How many times have you heard somebody blurt out, "I don't understand this music" when they were confronted by something they weren't familiar with or didn't immediately like? This sort of statement isn't always intended in a literal sense, but why should one have to "understand" music? Is it imperative to "understand" music in order to like it? Can anyone ever truly "understand" a piece of music? Does an uneducated listener really "understand" anything about music on even a basic level? These points are completely open to debate, because there are shadows of doubt surrounding all of them.
|Brian Ferneyhough: lots of notes, hard to listen to.|
I have listened to a lot of what many other folks probably consider "difficult", "challenging" or "complex" music. None of these attributes are qualitative in the sense that they are automatically equivalent with music being "good". Just because music is complex doesn't mean I care for it: most of the intricately sophisticated serialism by a composer like Milton Babbitt leaves me cold despite the fact that I respect and relate to the incredible rigor of his compositional methods and constructions. I am not concerned with any notions of "ultimate" complexity, nor am I only interested in "complex" music. However, there are many examples of recorded work I have consistently revisited over the decades which have pushed various levels of structural, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, timbral and conceptual sophistication.
I have obsessed over the music of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band since I first heard it around 1988. I had done as much research about Beefheart as I could in the pre-Internet era through books, magazines and microfilm. My first Beefheart record was "Mirror Man" (Buddah Records, 1971), a legally-dubious collection of four lengthy, mostly improvised pieces from 1967 which were taken from abandoned sessions preceding the flawed, official sophomore effort "Strictly Personal" (Blue Thumb, 1968). This disc wasn't quite what I hoped it would be in light of the hype I had built up around the group in my mind, but I still enjoyed it. In particular, I found the song "Kandy Korn" hypnotically cyclic, with its web of intricate guitar counterpoint and imaginative, tumbling drums which broke away elegantly from the cliches of simple rock backbeat playing. The longer pieces were largely formless, monochromatic jams, punctuated by the Captain's stream-of-consciousness lyrical utterances and dissonant, violent solo outbursts on chromatic harmonica and "first-time" musette (a dry, biting double reed instrument).
While searching for more Captain Beefheart I soon realized I could simply order a retail copy of the mythic 1969 "Trout Mask Replica" double LP directly from my own local record store. At the time, many records people assumed were out of print were actually readily available from distributors through a resource called the Schwann Catalog. Essentially, if there were copies laying around a warehouse someplace, they were listed in this book and any intrepid record store could special order it. My copy quickly arrived, I showed up, plunked down my $13.99 and rode home on my dirt bike to devour.
The cover imagery is a landmark of dryly obtuse absurdity. Against a luminous red background, a cryptic figure (Beefheart himself) in a fish-head mask waves at the camera. Overtly psychedelic group photos take up the remaining three panels of the gatefold cover. Numerous things fascinated me about this band of weirdos. I liked their use of pseudonyms: crazy names like "Zoot Horn Rollo", "The Mascara Snake", "Antennae Jimmy Semens" and "Rockette Morton" seemed to spring from a twisted but coherent lexicon (the song titles had a similarly disorienting effect). I was a little confused about why the astounding drummer wasn't listed in the credits ("Drumbo" a.k.a. John French had one of many falling-outs with Beefheart during this period, so his contribution to the work had been temporarily ignored.) These guys didn't just play regular instruments - they played "Steel Appendage" and "Glass Finger" guitars, bass clarinets and "Flesh Horn". Every aspect of this record was cloaked in hallucinogenic enigma. I felt like a teenage alien and they were living in a world I badly wanted to enter. I was beginning to project my own desires onto the hippy/freak superheroes which made up the Magic Band.
Side one begins with the jarring air-raid siren blast called "Frownland". After a brief instrumental intro, it becomes clear that the vocals utterly dominate this music. They are loudly mixed, lending a raw, amateurish feel to the overall production. The instrumentalists create a frantic gridlock of seemingly "wrong" notes, snapping in and out of rhythmic unison at unpredictable intervals. A terse slide-guitar riff briefly pokes forward from the mix. The composition ends arbitrarily at the same point of ugliness it begins at. Despite the fact that "Frownland" was bewildering on first impression, it was obvious to me there was some order involved. I wanted to know what the logic was behind this piece, and the rest of the music which made up this dense, uncompromising double album.
So these are the first steps in listening to complex music: I hear this music. I may not understand it, but on a visceral level, something is appealing to me about it. Some basic parameters are working for me, whether or not I know exactly what they are. I cannot make heads or tails of it, but I want to hear this music again anyhow. This is the same way I heard Free Jazz for the first time. The same way I heard Death Metal. The same way I heard Balinese Gamelan. The way I first heard Magma. The same way I saw my first Julie Mehretu or Sarah Sze. The same way I viewed "The Holy Mountain" or "Greaser's Palace". The same way I repeatedly tried to read page one of "Ulysses" by James Joyce (before I realized I liked it, but couldn't deal with it at all).
Shouldn't great art be intriguing? Why does the punchline have to come immediately? Why do people have to "understand" it before they can like it?
Art appreciation is just that: an appreciation. It is cultivated. It can blossom with knowledge. If one actually strives to know something about the form they are interested in, one can discover a new multitude of sensory doors to walk through. Sadly, we are in the midst of USA 2011: there is a backlash against intellectualism in mainstream society. Smart people are sexless, loser "nerds" or deemed as having "Asperger Syndrome" at every turn (this is one of my big current English language pet peeves: people constantly referring to anybody with exemplary focus or aptitude as 'autistic'. Maybe what should happen instead is that the talentless, no-attention-span masses should be correctly referred to as 'retarded'.) So, by this token, can one really expect to "understand" music if one never bothers to learn a single educated thing about it? It's not that many cannot "understand" complex music - I think the real problem is that they don't try. It doesn't interest them to learn. This disinterest is not inherently evil, but I often wonder why people claim to "love" music so much, but they don't seem to "love" very much of it. It's like saying you "love" food and all you eat eat is McDonalds . . .
I am not at some pinnacle of listening ability. I'm not claiming to be master of anything. I am not the ultimate, all-knowing divine-critic-of-all-music-ever-created. I am not a guru, looking down at everybody as peons, but sheeeesh . . . there's so much incredible music out there and it seems like there are so few people who actually want to deal with very much of it.
Let's take a deeper look at more of the musical signifiers inside of Captain Beefheart's music. I would like to focus on an instrumental piece from "Trout Mask Replica" tastefully titled "Hair Pie: Bake Two". Please listen to it before you move forward with this piece, whether or not you are familiar with it.
"Hair Pie: Bake Two" is really only truly radical in context. If one doesn't understand the context, one might not be very impressed by it. In the light of 20th Century classical modernism (starting around 1900 with the innovations of Arnold Schoenberg, et al.), the compositional ambition of this piece may seem extremely crude, but in relation to its foundation in the idiom of Rock and Roll it is revolutionary.
As the song begins, it is steadily rhythmic at a medium-fast tempo. We might not be certain if it is in 4/4 or another meter, but should that really matter? It should be obvious that there are two lead guitars and that one of them almost immediately peels of into some other sort of rhythmic feel. Once again, we don't really need to expressly understand exactly what ratio or polyrhythmic relation it expresses (it is a vague eight-note triplet feel in a different meter than the other parts), but we can say to ourselves, "Something weird is happening here. How will it resolve?" Instantly there is a sort of musical dilemma: the fun part of listening to a piece like this is seeing how or will it work out. At :17 seconds, the errant triplet guitar seems to lock back into the rhythmic grid with the rest, but the tonality is markedly strange. We don't need to "understand" what the exact relationships of the keys are (I don't know and I'm not going to lift a finger to figure it out right now), but we can say, "Something sounds weird about that guitar. It was doing some crazy rhythm before and now it's picking wacky, wrong-sounding notes!" Is this not funny? Is this not interesting? I think it is. In a short span of time, there several obvious progressions happening and we haven't even really paid attention to what the drums and bass are doing. Maybe we will focus on those elements during the next listen?
One remarkable facet of this piece is how the musical parts fit together. Although it is rhythmically and harmonically dense, this complexity is deceptive. If you focus on any one separate part, you may find that it's actually a somewhat simplistic and catchy melodic fragment in itself. It's really only the piling up of these phrases which make the whole seem so potentially foreboding. "Hair Pie: Bake Two" is a sort of collage of musical parts and we can enjoy picking these parts apart with our minds and viewing at them from different angles, in and out of their total sonic context.
At :21 seconds, all of the players snap into a distinct rhythmic unison phrase which contrasts from the previous movement. The phrase is only played twice and then there is a short solo drum set linkage to a reiteration of the phrase. Why do all the guitars drop out at this point? Well, why not??? It is intriguing. It is also a matter of contrast. Some of the intensity of the instrumental is relieved momentarily by this solo drum section and it creates drama which is heightened when the guitars return to remind us of the fragment we just heard. These guys are playing these notes on purpose, and when they stop and then start again where we they left off, we know this for certain.
At :38, the work shifts from the turgid, punching, slow-sounding feel of the previous section into a more jaunty feel. The drums and bass lay down a harmonically dark, but rhythmically propulsive background figure before the guitars quickly re-enter. The guitars seem to be overtly battling the feel of the rhythm section team, working in conspiracy as they attack and then meet in cooperation over the course of several short phrases, finally ending in a sustained cluster of tones before the entire group advances into a set of sharp accents at :48, signaling yet another major shift. The bass line underneath these accents seems to continue the feel of the preceding section, as if he is trying to convince the rest of the band to stay where they are! This is the sort of basic interpretive dialogue that music can have both on macro- and microcosmic levels.
At :52, there is a new sort of rhythmic and metric grid happening which contrasts sharply from the rest of the song. It appears that the guitars are working as a single voice, presenting a pleasantly tonal, punchy but metrically lopsided figure while the bass plays in a completely different key and set of meters. The three stringed instruments work separately, but still cling to same basic pulse of the piece. It is initially confusing, but obviously the individual parts are still working together towards reaching the next turning point in the composition. The drumming ties the whole thing together with a gently forward-moving pulse which is punctuated by sporadic cymbal accents which evoke lightly crashing waves. It's fine and sometimes useful to associate musical events with other concrete experiences outside of music. One might hear waves in these cymbals, while another hears disorganized noise. There will never be a definitive agreement, nor should there be.
At 1:15, a new section begins, signalled by hair-raising dissonance. Anyone can easily detect this blatant shift if they are paying attention. This use of painful, tense tonality is much like the instinctual tinge of elevated suspense one might feel when watching a slasher film in the dark and macabre orchestral music enters to signify a horrible event. The guitars each play a different phrase which all lock together in the same metric scheme. The drums have an equal melodic weight, repeating a figure punctuated by cowbell. The following part, starting around 1:28 has a similar mood and feel to the part before it. After all these jarring changes, it defies the logic of the composition to finally continue one of the threads of the piece without radical disruption. Perhaps this is the point of this song - to defy logic? Or maybe the point is to work at the nexus bewteen disorder and structure in an attempt to expand the vocabulary of rock music? In 1969, the Magic Band definitely succeeded at this with constructions like this. They were clearly challenging many of the parameters of rock music, while still remaining identifiable as a rock band . . .
By 1:32, there's yet another variation on the preceding themes. A new color is revealed when the suddenly guitarists switch roles, one moving from low to high register and the other doing the opposite. At 1:40, the high guitar performs another new riff which is strongly melodic and cuts through the arrangment with clarity. The drums, bass and chording of the other guitar all support this figure directly. When 1:51 appears, each man seems to split off, creating independent cycles through 2:03. There's so much detail in this tiny section alone, it would be well-worth looping it for a few minutes just to enjoy all of the interlocking components. The remainder of "Hair Pie: Bake 2" features another high, crystalline guitar melody; hyperactive bass playing and thick rhythm guitar chording, all in completely different meters. At one point the drums drop out and the rest finish off their final figures before a comet-like sound like a quickly echoing tambourine hit accelerates into the cosmos.
This is a quick, casual analysis of a single 2:30 second piece of music. What it makes me do is want to listen to it again and find even more details in it. This process of discovery is part of why I listen to complex music.
Why do you listen to it?
- Weasel Walter