Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Symbolism and Music

John Cage was not a fan of symbolism - at least if you believe what he said in the album Indeterminacy. He preferred to take things as they were rather than pretend they stood for something else. But, there's a distinction to be made between what is symbolism and a strange way of looking at something. Symbolism is putting a dog in a painting and saying it represents fidelity. There is an alternative, which is drawing a faithful dog.

The same thing can happen in music. You can compose a sheet of music that symbolizes a bird - you can make a C represent a the coo of a dove - or, you can just say that you composed a dove singing and it happens to be the note C. The difference probably lies in your intention; one is forcing an entity to take on the role of something else, the other is recognizing that in an entity exists this other thing. One is the idea of creation, the other is the idea of recognition. You can say that you were able to recreate some entity in another format, or you can say that you found this same sound here that you found over there. You can take credit for the action, or you can give credit to the sound. Or you can not worry about things like this. None of these options are better than the others.

The idea of hearing a dove singing the note C is recognizing an inter-connectedness between these things. The note C is never going to be a Dove, but you can realize that there is an intimate relationship between those two things. You can realize that with everything though.

One last note about this recognition thing: Capt. Beefheart did the something very similar when he produced the lyrics - "Fast and Bulbous - That's right, the Mascara Snake - Fast and Bulbous also tapered". This is not a symbol of a woman crying with her mascara streaking, it is a woman crying with mascara streaking. Capt. Beefheart happens to see those words are those things. Those words aren't representing that woman's face, they are that woman's face.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Do not concern youself with Music

Music is a game of looking at dead people. One looks at dead people and points out how they were influenced by other dead people and how they all built upon each other contributing to some grand ideal, which is Music. Then live people, people who are making sounds and trying to figure out Music, they are criticized and scrutinized without end and never receive the vindication of being called Music until they are dead people. The only way to win at being Music while still alive is to never try to make Music. And in those cases, it's probably not what you were going for anyways. It's really ironic that the more genuine an artist is, the more their work will be claimed for some other thing. And it's not that this is inherently a bad thing, but it must be frustrating at times to be Georgia O'Keefe.

And this isn't to deny tradition. Those things are culture and will lead to their own variants. Tradition is a better word for what I like about Music. Tradition, in whatever manifestation it has, will lead to expression of culture which is a powerful thing. Tradition is the development of a culture as interpreted by the participants in that culture. Music, as I have been taught it, is the preservation of dead culture at the expense of contemporary culture. This is where my cynicism comes from, and perhaps it is unfair. But, whenever I hear somebody decry some sound as not being Music I want less and less to participate in Music. They can have their special thing called Music, I will concern myself with that which makes up Music.

And this isn't to say that music is bad, just Music.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

World Listening Day is July 18th

Monday is the birthday of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, a founding figure in the discipline of sound ecology. In honor of Schafer, numerous organizations and individuals with an interest in sound ecology are observing World Listening Day by organizing soundwalks and other activities designed to heighten awareness of the audible world. Here is a randomly generated quote from Schafer's classic work The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, in which Schafer responds to Bishop Berkeley's familiar question about the sound of trees falling in forests:

"... as a matter of fact, when a tree crashes in a forest and knows that it is alone, it sounds like anything it wishes-- a hurricane, a cuckoo, a wolf, the voice of Immanuel Kant or Charles Kingsley, the overture to Don Giovanni or a Maori nose-flute. Anything it wishes, from past or distant future. It is even free to produce those secret sounds which man will never hear because they belong to other worlds..."

Saturday, July 16, 2011

If a tree falls in the woods...

I've been thinking a lot lately about music in outer space. That is, what it means to be sound, to have sound in a vacuum. When such is the case, it makes music, sound, this thing that we've objectified into not some thing, but necessitates that it be only recognizable as a phenomenon that does or does not happen. What we can hear as a distinct sound on Earth, is actually a series of waves, a vibration initiating from a single source of impact. These waves need a medium to travel through, such as water or solid or, as is normally the case, air. Without a medium, this phenomenon cannot take place and the sound, as we recognize it, does not exist. Thus, sound cannot be a thing so much as it is an occurrence.

And so the experience of sound and music in space is a unique one, one that bears that age-old and cliched question: if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Or rather, in our case, if an impact occurs but there is no medium to transfer the vibration, is a sound made? Does sound happen? And when can it be said that a full-fledged sound has actually happened? How far must the vibrations travel? And must they make it all the way to the human ear drum, or is traveling a little way, but stopping short of the ear drum sufficient? That is to say, must a sound be received and interpreted in order to have occurred?

Such questions also bring into question other oft-objectified phenomena, like color. Being the reflection and absorption of different wavelengths of light, color cannot, then, exist if there is no light. Light cannot be interpreted if not received, and so if color isn't received, can it exist? And what of the colorblind, of organisms capable of "seeing" and thus interpreting different wavelengths of light invisible to the human eye?

Does sound exist?

Does color exist?

And if sound doesn't exist, what does that mean for music?

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Music of Alaska and the Whole Earth

"Art embraces beauty. But beauty is not the object of art, it's merely a by-product. The object of art is truth. That which is true is that which is whole. In a time when human consciousness has become dangerously fragmented, art helps us recover wholeness. In a world devoted to material wealth, art connects us to the qualitative and the immaterial. In a world addicted to consumption and power, art celebrates emptiness and surrender. In a world accelerating to greater and greater speed, art reminds us of the timeless." -- John Luther Adams

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Jimmy Giuffre on "Free Fall"

From Jimmy Giuffre's liner notes for his 1962 album of "three-sided music", Free Fall:

"... Given: the urge to enter new realms, glimpse other dimensions, reach the absolute. Given: the visions from thinking on such things as... gravity, Monk, electricity, time, space, the microcosmos, leaves, chemistry, power, Gods, white-hot heat, asteroids, love, eternity, Einstein, Rollins, Evans, the heartbeat, pain, Delius, Scherchen, Art, overtones, the prehistoric, La Violette, wife, life, voids, Berg, Bird, the universe...

...We come to NOW and this album. YGGDRASILL!!!

Is this what Kant meant when he said "seek always to expand rather than to narrow your horizons"?