Counterpoint and context (and modernity and Haraway)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here – aftermath of the PhD I guess. Speaking of which, if you’d like to read my thesis ‘Composing contrapuntal worlds’ you can check it out online here. In any case, I’m going to endeavour to write a bit more now that the chaos of 2017 has mostly subsided. We’ll see if the chaos of 2018 allows me to keep writing these things, I hope so. I hope to also include some more political thoughts on this blog, which mostly disappeared while I was working on my PhD. For now though, I want to return briefly to the idea of counterpoint.

‘Endosymbiosis, tribute to Lynn Margulis’, Shoshanah Dubiner, 2012

Not long after I submitted my thesis, I began to feel that the essence of the concept of counterpoint, as far as I see it, is the conscious dismantling of any absolute distinction between foreground and background, between text and context, etc, and the composition of new worlds of dynamic relations between (and within) the elements produced in this deconstruction (this is not fundamentally different to my PhD, just a different articulation). As such, there is a sense in which counterpoint is the ultimate expression, or means, of modernity in music: all that is solid must melt into air; all that was assumed to be stable must be destabilised and subjected to the force of rational re-composition. It is also clearly dialectical in an old-fashioned way, there is a negative moment (deconstruction of existing assumptions) and a positive moment (composition of new relations), and it’s of course properly dialectical in that both the negative and the positive moments inhere in each other and can’t be separated out (deconstruction happens by construction and vice versa). The principle of counterpoint obviously begins with the deconstruction between principle melody and accompaniment/counter-melody, but in its ambitiousness in the 20th and now 21st Century, it extends all the way to deconstructing and composing any assumed relations of any parameters up to and including the concept of a melody itself, the relation (or assumed non-relation) between heterogeneous cultural-sonic products, the physical space of performance and reception, etc.

What I find fascinating is how this deeply modernist movement squares so well with an ecological one. Reading Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble (upon the advice of my partner Hannah), I’m struck by lines that really sound like notes about a modern counterpoint:

To think-with is to stay with the naturalcultural multispecies trouble on earth. There are no guarantees, no arrow of time, no Law of History or Science or Nature in such struggles. There is only the relentlessly contingent SF worlding of living and dying, of becoming-with and unbecoming-with, of sympoiesis, and so, just possibly, of multispecies flourishing on Earth.

Or again:

A common livable world must be composed, bit by bit, or not at all. What used to be called nature has erupted into ordinary human affairs, and vice versa, in such a way and with such permanence as to change fundamentally means and prospects for going on, including going on at all. Searching for compositionist practices capable of building effective new collectives, Latour argues that we must learn to tell “Gaïa stories.” If that word is too hard, then we can call our narrations “geostories,” in which “all the former props and passive agents have become active without, for that, being part of a giant plot written by some overseeing entity.”

Or even better:

Rather, in polytemporal, polyspatial knottings, holobionts hold together contingently and dynamically, engaging other holobionts in complex patternings. Critters do not precede their relatings; they make each other through semiotic material involution, out of the beings of previous such entanglements.

Most importantly for my idea of counterpoint as a repudiation of compositional assumptions about text and context, figure and background, Haraway savages the idea of the “bounded individual plus context” which she sees as completely insufficient for thinking the depth of relations in which we emerge and operate, particularly in what she calls the ‘chthulucene’.

For all the critiques of Modernity and Progress, this kind of ultra-materialism and dogged insistence on post-foundational thought present in Haraway’s work is indebted to, at least, certain elements of the modernist process of thought. Nothing stands above the complexity of material relations, the stability of entities and concepts is a contingently produced moment in processes of co-development, etc.

The only part that doesn’t seem to sit with the modernist vision is Latour’s point about ‘without being part of a giant plot written by some overseeing entity’—something that Haraway, in her wide-ranging critique of Anthropos, fully endorses.

So while Haraway might agree with the deconstructive dimension of counterpoint, as suggested by Adorno in his article on the subject, the Adornian idea of a fully autonomous composition, and the overall modernist vision whereby increasingly vast areas of production and experience are subordinated to the power of reason, may well be beyond the pale (especially if the teleogy is one of complete aesthetic control of nature, as wonderfully present at the end of Trotsky’s ‘Literature and Revolution’). Haraway may instead argue for a more local, partial constructions and logics of relations. The goal would be ‘speculative fabulations’ in sound of our complex era, training us to feel a post-foundational sonic-emotional landscape, where the human subject (at least as figured in conventional musics) is decentred and brought into a broader construction.

There’s much more to be said about Haraway and implications for music, especially regarding her constant metaphors of writhing, wriggling, contaminating, composting, etc, which is all immensely stimulating. There’s also plenty of critiques to be made, especially regarding the danger that her theory is too close to a ‘small is beautiful’ liberal politics to challenge for hegemony on a broader scale (both artistically and politically). But my takeaway for the moment is that nothing comes from nowhere: compositions are rearticulations of partial spaces (or combinations of spaces) that allow us to feel differently the way the figure of the human relates to figures of what was assumed to be a ‘context’. This is to me still a deeply modernist and dialectical-materialist project, but a thoroughgoing one, and one which also requires a theory of identification and desire, and thus a psychoanalytic dimension, but that’s something for a future post, hopefully.