Jacques Attali : The Prophecy of Noise

Angus Carlyle is a Senior Lecturer at the London College of Communication. Former editor of ‘Theme Park’, He writes extensively on technology, art and culture and also works as an arts consultant in the UK and internationally. Jacques Attali is a celebrated economist, professor and writer. A curious and brilliant mind, He addresses a wide range of subjects, whether they be economic, political or philosophical. The interview was an opportunity for both men to the focus on the ideas developed in ‘Noise’

Many years ago, I spent a summer holiday in a small cottage in the South of France. Long after the sun had gone down and my friends had retired for the night, I would place a deck chair next to the swimming pool and read David Toop's Ocean of Sound until overcome by sleep.
With the stars bright above and the nocturnal chorus of crickets, owls calling from the nearby woods, and bats clicking overhead, everything seemed in its proper place, the vivid soundscape that surrounded me at one with the immersive themes of Toop's book. On the voyage home, I bumped into two other friends, Mark and Julia - who had been conducting an archaeological investigation into Cathar religious sites - and relayed the experience of my pool-side meditations.
By coincidence, they too had spent their time in the company of another book about sound. For them, it had been Jacques Attali's Noise. As we headed back to Britain, we inevitably compared notes.
The warmth of Toop's work apparently contrasted with a certain iciness detectable in Attali's; the crowd of concrete references to specific music and musicians that populated Ocean of Sound appeared distinct from the less well inhabited pages of Noise; Ocean of Sound was to a certain extent sealed off from the political whereas from its first sentences Noise was welded to it; Toop favoured a lyrical style and Attali, perhaps no less poetic, a linguistic density that made an aphorism of almost every sentence.
For Mark and Julia, one of the striking aspects of Noise was the strangeness of the biographical identity of its author, whose books on economics, they reported, could be found on the shelves of the hypermarkets they'd visited. From 1981 until 1991, Attali was a conseiller special in the French Socialist Government and in the first volume of his diary of that experience, Verbatim, Attali acknowledges that even before we get to his texts that extend beyond conventional economics, his was a strange position. “Naturellement, ce text est marqué par l'étrange rôle que j'y ai tenu: l'intellectuel dont le Prince se méfie assez pour le tenir en lisière, mais qui il a assez confiance pour en faire le témoin de toutes les rencontes, le filtre de tous les documents, pour lui confie maintes missions et l'accept comme son confident quotodien”.
As the origins of the preceding quotation demonstrate, Attali's relationship with the economic is not solely a function of his publications or his academic pedigree. Indeed, despite having 3 million books translated into over 20 languages in circulation worldwide, many know Attali through the economic organisations with which he has been involved.
He was the Founder and President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development whose function was to assist the former Soviet Union during its 'transitional phase' – an occupation which led one writer on notbored.org to characterise Attali as “Mr. Eurobank”. More recently, Attali was commissioned by Boutros-Ghali to conduct an investigation into the smuggling of weapon- grade nuclear material, an investigation whose results were published in L'Economie de L'Apocalypse.

More recently still, he has had a significant role in several venture capital, equity and consultative organisations and has established PlanetFinance, dedicated to combining microfinance with a dynamic exploitation of internet resources in an effort to re-address the world's gross economic disparities. Although Attali's public work has not been insulated from controversy, it is his writing which, for me at least, has the real potential to provoke. There cannot be many individuals who have come as close as Attali to the corridors of global power yet still find the opportunity to assert, as he did in 1999's Fraternité, that “utopiais [are] only, in the final analysis, the name given to reforms that are really awaiting a revolution so these can be carried out”. Ultimately, though, for all their merit, I'm less interested in Attali's social diagnoses – implausibly universal in reach - or his general futorology – not eccentric enough for my tastes - nor his much vaunted identification of a nomad society – after all, Deleuze and Guattari, among many others, had been there before – nor am I particularly excited by his award-winning novels and plays.
For me it is Noise: A Political Economy of Music where his most potent ideas find expression. On many occasions Attali's book has been used to provide a theoretical basis from which to address those types of music whose acoustic properties are assumed to define them as 'noise' – everything from 1980s Industrial to American Hardcore to Japanese onkyo. This parallel is, to a certain extent, right. Attali frequently endeavours to persuade his reader that there is a variety of inextricable connections between noise and pain: between the brutality unleashed by a threatened Establishment and the disorienting discord let out by the Establishment's intended victims; between the convulsions that accompany the creation of a new society and the apparent chaos of the sound that announces its imminent arrival. Yet, although noise is identified by Attali as a metaphor for violence, the applications of Noise are by no means limited to any defined musical style (indeed, these applications are by no means limited to music itself.
As a pertinent example I found myself having to order another copy of Noise after my original was borrowed on long loan by a performance artist). Instead, the fundamental theses developed by Attali in the first edition of his extended interpretation of Brueghel's painting 'The Carnival's Quarrel With Lent' largely escape the specifics of time and place. It is true that in his second edition, there are more temporally and geographically located references.
There is also, for me anyway, the disappointing decision to clarify things, as Attali told Ian Simmons at nthposition.com, “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”.
Noise, then, is a broad phenomenon which Attali first explores in cybernetic terms as “a resonance that interferes with the audition of a message in the process of emission." Understood from this perspective, noise cannot be associated with any specific music, since its identity will shift with the passage of time. As Attali asserts, “[w]hat is noise to the old order is harmony to the new." What, for Attali remains consistent, however, is music's structural relationship with society. "Music runs parallel to human society, is structured like it, and changes when it does." Stated like this, however, this sounds too close to some sub-Marxist cultural determinism. Attali's argument is odder than this, though. For him, music is not reflection, “[m]usic is prophecy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible, that will impose itself and regulate the order of things; it is not only the image of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future”.
Thus, the trajectory of historically successive paradigms of musical organisation – representation, repetition, composition – worked as trailers for the main features of successive paradigms of social organisation. At this point, we can see how Attali's work, rather than being divideable into two separate enterprises – the economy and its analysis divided from music and its analysis – comes full circle. Thus Attali, again in the interview with Ian Simmons, reported that he always uses “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”. It is not only these enterprises associated with Attali’s work - the analysis of music and the analysis of economics - that come full circle. If we return to the discussions my friends and I had as we traveled back from our respective vacations, it is meaningless to artificially segregate Toop and Attali, to divide aesthetics from ethics, to separate the artistic from the economic.
As Attali’s book demonstrates, to omit the economic dimension is at best naive; at worst, it is dishonest. In what follows, Jaques Attali explores further with Vibrö the intersections between music and the economy.

Vibrö: You have recently signalled that 'laws' of economics derived from conventional models based on scarcity may not be appropriately applied to the emerging information economies. Can you explain your thinking behind this argument? Jacques Attali: According to one law of economics, if I give something, I don't have it anymore; but if I give information, I still have it. According to another law of economics, the value of a good increases with its scarcity. The value of an information tool, such as a language or a telephone network, is increased by the numbers of users.

V:: Are the financial markets - like the futures market - not, in the most precise terms, information economies. If they are, how is their growth sustained, especially as the real, 'material' economy has experienced a year-on-year decline?

JA: The financial markets are not obeying to the laws of information economies, because what is sold is not information, but time. And there are other economic laws for time: I cannot give time. I can only lend it. The futures market is a market where people exchange time and not information. The value of a scoop, for instance, is not the value of an information, but the value of knowing this information before others. It is a value of time. More generally, anything is made of matter (or energy) , information ( or form) and time. Each of these observes three different sets of economic laws.

V: Does the notion of a pure information economy depend upon information having some value outside the existence of corresponding carrier or artefact (whether that is a CD and packaging or book with cover or web-site restricted through paid access)? If there is such a carrier does what apparently looks like an information economy actually then respond to the laws of scarcity (there are only so many CDs, books or access codes in existence)?

JA: Exactly. The problem of the insertion of culture in the market economy is : is it possible to make it artificially rare, through licenses, patents, cryptology or will the pirates be always able to circumvent this artificial scarcity? In my view, this battle will always be won by hackers.

V: From Georges Bataille and others including Marcel Mauss and Guy Debord we have heard intimations of the possibility of a gift economy or a solar economy. In your wonderful text "Noise" you see the opportunity for composers to transcend the "stockpiling of lack". Is this transcendence a move towards a gift economy?

JA: Yes it is. It may be the beginning of a society where people are finding pleasure in exchanging their compositions, in giving joy to others. A gift economy is a society where the one who gives is the consumer (the pleasure to give) and where the receiver is the one who produces ( an opportunity for someone else to give). It is a radical inversion of the economic laws.

V: Are there any historical antecedents of gift economies in music, where the value of the sound depended upon its donation rather than what was received in return or what ritual / sacrificial function was performed?

JA: I suppose that for any musician, its pleasure is not to receive a financial reward but to see the illumination of faces and the dancing moves of his listeners. Therefore, any musician is consumer of the pleasure given by its production. Any artist is, in fact, the vanguard of the gift economy. Any person receiving another one and having pleasure in doing so is also a consumer of the gift economy: Any act of hospitality ( and art is hospitality) is an embryo of gift economics.

V: Is the ultimate gift economy in music when the composer produces only for himself / herself?

JA: It is the ultimate first phase. The gift economy is enjoying the pleasure of making music. But this is also a beginning. It is said in the Bible that we have to love the others like we love ourselves. Which means only that it is impossible to love others if you don't love yourself first. It is equally impossible to please the others if the composition is not, first, on occasion to enjoy its own creation. Therefore, after having found the pleasure of composition we can drag others in our own creative universe and share composition with listeners becoming co-composers.

V: Are their parallels between such gift economies and what is allegedly occurring with MP3 distribution?

JA: Yes. The MP3 is not going to be a lucrative business, because it is from the very beginning a gift economy, where people give for the pleasure of giving and of creating by mixing others gifts. The future economy of music will not be based on selling tunes on the net, except if it become possible to organise the encryption of it. I doubt, except if the whole MP3 standard is given away and replaced by a new one, controlled from its conception by the majors. It is possible.

V: Can you explain to our readers why sound does, as you argue, operate as an early warning system of coming economic and social developments? JA: It is difficult to explain in a few words what is detailed in my book Noise! I can only say that being an art of information, it is quicker to explore the possible scenarios in music that in material life.

V: If it can be a "herald" of the future, do current developments inspire optimism / pessimism?

JA: Optimism , because we see more and more people going to composition, and willing to be active. But also pessimism if composition transforms the world into a juxtaposition of autist composers. It is up to us to make the best use of it.

V: Walter Benjamin famously claimed that the aura of originality and authenticity was destroyed in the act of mechanical reproduction. Do you think that the history of recorded sound has borne out his prophecy?

JA: It is not true. We are always tempted to think that creation and life will die with us. Recorded sound was an opportunity for millions of people to discover musics which where before only for privileged people. And to listen at the best interprets. This has given to more and more people tools for creation. Walter Benjamin's thesis means than creation can occur only in the realm of ignorance. It is a very aristocratic and the pessimistic view of the world!

V: Do you think that sampling - irrespective of questions of legality and morality - may have operated to restore something like the aura in the digital age? What I mean here is that samples frequently retain the warmth and crackle of vinyl (something that could easily be filtered out by DSP) so that the recording medium itself is audible and as such this recording medium itself is employed to betray an aura of human presence?

JA: Sampling is a new way of creation , getting away from the too sanitised DSP music. It is demonstration that the real demand of the audience, is to listen at life, which is the main nostalgia in a world of artefacts.

V: Are you conscious that "Noise" has inspired a many working at the cutting edge of sound production, many of whom were born after the book was published?!

JA: I have been told that more and more in these last years - apparently more in the Anglo-Saxon world than in France ...

V: Does your consciousness of the profound problems associated with the corporatisation of music affect your ability to buy it and enjoy it in good conscience?

JA: It makes me less naive in front of the production of stars, in all kind of music, and orient my curiosity to very new fields.

V: What music do you listen to?

JA: Everything. These days, I rediscovered the records I bought when I was 14: romantic piano music as well as Alban Berg, and Satie. I am also interested these days in the new directions of Indian music.

V: Marshall McLuhan predicted the return of acoustic space after its prolonged subordination to visual space and visual culture. Do you think the primacy of the visual is ever likely to be overturned and, if it is, would the social changes that engineered this fundamental paradigm shift have implications for the economic system?

JA: We are going to enter into a 3D World incorporating sound and movement in space. We are going to produce the work of art by a travel in the imagination of the creator. The next artistic revolution will be to find a way to travel in time. Music is already a travel in time: create order , giving a meaning through art is a way of fighting against the natural entropy of the world.

V: Finally, a particularly ambitious question, one which I appreciate has no right answers but one which your work with the UN and other NGOs might offer particular insights to. Can technology be harnessed to provide any solutions to the global economic iniquities?

JA: It is possible. I am spending a lot of my time to day on that. I have created an organisation PLANET FINANCE which is using new technologies to help very poor people, mainly women, to create their own jobs

More info about 'Noise' of Jacques Attali:
http://www.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/aesthetics%20of%20music/attali'snoise.htm ( in english)
http://users.skynet.be/aecoute/txt/dossiers/bruits.htm ("Bruits" Paris, PUF, 1978. - in french)

GENERAL INFO, SALES ENQUIRIES, PARTNERSHIP : info (at) vibrofiles (dot) com