This week has been a reinvigorating and refreshing one for me in a creative sense. I predicted some weeks ago that my creativity would inevitably break down and that what I had been doing for 9 months would quite organically collapse. And so it has proved to be. A combination of being constitutionally unable to continue repeating myself and the dreaded month of October, in which my world always seems once more to descend into the depths, with the vanishing light and the increase of night, have made my premonition come true.
And so the Berlin School-influenced music has now vanished. This week, in its place, came experiments with noise and sound. In a strange way I'm still locked into the same German influences that I have been following all year though. Listen to the first album by Tangerine Dream from 1969 (Electronic Meditation) or to the first couple of albums by Cluster (who were then called Kluster) or Popol Vuh's first album (Affenstunde) and what you hear is musical experimentations with sound. Nothing more and nothing less. There is no song structure here. Its merely playing with sound until you decide to stop. Fast forward into the 80s, 90s and 00s and people like Coil, Autechre and Aphex Twin are found doing pretty much the same thing but with different tools.
I have this notion in my head, thats been growing for some time now, that a fixation with making a tune is a great deceiver in making music. There is, of course, a mainstream bias towards it. No piece of noise art would get into a popular chart. Even the great names of noise genres were never popular in a mainstream sense. Tangerine Dream only did one album playing with sounds before developing into the makers of evolving electronic music that they came to be with their many TV and film soundtracks to keep them going. Industrial acts like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire or Test Dept, who similarly wanted to play with sound, are niche bands with artistic or political things to say. They are not mainstream acts. Even the aforementioned Aphex Twin, the hero these days of fanboys everywhere, is not a popular artist in a mainstream sense. Most people would not know who he is. But people do know who any number of artists are who will knock out the lamest of tunes. Its music you can hum. Arcade Fire and Coldplay are popular. IDM artists and old German noise experimenters are not.
And yet it quickly becomes clear to any musician with any sense of adventure whatsoever that the world is full of sounds both imaginable and unimaginable. And, as I've said over and over again, there are no rules in music. And you cannot "go wrong". "A mistake" only exists if you conceive of the idea that there is something you should have done instead of what you actually did do. But what if you forget the idea of having an antecedent plan for where you want to go and, instead, you just throw things together? What if you made up some arbitrary rules and just followed them? What if pitch and tune became completely irrelevant to the process? What if the only thing that matters in music is not that you can save it and repeat it (my current pet hate) but that you can manipulate it, twist it and mangle it into insensibility right now in this moment which is all that matters? No two performances of music (even when its meant to be the same piece) will ever be the same anyway. So why keep trying to replicate?
None of this is new of course. The musical avantgarde of the 40s, 50s and 60s were already embracing such ideas 60 or even 70 years ago. My favourite of these people is John Cage with his chance operations in which he would arbitrarily follow some rules or ideas he had made up or that the I Ching (an ancient Chinese divination text utilizing cleromancy) had ordained he must follow. This was music at random. Brian Eno is famous for his "oblique strategies" which are his own way of following a random rule or idea and just seeing where it takes you. David Bowie has always utilized random ways of writing lyrics for his songs, either with paper and scissors or in electronic ways. Throbbing Gristle often seemingly had no guide at all other than choosing an instrument and then playing it exactly the way you were not intended to. Cosey Fanni Tutti, the guitar player, would often play the electric guitar sitting down by hitting it with something or bowing it rather than strumming the strings or playing recognizable chords. (She still does this today together with fellow former TG member and her partner, Chris Carter, in their current musical endeavours.) She also had a cornet she couldn't play, not that it mattered. Autechre's increasing uses of software to make music has often resulted in outcomes that were not predictable to the musicians themselves and has given much of their work the flavour of sound abstraction.
So why do this? In my own mind its because not doing things "properly", not being able (or wanting) "to play" or just saying "fuck the rules and expectations" is actually a very freeing thing to do. There is no bigger boundary to artistic freedom than being told there is a way that you should do something or that there is an expectation it needs to have a certain structure, style or expected outcome. I don't think that people who play up to these standards are being particularly artistic nor are they really doing anything other than joining the dots. It is relatively easy to write "a song". Anyone, even if they don't know it, can write a simple repeating pattern of notes. Repeat it for three minutes and you have a song. Easy. But why do it? There are, of course, many who have long and enduring commercial careers based on their ability to bash out the same thing for years. But who said that commerce or getting rich were the goals of musical art? All things must pass, including your incredible wealth and lame, mainstream and very popular music. But what did you stand for?
Let's get to what I've been doing this week. I have this notion that ideas are the currency of artists. It is then for the artist to use whatever skill he or she has to bring the ideas they have to fruition. But the idea is key. My idea this week has been relatively simple: take a number of sounds or pieces of music or noises and just juxtapose them on a sequencer timeline. Do this unconsciously and in no way deliberately (that means often not even knowing what the music or sound or noise is) almost like throwing playing cards on to a table and letting them fall where they may. Then, once you have given each sound a track, play with them. Change their speed, reverse them, chop them up, add effects to some but not others (reverbs, distortion and delays are favourites here). None of this is new. Its all been done before. But its freeing because no one, especially not you, even knows what you will get at the end. Often I didn't even listen to what I had got at the end. I just made sure the sound level was tolerably OK and recorded what was there. Listening back to the album was the first time I heard the whole piece. Its amazing and interesting that often what you get is a strange kind of preternatural beauty as sounds combine and contrast in unexpected ways.
You, of course, may be sitting there thinking this is all noise with no redeeming features and that art is deliberation, a product of an artist using their talents to create something on purpose that conforms to rules. But consider this: no one made the countryside but I bet you find it beautiful to look at. The universe itself is random in the most radical way it could be. And isn't it full of wonder! What I've done this week is the same principle applied to sounds as I juxtaposed things without any real care for what they were or how I did it. And my attitude in making it was to allow the random sounds to reveal their inner beauty in the process of simply placing noises into a relationship with each other. And for that to happen you have to be open to it and not bounded in by notions of the "right" way to do things or what in the end are themselves completely arbitrary notions of right and wrong in any case. So what I did this week was part therapy, a break from the norm, part philosophy, an opening of my mind to possibilities, and part music, a creative playing with sound.
I've made 7 albums of this stuff so far because its relatively quick and easy to do. A couple of hours can easily produce 8 tracks and 30-40 minutes of music. In vinyl days that was a whole album. Of course, there will be a further bias at play here and that is the bias towards the thing that is difficult and takes effort over the thing that that is easy and quick and takes little effort. "It can't be worth much if it was so easy to do" will be the thought of some. And yet many of us humans are the result of a 2 minute fumble in the back of a car. Are we worth nothing either because of the easy circumstances of our creation?
In music and in life it might often be beneficial to think differently - just to see what could be rather than meekly accepting, in the most conservative way possible, what "is".