Listening – Sacrificing – Representing – Repeating – Composing – The politics of silence and sound, by Susan McClary. Noise has ratings and 38 reviews. Ben said: In sum, the history of music should be rewritten as a political effort to channel violence through noise. Argues that music does not reflect society; it foreshadows new social formations. Noise. The Political Economy of Music. •. Author: Jacques Attali.

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The relationships of music to the politics and economics of the societies in which it is composed and performed are rarely given serious study, but a moment’s reflection will convince us, I think, that this is an important subject for anyone interested in music to look into.

Noise — University of Minnesota Press

An activity which gives so much enjoyment and arouses so much passion in so many people must have important consequences in the rest of society, and the other areas of society must in turn impinge on it in many crucial ways.

His principal thesis in the former category is that changes in the basic character of music throughout history have foreshadowed subsequent fundamental revolutions in political and economic structures, from which og concludes inductively that changes taking place in music today predict the future shape of our society. Whether or not one agrees with this claim, and many readers of his book have apparently had a hard time with it, the connections he makes between the various kinds of musical activity in history and the social matrices surrounding them are fascinating and almost always quite illuminating.

His argument is structured by four types of music which he regards as fundamental: These terms have special meanings in Attali’s argument, which need to be clearly understood in order to grasp properly what he is stating. By the term “sacrifice,” he is referring to the anthropological theory of Rene Girard’s that ritual sacrifice served in the earliest human societies to channel and substitute for the general violence which would otherwise have torn them apart.

Jacques Attali. Noise: The Political Economy of Music.

No need to point out that this is an ever-present threat in every society, including our own. According to this theory, “the majority of ancient societies lived in terror of identity; this fear created a desire to imitate, it created rivalry, and thus an uncontrolled violence that spread like a plague” Attali, p.

To control this threat, society was forced to designate scapegoats, which were actually politicl symbolically sacrificed to channel this potential violence. As a result, hierarchies and stable societies were erected. How is music connected with this process? Attali argues that the earliest essential social role of music was to serve as a substitute or simulacrum of sacrifice and perform the same function.


First, he states that noise is violence: It is a simulacrum of murder” ibid. Then, music is a “channelization of noise,” a way of controlling and vanquishing noise by economyy a harmonious order in the realm of sound.

And by doing this, it helps to buttress and legitimize the social order in general, although the presence of “noise” or dissent at the margins of society can never be completely eliminated.

Thus, music has from the start been an important tool of the governing class of every society and its opponents, as Attali argues by referring to a number of historical periods.

For example, he quotes the Chinese writer Ssu-ma Ch’ien: The story of Ulysses and the sirens, as he interprets it, is a struggle against the “noise,” the order-threatening sounds, of the sirens; in this crisis, although the bound Ulysses, a symbol of the sacrificed scapegoat, cannot command his men, they voluntarily make themselves deaf to the sirens’ song in order to keep society afloat.

Similarly, the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin testifies to the power of music either to support or to threaten the social order. Indeed, Attali stresses that, at any given time in any society, a struggle is taking place between the “official” music, which symbolizes the existing attall and works to channel people’s aggressive feelings into harmony atali that order, and a subversive counter-music, which expresses the anger of those who are excluded from power and are struggling to define a new form of society.

At this point, we may musjc to understand how he could come to the conclusion that changes in music express the creation of a new vision of harmony, and hence of social structure. In any case, Attali does not seem to believe that there poliitical any fundamental change in music from this early period in which it acted as a substitute for sacrifice until the rise of capitalism in late medieval and early Renaissance Europe.

He sees the transformation of the wandering jongleurs and troubadours into minstrels and court musicians as one of the earliest examples of the change from the feudalistic to the capitalist economy, and refers to it as the stage of “representation.

Later, of course, musicians escaped from the role of domestic servants of nobles and became “free” producers of music, now living mainly from the sales of printed music and concert tickets to the wealthy “middle class,” but the pattern of first writing pieces and then performing or “representing” them continued. Underneath, of course, the “sacrificial” aspect of music also went on: Throughout these pages, Attali supports his argument with many fascinating references to musical history, which I must omit in this skeleton outline.

Outline summary of Jacques Attali Noise

His discussion of 19 th century music, both popular especially in France and “classical,” is especially illuminating. With the invention of recording and broadcasting came the next important form of musical activity, which he calls “repetition. In other words, it tended to become a wttali, like shoes and toothpaste, and its economic role was increasingly no different from theirs. To keep the music industry going, enormous efforts are required to maintain demand for the mass of commodity recordings which flow from the factories; thus we see the constant, almost monthly, change in musical fashion and the control by corporate conglomerates, not only in popular music, but to a atali degree in “classical” music as well.


The recent books of Norman Lebrecht, strongly attacked for their somewhat cavalier relationship to attalj facts, but nevertheless basically rather convincing, obviously fit in here.

Noise: The Political Economy of Music

Having arrived at the present, Attali presents his vision of the future in the form of what he calls “composing. Yes, but Attali uses this word in a special meaning: Composition is an activity “in which the musician plays primarily for himself, outside any operationality, spectacle, or accumulation of value; when music, extricating itself from the codes of sacrifice, representation, and repetition, emerges as an activity that is an end in itself, that creates its own code at the same time as the work” p.

Thus, Attali is looking forward to a radically changed society in which all activity is free from the rigid molds of capitalism. The image of this future utopia in contemporary music he finds in such phenomena as an increasing number of amateur musical organizations, free jazz, and new pooitical transmitted and improvised music bubbling up from the oppressed margins of society “the workers of the big industrial politival, Black American ghettos, Jamaican shantytowns, Greek neighborhoods, etc.

We must remember that he was writing in poliical s; what he would have to say about the situation two decades later, and especially about the nose effects of personal computers and the Internet on music, is hard to tell. This part of the book will of course arouse intense controversy among its readers, for here his historical argument merges with the political battles of the present.

But no one who carefully mmusic and ponders this books will, I think, fhe that he offers us a great deal of enlightenment on the essential connections between music and society. Everyone interested in the fate of classical music in the 21 st century, especially, will find Attali’s book a good starting point for further investigation.

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