Friday, March 7, 2008

more bullshit about difficult music

my brother from another mother j-temperence has done some superb work exposing the concept of "musical exhaustion" for the intellectually lazy bullshit that it is. i generally try not to cover the same ground that he has, but this column is too perfect.

it's one thing when someone complains about an album being too damn difficult to listen to ("sitting there doing nothing as music came from the speakers was just so TIRING"). it's entirely another when a critic pats himself on the back for mustering the strength to put up with it.

mark richardson talks about a lot in this article. he talks about hearing trout mask replica for the first time and not liking it (this is kind of a giveaway). he says, "at first, the music in my mind sounded so much better than the reality." wow --- the music in your mind, huh? better than trout mask replica, huh?

moving on...

"difficult records serve as barometers [a tool for measuring air pressure], showing the limits of your current taste and understanding: here's where music gets too noisy; here is where it gets too atonal; this is that place where i don't know what the hell is going on." first, i'd like to quickly note that music can't be atonal in degrees. either you have a tonal center, or you don't -- there is no space between those categories. this is something most critics don't know. second, i'd like to slowly note that the way he conceives of taste is revealing.

critics never complain about music being too easy. such a thought would force them to revisit almost every assumption they have about rock music. if someone were to point out that vampire weekend's new album is really really boring because the band doesn't take any chances, then you'd have to start asking yourself who else doesn't take any chances (interpol, lcd soundsystem, sufjan stevens, black kids, black kids, black kids). NOT experimenting never raises any of these intellectual concerns. the "boundaries" that come up are always defined by the things that are too "noisy", or too "atonal" (i.e. "too fucking hard!!!"). the fundamental assumption is: everyone likes a good pop song, but nobody likes a nerd.

moving on...

"when i was a teenager i read in some guide that john coltrane's a love supreme was one of the great jazz records. and when i first bought it, having been exposed only to coltrane's contributions to kind of blue and miles davis' records of prestige, a love supreme sounded atonal and nutty, like nothing i imagined music could be. this 'free jazz' is some bizarre shit, i thought to myself. which now sounds silly to those weaned on wolf eyes and deerhoof, and abrasive punk rock."

what. the. fuck. i'm having a hard time expressing my anger over this paragraph. a musician probably wouldn't make this mistake, would never think that wolf eyes makes coltrane's later works easier to listen to, by virtue of being more experimental. i'm of the opinion that many of the indie-tards who throng to noise shows in williamsburgh still wouldn't know how to handle ascension, out to lunch, or jazz advance. maybe the lack of digitized screeching would strike them as "boring" (nothing compared to wolf eyes). that's probably for the best. if they bothered to notice harmonies, the whole thing would become "too atonal".

and besides, ornette coleman was black which means he probably couldn't experiment as well as white people who've been to college and know how to make feedback.


that felt good.


nick said...

y'know, i generally enjoy seeing you guys rip into critics who haven't put enough thought into whatever records they were assigned, but this post feels self-indulgent.

firstly, you seemed to pay little attention to the column's central point and purpose - i.e. presenting the concept of evolving tastes while introducing notoriously "difficult" records to oblivious hipsters would've otherwise ignored them.

secondly, you're mostly nitpicking, here! pointing out the critic's misuse of the word "barometer?" oh shit! pointing out the racism inherent in finding wolf eyes' records harder to listen to than "a love supreme?" holy fuck!

thirdly, you too seem to be selective with regards to what gets put into question and what doesn't. yeah, you're right in pointing out that pitchfork rarely calls records out for being too easy. but you're too quick to dismiss critics who regard tonality as a relative, rather than absolute notion. while it's possible that many critics don't understand the concept (admittedly, neither do i), it'd still be worthwhile to understand why people conceive of tonality as relative. if all atonal music stands on the same level on this regard, then why do so many people elevate certain records' atonality above others'?

in any case, keep up the good work guys? i just prefer seeing you delve deep into what's wrong with music criticism, the internet music press, and culture in general, rather than rant aimlessly. i mean, dude, we have andrew earles for that.

on the other hand, this is a blog, so do what you want.

Uticas said...


you're right that i was being self-indulgent and nitpicky. that's kind of what i'm about.

specifically, though, you said: "you're too quick to dismiss critics who regard tonality as a relative, rather than absolute notion. while it's possible that many critics don't understand the concept (admittedly, neither do i), it'd still be worthwhile to understand why people conceive of tonality as relative."
i think what happens is that critics see the word "atonal" and think that since it's an adjective, it must work like other adjectives (loud, precious, thoughtful...). most adjectives can be meant in degrees, but atonal is not one of them. as i said, music has a tonal center or it doesn't. when people say "atonal", they're usually vaguely hinting at "difficulty", which i don't consider to be descriptive at all.

thanks for the reasoned (but no less severe) smackdown.

huginNmunin said...

True. Atonal is a dirty word, a fact in itself that ought to draw more analysis. Therefore, well done, uticas and nick! I had read the column some time ago and probably had a similar response to nick's in that the central point and purpose of the author was to present (in nick's words) "the concept of evolving tastes while introducing notoriously 'difficult' records to oblivious hipsters would've otherwise ignored them." Not really any arguments from me on that. Share away, I say. I'd even go so far to state that I like reading such "honest" reactions to music like descriptions of Coltrane as "atonal" and "nutty." Unless, of course, they were trying to be cute - that just seems like a self defense issue, perhaps one of pitchfork's biggest problems: the review where the critic both lauds the record and then perhaps sticks in a fall back phrase on how their "naive" ears heard it the first time. But then maybe that's just an appeal to the reader to try and get them to maybe give A Love Supreme another chance ... However, the evolution of listening is important to try and map, so at least hearts are in the right places (chests?).

But I have to disagree with uticas assessment that music is either tonal or atonal ... Post tonal, anyone (kidding)? Well maybe not "disagree" but, yeah. Mostly, I just want to delve into the perspectives behind the word ATONAL (as per nick's suggestion).

Hear me out?

From an historical perspective, sure - makes sense. There's a decide break from the world of tonality. The Second Viennese school - whatever. (If you don't know what that is, it doesn't matter. Look it up if you care. It's interesting/important, being history and all) What the word means to critics, however wrong in terms of the actual definition of the word, is dissonance, I fear. I think there's as much confusion over this adjective as there is with ATONAL itself. When something it very dissonant, it's atonal? Not really, guys. Sorry, critics. Wagner (sorry I don't have a rock reference, but I'm sure there are many). Perhaps it works the other way around? Not really either - conceivably one could use traditionally tonal sounds in an "atonal piece" for whatever purpose. (The Second Viennese School really just wanted to employ a larger pallet than the logic of tonality provided and were not opposed to the gold ol' triad).

Sorry about being so technical. It's not really what we're here to do. Apologies.

But really, I think that's where the confusion lies. People misuse atonal as a homonym for dissonant. Most music isn't atonal, in that purely atonal music makes an effort to sound (for lack of a better word) different than the vast majority of music (usually based on acoustic phenomena like harmonics, sometimes called TONALITY), which it often does so by mining different systems and methodologies of arranging notes.

But Easy vs. Hard makes no sense anyhow. How can sound be more difficult than other sound - it's all rather a psychological process that we're trying to get at and I'm not sure how one can talk about that in a constructive way that doesn't end with people agreeing to disagree. How boring, right? If you think of music in terms of easy and hard ... well, gee. You're in your own world and I'm not invited.

Also, Wolf Eyes vs. Coltrane? How absurd! I don't know who would assume that Wolf Eyes are smart because they make noise music and I'm not sure I'd want to. However, Wolf Eyes does strike gold in terms of appealing to the visceral crowd. I guess Wolf Eyes are more obvious as to what they are "all about" in that they play sounds that induce physical reactions in the listener (granted, all sound does this, but you know what I'm getting at). Their physicality is also mirrored in their stage performances - they thrash around and bleed, etc.. I mean, come on, their band name is Wolf Eyes - it's primal, right? Coltrane might be a bit harder to stomach in that the musicians are rather static in their performance (it's jazz - not that many antics in terms of rock and such) and what they're "getting at" seems to come from being a musician (much like the original atonal pioneers).

I guess it just sucks that critics seem to not really get what they like to peg as "musicians' music." Obviously, musicians sometimes make music for themselves - but the fact that they are playing live and releasing records indicates that they are willing to share the results. The term "musicians' music" seems to indicate a one-way street on behalf of the critic's view of music.