How Non-Music Becomes Music


“In order to know what literature is, I would not want to study its internal structures. I would rather grasp the movement, the little process, by which a type of non-literary discourse, neglected, forgotten as soon as it was made, enters the literary field. What happens? What is triggered off? How is this discourse modified in its efforts by the fact that it is recognized as literary”.

-Michel Foucault, “The Functions of Literature” (an interview)

Another interesting feature of the Ben Ratliff article about the Arthur Russell archive at the NYPL (here) is when Ratliff details the difficulty in the actual archiving:

“One of the library’s interesting challenges may be in how to catalog Russell’s work. For starters, neither the terms “popular” or “classical” really describe him. A group of his lyrics on a notebook page might apply to more than one known and recorded piece of work; a tape of a practice session might or might not be leading toward a finished take. (Mr. Hiam, the curator, said that this was the first time the library has had such a large number of recorded materials demonstrating a composer’s creative process.) He revised and rerecorded and wrote new material in old notebooks. Traditional modes of definition may only help to show the ways that Russell resisted them”.

This would have excited Foucalt. Here are neglected little features of Russell’s work: not exactly music in the sense of a finished product but facets of his creative process. What approach will the curator take in cataloguing such artifacts so that they are recognized as music?

It is a wonder whether some of said archive will be accessible from the internet, another non-music discourse. In its inception, the internet was probably not considered a tool to usurp record companies and standard means of music distribution. We are left as its beneficiaries, no one can deny that, yet it would be instructive to examine how it was and will be modified to be recognized as a music entity.

Foucault’s examining literature through how the non-literature is assimilated into it is an adventurous mode of thought. How fascinating to take it into the realm of music. The problems and solutions that present themselves here will lead to insights into the nature of music: maybe some we were aware of and others we were not.


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