February 11, 2007

Why music?

One of the things that makes writing about music so difficult for me is that I genuinely do not understand why people listen to music. Or rather, I do not understand what people (who are not musicians) hear when they listen to music.

In a way, being a trained musician forever wrecked my perception of music as music. It’s like knowing how the magician’s tricks are done. I can appreciate the artistry and virtuosity of the act, but I cannot ever again be fooled by the illusion. I can never again experience music as simply a listener.

That is one of the reasons why I have always been drawn to extreme forms of music – atonality, free-jazz, punk-rock, noise – music where the boundaries of “common practice” are radically extended (or overthrown), where the "tricks" are not so easy to detect and that vertiginous rush of unfamiliarity can still be felt.

My appreciation of music is inextricably tied up with my knowledge of how it’s put together, while at the same time, I know all too well that a description of music’s constituent parts is not a description of the whole. Such a description is not the thing itself - just as the score is not the thing itself - and it seems to me that the closer you focus on music’s construction, the further you get from its essence. For example, to say that the chord sequence I7-IV7-V7 explains how the “blues trick” is done is not even remotely useful in explaining how the blues touches your soul. It tells the aspiring musician a little bit about how to go about playing the music, but it doesn’t even begin to explain why he or she might want to do so. To say that Schoenberg used all twelve notes of the octave explains the modernist “trick” also obscures the music's beauty and expression.

For the non-musician, all of this verbiage is just useless jargon and for the musician whose understanding is limited to the notes on a page, the music will be badly played and poorly understood. And what does the non-musician get out of any of this? And what can be said about any of this that doesn’t sound reductionist and stupid?

What is it that people want out of music? Why is it so important – so necessary - yet so hard to talk about? Its ineffable quality is no doubt a big part of its attraction to the human spirit since music is pure abstraction - nothing but the movement of air in the passage of time. There is something about music that is pre-verbal, innate.

Then another thing that makes writing about music difficult for me is that the act of writing is not pleasurable for me. I struggle with every word, every phrase, every sentence. Everything I write seems utterly banal once it’s there on the page (or screen): Nothing but a labored exposition on the obvious and unremarkable. And, if you hadn’t noticed by now, I have a tendency to kind of, um, overstate things, which probably undermines whatever point it is I think I'm trying to make.

Why am I doing this? Why do I care so much about music that I actually want to write about it? And why would anyone care about music enough to read what I have to write about it? It’s a mystery to me.



Christopher Murray said...

I recall a discussion with you and Lizzy long ago in your Newton flat about the essence of music and why we care. Eventually, the conversation turned to kids, kid music and kid art. The essence and reasoning, I think, can be found there.

I look at my daughters (both of whom have a highly-tuned love of music), and see the joy and discovery on their faces when they hear something new, especially something that makes them want to dance. My older daughter loves to sing, and has a lovely voice. She cares not a whip whether it is any good: she does it only for the happiness it brings.

Something happens as we get older and mature (us musicians) and move out of that pure state. We become critical and demanding of art, of our own art in particular. That can be good as it pushes us forward to achieve greater artifice. It can also be taken to the extreme when you play something, then walk away apologizing for how much it sucked.

Sam said...

(This is really only an attempt at a partial answer to the last part of your post. There’s plenty to say about the whole thing, but my fancy took off on only one aspect...)

There’s this great early take of “It Won’t Be Long,” take 7, which unfortunately only exists as a monitor mix, so the sound is a bit distant, but compelling nonetheless. It chugs along pretty much the same as the released version, until it gets to this magical point right after the first verse and before the chorus: right before John sings “It won’t be long, yeah,” the whole band comes to a halt and there’s this one great beat of silence, a stop-time moment that changes the whole tenor of the song. They repeat this before every chorus in the song. It’s one of those moments that, once you hear it, makes you never hear the released version the same again. It’s not better than the released version (as you know, hours of listening to Beatle outtakes and alternates proves nothing if not that they almost always made the right choices on what to keep in and what to discard), but it’s a knockout version in its own right. It’s powerful, it’s dynamic, and it reaffirms for me that “It Won’t Be Long” is one of the Beatles’ absolute greatest early rockers.

I’m reading Richie Unterberger’s book The Unreleased Beatles, and so I was interested to get to his take on this version. Here’s what he says: it “isn’t much different from the With the Beatles track at all. The main difference is how the fellows periodically come to dead pauses between the verse and chorus instead of playing all the way through” (p. 66). Huh. Is that all he could find to say about it? How could he hear something so totally different from what I hear? And how could he not be excited about the difference?

I’m about halfway through the book, and I’m finding that while I disagree with Unterberger from time to time on his assessment of many of the unreleased tracks, he does pay attention to detail. What bothers me most is that his prose is pedestrian and lackluster, and he tends to second-guess the Beatles a lot (saying things like “this probably means they meant to...”).

But the point I’m trying to make (in a most roundabout way, sorry) is that reading what he wrote about “It Won’t Be Long” helped me articulate what I think about it. I thought it all along, from the first time I heard it, but seeing a counter-opinion in words helped me put into words what I thought. Potentially, those words could help others articulate their own thoughts—and thus you get discourse, communication, exchange of ideas—a positive thing. And, thinking about the words made me think more about the music...and sent me back to listen again.

These points may not be why you, Rodger, write about music, but they make up a large part of why I read about music...and why I want to read what you write about music.

Over the past few years I’ve been revisiting Shakespeare. I finally read every play, and now I’m going back and rereading them. I’m reading different editions and really getting into the variations between the quarto and folio texts, and I enjoy getting mired in the scholarly discourse over the tiniest bibliographical details. I’m also slowly working through the ArkAngel series of BBC recordings of every play on CD; reading the plays along with the voices is tons of fun. I find this work endlessly fascinating. I had a flash of insight when reading Ron Rosenbaum’s excellent book The Shakespeare Wars. In it, he sums up many of the recent controversies and issues in the Shakespeare community (did he revise his plays or not? is the “Hand D” sample his actual handwriting? is it better to read the plays in their original spelling? etc.). At one point in the first chapter, he’s addressing the issue of why Shakespeare is so revered—what is the value of his work, and what’s made it so enduring? He quotes scholar Christopher Ricks: “the test of value in a work of art is ‘whether it continues to repay attention’ “ (p. 21). Note that he makes a point of saying not just that it repays attention, but that it continues to repay attention.

Two things struck me here, not huge flashes of insight, surely, but compelling to me anyway: Shakespeare surely does that; he continues to repay attention, and so, too, do the Beatles, and so, too, does Sun Ra. These are lifelong endeavors; these bodies of work will continue to reward and re-reward us however close and detailed the attention paid to them is. I have certainly found that to be true with the Beatles, and I’m finding it to be true the more I delve into the music of Ra.

The second thing that struck me is that if these bodies of work, these works of art, are indeed bottomless wells of inspiration, then part of that inspiration, no small part, comes from reading what others have had to say about them. This, then, goes a long way toward justifying writing about music. So I hope you keep it up! And just so you know: yes, this all seems utterly banal and simplistic, what I’ve written here, but so be it. (I also had a great John Lennon quote to stick here, but I’ve lost my reference to it and I can’t for the life of me remember what it is!! Well, well, well, since I can’t remember, you’ll just have to imagine.)