A few words about music
Illustrations by Henry Glover
We can lay claim to music as a phenomenon in our lives through methods of wild variance. Performance and recording. Practicing and listening. Soundtracks, soundwalks, geographically diverse auditory scenes. Passive and active listening. Sound as entertainment and sound as warning. Music familiar enough that a single second is an index for a fully-intact memory, music that contains such protracted silences as to surprise you with the occasion of a cardboard box falling to the floor. Performances that induce daydreams and cease to occupy the foreground, performances that paralyze. Performances that are social calls. The mind and ears slip easily between modes, between rituals that bring comfort and structure to different roles throughout the day.
Because of the wide palette of available sound, composed or otherwise, we are able more than ever before to curate our sonic experience. We can have a constant soundtrack, that we can set up to drone pleasantly through our moments of waning attention, to surprise us in moments of clarity, or to change on a whim. We can participate, activate, interact, ignore. Our friends and/or idols create an instantaneous mix for us; we don’t have to wait for the cassette, names and links will suffice. Brand new tracks can be created from scratch and uploaded within a few hours. The raw contents of our compositional minds can be tapped by others almost before we have processed them ourselves.
In this contemporary headspace of constant sonic distraction, does music gain or lose value? Certainly the widening of the creative palette, the increase in access to technology of a wide qualitative range, and the ability to share music with anyone, anytime, anywhere are all exciting and essentially beyond reproach. In exchange, some previously held concepts and traditions regarding music are being phased out.
As someone who participates and observes the action on both sides of the curtain, I am fascinated by the highly individual redefinition of what was once a commonly accepted, well-bounded word. Certainly Cage did his best to challenge these encyclopedic boundaries, to expand the catalog of what fell under the realm of the term, but even he may have (of course I cannot presume to know his intentions) still expected a consensus, albeit an expanded one. Certainly there are still strong factions who cling to traditional definitions, and they must continue to be challenged, but even the most experimental of institutions are still institutions that must protect some sense of etymology, some map to follow when creating curricula. Especially in the act of creating venues for performing, recording and listening to music, there must be agreement between the client, the consultant, and the end user as to what that music will be.
Even in the constantly overlapping and tectonic experience of electronic, free improv, etcetera that we think of as our “scene,” in this hyper-documentation that writes the history and classifies genre during and almost prior to the event, there have emerged certain customs and unspoken understandings regarding what is acceptable depending on the venue and the crowd. I would not expect to attend a concert in a basement of a house in Bushwick, Brooklyn and hear the heavily-notated, lush sonorities of Xenakis. Most of the time, I can look at a flyer or Facebook event and get a sense of what I’m in for, whether it is restrained field recordings or harsh noise insanity. Often the audience is the same group of people; often we are happy to hear either, as long as we’re mentally prepared. I don’t speak for everyone. Some people prefer to be shaken, shocked, and surprised. Expecting the unexpected could also be its own genre. Certainly, if by some fluke you misjudged the evening, there is still the opportunity for enjoyment, once the ears have adjusted. But you can be fairly certain that if you do hear something outside of the group’s common tastes, it is probably mined for its musical elements or framed as a commentary or a contrast, not a sincere attempt to posit itself as music.
As an acoustic consultant, I use the same set of criteria or parameters to design spaces for musical and non-musical uses. Both require specific levels of reverberance, clarity, background noise, and isolation from outside sounds. The difference between a space for music and a space for speech or a space for silence is simply a shift on the scale. Sound-space interactions hold equal value and complexity whether or not music is on the program. So is there a point in continuing to think of music as a separate genre of sound event? Is it rather a restriction, creating a hierarchy in which otherwise interesting sonic events and scenes will lose attention and quality because they are not classified as Music? Who has the authority to say what makes the cut?
Communication between people is required. We cannot abandon words because their definitions become complex or individually variable. You define your activity as musical because it communicates a specific purpose of contemplation or entertainment, a detachment from physical consequence. On a basic animal level, your type of listening and your physical reaction will be shaped by this definition. You hear a gunshot and your instinct is usually to duck or run or perhaps defend yourself, unless of course you are at a performance of Satie’s Parade and you have been forewarned that the gunshots you are about to hear are “musical;” that is, that there is no life-threatening bullet accompanying the sound. You hear a train arrive and typically you take that as a cue to determine your location, time, and destination, unless you know you are listening to a field recording, in which case you focus on the harmonics and the rhythms and the wow factor of the doppler effect. However, in several cultures, music did and does accompany and bracket specific non-musical functions. In these situations, no one is trying to evaluate the quality or taste of the music, but rather to interpret its intention.
Words like “music” are reductive. They cannot claim to describe every individual experience exactly. Rather, they aggregate and average all extremes of experience so that individuals can find common ground. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing important cues in the process of constant translation. The power of this all-encompassing term is such that we can avoid cognitive dissonance. It would be difficult to subdivide and create new words for every situation--one person at a concert might view as an opportunity to appreciate and contemplate the sonic environment framed in the context of “music” that which would perhaps just be annoying background noise to another person, there for social reasons. So I’m not advocating the abolition or modification of the term. If I’m advocating anything, it would be this: we have so much music in our lives now that there are hardly any non-musical moments. Perhaps we should slow down and appreciate both music and its absence. Perhaps we should actively call into question our own notions, seemingly set-in-stone and dangerously comfortable, of what we consider music, and what our roles are in relation to that definition.
I, personally, am torn between two definitions of music. When I am alone, I seek to make music even more prevalent in my perception, to view every situation as a potentially musical moment, resulting in heightened awareness and reverence towards aural sensation. This is the way an avid field-recordist moves through the world, just like a photographer, constantly re-evaluating the auditory scene, holding up a frame (sometimes observing through that frame in real time with a portable recording setup) to weigh the musicality of a specific collection of sonic elements. As we continually shift the focus of that frame looking for an acceptably “musical” scene before we hit record (or trim the fat later), we draw and redraw and push outward that tenuous boundary between music and background noise. When that frame is not in the right location, we keep searching. This is an individual decision, taste-specific, and the satisfaction is solitary.
On the other hand, when presented with an object or product containing Music, such as a concert or a recording or a rehearsal, I want to preserve that particular moment and elevate it to a higher plane as a desire that cannot be instantly gratified, diluted until it fades below the threshold of attention. I want to have a clear boundary around this piece, or composition, and to set it apart. I want shared Music to be unique, rare, valuable. I don’t want a recording or a concert of everything ever. I want intervals of non-music to make the Music moments more meaningful.
Essentially, music seems to have different definitions for the individual and the community. Trying to reconcile them can only result in loss. In a solitary practice, increased passive listening to the existing soundscape, thrown together by chance occurrence, can only increase acuity and reverence for sound. In a communal exchange of Music, on the other hand, where scenes are actively created and introduced into the auditory field, too much curation can have a numbing effect. A single painting on an otherwise empty wall has more impact than that same painting surrounded by a cluster of others.
I once had a friend who spoke of days when he bought a new record on his lunch break at work. He couldn’t listen to the record at the office because there was no turntable, so he would spend the entire second half of his day imagining the sound of the record, building up the anticipation, looking forward to the moment when he arrived home and listened to the record for the first time. I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to resist change for the sake of being ornery, but the continuous active introduction of Music into the stream of sensation seems to be almost an afterthought today, something to fill up the silence, to block out troublesome daydreams or potential boredom. Listening to the soundscape on the subway as opposed to our headphones; waiting to listen to the album until we are home; this could potentially increase the value and appreciation of that album. By the same token, attending or producing one show or rehearsal in a space with decent noise control and room acoustics, rather than trudging through nightly shows in basements or noisy storefronts, could potentially increase the quality of the experience. I know this is a pretty controversial and maybe futile thing to say in an economic climate where the creation and performance of experimental music is not well-funded, but if we don’t try to raise the bar, we won’t know if it would have succeeded. It seems worth a try.
Return to table of contents