12 June 2009

Pathologies: Pleasure

One of the most pervasive fallacies about "modernist" or "atonal" music is the idea that the people who write it and listen to it are masochists, that they do so out of some kind of aural perversion or love of pain. There's a profoundly flawed conception of normality at the heart of such assumptions, one that takes the language of common practice tonality to be the single aurally nutritious alternative (sounds good and good for you).

There's equal folly inherent in such overly broad sayings as, "Everyone listens to music for the same reason," or, "There are two kinds of music: good and bad." Nonetheless, while I'm not foolish enough to think that there are no true musical masochists out there whatsoever, I don't think that it is in any way a stretch to assert that fans of atonality as group most typically find their favorite music to be "beautiful" (or if that term is too stigmatized at this point, at the very least, we might say "pleasurable" to listen to in some way). Given the low overall rate of true masochism in the general population (musical or otherwise), it would be odd if this were not the case. And given the wide stylistic variety of music that the world has now seen, who is anyone to impose their own conception of normality on an entire musical tradition?

This is just the most visible example of what I find most frustrating when it comes to talking about music, namely when opinion becomes ensconced as fact simply by virtue of how many people share it. When the terms and boundaries of the discourse are set merely by the "lowest common denominator" of taste and experience, it's no surprise that name-calling ends up standing in for rational thought. There are a few pieces of music out there that were intentionally constructed to be annoying, or even torturous, to just about anyone; there are also a few which have succeeded at this entirely unintentionally; and of course, there are also those works which seem to be universally adored, lacking a single detractor the world over. In none of these cases, however, can we assume that these opinions are universally shared, and as such, they make poor candidates on which to base dismissing an entire body of work as mere pathology.

10 June 2009

Pathologies: Autodidacticism

The stigmatization of the autodidact may not be unique to the field of composition, but the field of composition certainly has a unique way of stigmatizing autodidacts. I've often been the first one to come to their defense, if for no other reason than that I (marginally) count myself as one. Nonetheless, I often ask myself if there is really any such thing as a self-taught composer in the first place. I've learned so much about structure, harmony, and orchestration just by playing music (to say nothing of listening) that I sometimes don't feel the autodidact label is even appropriate, either in the sense that it implies general unstudiedness, or in the sense that anyone comes about these things purely through self-discovery. My discomfort with the label is only intensified by the experience of working with "real" autodidacts, who identify me immediately and intensely as an academic product, which I am in most every other way.

As a younger person, I held in high regard the elusive (and ultimately implausible) idea of "pure" creativity, free from any influence of any kind, and rebelled intently against the idea of embracing overt musical influences. As time has gone on, I've had an easier time accepting the idea of synthesis, in part simply by having heard more music*. Not only does this greater depth of experience make it easier to hear the myriad threads of influence in particular areas of music much more clearly than before, but it also leads naturally to the realization that the more varied the sources, the less overtly the synthesized product betrays any one of them to the listener (I say "naturally" because the difference is obvious when I look back at my very earliest efforts and compare them to more recent ones; hearing them now in all their derivative splendor, it's no wonder I was so insecure about influences). Conversely, so-called "pure" creativity is implausible because it requires that one not be aware of any other music at all, and as such, unaware that the phenomenon of music exists in the first place. Anyone who gets around to writing music at all has undeniably learned something beforehand, but whether they taught it to themselves per se is debatable.

You may not be any more original than you were before, but a greater number of sources at least makes you sound that way. It's a bit of a paradox, but learning to live with it is a crucially important part of composition. I certainly didn't reach this conclusion in a lesson, but I wouldn't go as far as to say that I taught it to myself either.

*As an aside, I feel it's worth mentioning also what a powerful negative influence it has been to come across self-promoting nutcase after self-promoting nutcase claiming to be doing something original when all too often they end up sounding not just a little bit derivative, but extremely so. Once it became impossible to imagine myself getting far enough away from my influences to feel comfortable acting that way myself, I decided that there was no reason to anyway. (To qualify that last statement just slightly, I still very much believe in the values of "creative" music, whatever that is, over authenticity fetishism and revivalism. I think that there's a strong case to be made in its favor, and definitely have some unfavorable things to say about the most particularly non-creative people out there, even if they're not avid self-promoters, but that will have to wait for another time.)

04 June 2009

Pathologies: The Emotions

I'm not ashamed to admit that the primary reason I can't stand most popular music and opera is its supposed emotional content. It actually makes me very uncomfortable to hear someone "pouring their heart out" in the way that many vocalists in these styles aim (and are trained) to do.

The standard line from contemporary pop musicology is that people like me are sociopaths who suppress our own emotions (or have none) and lack the ability to accurately interpret and respond to the emotions of others. Nonetheless, we should ask what it means for such outpourings be taken for granted as merely part of the style. Emotion is no less an animal survival instinct than pain is, whether that be the love between mother and child, or the fear of that lion over there, and though the mechanism by which we come to feel an emotion may be less well understood (either scientifically by others, or even by way of our own self-awareness), it is as practical an attribute as any of our motor or sensory functions, and we've evolved accordingly (sorry creationists, I used up all the egalitarianism I'm able to muster on this issue in the last post).

Hence, as with pain, there's a certain shallowness in appealing to emotional extremes simply to get people's attention. And as with painfully loud music gradually dulling the aural faculties of career soundmen and rock guitarists over the years, I simply have to marvel at the emotional numbness it must take to stomach the more extreme displays of pathos, anger and ecstasy we've been conditioned to expect from the divas.

Perhaps I'm giving them too much credit by putting it that way; many observers past and present have made careers nitpicking about the subtleties of expression in vocal performance and their varying degrees of effectiveness. Then again, what does it matter whether they're effective or not? My problem is not that I can't face emotion, but that I can't stomach artifice. I struggle mightily with the willful suspension of disbelief, this being manifested in my extreme and willful ignorance of literary fiction, theater and cinema. Typically, when it comes to vocal performance, I feel like I'm just watching some poor sap flailing about making faces and using waaaay too much vibrato. That, I think, is more at the heart of my abhorrence for such things than any sort of emotional pathology that might exist.

But getting back to the latter topic, I would ask who can encounter a person crying over the loss of a loved one and not become sad themselves? Who can be surrounded by people laughing hysterically and not let out a chuckle themselves? Emotion is contagious, unless of course you're immune. Neuroscientists call them mirror neurons, but you don't have to be a neuroscientist to have experienced the phenomenon for yourself. The age-old saying about "He who laughs last..." is perhaps the most obvious example.

It confounds me how anyone can listen to a vocalist heaping emotions on top of emotions and not emerge completely frazzled, whether that be a matter of "getting it" and becoming overcome with emotions of their own, or of not "getting it" and being frightened by the artifice of it all. It makes me very uncomfortable to walk in on someone's nervous breakdown, or breakup, or shouting match, or worse yet, their utter failure to put one or more of those things to song.

Of course, one possible explanation as to how people are able to endure these experiences is that pop music listeners tend to experience music almost exclusively as ambient sound and rarely as the primary target of their available attention, whether that be in the car, on the dance floor, or at parties, and that it hence takes much more total content for anything whatsoever to register (in other words, it's once again akin to merely turning up the volume). Failing that, I'm left to wonder if they're the sociopaths and not me, people who have either been fed a bad imitation for so long that they no longer recognize the real thing, or who have been desensitized to it by way of hyper-immersion, their capacity for empathy thus eroding over time like a session man's eardrums.

02 June 2009

Pathologies: Pain

There's a reason that extremely loud music hurts your ears: hearing is a survival skill. If you can't hear the car speeding down a blind alley (or the pack of lions descending on your cave), you're toast. Whether you believe in natural selection or intelligent design, it's obvious how a finely tuned auditory sense contributes to your safety and that its ability to do so is no mere coincidence. Very loud sounds may simply indicate danger in the form of whatever it is that's emitting them, but they also pose a threat to our ongoing ability to detect more subtle aural cues from sources that may be no less dangerous.

Appealing to such "animal instincts" is easy, whether by the direct infliction of physical pain or the mere visual display of a threat. Stick a knife in someone's face and tell them you are going to stab them and you will surely get their attention; follow through with the threat and you'll have an even better chance. In both cases, the sensation is intense enough that they simply can't ignore you. Also in both cases, however, you've been decidedly unsubtle in your approach when a simple tap on the shoulder would have sufficed.

Such is the modern day approach to sound reinforcement. Everyone seems intent on creating sounds loud enough to hurt, this being the only way to get the attention of an apathetic, over-saturated audience. Even at some venues where the audience sits and listens quietly, "deafening" is the default setting on the board. And many of the people who produce these shows have lost so much of their hearing this way over the years that they surely can't tell the difference anymore, creating a vicious cycle of ever-escalating volume.

Music that hurts is one thing; music that injures is quite another, especially when the very ability to hear is what's threatened. If you're looking for such excitement, I would think it would be both healthier and more exciting to seek out new sounds rather than merely gorging on the ones we already have.

Trust Is Earned

Regular readers (if I have any left) know that there are few blogospheric phenomena for which I have more contempt than the "link and run" post, and that the Postroll at right represents my somewhat imperfect attempt at a solution to that and a few other such social ills. Nonetheless, I can't resist directing your attention to this discussion of composing with notation software currently taking place chez Kyle Gann, who wonders aloud how wannabes like me will ever "learn to trust their inner ears." (the word "anguished" comes to mind, but I had better leave that one alone) Galen H. Brown's response in the comments is an excellent defense of, if not composing, then, well...whatever it is you do when you capture your ideas on a screen instead of a sheet of paper (see figure 1 below).

Fig. 1–Not a composition