Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, August 20, 2006

My post last night on the relationship between words & music in song dissatisfied me. Partly it dissatisfied me because the quality of any experience tends to elude language; language can only create a sort of parallel experience, and I lack the chops to pull that off with an experience as whelming, powering, and encompassing as music. The post also seemed to point me toward this idea that music is primarily “about” human emotion, and that’s a limiting notion.

A couple years ago I got into a bitter argument with total strangers on an internet discussion group about whether music exists. Two of them were arguing with me, and dozens of people got the emails but didn’t take part, leaving me to flail at nonsense. I never completely understood what they meant by saying that music doesn’t exist -- and, you should know, the topic of this discussion group was music!

I think the idea that music didn’t exist had something to do with the lack of a definition that was sufficiently broad to account for every possible example of music while being sufficiently narrow to exclude non-musical specimens. For example, if classical and hip hop composition incorporate speech, when is speech not music?

Brothers and sisters, this lack of a comprehensive and exclusive definition for music is a strength.

Music is an experience of sound. Music is a quality of attention that a listener gives to a sonic experience. The listener can also be the producer of the sound, even at the moment as the sound is emerging.

The music maker wants to create a sonic experience worthy of a musical attention, even if the only person who will ever pay attention is the music maker themself. What music does, why we want to give it our attention -- that is the mystery. I like the feelings that music transforms within me.

In comments to the above-linked post on the relationship between music & words, J-Lon talked about the history of the limitation on recording drums, and how the emergence of the possibility of recording Enormous Loud Drums may have been a factor in the down-playing of vocals in popular music recordings. (King Oliver’s drummer Baby Dodds was forbidden from playing drums in the recording studio and had to play woodblocks on records in the early ‘20s -- the recording technology could not handle the drums’ sound.) And that got me thinking of one of my favorite drum albums, Art Blakey’s The African Beat, recorded with a bass player, a reed player, and several African and Caribbean hand drummers. In the midst of all that lovely organicism, human hands beating animal skins stretched resonantly over wooden frames, Blakey’s stick hitting that militaristic snare sounds positively nuts. It’s extremely beautiful, virtuosity in the service of the juice and marrow of life. Worthy of a listen.

* * *

Other music on my mind lately, subjects for future posts:

Caetano Veloso’s A Foreign Sound, which came out last year.

Tanya Tagaq, whose music twice brought me to tears at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, and whose album Sinaa is astounding.

William Bolcom’s setting of William Blake’s collection of poems, Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

Clarence Williams, 1920s jazz bandleader, pianist, songwriter.

Books, or at least lengthy magazine articles, I wish I knew where to find right now:

A history of the Brazilian Tropicalia movement.

And a history of African American Tin Pan Alley giants such as Clarence Williams, Spencer Williams (no relation), Fats Waller, and Eubie Blake.

Suggestions welcome.
This fellow is similarly looking for a definition of music this morning:


He reaches towards some interesting ideas, too.
Re: books on Tropicalia

Caetano Veloso: Tropical Truth Da Capo

Christopher Dunn: Brutality Garden: Tropicalia & the Emergence of a Brazilian Counter Culture Chapel Hill

These two deal primarily with the music, but bring in the context of the other arts that were part of the movement, as well as the politics of the period.

There's also a catalog from a traveling exhibition called Tropicalia: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture. I haven't seen the book or the exhibition (which opens at the Bronx Museum (the last stop on its tour around the world) in early October) but from what I can tell, this exhibition includes a lot of material about the cultural and political context of the movement.
John, Herb is right on the money with his Tropicalia book suggestions. For what it's worth, I found the Dunn book more enlightening than Caetano's.

One additional soapboxy comment (not directed at you personally, John): Why is it that so many people seem interested only in Tropicalia, and not in other genres/periods of Brazilian music? I like the Tropicalia stuff ok, but there's lot of other things I prefer, from regular old rootsy samba to Baden Powell and Jobim (of course) to (especially) Jorge Ben...
Thanks for the interesting ideas about music and lyrics. A few more thoughts:
So what is music? Possibly the highest form of human communication, but that's just my opinion. John Cage said music is any sound that you can hear - period.
Then what separates music from noise? Only individual perspective and opinion. I have heard a symphonic thunderstorm, a cicada concerto, a machine shop techno groove, the ambient minimalism of high voltage wires in fog, the call and response blues of frogs at night, the free jazz of car horns and traffic in NYC - just to name a few.
Our minds constantly try to organize all sounds into some form of pattern or meaning - so all sound is music, given a certain perspective. I think Cage was right.
Anon., thanks for that link to another blogger -- I agree -- that was interesting.

Herb -- thanks for the suggestions!

Jody (Anachronist) -- I *have* a pair of books about samba (both of which I have enjoyed, neither of which I've yet finished -- typical!); the Tropicalia period seems especially interesting politically. Thanks for the Ben recommendation; need to track him down.

CB -- interesting comments -- thanks! The mystery to me is, how does one move between conceptualizing music as a mode of listening to the sonic world, and a mode of communication/expression from a music maker to a listener? Because I agree, it *is* a peculiarly intense form of communication. Except when it's a mode of meditation/listening . . .
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