Music matters – Part II

Music matters

As my earlier discussions of Black music have hopefully illustrated, music can also have a significant socio-cultural agency with implications reaching into the realms of politics and ethics. In a way it could be boiled down to the notion of “good music”. We’d all like to think the music we like is “good”, but there are nearly as many definitions – often less than precise – of “good music” as there are listeners.

This affords music an ethical dimension. Sharing musical tastes – musically marked aesthetic spaces – is a way of connecting ourselves with others; or distinguishing from them, i.e. performing our identity through musicking.

There are many factors and agencies shaping this “aesthetic space” in which we form and articulate our ideas of good music. Our musical tastes, much like all our other tastes, have their roots in our up-bringing and socio-cultural environment. They are also subject to changes in our environment and our choices within it, shaping the development of our tastes.

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2nd line February 6th 2011

And unless we consider music to be an “auditory cheesecake” – and I hope you don’t – the choices we make regarding the kinds of music we like and consume, are not irrelevant. They speak volumes about our socio-cultural, and even political, dispositions – albeit often quite ambiguously.

Music and ideas/ideologies

Let’s try and interrogate this proposition with some concrete examples, shall we? In what kinds of situations do musically created aesthetic spaces have en ethical dimension and how does this happen?

I have two premises for this thought experiment: First, music as sound is not capable of carrying meanings unless these sounds are – and they always inevitably are since musicking involves human agency – performed and/or experienced in a socio-cultural context. And second, choices, for the present purposes, are always “choices of” something within our reach.

Associations through musical sounds

I base the first premise on Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology and his notion of “Being-in-the-world”; the idea that we interpret the world around us immediately upon perceiving it. Any abstraction of the perception is an effort to “undo” the already made interpretation in order to “objectively” encounter the world. Heidegger’s example is an object we’ll immediately recognise as a table. Any attempt to perceive this object as e.g. a construction of specific material and particular assemblage requires an active attempt to “forget” that it’s a table in order to abstract it. He also discusses “sound objects” to demonstrate his theory:

What we ‘first’ hear is never noises or complexes of sounds, but the creaking wagon, the motor-cycle. We hear the column on the march, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the fire crackling… It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to ‘hear’ a ‘pure noise’. (Being and Time 34: 207)

This also entails that it’s not so much the physical properties of the sounds of brass and wind instruments as such that raises in us e.g an image of a pastoral landscape or a military band. Rather this comes from the historical use of these instruments in western classical music to depict nature and rural life and the military music tradition. And this again recalls the use of horns as a signal for e.g. approaching postman in rural villages or when hunting and the association we still easily make between flutes and shepherds. Or at least it did when Beethoven wrote his 6th symphony.

Then again the sound of the French horn might not bring forth these kinds of associations for you, but perhaps rather remind of film music as in the theme of Universal Studios or Richard Strauss’ Thus said Zarazusthra in the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssay (see my earlier discussion of this). In yet other words, it depends on your musical background, including where and when you have lived, etc. – i.e. your socio-cultural background.

Probably needless to say that my examples here are drawn from my own cultural environment of western Europe and should you be e.g. Asian, African or South American you’d probably have different associations for these sounds; or imagine different sonic representations for e.g. nature and rural life.

The bottom line is that the sound itself is arbitrary. Any association(s) a sound may call forth is a result of the “socio-cultural life” of the given sound. This is akin to what the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has discussed pertaining to the “social life of things“. Objects are usually made for a more or less specific purpose and their value depends largely on their scarcity or abundance. As time passes and the world changes all these factors may change; the original purposes may no longer be relevant, objects may become scarce or more abundant due to changes in methods of production and/or the availability of their raw materials.

All this also applies to music as materials to make certain instruments may become scarce – e.g. big enough trees growing on mountains for making double basses – or instrument-making techniques lost in generations – e.g. the violins of Stradivari for which the secret was long thought to be in the varnish he used.

A romanticized print of Antonio Stradivari examining an instrument
A romanticized print of Antonio Stradivari examining an instrument

As my examples above illustrate the most significant changes impacting music, however, are socio-cultural. The widely different uses of music create various associations with particular compositions/instruments/genres, etc. These associations may again be quite remote from their origins, and impossible to predict as we continue to – not only consume – but make music in ever new ways. New music is made by recycling old musical ideas and old music gets new meanings in new contexts.

Political music

Some rather radical political thinkers conceive of nearly all human actions and undertakings as political; even seemingly apolitical enterprise as e.g. popular music without a political message can be viewed as political as it doesn’t challenge, and therefore implicitly accepts, the status quo.

W.E.B Dubois in 1918
W.E.B Dubois in 1918

One such thinker was W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the leading post-Reconstruction black intellectuals in the United States. He wrote for instance that “a black artist is first of all a black artist” and was strongly of the opinion that the emerging Black American culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries needed to reach, and preferably surpass, the mainstream white culture with any measures; an effort in many ways culminating – albeit by no means concluding with – in the Harlem Renaissance. This view was against the “pragmatic” one of Booker T. Washington and his supporters who thought that the blacks should rather keep to “their place” in the society.

Du Bois’ life is a rewarding study for anyone interested in the history of racial relations in the United States as it stretches from right after the Emancipation to just before the declaration of Civil Rights Act.

But then again, even music not taking any political stance could be said to be political by it’s very act of celebrating life itself, sometimes against the odds. As I’ve discussed before pertaining to Black music, the social aesthetic of the music centres around the people and their lives, not on the actual music.

There’s a lot more to be said about the topics I’ve touched on here. Anyhow, I’ll stop here for now and come back with some further thoughts soon.

Charlie Haden – Part I

The passing of this great bass player on July 11th brought up some thoughts about studying and making music, I’d like to share with you. I’ll leave the writing of more extensive and well deserved obituaries and tributes to Charlie Haden for those who are better acquainted with his life and career. As my modest tribute to this pioneer of bass I’ll reflect here on my “musical encounter” with him and what it meant for me.

Institutional study of jazz mostly begins with learning the basics of bebop; swinging on one’s instrument, alone as well as in an ensemble, bebop harmonies and building melodic lines on them according to the voice leading principles, repertoire, etc. Why bebop has been chosen as the centre of the jazz universe in the educational institutions has to be discussed another time. However, we have much to be grateful for to Charlie Haden for showing us “the shape of jazz to come”; showing all the wonderful things the music could and can be – whether one would call it jazz or something else.

To me this world began open when my bass teacher of the time Ari-Pekka Anttila gave me a tip to check out the then fresh duo album of Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny Beyond the Missouri Sky (1997). 15 years later that album continues to touch me and has now become part of the “soundtrack of my life” bringing back many memories. I’m also happy to have had the chance to see the maestro playing live once on his tour with Pat Metheny in 2003.

I’d suggest you to go ahead and listen to the following track at this point. Below I’ll say a few words about this track, how I hear it and what it has meant to me, but I’d recommend you to listen to it first so you’re not “primed” by my views of it. You’re then able to compare your own experience of it with mine and see/hear for yourself whether you agree with me or find my description useful in any way.

Our Spanish Love Song

Charlie Haden is the bass player who stays down low, who plays only the notes that are necessary. He is quiet, in a sense, even as he has a resonant sound, a singing, distinctive tone that speaks of the wood of the instrument, the flesh of his fingers on the strings, the intelligence of man who is thinking his way though the songs he plays and the humanity of a man who can hear the lyrics in his heart with every measure. Will Layman (PopMatters.com)

When I play, it’s very important to me to bring out the wood – like the tree – of the bass. I like to sound like a rainforest. Charlie Haden

Musically the lesson I was trying to learn from Haden was to say what I had to say with less notes. I find the duo performances with Haden and Metheny very effective in driving that point home. Pat Metheny is a master of playing long, elaborate, melodic lines. Forming a continuous flow these lines draw a firework-like picture rich in colours and details in dynamics, timing and harmony for the keen ear to pick up. Charlie Haden, on the hand, plays a few carefully chosen notes executed with equal mastery, cherishing every note, every stroke of his musical brush, embracing the very touch of the canvas, the creation of a musical space for the audience who is invited to share it with him. This is the musical being-in-the-world in a Heideggerian sense I’ve talked about before.

Our Spanish Love Song, from the above-mentioned album you’ve just heard is a great example of what I’m trying to say here; as well as a tune I spent a lot of time studying in attempt to emulate Haden’s approach. The bass solo in the studio version is nothing short of haunting in its beauty and simplicity. The ascending melodic line breaths through the harmonies of the song, marking the changes and building up the tension towards the last part of the form where he resolves it with some arpeggios on the finishing cadence of the form.

In short, Haden has taught me much about the sound of the instrument and the effective use of it in self expression in a way that is economic rather than flashy, and emotional rather than “academic”.  My first teacher at the Conservatory of Amsterdam Arnold Dooyewerd also helped me a great deal in this search,  more specifically advising me to try and bring forth the “Spanish” in this song.

The closest I got in my own playing to realising the lessons from Haden, in my opinion,  can be heard on Rauhaton Rinta from the Finnish-Dutch group Aina.

Rauhaton Rinta from Aina – Leino (2005).  Composition by Izak Boom, lyrics by Eino Leino

When I first began writing this post I could only think of the above-mentioned duo album with Pat Metheny that I really know of Charlie Haden. But while browsing YouTube for his music I was reminded of three other albums on my shelf he plays on.  See Part 2 for my thoughts about/around those albums.

Music(ology)

Rebirth Brass Band @ Maple Leaf, New Orleans Feb 15 2011. Photo by Mikko Karjalainen

As already mentioned, my background in music is practical as well as academic. Since both of these approaches to music are going to be apparent in my writing here, I’ll try and open up my thinking a bit here so that you know where I’m coming from with my ideas about music.

Musical practice

With the practical side I basically mean making music; practising an instrument, rehearsing and performing, many hours on daily basis for several years. That kind of engagement with music results in a quite specific experience of music as the pragmatic questions are never far from one’s mind, even when just listening to music.

No music no life

Musicology

Academic study of music, however, may in principle take up any angle to music one can possibly think of. Musicology, as the discipline is called, has various sub-disciplines studying music as e.g. physical, biological, psychological, cultural, social, historical, political, economical or legal phenomenon, just to name a few – and often various combinations of these and other approaches. To put a kind of Heideggerian phenomenological frame to it, musicology reveals, discovers and studies the multiple dimensions of music as a way of being-in-the-world, music as a human activity through which we engage with the world around us.

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2nd line February 6th 2011

Music as a cultural phenomenon

My interest in music has for a while been mostly as a cultural and social phenomenon. Many of the other dimensions, however, are more often than not integrated into the previous. A good example of this is the New Orleans brass band tradition I did my last larger study on. While springing from the aspiration of social upheaval of the late 19th century Creole and black New Orleanians, the brass bands and music of these groups quickly became vehicles for political and economical advancements as well. And being an outdoor practice the musics physical, acoustic characteristics (read: loud) were very consciously used to underline and drive home the music’s complex message. Although much has also changed with these practices, most of this still holds for the 21st century post-Katrina New Orleans brass band music as well.

I hope this opens up my thinking a bit and helps you follow my line of thought in the posts here. And of course any and all questions/ideas/comments are welcome.  Stay tuned!

Cheers,  Mikko

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