Music as Argument

The sheet music for John Cage's "4'33""
Even more than visual art, we assume music to be a more or less pleasant experience — perhaps even profoundly moving — but somehow unnecessary or extraneous. Or, if we find it necessary, we think of it as primal, as fundamental and hence somehow evading all the gunk of life, culture, knowledge. Music just is, man! We rarely think about music as making an argument, especially not something as seemingly frivolous as pop music.

Now, it's true that writing about music is difficult. So one thing we do is make comparisons between different music so if we share the same references, you can say, It's like a dub Stereolab, and I can understand you. Sometimes, making an unexpected reference can open your ears to aspects of the music you might not have noticed. When I listen to Jethro Tull — a conspicuously uncool band — I hear both Throwing Muses (the syncopated careen into madness) as well as Frank Zappa (the bawdy, mocking, critical humor set to elaborate musicianship).

Apps such as Pandora and Spotify make connections between music. But their algorithms are peculiarly banal, sticking to the most limited definition of genre. If you listen to Tull on one of those apps, they'll play Sabbath and Zeppelin but no freakin' way you're gonna hear Throwing Muses. Which is to say, those algorithms never go go out on a limb to make a more profound argument; they stick to what is already known. They stick to genre and ignore style.

And style is always, necessarily, argumentative. It declares: I go like this! A band — or composer, singer, flautist —  takes up the tropes, histories, licks, riffs, beats, and possibilities in the archive of music and remixes them just so, distributing the very definition of music in its own way. In this sense, every song — and certainly every musician — creates an argument of music, with music, drawing and redrawing its history, recasting its genres.

This is what I assume historians of music do: they create shapes and trajectories out of the vast archive of musical experience. I say "I assume" because music history is not something we encounter very often. Sure, Sasha Frere-Jones will draw a line between Tom Waits and King Krule. But there are no museum walls, no elaborate curations that make connections we might not see left to our own, uh, devices.  When we look at art, we expect to make historical connections. Music, on the other hand, is so everyday and ubiquitous — and seemingly accessible — that we don't think we need history or argument. We either shake our butts, cry, ponder or not.

And yet music, like everything, makes arguments — not just about music, about rhythm, about sound but about chaos and order, about life, about movement, about shape and affect and the mechanics of the cosmos.  Just as visual art organizes the chaos of visual life into vastly different orders, music organizes the chaos of the aural world into discrete shapes and experiences.

Sound abounds. Within that teem lurks not just an order but orders upon orders: the honks, tweets, bangs, vrooms all make sense within their respective networks, at once aural and cultural, loops within loops within loops. But those loops are not discrete; they interact with each other, the sounds of the freeway mixing with the wind mixing with human voices, bird songs, dog barks. The vehicular, human, geological, animal worlds collude in different ways.

The musician, in a sense, interprets these loops by distributing them. And what's amazing about music is that it's precisely a distributing, not a distribution. It's an active process, at once temporal and spatial (even if invisible), rhythmic and affective.

Cornelius, for instance, sees the world as emerging from accidents at once musical and everyday, Beethoven mixing with the opening of a can mixing with a radio mixing with the means of production, the mic in order to become, well, a song. We hear order taking shape out of chaos to form not just order but euphony.

But it's not as clear cut as that. Jazz, after all, moves relentlessly between order and chaos, melody and drift, structure and collapse. That is not Cornelius. He does not improvise; he composes. Which is to say, he works chaos and accident into his composition: composed emergence.

This sounds a bit like John Cage but if we think about his most famous piece, "4'33"," we get a fundamentally different argument. For Cage, the world is already music, already a nascent symphony. His role as composer is to stipulate, not compose: he sets a time limit and a space limit and his composition is what emerges within that duration. 

Two very different arguments, two very different postures of standing towards the world, two different conceptions of creation itself. Cornelius is busy banging away at everything, grabbing snippets out of the air in order to fuel his euphony. Cage, meanwhile, stands back and lets the sounds take shape within ever variable yet prescribed borders. The affective resonance of the two speaks volumes: the beautiful but dense play of Cornelius, the serenity of Cage. 

When I was younger, I was drawn to manic music, music that careened — Throwing Muses, Pixies, Tull, Glass Eye. Those bands give us a sense of the world about to come apart at the seams but somehow hanging together through sheer will. More recently, I've been drawn to spatial soundscapes, to Yo La Tengo and Darkside, who live in a very different world. Chaos looms as well but it doesn't hang together through will: it hangs together through patience.

Like anything, like everything, music necessarily makes an argument. It assembles and distributes percepts, affects, history, concepts into a this and a this:


roca de carioca said...

I've never been one to pay much attention to lyrics and as such, I find I've recently enjoyed listening to music that's more heavily or purely instrumental (voices are instruments too, just different, you know?), while I've enjoyed hearing lyrical music. For most songs in english, I ignore the lyrics and identify with the instrumentally-produced sounds of the record (hence, hearing X listening).

But I'm getting away from how I listen to music. When lyrical music plays, I hear it and I can listen do it, but usually don't-- it takes an attentive effort on my part or a particular effort on the artist's. It's overwhelming (for me) to listen to a song with lyrics with familiar words rattling about the unfamiliar resonances of instruments (which is what I like to be there for; there's nothing like a good bassline, impromptu riffing, or playful cowbell). Amidst lyrics, I feel like I'm in that Beatles song, "It's All Too Much," or "Too Much," or whatever it's called. So I'll say I usually just hear lyrical songs, with that rare exception when a voice hooks me in the gut and pulls me along the river of notes as I imagine it's supposed to, or when the instrumentals are so fresh the voice doesn't matter.

But nonlyrical music, that's something I can really /listen/ to more easily. Sure, there's nonlyrical stuff that I tend to hear more than I listen, but generally speaking, listening happens more when there's no lyrics for me.

I've been grooving to a lot of ambient flows lately, by artists like Minilogue and the like, more in tune with what seems like Cage's free-of-bars movement. It's like a sustained wash, tidal, but with some sea urchins and eels and wet kelp and definitely some otters punctuating and bobbing about its currents. Have a hear at "Atoms With Curiosity That Looks at Itself and Wonder Why It Wonders" and others from the /Blooma/ or /Animals/ albums.

I've been digging a new (for me) genre called technoswing, which is aptly named. Think time travelling flapper girls and bootleg gin (because it's remixed hehe). I stumbled into Parov Stelar's "Catgroove", and I've been revelling in his sounds so much I haven't been able to properly explore much of the genre's latitudes yet.

Nujabes is like jazz 2.0 and worth lots of listening, but needs no more plug than that.

Grooveshark.com has a different architecture than Pandora and Spotify. I feel it's fundamentally more peer-peer, which is pleasant, and it doesn't require any logging in to FB or hearing any advertisements (if you have AdBlock plugin for your browser no side banners either). Some records are corrupted and stop early, but it's a small price to pay. I find its play station function for genres doesn't jump to conclusions so quickly, which may be due to its multitude of subgenres or the fact that I've used the site to purposely hear genres I haven't before. My site there is http://grooveshark.com/#!/peteydpete.

Also, it's cool that there's taste for music, sense/feel for rhythm, that melodies can be funky (the good ones curl upper lips and flare the nostrils) and Outkast's/southern raps stanky, and that a good voice has proper "pitch" (images of sounds thrown, precisely).

Asa Henderson said...

My greatest musical fascination for the past year or two has been Steve Coleman.

Check out the "download" section of his site, where much of his music is available for free, and the "essays" page, where his depth of understanding of music as argument is abundantly clear.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Sorry for my delay in replying here...getting to new music takes time.

Asa: I have the Coleman on now as I type this. Wowzer mcgowzer. I look forward to poking around more. Thanks, truly, for jumping in here.

Roca: You've laid a veritable cornucopia on me. Give me time. As for lyrics, I enjoy the voice as instrument, as inflection point. I've always loved strong singers — Dylan, Black Francis (Pixies), Bowie etc who deliver strange lines with humor, venom, delight, oddity.

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