A Saucerful of Secrets

Recently, I took a trip with my partner and his parents to see Australian Pink Floyd. Initially, I wasn’t convinced by the idea. It doesn’t sell well, after all – a Pink Floyd tribute act from the Land of Oz. But to call them simply a tribute act is to do them a serious injustice. Formed in Adelaide in 1988, and now an international touring outfit for many years, they are skilled musicians in their own right, and the purveyors of a highly professional, and very self-aware and funny, show. But this post doesn’t aim to be a review, because Aussie Pink Floyd and their giant, terrifying, inflatable kangaroo, sparked off several trains of thought: about authenticity; the possession of music; its ephemerality and nature as object; music as repeatable object. It is a leaping off point, then, for a discussion of these ideas in relation to music in general. The discussion may recur over a few blog posts, it may remain just here. As yet, I don’t know.

The Gunner’s Dream

I have, since seeing Aussie Pink Floyd, nearly said a number of times ‘It’s about as close as I’ll get to seeing the real thing’. I’ve stopped myself, because it does APF a real disservice. But it does beg various questions about authenticity itself: what is authenticity? What is ‘authentic’ music, and does it exist? What is ‘authentic’ Pink Floyd?

We have to begin with what we mean by authenticity. A simple authenticity equation might be presented thus:

Material features + provenance = the authentic thing.

But it isn’t so simple. Authenticity relates also to meaningfulness, especially when it is thought of as something which can be experienced – as can music. Authenticity of this more social form requires that temporal and emotional factors be identified: and that an authentic object, and an authentic experience of an object, can be exclusive of each other. Authenticity of a fuller sort is based on webs of relations, and recognising this complex, layered, and social quality of authenticity makes it difficult to define any one thing as authentic in totalis. I am not a relativist (at least, not totally), but what I am attempting to express is that authenticity is contingent upon what you are looking for in terms of your encounter with an object and that, therefore, it cannot be relied upon as the singular consigner of value.

Back to music, then, which has a complex relationship with authenticity. I see music, as an ever-changing* set of connected points existing across a long span of human history, as a rhizome in the Deleuzian sense: as a thing in which any point can be connected to any other, which decenters and is, other than artificially, without hierarchy, which,

ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles…. there is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals, only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs and specialized languages (Deleuze and Guattri, 1987: 7)

Music is multiplicitously rhizomatic, by which I mean that it connects semiotically not only to itself, but also to other forms of art, cultural expression, social groupings, events, spaces, and the past experiences, lives and memories of individuals. As such, it is almost impossible to state with any real meaning that any one example of a genre is ‘authentically’ a part of it.

Returning to Pink Floyd for a moment, we can take this notion of the rhizome to look at how the ‘authentic’ – perhaps a softer, more pliable word here is ‘genuine’? – meaning of their songs is constructed. ‘Pink Floyd’ is a brand – in a semiotic sense, we might consider the phrase a sign, signifying two objects: a group of musicians with particular names of their own; and a body of work – singles, albums, tracks, distinctive artwork**. But the relationship of sign to signified has, as C. S. Peirce noted, to have an interpretant to make it mean, and thus the people to whom Pink Floyd (sign and signified) are significant are also part of this relationship.

It could be argued that Aussie Pink Floyd have modified the signifier (by adding ‘Australian’, and working magic on the well-known art-symbols of Pink Floyd in a very particular way, and part of the signified (the individuals of the band themselves). But they have not changed the signified which is the body of work, substantially at least, and the songs as meaningful remain as meaningful as they ever were. Piano pieces by Mozart can have the same effect on an individual, whether played by Daniel Barenboim or Vladimir Ashkenazy – because at that point, it is the music itself which is a trigger, or perhaps external, expressive signifier (if one wishes to push the semiotic theme further), for the feelings felt and the memories recalled, not the human conduit(s) through which they are channelled. In the case of Floyd, ‘Wish You Were Here’ still evokes lost friends, lost loves, and the loss of bright young things, whether played by APF, or Gilmour, Mason, Waters and Wright, when they were mourning Syd Barrett. ‘There is a rupture in the rhizome whenever segmentary lines explode into a line of flight, but the line of flight is part of the rhizome.’ (9).

The sign-signified relationship is also disturbed by this knowledge, further than Peirce’s approach would have it, because, in APF, we can see how ‘Wish You Were Here’ or ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or ‘Astronomy Domine’ represent – become the signs for – Pink Floyd. Strict semiotics collapses here under inversion. But the issue here is this; how we think of authenticity in relation to Pink Floyd depends, very much, upon which part of the rhizome which forms its cultural body we cast our gaze.

I’d give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it

The concept of possession, of owning music, is an odd one in many senses. Yes, you may own the copyright, or a recording, or tickets to a performance: but can you own a song itself, which is so temporal, so fleeting in appearance, never accessible fully because a part of it has already lived and died before the next appears? We can look at forms of music (in a very general sense) to examine this question: folk, which can be considered as ‘unofficial-traditional’; ‘official-traditional’, including classical, choral, etc; and popular music, which is, to some degree, ‘unofficial-contemporary’***.

Folk music often has a complex creative history. We may know either, or both, the authors of the words or the music, we may not. Tunes and words may be changed around, swapped, and muddled. The music may be composed by its performer, moulded by its performer who is not the composer. The performers may become more famous than the original creators. The music is cared for by different hands over time – even at the same historical moment. Folk music is of such a nature that it accrues new meanings in new historical circumstances, and can loose its old meanings as the related situations fall away. It is often thought of as ‘authentic’ in some woolly way: but any individual iteration of it is so potentially interpretable, malleable, differently meaningful that it belies this idea. What this does not negate is the fact that this music continues to <i>matter</i> – that it has ‘authentic’ significance. And, that it belongs not to one person, but to us all.

The complex category of ‘official’ music, into which I have lumped a variety of genres which all have the idea of canon in common, is a different creature (rhizome?). It is often (not always) composed by an individual with the intention that it will at some point be performed by another – perhaps a large group of others. It can be moulded by its performers and conductors, but the basic principles of the notes, ordering, words, as laid down by the composer, remain the same. The composer is frequently more well known than the performers, who can take on an anonymity in relation to a piece – though this identity does matter to aficionados. Authenticity and possession here lie in the attribution of name: Beethoven is nine-tenths of the law. The Ninth Symphony is a treasure of all mankind: but it is forever Ludwig’s Child.

Where are we left, then, with popular music, where songs are covered by many, and yet individual charismatic beings are associated with particular groups, genres and tunes? Music, here, is closely associated with performers who are often (not always) the composers, and if they are not the composers, the performers are the individuals most closely related with a track. But these tracks can be sampled or arranged depending upon various factors****. This close relationship between performer and music forces us to ask complex questions: is what remains of Elvis now inauthentic, or at least unrepeatable in any authentic way, because the King himself is dead? In light of what we have talked about, is the possession of tracks by the members of Floyd, including Syd, so exclusive that any re-performance of them can be construed as theft, or, less dramatically, as a different/lesser object? In the case of APF, I don’t think this is the case, because they have retained a core of meaning within a re-shaped paratext, and thus become part of the rhizome which is Pink Floyd, rather than a definitively separate thing.*****

And in anycase, aren’t the songs which mean something to us our own? My ‘Crazy Diamond’ sits within that set of relationships which only I can give to it, and its meanings only partly come from the lyrics and instrumentation: there are many diamonds like it, but this one is mine.

A Pillow of Winds

Music is fleeting, then, both and neither sign and signified. As a consequence, it performs as an object in a very particular way. Like a solid, graspable, enduring thing, music provides a physical encounter – auditory, yes, but also haptic and, depending on the performance context, visual as well. Any piece of music can have emotive and cognitive consequences: some of which outlast the performance itself. Music produces and recalls memories: when I listen to Norwegian Wood, I fall asleep, because I remember my mum singing it to me as a lullaby. Sometimes music has enduring paratexts – recordings or written scripts, which allow it to be replayed at will. But music is also ephemeral, lacking in endurance, and even if it is replayed or re-performed, the encounter with it is never the same, because you listening have grown older in the interval.

Music is a mayfly. In the end, everything crumbles, changes, and recombines itself – music just does so faster. The memories we have of songs and performances are objects in their own right – and they too will fade. And traditional objects, if they too are understood as things given object-meaning within sets of relationships, are never the same from moment to moment: constantly changed by virtue of the viewer and their individual thoughts. Music is different only in the fact that a single performance moves through the object-change process faster. Even if ‘Any Colour You Like’ were performed by the ‘classic’ Floyd line-up, it would still be a different object than it was in 1973, and the performance would be no more authentic in that sense than one by Aussie Pink Floyd. You may hold the rights to a song – but its ephemeral nature transcends any solid possession of its soul.

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

How do you conclude a discussion of something so transient, so abstract? Only to say this – that music holds a peculiar position within the world of things: an ambiguous relationship to authenticity and possession, and a form of object which is accelerated and overtly relational. Each performance is an echo, or shadow, of the song and of other performances – but the object itself is never there. A truly temporal object, it is paradoxical, as an ephemeral-permanence, constant elan, and eternal potential.

Humans, and the objects and music that we make and love, are all the dreams of Time, and are never full and whole: we’re always only coming through in waves.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, (London and New York: Continuum Press, 1987, 2002)

 *******

*NOT evolving, for that would suggest positive improvement, rather than change of a non-qualitative nature.

**Frequently by the late Storm Thorgerson, as seen on the album cover for Dark Side of the Moon.

***None of these are problem free terms. I know that: let’s not get into it now.

****Though attribution remains critical.

*****Can this happen with all bands? Why can I accept Aussie Pink Floyd, when I struggle to imagine a similarly compelling tribute to Black Sabbath? Is there a qualitative difference in the originals which makes this so, or is it all down to the skill, love and warmth of the new performers?