Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Listening To The Enemy


St. Aldhelm’s Church in Branksome was an absolutely fine place for a gig on the 26th – although more a recital than a gig. We were there to hear a performance of some of John Lloyd’s work (somewhere in the region of Quartet For The End Of Time-era Messiaen, or Morton Feldman’s small-scale works), a string quartet by Ian Tippett (a vile pre-Bach Baroque concoction) and Terry Riley’s In C performed by the SNMC Ensemble. As periodically happens, I’ve been getting more and more into experimental music recently – recent purchases have included Pharaoh Sanders’ Karma, Krzysztof Penderecki’s Orchestral Works Vol. 1 and Symphony No. 7, Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, the Safehouse Collective’s Safehouse 1 and Kopinski and Konikiewicz’ Zone K (both picked up at the Unsafe Festival). But there was one that stopped me in my tracks – The Topography Of The Lungs by Evan Parker. The reason I paid a tenner (a substantial amount for a man who buys most of his books from charity shops) for this record was its, um, ‘reputation’. Well, it’s got Derek Bailey and Han Bennink – both giants in their field – on it, and it’s been called “a milestone of the free improvisation genre”, so what’s not to like? Except… I put it on, on the bus home from the second night of Unsafe, and it’s really quite bad. The first minute or so of the 20+ minute ‘Titan Moon’ sounds like a trio of drunks stumbling an alley stuffed with musical instruments, turning over trashcans in their search for food. After a couple of further attempts to ‘get’ it, I just left it on the shelf. And that really fucking irks me – not so much the wasted money, which isn’t exactly life-threatening, but the fact that I couldn’t enjoy it. Was it something wrong with me? Why is it I can like, say, Autechre, but not this?

And thinking today about In C, I remembered a comment Oliver made on my ‘digital vs. RL’ post: “I've always wondered if you can separate the immediate enjoyment that comes from just hearing a sound, with conscious interpretation/application into a kind of contextual analysis that adds another layer of meaning and possible enjoyment.” The first, and most obvious answer, would be, um, ‘maybe’: certainly, pop music couldn’t be listened to outside of its context, because, by its very nature, it refers outside itself to other things, other emotional states and sensations, to narrative and language. Pop music, essentially arising out of a folk art – European folk song, British ‘popular’ and music hall song, black American music forms – was stuff bound, from the beginning, to the substance of the everyday (and the fantasy of love that pervades pop music is very much earthbound in its mundanity); it existed in the context of an economic system deriving from everyday life, and the pop business was intimately connected to the real-world cut-and-thrust of capitalism (think of all those soul songs about not being able to pay the rent, or the record-on-Friday-out-by-Monday, maximum profit market machine of the big pop labels.) Pop music, produced according to the demands of the public-at-large, reaches out; its content demands a context. (Or at least it should. That’s what pop music is meant to do. If such a thing as abstract pop – pop without content that refers elsewhere – could exist, I’d conjecture it would be frightfully dull.)

The only music I can really imagine that could be enjoyed without context/interpretation would be incredibly abstract. It would have to avoid signification of any kind (both linguistic and musical), avoid directly referencing any other music, would have to do away with any of the things that mark out ‘music’ (rhythm, melody, tone, time divisions), and would have to abstract its sound sources away from any recognisability (so the sounds wouldn’t sound like they come from instruments). Music like this does, of course, exist: examples would include the work of Phill Niblock, La Monte Young, and Charlemagne Palestine (when he’s not getting all mystical). And whilst some of this might be, um, trying for listeners, certainly, for the right listener in the right mood, it could be (and is, for many people) very enjoyable. (Although listening to a Niblock track on headphones earlier did give me such a tension headache I had to stop it!)

But there’s an inherent problem with this: this is musical categorisation with the logic of endgame. This kind of music is descended from the ‘high culture’ lineage that runs from Western classical music, through 20th-century avant-garde-ism (Debussy, Futurism and Dada), to the post-Darmstadt schools of conceptual composition – a culture that operated according to the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’. Aesthetics are refined and sharpened, procedures changed, ideas explored and envelopes pushed; meanwhile, pop music continues on its merry (or, these days, not so merry) way – and never the twain shall meet. There’s a passage in Mark Sinker’s essay ‘The RISE and SPRAWL of HORRIBLE NOISE’ that chills the blood whenever I read it: “Announcing yourself the world’s most undeluded is merely an aggressive way of saying ‘I have no friends.’” Out of context, it sounds like a frightening personal attack, but (hopefully) he doesn’t (quite) mean it so schoolyard-literally: throughout, Sinker repeatedly attacks the notions of noise-as-attack-on-social-conformity and experimentalists-and-fans-as-wised-up-elite – and whilst Sinker, a Xenakis and Niblock fan, never states it, the accusation that all abstract and experimental art (and its fans) is/are socially and philosophically fucked-up hangs over the piece. If the only content-component of the ruthlessly abstract music I’m talking about is sound itself, and the only enjoyment to be got from it is “pure enjoyment of tune and timbre”, then doesn’t this correspond to exactly the kind of misanthrope cliquishness and solipsism that Sinker despises in noise?
A personal note: one of the reasons why that section of the essay – aside from Sinker adopting exactly the same killjoy position that he professes to hate in critics – so disgusts and scares me is its, um, relevance to me. (Hmm.) Let’s see: music obsessive; listens to ‘experimental’ music; extremely socially awkward; given to, ahem, ‘black moods’; has about as many regular friends as fingers – I would seem to tick all the boxes here. Then, of course, there’s Malachi Ritscher – immolated himself around this time last year, a free jazz obsessive, whose self-penned obituary mentioned that “He had many acquaintances, but few friends; and wrote his own obituary, because no one else really knew him.” And of course, there’s Lester Bangs – whose “anti-social, fuck-‘em-up humanism” (as Sinker puts it), misanthropy, solipsism and self-loathing gave his writing its force were also what probably killed him (“one of the things that helped kill Lester Bangs was WRITING… rockwriting was the genre that gored Lester… a diet of rock and nothing but had rendered him too dumb to get out of the way.” – Richard Meltzer.) Or, indeed, Meltzer himself, whose bitterness, finally let loose in the opening-of-the-floodgates that is ‘Vinyl Reckoning’ might just be the contours of “a self-reinforcing spiral of blindness, not to say meaning-drained madness”, at the dark heart of which he lives on, battered and stoic. Maybe Steven Jesse Bernstein as well, who actually made music (the Bomb Squad-meets-David Peace psychodrama, Prison) as well as writing about it, before killing himself in 1991. And the late Ian MacDonald, on whom Ian Penman wrote a brilliant and touching piece at The Pill Box: “No one, I'm sorry, but NO ONE commits suicide at his age over the state of the world… I also hear the sound of a lost and lonely man, lonely most of all perhaps, and maybe that was in truth truly what he couldn't take, the state of his own world… You can’t just live – ALONE – in your head.” (Incidentally, Penman’s own writing on the divide between enjoyment of pop and this kind of abstract music – “I listened - or tried to listen - to a 3-cd Phil Niblock set and it bored the arse straight out my dayglo Bermuda shorts” – is raucously funny. They really have to give him more free rein in The Wire­ – we need more ‘Black Secret Tricknology’s!) It’s there, again and again: the inability to ‘reach out’ and engage with the wider world, with its massive overabundance of stuff, good, amazing, shit or just bad. In this context, the question of whether you (or, as an appropriate substitute, I) can, or should be enjoying music which does not relate to outer life – the human world-at-large – on just such an abstracted level, is absolutely fucking life-or-death (a slow death, mind you, but a death nonetheless.)

‘B-b-but surely then we should burn all our Borbetomagus and Richard Youngs LPs, and save ourselves from eternal damnation?’, I hear you cry. I’m not so sure, actually – I doubt that every AMM CD floating around out there is a potential death-trap waiting to happen (if they were, The Wire’s readership would be precisely zero by now.) This is not just because it’s possible for experimental music, contrary to what Sinker seems to believe, to be emotionally engaging in and of itself, rather than simply stubbornly sitting in its own pool of abstraction and hate – take the work of David Thomas Broughton, on whom there will be more soon – but because there are experimental fans who engage with it as human beings, rather than the misanthropes and death-bores Sinker characterises them (and, hell, us) as. There’s more than enough of them knocking around the Plan B messageboard – where I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time these days – and, indeed, Plan B itself, even a few on The Wire. Listeners are as important as musicians: they complete the circuit; and the redemptive power of this kind of music lies precisely in its ability to be processed, as opposed to merely consumed. This may sound like a rockist argument for difficulty-as-opposed-to-hated-pop-simplicity, but that’s not it. While I find it near impossible to write about pop music – some of which I’ve found I really love – experimental music remains a thread to be forever unravelled, a ravine with depths to be forever plumbed. Sinker himself, along with Emmy Hennings, k-punk, Reynolds, Penman, Plan B’s kicking_k, Louis Pattison and Frances Morgan, and The Wire’s Joseph Stannard and Philip Sherburne, amongst others, have all proved it is possible, and are masters of the form, in my opinion. The current situation vis-a-vis music within the populous-at-large - increasingly becoming totally disposable, mere background noise - not only reinforces a deepening downward spiral of quality in pop music (as producers become less and less bothered with quality, figuring the public are making no real demands, and are nothing but chumps to take money from), but also the increasingly antagonistic mindset of certain of the avant-brigade, esp. the American tape-drone-noise underground. The opposite approach - a mixture of maddened over-consumption, fevered processing and deep contemplation, depending on quality and type - is the one I seem to have fallen into, am determined to keep up, and see as the best solution to such a situation. The opposite approach may even be that the process of writing about music comes from some quasi-‘innate’ (haha) to investigate and categorise experience, to explore, and interact with, and try to understand, the world around you; writing about experimental music is not merely a means of engaging, as opposed to passive listening. Writing, despite its practical dimensions, is never a solitary occupation, especially blogging (although it may feel that way much of the time); as Blanchot writes in ‘From Dread To Language’, “A writer who writes, ‘I am alone’… can be considered rather comical…. How can a person be alone if he confides to us that he is alone?’

2 Comments:

Blogger Brad said...

I know the feeling. I bought an all-star improv album recently (Signal Quintet) and I couldn't enjoy it either. This one sounded like furniture being moved while a pot of water boils.

I haven't read the Sinker essay yet, and I'm not as deeply interested in the history of music journalism as you are, but you can add me to the tally of experimental music nuts who are fairly miserable and antisocial much of the time. Though there is one thing that I don't see an answer to: How does one actually know if any given record is "pop" or "avant-garde", or if such a distinction even exists?

December 11, 2007 at 3:53 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

"like furniture being moved while a pot of water boils." LOLZ!

"How does one actually know if any given record is "pop" or "avant-garde", or if such a distinction even exists?" - The short is, um, I would have no idea. I was thinking here in terms of self-defined division into 'low' and 'high' culture, with 'pop' and 'avant-garde' fitting respectively. The important thing to remember is that this is self-defined, and so is not to be trusted. Also: there are many artists who (whether deliberately or not) straddle the divide, and scramble the division (I'm thinking Timbaland, Bjork, whoever wrote 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head' for Kylie, Charles Ives, Miles Davis, etc., etc., etc., etc. The list really does go on.) This would be an interesting topic to expand on.

December 12, 2007 at 1:51 PM  

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