Stas Sharifullin More Borders: The Pessimist’s Guide to Music of Today

for the right red hand
© Stas Sharifullin

Musicians Without Borders

“You may be poor, you may only have a ramshackle house, you may have lost your job, but that song gives you hope.” This quotation from Nelson Mandela greets visitors to the homepage of Musicians without Borders, a nonprofit organization based in Amsterdam that specializes in providing various workshops and music training in politically unstable regions such as Kosovo, Palestine, Uganda and Rwanda. Down the page, the organization states that its mission is to “heal the wounds of war using the power of music.”
The notion of music as a means for releasing us from suffering has always been surrounded by a dark romantic aura. One example of such uncanny beauty is the story behind the creation of “Starry Night,” a 40-minute-long improvisation session by the Lebanese trumpet player Mazen Kerbaj. On the night of July 16-17, 2006, as his home city Beirut was under attack by the Israeli Air Force, Kerbaj was playing trumpet on his balcony to the “accompaniment” of falling bombs. He would later say in an interview, “To be honest, I preferred to stand on the balcony, to play trumpet and to record those bombs, rather than to stay in the living room and go crazy. When you play, you shift your brain, and you hear those bombs as sounds, and not as killing machines.” [1]
Ten years later his trumpet would ring out in a place that had not heard the sound of exploding bombs in over seventy years. It is January 2016, and Kerbaj and a group of other musicians are getting ready to perform the musical piece “For the Right Red Hand” on the stage of Hebbel am Ufer theater in Berlin. His friend and compatriot Rabih Beaini composed this piece especially for the opening concert of CTM, one of today’s leading festivals of experimental musical. Tickets were sold out a week ago, but I manage to get inside. I sit in the very center of the audience hall. To my right, an elderly Arab woman is filming the entire concert on her smartphone, clearly delighted with what is happening. I will later find out that this is Beaini’s mother and that she had left Lebanon for the first time just to witness her son’s debut as a composer. Once I have taken a closer look at the different musicians, my inner vision of geographical borders becomes blurred once and for all. There are two vocalists here. One came from the Indonesian island of Java. The second was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Sweden and Vietnam, but now splits her time between Oslo and Stockholm. There are two guitarists, one of whom was born in Libya, worked in Montreal for a long time, and then moved to his historical homeland in Cairo. The second is another native of Beirut who studied in Paris. There are also a couple of Italian drummers, one of whom made a career for himself in New York. Behind the mixing board stands the composer himself, his back turned to the audience. He left his home country when he was young, lived in Italy for a while, and has now settled down in Berlin. Cleary, today’s “musician without borders” is, above all, citizen of the world.
After the concert, audience members gather in the hall, sharing impressions about what they have just heard and making further plans for the festival. Everybody is in a great mood, and if you listen attentively to the choir of voices you can pick out about ten different languages, ranging from Russian to Farsi. The theme for this year’s festival is called “New Geographies,” and about one hundred and fifty musicians came here from different countries throughout Europe, Asia, North and South America, Africa, and Oceania. At this point it seems there can be no doubt: The organizers managed to strike a truly ideal balance and exclude anything that could be even remotely associated with exoticization and neocolonialism, the two major points of criticism about such initiatives, especially if they come from the West.
But problems come up the next day. During a performance by one of the European electronic musicians, a rather peculiar spectacle unfolds on stage. It appears to be some sort of homage to Congolese traditional music in the form of a performance with girls carrying drums, wearing “African” face paint, and imitating “indigenous” dancing. Some viewers’ faces darken. Some move toward the exit. Outside, some Russian musicians and their friends are discussing the latest Facebook post of Ivan Zoloto from the Love Cult duo who had posted an announcement of festival performances by the artists on his label and attached a provocative screenshot from some movie with the inscription “to sell your Eastern European romanticism to the best buyers—the old and the rich ones.”
Clearly, the Western model of musical cartography is wide open for criticism. This criticism occurs, for example, every time another European “musician without borders” sets off on a tour throughout Africa in order to produce a collaborative record with local musicians. Which does raise a reasonable question: Can Western models for perceiving and conceptualizing music actually be regarded as universal? One argument against this comes in the results of a recent field study conducted in the Amazon and published last year in an issue of the science magazine Nature. [2] In the course of their research, the study’s authors examined how the Tsimané, a native people of Bolivia who live in almost completely isolation from the influence of the Western culture, perceive “pleasant” and “unpleasant” sounds--i.e. consonant and dissonant chords. The vast majority of those interviewed said that they found both of these harmonic intervals equally “pleasant,” allowing the researchers to conclude that our traditional perception of dissonant chords as “unpleasant” is nothing more than a sociocultural construct.
I wonder what the indigenous Tsimané would have to say about Kerbaj’s anxious, atonal improvisation in “Starry Night” without being aware of the context in which the piece was created? Because for most people from Westerner cultures it is definitely uneasy listening, and for those who are aware of the context, it is also a vivid demonstration of Theodor Adorno’s idea that “the essence of society […] becomes the essence of music itself. [3]
Besides the Mandela quotation, there is another thesis on Musicians without Borders’ website that could stand a bit of vivid demonstration: “music creates empathy.” This statement enters into an imaginary dialogue with the ideas of Tia DeNora, an American music sociologist who has, to a certain extent, developed on Adorno’s ideas while maintaining a discernable dialectical distance. She believes that “it is a pervasive idea in Western culture that music possesses social and emotional content,” [4] although the very existence of this fact does not imply that music’s impact on society cannot be subjected to empirical analysis. It is this impact—or “social force” [5] in DeNora’s terminology—that is the main goal of festivals such as CTM. It is their instrument, as it were, for erasing boundaries—and not just geographical boundaries, but also genre, sociocultural, and even biological boundaries. Perhaps this is yet another “pervasive” utopian idea, but there is certainly nothing wrong with it, except perhaps the fact that the model of a “musician without borders” will always require some extra fine-tuning. In the case of “New Geographies,” it is still a citizen of the world wandering among ever-changing topographies and soundscapes but who has already moved past the fixation with viewing everything through the lens of Western culture.
Us and Them
Up until the 20th century, musical boundaries were understood in line with the classical Western European treatment of “boundaries” as such. Discussion about borders and limits first appeared in the works of the ancient Greek natural philosophers Anaximander and Heraclitus of Ephesus in their observations on the finite and infinite in existence. Subsequently, these concepts were more fully articulated in the metaphysics of Aristotle, according to whom the act of drawing a boundary between a thing and everything else limits, above all, the thing “in itself.” The boundary enshrines the existence of the thing and acts as a certain limit (πέρας) that is connected both to the characteristics of the thing’s integrity (“the first point within which every part is”) [6] and its spatial boundaries (“the first point beyond which it is not possible to find any part.”) [7] To a certain extent, this dichotomy of the internal/external finds reflection as a set of binary oppositions in culture: “low” and “high,” “beautiful” and “ugly,” “elitist” and “mass,” “kitsch” and “avant-garde,” etc.
The daunting start of the 20th century for the first time cast doubt on the idea of such dichotomous divisions and began making corrections (for instance, “elitist” art, under pressure from crowds on the street, moved its borders from the opera theater’s entrance to the edge of the gallery). However, musicians still remain negatively disposed toward one another in a rather radical way. More often than not, their position conforms to the famous evangelic construction  “whoever is not with me is against me.” The history of the International Society for Contemporary Music is rather representative in this regard. The organization was founded in 1922 in Salzburg and became a good example of how, as music critic Alex Ross put it, the “postwar spirit of comity led to some odd alliances.” [8] Instead of uniting musicians and fostering mutual support, the end result of the society’s first years of existence was an open confrontation between two key composers of the time—Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, both of whom refused to acknowledge their adversary’s work due to obvious differences in approach and sound. “The old Franco-German musical war resumed.” [9]
It must be said that further historical developments placed new demands on musicians and forced them to reconsider their views. While Adorno and his colleague Max Horkheimer sharply criticized mass art in their famous Dialectic of Enlightenment, calling the new culture industry “deceptive” [10] and “corrupt” [11] and claiming that its works are “meaningless,” [12] pop-culture continued to grow stronger and change the rules of the game. With the appearance of the first global stars and subcultures, humankind, to its own amazement, noticed that “instead of the hierarchic division between the high and the low culture, a sort of a horizontal layer appeared,” [13] as the American writer and theorist of so-called “nobrow culture” John Seabrook described it. [14] It is logical that the new era of postmodernity not only disrupts the “civilization—savage” dichotomy but also forces people to reconsider the very concept of boundaries. Jacques Derrida came to the aid with his concept of difference— “différance” [15], which rejects the any possibility of a thing existing on its own without reference to something else. The aim of boundaries’ existence shifts from the previous fixation on a thing “in itself” to its contact with other elements of a system. Moreover, for the very first time the cultural system itself began to resemble a flexible and ever-changing organism in which any sort of structural relations are delegated to the background, while genres and subcultures exist in an perpetually ongoing process of collision and interaction.
This kind of interaction, however, does not eliminate the confrontation between “us” and “them,” but rather just moves it to a different arena. Thus, music becomes a political weapon on both sides of the barricades. Having gone through the Islamic revolution, in Iran Western rock music became a symbol of protest and an excuse for repression, whereas traditional, patriotic and military songs are used as propaganda tools for promoting the “righteous” values of faith, honorable devotion to the homeland and respect for traditions. A similar dynamic could be seen in the Soviet Union, where underground samizdat flourished against the background of official culture, which had been rendered innocuous and was subject to approval and censorship by the highest-ranking bodies of the Communist party. Risking their lives, music fans would make copies of banned Western records on x-rays, a hobby that was given the rather dubious title of  “bone music.” It is interesting that the government, as if to take up this necromancy game itself, would accuse people spreading samizdat of “stealing the souls of the Soviet youth.” Since the advent of magnetic recording tape, which unlike x-rays was easily accessible to a wider public, government officials were left with few options except watching in frustration as their hated “Western values” pushed through the rapidly crumbling Iron Curtain.
The theme of cultural pollination and cross-pollination is the main leitmotif in Toshio Matsumoto’s experimental film For My Crushed Right Eye. The film came out in 1969—incidentally, the same year that Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment was re-edited into the very edition of the book that was translated into English and subsequently other languages. In essence, both works document the same phenomenon. And while the authors clearly take a different position and were writing in different eras, in both works there is a sense that they are observing everything that is happening with a strange feeling—a mixture of astonishment and confusion. The visual mess created by Matsumoto shows the viewer shots of student protests, discos, sport races and art performances, along with fragments of a video depicting a transgender man putting on women’s underwear and make up. All this is accompanied by a mixture of noise, late 1960s rock music and recordings of Japanese propaganda. It is this exact video collage that subsequently provided inspiration for Rabih Beaini as he was working on the piece “For the Right Red Hand.” In Matsumoto’s film, the screen is divided into two halves showing different video fragments. Likewise, on stage Beaini divides his octet into two symmetrical quartets, each consisting of a guitarist, a trumpet player, a vocalist and a drummer. The character of the Lebanese composer’s piece is explosive and chaotic, and the same can be said about this Japanese film that has no well-defined structure. “My distorted view of it,” explains Beaini,  “was more about the confusion in socio-political stands nowadays, through media and information.” [16]

Adorno, Horkheimer, and Matsumoto were only observing the early processes a “horizontal” society’s formation, whereas Beaini already lives in this new rhizomatic reality. With the development of the internet, culture has turned decisively into a chaotic collage made up of an endless number of alternatives. The best metaphor for grasping this is the Facebook news feed, which has no beginning and no end. In a post-truth era of fake news, expert opinions have depreciated, and we now find—already without much surprise—that we trust the algorithms of music streaming services more than “influential” culture-related publications. In an era of black metal musicians who care about the environment, raves in classical art museums, and Christian rap musicians, all boundaries of genre are turned into a set of tags that in turn become yet another repressive tool of neoliberal economics.
The Revolution Will Not Be Online
One can remember how even just a few years ago theorists still followed the development of the internet with great enthusiasm and, one by one, predicted a cultural revolution that would come on the heels of this technological leap. “Cheap software and production costs, the possibilities to connect through social media and spread music and videos online, or digital access to an overwhelming amount of data and knowledge are some of the engines behind this cultural revolution,” [17] wrote ethnomusicologist and journalist Thomas Burkhalter in July 2015 in the introduction to the book Seismographic Sounds: Visions of a New World. The next year, his exhibition project of the same name would be shown in a parallel program of the CTM “New Geographies” festival. And when looking at the way this bright, polychromatic, and diverse kaleidoscope of media-installations and videos created by artists from all over the world unfolds in space, it is still possible to experience a certain surge of optimism. Just one year later, the nature of this optimism would seem irrational, and the internet and new technologies would mostly be associated with elusive campaigns run by right-wing populists and totalitarian regimes. Politics in the era of Trump, Putin, and Brexit would set its own vector for development, one that is diametrically opposed to the conceptual framework of “New Geographies”—the agenda of the day now deals mostly with the rigidity of borders, going all the way up to closing them completely. For instance, Berlin, where just yesterday people were praising a new society free of prejudices, is now imploding as it observes the success the far-right party Alternative for Germany had during parliament elections. The theme of the 2018 CTM festival is “Turmoil.” This seemingly simple word perfectly reflects the oppressive core of the new era and provides a concise description of the emotional state of the Western world, which has been forced to encounter the Other face to face.
At the same time, as the end of the world becomes increasingly real, the end of capitalism has in contrast taken on increasingly fantastic forms—one could rephrase the famous thesis first formulated by the Marxist theorists Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek in this way. This is also the assertion with which British philosopher and music critic Mark Fisher starts his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative. [18] Analyzing Alfonso Cuarón’s movie Children of Men, he focuses on the sense today that “capitalism [is] the only viable political and economic system,” and then makes a surprisingly accurate forecast for the future, citing as an example the organizational details of the dystopian world depicted in the movie. Fisher believes that we have already gone too far and that “it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative” [19] to the reality. In other words even our unconscious mind operates in scenarios of interrelation between repressive authorities and the free market, creating imaginary worlds in which “internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist.” [20] He goes on to note that each of us has turned into a passive “consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics” [21] of our former convictions, which fell victim in a lost war with capitalism.
Of course, such a radically pessimistic stance is unlikely to go along with a happy life, and therefore we are constantly developing defense mechanisms. Very much aware of the fact that capitalism has achieved an unconditional victory, humankind is trying to disguise the dramatic effect of its defeat by, for example, beginning to use the language of neoliberal discourse. We talk about personal performance and free competition as an engine of progress and say that the cultural market has finally undergone a comprehensive assessment by specialists and been split into target segments, within which all of us can find something that is to our liking. Recalling Adorno and Horkheimer, it is true that today’s culture industry is “deceptive,” but this only works because we ourselves eagerly allow it to deceive us.
Niches and segments—that is what capitalist realism has turned the life of a contemporary person or  “consumer of culture” into. Rock music today, having been turned into a commodity, offers its buyers a wide range of various types of protest—starting from the adolescent “softcore” version and going all the way up to serious systematic nonconformity. Electronic music, which used to be the most egalitarian and radical form of self-expression, is now and with a vengeance getting used to the budgets of transnational corporations, building a strict financial hierarchy and exploiting the precariat. Club culture has turned into a big business that operates along Seabrook’s principle of a “hit factory” [22] with its own ersatz-stars backed with an army of nameless ghostwriters. We have stopped trusting the opinions of music journalists not because they all suddenly started writing bad reviews, but rather due to of a keen understanding of how this industry operates. In the vast majority of cases, the artists who get mentioned in news and reviews are those who included in advance the cost of a public relations campaign in their budget. While populists use fake news as a tool, marketing consultants make use of fake reviews. In a world of capitalist realism in which everyone has already become a commodity, borders become distinct and almost tangible, lying right beneath our noses and separating those who have won the fight for their place in the sun from those who lost. In 2017, belonging to the “indie music scene” means little besides that a musician’s agents and managers are working with a certain niche audience—the assumed fans of “alternative” movies and literature, the “alternativeness” of which is, of course, yet another simulacrum brought into the world by the machine of the market.
When you live constantly under such conditions, you start getting a sense that there is no way to avoid interaction with this machine. Thus, even the experimental club scene—one of the brightest and arguably most leftist phenomena in music over the past few years—has seen much better days. The pioneers’ original style was long ago broken down to its constituent elements, turned into diagrams, loaded into copy machines and placed on the assembly line. The same thing happened to its key social component—the utopian idea of creating a platform for gender, racial, and ethnic minorities and for supporting people whose voices were omitted from contemporary club discourse. Mark Fisher writes that capitalism is able to convert any form of discontent into a product for sale. Nowadays, this is called cause-related marketing, а fashionable new trend developed by personal branding specialists. Consultants and trainers for movie, television, music and sport stars advise their clients to speak out more about urgent social issues, to address the problems faced by minorities and to make use of any available opportunity to help those who are in need. “Altruism and the usage of inequalities are the keys to your success,” one online personal performance coach wrote on his website.
“You’re all here because you want democracy!” Chino Amobi shouts into the microphone during his concert in Moscow. The audience answers with silence. Some listeners, just like in the case of the “Congolese” performance, start moving toward the exit. This is how our defense mechanisms sometimes fail.
In order to cross а border, you must first understand where the border lies. The Russian culture industry has one universal tactic for raising the market value of a local cultural product: name it in a way that is “recognizable in the West.” Any endeavor by a Russian musician in Europe or North America is automatically perceived here as a breakthrough, even if it is just a short mention in the press or a performance in some tiny bar. No matter how a local artists tries to work on their own identity, if they accept the rules of the neoliberal game in the industry, to some extent, small or large, they enter into neocolonial relations. This is a rule that can have no exceptions. By applying this formula, it is possible to explain in part why Russian curators and promoters are in such awe of Western artists. Any international cultural event organized in Russia succinctly demonstrates that European musicians enjoy a whole array of privileges by default. They are met at the airport and brought to a hotel, booked their own separate room, invited to dinner, shown the city, provided with a backstage pass, and paid on time. What’s more, this payment is likely several times more than that of their Russian colleagues, who for their part are often happy if the promoters just cover their travel expenses.
I’m sitting with Ildar Zaynetdinov, who heads GOST ZVUK, one of the Russian independent labels that is most “recognizable in the West.” Ildar tells me about an experience he had talking with a journalist from a major European publication at one of the Russian festivals. He asked the journalist why his publication does not write about Russian musicians and received a baffling reply: “If you guys want us to write about your musicians, you should try providing them with better conditions for making themselves visible and not just use them to plug up holes in the line-up. A guy I wanted to listen to yesterday played at 6:00 p.m. in an empty venue.” 
“The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity,” Mark Fisher writes at the end of his book. Radical pessimism still gives us hope that, despite all of capitalism’s aggression and the pressure of the state, “From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.” [23] Having figured out the rules and realized that every strategy leads one way or another to defeat, you can either withdraw from the game or you can try to trick your rival—especially if your rival is extremely arrogant and cannot conceive, even hypothetically, of losing the game. Where one person sees a high concrete wall with guards and barbed wire, another sees a pile of stones that just needs to be taken down.
1. Burkhalter, Thomas, “Outrage, Sorrow, Bitterness” in Seismographic Sounds: Visions of a New World (Bern: Norient, 2016), p. 193.
2. McDermott, Josh H., Schultz, Alan F., Undurraga, Eduardo A. & Godoy, Ricardo A., “Indifference to dissonance in native Amazonians reveals cultural variation in music perception” in Nature, vol. 535 (London: Macmillan, 2016)), p. 547-550.
3. Adorno, Theodor (1962), Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie (Frankfurt-am-Main: Suhrkamp). (Translated from the German by E. B. Ashton. Adorno, Theodor. Introduction to the Sociology of Music (New York: A Continuum Book. The Seabury Press, 1976), p. 209.
4. DeNora, Tia, Music in Everyday Life (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 21.
5. Ibid.
6. Aristotle, Metaphysics (Translated by W. D. Ross. Book 5, section 17.) URL:
7. Ibid.
8. Ross, Alex, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), p. 91.
9. Ibid.
10. Adorno, Theodor & Horkheimer, Max, Dialektik der Aufklärung. Philosophische Fragmente (Frankfurt-am-Main: S. Fischer, 1969), p. 146. (Translation from the German by Edmund Jephcott: Adorno, Theodor & Horkheimer, Max Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, California: Stanford University Press, 2002)
11. Ibid., p. 174
12. Ibid.
13. Vzyatysheva, Viktoria, The Elitist Culture Used to Give You a Certain Status. Now Ripped Jeans Do. Interview with John Seabrook, author of the book The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture in the online newspaper “Bumaga.” (URL:
14. Seabrook, John (2001), Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture (New York: Vintage).
15. Derrida, Jacques, “Cogito et histoire de la folie” in Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 68e Année, No. 4 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, (1963), pp. 460-494.
16. Sharifullin, Stas, Developing Your Own Sound is Exciting, Mixmag Russia (2017).  (URL:
17. Burkhalter, Seismographic Sounds: Visions of a New World, p. 10.
 18. Fisher, Mark, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester: Zero Books, 2009), p. 1.
19. Ibid, p. 2.
20. Ibid, p. 3.
21. Ibid, p. 8.
22. Seabrook, John, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory (New York: Norton, 2016).
23. Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?,  p. 80.