Tag Archive | musicking

Toward a Practical Language for Live Electronic Performance

Amongst friends I’ve been known to say, “electronic music is the new jazz.” They are friends, so they smile, scoff at the notion and then indulge me in the Socratic exercise I am begging for. They usually win. The onus after all is on me to prove electronic music worthy of such an accolade. I definitely hold my own; often getting them to acknowledge that there is potential, but it usually takes a die hard electronic fan to accept my claim. Admittedly the weakest link in my argument has been live performance. I can talk about redefinitions of structure, freedom of forms and timbral infinity for days, but measuring a laptop performance up to a Miles Davis set (even one of the ones where his back remained to the crowd) is a seemingly impossible hurdle.

Mind you, I come from a jazzist perspective, which means that I consider jazz the pinnacle of western music. My classicist interlocutors will naturally cite the numerous accomplishments of classical composers as being unmatched within jazz. That will bring us to long debates about the merits of Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington as a composers, which leads, for a good many, to a concession on the part of Duke at least, but an inevitable assertion of the general inferiority U.S. composers compared to the European canon. And then I will say “why are we limiting things to composition when jazz goes so much further than the page?” To which I will get the reply: “orchestral performers were of the highest caliber.” Then I will rebut, “well why was Europe so impressed by Sidney Bechet?” But I digress.

Why talk about classical music in a piece on electronic music, you, my current interlocutor, may ask? Well, in placing electronic music in a historical context, its current stage of development keeps pace with the mental cleverness found in classical but applies it to different theoretical principles. The electronic musician’s DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) file amounts to the classical composer’s score; the electronic musician’s DSP (Digital Signal Processor) parallels the classical composer’s orchestra. I could call electronic music “the new classical” and I’d have a few supporters. But. . .taking it to the level of jazz? Electronic music would have to include not only the mental cleverness, but the physical cleverness as well.

Electronic artist using Ableton 5 Live, Image by Flickr user Nofi

Electronic artist using Ableton 5 Live, Image by Flickr user Nofi

Let’s back up for a bit. A couple years back, I did a piece for Create Digital Music on Live Electronic performance. I talked to a diverse group of artists about their processes for live performance, and I wrote it up with some video examples. It ended up being one of the most discussed pieces on CDM that year, with commentary ranging from fascination at the presentation of techniques to dismissal of the videos as drug-addled email inbox management.

This was to be expected, because of the lack of a language for evaluating electronic music. It is impossible to defend an artist who has been called a hack without the language through which to express their proficiency. Using Miles Davis as an example–specifically a show where his back is to the audience–there are fans that could defend his actions by saying the music he produced was nonetheless some of the best live material of his career, citing the solos and band interactions as examples. To the lay person, however, it may just seem rude and unprofessional for Davis to have his back to the audience; as such, it cannot be qualitatively a good performance no matter what. Any discussion of tone and lyrical fluidity often means little to the lay person.

The extent of this disconnect can be even greater with electronic performances. With his back turned to the audience, they can no longer see Miles’ fingers at work, or how he was cycling breath. Even when facing the crowd, an electronic musician whose regimen is largely comprised of pad triggers, knob turns, and other such gestures which simply do not have the same expected sonic correspondence as, for example, blowing and fingering do to the sound of a trumpet. Also, it is well known that the sound the trumpet produces cannot be made without human action. With electronic music however, particularly with laptop performances, audiences know that the instrument (laptop) is capable of playing music without human aid other than telling it to play. The “checking their email” sentiment is a challenge to the notion that what one is seeing in a live electronic performance is indeed an “actual performance.”

In the time since writing the CDM piece, I’ve seen well over a hundred live sets, listened to days worth of live recordings, spoken in-depth with countless artists about their choices on stage, and gauged fan reactions many times over: from mind-blowing performances in barns to glorified electronic karaoke in sold-out venues, tempo locked beat matching to eight channel cassette tape loops, ten thousand dollar hardware to circuit bent baby toys. After all of that, I still don’t know that I can win the jazz vs. electronic music debate, but I will at least try.


A while back, I was paging through the December 2011 edition of The Wire when I came upon a review of a Flying Lotus performance, the conclusion of which stood out:

On record, the music has the unruly liquidity of dream logic wandering from astral pathways down alphabet street, returning via back alleys on its own whims. Maybe the listening mind, presented with pretty straight analogues of those tracks, rebels, expecting something more mercurial, more improvised. The atmosphere in the venue reflected this upper-downer tension and constraint: the crowd noise was positive, but crowd movement was minimal – a strange sight in the midst of FlyLo’s headier jams. When the hall emptied there was a grumbling undercurrent as the tide of humanity was spilling slowly down the Roundhouse steps, whispers of it must have reached the upper levels. One casualty high above leaned over to berate them: “You don’t know, even understand, what you just FELT.” Sadly though, he didn’t stick around to enlighten anyone.

It should be noted that there are positive reviews of the show, and while not necessarily the best gauge, the videos from the event may seem to tell a different story.

What stood out for me from the review however, was that in trying to write about what the writer felt was a less than stellar performance, there was only one critique which could directly be attributed to the music, which was to say that Flying Lotus performed “straight analogues” of his tracks. Beyond that, the writer was left describing the feelings from the audience.

Feelings are tricky things. We all have them and they are the fundamental point of connection we seek when experiencing music. The message conveyed through the medium of music is meant to be an emotional one. But measuring those emotions is a task which cannot escape subjectivity. In a case like this when one writer is attempting to speak for the feelings of the whole audience, it becomes really tricky. Sure the writer may consider their analysis to have been objective, but it was still based on their perception of the audience, not the audience’s perception. Even more, this gauging of the audience dynamic does not tell us how the actual music performance was regardless of the varied perspectives from within the audience. I contend that this gap occurs because the language for discussing electronic performance has not yet been established.

Around the time I read The Wire review I was also reading Adam Harper’s Infinite Music, which offers variability as a primary factor of analysis in music. Instead of building on traditional music theory, Harper takes cues from those on the fringes of western music. He builds a concept of ‘music space’ by expanding John Cage’s “sound space,” the limits of which are ear determined. Furthermore, Harper’s non-musical variables and how they play into creating individually unique musical events, strengthens Christopher Small’s notion of musicking as a verb. In this way, Harper creates a fluid language for discussing music which might prove practical for these purposes.

It is helpful to use one of the central concepts of Harper’s music space, musical objects, as a means of distinguishing electronic performance.

Systems of variables constitute musical objects – Adam Harper

Going back to Miles Davis, his instrument is a monophonic musical object with a limited pitch and dynamic range in the upper register of the brass timbre. His musical talent is evaluated based on how he is able to work within those limitations to create variable experiences. His band represents another musical object comprised of the individual players as musical objects as well. The venue in which they are playing is a musical object, as is the audience and Davis’ decision to perform with his back to it. It is the coming together of all of these musical objects that creates the musical event (an alternate event includes the musical object which recorded the performance, and the complete setting of the listener as an individual musical objects upon playing the live recording). In a musical event comprised of these musical objects – Davis performing live in front of an audience with his back turned so he can face the band–it is possible to imagine a similar reaction to the above commentary about Flying Lotus, including a guy berating the audience for not making the connection.

Miles Davis @ Montreux, 8.7.1984 Image by Flickr user Christophe Losberger

Miles Davis @ Montreux, 8.7.1984 Image by Flickr user Christophe Losberger

In this Davis example however, we could listen to the audio to determine whether or not it was a “good” performance by analyzing the musical objects which can be observed in the recording (note: this would be technical analysis of the performance, not the event or its reception). Does Davis’s tone falter? How strong are the solos? Is he staying in the pocket with the rest of the band? Evaluation of these variables would be a testament to his proficiency which could be compared to other performances to determine if it measures up.

Flying Lotus’s set however is a bit different. Yes, we could listen back to the audio (or watch the video) and determine if indeed it measures up to other sets he has performed, but unlike with Davis, we cannot translate what we hear directly to his agency. When we hear the trumpet on the Davis recording we know that the sound is caused by him physically blowing into his instrument. When we hear a bass in a Flying Lotus set, there isn’t necessarily a physical act associated with the creation of the sound. With all of the visual cues removed in the Davis example, we can still speak about the performance aspect of the music; the same is not necessarily so about an electronic set, even with visual cues. In many electronic sets, it is only when something goes wrong that actual agency in the music being performed can be attributed.

Flying Lotus,@ SonarDome, Sonar 2012, Image by Flickr user Boolker

Flying Lotus,@ SonarDome, Sonar 2012, Image by Flickr user Boolker

Where the advent of the laptop and DSP advances for music have expanded creative possibilities, they only shroud what the performers using them are actually doing in more mystery. It’s an esoteric language, or perhaps languages, as ultimately each artist’s live rig configuration amounts to different musical objects, across which there may not be compatibilities.

However, in certain musical circles there are common musical objects. Perhaps the most common musical object for performance in electronic music right now is Ableton Live, which results in common component musical objects across performances by different artists. Further, an Ableton Live set can sound just like a Roland 404 set, which can sound just like a DJ set with a Kaoss pad, all of which can sound identical to a set not performed live but produced in the studio (or bedroom as the case may be) for a podcast. The reason for this is that much of the music is already fixed. What changes is the sequencing of these fixed pieces of music over time, their transitions and the variety of effects employed. The goal for these types of sets is a continuous flow of pre-arranged music, which parallels that of a DJ set.

In the past few years, the line between a live electronic set and a DJ set has been blurred extensively. Fans have become fairly critical of artists, to the point that it has become standard practice for promoters to list whether performances will be live or a DJ set. Even on the DJ end of the spectrum there’s a lot of questions, as artists have been called out for their DJ set being an iPod playlist. To qualify as a live set however, an artist must be doing more than just playing songs. How much more is debatable, but should it be?

Flying Lotus - Sónar 2012 - Jueves 14/05/2012, Image by Flickr user scannerfm

Flying Lotus – Sónar 2012 – Jueves 14/05/2012, Image by Flickr user scannerfm

Nobody in their right mind would call Miles Davis a hack. Even if they didn’t like specific performances, few would question his proficiency with the instrument. The reason for this is that his talent rises above the standard performance, beneath which someone could be qualified as a hack. If a trumpet player spent a whole night performing only shrill notes of a C major chord around middle C, without properly qualifying that their performance would be so constrained as a stylistic choice, one might consider calling that artist out as a hack (I apologize in advance to the serious musician that fits in this description).

The rationale behind this assessment is based on knowing the potential variability of the instrument and realizing that the performer is not exploring any of that variability. Perhaps there could be other layers of variability (e.g. an effects chain) added to the trumpet to make it interesting musically, but it can be objectively said that they don’t measure up to a standard quality of a trumpet player. If we say that the trumpet has an extensive dynamic range, a tonality which can go from smooth to harsh and a pitch range of just over three octaves, we can see how the player in our example is exhibiting quite a low proficiency.

This goes across all styles of trumpet playing. Were a style to impose limitations on a player, it could be said that the style did not allow for the full expression of proficiency on the instrument. A player within that style could be considered proficient in that context, but would require a broader performance to be analyzed for general proficiency. So the player in our example could be a master of “Shrill C” trumpet, but in order to compare with a Miles Davis they would have to perform out of style. Conversely, Miles Davis may be one of the world’s greatest trumpet players, but possibly the worst “Shrill C” trumpet player ever.

From this we can see that the language of variability provides a unique way to objectively speak on the performance of musical objects, while fully taking into account the way styles can play into performance. Using this language we open the world of electronic performance up for analysis and comparison.

This is part one of a three part series. In my next installment, I will use some of the language here to analyze the instruments and techniques used in electronic performance today. Once we have a fluid language for describing what is being used, I believe we will be better equipped to speak about what happens on stage.

Featured Image by Flickr User Scanner FM, Flying Lotus – Sónar 2012 – Jueves 14/05/2012

Primus Luta is a husband and father of three. He is a writer and an artist exploring the intersection of technology and art, and their philosophical implications. He is a regular guest contributor to the Create Digital Music website, and maintains his own AvantUrb site. Luta is a regular presenter for the Rhythm Incursions Podcast series with his monthly showRIPL. As an artist, he is a founding member of the live electronic music collectiveConcrète Sound System, which spun off into a record label for the exploratory realms of sound in 2012.

Primus Luta will be playing “electronics” in a live jazz setting on Wed. May 1st. with Daniel Carter (Sun Ra, Matthew Shipp and others) at the Brecht Forum in NY. Facebook Event is here. And there’s a flyer here.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Experiments in Agent-based Sonic Composition–Andreas Pape

Evoking the Object: Physicality in the Digital Age of Music-Primus Luta

Sound as Art as Anti-environment–Steven Hammer

Quebec’s #casseroles: on participation, percussion and protest

en francais suivant

NOTE: Due to the ongoing nature of the protests and the official bilingualism of Quebec, Sounding Out! wanted to ensure Jonathan Sterne’s work could be read by as many participants of the manifs casseroles as possible. Therefore, we bring you his wonderful post in English and French, with the French below. This translation could not have happened without the lightning-fast English-to-French skills of the excellent Frédéric Milard, fredericmilard@yahoo.ca, and of course, Jonathan’s generous flexibility and patience. Merci beaucoup and bang on! –JSA, Editor-in-Chief

Every night around 8pm, in neighborhoods across Montreal and Quebec, you can hear the din of clanging pots and pans in manifs casseroles (manif is short for manifestation en cours, a street protest). About a block from our home in Montreal’s Villeray neighborhood, at the intersection of Jarry and St-Denis—one of the major epicenters—our local manif begins with people crossing in the crosswalks, banging loudly and rhythmically. We see neighbors and people from local businesses, families with small children, elderly and retired people, working adults, and many students.


Sometimes a manif casserole sounds like random banging, but most I’ve experienced leave sheer raucous pounding for moments when one march meets up with another, or when someone on a balcony does something particularly cool to cheer on the marchers. A rhythm usually arises from the chaos, encircling the disorder and enveloping everyone. Sometimes the rhythms connect with chants like “la loi spéciale, on s’en câlisse,” which roughly translates to “we don’t give a fuck about your special law.”

Eventually, the numbers grow, and then all of a sudden, as if by magic or intuition, we stand in the middle of the intersection, blocking traffic. The police have taken to simply routing traffic away from the protest. Eventually, we march south on St-Denis toward other neighborhoods (the exact route varies), often swelling into a giant parade of thousands, or as E.P. Thompson might suggest, a parody of a formal state procession, announcing the “total publicity of disgrace” for its subject. (“Rough Music Reconsidered,” 6,8).

The numbers are part of the politics. For the last 100-odd days most Quebec students have been on strike against tuition increases of over 70% in five years. Some protests have numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The Quebec government tried to suppress the student movement by passing Bill 78 on May 18, 2012. Among its many preposterous provisions, any spontaneous gathering of over 50 people is illegal without prior police approval—even a picnic. Protesters not only must disclose their planned route, but also their means of transportation, According to Law 78, people are criminals the minute they join a protest, which is why so many people have taken to the streets.

21st Century Charivari­

In a piece I co-authored with Natalie Zemon Davis for the Globe and Mail, we connected the casseroles with a 700-year-old Francophone tradition of charivari. In English, the tradition is called “rough music”; there are also Italian, German and Spanish versions and the practice has spread from Europe throughout its former colonies. Groups of disguised young men would meet up at night and bang on pots and pans and make a grand din outside an offender’s home. Usually the offense was against some heterosexual norm, but they sometimes took on a political character, and older people would join in. As Allan Greer has shown in The Patriots and the People, they played an important role in Lower Canada’s failed rebellion of 1837-8, where charivaris greeted British officials who would not surrender their commissions (252-57).

Granville, “Eine Katzenmusik” lithograph published in La Caricature, 1 Sep. 1831

In the French tradition, charivaris were (usually) an alternative to violence on occasions where community reparation was possible. Charivaris were largely inclusive, as the subjects of harassment were usually allowed to return to good standing after paying some type of fine. This history may well have resounded in Jacques Attali’s ears when he described music is a simulacrum of violence in Noise: “the game of music resembles the game of power: monopolize the right to violence; provoke anxiety and then provide a feeling of security; provoke disorder and then propose order; create a problem in order to solve it” (28).

Of course, the broader multinational traditions of rough music have no guaranteed politics. Pots and pans were sometimes heard before lynchings in the American South, but also as improvised instruments for black musicians in New Orleans’ public squares. John Mowitt has even suggested that rough music is one of the cultural roots of the drummer’s trap kit, that backbone of rock and jazz music.

Image by Flickr User Scott Montreal

In the 20th century, varieties of rough music largely moved from domestic concerns to political protest, though again without guarantees. Rough music has greeted bank failures in Latin America and—most recently—Iceland; it was the sound of Spanish citizens opposed to their government’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq war. In Chile, protesters used pots and pans to protest Allende in the early 1970s, and later to protest Pinochet in the mid-1980s.

The casseroles thus have symbolic roots in charivari, but of course they are also creatures of social media and the particularities of Quebec culture and politics. A popular 2003 Loco Locass song “Libérez-nous des libéraux” (“Liberate Us From the Liberals”), written for the provincial election, mentions a charivari for Quebec’s liberal party.


And, as the student movement has already demonstrated, the protest cultures here are extremely vital. While New York’s May Day Parade was happy to attract tens of thousands in a metropolitan area of over ten million, participation here can be counted in the hundreds of thousands for a region with three million.

Rhythm and Participation

We need to listen to the casseroles protests to understand them. They are, after all, embodied acts in the old-fashioned sense, performed loudly and defiantly by people in the streets. They have a politics of volume and frequency, as well as rhythm.

In Percussion, Mowitt writes: “there is something extraordinary about the importance of beating, of creating a specifically percussive din … as though a distinctly sonoric response was called for when a breach in the community’s self-perception was at issue” (98). Rhythmic participation in the casseroles is a kind of political involvement, and participation of various kinds plays a role in most of the positive political visions associated with music.

Image courtesy of Flickr User Juan Madrigal

“Participation is the opposite of alienation,” wrote Charlie Keil in his essay “Participatory Discrepancies and the Power of Music”, and his account of music as a social process in “Motion and Feeling through Music” helps us better understand the casseroles’ particular combination of clangor and rhythm. Writing amidst massive changes in the 1960s, Keil challenged prevailing theories of musical affect, like Leonard Meyer’s, which assumed that musical meaning was lexical and syntactic, contained in melody and harmony. While Meyer attempted to draw universal conclusions about emotion from Western Art Music and its attendant values, Keil derived his theory of musical affect from African-American traditions like blues and jazz. Against the ideals of concert hall perfection and rational mastery, Keil—along with writers such as Christopher Small, Leroi Jones, and Steven Feld—argued that music should be understood as action. Thus, Small coined the term “musicking,” describing music not as a collection of rarefied texts performed by experts and professionals, but rather as a field of social action that includes all participants, from musicians to the people cleaning up after the event.

By the 1980s, Keil specified the affective power of music through its “participatory discrepancies,” the mixture of groove on one hand, and timbre and texture on the other (96): “music, to be personally and socially valuable, must be ‘out of time’ and ‘out of tune.’” Over the minutes and hours, the casseroles sway in and out of both, as people join and exit, and as the procession happens to each new block. Because of their unique musical character, the nightly manifs casseroles are profoundly inclusive. They are in many ways closer to the utopian ideals of collective musicking one finds in Keil and Small’s work, and that of Attali’s “composition,” than the so-called digital revolution in musical instruments. They are also good fun, as any child will tell you.

Contre la loi spéciale : les casseroles!, May 23, 2012 in Quartier Latin, Montreal, QC, CA, image by Flickr User . . .bung

Despite Anglophone press caricatures that recast the protests as the product of entitled, rabble-rousing students, the casseroles transcend differences that often structure local politics–like language, class, and race–as well as gender and age, which can present barriers in music-making (especially drumming) in addition to politics. Because the instruments are simple, cheap and improvised, almost anyone can join. Because the music is deliberately non-professional, the ideals of mastery and perfection and the weighty gendered and aged assumptions about who can be a “good musician” are inoperative. The beats are easy to pick up and play in time—and if you swing a little out there, all the better. I have heard skilled drummers syncopate catchy rhythms on single drums or cymbals, but most people are content to simply move in and out of time with everyone else. (My partner and I join with maracas and an otherwise-rarely-used buffalo drum—I am a bassist at heart—though we offer guests pots and pans).

Casseroles 26 mai 2012, Place Emilie Gamellin, Image by Flickr User scottmontreal

Taken together, volume and frequency work to immerse some in its proximal footprint, while hailing others at a distance. The sheer power and volume for someone inside a casseroles protest is hard to convey. My neighbor on a pot is a lot like my drummer hitting a cymbal. The transient (the sharp, initial part of the hit) can be piercing at close range due to frequencies at the very top of the audible range traveling at a high sound pressure level (this is why drummers often lose their hearing faster than guitarists). Inside the casseroles march, our ears are percussed with every hit; many people show up wearing earplugs.

The frequencies dull a bit farther away, and the more pitched sounds of the casseroles tickle the ear’s center of hearing in a gentler cacophony that is both declarative and invitational. Since the point of the protests is to audibly flout Law 78, the fact that they can be heard much further than they can be seen helps make this lawbreaking an expressly public and political act. Montreal mayor Gerard Tremblay acknowledged as much: “They can stay on their balconies to make noise. I’m in Outremont [a wealthy enclave next to Mile End and the Plateau, another epicenter of the protests] and I can hear it. No need to go onto the street, to walk around and paralyse Montreal.”

The volume’s territorial reach also works as an invitation to join in, either by banging along on one of Montreal’s ubiquitous porches, or by entering the procession itself. While at the other end of the frequency spectrum from Steve Goodman’s “bass materialism,” it affords some of the “collective construction of a vibrational ecology” he describes in Sonic Warfare (196), as the whole of the pots and pans becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Participants’ overwhelming response to the casseroles has been a kind of weighty sentimentality, an outpouring of emotion and relief. One can hear it in the viral video that has been making rounds:

and one can see it in letters like this one to the editors of Le Devoir:

Now people greet and talk. Now neighborhood meetings, discussions, vigils start up casually among neighbours on the steps and balconies of Montreal. The neighborhood will be less and less alien. This is a true political victory!

We should repeat this friendly beating [the evocation of tapage doesn’t quite work as well in English] possibly in other forms, until the land is occupied by neighbors who recognize one another, encounter one another each day by chance, and have known one another over the years. That is how we live in a place, that is how we become citizens.

My heart swells with joy.

Because “the clashing of pots and pans […] is so blatantly percussive, it is hard not to hear in the retributive structure of rough music something like a beating back—a backbeat, in short, or a response on the part of the community to what it perceives as a provocation, a call to act,“ writes Mowitt (98). The connections to charivari matter: the casseroles protests are local, neighborhood, community movements asking for a simple redress—the repeal of a heinous law. Of course there are many other resonances: signs can be seen challenging various aspects of neoliberalism alongside symbols of Quebec nationalism (which, I must remind Anglophone Canadians, is not automatically separatist). In my neighborhood, people collect food donations.

“If you keep us from dreaming, we’ll keep you from sleeping,” Image from Flickr user ScottMontreal

When we recently spoke about the differences between student activists in the 1960s and now, my former teacher Lawrence Grossberg pointed to the central role of music in the 1960s. Those movements had songs that everyone knew, and through which shared affect grew. Like many other observers, he doesn’t see music playing the same role today (perhaps supplanted by a wider range of media practices, as the usual story goes).

Apart from viral videos and the revivified Loco Locass tune, I’m not sure the current Quebec movement has unifying songs.

But it certainly has a groove we can move to.

Many thanks to Natalie Zemon Davis, Manon Desrosiers, Nicholas Dew, Dylan Mulvin, Derek Nystrom and Carrie Rentschler for comments on and conversations leading up to this piece. Thanks also to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman for the space to do it and the engaged editorial eye.

Jonathan Sterne teaches in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies and the History and Philosophy of Science Program at McGill University. He is author of The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Duke, 2003), MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke 2012); and numerous articles on media, technologies and the politics of culture. He is also editor of The Sound Studies Reader (Routledge, 2012). Visit his website at http://sterneworks.org.

Quebec’s #casseroles: on participation, percussion and protest

Tous les soirs vers 20 heures, plusieurs quartiers de Montréal et de Québec s’animent au tumulte des manifs de casseroles. J’habite tout près d’un des épicentres du mouvement, à l’intersection des rues Jarry et Saint-Denis, dans le quartier Villeray à Montréal. Ici, comme ailleurs, la manifestation démarre quand quelques personnes se mettent à traverser sans discontinuer des passages piétons en martelant poêles et chaudrons. Ce sont des voisins, des commerçants du coin, de jeunes familles, des personnes âgées, des retraités, des travailleurs et, surtout, des étudiants.


Si, parfois, les manifestations de casseroles peinent à s’élever au-dessus du simple tapage informe, la plupart de celles dans lesquelles j’ai été tiennent en réserve le vacarme pur et simple pour les moments où l’on croise une autre marche ou lorsqu’il est question de saluer ceux qui, sur leur balcon, se distinguent par leur ferveur pour la cause. Autrement, le chaos cède généralement la place à une structure rythmique qui vient encercler chacun et contenir le désordre. Parfois même, les rythmes s’accrochent aux slogans qu’on scande, du type : « la loi spéciale, on s’en câlisse! ».

Bientôt, les rangs grossissent et, sans qu’on sache trop comment, comme par magie ou par intuition, nous voilà en plein milieu d’un carrefour à bloquer la circulation. Les policiers, dépassés, se contentent de faire dévier le trafic dans les rues adjacentes. La marche finit par descendre le boulevard Saint-Laurent vers d’autres quartiers plus au sud (les itinéraires varient sans cesse). Elle se transforme alors en un gigantesque défilé de plusieurs milliers de personnes ou, comme le suggère E.P Thompson, en une parodie des processions politiques, annonçant pour ses sujets une « total publicity of disgrace » (“Rough Music Reconsidered,” p.6,8).

En politique, les chiffres ont leur importance. Depuis plus de 100 jours, une bonne partie des étudiants du Québec fait la grève pour s’opposer à une augmentation des frais de scolarité de plus de 70 % sur cinq ans. Certaines des manifestations se sont chiffrées à plusieurs centaines de milliers de personnes. Le 18 mai 2012, le gouvernement du Québec a voté la loi 78 pour tenter de mater le mouvement étudiant. Une de ses nombreuses dispositions aberrantes rend illégale toute manifestation spontanée de 50 personnes et plus si celle-ci n’a pas été approuvée au préalable par les autorités; un pique-nique rentre dans cette catégorie. Les manifestants doivent révéler non seulement leur itinéraire, mais aussi le moyen de transport qu’ils entendent utiliser. Selon la loi 78, une personne est coupable dès qu’elle se joint à une manifestation; c’est pour cela que tant de personnes sont descendues dans la rue.

Un charivari du vingt-et-unième siècle

Dans un article écrit en collaboration avec Natalie Zemon Davis pour le Globe and Mail, j’ai rapproché le phénomène des manifestations de casseroles à la tradition du charivari, qu’on retrouve dans les pays francophones depuis 700 ans. En anglais, on appelle rough music cette tradition, qui existe aussi dans des variantes italienne, allemande et espagnole et dont la pratique s’est propagée de l’Europe vers ses anciennes colonies. Des groupes de jeunes hommes déguisés, auxquels se joignaient parfois des personnes plus âgées, se retrouvaient le soir pour faire du tapage devant la maison d’un individu au comportement jugé déviant, généralement à l’aune de quelque norme hétérosexuelle. La faute, cependant, pouvait être de nature politique. Ainsi, comme l’a montré Allan Greer (The Patriots and the People, p.252-57), les charivaris jouèrent un rôle important au Bas-Canada lors de la rébellion manquée de 1837-38 et visèrent les fonctionnaires au service de la Couronne qui refusaient d’abandonner leurs fonctions.

Granville, “Eine Katzenmusik” lithograph published in La Caricature, 1 Sep. 1831

Dans la tradition française, les charivaris étaient (habituellement) une solution de rechange à la violence dans des cas où il était possible d’expier sa faute envers la communauté. Les charivaris avaient un caractère inclusif, les victimes rentrant généralement en grâce après avoir fait amende honorable. Il est probable que Jacques Attali, dans son livre Noise ait eu en tête de telles pratiques quand il décrit la musique comme un simulacre de la violence : « The game of music resembles the game of power: monopolize the right to violence; provoke anxiety and then provide a feeling of security; provoke disorder and then propose order; create a problem in order to solve it » (p.28).

Les diverses traditions internationales de la rough music n’ont évidemment pas toutes cette dimension politique. Le son des casseroles a parfois servi de prélude aux lynchages du sud des États-Unis, mais a aussi enrichi les improvisations des musiciens noirs dans les squares publiques de La Nouvelle-Orléans. John Mowitt suggère même que la rough music est une des origines culturelles de la batterie, pierre angulaire du rock et du jazz.

Image by Flickr User Scott Montreal

Au 20e siècle, les variantes de la rough music ont migré, en grande partie, des affaires domestiques vers les manifestations politiques, avec encore une fois quelques bémols. La rough music a ainsi servi de bande sonore à la faillite des banques en Amérique Latine et, plus récemment, en Islande; c’est au son des casseroles qu’en 2003 les Espagnols se sont insurgés contre leur gouvernement au sujet de l’engagement de leur pays en Irak. Au début des années 70, au Chili, les opposants d’Allende sortirent leurs casseroles, imités quinze ans plus tard par ceux de Pinochet.

Le phénomène des manifestations de casseroles puise donc ses racines symboliques dans le charivari. Mais pas seulement : il est aussi, bien entendu, une créature des médias sociaux et le fruit des particularismes politiques et culturels du Québec. Une célèbre chanson du groupe Loco Locass, Libérez-nous des libéraux, composée au lendemain des élections provinciales de 2003, appelle ainsi explicitement au charivari contre le Parti libéral du Québec.


Les traditions de militantisme, comme celle entre autres du mouvement étudiant, sont aussi très actives. Tandis que New York, forte de ses 10 millions d’habitants, s’enorgueillit d’attirer les manifestants par dizaines de milliers pour son défilé du premier mai, ils se comptent, à Montréal, une ville d’à peine trois millions d’habitants, par centaines de milliers.

Rythme et participation

Il faut écouter ces manifestations de casseroles pour en saisir le sens. En effet, elles sont avant tout des spectacles vivants (au sens classique du terme) donnés dans la rue, par bravade et à plein volume. Elles participent ainsi d’une politique du volume et des fréquences, une politique du rythme.

Dans son livre Percussion, Mowitt écrit : « There is something extraordinary about the importance of beating, of creating a specifically percussive din … as though a distinctly sonoric response was called for when a breach in the community’s self-perception was at issue » (p.98). La participation aux rythmes des casseroles est une forme d’engagement politique; de même, la participation sous toutes ses formes joue un rôle dans la plupart des visions politiques positives portées par la musique.

Image courtesy of Flickr User Juan Madrigal

Charlie Keil écrit dans son essai P“Participatory Discrepancies and the Power of Music”: « Participation is the opposite of alienation ». Sa description de la musique comme processus social permet de mieux saisir la combinaison particulière de bruit métallique et de rythme qu’on retrouve dans les manifestations de casseroles. Plongé au coeur des bouleversements des années 60, Keil entreprit de réfuter les théories alors dominantes de l’affect musical, comme celle de Leonard Meyer pour qui le sens de la musique était lexical et syntaxique, et résidait dans la mélodie et l’harmonie. Alors que Meyer cherchait à tirer des conclusions universelles sur l’émotion depuis l’art musical occidental et ses valeurs sous-jacentes, Keil, lui, élaborait une théorie de l’affect musical à partir des traditions afro-américaines, telles que le jazz et le blues. S’opposant aux idéaux de virtuosité formelle et de perfection des salles de concert, Keil — tout comme Christopher Small, Leroi Jones, et Steven Feld— soutenait que la musique doit avant tout être comprise comme action. C’est pourquoi Small a proposé le terme musicking : la musique doit être conçu non pas comme une collection de textes ésotériques joués par de rares experts et musiciens professionnels, mais plutôt comme un champ d’action sociale qui inclut tous les participants, des musiciens jusqu’à ceux qui s’occupent de nettoyer les rues après les manifestations.

Dans les années 80, Keil précisa la nature de ce pouvoir affectif de la musique grâce à sa description des participatory discrepancies (qu’on pourrait traduire par « hiatus dans la participation ») : un mélange de groove d’un côté, et de timbre et texture musicale de l’autre. Il écrit : « Music, to be personally and socially valuable, must be ‘out of time’ and ‘out of tune » (p.96). Au fil des minutes et des heures, les manifs de casseroles passent d’un ton à l’autre, suivent et perdent le rythme pour en créer d’autres à mesure que la procession grossit en nombre à chaque pâté de maisons. En raison de leur caractère musical unique, ces manifestations nocturnes demeurent profondément inclusives. Elles se rapprochent, à bien des égards, de l’utopie du collective musicking des travaux de Keil et de Small, et de celle de la composition décrite par Jacques Attali. En plus, et ça n’importe quel enfant vous le dira, ces manifestations sont franchement amusantes.

Contre la loi spéciale : les casseroles!, May 23, 2012 in Quartier Latin, Montreal, QC, CA, image by Flickr User . . .bung

N’en déplaise à la presse anglophone qui aime à caricaturer les manifestations comme la seule oeuvre d’étudiants gâtés et dissipés, les manifestations de casseroles viennent transcender les différences qui souvent structurent la politique locale — la langue, les classes sociales, les différences de race, de genre et d’âge —, tout ce qui peut faire obstacle à la production de musique (particulièrement celle faite à l’aide de percussions) ainsi qu’à l’implication citoyenne. Parce que les instruments sont improvisés, simples et pas chers, tout le monde peut participer. Délibérément non professionnelle, la musique se départit de ses idéaux de virtuosité et de perfection, et l’argument éculé selon lequel il y a un âge et un sexe pour être un « bon musicien » devient soudainement caduc. Les rythmes sont faciles à suivre et à reproduire; qui perd la cadence en créer de nouvelles, et ne s’en porte que mieux. J’ai entendu des batteurs chevronnés se lancer dans des rythmes syncopés sur des tambours ou des cymbales, mais la plupart des gens se contentent de suivre les cadences capricieuses du groupe. (Ma compagne et moi — un bassiste invétéré — avons déterré nos maracas et un vieux tambour en bison pour l’occasion, et laissons les chaudrons aux invités.)

Casseroles 26 mai 2012, Place Emilie Gamellin, Image by Flickr User scottmontreal

Pris ensemble, volume et fréquences pénètrent complètement les marcheurs qui tombent dans leur aire, en même temps qu’ils interpellent ceux qui se tiennent au loin. Il est difficile de rendre compte du volume et de la puissance purs ressentis à l’intérieur d’une manif de casseroles. Mon voisin qui se déchaîne sur son chaudron produit le même effet que mon batteur qui frappe sur une cymbale : à proximité, le son transitoire (la partie initiale, suraiguë du coup) peut être perçant parce qu’il mobilise des fréquences au faîte du champ auditif et qui voyagent à un niveau élevé de pression sonore (c’est pourquoi l’audition d’un batteur se détériore souvent plus vite que celle d’un guitariste). À l’intérieur d’une manif de casseroles, chaque coup atteint l’oreille; on voit ainsi beaucoup de manifestants porter des bouchons.

Bientôt, les fréquences ardues s’estompent quelque peu, les sons les plus aigus des casseroles finissent par amadouer l’oreille et se fondent en une douce cacophonie, à la fois déclarative et invitante. Puisque le but de ces manifestations est de bafouer la loi 78 de la manière la plus assourdissante possible, le fait qu’on puisse les entendre plus loin qu’on puisse les voir transforme ce délit en un acte public et politique exprès. C’est d’ailleurs ce que le maire de Montréal, Gérard Tremblay, reconnaît bien malgré lui : « Ils peuvent rester sur leur balcon pour faire du bruit. On va l’entendre le bruit. Moi, je suis à Outremont [une riche enclave entre le Mile-end et le Plateau, deux des épicentres du mouvement] et je l’entends le bruit. Pas besoin d’aller sur la rue, de se promener et de commencer à paralyser Montréal ».

La portée territoriale du volume fonctionne aussi comme une invitation à se joindre à la manifestation, soit en faisant du tapage sur les porches (emblématiques) de Montréal, soit en entrant dans la marche même. Si elle se situe à l’extrémité opposée du spectre sonore de ce bass materialism dont parle Steve Goodman dans son livre Sonic Warfare, cette portée territoriale du volume participe de cette « collective construction of a vibrational ecology » qu’il décrit (p.196). Là aussi, le tout formé par les casseroles finit par dépasser la somme de ses parties.

La réaction souvent unanime des participants aux manifs de casseroles est pleine d’effusion et teintée d’un sentiment de soulagement, comme on peut l’entendre dans cette vidéo virale qui a beaucoup circulé :

et comme on peut le constater dans bon nombre de lettres, comme celle-ci, envoyée au journal Le Devoir :

Désormais, les gens vont se saluer, se parler. Maintenant, mine de rien, s’amorcent entre voisins des rencontres, des discussions, des veillées sur les perrons et sur les balcons de Montréal. Le voisinage sera de moins en moins étranger. Ça, c’est une vraie de vraie victoire politique !

Il faut répéter ce tapage sympathique, éventuellement sous d’autres formes, jusqu’à ce que le territoire soit entièrement occupé par des voisins qui se reconnaissent, se parlent, se fréquentent au hasard des jours et se connaissent au fil des ans. C’est comme ça qu’on habite un lieu, c’est comme ça que nous devenons citoyens.

J’ai le coeur gonflé de joie.

Mowitt écrit : « [Because] the clashing of pots and pans […] is so blatantly percussive, it is hard not to hear in the retributive structure of rough music something like a beating back—a backbeat, in short, or a response on the part of the community to what it perceives as a provocation, a call to act » (p.98). Le rapprochement avec le charivari est ici capital : les manifs de casseroles sont en effet des mouvements locaux, communautaires qui, à l’échelle d’un quartier, demandent réparation : l’abrogation d’une loi liberticide. Évidemment, d’autres éléments entrent ici en résonance : on y voit autant de signes de défi contre certains aspects du néo-libéralisme que de symboles du nationalisme québécois (qui, il est bon de le rappeler aux Canadiens anglais, n’est pas forcément indépendantiste). Dans mon quartier, on organise même des collectes de denrées alimentaires.

“If you keep us from dreaming, we’ll keep you from sleeping,” Image from Flickr user ScottMontreal

Alors que je discutais récemment des différences existant entre l’agitation étudiante des années 60 et celle d’aujourd’hui avec mon ancien professeur Lawrence Grossberg, celui-ci soulignait le rôle de premier plan joué par la musique à l’époque : ces mouvements avaient des chansons que tout le monde connaissait et qui venaient renforcer des affects communs. Comme beaucoup d’autres, il considère que la musique n’assume plus aujourd’hui le même rôle (supplantée, peut-être, par un ensemble plus large de nouvelles pratiques médiatiques, comme le veut l’analyse habituelle).

Mis à part les vidéos virales et la reprise de la rengaine de Loco Locass, je ne suis pas certain que le mouvement québécois actuel possède de tels hymnes rassembleurs.

Une chose est incontestable cependant : elle a un groove sur lequel il fait bon marcher.

French Translation by Frédéric Milard, fredericmilard@yahoo.ca

Many thanks to Natalie Zemon Davis, Manon Desrosiers, Nicholas Dew, Dylan Mulvin, Derek Nystrom and Carrie Rentschler for comments on and conversations leading up to this piece. Thanks also to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman for the space to do it and the engaged editorial eye.

Jonathan Sterne teaches in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies and the History and Philosophy of Science Program at McGill University. He is author of The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Duke, 2003), MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke 2012); and numerous articles on media, technologies and the politics of culture. He is also editor of The Sound Studies Reader (Routledge, 2012). Visit his website at http://sterneworks.org.

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