Some time in 2000 or 2001 (the chronology is unclear), Juan Carlos Barrios, Guatemalan artist and former member of the then recently defunct Guatemalan rock band Bohemia Suburbana, took a trip to the shores of lake Atitlán in the Highlands of Guatemala. Whilst there, he collected a number of environmental sound samples – the distant strains of dusty old salsa records playing in coffee shops, the gentle patter of old men discussing politics and clinking glasses in a bar, the rumble of old buses rolling through the dusty roads of the highlands and, most importantly, grainy sample after sample from AM radio (the only radio band available up at the lake). Some months later, back in Guatemala City, Barrios proceeded to weave together an album made up of the samples from the lake area with gentle guitar, drum and bass overlays from his newly formed trio Radio Zumbido. The result, released in 2002 on the Palm label (a subsidiary of Palm Pictures), was the album Los Últimos días del AM [The last days of AM]. The album is ostensibly about the demise of the gentle world of AM, local radio dominated by older salsa and meringue from Cuba and Puerto Rico and a range of traditional and popular songs from Central America. The album stages a number of intriguing dis-locations: first, the dis-location of the site of the reworking of the samples from the site of that first encounter, where the studio in Guatemala city becomes a place in which a certain memory work is enacted; second, the dis-location of the country from the city in which the lo-fi world of makeshift listening is juxtaposed with the hi-fi world of the recording studio; third, the dis-location of the one from the many, in which the cacophony of the lake area voices is juxtaposed with the unitary ‘voice’ of the artist. Soundscapes, noise from the surfaces of old scratched records and voices and encounters are all affectionately re-contextualised to make a seductive elegy for the local, in praise of the delicate glitchiness of AM in the face of the brash Anglo-American globalising pressures of shiny crystalline FM-band radio in the city. As an eloquent act of mourning, then, Barrios’s album shows fidelity to an imagination of community that has persisted and which we might characterise as beholden to the ethnographic sublime, that tendency in thinking about social and cultural practices to construct a kind of primal scene, placed before the act of writing, resolutely separated out from the site of writing, of making, of producing. The three dis-locations in Barrios’s working process for Los Ultimos are symptomatic of this wider ubiquitous willed separation. This separation, invariably covered over in the work of ethnography, stems from a tradition of writing about social reality characteristic of the literary tradition of the mid-nineteenth-century realist novel. Narratives of the ethnographic kind are ‘realist’ in this sense – as beholden to a (literary) convention that seeks to hide the dis-location of one site from another: the site where the writing/composing subject is located and the site of the ‘original’ encounter with the subjects to be written. We can think about this dis-location, then, as constitutive of the academy’s encounter with the field more generally, and, as I will show below, locatable within a certain structure of mourning for the social precisely as it seeks to still its roar.
Driven , inexorably driven we say. I am here because I must be here, and yet that is not true of course. We dip and twist as if caught in an exquisite paradox, as if held here in this elegant ‘interminable’ deadspace, as if twisting in the wind of some awful faceless conspiracy. It is not so. And since it not so, we dream, wait and hold onto the agony of the as if since it alone allows us to weep without knowing it.
One of the ways in which many commentators on fado have characterised it is as a cultural practice of remembering or, better, as a kind of collectivising memory work. But what is it that fado has forgotten or what kind of remembering does it enable? To ask this question, we need also to ask something about the places in which fado has moved and the actors that have enabled and used it. To ask these two question – where? and who? – is also to ask about the nature of the exchanges, encounters and representations that fado has enabled. With this in mind, then, I want to propose four observations.
• My first proposition, then, is that fado, from its very conception, was always implicated in a kind of ‘inter-class emotionality’. In other words, it is a constitutive property of vernacular or ‘collectivising’ musics such as fado that their very ontological coherence is born of an encounter with another community: only when the epistemological frame of the ‘boundary’ is experienced both by insider and outsider, can that ontological boundary be drawn. Put another way, within the confines of Western European modernity, one must encounter difference in order to be able to draw up a sense of what is internally coherent in one’s own cultural practices. In this sense, those early inter-class encounters between working class exponents of early fado and the bourgeoisie are constitutive of fado’s musical ontology. In this context, then, fado’s memory work is a work of covering over the split class origins of the music.
• Second, fado presents a coherent and persuasive set of narratives (a narrative cluster) around certain mythologised places. ‘Mouraria’, and ‘Alfama’, alongside other districts of Potugal’s capital and, of course, ‘Lisboa’ itself appear with stubborn regularity in fado lyrics. But to say hat fado is about the city is only true to the extent that one understands the preposition here in a number of ways: the city is certainly thematised in fado, but not ubiquitously; fado also performs or stages a certain acoustic field (doors and windows must be shut or open, the city must be allowed to, or prevented from, entering the privileged acoustic space of the casa, the boundary must be marked by both the discipline of guarding that boundary and by its contestant transgression. This two-way dialectic of passing and being prevented from passing is precisely how the city is represented (which is to say, disciplined, represented). Similarly, the manner in which fado will sometimes tumble into the open air (the regular concerts at the Castilo de São Jorge, for example) are also markers of changing reterritorialisations of the city by fado.
• My third proposition is that fado’s imagined city is not cartographic in the strictest sense, but much more profoundly metonymic. The distinction I want to raw here is between a tendency in some urban song forms to engage in what might be termed an imaginary mapping of the city (where a protagonist can easily stumble form one landmark to another, even though such landmarks might be some distance form each other) and a tendency, most notable in fado (but also in the French chanson) to both valorise and fragment the cityscape: fado, for example, often presents Lisbon as a feminine (‘Maria Lisboa’, ‘Lisboa, menina e moça’, and so on) but in which small details, landmarks and markers of the city are thrown together in an order that in non-linear, making new structures of proximity that overlay the city. In ‘Lisboa, menina e moça’, for example, we encounter the following: ‘No Castelo, ponho um cotovelo / Em Alfama, descanso o olhar / E assim desfaço o novelo de azul e mar / À Ribeira encosto a cabeça / A almofada, da cama do Tejo’ in which the boy of a woman provides a new logic of proximity, a new order of places and spaces, but always with the notion of a kind of navigability at h heart of its logic. What this metonymic reordering of the city does is to turn the city, like Calvino’s Maurilia in Invisible Cities. Just as the imaginary Maurilia represents an ideal, perfectly captured imagination of the city, so the metonymically transformed city of Lisbon is laid out as a kind of discursive space into which to pour regret, loss and the delicious jouissance of nostalgia.
• My fourth proposition is that the manner in which fado reimagines the city is symptomatic of a broader trend in vernacular urban song to deal with modernity as a kind of forgetting. Friedrich Kittler has noted that late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century discourses on the past take on new metaphors and imageries of ‘loss’ in a kind of negative emblamatisation of new storage media such as phonography, photography and film. Where the new technologies produce the possibility of saving lost voices, lost performances, so also they produced an intensification of discourses on loss at those voices, performance, moments not captured. Indeed, as Bennett Hogg has noted, phonography takes on the function of a kind of ‘prosthetic’ memory. And so, for fado, modernity comes to stand for the arrival of her lost object, the precious thing that can never be wholly put back together, the memento mori, the partial object of desire. In this sense, fado’s modernity is the call to remember.
Fado can thus be thought ethnographically and psychoanalytically as a kind of memory work and as such, it offers a striking case study in the public cultural work of remembering and forgetting. Its reparative force, to use a term from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, is complex, by no means efficient and far from universally productive in therapeutic terms, but cultural practices inevitably take up complex relations with the jouissance of suffering and easing that suffering.
Around the notion of memory, there circulates in the Western academy a set of discourses that have tended to emphasise cultural sameness. Memory studies have tended to draw on psychoanalytic approaches to, for example, trauma, melancholy and mourning, that seek to draw together into a relatively homogeneous field the complex and fractured experiences of different cultures, identities, subject positions and investments. Ethnographic approaches to memory, conversely, have tended to seek out and name cultural specificities and encounter memory as one of a number of cultural resources through which communities build a core narrative about their location, values and sense of who they are. What is interesting, of course, is that both discourses – the psychoanalytic and the ethnographic – are symptomatic of a relatively coherent institutional context in which one approach places memory as a coherent set of practices and residues centre stage whilst the other relativises memory as something which, whatever it might be, is absolutely not about shared experience, except within certain highly circumscribed inter-cultural situations. Coherent field or fractured field, universal condition or specific local practice: where the academy has consistently failed in its approaches to memory has been to find a middleground or a productively contested space in which to work through these incommensurabilities. It is, I would argue, in these very incommensurabilities that the academy reveals its deep structural ideological make up in which the same/different binarism cannot be negotiated save only in very few highly precarious attempts.
One particularly vexing case study in this regard is the case of what we have come to term World Music. Connell and Gibson have recently shown how ‘aural tourism’, borrowing the term from Cosgrove, has transformed the ways in which cultures consume each other and, perhaps most importantly for us here, how such practices are ‘deterritorialising’ place and identity in ways that are both profound and wide-reaching. In the scholarships that have recently emerged around this notion of ‘aural tourism’, one is struck by the attention given in particular to the material conditions of World Music production, to what we used to call the class markers of such encounters. A staging of the ‘West’/exotic encounter here places white Western (usually ‘liberal’, well-educated) aficionados in the position of privileged aristocratic consumer above the producers of musics from cultures other than their own – the liberal consensus on World Music thus points to what might be termed a hidden class structure (hidden in that the outer signs of that structure are invariably presented first and foremost as race, geopolitics or the clash of cultures).
The emphasis in particular on so-called ‘non-Western’ and ‘exotic’ territories as sights of World Music production is, I would like to suggest, a symptom of the ethical gridlock experienced by liberal scholarship with regard to music markets in the more general sense, but in particular with regards to its encounters with putatively less developed capitalist cultures (in, for example, parts of Africa, rural Asia or the Pacific rim). Indeed, as early as 1997, Warne characterised this tendency to seek out and consume World Music as being carried out ‘by well-meaning cultural tourists’ in search of ‘pre-capitalist authenticity’, or ‘signifiers of rootedness’. The misty-eyed nostalgia that attends the encounter with these Other-cultures is not, therefore, ethically coherent unto itself, in that it partakes simultaneously of a critique of capitalism (as ‘false’, ‘insufficient’ or thoroughly compromised) whilst consuming, in a manner deeply indebted to the epistemological technologies of capitalism, the products of (seemingly) ‘authentic’ pre-capitalist cultures as fetishes, as commodities.
This doubled consciousness, then, is stuck in an almost immovable authenticity discourse such that the privileged (class) position of consumer is covered over by other hermeneutic strategies and practices: ethnographic characterisations of place, space and producer investment, audience practices and other forms of analysis interested in the specific textures of local practices are thus as much a part of these tendencies as are the aural tourists that sustain the marketised exoticisations of the Other. Both ethnograpoher and aural tourist share a need to hold musics of the Other in a specific place, in a local specificity and the noise with which most ethnographers decry marketisation is probably symptomatic of their unconscious recognition of their complicity in that same logic – so-called ruralism, for example, is an extreme example of this tendency in which local musics are held by the ethnographer in a hysterical state of defensive authenticity.
The authenticity markers of such practices are clear to see. To make a World Music, it seems, requires certain ingredients and a set of cultural technologies – first, take a culture from far away, ravaged by the worst excesses of colonial intervention, surviving (or even better, barely subsisting) ‘outside’ the global system of capital, and then stage an encounter. The global marketisation of these musics then usually means plugging the finest and most professionalised musical products of a culture into the global system of capital and presenting to us the fetishized reduction of that culture to anecdote, event, mythical encounter, in neat packages, in re-ordered territories of musical recordings all carefully marked and presented in the context of the putatively authentic field: in other words, marketisation is a process of representation. In this sense, the similarities between marketising and ethnographic approaches are structural in that both seek to intervene in specific cultural practices and give name to them. In this context, the psychoanalytic approach to memory is no less problematic.
It is a truism to note that recent critiques of psychoanalysis have tended to overstate the position of the universal subject within it. Yet at its core, there is something resolutely top-down about the psychoanalytic theory of the subject. In this regard, holocaust studies, for example, has proved particularly susceptible to the fantasy of a universal, endlessly transferable suffering. There are clear and very understandable reasons why holocaust studies in particular should want to emphasise this shared experience of memory, drawing on notions of what James Young, with Paul Ricoeur and Pierre Nora, has termed ‘memory work’. The need for the project of a public discourse on the holocaust is without question and the kinds of outcomes of that scholarship are absolutely in line with the needs of that project. However, in other contexts, the need to develop a critical discourse about the nature of public memory is equally pressing and most memory studies have singularly failed to develop a sufficiently nuanced theorisation of memory, choosing on the whole to cover over the political economy of mourning. In this sense, questions as to the specific natures of memory have been sidelined by a putative need to emphasise the coherence and singularity of memory work to the detriment of cultural difference. And where, moreover, cultural difference does play a part in such approaches, it is only as a kind of exemplar of the universalised subaltern.
We might now be in a position to move to the metanarrative in which the notion of memory as either local practice or universalising discourse can be problematised precisely around the question of representation and authenticity. Both approaches – the ethnographic and the universalising – have been unwilling to make place for the kinds of epistemological disturbance that most other critical discourses have long since made room for. Where, in either approach, is the recognition of fantasy as the ground of discourse? Where is the room for the kinds of tough auto-analysis that shook up the humanities in the 80s and 90s? Both approaches to the question of memory, then, are ripe for a profound rethinking. In what follows, I will attempt to develop, admittedly rather tentatively, a hybridising approach in which the same/different binarism is placed under extreme pressure.
When it comes to fado, I am a hopeless and unreconstructed tourist. There, I have confessed it! And my commitment to being a tourist is almost boundless: I love to trace the trails, spaces and territories of the myth-makers of fado, to follow their steps across the mythologized neighbourhoods of Lisbon; I read the guide books, buy the CDs and fill my suitcase with fado kitsch – T-shirts, bookmarks, umbrellas, postcards, I have them all in large number! Through Mouraria, Bairro Alto or Alfama I tumble, my iPod set to fado-shuffle, my thoughts and my very being transported to some place other than here, other than the ‘real’ city of fado. I stalk the past, I lurch from one corner to the other as if Maria Severa or Amalia might any minute pop their heads out from a nearby window, and sing ‘A casa portuguesa’ or ‘Ó gente da minha terra’. I am, then, an aural tourist, that strange creature that maps and remaps cities and territories in which beloved musics are staged. Those musics, in turn, themselves stage, imagine and reinvent the spaces to which they have become resolutely attached: fado is about Lisbon, about the iconic spaces and places of fado practice and about a vernacular imagination of modernity. My approach to fado, then, although born of scholarly interest, is fundamentally about the fantasy of fado. Thinking about fado as a kind of fantasy is not just an interesting twist on the usual repertorial or cultural-historical approach, but that it can help us understand something quite profound about some of the ways in which vernacular musical forms come to take up a special place or canonical significance in discourses about identity, nationhood and, perhaps most importantly, in our cultural memory. Fado is a remembering.
What are the coordinates of theory? This is a question that
has been pressing itself on me for some time now. I ask the question not least
because I find myself in an ever more hostile political and epistemological
environment in which the backlash against theory has not only taken up its
place in those ‘post-theoretical’ rhetorics of well known well-trodden high-profile
debates (Eagleton, et al) but the backlash has become absolutely generalised: to theorise, it now seems,
is to leave oneself open to the distinction of mere crass generalisation.
I am, to be sure, perplexed by the wholesale academic
abandonment of theory in my own discipline. But it is not localised there, of
course. My discipline’s falling out of love with theory is, inevitably, a
falling out of love with the idea of thought as having a kind of ‘power’ as Simon
Critchley has put it. For some, the decline of philosophy into theory is the
beginning of the problem, but for me that moment marked a particular fecundity
in the idea that the given-ness of the world is available to radical question.
In a recent presentation to my own department, a rather
surly and unfocussed ‘question’ (I use the word most generously here) from a
colleague raised the question as to my own location in the theoretical edifice I
was trying to elucidate: his intervention was based, it seemed to me, on the erroneous
notion that any theoretical observation must begin from an obsessive empirical
elaboration of the speaker’s voice in it, as if to defuse fromthe start any claim it might therefore be
able to make to having any effect on the world around it. I was ‘cherry picking’
my examples, I was trying to negate my own investment in the world. The
question was followed by an incomprehensible testament to the ‘reality’ of
political action in Greece
and other recent events in the world as if to dare to think at all is always already to turn one’s back on them.
This kind of question, and many like it, rather than seeking
to engage the world in a radicalising way (in developing . that is a strong
trajectory) points to a certain poverty in our ambition in engaging the world:
we are prisoners of the new Taleban of empiricism. Theory is the blasphemy that
questions the reality principle, that will not quieten its distrustful
mutterings about ideology and unspoken truths.
Theory is, I have always believed, and believe it even more
strongly than ever, precisely about a turning
towards the world, a head-on tackling of the brutal and deadly challenges
it poses and a wilful nay-saying to the grey orthodoxy of detail, of
historicism and of ethnography.
These, then, are the dealiest of orthodoxies, because they live and breath as if they were in touch with the world, as if the deadening quagmire of its passive avoidance of ideology critique were in some sense a priveleged site from which to get close to the world. This is mere sophistry. Theory requires always that the world be not taken as if presented, but as always already mispresented, as hidden, coded, displaced and and misaligned through the supreme act of hegemony. There is no common sense other than the sense of dying, of giving oneself up to the world in a kind of masochistic play of representations. What theory does, at its best, is not merely show this, but relive it, dramatise it. Make it palpable. Theory is materialism.
Gluttony. The friend of the dispossessed, amorous and dark succubus
you haunt me and taunt me with your cakes and creams and fried stuffs. Eat, is all
I want to do when you visit; like queen of the night you swoop and howl and scream
my hunger, insist I eat and eat and eat. Out, out damn rot, damn urge, damn
The need for food is radically different from gluttony, the
latter structured not at all by hunger but by the compulsion to eat structurally. The process, once
started must be finished, cannot be abandoned, must be taken to its end, the empty
and reproachful dish. It approaches like a little tiny itch, a small and
delicate ripple across the skin and finishes in shame shame shame on me.....
I grew up with the notion that being useful was what one wanted in life: superfluity was simply not good enough, the absolute end! Be useful, I was told, and you shall be happy! I remember, when I stumbled, as a callow and impressionable youth, onto the notion of the superfluous man or lišnij čelovek (лишний человек) in Russian nineteenth-century literature, the joy at discovering that forbidden purpose, the end of purpose itself in these men: Lermontov, Pushkin, Turgenev, they all speak of useless men, men without aim or need, men who sit around, languish, take up, perhaps, a gentleman’s post in the army for a short while, travel, write memoirs and take a lover or two.
And so I read and read, devouring these men, insatiably wanting not only to understand them, but to become them. To be that, I thought, is what I really want: I wanted, that is, to be someone who lived without purpose or need, outside the demands of the awful gray misery of the work ethic. At last, I thought, a way of being absolutely nothing.
And so it was that I bought a long trench coat and started smoking French cigarettes; I developed a habit of sprawling in demonstrative melancholy in cafes with long and intricate works of Russian literature; I never went anywhere without my copy of Lermontov’s collected early poems or A Hero of our Time and was always close to my Turgenev and my Yevteshchenko; I stopped eating proper meals and took up a prodigious alcohol habit; I stayed up all hours listening to the Doors; smoked too much and went about the business of wasting time with a zeal and conviction of which only someone fully imbued with the protestant work ethic is capable.
And yet, to be nothing, I found, was a very tricky business. One had to find ways of doing nothing which involved as little work as possible, whilst only ever spectacularly succeeding in doing nothing once one had made the appropriate and diligent preparations; and one could only spectacularly succeed in being nothing, once one had succeeded in doing nothing.
It was actually quite complicated. You see, you had to find a way of setting the day up such that sprawling and procrastinating could become bearable. This was the trickiest part of the process: to be and do nothing meant having endless and unflinching patience. The discipline of this superfluity was extremely exacting. In response to the demands of my languishing, I developed a quite strict regimen: rise promptly at noon, avoid showering and contact with others at all cost, don elegantly ratty trench coat, toss long unkempt hair and strut out into the street with a sense of clarity and purpose afforded only to those who bathe in the glorious splendor of their superfluity. Take up residence at library, cafe, coffee shop or bar and begin the day’s languishing... Over the months and months, I started elaborating my regimen to take in certain rituals (kneel and you shall prey? Repeat and you shall be content). I experimented with kinds of walking, and attempted on several occasions to occupy space with a certain deliberateness. If I could feel my body occupying space, I thought, if I could remain consistently conscious of its fleshiness, its materiality, I could not get distracted by the ubiquitous toxicity of purpose and need... It was my ultimate desire in this to occupy space with an intention so focused, so purposeful, that could only come from an unswerving commitment to the project of nothingness. I found I could concentrate on occupying space for up to 4 minutes at a time and developed a way of setting up a posture that could block out any attempt from the outside world to shake me from my resolve: do not speak to me of time or of need, I am busy with the core of being, thank you very much.
In the end, then, I became an exemplary layabout. The Stakhanovite heroism of my commitment to this regimen is one of my life’s greatest achievements.
This year, I shall mostly be trying to recapture those heady days of nihil.
It is a sad thing when a friendship ends – and such is the
nature of the world that all things end. One can, for so long, hold out the
prospect that what at the time seemed like a misunderstanding can be redeemed. But
that too must pass, it seems, that too must die and the past is recast anew in
the light of that passing. I’m done, we say, but are we really? I have tried to
engage in useful work of mourning. But when I say ‘I’m done’, I have clearly only
just begun to think over and over about words said, about moments and choices
made, about responsibility, blame and recrimination. The repeating is like a death
grip. Endlessly I revisit those moments. I wonder what I might have said
differently, I torment myself with those possibilities. If only .....
The ending of a friendship draws one’s attention to the gut-wrenching
fragility of them all, to the vulnerability of our social bonds and their endless
hopeless devastating volatility. If there is anything to be done it is, it
seems, to assess the extent to which a friendship can be repaired, and the
extent to which one is prepared to prostrate oneself before the alter of that
friendship, humbly taking on the responsibility for what is always already
radically shared. To take on the responsibility for the end of a friendship is
sometimes the only way to bring it back to life, but at what cost? Is the friendship
more important than a truth that will all over again destroy it? Is the
friendship more important even than one’s own sense of self-worth? Ask yourself
this: could you prostrate yourself before it knowing that you have no reason to
take on the burden of the friendships’ ending?
Determining that also brings with it questions as to the ‘original’
nature of the imagined friendship. Was it based simply on mutual self-interest?
Was one agent of the friendship more inclined to set aside time and effort to
help the other? And was there ever a time during the friendship when mutual
care and mutual investment were really even-handed? Is such a thing ever possible?
It might just be that friendship is a kind of masochistic
impulse in which one allows oneself to be continually taken up and used, not,
necessarily in those grand earth-shattering ways, but in the tiniest of ways.
And the fantasy work of the friendship is what allows one to put the smallest
of injuries aside, to make sense of them only as anomalies, as small glitches
in the free-flowing balance of the friendship. And we do this over and over
again. We allow the small injuries, we explain them away.
But we do not accept
them. To do so, I think, would be to change fundamentally, and, perhaps, productively,
all our social relations. It would be, perhaps, to find the key to being more
than one. A key therapeutic question arises in this moment: do I destroy my
friendships because I cannot stand to be more than one? Do I destroy these
social bonds because they always hurt and I cannot make peace with that hurt?
We might also ask this: is the most intimate arena of
friendship an arena of vulnerability that points to the always-already flawed
nature of the social itself? And would recognising that flawed and mutable
nature be an opening of ourselves to something new? Perhaps the greatest lie
under which we have been forced to labour since the advent of mercantilism has
been precisely this: when the surplus care of any friendship remains hidden,
the friendship continues to function.
The move I wish to make in trying to reclaim this friendship,
then, is going to be this: I will no longer attest to a false mutuality but
will bear witness to the mutability of the social bond. Once I have done that
work, I can begin the mourning work.
It’s late. The cold winter
air outside makes the warm moist air inside condense on the cool windows. My docked
iPod is playing quietly in the background, set, yet again, to ‘shuffle’. I’ve
had my iPod now for some years and I still enjoy that ‘random’ experience of
stumbling across the (to me) lesser-known tracks in my collection. The ever new
and striking contexts in which to listen to old familiar and not-so-familiar materials
are endlessly fascinating to me. I am, moreover, invariably fixated precisely on
those moments between the tracks
where the unknown speaks for the first time and reveals itself: Mahler segues
to Ice Cube, Brahms to Martin Grech, Jorge Pardo to Ella Fitzgerald. I feel as
if I were ‘revelling in the rubble’, as Susan McClary puts it,[i]
as if enjoying a spontaneous and agency-free ‘levelling’ of the different
musics, as if playing absent-mindedly with found musical objects. McCalry’s
point, of course, is precisely not about the ceding of agency here: hers is a
tough and uncompromising commitment to the politics of differential and
pluralist listening, to thinking about the complex and demanding plethora of
musics that jostle for our attention, to embracing a subject position that is
always, in a sense, gloriously off-centre.
Some of my colleagues and students dislike my absent-minded listening as I have
outlined it here: when I discuss this with them, many of them find the apparently
aimless randomness banal or even offensive; and sometimes I am inclined to
agree; but at other times I find this domesticated staging of the apparent
randomness of musical encounters themselves extremely engaging. What I really like, since, for the moment we
are talking about my guilty desires, is to allow the anonymity of the next
track in the sequence to play out, to allow the new listening context to unfold
in its time, according to its own logic, to allow my recognition to take shape
slowly, without hurry, without being forced.[ii]
Rarely, in fact, do I ever return to the iPod to check out what is playing: I
enjoy precisely this feeling of ceding agency, of allowing the randomising
algorithms of the iPod’s programming to take me where it will.
But tonight I am stirred from
my half-conscious and distracted listening state by a striking incursion into
the flow of tracks. The new track begins as if it were Thelonious Monk – that strong
vamping left hand and that slightly out-of-kilter right hand that makes the
music tumble forward. Yes, I recognise it very well. It’s ‘Bemsha Swing’,
slightly reworked, with a different rhythmic emphasis, but unmistakably that
track, that tune, and, of course, that
pianism. Wonderful. But then, some 38 seconds into the track, something quite
remarkable happens. Into the glorious chaotic tumble of that unmistakable style
there erupts a strangely incongruous string of foot tapping and clapping, in
the flamenco style – a zapateo with palmas. The music is immediately ripped
from its glorious lolloping and feels as if suddenly ‘quantised’, as if
deliberately and forcibly made to sit within the discipline of the flamenco compás. The Monk melody is radically recast,
squashed into the rigid rhythmic cycle, levered ‘squarely’ into the structures
and strictures of the compás. The
next two minutes are like a roller coaster: slipping in and out of the flamenco
rhythms, back again into the lolloping Monk style, ripped one way and then the
other. The music heaves itself back and forth, totters on the brink of collapse
and then redeems itself by settling again into one or the other rhythmic and
For once, I am called from my
desk by this striking incongruity to get up and go over to the iPod. What is this? I am surprised to see a name I
know very well: it’s the Chano Domínguez Septet playing a track called ‘Monk
Medley’ from their 2002 album Oye come viene. It occurs
to me that this track stages dramatically precisely what I have always thought
about flamenco jazz – that it represents a kind of beguiling musical
impossibility. It is precisely in this moment at which the two rhythmic and
phrasal logics are forced to coincide, forced to find a musical middlegroud, that
that there is a misfire or musical eruption of a third space, a space without
content, without specific roots or cultural texture, but, for a moment, that
space opens up as a glorious but ultimately fleeting possibility. When two
musical styles such as these are brought into a relation like this, the third
space always collapses back onto itself and there is always an excess or
surplus that is left over, a nugget of material that refuses assimilation to
the new hybrid and which points to the imbalance of the musical differentials
at work. ‘Esas músicas de raza’ [‘These musics of race’], as Luis Clemente
are structurally, texturally and rhythmically at odds; and yet, as any jazz
discography of the last 40 or so years will attest, the desire to bring these
two musics into some kind of relation has remained stubbornly evident.
There is no doubt that the
racial-political histories of the two musics share some striking similarities.
Both musics have been marked (racially) as symptoms of decay or excess, played
out as the musics of low class racially-marginalised groups and, crucially, as
part of an urban underbelly, which, in their location on the periphery of
Western European and North American Modernism, are nonetheless constitutive of
it, as its ground, its other, its radical counterpart, its traumatic kernel.
Just as Stravinksy, Copeland, Martinů, Les Six and any number of European and
North American modernist composers sought to assemble the metonyms of early
twentieth-century jazz for bourgeois appropriation, so de Falla, Debussy,
Albeniz, Ravel and others sought similarly to assemble the musical markers of early
twentieth-century flamenco, into a characteristic internal (or external) exotic
for bourgeois audiences. Both musics, furthermore, have also been shown to
‘answer back’, refusing their appropriation as mere metonym-array or as signs of
the merely exotic. Just as what Richard Middleton
terms ‘Harlem Modernism’ refuses the status of fetsish,[iv]
so what we might similarly call Andalusian Modernism has similarly systematically
refused the status of object or fetish.[v]
Indeed, as I have suggested elsewhere, following Mladen Dolar, European and
North American Modernisms were constituted as a project that not only refuses
the fetish, seeking again and again to disavow commodity, refute aura and
insist on another logic of the object, but also as a project that pointedly performs the impossibility of that
programme. In other words, it is this constitutive doubled-over failure (the
impasse itself and the performative ‘capture’ of that impasse) that lies at the
heart of both Modernisms. Middleton’s suggestive analysis, taken as pointing to
a kind of constitutive surplus in jazz, thus allows us to think about the
jazz/flamenco relation in particular as an intensification of fetish disavowal and
as an attempt to engage a model of surplus true to the avant-garde moments of Haarlem and urban Andalusia.
The track continues on. At
about 2 and a half minutes into the track, the to-and-fro of the two styles
settles into a fast 6-beat cycle (in the style of a bulerias al golpe) under which a free acoustic bass weaves a complex
modal line and over which Chano extemporises around a number of well-known Monk
tunes. This new texture, then, answers the flamenco-jazz questions: how is this
possible? Where will this lead? It is, in a sense, a commonplace response to
the staging of the incongruity moment in flamenco jazz: as long as the
characteristic flamenco elements can be made to sound as if part of a modal
jazz texture, then all is not lost: the hybrid can live, precisely because of
the flexibility of the dominant musical texture. What Chano’s septet does with
the problem here is raise the stakes by deliberately staging the incongruity at
the heart of the hybrid, by throwing the parentage of the hybrid into radical
question and by staging the monstrous survival of a third lumpen material that
will not die. The ‘solution’ enacted in this track, it seems to me, is thus only
to abandon that incongruity and move into a musical fantasy space where all
threads can be tied together, where a serene unity can reign in the name of
genre-stability, in the name of jazz flamenco.
But, I suggest, Chano and his
septet do not thereby absolve the new hybrid of its ethical ambivalence; surplus
always stalks encounters such as these and it is surplus that will interest me
in this chapter. As Chano and I steer our way to the end of this glorious
strange and monstrous track, I listen hard for some kind of resolution of the
first-half incongruity. The second half of the track, then, radically different
from the first, enacts a the straightforward response to the materials of the
first half outlined above: it is the structural shift in the ‘medley’ at about
2’25” that points to surplus here (or rather to a surplus as that which must be
abandoned); the Monk style slows to the point of terminal demise and there is,
literally, a gap in the texture where, for the first time, we hear something
other than piano and zapateo with palmas. Cymbals mark the shift to the underlying
Phrygian modal structure into the stable 6-beat cycle: the second half of the
track abandons the surplus of the first by announcing that abandonment – the
gong-like use of the cymbals introduces the next stage precisely as a turning
away of attention from the surplus. It is no culmination, no simple synthesis,
but a detour, a ‘new’ piece that approaches the problem again afresh. And so
the surplus of the opening remains, stubbornly stalking the ‘easier’ fantasy
space of the second half, as a lump of stuff that will not be taken up. It
speaks of the impossibility of closure, of a kind of musical wound that will
not heal. This is the monstrous surplus of flamenco jazz.
Susan McClary, ‘Revelling in the rubble: the postmodern condition’, Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical
Form (LA and Berekeley:University of California Press,
For more on segue logic, especially in the context of BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction, see David Clarke, 'Beyond
the Global Imaginary: Decoding BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction', Radical Musicology, Vol. 2, 2007,
http://www.radical-musicology.org.uk (25 March, 2008), 96 pars.
[iii] Luis Clemente, ‘Flamenco y
Jazz’ in Filigranas: Una Historia de Fusiones Flamencas (Valencia:
Editorial La Mascara, 1995) available as ‘Flamenco y Jazz, esas músicas de
raza’, Flamenco World, http://www.flamenco-world.com/ (20 March 2008), 16 pars.
Richard Middleton, ‘Jazz: Music of the
Multitude?’ in Phil Bohlman, and Goffredo Plastino (eds.), World Jazz, Jazz Worlds (publication details) 00-00: 0.
Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More
MIT Press, 2006), p. 69.