NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

Is That a Real Reality, or Did You Make It Up Yourself?



"Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole
State, and ought to be prohibited. So Damon tells me, and I can quite believe
him; he says that when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State
always change with them."
— Plato, Republic IV.

"I saw my dreams come true; I saw America
changed by music."
— Harry Smith. [1]


When we were young first-year students in a music college in
nowhere zen New Jersey, we were
made to take certain classes designed to tune up our basic skills. One such
class, "Rhythmics," took fifteen weeks to ensure that we could perform on sight
a set of exercises from a snare drum rudiments book. (A teacher's lot is not a
happy one.) As luck would have it, our rhythmics teacher was Joel Thome, a
composer and conductor of great vision and awe-inspiring dedication. Joel took
rhythm, and music in all its aspects, very seriously. He said that if we
weren't practicing our instruments for at least five hours a day, we were
wasting our time. He lectured spontaneously on the ontology of the now. He
covered the blackboards with lists of books that we were to read, and
recordings and scores that we were to study. He told me that a Baroque lute
duet that I was then practicing was of world-historical importance. But the
thing he said that has stuck with me the most was that music was going to save
the world.

The idea that music can transform reality predates by many
millennia the category "music" as we know it. Before art was understood as a
phenomenon in itself apart from its ritual application (a relatively recent and
culturally specific development), what we now call music was indistinguishable
from magic. There is a wonderful, intoxicating romance that runs from
Pythagorean harmonics through Platonic musical ethos to Boethius's codification
of Greek tunings, then into the Renaissance cosmologies that prefigured modern
astrophysics, on the idea that a change of music is a change of consciousness,
culture, and even physical reality. And it's not just an old fantasy, a lot of
serious thought and investigation has gone into it. For present purposes, I'd
like to sketch a few lines that touch upon music and cultural change.

I began to understand the power of music to work change
when, at the age of seven, I stood onstage at the Labour Club talent show in my
Lancashire home town, opened my mouth and sang a song,
and the feeling in the room changed. The same thing happened a decade later in
my American high school where in the space of three minutes I went from an
immigrant misfit to something else entirely, purely on the power of song and
the voice that I had inherited from my father, who'd had a reputation in the
Manchester pubs as a good turn. Music,
it seems, worked a shift in the various social mileux in which I found myself,
and this sense of music as a kind of subtle magic expanded to encompass larger
and larger contexts as time went on. Many wonderful music teachers contributed
to this, and then a particular watershed moment came when another magician from
a different field of music came to the college and I was asked to accompany him
in performance.

Subsequently, over the course of two decades, I performed
internationally with Allen Ginsberg in every imaginable type of venue, and
through him I met and worked with other socially-conscious artists — those
whom Amiri Baraka calls "culture workers" —
whose work had played a part in the twentieth-century cultural shift
that we now link back to "the sixties," but whose roots really go back through
centuries of social change in which the arts played a role.

All of the artists with whom I worked, from the
internationally famous to the virtually unknown, had in some way embraced the
ancient idea that music held the power of transformation. Their politics, however were not those of
Plato. He favored oligarchy over democracy, and as can be seen from the above
epigraph, advocated that the government ban new forms of music (by which he
meant all of the arts) as a threat to the state. As my band mate in the Fugs
Tuli Kupferberg paraphrased it, "when the mode of the music changes, the walls
of the city shake." If our culture, as seems to be the case, has in some ways
preserved Plato's sense of musical affect, the mid-twentieth-century push
against the oligarchical tendencies in the state could be expected to champion new
modes of music toward what Ginsberg called "democratization in the arts." [2]

Do new forms of artistic activity point to deep
transformations in society? A lot of serious thought has gone into exploring
this question, and much of it occurred in the mid-twentieth century, when
social scientists began to look closely at the relationship between particular
forms of performance practice and the larger social forms in which they take

When computers first became widely available for social
science research, anthropologists began compiling databases through which
various culturally-specific customs and practices could be sorted and compared.
It became possible to see broad patterns of relationship, on a global sale,
between economic activities, religious practices, social norms, and forms of

In the 1960s, musicologist Alan Lomax developed a research
program for applying these methods to song (Cantometrics) and dance
(Choreometrics). He concluded, perhaps not surprisingly, that the favored song
and dance forms of a particular group tend to reflect the major economic
activities of the group. For example, in societies where the majority of the
food supply is provided by the solo male hunter, the favored dance and music
forms tend to feature the solo male, and where much of the food is provided by
women working in groups to gather or garden, show biz tends to
favor female choral song and group dance that looks like horticultural labor
(bending, dipping, reaching, etc.).

This may seem rather obvious, but Lomax extended his
conclusions to a level of detail relating, for example, the sound quality of
the singing voice to customs regarding sex. He believed that a tight-throated
vocal sound is heard in societies where sex is strictly regulated and largely unavailable
outside of marriage, and that an open-throated sound is heard where sex is more
readily available. (On this view, the sound of Gregorian chant would seem to support centuries of gossip about the
secret life of Christian monastics.) Lomax's work has been criticized as
biased, too selective of facts, and too sweeping, but relating art form to
social form is not easily dismissed. It has been the case, for example, that U.S.
country folk accustomed to manual farm labor in coordinated teams of men and
women under the direction of a single male supervisor tended to go in for
square dance.

Other theorists extended this relating of musical practice
to socio-economic practice beyond Lomax's interest in what he called
"traditional cultures" to include modern societies. Ortiz Walton, for example,
pointed out that during the era when the U.S. economy was based on large-scale
manufacturing, the most prestigious form of musical ensemble consisted of a
large group of musicians organized into departments (sections), each one with a
supervisor (first chair), all led by a single manager-in-chief (conductor), and
realizing a plan (score) provided by a designer (composer). He also pointed out
that the workers in this musical ensemble punched a time clock and belonged to
a union.

More recently, Jazz historian Ted Gioia has connected the
emergence of "free jazz" in the 1960s to the "freedom riders," "freedom
schools," and larger freedom movement brought on by the civil rights activism
of the same period — a breaking of old boundaries and the empowering of a
multitude of voices exemplified on the bandstand by ensembles unconstrained by
a composer, a song form, an arrangement or prescribed tonal framework, and the
whole taking place without regard to the large recording corporations that have
just caught on to the last wave of cool and want you to play be those rules.

So it seems that art forms tell us about how our society is
organized, and new emergences in the arts can speak to us about changes in
larger social structures, but they can
also instruct us about the changing nature of our sense of self. Literary
theorist Paul Oppenheimer has written that the invention of the sonnet in the
13th century – a form of poem tending to topics of personal reflection and
meant to be read silently to oneself when verse had been spoken or sung aloud
since ancient times – heralded the "birth of the modern mind." But which came
first, the new poem or the new person? Is art merely illustrative of cultural
conditions, or does it play a role in motivating cultural shift?

The anthropologist and performance theorist Victor Turner
noted that music is universally associated with heightened states of
consciousness, what he calls communitas,
a feeling of oneness that both affirms and erases everyday boundaries,
which is invoked in "liminality" (from limen, threshold). Liminality refers to
being between states, or in a transitional phase. In a medical context, it can
refer to being between life and death. For anthropologists, it indicates the
in-between state an initiate experiences in a rite of passage from one social
status or existential level to another.
In the context of performance theory, it is a space of indeterminacy and
flux opened up in, for example, mass-participatory music/dance performance,
where cultural shift can occur.

In a performance, tension is generated between normal
reality and the impulse toward threshold. Music/dance is the repetition of the
impulse to push boundaries, and is a generative agency of what we call culture
and a presentation of the potential for the shift which is cultural change. The
blurring of boundaries in participatory performance generates a collective in
which the individual is de-centered, rendered into something larger or less
fixed than her conventional social role. In the music/dance, the assumptions by
which we are regulated are, if only intermittently, suspended. This state, says
Turner, "is almost everywhere held to be sacred or ‘holy,' possibly because it
transgresses or dissolves the norms that govern structure and institutionalized
relationships and is accompanied by experiences of unprecedented potency." [3]

Turner based his research in settings where a whole village
might participate in a music and dance event, but his observations could be
applied to many contexts.

I experienced this sense of reality shift most potently at
various alternative rock venues in Europe and America
in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It happened at my first ever show with the hardcore band
False Prophets at CBGBs. Having come from a more formal performance world, I
was at first put off by the people sitting on the stage, in what I thought of
as "my" space, seemingly unaware that musicians might need some room in which
to work. But twenty seconds into the
first number, all at once a wave went through the crowd and all of space
exploded into what folklorist-alchemist Harry Smith (a regular at our early
shows) later called "the most ecstatic dance I ever witnessed." I remember
thinking at that first show, "this is what music is for."

Later, when my tours with the band yielded a
book-in-progress that led to graduate studies in ethnomusicology, I discovered
that Turner had accurately described the feeling I had experienced in the punk
clubs, the sense of being in-between, neither inside of nor outside of myself,
in a place where individual identities are not lost in undifferentiated
wholeness, but rather seem to phase in and out. This sense of a flux of
personal boundary is not anxiety producing. It is ecstatic, and as Turner notes,
uniquely powerful. It is an electrical charge punctuated by the stunning visual
effect of flashing colored lights and wild motion in a dense mass of bodies,
rendering what I can only describe as a living, swirling, psychedelic
impressionist landscape — Monet's
garden at Giverny waving wildly in the real world and constituted in (by, as)
incredibly powerful sound.

I also found in my studies that our experience of the
anarchist collectives, particularly in Europe, that
hosted many of our shows, seemed to reflect the scholarly literature on musical
style reflecting social style. Among people who valued and practiced this music
and dance, community business tended to be conducted in non-hierarchical group
settings, what the organizers at the Flora Squat in Hamburg
called "hard-core breakfast."

Clearly, here was a style of music whose practitioners were
committed to radical social shift.

Economist Jacques Attali has described one of the more
radical theories of music and cultural change.
He argues that when social shift is about to occur, it shows up first in
the music. The more a particular style of music is prophetic of change, the
more it will be regarded not as music, but as noise. Upon reading Attali, I
reflected how, when the Beatles first broke on the radio in my home town, 30
miles from Liverpool, my parents (along with many elders and critics of the
day) said, "that's not music, that's noise." Then, after the civil rights
movement and the ‘60s counterculture produced advances in civil liberties and
new demands for greater democratization of society, rock became the soundtrack
of the mainstream, and today, the Beatles' music seems tuneful, benign, and not
so far removed from the jazz-inspired songs of the previous generation.

If we accept that music enables change by challenging norms,
we can also see a connection between music and language that helps to give
poetry its prophethood of change.

In the late 1960s at a conference, the
linguist Roman Jakobson was asked: what makes a verbal message into a work of
art? His answer is instructive.

First, Jakobson described what he called six functions that
are present in all verbal communications. Most of our communications feature
the denotive function, where the emphasis is on the speaker and a simple
message, such as, "I'd like you to be at that meeting on Wednesday." Also common is the conative function,
which delivers more or less the same information, but emphasizes the hearer,
"Please be there." There will also be an emotive function, which will dominate
when the hearer thinks, "Woah, what was that about? It sure wasn't about that
Wednesday meeting." The phatic function dominates when the communication is
really about contact rather than content, as when Judy and I talk about the
Wednesday meeting just so we can interact, but the denotive content is not at all important. Our talk might as well be about the man in
the moon. The metalingual function dominates when the conversation is about the
conversation, "What did you mean when you said . . . .?" And somewhere, usually
buried under all this complex message mix, there is the sense that one is
getting a message. This is the poetic function.

The poetic function doesn't dominate very often. We're
usually too busy trying to do the ordinary business of everyday communication
to be concerned about "Oh my God, I'm getting a communication." Ordinary speech
tends to play down the poetic. But language art, Jakobson says, is
distinguished from other types of speech by its emphasis on the poetic.

Jakobson associates this function with musical affects,
pointing out that the impact of a simple phrase may be boosted by poetic
constituents such as rhyme and rhythm, as in the slogan "I like Ike" or Julius
Caesar's "Veni vidi, vici." But the poetic function doesn't just make a message
memorable, it also works a split. It gives you a message and at the same time
tells you that it is giving you a message. In effect, you're getting two
messages. With "I like Ike," you're getting a simple message — "this guy voted
for Eisenhower," and you are getting the more troubling message that words,
what linguists call "signs," are strange things. The poetic function makes
language appear strange.

At a certain level of emphasis on the poetic, the speaker
and the hearer seem strange too. Writers such as James Joyce and Gertrude Stein
made a point of repeatedly pushing this button. It is simply not possible to
read Finnegan's Wake or The Making of Americans and get lost in the story. The
story is hard to track, or may be non-existent, because the language is more
like music than speech. When the means
of delivering the message calls attention to itself apart from what it appears
to be saying, the listener can experience a sense of instability. When
linguistic meaning goes into flux, it can invoke a liminal state.

Julia Kristeva, a linguist
and psychoanalyst who has built on Jakobson's work, has written that music pluralizes
meaning, and that poetic language is therefore threatening to conventional
categories of self and state. What we commonly call the self, or the "I," or
"the subject" is, according to Kristeva, a
subject-in-language. "I" she says, "is quite literally the subject of a

We learn to organize our world according to pre-existing categories,
such as those described by personal pronouns ( I, you, he, she, etc.), that are
built in to language. "I" is not a constant
or particularly stable thing, rather it is instantiated at each thought or
utterance of "I." It is a product of repetition, a kind of insistence on a
certain category of meaning which is given by our culture. Music can invoke a
condition prior to speech, before our enculturation into the "I" and its macroscosmic partner, the state. The poetic
function troubles the conventional categories of self and state, and so is an agent for change.

"Poetic language . . . is an unsettling process — when not
an outright destruction — of the identity of the meaning and speaking subject.
. . . On that account, it accompanies crises within social structures and
institutions — the moments of their mutation, evolution, revolution, or

Another theorist linking art with a sense of strangeness and
potential for change was Theodor Adorno, for whom art's revolutionary potential
lies in its sense of being artificial and incomplete. The totalitarian impulse wants to portray its
view of the world as real and complete — indisputable and immutable, all
settled and sewed up. Conservatives are "realists." Liberals are "sadly deluded
idealists." Systems that favor the rightist mindset are portrayed as natural
and correct, something to be conserved, not changed.

Art destabilizes this
sense of certainty and fixity by saying, in effect, "Look at me, I'm an
invented reality, I'm arbitrary, artificial, completely made up." By doing
this, art hints that maybe the rest of our reality is arbitrary and made up
too. And if reality is a made thing, then it can be made differently. Adorno's
metaphor for art's incompleteness was Penelope's tapestry, which she wove all
day and picked apart all night — the never-completed task she used as an
excuse to put off her suitors. Art is never complete. The poem and the painting
can be experienced a thousand times, differently each time. In this sense, art
instantiates flux. This is why fascists try to control it or kill it.

As an artist, I take apart reality. It's not so much that
the artist proposes an alternative reality, but rather that the abstract
categories "I" and "reality" continually deconstruct in art. This doesn't mean
that I don't take out the garbage, or feed "my" cat, or love "my" wife and
child, and what some would call "my country." It means that I believe that the
state of humanity is necessarily and always liminal. We are and always have
been in transition, and the reality of change is visible and audible in the
changing modes in which we have expressed our various concepts of self and
society at various places and times.

If the world is to be "saved," it will happen in the
realization of the necessity of change on all fronts, a shift from a
paradoxical model that claims to be conservative while acting destructive, to
one that recognizes that conservation can only occur in change. This is what
music has to teach us. This is what Joel meant when he said that music would
save the world.



1. In 1991, Harry
Smith was given the Chairman's Certificate at the Grammy Awards ceremony. The
presenter of the award noted that Smith's 1952 Folkways Records edition, The
Anthology of American Folk Music, had inspired a generation of musicians, and
that Harry had demonstrated a lifelong commitment to the idea that music can be
a vehicle for social change.

2. Personal
communication, 1993.

3. Victor Turner,
From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (New York: Performing
Arts Journal Publications, 1982), p. 128.

4. Julia Kristeva,
"From One Identity to an Other" in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (New
York: Columbia
University Press, 1980), pp. 130; 124-25.

Image couresy of Creative Commons license.

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