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  • Bring the Noise! William S. Burroughs and Music in the Expanded Field
  • Brent Wood
Burroughs, William S. Dead City Radio. Island Records, 1990.
Burroughs, William S. Spare-Ass Annie and Other Tales. Island Records, 1993.
Ministry, with William S. Burroughs. Just One Fix. Sire Records, 1992.
Revolting Cocks. Beers, Steers and Queers. Waxtrax, 1991.
Revolting Cocks. Linger Ficken Good. Sire Records, 1993.

Music, it seems, has always been the art that most easily eludes the grasp of theory. Perhaps it is the spectator relationship implied by “theory” that allows the visceral vibrations of music, even art music, to remain unaccounted for. As Frith and Goodwin (1990) have pointed out, in the discourse of cultural studies the “textual” analysis of music itself—as opposed to lyrics, iconography or consumption—remains extraordinarily immature when compared with treatment of the visual arts. Popular music in particular poses a challenge to cultural theorists who must bridge the gap between traditional musicology, which tends to isolate music from its socio-political context, and sociological or anthropological perspectives which handle music’s physical presence poorly. Post-modernist theory has dealt with many such contextual challenges in its encounters with visual pop art in sculpture, painting, film, and even television. Why, then, is it so often necessary, when confronted with academic music commentary, to ask with McClary and Walser (quoting Bloom County’s Billy and the Boingers), “yeah, but did we kick butt?”1

One obvious reason that music is so resistant to theory is the difficulty of representing the object of study verbally. Musicians have enough trouble communicating to one another what they hear in their aural imagination without bringing in non-musicians to complicate the picture. As sound has become easier to record and to reproduce, however, the concept of sound as an object manipulable by artist (and consumer) has become less far-fetched. It seems we have reached a point where it has become necessary to think of music as operating in an “expanded field” if we are to have any possibility at all of comprehending Public Enemy and Stravinsky, Woody Guthrie and John Cage, Michael Jackson and The Dead Kennedys (all available in the same digital format at the same retail outlet) as instances of one and the same “art”.2 The difficulty of commenting on music through the written word has been eclipsed by the possibilities of commenting on musical objects by manipulating copies of them with the help of sound-reproduction technology. As Laurent Jenny observed a generation ago, whenever new technological possibilities come into the hands of artists there is a tendency for the various arts to blend into one another.3 This occurs not only stylistically and thematically but also technically. In other words, modernist intertextuality explodes into a post-modernist inter-mediality. In 1994, with spoken word an MTV fad and William S. Burroughs advertising Nike products, it is past high time to examine the sort of music-poetry which is forming today, and which constitutes a major “post-modernist” project in music.

Why characterize this tendency as a “project”? Because it is, naturally, a “work-in-progress.” As a time-based art, it exists “in progress” as a moment of resistance to the results of the technological acceleration of the 20th century. The project today is essentially a continuous experiment in bricolage using the mechanical and verbal and sonic tools of commerce. It has perhaps become necessary to make use of Jacques Attali’s argument for music-as-theory in order to get a grip on the currents which are most prominent in the project.4 Attali hears currents of social (re)organization in the commercialization of sound, noise and rhythm; in these general terms, the post-modernist music project is about intervening in those patterns with new patterns, sculpting with garbage, found objects, and reclaimed enemy weaponry. This is a form of theory that doesn’t meet the requirements of the print-based academy. Whether it has the stereotypical “punk” stylistic trappings or not, we can confidently give a name to this localized, ever-changing, music-in-the-expanded field, theory-project. That name is “cyberpunk.”

I will now seek, in spite of the argument I...

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