The Politics of Vibration: Music as a Cosmopolitical Practice

The universe vibrates. The Politics of Vibration: Music as a Cosmopolitical Practice, published by Duke University Press in summer 2022, sets out a model for thinking about music as emerging out of a politics of vibration. It focuses on the work of three contemporary musicians — Hindustani classical vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, Swedish drone composer Catherine Christer Hennix and Houston-based hip-hop creator, DJ Screw, each emerging from a different but entangled set of musical traditions or scenes, whose work is ontologically instructive. Three musics characterized by slowness, much of the time then. From these particular cases, the book expands in the direction of considering the vibrational nature of music more generally. The book looks at a variety of musical examples including a Ryan Driver/Sandro Perri concert in a park in Scarborough, ethnomusicologist Jose Maceda observations concerning traditional Philippine musical instruments, Sri Karunamayee’s mental ladder of scales, Keiji Haino’s ideas of vibrational space, love and death according to Prince, Frankie Knuckles’ first visit to The Loft, Moroccan gnawa musicians in the Djemaa al Fnaa in Marrakech, John Coltrane’s famous sleevenotes to A Love Supreme, Earl Sweatshift’s alchemization of depression, and a performance by flamenco/folk master Peter Walker.

Vibration is understood in multiple ways, as a mathematical and a physical concept, as a religious or ontological force, and as a psychological/psychoanalytic determinant of subjectivity.  The organization of sonic vibration that is determinant of subjectivity, a.k.a. music, is understood to be pluralistic and modal — and topological rather than phenomenological or time-based. And understanding what music is means shifting our understanding of what space is.  I argue that music needs to be understood as a cosmopolitical practice, in the sense of the word “cosmopolitics” recently introduced by Isabelle Stengers — music can only be understood in relation to the worlding and forms of life that are permitted in a society, and according to decisions that a society makes concerning access to vibrational structure. I reconsider the ontology of music in the light of the practices of contemporary musicians, and I try to open up what the possibilities for a free music in a free society would be. 

Even after finishing writing the book, I still find it hard to describe what I’ve written. The above paragraph is one version of it — and describes a kind of philosophical project, but the book is a lot more personal than that, since it also describes my own life, participation in different music scenes, shit that has happened, to me and those around me. And above all, the book also describes a kind of apprenticeship in music and philosophy via my introduction to the music of Pandit Pran Nath in the late 1990s, and the music and philosophy of Catherine Christer Hennix, who was a student of Pran Nath’s, in the early 2000s. While Hennix’s work has recently gained some attention thanks to Blank Forms’ publication of her selected writings in Poesy Matters/Other Matters, and various archival and new audio releases, the full complexity of Hennix’s brilliant ideas and sonic practices has not until now been documented.  Hennix’s work is challenging and requires study and attention to understand her full vision of what music, mathematics, sound and ontology can do.  In this book I describe  my own studies and conversations with students of Pran Nath’s  — and years of study and dialogue with Hennix. And I apply Hennix’s insights to musical worlds different to her own — showing how versatile and powerful and challenging her ideas are.  What emerges is an idea of music as pragmatic but cosmopolitically entangled improvisation in a universe made of vibration. I explore these ideas in relation to the Black radical tradition and Houston based DJ Screw’s chopped and screwed sound.   This book is also my own improvisation, in words, in that entangled universe. It is also about breaks, breaks in symmetry which give everything their particular finite forms, musical breaks and the power of repetition, mathematical modelling and its intersection with human fragility and finitude, but also the incredible breakage of/in my own world, the music scenes that I find around me, and in the lives of musicians who have cosmopolitical ambitions.  This book offers a broken ontology of music — and I still don’t know if it could be otherwise.

You can read the introduction to The Politics of Vibration here!

I made a playlist of tracks and films related to the book for Duke’s blog — I also went into some of the ideas that the book explores, and I think it’s a useful primer for the whole project.

And I curated a mix of sounds related to the book for Seance Center’s excellent monthly NTS radio show — you can also listen to it on Soundcloud!

I did a wide ranging interview with Scott Stoneman for his Pretty Heady Stuff podcast — we got into everything from the sonics of bad breakups to Pharoah Sanders’ (RIP) recent recording with Floating Points. And another great interview with journalist Yannis-Orestis Papadimitriou for his Archipelago podcast on Stegi/Movement Radio.

Here are the blurbs for the book:

“Marcus Boon models the perfect combination of rigor and imagination. In this daring and original book, he approaches vibration through mathematics, physics, and psychoanalysis to articulate an ontology of music based on space over time, frequency over duration, instantaneity over progression. The ease with which Boon pursues his ideas across experimental music, Indian classical singing, and recent hip-hop flashes an exciting glimmer of one future for music studies. With The Politics of Vibration, we are already there.” — Benjamin Piekut, author of Henry Cow: The World Is a Problem

“Vibrations change your life; vibrations make life. Marcus Boon explores the hidden practices of vibrations for an original and fascinating insight into the nature of musical experience. In a uniquely sensitive manner—personal and political and philosophical at the same time—he weaves his way through the pulsating energies of Indian classical singing, drone music, minimalist avant-garde, and chopped and screwed hip hop. Boon gives equal attention to the big names and the little known, as they meet in cosmopolitics between the global South and North.” — Julian Henriques, author of Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing