Michael Denning – Noise Uprising

Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution

Michael DenningNoise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution (Verso 2015)


Professor Michael Denning has offered a unique history of the early days of electrical music recordings with Noise Uprising.  The earliest sound recordings were analog, recorded straight to a disc through a sound horn, but electrical recordings introduced a microphone to capture sounds before inscribing them on a disc (later came magnetic tape and then digital media).  The microphone greatly enhanced sonic fidelity, at roughly the same time that phonographs for playback dropped dramatically in price.  These, among other factors, led to a brief surge in the recording of “vernacular” music from 1925 to 1930, at which point the Great Depression decimated the global market for sound recordings.  It was a time when recordings went from being novelties and marketing gimmicks to promote other sales to being valued cultural artifacts in their own right.

Denning is well versed in recordings from around the world, and readers may learn about some genres from other parts of the world for the first time, whether Cuban son, Egyptian taarab or Indonesian kroncong.  To supplement the book, he has also created a “Noise Uprising” playlist through a free online streaming music service (login information provided in the book), featuring some of the song selections discussed in the book.  For many readers, nothing short of listening to the recordings being discussed will capture the full effect of the music.

There are detailed passages exploring the nature of “noise” and its relation to the music that developed in conjunction with the rise of electrical recordings in the late 1920s.  Denning examines the role of rhythm, including the rise of “rhythm sections”, and the unique role that recordings took in overturning the dominance of published sheet music.  He provides a rather excellent summary of how early recordings were seen as supporting the sale of sheet music, with most recordings sold by furniture stores to create a market for phonographs (which were treated as furniture), whereas the electrical era actually supplanted the primacy of printed music and enhanced the role of the performers (and the esteem granted to their abilities to improvise), before radio hardware manufacturers bought up record labels as they began failing amidst the Great Depression.

The boldest claim Denning makes is that a musical revolution took place through unique contributions of global port cities.  This claim (inspired by the compilation album series The Secret Museum of Mankind: Ethnic Music Classics), while intriguing, is not conclusively supported.  There are anecdotes, but not much to refute counter-theories or any attempt to systematically test the validity of the hypothesis.  Still, whether or not you agree with that theory, the rest of the book is still a fascinating account that doesn’t depend entirely on that hypothesis.  For instance, Denning draws on an impressive amount of prior research to catalog the sales volume and import/export characteristics of the music industry just before the Great Depression — elaborating where and how music was recorded, where the records were pressed, and where they were shipped for sale.  He also brings a leftist (Marxist) perspective to the analysis, and a more astute awareness of economics than that of most music writers.  For instance, at numerous points the book discusses the tensions and usage of vernacular music by countries of the Third World project.  Towards the end, Denning even makes some sharp observations about how tensions with copyright regimes in the Neoliberal era have pursued an “enclosure of the commons” program that was resisted by the Third World nations until their capitulation in the late 1970s (after the Third World’s New International Economic Order proposal was defeated) at which point Western capitalists began to apply the “World Music” label to market this sort of music as a commodity — whereas about a half century earlier the same sorts of recordings were marketed as “folk” music.

Even readers lacking any specific interest in musical recordings of the late 1920s may find much of interest here.  Denning’s extensive discussion of the role of recordings in placing timbre, and the role of contrasting timbres on recordings, in the foreground of musical practice make interesting fodder for a discussion of the practices of later musicians like iconoclastic jazzman Ornette Coleman with his extreme sensitivity to timbres, or Denning’s perspectives on “exotica” as being linked to the early formations of anti-colonial struggles might inform interpretations of the way eccentric jazz bandleader Sun Ra led a musical commune for decades that incorporated elements of exotica.  For that matter, as Denning discusses the way the collapse of the record industry around 1930 was like a failed revolution, the idea that revolutions reappear across time and space might help explain the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll recordings a little more than two decades later.  And, of course, this is a valuable pre-history to help contextualize the rise of hip-hop decades later — another revolution from below that relied on re-purposing of existing musical materials.

Although scores of writers from around the globe are cited, from musicologists and amateur critics to anti-colonialist theorist Frantz Fanon, Denning uses Theodor Adorno as a reference point for much of his analysis.  Denning doesn’t just repeat Adorno’s theories — Denning offers ample critiques, mostly from a Gramscian perspective.  In some ways, this limits the analysis, stopping well short of post-Marxist analysis from the likes of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and tethering it to a predominantly economic class-based framing.  When he discusses the way harmony was a mechanism for vested interests of society to exert influence in the musical realm, the book screams out for something more like Bourdieu’s sociological analysis or a similar one of institutional economics.

All things considered, this is a book that offers a fascinating and significantly new theory of musical development during the early days of sound recordings.  Much room is left for additional observation to test the hypothesis about the role of port cities in musical evolution, but everything else here comes together well.  Denning’s way of explicitly politicizing the development of music just before the Great Depression is what allows its revolutionary content to emerge.  To suggest that there was no political aspect in this musical practice is simply to actively perpetuate an existing political order; and as historian Howard Zinn said, you can’t be neutral on a moving train. More to the point of Denning’s thesis is something John Berger wrote in his essay “The Primitive and the Professional,” New Society 1976 (reprinted in About Looking):

“the ‘clumsiness’ of primitive art is the precondition of its eloquence.  What it is saying could never be said with any ready-made skills.  For what it is saying was never meant, according to the cultural class system, to be said.”

This old Berger quote is about as concise a summary of Denning’s “noise uprising” thesis as possible.

Robert Locke and J-C Spender – Confronting Managerialism

Confronting Managerialism: How The Business Elite & Their Schools Threw Our Lives Out of Balance

Robert R. Locke and J-C Spender, Confronting Managerialism: How The Business Elite & Their Schools Threw Our Lives Out of Balance (Zed Books, 2011)


Robert Locke and J-C Spender have written a rather excellent book focusing on the history of what they call “managerialism” (a term they adapt from Alfred Vagts‘ concept of “militarism”) in the United States.  Their specific formulation of the concept of “managerialism” is quoted from an earlier article by Locke; it is:

“What occurs when a special group, called management, ensconces itself systematically in an organization and deprives owners and employees of their decision-making power (including distribution of emoluments) — and justifies that takeover on the grounds of the managing group’s education and exclusive possession of codified bodies of knowledge and know-how necessary to the efficient running of the organization.”

Much of the book consists of comparisons of businesses and schools in the United States (plus the UK), Japan and Germany.  What they conclude is that the ideology of short-term, predatory financial gain without regard for a firm or economy as a whole that predominates in the United States is not as prevalent in Japan or Germany.  They find better outcomes, in terms of factors like firm longevity and well-being of workers, outside the United States.  Their strength is a very even-handed tone, backed by ample research.  The cover of the book and the series title “economic controversies” perhaps make this seem like a harsh screed or a sensationalist tract.  No doubt, this is polemic to a point, but the authors largely let history speak for itself, and spend most of their effort pulling together data that tends to be ignored or concealed by business schools.  Nothing about that approach is inflammatory, and their conclusions are extremely moderate (nowhere do the authors suggest abandoning capitalism, for instance).  Ultimately, their conclusion is that business schools in the United States, which don’t exist in the same form elsewhere in the world, have an overall negative effect on business and society, and they think management in U.S. companies should be more inclusive of people with backgrounds in production.  Although they don’t spend many pages advocating any particular system of business management, other than to try to discredit the application of neoliberalism, one detects sympathies for the kinds of Rhineland capitalism of Germany (as Locke has written about elsewhere) or the W. Edwards Deming-inspired, engineering-led “total quality” management approaches of Japan.  They see those other countries as providing better “balance” between competing interests of managers, owners and employees than in the United States.  For that matter, they see the software and computer companies of Silicon Valley in the United States outperforming East Coast businesses.

The book’s rather direct treatment of morality and ethics, as a symptom of business school ideologies, is welcomed.  There is a fairly frank discussion of how much of contemporary business practice has to do with power — who has it and who doesn’t.  Management in the United States acts as a caste that posits they have valuable but still generic “management” skills that uniquely position them to hold a disproportionate amount of power, to the exclusion of workers, etc.  The authors contrast Japan, where management tends to rise through the ranks and have a greater understanding of substantive operations across entire companies.  They carry this analysis over to the ways in which business schools operate, and note how academic “prestige” is a rather direct counterpart to the more purely economic power of businesspeople.  The authors also delineate how religious practices contrast sharply with the types of amoral, ethics-free neoclassical economics adopted by modern American business schools.  They provide intriguing evidence of how religion in America has shifted from ones that emphasized social responsibility and charity to ones (often located in suburbs) with an egotistical focus on the salvation of believers. They also mention the reintroduction of Confucianism to Chinese state capitalism, and resistance of Islamic economics to neoclassical economics.  It is somewhat unclear whether the authors believe religion, either generally or in specific forms, is a countervailing force that can push back against business in a pragmatic sense, or if it even should — more interesting questions since the Catholic Pope Francis started speaking out against unfettered capitalism and inequality in 2013.  This is somewhat of a loose end in the book.

The comparisons being limited to Japan and Germany naturally provides only a limited range of data.  We get nothing from Spain, Brazil, India, Canada, or France, for instance.  It would be informative to take Locke and Spender’s analysis and apply it to other countries, to see how they compare.

As is common with writing of this sort, there are some recommendations at the end.  And as usual, it is possible to accept all the detailed analysis of historical parameters without necessarily accepting the policy recommendations.  Still, Locke and Spender suggest reforms of corporate management structures into discrete supervisory and management levels that require employee participation (as in Germany) and that prevent control of both levels by a single CEO.  They make an intriguing argument there, noting that business schools and business leaders would absolutely fight these things because they would diminish their power.  Yet they also present a compelling basis for why so many other groups, like ordinary workers and absentee shareholders, have aligned interests that might provide a path around the business school trained managers.  Still, in the last few pages they make statements about how no one today is advocating for centrally planned economies.  Really?  (though perhaps this depends on what you interpret “central planning” to mean).  Contemporary evidence from Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, even Egypt and Occupy Wall Street might suggest otherwise.  Even just within Germany, a recent poll found that a majority of residents of the former East Germany would prefer to return to communism.  A major publisher also released a book about imagining living in a socialist USA.  While Locke and Spender advocate for flatter, more equal management structures than predominate today in the USA (Spender co-wrote a later book, Strategic Conversations, along those lines), there is a curious lack of evidence as to whether Germany and Japan present any sort of optimal balance in that regard.  The German school system may be better than the United States, but could Germany do even better?  What would a comparison to the worker-owned cooperative Mondragon in Spain add to the discussion, when it potentially has an even flatter organizational structure than is typically found in Germany and Japan? Do the sorts of German employee participation is supervisory roles resemble the kinds used in the former Yugoslavia, which arguably pitted workers against each other? Or perhaps take this critique:

“Today, the two superpowers, the USA and China, relate more as Capital and Labour.  the USA is turning into a country of managerial planning, banking, services, and so on, while its ‘disappearing working class’ (except for migrant Chicanos and others who work predominantly in the service economy) is reappearing in China, where the majority of US products, from toys to electronic hardware, are manufactured in ideal conditions for capitalist exploitation: no strikes, limited freedom of movement for the workforce, low wages. . . . Far from being simply antagonistic, the relationship between China and the USA is, at the same time, deeply symbiotic.  The irony of history is that China fully deserves the title ‘workers’ state’; it is the state of the working class for American capital.”

The authors don’t really get into the modern practice of using outsourcing to shed responsibility, inscribing discrimination, exploitation and an imbalance of power into the mere existence (but precisely not the explicit terms) of contracting agreements across national borders.

These questions would require a much lengthier book.  It is, however, fair to raise these concerns because the subtitle of this book posits that managerialism “threw our lives out of balance.”  This implies that our lives used to be in balance, or at least that the authors know what a proper balance would look like.  It also raises the question of whether, say, Chinese and East Asian laborers are part of this “us” (“our”).  The pseudo-global perspective of the book does come up a bit short there, fitting the theoretical frame to the author’s geographically-constrained background knowledge — like a tailor fitting a suit to the available cloth.  But, on the other hand, contrary to the book’s provocative subtitle and cover image, the book sets its sights on something rather more specific: proving that — contrary to its claims — U.S. business school managerialism is not optimal on its own terms (they don’t try to quantify how sub-optimal it is).

Suffice it to say, Locke and Spender present convincing evidence that the current organization of business management and business schools in the United States is not optimal.  The current system benefits only management and its academic cohorts.  They obliterate the notion that the system of business management used in the United States is inevitable, or that there is no alternative (TINA).  The authors’ exposition of the issue is as clear as can be hoped, in an area in which obfuscation too often dominates.  Most importantly, they draw out the question of power that is routinely (and, for some, conveniently) ignored in the business world.  They also provide more extensive historical research than most commentators in this area who have drawn similar conclusions.

Further reading: Edward S. Herman, Corporate Control, Corporate Power; Adolph Berle & Gardiner Means, The Modern Corporation and Private Property; James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution (this book earlier coined the phrase “managerialism”); Willard Enteman, Managerialism; Alfred Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand; Matthew Stewart, The Management Myth; V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Form of Capitalism