Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Atonal music as model for democracy

I can imagine readers thinking to themselves what a nonsensical title this post bears – atonal music as a model for democracy? Really? What possible connection could there be? And yet, someone familiar with the atonal music of Arnold Schönberg, and with the idea of optimal citizen-participation as a criterion of “true” democracy, might just sense what it is driving at.

This subject came up at a research seminar today in the context of the birth of modernity after, and on the basis of, the European Renaissance. Hardt and Negri, in Empire (Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 70-76), characterise modernity as having two legs, as it were: that of the “revolutionary plane of immanence” (the discovery that humans could be “masters” of their own destinies, which manifested itself in the Renaissance), and in a tensional relation with this, the “transcendent plane of order” (which consisted, historically, in the political and ecclesiastic imposition of order on the revolutionary political and religious forces that threatened the state and church, respectively). Modernity was therefore born in crisis, Hardt and Negri point out, and this crisis is still with us. One could also say that the crisis of modernity signals the crisis of democracy.

From there the discussion went towards the political thought of Jacques Ranciére on what he provocatively calls “hatred of democracy” (in a book with that title), which resonates with Hardt and Negri’s distinction, above. Of “… the new antidemocratic sentiment” Ranciére observes (in Hatred of Democracy, Verso, 2006: 4):

“Democratic government, it says, is bad when it is allowed to be corrupted by democratic society, which wants for everyone to be equal and for all differences to be respected. It is good, on the other hand, when it rallies individuals enfeebled by democratic society to the vitality of war in order to defend the values of civilisation, the values pertaining to the clash of civilisations. [An obvious reference to Samuel Huntington’s book on this “clash”. B.O.] The thesis of the new hatred of democracy can be succinctly put: there is only one good democracy, the one that represses the catastrophe of democratic civilisation” (what Ranciére also refers to as “an excess of democratic activity”; p. 6).

It appears that what this “thesis” states corresponds roughly with Hardt and Negri’s distinction between the “revolutionary plane of immanence” (“democratic society” or civilisation) and the “transcendent plane of order” (the democracy “that represses the catastrophe of democratic civilization”). In the case of the former, one witnesses democracy as the rule BY the people, and in the latter case the rule OVER the people (by those empowered by institutional structures like parliaments, which function, for all intents and purposes, as oligarchies), and these two stand in opposition to one another. Succinctly put in Ranciére’s words: “Democracy stirs, but disorder stirs with it”.

What I would like to draw attention to is the remarkable analogy that exists between democracy understood as “disorder” (on the revolutionary plane of immanence) and modern “atonal” music that is experienced by many as music that cannot be listened to because of a certain “disorder” in the guise of dissonance, or the absence of harmony. Democracy of this kind seems to the champions of “the transcendent plane of order” to threaten “democratic” order with disorder because it embodies the aspirations of “the people” to be “equal” in all respects, regardless of differences. Strictly, in terms of equality, everyone’s voice should be heard and recognized; everyone should participate in the process of democratic governance (and not merely by voting once every five years). But the proponents of the kind of democracy that prefers (hierarchical) order to equality are frightened out of their wits by the prospects of everyone’s full participation in democratic processes.

This is where the atonal music composed by Schönberg enters the picture. It could be said to be music with a “participatory democratic” form, where all the notes on a piano, for example, should be treated as being equal by a composer – in practice leading to the inclusion of all of them in a composition – instead of allowing the interests of harmony to impose themselves on the composer’s selection of notes, keys or chords. The only problem with this is that, from a listener’s point of view, such music displays “disorder” in the sense of being extremely difficult to listen to, unlike music composed according to a preference for harmony and tonality.

Harmonious or tonal (bourgeois) music on the other hand, resembles “representational democracy” in the sense of an “ordered” society, or a society on which order has been imposed from the outside, as it were. Most of us are so accustomed to such music in all its variety that Schönberg’s music may not even strike us as music, but rather as noise. In the same way, the kind of democracy that gives the champions of “democratic order” such a headache, represents a kind of political “noise” or atonality.

Ironically, Schönberg regarded his own music as tonal, but only because atonality resulted from pushing what usually counts as tonality or harmony to its extremes in a participatory “democratic” manner, allowing each “part” of the musical material to participate in the whole of the composition, to express it metaphorically. Paul Collaer put it this way (quoted in Buck-Morss, S. The Origin of Negative Dialectics, The Free Press, New York, 1977, p. 14):

“When Schoenberg says that his music is tonal, he means that each chord has its own fundamental, independent of the context. Each chord is in a certain key. But according to Schoenberg, four successive chords, for example, will be in four different keys. The speed at which one chord passes to another and the complexity of each chord do not leave the ear enough time to take in the different keys and their relationships. Since there is no continuity in establishing a given key, apparent atonality results”.

The analogy between this procedure of composition and participatory democracy consists in this, that the complex arrangement of musical material in a way that adheres to a strict methodical principle of tone or key-appropriation – one where every key is given its due share – mirrors a radical democracy, where every citizen is given a chance to participate “equally”, that is, regardless of their particular vocational or professional place or function, in the democratic totality.

To those listeners accustomed to tonal, harmonious music (such as popular music, by and large) which utilises only those keys, chords or tones/notes which serve the overall compositional design, Schönberg’s atonal music would sound like a disorderly (non)arrangement of sounds. Similarly, people who are accustomed to “representational” democracy – like the system we have in South Africa – would regard the kind of optimally participatory democracy, where every citizen gets to contribute “equally” and meaningfully to the life of the body politic, as “disorderly”, even if a methodical principle to ensure such equally distributed participation were to be employed, such as the principle of the “kleroterion”, used by the ancient Greeks (on which I have written here before).

To return to what Ranciére calls “hatred of democracy”, the hatred in question would be directed at, among other things, the kind of “participatory” democracy which chimes with the atonal music composed by Schönberg and his successors, such as Alban Berg. The reason for such hatred is ultimately the same as people’s dislike of music that does not immediately fit into easily recognisable tonal patterns, and appears, because of the resulting atonality or perceived dissonance, to be disorderly and “noisy”. As Ranciére so keenly perceives, unless “democracy” comes across as a system of government that possesses the legislative, juridical and executive means of “ordering” a populace which appears to have the (revolutionary) potential of behaving democratically in a full participatory sense, it becomes the object of loathing.

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