest your opinion.
  2. You don't think you're competent enough to talk about the actual sounds of music, or that you've had too little training in the matter. Wrong! Where do you think I acquired the sort of skills that allow me to talk about the matter and fool around with audiovisuals? At some university? You've got to be joking!
  3. Your expertise lies in other areas of popular music studies. You don't see why you should suddenly have to start talking about the sounds of music and their meaning. Sorry, just as I do not understand how anyone can study music without knowing something substantial about its social and economic context, I fail to see how anyone can claim to be studying it without above-average awareness of its obvious power as meaningful non-verbal sound.

Philip Tagg (17 July 2005)

1. Of course, I could also put forward the usual statistics about the importance of music in terms of economic and time budgets to support this critique of conventional wisdom about supposedly exclusive categories of human activity: that sort of argument is easier to understand and less likely to upset the institutional status quo in our tradition of knowledge.


3. In Film International #13/2005:1.