Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What Music Where

In music school everybody pretends that music is a thing by itself. They pretend that the concert hall is a transparent place for pure listening and the value of a listening experience depends exclusively how good the music is. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, having felt sadly unmoved and alienated by most everything I've put through my ears.

And then I went home to Austin for a few days. I spent some time with a group of guys who are playing guitar and writing songs all the time. Their songs are great and they sound great and I'm really impressed with them. I hope I find myself in a community like that someday. Their music brought me much more joy than anything I could think of to put on the stereo.

And then I met and hosted a house concert for (the) Giants of Gender, a really thoughtful, excellent creative-improv group from Ohio. Kate and I called everyone we knew, cooked a pile of food, and they made magic in my living room.

I’m becoming convinced that all music is socially functional, and that the social function is the seat of its power. That is to say, music (rather, the music-experience) is a vector for the replication of social norms. Every music transmits a social vision, not just in its content (comforting, challenging?) and place in the discourse (indie + Eastern Europe, Texas swing?), but also in the circumstances of its experience, which lend so much power to music that I think the two are inseparable.

We try all we can to separate the music from its setting. The iPod is the most perfect achievement of a long line of attempts to effect this divorce. But it just creates its own setting, as predictable and impenetrable as The Opera: those twin tiny universes of “anything you want, only when you want it” and “alone.” It doesn’t matter how good the music is, if it comes on a CD it transmits and cements this vision.

On the other extreme, the rock concert, and everyone else who uses it as a model. Godlike performers and unwashed masses, the clear, policed boundary between the two, the illusion of participation – deeply alienating.

Of course, setting is just one element of what music ‘says,’ and the sense of participation in a distant time and a place you get listening to your favorite record may more than make up for the isolation of your headphones at home. That sense of participation is why people love music – suburban white kids communing with their urban black counterparts (about whom they are deeply curious), university professors communing with the Long Line of Genius, hipsters and everyone else using music to more and more finely draw group-membership boundaries. Those distant communities-in-music have been deeply important for me, but you can't cook with them. You can't sing with them. And so what kind of community is that?
(Hakim Bey: "If my eyes are free but my nose isn't, that's not what I call freedom. That's why there's no festival in cyberspace.")

No matter the fidelity, no matter what orchestra, the music on my iPod or concert hall will never sound as good to me as my friends singing in my living room.

[Or that time Clem led a fleet of bicycles out at midnight to the abandoned airport, out across the runway to a school-bus graveyard. He'd swept one out and filled it with candles, and then the strangest, most exciting music I will probably ever hear.]

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Bang on a Can

The Bang on a Can Marathon was really disappointing. I’m sorry. I know it’s exciting that such a thing is possible. I know it signals good things for New Music, or whatever. And I didn’t go to all of it, so maybe I missed some gems. But nobody should be congratulating themselves for taking any chances. No, I take that back, I saw one brave act – Dälek, a posturing, hair-swinging hip-hop/heavy metal outfit that must have felt out of place and ridiculous up there but did their act anyway. That’s gutsy, and as alienated as I felt from what they had to say, I really appreciated them for taking that chance. Most everything else was calculated to amuse, programmed by a formula for guessing what cool might be – a grumpy hipster with a laptop and some violins – a D minor jam band with songs in five (!) and a bassoon (!!) – an orchestra with a heavy metal guitar (!!!) – Brian Eno – brake drums brake drums brake drums. Lots and lots of safe Danger Music, one dimensional, obvious, half-baked. I felt totally underestimated as a listener.

Except for the Books. I loved the Books. Go hear the Books.

That said, I think I really support Bang on a Can’s mission (as I see it) – encourage a culture of experimentation in pop music and discourage the culture of snobbery in classical music. That’s the force I’ve tried to be in my little world. But most of what I heard had none of the joy of pop, only the cool, and none of the brains of classical, only the formality.

So that’s the music. But even if the music had been incredible, the setting doomed it all. It was a huge atrium of one of the peripheral World Trade Center buildings – all glass and marble, a cavern. The sound was terrible. They fought the echoes by turning up the speakers until we all had to cover our ears sometimes (ooh, edgy). The audience made tons of noise, lots of high-heels, cell phone conversations and tour groups just wandered through. It got me thinking, and I have not stopped, about the relationship between music and its set-and-setting. Classical music depends on an atmosphere of reverence, as pop music depends on exuberance, and both were impossible here.

All of their attempts to appear legitimate – the high-profile space, the pro production, the stellar (and hip looking) hired musicians, Brian Eno – made it somehow inert, hopeless, like if the city were a drum it was a dead spot. No resonance. Very frustrating.