From technique to artistry: The theory of music in ‘Whiplash’

Tropes of ‘music theory’ are as oft trotted out as are their counterparts in the department of ‘practice makes perfect’. But in the philosophy of Mozart’s time, Immanuel Kant already bridged these polar opposites of musical weather reports: the faculty of judgement, specifically concerned with aesthetic concepts of beauty and the sublime, bridged between abstract theory and concrete practice. But where is the ABRSM grade in ‘music judgement and critique,’ you may ask? Alas, you would be asking to no avail (there isn’t one). Damien Chazelle’s systematic takedown and skilled reconstruction of the cult of musicmaking through his debut film ‘Whiplash’ has often itself been equated with the abyss of technical and theoretical precision in contemporary music. Having lost the general public to Adorno’s bane, the jazz-influenced pop stars of yesteryear and this year, classical musicians and ‘pure’ jazz musicians are scrambling to play catch up. Mimicking the market reifications of the pop ‘commodity’, they have developed a harmonic theory that looks more like a price system than a piece of artistic critique. In this purely technical theory, the purpose of music — namely, artistry — is lost. Contrary to Adorno’s theory, it is not popular music but rather elite music that has fallen so dismayingly into the abyss. Music that bridges the gap is almost nowhere to be seen.

Miles Teller’ Andrew Neiman in a drum practice session at the opening of Damien Chazelle’s directorial debut ‘Whiplash’.

But ‘Whiplash’ isn’t about music, right? Conventional views maintain the film compares the drummer to a boxer. The protagonist’s band leader is an abusive mentor who scolds his students into blind submission to his rhythmical and harmonic expectations. The teacher Fletcher, portrayed powerfully by J. K. Simmons, is to his students as the market is to pop producers and singers: a lightning rod against which all music shall be measured. Fletcher, as it happens, likes playing laid-back, loose music in his spare time — but his students have drilled into them the expectation of tight perfection. Over time, they might have their own ‘La La Land’ (the title of Chazelle’s follow-up blockbuster, which flees from his earlier realism straight to box-office fantasism), but now they must face up to the cold, hard realities of slavish professionalism. Artistry, if there is such a thing, comes later.

This has been my view of ‘Whiplash’, influenced by comparisons with the earlier ‘Black Swan’, inspired by the Tchaikovsky ballet ‘Swan Lake’ and its strict demands on dancers. Natalie Portman plays a character who is technically perfect but artistically closed-off. In Darren Aronofsky’s reenactment of the drama behind the ballet, Mila Kunis plays a technically imperfect but artistically open dancer who brings Portman’s character out of her shell, to bridge from the technical White Swan to the artistic Black Swan. Delving into her forbidden subconscious comes at a terrible cost: delusions and madness.

‘Whiplash’, analysts maintain, stops before Miles Tellers’ character descends into complete madness, avoiding death in a car accident (surely inspired by upcoming rapper Kanye West’s near-death experience in a nighttime equivalent accident in the early 2000s), and opening up artistically only right at the very end. If we had seen more, perhaps tragedy would unfold. It is at the transition from technicality to artistry that true music occurs. Only when the shackles of the market and the mentor are overthrown can the musician shine through as a free artist, not just a slavish technician, in their own right.

In this sense, ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Black Swan’ expose the music industry in all its inner Machiavellian genius. Through bullying its workers and producers into submission, the industry creates an environment in which only the most artistically creative and technically powerful musicians can break free from the mould and shine a light on the world as a whole. In this way, a totalitarian system, with petty tyrants to do the dirty work of administering discipline to those weak enough to submit to it and strong enough to challenge it (but not cunning enough to evade or escape it), creates the conditions for its own undoing.

The music industry, as with every industry in capitalism, maximises exploitation of consciousness to a level that only the subconscious springs of action can be heeded. By liberating people from their own bodies, by way of exploiting the body of every subject of this wretched system, the spiritual sources of human endeavour are unleashed through certain individuals, who as Nietzsche’s supermen are destined to shake things up. But without a mass movement to back them up, what are these new masters but new tyrants?

For we do not need more masters to turn us into new slaves. We need doctors to cure us of our collective ailments. We need food for the soul and food for the body. We need music that is both great and good, and true musicians to lead the charge against an overleveraged industry and marketised society. We need music for our own time. We need to turn the ill of exploitation into the remedy of emancipation. We must turn existing society on its head. Through the rebirth of true music in the core of market society, can freedom become possible? Time will tell. Let us hope we do not get too much whiplash along the way …

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