Failure of Affect in Contemporary Music

Failure of Affect in Contemporary Music

Written by:

Richard Hames


November 20, 2017

1. Affect and composed music

Here’s an experience I’ve had repeatedly: I return from a concert of exceptionally refined music, or tune in once again to pop music over a shop Tannoy, and I’ve been overcome with the rush of immediacy, the absolute just-rightness of some pop songs, their semi-magical ability to scratch into a very deeply troughed itch.

From that, and from the relative popularity of pop to other kinds of music making, I am going to make an outrageous presumption, which is that contemporary classical music fails most of the time to produce interesting affect a lot of the time for a lot of people. That’s a major problem, but I don’t think it’s because the music is in some essential way unable to produce affect in its listeners, but because a huge amount of the preparatory work of producing the subjects who can feel the affects and emotions that would be produced through the music doesn’t happen.

The question is really: 'How can contemporary classical music be used to produce new affects in its listeners?’ If pop music has produced, through millions of impressions (and the language of advertising strategies seems apt here), the troughs required for it to seem so spontaneously medicinal, so utterly apt, how can contemporary music go about forming new troughs? Preferably, even transformative ones, even, whispering, revolutionary ones.

As a strategy for composition, drawing on but not reducible to psychoacoustics, this focus on affects, in the sense of both producing the sensitivity for them to be felt, and the stimulus for the sensation itself, rather than, say, a focus on the particular domain-specific attributes of music like pitch, harmony, rhythm, and so on, represents another conceptual dilation towards greater conceptual generality, pushes us to think about the wider scene of our experience, and the ways in which contemporary classical music can fit into that scene. ‘Affect’ allows us to talk much more generally about a range of phenomena across a wide range of media - there is an affect to scientific research, to film, to walking around, even to being asleep, in a sense. It’s the explication of the relationship between ‘affect’ and ‘composed music', in concrete as well as abstract terms, that will allow us to start writing directly into this relation.

It may perhaps seem like a strange move to begin talking to about the experience of failed affect in contemporary classical music by talking about the experience and the techniques of contemporary pop, but that is where I am starting. So here’s a cursory scene analysis:

It is often said about pop music (meaning basically any kind of popular electronic music) that it functions in such a way to produce the same affect every time, and that similarity of affect reaches across all the tracks in a given genre: "trap will almost always make you feel like x, massive sounding club music will almost always produce y,” and so on. This is a crude way of approaching genres, and only someone with the most conservative cultural assumptions would think any of these scenes were really so homogenous, but I think it is a risk in the future that can be predicted from a present formation, and I want to outline why.

In the last few years there has been an explosion in freely (albeit illegally) available digital audio workstations for producers, both casual and professional. In order to sell software, or at least have your software circulate, you need to be able to sound good on it more or less immediately. That requires strong algorithms for instruments, strong compression algorithms for making beats sound expansive and expensive, and strong mixing tools for preventing everything from blowing up and distorting. All this makes software increasingly a field in which the way the music sounds, at the most immediate level, becomes increasingly uniform, in the same way that colour grading algorithms on photo sharing websites makes the immediate sensory experience of pictures similar, even with totally different subjects. So there are two parts here: one is the mass availability of production of software through torrents, and the other is the competition between these software packages towards immediacy. You can make things sound better faster in Ableton Live than you can in Fruity Loops - it’s just a fact.

This change, accompanied by the spectacular library of the internet, means that pop songs, and the affects that go along with them, are starting to cluster. They cluster around particular sounds and also around particular affects, and of course the two are linked. From the moment you start a new project in, for example, Logic: just by selecting ‘Hip-hop' as opposed to ‘Electronic' you are slipping down the contour diagram of the genre to a local trough.

There are perfectly good reasons for this. Whilst there is a huge field of affects that can be produced, much like from a mathematical point of view there are a huge number of colour schemes that could be selected, there are actually not many that people are interested in. The way to success for a producer of electronic music now is to be the go-to sound for medicating, transforming, externalising, amplifying, suppressing, deleting a mass experience of affect. The field becomes structured by continual attempts to produce the One True song in any given mould, which will become the banner to unite all sensations under. It is like pharmacology would be if all the drugs were equally priced. I’m not going to pursue a metaphor here of increasing bacteriological resistance, but you can imagine one. Making that One True song will allow listeners perusing the library of total sounds to always flow down towards your song when they need that feeling. You get ready to go out with your friends. You put on track x. You drive home from work, you are really tired. You put on track y. You have a breakup: z.

It would be the worst kind of the technological Cassandrism to predict that the number of affects people are interested in is reducing because music software is easier to use now, but it’s not totally unreasonable in the context of a market. In order to sell music, or at least have it circulate, you need to be able to feel some effect with it more or less immediately. There’s no capital in producing music for the minor affects, because there’s no substantive market for them.

The information flow we are gasping in is no longer the clear production of mass affect that the culture industry could dole out en masse from the mid to late twentieth century through highly focused channels. That doesn’t just mean that we don’t all watch the same TV stations anymore, but also that the common regulation and production of sexual desire, the imposed uniformity of language, an experience of collective security and wealth produced through work and through communities, and many other dimensions of experience, are simply not shared any more, if they ever existed in the first place. Instead we are presented with scraps of content, which present often a totalising flow of attention grabbing lines, which then break off suddenly before being resumed along a similar, but subtly variegated second line of attention. An attention skein. I can imagine how many tabs you have open simultaneously as you read this: that is certainly how I am writing it.

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3. The distribution of affect

To analyse the distribution of affect in this way is absolutely not to claim that there are not universal affects: if that was the case, there would be no material basis for the claims about pop music I made above. Universality exists, but it is experienced as universal separation, and anxiety is the dominant affect of contemporary capitalism. Some pop music steps into these torn-up feelings as a fantastical image of fantasy, whimsy and soothing totality, so it really matters that mostly you hear this stuff in the auditory fishbowl of headphones listening. It really matters in this that the spectral height used in pop music that swallows the outside world from the interior out.

But compared to this immediacy and power, shared in part by film scores and some other kinds of music, where a single sound can produce a complete enrapturing world of feeling, contemporary classical music often seems to be in a position of relative failure. I don’t think that composer’s argument can be that, in order to be more successful, contemporary classical music must simply attempt to fit itself into these same grooves in contemporary affect. There is something to be preserved in the artform as it currently stands, a negativity. This experience of failure is not simple incompetence, it can also be the refusal to technologise affect.

Being unwilling to transform the complexities of new techniques into the satisfaction of present desires, the classical world has, again and again, been outmanoeuvred in the attention economy by the pop world, whose ability to syringe like a secret elixir from all new techniques the production of almost the same feelings. But new levels of desire can certainly be made. In the contemporary world the most astonishing mass experience of affective production is surely the rise of online porn. With the realisation that desire is not a strict physiological category, composers can aim not merely to adopt better techniques for the production of current affects, but can adopt techniques for the production of affects that don’t yet exist.

It would be a brutal, and fortunately increasingly uncommon position of utter piousness, to turn towards music that produced strictly no titillation at all. So what can music do (not just contemporary classical music, all music) in this space? It can tend towards the revolutionary production of new affects. This is a strategy that several thinkers have produced theories of, albeit in very different domains.

The most famous are perhaps queer theories of sexuality. Paul B. Preciado’s work in this lineage is one strand. They propose a ‘contra-sexuality’, a ‘dildotectonics’, an 'experimental contra-science dedicated to the study of the birth, formation and uses of the dildo. Here the term dildo designates all kinds of technologies of gender and sex [read, affective technologies of sound] that resist the normative production of the body and its pleasures [with a focus for us on the pleasures of music].'

They go on: 'To make dildotectonics a critical branch of contra-sexuality is to consider the body as a dildoscape: a living surface where dildos are inscribed and displaced.’ That is, to make through music our bodies anew, in the struggle to make music that produces affect and the bodies that can feel it in the new music. I would like to propose this model as the first suggestion of how contemporary music might go about reconceptualising its relation to affect.

About the Author

Richard Hames

Richard is a composer, new music organiser, and writer, living in the UK.

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