‘Groove: An Aesthetic of Measured Time’ reviewed by Alexander Billet

Groove: An Aesthetic of Measured Time

Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2014. 275pp., €115,00 / $149.00 hb
ISBN 9789004242937

Reviewed by Alexander Billet

About the reviewer

Alexander Billet is a writer, critic and founding editor at Red Wedge magazine, a publication …


Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote precious little on the subject of popular music. This wasn’t necessarily because they were insouciant toward it, but rather because – the advent of Tin Pan Alley half a world away notwithstanding – their lives pre-dated popular music as we understand it today. Edison’s phonograph was patented only six years before Marx’s death, and Engels passed away just as mass produced records were becoming widely available to the public. Neither could have had much notion of what we now call popular music, at least not in the context of a highly technological consumer capitalism. Anything they could have written would, by necessity, be quite far flung from the final word.

Perhaps this is why debates have raged for so many decades over how Marxists should approach popular music. At issue are always the same questions. If ideas and ideologies are bound to show up in a song – be they through its lyrics or how it actually sounds – then how are we to understand it in relation contemporary society? If mass production under capitalism is inherently undemocratic, then can there be anything redemptive in songs that ape the rhythm of the system? Is there something of a genuine yearning for freedom to be found in the annals of folk, jazz, blues, R&B, rock, funk, reggae, punk, hip-hop or dance music? Or is it all just far too shaped by the dreaded culture industry, too swayed by ideas meant to buttress the present order for anything to be salvaged? Thoughtful, well-informed answers to these queries have ranged from an enthusiastic ‘yes’ to a vociferous ‘no’ and everywhere in between.

Mark Abel’s Groove: An Aesthetic of Measured Time is a book that meticulously plots out the mode, history and ontology of popular music in such a way that it is no longer cordoned off from possibilities of the critical or the avant-garde. Abel is primarily concerned with dialectically understanding ‘groove music’ at its most elemental, deliberately skirting the kind of moralistic appeals into which discussions around popular music can so often devolve. This is certainly a reason for choosing a more specific designation for his subject than just ‘the popular’ and instead opting to describe the music by the common characteristics shared across the myriad divisions of genre and style.

Music, as Abel reminds us repeatedly, is an aestheticization of time. It is the author’s contention that if we can understand music as such, then we begin to hear in its best examples ‘a modernist, non-narrative, collective response to the experience of life dominated by abstract time, one capable of figuring a liberated temporality beyond the reified temporal structures of contemporary capitalism. Groove’s political charge lies in its ability to turn measured time against itself.’ (17)

According to Abel, the basic elements of groove are as follows:

  1. Metronomic time: A regularly occurring beat or isochronous pulse. We know this today as the ubiquitous count “one – two – three – four.” This first element may seem obvious, but as Abel reminds us, ritual or religious music from pre-capitalist traditions frequently built its rhythm around the spoken word and lacked a regular pulse.
  2. Syncopation: The deliberate placement of notes or beats outside of the isochronous pulse in such a way that rather than throwing it off, it deepens or enriches it. This has the effect of creating a distinctive sense of anticipation in the listener and musician.
  3. ‘Deep metricality’ or Multi-leveled Meter: Groove music is characterized by instruments working on different counts but the same pulse. For example, a drummer that plays a straightforward 4/4 beat and is accompanied by a guitar that, because it is recognizing what Abel calls the ‘subdivisions of the beat’ (44) is for all intents and purposes playing on a different meter that compliments the primary count.
  4. Back-beat: Whereas previous musics with a regular rhythm would place no particular emphasis on an individual beat (the military marches of John Philip Sousa are a prime example) groove music places an emphasis on the ‘off-beats of the bar’ (49). Listen to where the snare drum hits in the vast majority of rock songs, jazz compositions or hip-hop samples and it becomes quite apparent that the emphasis is normally on the ‘two’ and the ‘four’ in ‘one – two – three – four.’

Complicating this categorization is that these characteristics can and frequently do overlap. Syncopation that plays off the back-beat rather than the ‘one’ or the ‘three’ creates a distinctive effect. Deep metricality naturally pre-supposes a metronomic time. A more attentive listen to a syncopated beat may reveal that it is in fact part of a deeper meter, and so on. Given this overlap, this section of Groove can be discombobulating, particularly for those who may lack a solid grounding in the basics of music theory.

Where Abel’s thesis really begins to take flight, however, is in the chapter ‘Is Groove African?’ It is not difficult to find any number of musical studies that imply or even assert outright that the essential characteristics of popular music were lifted wholesale from Africa in the course of the slave trade. Abel refutes this, cutting against the static essentialization of African culture that can become tangled in such narratives. Both music history and cultural anthropology reveal that a great many of these same rhythmic characteristics could be found in medieval European music. Other aspects were undoubtedly non-Western but were reshaped as they collided with the West, just as Western characteristics were reshaped by the same process. (61-91)

The point here isn’t to say that African and non-Western music was somehow unimportant to the formation of popular music as we understand it today. Nor is the author suggesting that such contributions, still too often ignored by cultural history, shouldn’t be recentered and given their due. What is being argued is that groove is – significant geographic differences notwithstanding – an experience and mode of musical expression primarily emanating from a global cosmopolitan experience. It is a rhythm forged by a life commonly dominated by commodity production. This particular argument would be strengthened if Abel took the time to examine and account for some of the undeniable differences that emerge within groove music based on the idiosyncracies of geography. For example, how is it that the Ramones in Queens and Fela Kuti in Lagos can create such vastly disparate forms of groove despite composing at virtually the same time in capitalism’s global development? There is something to be said here for how capitalism’s combined and uneven development creates markedly different temporal experiences co-existing at the same time. One wishes Abel would spend more time fleshing this out, though it is likely that doing so might turn Groove into an entirely different book.

Such a deep taxonomy of groove is nonetheless important – not so much in terms of the elements themselves for their own sake, but because of how they exist in a time and temporality so thoroughly immersed in capitalist modernity. Time is not experienced ahistorically, and Abel examines several contributions in mapping this – both in terms of the philosophy of time and in relation to music. The ideas of several thinkers, Marxist and otherwise, from Henri Bergson to Gilles Deleuze to Victor Zuckerkandl, are used to examine individually and collectively experienced time. A further layer is added when the author invokes the works of Harry Braverman and Moshe Postone to illustrate the way in which monopoly capitalism both strenuously regulates our time and abstracts a given moment into a frozen expression of itself in the form of a commodity. Both are key elements in how consumer capitalism dominates our experience of and relationship to time.

This is all, at least broadly speaking, fairly uncontroversial, dovetailing quite seamlessly with the work of E P Thompson and the Marxist understanding of Taylorism. But what of the notion that groove is therefore subversive? What of its basic arrangement prevents it from becoming an ideological fetter, a way for the worm of consumer capitalism to merely nest a little deeper in our brains, and potentially to become a critique of that same system? The first argument comes courtesy of phenomenologist Alfred Schutz and his concept of the ‘vivid present.’ This is a kind of temporally extended version of the present, in which someone’s notion of what is happening now is heightened both by a consciousness of what has come directly before and a keen anticipation of what will come next in the immediate future. Despite Schutz’s indifference to the importance of rhythm, this idea is quite prescient in understanding the kind of hyper-awareness created by the groove.

The second argument comes from Abel’s analysis of Theodor Adorno’s writings on music. Adorno’s disdain for popular music is well-known among cultural Marxists, so much so that it is often subject to caricature. Crucially, Abel reminds us that while Adorno saw popular music as dialectically opposed to ‘serious’ music, he also viewed both as ‘torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however, they do not add up.’ Abel elaborates: ‘both date from the coming to maturity of mass industrial society and seem to represent radically different cultural responses to that historical juncture.’ (148)

If this is true, then it follows that there must be some kind of locus, a place where the rip between the two halves took place and might be drawn back together or at least acknowledged. Abel finds this locus in an inconsistency in Adorno’s thought. It is arguably the best attribute of Groove, not because it rescues popular music from Adorno per se, but because it rescues the best of Adorno’s theoretical framework from its own faults. To wit, while Adorno heavily criticized jazz’s persistent use of meter as a ‘cult of the machine’ (151) that demanded the ‘renunciation of dreaming’ from the listener (150), he also lauded the use of such tight meter in the compositions of Beethoven. Furthermore, though he himself championed modernist composers such as Schoenberg, he also saw many of their compositions as inferior precisely because they shunned the elements that Abel identifies as key parts of groove music (162).

Adorno’s strength is, Abel argues, in his elucidations on mimesis. Quoting directly from Adorno:

Art works oppose domination by mimetically adapting to it. If they are to produce something that is different in kind from the world of repression, they must assimilate themselves to repressive behavior. Even those works of art which take a polemical stance against the status quo operate according to the principle they oppose… In sum, aesthetic rationality wants to make amends done by the instrumental rationality outside art. (168)

Though Adorno consistently applied these standards to a critique of art, he did not do so in his music criticism. Abel insists that if we do so, we are provided a dynamic way of approaching groove music that sees the domination of industrial time transcended:

It is feasible to argue that temporal regularity found in the best instances of groove music qualifies as genuine mimesis because it displays both of the necessary criteria. First, it takes as its starting point the temporal reality of the world as it is, complete with its mechanised, industrial processes, its positivist scientific thinking whose culture of measurement seeks to subsume quality under quantity, and its generalized time consciousness of regularity inculcated by the infiltration of the clock into every facet of life. Music has little choice in this; indeed, to turn one’s back on this aspect of reality as it has come to be sedimented in musical materials is, following Adorno, to approach music unhistorically. Second, however, the best popular music does not simply incorporate clock time into its forms, but through a process of mimesis seeks to humanise a temporality which has become rigid and reified. The very rigidity and regularity of the modern time experience is turned against itself through the techniques of syncopation to generate flexibility and unpredictability, and the dislocated instants that Adorno saw as having shattered time’s essential flow are woven into a new temporal continuum. (175)

Finally, Abel’s case is greatly aided by Walter Benjamin’s concept of history. The Benjaminian rejection of seeing history as just one thing after another and time being merely and only linear, the ability to see each moment as pregnant with dialectical possibility; these imbue Schutz’s ‘vivid present’ with a particular significance. In fact, there is a great deal of commonality to be found between the ‘vivid present’ and Benjamin’s Jetztzeit: ‘time filled by the presence of the now.’ (238) This self-awareness mirrors the consciousness of modernism – the first epoch in which historical periodization became so commonplace – and makes groove the quintessential modernist musical form.

Where Groove is unfortunately lacking is in providing ample instances of songs or compositions that invoke this kind of transcendence from within. Abel alludes a few times to the ‘best instances’ of popular music that are able to achieve this, which brings with it an implicit addendum that there are bad examples. Specificity could aid here, though it could also easily invite the kind of degeneration of the discourse into one of taste, which Abel is naturally trying to avoid.

Still, the book provides a compelling framework, and the sense that a code of sorts has been cracked for understanding the dynamic between the popular and the avant-garde. This has a great many implications for radical cultural criticism and production. Not wondering is impossible. How does the electronic automation of groove impact our relationship to it, given that creating a groove is no longer such a ‘hands-on’ process, but also has so many more possibilities at the musician’s disposal? In what way has the neoliberal fracturing of both life and work shaped groove? Might this process or the awareness of it produce new forms of groove? In the deepening of globalization and the rise of an increasingly segregated cosmopolitanism, how does the collision of different temporalities still play out musically? These are questions far beyond the scope of a review, but a well-argued thesis such as Abel’s demands we ask them.

10 June 2015

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