Saturday, January 02, 2010

Other Musics

When people find out I'm a musician, they immediately assume pop. People tell me they love music, too, then they go through a list of bands, or singer-songwriters, or pop songs, or rock songs, or post-folk songs by famous singer-songwriters, or tell of their allegiances to the cults of Dylan or Cohen, or the religion of rock 'n roll. Almost no one ever mentions jazz, much less classical, or other musics. When they do, it's rare enough to be shocking.

Writers and poets pay too much attention to the words. Many fans think song lyrics are great poetry, not having any idea what poetry really is. Lots of fans who don't pay attention to the words pay attention only to the song's emotional content, and every song needs a guitar solo.

Everybody thinks the popular song form—which is basically the old poetic ballad form, with alternating verses and repeating choruses, and a bridge section before the last verse or two—is the form that all music takes. That the song is what music is. When people find out I'm a composer, they usually think I'm a songwriter.

I've been called worse than elitist and arrogant for saying this, but here it is:

Everything you think you know about music is wrong.

That's it, really. That's all there is to it. We can all go home, now. No, really.

Seriously, though, what most people think music is, is about one tenth of one percent of what music really is. Pop music may dominate commercial radio—but then, you ought to think about the relationship between pop music and commercial radio, since they are incestuous twins, and profits are both parent and spawn. The music business is about business, not about music.

Music is so much more than that superficial crap that passes for pop music these days—most of which is over-produced, performed by minor talents and perfected in the mix, marketed to the masses with sex and glitter and looks, and all about as profound as toast, slightly burnt. Music is much more than singer-songwriters, even the best of them—and the best of them have no cults of followers. Fans, maybe, but not cults.

So what is music, if not pop songs? If not singer-songwriter songs? If not, pure and simple, songs?

Music is creatively organized sounds in time. Music is the art of arranging sounds in sequence. Any sounds: there is no end to the kinds of sound that music can use. Music, unlike many other more static arts, always has a performance element, and always exists within time. Music both timebound and therefore narrative, and abstract and nonlinear and therefore non-narrative. Music doesn't have to have words; it doesn't have to be tied to words; it is not an inherently verbal artform.

You see, the biggest mistake you can make, if you think music is nothing but songs, as most people do, is to think that music has to have words to it. In fact, a great deal of very powerful, emotional, life-changing music is completely non-verbal, non-narrative, and nonlinear.

Most people think, without really thinking about it, that music is always made with the same scales, the same keys, the same pitches, tones, and notes. This too is completely wrong. The scales that you think are natural and true are just the scales you grew up with. Music is organized sounds in time—and every distinct musical culture in which humans make music uses different scales, pitches, and notes. There is some overlap, and there are some fundamental acoustical principles upon which all music is based. But no music culture solves the questions of what makes up music in exactly the same way, even considering the physical principles of acoustics. In fact, there are music cultures that deliberately do the opposite of what acoustical physics might suggest—to create unique and different sonic effects. There are intrinsic, consistent cultural norms within each music culture; but they vary from culture to culture.

Well, you get the point. This is the sort of occasional rant you're going to hear from frustrated composers and musicians; although it's shocking how many musicians also think music is mostly about songs. If you want to imagine the frustration, and why it happens, try explaining about something you know a lot about, to someone who has only a limited idea of what you know about, yet think they know all there is to know. If you've ever been boggled by a friend's missing the forest for the trees, you'll get it.

Well, never mind. The point is simple: Music is a lot more than you think it is, and a lot more diverse and unpredictable. Stop thinking from inside that box of the song form, and start opening your ears to other music. There are many, and many of these are wonderful, and worth discovering.

Music is not mere entertainment. It's not aural wallpaper. Entertainment is death. Music is life. Music matters.

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Anonymous Swanee said...

OK, but wasn't a large part of the 20th century devoted to breaking past the "organized" part of your definition, including explorations such as aleatoric and indeterminate music? And what are the differences between "music" and "acoustic exercises," such as exploring the sound properties of a metal pole in below-freezing temperatures? (Yes, I thought about this for the full four minutes and 33 seconds.)

7:08 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Preaching to the choir, Art, preaching to the choir.

7:29 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

The definition of music as "organized sounds in time" comes from the mid-20th C. explorations, as a way of including aleatoric and indeterminacy within the definition of music. In an indeterminate Earle Brown or John Cage score, what's indeterminate is the way in which the composer tells the performer what to do. Most such scores contain choices for the performer to make; choices are given away by the composer, but their are still choices to be made, as to what sounds to produce. Even a graphic score such as Cage's "Indeterminacy III" is a means of producing intentional sounds on the performers' parts, determined beforehand by using the score materials. At this point in time, chance means told me to do this. What most people misunderstand (and this frustrated Cage a lot) was that once you make the choices for performance, you're supposed to stick to them: it's not free improv, and it's not "anything goes."

Even 4'33", in which the performer is silent and the environmental sounds make up the piece, is an organized time-frame in which sonic events naturally will occur, and the audience's listening is focused on that listening the same way another piece performed in concert focuses the listening. The environmental sounds are what happen within the time-frame. But designating the time-frame is the "in time" part of the definition that makes it intentional. So we perceive even "random" sounds as intentional when framed by a designated frame; which is what makes it "music."

I know it, Jim, I know it. I figured you would follow me right away. That's why I admitted it was more of a rant than anything else.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth said...

I'm no exert here, in fact I know little about the underpinnings of music, though I know what I love.

Your thoughts here make me think of Lynn Behrendt's recent efforts. Have you seen her blog and heard it? See:


1:54 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth said...

Sorry, here's the url:

1:55 AM  
Anonymous Swanee said...

Thanks for the clarifications. How do genres that DO seem to involve free improv--some schools of jazz, obviously; might be others--fit into the picture?

4:37 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Improvisation, at its root, is spontaneous composition: composition-in-the-moment. A form might be followed, as with most blues, jazz and rock forms. (12 bar blues is at the root of both soul and rock and roll, originally.) So it's still organized sounds in time; it's just that the organization is spontaneous, emergent, some would say organic, and of the moment.

But a form isn't necessary. It can be open-ended, as in John Coltrane's album-length piece "Ascension." The "free jazz" movement, originated by John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman's groups, and continued today by Evan Parker's and Derek Bailey's groups, among others, is possibly the purest form of improvisation, as it is musicians making sounds together with no pre-arranged materials. They just play. This requires the ability to listen to each other and respond in-the-moment, which is a skill one develops with practice.

Free jazz comes from the jazz history direction, while John Cage and his followers come from the classical and avant-garde history direction, and although the sounds and their context might be different, the skills of listening and response, and of making choices, are very much the same.

Derek Bailey, by the way, has written possibly the definitive book on "Improvisation," coming from his direction but also including Earle Brown's and other's directions.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Elisabeth, thanks for the recommendation. I'll go look through her site. I'm always interested in discovering new materials like that.

10:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damn Art, you "elitist and arrogant" bastard! I thought I knew what music is.....hey,hey do you like Lady gaga? How bout Beyounce'? THen you don't know shiste!!

Kidding bro, this is a great post & I was glad to see you on Terr's poetry site the other day. Good to read your stuff again!

I agree btw, music isn't what it once was...talented..


8:05 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hey, JR, thanks for the comment.

Yeah, I do know who Lady Gaga is. 'Nuff said.

8:29 PM  

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