On Music and Meaning
So what is a musician’s responsibility, as an artist, to music before all else?
Electronica, in musical terms, is a sort of textless world… The prospect of less politics may be what makes this seem so encouraging. After all, it captures the inspiration of so many solo music-makers, along with the immediacy of the process. It’s emotive technology.
We love to relate to the artist as a person. And, we love to visualize artistry, especially when we can experience it fully, and with all of our senses.
The humanity of the artist does, after all, elevate people as a whole, when we align ourselves with the arts. We like to believe that the person who created the work, knows fallibility, just like we do. It also reinforces this ideal we have for DIY culture; and that everything is ultimately attainable. We might even consider how an artist’s likeability-index is a greater factor in that artist’s influence across cultural circles today, than it was perhaps in the 1600s, when reputation was based largely upon hearsay, which was very slow-moving, especially by today’s standards.
Visibility is increasing for everybody, and for every thing. And, at once, it never changes at all.
We are generally intolerant of things we don’t understand. And as musicians, we love to taunt and tame the limits of modern music consumers. Targeting the unreasonably short fuse is a viable place to start.
We pervert sound, we make the unfashionable listenable. We suggest that anything that was formerly listenable is still exercisable as an option.
Quick wits challenge slow tempers. I have actually sat in many movie theatres and concert halls, loving to watch people squirm. I find this really interesting.
One critic of my release, “Paris: A Musical Overpass,” kept using the word insistent to describe what she heard in common to this and to “3 Mains” – she was trying to be kind, God bless her.
We listen, and even make ourselves aware, as musical phrases emerge and repeat, that we as listeners continue to evolve over that same span of time, regardless of what we think the sound is accomplishing for us. We are, in fact, finishing an unfinished work.
We like the breakdown in the singularity of meaning, for the art-object. People are no longer designing finished works, and we are no longer consumers of finished work. Artists are creating unfinished ones – to be remixed and restructured in a dialogue that includes others, and elements of chance.
Experimentation in the realm of audio as music, is certainly no new topic. Being experimental is of value to every artist, in all media.
Sometimes it seems to lack relevance; we have seen pioneers championing electronic technology since the first half of the 20th century. As a topic for discussion, it is perhaps less relevant to ask, “In what way is the Day For Night catalogue experimental?” and instead, “Why should it be so, and how can this possibly matter?”
The value we assign to experimentation is hard to measure exactly, but it is a consistent marker.
It continues to inspire all that we do, from what we choose to create and consume, to what gets us up in the morning, and also what keeps us from going to sleep at night. Sometimes, we must also masquerade experimentation in less obvious packages, which would otherwise too often scare away a new and potentially timid audience.
Such a belief about audience bears examination, too.
In the field of modern classical composition, how can a topic so battered and trite as minimalism be weighed in the current age, when met against the leagues of serialist composers such as Boulez, Cage and Stockhausen, and all of their scholastic disciples? All of these legends have had their run in the academic world – there appears to be material there to study, and this is informed by process as well.
Are those other minimalists from the 60s and 70s (they now prefer to be unnamed) forever resigned to a dimmed future, based upon the unfortunate associations between sonic compositions with repeating patterns, and the minimally blank canvases – from two similarly named, but differently fueled media? (I certainly hope not.)
Instead, one might ask, “Does this new work challenge any important preconceptions?” And in the case of musical minimalism, it is evidently a challenge to the patience of a willing audience.
Brian Eno, in his introduction for the latest edition of Michael Nyman’s “Experimental Music: Cage & Beyond”, makes some excellent points about the trajectory of 20th century experimental music and our intellectual fetishes..
The best books about art movements become more than just descriptions: they become part of what they set out to describe.
I particularly like what this sentence illustrates; about how any cultural movement might see a divergence between academics and non-academics. I like especially what it says about all art – that we should deliberately feel and experience the differences between the intellectual options that replace the experiential ones.
Eno mentions that music colleges, in his time, were not interested in minimalism and experimentalists of the late 60’s
but the art colleges “ate it up.” There were the composers like Cornelius Cardew and Gavin Bryars who earned their living teaching art students, and who saw their contribution in a more pure, intellectual, spiritual experience. These became known as part of the English School, and Eno describes that as “a place where we could entertain and test philosophical propositions or encapsulate intriguing game-like procedures.”
This may be what makes music interesting.
Whereas the avant-garde could be seen as a proper site for real musical skills, and was therefore being slowly co-opted into the academy, the stuff we were interested in was so explicitly anti-academic that it claimed to have been often written for non-musicians.This, versus the ones who were interested in the pure sonic experience – the sensual, tonal pieces, which were full of repetition.
Both aspects were always present in experimental music of the 60s, often to the exclusion of everything that lay in between. I admit to being concerned more with processes, than end products myself.
So if this was experimental music, what was the experiment? Perhaps it was the continual re-asking of the question, “what also could music be?”
What makes music interesting, is our desire and ability to experience something as music. A process of apprehending, that we, as listeners, choose to conduct…This has moved the site of music from out there to in here.
Music – it’s something your mind does.
You open your mind, and this is where you experience the new.
This is a fundamental element of wanting to enjoy myself as much as possible. If I judge while I listen, I tend not to find much to enjoy. Maybe, because I begin by assuming that I’m right first, and that if I don’t get it, then that’s the artist’s fault. When I cast a veil of suspicion over an influence, my options become less interesting… and it’s actually not that much fun being right about that after all.
But life’s too short not to experience other viewpoints without prejudice – and that music, film, and art all make the same assumption, when they’re exploring the new.
Namely, that you’re going to be open to their message, and so here it is, unexpurgated.
OK, now that’s funny.
I’m remembering now – perhaps due in part to recently taking in 24 Hour Party People – the very first time I remember hearing New Order and liking them.
It was, of course, hearing Blue Monday on KROQ, which my father would let me play in his car – on the way back from Odyssey Video, in 1983, and thinking, back then, that it sounded plastic for my tastes.
This was also the first time that I liked it – and that it for once didn’t irritate me, but rather, intrigued me, because something was undoubtedly right about it, as well – despite the absolute certainty I’d held until that point, that technology was possibly destructive and evil.
I was also still putting together what it felt like, relative to Joy Division, whose moodier airs on Closer had so definitely seduced me. That music, I felt I had a more classical grasp on; this music, on the other hand, stood up to repeated listening, but also revealed little about its source.
It’s funny how we choose to listen to music.
Music people somehow fall into two vague categories, people who are genuinely interested in music and fans of the medium itself – and casual listeners, whose conscious efforts are often left out of the matter, but who enjoy their role as consumers.
Fans of the medium will sometimes form even form clans – audiophiles take on the D.I.Y.-ers on the issues of sound a purist medium, even touching on form over function topics.
Generally speaking, our conscious attention has an interesting relationship with new sounds, and their effects upon mood. Sometimes we listen as closely as we can. Headphone listening. Headmuzik, that’s the best kind…like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, or Scanner 1 – on an overcast day.
I have a personal recollection – it’s about the David Toop disc Screen Ceremonies – it changed some of my beliefs about the potential of musical conditioning. I ended up using it to condition myself to fall asleep at will, with the help of some Percocet I had been prescribed. I was recovering from surgery, some years ago. It turns out that I am no longer an insomniac. I learned that studying and listening to interesting sound has the same effect as counting sheep.
Screen Ceremonies is a good example of an induction or auditory spell. I absorbed its potential at very low listening levels, while reading into the musical editorial from his book, Ocean Of Sound, all from a reclining position.
The immenseness of calm and overwhelm at once were truly inspirational – and the potential hugeness of it all still inspires me to this day.
This one is justified visually, by the signage in big record shops, as a purported improvement over listening with your ears. This is the one that says listen with your beliefs. And, this is a form of compartmentalizing personal experience.
Of course, most artists reject categorisation of their work. It’s insulting. It demeans and diminishes what the individual is capable of.
Some artists will create a successful brand for themselves, support that primary goal with enough consistent work to begin to develop an artistic thesis – but then find that after a few years, shifting and evolution is something that typecasting resists.
And naturally, without categories, so many people argue they couldn’t discuss music otherwise, like it needs to be converted into a verbal abstraction, or architecture for the masses.
Could it really be important enough to discuss what makes music important?
Yes and no. Other people who are genuinely interested in music will definitely join me on this one.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Thanks to debatably, either Elvis Costello, or Frank Zappa for that gem. Or both.
We aren’t really interested in reading about something we can hear. So, in general, our ocular and auditory senses get a good dose through the industries of entertainment and sponsorship. It seems likely enough, too.
As the invariable product of a metaculture, obsessed with technology since the industrial revolution. Make something, find a use for it later is the motto of many inventors and designers. (And I hang my head, as I am definitely guilty of that one, at least on a drawing-board level.)
Perhaps Salvador Dalí correctly intuited that his lack of clarity, into the motivations for his own painting justified his theory of surreal, subconscious thought processes. Then again, nobody forces anyone else to release useless shit onto the market…So why does this continue to bother us?
Overstimulus is but one way to get the world to submit to this spectacle.
I don’t know exactly what it all means, or what might happen next, but… I definitely like it.
That has generally been the assessment, or ethic, of all Day For Night work produced, usually at the moment of completion. Occasionally, I make attempts to re-contextualise my finished results. So, too often, the work is finished, then it’s unfinished, and finally, it’s finished again. Until it’s not.
Over time, I locate new relationships between the things I am currently making, and other things I have previously made. This, for example, was the basis for drawing the underground map that became NIGHTlinkRail.
Presently, that map is now as much an illustration of past work, as it is a navigational tool, which I use to move forth, into areas of future work within the Day For Night catalogue.