Some Random Thoughts on Music

(This is a rambling, lengthy chain of thoughts that gives a pretty fair idea of how I see some things related to music. It could have, and probably should have, been chopped up into seperate essays, but this form will serve my purpose for now. Some of it may be familiar territory, if so I apologize. The format is kind of stream of consciousness with bits of formality imposed after. A favorite method! There may be more to come later, if so it will appear as a companion piece.)


1. All Music Is Valid.

Ever hear someone say, of music they don't like, "that's not music"? You may or may not have agreed with that person's low opinion of the music. But it's my opinion that such a statement, from a logical standpoint, is groundless and, in its own way, poisonous.

All music is valid. That doesn't mean you or I have to like it. But dislike of a musical form cannot disqualify it as music. In medicine, pain is what the patient says it is. In art, art is what the artist says it is. Opinions as to the quality of the finished product may vary, but there's no way to say it's not art- or music- without going contrary to the root concept of expression.

2. So Where Does This Leave Criticism and Personal Opinion?

If we are to be fair to the validity of subjective experience, we cannot discount the value of the listener's experience. This is why, if someone thinks my music sucks, I can't very well tell them their opinion is wrong. I can disagree strongly with them, which is different. But unless they've based their opinion on some factually incorrect information, I have nothing to say about it. The same goes for other people's music. I can say "something about this doesn't work for me", and feel that's true. But when I'm on my best behavior and actually thinking about what I say, I don't feel correct in saying "this is bad". There is a fundamental difference here. It's not a matter of discretion or of hiding opinion behind semantics. It's a matter of proceeding in a way that I feel is correct.

3. Stylistic Barriers.

The divisions between musical forms will always exist. That doesn't mean I have to abide by them. In fact I feel it is my purpose, in a way my life's mission as a musician, to break through, blur or eradicate those barriers at every possible opportunity. This also goes for any preconceived notions about what is or isn't acceptable, down to the smallest elements. I do this through the synthesis of styles, techniques, theories and approaches. Nothing is invalid to draw from and no combination is invalid. This applies to smaller forms (individual playing style and song writing) and larger forms (sets, albums, song repertoire, projects, band sound and approach, etc.).

Examples: I can play 1 minute punk songs or 30 minute improvisations- and put them on the same album, if I want to; I can play with a punk edge or hard rock heaviness in a jazz context, or I can take progressive rock or experimental concepts and integrate them into punk or blues. I can take classical concepts and use them in extended free improvisation. I can use Turkish or Chinese or Indian or African concepts- measures of time, microtonal techniques, rattles and noise as part of the sound of the instrument, etc.- within a western musical style. Every sonic element is fair game. I can synthesize these elements or I can use them independently, depending on the situation and the goal- not everything has to be done at once (although trying to do that can be fun too!). The extent to which this enriches the music with something unique and enjoyable is the measure of success, artistically. Everyone will have a different opinion about that, of course...but as long as I think it works I will continue.

On the other hand I do not believe that it is a good idea to have only musical synthesis forms existing; in other words, traditional forms should also be preserved. They are wellsprings from which the synthesist can repeatedly draw inspiration; they are to music what primary colors are to painting.

How then, to explain or justify my "mission" as stated above? First, I can never win. You can't stop a river, or an ocean, with your hands. Winning in this case wouldn't really be a good thing anyway, and I gladly accept that. This is a yin-yang situation; the conflict is dynamic and positive, it produces the movement that makes things continue, preventing stagnation. Without a base to build on, exploration and synthesis is meaningless and ultimately impossible; without exploration and synthesis, the traditional stagnates. The vitality of each assures the continued presence of the other.

Too much synthesis can easily rob music of an identity, of an identifiable style: everything would eventually reduce to one color, as anyone who's blended too many paints will know. How is this to be avoided? One way is through careful choice of the elements to be synthesized, which is a matter of personal taste, and which will hopefully correspond to some artistic vision or inner barometer indicating when to push ahead and when to stop. Another, and in my opinion probably the most important, is to stress uniqueness through the use of strong personal style. That is: artists having easily identifiable sounds- voices- on their instruments.

4. Personal Style

How is personal style developed? What makes personal style? I think there are some main elements: influences; physical and environmental factors; obstacles and choices; and last but not least personality itself.

Influences: we all wanted to sound like somebody when we first picked up an instrument. We all had our heroes. These are the obvious influences. Not so obvious influences are scraps of musical ideas you can pick up all around you, from the radio or t.v. or movies. Studying your heroes might at first seem to rob you of an identity but actually since you are making a choice- choosing your influences- you are actually in control of the situation, gravitating towards what it is you like in their styles. Unless you are a rare combination of fanatic and talented mimic, you will never be able to completely copy anyone's style. And for most applications you really shouldn't try. However, you can get close enough that most people might not be able to tell the difference. So if you really want to be recognizable on your own, you should focus on learning what you find useful and attractive in other people's styles and then try to put your own spin on it. Don't be content with mimicry.

Also, you can be influenced by other instruments than the one you play. (And if you play more than one instrument, the techniques and concepts can frequently cross over between.) Drum rhythms can translate into rhythm guitar chops, as can horn punctuations. Sax or keyboard solos, string arrangements, all lend themselves to interpretation on other instruments. And of course you can pick up inspiration from sounds or sensations that aren't musical. A lot of Dick Dale's sounds came out of trying to put the sensation of surfing into his music, to create a musical picture of it. I have created some of my signature sounds not only out of sounds I hear in my head, but also by trying to sound like other instruments. In the end, the impersonation is imperfect- thankfully, because instead what's happened is that something new has been created.

Physical and environmental factors: let's say you play guitar. What kind of equipment do you have? What kind of strings are you using? What shape are the frets? What's the neck like? How do you hold your hands? How big are your hands? Are there any physical defects? What's the climate like where you live and does that effect how you practice? Etc. These things all go into the formation of personal style. Equipment and how it's used plays a huge part in this. Because you have to react to all of these things and deal with them, and how you do that will effect your sound. No two people will have the same variables here. Which brings us to....

Obstacles and choices: this is the punchline for the first two. You get thrown obstacles, and you have to choose how to react to them. Here the factors are far too many to list. But it always comes down to your choice. When you were trying to learn from your favorite musician, what parts did you gravitate towards? Why? What was it about that aspect of playing that appealed to you? And what is your tendency when trying to play like that? Do you feel you'd like to do the same sort of thing faster? Slower? More/less aggressively? More/less attention to melody? Certain styles of accenting? Combinations of notes/scales/stylistic approaches? Purity of approach- no mixing it up at all? These are the types of choices you would make for the first part, and these choices are one of the key elements at the birth of style. But you might not be able to physically do what you have in mind. While it is a good thing to be able to push yourself to the point where you can do exactly what you want to do, it is my opinion that the best players will use these difficult spots as opportunities for growth. You can't do a particular thing; when you try to do it, it sounds lame. How do you then make what you CAN do sound good? It will probably come out different than what you were first trying to do. It is in this way that personal stylistic traits are discovered. This is not to say that you shouldn't try to push beyond these types of obstacles and continue to develop skill; but it is to say that you should take every opportunity to do something interesting and to learn. If you hear something in your head or something comes out of your fingers that wasn't there before, or is a variation on something you'd wanted to try, explore it. If the ideas and the creative urge to follow them are there, then even someone with limited technical expertise or training can really stretch out. And play what excites you or moves you. Some of my favorite music has been made by people doing very basic things, sometimes even sloppily, but doing them with passion. I tend to think that without that, you're in trouble no matter what.

Then a little further down the line, there's equipment and choices: what do you use and why? How do you use it? My favorite examples of how this ties in to identifiable style are all drummers. I remember the first time I heard something off the McDonald/Giles album, it was on the radio (believe it or not) and I didn't know what it was. But before the singing started, I heard how the snare was tuned and the cymbals were hit and I said, "That's Michael Giles. I've never heard this. What haven't I heard with him on it? McDonald/Giles. I wonder if this is something off that album?" And I was right, it turned out to be "Tomorrow's People". The same sort of thing is easily done with Bill Bruford, Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, or any of the greats of that era. (More on this later.) Their equipment, and what they chose to do with it, was a big part of their sound. It helps if the equipment has unique characteristics. (More on this also, later.)

This brings us to the last and probably the most vital element: personality itself. Take all the things that interest you, all your personal quirks and eccentricities, and you will have a huge library of influence and a tremendous driving force behind what you sound like. This will direct your choices, influence what sounds and concepts you follow, and influence your sound in every way, from the most overt level to the most subtle. Maybe it will show as a reaction to your surface personality- repressed in your daily life, insane and wild behind your instrument. Or maybe it will be a reflection of your surface personality. Either way, if you can't help your personality from spilling all over your instrument, don't worry, this is a good thing. Personality seems to show through more obviously early on, and there has to be some care taken that intense training doesn't stifle it. The one thing you shouldn't do is try to get it out of the way (except as an exercise). Make sure that connection not only remains but is nurtured. Try never to lose track of it, of the "you" in the music. (The only exception is in "free flight", mostly during improvisation, when the "I" disappears completely and the music is playing you. Then, by all means, do your best to stay out of the way and try to keep yourself open like that for as long as you can.)

In some circumstances this isn't a huge necessity. There is really no room in an orchestra for a strongly developed individual style- it gets in the way. An orchestra produces beautiful music but, with the exception of a featured soloist, is essentially a group effort, and in a way is supposed to be faceless; the individual players are supposed to be a sort of transparent conduit for the composer's work and the conductor's interpretation. There are differences between orchestras, conductors and so on but in comparison to other means of making music they are subtle. In the best rock or jazz, it's the other way around. If at least one player doesn't stand out, you've got trouble. The very best players can do both- stand out and lead or stand back and support. And my favorites of those players are identifiable whatever role they take. They have succeeded in projecting their personality through the instrument. They have developed a voice.

Not having the desire to develop a unique style is probably the greatest obstacle to doing so. The 2nd greatest obstacle is standardization.

5. Standardization in General.

Standardization has its purpose but must be a tool, not a rule. It is a very corrosive tool if not handled properly. It has currently crept into every aspect of music from equipment to attitude.

Those forms of art which are the most vital are those in which new or unexpected things happen. Standardization, as a general trend, as a mindset in which the basic elements are all known, measured and controlled, is antagonistic to this. I would not argue that no standards should exist, only that they be viewed as tentative groundrules which exist to serve art- not to enslave it to a mandatory narrowness. The correct way to handle standardization is with caution and moderation. It should not inhibit creativity. If a standard gets in the way of making music, its whole purpose as a constructive tool is destroyed.

6. Standardization of Equipment and the Unique Sound of Lesser Gear.

Let's focus momentarily on the more surface, physical aspects of standardization, as it effects the tools of making music, namely equipment. You have instruments being produced to a certain standard. On the one hand, this is good- they are better constructed, they play easier, often with greater dynamic and tonal range. So what could be wrong with that? Nothing- if the player is up to the challenge of creating something really unique with that instrument. Equipment produced to less exact standards had more flaws, but very often also had unique and immediately identifiable sonic traits. Players had to work less hard to have an instantly recognizable sound, because their equipment actually did some of the work for them. The best stylists will still sound like themselves no matter what instrument you hand them. But the average player may actually be at a disadvantage there, without realizing it. Of course, this is of no concern to many of them, because they WANT to sound like the increasingly standardized stuff they've been hearing since the mid 70s.

7. Why I Don't Use a Quartz Tuner.

Then there is the case of quartz tuners. For many years, I have refused to use a tuner of any kind. Why?

One day, back when I was first learning guitar, I was trying to play along to a Rolling Stones greatest hits album. I kept finding myself out of tune and had to retune to each song, and at first I couldn't figure out why. I thought maybe it was the instrument, but no, it held tune just fine and was in tune with itself. Then it struck me: these songs were all pulled from different sessions. They either had tuned to a piano in a particular studio, or tuned to each other; but there were no inexpensive little quartz tuners back then to guarantee a universal standard tuning to every musician. They didn't sound out of tune with each other on the individual tracks, but each track was microtonally off from the next. And it struck me that maybe this was one reason I found the music from that time period so constantly fresh and interesting, why I could listen to hours of it without tiring. The differences would not be apparent on a casual or even a close listen to an individual song. But take songs from multiple sessions and throw them together and there was a variety there which went to the deepest level, beyond style, down to the smallest elements. The ear might not hear it but it would have a psychological effect. Suddenly this whole other way of looking at things opened up for me, and I realized that the more rigid and exact a standard, the more complexity (however subtle) was actually cut off. At that point I vowed not to use tuners. I have only recently given in, and I will still only do so if I believe the circumstances really call for it. I don't use a click track either, for reasons along the same line. I believe if music breathes, it's more interesting.

8. Sampling.

I also had similar feelings when sampling came along. When you take a snippet of sound, you not only record the obvious lead tone itself but also every sampled overtone and nuance. The increased clarity of digital sampling actually made this even more exact- and so, more repetitive- than an analog loop. (An actual tape loop is still subject to very subtle fluctuations on each repetition- constantly shifting wow and flutter as it is physically dragged over the tape head, for example.) It's my opinion that if you're not very careful with this, you have a built-in recipe for boredom. You can loop a drum beat, vs. actually playing that beat on an instrument, and save someone a boring job. But someone actually playing the repeated part will have almost infinite subtle variations in their playing, even if it seems exact on the surface. While the digital loop will replay a short snippet of information EXACTLY, again and again, audio analysis of the live player would reveal that no 2 beats or section of the performance were ever actually identical, even if the player was good enough to make them sound that way.

9. Presets.

Or take the "preset" phenomonenon. For quite a while now, electronic gear has come with presets, which represent what the manufacturer thinks are the most popular sounds. Usually, these aren't the only options, and other sounds can be created by the user. But what happened when most of this gear became available was that many people stuck with the presets. The end result was that identical sounds were being produced by people all over the world. And it's not like a properly tuned piano or guitar, which will still have subtle complexities and differences from instrument to instrument; these are really identical. Bad news.

It may appear I am blaming a lot of this on technology, but I'm not. It's what people choose to do with the technology, and how they deal with overcoming its limitations in a way that humanizes the tools and turns them clearly to the purpose of art once again.

10. The Dumbing of Drumming.

Let's take one of the worst offenders for an example of how attitude combines with technology to produce bad results. Let's talk about the dumbing of drumming.

On the one hand, there have been advances in the standard level of quality for drum heads, the manufacturing of cymbals, the resonance of shells. And there have been advances in the art of recording drums, so that they reproduce well and blend with other instruments. None of which is inherently bad, all of which, in fact, should be good.

But then you have the uses to which these things have been put, and the concepts driving current models of what is "right" for drumming. Ringing heads are bad. Unmuffled bass drum heads are bad. High-pitched, jazzy sounding toms are bad and must have the heads changed and/or be tuned down. Worse, players under contract to major labels- or their subsidiaries- are often told not only to change the sound of their kits to be more commercial sounding, but to simplify their parts to the point where only the bare essentials are left. I've seen this happen, in person.

When was the last time you heard a drummer on a major label who you could immediately identify, before the rest of the band kicked in?

Think of the period from around 1965 to 1975. How many drummers can you think of from then whose styles were immediately recognizable? Let me name a few: Ringo. Keith Moon. Ginger Baker. Mitch Mitchell. Ian Paice. John Bonham. Jon Hiseman. Neal Smith. Billy Cobham. Bill Ward. Bill Bruford. Anyone who knows drumming could tell them all apart immediately. I could probably name 10 more without blinking. Now go ahead and name 10 relatively well known drummers that are readily identifiable from the time period of '75 to '85. I can think of four: Neal Peart, Simon Phillips, Stuart Copeland and Terry Bozzio. OK, now how about '85 to the present? Well?

When was the last time a drummer did something that really surprised you? When was the last time you heard a drummer take a chance? Not recently, I'll bet. Maybe off a major label, but probably not on one, unless it was one of the surviving guys I listed above. What's worst of all about this is that we have a whole generation of musicians who grew up listening to the more standardized, streamlined stuff and have no clue to the great value of individual quirks, which may even sound wrong to them. We have a large number of very smooth, technically proficient players. We have almost no stylists, unless you care to dig into the underground (where you will find a fair amount). So it goes with much of music.

I think these kinds of subtle but essential differences have changed the way people react not only to music but to art in general; and from there, to other assumptions about how things should be. I think this whole scenario is basically unhealthy and should not go unanalyzed or unquestioned. Like with presets, the standard is a good starting point to learn from. But without a healthy assertion of uniqueness we are then in danger of being stripped of it, in ways most people don't even notice or acknowledge. Art, instead of advancing the humanity which gives it its general name, will help inhibit it. Even when people think they're rebelling.

11. Rebellion?

A standard is basically a guideline- and so at its base is repressive. And as with most things of a repressive nature, if a standard is not handled intelligently, with caution and moderation, then a corresponding period of explosive rebellion will result. This can be both a radical advancement in the cause of creativity and a setback. All revolutions produce a large number of people who cannot remember the positive values in what they are overturning; and it can then take quite a while for those people (and those they influenced) to come to the realization that you must not "throw the baby out with the bath water".

It is healthy to shake up expectations and challenge assumptions. It is also unhealthy to do this simply for the sake of doing it without recourse to the past and without the understanding that what is new or unexpected today becomes old and expected tomorrow. All of which does not mean that what is old or expected is necessarily bad. Very often things which have become stale either need a rest or a bit of freshening up. But they are not magically bad by nature of their age or cultural integration- any more than they are magically good for the same reasons.

The standards for judging the usefulness of existing art forms vary, and are multi-layered. On a cultural level, the view of something as outmoded or in need of change is always open to debate but if something is on its way out of general use, it will become pretty obvious after a while. On a personal level such a standard or view need never exist.

12. Popular vs. Unpopular.

To expand on that, far too many people give in to a ridiculous sort of temporal exclusivity- fashion. (I view fashion and style as different. Style is directed from within and privately based, fashion is directed from without and is publicly based. They can, and most often do, influence each other- one way or another.) Fashion has its place but ought not to be taken too seriously. And it should never under any circumstances dictate musical likes or dislikes. Unless of course that is why you listen to music in the first place (because "it's what people are listening to now"), in which case I doubt that music is of deep importance to you. Nothing is intrinsically wrong with that unless you pretend otherwise, and that your opinion is valid for anyone other than you. To the rest of you, I say: like what you like and to hell with what anyone else thinks. This cuts both ways on the popular/unpopular front. Many people refuse to listen to something they might like because it's currently popular, or because it was done by an artist whose repertoire or image is not something that they personally want to be associated with.

I operated from that way of thinking for a good few years, until one event changed that.

When Pink Floyd's "The Wall" came out, I was interested in picking it up for about the first week, but then felt I couldn't do it. While I had been a Floyd fan in the past, this album was way too popular for me to feel comfortable listening to, it had a top 10 hit which, like the one other piece I'd heard ("Run Like Hell") had a disco tinge to it. I didn't want to listen to it because I didn't want to be associated with any of that. To me it reeked of the very people and forces in society I was trying not to associate with. I stuck with that decision and avoided the album for about two years.

Then one day at work I was asked to paint a sign inside a large, unused old building on the grounds. One of the young women who worked in the main office in the building across the lot kept asking me if I wasn't going to be bored over there all alone in this large empty place with nothing to listen to while I worked. She offered me her little portable radio/tape player and a cassette of "The Wall". I tried to get out of taking it but she was insistent, especially that I listen to the tape. I took it over with me but didn't plug in the deck for about a half hour. Then eventually I realized that even if I didn't enjoy it I'd at least have heard it all the way through once, and so have more reason to dismiss it.

Long before I had to flip the tape over, I realized I really enjoyed this album. And it occurred to me that I had cheated myself out of hearing it for two years because I was bowing to some kind of asinine anti-popularity snobbery. Who were these people I was trying to impress by not listening? Why did their opinions matter more to me than my right to enjoy what I wanted to? Ultimately, it was not defensible, and I realized then and there that I would not do that again. If I liked something it was my business.

So if you are still having trouble with this kind of thing, let me tell you, you have a back bone, reach around and grab it, I swear to you, it's there. Use it! There are too many things in this life to give us a pain in the ass- enjoy the good things while you can. If you like it, listen to it. If you don't, then don't. It really is as simple as that. And if you're not sure if you'll like something, try it and find out. Do it in the best circumstances: someplace by yourself is ultimately best for most forms of music, but if its function is mostly social- dance music, etc.- then go to a club.

13. Social Music.

I personally have rarely had much use for music whose function is mostly social, like dance music. I don't usually connect with music for those reasons, it has to hit me on another level.

When I was younger, I spent a great deal of time annoyed with people whose musical interest was primarily social, mostly because of their behavior- which, as you may see, is only superficially related to the music. And for a while it really didn't matter which came first, the assholes or "their" music.

Aside from the personal level, I believed these folks were mindlessly drugging themselves on prepackaged, unintelligent, artless crap, and dragging culture down with it. All the more reason to be down on the whole thing.

I was militant about this for many years until I realized: this attitude is a waste of energy. First of all, it was ungenerous. Outside of my bad memories and social trauma-induced misanthropy, not everyone enjoying social music should be lumped into a category along with a handful of people that pissed me off (and the conventions they worshipped)- even if it seemed like they went hand in hand. Because eventually I did get to know people who loved this stuff and were really nice human beings. (Whether they're in the minority or not, I can't say for sure! But...) They have a use for it and they have a right to enjoy themselves, it's valid and OK. They're having fun and there's nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. I don't have to have fun the same way.

What's more, on a cultural level what they are doing will not stop me from doing what I think is important, making music I believe in, no matter how different it is both functionally and compositionally. If I still relied on the music industry, then maybe I'd have something to worry about- not only from them, but from every new trend which didn't match what I was doing. I'd rather use my energy creatively than worry about how other people are using music to enjoy themselves.

That said, what is not valid or OK is for anyone to then turn around and deride music which is not primarily social for having a set of different properties, values or priorities. For example, anyone who tries to tell me that experimental, prog, or other small market music isn't valid will likely get a very nasty earful from me. Not because they have a dissimilar taste, but because they somehow assume their tastes are valid in an objective way. It's all music and it's all valid but nothing can be useful to all people under all circumstances. Nothing in life works like that, regardless of how much people would like to have things that easy. Which takes us right back to standardization again!

14. Sales as a Measure of Artistic Value.

Standardization of musical form is sometimes defended by the idea that what sells is artistically good- and that conversely, what doesn't sell isn't. I expect record company execs to hand out this crap. But surprisingly a lot of people in the the non-musical public hold that opinion as well. Even more surprising is that there are musicians who buy this. People who hold this belief will try to tart it up (for themselves and others) by proclaiming it as some sort of musical version of Social Darwinism. In other words, the good stuff naturally rises to the top and the bad stuff sinks. I say that's absolute horse shit. And there's the anti-popularity contingent- if it sells, it's bad. Again, road apples to that. Depending on what side of the fence you're standing on, either of these may look good- if unexamined. But in truth, it's gobbledygook. Record sales are a measure of a certain sector of the public's tastes under certain circumstances. Sales are not an ultimate measure of quality, under past, current OR future circumstances. I have too many good albums by totally obscure groups to ever agree with this assertion. What's more, something can be a #1 hit in the UK or elsewhere in the world and not crack the charts at all in the states, making it nearly unknown to the general public here. (I can immediately think of a half dozen examples from the 60s that fit those very criteria. I actually had someone tell me once that The Move couldn't be any good because he'd never heard of them- forget that they'd consistently topped the UK charts.) I also have plenty of terrific albums that sold many copies. Is something good because it's blue, or round? Logically, that's gibberish. There's not enough information, and any kind of decision in regard to value will have to be based on a more specific set of variables. A million things could be responsible for something selling or not selling, and only some have to do with the music itself.

15. Melody vs. Speed.

There doesn't have to be any "vs." in there of course, but some people really value one over the other. There is a type of player- and a type of listener- who, as long as the notes are going fast, could care less if there's anything memorably melodic going on. I find that while I don't miss speed much if the melodic content is good, I can't say the reverse to be true- no matter how many notes are being thrown at me, I will eventually miss melody.

16. Melody and Conventional Structure vs. Atonality and Unconventional Form.

People can become very sick of conventional melody and try to move beyond it. (I once had a musician tell me, very seriously, that he detested melody.) As to the validity of this, I say, of course it's valid. But so is more conventional songwriting. It really depends on what you're trying to get across as an artist. As a listener, I personally find that I am just as easily bored with atonality as tonality, with chaos as with order, with conventionality as with unconventionality, depending on how the artist handles things. I think the best artists understand how to mix these things up to produce unique results, that are not monochromatic. I have a problem with "basic is good, all else is bad" roots-mongering. And I have a problem with the enshrinement of complexity and atonality as being intensely more valid than their opposites. Granted, as a reaction to the steady flow of mainstream monoculture which uses simplicity and major chords as a vehicle, the view is understandable- as are most strong reactions- for a while. But simplicity and major chords themselves are only as tainted as we let them be. You don't like the way it's being done? Do it better! Or if you're not interested in trying, at least look harder for people who are doing it better, because I guarantee you, they're out there. It's like saying, "everyone paints flowers, so paintings of flowers are boring and traditional". Maybe, unless they're in an Ivan Albright painting! (Some Albright links: 1, 2, and 3.) Nothing is so cliche that a truly creative mind can't find some soul still left in it for an interpretation.

I think conventional melody is best tempered by something a little unusual, whether in arrangement, instrumentation or performance; and atonality only works dynamically if there is some sense of motion- hints of tonality work really well for this. Ditto for non-rhythmic pieces- hint at rhythm and the whole thing becomes a lot more interesting. Complexity with no space to it (as in a very dense wall of noise) can eventually be as boring as if it were a solid block of something simple- much as bicycle spokes seem to blend into a solid mass when the wheels turn. (Although...if you find a way for your mind to project something onto or into this, then it will still work, reflecting back your inner state, or revealing nuances within this seemingly dense whole that could reveal a lot of depth. Even so, there are degrees of how hard you may have to work to get something out of a piece like that.) It's all about contrasts, about tension and release. Whatever your starting point is, I think ultimately that cutting yourself off from the full range of opposites is a shortcut to stagnation and mediocrity, whatever you play or listen to, and that this is true in other areas of life as well.

17. How the Movie "Blue Velvet" Further Changed My Understanding of Music.

Some people really can get transcendental experiences from the most common sources- pop music, for one. The ability to do this seems to vary with cultural and emotional associations, negative or positive, and also with the willingness to branch out and challenge your own assumptions.

Up until 1985, I hated most 50s and early '60s music. I hated Roy Orbison. Couldn't listen to any of it without gagging and reaching for the radio knobs quickly. I had already learned not to dislike something because of what others might think. But then there was what I thought. My tastes seemed totally at odds with this stuff, and I could find nothing to grab onto, no starting point, to find some way to enjoy it. And a lot of my associations with the time period- and so, its music- were bad. I saw no reason to even try to get a handle on it. This was just something I didn't like.

I saw Blue Velvet and that changed. Here was this demented character having a deep emotional experience with a sentimental Roy Orbison tune. Certainly what was going on in Frank Booth's head had nothing to do with Roy Orbison's original intentions for the song, or any social context ever popularly associated with it. Seeing this it occurred to me: all my assumptions about what this music represented were only based on my small batch of associations and experiences. And yet here were a scenario, associations, imagery, that had never come close to entering my head. Granted, this was fiction, but no less possible for that. And I realized that the creation of music was one thing, and after that it becomes a very different matter. Anyone can associate anything with any type of music. There may be statistical generalities, but they're only as valid as you let them be. My own associations- and so, those of others- were personal filters that didn't necessarily have to be there.

I discussed this with my brother, Paper Bag drummer M., 8 years my senior. He had clear memories of 50s music as it was being released, of hearing it on the radio as a kid. He gave me examples of how certain songs seemed very atmospheric and raised certain emotions in him. I'd never before heard those songs that way- but I never heard them the same way after. And my perceptions of the music from that time period permanently shifted. From then on, I became a big fan of much of it. Orbison definitely included.

This also made me think about how the popular music of my childhood still resonated with me- even if in some cases they weren't necessarily songs I would have appreciated right off had I first heard them at a later age.

Because of these experiences, I realized that I could enjoy anything I wanted to without recourse to the music's social context- real or imagined. First I had to shelve my preconception. Then, the only thing I needed to accept or decline was the music itself- not the perceived cultural baggage that my experience had attached to it. Were there valid truths in some of these perceptions? Probably, but that really only had to pertain to the baggage itself, not the music, which could, if I allowed it, exist and speak to me completely outside of that. So if I chose, I could, by thinking about it, apply more positive contexts, which could be of almost any type, and the only limit was my imagination. The bottom line was: contexts and associations are essentially illusions.

This has been backed up many times when, in interviews with artists, I've noticed their take on their own music was often very different from the public's and the press'. Motives had been ascribed that simply weren't there at the creation, but which seemed apparent to public and reviewers when the music was viewed in a social context. So: the artist's view is one reality, the social context is another, the listener's experience yet another. Which is real? They all are. Which do we concern ourselves with? All, to varying degrees; where you decide to place the most emphasis is your decision, difficult as that may be to realize (without it being pointed out). I found I could gain more enjoyable experiences as a listener, with a wider range of music, by minimizing my ascription of importance to the social context. The music is what it is, I am what I am; everybody else, to some degree, can basically fuck off. It's between me and the music.

18. Musical vs. Personal Differences.

When I was much younger, I used to associate similarity of taste with possibility of friendship. Eventually I learned this wasn't so. I don't know if you've ever had the experience of having in your life very good friends who listen to music you think is absolute shit, and they think the same is true of what you listen to, but you love each other anyway. When this happens you see how relative this all is- provided you are secure enough in your own tastes not to be threatened by theirs.

If you are ungenerous in your approach to people and to life, you cannot do this. There may be a lot of things that have made you ungenerous in this way; they will continue to steal joy from your life if you let them. Let go. There are good things waiting for you.

Well, that's a nice thought. And a nice place to end this, for now.

-GS, '03


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