INSTRUMENT MATTERS. AN ESSAY BY MICK COUNIHAN. This essay was originally published accompanying an exhibition of drawings by Neilson held at Australian Galleries, Glenmore Road, Sydney, May-June, 2012

1:56pm Fri. June 15th 2012

In February 2010, some 20,000 Melburnians rallied in defense of live music. Their main target was a liquor-licensing regime which, with the objective of reducing drunken street violence, was enforcing such strict conditions on licensed venues playing live music that the viability of many smaller ones was at risk. The point of the Save Live Australian Music (SLAM) campaign was thus both to query the implicit linkage of music and violence and to support the live scene of pubs and small clubs which has long been a feature of Melbourne cultural life. The event itself was fun, the crowd larger than anticipated, the cause worthy. It was only later that I developed some misgivings.

Someone sent me a photo of myself at the rally holding a placard that I barely registered at the time. It said, ‘MUSIC DOES NOT CAUSE VIOLENCE’. Well… yes and no. Even granted the context of the SLAM campaign, there is something rather disturbing about this slogan. Is it claiming that music does not cause violence because it cannot, of its nature, ‘cause’ anything? Or that music can only generate positive, pastoral effects (like the good-humoured fellowship of the 2010 demonstration) but not nasty and negative ones (such as violence)? Or that music does not cause violence here and now though it might have done so at other times or elsewhere? In short, like other truisms of this sort (‘guns don’t kill people, people do’), the slogan proposes a truth so partial that it amounts to a lie.

The musical instruments depicted by Peter Neilson certainly seem peaceful enough. Some are in recovery mode, catching breath after long hours of practice, perhaps contemplating career options. Some lean casually against walls, some seem a bit underdressed, some (the clarinet) look spruced up for a night on the town. But however at pause the instruments represented here may appear to be, we know that they, like all objects, carry a weight and exert a force in the world, that they ‘bend space around themselves’ as Bruno Latour would say, (at the simplest level think of how instruments shape the posture of those playing them). That is, they resist being merely instrumental. And, like other social actors they invariably participate in all sorts of shady deals, dubious liaisons, Faustian pacts. (Exactly what is in that violin case?)

In the weeks after I was asked to write these notes I came across the following:

• (newspaper opinion piece) Classical Music as a Weapon. Discusses the use of classical music to influence behaviour in public spaces. Examples: Schubert piano trio played over tinny PA to drive the homeless from the New York Port Authority bus terminus; a school in Derby, UK, forces disobedient students to listen to an hour of classical music. Behaviour improved by 50 percent.

• (travel book about the tropics) ‘Bells, long credited with special powers, have been sounded to seed rain clouds, quieten volcanoes, drive off demons, purify pestilential towns and ensure good harvests.’ The Sicilian Vespers massacre was named after the peal of bells that triggered it while bells also cued the slaughter of French Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s day 1572.

• (Peter Guralnick’s Searching for Robert Johnson) Tommy Johnson was an influential delta blues player, 15 years older than the unrelated Robert. According to his brother, Tommy described how ‘he sold hisself to the devil’,

‘If you want to learn how to play anything you want play and to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a crossroad is…. be sure to get there just a little ‘fore 12:00 that night…. A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.’

The Walter Hill film, Crossroads, an entertaining reprise of such stories, ends with both a reference to the tales of fiddling contests in which young contenders challenge the Devil and a musical allusion to another instrumentalist whose genius was ascribed to diabolical assistance, Niccolò Paganini.

• (a spy novel) A CIA operative queries a Hungarian revolutionary in Budapest 1956,

‘I understand about the radio and knife,’ Ebby told him…. ‘But why the violin?’

‘Not possible to make war without a violin,’ Zoltan explained seriously. ‘Gypsy violinists led Magyars into battle against goddam Mongols … ’

• (a website) A rembetika musician recalling Greece between the wars,

‘You have no idea of the general outcry that the bouzouki created at that time. It was an instrument played by criminals, by people sentenced to die. Today, anyone can touch its strings without further thinking. Me, when I hold one, it’s a sacred thing. For it has survived the worst ordeals. That was the reason the police were against it and against me also. They were afraid of the contagion. Such was the power of the bouzouki.’

Many of the instruments represented in Peter’s pictures spent extended periods during their long and complex biographies when they were condemned for their baleful moral influence, their aesthetic failings and their disreputable company. And rightly so. Jazz famously consorted with gangsters in Storyville, Kansas City, Owney Madden’s Cotton Club and the like. Some commentators even ascribe the decline of Chicago jazz to the jailing of its patron and protector, Al Capone in 1931. Music has provided a soundtrack for every mafia from the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta to Mexican narcotraficantes. And there are a host of more modest and more evocative stories: Mississippi bluesman and mandolinist, Charlie McCoy, playing Italian songs in mafia restaurants; slide-player Kokomo Arnold becoming a bootlegger; Jimmie Rodgers’ trick of paying a first instalment on a new guitar then hocking it for cash and leaving town; the small town sheriff who arrested peddlers and guitar players on sight; inked guitar strings used to imprint prison tattoos.

‘The sexual nature of the tango has often been noted,’ wrote Jorge Luis Borges, ‘but not so its violence.’ If we were to pursue the multiple associations and ominous complicities between musical instruments, their performers and their milieus we could follow Borges to the Arrabales, the urban fringe barrios of Buenos Aires in his youth, with their taverns and brothels and strutting, dandified street louts and, especially, the bandit gauchos and duelling knife fighters whose ethos, ‘the utter shamelessness, the pure joy of courage’, he found embodied in the early tangos. Borges stridently defended this tango, the dance of male violence, against new imported influences (such as the concertina) that he accused of making the tango more sentimental and effeminate. In this new, respectable tango, he railed, ‘there is a trivial vulgarity, a taste of infamy that the tango of the knife and the brothel never suspected.’

Near the end of his life, Borges came to renounce his earlier investment in the ‘bloody mythology’ of daggers and guitars, but, shorn of any such romanticism, some of the contrasts he made are echoed in Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes. The accordion, in its many versions and like the fiddle, has been central to family festivities and communal celebrations in Europe and it accompanied its owners as they dispersed in migration and exile around the globe. This novel, surely one of the richest accounts we have of the life of a musical instrument, tracks a small green button accordion from its construction in a Sicilian village to its travels across the relentlessly grim landscape of the immigrants’ new world. The accordion becomes many things and forms many relationships; it is stolen, lovingly repaired, exchanged as a gift, used as a hiding place, treated as junk. It is desired, denounced (‘the instrument of unsuccessful men, of poor immigrants and failures’) and spurned in favour of newer and more fashionable instruments. It is an emblem both of the maintenance of ethnic cultures and of their erosion. It is linked to many strange and obscure deaths. In the end it loses its most distinctive quality, its voice,

‘From a distance the voice of the instrument sounded hoarse and crying, reminding listeners of the brutalities of love, of various hungers. The notes fell, biting and sharp; it seemed the tooth that bit was hollowed with pain.’

A last example: Dock Boggs, a miner turned moonshiner in the mountains of West Virginia, a white man who played banjo like a blues guitar and recorded a few sides in the late 1920s just as the recording industry was splitting old time music (and to a degree, its instruments) along a racial divide: hillbilly for whites, blues for blacks. Greil Marcus (The Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes), in a powerful chapter on the violence in Bogg’s life and music, writes,

‘One could speak of Boggs accompanying himself on his banjo, but that’s not how it feels. The banjo creates a tremendous internal drive in Country Blues, carrying the storyteller, not forward to his certain appointment, but elsewhere. Small notes, blues notes, weighted down with a kind of nihilistic autonomy, a refusal to recognise any maker, any master…’

The SLAM slogan attributes an implausible innocence to music. Its apparent antithesis, the slogan on Woody Guthrie’s guitar, ‘This machine kills fascists’, projects an impossible potency. Peter Neilson makes no such hyperbolic claims. He says, ‘Look closely. Listen well. Handle with care’.

Mick Counihan

Associate, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University, and perhaps more importantly, one time folk-music columnist in the 1960s pop music paper Go Set.

March 2012

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