Friday, September 6, 2013

Thoughts on John Maus and (Black) Experimental Music

(This post is an unsolicited continuation of Rory Ferreira (AKA milo)’s letter published earlier this summer over at Impose)
"And my sense of rhythm acts like a force field/ protecting me from you or you from me (tone it down driver!)/ what's that in your gun holster? oh this, its the de-negritizer/ I shoot myself with it until I'm whiter than Peter Piper/ now I'll be able to bow before our world leader's might or/ tell them that the shackles on my Adidas sneakers need to be tighter/ 'cause right now man, I'm free like a zebra in Zaire/ so I'll hop in a time machine and have my lineage wiped clean/ and I'll entertain yuppies as they buy tight jeans and Thai cuisine" —Busdriver as featured on milo's "the gus haynes cribbage league"
John Maus

Synth-pop musician John Maus has an agenda. He is knowledgeable about experimental classical music (Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage etc.) but is also steeped in continental philosophy—he holds a degree from the European Graduate School. His decision to work in the pop-music idiom is informed by his philosophical training: “I take seriously this claim of Gilles Deleuze… that perhaps it’s our task as artists to make intensive use of a major language.” Maus considers pop to be both a major language and something of a singularity within music history because it for the most part does without thematic development and major/minor tonality- the staples of western music, which is to say that now both “experimental” music and pop music have cast aside musical conventions and, as such, either might be an exemplary idiom for a political radical to be working within. A great pop performance leads to a sense of atavistic recognition between audience and performer, while experimental music becomes a contest in elitist one-upsmanship. In other words if you want to express yourself, write a three chord anthem, not a twelve-tone row. I’m not persuaded by this argument, partially for the same reason as milo: it disregards black music.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago
When John Maus talks about experimental music and conflates it with elitism, he is speaking exclusively about white classical composers. Avant-Garde jazz groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Sun Ra Arkestra are coming from a similar place as Maus but create better, more politically dangerous music; his argument seems to hinge upon an ignorance of experimental black musicians. Both the Art Ensemble and the Arkestra play music that expresses black consciousness and identity, and the volatility therein. The Art Ensemble’s catch phrase is “Ancient to the Future”; often on stage some members would wear tribal war paint while trumpeter Lester Bowie wore a lab coat. Their work contains the entire spectrum of African Diaspora musics, rock elements and the clatter of found percussion instruments, all subservient to the purgatorial wail of the blues. This melting pot aesthetic doesn’t lead to an atavistic music, where distinctions between white and black experience fall away. The breaking down of musical and cultural boundaries in search of an underlying unity ends with the abortive and sneering conclusion that existence itself is a boundary; the Art Ensemble’s mastery of jazz, classical, rhythm & blues and Caribbean styles expresses with claustrophobic intensity the terror of black American experience in the present (I’m writing primarily about the Ensemble’s hey-day in the 70’s and 80’s). The group’s presentation is simultaneously an homage to and mockery of History, their sound an orgy of overblown saxophones, speechlike trumpet and jocular drums. Instead of providing a release from the present (negro spirituals come to mind), the Art Ensemble of Chicago celebrates the present in all its ugliness, and what a perverse celebration it is.

While the Art Ensemble translated the collapse of history and linear progress into music, Sun Ra was more whimsical. He famously claimed to be an angel from Saturn; in his own words:
“I realize that people got feelings, and I reach toward their feelings, not their minds. Because they’ve been brain-washed. Why should I try to reach something that’s brain-washed? But their spirit hasn’t been brain-washed… I’m really not a man, you see, I’m an angel. If I was a man, you see, I couldn’t do anything, because man always fails you know, he’s so limited… I use my music as a sound-bridge for them to walk across the void.”
Sun Ra
During Ra’s lifetime, Arkestra (an approximation of the ebonic pronunciation of ‘orchestra’) members lived together, abandoning their families in order to pursue music. Sun Ra was a radical and a futurist (he was one of the very early proponents of synthesizers), a man of the people and a recluse. He was very much aware that he was considered a novelty by many music fans, but was apathetic towards his reception. His music often implored people, black people in particular, to face the realities of their situation; he demanded this but deflected questions of progress and action because he was just a concerned interstellar agent. Like the Art Ensemble, the Sun Ra Arkestra’s wild sound reproduced the crisis of black identity. Whereas John Maus makes use of a “major language”- pop music- in order to be seen, Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble make vigorous use of experimental languages in order to give life’s ambiguity and distortion full scope.

We like noise-rap crew Death Grips a lot here at the Spook (check out Owen’s post on them here). Their music and career arc shed light on how experimental music functions in society. First, it is important to recognize that Death Grips is a continuation of experimental rock drummer Zach Hill’s oeuvre (that is, they were never seeking mainstream acceptance or success). Infamously, the band was dropped from Epic Records after they leaked their album No Love Deep Web, which Epic financed, directly prior to the official release date. The cover was, fittingly, a picture of Zach Hill’s penis with “No Love Deep Web” written on it in sharpie.

MC Ride and Zach Hill
In Jean Baudrillard’s The Agony of Power, he distinguishes between two modalities of power: domination and hegemony. Domination is characterized by interpersonal antagonism and exploitation. In hegemony, which historically can be seen as domination’s final phase, the connection between human intent and power disappears. What emerges is a network of complicity; critical thought no longer targets sectors of power but uncovers ways in which works, movements and values collude with global capitalism. The “negative” thought of the Hegelian slave or Dostoevskian Underground Man might persist, but it is rendered impotent and by the virtue of its impotence is complicit with hegemony. MC Ride’s lyrics embody Baudrillard’s polemical intensity. On “Come Up and Get Me”, the title proves to be more of a plea than a provocation:
My stone wall it's on dog gaze duct taped to the ceiling/ Stucco cave make me illi okay, okay feel me/ I'm in an eight high abandoned building/ No daylight one midnight lamp lit twenty-four seven/ Murdered out windows two exits/ Street or nosedive to the next life in seconds/ and suicide ain't my stallion/ So I'm surrounded…I'm epiphanic amnesia

Baudrillard writes:
“A bitter truth: Radicalness is on the side of the intelligence of evil… we must look to the side of evil for the clearest indications, the harshest reality. Only those who show no concern for contradiction or critical consideration in their acts and discourse can… shed full light on… the absurd and extravagant character of the state of things, through the play of objective irony."

“For us…the continuity of history is shattered; we live in an instant and disincarnate currentness in which we take no more trouble… than to prolong history or rather the end of history, immersed in the euphoric banality that Heidegger called the second Fall of humanity.”

“Globalization automatically entails…fragmentation and deepening discrimination-and our fate is for a universe that no longer has anything universal about it-fragmentary and fractal-but that no doubt leaves the field free for all singularities: the worst and the best, the most violent and the most poetic.”
Jean Baudrillard
MC Ride’s lyrical content deals with these dark topics (for instance, the euphoric banality of voracious drug consumption and sex on tracks like “Spread Eagle Cross the Block” and “I Want it I Need it (Death Heated)”), and Death Grips’ sound resonates with people, which is partially why they got signed to Epic. By Baudrillard’s logic, Death Grips’ “nihilistic” sound ought to be prime material for corporate exploitation, but the group’s allegiances were never paid to careerism. If global capitalism is an unscrupulous, “evil” discourse, experimental music is a prima facie irrelevant discourse. In experimental music, personal expression is possible because the musicians have no concern for political agency. Baudrillard claims that only those in formal positions of power can “shed full light” on the state of things, but Death Grips, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra’s Arkestra all play music on behalf of disenfranchised people—a growing category—and I think that the song of the disenfranchised contains more truth than the pronouncements of the cynical. John Maus is clearly a thoughtful dude, and he is limiting himself by ignoring not only the black experimental tradition, but also the heights of viciousness and vulnerability found in hip-hop from Big L to Death Grips.


  1. Max, thank you for writing this man - I'm glad I stumbled upon this article because I've been thinking about this topic for the better part of yesterday and today now haha, and I'm glad to have been exposed to this because I feel like this is a super important thing for all musicians and music lovers to think about.

    Having said that, I feel like Maus' viewpoint is being slightly misrepresented here, at least from what I've seen of his interviews (and it makes sense, because the dude's way of communicating his ideas is convoluted to the point that it's very difficult to even know where he stands on anything). The choppy presentation in his interview with The Drone makes his position even more ambiguous. However, my takeaway so far has been that Maus subscribes to Deleuze's idea that "perhaps it’s our task as artists to make intensive use of a major language" not because he thinks that experimental music is elitist or out of touch with the human condition, but simply that he feels that pop is a valuable medium for communication, and that it is capable of having more nuance and depth than it is given credit for. I don't think that he's going so far as to undermine the contributions of experimental artists - rather I think his two main points are these:

    1. Pop is a medium that is capable of having further meaning/depth/power than it is given credit for by those who would make the distinction between "low art" and "high art" (he references in particular Theodor Adorn's article on pop music and seems to agree with much of it (found here):

    2. Pop is a language that is capable of reaching many people (aesthetically and from a marketing standpoint).

    I have not found anything in which he describes experimental movements within music as being out of touch or irrelevant - I think his case is one in which he defends pop music rather than elevating it as the "best" kind of art or declaring that other mediums are inferior. I think this interview is good for getting a better picture of where he stands (if you can get past the rambling first several minutes):

    I love your point about how experimental music isn't concerned with political agency, and therefore it is free to shed light on any range of topics that it sees fit, and is free from the confinement that comes with political agency. I get tired of having to "explain the value" of experimental music and specifically contemporary classical, because I feel like the importance of those mediums should be self-evident. Personally, I just feel like doing thoughtful work should be the most important concern regardless of what medium is being used.

    Sorry for the novel, and thanks again for the article - shit is fascinating.

  2. Max, great article. This has made me think a lot in the last few days. I’ve tried to dig into Maus a little bit in the past few days, and I ended up with a pretty positive impression of him. Here’s my rebuttal in favor of John Maus:

    As you mention, Maus is knowledgable of experimental classical music. Accordingly, in the interview you cite he talks about “quote-unquote[/]so-called experimental in the strict sense of Cage, Stockhausen...[which might be about] an economy of distinction and sophistication” (1:00-2:00, Drone). Matt Gunby could maybe speak on this. But, why extrapolate from this clipped interview that Maus thinks that other “experimental” music is elitist? He is far from making a sweeping “us versus them” judgement of major versus experimental languages.

    Maus is much less rigid than you paint him to be. He says that music made purely of a major language, which is “as poppy as possible”, might not be the only way to be radical, and that he’s “been stupid...not to reach and explore [other directions in the rock and punk traditions].” Also, Important records in punk/rock/pop, he says, “go all sorts of places other than where I’ve been trying to go” (6:00 Drone). Maus consciously aims for more than just the “atavistic” appeal you focus on.

    Maus is doing more than merely “trying to be seen,” as you claim. He not only openly rejects the premise that pop should be “ merely reducible to the mechanisms of capital” (0:20, Drone). He expresses a radical goal: to create “not consensus, but radical dissensus.” (1:00-2:00 Drone).

    Stepping back a bit, Maus’ scope is mostly punk, rock, and pop, in which he sees the importance of both major and unsaid (meaning I haven’t heard him elaborate) other languages. It’s clear he hasn’t checked out Sun Ra and hip hop. But, even though he discounts experimental classical music for not doing things that pop can, he is in no way closed to “experimental” music in the loose sense that you used.

    You bookend a discussion of Maus as having an “agenda,” “ignoring,” and “disregarding” black experimental music, using a major language of “us versus them”--a moral major language. That gives your article particular punch, but also makes it contradictory, given its reliance on Sun Ra and Boudrillard, who reject thumbs up, thumbs down actions as impotent (as does Maus himself, see interview “I know I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know”). The main drive of your post is to argue for black experimental music, but you make that point at the expense of a dude who is a musical and philosophical ally.

  3. ay mark, instead of going point by point through what you're saying and offering my counterarguments i'll just try and make it a bit more clear what it seems you're missing from my article. maus thinks that his performance is "exemplary in its affirmation" of the fact that we want to be seen/ want to appear as something other than "the world as it stands"...pop music because it has shed musical conventions and as such is de-historicized is indeed atavistic (as a musician i disagree with this view). now, in pop music, atavism and ahistoricity go hand in hand; in experimental music (namely the art ensemble) there is ahistoricity w/out atavism. maus plays pop music to affirm that we want to "be seen"; death grips, sun ra, the art ensemble play experimental music to affirm that we can't be seen. and this ahistoricity functions in different ways for white vs black musicians. Maus sees ahistoricity as an opportunity for atavistic performance... black musicians see ahistoricity as emblematic of their disenfranchisement/crisis of identity. in other words, Maus' ahistoricity is theoretical bullshit, while the art ensemble's is a pernicious fact of life. the point is polemical i guess and maybe too subtle; the whole article centers around that point though. black experimental musicians will get along fine w/ out john maus, and suggesting otherwise is low-key racist.

  4. this is criticism, not philosophy. so a familiarity with death grips, sun ra, and the art ensemble's music is important to understanding the article.

  5. I'm not not convinced that because ahistoricity functions with and without atavism in Maus versus Ra, respectively, that it has to break down to bullshit versus not bullshit. Not sure I see why it's bullshit theory in Maus case, as much as I begin to see the impact of black experimental music (i've dug these cats before) that Maus isn't connected to. I think his interest in the "how to be seen" cause is relevant to people, on some level (and I don't intend to elevate that above black invisibility), for example in common discussions of "what does it mean for so much of the world to be mediated by bite-sized twitter interactions and a few minutes of fame"? Like: FB/news/recorded music is so sanitized, is this at the expense of some "deeper/ancient" way of relating?- type discussions that might be fruitful sometimes. Those might be the terms his project belongs to (in a sense of, those are the discussions that have influenced his project), beyond any type of agency he has. You've taken on the project in this article of explaining how, when transplanted to terms more fitting of discussion of black experimental music, maus fails to be radical. That being said, there's a question of "out of context"-ness that I guess I reacted on, fearing that Maus' project was submitted to an "invalid test". if maus were a black musician type thought experiment--- is that the project? I feel like that's a valuable maneuver but I wonder about its limitations for reasons related to the "out of context" idea. It concerns the movement between different frameworks, despite the assumption that maus wasn't intending to move between them. Does that mean that a white bigot can just be racist as he wants, because he's operating within a normalized humor that *happens* to be racist? I say hell no, because I feel that that bigotry is deeply problematic and instrumental in larger problems. that's a purposefully extreme example, that makes Maus look really harmless. I'm wondering of examples of "honest unawareness" that Rory mentioned as a particularly insidious position. How does the "insidious honest unawareness" (e.g. of Maus' interest in visibility with respect to Death Grips) relate to being taken "manipulatively out of context"? And so I guess you're saying that with respect to the song of the disenfranchised, Maus' message of raw exposure is lame. I'm not sure that's all against Maus, as to say he's bullshit.

  6. its up to whoever is reading to decide whether i've taken maus "manipulatively out of context" or if ive widened the scope of context and exposed that maus is on a stage of his own devising, not in the real world. and maybe that stage serves to reinforce prejudices in the real world.