|The sheet music for John Cage's "4'33""|
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: