Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Hearing is Believing or Believing is Hearing?: Experimental Music

One of my MySpace friends is part of a band/musical project called Ear of the Rat, and listening to their work prompted me to think about experimental music and ask some important questions of myself that I haven't done in awhile. You see, Ear of the Rat produces highly experimental pieces, some more accessible than others, and provides them all for free download. Are these people the true artists? They aren't doing it for any financial gain whatsoever and they have uploaded their work to Open Source Audio, a site where music is truly shared for the creative good of everyone participating. But what is music as an art? Is all this endless criticizing, reviewing and proselytizing about music a load of rubbish in the end?

There have many experimental music projects, especially since advances in both communication and music production technology. The early 20th century saw French composer Erik Satie become the father of both ambient music and muzak. He called what he was doing "furniture music," and for him, it represented the aesthetic of boredom, music deliberately produced to be ignored. Then, decades later, John Cage pushed music in a different way by developing the I Ching into a strategy for making experimental music. Of course the likes of people like Brian Eno then took this concept further. In many ways, Ear of the Rat reminds me of early Pink Floyd (in fact, they do a version of Interstellar Overdrive) and The Velvet Underground with their seemingly endless experimentation and spontaneous musical "happenings." There's also something vaguely Ariel Pink about them. Like many bands from past and present, Ear of the Rat don't appear to have an agenda except to continue being creative. They plunder samples and ideas from other pieces and produce them as lo-fi as possible. What's one of the terms for music like that of Pink Floyd, The Velvet Underground, and Brian Eno? Art rock. Isn't all music art? At what point does it become sufficiently "arty"?

Whenever I think of aesthetics and questions of art theory, I'm reminded of Tom Wolfe's book The Painted Word, his criticism of modern art criticism. Essentially, Wolfe argues that the art came first and then the people in the ivory tower and at the top of the social ladder created a reason for it. In order to see a work of art, in this case a painting, there has to be a persuasive theory behind it. As Wolfe states, "Not 'seeing is believing,' you ninny, but 'believing is seeing,' for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text." Isn't this what most pretentious art critics, including those who write in-depth reviews of music, work off? The potential to get bogged down in academic musings and theories when discussing art is massive. It's as though the world has said "art serves no practical purpose, thus it must be justified." In fact, every faculty of arts in university is dedicated to analyzing and developing meaning for things that can't be put to practical use. It is this kind of education that leads me to write babbling propositions like this about modern art. I've been effectively trained to look for meaning in everything, which while enlightening, may have also killed my ability to feel art for art's sake and nothing else. So, to attempt to answer my earlier question of when does music become art, I suppose music becomes art when enough people with influence agree it is. The modern art critic is the equivalent of the indie hipster.

Does theory and the meticulous extrication of meaning from art matter? Is it all part of experiencing art? Do I need to understand art before I enjoy it? Replace the word "art" with "music." Do the answers change? If pushed to answer, I would have to say that there are pros and cons to theorizing and understanding context. Back when I knew much less about music and its history, every album or artist I listened to sounded new and I responded to it on a purely emotional level without overthinking things. Now I find myself comparing the music I listen to with others and placing it in some sort of context for myself in order to evaluate its worth. Like the critics in Wolfe's book, I sometimes realize that I'm trying to make excuses for certain music and trying to understand why it should be considered valuable. Of course it becomes very reassuring to have the artists themselves come to me and say that I completely understood what they were trying to do (this has happened more often than I would have expected) - at least in those cases I know I didn't shoehorn them into some sort of pre-meditated framework. Oh, the occupational hazards of being a music critic, as amateur a version I may be.

Along with the pushing and testing the limits of genres and musical possibilities, artistic advancement has also developed alongside the capacity to participate and share in music creation; the line between listener and performer has blurred. A strong, and perhaps simpler, example of this process in action is Phil Kline's Unsilent Night, where people in a particular locale all bring out their portable stereos to blast whichever Christmas music they happen to have and walk through the streets together. Supposedly, the ever-shifting soundscape comes to represent community and a non-hierarchical performance in which everyone's ability to perform is equal. Musical communism in a way. Via faster computers and Internet service, sharing information, including music, has become possible at an unprecedented level. But aside from wholesale downloading of completed tracks and the sampling done in the hip-hop and electronic world, would all that many "regular" people bother collaborating on musical projects over long distances? Do artists need to bother? Isn't creating music always going to be an indirect collaboration anyway?

Art comes from art. It took me a relatively long time to learn that, but it's true. There's nothing original in this world, just original ways of re-assembling. To declare some band as utterly revolutionary is always a fallacy. They didn't create in a vacuum (and if they did, they may be suffering from the lack of necessary gaseous elements), so like John Milton said, plagiarism of a work occurs only "if it is not bettered by the borrower."

But does this highly experimental music have a chance at resonating more than a tightly produced four-minute track with that many people? There are times when listening to a twenty-minute track of noodling and improvisation that you start thinking this is what reading Finnegan's Wake would be like. If I'm completely honest, most of the music I own and listen to on a regular basis is accessible. I would say 90% of it is based on some recognizable semblance of musical structure and the songs are usually under eight minutes long. Is it pretentious to love and champion the music that pushes the limits so far that it becomes inaccessible just because it is inaccessible? I think it only becomes pretentious when you're not being honest about it.

I'm not going to attempt justifying Ear of the Rat's output, nor am I going to explain why I would likely listen to New Order or The Smiths more readily than Ear of the Rat, or even Pink Floyd for that matter. Nor am I going to worry too much about what that says about me as a music lover. I think there's a difference between finding a piece of music interesting and truly loving a piece of music; some music is meant to be furniture music for me. I admire artists like those in Ear of the Rat for doing the art they do for the reasons they do it for, but I don't want to fall into a "believing is hearing" state of mind. I live for those songs that I will never be able to explain my reactions to. It's that incommunicable connection with certain pieces of music that keeps me listening and believing.

Wind Cries Mary - Ear of the Rat

Interstellar Overdrive - Pink Floyd


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