This post was originally going to veer into a discussion of a particular group of songs that I thought were worth talking about, but ended up developing into something completely different and I think that it works better as a stand alone piece. These are some of the things that I have been thinking about lately, perhaps spurred by my frustration with music blogs in general. I have read so many negative reviews (which are pointless for all involved) as well as many very poorly written reviews and other pieces about music that attempt to cover up the author’s lack of musical knowledge through convoluted verbiage. There are specific things that I could cite, and I will do so at a later time, but for right now I think that I am just going to let this stand as is and get back to the actual music tomorrow.
There are pretty much only two ways to get my attention music-wise. Despite sounding like the completely opposing ideas of beauty and aggression, I think that the best way to wrap these things up together would be under the umbrella of “visceral.” Something that is quiet can be visceral, though it seems people typically use the word to refer to something that is unusually aggressive, or overbearing in general. But really it’s about feeling something either way.
Leave cerebral music to those that don’t know any better; leave it to those that can’t figure out how to say anything other than “look how smart we are and how complicated our songs are.” Even early Genesis, the most proggy of the prog, had some deep emotion running through a lot of their songs (though not all of them, I mean they did write an entire song about a giant hogweed after all.
But, the point is, and I do have a point, is that when I hear a song I almost instantly know whether I am going to like it or not. I’m not saying that I make snap judgements that are completely biased one way or the other, but I have listened to enough music to be able to tell when something is not going to have anything to offer me. At a certain point you just have to figure out how to do it and how to do it fast. Better that than sit through something for an hour just because you feel like you have to. A lot of times I can tell just from the ambiance around the first second or two of a song, especially if there are some drumstick clicks to count off. It’s easy to hear if something is going to be overproduced from that sound alone. If something is overproduced, and by that I mean surgically recorded, hermetically protected from any environmental sounds, then I am almost positive that I am going to have no interest in listening to it no matter how good the “song” is. Because, and bands need to figure this out, there is a lot more to writing a good song than the chord progression and the melody. As soon as you think about those things too much you are sunk.
Recording something in a deadened studio is like telling someone that you love them for the first time via text. There’s no emotion. The music needs to express something, and not through the use of overwrought bad teenage poetry. Make a connection, a real human connection. That is what music is all about.
And maybe this all sounds too heavy handed, and maybe you haven’t even read this far down, but if I get another email from another band that is trying way too hard, well, I don’t know what I am going to do. I can tell you what I am not going to do though, I am not going to pollute the rest of the internet with it. A lot of filtering happens, and I’m not ashamed of it.
There’s actually another thing that I am not going to do, and that is spend an evening writing about how much a specific album is terrible, detailing the ways in which it is. Sure, I could do that (and there are plenty of sites that do) but what would be the point? Throwing stones is easy. It’s easy because it takes very little knowledge and makes the writer sound like they know a whole lot more than they actually do. Why not just say nothing? Listen to as much of the song or album as you need to make a decision on whether or not it is worth listening to and if it is then you should happily share it with everyone. On the other hand, if you just can’t get through the song or the album, simply stop playing it and don’t listen to it anymore. That’s what everyone should do. Why waste your time and the time of others?
I’ve had this blog for a few years now, but only really been seriously writing for it for just under a year. The real beginning was in July 2010 when I began writing for groovemine.com. Mark, the owner of that site, began sending me more music than I had ever heard before. I decided then that I really had an opportunity to fine tune my skills as a listener and as a critic and writer.
I’m trained as a musician. I can read music (obviously) and know a lot about music theory. I read books on music theory for fun because that is what I am interested in. In becoming a “classically trained musician” one studies a lot of “classical” music (though I abhor the term, but that is neither here nor there.) Instead of calling it “classical” music let’s just call it concert music, or serious music if you prefer. The term “classical” is weighed down with so many connotations of time period and it brings to mind dudes in powdered wigs and the idea that that sort of thing is “out of date” or only of interest to people of the upper echelon of society. Anyway, concert music is fine.
In the interest of simplicity let’s just call everything else that isn’t serious music “pop” music. Yes, all of it. Pop music. That doesn’t mean only Top 40 music, it doesn’t mean stuff that is just played on the radio, I mean music that isn’t played in the concert hall, by a string quartet, or by a symphony. Let’s just keep it simple. So there is concert music and there is pop music. We can argue ad infinitum about how to divide up pop music some other day. Let’s just pretend that Lady Gaga and Megadeth are lumped into the same group for now, ok? Ok.
Anyway, when analyzing concert music it’s common to spend a lot of time carefully considering the cultural significance of the work. It’s also appropriate to analyze the functional harmonies, the use of chromaticism, the instrumentation, the orchestration, the tonal scheme etc. etc. There are several ways to go about this: there is Schenkerian analysis, Roman Numeral analysis, one can derive a matrix, find the different uses of tone rows, find uses of hexachordal combinatoriality, tetrachords, modes and on and on.
The thing with concert music is that there is a lot of time wrapped up in it all. The composer is seen as this guy, or gal, that sits hunched over a dimly lit desk, one hand on their head, the other desperately clutching at a pencil as they place each note down onto paper with a purpose. Every single note is wrought with meaning, every second they spend conceiving their “work” and producing it and rehearsing it has a framework of genius at work. When the work is finally completed it is foisted onto the public (which generally doesn’t want it, but that’s another topic entirely) and only after it has survived out there “in the trenches” for 10 years or more, only then does anyone take notice and finally decide, “Hey, this might be something that we might want to look at!” Eventually a musicologist spends several hundred hours hunched over a dimly lit desk, clutching his or her head in one hand and a pencil in the other marking the score, making connections and shouting “Eureka!” to an empty house. Perhaps he wakes the dog. Soon his truly genius writing is published in a journal that is only read by other musicologists, theorists and grad students that are writing papers for the musicologists and theorists.
The general public, goes about their business outside the music hall, unaware that any of this is happening, not that it would change anything if they knew that it did. They listen to people like Sarah Palin that says wonderfully encouraging things like, “arts funding is frivolous”. The general public loves this woman. She’s so much like them.
It truly is great to feel loved outside of ones art. God bless America!
John Adams is one of America’s most successful composers. He has found a niche of sorts writing works about current events. His first opera (yes, people do actually still write operas!) “Nixon in China” premiered in 1987, about Tricky Dick’s visit to China 15 years prior. He also wrote another opera about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro entitled “The Death of Klinghoffer” in 1991, 7 years after the trajedy. His most recent opera (hey, the guy likes to write operas, and he puts a lot of people in the seats!) “Dr. Atomic” is about the Manhattan Project. The opera premiered in 2005.
These are all great works, and I’m only taking an example from one composer for brevity’s sake. The subject matter that Adams is tackling is a tangled web of complex philosophical questions. His works are almost universally loved and accepted upon their premiere. Most composers are not so lucky, but then again most composers aren’t nearly half as good either. The problem that I see is that these works do take such an extremely long time to produce. Because of this lengthy turnaround it appears that the only things really worth writing about are these really monumental moments in extreme human struggle.
Yes these works are worthwhile, and yes they are worth more analysis and promotion. I believe that everyone should take some time to familiarize themselves with as many great works as they can. It is part of our culture, it’s far more than “entertainment”. That being said, so is pop music.
Before I delve into that I’m going to quickly tell a story about my favorite concert composer, Charles Ives.
He was born in Danbury, Connecticut. A true Yankee New Englander. His father was a musician, in charge of a military band during the Civil War and leader of several community bands in Danbury. Charles, in his compositions, would include the sounds of his childhood whether it was the sound of two marching bands coming down the street in opposite directions, the sound of Central Park at night or the sound of the local hook and ladder company. He was not interested in what many other composers were doing at the time and didn’t actually make his living with his music, nor did he want to. He was an extremely successful insurance salesman who just so happened to be one of the most important American composers of the 20th century. Nobody knew this until after he died when conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski championed his music. Though during his life he did manage to win the Pulitzer Prize in composition for his 3rd Symphony. He declined the award stating simply, “awards are the badges of mediocrity.” Yes, someone that badass wrote serious music. Serious, experimental music.
One of his experiments involved the use of quarter-tones, an idea he got from his father. His father, equally as crazy, was trying to capture the pitches played by the local church bells. He would run outside to hear, and rush back inside to the piano to try and capture the pitches. Back and forth as many times as he could while the bells were still ringing. He was unable to capture the sound of the bells and concluded that the pitches they were sounding were notes that were located “between the keys of the piano”. He heard something that was so far outside of what was normal that he was not even able to reproduce it by normal means. He needed to wander far beyond what was accepted as normal in order to bring to fruition his music. Charles, throughout his works, continued this trend. He worked in near solitude, almost completely unknown by the serious music world and was truly innovative.
His music is truly amazing and I would urge you to check out his works.
To me Ives’ use of quarter-tones is the most identifiable and most unorthodox thing that he ever did. It was certainly the most notable thing he did as far as sound. If you hear his 3 quarter tone pieces for 2 pianos you will immediately notice a difference in sound. Nobody else was doing this at the time. Now there are several composers that work with exotic scales or scales of their own design in order to brand themselves with a unique sound.
What Ives was doing was writing music that was true to him and because of that there was a sense of immediacy. His music is also much studied to this day and much performed as well. Recordings are still being made and his name is firmly in place as one of the great American composers.
The point of this story is that at the time Ives was writing his music the divide of what was serious music and what was pop music was just beginning to be created. It was the time of Tin Pan Alley where songs were being cranked out by writers that were masters of formula, much like today’s mainstream music. A lot of that music has completely disappeared, but that time also gave us the music of George Gershwin, who doesn’t neatly fit into either category. Somewhere around this time it appears that the decision was made that serious music is worth being held up on a pedestal and being preserved through repeated performance and analysis and pop music is not worthy of the time it takes to listen to it.
With my blog I am directly challenging that idea. Pop music deserves better analysis, and serious consideration. The analysis of pop music needs to match the immediacy of the music. One can’t spend 20 years thinking about the implications of a certain album or a certain style of music because by then it is most likely irrelevant. The music deserves to be considered in its own time and it deserves to be considered by people that know what to consider, which is to say that typical blog-style analysis is not good enough for pop music.
I have read too many reviews that describe how an album makes the reviewer “feel”. That analysis is irrelevant to everyone except the reviewer. I want to know exactly why the guitar line is doing what it is doing. Where are things going harmonically and how does that compare to other music that we are currently hearing right now? I want to know where each band is getting their ideas from. I want to know why bands from Toronto sound different than bands from Bushwick. There are answers to all of these questions and the only way that they are going to be found is through repeated listening. Not just listening to one album over and over again, but listening to every album you can get your hands on, because each album is a piece of the puzzle and will help answer all of the questions that you have and bring to light some new ones.
The current state of pop musicology is ill equipped to handle this task. Most of them are still busy pondering the significance of Nirvana while the rest of us have moved far beyond that. Things take far too long in the university world, and by the time any studying is done the significance is completely lost.
Quartertonality is a word that is made up, but the meaning is real. Quartertonality is looking for new ways to do things. It is taking a serious analytical approach to current, worthwhile popular music. It’s the belief that just because something isn’t popular that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth looking into. It’s finding the motivations behind everything, the reason behind things, digging further than anyone else, listening more than anyone else and providing thoughtful, honest analysis that is based less on opinion and more on fact. One has to move quick because the amount of music that comes out every week is staggering. There isn’t enough time to sit on an album for 20 years and then write about its significance because that changes every single day.
We can always count on Radiohead to change the game from album to album. Because of this I feel that their latest album, “The King of Limbs”, deserves something beyond the usual track by track review. Everything that Radiohead does, musical or otherwise, is subject to an extraordinary level of scrutiny such that few, if any, other musical acts in existence today have to contend with. Not many would know how to cope, let alone be able to utilize all of that scrutiny and turn be able to turn it into something productive. This is one of the reasons why Radiohead is the most important bands active today. The public expects an almost inhumanly high standard from the band, who in turn are able to consistently live up to that standard by consistently producing groundbreaking albums that regularly change our ideas of what is new in current music. They are the singular arbiters of pushing the boundaries and raising the bar to a point where no other act can reach. Any attempts at following in their footsteps are hopelessly cast in their shadow.
Despite this the band, in interviews and concerts, don’t seem to think of themselves as so important. They manage to be immensely popular while at the same time retaining artistic credibility. It is a rare thing to have mainstream success while maintaining a high degree of indie acceptance. They constantly sell out the largest venues, yet remain out of the headlines and still manage to appear guarded about their personal lives. To me this points to them as not involved in music for the fame. They are creating intelligent music with artistic integrity. This flies in the face of anyone that thinks you can’t push boundaries, and still have something to say while retaining a sense of relevancy and importance with a large and emphatic audience.
As an audience we are responsible for elevating them to such a place of popularity and even importance. We are the ones that overly scrutinize every musical decision that they make. We are the ones cataloging every song they’ve ever performed live, comparing it to the previous instances of its live appearances and how those versions, in turn, compare to the recorded version. A song may not have been committed to tape until 10 years after it first debuted on stage in Stockholm but we are the ones that can chart its development and have therefore cast it into the realm of importance.
We are also the ones that argue over the validity of each version and whether the version that ended up being recorded, having therefore gained a level of permanence that the bootlegs and live versions lack, is the “definitive” version or not. The audience is responsible for deciding if what an artist is doing is good or bad, or more appropriately, they decide whether or not they are happy with the direction the band is taking and what it means for their cultural musical superiority, dominance and importance. All separate things.
Of course all of these things are done without the consent or approval of the band, who in turn seem perfectly content with going their own way and charting a unique path. Personally, I wonder how much the members of Radiohead use this information to guide their decisions. Do they think about manipulating the way that we are going to think about this album? Do we try to compensate for this by heading them off at the pass, intellectually, by taking into account that they think they know what we think and are therefore going to change our thoughts about their actions based on what we think they think we are thinking?
It’s all ridiculously convoluted, and you can see where the role of artist and audience member is challenged in this instance. It’s complex and perhaps you would think that it isn’t happening, but it is. Right now. The scrutiny, the over-thinking, the critical analysis, all of it is a testament to the importance of this band that we are even bothering to wrap ourselves up in this kind of process.
That process is my whole premise. Listening to a new Radiohead album has transcended the traditional listening experience to a point of a self-critical paranoia inducing obsession that eventually leads to submission.
With anything so new and different from anything that we have recently been listening to, the initial exposure to “The King of Limbs”, much like that first listen to “Kid A” is a point of aggravation to a certain degree. The mind is overcome with such a new and surprising experience that it doesn’t quite know how to process all of the information. We become overwhelmed.
Do our expectations exceed what we have been given? The answer to this question always seems to be an unconditional “Yes” at this point. We sit and try to pick out the memorable material, which is quite literally impossible at such an early stage as the music is passing through our ears for the first time. We wait for upbeat tunes, interesting contrapuntal textures, complexities in the lyrics that speak to us in coded, metaphoric language about politics (possibly). It’s difficult to find all of these things and explore them all at once, in one go. Frustration and awe are residing in equal parts within us as the end of the album draws near and we are left with choosing between “forget it, it’s a mess” and “I gotta listen to this again, there must be something in there.”
This is where Radiohead truly takes charge as a musical group of cultural importance. We trust that they are doing something that we need some time to understand, we trust in them. We have faith in their integrity that they have done something deserving of multiple listens.
After the release of “In Rainbows” there were discussions in several online forums that tried to unravel a code in binary that people thought existed that the band was hinting at all over the place, and had been for years. I don’t recall anything productive coming from those discussions, which ran parallel to surface arguments that stemmed from their “pay what you want” model that they had developed for the album. This is where most of the focus of the mainstream media was. People reached their own conclusions. Some felt that the physical release of the album was an admission from the band that their experiment had failed. Everyone ignored the main point the whole time was that if you release something officially, ahead of people that are going to just give it away for free anyway, there is some control there.
The real key is that people were talking. People were trying to unravel a supposed mystery, and nobody can conclude that it has been completely uncovered. Because of this we continue searching.
After a few listens one begins to sort things out. A few short motifs are memorized and the picture begins to come into focus. The acoustic guitar in “Give Up the Ghost” that sounds so intimate and subdued. The way in which that song opens up when an electric guitar makes a brief appearance and the vocals are looped and repeated, harmonizing into a swirl of dissipating sound before the bassline becomes the only thing we can hear.
Electronic glitches and other clipped up sounds permeate most of the album. Percussion and vocals are clearly the most prominent aspects of “The King of Limbs”. At first this makes the work difficult to grasp. There doesn’t seem to be enough melody and harmony to grab onto and hum along with. Perhaps this is the point. What ends up happening instead is really great. This alteration of the foundational elements allows the band to explore shifting metric pulses as the generators of the song structure. The songs exist without our participation. We can’t immediately internalize them, or sing along.
Think of the opening section of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”. There is the only melody at the very beginning of the work. The metric pulses seem to be lost in an ethereal state of suspended animation while the melodies are constantly spun out. Despite the unorthodoxy and apparent complexity the melodies have a fairly high level of memorability. That section gives way to a pounding, primal turn that features heavy use of downbowed strings with shifting accents that continually catch the audience off guard. That is where this album exists. In that juxtaposition. Where the rhythmic complexities take prominence and melody and harmony, though still very much there, are subjected to a more secondary role.
Music seems to change as we listen to it. Rather, our perception of the music adjusts as we listen and become more acquainted. We need to compartmentalize as humans. We have a space in our head for only a certain kind of music, so we force this album into that box. We change what we hear to what we want to hear, what we can hear and what we can understand. Soon, after a few dozen listens we are singing along to “Little by Little” while simultaneously wondering if that title is the band’s sly way of letting us know that that is exactly how we are coming into understanding this album.
They are still three steps ahead of us.
As the physical release date for the album approaches the band has announced that they will be publishing a newspaper. It will be free and available in major metropolitan areas. Nobody knew what exactly what was going to be published in the newspaper until yesterday, which is undoubtedly adding to the mystique surrounding the album release. Unfortunately people are also using this to dismiss the release as another piece of evidence that the band has lost its way. Do they really need to innovate everything, from the inside out with every release? What is a “newspaper album” anyway and does Radiohead really need to rush out and be the first band to release one?
There is also curiosity about the albums length, the shortest release by the band to date, as to whether or not there is going to be more to it. Will there be another release hot on its heels like the twins separated at birth that were “Kid A” and “Amnesiac”? The former seen by most as the first major point of departure for the band. The curiosity is no doubt stemming from the same people that were trying to break the binary code of “In Rainbows”.
The album opens with melodic and memorable looped opening that is soon overtaken by overlapping rhythms and disjointed bass. That very opening seems to spring to mind a state of déjà vu. It seems as though this has come from somewhere before. Perhaps it is just a result of listening to the album obsessively trying to get a firm understanding of it. The pulsating loops from the opening are then relegated to background bed track on top of which the remainder of the song is built. It serves as a constant pedal point that the rest of the material is weighed against. Peals of trumpets add a new layer, mimicking and varying the themes of Thom Yorke’s vocals.
“Morning Mr. Magpie” with its palm-muted guitar in driving rhythm with the off kilter hi-hat beating out borrowed metric pulses creates an incredible sense of restraint. Yorke’s voice is clear with a subtly distant shout of the lyrics. The interaction of guitars and bass here is similar to “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” from their “In Rainbows” album.
This seems to be their newly reinvented guitar arrangement style. Less like early Radiohead’s clear division of the standard rhythm guitar vs. lead guitar where Jonny Greenwood would hold back before bursting forth with angular lines with feedback drenched crunches and squeals out of the blue. The lines have once again become blurred.
The video for “Lotus Flower” has already been fed to the wolves at the meme machine of youtube, appealing to yet another level of audience. That audience seems to consist at least partly, if not mostly, of those that don’t even bother trying to listen to, let alone understand the music, instead creating a viral market from the ground up. Some of the results, though few original and none surprising, can be entertaining. It is appropriate that this song is the lead single, being that it is the most “song like” off the album and catchy with Yorke’s bluesy vocals spinning out a few hooks, though those hooks are unlike anything one would normally or previously think of as “catchy”.
After “Lotus Flower” the album seems to reach a breaking point. The feel doesn’t so much change as much as the style. Piano on “Codex” is shrouded in reverb, similar to that of “Pyramid Song” from the “Amnesiac” album. The peals of brass are also present on this track. “Give Up the Ghost” inserts a brightly strummed acoustic guitar into their sonic landscape.
“Seperator” sharply returns us to the style of the beginning of the album with very clean, clear mix and the drums re-entering and up front. The line that truly haunts from this song is “If you think this is over then you’re wrong” which seems to remind us that we think that there may be more to this. There may be a piece of the puzzle that we are missing. It seems that they really are playing with us. This song, like so many others on the album, has a way of really blossoming as it moves forward.
Not only does that song leave us wanting more, in a desperate search for something, but even after several listens we still don’t know what it is exactly that we are looking for. By this point it doesn’t really matter, we have succumbed to the album. We have allowed it to change the way that we think about listening to music, and what we typically expect from an album. This last track ends with a harmony that seems to go somewhere separate from the vocals. Yorke’s voice extends the harmony that is already rich with intervals that one would typically not find outside of jazz.
“The King of Limbs” charts a path of exploration which is usual for Radiohead, but it seems to want to, at the same time, break off into a new direction within the album itself. Harmony is secondary to rhythm for parts, and then the opposite on the latter half of the album. The songs don’t necessarily feel segmented or choppy, they feel natural and are well written and intricately put together with utmost attention to detail. It’s this fission that develops across the album that helps get us to listen again and again in rapt attention as our minds adjust to Radiohead changing the game again. It meets our expectations by exceeding them, and that is why Radiohead will always have the upper hand.
[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/03-Little-By-Little.mp3|titles=Little By Little]
[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/07-Give-Up-The-Ghost.mp3|titles=Give Up The Ghost]
How much control does an artist have then is another question. The painter can fill up the canvas and decide how the work is going to be framed. How much control does an artist have over how the work is displayed? Would there be a problem with hanging a certain painting in proximity to the work of another artist? How much can we expect the audience to cast off as “not the work of the artist”.
There was a sculpture of sorts on display in one room of the new Modern building at the Art Institute of Chicago. The sculpture involved a pile of white rocks piled up on a conical figuration with tiny rocks on the outskirts and larger rocks towards the center and peak. Intersecting the rocks were mirrors in the shape of an asterisk. As I looked at this exhibit I wondered aloud to my brother, “do you think the artist comes to the museum that this work is displayed in to set it up or do you think that it is shipped with very specific instructions as to how it needs to be exactly?” We left it up in the air.
This is to say, how much of a degree of aleatory is there in all the arts? I know that Cage was convinced (and has convinced many others, including myself) that there is a certain degree of aleatory in all music. The variables being performers, performance space, conductor, instruments, tempo, audience…the list is infinite.
While in Chicago we also visited the Museum of Contemporary Art. There was a simple sculpture made of found items that were hung from a wire frame and meant to form a smiling face. Though it was enclosed in a plastic box and therefore unable to be touched, the string from which most of the sculpture was hanging had twisted somehow and it made the eyes, nose and mouth of the face appear perpendicular to the outer wire frame forming some sort of cubist idea of a face. This, I can say with almost complete certainty, was not the original intention of the artist. Should I, however, take it as I saw it? Or should I correct what I feel is “wrong” and remember the sculpture as being that of a right and true “face”? How far can one take this idea? I don’t think that many artists would appreciate the idea of their audience “perfecting” their art.
With a piece of music, how much is the audience expected to “correct”? There are going to be slight mistakes made, there are going to be choices made by the conductor that make some parts seem more important than others, and there are going to be cues missed and measures accidentally excluded perhaps by a particularly nervous percussionist that hasn’t played for 42 bars and lost count or was not cued. How much of the music, then, actually is what the composer wrote? I realize that this does overlap with thoughts about degrees of aleatory in music, but I would like to examine it one step further from an audience perspective. Is an audience experiencing music and taking it for granted that the performance was perfect? This begs the question about artist control. Exactly how much control does the composer have once the score leaves their hands?
A few weeks ago a friend gave me a recording of various albums by reclusive, outsider musician superstar Jandek. If you don’t know anything about Jandek, and you are interested, there is quite a back story involved. A good place to start is with the wikipedia article about him. Although I usually stay away from wikipedia for anything even quasi-“research” related, there is such scant information about the man anywhere that this is pretty much the authority, along with a very detailed fansite, done fastidiously by Seth Tisue (http://tisue.net/jandek/). Seth’s site includes vary detailed descriptions of many of the albums, ordering info and what not in case you are interested.
Basically the story is that there is a guy, living in Houston, Texas, nobody is 100% sure who he is (though his real name is most likely Sterling Richard Smith), and nobody is sure what he does for a living (possibly a machinist)…but basically somewhere along the line this man, whoever he is, began recording music, alone. He releases albums by himself through a label that represents nobody else called Corwood Industries. He has released 51 albums to date since 1978, and up until just recently (2004) NEVER appeared in public. He gave an interview that appeared in the first article of Spin, but other than that has been almost completely anonymous.
Somehow his music was discovered, through all of this. Somehow people became interested in this very strange music. Through the wikipedia article one can find out what they need to know about the mystery that is Jandek, that’s where I learned all that I know about him, and that is not what I would like to concentrate on in this post. What I would like to discuss is one of my favorite topics: “What is music?”
There are two camps of people basically, amongst those that even know about Jandek. The first feel that he is a genius like no other and that he is pretty damn near close to a god walking on this Earth. The other faction feels that what he creates is not music and he should not be held up on this pedestal that fans of outsider music have put him up on. I stand pretty much with the first group, though I often hesitate to throw out the “genius” qualifier.
It is true that this music is like no other, though that is not to say that it doesn’t have its influence from something. It is clear that the lyrics, their content, their form (where there is one) and the style of singing that is totally wrought with intense emotion are derived from the folk and more importantly the blues traditions of the south, namely his home of Texas. This is intense music. I will say that I disagree with the naysayers that feel that Jandek is just making noise, not music, and that he is talentless.
First of all what we need to discuss is not only what is music, but what does one expect from music? This, I feel, is a more important question than anything, it is THE question. Not just regarding music, this question should be asked of everything. What do you expect to take away from any experience that you percieve?
Listening to Jandek requires one to be an active participant. One can not just passively let the sound wash over them, it is not art that functions in that way. This is not the kind of music that one would put on in the background at a part. This is intensely heartfelt, soul wrenching and usually terrifying stuff. Although it is usually assumed that Jandek does not tune his guitar, if one listens closely it is possible to hear that the guitar is usually tuned to an open tuning of some sort or another, usually something bizarre, most likely of his own devising. The early albums consist completely of open strings on the guitar and a waling vocal. Later works may include other instruments, and violent and dramatic guitar butchering. His left hand attacks the fretboard while he screams out in pain.
There is no question as to whether or not this is art or not. The fact is, plain and simple, that it is art, an art that appeals to a certain group of open minded individuals. I will be bold enough to say that I am one such of the open minded individuals. One may ask, “where is the melody, where is the harmony, where is the rhythm, WHAT is the rhythm?”….all of the elements of music are in fact there though, I would argue.
The melody is, of course, in the vocal line. The harmony is in the guitar, the rhythm is in the combination of the two. This is where things get complicated: It is not that there is a lack of any of these elements, for there can’t be. You can not have sound, any sound at all without something that can be deemed melody, rhythm or harmony, you just need to redefine it for each instance. The melody is extremely hard to follow, does not repeat usually or regularly and can waver between only a few pitches. The harmony is not able to be defined by roman numeral analysis, such that music theorists may try, or by chord names or anything that has been previously thought of.
In order to appreciate this music on any level at all one must completely set aside everything that they think they already know about music. One has to listen with a fresh perspective, it’s going to ask you what you truly think and know about music, it is truly going to test your limits. I think that someone that comes to discover Jandek is most likely already pretty deep into music and will be willing to listen with an openness that someone who hears Jandek, say, through a friend, may not have.
Jandek is to pop/rock/folk/blues (whatever guitar driven music you can even think to classify it as) what John Cage was to concert music. He is more a philosopher than a musician. It is true that he is telling a story through his lyrics, he is creating a different world for us to visit while we listen and he is definitely amplifying the emotion and meaning of his thoughts through the medium of music. He chooses to do it in such a personal style that nobody could ever duplicate. If you think that his music is just aimless noise then by all means, try to mimic him. You will not be able to. The music is connected to Jandek alone.
Thoughts like this make me wish that I could start my musical training all over again. One of the hardest things to do is to find a voice and style of your own when you decide that you are going to create music. It is so easy to sound derivative, mimicking everything that you take in. Jandek apparently did not get this memo. Without going on for days and days repeating myself I could conclude by saying that everything that Jandek presents to us should shock us.
Another question that comes to mind is: How does music or art of this kind come to be discovered? It is my belief that something this truly originally, and this emotionally shocking will intrigue whoever decides to pay attention. Something of this nature says something about ourselves, not only is is challenging to ourselves, but it is shocking and frustrating because it is art that is telling us something about ourselves that either we did not know about ourselves, or we were repressing for a long time. How did Jandek know this about us? That is the frustrating and angering part, that there can be someone out there that is more in tune with how we feel and what it is to be human than ourselves. If you ever thought you knew yourself well enough, you may now discover that you were wrong. The scariest things sometimes come from within. Imagine carrying around with you something that you were not aware of and then one day someone reaches in and pulls out this shocking, revealing piece of your psyche. Of course you are going to be devastated. This is the music of Jandek.
He is making us question what we would define as music, and all the elements contained therein. He is also forcing us to think about how that would pertain to everything else in our lives. We should always be thinking about our motivations, our expectations and our thoughts about everything and there should never be a single thing that we let slip by unnoticed or unanalyzed. We should be active in our minds at all times, constantly questioning and requestioning everything that we think should be considered a “given”. Not a single thing in life should be taken for granted. Continue reading Listening to Jandek→