I had coffee Saturday morning with a friend who always inspires me and who never disappoints when it comes to provoking great intellectual conversations.
As we sipped our beverages, the conversation turned (as it often does between us) to music. Both of us are huge fans of indie rock and stuff that most often lands on the fringes of the pop music landcase or perhaps does not appear on the map at all. We spoke about the nature of musicality, and eventually came to the question of what makes something musical at all. Just because something may not be popular, or even pleasant to listen to or entertaining, does it therefore cease to be musical? My friend used a phrase that I found quite intriguing in order to make a distinction between what he saw as music proper and “explorations in sound.” What exactly is simply sound (or noise, if you prefer) and what is actual music? A good question, and one that needs to be asked if we are to truly appreciate all that music has to offer.
For example, CBC Radio Two carries a late night show called The Signal, which brands itself as providing an avant-garde muscial experience. I listen to it infrequently, but when I do, I am often greeted by recordings that incorporate things like white noise, car horns, and the clanging of pots and pans. This is not music in the form that we are used to, but is it therefore illegitimate?
I remember attending a VSO performance four years ago of Thomas Adès’ Asyla, which featured as one of the percussion instruments a dinnr plate stacked with knives. This “instrument” was fully incorporated into something that could rightly be called avant-garde but which clearly understood itself to be making a contribution to music. Again, was this simply sound, or did it deserve to be respected as music? Those who listen to the work of Harrison Birtwistle will have to ask themselves the same question. We are often very quick to label something as good and acceptable music and the remainder as worthless, but upon what basis? The unreality of true distinctions calls into question the haste in which we make these judgments.
There is an inherent elitism in the (sub?)concious bifurcation between “explorations in sound” and music. But what is the relationship between these two things (or one might say that they are merely different ends of the spectrum that ranges from what is popular and what is yet to appreciated)? The question that should concern us is, how does one inform the other? Can we expect (or even allow) these “explorations” to challenge our often hidden assumptions about what music is and the role that is plays in our society? If one were to record a 25 -minute track of people striking sticks together and clacking stones, is this not music (regardless of whether or not it is interesting or “good” in any conventional sense?) I suspect that the first humans began with such “primitive” notions of percussion, and yet it served as a launching pad that allowed for the creation of the harp, the skin drum, and the flute.
Now don’t get me wrong, I would very quickly choose a piece of smooth jazz music over primal chanting interspersed with white noise, but just because I do not prefer it does not mean that it is not legitimate, or that it will not come into the mainstream in a few decades, or at least inform and flavour what is happening in the mainstream.
See http://www.vancouverreview.com/past_articles/shockofthenew.htm for some related musings