Category Archives: philosophy

Experiencing Everything and Nothing in Glenn Branca’s 6th Symphony

Glenn Branca - "Symphony No. 6: Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven"
Glenn Branca – “Symphony No. 6: Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven”

Glenn Branca’s 6th Symphony “Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven” has been my go-to large scale work lately. It brings to mind several thoughts that I have about music in general and about a composer’s intentions.

As I listen to a symphony by Branca (and I think that I have listened to most of them, and of the ones that I have listened to I have done so several times) I often find myself wondering what the score looks like. Immediately after trying to imagine the score I ask myself if that even matters. The next thing that comes to mind, especially when listening to this work in particular is how a composer (it can be any composer) can manage to have such a firm hold on their style, where their music is instantly recognizable, like Stravinsky or Webern or Ravel, yet still manages to say different things.

I guess that might be an assumption, that the composer has to be saying different things with each work that is produced. For example, listening to each of Branca’s symphonies, each (for the most part, No. 9 is an anomaly) calls for an army of guitars, and a drummer. There might be some other instruments mixed in there, but the most noticeable thing (and I think that it’s the thing that everyone that has every listened to Branca’s music, or at least knows about his music) are the guitars.

The cloud of noise that is created throughout the 6th symphony accomplishes different goals in each of the movements, yet it still (on the surface) remains just that – a cloud of noise. Of course, we can get into the argument about what noise is or what is considered noise, for days. For my purposes I’m going to say that noise in Branca’s symphonies is that cloud of sound. It’s so pitch saturated that it becomes pitchless and there are so many performers on stage, each of whom are attacking their instruments in a wild tremolo, that the intense, dense layers of rhythm become rhythmless. The music is recursive, and in being so creates a situation where everything that is becomes nothing, and everything that seems like nothing on the surface is what the piece is all about.

This might sound a little too vague, or faux-philosophical and lofty, but allow me explain. Let’s go back to how the cloud of noise is used in a couple of the different movements. Take the opening of the symphony: it starts quiet enough, but as the movement begins to take off the strummed guitars’ monotony severs itself into two different layers where one layer forms a consistent harmonic backdrop while the other layer allies itself with the percussion, providing sharp stabs of accent every so often. That “every so often” becomes more and more often as the movement progresses, yet the layer of harmonic noise continues underneath. It is steady and omnipresent. The growth of the movement occurs via the interplay of these two layers. So we could say that the cloud of noise, as it pertains to this movement, provides the backdrop. It is the base of sound, the music has no choice but to grow continually louder. By the end of the movement the layers come together again, combining their pitch and rhythm material into a dense haze.

As with all minimalist music the more that the piece repeats the material the more that the listener is allowed to search “inside” the sounds that they are hearing. Lines start to peak out from the cloud, some interplay comes into focus.

In the second movement an infinitely ascending line continues for the first four and a half minutes. The pitch material exists on its own, and there is no evidence of any guitar strings being attacked, or any strumming of any kind going on. All there is is pitch, and at the same time there really is no pitch. As soon as you are able to put your finger on it it is gone. There are some tones buried within that remain constant, while the upper limit continues to expand. It is music that describes infinity in many ways. Infinite space, infinite time (timelessness). Listening to this ever ascending line that seems like it is never going to reach its destination, it simply floats there, hanging in space. But there is motion, there is motion without direction. Sure it is ascending infinitely, but we have no idea as to the ultimate destination of that ascending line. The listener is left with no frame of reference, and that is exciting. There is a tension that is built up throughout the movement that is the result of all of this uncertainty. We begin to start listening for something specific to happen, we want there to be a great big arrival point. The longer that this ascent continues the more that we want to hear it and the greater our expectations become of something increasingly spectacular. It’s the same experience of needing to have a leading tone resolved, only this leading tone goes on for almost 5 minutes. When it settles down, and we decide that we have indeed reached a point of arrival there is an immediate release of all the tension that has been building up.

Symphony No. 6: Second Movement

I feel that this is something that more traditional composers aren’t able to harness. That tension. The ever growing intensity. Branca is able to create such a high degree of it here without any change in dynamic (it remains fairly loud consistently throughout the movement) and once again there are several other things that he is doing “without.” There still isn’t a clear statement of pitch. Instead we are presented with all of the pitches at once. That mass of pitch becomes, once again, cloudy and formless. The shape, however, changes and moves through time. The movement is more about an idea and a depiction than it is about pitch relations. It’s the development of one idea that fits into the work.

The third movement uses more monotony than anything else. Consistent chords ringing out with a steady pulse. Everything sounds like a downbeat. Again, as with minimalism, we have rhythm that is so persistent that it becomes anything but a rhythm. Our ear treats all the repetition as if it is something that can be ignored. This movement is also maybe the most abrasive of the symphony, and the most exciting, in my opinion. The final cadence brings us to the loudest caterwaul of sound that we have so far experience.

There is some dizzying contrapuntal work during the opening of the fourth movement, and finally we have some shifting layers of sound, where there was pretty much none in the first 3 movements. Two different lines bounce back and forth, a constant blanket of activity over which haunting and thin ephemera passing in and out of each channel in turn.

Symphony No. 6: Fourth Movement

That there can be such contradictions in a single work is interesting enough to think about. That they can be achieved in exactly the opposite way that one would first think is another thing altogether. Creating a work with no discernible use of pitch, by using all pitches all the time; and a work with formless rhythm while having a persistent rhythm throughout. As I’ve said a million times before, it’s about learning to hear differently, it’s about making sense of the apparent contradictions that are presented to us in a piece of music, the things that we never thought were possible, ideas that can not be expressed in any other way. Listening to music, such as a symphony by Glenn Branca, requires the listener to consider something that they have not only never considered before, but never thought about considering before.

Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Branca’s 3rd Symphony

Glenn Branca - "Symphony No. 3"
Glenn Branca – “Symphony No. 3”

Sure, I understand that if I really wanted to make the proper reference to the book I would have used Branca’s 9th symphony, but after listening to it I can honestly say that I don’t enjoy the work at all.

I don’t want to specifically talk about Branca’s symphonies exactly. I just wanted to move away from the seemingly non-stop album reviews. They are tedious to read and possibly more tedious for me to write. I’m becoming more and more selective with regard to actual album reviews. I have my favorite bands, and I get some (ie. very little) good stuff via email, but from the beginning I have mentioned that I wanted to start to write something that went deeper than just a review. I’m not comfortable with the purpose of writing if it is just to sell something. That’s what I feel like when I am writing an album review sometimes, I feel like I am just trying to sell music, and I don’t think that the main purpose (or any purpose, for that matter) of a writer, or an artist, is to sell anything.

I began to touch upon things that I have been thinking about in a few of my more recent posts, regarding abstraction in music, temporality in music in my post about Autechre, a topic so seldom discussed in music regardless of genre. There was also the Glenn Gould connection post from a few weeks ago, but  there have been other things I’ve been considering.

Perhaps Branca is, in fact, a good jumping off point for a discussion of the manipulation of temporality in music. When listening to his symphonies one must, in some ways, throw away everything that they think they know about listening to a piece of music and start over. And there are a lot of pieces of music that require just that.

My next few posts are going to attempt to tackle a few interesting cases of different ways that musicians play with the listener’s perception of time. These manipulations will happen in a variety of different ways, and to different ends. Some of the songs that I am going to be discussing will be taken from things that I have already talked about a little bit on the blog, while others will be taken from familiar bands looked at in different ways.

Temporality, and its use in music, is maybe the most fascinating element of organized sound, and the hardest to describe without getting all metaphysical. I think that I have noted in a few posts about how temporality is suspended in minimalist music, where the incessant repetitions create a void of sorts for the listener, allowing them to focus in on the sound between the sound; the creation of aural illusions where the listener is hearing something that perhaps isn’t written into the score. That is what I would consider a meditative disposal of time, more like a contradiction if you think about it. Minimalism subverts time by making it the most surface level characteristic of the music. The same rhythm, repeating over and over and over and over and over again ends up not being tedious, but rather creates a new kind of silence where the mind starts to filter out what is happening on the surface. One can hear resonance, and the collection of overtones and pure timbre.

I can’t help but think back to the time that I drove up to Toronto in 2005 or so, to catch a performance by the University of Toronto percussion ensemble. There was a performance of Cage’s 4’33”, and Varese’s “Ionisation.” Those pieces, though great, didn’t leave a mark on me as profoundly as did the piece that had just started when I walked in.

As I stood there in the entranceway to the concert hall a performance of James Tenney’s    “Having Never Written a Note for Percussion” had just begun. I can’t do justice to the piece by trying to describe what the experience was like, though I will try.

And that’s part of the thing, is that this is a piece that is so simple in concept that capturing it in a recording could not possibly do it justice. The listener is an integral part of the piece. Imagine the slowest, most gradual crescendo that you could ever experience being played out on a single tam-tam (if I could venture a guess, it was being performed on a 40″ instrument) from a performer that was not visible. The only thing that could be seen was the front of the instrument, while the performer must have been kneeling behind it, and with soft mallets (and therefore no sounding attack) they gently built up the amplitude.

That’s it. The piece is simply an incredibly lengthy crescendo that is followed by an equally lengthy diminuendo. But being there you feel like you are standing inside the sound. For the first second that I walked into the room I could remember the break between the “silence” that I was experiencing just outside the door to the hall and the sound that I was now in the middle of while standing at the back of that hall. As I stood there that memory of the divide slowly faded and all that my mind could focus on was what was happening right there in front of me, and all around me. Time had stopped. In that time I could focus on every single little pitch and overtone that was created. The sound enveloped everything in the room, so present as to seemingly take a physical form. Now, the sound was not loud enough to make anyone recoil in pain, it was just in the room with us, creating a presence.

The piece built up so slowly that the idea of past, present and future were irrelevant. There were no more points of reference. Time had effectively ceased to exist. And that is something that is very difficult to get through on a recording.

I think that in this way Branca’s symphony (several of them, but I’m thinking of the 3rd specifically right now) and Tenney’s piece have a lot in common. They are contradictions of simplicity and complexity, of loud and quiet, something and nothing, all at the same time. Branca’s wall of microtones, as well as Tenney’s, find similar ways to grab hold of the most illusive element of music, and that is the manipulation of temporality. They grab a hold of it and turn the entire piece into the exploration of that one impossible thing.


The Shaggs – “It’s Halloween”

The Shaggs - "It's Halloween"
The Shaggs – “It’s Halloween”

I figured that this would be an appropriate thing to post today. It’s one of those things that I coincidentally rediscover every year, and every year that I come back to it I love it more and more.

The story of The Shaggs is easy to find online, as are the quotes from Frank Zappa, who said they were “better than the Beatles” (he’s right) and Kurt Cobain also gave them praise in saying that “they were the real thing.” The completely unique sound of this group remains mystifying to this day.

The other reason that I find this song, and this group, particularly interesting today is because of a “discussion” in which I was involved today (bordering on heated argument), wherein people were laughing at, while at the same time not paying attention to, some music that was being played. The piece was Pierre Boulez’s “Structures I,” a notoriously difficult work from both the performer’s and listener’s standpoint. Boulez’s music is highly organized, with every element of the composition brought to fruition through a complex series of operations, and it is unlike anything else in its exploration of sound, simultaneity, timbre, and form.

Pulling off a performance of the piece requires the pianists to test the limits of their concentration. And listening to the piece requires a great deal from the audience; they must be willing to accept the sounds as they come to them, accept those sounds as music and to ask themselves what they think about the piece. They need to think about the piece, and not how the piece was conceived. If they come to the work with a closed mind, having already decided that they are not going to like the piece, or (worse yet) if they leave the piece and decide that it was “bad” without even giving it so much as a second thought, well, either one of those results from, in my opinion, a lack of willingness to understand the music, or a lack of willingness to want to come to an understanding of the music. Basically, it comes from a place of willful ignorance. Everyone is entitled to not like something, but that dislike should be based on something significant, not just that “it sounds bad.” Don’t even get me started on that one.

Now, I by no means am trying to compare the music of The Shaggs to that of Pierre Boulez. We’re talking about two completely different things there. But I think that the point stands: that some people are going to hear the idiosyncratic rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic elements of The Shaggs’ music and they are going to be immediately turned off, or (more likely) they are going to mock it for all of the elements that make the music great. Most likely the people that dismiss this music are going to then turn to someone that does accept this music with an open mind and deride them as “snobs” or “hipsters” for their apparent contrarian view.

Yes, the music of The Shaggs is unlike anything else out there, but in my mind that is something to be praised. This album just turned 44, and has outlasted so many of its contemporaries that have since faded into obscurity. Meanwhile 4 girls that were completely outside of the music industry at large made such an impact with their music that we are still talking about it, and more importantly listening to it, all these years later.

Dot Wiggin, guitarist and singer of The Shaggs, has just released (October 28th), her first solo album with the Dot Wiggin Band called “Ready! Get! Go!” You can buy the album here, and check out a new songs here.

Music as Symbol and Abstraction

“My God! What has sound got to do with music!” – Charles Ives

If you have been reading this blog for the past couple months since I started it back up, you may have read the series of 3 posts that I did on the recent Merzbow album “Takahe Collage” (1 2 3). Those posts were a bit more analytical than they were philosophical in nature, but the two do tend to go hand in hand to a certain extent.

I’ve had some time to put together some more thoughts on the topic of music as abstraction, noise as music and how it relates to the thoughts and motivation of other artists of all types within that realm. I wrote this short paper for a presentation in a seminar on the history of 20th century music. I offer it below:

October 9, 2013

The main thing that I would like to discuss today, and I want to get a dialogue going on this, is the idea of what a group of musicians considers to be music and what they consider “noise.”

We’ve been looking at how the art world relates to the musical world, showing how the Rite of Spring’s choreography relates to cubism, and primitivism. We’ve talked about modernism and post-modernim, and I’d like to talk a little bit about abstract art, dadaism, music and noise.

First, I want to give you an idea of what I’m talking about with a painting by Jackson Pollack. We’ve probably all seen his paintings, and they have given way to many discussions of whether they are or are not art. Is something art just because the artist says it is? Or can anything be art? How about a painting or sculpture by a Dada artist that takes random materials found on the street and fastens them together with purposely no organization? Does that lack of organization become the organization? Or are we, like Taruskin says, finding organization where there isn’t any simply because we are looking for it? Is music music just because the composer says it is, or can any and all sound be music?

Jackson Pollack - "#3"
Jackson Pollack – “#3”

There are plenty of electronic sound collage pieces that are made from “found sound” that has been manipulated. Is that manipulation what takes something from just sound to actually being an artistic statement? And think back to the first time that you heard Schoenberg or Webern or John Cage, or put yourself in the shoes of someone that only listens to top 40 pop music hearing Webern’s Op. 20 for the first time. What do you think that person would have to say about that music? Would they say that it was just noise? Could noise be just a word that we use when we don’t understand something?

Let’s listen quickly to a few short examples:

Frank Martin: Quatre pièces brèves: III. Plainte


Both guitars, right? But what does the timbre of Julian Bream’s guitar have to do with that of The Telescopes? They are both the same instrument, but the sound of guitar as we know it is an abstraction of what a guitar “really” sounds like. The sound of the guitar, when used in rock music, is merely a symbol. It doesn’t sound anything like a guitar. Instead the sound that is produced stands in for the sound of the guitar. It essentially is a wall of distortion. But, we have learned to accept that particular sound over time as being “a guitar.” Imagine if you were to play that Telescopes song for Andres Segovia, or Beethoven, or Bach. They would have NO IDEA what that sound was. We recognize it as such because we can picture in our head where the sound is coming from. We understand where it is coming from and we accept it. We understand so well that we don’t even think about it anymore.

Do we consider the sound of a distorted guitar from rock music to be noise? Or just noisier than what a “guitar” “should” sound like? And what should anything sound like?

What if we got even more abstract? Now onto Merzbow.
“Is not beauty in music too often confused with something which lets the ears lie back in an easy-chair?” – Charles Ives
Merzbow is Japanese musician and writer Masami Akita. Since 1979 he’s released over 350 recordings, 6 so far this year. Included in that output is the amazing 50 CD Merzbox. This is the track “Tendeko” from the 2nd album he released this year, “Takahe Collage.”


Can we accept this as music? I would say that this is basically, to me, just another degree of abstraction. Merzbow is manipulating the sounds that he is generating, there are different timbres involved, different ideas that are brought in and then go out through the course of the piece. However, is this closer in timbre to “pure noise” for you?

And what exactly is a good definition of noise? Does it have to do with sound? There’s a book by Paul Hegarty called “Noise/Music: A History” that discusses “noise” in all of its contexts. Noise as basically any confrontation against our expectations. It could be in the form of a reaction to norms, or noise as antagonism such as with the band Throbbing Gristle, taunting and angering their audience purposely. Noise as anything added to the music or that distracts one from the music. But what happens when the noise is the music? And we still haven’t solved the problem of what is and is not considered music. If this “noise,” in whatever form that it may be coming in, is part of the performance (and is it really possible to get rid of all noise? Hello, John Cage) then is it really noise at all?

I think of it this way: John Cage’s music is the sound of philosophy. It gives us something that is challenging, it gives us something that questions what it is that we believe about something that we thought that we had such a firm grasp on. This music is something that gets us thinking and it is something that is provocative and it is daring and controversial, but it is also an outlet for something for someone that wants to create something.

Isn’t music itself an abstraction of our words and our voices? And, if so, noise music is still music in just the same way. I think that as we evolve we continually create further  abstractions from where we started off, and eventually everyone catches up to that abstraction, and the definition of “noise” changes. Everything is a symbol for something else in music. Just think to the programmatic music of Strauss or Berlioz. Everything is symbol and everything is abstraction.


Album that you need to hear: Pink Mountain – “Untitled”

Pink Mountain - "Untitled"
Pink Mountain – “Untitled”

Released April 28, 2009 Pink Mountain’s “Untitled” 2nd album represents an intriguing and, in my opinion, inviting blend of contemporary composition and improvisation techniques within the rock idiom. Despite its unique qualities the album remains woefully unknown and underrated, unappreciated and overall unlistened to since its release. To that end, when it was released only 500 copies of the vinyl were produced, and it remains available from Sick Room Records as of this writing.

I first learned of this album through Signal To Noise magazine, which is a phenomenal publication for any of those that may be interested in experimental and otherwise unknown music. That magazine has dubbed itself “The biannual journal of improvised, experimental and unusual music” and as far as I know it is the best of its kind. Though subscription service is currently suspended I truly hope that they begin publishing regularly again. Times are tough in the publishing industry, and I’m sure that publishing a magazine with such a specific target audience is even tougher.

It was in issue #55 for Fall 2009, to be specific, that I came to learn of the existence of Pink Mountain in a piece entitled “They’re Only in it for the Music.” Both that title as well as the subheading that states that they have “zero hope for mass appeal” summoning the specter of Frank Zappa. Though their music is a similar mix of art-rock there are many notable differences. For starters, where Zappa was influenced by and mimicked (to death) the compositional styles of Stravinsky and Varese, Pink Mountain are a bit more current with their influences. They work with contemporary, American influences; influences that don’t sound like they originate in the downtown scene of New York, but rather lie with the improv techniques of the West Coast, specifically the experimentalism and improvisatory techniques that come out of Mills College in Oakland. The album explores heavy use of noise and free form improv over layers of tight foundational work that cycles regularly in shifting tectonic plates of polymeter and minimalist repetition.

I remember playing this album for a friend that’s pretty into “out” jazz, and he remarked nearly immediately that he couldn’t handle it. He said that it was “a bit too far for me…I don’t know if I can get into this.” Perhaps it was the distortion, or the way that the album opens with near chaos that continues to build, that got him, or rather didn’t get him.

There are tracks that are more to one side of the experimental-rock rift and those that swing far to the other side. And, as expected, there are those moments that manage to bridge that gap.

“Foreign Rising” is a clever renaming of the James Tenney piece “For Anne (rising)” that makes use of a Shepard Tone, which is an aural illusion that sounds like a continual ascent that could potentially go on forever. Think of it like the sound equivalent of one of those barbershop poles where the stripe seems to continue to rise out of the bottom for as long as you look at it. Of course this is a re-imagining of the original electronic piece by Tenney that is a lot more stripped down than. Pink Mountain adds a bit of an accelerando, jazz drumming that grows continually more complex as the piece continues and some other ringing harmonics, and various other buzzing or otherwise distorted sounds (and vocals) over top.

Foreign Rising

“Fine Print” screeches and squeals over a rock-solid drumbeat with woodwinds that ties the end of the album to the beginning , making the cloud of atmospheric noise a contorting leitmotif of the work as a whole. The lyrics of “Fine Print” are concerned with the inner non-workings of the music industry, which are then combined with instrumentation and composition practices that eschew most of the principles of rock music writing. The breakdown in the song features the a ragged bass sound with drums that are locked into a constantly shifting 7/8 that is in some respects rock steady, while simultaneously it is anything but.

It’s a diatribe against the commercial music industry in every way possible. Basically, the entire album is, but it doesn’t make a point of addressing it overtly until this song. In a way it is like the band is saying, “yes, we are aware of the limited potential for recognition with this album, and this is how much we don’t care.” The song aligns them philosophically with Steve Albini’s famous tirade (that I reference every chance that I get).

Speaking more to the polyrhythmic structure that is present throughout most of the songs, “Howling Fantods” (an “Infinite Jest” reference no doubt. It matches nicely with the Pynchon nod in the title of their song “V.,” a creepy instrumental with what sounds like bowed cymbals (?) and tense, brittle harmonics. And their music matches that post-modern mindset, sudden shifts of texture, several layers of action, the re-working of concepts [re-packaging, if you will] and the steady, fluid mixture of high-art with low in that rock and jazz influences are thrown in a blender with well thought out contemporary classical compositional techniques [prepared piano, Shepard Tone, different levels of metric borrowing/time streams a la Elliott Carter, and the list goes on) marches dutifully into the prog realm with its additive rhythm that appends an increasing number of strong beats to the end of a 7/8 measure, stretching out the phrases before once again collapsing into a controlled chaos. The moments that don’t feature that persistent additive rhythm stretch time in their own way by at first dropping any sense of beat altogether, while hinting at the motive melodically, and later slowing time in a complex metric modulation.

Howling Fantods

The most obvious and aurally shocking element that Pink Mountain puts to work is the mind-warp pulse shifts of “Eternal Halflife” and its reprise “Eternal Shelflife” where a steady 4/4 meter with the usual (for rock tunes) strong accents on 2 and 4 starts off unsurprisingly with a clear texture of understated drums with a seemingly half-hearted guitar that sits on one chord, non-chalantly strumming eighth notes. After two measures, easily enough time  such that one’s mind settles into passive acceptance, the guitar shifts upwards while the drums subdivide each half-note into 5, giving the impression of a tempo increase, but that is only another illusion (they seem to be making a theme of aural illusions on this album what with the Shepard Tone that I have mentioned a few other times and now this jarring metric shift that feels like a tempo shift but it isn’t. I would classify this as maybe a form of different simultaneous tempo streams), as the snare drum continues to accent beats 2 and 4. The pattern is then repeated but with each bar divided into 3 this time, seemingly slowing the piece. It would be an understatement to say that this is simply an interesting phenomenon to experience. The first time that I heard it I came to the realization that I had never experienced anything like that in music before. And that is quite a rare circumstance indeed when you can actually experience something in music that you have never heard before.

Eternal Halflife

The main meter shifting section of “Eternal Halflife” where beats 2 and 4 are accented and the upper voice borrows from other meters. (notes are only to indicate rhythm. Quarter notes are kick drum and snare while eighth notes represent the hi-hat)

The band does play with tempo and rhythm across the entire album, so much so that there is no point of reference for what “normal” might mean. Even in moments where there isn’t anything particularly interesting (that’s, of course, a relative term) happening, say for example in certain parts of “Thee Red Lion.” The texture in that track is sparse for the most part, but the band takes the opportunity to really lean back in the bar. They are pushing that meter back and making those bars last as long as they can without changing the number of beats in a measure and also without changing the tempo. To my ear this element of their playing makes that track sound even heavier that it would be if it was played square.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons that I am so attracted to this album. One of the reasons that I continually go back to it. Funny tidbit: Sam Coomes, the singer here, is also in the (comparatively much more well known) band Quasi (another band that I have talked about ad nauseum on this blog) with Janet Weiss. Janet was the drummer for Sleater-Kinney, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, and now Wild Flag (in addition to Quasi). The point is that I have known of all of those bands, except for Quasi, which I only came to know after becoming very familiar with Pink Mountain. I tend to do things backward sometimes.

The mixture of stylistic approach on this album reaches far beyond the classification of rock or jazz or classical. It combines elements of all of those things in a fairly tight package. There isn’t one song that showcases a single one of those elements, as they are all mixed evenly throughout. As I have mentioned before on this blog, one of my goals in writing and in studying music is to show that the categories and the classifications that we heap onto music are, for the most part, meaningless. The intermingling of elements is an important part of the post-modern aesthetic, and is showcased on many albums of the past ten years. Pink Mountain’s “Untitled” is one such album that not only defies classification, but seemingly obliterates it.

Book Review: Paul Hegarty – “Noise/Music: A History”

Noise/Music: A History by Paul Hegarty
Noise/Music: A History by Paul Hegarty

One of the most complex and confounding questions for fans of music, and for musicians in general is also the most basic and deceptively simple question either could ask: “What is music?” The question extrapolates from Duchamp’s similar challenge presented to artists.

At a very basic level music is whatever one decides to call music. Found sounds can be (and are) considered as music. Electronic sounds are music. Any sound at all is music. Though, understandably, this may not be everyone’s view. One could go even further and say that music isn’t merely sound, but it is more specifically organized sound. So if one makes that distinction then one must be able to account for the organization behind what one considers music.

To that end Paul Hegarty’s probing philosophical exploration of the genre of noise music provides a thorough consideration of this very question. Not only does he consider the way in which noise music may be, and is, organized; he goes into detail about the implications of these organizations and how even the very word organization” needs to be questioned.

The book opens by exploring music with similar considerations as one would consider Arte Povera. As such it is explained that music would “stray far from the accepted, proper, artistic materials and conventions.” (pg. 27) In the 2nd chapter Hegarty introduces Derrida and Bataille into the conversation, taking a look at the philosophical implications behind the creation of different, or rather different, forms of music.

He begins with the birth of electronic music, in the late 1940’s by composers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, and how their “found sounds” were recorded and reproduced and then manipulated. The musical material became these fixed sounds that were then manipulated, and the world of music could never again be the same. While I was reading this section of the book what came to my mind was that incorporating found sound into music could maybe be compared to using the sound of a room in today’s recording techniques, in addition to, of course, the continuation of the tradition of the manipulation of found sounds.

The parallels between Schaeffer and Henry’s experiments with that of the questions that were implied by Cage’s 4’33” can be seen, and the answer to some of those questions are answered through the creation of noise as music. Music moves outside the world of sterility where “noise” of any kind is absolutely prohibited (Classical and Romantic era compositions have score indications, but nowhere is anything else supposed to be added to the music. People throw a fit when conductors do something as seemingly minimal as taking a piece at a slightly different tempo, or ignoring phrase markings. The perceived structure of the entire piece depends upon the correlation between the notes, the rhythms and the tempi, anything added or taken away threatens that very structure) to the real world where the incorporation of “noise” makes music more real, or at least more of the world in which it was created.

Creating noise as music sets out to discover the limits and nature of music itself, but not only that, it seeks to find what it is that holds it together. What can be added, and what can be taken away from a composition before that composition becomes another piece entirely? According to Hegarty, “Schaeffer wanted to expand the realm of music, and bring in sounds that were musical, even if not matching the expectations of being specific notes.”

“Music had become obsessed with form, Schaeffer argues, whereas rel interest could only come from material…paying attention to the stuff of music – sounds as themselves – would reconcile material and form ‘as a new immanent body’…this new music would still need organization” (pg. 33)

These considerations of form and structure continue throughout the book. Add to those consideration also that of motivation and conception. Adding Adorno and Deluze to his philosophical battalion Hegarty moves from electronic music to Throbbing Gristle and antagonization as noise, social disorder as noise, actual feedback (in the music of Derek Bailey) as noise and music. He talks about the birth of Punk as social noise, “punk precursors like MC5 reintroduced aggression and transgression, both in lyrical content and musical form…tired of extended solos and hippie culture that those elements came out of.” (pg. 68) He continues, “It is not enough to simply reject the long form, it is far more effective to wreck the purpose of it through the form itself.” (pg. 69)

The fact that anti-music is made through music is an interesting concept that sets up the remainder of Hegarty’s book. This is not not music. This is (if you’ll pardon me) not not not music. And progressive rock bands like King Crimson and Yes are reacting against that very reaction. He compares the motivations of King Crimson to Bataille where as Yes is more Hegelian, and therefore opposite of King Crimson. These inter-genre dissonances can be seen as another form of noise. He states that Yes’s (annoying, pretentiously and impossibly long) “Tales from Topographic Oceans” is noisy both lyrically and conceptually. If a philosophical quandary in the form of lyrics goes on for 75 minutes and nobody is able to make any sense of it, or relate to it….

The chapters continue to probe at the real core issue here, which has now gone from “what is music” to “what is noise and what can noise be?” He brings up ineptitude, ie if a music can only be created by musicians then what is a musician? If someone creates music then they are a musician, you can’t have one without the other. He also considers industrial music, the beat poets and their influence on music (hello Sonic Youth and the entirety of the early 80s downtown rock scene), power (“noise is not just volume, but the spread, dissemination and dispersal of its non-message”) Japan’s noise scene, and an entire chapter on Merzbow.

Hegarty approaches his topic both chronologically and in order of increasing complication because as time goes on art is reacting to itself faster and faster with each reaction creating sub-genre’s and therefore further expansions of music. His book is both philosophically challenging and highly readable. One does not need to be a music theorist nor a philosopher in order to follow the logic set down in this book. I would highly recommend that any fan of outsider music, experimental music and of course noise music, pick this book up and give it a thorough read and consideration. It is fairly popular and might even be found at your local library.


Purchase – It’s rather expensive as a hardcover, but paperback versions can be found for as little as $18 through certified Amazon outlets.

The Solitude Trilogy – Glenn Gould, Shellac and Marnie Stern

Glenn Gould
Glenn Gould

You wouldn’t think that the abrasive and angular music of Shellac would have much to do with Marnie Stern’s music, or that either of them could be linked to one of the most prolific, brilliant, thought provoking and curious concert pianists of the 20th century, but they are. Canadian pianist Glenn Gould has influenced generations of pianists, but I don’t think that anyone has ever discussed his influence on artists outside of the concert hall.

Gould was a Canadian pianist, born in 1932. Even those with just a passing knowledge of his work are at least somewhat familiar with at least one of his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Those recordings work like the bookends of his recording career. When he was first given a record contract he decided that the then seldom heard, obscure Bach piece would become his debut recording. That was in 1955. Some 26 years later his re-recording of the same piece would lead to heated debates in the music community for decades. Those two recordings only give a tiny bit of insight into the way that Gould’s mind worked. He was constantly deep in thought and concerned about his role in the interpretation of the works that he performed. Without a doubt the man was a genius.

Not only was he obsessively driven toward pushing himself, he was intensely interested in pushing the bounds of how music could be realized in the age of new recording technologies. Gould would often remark that the state of recorded music (keep in mind when he was alive, from 1932 to 1982) would not only allow musicians to push the bounds of music, but that people at home would soon be able to create and modify those recordings through their own “knob twiddlings.” Of course he was talking about the way that music could be manipulated on home stereos via various volume, balance and equalizer controls.

It was his contemplations on the effect that the recording studio would have on music that drove him to be one of the first true “recording artists.” In documentaries such as The Alchemist viewers can watch as Gould endlessly annoys the recording engineer, constantly telling him where to cut the tape while referring to the score. Gould’s score had indications for not only the usual dynamics and articulations, but also indications of where the sound would be. Would part of the score sound distant and reverberant while another sounded more up front? How would those things be able to work together. Gould was truly able to use the recording studio not to simply preserve his performances,  but also as an extension of his abilities as a pianist and musical mind.

Gould was not only interested in recording the works of Bach, Webern, Scriabin and others, but he was also interested in composition. His compositions came in the form of a 3 part “contrapuntal radio documentary” called the Solitude Trilogy. “The Idea of North,” “The Latecomers” and “The Quiet in the Land” explored Gould’s interest in the northernmost part of Canada, which reflected his own comfort in solitude and singularity.

Shellac. Steve Albin, Todd Trainer, Bob Weston.
Shellac. Steve Albin, Todd Trainer, Bob Weston.

When Steve Albini says that Shellac only writes songs about two things “Canada and baseball” it could very well be true, most notably in the song “The Idea of North.” This one is kind of obvious, being that the song takes its name directly from Gould’s radio documentary. Perhaps the same desolate mood of isolation and prohibitive environs that Gould explores in his documentary are interpreted by Shellac in the opening of their song. The sparse, spacious bass line invites listeners to consider the ambience that surrounds it. Perhaps Albini’s vocals that near complete obfuscation are meant to evoke the image of someone thinking outloud (barely) to themselves as a representation of the inquisitive, often self-obsessed way that Gould would.

The Idea Of North

Marnie Stern
Marnie Stern


On the other hand we have Marnie Stern, with her song “Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling,”takes the idea of Gould’s radio documentaries a bit further. In this song Marnie creates a tone poem of sorts where after narrating the actions of characters those actions are then assigned an idiosyncratic sound or motive. She begins by explaining “I will paint you a picture that’s inside my head.” Following that introduction she begins to describe that you are now standing in a room while “around you is a solitude trilogy,” and a bit later “you sit down and start to think of ideas of the North,” which is followed by it’s sound that is a chromatically ascending line. After the narration is complete and the scene has been set she begins to place the motives on top of one another, creating a contrapuntal sound collage much in the same way that Gould did with his intercut ambient sounds and multiple interviews at once. In this way Marnie is creating a bit of a miniature homage to Gould’s radio broadcasts.

Patterns of a Diamon Ceiling

We can now see how these two artists have made their influence blatant, but it still remains to be seen why they chose to do so. What is the deeper connection between Gould and his work and that of Marnie Stern and Albini and Co.?

Gould’s singular personality broke down a lot of the barriers that existed between classical music and popular music in his day. He was famously quirky and thoroughly interesting, not to mention self-aware. He knew that people were sometimes more interested in the spectacle of Glenn Gould, the character that was Glenn Gould perhaps more so than they were interested in the performances of the man himself.

Glenn Gould was punk rock before punk rock was punk rock. He did things his way and he couldn’t possibly care less what people thought of that. He knew that he was brilliant enough to do his own thing, to do things his way, and not to let anyone else dictate to him how his art should be presented. He was obsessed with his own perfection and never stopped wondering how he could better express himself. This much is clear simply by listening to (as mentioned up a few paragraphs) his two renditions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He didn’t just perform and record a piece to leave it behind. No, those pieces, everything that he played, stayed with him and he was constantly thinking about them and learning to think about them in new ways.

This sort of work ethic and perfection is mentioned several times by Marnie Stern across all 4 of her albums. Obsession and a focus on her passion are a consistent theme in Marnie’s lyrics.  In “Grapefruit” the lyric “keep on keep at it, keep on, keep at it” is repeated like a mantra. On her most recent album “The Chronicles of Marnia” in the song “You Don’t Turn Down” she states, nearly a cappella that she’s “Got to get obsessed and stay there now.” “Keep on, keep at it, keep on, keep at it” from “Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket!!” cover these themes in both its lyric and the song’s very title.

I think that Shellac’s awareness that they are a band unlike any other band around today, and that they staunchly disassociate themselves from the music industry as much as they can, supporting Touch and Go since the begining. And I think that this anti-industry stance is pretty well known because of Steve Albini’s famous tome against the corporate music world. In addition to all of this It seems that they relate more to Gould’s overall attitude, whereas Marnie Stern relates more to his obsessive desire to improve.

I’m sure that there must be other examples of Glenn Gould’s influence, even in slightly more indirect ways, can be found throughout independent rock music. It’s clear that, as Alban Berg famously said to George Gershwin, “…music is music.” It doesn’t matter how it is classified or how it is created, and perhaps the clearly constructed borders between genres that one imagines are in fact not there at all.


For more information on the life of Glenn Gould, and to hear the entire Solitary Trilogy follow these links:

The Idea of North,” “The Latecomers” and “The Quiet in the Land” can all be heard in their entirety at the CBC’s site as part of their legacy audio collection. “The Idea of the North” was commissioned by the CBC as a way of introduction for themselves and have become a large and important part of Canadian culture, just like the man himself.

There are several books on the life of Glenn Gould. The first “biography” written about him was less of a biography and more a study of what made Gould the genius that he was. His habits, his practices, how he thought about music. It’s by Geoffrey Payzant and is called “Glenn Gould: Music and Mind

There is also Ott Friedrich’s “A Life and Variations” and Peter F. Ostwald’s “Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius.

You should also check out the documentary by Bruno Monsaingeon called “The Alchemist.” He actually did a whole series of documentaries about Gould, but this one is my favorite for showing Gould at work in the studio after he had permanently left the concertizing life to focus on his recording career.

Finally, my favorite movie of all time “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.” It mixes interviews with Gould’s contemporaries alongside vignettes depicting his life. Colm Feore does an incredible job at portraying Glenn Gould.