Tag Archives: Jon Rose

Rosenberg 3.0: not violin music (book review)

Rosenberg 3.0: not violin music

Curated by Jon Rose


Following Pink Violin and Violin Music in the Age of Shopping, not violin music presents the latest scholarship from the rarefied field of Rosenbergology. For those who have not had the pleasure of delving into the intellectual humus of the Rosenberg family tree, the Rosenbergs are a clan of physicists, mathematicians and, of course, violinists who all share the same first initial “J.” The family’s pseudonymous scholars are keen culture critics and dialecticists, ready to lament the decline of Western Civilization while decrying its inherent contradictions. The book revels in collapse and tragedy, beginning with a post-apocalyptic portrait of one Dr Rosenberg reinventing the Doric column and ending with a suicide.

The material form of the book develops this sense of cultural amnesia. It is an unwieldy book, lacking even that most basic of bibliographic conveniences: page numbers. There is no table of contents, nor even a list of contributors. Book sections can only be distinguished by their idiosyncratic typesetting. Each chapter has a different font (though Comic Sans does not make an appearance, I was disappointed to find. Even scientists at CERN use it!). The glossy, low-resolution cover betrays its origins in a print-on-demand self-publishing house. It is, in short, a dysfunctional book.

Which is precisely the point. Contributors were briefed to explore dysfunctionalism as a theme. In one chapter “Dr Robert Ostertag” gives the principle of dysfunctionalism as that “[…] a machine performing a task badly is aesthetically superior to a human performing the task wel.” The phrase is clipped because Ostertag’s responses are subject to Twitter’s 140-character limitation. The book is thus a product of the axiom that cheap-and-quick printing and cut-and-paste formatting are aesthetically superior to more manual production values.

Ostertag’s definition of dysfunctionalism only covers cases where automatism is pitted against human agency in the performance of a given task, such as in the construction of a print-on-demand book. But the cases of dysfunctionalism explored by the contributors are usually those in which a machine poorly translates or transmits human intentions (If I may add my own example, consider the joy derived from watching crappy robots fight each other compared to their better-greased counterparts). For instance, Ostertag cites an installation where Dr Rosenberg attempts to play a violin using ECG data. Another author relates the dysfunctional scenario of a Maoist TED talk by Judd Rosenberg. Plagiarism, new and old violins, jazz clubs, composition competitions and the instrumental innovations of violin metal are also evaluated as dysfunctional mediums.

The authors explore language itself as a dysfunctional medium. Academic language, theory language, art language, even mathematical language (the book is a pleasure for those on hand-waving terms with pure mathematics) all come under parodic scrutiny. One chapter is shockingly written in “Engrish,” with “l”s and “r”s interchanged. Another frequently drops articles. These caricatures of the language of people from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds are made all the more offensive by the use of pseudonyms as dysfunctional names. The pseudonym does not point the reader to any particular context. It is a reader’s dead-end. This is dangerous when a text hinges on irony, on knowing that an author “doesn’t really mean it.”

Dysfunctional names leads to dysfunctional readings, and here I cannot accept that dysfunction aesthetically trumps function. Only after clarifying with Jon Rose that the two chapters in question were indeed written by a Japanese and a Slovakian contributor respectively and that exploring dysfunctional language was an essential part of their brief was I able to read the contributions with any sort of sympathy.

There is yet the disfunctionality of culture critique that plagues the book. Lazy generalisations mar the contributors’ clever jabs at contemporary culture. One author paints a juvenile caricature of the Australian suburbs as a cultural wasteland devoid of music-making. Rosenberg is driven around the suburb of “Roselands” in a taxi and promises to double the fare if he can find somebody performing music. He resorts to door knocking after failing to find music at pubs and malls, but house after house is devoid of music-making. I call this caricature juvenile because I entertained it myself as a teenager in the southern suburbs of Adelaide. But then again, I was playing the cello every day from the back room of our triple-fronted, cream brick home, as were many other kids in the neighbourhood. I lament with the author the steady decline in public musicking since the nineteenth century, but they would better pose the question of why amateur music making is still largely delineated by class rather than shaming the working class, or indeed the economic middle class, for having apparently given up on violins. The Muslim taxi driver in this chapter is also a caricature the purpose of which mystifies me.

Several chapters in the book are quite tasteless, which is again part of the book’s design. In response to my inquiries about the book’s portrayals of class and religion, Rose stressed the point that he exercised no censorship in curating the contributions. Tasteless, too, is the Violin Museum inspiring the contributions, which features several exhibits that cannot be included among the thirty-one pages of pictures of the Museum. The museum, which actually exists, was once situated in the town of Violin in Slovakia. Rose has passed a dragnet through contemporary culture, from the high to the low and the experimental, picking up authentic Rosenberg modified violins and art works, as well as violin-themed nick-knacks and smut. After threats to the museum director’s life, the museum is currently homeless, but will soon be exhibited in Berlin, Bologna and Australia. Whatever the anti-censorship ideals behind the book, the use of dysfunctional names will lead the book to be judged on face value. The book’s irony will be flattened out.