I am a huge lover of music, both as a producer and consumer of it. As a teenager I can recall having love affairs with music compositions; periods where I had to listen to a certain song over and over.
I still love music, but I have to concede that I burn out on it more easily now. I find myself not intrigued with much of what I listen to. I also find myself more and more aware how a certain song sounds quite a bit like some other song (often I find myself humming a melody from song A over song B.) It’s been a long time since I’ve had a real musical “crush.”
Nestled in away David Byrne’s book “How Music Works” is his acknowledgment that he doesn’t listen to a lot of music. I think he mentions listening to music while doing the dishes, and going out to see live music a couple times a week, but that’s about it. And he describes being annoyed — as I am — at the constant onslaught of background music numbing your ears when you go out to a restaurant or coffee shop. (I’ve pretty much sworn off Carl’s Jr. because they now have these video screens that blast awful music videos or incredibly stupid pop-culture shows.)
It seems a little weird for a professional musician to imply that we should be listening to less music. But as I concede that I’m constantly burning out on music, I’m wondering whether I should give this idea a try.
When you think about it, our access and exposure to music has increased dramatically over recent centuries. Imagine living in Europe around 1750; in that world, seeing a symphony or opera was a big deal. You probably spent weeks looking forward to it and, when you went, the music absorbed your attention. Additionally, aside from such events, you wouldn’t hear much music in your life; maybe just people humming, or the playing of musicians in your family. It was probably common for some people to go for months on end without hearing musical instruments.
That lifestyle didn’t change much until the advent of radio. Suddenly music was being pumped into your house. Of course, radio had its limitations. The sound quality could be meager and you had to listen to what the radio played (which wasn’t always what you wanted to hear.)
Now we’re at a point with Spotify, YouTube and music piracy that you can pretty much hear any song you want immediately. There are very few barriers preventing you from scratching your audio itch. And it’s almost impossible to go through a day without hearing some music blaring out of cars, being played in restaurants, in the background of TV shows.
Many people have noted that over the past 10 years the barriers to creating and distributing music have substantially decreased. And as a bedroom music producer myself, I freely concede a lot of good has come from this. But I also think it’s decreased the shelf life of music. It used to be that a genre of music would emerge from the primordial soup, percolate within a certain subculture, eventually break into popular consciousness, and finally become passé. But that process would take years; nowadays, it’s much faster. A couple months ago I became really aware of dubstep music and within a couple weeks heard it being used in something like a Bank of America commercial. It’s now much easier for a song or genre of music to have a thrilling sudden ascent and achieve worldwide popularity, but it’s also much easier for people to burn out on that same product. Music is becoming more faddish, easily consumed and easily disposed of.
I’m thinking the solution — at least for me — is to follow Byrne’s advice and limit how much music I’m exposed to. I’d like to maintain the philosophy that listening to music should be an event, not something occurring in the background of my consciousness. If I can’t give music my attention, then I shouldn’t be listening to it.*
*I’m aware that there are forms of music — ambient electronica or Erik Satie’s furniture music — that are expressly designed to be played in the background.
Lately I’ve been thinking a bit about using visual images to serve as the template for pieces of music. For instance, I might take a scene of a bunch of houses and represent them musically. If I was describing a tall mansion made out of brick I might using reaching melodies that go up into the sky (illustrating tallness) and perhaps a series of quick, dense chords (illustrating the tiny, hard units that are bricks.) Similar processes could be used to illustrate other houses in the group.
This is, of course, what a lot of movie soundtracks do: describe or augment the visual with the musical. And often what the music is describing is a person’s inner state – anxiety is illustrated by manic violins, calm denoted with long smooth tones.
To explore this idea I need to clearly define the term object. As I use it, the term can describe actual physical objects – cars, animals, stars etc – or mental units – thoughts, feelings, perceptions.
The idea here is that we correlate different types of objects with other objects. We understand that the slow cadence of a walking elephant has a correlation with a down tempo series of tuba honks. We understand that the overwhelming onslaught of emotional stress can be captured in a single large painting of vibrant red. We understand that an image of a wide peaceful lake correlates to the calm sensation of a peaceful mind. In a weird way elephants ARE tubas, stress IS red, lakes ARE peace. In a psychological/perception sense these objects are interchangeable.
I was just reading about Freud’s theories about dreams. As you probably know, he posits that a lot of things we see in dreams represent something else – e.g the peacock is really your vanity, the bellowing walrus is your obnoxious uncle, the cigar you place in your mouth is really a long, hard, sweaty penis. Freud was basically making the same point I am – that objects can be correlated to each other.
I’ve become intrigued with the idea that the fundamental experience of being alive has been changing over the course of human history. I don’t mean basic changes like we’ve got more stuff or less hunger, but rather that the very nature of how we perceive and conceive of the world around us is shifting. You might recall my musing about a writer who argued that human beings were not even conscious 3000 years ago. Or my conception that as we’ve become more assaulted by distractions like phone calls and email alerts we’ve become less able to focus on the creation and enjoyment of ornamental art.
Today I came across a relevant section in David Byrne’s “How Music Works.” He notes…
Marshall McLuhan famously proposed that after the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, we shifted from an acoustic culture to a visual one. He said that in an acoustic culture, the world, like sound, is all around you and comes at you from all directions at once. It is multi-layered and non-hierarchical; it has no center or focal point. Visual culture has a perspective—a vanishing point.
I’m not sure I totally buy this. Sound isn’t exactly “everywhere” – we can tell if a sound came from our left or our right; we can tell if a sound is coming from far away or close. And I’d even say there’s a certain hierarchy to sounds. Loud or novel sounds demand our attention more so than softer or common ones. (Of course, maybe that’s just my visual culture trained brain imposing a hierarchy on acoustic culture.) Nonetheless, I agree with the gist – the acoustic world is much more ephemeral and ghostlike than the visual world of objects. The acoustic world is harder to define, which is Byrne’s next point.
McLuhan claims that our visual sense began to get increasingly bombarded by all the stuff we were producing. It began to take precedence over our auditory sense, and he said that the way we think and view the world changed as a result. In an acoustic universe one senses essence, whereas in a visual universe one sees categories and hierarchies. He claims that in a visual universe one begins to think in a linear fashion, one thing following another along a timeline, rather than everything existing right now, everywhere, in the moment.
Again I have some small qualms with these statements but the point is made. Certainly we seem to live in a world obsessed with defining things. One need look only at genres of music; people don’t just listen to pop music, they listen to “West Coast post-modern indie pop.” (And they have no use for anyone who doesn’t!) The argument some would make is that we’ve gotten so obsessed with defining things that we no longer really experience them.
We’re so used to the hierarchy of the visual universe that it’s hard to imagine life without it. It seems like such an essential aspect of our life experience that we presume it must be innate – built into the brain. But I recall neurologist Oliver Sacks observations of a man who – after being blind his whole life – regained sight. It wasn’t really a gift; he could see but he struggled to comprehend what he saw. I discussed this in my old acid logic piece “Making Sense of the Senses.”
With the cataracts gone the outside visual world flowed into Virgil’s brain, but he could not map what he saw to objects he had only experienced with his other senses. During Virgil’s initial moment of sight…
… he had no idea what he was seeing. There was light, there was movement, there was color, all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur. Then out of the blur came a voice that said, “Well?” Then, and only then, [Virgil] said, did he finally realized that this chaos and light and shadow was a face — and, indeed, the face of the surgeon.
Sacks contemplated the dilemma of this moment.
… when Virgil opened his eye, after being blind for 45 years — having had little more than an infant’s visual experience, and this long forgotten — there were no visual memories to support a perception, there was no world of experience and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had no coherence. His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them.
After regaining sight, Virgil struggled with seemingly basic components of seeing. He could see all the elements of a tree — the leaves, the roots, the branches — but had difficulty combining them into a single object. He struggled to understand shapes. Movement baffled him. He had to practice looking at household objects from different angles to gain the understanding that they were one single thing. And his eyes would fatigue much faster than a normal person. Eventually, Virgil lost his vision a second time, though the exact cause for this is unclear.
McLuhan might have argued that Virgil was at the center of a devastating collision between the visual and non-visual universes.
I’m taking pains here to not insinuate that one way of observing the world is better than the other. But I will say there’s a part of me that yearns to escape the endless defining and categorization that seems built into modern life (and often passes for some kind of intellectual activity when it’s more often mere mental masturbation.) I’d like to experience things more simply and fully. To better experience the essence of things.
I’m continuing my reading of David Byrne’s “How Music Works” and find myself in an interesting section discussing amateur art. He runs down a lot of theories past and present about what makes art “good” (always a lively debate.) At one point Byrne quotes the views of English author John Carey who said, “Meanings are not inherent in objects. They are supplied by those who interpret them.” Carey’s fundamental point is that high art was considered high because the elite class says so, not that these forms or art have some built in magic.
And I generally agree with that; I would have strongly agreed with that a few years ago (though I reject the sort of punk rock/populist counter argument that “street level” art is great merely because it’s not high art.) But are objects totally without meanings? I’m not sure I buy that. I’m reminded of neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran who argues that the brain seems to associate reactions to certain types of objects. For example, a big spiky sculpture made of steel can’t help but seem fearsome. A painting of pillows can’t help but seem safe. If you want to call those reactions “meanings” (and when you think about it, the exact meaning of the word meaning is rather ethereal) then objects do have meanings in so much as these reactions seem built into the brain. We could revive the whole tabula rasa debate and question whether you’re born with a fear of spiky objects or rather it’s something that gets built in early on, but it probably doesn’t matter much.
Like a lot of people, I recall how, during the 90s, MTV played fewer and fewer music videos while ramping up production of horrible reality TV shows. My presumption at the time was that the music television station simply decided this was what “the kids” wanted. However, David Byrne, in his new book “How Music Works” claims to know better. He states on page 247…
Some decades ago… the big record labels decided that the commonly held idea that MTV was providing free exposure for the labels’ acts wasn’t acceptable anymore. They began to see MTV reaping profits while the record labels were providing all the network’s content for free. So the labels made deals with MTV to continue providing music videos, but now at a flat fee. The labels said they would then funnel some of the considerable income back to artists, but I don’t think they ever did. Eventually MTV played fewer and fewer music videos, turning instead to cheap reality TV shows. Part of that change had to be motivated by not wanting to pay record labels for content.
Interesting… frankly I can see the network’s argument… nobody wants to create content for free. Having said that, it doesn’t seem like their bickering really helped the labels or the music business.
When I consider MTV’s heyday, I always gravitate to memory of a teenage evening spent watching the network. That night I saw a video for a song called “My Boyfriend” by a strange group called The Cucumbers and it’s stayed stuck in my mind decades later. Thanks to the magic of youtube I just dug up a 120 Minutes segment on the band which features the video. (Interesting trivia: I once stood in line at a coffee shop in Seattle with the show’s Steve Martin-esque host, Kevin Seal.)
I’ve long had issues with the conventional, legal view of song authorship. This view hold that a song is essentially a melody atop certain chords. This made sense 100+ years ago when the way a song was sold was by selling a lead sheet people would use to play the song on their instruments. But it doesn’t make much sense now. Sometimes the best part of a recorded version of a song is the sax solo or the timbre of the instruments – the kinds of elements that are completely unrecognized by the conventional definition.
I’ve been reading David Byrne’s book “How Music Works” and he gets into some of this, particularly the idea that in modern music-making the technicians – the producers and recording engineers – are integral to the process.
One could argue that these technicians were as responsible for how records came to sound as the composers or performers were. In effect, the authorship of a recording, and of music in general, was being spread around, dispersed. It became harder and harder to know who did what, or whose decisions were affecting the music we were hearing.
He recounts a situation were a particular drum part played on a James Brown track was sampled. The song’s author was reimbursed but because the drum part wasn’t considered part of the song (in the legal sense) the drummer was not. Screwy!
Justin Bieber had to leave a monkey in quarantine after landing in Germany last week without the necessary papers for the animal, an official said Saturday.
The 19-year-old singer arrived at Munich airport last Thursday. When he went through customs, he didn’t have the documentation necessary to bring the capuchin monkey into the country, so the animal had to stay with authorities, customs spokesman Thomas Meister said.
So they quarantine the monkey but let the Beeb run loose. Yeah, that makes sense.
Of minor note these days are reports of lefty, acoustic folk singer Michelle Shocked leaping into a “anti-gay rant,” at Berkley jazz club “Yoshi’s” several days ago. (I used to work down the street from the club in the early 2000s.)
When I first heard tell of this I didn’t think much of it. I’m almost entirely unaware of Shocked’s oeuvre but, since I’m not a giant fan of folk, I figured it was forgettable (Hey, that could be a folk song lyric!) It seems like a lot of people make a seemingly overnight 180 degree turn in their belief systems; why couldn’t Shocked be another example? (It had already been reported that she’d become a evangelical Christian.)
My thoughts started to change when I read a transcript of the show. If anything her comments seemed tangential and deluded, but in regards to her main statement, it seemed pretty clear to me that she was saying people she knew and loved — fellow evangelicals — were opposed to homosexuals, but not necessarily her. (Her comments were, as I just said, confusing, so I could understand people having other interpretations but that was mine.) Her motivation for her now infamous comment at the show, “You can go on Twitter and say ‘Michelle Shocked says God hates faggots,” is unclear, but to me comes across as a rather clumsy form of satire — essentially an acknowledgement that her views do not synch up with her audience and they might be tempted to suck any nuance out of what she was saying.
I don’t close of the possibility that Shocked is, simply, a homophobe, but I don’t think that’s as certain as do, well, 98% of the commenters on the subject. My thoughts don’t change after hearing the actual audio of the event. (You can dig it up online somewhere.) It made clear to me that the audience was not nearly as set against her as reports indicated; at the end of the night she gets a healthy sounding round of applause.
My main point: I don’t think we know exactly what’s going on with Shocked and it ain’t going to kill anyone to withhold judgment for a while and let the air clear.
When I think about the core argument made by Eckhart Tolle (and Buddhism in general), I think it would break down to this: you are insignificant. You are a meaningless pee stain in a moldy corner of the universe and your life will ultimately be flushed down the toilet of history. You are nothing.
Tolle and many Buddhists would probably disagree with my framing of their views but I think that’s it in a nutshell. You might ask, “How could such a philosophy hope to have legs? How could that ever appeal to people?” But I get it – in essence this philosophy says, “None of my problems really ‘matter.’ The fact that I might get fired for spilling coffee on my bosses suit? Meaningless! My general sense of dissatisfaction with where I have ended up in life? Not worth worrying about. Even something heavy like my wife dying of cancer – ultimately insignificant and simply how life is meant to roll out. I might as well go to the park and smell the flowers.” I can certainly see many burdens being lightened by subscribing to such a viewpoint.
It’s a very difficult viewpoint to take of course, because we want to feel that we matter. We want to feel that our toils and tribulations serve some greater purpose. I see this a lot related to art. As I’ve mentioned I’ve been doing some exploration into the world of using social media to promote art projects, be they novel writing, music, film etc. And I see a lot of people constantly tweeting about how they are working on their novel, or how they wrote a song, or some weird new short film. People really tie their identities – their egos – to their artistic output; believe me, I did it for years, hell, I’m still doing it. It’s nice to think that after whatever shit you’ve dealt with in life you can point to something you’re proud of and say, “I did that. Fuck off world!”
But, if you’re going to take Tolle’s advice, you have to release your pride in those accomplishments. You have to give credit for them to “the universe” or some such. And that’s not an easy thing to do.
Of course, it is clearly true that you can’t take total credit for any art project. Take a painting. Obviously you didn’t create the paint or canvas from scratch. And your abilities to paint are derived from the years of development in painting which other humans have contributed to. You’re, at best, taking an established technique and putting your little spin on it.
I actually find thinking this that way makes me want to get more radical and experimental in art (in my case music.) After all, if this music isn’t “me” (e.g. if my ego’s attachment to the music is limited), why not get crazy? Why not get wild? Why not throw it up in the air and see where it lands?
This actually might explain the influence this kind of thought had on mid 20th century artist types who seemed to place the creative process into the hands of chance – Jackson Pollack and John Cage come to mind.