Michael Denning, Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution

IssueDecember 2015 - January 2016
Review by Pascal Ansell

ImageA huge and diverse amount of vernacular music was recorded in the late 1920s, a wave of world music consumption which saw its peak before the Wall Street Crash swept this immense body of activity aside.

'Gramophone and phonograph companies fought with each other to capture the world’s vernacular musics through the new electrical microphones and to play them back through the new electrical loudspeakers'. Indonesian kroncong, Trinidadian calypso, Egyptian tarab and Brazilian samba were just a few of the many styles recorded for international consumption.

The musicians taking part received a mixed bag of empowerment and drawbacks from this 'speculative mania'. The political effects were never straightforwardly for the people, or against them. But then what we might call ‘antimony’ is music’s ambiguous power: to be misappropriated to legitimise state power, or to contribute to grassroot solidarity as a 'proletarian loudspeaker'.

An example of this contradictory power of music is Portugal’s fado: 'first condemned and censored by the fascist regime; by the 1960s... it was increasingly incorporated into fascist nationalism. The regime depended on [its] popularity'.

However, if music becomes forgotten and then reclaimed, there is also the danger of 'stultifying purism' and the development of a 'cult of authenticity', as the past gains ownership of present innovation. Revivals should never ossify present-day music making, yet during the emergence of bossa nova in the late 1950s, Denning notes, 'many defenders of "true Brazilian-ness" attacked the new music as if it were high treason'.

According to Denning, 'music and sound are fundamental to social and political analysis. For music is an inherently social and political art.' Yet he also strikes the right balance, never claiming that music determines social order, but recognising its place in grassroots activity and change.

Although theoretical and weighty, his writing is charged with an energetic desire to share great, if sadly obscure, music. All of which makes this book a delight to read sitting by a laptop, where the web and its musical archives awaits.

Topics: Culture