There’s an often unremarked upon aspect of music listening/music appreciation that has to do with how we know when a piece of music is really good. I’m not talking about the European classical or pop music “classics”–from Mozart concertos to Beatles’ songs (choose your poison!)–that have come our way practically with stickers attached to them announcing their proven historical importance. No, I’m talking about new left field, under the radar music that’s being made in our time, today, right now. How do you know when something you’ve never heard before is really good?
One thing ethnomusicology has been telling us for some time is that all music is good music in that it has some kind of meaning for someone, somewhere. From this culturally relativist viewpoint, it doesn’t matter so much exactly how the music structured, but rather what kind of relationship people have to it. Musics can become important not just due to their sound, but because so many people ascribe meaning to them. From this perspective, all music is functional music too. So sometimes when you find a music to be really good what you’re saying to yourself is that you have found a connection to its way of organizing sound, or a way to find a use for it in your life.
What is the nature of this connection we have to music? There seems to be something internal going on when listeners encounter a new piece of music, especially on that first hearing. As we listen to a new piece for the first time, we’re trying to make sense of it in terms of just about everything we’ve ever heard before. This cognitive process feels like a giant real-time, number-crunching comparative study that lines up the new piece against all that we know about music in general. Thus, our encounter is always limited by what we know and don’t know already.
This is what I think is happening when I encounter new music, and the idea of a real-time comparative framework occurred to me while listening to Canadian ambient/drone musician Tim Hecker’s recent release, Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky 2010). Recording live organ and guitar improvisations in a church in Reykjavik, Iceland, and then processing them on a computer, Hecker extends ambient electronic music into deeply layered worlds of long tones, distortion, pulsing fragments of stacked chords, reverb
It was when I arrived at track five, a brief piece called “No Drums” that it struck me that this was really good music and while I couldn’t say exactly why this should be the case without simply articulating my musical taste, I felt sure of my judgement. One thing I do know, though, is that as I listened I kept trying to either predict what would happen next, or else line up what had just sounded with something I had heard somewhere–anywhere–before in my listening history. The moment of insight was swift: I couldn’t predict what would happen next, nor did the music trigger any specific musical memories. No, this piece seemed genuinely new, yet familiar and accessible–all in all, and just genuinely really good. Another listener with a different listening history would probably not react the same way I did. But then, this applies to how we approach Mozart too–comparing his music to everything we’ve ever heard and can remember.
Below is track one, “The Piano Drop” from Hecker’s album. (I couldn’t find a clip of track five after all that.) The video, by the way, is real footage of a piano dropped from a height at MIT in 1972.