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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19 Nov '01 06:01:21 AM

What I have been listening to to go to sleep lately (incomplete list):

Boards of Canada, Music Has the Right to Children. Labradford, Fixed:Context. Kid606, PS I Love You. Miles Davis, The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions (Disc 2). John Coltrane, Crescent. Goldfrapp, Felt Mountain.

Listening to the Boards of Canada tonight because I noticed it laying in the living room and realized I hadn't heard it in a while. I've listened to this a lot in many places, particularly my last two apartments. So why don't I have any place associations with it?

"Twenty" is the longest song on Fixed:Context, so it's not surprising that it's the song I wake up to most often. I have problems setting the volume on this CD: the Morricone guitars are distracting when I'm trying to go to sleep (Alexandre said in a recent email that they added drama at the live show he saw, which seems apt), but if I turn it down then I can't hear anything for much of the CD. In contrast, it's been a long time since I've played the disc really loudly, which I did shortly after getting it, when living at 103 Stanton. I don't play much loudly any more since I'm never in my room any more - except for things on my headphones, and those tend to be faster than Labradford, and only played away from home. Less chance for "deep listening".

Sometimes I think Kid606 has something good going, but then sometimes I just want to put on some Aphex Twin instead.

The unreleased tracks on the Davis box are strange to hear. The music was generally improvised in significant ways, but I think that just the fact that it sounds very similar to the released music makes me judge it very strictly, so that there's a tiny bit of disappointment when something like "Ascent" doesn't sound exactly like "Shhh/Peaceful" - my expectations are continually thwarted. This is a really minor thing, though, one that will disappear with time. The music is still good, I think.

19 Nov '01 05:47:21 AM

I bought a cheap boom box to use in my office, since sometimes I need music playing but I get sick of being encased in my headphones. So I finally started making some tapes I've been meaning to make, beginning with one for my roommate Murph to use in his jeep. In keeping with my almost non-existent tradition of tapemaking, it seems this is a tape I'm more certain to like than he is.

I've only done side A so far.

1: Tom Waits, "Chocolate Jesus". 2: Howlin' Wolf, "Spoonful". 3: Fela Kuti, "Buy Africa". 4: Kardinal Offishall, "Maxine". 5: Charles Mingus, "Moanin'". 6: Wilco, "Forget the Flowers". 7: Magnetic Fields, "A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off". 8: Velvet Underground, "What Goes On". 9: Outkast, "Liberation".

19 Nov '01 05:09:49 AM

Andy sends a quote (below) from Poe that he relates to this recent Wittgenstein post, but which also makes me think of this older entry.

"When music affects us to tears, seemingly causeless, we weep not, as Gravina supposes, from 'excess of pleasure'; but through excess of an impatient, petulant sorrow that, as mere mortals, we are as yet in no condition to banquet upon those supernal ecstasies of which the music affords us merely a suggestive and indefinite glimpse."

17 Nov '01 04:35:07 AM

One of the most appropriate search requests I've seen to lead someone here: "intimacy isolation".

14 Nov '01 05:59:43 PM

610. Describe the aroma of coffee. --Why can't it be done? Do we lack the words? And for what are words lacking? --But how do we get the idea that such a description must after all be possible? Have you ever felt the lack of such a description? Have you ever tried to describe the aroma and not succeeded?

((I should like to say: "These notes say something glorious, but I do not know what." These notes are a powerful gesture, but I cannot put anything side by side with it that will serve as an explanation. A grave nod. James: "Our vocabulary is inadequate." Then why don't we introduce a new one? What would have to be the case for us to be able to?))

(Wittgenstein from the Investigations)

12 Nov '01 04:25:39 PM

I should say that the way I put that last post is due in part to an idea Frank Kogan shared with me; I had been thinking about it before but he's got a nice way of putting it that changed the focus on what I was thinking about.

9 Nov '01 10:41:38 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 08:13:17 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 06:28:30 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.