Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Global Groove

What follows is the final chapter, lightly edited, of my (self-published) e-book, The Life and Times of a Musical Virus: A Critical History of the Rhythm Section. To provide a bit of context, I'll quote from the blurb posted at the Amazon website:
In one form or other, the rhythm section underlies just about every popular genre one can think of, and is consequently heard in literally every corner of our “globalized” world. It can certainly be characterized as a “musical virus,” since it has so infectiously “infected” so much of the music we know and love, from just about any tradition, and in so profound a manner. So where did it come from? And what does it mean? 
Tracking his subject to its roots, Grauer takes us back to Bach and the so-called “baroque” period, where a remarkably similar practice, known as basso continuo, also went viral, to dominate just about all musical performances of that era in every corner of the Western world. According to Grauer, the origins of the continuo lie in still earlier developments in the popular dance music of the towns and aristocratic courts of Europe, dating to the 16th century -- and the musical revolution that followed, where, as he demonstrates, it was a key factor in the birth and development of the tonal system itself.
While the bulk of my book deals with the complex history of the rhythm section, going all the way back to the 16th century, the final chapter deals mostly with its role in the world of today, focusing on the economics, and politics, of globalization. As this chapter is especially timely, in a manner that warrants wider dissemination, I've decided to make it freely available here.

The Global Groove

Despite all I’ve written so far, two questions remain hanging in the air: 1. what do we have in common with the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, such that the baroque continuo and the modern rhythm section, so close to one another in so many ways, both “went viral” in such a similar manner? And, once again: 2. what does all this actually mean, and why is it relevant?

And as far as I can tell, the key to both questions can be summarized in a word I’ve already had occasion to highlight in these pages: globalization.

In his introduction to a series of lectures delivered at Cambridge University, musicologist D. R. M. Irving points to
the complex and entangled relationship between music and globalization in the unprecedented, inexorable, and irrevocable integration of the earth’s societies from c1500 to 1815. Almost every form of art music or popular music that we cultivate or study today is in some way related to the patterns of intercultural reciprocity that were set in place during this age of incipient globalization. (The Globalization of Music: Origins, Development, & Consequences, c1500–1815 – abstract - 2010.)
Sadly, Irving’s lectures themselves don’t seem to be currently available, but the pithy introduction appearing on the Cambridge website offers some impressive critical insights. Recognizing that “Globalization is one of the most controversial issues to be debated in the humanities and social sciences today,” Irving describes its Seventeenth and Eighteenth century beginnings in terms that echo what we know all too well from our experiences with the globalization of today:
This literal revolution is intensified by the mass movement of peoples (voluntary or involuntary) and the creation of diasporas, as well as the transcultural consumption of artistic practices and commodities. Yet at the same time globalization comes bound up with the need for standardization and intercultural compatibility, while requiring the creation of interfaces and protocols for exchange; in this way it institutes some degree of cultural homogeneity and precipitates the simultaneous sharing of common artistic practices by geographically dispersed communities. This is one of the paradoxes of globalization, and it seems that no one art form encapsulates it more singularly than music.
Irving associates “the rise of Western Art music,” with “the genesis and evolution of global capitalism from the sixteenth century onwards . . .”  In the process,
[m]usic acted as a tool of empire and colonialism in the context of European expansion, but it also served as a form of resistance and cultural self-identification for subaltern societies. Global flows of capital, the development of fundamentally new epistemologies based on empirical evidence drawn from global exploration, the growth of world religions and dissemination of new ideologies, the delineation of geocultural and geopolitical boundaries (not to mention the devising of strategies by which they could be traversed), the nascence of human rights, and the ongoing global class struggle – exacerbated by a widening wealth gap – all had profound effects on musical practice throughout the world.
If the era from 1500 through 1800 can be identified with the beginnings of globalization, then the association between the baroque continuo and the rhythm section we hear all around us today may not be so mysterious after all. As they “went viral” literally throughout the world, sweeping so many other musical practices before them, both clearly hitched rides on the powerful and indeed overwhelming sociopolitical and economic forces at work during both periods.

What is it, exactly, that gave such powerful impetus to a musical practice deriving from the rhythms of dance music, oriented around a set of standard chord progressions above a relatively simple (at least at first) bass line? During two very different historical eras?

I admit I don’t have all the answers. However, I do think that if the globalized “free market” capitalism of today could be understood as some sort of monstrous organism, then the rhythm section would be its heart and soul. While this might seem a bit imaginative, one has to ask why this particular musical practice has become so powerfully ensconced in the world of advertising as the backdrop of just about every television commercial, every promo, every action movie soundtrack, every credit sequence for just about every TV show. When decisions are being made in Hollywood and Madison Avenue boardrooms, why is it that slapping a rhythm section track under every conceivable type of visual is simply taken for granted as an effective, if not absolutely necessary, marketing tool?

But maybe I’m being unfair. After all, some of the most glorious music ever written, including masterpieces by some of our greatest classical composers, not to mention the extraordinary achievements of some of our most amazingly creative and masterful jazz, rock, reggae, bluegrass, etc. musicians, is solidly based on the groove laid out by a rhythm section or continuo. And as far as globalization, the “free market” and capitalism itself are concerned, I have to admit that my liberal bias might be showing.

The Great Debate

Economist Tyler Cowen, author of the influential book, Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World’s Cultures (2003), is one of the more eloquent and persuasive defenders of modern capitalism and, I must admit to being impressed by some of his arguments. I’m impressed also by his extensive knowledge, rare in an economist, not only of popular music, classical music and jazz, but many flavors of world music as well. Actually Cowen and I share many artistic and musical enthusiasms to a surprising extent, which has made me especially open to a viewpoint that I might otherwise prefer to dismiss. Back in 2003, when capitalism and its conservative promoters were still riding high on a wave of supercharged, soon to be shattered, confidence, the ultra-conservative Cato Institute hosted a debate between Cowen and prominent globalization skeptic, Benjamin Barber, on the topic: "Globalization and Culture."

Cowen begins by responding to the oft-stated criticism that global markets tend to drastically reduce diversity:
The core message of my last few books is that markets support diversity and freedom of choice, that trade gives artists a greater opportunity to express their creative inspiration. The preconditions for successful artistic creativity tend to be things like markets, physical materials, ideas, and inspiration. When two cultures trade with each other they tend to expand the opportunities available to individual artists.
Cowen offers some thought provoking examples. Cuban music originated (so he claims) for the benefit of American tourists lounging in posh pre-Castro nightclubs; the crafting of Persian carpets was revived thanks to markets opened up from the West; the blossoming of world literature—writers from Mahfouz to Marquez—the bookstore, the printing press, the advent of cinema around the globe are all cases in which trade has made different countries, different regions, more creative, given us more diversity.

Cowen is especially knowledgeable in the realm of music:
If we think of societies that have very well developed markets—for example the United States—what we find happening is not that everyone, for instance, buys or listens to the same kind of music. As markets have allowed suppliers to deliver products to consumers, we’ve seen a blossoming of different genres of music. In the 20th century the United States evolved rock and roll, rhythm and blues, Motown, Cajun music, many different kinds of jazz—ragtime, swing, stomp—heavy metal, rap. The list goes on.
But not knowledgeable enough. With the notable exception of rap, every genre on his list is centered squarely on the rhythm section and the highly constrained musical norms associated with it. Which raises the question: what do you mean by “diversity”? Are some types of diversity less diverse than others?

Benjamin Barber responds by raising precisely this issue. Is the market driven “diversity” Cowen praises so enthusiastically truly authentic, or merely artificial -- genuine or phony?
When you come back to the States and have an Indian tandoori experience in Arlington, it’s not going to be the same as you might have in Bombay, but it is still a kind of tandoori experience and will remain such as long as in Bombay there’s the authentic tandoori experience. But when Bombay, like Arlington, is simply a theme park of world cultures in which everyone is roughly alike, in that they have the same diversity of offerings, that diversity becomes increasingly simulated, and the authenticity from which those experiences come essentially disappears.
Barber acknowledges that “authenticity” is something of a charged word. Nevertheless, as he demonstrates, it delineates a crucial distinction that cannot, or at least should not, be papered over. Will the “theme park” society of the future truly be diverse? Authentically diverse? Or merely a simulacrum of diversity, tailored to the needs of an essentially homogenized market driven economy? Just as so many of the different musical genres we currently either love or hate, are homogenized through the workings of the rhythm section into a single, easily digested, commodity.
Barber notes that “In effect, the “theme-parking” of culture, which is part of globalization and part of the theme-parking of our world, is, yes, a kind of diversity, but it is the diversity of the theme park. It is increasingly synthetic; it’s increasingly distanced from the authentic origin.”

He then goes on to raise a more fundamental objection:
The problem is that when America meets another culture, it’s not, as you might imagine here, just two guys in the woods. It’s not an American wearin’ his Nikes and eatin’ his burgers meeting up with a Nigerian who’s singing a different kind of music, and they have a little exchange, and when it’s done the American’s a little different—a little more Nigerian—and the Nigerian’s a little different—a little more American—and we’re all the better off for it. Rather, you’ve got to imagine the American armed, sort of like the soldiers in Iraq are armed, with all of the goods and brands of modern technology, modern commerce, hard and soft power, hegemonic economic power over the globe, hegemonic military power over the globe. That’s the culture that’s meeting up with some little Third World culture that’s got some Navajo blankets or some fusion music that we’d kind of like to collect.
As Barber’s remarks suggest, many of Cowen’s arguments could quite easily be seen as a defense, not only of globalized “free market” capitalism, but the colonialist exploitation that made it possible.

From the Collective to the Individual

Cowen is most persuasive when he moves from what he calls “the collective” to a consideration of “the individual,” as expressed in a talk given that same year, at the Independent Institute:
My idea of diversity is not to look at the collectives, but to look at the individuals, and ask yourself, in Germany, in France, in the United States, how many different kinds of goods can you buy? How many different kinds of arts? How many different courses can your life go down? How many different choices does the individual face? How many different stories or fates can you construct for yourself? And that, to me, to look at the individual, the differences that are possible across individuals, that is to me, true diversity. (“Globalization and Cultural Diversity: Friends or Foes?,” May 2003)
I tend to be skeptical of this sort of reasoning, clearly of more relevance to those individuals affluent enough to be able to make such choices than the average man-in-the-street. Nevertheless, this particular argument does hit home for me personally. Not that I’m particularly affluent, far from it. But I must admit that I too, like the well heeled members of the conservative think tanks addressed by Cowen, have been able to take advantage in my own way of the globalized world made possible by the economic forces he praises as not only efficient, practical, just and moral, but also “beautiful.” And as far as I personally am concerned, I must admit that there is something beautiful about having access to all the many consumer items and sources of pleasure, entertainment, artistic experience, creative experience, education, communication, research and self expression that our modern, globalized, hi-tech society makes possible. Not to mention all the many recordings and videos of non-Western music and dance from all over the world that mean so much to me, yet would hardly be available at all if not for globalization.

Never mind that my computer, printer, scanner, stereo system, TV, cell phone, and electronic piano were assembled by underpaid and overworked coolies in China, India, Bangla Desh, Taiwan and other notoriously exploitive third world economies. Most of the time I try not to think about that. If those workers were not being exploited, someone like myself could never afford all these extraordinarily cool and powerful devices – which have opened up a whole world of possibilities for me, including the possibility of producing and distributing this book. And in order to participate more fully in the opportunities opened by this globalized world, I have permitted myself to become alienated from my own roots, in Judaism, the better to take part in a secularized global society to which I have by now become thoroughly acclimated. Thus, despite my skepticism on general principles, I have to admit that, as far as I and so many others like me, are concerned, Cowen has a point. There is something "beautiful" about globalization.

Also something very disturbing.

All That Is Solid . . .

Ironically, much in Cowen’s extravagant praise of capitalism echoes very similar observations by, of all people, Karl Marx and Frederic Engels. From The Communist Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising . . . the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was . . . the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away . . . All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned [for Marx this was a good thing], and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
For Marx and Engels, capitalism, as embodied in the bourgeoisie, was not only progressive and even revolutionary, but fundamentally global in scope:
To the great chagrin of Reactionists, [the bourgeoisie] has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. . . . In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature. 
. . . The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
Cowen can write persuasively, no doubt about it. But he’s no match for a truly superior prose stylist such as Marx, who makes capitalism sound not only exciting but positively Utopian.

Is this picture simply too good to be true?

You know what’s coming. According to Marx, there is indeed an enormous catch: capitalism depends on the exploitation and impoverishment of those who make it possible, thus carrying within it the seeds of its own destruction.
Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. . . .
It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed.
At the time Cowen published Creative Destruction, in 2003, and in that same year spoke before the Cato and Independent Institutes, it was all too easy to assume capitalism had triumphed and could only proceed unimpeded to ever and ever greater achievements. Marx’s theories had apparently been demolished along with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Berlin wall.

But five years later a funny thing happened on the way to the capitalist Utopia. It collapsed. Of its own weight. Europe is now in a huge mess. America isn’t far behind. Working class incomes worldwide hover close to the poverty level, while capitalist billionaires thrive. Marx was right.

Does that make Cowen wrong? Strangely enough, the globalized world celebrated by Cowen and so many other economists has refused to die. Capitalism is going strong. The banks were saved. The bankers received their promised bonuses, despite the huge losses precipitated by their reckless manipulations. The Dow Jones average is soaring. The major corporations are making record profits, as are the millionaire and billionaire investors. All my electronic gizmos are still functioning -- and the World Wide Web is still out there, working its wonders (while gathering as much information as possible about me, you and everyone else).


So what does all this have to do with our musical virus? That too is still going strong. And if certain revolutionary stirrings are being stirred, as indeed they are post-2008, we can be sure the rhythm section will invariably be out there on the barricades, inspiring protesters with the certainty that, if they can clap along with that defiant beat, they can change the world. Our virus is an equal opportunity engine of globalization, favored by capitalist media moguls and leftist “revolutionaries” alike. Irony of ironies: the most constrained, and constraining, practice in the history of music, as embodied in the rhythm section of the modern rock band, has become an internationally recognized, even worshiped, symbol of freedom.

It is this very contradiction that gives us a clue to its meaning as a social practice functioning in the context of global free market capitalism. Because as it seems to me, the great success of the rhythm section/continuo, in all its various forms, can be best understood in the context of the Marxist notion of ideology, encapsulated by Marx and Engels as follows: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” (The German Ideology.) Since it encouraged workers to passively accept the norms and ideals of the ruling class, Engels described ideology as a form of “false consciousness.” A more modern (or perhaps “postmodern”) understanding of the term has been promoted by certain “poststructuralist” thinkers. But one need not be a poststructuralist intellectual to get the point:
Ideology, many have argued, is best understood, not as false consciousness, but as something embedded in a culture's "common sense," in the everyday habits of thought that shape how we think and act as we go about our day-to-day, routine activities. Ideology in this second sense is not a manipulation of consciousness, but it thrives beneath consciousness, in the taken-for-granted; it doesn't pull the wool over our eyes, but it brings us to take some things for granted, as so obvious that we need not reflect on them. (
 More simply:
“So pervasive is ideology in its constitution of subjects that it forms our very reality and thus appears to us as ‘true’ or ‘obvious.’” (
In his book, Rethinking Art History, Donald Preziosi described the effects of perspective painting in similar terms:
The realism of the Albertian Window, the perspectivalism of artistic practice inaugurated during the Renaissance and constituting the mainframe of aesthetic praxis up into the modern era, was perforce an ideological fabrication. It was a powerful format of representation that a society gave to itself, fixing the relationships by which individuals would represent themselves in their world of objects, their signifying universe. As an ideology, it functioned by putting the individual at the center of structures, making this subject the place where ideological meanings were revealed. (pp. 67-68)
Ideology is in fact very much like perspective: a cultural/psychological force that arranges everything behind the scenes -- subliminally manufacturing “nature.”

The rhythm section can be said to operate in a similar manner. Like the perspective grid, it melts into the background, yet functions as a controlling infrastructure: in a typical rock or pop song, every element must be organized according to an unchanging meter (usually four-four), enforced by a steady, relentless beat, and an equally four square melodic structure, strictly controlled by a standardized, mostly predictable, set of chord progressions. This is the highly organized, strictly controlled and controlling musical language that grew up around the 16th century “rhythm section” and developed into the full fledged continuo of the baroque period.

A clue to the manner in which the ideology of the ruling class may have made itself felt in almost every musical performance of the baroque is provided by the strange role of the harpsichord, an instrument deemed essential to so many performances of that time, yet so often completely drowned out by the ensemble as a whole. As I see it, this instrument, among the most intricately, and expensively, crafted and highly decorated of all baroque instruments, can be understood as representing the monarch. Commanding his minions in a soft voice from behind the scenes, he makes his presence subliminally felt everywhere. While his words remain discreetly subdued, his orders (as encapsulated in the figures of the figured bass) must be rigorously obeyed.

The effects of ideology on the world of rock music and the music business that supports it are articulated with great insight in Peter Wicke’s prescient Rock Music: Culture, Aesthetics and Sociology, still highly relevant, though first published back in 1987 -- as in, for example, these passages from the chapter titled “The Ideology of Rock”:
A widely held belief [during the late Sixties and early Seventies] was that the more creative the music, the more immediate the communication with the audience and therefore the fewer the compromises with commerce. The artistic claims which this belief validated were aimed at the social effectiveness of music which began to separate ‘progressive’ rock from ordinary ‘commercial’ pop music. Rock itself became an ideological category, for the postulated contrast between ‘commercial’ and ‘progressive’ music was above all a matter of musicians’ self-perception. In fact, that rock music which saw itself as ‘progressive’ was under no less an obligation to the capitalist system of music production and distribution than its ‘commercial’ counterpart. . . (p. 100) 
Of course, the fact that rock music presented a realm of experience which allowed teenagers to feel themselves to be a community in spite of all social differences was just as much of an illusion as the political aspirations with which it was linked. (p. 105)
In the following chapter, devoted to the “rock business,” Wicke focuses on the ironies of an idealist aesthetic hopelessly enmeshed in the web of capitalist commerce:
Within the overall relations of capitalism and under the conditions of an industry structured along monopolistic lines the relationship between goods and money is the foundation which makes the production of rock music possible, whether musicians admit this or not. In fact it is really ironic that the ideology of rock should amount to anti-capitalism, even though this is only illusory, since more than any other, this music is inextricably linked to the basic mechanisms of capitalism and in fact became an industry organized along capitalist lines. (p. 114)
Wicke fails to say anything about the role of the rhythm section, but from a purely musical standpoint it is the rhythm section and its attendant constraints that more than anything else give the lie to the supposed “originality” of rock as a genre, since just about every single rock song is squarely seated upon the tried and true foundation of bass, rhythm guitar, drums, four square meter, four square phrasing, and standard “common practice” harmonies, as found in just about every other form of popular music, from the most “progressive” to the most crassly “commercial.”

Revolutionary Etude

As far as politics are concerned, we of the 21st century are faced with a seemingly impossible situation in which one irony has been piled on top of another, to the point where it is now difficult to see any viable path forward. With reference to the status of “rock” music, musicians themselves have begun to ask, in the light of all the failed and failing “revolutions” of the last several years, what their role should be, and whether all their efforts, as both artists and activists, are worth it. As a sign of the times, from a recent issue of The Guardian comes an article with the subheading, "How have Ukrainian musicians responded to their country's unrest? Some sang at the barricades in Kiev's Maidan square, while others stayed silent":
The issue of how involved musicians should be in Ukraine's uprising became a vexed one, and the decisions the artists made had differing consequences for them. Some artists saw their popularity increase by backing the revolution, such as the rock star Slavik Vakarchuk, whose band Ocean Elzy were early supporters of the Maidan protests. .  .
Others, though, stayed away . . . Vopli Vidoplyasova didn't play at the Maidan because "I could see there would be violence and didn't want to encourage fans to come and be responsible for possible deaths." His critics reply that he either lacked the nerve or was hedging his bets on who would win. The brilliant young classical composer Alexei Shmurak didn't play because "I didn't want to become an internet meme", although he does say the energy of crowds here and at the Orange Revolution in 2004 "made me realise I was not alone. It shook me out of a depression." What is unnerving for him is that his projects with Russians have been cancelled, because as a supporter of the revolution he was accused of being a fascist.
Indeed, as with the Egyptian “revolution,” the Libyan “revolution,” the Syrian “revolution,” and now the Ukrainian “revolution” (as of June, 2014), with its oligarch president, and right-wing extremist ministers, it is no longer so easy to distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys” on the international stage -- which makes it all too easy to forecast a crisis in the not too distant future for any diehards who still want to promote the notion of rock as a “revolutionary force.”

As I’ve already confessed, I don’t have all the answers, and I am very frankly just as confused by our current socioeconomic situation as anyone else -- but I do think I’ve covered at least some of the most interesting questions pertaining to the meaning, and relevance, both musical and social, of our fascinating “virus” and the global environment in which it thrives.

Now please: don’t shoot the messenger.

Honestly, I hope I haven’t offended certain people whom in fact I genuinely admire – or their fans. This book is not intended as an attack directed at pop, rock, country or jazz musicians per se, far from it. I fully understand why so many truly gifted and creative musicians feel the need to make music in the only manner that feels natural to them, and I fully appreciate the artistry behind so much of their work.

Even Peter Wicke, for all his cynicism regarding the many illusions fostering rock mythology, insists, nevertheless, that “Rock fans are not an undifferentiated mass of manipulated consumers. Their relationships with this music . . . follow socially very diverse everyday experiences which even the music industry must go along with up to a point . . . if it wants to market its products successfully.” Refusing to accept a clear dividing line between the “authentic” and the “commercial,” Wicke sees rock music as standing “in  the middle of a cultural and ideological field of conflict . . .” (Op. Cit., p. 25).

If we were to judge all musicians in terms of the circumstances that made their accomplishments possible and the artificiality of the conventions grounding them then we’d have reason to suspect almost every great composer of the past, including giants such as Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, not to mention Basie, Ellington, Parker, Mingus, Lennon, Dylan . . . the list would be inordinately long and the effort truly absurd.

At the same time, a critical grasp of the underlying forces that fuel the relentless globalization of both our economy and our inner experience is absolutely necessary if we are “to face with sober senses our real conditions of life, and our relations with our kind.”

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