We went to bed in a mood of nervous excitement, the same sort of excitement you get from witnessing a very loud and very close thunderstorm from indoors. The UK wouldn’t vote to leave the European Union, not when that would be a huge disaster and a tragedy.
That sort of craziness only happens in fiction. In real life, at the end of the day, people vote relatively sensibly, and nothing really bad happens. That night, however — that week — it was strange and intriguing to believe that it could happen. The thing is, really bad things do happen, things that tear the future to shreds. Lightning really does strike.I woke up at something like 4am and in that derealised haze between dreams and wakefulness I went to check my phone. The Leave vote was edging ahead. Still, I thought, that’s because the votes of big cities aren’t decided until later on.
Or something. But as I crept through the dark, I became aware of an earworm — a tune that spins in your head over and over, urging you to whistle it, play it, type it into Google. It was Wendy Carlos’s arrangement of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the ‘Ode to Joy,’ for Moog synthesisers and vocoder, used in the film A Clockwork Orange. It’s a bizarre and relentless track, huge and roiling yet uncannily childlike and kitsch, its lines weaving forward immensely and organically at one point and ticking along like a wind-up toy parade at others, all of it absorbed by the triumphant yet distanced howls of voices in the circuits.This earworm persisted the next day and over the following week, getting more insistent as events in the UK rushed on. Nigel Farage on the news proclaiming a victory for ‘real people’ (as opposed to the unreal, surreal and hyperreal people).
David Cameron’s voice cracking as he restated his hopes for the UK as a welcoming country, before resigning. The cold, unsmiling, clearly daunted and pyrrhic victory speeches of leading Tory Brexiteers Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (both of whom would later crash out of the running to be the next Prime Minister, against all expectations). The hundreds of reports of xenophobic abuse coming from all over the country. The left-wing Labour party in chaos as dozens of MPs round on the recently elected socialist leader, desperate that the party should now represent ‘the progressive case against freedom of movement.’ I was soon playing Carlos’s Beethoven at high volumes, again and again. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is one of the most complicated pieces of music in history. I don’t mean that it’s complex in terms of ‘the music itself’ — just the apparently neutral notes on the page — though in its time it was pretty unprecedented. I mean that it is one of the most complicated pieces of music in history.
Beethoven’s Ode to Joy has accumulated cultural and political baggage of apparently every different kind, and, especially, in extremes. It has played the role of humanity’s highest and most noble achievement and an incitement to horrifying violence both. And it is the anthem of the European Union.
Composed in 1823, the Ninth Symphony seems to lie at the very core of Romanticism in Western Music: the world of great genius men and their forward-thinking struggles for sublime, ever more epic and triumphant visions of the human soul in the Universe. These assumptions about Art and Music are still influential today, and have lived on in popular music particularly. The story really begins after Beethoven’s death, when the Ninth passes into legend. The composer Richard Wagner, now notorious for his antisemitism, praised Beethoven and his Ninth particularly as a hero of German music, pointing the way, in the Ode to Joy’s groundbreaking incorporation of voice into the symphony, to an artwork of the future, which Wagner attempted to establish in his own operas. It played a huge part as propaganda both within nationalism and trans-national humanism. It was a favourite of Hitler’s and would be performed on his birthday, and yet it was also heard in concentration camps. It was heard in Tiananmen Square, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after 9/11. During the 1970s, it was adopted as an anthem by both the racist colonial state of Rhodesia and the European Union.Just before this, in 1971, was Wendy Carlos’s soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange. Carlos’s version of the Ode to Joy both brings out and adds to the piece’s complex and contradictory character.
Her album Switched-On Bach (1968) had arranged J. S. Bach’s keyboard pieces for Moog and were an enormous commercial success, a breakthrough moment for electronic music occurring in the heightened juxtaposition of ‘classic’ and ‘modern,’ as if it took listeners something of what they knew to help them accept something they didn’t. Giorgio Moroder, who went on to produce Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love,’ cites Switched-On Bach as the inspiration for his interest in synthesisers. The record also captured the imagination of Stanley Kubrick, who had previously drawn extensively on classical music for his film soundtracks.Electronic music has attracted and continued to attract a disproportionate number of members of racial, sexual and gender minorities. It is (or was) a new world where rules and conventions had not yet been written, a world that resonated with outsiders in ways that the same-old aesthetics simply couldn’t. Wendy Carlos began her gender transition in the late 1960s, at a time when such things were rarer, yet she would release music and appear in public as Walter Carlos until the late 1970s, even to the point of wearing fake facial hair. Today, non-normative gender and sexual presentation is a key element in underground electronic music, the pains and freedoms it explores and expresses.In the novel A Clockwork Orange, the Ode to Joy is a source of intense inspiration for the ultraviolent activities of the delinquent-youth protagonist Alex (in the following decade, musicologist Susan McClary would famously claim that an earlier section of the symphony expressed ‘the throttling murderous rage of the rapist’). While Carlos used synthesisers for the orchestra, she used a vocoder for the lyrics. This machine is as politically fraught as the symphony itself: during the Second World War it was secretly used to encode speech to be sent around the world, and as such was used to order the attack on Hiroshisma. The reasons for and meanings behind the Ode’s electronification in the Clockwork Orange film are provocatively ambiguous. Perhaps, like the film’s milk spiked with drugs, this is a false, plastic Beethoven, a perversion suitable for Alex’s warped subjectivity and the failed, morally bankrupt scientific modernity of the world he inhabited. This would not see Carlos’s craft in a flattering light, and in certain ways could even approach transphobia. But equally, the synthesised Beethoven might be read as an alienation from, distance from, the familiar and the traditional, the bringing of it into a new world, revealing it in a new light, good or bad (or both). Moreover, of course, as the film continues, the Ode to Joy is turned against Alex, when the state instils in him a Pavlovian response to violence through the torturous Ludovico Technique, holding his eyes open as he hears it and is made to feel nauseous in an effort to viscerally teach him that violence is wrong. Then, it is argued by an opposing political faction, as a human being he loses all joy and free will, which was represented by the Ode to Joy — even if it was tainted by and inspirational for self-assertion to the point of violence.
A Clockwork Orange is not a film with an easy moral conclusion: it offers a horrifying choice between violent freedoms and violent oppressions. Similarly, Carlos’s soundtrack is poised uncertainly between difference and alienation.
Carlos’s version of the Ode to Joy encapsulates and intensifies all the problems of the Ninth as a bizarrely intense piece of music and as music in history.
Can one piece of music possibly now contain such a weight of meaning and contradiction? The thing is, all music contains these things, the Ode and Carlos’s Ode just especially obviously so. It is, by definition, caught between difference and repetition, and the best and worst of both strategies are in a precarious balance.
Appropriately enough, the feeling of momentous contradiction that the most awe-ful music inspires, of fear and excitement, can be felt as both an impasse and a liberation. But what did Carlos’s Ode to Joy mean after Brexit? In the run up to the referendum I had become so obsessed with sarcastically adopting the warped subjectivity of Leave voters that on the morning of the referendum, I cheerfully told my housemate I was looking forward to ‘taking my country back.’ She warned me that my sarcasm was so pronounced that I might end up voting ‘Leave’ by mistake. And Carlos’s Ode to Joy is, to some degree, an experimental adoption of an altered subjectivity (of which sarcasm one of the more straightforward varieties).
It could be a caricature of the monstrous EU that Leave voters had been made to believe in. As Carlos’s Ode went round and round, I thought ‘You probably think this is what the EU is, what fraternity and solidarity is. Maybe you’re even right, sort of’ — the EU, through its perverted anthem, as false modernity run amok, oppressive, domineering, alien (Britain joined what would become the EU just two years after A Clockwork Orange in 1973, and voted overwhelmingly to remain in it by referendum in 1975).
Because of course, as everyone was quick to point out prior to the vote, the EU is (or was) hardly an ideal prospect, from whatever position along a spectrum of progressive views you might want to take. Faced with the reality of the Brexit vote, I quickly scrambled for my smash-glass-in-case-of-emergency progressive Brexit (sometimes ‘Lexit,’ left exit) scenarios: maybe the EU was bad and Brexit is going to make more amenable to change for the better, through however convoluted (and dangerous) a path. But a vote for Brexit in the UK was a vote under the auspices of xenophobia, however it was dressed up. It has also been called a expression of alienation from political discourse. That means a lot of different things, but it’s correct. This year, the UK, the US, Germany, and so many communities around the world, find themselves, like the world and the music of A Clockwork Orange, caught between violent freedoms and violent oppressions, namely that freedom with a face we want to be able to trust: democratic difference. Democracy is voting for hatred, and yet hatred is ready to subsequently overrule democracy.
The dystopian future that the world has been dreaming of for decades is on the horizon, is already here; the thunderstorm is very loud and very close. The question is: is it exciting? Or is it too close and dangerous? Another way to put this: is it for art and music to play with?Underground music has been sarcastically adopting the warped subjectivity of the dystopian, anti-human citizen for a while now, in lots of different ways. And it’s nothing new: UK punk rock did this archetypically when its awful patriotism exploded into the summer of 1976. But the excitement of sarcasm is a consequence of the privilege of safety, the way that experiencing a thunderstorm indoors generates a thrill as long as you’re safe from harm. But more and more people are in harm’s way. Some — minorities of many kinds — have always been in harm’s way, have never lived through anything but the storm.Is sarcastically reproducing the dystopian thrill of the storm just too close to — or ultimately just as good as — voting for it (by ‘mistake’ or otherwise)?
The name for this I and others have used a lot recently has sometimes been ‘accelerationism.’ British left-wing figurehead Owen Jones recently used the word on Facebook to describe people who would vote for Trump if they couldn’t get Bernie, to make things better by knowingly making things worse. There probably aren’t that many people of colour in the US who would do the same.
Who needs dehumanising machine music when you have Trump, when you have the rise of hatred the world over?
It doesn’t seem quite as cool as it did a few years ago, does it? Although in the bigger picture my own particular breaking point is basically arbitrary, for me it was the week of the shooting in Orlando and the murder of British MP and Remain campaigner Jo Cox by a man who shouted ‘Britain First’ as he killed her. My increasingly distanced interest in dystopian art and dystopian clubbing turned into something like outright sickness. Other people got to that point long before me (or were always there), and other people have still to get to that point.And yet the future cannot be avoided. Musically or otherwise, we are being constantly dragged into it with kicks and screams.
There is an important difference, of course, between the future and the futuristic.
The futuristic is a costume, a thrill, a performance, a caricature, all from within the safety of the present. The future is what actually happens to you and at some point, whoever you are, it will hurt you. What can art and music help us to do and to say before that point?
As one heartbreaking tweet said it the wake of Orlando, ‘The gay agenda has always been “enjoy every moment you can before a hateful person takes it away.” Is it possible to have an alien music, of love, difference and love for difference, without the violence of alienation?
Is it possible for us to have categories and identities — in performance, desire, genre, being — without walls? Is it possible to have imagination without ‘post-truth?’ Realism and reality without defeat? Solidarity without appropriation? Privacy without isolation? Safety without constraints on freedom? Technocracy without technophobia? Passion and pride without enemies? These are the questions underground culture — the culture of the weirdos, of those near the storm, of those on the move — will be forced to answer in the years ahead.