Digesting Music

At a party last week I was presented with what was obviously a loaded question: “What do you like about the music you play?” Let’s ignore the fact that I play a wide variety of music, everything from funk to minimal to modernist to postmodernist to folk to… What the questioner was asking about was that music. That “new” music that sounds different, you know, the stuff he doesn’t like. He was curious why I do like it. To him, from his own mouth, most contemporary music (I’ll use “art music” from here on out) sounds like a jumble: it’s dense, it’s headache-inducing, it’s not enjoyable.

I can tell you in one word why I like it: fiber.

1. Emotion

Sound is a conduit for emotions and by experiencing those emotions you can learn about yourself.

Sound can evoke a range of emotions/feelings: happy, sad, joyful, melancholy, uncomfortable, peaceful, angry, ecstatic, excited, longing, surprise, anxiousness, a range that far exceeds my vocabulary. There are simple straight-forward feelings and complex, scratch-your-head feelings. Comfortable feelings and uncomfortable ones. New feelings it never occurred you could experience and remembered feelings from years past.

2. Curiosity and Adventure

Anything new takes a curious, adventurous soul. A person who wants to know what there is to know. A person who wants to be surprised by the things they discover. There’s a gigantic world out there and to deal with those parts unknown to us can be exhilarating and sometimes terrifying. Coming to grips with something you’ve never conceived can shake your world view, even if the thing you’re tackling is just sound.

3. Trust

Everyone has a voice but not everyone is heard. We should do our best to listen when given the opportunity. Most people speak with intention and from the heart, and most say more than their words. By trusting that composers are working with intention (and that their intention is to do more than simply hold us in our seats for the course of their music) we open ourselves up to a those other viewpoints to which only the curious and adventurous are exposed. As an added bonus… by trusting others we can trust ourselves a bit more.

At the worst times think back to the words of John Cage,

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

4. Challenge

Contemporary music can be difficult. It can be slow and careful and test one’s endurance for sustained sounds (looking at you Feldman), it can be dense and seemingly arbitrary (ahem, Ferneyhough,), it can present you with sounds you don’t expect/may not be comfortable with (check the beginning of this piece by Nico Muhly). There’s an inherent difficulty in tackling something new.


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