From the Punk Scene to Acoustic Theory

Steven Wishnia Dec 8, 2007

In the materialistic, militaristic desert of America in the 1980s, the hardcore punk scene was one of the few subcultures that was screaming “fuck you, Ronald Reagan and the greedy warmonger horse you rode in on!” It was a radical, do-it-yourself network, created almost entirely by people in their teens and 20s on very low budgets, yet it had international reach, and its influence is still felt in today’s radical movements.

The 40-odd writers in My First Time: A Collection of First Punk Show Stories (edited by Chris Duncan, AK Press) recount their memories with the fervor of a religious conversion. “This was what I was waiting for. This was real,” writes John Poddy of a D.O.A. show. “The noise from their amps melts that whole other world away faster than nuclear weapons, better than drugs,” says Maryland rural refugee Shawna Kenney. “My first stage-dive!” exults Sto Cinders. “I was a punk and THIS was my family.” Most of the stories follow similar lines, though the seventies memoirs tend to be druggier and more degenerate.

One exception is Ann Kanaan, who describes how she chaperoned her teenage son’s band’s first show — and pulled her five-yearold off his big brother’s knees mid-set. Ramsay Kanaan would grow up to cofound AK Press. As someone who was playing hardcore shows in the eighties, I’m pleased to have helped create something that still means so much. But as I was at least a decade older than most of these writers, I was much more cynical.

Yes, the DIY process and radical stances were inspiring, but the book glosses over the violence that plagued the scene — skinheads, homophobic in New York and racist in other places — and the music of seventies punk was better. The revival of anarchism is another legacy of punk. But anarcho-primitivist philosopher John Zerzan, in his 1994 book Future Primitive, dismissed punk as a standardized and cliched “musical sneer.” In the essay “Tonality and the Totality,” Zerzan argues that all tonal music is inherently authoritarian, part of the “grammars of domination,” because it limits aural expression to an arbitrary and narrow range of sounds — paralleling the regimentation of society. He theorizes that Bach articulated the hegemony of capitalist values, and that jazz and rock are merely rebel-styled repackaging of standard Western harmonies, concluding that the only revolutionary music is the most atonal of the 20th-century avantgarde.

This is an example of how someone who’s smart and extremely knowledgeable can let logic and ideology lead them to an absurd and ignorant position. It ignores the principles of acoustics—that the intervals generally considered consonant, such as octaves, fourths and fifths, reflect simple mathematical ratios rather than arbitrary authority. It completely ignores the social context of music.

And Zerzan’s take is extremely Eurocentric — yes, African-American musics such as blues and jazz use standard Western chords, but bent notes, microtonal shadings, and improvisation are crucial parts of their art. Turkish, Indian, and Indonesian music all use distinctly different scales than Euro-American music, but they all fit within octaves. The main difference is that tuning isn’t standardized to the 440-Hz A, as it is in the West — a saz, raga trio, or gamelan orchestra might be in tune with itself and nothing else.

I probably like 20th-century “avant-garde” music more than most of the people reading this, but the music in that genre that moves me the most is in the vein of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, intensely emotional with deep roots in gospel and blues. And arguing that tonality is inherently oppressive is like arguing that language is inherently oppressive — which Zerzan also does. Yes, words are arbitrary and often inadequate, but what other mutually comprehensible way do we have to communicate?

Art by Jennifer Lew

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