Musical Conservatism

I’ve written too many posts on Adorno and music to run away from a topic that has been in my mind for a while. I keep alluding to the idea of musical conservatism in the vague hopes that I might address it as a separate issue. In this post I’ll give an attempt at firstly trying to define what musical conservatism is. I might then try (but this isn’t the priority of the post) to clarify why this is important and what might be at stake.

Musical Conservatism (MC)

It is often said that some composers are conservative compared to their peers. A boon example of this is the composer Edvard Grieg. Grieg wrote in the Romantic style when it was the ‘safe’ thing to do and it was already established. By contrast, the impressionist and expressionist composers take to new grounds stylistically and arguably ideologically. There are of course more contraversial examples of a conservative composer: Richard Strauss. Strauss wrote der Vier letzte Lieder, and stylistically occupies ‘high romanticism’, written in the 1940s, a period of time when High Romanticism is symbolically an old grandfather who is just about to die.

I am a fan of the Four Last Songs, and I saw it conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and cried. It’s emotive power is undeniable, but is it stylistically raw and innovative compared to its contemporaries? I’d be forced to say…no. It’s no Schoenberg, it’s not even as innovative as more popular and appealing music such as Gershwin or Rachmaninov. However Strauss nearly 50 years previously wrote Salome, a work considered to be part of the Modernist kaleidoscope of its day. Some conservatives can have revolutionary potential, or once did have revolutionary impetus. Another example might be Stravinsky, whose rhythmically focussed Rite of Spring shocked audiences but his later work was less daring.

Conservatism as a mindset

Perhaps the thing that makes MC similar to a political form of conservatism (I don’t distinguish between ‘big C/small c’ conservatism for now) is a commitment to some sense of status quo. Conservatism works within already established media, and even though it might improve on, or add to an already established genre, it is that a genre or form is established that the contribution in question can be called conservative.

Conservatism of musical sorts is a mindset. It’s dad-rock, where fathers yearn for some actual or imaginary younger age in which their idea of rebellion was through the now codified bands of album compilations and general interest publications. Conservatism is the phenomena of making heavy metal culture a successful money making industry, with all the related trappings of metal festivals, metal radio stations and shows, metal forums, merchandise and paraphernalia. Once leather trousers and long hair (inter alia) are established symbols, we already play to the established channels of cultural communication, namely, one identifies with the tribe. This can be of course, through degrees of negotiation and separation through the hegemony, but there is still nontheless a tacit sense of hegemony.

Conservatism is codification. This can be through symbolic expression of the cultural consumers, this can be through the stylistic genre itself and its musicological features, this may even be through the economic model in which the music and industries around it support itself: the established toilet circuits in which bands must gain recognition, or the star DJs who grant recognition to bands, or the record labels that establish and confer status within the established order.

What was once fresh is now freeze dried for mass consumption

Musical genres, subcultures around genres or even mindsets around musical and cultural modes of expression, may have once been revolutionary, they may have once been entirely different. They may have once been so different that they did not fit into the established pre-existing order of genre hierarchies. I remember seeing an interview with Dave Mustaine of Megadeth in around 1988 or so, and he said that his music didn’t have a genre identity. This at the time was valid in the sense that what is now referred to as speed or thrash metal was not as codified. However, come today and we see bands with heavy and fast riffs using phrygian and dorian mode, exploiting 4-time tempi and lyrics about the distrust of the status quo, or violence, nuclear war or apocalyptic themes, and we might call it classic thrash metal.

Some presumptions

I’ve made some presumptions here. One is that conservatism means being derivative. I’m agnostic about this. Another presumption is that conservatism is inherently bad. Again I might say I would not feel obliged to respond to this point and leave this as an open question. Another open question I might put forward is: will everything that was once fresh become freeze-dried for mass consumption?

An analogy with gaming

An analogy with gaming might come into play. Chris Bateman often states his view that the games industry usually goes along with concepts that are already established and provide already-existing modes of activity and play. The next CoD game or Halo title is going to be largely similar to the last, in such a way that it’s almost immaterial that the next CoD includes a controllable doggy, or a powerlifter suit like the one Ripley piloted in Aliens. Innovative games are still possible and I think that seems to be the MO of those often working as indie developers or kickstarter-like budgets.

The musical conservatism that I put forward could be generalised as a cultural conservatism. There’s economic/business ramifications for putting forward recognisable products over untested and unknown quantities. However you often hear people talking about the freshness of when gamers first played Super Mario on the NES or came across a new gaming interface the first time. I remember my first Turn Based RPG like it was a first love. I’ve sought out many Turn Based RPGs since then but I begin to feel that it’s all the same after a while.

Musical Conservatism: so what?

Any fresh, idea-provoking or perception-challenging genre has the threat of appropriation. The appropriation of being a successful medium that brings in countless imitators. The original sense of perception-challenge is lost and simply absorbed into the status quo. Is it inevitable that we will all become musical conservatives? Even the genres that claim to be separate from the mainstream, have their own standards of conformity that dictate unto others what some sense of authenticity to the genre might be. In Black Metal such people are referred to kvlt and their seriousness is a form of self-parody. In modern parlance this very kind of discussion leans to hipster connotations. In my own time we might use these terms. In my own time it may be legitimate to demean me as a sad hipster seeking some sense of authenticity by the ratio of the more obscure something is, the purer it is as music. I wouldn’t want to subscribe to that point of view, as obscurity is not sufficient for authenticity (is it a necessary condition? I don’t suspect so either).

The issue of conservatism I suspect will spread to the future in whatever genres there are, and I am of strong conviction that there are historical cases in which such a discussion about whether a musician/composer/artist may be judged as conservative would be relevant in terms of their period.

JS Bach comes to mind when thinking about conservatism. I consider Bach as a composer superior to most of the greats. Is there a case for stating that JS Bach has revolutionary potential? In the 1980s there was a movement to return to Baroque repertories in the culture of studio recordings of orchestral works, in that sense there is an objectionable potential within Bach. In another sense, one might follow the Gould line and maintain that Bach upheld musical forms that were even in his own time, dated. I’ve been considering Bach in terms of the exegesis. But what about eisegesis? Bach is a pedagogical figure, a stepping stone to Beethoven, or Schoenberg, or even Jacques Loussier. Some people point to the mathematical nature of Bach, perhaps we might find fresh influence even still as musical work such as math rock, progressive rock, or the avant-garde work of say, Xenakis, that applies mathematical principles to compositional technique; might still have lessons drawn from Bach. If we are reading as Eisegesis, is Bach a conservative?

Coda: conclusions

Using the notion of conservatism I have found a form of self-critique in my own aesthetic preferences. I suspect that I am more conservative culturally than I might imply myself to be. What revolutionary potential is there in Schoenberg when his music is nigh-on 100 years old? What about the post-serialist composers and their radical potential?

I wonder if conservatism is inescapable. I wonder if its analogous to the insufferable conformist masses that Nietzsche described to be subsumed within slave morality, or like the conformist ‘sunday’ Christians described by Kierkegaard. Is there a potential to get out of such a place? When I read Adorno I keep a question like this in my mind and wonder if he leads to an answer. I also worry if committing to specific musical forms makes one historicist as well, but I suppose that’s a self-criticism for another post.

Non-European Black Metal

The one thing I really like about Black Metal, is how many countries have made it their own. Yes, there was all the stuff about the satanism and the church burnings and Burzum’s activities. But Black Metal means many things to many people. I’d like to talk about a blog I’ve recently been following. The blog Black [sic] Spring often hosts a lot of self released material, material that is purposely made available by bands for free in the bootlegging spirit.


I really found this blog interesting because of the non-metal albums it refers to. There’s a lot of ‘folk’ music from North Africa and broadly Arab countries listed. I admire how a particularly sensitive attitude is being displayed about the music. The music is often referred to as ‘folk’ but also acknowledges how some of it embraces more popular and western styles, often in subtle ways. I love how this music local to countries like Algeria or Egypt are drawn from as insightful from and directed to an audience who would normally listen to raw black metal cassettes. I love the renaissance attitude of openness towards difference, and a Romantic openness towards the folk culture, and using it as a cultural and idiomatic resource.


As the bands of Sweden and Norway became more polished after the 90s and a commercial culture emerged around Black Metal. The African, Latin American and Asiatic demo tapes that have come out of places like Colombia, Sri Lanka, Algeria or even Iran and Iraq continue to express a rawness and despair coming from their local situations. Black Metal is daring from those places, often they are stylistically interesting. Particularly when the distinctions that many black metal conosseurs make about subgenres do not hold.


When I think about writing that commentary on ‘In Search of Wagner’, an open question is in my mind about Adorno’s outlook: is there a possibility for cultural defiance, is there a possibility for a radical reform of our social consciousness through culture, in the light of the cultural industries and the European history that has preceeded the Second World War? I am increasingly convinced that Black Metal is an answer to that question, and that answer is Yes.


I wonder what Nietzsche and Schopenhauer would have thought of the radical potential of Black Metal, the nationless underground nation, and the way it has been adapted to various localities, including to political ideologies that are deeply uncomfortable. I recall an interview (I think it was with Fenriz from Darkthrone), where it was said once the news went international about scandals about murders and church burning with the Norway scene of Black Metal, black metal at that point was no longer theirs, it became something for everyone. Non-European Black Metal is a frontier within a frontier, showing that there is still underground potential, and still an expressive capability within the genre. Another frontier is DSBM, which in a way has an opposing direction, instead of being internationally expansive, it is inward.


Barriers to Aesthetic Criticism

I think there are two barriers to having valid critical appraisals. One is having an opinion, and two is having a disposition to a view. By the term critical appraisal, I shall consider cultural artefacts as the object of criticism. By the term criticism, I take to mean the act of praising the merits or demerits of a work on the basis, or at least on the guise of an informed and considered view.
Lately I’ve been reading quite a bit of critical thinking on cultural artefacts. Some things are very evidently laden with feeling, perhaps praise or perhaps derision. I myself have been writing quite a bit of critical prose on music, film, comics and television within and without NR.

The ad hominem

Sometimes I wonder if for instance, there is any worth in engaging in criticism of culture when one makes a name prior any given opinion, if they have already tied their flag to the mast. If for example I were to go on a diatribe about how Justin Bieber or Nicki Minaj represented everything that was ill and sick about a culture, many may agree or disagree, but maybe not for the reasons elicited. It may be that the assent to a view is sufficient to assent to an identification of a feeling, or an identification to a clan. There is no criticism in the activity of assent or dissent to a conclusion. This kind of clade behaviour defies thinking, but appeals to feeling, namely, the feeling of approval. When appraising critism works in this way, or the sole materials of our critical framework is to be based on a feeling, it would seem prima facie difficult to make this communicable. All we can communicate is how it feels, and whether others or not have felt similar or the same before is not up to us.


Similar, but not the same to the ad hominem of simply holding to a view and stating it in writing, or as a spoken utterance, for example: ‘Nickelback is aweful, overly-produced generic rock for the masses!’; the notion of a disposition poses a similar challenge to aesthetic criticism .To have  a disposition is to hold to a family of views that you are inclined to agree with on the basis of something (that may not need to be specifed).

I wonder for instance what the worth of reviewing books one has an inclination to hate, if they are speaking from the dispositions they have. A Christian may dismiss all books by anyone who claims to be an atheist, and whether or not as an explicit speech act, may harbour tacit biases and may be primed against any positive (or negative) view against a given cultural artefact. Dispositions can come from many things, habit, a limited pool of experience and familiarity, or even something like cultural context and orientation. Some dispositions are by choice, or have been developed over time, and some things are not. Many cultural prejudices we don’t even know we have sometimes.


Why are these things important? Lately, as part of a book review, I’ve been reading an anthology on children’s literature (and its relation to philosophy). One of the things I have noticed is a distinction between what I might call ‘good’ and ‘bad’ criticism. I thought I would try to elucidate something general to highlight what I thought was problematic about some of the articles I read and where the perspectives were coming from.

Criticism is lazy when it is simply a mouthpiece for a point of view. However, sometimes being a mouthpiece for a point of view is a very important thing, An example of this is the discussion of Lana Del Rey in early 2012. My favourite such example was in (I think) Spin magazine.The criticism was directed not so much to the music of Del Rey, but the packaging of her music, and the preferred ways it had been described, as well as the iconography and multi-media nature of her celebrity presence. As a cultural critique this communicated a lot, and it also gave a more systematic treatment to what essentially is what one may consider a cynical reaction to a cynically produced cultural product.

Criticism is poor when it serves as a front for one’s own views. A good example of this would be the way in which Slavoj Zizek appropriates many things, such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I think that the activity of eisegesis has its merits, but to put it forward as criticism is unwarranted and lazy thinking. Of course, it should be said that when Zizek appropriates cultural references he does not (I think) take it to be a form of literary or film critcism. I also think that even the hallowed Adorno may be guilty of skirting on this kind of prejudice at times. To appropriate a cultural artefact as an accessory to your own views is different to criticism. To take the cultural artefact sui generis, to take it on its own merits, as its own object, and not necessarily in relation to other things (although this may be relevant if we are in a discussion of say, genre), is to give a more sensitive view of the work. In a sense it may seem contradictory to consider how our own prejudices are a barrier to an appraisal of a work of culture. I also see these barriers to criticism as a neat way of framing aesthetic appraisal in terms of the role of disinterest.

Destre and Michael

On returning to the piano

On Returning to the Piano

At the start of the year I made a resolution to keep to specific targets, call this my way of being honest about improving myself with a view to keeping a new years resolution. I resolve to 7 separate targets which I measure on a weekly and monthly basis to determine if I have upheld them. I’ve found that on the whole, I’ve been attending to most of them, although some weeks I do more of one task than the minimum requirement and less of others, due to the inevitable variance of everyday life, family and work commitments.

One such task that I set myself was to try and get back into music. This could be a vague thing from practicing piano to some other music related activity. I joined a choir late last year for example. I was then asked by my cousin in March to perform at her wedding reception. What an honour it was and I accepted hastily. I have a mixed relationship with performing, and in many ways performing is a metaphor for life, I find practicing piano a metaphor for life in other ways too when it comes to dull pedagogical issues of fingering in particular.

Back in the day I used to perform for ensemble and solo outings. I sang bass vocal part, played the  clarinet (mostly in ensemble) and I thought that my piano abilities were relatively speaking my stronger asset. I was kind of put off performing once I realised a physical peak to my abilities due to an issue I have with limited motor skills. I found that my mind could learn and memorise music that I was in fact, incapable of physically playing. This led to a certain frustration of sorts about my abilities and life in general. I felt a sense of injustice about it.

I hated performing, but I kept doing it. I wish I could explain what drove me in those days. In a way it seems to be my general mindset with many things in life, that I’m attracted to difficulties and challenges that can be painful, boring and adverse in other respects. When I was asked to play for my cousin’s wedding, I had to think of a repertory that was completely different to what I had before, and think of things to play that were suitable for the audience. When I performed solo I usually didn’t think about what others wanted to hear and felt that my performing was a brute form of self expression.

I rediscovered the joy of practicing piano again this year. I enjoyed having a goal to work towards and that worked as a very good incentive. I remembered the pressure and anxiety I felt just before I performed. I made a point of not drinking any alcohol or any heavy food just before my time to play in the wedding reception, and a testimony of my brother’s friend that he saw me finishing half a bottle of white about a minute before I was meant to play.

Playing again made me realise how much joy and creativity comes from performing. Playing again was a discovery of a part of me that I’ve been ignoring for so long. I found a new ability in learning to improvise and my aural listening skills have recently come into use when I was spontaneously jamming with a few friends of mine last week. For me, performing is a form of self-criticism, healing, laughter and an opportunity to bond with others. Performing and listening to music makes me understand the viewpoint of some of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (the latter an amateur pianist and composer himself), my musical education has been a great influence on my outlook in life whether I perform or not and even to a large extent my philosophical views. I can’t believe I stopped playing for so long.


Chris Bateman on Videogames: Art and (not so much) addiction: Part II:

This post continues my discussion of Chris Bateman’s talk presented on video games. I will start off with a digression.

The soundtrack

One of the great innovations of the 20thC was the cinema. Cinema captures social history and combined storytelling with visual imagery. Eventually the cinema integrated music into its performance. Films in very early periods involved an organist or performer pianist who accompanied a score. Eventually the music scores became part and parcel of the film product and less of a performance than a tape playing on a screen with speakers blaring. The soundtrack in my view is an addition to the repertory of serious music, this can be evidenced by the fact that quintessentially classical composers have created soundtracks for films, such as Georges Auric, member of the visionary les six coalition of French Composers wrote the score to Passport to Pimlico. Philip Glass contributed to the film classic American Psycho and some composers have gained a name for themselves as soundtrack composers.

Soundtrack composition has become an art form, and it is still evolving. There are exceptionally notable and innovative things that occur in the art of soundtrack. The use of the highly dissonant minor second clashing sound of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho evokes the fear and suspense of the inevitable in the iconic shower scene, likewise, who can forget the use of a minor second upward movement in the John Williams’ Jaws. There are aspects of true originality in the soundtrack. A very recent example of this is the Zimmerman soundtrack to the film Inception. A key plot point to the film involves the association with an Edith Piaf song, which is then slowed down to an exceptionally painfully long drone to form the main theme of the film. This involves a level of innovation, as this is a reference to the nature of the film (experiencing dreams and time through a different rate of ordinary reality) and turns a very sweet Piaf song into something very sinister sounding.

My personal favourite soundtrack of all time is not the most easy to listen to. It is John Williams’ Empire Strikes Back score. This score is highly modernist, atonal and dissonant at times. There are elements of Romanticism (through the Leia and Han romance theme leitmotif or Yoda’s theme). The conflict in the score is between the styles of modernism and romanticism. This is marked much more in this film than any of the other Star Wars films, which lean more on the Romantic/Mahlerian/Wagnerian/R. Straussian. There are aspects in the Empire Strikes Back which are so daring as a soundtrack, so modernist, it gives respectability and power to what the modernist visionaries like Schoenberg and Berg represented in their music. The theme to the Battle of Hoth is utterly surprising to me how an audience took this part of the score with conviction. 60 years previously if something like that were performed in a concert hall there would have been a walk-out!

Relating back to the notion of Video Games. It has been acknowledged on a variety of fronts that one very powerful aspect of well-recognised games is its soundtrack. How notable is the simple theme to the NES Super Mario classic, or the Zelda soundtrack. One thing that Destre often repeats to us is that popular song has not advanced very much since the Lied (German Classical art song).

In praise of conservatism

I wish to introduce an aesthetic notion of conservatism. Conservatism here, I confine as a set of standards in a work that would entertain putative aspects of being aesthetically beautiful or successful even if they are not particularly innovative formalistically, or rely on old  or well established styles.

The video game soundtrack, and the art of the soundtrack is generally quite conservative. I’m not fully sure why but I suspect there are psychological reasons why film sound tracks generally seem musically behind stylistically to lots of other contemporary music. This is not however to undermine it. Composers such as John Williams is essentially a Romantic/modernist in various moves. Bernard Herrman brought Modernism which was a half century old to cinema. This is quite innovative as a soundtrack, but as music, I’m less sure that it’s especially avant-garde.

My contention is that many games would work in the same way. The Modern Warfare series, or RPGs are based on often tired and well-worn tropes, storyline and gameplay elements. They are based on formulae that are known to succeed and are well received by gamers. Often it is the little bits that are different about each individual game that is entirely new that makes such a game particularly innovative, despite the rest of it following all the other rules about its genre. many of these successful games follow much of what has come before, and adds a bit. To state a very tired phrase made in PC magazines: ‘evolution, not revolution’.

This isn’t to say that they aren’t good games, in fact in many ways they are great games. They are however, as Bateman would claim, hardly imaginative and less engaging because of this. Many games that are part series have taken away a lot surprise and offers expectation of what has come before. I’m bemused to find out for instance, that there is a Lego Batman game! That said, I played Lego Star Wars and it did gloss over some of the darker aspects. It’s as absurd as how many action figures in the 1990s were marketed to children who weren’t old enough to actually watch these films.

There are two points I wish to make about ‘conservative’ games. Firstly, many of these games rely on things that make them innovative, that are not necessarily unique about games. A good screenplay, good dialogue, soundtrack and visuals. Buildings can be appreciated as artistic pieces. Bateman himself pointed out how many people have come to know architectural terminology through playing games. What makes conservative games good are that they rely on already established principles or even embellish and add to this. I’m not saying that there cannot be a great and original video game soundtrack, however it will be considered as music and not as game. We may say that such a conservative example of a game is good not because it is a good game, but because it is a good way of using music or drama through games.

What I wish to point out here is that there are more conventional categories to be applied to games outside of the Bateman schema. An obvious point though this is, what is not obvious is why such games may be considered successful (critically and commercially). I deem that this is because they obey conservative criteria.

What I wish to draw out is an historical analogy. The two great composers of the 1910s were Mahler and Schoenberg, Mahler was to some extent a conservative Romantic while Schoenberg is the radical visionary, games may work in the same way and in my personal view Mahler and Schoenberg have their merits as composers, but for vastly different reasons. Mahler is the surviving Romantic who draws from the late 1800s as his source, much like say, the music of Adele or Amy Winehouse are evocative of late 20thC soul, nice music but hardly innovative. Schoenberg hower is the prophet to a new vision (or so we at Noumenal Realm think). Serialism is a re-definition of musical style, although Bachian in aspects, it is a radically different sonic experience to the audience expectations their contemporamous diet of Brahms and Liszt.

This tension is an historic condition. As some games try to be more innovative and break boundaries and create new rules, others rely on already established ones to be successful. Bateman’s criteria of appeal to imagination for games reminds me of this historical-cultural tension. We will always have the conservative stylists against the Nouveau. I think there’s a place for conservatism. Glenn Gould was once questioned about how he considers both Schoenberg and Richard Strauss as favoured composers, his answer is that although they were worlds apart in style, they were historical contemporaries, both facing the rise of the National Socialists and the death of Old Europe. The conservatives and the Nouveau will have to live together, and both belong to their time.