a small essay about me and music.

i have this five-questions meme running on my livejournal at the moment, and one of my friends asked me some pretty in-depth questions that warranted a separate entry. One of those questions asks about the sort of music that i listen to and it seemed appropriate since it talks about some of the bigger influences in my musical life and some of my musical philosophy to post it here instead of livejournal.

Q. Music is a huge part of my life. I have to have headphones on to work or exercise or commute. I aspire to be in a band, but for now I’m a pretty shitty guitar player. I know music is a big part of your life, but I imagine in a different way. Is it mostly about creating, or do you also listen to a lot? Who are your favorite artists? What are your favorite albums?

When i was younger i listened to more music and more diverse music. As i got older, my tastes changed and i devoted a lot less of my time to listening to music and discovering new artists. i’m not quite sure why that is – part of it is that my tastes have established themselves much more, but i think the other part of it is because searching out for new material can seem like a waste of energy. It would take a lot of wading through stuff that i don’t like to find that sliver of something that i do like, and liking something new doesn’t necessarily gain me much more than the stuff that i listen to now. it seems like a lot of investment for very little return. So the reality is that if i happen to stumble upon it, awesome, but if i don’t, then oh well. life is all about missed opportunities as much as made ones, and if i miss out on this great band or that great band, well, that’s just how it goes.

the stuff that appeals to me now falls into probably three different categories: music that affects me on an emotional or a primal level, music that challenges my senses, and music that can do both. This translates mostly these days to electronica and new “art” music (what most people would term “contemporary classical”), with some rap, pop, and j=pop thrown in.

music that affects me on a primal or emotional level is straightforward enough – it’s music, whether simple or complex, that makes me want to dance, makes me want to cry, makes me want to smile – something that triggers an instinct that bypasses the intellectual judgement.

when i was maybe a sophomore or junior in my undergrad at West Chester, i went to a contemporary music concert put on by the composition department. One of the pieces on the concert was what i call a “guided improv” piece; there wasn’t any notated music, there were directions. I remember that there were maybe 10-15 musicians on stage, one of them was one of the professors whose role was to hit a gong. The piece started off with everyone playing a single pitch and playing slow rhythms. everyone played it in their own way and in their own time and space. When the professor hit the gong, it triggered the next section, in which another pitch was added and more rhythm was added. He would hit the gong again, and another pitch or two would get added and the rhythms would get faster and more complex. Every performer interpreted their directions differently; the resultant sound would be a cacophony of musical material that kept on hinting at but never quite reaching a sense of cohesion. i don’t remember how many gong hits there were, but there were at least 15, maybe more – triggers that led to a highly dissonant middle climax before the gongs triggered backwards, leading back to the simple singular note.

i was sitting pretty close to the front and in the center, and at some point while the piece was happening, i closed my eyes against my will because the music started to resonate so much within my being. And then towards the middle of the piece, i experienced the only real instance i’ve ever had of having an out-of-body experience. The music struck such a chord in me that i literally felt like i was floating in the air, high up in the stage hall, looking down at my own body, and feeling the music course through my body and through my soul. it felt like i was floating for hours and i was experiencing so many indescribable sensations. as the piece wound down and i eventually found myself back in my body, i discovered that there were tears in my eyes and my body was completely numb.

that’s an extreme example of how music can hit me on an emotional level. it was a powerful experience i’ll never forget. it’s one of the reasons i switched my major to composition.

for less sorts of extremes, minimalism and post minimalism in general is something that’s always resonated with me. The first piece i ever heard in that realm was the third movement of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint when i was a freshman in high school. I thought it was the most amazing thing that i had ever heard. There was something about the gradual sense of change, the gradual addition of voices, the rhythmic sort of intensity and the inherent groove that i immediately connected with. Steve Reich remains one of my strongest influences in music. Things that have grooving complex rhythms or just a visceral sense of pulse can resonate with me emotionally too.

music that challenges the senses is a little complicated to describe because it encompasses a lot of different elements. As an example, i’ll talk about one aspect: pitch. I have perfect pitch, and one of the effects of that is that i can hear and unravel the ins and outs of music fairly quickly in comparison to others who aren’t fortunate enough to have it. One side effect of this is that there are a lot of times when music doesn’t challenge me. if i can figure out the way a piece works instantly and fail to be surprised as the piece progresses from a pitch and texture context, i may still like it if it hits me emotionally or from a groove perspective or whatever, but the actual music itself will come off as bland and uninteresting.

When i was going through my heavy metal and alternative phase, the groups that impacted me the most were ones that tried to mess with pitch distortion or how pitch was defined, or how lack of pitch in the singing style meshed with the pitches being thrashed out by the instruments. That’s why bands that try to be edgy and angry but do it by playing typical chord progressions that anyone learns in music theory 1 perplex me. As angry as that music tried to be, it was still within a particular comfort zone, still used mostly major and minor chords that went about their business in a predictable and comfortable way. I wasn’t looking for music that made me comfortable, i was looking for something that made me uncomfortable, challenged what i was listening to, made me work for it. That’s why groups like Pantera, Candiria, Meshuggah, and Slayer impacted me so viscerally during that time period, along with groups like Primus. To this day i still get challenged by the bass line for Jerry was a Race Car Driver and there’s not a lot of music that can do that.

in the “classical” realm, the first detailed exposure i had to pitch-shifting madness was with Charles Ives’s 3 Quarter-tone pieces. I remember listening to them in a group composition seminar and then writing pieces for two quarter-tone pianos, and it was fascinating to me because of how much it challenged the normal conventions and expectations of pitch. To most people, that sort of jarring dissonance sounds ugly all of the time, but if you embrace it, get past the strangeness of it, you can find new kinds of beauty that you wouldn’t normally be able to find with a traditional 12-pitch system.

Redefining the expected when it comes to pitch or rhythms or what you hear as traditional instruments is one of the big reasons why electronic music also resonates well with me because the sky’s the limit with that music. When you’re writing for traditional instruments in any genre, there’s a quick establishment of expectation that never breaks. A violin will always sound like a violin. A piano will almost always sound like a piano. but with electronica, all of those preconceived notions of what is expected vs the unexpected is fair game to follow or abolish.

Which is really what it’s about for me. What resonates the most for me in music is the relationship between the expected versus the unexpected and how that push and pull can create something that’s truly meaningful and emotional. In one of the more influential books i’ve read about the craft of music is a passage that defines my entire artistic and life philosophy:

…our whole mental existence is built around our expectations about the normal (probable) continuity of events. We “expect” to get up Monday morning, to eat breakfast, to see that the children get to school, to go to the office, and so forth. But we are as a rule unconscious of such expectations. They are latent expectations, the norms of behavior which are taken for granted once they have become fixed habit patterns. Such expectations become active, either as affective experience or conscious cognition, only when our normal pattern of behavior are disturbed in some way…

…the probability relationships embodied in a particular musical style together with the various modes of mental behavior involved in the perception and understanding of the materials of the style constitute the norms of the style. Latent expectation is a product of these probability relationships. And expectation becomes active only when these norms are disturbed. In other words, such latent expectations are necessary conditions for the communication of musical information, while the disturbances of those norms are the sufficient condition for musical communication.

…Musical meaning arises when an antecedent situation, requiring an estimate of the probable modes of pattern continuation, produces uncertainty about the temporal-tonal nature of the expected consequent.

in other words, the evoking of a meaningful response in music is done when you either do something unexpected or what is expected is ambiguous.

Let’s use a tune like Smells Like Teen Spirit as an example. The chord progression for that entire tune from beginning to the end (minus the short bridge between chorus and verse once or twice) is the same throughout and is also one that’s a common chord progression in today’s understanding of music – i iv III VI, repeat. That chord progression fails to break expectation from the outset because the chord progression in itself is predictable. Then that chord progression fails to break expectation because it never changes. Not that the tune isn’t great in its own right in grunge history and isn’t something that i wouldn’t join a mosh pit for during a concert; it’s just that the lack of breaking expectation and structure makes the music itself bland.

So there are ways in which that music can be made more interesting by breaking up that expectation. (ignore that this would not be appropriate for such an iconic piece of music as this. )The first is to have that chord progression change somewhere in the middle. one time, do a progression of i iv III ii instead, or one time add an extra phrase, do something like i iv III VI III VI before going back to i. changes like that may be small, but they still break the pattern and change what was established in a way that is unexpected and maybe even uncomfortable.

But the fun thing is that once that’s done once or twice, then that mutates from the role of unexpected into the role of expected – something else that becomes established that can then be either followed or broken – and when broken with something new that’s unexpected in the new context, can then be used to create a new sense of expectation and so on and so forth.

That’s part of the joy of creating music in which you challenge the basic level of expectation from the outset. Western-influenced music whether classical or jazz or rock have a defined vocabulary of scales and chords that predefine expectation. When you start off with something that’s outside of that, you defy expectation from the outset with the express purpose of not only abolishing that expectation but redefining and establishing a completely different set of expectations as people listen to the piece. Once you establish that expectation and get the listener to become comfortable with it, you have the means to then fulfill that new redefined sense of expectation or to break it and continually push and pull that relationship in an effort to push and pull the listener along a journey that will hopefully give them a sense of meaning that they would otherwise not get.

One of the reasons that minimalism and post-minimalism has always resonated with me is that that sense of fulfilling and breaking expectation is so gradual and sometimes very personal. One of the great minimalists (i think it was Reich, but it might have been Terry Riley) stated a great thing about repetitive chords. Hearing the same chord happen a second time and a third time isn’t hearing the same chord three times. Every time you hear the chord it’s something different because of the relationship of the times you’ve heard it in the past. Minimalism breaks the norm of expectation generally by “repeating” things to a degree that most music would expect change. Only after that sense of repeat has permeated into your senses does change sometimes occur, and that change, no matter how subtle, can seem like an explosion given how much the music has repeated prior to it. That sort of slow evolution of pitches and chords and rhythm, that gradual sense of change fulfills a spiritual and philosophical part of me that i don’t get with much other music. That’s what makes works like Music for 18 Musicians or Michael Gordon’s Weather (which is unfortunately not anywhere online) so important to me.

So what does all of this translate to practically? as in, “what music do i listen to?”

When i’m out and about casually, i typically listen to one of four things: the electronica duo Plaid, the elecrtonica artist Clark, the iPhone sound augmentation app Inception, or the iPhone sound augmentation app Dimensions. (The latter two are apps that will play some pre-recorded audio tracks on top of realtime sounds of your environment that are then modified by the app. How the stuff is modified is dependent upon conditions in the environment). For a while i was also obsessed with PVT’s album Church with No Magic.

If i’m looking to revisit composers or artists that have had the most influence on me creatively, i listen to or think about works by Steve Reich, Michael Gordon, David Lang, George Crumb, and my old professor Robert Maggio.

If i want to think about other serious classical works that have resonated well with my sensibilities and get my creative juices going, i think about the Bach piano fugues, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and his Piano Sonata, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, the Bartok String Quartets, the Ligeti Piano Etudes, and various works by Stravinsky, John Cage, and Terry Riley.

If i want something that will get me moving or energized in a way that Plaid and Clark don’t, i’ll throw on some Venetian Snares, Squarepusher, Busta Rhymes, or Mr. Bungle/Faith No More.

Albums that i feel nostalgic about but don’t listen to much anymore are things like Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power and Far Beyond Driven, Dream Theater’s Images and Words and Awake, Primus’s Sailing the Seas of Cheese and Pork Soda, and various albums by Rush, Yes, Public Enemy, KMFDM, Front Line Assembly/Delerium, Megadeth, Foetus, Laibach, Information Society, Einsterzende Neubaten, XTC, and others.

I’m sure i’m leaving off a bunch of stuff there as i do listen to other things and feel nostalgia for other artists as well as i used to listen to much more music, but that’s the general gist for the purposes of this entry.

Leave a Reply!