Particularity: Iranian Music, Roland Barthes, and Musical Definitions

“…[T]he very term ‘underground music’ sparks controversy, for they realize that its provenance – coined to express the rebellion of Western musicians against the commodification and banality of music in their own societies – ill suits it to the Iranian context.

In Iran, ‘underground music’ denotes something vastly different: not a protest against market norms imposed by a constrictive and domineering music industry, but rather a samizdat art form in a country whose rulers abhor music altogether and have consigned most expressions of it to the realm of the forbidden.

In a place where music diverging from the state’s tight bounds of propriety is forced underground to survive, and where that scene has far more adherents than the state-endorsed music it challenges, it is inapt to classify the underground music that has emerged over the past decade as a Western-style, self-defined purist movement eschewing mainstream success in favor of artistic integrity or creative independence”.

-Morad Mansouri, “The Underground Rises” 

What is the nature of this spark of controversy that Mansouri refers to?

It starts with a definition of ‘underground music’ that seems to have picked up steam over time. In this process the word calcifies, loaded with the connotations of its particular origin. From its growth, we are left with “a Western-style, self-defined purist movement eschewing mainstream success in favor of artistic integrity or creative independence”.

That provenance is key. It is not an issuing from God: just a particular word meaning a particular thing to a particular group of people in a particular space.

But the inertia that these definitions carry is seismic. These origins escape their particularities and the definitions expand to far reaches of space and thought. Such is the situation that Mansouri finds himself when he wants to refer to a strand of Iranian music as ‘underground’.

In his essay “Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature”, Roland Barthes discusses the trial of Gaston Dominici, an 80 year old farmer who was convicted in 1952 for the murder of a woman, her husband, and their child who were found camping on near his property.

The titular triumph, according to Barthes, is of the court’s own particularities to the disadvantage of Dominici: “Do these two mentalities, that of the old peasant from the Alps and that of the judiciary, function in the same way? Nothing is less likely. And yet it is in the name of a ‘universal’ psychology that old Dominici has been condemned”.

Do we not throw out platitudes that actually retard discussion of certain musical approaches? Are we not left with discussion that is bias towards a particular origin?

And yet it is in the name of music as a ‘universal’ language…

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