Saturday, 10 December 2016

Music as Education

As far as criticisms of my blogs go, I'm happy to take a few hits. You would need to be spectacularly naive and utterly blind to the world to think that you could write a blog which some might take as criticism and then post it 10 or 15 times on Facebook and Twitter without any comeback. Of course, I try to write my blogs in a detached style. I do not write rants here nor use the language of the street. I try to give a calm and sensible discussion of the points I want to raise with at least the impression given of an open mind and a use of reason and argument. If you treat people fairly they will do the same in return is how I hope it goes. Of course, I can't guarantee this and occasionally I come across a less charitable respondent spilling his bile for my thoughts. I regard that more as his problem and not mine. My only golden rule in all of this is that you can think what you like but you need to be able to rhetorically support it with reasons you are prepared to discuss. 

This point was brought home to me in an excellent and thoughtful comment someone left under my blog, now almost a month old, about gear fetishization on social media forums to the detriment of actual music. This is the most popular blog I've ever written (approaching 5000 reads) and probably the most contentious too since I plonked it fairly and squarely into the middle of many Facebook groups that I'll clearly admit are groups about electronic music equipment as opposed to what to do with it or the music I hope ends up being made with it. (That, in many ways, was exactly the point of the blog!) For many the blog was a stumbling block or a blind spot. Others, and I'm warmed to say it was quite a few, seemed to get the point too. Of those, one by the name of "agustin n" made an excellent point which I'd like to snip from the comments to that blog and post here:

"I think the problem is mainly that, to admire someone else's gear, you just need to open your eyes (and say "good synths bru"). But to admire his/her music you have to open your heart/mind and that needs a lot more commitment. Like engage in a feeling with a stranger (over the www) and, in that, expose yourself. "Hey I enjoy your vision and relate to your feelings" is a lot more committed thing to say and... people are usually afraid of exposing themselves. But, nevertheless, I think its important that we as artists do..."

I've noticed a lot of this since I stumbled into writing blogs overtly about electronic music which I then posted to public forums. I was surprised to find they accrued thousands of reads not least since my music posts still accrue barely any listens. But they are different things and there need not be any translation from one to another. Perhaps, for example, my thoughts are interesting but my music is not. However, what I took on board very much from Agustin's insightful comment was that talking about things, objects, doesn't entail very much. If I like synth X instead of synth Y then so what? Looking at a picture of your gear and purring with desire isn't going to stretch me or anyone else in any way. As desirous creatures its as easy as letting a human drive have its head. But getting involved in their music and its ideas is much more intimate. Or, at least, it should be. And this brings me to why we're here today.

I have long had an itch regarding music that needed scratching. When I started becoming interested in John Cage it itched much more than it had before because of the peculiarities of this extremely interesting man. Cage is interesting not least because he is a composer but he is also someone who completely refuses to stop talking about music as an idea, as a set of ideas, as a bunch of compositional strategies or goals and even as something that is part of a bigger whole, life itself. Already, as I'm sure you will see, we have gone far beyond the customary topics in a Facebook group dedicated to swapping pictures of one or two pieces of gear and saying how much you want them or how much you love owning them. To be blunt, it is my general position that music makers should become more like Cage and less like your average Facebook group member. But this is a digression from my point here today. 

Music of Changes is a piano piece composed by John Cage in 1951 and first performed by David Tudor (for whom it was written) on January 1st 1952. It is described by many as a piece of indeterminate music, in some sense, although in terms of performance it is very determined. It was composed using chance operations (Cage's second piece written this way) but does have a resulting score which the performer is expected to follow like any other. So it is indeterminate in its composition but not in its performance. The more well known 4'33" is, of course, indeterminate in both composition AND performance. I use this piece as an example today because it seems to be one that evokes strong emotions. The You Tube comments under the video that I've linked here refer to it as "bullshit" and "masturbation material" and another wishes to withdraw the description "music" from it as if it did not deserve such an artistic description. (Someone also says its not art.) I first heard this piece of music, by listening to this very video, about 3 weeks ago. I had expected to find it difficult (thank you commenters for making it impossible to come to this with an open mind!) but was surprised when I found myself listening to the whole piece (44 minutes worth) without once feeling the need to stop or switch it off. It goes without saying that I am unaccustomed to listening to piano music on a regular basis.

Now I could not say that I "like" Music of Changes. But I can say that as an intellectual musical exercise I find it interesting and edifying and I can even say that I appreciate it. I'm glad it exists. Others seem to have been enraged by it (as, indeed, by 4'33" which came shortly after this in Cage's career). Now when music provokes such strong reactions we have a reason to ask what is going on here. To some the apparent randomness or abdication of authorial responsibility seems to be the issue. The thought is that if someone does not take responsibility then chaos is the result and chaos is bad. Chaos is irresponsible. Allowing chaos to occur is a moral affront to listeners, a trying to get them to accept that anything goes. And, in more general terms, anything cannot be allowed to go. Not, at least, if one calls oneself a composer and composes piano pieces to be performed at piano recitals.

                                      Autechre performing live

Fast forward 64 years to a piece called Feed1 by Autechre from the album Elseq1-5. What do we have here? To the casual listener it sounds very much like an all electronic version of Music of Changes in general terms. Things are happening (from a listener's ear point of view) very chaotically and perhaps even randomly. (Forget that both pieces are not really random at all if you can.) There seems to be no guiding idea behind it. Some describe Feed1 as "the sound of energy" or "the extreme power of electricity" but another pines that he doesn't really understand what people like about it and he asks for musicians to inform him of its point or value. This is a very good question. What is the point or value of any piece of music? I can't help but think that if more people asked this kind of question before they started then there might be less thoughtless music in the world. And that wouldn't be a bad thing in a world drowning in music.

What I think that both John Cage and Rob Brown and Sean Booth (who comprise Autechre) have in common is that they don't just make music. They also think long and hard about how to make it too. It is not some casual pursuit for these people. It is their life's work and purpose and so they take its arrangement and composition very seriously. Neither of them are joking or being frivolous. I would very much like to encourage this mentality in all music makers but especially in the electronic ones which is the music that I generally favour. As a means to this end I think its important to make one big change in our personalities not just as musicians but as people. This change is to move away from valuing things based on a "like" using a value system in which something I like is "good" and something I don't is "bad". Let me put this another way: we need to change from people who value things based on their appeal to us into people who value things based on their ability to change us. Let me explain.

Six years ago both John Cage and Autechre were just names to me. I knew nothing about them except perhaps that Cage had composed a piece of music which had no music. But in the intervening 6 years I have come to be aware of the music of both of them and interacted with a number of interviews I've read from both of them. I am now acquainted with how they sound and some of their thoughts. It is not the case that I like all or even most of the music that they have produced (although I surely do like some in both cases) but, much more importantly than any of this froth, I see them both as vitally important musical influences. They are interesting and original and this changes me as someone appropriating their work. Of course, the world of social media which works on popularity (because this suits the commercial purposes which are the reason social media exists) will not value them for this. Social media wants us to believe that likes, faves and retweets are all that matter. Popularity is king and numbers are what count. Neither Cage nor Autechre are ever going to be mainstream popular. And I say thank god for that.

Cage and Autechre are worthwhile and of value because listening to them might just change you for the better. Or even change you at all. They are musicians who are going to challenge your preconceptions and make you think about what music is and what it is for and what it should do. In this respect it really doesn't matter after that whether you like or dislike their music. If it changes you and makes you think I would regard this as the far greater service than a stroke of your musical ego. Of course, we are now into Agustin's spooky area for to be changed we will need to open ourselves up to new experiences, new thoughts, ones that challenge our status quo (and I don't mean Rick Parfitt and Francis Rossi here!). In order to change we need to first be open to change and this is what the world of likes discourages for to be taught that something I like is good and something I dislike is bad is to be groomed in musical conservatism and conventionality. This way does not lie progression, growth or maturity. Of course, we may feel happy and safe in our conventionality and want to be left within our boundaries. But isn't life more generally about living on the edge, the thrill of taking a risk, the danger of knowing and feeling that you are actually alive? 

I think that it is and, slowly, over many years now I've been trying to educate and encourage a curious musical mind, one that will listen to music I might not like to try and find the value in it. Utilizing this attitude I've discovered Cage, Autechre, Boards of Canada, the whole world of German Kosmische music and many other things besides, ones that probably no one else has heard of and who will never be on the receiving end of a tidal wave of likes. My musical vocabulary, and my life more generally, have been enriched and educated beyond anything I could have imagined. And this was only in a few years. Who knows how much further it could progress? What's more, I've developed new attitudes towards music and sound, ones I never would have thought of by myself with my likes and dislikes. I've learnt that music is not just an education in sound but in life too. 

I've also learnt that the musical sense is not a given, something to be left as it is. Its something to be trained, educated and explored. Indeed, this is the most beneficial way of using it. So you should give things a chance you don't like. You may end up liking it. I've lost count of the things I used to dislike I now like. Because tastes will and do change and we can and do learn new things from new sounds. Even if we don't "like" something it can still educate us in other ways. What a great service some piece of music would do us personally and musically if it made us more appreciative of music or sound in general. What is a simple "like" beside that? And more, as musicians ourselves we should not be afraid to outrun our boundaries. We should try to do things we consider beyond us. How else are we supposed to grow? We need to "expose ourselves" as Agustin suggested. This might encourage failure. But which is better, the setback we grow and learn from or the stunted safety of never trying?

If you like electronic music, have a thoughtful disposition and are on Facebook you might want more chat like this. In which case feel feel to join my group Electronic Music Philosophy there.


  1. I'm not very familiar with Cage's theories or working methods, but I would suggest that Changes is the result of decisions that he made about how to implement the hexagrams more than it is of the hexagrams themselves.

    Listening to it, I'm struck that you have to listen quite actively. It's like a series of random statements . If your attention wanders it becomes quickly uninteresting and intrusively noisy. Personally I'm drawn to more "difficult " music not for any educational reason. It's more that I'm bored with more accessible music. Like someone who has watched so much porn that only snuff movies can give him a kick.