Permanent underground : radical sounds and social formations in 20th century American musicking

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Date

2012-05

Authors

Cline, John F.

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Abstract

Musical labor entered a new phase of alienation following the advent of recording technology in the late 19th century. Whereas prior to recording musicians had a relatively direct relationship with their audience—the sum of the two groups constituting “musicking”—sound reproduction created a spatial and temporal dislocation between them. Most narratives of American popular music trace out a particular genre formation, and relate it to the culture from whence it emerged. By contrast, this dissertation begins from the point where musicking began to disengage from commodification, both at the level of social formation and of the creation of sound itself. Drawing on anthropologist Pierre Clastres’ notion of “Anti-State” modes of organization and cultural critic Ivan Illich’s concept of “conviviality,” or a human-centered rather than mass production-oriented use of tools—in this case musical instruments both handmade and modified—each chapter of this project tackles a different dimension of the quest for autonomous musicking, or a “permanent underground.” Chapter 1 examines the organizational principles that have run in parallel to the bureaucratic, capitalist manifestation of a “music industry” in the 20th century. Beginning with a critique of either/or fallacy of the opposition posited between “modernism” and “nostalgia,” the reminder of the chapter demonstrates the reconciliation between these two aesthetic and political positions; topics include the seizure of public space by itinerant blues musicians in the rural-industrial prewar South, the self-released recordings of gospel artists after WWII, the formation of experimental jazz collectives in the 1960s, and the relationship between psychedelic music and cults/communes in the 1960s. Chapter 2 critiques the function of genre in musicking as means to a reproducible sonic commodity, and argues for “noise” as an aesthetic intervention that disrupts the saleable nature of music—a political act in itself. Chapter 3 suggests several strategies for achieving “noise.” These include the re-purposing of industrial machines as musical instruments, the incorporation of foreign musical traditions, and the use of collage as a formal principle. The final chapter profiles six collectives that have emerged since the late 1960s that adhere to the aesthetic and political values established throughout this dissertation.

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