Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

On the Destruction of Musical Instruments

Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

On the Destruction of Musical Instruments

Article excerpt

Why do we think it is wrong to destroy or mistreat a musical instrument, and what grounds our reactions when we see musical instruments being damaged or destroyed? This is the question Stephen Davies tries to answer in his essay "What is the Sound of one Piano Plummeting?"1 As far as I am aware, this article is the first contribution by a philosopher of music to the issue of instrument mistreatment. In this article, I briefly summarize his position and offer an alternative account. My proposal has the merit, I contend, of showing how the mistreatment of musical instruments is essentially related to the role instruments play in music as an art.

There are various artistic contexts in which instrument mistreatment or destruction takes place. This paragraph provides a brief account of the variety of cases in which musical instruments have been destroyed or mistreated. Some contemporary pieces of music or performance art entail an improper use of an instrument or even its destruction. More famously, certain musicians in the world of popular music, especially rock, have the habit of sacrificing their instruments to the stage at the end of their show. Davies names Hendrix, Pete Townshend and Keith Moon, and the list could of course be much longer. Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the first artists in popular music to destroy an instrument, setting fire to his piano at the end ofa show. Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore used to involve in the spiral of destruction his Marshall amplifier too. Guitar smashing is certainly the most infamous pastime of rock musicians, but other instruments are sometimes involved, as Moon's example shows. (He was the drummer in the band The Who.) Paul Simonon of The Clash destroyed his bass on stage, an act immortalized in a photograph that became the cover of the band's album London Calling (1979). It is unsurprising to find instances of musical instrument mistreatment and destruction in a nihilistic and self-destructive aesthetics such as the one that characterized the punk movement. Moving to metal music, we find a characteristic shift in the attitude toward instrument mistreatment. A more regulated lifestyle than the one favoured by the musicians of the 60s and 70s often accompanies the high level of virtuosity often showcased by players of this genre. This different approach to music making, seen perhaps more as a profession rather than as a self-expression and social critique, is perhaps what is behind the relative lack of popularity of guitar smashing in the metal world. There are, however, relevant exceptions. Neoclassical metal guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen has destroyed guitars on stage in a way that closely resembles the guitar smashing acts performed by Ritchie Blackmore, one of Malmsteen's musical heroes. Moreover, I have personally seen Malmsteen snapping one by one the six strings of his Fender Stratocaster-a less brutal mistreatment than the usual smash, but equally an example of apparently gratuitous violence on the instrument.

The German industrial metal band Rammstein provides another instance of musical instrument destruction. At the end of some live performances of the song Los, keyboard player Christian Lorenz "Flake" destroyed a portable keyboard by smashing it on the stage. This is not the only act of violence represented in the German band's performances. During the song Bück dich, Flake engages in a pretence act of sodomy with singer Till Lindemann, who has a plastic dildo tied to his waist. As happened with the cases of musical instrument destruction in high art and punk music, we find here that the practice of destroying instruments is often related to a more general presentation of violence in an artistic context.

Moving away from metal, a recent example of instrument destruction is provided by Matthew Bellamy of the band Muse. Bellamy retains the Guinness world record for the number of guitars smashed in a single tour, with a remarkable 140 destroyed instruments. …

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