Reading Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music

First of all, what I intend in writing is generally to provide what I myself get from reading: not a stabilized truth but ideas, stimulus, incentive to thinking. It is similar with improvisation; it exists to move things. I don’t write to establish a position, to debate, or to stand alone, but to engage and then see what happens.


Anyone trying to characterize free improvisation and assess it would find it useful to deal with Attali. He advocates a category of music making that at least appears to include free improvisation. This despite his limited knowledge of actual improvisation that was thriving when he published his book in 1977 (his knowledge of free jazz was based on a book written in 1971 and he apparently had no knowledge of non-jazz improvisation). He provides strong arguments for an historical evolution that goes very far in putting free playing within a new category, the “noise of Festival and Freedom,” that does not replace but liquidates the old codes, that is neither a consumer choice nor an extension of the 20th century avantgarde.

Attali points to what is central to free improvisation, “not a new music but a new way of making music,” that must first satisfy the players apart from any commodity or cultural value, and so is not to be counted as a genre within the music world or its parent, the culture industry. “Music is no longer made to be represented or stockpiled, but for participation in collective play, in an ongoing quest for new, immediate communication, without ritual and always unstable.” (p.141) This is the incipient core that “might”(he cautiously inserts) lead to a new regime he calls “composition.” In his utopian thinking this would be the end of music as functional to the social order, and to this extent the end of the succession of codes that have for long separated music making from actuality, from life. Even more, “it may be the essential element in a strategy for the emergence of a truly new society,” (p.133) fulfilling his historical argument throughout the book that music has always been both a way of perceiving the world and the harbinger of things to come.

He was under the spell of the French May 68 when he projected the inevitable triumph of the new order, revenging the political defeat through an idealized and future victory. Not envisioned by him at the time, however, was the possibility that music freed from performance (representation) and repetition (stockpiling), the earlier codes still present, could be successfully recuperated and largely included within these older codes, with the intent and rebellious spirit of many of its players betrayed and thwarted.

Attali had absorbed a host of figures that were significant and challenging in his day: Roland Barthes, Giles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Marshall Macluhan, and René  Girard. We are reading Noise now at a distance of thirty-five years, when these figures have all attained a respectable place in academic thought, their sharp edges assimilated and blunted.  Moreover, it must be acknowledged that Attali himself became closely associated with the state under Mitterrand in the 80s and has been a prominent French neo-liberal, promoting commercial and financial growth, and calling for a world government. His earlier scenario for the development of music seems to proceed from a quite different politics, what might be called cultural anarchism, though we must remember that neoliberal deregulation was also presented as a utopian creed, and crashed more dramatically and suddenly, in 2008, than Attali’s post-sixties’ dreams.

Besides this, since the time Attali was writing there has been significant change: the death and attempted restoration of sixties free jazz, new developments in free playing, such as reductionism, noise and electro-acoustic improvisation, in addition to what Attali missed at the time—the entire contribution of European free improvisation. To use Attali uncritically today to infuse utopian enthusiasm and institutional support for the kind of free playing he was aware of at the time and to idealize it as the whole is to blind oneself to current reality for the sake of a nostalgic attachment to a fundamentally sixties phenomenon. The sixties was indeed a watershed, but we’re far downstream by now. With that caveat, Attali’s fundamental insights and historical overview point us in the right direction.


In the past ten years or so there has been a rising wave of academic advocacy for free improvisation and free jazz. Boosting improvisation as a positive option has the advantage of seeming to speak for a unified phenomenon. This neither exists nor should it be fabricated; free playing has had a history of conflict as well as consensus. To speak of free improvisation as a singular existent comparable to others one would have to imagine encompassing at least a unity-in-diversity of all musicians who say they are freely improvising. Yet there are meaningful distinctions that must be made musicologically and socially, and these two are intertwined. Sociologically it is a distinction between players detached from music-world engagement and expert, virtuoso professionals in the traditional sense, seeking to earn a living from music. The respective musicological differences these entail are similar to those that exist across the whole of music making (explored by Roland Barthes in his essay “Musica Practica,” in Image-Music-Text).

For those figures universally cited in academic publications as the representatives of improvisation, music is a professional livelihood, and they are obligated to satisfy their funding sources and to do what is necessary to obtain the largest audience possible and the right kind of audience. Ignored are the bulk of players, who are, I believe, tacitly misperceived as minor players seeking higher status in the music world and musicologically insignificant. The concern of these is rather what Attali envisioned as coming into being, an approach to playing that first of all must satisfy the players themselves, without regard to vocational and personal needs for satisfying an art audience.

The authoritative mode of thought for our culture, rooted in the scientific tradition that conceptualizes its knowledge as objective, assumes as the basis of discussion that all phenomena that can be gathered under a common name (an abstraction sometimes called a “universal”) have a discernible common identity and nature, distinctive and isolable from every other universal. This is what provides the truth-effect for academic study, the appearance that one has grasped the object through conceptualization. All that is worthy of the name “music” is thus distinct from “dance” and “poetry,” and everything categorized as music can and must be further partitioned into genres, each distinct from the others. The investigator generalizes a genre’s characteristics, investigates its relation to other musics and historical development, and determines its representatives, which would have to be its most highly publicized performers.

The task is to create a singular concept that will include all instances of the phenomenon and exclude all others, separating what is meaningful from what is not. The distinction of such types is taken first of all to be theoretical, necessary for thought, even if it proves impossible in practice to construct simple definitions. For one thing, when the term of the genre is subject to non-academic usage theoretical definition is complicated, hence the continual search and compromise, ever approaching closure but never getting there. A strong popular meaning cannot be denied; it will always trump a fabricated, theoretical definition, especially when the definers are self-conscious about their separation from the populace and do not want to appear isolated and elitist.

A strong identity, one confirmed by popular usage and a tradition of discourse, will in practice, and hidden from theoretical questioning, tend to dominate a weak and more ambivalent identity. This is what has happened to free improvisation, which as a relatively unknown and undefined phenomenon has a weak identity. It is thus considered an offshoot of jazz and subsumed under its history, a corollary to what is considered not only essential to jazz but for some is culturally radical–improvisation. In authoritative, that is, academic literature, free improvisation most often turns up in the field of jazz studies. This is today one of many revisionist cultural studies, and views its object neither from the partisan or journalistic viewpoints of the past nor as a triumphal procession of icons but as an historical process of consensus and dissensus. Jazz has long since passed its historical moment of internal critical controversy, however, and so one can treat it on the operating table or couch with little fear of dissent from the patient. There is wide popular agreement as to what constitutes jazz, and only on the periphery, where jazz is intermixed with other forms, might there be any serious dispute.

Academic jazz studies, jazz education, the marketplace, and what is commonly considered “jazz” today all seem to march to the same drummer. Through both its academic association and through its media reinvention as a cultural asset, jazz has acquired a strong, unified identity. As a consequence jazz programs have been growing significantly in the past twenty years, with a larger academic platform than was ever imagined in the past, a magnificent reversal of fortune. Jazz as an academic subject concerns itself almost exclusively with the period up through the seventies or with the iconic players whose lives extended beyond that period. Not surprisingly, jazz students are required to study and take as their model what was current a generation or two before they were born. Where academic study has treated free improvisation at all, the strong, highly legitimized identity has absorbed the weaker identity into its own, not denying it absolutely but taking it under its wing as a subgenre of minimal significance.

This hierarchical categorization of genres and players merges with the market tendency to take all music making as product-oriented, and to divide it into useful categories defined by purchasing patterns. This turns theoretically distinct genres into marketing categories, and no one in the social sciences who claims to be realistic wants to quarrel with the market.  To take the market as one’s guide to what is socially significant was, beginning in the 70s, justified as a response to the earlier cultural elite, which wrote off all popular music as unworthy of consideration. However, the highbrows of the past never confused musicological with sociological worth; they disdained popular music knowing full well it was massively successful in the marketplace, in fact for that very reason.

The sociological/musicological fusion is what holds today as a sign of academic populism, or neo-liberal subservience to the market, depending on one’s point of view. The market criterion has been imposed on musicology, taking as musically significant only what and who appears in the charts of the individual genres. Thus, in the early 90s jazz reversed its fortune and became more widely acceptable as “America’s classical music,” a nationalist-culture imprimatur that was the work of the media and, ironically, of belated high cultural acceptance. Jazz entered the pantheon-museum of non-controversial “valued” art. For its advocates and analysts this in turn heightened the claims of jazz to musicological significance relative to other, less marketable musics. Needless to say, such an approach would have ignored Schoenberg’s private concerts as musically insignificant just as surely as it ignores the virtually invisible concerts of free improvisation today.

The act of categorization and systematic inquiry gives its object of attention, like the “Outsider Artist” that began to be popularized in the 70s, a public respectability and legitimacy that would open the door to those who need this blessing in order to engage in their activity. For free improvisation, this may be true for professionally-oriented musicians, for whom legitimation is functional to their playing and material existence. However, it is at odds with the majority of those who think of themselves as improvising freely when they play. Their concern is not that their playing be respected, academically or popularly, or at least they have a complicated relationship to the fact that what they play is socially and commercially of doubtful value. The extent of one’s need for external validation is variable among free improvisers, most of whom, even as performers, do not see themselves as entrepreneurs validated by success, but are sustained only through the immediate playing situation, with at best a subjective judgment limited to the collectivity of players.

The approach to free improvisation commonly taken in musicological and cultural studies is invalid, first of all because it would require establishing a definition for something that is not publicly known or debated outside narrow academic circles, and is not even defined or discussed by any but a handful of players. Definition would then be in the hands of academic thinkers alone, and would prevail over practitioners’ views through the greater financial resources and legitimacy of academic and funding institutions. To even a highly educated music public “free improvisation” is most often hyphenated with various forms of composed and structured music and thereby obscured.  Free playing is barely experienced at all outside a small circle of its practitioners, often playing in private sessions, and of whom those hoping to treat the subject systematically have scant knowledge.


We might treat this music more adequately as something that does not exist except in the intentions of players in playing situations defined by those intentions. Given that intentions are subjective choices and not material realities (such as market categories), and that no intention is unmixed with others or without unintended consequences, there can be no pure, exteriorized examples, no instances to be analyzed for their characteristics and no representative players to be interviewed. As opposed to a musical genre, nothing common can be ascribed from a listening test of samples, in fact free improvisation is often mistakenly identified as composed (more properly, through-composed, meaning without continuity based on repetition of a melody, pattern, or leitmotif). Nor, strictly speaking, can even the most dedicated player be given the identity of “free improviser.” Whereas a jazz or classical musician does not simply intend to play jazz or classical music but fully does so, so-called free players play their music only in intention. The weak identity of this kind of playing, from a commercial and academic point of view, is partly derived from this inability of players to proclaim in all honesty that they can play a music that fits the name of what in reality they merely intend to do, and what has a built-in failure to realize itself.

The overall intention of the playing situation called free improvisation is a given that is rarely made conscious: to explore and discover one’s own pleasure through the immediate experience of sound, as Attali categorized the new approach of music-making he called “composition.” Yet there is a block Attali did not recognize that the musician will more easily stumble on than the outside analyst: one knows full well the elusiveness and transience of pleasure and the insecurity of the self in relation to it. Free improvisation fits with present-day precarity. It does not set oneself free to do whatever one might think to do; that is its seductive appeal, but one quickly discovers that it is not so easy to know what one wants. At least this however: the pleasure one follows is for one’s own self to discover, and so it is radically individualistic. It is personal and erotic, but as a continual search it requires negation; erotic union is forever threatened with getting lost, displaced, and denied. It cannot be faked for oneself, as performers are often obligated, even contracted to do for others. Free improvisation breaks this contract with its radical demand that I, as player and as performer, must be completely honest with myself and my listeners about the pleasure I follow.

More specifically, the intentions behind this “difficult” pleasure are musical and social, negative and positive respectively: to play free of known or pre-structured forms, and to communicate as directly as possible with others and with one’s own imaginative self. The first would exclude forms and gestures that might attract and please one in other playing situations; in other words, pleasure is constricted and disciplined. The list of freedom is necessarily empty; to say what you are free from is to indicate that you are bound by what is not listed. On the other hand the list of exclusions is formidable. First of all, the pleasure of following musical conventions, those culturally available and one’s own, or of realizing a preconception of the good, the beautiful and the true. It rejects the pleasure of doing what one knows how to do well and skillfully chooses so as to create a musical effect, something one expects to “work.” The split-second before making a gesture one has considered appropriate one cancels it. Nor is the pleasure of doing something correctly favored, of conforming to training or instruction and receiving approbation as a good musician. Neither is it the pleasure of the avantgarde intention, that of transgressing a cultural norm or code, such as creating sounds that violate those considered natural to the instrument, or creating a new code that will then have to be transgressed in turn. It is not the pleasure of being liked by an audience and shaping a performance according to ritual prescriptions. The pleasure of manifesting a tradition, such as jazz, classical, folk, is also denied. All these other pleasures may be present and identifiable in the minds of players, but it is not the intention of free improvisation per se to pursue them. Rather it is a very narrow and selective pleasure, which chooses its temptation carefully and rejects others. It is a freedom that is skeptical of freedom.

The pleasure pursued is radically self-centered, as I said above, yet with these limitations the self would seem to be forced through a narrow passageway. A routine, a formula, a starting point, has no holding power and is easily dismissed; frustration and indecision commonly shape the form of the playing by inserting silences that appear to nonplayers as musically chosen. The pleasure of one moment can never be the pleasure of the next. Caution and boldness trade places regularly. Playing in this mode can be terrifying, can lead to a feeling of emptiness and humiliation or to ecstasy that proves short-lived. The only reason for doing it is the promise of happiness, one that is a deceit until we take full responsibility for it. That responsibility is the same as for the modern, “liberated” human in general, to know that we don’t know even the shape or direction of our happiness.

An intention to play a specific form can conceivably be absolute in realization, since there are rules to follow, but to play free of given forms can never be realized. Forms continually become familiar, identifiable as form, successful, expected, and achieve observable, rewarded results; these are the very things that one seeks to get past. Compared to jazz, for instance, whose icons are indisputably playing jazz and represent it (despite the ambivalent relation many had to the label), no one actually achieves free improvisation or can be said to represent it, for no one can say they are completely free of pre-given forms (their own training, habits, or “spontaneous” first thoughts, which is why John Cage distrusted musicians freely improvising).


The second specific intention, to communicate as directly as possible with others, is also problematic, for one cannot know in advance what will communicate or rather what will be communicated. All music is communication, whether we think we understand it and whether we approve it or not. More than that, all music is mutual communication, in spite of any intention or consciousness, for no one makes a sound or silence that cannot be interpreted by others and fed back to the sound-makers. You walk down the street lost in thought, yet others receive communication of your existence, at least to the extent of avoiding bumping into you. You are in a room with others and say nothing, but despite your will or ambivalence you are communicating. Unlike all the other arts, music, based on sound, has the potential to go through walls, to communicate even against our wishes and best efforts. Music is communication that cannot be contained, despite elaborate codes that attempt to do so.

With other forms of playing there is the intention to produce a particular meaning, that is to communicate it, such that it is understood and interpreted according to the wishes of the players. In other words, one wants to resonate, to receive a sound “back” that will confirm one’s act and establish closure. This desired feedback loop is commonly understood as the musical act, which involves certain persons responsible for communicating something of specific meaning and others (intentional listeners) communicating back their understanding and demonstrating that they are musically convinced. This communication is an exchange; in modern society, only concrete exchange establishes existence, not abstract citizen rights. The insecurity of the familiar musical situation is overcome with the efforts of training, rehearsal, performance ritual, repertoire choices, reputation of the players and so on, in order to reduce the possibility of failure to a minimum. It is then a strange notion of pleasure that is found in free improvisation, one based on the far greater insecurity of not having a specific meaning to communicate, of not being able to set oneself up to succeed in that, having nothing outside one’s immediate and contingent choices to stabilize a communication feedback loop. It is quite uncertain what kind of exchange will take place. Yet one acts in sound, silence, movement and stillness and finds communication.

If there is something about this playing that is a surprise every time, that “should not be,” that has to be experienced in the flesh to be believed, it is this. It makes no sense, yet the one achievement of free improvisation, what is beyond the intentions which all fall short, is that whatever we play turns out to be music. This is not a radical claim, for this playing makes no claims for itself. It is simply a fact that one discovers in the situation: as an authorized player I can even sit still not making a sound and I will realize that I am making music. I create the possibility for this situation by following my intentions, but then I discover something I cannot will into existence. Only the performance ritual, the line separating authorized from unauthorized players keeps the latter from realizing that they are also making music. And since players as performers are not only improvising freely but are also putting on a show, they tend to discourage non-players from disrupting the situation by becoming aware of what the music calls them to do.

What is meant by communication “as directly as possible” means that in relation to other players one is as dependent as possible. One does not play “at” but with the other, not in imitation but in ways that can be so subtle as to be obscure to listeners. There is no leader and no lead instrument, and to play as a soloist in the group is a violation. This might appear to conflict with the radical individualism of one’s pursuit of pleasure. But just as the freedom of free improvisation faces the difficulty of actually playing free of given and established forms, so does direct communication entail dependence on the other. What one communicates to others is mediated by what the other communicates with oneself. It is this interconnection that is always in question, yet it cannot not be there; one cannot avoid the context in which one plays, whether it is the acoustics or the sounds of others. A classical player can play the score correctly but cannot work with partners who can’t do that or who have different scores; a jazz musician will stop playing if the others are playing a tune he or she doesn’t know, rather than violate the form. But the free improviser must work with whatever is going on, including external sounds. One must even find a way to get along with people who don’t know even the rudiments of how to play their instrument.


Rather than seek to validate free improvisation by defining it as a genre of music, one would do better to discuss what that is like as an experience of music-making, and comparatively with other experiences. Given that these intentions are far from everyday experience, I would suggest that free improvisation can fruitfully be discussed only by those who can at least imagine sharing those intentions and try putting them into practice. The analyst must also be the analysand, the observer a full participant. After all, this playing is grounded in experience rather than ideas brought to the playing; it only stands to reason that the door to understanding would be experience.

This raises problems for any study of the phenomenon. The question of participation and experience has historically aroused fear in the Enlightenment tradition on which academic study is based, originally a fear of religion (“superstition”) and the affective attachments that institutional religion promoted and controlled in the mass of believers. Fear that imagination and feeling will betray the mind’s most exalted function, that of acquiring knowledge of universal validity, is essentially what keeps official thought running in the same circles. To participate with one’s body in what one hopes to understand, whether it is politics, religion, or art, is to experience the object in a way that can give one a personal stake in one’s opinion, to be moved in a way that makes it difficult to move back away from it, which is seen as an insurmountable and unnecessary complication. To participate is to lose one’s identity as a scholar faithful to an objectivity exterior to the phenomenal world. It is to risk being overwhelmed by the reality of what one observes, to lose it, to go native, to become personally prejudiced, to fall into the trap of mystic participation. It would make one something of an artist, and that would deny many distinctions necessary to so-called serious thought, including the specialness, importance, and social function of the artist, that is, select artists. So I don’t expect to convince many to stop talking and, for instance, begin an academic conference on improvisation by simply making sounds together, and follow the sounds wherever they lead. But that is what it would take to begin to achieve an understanding of what free improvisation is about, far better than listening to a recording or even a performance.

There is reasonable doubt about participation if it means simply personal affirmation. As soon as one speaks of experience it is easy to see the eyes light up with a glow of subjective attachment that will accommodate no critique. But that is not the case here; what will most likely come up for novices is the self-consciousness one feels, and then the difficulty of making sounds one approves of, fear of making a fool of oneself, which is fully the situation the improviser faces. Once one enters a freeform situation of sound making all the right questions appear: When can we begin to perceive this as music? And if it’s not music, then what is it? What right do non-musicians have to be doing this? What are the boundaries, how is this performed, how do we know when to stop—why stop at all?

To play rather than stand outside it does not mean that one cannot ask meaningful questions of it, that only true believers can gain knowledge. We play and then ask, for instance, what distinguishes the intention of avoiding pre-structures and habit from that of creating good music? What is the relation to listeners who are not playing, or is the difference between players and non-players inessential? Can there be a hierarchy of better and worse improvisers, and if so what would be the criteria? And the practical question, is it possible to teach free improvisation as a skill? What is the difference between adult play, which is this kind of music-making, and what is generally classified and validated as art? There are more traditional academic questions as well, such as, when did these negative and positive intentions develop and what other forms did they take, what were the cultural forces involved, and how was it characterized at the time? How extensive has it been socially, or was it confined to those who thought of themselves as professionally oriented artists? What is the relation of such adult play to the music world–publicity, performance, musician images, and criticism?

These are my questions.