Some Claims About “Thesis Music” & Ventriloquism by Zach Phillips

Zach Phillips

Blanche, Blanche, Blanche

[Ed's Note: Zach Phillips is a member of Blanche Blanche Blanche and if you follow his OSR-Blanche Blanche Blanche handle on Facebook, a notorious scriber of intelligent rants. As a compromise, his piece on thesis music is being left unedited and uncapitalized per his request. Blanche Blanche Blanche's Wooden Ball LP is out now on NNA Tapes. Read our review here.]

it is often said that music is difficult to talk about, that the stuff of music is actually impossible to access with words. well, that's how it is with language — the fact that this seems to be especially true about music may be an effect of the stabilization of problematic concepts that deal with music & the context in which those concepts are deployed. in other words, the problem is probably not “there's no language” — the problem is “wrong language predominates.” after all, why should music be harder to talk about than anything else? to portray anything else as easy to talk about with sufficient specificity would seem to be an injustice

with that said, I want to talk about a trend I've observed in contemporary music writing and production, which is the tendency to experience a work with special attention to its evocation of theoretical concepts presented in a statement external to the work in question

for example, a musician could claim in an interview or press release that an album is intended to pose certain questions that may be especially resonant to students of existential psychology, and this explanation may be privileged as a kind of point of entry into the music — this is music about x

and because this has become an accessible experiential framework within which to experience certain kinds of art (and, more recently, more kinds of music), there is now music that offers itself up to discourse from its inception, as if proceeding from a thesis, though in practice never really getting much further than ostensibly asking a question or evoking a smudged field of inquiry

consider the apparent paradox that out of respect for John Cage's empowering ideas about the possibilities of musical experience, a John Cage fan could end up putting undue emphasis on Cage the composer, on Cage's works, etc., and thereby act antithetically to the principles that attracted the fan to Cage's music and writing in the first place. the fan's engagement with elite language games — this or that history of art, this or that contextualization of Cage's principles that would render them more or less important, relevant or luminary than x y and z — belies the fan's actual positive experience of the works in question. in the fan's zeal for viewing Cage's persona in admixture with Cage's work, the fan ends up reinforcing concepts Cage sought to avoid

it happens all the time. Bankei's students preserved his writings, contrary to his instruction. I fuck up all the time, making this or that claim, shadowboxing with kid gloves

but if we are all in agreement that the ontological moorings of basic concepts need to be called into question (why else would thesis music exist?), if we are really committed to this notion that there is some cause to frame some investigation, to promote some productive experience of indeterminacy that will counteract the ossification of questionable premises into stone “truths” — if so, then we owe it to ourselves not to rely on one facile signifier in order to challenge another, and we owe it to the world to avoid structuring our activities in such a way as to render them attractive to institutional inertia. we owe it to the world to avoid dressing our productions in the hand-me-down discursive threads of power

consider the idea that maybe the potentiality for music to invoke concepts, to pose questions, to support a thesis — that if this potentiality can only be activated through a sort of artist statement about the music, then this is an overrated and cumbersome potentiality compared with other potentialities offered by music, that it is a “dead end” that could lead to a few recognitions and accolades but doesn't actually follow through on its ostensible path of inquiry

consider a schematic: the difference between “language about” and “language in” music. doesn’t it seem to you that undue attention is being focused on the former? what happens when music speaks? what does it say? I can assure you it's talking, making statements all its own

consider that the inert rationality of institutional art is more productive of this way of framing music production — willful conceptualization -> painstaking craftsmanship -> offering up to expert discourse — than is any actual reason or goal

to be interesting is not very interesting when interesting means “lights up the academic brain in the accustomed ways,” “making the right references,” or “kowtowing to the division of labor, leaving the right holes for the critical establishment to fill in an exciting madlib”

what is really interesting is the sensation of coming into contact with an unknown quantity, a definite intelligibility that is difficult to put into words, a force that seems to rain martial arts acid on anyone who would attempt to box it in, an incommensurable energy without a clear contour — and this through clear language, this through actual direct communication with and via the work

consider that it is possibly mistaken to honor works when what one should honor is oneself and others — other people — and the means available to everyone, the potential for musical listening at all times, whether at a show or at the piano or turning the knobs of a guitar pedal or in an anechoic chamber

that we might need to liberate ourselves from a materialistic, object-based experience of music by rejecting not just existing canons but canonization itself and the underlying rationalities that make canonization possible

that in doing so we may ultimately find that we can appreciate the objecthood of musical works better than before, by understanding them not as the products of masterful intention but instead as superficially replicable events with actually unreplicable context and content

and above all that that “we” can get ever bigger and not ever smaller. Thin Lizzy said “I believe in the freedom song.” I believe in the freedom song, too, and I don't think music that offers itself up to the various wizened arts discourses can be much of a freedom song for very many people

it dismays me a little to read the above and know that I've made some unclear statements, because above all what I would like is to make felt the ease of combining clear communication with the acrobatic freedom of thought commonly identified as a trait of poetry

in conclusion, let me just say that there is no need to play the ventriloquist and make music speak: it already does. and hopefully it doesn't say, “I am subjugated to the desire of my creator to play a person of genius in an ideological pageant of respectability and craftsmanship”

no, there is definitely no need to grasp at the new music — it shows up about every ten minutes (that's Donald Barthelme)

and it will always be new if you just let it

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