Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Music as Identity

In my last blog I mentioned noise and noise in that blog was a kind of music. You may be one of those people who doesn't consider that noise is music but I would disagree with you. John Cage defined music as the arrangement of sound and silence so it seems to me that if you accept that noise is sound then any arrangement of it must also be music. This seems reasonable to me and those who make the kind of music I would call "noise" vary wildly in any case. Noise, for me, would extend from the abstract sound collages native to early 1970s "Kosmische" music to the glitchy "IDM" beats of Autechre to the ingrained, experimental, industrial randomness of Throbbing Gristle (and much else besides). Noise, for me, encompasses the abstract, the random, the non-standard, the unpredictable, the incoherent, the absurd. It is not merely shouting into a microphone whilst strumming your guitar with the volume on full - although it could be. Noise, in my estimation, is made by those who are very artistically involved and invested in the music they make. There is usually some overt point or purpose behind it. I would also argue that noise makers have a fascination with sounds and do not merely want to create unending variations of the same ones.

The recent history of my music-making goes something like this. In the Autumn of 2013 I returned to the UK from living in Berlin, Germany. I was at a low point and the music I made then was uninspiring and formulaic. About six months later, in the Spring of 2014, I began to emerge from this malaise by experimenting with metallic sounds. In this period I was still thinking kind of melodically and I made poignant tunes that were, perhaps, a hangover from the low point I had been at. It was in the Autumn of 2014 that my musical philosophy received a fresh influx of inspiration when I discovered two now constant and abiding influences. These were John Cage and Kosmische music. It was not so much the case that I liked this music (such a thing as musical taste is largely irrelevant) but more the case that these people had ideas about what music is at all in the first place. I was struck by the fact, in the case of the Kosmische musicians, that they expressly wanted to make a new music, a music that could be theirs, something that wasn't beholden either to a tradition or to totem figures of the past. This showed that music is part of a culture and that you place yourself inside a tradition when you make it. Music becomes about identity. It says who you are. With Cage it was very much his compositional attitude, approach and ideas that were key. Music is organizing sounds and silence, nothing more and nothing less. Isn't that just a refreshingly simple definition, something that sets you free as a musical creator?

The track Discipline by Throbbing Gristle is, for some, not the easiest thing to listen to. Feel free to listen to it on You Tube if you've never heard it before. It is charitably described as a vocalist shouting over sounds. I'm not going to tell you its the greatest song ever made but that's not the point anyway. The point for someone with an inquiring mind like me is why would someone make a song like that in the first place? This leads into another question which is why does anyone make a song the way they do? Everyone who makes music has forbears and knows of other music and so its true to say that everyone has influences. But it might not always be thought that musical writers have ideas or identity behind their music when they make it. I think they do. I think the music you make says something about you, who you see yourself as, where you think you fit in, what you want to be and how you see the world. I could at this point furnish lots of examples that I think make this point but I'll leave it to you to think about my suggestion for yourself instead. 

My point in mentioning this is because I want to encourage people to think both more widely and deeply about music in the first place. At one level music can just be taken as another composition that you either like or don't like. I increasingly find this shallow and you have my influences to thank for me thinking this way. Music has long been used to influence people however and not just at political rallies for mainstream candidates trying to hook you in with a catchy tune. Even if one thinks back to more primitive times music was used, for example in cultic rituals, to engender an atmosphere and create  a mood conducive to the activity concerned. One thinks of the Dionysian feasts in ancient Greek culture where revelers would whip themselves up into intoxicated frenzy. Music there helped to achieve this and had a purpose. I think that more often than we might like to admit music does have a purpose. Its incredibly narrow thinking to regard music as merely "entertainment". Its much more complicated than that. For example, did John Lennon write "Imagine" (which I think is the worst song ever made) to entertain or to make a point? At the very least it is a bit of both.

For me music is a lot of the things I've mentioned above. It is certainly something which says something about you. The kind of music you choose to make is a choice as are the conditions that you choose to make it under. This can demonstrate if you intend to be a person who wants to "fit in" or if you see yourself as an outsider. It can show that you want to be seen as part of one culture but not another. It can indicate if you regard yourself as traditional or avant garde. It can also show if you are content to use standard tropes or want to take a non-standard approach. My recent albums have very much been trying to fit into non-standard tropes, being abstract collages of sounds, often dissonant, that require the effort of listening to them as a whole to appreciate what I was trying to do. Here we do not talk about "good" and "bad" for these are superficial judgments of likes and dislikes and these things are of no importance. There is more to be said and to be heard about music than if you personally happen to like it or not in the moment you hear it. I wonder, for example, if you ever purposely listen to forms of music that you don't like to think about why you don't like them? This is something I have done and its helped me to formulate what I think music is and what its for by doing it. I think that music is something that can be learned about and in listening to it you learn about yourself, others, and the world. The thought here, again, is that music is about much more than either entertainment or your likes and dislikes.

This, I think, is why my own music has inevitably become more random, non-standard, abstract and self-conscious about use of sounds right up to today with my last two albums, Texture and Adrift, being first and foremost sound collages. They invite you to a world outside of pop music, rock music, mainstream tropes, standard sounds, things that would sound nice on the radio or something that you would listen to at a family gathering. They are albums which demand attention on their own terms and for many that might be too big of an ask, something too jarring to contemplate. Of course, having said what I've said above, you would imagine they also say plenty about me and how I see the world. That's very true. But I'd turn that back on my readers and ask what does the music you make and/or listen to say about you and how you see the world? Listening back to my album Texture, as I am as I write this blog, I'm struck how very much like Kosmische music it really sounds. If you told me it was from 1971 by someone with a German sounding name I'd believe you. I say this not to take pride in the fact but to note how much my recent influences have insidiously taken me over. I didn't set out thinking "My album must sound like Kosmische music". And yet it does and it makes me jump to realize it. I then note that I do identify with the purposes and use of sounds that those people had who made that kind of music did. I see myself being influenced by my appreciation of the world and then writing blogs that try to influence it back.

A question occurs to me at this point: does any of this matter? Does it matter what music you make, what music you like? On the one hand, no, it doesn't. But people act as if it does. More than once I've stupidly got involved in arguments about what music is good and what music is bad. But this is absurd. No music is inherently good and no music is inherently bad. Its all a matter of taste and taste is a matter of identity. People get heated about whether you like this or that because they have invested some of themselves in the judgments they have made about things. To say this song I cherish is rubbish is, in a way, to say that you think I am. And vice versa. Music is sometimes portrayed as this trivial thing that is commercial, disposable and throwaway. These days there are stories almost every day of how it is now a valueless commodity that many people won't even pay for, either as consumers or as those who want music for their projects but won't pay musicians to provide it. Something is certainly going on there but, argument after trivial argument on the Internet shows, people are still very much invested in music and particularly in what they consider as their music. Music is a matter of identity, it is a personal and cultural marker.

So, since this is my personal blog, what of me? Well, I'm happy to keep on being the non-standard, dissonant, abstract, non-conventional person I seem eager to be. I've stopped chasing likes, follows and downloads. Believe it or not I did once try to be a person who made music people would like! Thank the non-existent gods I saw the light on that one! The music I made then was lame, insipid shit. Making music to please an audience is a hateful business. You must be yourself. Authenticity is key. Now I just think that my music is there. Listen or don't. My music is and always has been a musical statement of something more than pitches and scales and as I write I think its getting more interesting as time passes by. "Being interesting" is my musical threshold in making an album and since I make it for me then if it interests me that is the standard. All I can hope after that is that it maybe interests one or two others as well. I make music that is a journey and an experience. It is for listeners to decide if its a journey they want to take and an experience they want to have. Even if its not I hope my blog today encourages my readers to think a bit more about any music they make or listen to and that they ask themselves wider questions because of it.

My music is available at 

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