Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Music vs. Genre


I was listening to some music recently. I forget whether it was rock or jazz or whatever... but it was definitely music composed of many separate parts... parts for vocals, drums, bass, guitars, horns, and so on. Whatever it was, there was a lot of it… and all that noise was woven together using skills and timings and arrangements and sensibilities that were highly refined.  It put me in mind of the surprising sophistication of even the most humble pop music, let alone the extravagant arrangements of jazz or classical. In comparison to the utter simplicity of my own musical existence, these sophistications are a million miles from what I construct when left alone with my instrument. It suddenly occurred to me to wonder how one goes from here to there... from the simple connection of solo musical consciousness, to those farthest reaches of musical group-think. And then I asked myself, "Who the fuck comes up with that shit?"

I ask it because when one sits alone with their instrument, the act of finding and making sounds is so much simpler and dumber. You just sit there plucking one note, then another, and then strum a chord, then sing something that occurred to you, and then do some more of the same and play around. So you sit on your porch in a rocking chair like some old bluesman, strumming and plucking your way through what seems like a relevant musical experience, whereby you sincerely relate tonal happenings to movements in your soul. But then you turn on the radio and are literally blown out of your seat by musical conflagrations of sound and the combined energies of a gaggle of musicians all playing in a fantastic unity… and it seems completely obvious that such things could not have emerged from the mind of any single person, since singular persons are prone to sitting alone with their instrument and coaxing sounds from it with nothing but their native imagination to guide them. 

For instance… if left to their own devices and never having been exposed to rock music, would anyone just independently come up with "Stairway To Heaven" or "Purple Haze"? If one wasn't exposed to jazz, could one somehow invent the hard-bop styling of John Coltrane, or perhaps the impossibly animated and rambunctious cacophony of traditional New Orleans Jazz? And if someone had never heard a symphony orchestra, could they (by tinkering with the various orchestral instruments) conceive of what-in-the-hell 75 musicians could manage to play for 20 straight minutes.

The answer to this paradox is found in recognizing that music has both a personal and a social aspect. In terms of the social aspect, we can note that the social evolution of music has been ongoing since medieval times, where (for example) the Gregorian chants were composed without the full range of musical tones we recognize today. The subsequent history of Western music has been the development of musical theory, musical instruments, and forms and genres of music. Each next generation accepts as a baseline the developments that evolved from the previous one. It is not always clear to historians how and when key moments of evolution happened… the musical missing link so to speak… but we can be sure it adheres to an evolutionary process.

As to the personal aspect of music, we can note that those who undertake to make music in any time or place are always subject to the state of the evolutionary process that exists then and there. Though we imagine the musician to be involved in a personal moment of musical awareness, the larger fact seems to be that all the instruction they ever receive is derived from the evolution of music, and so the knowledge and skill transmitted to them will be in terms of the musical theories, instruments, forms, and genres as they exist there and then. This means that the musician is not simply trying to relate music per se to some innate musical sensitivity that we imagine exists in the human soul… but instead, is drawn into the bigger world of the social aspect of music… where they will express musicality through instrumentalities not of their own creation. This is obviously the case with the musical instruments, which we do not expect anyone to have to invent. But it also applies to the tones created, which have to obey the harmonic and melodic norms of their time and place, lest they seem like incomprehensible noise to the audience. And finally, the music needs to be arranged in genres familiar to the audience, lest (again) they seem incomprehensible. 

These considerations suggest that music is not so much the product of individual temperament, as it is a complex social product that produces conformance between those who make it and those who listen. Individual temperament will naturally show itself based on the personality of each performer, which will come through more or less as their genre allows. But the limit on the individual freedom of the musician is that they cannot operate outside the known bounds of the social aspects of music described above. 

The reason that these considerations are important is that a vast amount of hot air is generated by performers, audience, and critics in describing what is going on with music. It is generally accepted that because music is made by people, that it is thereby an individualistic activity. This is a pleasant notion that corresponds to the Romantic and Modernist desire to root creation in acts of individuality.  And within a certain context, this is true. But what I believe is consistently ignored are the aforementioned social aspects, which produce a vast conformity over music, and which hamstring the musicians in the very infancy of their instruction; locking them into genres and styles that they could not possibly have originated on their own… and that by the time they have evolved to so-called master status, it's not so much that they make the music (which strictly speaking, they do)… but rather, that the music has made them.

Proof of this is that musicians are very typically locked into a genre (shared traditions and conventions) which exerts a controlling influence on their musical thinking. If you sit a rock musician down with an acoustic guitar and ask him to invent a brief musical thought, they will undoubtedly play something in minor blues scale. A blues musician will knock off a riff characteristic of that genre, all the while imagining themselves as expressing their blues in an original way. A jazz musician will rifle through some seventh and ninth chords characteristic of that genre, while the classical musician will pound out 88 keys worth of lush familiarity.  

These things make me wonder whether a musician can relate to music other than through genre? Can a musician simply relate himself to music per se, without having to reference the shared traditions and conventions of the genres that he has only ever learned music through? And if they cannot, then is it fair to say that they have no musical consciousness outside of a genre's shared traditions and conventions? And though this might be the unquestioned norm, is it fair to consider that the musician doesn't so much express himself through music, than that he expresses himself through a genre of music... which means he expresses through shared traditions and conventions... which means he expresses himself through that which has formed him in the first place. Does this not strain the credibility of claiming that one expresses themselves through music, when in fact it seems more the case that they are simply expressing that which the genre allows? But what does the genre allow other than itself? Only this... it allows the musician stylistic variations on the genre itself, hemmed in on all sides the bland determinism of genre training and sensibilities. Everything points back to the genre. The musician is only allowed to have a style. But what is that, other than prisoners singing in their cells to relieve the monotony of that which they cannot escape. It seems the musicians are somewhat confused about the difference between freedom and slavery?

I shouldn't be too harsh on musicians. After all, even language itself shares these paradoxical aspects, and evolves from a similar socially evolved educational process. And though we vest language with the potential to represent and communicate our deepest notions of self… it is also a socially constructed and historically evolved form with structural characteristics we are not aware of until we are older. And not even then unless we study philosophy or linguistics or foreign languages, and by that study come to understand that our views of ourselves and the world around us is dominated by what our language allows, and what it does not allow. So if we put language users to the same test as the musicians, and ask them to express a verbal idea, we might be surprised that their utterances track along the predictable features of their language or genres of writing.

But we are not so quick to label language users as trapped by language… but rather we understand that language is the necessary construct for originating and communicating ideas at all. We might then forgive musicians for their dependence on genre, and recognize that musical genre (like language) is the necessary form that musical consciousness must take. The only alternative is to have no language, and to construct simplistic utterances like a primitive… such as a child raised by wolves might make if deprived of human education. Because without a genre, there is no way to connect musical instruction to history… just as without language there is no way to connect thinking to the long history of meanings contained in culture. 

But there is a difference. A language speaker can (at any time) construct a verbal utterance to convey a meaning NOT simply given by the language. For instance, I can say "My foot hurts." I assume that every language would allow for this sentiment, such that the sentiment does not originate in the language so much as the language allows for the articulation of the sentiment. And because the sentiment originates in the person, the utterance is personal. Can a musician make a parallel utterance? Obviously I don't mean to ask if there is a musical equivalence to "my foot hurts", but rather, is there some thing that originates in the musician apart from genre, that they can represent in musical tones… such that we can know their musical construction is fully personal? And if there is not, then is it valid for us to conclude that one or all musicians might derive their meaning primarily from the social aspect of musical genres, rather from their ability to articulate anything personal... that is, can there be musical meaning apart from genre?

There is another difference. The kinds of internal things we represent through language and music are not the same. Language expresses conceptual relations. Our ability to relate such conceptual notions as "my" (concept of identity) and "foot" (concept of a thing) and "hurts" (concept of a feeling) to our self, is the result of having familiarized the relations between language and ourselves. This is the result of a lifetime spent using language to frame our relation to the world around us. Without language, there would be no utterances of "my foot hurts", even if it did hurt. Which means that we cannot create or express concepts without the structure of language. In this sense, language seems no fulfill the same role as musical genre, in that it is the structure through which the person understands and represents themselves.

Such an equivalence between music and language would no doubt delight the musicians, who never tire of telling the audience that music is a language… and by this idea gaining the credibility language possesses in its apparent ability to express personal thoughts. But what if this wasn't true for music? What if music is not a language? Let me start by asking what it is that music presents. We know that language represents conceptual constructs, and so I suppose music represents musical constructs. But what are musical constructs? If conceptual constructs are generalizations of our observations of reality, then musical constructs are a parallel form of having generalized how harmonic and melodic experiences relate to our emotions. Such relating is the product of long familiarity with music, and with the musical training that accompanies that. Musical training is nothing if not this constant reinforcement of the two.

But in so being so constantly reinforced, I have to wonder if the musician thereby detaches from music as a simple thing, and invests their emotive response with genre specific forms, and all the associated complexities that have evolved through time. Which would explain why it is that players from different genres think in the terms of those genres, whereas a language user might get much further along in developing complex and personal ideas without having to resort to cultural and historical structures built into language. 

The reason for the difference is this... that the concepts of language originate in observations of the natural world, whereas the concepts of music originate in the man-made world of musical genre. The conceptual consciousness of a person originates in staring into raw nature, and progresses quite far in that difficult and chaotic ordering long before they encounter the genres of writing by which they are pulled into the world of man-made literary forms. But the musician begins their existence by considering preexisting forms of representation, i.e., genre. They never have to encounter and deal with music at the level of raw nature, and thus never have to struggle through the chaotic orderings that would bind music more directly to their consciousness. In fact, there is no music in raw nature, as even something as apparently melodic as a bird chirping is not music until its tones have been ordered by some convention. And it is only this convention the musician considers, because there is no music outside of convention. With music, all that exists in genre.

Which all puts me back on the porch with my guitar, plucking notes and trying to keep things simple. Trying to trace a straight line between myself and the sounds I hear. And the only thing that stands in my way is the whole history of all the music I ever heard, and how the critical ear wants to conform what one produces to what one has already been done… because in that correlation rests the long history of social permissions and acceptances that we must be either brave or foolish to deny. And the same thing exists in language, where one struggles to grasp and order and represent the complexity of their consciousness, without forcing it into the cliches and type-castings of all the explanations and expressions we have ever heard. Because when one dares to reach into themselves… the means of that reach are tied to learned techniques of representation… and so the first thing we must not do is hold on tight to that power… because all it does is turn us into a learned response, which is necessarily external to ourselves. We then only understand and represent ourselves as a type of thing, rather than as the particular thing we actually are.

The audience naturally delights in our similitude to that which they expect, and wants us to correspond to them. And in the absence of courage or integrity, this is the natural fate of those who hold on tight to what little power they have in the world. In human societies only ever dominated by money and power, the artist is most often a marginalized and desperate figure, clinging to skills hard won, often at the expense of pursuing the very money and power by which they are marginalized. So they hold on tight. But that death grip on learned response is a prison. Liberation comes from realizing that in the moment of introspection… in the moment when we want to understand and represent ourselves either in visual art, or music, or language, or even in love making… that one must pause, and allow learned responses to pass on by. And this wait is excruciating in that it reminds us of how powerless we are when we are just ourselves… and that the burden of individuality is to live with the discomfort of not knowing as a prelude to enlightenment.

Only then can we construct a new form of knowing appropriate to that moment of our existence. Only then does a kiss come alive and convey the meanings of our flesh, rather than put us in mind of a Man Ray painting of lips from 1936. Only then does the music we make convey those innate sensibilities that we imagine of ourselves, rather than the realization that we are subconsciously quoting the whole history of jazz in ways that seem clever and original, but which are probably just reworked. Only then can one sit at a typewriter and lay words down like bricks in order to convey the staccato rhythm of ideas that condense daily in all the days of our lives, but which cannot find their way past the censorship of all the literary expressions we so admire. In short… only then, in all the expressive instrumentalities we possess in life, can we know we represent who we are as unique, rather than surrender out of fear to a box this world would put us in.

(Written 11/25/2015 based on observations of 11/18/2015 through the 11/23/2015, and the conversation of 11/23/2015 in Booty's Street Food in New Orleans)

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