Naomi Waltham-Smith will be giving a talk title 'A Motley Music: The Music Analyst Lends an Ear to Democracy' at the Music Faculty at the University of Oxford
“A Motley Music: The Music Analyst Lends an Ear to Democracy”
British democracy is in crisis. Lord Keen QC has just taken the extraordinary step of having to reassure the Justices that the Prime Minister will take all necessary steps to comply with any declaration the Supreme Court makes. Legal experts, political scientists, and the Twittersphere have been exercising themselves in debating the constitutional stakes of a juncture (and hubris) unprecedented in modern times. More broadly, in recent years scholars across a wide variety of disciplines—historians, political theorists, economists, sociologists, philosophers—have offered various analyses of the resurgence of right-wing populisms, the emergence of leaders brandishing authoritarian personalities, and the collapse in the hegemony of the liberal political-economic consensus. But there is another hypothesis that merits exploration, a diagnosis that music analysts are in a privileged position to test and explain—namely, that the crises of representation we are currently witnessing may be analysed as a generalized crisis of listening.
My admittedly provocative argument has two limbs. First, ever since Plato dismissed the people as a motley rabble in the same breath that he rejected certain rhythmic and melodic modes, music, sound, and listening have repeatedly been present at precisely those moments in the European political philosophical tradition when thinkers have sought to specify the limitations and especially the aporias of democracy. I suggest some explanations for the privileged status of this aural metaphorics and draw a number of conclusions from the historical vicissitudes of the concept of listening for understanding the contemporary situation in which there is paradoxically both a democratic deficit and a panacoustic excess of listening.
Second, the changes in social forms of listening are inseparable from and arguably even symptomatic of transformations in the conditions and practices of musical listening undergone as a result of digital mediations. The consumption of music through streaming services, together with the rise of digital personal assistants, affective listening technologies, and the judicial weaponization of forensic sound analysis, have combined to alter radically our attunement to our environment and to others around us. If our relation to this planet, and to the other human and non-human lives it supports, is a function of listening, who better than music analysts to clarify its intricacies, expose its risks, and advocate for its future possibilities?