One day when I was fifteen I was riding in a friend's car going to Krispy Kreme. He had new sub-woofers, and intended to use them. I complained that the bass was so loud, particularly in the back seat, that I couldn't hear the music. I was generally mocked for this position. It was the first time I realized that I was at the show to listen, and that some people aren't. Since then the road, as it were, has been classical music.
Around the same time, I was playing in an indie rock band. I left every rehearsal with my ears ringing. Our small slate of gigs was the outset of my lifelong slate of negotiations with sound guys. Though my ears were still untrained, I began to notice: wait a minute, the sound at rock shows is execrable and no one can hear anything! And since then the road has been classical music, though I didn't always realize that, and the road has sometimes been muddy.
Noted: I am defining "classical music" very broadly. Kyle Gann once described classical music, globally, as any ritual music designed for listening. I like this idea. If it's true, then rock music and jazz and hip-hop and everything else become classical musics when people are there to listen—rather than, say, primarily to dance, drive, or drink beers. (Disclosure: I too enjoy dancing, driving, and drinking beers, so nothing pejorative is implied.)
This suggests that a style can be classical music sometimes and not classical music other times, and that's awfully knotty, isn't it? One musician or one performance could even be both at the same time, different music to different observers. Because who can say what any one person at the show is there to do? I heard Guided by Voices at a rock club when I was 19, and squeaky Iowa boy that I was, I had no fake ID, nor any desire to purchase alcohol. I was there to hear the songs. (The band was ostensibly there to play them, though they drank what is even more so in retrospect a tremendous amount of beer during the set.) A few weeks ago I went to hear Of Montreal. It was, dramaturgically, the most sophisticated small-stage rock show I've ever seen. And the sound at the venue was decent, but still the base level of amplification was so high that I didn't get a single lyric from a song I didn't already know.
So is Of Montreal classical music? In some senses yes, in some senses no. For me the album Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? is classical music. I have listened to it many times, in detail and with care. I have transcribed its tunes and delighted in the subtleties of its lyrics and forms. When I heard the same songs in concert, were they classical music, according again to our clearly-arguable-but-in-my-experience-useful working Gannian definition? Perhaps not. They were springboards for fascinating theatricality, but they weren't there for listening, not primarily or exclusively. If they were, good, clear sound would have been the first priority.
Rock clubs subsist by selling alcoholic beverages. Musical performances that take place at these bars are one step removed from advertising campaigns for those same alcoholic beverages. Isn't it fascinating that "classical music," that special ritual of listening, has in our country lately been knocking on the alley door of the rock clubs, asking to be let in? I've been just as alienated by classical performance customs as everyone else in my generation (see roughly every other blog post I wrote from 2007-2009), but I'm still somewhat amazed that a tradition designed around listening would seek its continuance in a venue designed around alcohol sales. People drink alcoholic beverages and become—what? They become louder. So the band has to get louder, too. Alcohol does not improve one's ability to listen, nor does it promote concentrated listening environments. It can have positive effects on social interchange, and that I suppose is what classical music is seeking, that real and easy connection to quotidian social reality. I've been to some great shows at rock clubs and restaurants, but it works best when there's a separate room or space for the music. I've been to more where the music seemed to sneak in and out of the space, trying to say its piece before the clientele kicked up. Bars are naturally loud. It's not an inherently great fit for classical music—for any music based around listening.
And wouldn't it be better anyway if we were paying for the music, not for the drinks? Then maybe (and I'm reaching, here) we'd be paying musicians and not corporations for a change. There's a Charles Ives quote about real music beginning when the last person trying to make a living from music passes away. I have a humbler vision: maybe real music-making begins when its economics are divorced from the economics of alcohol.
I used to be interested in form, until our whole culture got so interested in "content." Our obsession with this word leads me to believe there is something wrong with the whole dualism. Because shouldn't they be responsive to one another? Can't form be fluid, and content reflexive?
When I wrote "February: New Mexico and the Open" for NewMusicBox back in June, I used the avatar of Edward Abbey to make a point, and I felt kind of bad about it. At the close of the essay I did make sure to append a story that, I thought, "absolved" Abbey of the failing I'd accused, that is, of misanthropy.
Nonetheless the initial reference was a bit of a potshot, and though I made it clear that I love his writings, I still felt chastened when about a month later I read Wendell Berry's essay "A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey." May I strongly recommend this piece of writing to you now. It is exemplary and entertaining, generally a warm and human response to the work of a fellow writer who was himself both warm and human at the time.
If I admire a writer like Jack Kerouac for his irresponsibility toward certain norms and expectations, it is precisely responsibility that awes me in Wendell Berry, including his responsibility toward fellow writers, which reads perfectly free of pretense and guile. His anti-modernity, anti-industrialism screeds I find difficult to digest, partially because they seem so correct and so forbidding, but the literary criticism shines in its range and subtlety, and again, its warmth. (His thoughts about Huckleberry Finn in "Writer and Region" are also highly recommended.)
Berry's defense of Abbey is that he is "not a conservationist or an environmentalist or a boxable ist of any other kind," but rather a human struggling to remain so, delighting in the moments that confirm his humanity and sparring at the forces that threaten it. In every Abbey piece, Abbey presents a great deal of Abbey, and as a result no one is likely to agree with him all the time; Berry takes this only as a strong confirmation that Abbey has offered his full self, and that this is a thing of considerable value.
In discussing an example: "If he is going to write about immigration, why doesn't he do it in a sober, informed, logical manner? The answer, I am afraid, will not suit some advocates of sobriety, information, and logic: He can write in a sober, informed, logical manner—if he wants to. And why does he sometimes not want to? Because it is not in his character to want to all the time. With Mr. Abbey, character is given, or it takes, a certain precedence, and that precedence makes him a writer and a man of a different kind—and probably a better kind—than the practitioner of mere sobriety, information, and logic."
(Here is a connection to my earlier-linked discussion of Kerouac and Henry Miller. I loved them for their real, human inconsistency. Berry offers us Abbey as a writer whose merit lies precisely in the craggy, imperfect humanity that his critics take as a fault. I'm thinking of Greil Marcus. Over the summer I read his book The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, while I was staying at an old CCC cabin in Montana, assisting some forest service officials in the building of a puncheon. One evening I scratched a note to myself: "He doesn't make coherent logical arguments about art, but he makes ecstatic ones." Which might be more appropriate and more useful. There are higher aims than sanitary argumentation.)
"If Mr. Abbey is not an environmentalist," Berry asks, "then what is he? He is, I think, at least in the essays, an autobiographer."
Here was the chastening, because that's exactly what I did for NewMusicBox. I was asked to write four essays, and finding within myself no desire to make claims, defend arguments, or convince anyone I was right about anything, all I could think to do was tell my own story. I had been pondering and traveling and listening and reading and composing a great deal, and around the time the essays congealed I was out for a lot of long runs, noticing lines and resonances between personal events and artistic ones--drawing constellations, you might say. It seemed like The Necks had something to do with why I composed so effectively in Wyoming, Bonnie "Prince" Billy with why I keep returning to New Mexico, Peter Garland's musical topics with the characters I met in Virginia, Morton Feldman's expansive, ostensibly logicless forms with the unfolding geometry of my life.
Berry's essay made me realize that, of course, I'd dragged Abbey into this to begin with because I saw in him a fellow human writing everything he could as a bulwark against despair. I used that exact word: "Is any of my music truly an improvement on silence? Globally, is my presence superior to the alternative? Ecologically, the answer is no. But though I am a resource-devouring primate, I am also a thoughtful human being, and maybe I don’t need to improve on silence but only on despair."
Berry quotes Abbey: "The essays in Down the River are meant to serve as antidotes to despair. Despair leads to boredom, electronic games, computer hacking, poetry and other bad habits."
See what he did there with that irreverent humor? He's distracting our attention—and his own—from the profundity of the despair. I accused Abbey of misanthropy, but I see now that the anger and futility that oozes from under the floorboards in his work is exactly the anger and futility I faced down in "New Mexico and the Holes."
I described some of my fear and frustration flowing from environmental crisis. But just as Berry argues in Abbey's case, I can confirm that there was no meaningful political motivation behind my writing. It was driven only by a simple and (as it turned out) incendiary desire to make an account of myself.
That's probably what I'm doing in the music, too.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts