GROOVE, by Mark Abel

Mark Abel’s book Groove: An Aesthetics of Measured Time, recently published in the Historical Materialsm book series, offers a new musicological and philosophical account of groove music — which is to say nearly all popular music, in the US and the Americas, and increasingly in other parts of the world as well, for the past hundred years — since at least the start of the 20th century. Ultimately, Abel offers an Adornoesque defense of the very mass-industrially-produced music that Adorno himself despised. This in itself is incredibly useful, given how much of a stumbling-block Adorno has been for decades when it comes to thinking about music — you simply can’t dismiss him, but there are good reasons for refusing to go along with him.

However, Abel’s book aims for a comprehensiveness which means that it actually does much more than that — while I am unwilling to follow Abel all the way, I find that he contributes powerfully to my thoughts about music (given, of course, that I am not a musician, and lack all but the most rudimentary musical training).

Abel starts by giving an overall definition of groove music — one that goes well beyond the relatively feeble attempts at definition that he cites from musical encyclopedias and from past commentators. According to Abel, groove is characterized by four crucial elements:

  1. Measure, or metronymic time
  2. Syncopation
  3. ‘Deep metricality’ or multi-levelled meter
  4. A backbeat

All these characteristics are crucial. Much traditional music from around the world is rhythmical, but not metric. Traditional West African music, for instance, is polyrhythmic (many rhythms going on at the same time), but not metric; there may be an implicit pulse, but there are no measures, and there is no underlying organization of strong and weak beats. Only European music of the last five hundred years or so is really divided into measures, with a strong emphasis on the first beat of each measure (one-two-three-four). And Western music tends to exhibit fractal patterns (though Abel doesn’t actually use the word “fractal”) of metric organization on multiple levels (think of four-bar blues, or of ABAB song forms). Beyond this, neither syncopation (playing against the regular pattern of the beat) nor a back beat (actually a particular form of syncopation, “an emphasis on the off-beats of the bar (beats two and four) and often the off-beats of other metrical levels as well”) would be possible: if the music is not metric in the first place then it cannot play against the regular meter. This means that polyrhythms in funk and other African American music actually work quite differently from polyrhythms in traditional African music, the latter not having metric regularity in the first place, and therefore not having syncopated violations of this regularity either).

On this basis, Abel rejects common claims about the fundamentally African source of American popular music – he says that there are multiple hybrid sources, and that it is essentialistic to insist upon African sounds in particular. This is one of the instances where, even though Abel has a point, he greatly overstates it, protesting way too much against attributions of Africanness to blues, jazz, funk, etc. Abel’s underlying point is the Marxist one (which I don’t disagree with) that modes of production are determinant in the last instance — but here he could really use a bit more flexibility before getting to that last instance. Indeed, Abel is so over-the-top in his denial of there being any sort of specifically African vibe to groove music that he goes so far as to rank the Average White Band as highly as he does James Brown when it comes to funk (in one of the exceedingly rare cases in the book where he mentions particular musicians at all). Many readers will understandably be ready to throw the book down in disgust at this point; which would be unfortunate, since the book really does have a lot to offer.

Abel’s definition of groove is exceedingly broad; and this is both a strength and a weakness. A strength, because it enables him to make wide-ranging observations about popular music of the 20th and 21st centuries, ones that hold across multiple genres. But a weakness as well, because it means that he is unable to recognize or acknowledge the many singular inventions that, within this broad framework, have diversified popular music so remarkably over the past hundred-and-some-odd years.

Abel’s other major point, which I find entirely convincing, is his demonstation (citing a wide range of historians and theorists) of how metric time — time conceived as an empty and homogeneous linear successions — is a product, not just of modern scientific technologies (like the ever-more accurate clocks that have been made since the 17th century), but specifically of capitalism, with its ubiquitous organization of commodity production, its appropriation of labor power as a commodity, and its need for the close measurement of time both in order to discipline workers, and as a mesure of value more generally (since the value of labor power, and of all commodities, is determined in the last instance by “socially necessary labor time”).

Abel makes the historical case for detailed time-measurement as central to capitalist relations, to the point that capitalism could not function without it. This argument is enough of a commonplace that Abel spends a lot more effort and pages on it than is strictly necessary (but I guess what seems a commonplace to anyone with any sort of even semi-Marxist intellectual formation might not be so to others). The importance of the argument is that the underlying structure of capitalism can explain why metric organization is so central to Western music of the last five hundred years or so, while it is absent from other historical forms and traditions of music. Metric organization is central to European classical music, and it is picked up with a vengeance in the groove of popular music ever since sound recording techniques became widespread.

This gets to the heart of Abel’s argument with and against Adorno. 20th- and 21st century philosophies of music necessarily rely on a kind of metaphysics of time that has been central to modernity. Abel says that the time theories of Bergson, Husserl, etc., are idealist, because they do not bring their understanding of time back to the capitalist conditions that generated it. I am much more willing to accept a certain sort of metaphysics than Abel is — thinkers like Bergson and Husserl are vitally important in the ways that they articulate how we experience time, and how this subjective experience relates to other, “objective” modes of registering time (including the scientific and capitalist-industrial ones). Musical experience necessarily involves time-experience on a deep level; and Abel in effect acknowledges this by going over Bergsonian and phenomenological accounts of temporality in great detail.

Both Bergson and Husserl (the latter of whose ideas about time are extended into the consideration of music especially by Alfred Schutz) contrast an authentic inner time sense to the external and spatialized objective measurement of homogeneous, empty time by the sciences. Abel argues that Adorno’s observations on modern art music and popular music (two damaged halves of what should be a whole) are in fact organized by this metaphysical distinction. (I am here using “metaphysical” in a non-pejorative sense, even if Abel is not). The authenticity of personal, inner time is violated by the way that industrial monopoly capitalism subjects everything unremittingly to the commodified standardization that rests, on its deepest level, on the homogenization of measured time. Adorno views 19th-century classical music (Beethoven above all) through the way that it resists homogeneous time, and insteads opens up the experience both of real inner time (which is ultimately Bergsonian duration) and of historical time (which capitalism suppresses by installing an eternal now, and a temporal repetitiveness which denies that the future can be in any real sense different from the present).

[The question of how inner time as duration, and historical time as collective experience, can relate to one another is itself an additional difficult one — I don’t find Abel’s attempts to resolve this entirely convincing, and I don’t think anyone else has really resolved it either. Most Marxists have tended to disdain Bergson on the grounds that his idea of duration is an ahistorical one; but I think that Abel is right in implying — though he never says this directly, and might well reject it — that no modernist defense of any richer sense of time than the empty capitalist one can avoid taking an at least partly Bergsonian stance].

For Adorno, 20th-century classical music struggles, with greater or lesser success, with the same issue of time experience. To simplify a little, for Adorno 20th century classical music at its most successful (e.g. in the earlier Schoenberg, according to Adorno), resists the universal capitalistic imposition of metrical time by refusing meter as much as possible, and by drawing on (or retreating to) the few areas of culture that have not yet been entirely overwhelmed by metrical regularity. For Adorno, all popular music — everything that has a groove, in Abel’s terminology — capitulates to the regularity of meter, and this is what ultimately stands behind Adorno’s criticisms of popular music as conformist and formulaic, as merely filling up a pre-existing form, as offering only trite and inconsequential minor variations which never affect the basic underlying tyranny of meter as commodified or Taylorized time, etc.

Abel’s counter-argument to all this is that it is precisely by being metrical with a vengeance, by using meter in a far more intense way than classical music ever did, and therefore by proliferating syncopations against a metric beat which is the dialectical condition for these violations of metrical logic to take place — it is by doing all this that groove music at its best is able to subvert homogeneous clock time or commodity time.

Thus it is by means of Adorno’s own dialectical logic that Abel defends the emancipatory possibilities of groove music; and even suggests that the 20th century classical music that Adorno at least ambivalently championed only represents a conservative retreat, since it simply disengages from metric time rather than working inside it to challenge it. Groove music at its best

provides an antidote to Adorno’s, and indeed Jameson’s, pessimistic position that resistance to reification can only emerge from spheres of humanity which have not yet fallen fully under the sway of commodification, of which there remain precious few, by directing our attention to the possibilities of fracture from within.

[Abel’s argument parallels my own argument as to why rapid-editing lowbrow films like Gamer and Detention are much better responses to our 21st century media situation than are the slow cinema films championed by many cineastes].

Abel’s thesis seems to me to be essential for any understanding of the multifarious modes in which popular music works today (as well as how it did in the past century). This remains the case even though Abel declines to give anything in the way of specific examples, or even to differentiate between the somewhat different strategies of different popular-music genres, as well as of the increasingly prevalent hybridizations among these genres.

And, to make it as specific as possible: Abel’s thesis makes a lot of sense in the specific case of Afrofuturist music, and more generally of Afro-diasporic music of the Black Atlantic — and this despite Abel’s refusal to attribute any particular degree of “Africanness” to groove music. Note how Afrofuturism calls on science fiction both to describe the experience of oppression (the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans was like an alien abduction) AND to describe future prospects of liberation (Sun Ra’s vision of outer space; George Clinton’s Mothership; etc.). And these are not matters just of discursive elaboration, but are also built into the musical structure of grooves, which both make you a “slave to the rhythm” and offer dancing as liberation, as both body expression and as the experience of funky syncopations.

This is why it is too bad that Abel limits the scope of his argument by rejecting or ignoring not only any privileging of African musical traditions, but also any form of theorization that calls upon this. Abel’s own theorization of how the groove can provide liberation from metric enslavement precisely by intensifying it, by turning the eternal now of capitalist realism into an experience of overfull NOWNESS, draws on Walter Benjamin’s notion of Jetztzeit (nowtime). Abel concludes that,

in contrast to non-groove pulsed music, where many notes occur between the beats, every musical event in groove music is also a beat at some level of the metric hierarchy. This gives each event/beat the character of intense, pregnant presentness — a nowtime — which is lacking in the narrative-style art music tradition.

All this seems fine to me; but Abel would only have strengthened his own argument if he were willing to draw upon formulations like James Snead’s understanding of the way repetition works in black music (he explicitly rejects Snead, and doesn’t even mention thinkers like Tricia Rose and Fred Moten).

There is also the problem — for me, at least — that Abel contends that his own vision of the liberatory temporal potential of the groove “is interestingly at odds with the vision of temporal freedom which emerged earlier from Bergsonian thinkers like Deleuze as well as Jameson’s celebration of temporal incommensurability.” I would like to see more of a confluence than an opposition here — for reasons that I will conclude by explaining.

At heart I remain, as I have long been, a Deleuzian. But to my mind the absolutely worst thing about Deleuze — both in his solo works and in his works with Guattari — is his anti-metrical (and therefore anti-groove) bias when it comes to music. Even when D & G deal with musical repetition in the “Refrain” chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, they insist that the deterritorializing thrust of music must come from the rejection of meter; they insist upon a fundamental opposition between rhythm and meter, instead of allowing for the metric (and also, therefore, cross-metric and anti-metric) rhythms of modern popular music. Their ideal is the pulseless time of Aeon, manifested to a degree in such French modernist composers as Messaien and Boulez. Deleuze and Guattari have no room in their vision (or should I say their audition?) for funk or the groove. Abel rightly traces this position back to Bergson, and shrewdly notes that Deleuze’s high-culture modernism in this respect is actually quite similar to Adorno’s.

One might wish that Deleuze had applied the insights of Difference and Repetition to an analysis of groove music. But unfortunately, any sort of metrical repetition is necessarily, for Deleuze, something like what Bergson denounces as the spatialization of time. (Deleuze rescues the cinema from this aspect of Bergson’s polemic, but he never similarly rescues funk or post-1960 dance music, or even rock ‘n’ roll).

I think that, as Abel explicitly suggests, the problem goes back to Bergson himself. Bergson’s musical analogue for duration (durée) is always melody, which he describes as a continuity that cannot be broken without changing its very nature; it cannot be quantified without altering its qualitative being. Groove music is, as Abel argues, both intensive and extensive, both rhythmic and metrical, both qualitative and quantitative; it breaks down the oppositions between these pairs that Bergson and Deleuze both so strongly insist upon. Their formulations imply a line of flight from capitalism’s imposition of linear, empty, homogeneous time; but for that very reason, they never engage with it directly.

As an alternative to these sorts of formulations, Abel refers to a musicologist whom I had never previously heard of, Victor Zuckerkandl. According to Abel, Zuckerkandl is also deeply influenced by Bergson, but he moves in a very different direction than Deleuze does (or than Adorno does, for that matter). Zuckerkandl agrees with Bergson’s major thesis that time = duration = indivisible change. But he applies this insight to rhythm and meter, as well as to melody. That is to say,

Zuckerkandl argues that the conventional explanation of meter is wrong. Meter is not produced from a pattern of strong and weak accents as it is conventionally explained, but is much better understood as oscillation. Psychological experiments show that a series of equally spaced pulses are perceived not as 1-2-3-4-5 etc., but as 1-2-1-2 etc. where ‘2’ is not number two but ‘away-from-one’. What this implies is that at the heart of meter is a cyclical motion or wave comprising a motion of ‘to-fro’ or ‘away-back’, and that the standard understanding of causality in meter must be reversed: ‘it is not a differentiation of accents which produces meter, it is meter which produces a differentiation of accents.’

This means that meter cannot be opposed to free rhythm in the way that Bergson does implicitly, and Deleuze does explicitly. Rather,

There are forces at work within meter which impart to a tone a different rhythmic impulse depending upon which phase of the metric cycle it falls and which make the counting of beats unnecessary. Metrical order is a dynamic order so that while, as we have seen, for Zuckerkandl, ‘melody [is] motion in the dynamic field of tones, rhythm [is] motion in the dynamic field of meter’.

In short, meter is a wave phenomenon, and “like other kinds of wave, metric waves are not about equality but about kinetic impulse.” In this way, when meter — however much its origin lies in the capitalist homogenization of time — is taken up, not only by Western concert music, but even more so by jazz, funk, and other sorts of groove music, it releases an energy that no capitalist expropriation of surplus value is able entirely to contain. [This is the answer, incidentally, to the question that the FBI agents ask Sun Ra when they kidnap him in the movie Space is the Place: “C’mon, Ra, how do you convert your harmonic progressions into energy?”].

In effect, Zuckerkandl deconstructs the duality between rhythm and meter, or between intensive and extensive, by Bergsonizing (if I may use that expression) the latter as well as the former. Meter is a field and a wave, rather than an emptily homogeneous form of measurement. Zuckerkandl even says, following this, that “The wave is not an event in time, but an event of time.” To listen to music is to experience time itself (in a way that seems to anticipate what Deleuze says about modernist cinema, the cinema of the time-image. But just as we experience time in its pure state, not only in Antonioni’s long takes, but equally (though I am not sure that Deleuze would have accepted this) in Tony Scott’s hyperactive editing, so we experience time in its pure state not only in Boulez’s floating, non-metric melodic lines, but equally — or I would want to say, even more intensely — in the pulses and syncopations of Miles Davis’ On the Corner, my candidate for the greatest piece of music ever recorded.

Obviously I need to read Zuckerkandl. I should note, though, that there are other paths beyond Bergson, which maintain his insights about intensive time without thereby accepting his dualism of time and space, or of intensive and extensive. Another one, not mentioned by Abel, is that of Gaston Bachelard in his books Intuition of the Instant and Dialectic of Duration. Bachelard argues that duration is radically multiple and discontinuous, rather than being the unbreakable continuity insisted upon by Bergson. Bachelard proposes the analogy of duration as rhythm, instead of Bergson’s duration as melody. By insisting on the multiple repetitions and variations of rhythm, Bachelard makes it possible for us to unite rhythm and meter in the ways groove music does, instead of making Deleuze’s absolute opposition between them.

Steve Goodman takes this up in his important book Sonic Warfare, in the course of dealing with the ways that bass and rhythm in dance music are at once despotic and liberating (rather than being only the former, as a strict Deleuzian argument would have to maintain). Goodman also proposes a Whiteheadian ontology of vibration, in place of the Bergsonian ontology of light that we find in Deleuze’s Cinema volumes.

I may seem to be drifting far away from Abel’s book at this point. But the virtue of Groove is precisely that it pushes us to consider groove music in a new manner, one that can accommodate the insights of both Deleuze and Adorno without having to embrace their incompletions and biases. I would add here, that we can read and benefit from Groove without having to embrace Abel’s own incompletions and biases either; I refer not only to his rejection of Afrofuturist currents, but also to his unfortunate claim that “‘dance music’ composed on computers” cannot be liberating in the manner of other groove music, because supposedly it “is blind to the concept of individual parts and tends towards total centralisation.” Here Abel evinces the same Adornoesque prejudice that he rightly demystifies elsewhere.

I won’t deny that Groove is sometimes a frustrating book. I wish that there had been more (or indeed, any) concrete examples, and that there had been less citation of some not-all-that-relevant theorists (like Postone and Sohn-Rethel). But I still found Groove a thought-provoking and stimulating book, one that is highly relevant to my own search for the secrets of “Funkentelechy Versus the Placebo Syndrome.”