Laurence Cliffe

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Destruction In Music

Destruction In Music

“If art reflects life, it does so with special mirrors.” – Bertolt Brecht, 1939

“Behind matter, Within matter, the creative spirit is hidden” – Wassily Kandinsky, 1909

The physical act of destruction in music, whether it is the immediate outright destruction of a musical instrument, or its more prolonged misuse that ultimately results in its destruction, is a legitimate, creative and often progressive form of artistic expression.

Here I aim to explore the history and theory behind some of these destructive acts, look at how they relate to wider cultural, political and social issues in society and the impact they have had on subsequent musical genres and ideas, whilst drawing some of my own conclusions from my investigations in support of my argument.

The image of Pete Townshend swinging his guitar over his head to come down crashing onto the stage in an ‘auto-destructive” climax to The Who”s My Generation. The sacrificial spectacle of Jimi Hendrix transforming his guitar into a flaming sonic mace at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. The photograph of Paul Simonon about to smash his bass guitar on the cover of The Clash”s London”s Burning. These are all examples of acts of destruction that are etched into the consciousness of contemporary popular music.

Acts that involve the outright destruction of musical instruments receive mixed responses. Townshend in Miles (1967) recalls some audience members being disgusted that he was destroying such expensive musical instruments, whilst others would come to gigs expecting and looking forward to it.

There are plenty of reasons why the destruction of a musical instrument would appear abhorrent to many people. Generally speaking good quality musical instruments are expensive items and an economic argument against its destruction is often employed: “I”ve been saving all my life for a guitar a tenth of that price, and there you are smashing it up on stage…” Townshend in Miles (1967) recounts an audience member saying.
For musicians this remains a difficult topic. Yaseen (2007) suggests that: ‘it is not uncommon for musicians to consider their instruments as being an extension of their bodies”. Presumably this is due, in part, to the closeness of the physical relationship between a musician and their instrument, a consequence of the hours of practice shared. This ‘prosthetic” argument echoes what McLuhan (1967) would term as a technological extension, the idea that a musical instrument could be a sensory extension of the human body or an extension of ‘the human perceptual apparatus”. There is also perhaps an element of ‘commodity fetishism” involved within this argument, a consequence of, as Marxists would argue, a material and commodity based society. One could also see the destruction of musical instruments as a rebellion against the material nature of society.

Some instruments more than others remain potent cultural symbols. Consider the piano, a destructivists favourite. According to Yaseen (2007) the piano is still regarded as an important symbol of western musical culture, the destruction of which could be considered an act of iconoclasm, if we define iconoclasm as the deliberate destruction of an established symbol or ‘icon”. ‘One could suggest by destroying a piano, one is opposing aesthetic dictates of elitist European bourgeois music culture…” (Yaseen, 2007) In theory we could extend this argument to include 1960”s popular music, the instrumental symbol of which would almost undoubtedly be the electric guitar, in which case the destruction of the electric guitar would demonstrate an opposition to the aesthetic dictates of the popular music of the time, Rock ‘n” Roll. However, as Yaseen (2007) interestingly points out, the very act of destroying a musical instrument could be considered an elitist act itself. One needs to be in a position of substantial financial security in order to simply destroy a perfectly good musical instrument. This also leads one to consider whether some musical instruments are more disposable than others simply because they are less expensive or less culturally important.

To consider the act of destroying a musical instrument as being iconoclastic puts it in sociological context. Gamboni (1997) offers several interesting and important points regarding the vandal versus artist debate, a familiar argument when looking at such practices as street graffiti or the defacing of public works of art. He argues that there are perceived acceptable and unacceptable forms of iconoclasm dependent on the status quo and uses the destruction of public art works in post-soviet Russia as an example. The destruction of important cultural symbols, those that have strong political and social connotations, for example the piano or electric guitar, is agreeable or disagreeable to the onlooker depending on their political point of view. He also suggests that ‘ignorance is the key to the misunderstanding of iconoclasm”.

In his 1967 interview with Pete Townshend, Miles describes The Who as ‘the most popular among many auto-destructive groups on the scene at the moment”. The term ‘auto-destructive” was coined by Gustav Metzger in his 1959 art manifesto entitled ‘Auto Destructive Art”. Townshend studied under Metzger at Ealing School Of Art and described himself as being ‘fantastically interested in auto-destruction” (Miles, 1967). Metzger, a Polish Jew who escaped to Britain as a boy just prior to World War II, is best known for his auto-destructive art installations and sculptures based on his 1959 manifesto. These art pieces are often conceived in such a way as to give them a limited life span, and often contain a process of destruction as part of the work of art, making them site-specific and time-specific. Metzger also founded the influential Destruction In Art Symposium or DIAS whose members included Yoko Ono and John Latham. Some key concepts contained within Metzger”s manifesto include:

‘Auto-destructive art is primarily a form of public art for industrial societies.”
‘Auto-destructive art can be created with natural forces, traditional art techniques and technological techniques.”
‘The amplified sound of the auto-destructive process can be an element of the total conception.”
‘Auto-destructive paintings, sculptures and constructions have a life time varying from a few moments to twenty years. When the disintegrative process is complete the work is to be removed from the site and scrapped” 

(From: Auto-Destructive Art Manifesto, Gustav Metzger, 1959)

Metzger”s ideas remain important in a musical context not just for their influence on Townshend and other guitar destroyers but also because we can see the connection between destruction in art and destruction in society. Metzger”s own tumultuous past, the rest of his family was murdered in the Holocaust, and the destructive tensions of the atomic age could be considered key influences on his ideas. Stiles (1992) states: ‘Destruction art bears witness to the tenuous conditionality of survival. It is one of the few cultural practices to redress the general absence of discussion about destruction in society.” Far from being a negative side-effect of negative aspects of society Stiles considers destruction art to play an important part as a ‘social reminder” and suggests that it is almost an antidote to the popular media”s santisation of war and destruction and such Orwellian terms as: ‘friendly fire”, ‘smart bombs” and ‘collateral damage”.

The idea that a piece of destructive art is not only performing the role of social commentator but is also a positive force for social good is not limited to Stiles (1992). The Hindu goddess Kali, the goddess of death and change, is seen as both a destructive force and a creative force, removing the old to make way for the new (Richardson, 2010).
Furthermore, to return to McLuhan (1967) and his idea that the environment that man creates for himself becomes his medium for defining his role in it. McLuhan (1967) suggests that the advent of print created linear or, sequential thought, if we think of the act of the destruction of a musical instrument as an act of deconstruction, one could argue that it creates the ability to think about, approach and even play that instrument in a new and different way which was not previously possible.

This concept that something good can come from destruction is also suggested in Baudrillard (1979): 
‘…total liberty, or total indeterminacy are not opposed to meaning. One can produce meaning simply by playing with chance or disorder.” This quote from Baudrillard”s Suduction suggests that both genuine and new meaningful creative content can be produced from chance, disorder and what he terms” ‘total liberty” and ‘total indeterminacy”. One could include the liberty to destroy as a ‘total liberty” and the resulting product or products from the process of destruction as totally indeterminate.

Baudrillard”s mention of terms such as ‘chance”, ‘indeterminacy” and ‘disorder” are of more interest to us in a musical context as these are key terms used by some of the pioneers of experimental music, such as Cage (1973) and Xanakis (1971), in order to explain a process for musical experimentation. As we could describe the process of destruction as being disordered and the outcomes as indeterminate and full of chance we can begin to see a link between the destruction of a musical instrument and theories of experimental music. We could even suggest that the destruction of a musical instrument is a type of experimental music.

There are some interesting distinctions to be confirmed regarding what constitutes an act of ‘destruction” and an act of ‘preparation”. Prolonged preparation may, for example, ultimately result in the destruction of the ‘prepared” musical instrument. Cowell (2007), like Russsolo (1913) in his Futurist Manifesto ‘The Art Of Noises”, puts forward an argument for the musical aesthetics of noise. His early use of ‘extended” or ‘prepared” piano techniques is an advocacy for the unconventional treatment of musical instruments in order to create unconventional sounds. It”s possible that these acts of preparation, for example delivering strong fist blows to the keyboard, climbing inside to manipulate the strings by hand, were considered quite radical and destructive at the time. The fine line between destruction and preparation is also echoed by Stephen Scott of The World Association for Ruined Piano Studies (WARPS), an organisation that dedicates itself to preparing and performing on pianos left outside for considerable periods of time. Scott (2010) claims: ‘a ruined piano is a piano prepared by nature”.

I have dealt so far chiefly with the outright destruction of musical instruments but I would like to turn our attention to more subtle forms of destruction in music, the influences of which may lie in some of the previously mentioned theories and arguments. A brief look at the history of the distorted guitar sound shows us that whole swathes of music has been based on the destructive act of slashing and punching holes in speaker cones in order to achieve new unique and interesting sounds, prior to the invention of built in overdrive and distortion effects in guitar amplifiers.

On a more contemporary note, Cascone”s (2007) piece on the ‘Aesthetics of failure” includes an account from the German sound experimentation group ‘Oval”. In this they describe how they defaced the underside of CD”s in order to make them skip whilst playing. They describe that often this results in ‘horrible noise” though it can, at times, produce ‘wondrous tapestries of sound” and reveal a ‘subtextual layer” embedded within the medium”s technology. Thus this destruction of the musical medium has enabled the exploration of new sonic possibilities. This approach has spawned a hole musical genre called ‘Gitch” a technique that has now become ubiquitous in electronic music production, with filters and drum machines being programmed to replicate these ‘glitchy” sounds. These techniques, like other experimental music, fully utilise the Cagean ideas of chance and indeterminacy as a compositional technique. Others, such as the German musician and sound artist Carsten Nicolai (Young, 2010) force the distortion and partial destruction of recorded sound through the repetitive use of mechanical and digital recording mediums in order to induce malfunction, or what Casrten terms as ‘active mutation”. He likens this process to the repetitive use of a photocopier, recopying the copy until indeterminate mutations resulting from the technology of the machine itself become features within the composition.

In conclusion, it appears that destructive techniques play an integral part in musical history, shaping musical genres, developing new sounds and new approaches to playing instruments. I am aware that there are different types, varieties and levels to the destructive process, and at first glance it appears that a distinction should be made between the act of destruction and the sound of destruction. Though according to the instructions contained in Metzger”s 1959 manifesto both these fall under the remits of ‘auto-destructive” art. It is also the case the two are explicably linked, as the sound of destruction requires the process of destruction, it is perhaps a question of which is more compositionally important, and which should be included as a part of the work.


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