Essay: A Case for Experimental Music
We come into this world knowing nothing, feeling everything. All stimuli are new, the whole world an ever-expanding source of wordless wonder. Then the world is explained away, its possibilities bounded by logic, and some of the magic is lost. But sometimes we hear a new sound, or see a new sight, and our existence feels limitless again. I want to explore our innate attraction to this magic, and explain my commitment to it as a music writer. As long-winded as this may be, Polish noise musician Zbigniew Karkowski said it much more succinctly in his essay “The Method is Science, the Aim is Religion” from 1992:
“There is no doubt that the body metabolism functions primarily via a combination of electrical frequencies, pulse rates and biochemical hormones. The brain is dependent on input. There is nothing else but sound, all that exists is vibration. My goal is to expand music until there is nothing else but music. If an idea can be proposed, it can also be realized. Nothing that’s ever said is final, assume that there are always other possibilities.
Where language ends, music begins.”
I tend to get defensive every time I start to write down these ideas, automatically imagining the ensuing eye-rolls and chuckles. I must seem pompous, overzealous, eager to cash some big words in for coolness points. You probably think I’m on a crusade to convince everyone that I’m right, and not only that, but that I am the greatest person alive for being so nobly right. But I assure you, I’m only getting on this soapbox to inquire into the nature of music, and to defend the value of music we don’t understand. I think art is in many ways a conversation about what is and what could be; experimenting with it, therefore, is how we search for new ways to have that conversation. So I don’t intend to make an argument for or against anything, just to add to the dialogue.
Due to the often disparaging skepticism of my peers, I have been asking myself why it is that I enjoy music that sounds like little more than weird noises to others. It isn’t enough to say that certain sounds seem “weird” to someone else, because while that is plainly true, it would be intellectually lazy to leave it at that. Mariachi music would sound inconceivably bizarre to a Tuvan throat singer and vice-versa. A classical composer instructed in the diatonic Western scales would be hopelessly puzzled in an attempt to transcribe the non-diatonic music of the Javanese gamelan — and again, vice versa. So I think it is safe to assert that musical genres are a sort of non (or semi)-linguistic “language-game” in which the rules we use to understand their meaning are communal, culturally contingent methods of iterating and interpreting fluctuations in universal “base elements” such as pitch, timbre, and rhythm. (The specifics are debatable, but for my purposes, unimportant. It seems plausible that there could be a “music-game” in which these elements are conceived so differently as to render their atomistic nature invalid.)
Committing a horrible injustice to the legacy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, I’ll summarize his idea of a “language-game” very briefly. The key notion is that he rejects his previous claim that all language can be reduced to a single logical pattern, and that naming—a stable relationship between signifier and signified—is the fundamental activity of all language. Learning a language is to learn “a way of life” — the many ways in which words are used are learned culturally. Human communication is a living system of rules and procedures that we learn through inference and adapt in our daily interactions. He also compares language to a city, each regional tongue being akin to a suburb or district. The important thing is that the blueprint can change: there can be renovations, and more importantly, additions. The powder keg he set off in linguistics is one I believe should have been detonated long ago in discussions of music.
It should come as no surprise that an attempt to formally define music could never claim to be entirely empirical and universal. A popular platitude is to say that “music is the language of the soul” — fine, but what do you mean by “language,” and what do you mean by “soul?” In some cultures, the notion of an individual soul expressing anything it wants (e.g. subjective experience, emotions, desires) is absurd or unacceptable. There are cultures in which the “soul” expressing itself is a collective soul, and the “language” it speaks is strictly a ceremonial or religious one. We think of Western civilization as being so far away from these “exotic,” ritualistic cultures, but our concept of culture as an interaction among autonomous individuals is not universal. Even our metaphor of the mind as a computational machine is, in a sense, culturally contingent. In a survey on cultural neuroscience of the self, Kitayama (2010) beautifully describes culture as an “eco-symbolic environment… both constructing and being constructed by the mind…” The view here is that the mind isn’t so much a blank slate as a toolbox furnished by our ancestors with which we can sculpt our meanings and abstractions to navigate the blank slate that is our world. A corny postcard quoting Bertolt Brecht captured it more succinctly: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” (Someone later used the “hammer” of postcard art to shape Brecht’s dictum into kitsch.)
And we can see traces of Western culture’s former ceremonial and hierarchical nature today. The wedding song taken from a Wagner opera. The “badum-tsh!” on a snare drum, sardonically marking the end of a punch-line. Classical music that was composed for royal courts. Even dance music can be said to be “ceremonial” when played in public (think of how many times you’ve heard someone say, “I’d never listen to this on my own, but it’s fun to dance to it at the club”). Only now that we have the technology and social structure do we observe people listening to music in public even though no one else can hear it. We might as well consider noise-cancelling headphones to be the perfect symbol for our century’s zeitgeist. Being a person meant something different 200 years ago than it did now. Back then, music was made for a whole community — now, a lot of it is made just for you. A way of music is a way of life.
Another important aspect of these “games,” if the comparison of music to Wittgenstein’s language-games can remain consistent, is that they would not exist without someone else to participate in the communication. That is, just as language’s overarching purpose is to communicate ideas from one individual to another, music likewise cannot be conceived of in complete isolation. When we make music, even when we make it in our bedrooms alone or in a cabin on a remote mountaintop, we always presuppose an audience, even if we’re not aware of it. Music is always made for someone else. This could be called the “private music argument”—the idea that music could not logically exist in a species with a single member.
Imagine that somehow a single human being existed in complete isolation from the rest of the species. Perhaps his parents abandoned him in the wilderness, or he was the sole survivor of a species-eradicating disaster. Would this human make music? Could he even imagine the concept of music without sensory input to shape this concept? It seems he couldn’t, but maybe he would accidentally discover whistling, experiment with humming or clicking his tongue. Would it ever occur to him to use this sound in a systematic way so that it could represent something other than mere sound in itself? Still, part of us imagines that he would, and he probably would: studies have shown that fetuses pick up on sonic input from their mothers (one of many possible sources here), so newborns are already familiar with statistical patterns of their culture’s sound. Fine, let’s be even more hypothetical: his mother was a deaf-mute, and she was held in a confined prison cell during her pregnancy, and then the entire human race was obliterated, leaving the newborn as the sole survivor. Would he make sounds for any purpose other than as primitive expressions of hunger, pain, distress — in short, merely physiological reactions? It seems implausible that this implausible human would display even as much communicative intent as a bird or a monkey. What if one day he were to pick up a hollowed-out stick and notice that a certain pitch resounds in it when the wind blows through it: would he start playing notes? Would he discover melody? Maybe he would hear melodies in birdsong and start imitating them. The birds would hear his imitation and chirp back, and so forth — he might then create music, but it would be with the intention of communicating with birds. Cultural “games” need more than one player; no art or language is the equivalent of solitaire.
…just because there’s no public interpretation doesn’t preclude a public way to engage with it. When you see the look on another audience member’s face after you’ve both heard indescribable sounds, and you return that look, you both want to say, “We’ve come so close to each other, yet we feel more alone than ever.”
We arrive at another unimpressive truism: music is made and interpreted according to various cultural dialogues which we are either participating in and take as a given, or are foreign to and therefore at a loss to understand. “When I obey a rule, I do not choose. I obey the rule blindly.” (Philosophical Investigations, Section 219). I hesitate to make any normative claim about the benefits of exposing oneself to a diversity of cultural dialogues simply because I am not an ethicist and have no idea how to propose them. But all the same I think that the merits of not being aesthetically limited are so abundant in our discussions of the arts that we can assume them to be a safe bet. However, I will add that I am not simply advocating for a false sense of “diversity” that privileged urbanites enjoy when they simply pick and choose from a pre-approved list of status symbols. I can imagine a thoughtless hipster who, eager to show that he is not allied with “the oppressors,” i.e. not entrenched in white culture, reads on another white person’s blog that, to make a long story short, funk music is cool. They go out, buy a few Parliament and Chuck Brown records, and pat themselves on the back for being so cultured and progressive.
Why do I not consider this true diversity? I’m not denying that it’s a step in the right direction, but you can hardly call it adventurous, free-spirited, or anti-hegemonic — It’s a cop-out, and a rather transparent one at that. Let’s explore this Parliament-Funkadelic example some more. Regardless of whether or not you have listened to any funk music, you are (assuming you grew up in an urban part of the United States) fairly familiar with the cultural dialogue. You’ve seen movies from the 70s, or at least movies imitating those movies from the 70s, with the auditory signifiers of syncopated wah-wah guitar and groovy bass-lines, visual signifiers of platform shoes and purple vests and big afros; you’ve read the paragraph in your high school history textbook about the Black Panthers, you know who James Brown is and what he’s proud of. You may have even seen the trailer for Shaft. In short, you have been told “what to hear” before you hear it. Of course, there is always more you can learn to engage in a different cultural context — you can read a book on the Black Power movement in the 70s, you can go see a live funk concert, learn to play slap-bass, and so on. But you are not engaging with a culture if you simply consume its products, because then you’re only enjoying it on your terms, that is to say, a predetermined schema for the aesthetic experience. You, the hypothetical yuppie, would educating yourself even more if, say instead of funk, you went out and bought a bluegrass record. At least that would expose you to rural culture instead of the urban! You still wouldn’t learn much unless you read the liner notes, or traveled to the Appalachians, soaked in the hillbilly culture, etc. If you simply listen with an undiscerning ear, you are more likely to judge the music on your own terms, thinking of it as a mere exemplar of a familiar stereotype. Likewise, if you are from a small-town rural area, I can imagine you being educated by an urban mode of expression such as funk music, and this exposure to a foreign “music-game” would be beneficial, but not as much as it would with proper contextualization.
Diversity isn’t non-white; it’s non-you. It’s stepping as far outside of yourself as possible and then coming back to find yourself thinking in new ways. It’s broadening your perspective with that of others, broadening your world to include more of its manifold possibilities.
I encourage you to try listening to something with which you have no frame of reference whatsoever — as I mentioned, Indonesian gamelan music, or Andean folk songs (and the appropriation of their aesthetic in 20th century Chilean protest songs), or Saharan blues, or Indian raga, or Son Jarocho, Moh-lam from northern Thailand, Gregorian chants, liturgical music of the Gnawa, et cetera ad infinitum. (I say “or,” but I really mean “and,” since there’s no reason not to explore as much as possible.) You would have no grounds upon which to stereotype the music, to assimilate it into your own cultural context. Your best efforts would be mere caricature or blatant falsehood. To understand it, you would have to do some research and learn about some of the rules to their “games.” Few people make such an effort, most likely because the vast majority of us feel that this undermines the legitimacy of our own culture — if someone’s way of life is incomprehensible to you, then your way of life must be incomprehensible to them, naturally. But if you derive the “legitimacy” of your culture from the assumption that it exists a priori, this suggests some deep-rooted insecurities you may want to address before you consider appraising other cultures.
So there’s my argument for not being culturally myopic. I’d like to move on to the main discussion: subversive music, and from there, experimental music.
Here I should add another clarification on the analogy with Wittgenstein’s language-games. To qualify this system of games as logically incomplete, he not only compares language to an expanding city, but also asks us to consider how we define a “game” — is it something you play on a board? Well, what about dodgeball? Something you play to win or lose? That excludes most make-believe games people play as children — even the original Pokémon games for Gameboy didn’t have any final adversary beyond the game itself. What about never-have-I-ever, spin-the-bottle, two truths and a lie? By asking us to think of the variety of activities we call games, the philosopher’s aim was to refute his earlier idea that language had a reducible, unifying logical structure to it.
If there’s anything that is common to all games it is that we’re supposed to enjoy them. Where does this general, motivating enjoyment come from? Why do we enjoy kicking a ball across a space, or playing a note, when we could be doing something more conducive to our survival instead?
I once overheard George Chen, of the Bay Area noise-improv duo Chen Santa Maria, explaining to someone what was interesting about specifically “noise” or “experimental” music, but his statement applies to anything. “There’s just something about how the human brain is able to make patterns out of things it experiences.” When we engage in a communal “game,” we create patterns out of otherwise inconsequential, patternless things — anything from vocal utterances, to nearby Volkswagens (punch-buggy-no-punch-back!), to the trajectory of a round ball.
It seems to me that every work of art contains all the counterfactuals positing its nonexistence, and its “greatness” or “beauty” or whatever quality by which we judge its aesthetic merit is simply the triumph of its existence over the logical possibility and historical verity of its nonexistence. Patterns are presented and asserted to refute the lack of patterned experience; sometimes the listener is challenged to find a pattern where there appears to be none, but mostly these patterns are known by tradition.
I should also note a feeling that arises when I listen to any music I enjoy, whether it be free jazz or punk rock or opera, that this music in a way refuses to acknowledge the inevitability of its destruction — that is, its ultimate irrelevance in the face of eternity, the eventual annihilation of our solar system when the sun goes supernova and fries us all. Did John Coltrane care that one day the sweet notes of his saxophone will be forgotten, that the physical preservation of his sound will one day be swept into the void of oblivion? Did Greg Ginn ever stop to consider, when writing the anti-cop polemic “Police Story,” that Western civilization will one day crumble, and people thousands of years in the future may hear it and have no idea what the word “police” means at all?
So a work of art, at least the kind I appreciate, asserts its existence with indifference towards the distant future, and glib triumph over the past.
For me, this is what fundamentally guides the appreciation of art. When I enjoy an aesthetic object, I rejoice in its existence — I am glad that it exists and makes the world a more interesting place. We can easily imagine the world without Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, and indeed, the world was existing just fine before it was recorded and produced. But then, over the course of several weeks in 1969, this nonexistence was irrevocably refuted. When I first heard that album (and really, any other album I’ve ever loved) and was astounded by its cool, mystical beauty, part of what was going on in my mind was my sheer amazement that it existed: although I had not known of its existence, despite that, it had existed all the while, and now I was being confronted with its undeniable existence, and what a confrontation! What an existence! Think of a piece of music (or art) you have found to be jaw-droppingly amazing. By jaw-droppingly I mean that you had never heard anything like it, and you felt that it irrevocably changed your life with every mind-warping note. Perhaps you were thinking to yourself, if not consciously then at least implicitly, “Holy shit! I can’t believe I had never considered the possibility that this could exist! And how wonderful that it does exist!” The manifest-actuality of this incredible possibility smacked you in the face, and you felt that the world was better for it.
One could argue that great art populates our world with realized possibilities, and that, furthermore, the measure of its greatness, or at least its uniqueness (a common but unessential trait of great art) is the incongruence between how implausible or unexpected it seems to us, and how much we rejoice at the fact that it exists nonetheless.
This could even be a reliable measure of relatively unoriginal music that manages to be good anyway. To take an example from recent times, the latest Neil Young & Crazy Horse album, Psychedelic Pill, which doesn’t sound particularly unique by the standards Neil Young has previously set: it’s the same kind of chord progressions, long guitar solos, crooning harmonies, and so on. We could easily have imagined a Neil Young album sounding somewhat like it — but it catches us by surprise because it’s still so damn good, it takes that old standard to new extremes! I, for one, could not have imagined the songs to be that long, that epic, to be just as moving as they were. In contrast, take the critically panned piece of garbage that was the recent Lou Reed & Metallica collaboration, Lulu. It was a strange sounding album for both parties, with Metallica’s directionless jams plodding unremarkably behind Reed’s spoken-word rambling. Granted, the musical character of that album was beyond the realm of most people’s imagination, but I’m sure the majority of us (except those lemmings at Rolling Stone, who manage to find something praiseworthy in everything that isn’t) could have easily imagined it being almost as bad as it was — though even then, the world at large was appalled by just how incredibly awful it actually was.
Simply not liking something is when you aren’t especially interested in its existence. This is where true subjectivity lies, and where normative talk makes little sense. Disliking it, however, is when you find its very existence reprehensible and offensive, and this is where you can have true disagreement.
But I digress. I plan to address this topic in much more detail later on, but I can sum up my reasons to contempt for contemporary mainstream pop music in saying that I think it insults my intelligence, and yours as well. Given the above criteria for aesthetic merit, I think it has none at all. I specify contemporary mainstream pop music for two reasons, which I will explain with examples: (1) The Ramones are undoubtedly a pop band, but they were still viewed as innovative because they did something radically unique, and though they may be a “mainstream” household name now, they certainly weren’t for most of their career, as they never had a chart-topping hit. (2) The Beatles were the epitome of a mainstream pop band, but for somehow, they still managed to not just be good, but unbelievably good, and it was only when they got tired of being such a phenomenal pop band that they began to experiment and become an experimental rock band.
But there’s something fishy about the state of pop music these days, perhaps due to the consolidation of corporate media outlets (there are exponentially less record labels and TV/radio corporations than there were scarcely thirty years ago): now it’s all sterile, indistinguishable, uncreative. I defy anyone to find me something genuinely unique and creative going on in pop music today — something that isn’t an assimilation of something formerly non-corporate, such as the so-called “indie” fad nowadays that makes a mockery of the original abbreviation of the word “independent.” I challenge anyone to find something in the Billboard Top 40 charts of which they can truly say, “this was totally out of the realm of my imagination until I heard it.” There’s so much that has yet to be imagined, so much to be created that will take us completely by surprise — major record labels, are you telling me that Lady Gaga is the best you can do? When once we had Bob Dylan and The Band, now we have Mumford & Sons? We once had Billie Holiday, and now you give us Beyoncé? I’m calling bollocks on this one.
Rules are comforting; they help us make sense of things; they make us feel that we’re not alone, and that someone out there understands us because we share some common ground. But if you choose to wander outside of your cultural context, out into the obscure and senseless wilderness full of unthinkable patterns, you never know what you might find…
I have come close to losing friendships over this issue. No matter how I try to explain it, people won’t hesitate to interpret this criticism as just an ad-hominem attack, not only an attack on their subjective tastes but on every experience they’ve ever had with music they enjoy, on their right to enjoy anything at all. They think I’m putting myself on a pedestal and condemning them for being ignorant while praising myself for being oh-so-wise. Nothing could be further from the truth! If they could only see that I’m disagreeing with the music, not with them. This is why I had to preface this essay with that awkward apologetic remark. But I am offended by the aesthetic standards that mainstream music implicitly imposes on us, on the notion that the line between art and commerce has been rendered meaningless because if all art can be commodified, and all entertainment is a commodity, there must be no distinction between the two. I simply think that it is more rewarding to be entertained by art than to find art in entertainment. And it is only because I care about you, my friends, that it pains me to see you so casually accept the increasingly myopic and homogeneous cultural products of the “mainstream” just because they are more readily available. I would not challenge you, readers and friends, if I did not think we all could do better.
We need to refine our language, because I can’t think of many more examples. These expectations could easily be led astray: I find Strauss waltzes to be generally uninspired, but they were meant for ballrooms, not the concert halls where I heard them while sitting down. Teach me how to waltz, give me a dance partner, then maybe I can appreciate a waltz on its own terms. But play it to a seated audience, and they will expect something sublime.
A good friend of mine has an absolutely atrocious taste in music by my standards — top 40 tunes, Nashville cheeseball patriotic country music, you name it. He’ll dance drunkenly to it with unabashed joy. When I asked him how he felt about a particular artist’s monotonous sound, he said, “look, this stuff? This is like going to In-N-Out. This is like drinking Coors instead of classy wine. You just never get tired of it, and you know why? Because you know exactly what you’re going to get. Meat and potatoes, man.” He’s right, and I admire him for his honestly. He doesn’t set his expectations too high, and he’s satisfied. He’s never looking for “art,” and he’s not bothered when he doesn’t find it.
Let me say it now, once and for all, maybe as clearly as I can ever be: in theory, I have nothing against pop music, or corresponding forms of superficial entertainment in other media, or anything against the widespread enjoyment of it, or against anyone who enjoys it. What I do object to is the common over-generalization whereby audiences apply the shallow expectations of jubilant entertainment to works that operate in a more complex sociocultural context — a totally different “game” if you will. Conversely, I am indignant when pure pop entertainers pretend that their product should be evaluated on its aesthetic merits when there are none to speak of, and when their audiences follow suit and think that something is inspiring just because the rhythm makes them want to dance or because the auto-tuned vocals sound particularly sexy. Please, keep your expectations separate — I think both your entertainment and aesthetic experiences will benefit from it! You’ll be pleasantly surprised if a pop song suddenly says something profound, or if a serious, artistic film has a joke that lightens your mood. But until then, so-called serious art will continue to seem like a chore to you, and commercial entertainers will continue to win awards that masquerade as artistic recognition when they are no more than multi-millionaire Employee of the Month plaques.
If you don’t experience a piece of music within the rules of its particular “music-game,” any enjoyment you get is unintended, an evocation of your primal instincts. Music that breaks rules aims for that enjoyment by disorienting you, wiping the culture from your eyes and bringing you an unassimilated feeling, an experience without public labels. It’s so fascinating, delightful really, when artists play with our expectations, testing the limits and rules of these “games” — Marcel Duchamp’s urinal is proof enough of that. Signing his name on the piece would have meant nothing if it had stayed in the bathroom; but as soon as he brought it to display, its expectations changed. The situation was one in which specific aesthetic expectations were set, and that alone was enough to make people consider Duchamp a very silly man. Similarly, violin virtuoso Joshua Bell could sell out Carnegie Hall and pluck Grammies out of the Grammy tree with ease, but when he performed at a DC metro station for free, hardly anyone stopped and listened. Different setting, same art — or rather: different game, same game pieces.
So what makes music subversive? The answer seems obvious: music that rejects the status quo, challenges traditional values, reverses the social hierarchy, criticizes the legitimacy of the establishment — I could rephrase this countless ways. But given my earlier discussion of cultural discourse, we can consider the question in a new way. Perhaps subversive music is simply a kind of music that reappropriates established “music-games” and uses them to “talk” about different things. New things, scary things, hidden things, suppressed things. Why was punk rock considered subversive? Why did the Pinochet regime cut off Victor Jara’s hands within a month of the coup? Why did Bob Dylan sing at the March on Washington? Why did the audience riot at the premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring?”
We can think of these examples as breaking the rule of a “music-game” while the game is still being played. It is the equivalent of turning around and throwing the soccer ball in your own goalie’s face — or, maybe more aptly, like running to home plate before the baseball has been pitched. It’s a spirit that is more accepted in art than it is in sports, because despite what your gym teacher told you, sports players often care more about winning than they care about having fun. Subversive artists want to achieve some kind of goal outside of the game rather than victory within the game. Instead of being successful, widely recognized musicians of their genre, they would rather make a point.
Thus, punk took the rules of rock music and stripped them down, trading off flair for aggression in order to deliver a blow square in the face of authority. Rock and roll borrowed the rules of rhythm and blues, bringing them to a white audience and using it to bring audiences into a sexual frenzy that was previously thought to be inappropriate for the dominant classes. Black Sabbath took the blues-rock format, turned their amplifiers up to Hendrixian volumes, and played it too slow and heavy for dancing to create heavy metal. Bebop warped swing melodies with extended harmonies, sped them up so no one could dance to them (they took the same playing pieces, adapted them to a different board game). Napalm Death, Repulsion got tired of punk and metal, so they blended them at such insane speeds that you could barely hear the chords, only feel the raw aggression—grindcore was born. Fela Kuti combined African-American funk and British psych-rock with traditional rhythms to create ecstatic dance music at a time when a devastating civil war had left Nigeria without many reasons to dance. There are countless more examples.
To continue with the example of punk, many punk bands have gained notoriety by expanding the definitions of “punk,” breaking the conventional rules of the genre: Flipper slowed it down, Minutemen funked it up, DRI made it metallic, and No Trend turned punk’s nihilism against itself.
There’s a problem, of course. In using preconceived “music-games” to reject cultural values, you are still implicitly accepting superordinate values that dictate how these “games” are organized. We see evidence of this in both positive and negative ways. There are punk bands that sound generic because they adhere to a verse-chorus-bridge formula, while others reject any notion of melody, steady tempo, or studio production in a clear effort to invert these aesthetic values (compare The Exploding Hearts to Disorder to get a sense of this spectrum). Still, we can imagine the possibility of this inversion becoming the new standard, and the next wave of subversive music returning to the previous norm in an act of double-defiance. (I get the impression that modern “indie-pop” has this mentality — rejecting the raw aggression that we readily expect of so-called “alternative” music and return to squareness with defiance.) Ultimately, the more you distance yourself from a culture’s “art-games,” the lower the chances that your work can be assimilated into the ever-encroaching cultural context you attempt to reject. Punk rock severely underestimated this probability. Old punk rockers who were “there back in the day” shed tears at the sight of commercial pseudo-punk fashion, assimilating prior expressions of dissent into accessories for creating a publicly accepted image of dissent with widely recognized iconography. But say, Throbbing Gristle for example, aimed for — and, in my opinion, achieved — a much lower probability of eventual commodification.
Given that we can never “step outside of” our own sociocultural perspective, how can we turn a critical eye to it? I propose that it is possible to do so by being subversive via form rather than content — by addressing not just what is presented, or how it is presented, but by addressing specifically what qualifies as “content” via syntax, not just semantics. For example, composer La Monte Young says of his experimentation: “One of the aspects of form that I have been very interested in is stasis — the concept of form which is not so directional in time, not so much climactic form, but rather form which allows time to stand still.” This aptly sums up the central premise of drone music, which is that the spatiotemporal parameters of music can and should be tested to its limits, and that the listener should be encouraged to appreciate sound “in stasis” rather than expecting constant, fluid movement via immediately perceptible movement in time.
What does this difference amount to? It’s great to say that you hate your government if you have genuine grievances, but if you do so within culturally predetermined ways, eventually those statements are just going to be assimilated back into the status quo. How else could most generations after Guthrie’s never know the scathing rebuke of capitalism in “This Land Is Your Land?” This is what’s going on when many underground bands are accused of “selling out,” and it’s what many anarchist punk bands found so objectionable about The Clash’s commercial success. It’s the reason bringing the electric guitar into a jazz group was so radical in the 60s, but now a guitar playing a melody in octaves is a recognizable smooth-jazz cliché. It explains Corbett Redford’s experience, who told me in an interview while touring with Bobby Joe Ebola & the Children MacNuggits, of all the jocks and popular people at his high school prom dancing violently to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” shortly after the song became a hit. “It was like going against the grain had become… the grain,” he reminisced.
When John Cage composed a 4-minute 33-second piece of “silence” (to reduce it to silence is to miss the piece’s subtleties), or when Frank Zappa wrote songs of mind-boggling complexity, or when Albert Ayler screeched maniacally on his saxophone (to name just three of countless other examples), their subversion was more fundamental, but ultimately more oblique. When you question and experiment with art through a directly accessible process, the trade-off is that the subversive quality will be ephemeral. In contrast, when you criticize abstract ideas in a fundamental way, you sacrifice the possibility that a wide audience will interpret your intentions clearly at all. Sometimes that’s precisely the point. I’m sure many free jazz musicians are not bothered that many who listen to them feel disturbed or unsettled by their dissonance. I can’t imagine Stravinsky being too surprised that his composition was met with such outrage. I’m not saying that experimental music should strive to alienate most of its audience — that would be an unacceptably elitist claim, akin to the “you just don’t get it, maaan” defense. A co-worker in a volunteer organization once argued against the value of experimental music using the “you catch more bees with honey” argument, which I find so misguided that I plan on refuting this argument in more detail in a future article. In principle, he’s not wrong, but if all art attempted to seduce its audience through flattery, I doubt Western music would have advanced much farther than Handel. Some sensitive toes will be stepped on, but that is the only way progress will be made, one inch at a time.
But really, all music can be experimental. Just take a look at how often the prefix “avant-” is used (from the French “avant-garde,” the front guard) — there’s avant-rock, avant-jazz, avant-metal — in almost every genre, there are musicians who have the gall to try new forms of expression, not just to break a few rules of their “music-game,” but try to make up their own game as they go along. In a weird way, there’s a striking similarity between noise musicians and toddlers in a sandbox. They’re constantly asking, “What if I do this? And then that? Let’s pretend this thing is X and that thing is Y — what fun things could I do to make them interact?” From this, we get Godzilla fighting GI Joe on the moon, and we get Jackson Pollock, all because someone wanted to play their own game.
And that’s why I think experimental music appeals to me so much. Ideally, its sole defining quality is that it creates and/or engages in different “music-games” than those accepted by our community. Find me a piece by Cage, or Oren Ambarchi, or Antonio Russek, or Pauline Oliveros, etc. — find me one that makes sense to people in a publicly interpretable way. There is, it seems, no agreed-upon way to interpret a Merzbow piece than to simply lie down and let it baffle you. This much is evident whenever one reads a review of a Merzbow release: the reviewer simply tries to describe the listening experience subjectively, but there is no systematic way to describe it, there is no standard way to critique noise music—no scales, harmonies, or conventional forms. Sure, you can talk about technical methods, mention “circuit-bending” or “white noise” or what have you, but as Wittgenstein might say, you’d simply be describing the physical pieces of the board game and trying to reverse-engineer the rules of the game, assuming there are any to begin with.
And just because there’s no public interpretation doesn’t preclude a public way to engage with it. When you see the look on another audience member’s face after you’ve both heard indescribable sounds, and you return that look, you both want to say, “We’ve come so close to each other, yet we feel more alone than ever.” I think there’s a value to learning how to share without sharing, so to speak, merging the private and the public, forging new epistemic bonds with the world.
This may be a privileged ideal, from a Maslowian perspective. After all, many humans can barely afford a bowl of rice, much less a John Cage album. But should this sort of freewheeling aesthetic self-actualization be available only to those who can’t meet more basic needs? I think the ubiquity of music suggests that we humans require only very basic needs before we start imagining patterns and possibilities. I think most people, in their rare optimistic moments, have thought, “if everyone had fair access to food, healthcare, and art… wouldn’t everything else just fit into place after that?”
Here in the “First World,” odds are you’ve got decent access to the first two. As for the latter, it often depends on how big your cubicle is, or how far you wander out of it, so to speak. Here at Decoder, our goal is simply to highlight a few sounds we’ve enjoyed that transport us out of our dorm room, jail cell, crack den, etc.
I’m not saying you need to listen to weird noise or drone music like I do. I’d encourage you to try it, though—you never know, you might like it. I didn’t at first, but it’s an acquired taste*, and I think all that really means is that you have to be willing to play a cultural “game” in which there are no hard-and-fast rules. People can be intimidated by this, and that’s understandable. Rules are comforting; they help us make sense of things; they make us feel that we’re not alone, and that someone out there understands us because we share some common ground. But if you choose to wander outside of your cultural context, out into the obscure and senseless wilderness full of unthinkable patterns, you never know what you might find, but I’d wager you wouldn’t end up alone. At the very least, you might find yourself—and that’s nothing to be afraid of. In the spirit of anyone who has ever experimented with anything, the justification seems universal. The Cuban jazz bassist Cachao said it best in the titular refrain of his group’s raucous studio jam:
* It’s interesting that our talk of artistic preferences is metaphorically represented by “taste.” Lakoff & Johnson’s fascinating book, Philosophy in the Flesh (2010), argues that humans create abstract concepts by metaphorically relating subjective experience with sensory perception. Thus, we relate “more” with “up” by seeing the quantity of water rise in a cup. So maybe we relate aesthetic preferences with the experience of eating food. It’s even more obvious in Spanish, in which the word for “like” is “gustar,” an obvious reference to the gustatory sense. We talk about art and food in similar, but not identical ways—“try it, you’ll like it!” “I developed a taste for it over time.” “This is only for people with a peculiar taste.”—But with food, we can say, “It may not taste good, but it’s good for you.” We can say, “I’m hungry, I want more.” Can we say the same of art? Food for thought.