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books In a Land Before iTunes

The worldwide cultural revolution initiated by the invention of records and record players has been vast and helps define what it has meant to be both "modern" and "post-modern." In this new book, Michael Denning surveys the scope and breadth of this revolution. Noise Uprising, says reviewer Tim Barker, "offers an ambitious, if somewhat speculative map of the connections" between the dizzying array of styles and genres of modern popular, vernacular music.

Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution 

Michael Denning

ISBN: 9781781688564

By Tim Barker

Every ship the traveler takes today,” a New York Times correspondent wrote in 1922, “throbs with the staccato cacophony of jazz.” His report, with examples from Hawaii to Palestine, seems to confirm the familiar story of how American pop music engulfed the entire world, dictating listening habits in other countries and spreading the soft power of American culture. But according to Michael Denning’s new book Noise Uprising, what really happened was the opposite. For observers like the Times reporter, “jazz” described not just one specific American genre, but a broad range of new forms of dance music which had swept the colonial world since the end of World War I. These sounds, while related, all had different origins, drawing on local traditions and the circulation of musicians and records across colonial shipping routes. Far from derivative, their radical originality both reshaped the way we hear music and contributed to the triumph of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s.

Denning’s story starts in 1925, when engineers perfected the technique of electrical recording and the 78 RPM phonograph record supplanted sheet music as the basic unit of the music industry. A handful of Western record companies spent the next five years recording local music across the world. Some of the music they recorded—Indonesian kroncong, South African marabi, Shanghainese huangse yinyue—remains unfamiliar to most Americans. Others, like jazz and tango, have become ubiquitous. The quantity and diversity of recordings from this period reflect the record companies’ basic indifference to the music they put out: They were willing to record anything that might persuade local consumers they needed a record player.

Most of the recording sessions took place in the port cities, from New Orleans to Zanzibar, which knit together an economic world still structured by empire. Colonial ports, in Denning’s descriptions, were sonic hothouses, where brass bands and missionary singers mixed with local musicians and the music of visiting sailors. A record company representative spending a few days in a port could make dozens of vibrant recordings, and the result might be sold on the other side of the world (the records themselves were made of shellac, a colonial product extracted from South Asia). Denning evokes this manic ecosystem by quoting Claude McKay’s novel Banjo: “the player-piano was spitting out a ‘Charleston’ recently arrived in Marseilles, while Martinique, Madagascan, and Senegalese soldiers, dockers, maquereaux—and, breaking the thick dark mass in spots, a white soldier or docker—were jazzing with one another…”

The varieties of local music recorded during the phonograph boom were not quite “folk” music rooted in the rhythms of rural life. Instead Denning calls them “vernacular” music—music performed and listened to by the people, as opposed to the high tradition of “classical music,” guarded by a small, highly trained group of musicians and mostly performed in formal settings. Vernacular music, like vernacular languages—Spanish, Italian, etc—belongs to everyday life, whereas classical music is more like Latin, used by officials and in high art. And just as vernacular literature gained strength with the invention of the printing press, the rise of vernacular music began with the phonograph.

But if vernacular music spread from the ports, were the recordings themselves part of colonialism?  Anti-colonial activists such as Frantz Fanon and Nie Er (author of the revolutionary Chinese national anthem)—were concerned by what Denning calls “the commercial packaging of exotic sounds” for in wealthier Western consumers. These anxieties have been echoed by postcolonial critics of the “imperialist circulation of feelings,” a process of cultural appropriation that parallels the colonial theft of natural resources. 

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As an avowed Marxist, Denning hardly denies that the phonograph boom, driven by the imperatives of accumulation, turned local cultures into mass-produced commodities. But in his view there is more to the story. Every social order—including colonial rule—maintains itself partly through its musical forms, which soundtrack its most important ceremonies and organize the rhythms of everyday life. The recording boom deeply disturbed those structures: New records captured timbres and rhythms that could not easily be translated into sheet music, and gave the music of outcasts—“Gypsies,” hash-smoking Greek dockworkers, Afro-Cubans—worldwide currency, which Denning proposes “prefigured a new world, a ‘third’ world.”

The wide availability of phonograph players, meanwhile, made music an infinitely adaptable part of everyday life.  “On streets lined with coffee houses,” Denning quotes one Turkish observer, “the cacophony of forty-odd gramophones playing all at once will gnaw your ear, scratch your heart, and blow your head up.” The boundaries between music and mere noise were rewritten to include approaches to rhythm and improvisation that are now taken for granted. And the recognition of affinities between the various forms of music—evident in hybrids like “kroncong rumba,” “hula blues,” “flamenco tango,” and “gypsy jazz”—was one way that the colonized could imagine new, international ties of solidarity.

The stock market crash in 1929 soon ended the recording boom, but the long-range effects continued. In the “folk revivals” of the post-World War II period, vernacular phonograph musics were drafted as nationalist symbols. In Brazil, for example, the populist leader Getulio Vargas gave official status to once-reviled samba music, while in post-civil war Greece classical composers held up rebetika as a unifying force. In the postmodern “world music” boom, the same music was recycled by Western rock stars like Paul Simon as a potent signifier of authenticity and cosmopolitanism. In both cases, Denning holds, the revivalists overlooked the fact that the music in question was not folk but something much more modern. Still, the success of these later movements demonstrates the ongoing power of music recorded nearly a century ago.

The scope of Denning’s book—dozens of genres across five continents—is impressive, but how coherent is it? He usually defines his subject as dance-oriented urban vernacular music with origins in colonial ports and recorded between 1925 and 1930. But for long sections, the focus narrows considerably to “the black Atlantic, the gypsy Mediterranean, and the Polynesian Pacific.” At other times, the focus includes almost everything. How, for example, does American old-time music (the precursor to country) relate to “the polyphony of colonial ports” and sonic “guerrilla insurgency?” Old-time artists such as Fiddlin’ John Carson and the Carter Family make scattered appearances in support of isolated claims, but it’s not clear how they are supposed to fit into the broader argument.

Denning’s earlier work shared the world-historical framing but also devoted long discussion to specific examples. (His last book, The Cultural Front, contains full chapters on The Grapes of Wrath and Dos Passos’s USA trilogy). By contrast, rances in support of isolated claims, but it’s not clear how they are supposed to fit into the broader argument.Denning’s earlier work shared the world-historical framing but also devoted long discussion to specific examples. (His last book, The Cultural Front, contains full chapters on The Grapes of Wrath and Dos Passos’s USA trilogy). By contrast, Noise Uprising rarely lingers on particular recordings or spends more than a few pages on one genre. At points, Whitmanesque catalogs become overwhelming. We read of “cafés, taverns, shebeens, brothels, cabarets, ‘black and tans,’ dance halls, hotels, and vaudeville theaters”; and of “debates over figures like Umm Kulthūm, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Noble, and Carmen Miranda [which] are not dissimilar to those over Gandhi and Bose, Nkrumah and Senghor, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh.” In many paragraphs, Denning cycles between genres at least every sentence—which is effective when it comes to evoking a cosmopolitan ethos. But it also leaves the reader to wonder how closely connected each example really is.

Of course, there are already studies of particular genres and national contexts. Noise Uprising offers an ambitious, if somewhat speculative map of the connections between them. One consequence of the phonograph revolution is that anyone can consult particular examples with a single YouTube search (his publisher offers a Spotify playlist for just this purpose). Listening along can help readers evaluate Denning’s arguments, which are made in print but invoke qualities that defy transcription and paraphrase. With enough listening, anyone will probably find themselves more convinced of some points and less convinced of the others. But accessing these songs as streaming data, rather than shellac 78s or expensive CD reissues, also suggests that the way we experience music is still being relentlessly transformed. Like the phonograph boom, the digital era combines elements of democratization with the persistence of large corporations and the commodity form. Perhaps more than any of its specific conclusions, Noise Uprising is valuable as a challenge to think through the audio politics of today.