nthposition online magazine

Making sense of noise

by Ian Simmons

[ people - july 02 ]

Ian Simmons talks to Jacques Attali, author of Noise. His other books include Anti-economique, L'ordre cannibal, Economie de I'Apocalypse and Millennium: Winners and Losers in the Coming World Order. He was special advisor to François Mitterrand, and advised the United Nations General Secretary on nuclear proliferation. He founded and served as president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and, in 1984, founded the Eureka new technologies program. He is chairman of A&A, an investment bank and which specialises in information technology.

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Ian Simmons (IS): You have just published a completely revised edition of your highly influential book Noise. Could you outline what you mean by noise in this context, as it goes somewhat beyond the accepted, everyday definition of noise?

Jacques Attali (JA): Noise is not only what we hear in the streets, in nature, in music. It is also a form of violence: noise hurts. Music is noise in order, noise with sense. Music is, therefore, a metaphor for the taming of violence, a metaphor for the role of religion and, later on, the role of civilisation. It has been true since the very beginning, when the music was used to cure pain - music against violence - and when it was associated with religious activities. Religion is a means of pacifying human relations by creating a link with transcendence. It is also a definition of music. Therefore, in the vast field of noises and musics, we can read each and every dimensions of relation between mankind, violence and civilisation.

IS: You give music and sound a far more central role in the development of civilisation than most previous thinkers. Why is this?

JA: Music foretells the evolution of society because changes in musical paradigms happen more quickly than in social organisations. The scope of possibilities is explored much more rapidly in music than in the social infrastructure. Therefore, the mutation in the organisation of noise, in the nature of sounds, in its technology, helps one to understand and predict the evolution of the society as a whole.

IS: For the new edition, the book has undergone a major revision. What changes in our culture, or your thinking, since 1977 (when it was first published) has made this necessary?

JA: Firstly, I decided to use a simpler, less academic language in order to reach a larger audience. I realised, more than before, that the talent is to use simple words to explain difficult concepts and not to hide simple concepts behind difficult words.
I also tried to take into account what has happened in music and technology over 25 years. I was amazed to see the extent to which my forecasts of that time had largely come true: music is a wonderful predictive tool. In many paragraphs, I simply had to change a verb from the future into the present tense.
I also had to add new predictions about the emergence of a global music as a metaphor for what will become globalisation. And also to explain what new technology in music, resulting in a new role for free exchange via MP3, is leading to. In a new kind of organisation of the future world economy, the free exchange of self-made productions will dominate. This will give a much greater relevance to my concept of "composition", which is, in my view, even more relevant now than 25 years ago.

IS: You have a much wider role than just as a cultural commentator. You have held key political posts in France and the EU, including heading up the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). How has your thinking on noise and its place in our culture affected your actions in those positions, and vice versa?

JA: I always use music to try to analyse the evolution of society by using what I can see in the evolution of art and music in particular. For instance, in France, I saw in the music of the 80s the beginning of the upheaval in the suburbs. I was the first to point out - in 1985 - the arrival in our world of the "nomadism", through portable and mobile devices, which is obvious today: I saw it through the success of the Walkman, the first of a long list of nomadic devices. I also predicted the decline of the Soviet Union and the need to support these countries, and proposed the idea of the EBRD after listening to rock and roll music in the Soviet Union and the failure of the system to suppress it. I have also been trying to analyse the influence of new technologies on music. The free flow of music is announcing a totally new economy based on the free exchange of signs, information and services. Reciprocally, my understanding of the relations of power and geopolitics helped me, in this new version of the book, to understand better the strategies of the majors in the music industry.

IS: Looking at European, and especially French, politics at the moment and the seeming lurch to the right, is this something politicians should have seen coming? Why did they not take it seriously enough?

JA: Of course, it was possible to see that a lot of people don't accept others' music, others' way of life. But I am not pessimistic. This is just a period of transition in the globalisation process, and music will help people to understand that others can bring them happiness. The concentration of the majors, the reduction in the diversity of music is also a threat which populism is trying to fight by the promotion of nationalism. This caricature of the promotion of differentiation could have been seen in music before it became obvious in the society as a whole. Also the role of music as a metaphor for scapegoats in the managing of violence could have led us to understand how populism will try to look at foreigners as the new scapegoats.

IS: What do you think the long-term consequences of Le Pen's surprise success in the first round of the Presidential elections will be for Europe?

JA: Extreme right ideas are going to invade conservative parties. People will not need to vote for Le Pen to serve those ideas. It will be also true in Italy, Germany, and Italy. Conservative parties are going to become populist parties. And, in many countries, conservative parties will become populist in order to avoid to be overthrown by populist parties, just as socialist parties became, for a while, Marxist, in order to avoid to be replaced by communist parties.

IS: With this recent upset, events in Israel, 11 September, Pim Fortuyn's assassination, it would seem democracy is having a hard time at the moment. Fukuyama claimed that with the fall of the Soviet Union, liberal democracy had essentially triumphed as the one viable political system. Do these events presage a challenge to that view? If music's development over the last few years towards a far more disordered system of creation and distribution - with Napster, sampling and the DIY ethic on one hand, and, on the other, ever more monolithic record companies - presages a possible political landscape for the future, it is not a very comfortable one. It would seem to indicate that the picture we see of centralised powerful governments like the US and Israel, in conflict with small, radical DIY opposition like Bin Laden and Hamas is a situation that will continue for some time.

JA: Music is the sector of the economy where the concentration is the most advanced. Imagine a world where banking, food, media, cars and are produced by only four companies in the world. But, also, music announces a totally different organisation of the economy, where nomadism will prevail, where gratuity is the core of the system opposed to the monsters created by globalisation. It also announces a world where people will create their own music, where they will find their happiness in acting rather than in consuming. The surge of DJ as artists and not only as distributor of music demonstrates the end of the distinction between production, distribution and consumption in music as well as in other sectors.

IS: One of the key cultural/political drivers at the moment is globalisation and its opposition. As globalisation encroaches and comes up with more and more product to sell everyone on the planet, what do you see as the ultimate result?

JA: Music gives an image: globalisation leads to the creation of a lot of new musics. And, simultaneously, to the destruction of the economy by the promotion of playing music instead of listening to it. If music is a prophecy, globalisation will work, because people will use it to create more differences on the fringes of market uniformity.

IS: An element of the opposition to globalisation is an opposition to new technologies. Is the fear that new technologies will overwhelm us a realistic one, or simply a continuing problem for those who have trouble conceptualising the possibilities that those technologies offer?

JA: Globalisation in itself is a consequence of new technologies. There is no globalisation without technologies. Technologies can bring the best and the worst. They can help us create a wonderful world, but can also destroy it. They can produce wonderful new music, but also terrifying, powerful noises.
Music also demonstrates that it will impossible to sell information, such as music, movies, education and entertainment. The business model of the future economy will be the business model of the radio, where the consumers don't pay for what they listen to. And where the real rare commodity, the only precious commodity, is time. The live events - concerts, sports events or theatre - are going to be the main values of tomorrow. The most precious things will be live events which people attend and participated in, such as concerts, sports events, demonstrations. But live, not as a replay. People will ask, more than anything, to see and to share live, rather than dead, events crystallised in records or virtually crystallised in a digital MP3 file.

IS: What music are you listening to at the moment?

JA: More than ever, I am listening to the religious music (art sacré, in French) of all civilisations. To go back to the very nature of music, relation to transcendence, to tame violence. I also listen a lot to operas, mainly Italian, and mainly Verdi, Bellini and Donizetti. I need some romanticism and the real human voices so missing in our world.