josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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9 Nov '01 11:41:38 PM

So here's something that I think about a lot, though I've never put it in quite this way before. I might not get all the logical or causal connections in the right order.

There is aesthetic disagreement: I think this piece of music is great, you think that one is, and so on. There's also something similar, when I think a song is bad, and then that it's good, or maybe vice versa, after some time, or listening to some other music, or listening to the same thing more carefully, or reading a good analysis of it, or reading something involving it which doesn't really analyze it at all but makes me see it in a new light, and so forth.

In an important sense the history of philosophy has involved attempts to gain certainty: in particular, certainty of knowledge. They want to know, without a doubt, that, for example, this symphony is better than that one.

This certainty, if it were attainable, would resolve or dissolve lots of the aesthetic disagreements that plague our musical lives.

But like in existence proofs from mathematics, it's not enough to just know that something's possible, or something exists - here, to know that we could in theory definitely say that one thing is better than another. Philosophers want something to use - a rule, a theory, a method, whatever - that lets them say of specific things whether or not they are better than other specific things, with a pretty broad range of application.

Some people critical of the course philosophy has taken have said that this makes philosophy tend to value the kinds of things which can be given explanations on the terms most amenable to this kind of desideratum: rules, theories, methods. Correspondingly, the things that are hard to work with using these kinds of tools are devalued.

What sort of divide does this result in? People who do aesthetics of music in the academy worry about form. A lot. Along with form go worries about complexity. Not all people who do aesthetics are formalists but a number of them are, especially with respect to music. But even when they're not, they tend to end up talking about the kind of music most easily approached with form in mind - basically, classical music in the western tradition. Other kinds of music are ignored or devalued (note that this is partly because they are so hard to deal with).

What is a person who likes other kinds of music, and who doesn't want these philosophers ignoring it or devaluing it, to do? Lots of people will say that rock music, or popular music, rap music, non-classical, whatever it's called, depends more on texture. Or rhythm. Or something like that, something not as easy to pin down (using western art music's own tools!) as western art music. But because we don't have the theoretical apparatus to account for this kind of music on the same level of theoretical development and rigor, in a similar kind of language, as we do western art music, responses to critics that go like "texture is more important" fizzle. So what are the pop fan's options? Developing a more involved theoretical apparatus is one. I'm not sure that sort of thing is possible or desirable. Another is to develop a new kind of theoretical apparatus that is made convincing and useful enough that it will be deemed as good an apparatus for describing popular music as "music theory" is for describing western art music. The key here is new. It might not involve symbols on paper, special structures like the circle of fifths that give a sort of logical understructure to the theory. An alternative to that would have to be made appealing. Unfortunately to philosophers this might mean that it needs more symbols.

Another alternative is to go up a level, though, and attack the idea that in order for convincing or useful accounts of things to be given, they must be given with this kind of formal theoretical apparatus.

This alternative is more general, and more difficult. But often I suspect that something along these lines is more appropriate just because it solves a number of other problems for aesthetics. (Whereas giving an account in terms of texture, rhythm, social significance, etc. may give the same kinds of problems - disagreement, etc. - as the formalistic account of art music. In both cases the problems might be gotten rid of with this up-level attack.

9 Nov '01 09:13:17 PM

Some mail from Vinnie (below) brought an interesting comment about this entry on layering.

Interesting that you've been talking about layering in songs, because I've been thinking about it a lot lately when listening to Orbital. Mostly because I usually dislike de-layered endings if it happens slowly. Layering I can deal with and enjoy, mostly because you're curious to find out how much the artist can add on before reaching the climax. De-layered endings can work if they're done quickly and unpredictably, but one or two layers at a time until everything's removed is just dull to me because there's no thrill of knowing what will happen. It's like foreplay after the orgasm to use a worse example.

The way you put the kind of layering you enjoy is interesting because it gets at something different from what I was thinking of: the kind of layering-to-climax that seems to come more often in the kinds of songs that are maybe mantric, or certain kinds of dance music, or ecstatic music in some sense (lots of it religious - see e.g. even that new Mogwai EP, based on Jewish music and including a prayer in the liner notes). I'll have to think about how they're different. I think in the kind you bring up, the de-layered endings are less interesting, except in the sense that they might be for other purposes than being interesting. (Ex: a comedown from the ecstatic high, walking after running a race, etc., that kind of thing.) But if the layering isn't used so much to build to a single high (a big triangular composition, just like the hoary dramatic arc of fiction), then the de-layering need not be that extensive in order to make the ending seem like an ending, and thus it need not be boring or at least unsurprising or interesting. Maybe. I'll have to think about it some more.

Of course, for the kind of layering I think Vinnie is thinking about, it seems like he's got a good point (and not a bad metaphor at the end).

8 Nov '01 07:28:30 AM

It's been a while, hasn't it? I probably haven't been keeping up my end of things, but I would like it if you sent me mail if you never have before, or even if you have, maybe if it's just been some time since you let me know you were there, what you're listening to, how things are going.

On an unrelated note, I am thinking about being less willfully inconvenient to new readers by having some kind of page of links into my archive of posts - almost two years old now! - at places that I think might be interesting, or illustrative of my schtick, or both. It's still hard to pick things out, though.

8 Nov '01 12:14:06 AM

My last two batteries are going to die before next Wednesday. And I don't have any money.

8 Nov '01 12:13:43 AM

CDs I wish I had in my bag right now: Aquemini, Niun Niung.

8 Nov '01 12:13:00 AM

The importance of layering in music not written around the harmonic progressions important to western art music (or not mainly concerned with them, even though it can be said to take advantage of them).

Every song I listened to today from Ruby Vroom seemed to take advantage of layering to acheive some kind of cadence - a sense of development, or of resolution (which generally comes after development).

Start small, add a layer, and a potentially exciting change has occurred. Do this for a while to build intensity, interest. Dropping layers then acts as a dramatic device, or one for creating tension. (Holding the layers where they are for a while creates or maintains tension too.) Endings seem to get harder for certain kinds of groove-based or modal music or whatever the term is for what I'm thinking of (there's a technical one, I've even used it before). De-layering is an effective way of pulling off endings - even without fadeouts.

Conviction that relative lack of simplicity of this model with respect to that of tonal western art music is not sufficient to make value judgments, except of a very limited kind (plenty of hypothetical ones: if you want this, then listen to this...).

8 Nov '01 12:06:30 AM

It occurred to me today that it would be very apt to describe Mogwai's Rock Action in general (production, performance, composition) as "crisp".

And also that it's appropriate to describe the song with Gruff Rhys as "sighing"

So there is one song that is "crisp" and "sighing".

8 Nov '01 12:04:28 AM

On the loneliness embedded in hip-hop culture...

... would be a nice way to title a longer, more involved version of this idea. Or alternately, "The loneliness of the headphone wearer" in reference to "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" though I wouldn't use that since I don't even know why that thing is called what it is. Ha.

"turn my headphones up" sez Kardinal Offishall somewhere on Firestarter Vol. 1. Similarly Jay-Z on The Blueprint - "turn my music high/high/high/er" - and all over hip-hop in general, at least as far as I've heard. The idea of turning it up is not new; it's probably an idea borrowed from rock, maybe even one new with rock. But the emphasis on the headphones (not in the Jay-Z line but other places that I can't remember right now) interests me. Headphones have plenty of other associations, definitely, but doesn't it seem like they've picked up an even stronger association with hip-hop now?

I think this says something about the way people listen to hip-hop, at the very least. That it shows up in the music says a lot about the connection between the people who make hip-hop and the people who listen to it, and more generally, the connection between making music and listening to music. But not here.

Look at it: all these people, listening to music by themselves. Often in places full of other people that one generally isn't supposed to talk to or interact in very involved ways with in the first place - a socially isolated arena, one that reinforces a certain kind of people-as-atoms thinking.

How does this show up in the way the music is heard? Made?

The other month a guy on the bus was listening to the new Jay-Z on his headphones. I could tell because he was shouting out the lyrics to "Renegade". But he had friends with him. So in some strange sense he wasn't alone.

6 Nov '01 06:37:56 AM

I think maybe Idiology loses a little momentum in the little. It seems like there is a run of songs built around noisy synths and DSP, all with very knotty rhythms.