Blowing over the top of a bottle of San Pellegrino

Adam Mars-Jones

Matthew Herbert’s Plat du Jour is an album of dance tracks united by the theme of food. Herbert has made a name for himself as a producer from collaborations with Róisín Murphy and Björk, but Plat du Jour is a different kettle of fish, a personal project that has taken a couple of years to devise and record. As the opening track makes clear – it’s called ‘The Truncated Life of a Modern Industrialised Chicken’ – he is obsessed by the ethics of eating. In its idiosyncratic way this is protest music, but there’s only one actual song on the CD, the perversely catchy ‘Celebrity’ (‘Go Gordon/Go Ramsay/Go Beyoncé/Go Beyoncé…’).

So how is it supposed to work? Protest dance pop seems as unlikely a proposition as protest chamber music. Complicating the old debate about whether art can serve a political agenda is the still older debate about whether music can ever have content in non-musical forms. Protest songs of the 1960s were always rather precarious emulsions of melody and slogan. Herbert goes off in an entirely different direction: he doesn’t try to mix oil and water but allows them to separate out. His approach is so odd and draws from such unlikely sources that it seems to be a mutation rather than anything as orthodox or foreseeable as a ‘development’. And there’s nothing more fruitful than a timely mutation.

The late Angela Carter once told me I was a ‘formalist’. We didn’t meet often, and this may have been the first time we did, in which case it was at a party. It had slipped my mind that I don’t smoke, and I cadged a cigarette off her in exchange for reciting the first sentence of one of her novels (‘On my last night in London I paid you a small tribute of spermatozoa, my dear Tristessa’ – an opening that is actually easier to remember than forget). I felt baffled and obscurely hurt by her comment. I honestly didn’t know what she meant, but I understood that a formalist wasn’t a good thing to be. I knew that ‘formalism’ was one of the headings (along with ‘decadence’ and ‘bourgeois leanings’) under which Soviet composers of the 1930s were bullied into abandoning experimentation, but I didn’t connect with the word at all personally. Now I feel I’ve more or less worked out what the term means, and though I think I was misdiagnosed on the basis of a single symptom (an elaborately structured story), I wish I had defended an approach to making art which can claim Bach, Dante and Joyce among its dupes.

There is an element of arbitrariness in every artistic choice. The reason that (say) Beethoven’s Fifth is in C can never be as strong as the reason (say) water boils and freezes at particular temperatures. Formalism welcomes that element and gives it house room. The formalist divides the creative process into two unequal phases. First he invents a set of rules for himself. This stage is not expressive in itself; if anything it produces obstacles to expression. Then he treats the chosen rules as if they were set in stone, beyond appeal.

The supreme example of formalist procedure must be the fugue in music. Once you have decided to write a fugue, your choice of theme is already restricted by the permutations that will be required. A loose fugue is no fugue at all. Once you’ve chosen your theme, the scope for personal expression seems to shut down even more. Luckily restriction is exactly what stimulates one sort of musical mind. There have also been composers who throw off their chains, and then find that they miss the chafing. Schoenberg, after a period of free atonal music, felt the need to draw up a new set of rules, the twelve-tone system, which set out to make every piece of musical utterance as rigorous as a fugue.

There’s no actual law that forbids popular art forms from borrowing such practices, but the overlap is hardly great. It’s possible to be so steeped in counterpoint that you can improvise fugues, à la Bach, but formalism doesn’t foreground spontaneity, the fetish-feature of popular art. Popular art forms also tend towards the open-ended, as in the one-size-fits-all dungarees of the twelve-bar blues, rather than the Houdini straitjacket (drowner of so many escapologists) that is twelve-tone technique. If there was going to be a convergence, you certainly wouldn’t look for it to come from what started off as an outgrowth of folk music – the protest song.

The protest song had a short life near the centre of popular culture and youth politics, and then a long afterlife. In the decades after its 1960s heyday the genre developed, or degenerated, in two main ways. It became less direct, and it became focused on single issues rather than overarching causes like war, capitalism or power to the people. In 1965 it was pretty clear what Barry ‘Eve of Destruction’ McGuire was agitated about (‘If the button is pushed, there’s no running away,/There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave’). As a matter of fact, his blood was so mad, it felt like coagulating. It was equally clear that Crosby Stills Nash & Young were on about Nixon and the National Guard when they recorded ‘Ohio’ in 1970 (‘Four dead in Ohio’).

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