Music has geography–
located in a place,
rooted in a set of coordinates,
mappable onto interpretive grids.
Like a spinning globe
music’s time moves from left to right,
it’s melodies fall from high to low,
it’s bass and treble create near and far.
Music has depth–it’s 4D.
Music also has inner coordinates.
Imagine smashing that globe
into a thousand small shards
that scatter around a room.
Each shard is a set of instructions
for a style, a tradition, a movement.
Take a small shard
and zoom in on its instructions–
binary script that describes
how this sound
will evolve into that,
one rule at a time
built upon or broken,
while musicians proceed
as if they’re the ones doing the thinking.
I think about it as I switch among various go-to apps on my phone–email, news, Twitter, blog, music player, Wikipedia, calendar, amazon.com–back and forth, quickly, seamlessly, without thinking much about it. The process, made possible by the technology of my phone, feels like the essence of thinking itself: continuous zigzagging among ideas, always weighing and assessing, always seeking connections, always toggling from one bit to another.
And there’s toggling within these individual activities too. Take music listening, for example. I often toggle back and forth between stylistically different musics just to remind myself of their essential (and maybe shared yet overlooked) qualities and also to see how they affect me in tandem. A while back, I toggled between American composer John Adams’ “String Quartet” and UK electronic musician Darren J. Cunningham’s (aka Actress) “Ivy May Gilpin.” Even though these musics may not have much in common, I kept toggling!
Here is the Adams piece:
Here is the Cunningham/Actress piece:
Toggling between the two pieces of music I also thought about what the musics may say about their respective creators. And then came this (perhaps unfair) musing: Based on their music, which composer would you most like to hang out with?
Here we are, me among them, sitting on the subway, sharing a physical space but each of us somewhere else. We each listen to a different music, and each of our musics acts as a cultural overlay that separates and distinguishes us from one another. Headphones on, we ensconce ourselves in protective bubbles of sound.
Music and musical action are often spoken about as means of sharing experience, expressing and enacting identity, and building community. And this is true: as a form of symbolic action (symbolic because melodies and rhythms don’t literally do anything in the world outside of music), music is perhaps the most powerful social technology we have.
In its staggering diversity of styles, music also invites each of us to surround ourselves with a unique mosaic of (recorded) sounds that articulate who we feel ourselves to be. This is exactly what we, me among them, do as we sit alone-together on the subway with our musical overlays, sharing a physical space but each of us somewhere else.
The sketch comedy series Portlandia, starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein and now in its third season, humorously riffs on social life in Portland, Oregon. The show skewers–or is it homage?–a range of Portlander-types, from self-employed creatives to self-absorbed nouveau yuppies to touchy-feely uber-alternative characters almost beyond precise description. Portlandia excels at noticing the many small details that help define a social scene–how people dress, how they talk and interact with one another, and what they value. Since both Armisen and Brownstein are musicians (Armison was a drummer before he became an actor and Brownstein was a guitarist and vocalist in Sleater-Kinney before forming her current band, Wild Flag) it comes as so surprise that music is a frequent feature of the show. In its music-themed sketches, Portlandia illustrates just how powerful music is to our sense of self and community. Below are three examples.
In a sketch called “The Studio”, Fred plays an amateur home recording enthusiast and gearhead who invites his friend Lance over to his house to check out all of his specialized gear. Fred’s character is obsessed with vintage equipment, and shows Lance his keyboards, amps, microphones, and drum set. With a perpetually wide-eyed and spaced out look, he keeps referencing the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as a kind of pinnacle example of studio-recorded music and hopes that one day someone will actually come visit his basement set-up to record.
In the “Wanna Come To My DJ Night?” sketch, Fred and Carrie realize, to their growing horror, that everyone around them has become a DJ. What is happening to the world?
In the “One Party At A Time” sketch, Fred and Carrie play unemployed millennials who attempt to make sense of their post-college lives and channel their vague political aspirations through meaningful music. “I feel like we need to mobilize. Like in the 60s there was Woodstock…people rallied around something. There was a protest song” says Carrie. A robot “Bot Dylan” suddenly appears to pitch a millennial protest song whose hook is “change the world one party at a time.” The song is catchy and its 4/4 electronic dance music thump transports Fred and Carrie’s characters and those around them to the club, brainwashing them into forgetting what they were protesting in the first place.
Even sketches that have nothing to do with music can have a musical quality. In the “Knot Store” sketch, the singular Jeff Goldblum plays an eccentric proprietor of a store that sells knots of string. The “music” in this sketch is 100 percent Goldblum’s voice itself. Listen to how he makes every utterance different in intonation and cadence, continuously changing up his delivery. Listen to his introduction (“My name is…Alan”) that slows, pauses, and dives to a low pitch on his name; listen to him answer Carrie’s questions about whether knots are a utilitarian or an aesthetic thing with parallel quick staccato replies (“nope…yep…”) followed by a deep and affirmative “yeah….” that swirls over several pitches; and listen to his sound effects too, as when he rolls his tongue at the end of a sentence that explains tangled iPod earbuds as a kind of sculpture (“An artist we work with makes these by jamming them into his pocket…rrrrr“). I’ve watched this sketch a dozen times. Oh so very musical!
“I think techno music at the moment is just an infrastructure. Basically, it’s not a musical term anymore. It used to be more like straight, technical funk. Nowadays, it is more of an infrastructure where you have certain beat patterns that you can call techno music. But in the end, it’s a social and economic infrastructure. The name ‘techno’ does not have anything to do with content anymore. It can be anything, from soul jazz to new music, to electro-acoustic music. It’s not the description for a musical genre anymore. It’s the description of a structure within which you move around. And it’s dance music.” – Hendrik Weber (aka Pantha du Prince)
The German techno DJ and Producer Hendrik Weber (aka Pantha du Prince) is quite into the sound of bells. On his 2010 recording Black Noise you can hear bell sounds on the tracks “Welt Am Draht”
and “Bohemian Forest.”
Since then, Weber has kicked his interest in bells up a few significant notches. On his recent recording Elements Of Light, he collaborates with The Bell Laboratory, a collective of musicians who play a range of tuned percussion instruments including a huge 50-bell carillon. The 17-minute track “Spectral Split” showcases the electronic music meets ancient bells and percussion collaboration. Once the piece gets going you can hear the full mix: the lumbering carillon bells, marimba patterns deeply indebted to Steve Reich (the composer may demand royalties here), steel pan, tubular bells, crotales, a 4/4 techno pulse, and a slow-moving synth bassline. Harmonically speaking, “Spectral Split” doesn’t travel far, instead building musical interest through repetition, addition and subtraction of its parts.
What I find interesting about this music is its attempt to engage in a dialog with the languages of classical minimalism and contemporary electronic dance music of the minimal techno variety. In this respect, “Spectral Split” is a unique beast–the musical result of instruments and sounds wandering out of their usual stylistic frames. Does it work? Yes, it does work in its own way. And while the music is perhaps limited either by the carillon themselves (their tuning, and by how fast they can be played) or by Weber’s musical setting of them (I keep waiting for a dramatic harmonic shift that never arrives), the composer and his collaborators deserve credit for making everything groove and hum.
Here is the lusciously filmed official promotional video for Elements Of Light and the track “Spectral Split”:
In her recent essay in the New Yorker, novelist Zadie Smith recounts her listening history with the music of Joni Mitchell–specifically, Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue. Here is the title song from the record:
Smith describes encountering Mitchell’s idiosyncratic and alternate tuning jazzy-folk music for the first time while in college and hating it. But years later she hears the same music on the radio while taking a road trip with her husband. This time, surprisingly, she loves Mitchell’s album and it makes complete sense to her. Smith wonders about this shift in her listening history: “How is it possible to hate something so completely and then suddenly love it so unreasonably? How does such a change occur? (…) It’s not even the content of the music that interests me here. It’s the transformation of the listening.”
Smith doesn’t have a clear answer to the questions of how and why her listening changed over time and “the inconsistency of identity, of personality.” But the shift in her musical taste inspires her to muse on how she might have become a different person had she listened to and been a fan of certain records and musics when she was younger: “What kind of person would I be if I knew this album at all…?” And she articulates what makes it difficult for us, as we get older, to get into musics that are new to us and differ substantially from the sounds with which we grew up: “Shaped by the songs of my childhood, I find it hard to accept the musical ‘new’, or even the ‘new-to-me.'” Then Smith points out a contradiction many of us may share and which may help explain why new music can be hard to metabolize: “For though we recognize discontinuity in our own lives, when it comes to art we are deeply committed to the idea of continuity.”
I have written on this blog previously about some of my listening experiments. Reading Smith, it strikes me that we might learn the most about our musical tastes by deliberately listening to music we don’t like or don’t think we like and making note of that experience. I have been trying this lately as a way of mapping my tastes and to some extent I’ve learned some things. (“This is way too aggressive for me.” Or: “The rhythm isn’t interesting.”) But the listening experimentation can go further than simply making us aware of the songs that shaped our childhood (when we musically came of age) or figuring out what we do and don’t like. My experience so far has me wondering whether or not our tastes are fungible to the point that they can actually be reset. If there were a “super” listener that’s exactly what he or she would be able to do: appreciate everything anew with each listen, finding deep meaning in every idiom, unconstrained by personal listening history. The super listener would hear with ears and sensibilities truly wide open.
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