Friday, June 5, 2009

Answering the Question

I’d wager that anyone who has ever delved into the realm of unfamiliar or experimental or difficult music has at some point, been presented with The Question. It may have come from a loved one, a family member, a friend, or just an acquaintance, and may have been phrased in a number of different ways, but the essential meaning was always the same. As you’re sitting grooving to something like Evan Parker or Anthony Braxton or John Cage or whatever (believe me, this list could practically be endless!) someone enters the room, listens for a few seconds (or minutes) and then asks The Question: “Is that music?" (Or "You call that music?”, “What the hell is that you’re listening to?”, “What is that racket?” “How can you listen to that?” or “Jaysus, that sounds like a cat being strangled...” and so forth.) And seeing as I’ve spent a considerable portion of my adult life listening to music that I like to describe as “exploratory”, I’ve been presented with The Question on numerous occasions. So this is my humble attempt to answer The Question for those who may visit this blog and find it upon their lips as they are confronted with vegetable instruments, shrieking electronic noise, strange men boiling kettles and blowing duck whistles, and who may think that my definition of musical pleasure is that of a Cenobite (the monstrous creatures in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser whose idea of pleasure involved torturing the shit out of you for all eternity).
A digression: what was the first piece of music you heard that really confronted you with something utterly unfamiliar and unexpected? As a teenager, it was having my preconceptions blown apart by (among others) the Soft Machine’s Third, the Velvet Underground’s first two albums, John Coltrane’s Meditations, Frank Zappa’s Uncle Meat, and so forth. The last choice there is important; this was at a time before the internet, when finding experimental music in Limerick was akin to finding a lost contact lens in the Atlantic Ocean, and while Zappa gets a lot of (entirely deserved) criticism for being an almost total git, without his influence it probably would not have occurred to me at the time to listen to Stravinsky, Varese, Webern, or Boulez (and others discovered by investigating these composers) and my musical world would have been a lot less interesting for a longer time. But it was around the time that I was absorbing the above that I made a momentous discovery: I was browsing through the classical section in the newly opened HMV in Limerick when I saw an album which stunned me by its very presence there. It was a double CD of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s piano and electroacoustic music, Klavierstuck I-XI & Mikrophone I & II! And it was £15 (or some outrageous sum, the price of an evening’s boozing)! So, with trembling hands and knocking knees I brought this slab of ultra-modern composing up to the cash register, handed over my money, and hurried home on the bus, perusing the insanely detailed liner notes (which tell you the humidity at the time the piano pieces were recorded (approximately 50%), that the left pedal creaked and needed repairing, what the pianist (Aloys Kontarsky) ate and drank, how much he slept, and other minutaie). When I got home, I retired to the sitting room (which contained our brand new CD player, high tech stuff at this juncture), and put on the first CD, which contained the piano pieces. Need I say that I was totally baffled? Or that, in all honesty, I asked of myself The Question?
It was the first time, as I said, that I heard something completely outside my comprehension. While I had heard a certain amount of strange music, most of it could be connected to pre-existing styles with which I was familiar. While free jazz, which I was beginning to discover at this time, was also provoking a certain amount of head-scratching, especially the high-pitched shrieking of Pharaoh Sanders, I could at least grasp (in theory) what he was shrieking about, even if it would take time to become accustomed to the sounds produced. But Stockhausen... On first listen, it sounded totally random, a guy hitting notes all over the piano without any structure or progression. I was confused as to how this music was put together at all – how did anyone sit down and write this? How did they decide how it started, or ended? I had only the vaguest notion of what serial music was at the time, and the liner notes (written by Karlheinz himself) were of little use in trying to figure out just what was going on in these seemingly jerky, random little pieces. Part of the problem, of course, was that I was trying to understand them through the lens of conventionally structured music, which was a worse than useless method, and I angrily turned off the CD player. (I will point out that I quite liked Mikrophone I and (especially) II on the second disc; their fascinating sonic textures made them much more accessible, even if I still wasn’t quite sure what precisely they were.) Now, it seems to me that many people, even if they’d made it this far with Stockhausen, would have dumped the CD in a cupboard and never listened to it again, but I didn’t. I kept putting it on every now and again, trying to figure out what it was about this music that I should like. Eventually, it was sheer familiarity that did it: I stopped trying to work out what the pieces were “about”, as if they were a puzzle in a cryptic crossword and I’d win a bun if I got the right answer, and just listened to them without preconceptions. These days, I think they are very beautiful, crystalline, edgy things, and a genuine (if slightly chilly) pleasure to listen to. But these days there is very little which produces that “what the hell is this?” feeling for me; the closest would be stuff like Vinko Globokar’s Toucher, a really weird collection of solo percussion and vocal music which, though I understand what he’s doing in theory, I do find a bit odd... Or oddly, the work of Derek Bailey: I've listened to quite of few of his records now and simply do not "get" what I am supposed to like about them. I can understand why he is a great artist, but I can't say that listening to his music is anything other than work for me. Here’s samples of Globokar, Bailey, and Stockhausen's Klavierstuck I:

So what would you say is the oddest piece of music that you’ve heard, or the first you heard which made you ask The Question ("Is that music?")? And, to get back to my original Question, how would you define what is (or isn't) music? I'm off on holidays for the weekend, but I'd very much like to continue this as a discussion in the comments section, so I'll respond to any comments after Monday next.


jams o donnell said...

Oddestpiece of music? I suppose Boyzone won't feature in that. Perhaps one of the oddest concepts was Robert Calvert's (he who I use for an avatar) concept album about the the F104 Starfighter and the problems the Luftwaffe had with it. Musically Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters isn't particulary avant garde thogh.

As for music, like what you like and like that you like it!

god-free morals said...

I suppose there is a confusion in defining what we as an individual find aesthetically pleasing in music (simply, what we like) with what a definition of music is. And this can lead to some fairly heated arguments about what music is.

I've written a longer rambling post in semi-answer to this post at my place.


A Doubtful Egg said...

Jams: I'm not familiar with Robert Calvert's music (of Hawkwind fame, I presume) but I've heard that some of that early seventies acid rock/sci-fi stuff (is that accurate for Hawkwind?) does get pretty strange...
Chris: Liking one form of music over another is fair enough (I don't particularly like reggae/dub music, a lot of country music, hip-hop, most old-style classical music, a lot of singer-songwriter music where the lyrics seem to take precedence over the music (post-Dylan era particularly) and, I'm sorry to say, Leonard Cohen!) but The Question, as I see it, brings up the interesting notion of what music can, or more importantly, cannot be. For example, a basic tenet of music is that it should be audible to human beings, one would say (ruling out such compositions as one for an ensemble of dog whistles.) Yet I recently bought an album where four of the tracks (derived from field recordings) don't go above 20 decibels, and are essentially inaudible (an elegant variant on Cage's 4'33"). Can that be described as music?

god-free morals said...

To answer your question I could only give my opinion, which was my point, I could tell you what I consider music but it would be a mistake to think that there must, from this, be some universal generalisable rule that we can apply to find out definitively what music is and what it is not. I think that as we are able to discuss these matters of taste it tells us that we understand the form of the concept, but as it is a matter of art that it is not and cannot ever be fixed (for if it were it would no longer be art, it would be history at best).

So, on a personal matter, my argument (n attempt to explain my position) for Cohen would be that, yes, it is emphasised upon the lyrics, precisely because it is poetry and I believe that poetry is fundamentally musical/lyrical. I mean to say that the lyrics ARE the music (in Cohen).

P.S. Has anyone done that dog whistle idea of yours? I think that would be outstanding!

A Doubtful Egg said...

I don't know if anyone's performed music on a dog whistle, although I'd be surprised if no one has, but I believe that the Beatles had a message on Sgt Pepper that was only audible to dogs! La Monte Young had a piece in the sixties (Composition No 5) where the instructions were to release two butterflies in the auditorium; unless you're a butterfly the sounds of the performance are beside the point...
"it would be a mistake to think that there must, from this, be some universal generalisable rule that we can apply to find out definitively what music is and what it is not."
True, but I think it's fun to speculate! After all, there are art objects which are definitely not music - paintings, for examples - and even in the realm of sonic experience this is still true: a book on tape is not music; neither is a piece of oratory (unless, for some odd reason, it's sung...) or legitimate theatre. So at some point a boundary is crossed and, like all artistic boundaries, is (to paraphrase from a source I can't actually remember) less a wall than a membrane, which stretches and deforms depending on the artist's intent. And while the question of what can be considered music at all is one thing, there is also the more challenging question of what is good music!
I've listened to a few Leonard Cohen records in my time and, while I think they're good work, his music simply doesn't have that siren song which draws me back, or, to put it another way, whatever he's saying just doesn't speak to me. He does seem to be one of those figures who has inspired and moved a lot of people in a very deep fashion, so more power to him!
Thanks for the comments, and I quite enjoyed the interview with Cohen you posted!