Ventrilo-Dialogue: Theorist Versus Pragmatist

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Theorist: To compose music is to engage philosophically with music. Music is always about other things–about a bigger picture.

Pragmatist: Not at all–to compose music is to engage tactilely with putting sounds together.
Music is always about just music.

T: But surely you want to know to what end you’re doing the organizing?

P: I know my ends–I’m composing according to the sounds I have and the demands of the gig, the style, the context.
What other ends are there?

T: Well, one end is the bigger picture.

P: That’s vague. Isn’t music’s sound the picture–the picture that your ear takes in?

T: Yes but there’s more. I have the sense that anyone working in music–be they composer or performer or even listener–are in fact trying to do something else or be somewhere else. The picture is elsewhere as it were.

P: I don’t understand. You mean a string quartet playing together or a listener lost in headphone reverie are trying to achieve something outside of music?

T: Exactly! I think we use music as escape, as a way of imagining other states and ways of being, even as a way of experiencing virtual transgression.

P: Hmm. That last bit sounds somewhat radical. It brings to mind Jacques Attali who in his book Noise (1985) said that music is “forecast” and “prophecy” (21)–that music is like a crystal ball of sorts, anticipating future social change.

T: I like that formulation. But I’m convinced that the change music heralds or helps bring about is mostly internal.
What I’m saying is that music is a way to be virtually in several places at once.
In this way it teaches us about ourselves, about how we think and feel.

P: So this is what you mean when you say that music has a bigger picture and that music is always about other things?

T: Yes.

P: Interesting. Okay, now this reminds me of a passage in Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever (2016).
Ratliff wonders whether music may be “actually necessary to consciousness.”
He asks: “What if music teaches you qualities of motion, ethics, ambition, in the most basic sense?” (88)

T: I could get behind that formulation.

P: So tell me, Theorist, what is it that you’re trying to do in your work?

T: I’m trying to connect music outwards to so many other realms of experience to show music’s bigger picture.
And what about you, Pragmatist?

P: I simply love making music–the smaller picture, if you will.
As an end to itself, there’s nothing else like it.

T: Now that, my friend, is most resoundingly true!

Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation Between Expression And Experiment


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Expression: I make music to express my feelings, my emotions.

Experiment: I make music to create feelings and emotions.

Expression: I feel a connection between the sounds and how I feel inside.

Experiment: I notice a connection between my process and the sounds.

Expression: There’s a story to my music.

Experiment: Story is something we overlay onto the music. Music isn’t about anything.

Expression: The rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and timbres are like characters.
They do things and they go places.

Experiment: They do things and go places, I agree. But they are variable parameters and values, not characters.

Expression: You make music sound soulless, like scientific research.

Experiment: Well, you make it sound like an ego trip.

Expression: I lose myself in my music all the time, so I doubt that my ego is involved.

Experiment: But you refer to the music as yours. That assumes a lot–like an owning ego.

Expression: You don’t feel you own the music you make?

Experiment: No. I get excited by it sometimes, but can’t take much credit for its making.

Expression: So who or what takes credit for making the music?

Experiment: The process does.

Expression: Which is what exactly?

Experiment: Sometimes the process is my improvisations at an instrument.
Other times it’s the ways I manipulate and edit the sound.

Expression: How can you not take credit for improvising, manipulation, and editing?
Surely those are all processes that require musical skill or a sense of what is musical?

Experiment: I don’t take credit for them because I’m not trying to express anything. I’m just tinkering around, trying things out. It’s simple stuff. Anyone could do it. My contribution is paying attention.

Expression: You make it sound like play, or an experiment.

Experiment: Yes! Music is a playful experiment in paying attention. I like that formulation. What is it for you?

Expression: For me music is a way of coping with my life, a way of saying things I couldn’t say otherwise.
Music is an encounter with mystery that articulates in a thousand shades of subtlety.

Experiment: I agree with that last bit. So what kinds of music do you like?

Expression: I like all kinds of stuff–anything that connects with a lot of people–like rock and pop, and also Romantic classical music. Anything that has soul and give me goosebumps. You?

Experiment: I’m not sure what you mean by soul…But I like instrumental music–nothing with voices at all, though I make an exception for Arvo Part. J.S. Bach’s keyboard stuff is great. Some Indian instrumental music. I like random wind chimes blowing in the wind. I also listen to electronic music. Autechre are good.

Expression: It sounds like you don’t really like that much music or like music that much?

Experiment: Probably you’re right. There’s too much noise and spectacle in how music goes about its business. Silence is often more interesting for me because…it allows me space to think. Music co-opts my thinking, leaving so little room for anything else and that annoys me. Anyway, how much favorite music does one need?

Expression: The more the better! I think you’re missing out on the kaleidoscope of human expression through sound–the chaos, the buzz, the grit, the highs and lows.

Experiment: The less the better! I think you’re missing out on the clarity of simplicity.

Expression: Perhaps. At least we agree that music is always worthy of our attention, right?

Experiment: Absolutely.

Expression: Music is pure expression, giving wings to the mind and flight to the imagination. (Plato)

Experiment: Music is pure experiment, a hypothesis that works for a while. (Burrows)

Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation With A Popular Singer

T: Rihanna, thank you for talking with me today.

R: My pleasure, Tom. It’s nice to have this conversational break.

T: I agree. So, lets begin with the obvious. You’re omnipresent in the pop culturescape: it seems that every few weeks one hears your voice on a new song, and your image is everywhere—on TV, in the pages of magazines, on billboards, and so on. One has to ask: Is there a real you behind all the mediated reproductions of you?

R: Well Tom, when I started out in music as a teenager in the Barbados, I wanted to be discovered and “make it” like any other aspiring pop star. Back then, there was a real me. But that soon changed. Once I was discovered, the music industry transformed me into a desire-machine, a voice for hire to sell music and market products to you, the listener.

T: Interesting. I have written before on desiring machines.

R: To answer your question about whether or not there’s a real me: my sense of self these days has been subsumed into the desiring-machine that is the popular music industry.

T: I appreciate your candidness—few performers would reveal so much about the mechanics of the business in which they work. Now, if you don’t mind, I would love to turn now to your voice, since it’s your voice that we hear everywhere.

R: Sure.

T: To start, your voice is odd. I say that because while there’s something appealing about it, it also has a kind of emptiness. In fact, one critic described it as having a “dead-eyed quality.” Your voice doesn’t seem to signify anything or anyone; it doesn’t even seem attached to anything or anyone. It’s almost as if it doesn’t even belong to you. Do you know what I mean?

R: Sure. But remember, people seem to be able to find emotion in my voice even though, as you say, sometimes it seems as if there’s no there there. Sure, my voice could be said to have an empty quality. I’ve thought about this, and started reading up on what various writers have said about voice in general.

T: That sounds fascinating! What did you learn about voice?

R: Well, it turns out that there’s an extensive literature on the topic. For example, the French critic Roland Barthes has a piece, written in the nineteen seventies, called “The Grain Of The Voice” in which he explores the voice’s timbral aspect. Barthes says “the grain is the body in the voice as it sings.” I found this a beautiful formulation and I like idea that our voices encapsulate the rest of our bodies.

T: Yes me too.

R: Barthes also says that the voice is not personal or original, though at the same time it’s always individual.

T: A lot to think through in his work, for sure.

R: Yeah. Other critics have written about the role of the singing voice in operatic contexts and how it constructs desire.

T: That’s interesting, though opera isn’t your scene.

R: Well, no it isn’t. But I do think there are continuities between opera and pop.

T: Such as?

R: Well, one continuity is the notion of being a diva. The more I think about my career the more I understand myself as a kind of diva, and that my voice might somehow sonically construct this sense of diva-ness.

T: The diva as desiring machine! Fascinating!

R: It is! The take away from this is that now I have renewed appreciation for myself as a performer who constructs desire and voices sentiments for consumption on a massive scale.

T: In that sense, maybe the empty quality of your voice has a point, then?

R: Right. And besides, if it wasn’t me, it would be someone else’s voice, right? Plus, it’s fun. Pop music is fun—an experience of pleasure that sounds the ever-expiring moment.

T: Well put. And the money…?

R: …It’s good. Remember, for a few years there, back when people were downloading music rather than streaming it? I had, literally, millions of downloads!

T: True. But tell me, Rihanna, when people criticize your voice, or your perceived lack of stage presence, how do you respond?

R: I don’t worry about it because I know that on a basic level, the sheer presence of my voice on all those songs circulating around is presence enough. In a way, I inhabit anyone who cares enough to listen and remember one of my songs. You may find my voice lacking in affect, but it still affects you as you listen and project your own narratives onto its sound. And so in this way I think my voice works on a quite subliminal level.

T: Popular music is fascinating that way, isn’t it?

R: Yes, Tom, yes it is. We pop singer-divas may come and go, but our knowledge is real: we understand how to voice the musical moment, how to connect listeners to their own experiences through shared song.

T: Well said. Thanks again for taking the time, Rihanna.

R: Anytime.

 

On Influence And Voice

This is a post about influence and voice.

It’s about how each of us is influenced by one another–by other writers, musicians, teachers.

By voice I don’t mean our actual speaking voices (though those can have their influence too).

I mean that something in the character and essence and presence of each of us that resonates outward and affects others–whether we know it or not.

I think about this because it amazes me how deeply I can be influenced by just a single voice.

Which reminds me: voice is always singular.

By influence I mean a process of immediately taking on some of the qualities of another’s voice in one modality or another.

In being influenced we become ventriloquists of sorts, channeling and re-voicing those who have influenced us. I’ve explored this idea of ventriloquism in my Ventrilo-Dialogues, such as this one.

I have encountered a small number of influential voices in my orbit of experience, and I continue to discover new ones, though not very often now. Sometimes the voices are those of people I know, sometimes they are musical voices, and sometimes they are writing voices.

What is most significant about the influence of another’s voice, though, is the metamorphosis of its influence into immediate change. As you assume the voice, you assume persona, inhabit gesture and space, and take on affect in a new way. Like when a music teacher shows you something and says: “Do it like this.” You do it like that and immediately assume a new voice–or at least get a glimpse of what that voice feels like. Not on you, but as you.

So, as this is a blog post about influence and voice, it is also about how malleable we are.

All we need to do is pay attention to the process.