Friday, 18 March 2016

Musical Conundrums and Annoyances

I recently returned to Facebook after about 5 years not using it. Before you rush to add me though please don't bother. I'm not using it as the friend adding exercise that many do. The fact is there are a number of interest groups on there which are useful to be a member of and its where other people have decided to congregate. Sometimes Mohammed has to go to the mountain. However, the problem with the mountain is that it draws all and sundry to it. The breaking news is that there are other people in the world and they don't think the same as you. Now I am, as you may have discerned from reading previous blogs here, a person who appreciates a certain measure of independent thought. However, if anywhere is going to demonstrate that there are lots of people happy to go along with "what everyone else thinks" then that place is Facebook. Nowhere is this more true than with the subject of music.

Everyone, I imagine, thinks they know what music is. Music is all around us and probably most of us hear some of it every single day. But let me ask you a question: can you define as precisely as possible exactly what music is? Have a go now. I will wait.......

Got a definition that you think works and applies to every single thing that could be called music? OK, on we go.

More than once this past week in casually reading posts in synthesizer groups on Facebook I have come across people who say "music" when what they actually mean is "melody". They speak as if "melody" and "music" are interchangeable synonyms and the issue here is that they just aren't! "Melody" is something that may or may not be present within music you are listening to. It is not equivalent with music. So when someone makes a synthesizer poll asking what people do with their modular synth and the first option is "use it musically" I start to wonder what they mean by "musically". It turns out that what they mean is "does not use it abstractly or to make random noises". Because for the poll writer this seems in his mind to be a non-musical use. For him music is equated with being a matter of melody and something all about pitch. Music, for him, is what you do when you take pitches and put them together in a deliberate and pleasing way. Is it just me that finds this both a huge misstep and an incredibly narrow definition of music? 

John Cage defined music as "the arrangement of sounds and silence" (I paraphrase) and this seems to me a much better and much fuller definition of what music is. I have taken it as my own and I hope the now dead Cage will not mind if I do so. Even that very brief definition I find to be staggeringly deep and profound. This is not just because Cage includes absence of sound in his mind-blowingly simple definition of what music is. Its also because he doesn't necessarily infer that this arrangement be deliberate and the result of the actions of a person. Music is not necessarily, within that definition, something someone writes. It could be something someone sets up the conditions for, like building an experiment and seeing what happens when you do, or the arbitrary juxtaposing of sounds, the making of a collage. (Cage did both and I have unashamedly copied him in doing so.) Imagine someone who takes a paint brush, dips it in some paint and then flicks the paint on the canvas. Now imagine a musician doing the same thing with sounds. For Cage, that is music (just as for Jackson Pollock with paint it was art.) For Cage the disinterested, fart noise making noodling of the modular synthesist unconcerned with pitch and the blowing of the wind are "music". For they are both an arrangement of sounds and silences.

This very simple and, for me, profound point seems lost on most people. I'm amazed how many people don't get it even when it is explained to them. They are stuck in a world where "music" is a tune. But its not, not simply so. Some music is tunes. Other music is textures, atmospheres, noises, noise, sounds. Cage himself once stood inside a chamber at a university which was designed to block out all sound. It was meant to be a completely silent place devoid of any noise at all. He discovered that even here he could hear the sound of his own bodily processes, his nervous system, his heart beat. Nowhere on Earth is completely silent. Sound is always with us, a symphony that never leaves us while we are awake. Cage had what I would describe as a fascination with sound and it is one of the things that I hope I have learned from him. Sound is fascinating. I am drawn to musicians who seem similarly fascinated with sound and not just, narrowly, with pitch and tunes. Another great musical area, one often overlooked, is timbre, the kind of sound that is being made. Pieces of music that focus on timbre as opposed to pitch are very interesting to me as are instruments which focus on an ability to change the timbre of a sound. This is why I like synthesizers which are in many respects made to be able to do this by design. Its why in the 40's, 50's and 60's there were people fascinated with magnetic tape. They found they could take one sound and make other, new sounds by manipulating it. Such a focus on timbre strikes me as both thoughtful and intimate. It speaks to me in ways that a tune could never do.

Whatever music is about I think that one major thing about music is its ability to convey two things: meaning and emotion. Each of us dislikes a lot of music. I think that we do that primarily because the music we dislike does not speak to us either in a way that makes any sense to us or in a way that communicates to us. We would say that it does not speak our language. Each of us approaches music differently of course. Some of us do it cerebrally and with much thought. Some of us will have technical insights into the making of music or have specific knowledge about things used to make it. But most of us are just listeners. We don't care who made it or how or with what. We just know if we like what we hear. We are all in the same position there, equals with tastes and preferences.

But have you ever thought what determines why you like what you hear? You like this piece of music but not that. Why? Doesn't it all seem a bit unexplainable and arbitrary? Isn't it the case that in the end even if you can say why you like something its not really an explanation for why you liked it in the first place? Its a retrospective justification for a decision you made somewhat instinctively. I find this both strange and fascinating. To me it seems something to do with things deep within us that sense emotion and ascribe meaning to things. For example, I like the dance track "Hideaway" by Delacy. You may know it. I don't know why I like it though. I can describe its pulsing beat and its lush pad sounds that swell but is that really an explanation? It doesn't tell you how it makes me feel. And that's the really powerful thing about it. It hits some pleasure center somewhere inside me I can't put my finger on. What I'm saying is liking music is not necessarily a rational decision. And it doesn't need to be. We humans are not rationality machines. We are bio-chemical organisms fed as much by emotion as reason. We are fed and informed as much by environment as logic. This is just one reason why it is monumentally stupid to think that you can logically depict good and bad music. Music does not admit of logical description or categorization. How you feel isn't logical and may not even be reasonable.

Thanks to the Internet I am fortunate to have some interesting conversation partners along the pathways of life. Often within passing conversations something is said which starts off a chain of thought. As someone interested in music, noise and sound I know of a few other people similarly interested and its interesting for me to observe their views on what they are doing. Recently in one conversation someone said to me that they thought most dance music was shallow, for example. Now I agree with this and I think that, for the most part, its meant to be. That is the point of dance music. (Surely the banality of what is now called "EDM" is its reason to be?) But then I went past the initial thought (something that's not always done!) and thought again. Surely the best dance music tracks actually break through that barrier? Surely the best dance music tracks are those which encompass and enshrine the meaning of a whole special moment that happened? Every time you hear this kind of dance track it in some way re-enacts that special moment and reincarnates it again for as long as it plays. The best dance music tracks, I thought, are those with that ability to bring some moment, feeling, emotion, sentiment, to life and fill it with meaning - just as the ambient, pioneering 70s electronic music it came from did. But that, to me, seems to encompass a number of things and not merely just a sugary pleasant repeating line of pitches. What makes a dance song great might well be who you heard it with and where you were as well.

In the same conversation the person concerned did not want to produce "shallow" music. Shallow, I guess, was regarded as a negative in this context but it need not be. Good musicians, musicians who think, will have purposes to what they do and will be trying to inscribe feelings and meanings into their work. Perhaps what the musician meant was that they want to feel like what they made means something. This is certainly what I have ineptly tried to do. I imagine that my music only really means what it means for me to me though. What it means for others will be up to them, who they are and where they are, literally and figuratively speaking.  The strangest songs mean the strangest things to the strangest people exactly because its a nexus of things that provide that spark of meaning in the first place. But, coming back to Cage, this is why sound itself is so interesting to me. As I write now I hear the tapping of my finger on the keys but also the faint whirr of the fan inside my computer. Outside somewhere in the distance I hear the sound of something I imagine to be a cement mixer. A car is now coming towards me and will go away again producing the Doppler Effect which is the effect produced by the change in the frequency of a sound wave relative to your own position. This is the background music to this blog. I hear it as a background symphony because I have that framework of understanding. But you may just hear it as noises or not even notice the sounds at all. What sounds are there with you now that you hadn't noticed until you actually listened?

In the last 3 months I have inadvertently made two separate projects of music. One was 4 albums long and one was 3 albums long. One concentrated on the sound of a particular synthesizer and was aiming to showcase a kind of grungy, metallic, distorted synth sound. The other was willfully and deliberately abstract, an exercise in a bricolage of textures. Both of them were focused on timbres. Pitches were irrelevant to me and I barely even paid attention to them. (Cage's statement that "disharmony is only a kind of harmony that you haven't got used to yet" ends the conversation regarding talk of "dissonance" in music as far as I'm concerned.) There are a few melodies and some tunefulness but if you listen for that you will largely be disappointed. It is my feeling that the timbre of a sound can communicate something that the pitch of a sound cannot. Does an F sharp make you feel happy whereas a B flat does not? Perhaps not. But sounds themselves, their timbres, can. You hear the sound of running water, it means something to you. People talking in a bar? It conveys a message. One of my recent tracks is a whole load of recordings of trains and the sounds they make put together as a track. This isn't an original idea but it is, I think, a powerful one. The end result sounds to me like music. It feels like an experience of sound and a journey. This, to me, is what music is. This is why I am so interested in it and why my only criterion as a musician myself is to make something that is interesting to me. Music should be interesting.

I have this crazy idea. The idea is that music should not be something that you graze, something that is entirely bent to the user's will and taste. I have the crazy idea that music should challenge, educate and inform the listener. This idea holds the hope that listeners are not just cows who want to unthinkingly chew grass for their whole lives. This idea has the hope that listeners are people who want to learn, be informed, and maybe even change. This idea is the hope that people can still be curious, can still be open to new experiences, can still be so vulnerable as to allow themselves to be challenged. It is the hope that music can be a means to communicating things, maybe even things that you don't want to be communicated. Its a crazy idea, I know. But its why the music I make is what it is. That music is my communication.

Is anybody listening? Can anybody hear?

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