March 2013

People Don’t Like Music

...But Can't Do Without Noise
By Gil Sansón

In many ways this is a counterintuitive thesis: the proposition that people may not like music as a matter of fact, despite being addicted to the noise music makes. This is because if music is disliked, the sound it makes is noise to that person. This collection of fragments is dealing with the paradox implicit in the notion itself, and, in a non-exhaustive way, points out ways in which we end up loving what we hate and hating what we love. Take the high executive in a big recording conglomerate hating in secret the music that’s making him rich. Take the young noise artist and his complex relationship to the history of music that sticks to his productions despite his deep distrust. The relationship between mankind and music is truly paradoxical..

Also, it is quite useful to distinguish mankind’s love of musical expression from mankind’s supposed love of music.

There is a general assumption that people as a whole like music. The paradox that emerges when we question this assumption is all the more confusing due to the ubiquity of the assumption. Study of such matters is done with more attention to the methods of academia than with the effort of actually searching for answers in less explored areas of musical thinking, aesthetics or musicology. It takes a great deal of independent thinking to examine the specifics of this commonly assumed notion while being ready to accept a hard revelation in the process, for the examiner risks alienation from society as well as obscurity.

The realm of popular music is one field in which this paradox enacts itself in a most transparent way. The musical component of pop stardom is often small in relation to image, attitude etc., with the music serving as the excuse for a merchandise sales enterprise. People know this instinctively and have come to actively refuse to pay money for music while remaining just as hungry for the pop fodder (it’s hard to talk about product when no one buys it anymore, but it’s still needed as people still buy other merchandise) as ever. The music has been an excuse for quite some time, but recently this has manifested itself in new ways: the average contract from the recording industry has the artist pay for the production of the record and for the promotion of the record. This is a not so subtle recognition of the subservient (to put it mildly) role of music in the larger world of pop entertainment. Perhaps by examining the relation between music and musician we can also reach some understanding as to why musicians subject themselves to these levels of humiliation. Money can’t be the only answer to this equation. Could it well be that quite a few musicians, maybe the majority of them, have come to hate music? Or perhaps they never actually liked music in the first place?

The same could be said about the world of Western art music, so-called classical music. Much has been written about the orchestra as a symbol for vertical organization bound to bring tension between its members. The extreme level of atomization regarding the knowledge of music makes it hard for musicians to have a true understanding of the music they are playing as the final word on this aspect is left to the conductor. Quite easily an orchestra sets into routine interpretations of old warhorses (or worse, despondent interpretations of so called modern repertoire). Routine interpretations bring boredom in musicians and audience alike, thus reinforcing negative stereotypes and furthering alienation from larger audiences. Going to rehearsals eventually becomes just as meaningful and rewarding as going to the office from 9 to 5, and it shouldn’t be surprising to find that a lot of classical musicians hate music, only sticking to it as a way of making ends meet.

But music has a lot of glamour. This glamour, much more than the music that carries it, is what drives people crazy. By way of this glamour, people invest considerable amounts of emotion in a song, a record, a band or singer. It is often funny to see how people consider the members of their favorite band to be the best musicians in the world; no doubt flattering to the musicians, it shows that any criteria other than bewildered adoration to the people who make their lives so much more meaningful with their song and dance is unnecessary. Beneath such noble feelings, a much darker undercurrent shows a world of fame and glamour that often has nothing to do with the lives of actual musicians and happens mostly in the minds of musical journalists and fans, where some musicians are worth more dead than alive and where the profits invariably fall to the middleman. The few musicians that make it in this unhealthy environment often feel entitled to spread the wisdom of their ways, considering the amounts of attention commanded on the fans, always willing to pay for any product that may enhance the glamour of the artist. The notion that an audience could “grow” along with the artist, as in the case of The Beatles or Radiohead, or conversely, the audience having a long, changing relationship to a record label, as in ECM, SST or Erstwhile, is less likely today than twenty years ago. The bottom line was always the same, but before there seemed to be a notion that the music was somehow as important as the glamour, in terms of inventiveness and originality, and that is hardly to be found nowadays. This may help explain the fact that people still spend money on the glamour side of things, but not on music.

These reasons then may explain why our complex love/hate relationship with music should not be perceived as the exclusive domain of the musicologist or the sociologist. Quite the contrary, it is when a musician or community of musicians engages actively in the topic that significant change can actually happen, regarding more just and meaningful exchanges between those willing to create unhindered and those willing to benefit from this creativity at a later stage of the process in which creativity becomes culture.

So, in some cases, people don’t like music. But music is used very effectively as a positive reinforcement tool for educational purposes beginning with the early stages of childhood and going all the way through the life of a person. The ultimate purpose of this education and conditioning remains a mystery at best and a non-thought to the person whose education and conditioning has been successfully implemented. Such person will perceive these conditioned reflexes as genuine proof of individuality and personal choice, and in this way people can be made to like this and hate that, programmed to get goosebumps at the sound of his or her national anthem, romantic ballad or metal epic of their choice.

Hitler arguably didn’t like music. But he loved what he perceived as Germanic in music. Justifying his choice by way of genetics made him completely blind to the obvious line of progression from Bruckner to Mahler and from Wagner to Schoenberg, for his love of music was small and subservient to the love of politics and war. We see many examples of intolerance in the music of the XXth century, a time of drawing lines on the ground and musical factions demanding full commitment to the new dogmas and even denouncements of past practices and former alliances.

I remember being startled at the time when discovering that the origin of Variation No. 30 of the Goldbergs, my favorite variation of the set, was likely based upon a racy drinking song.

Music with a clear purpose will find more potential receivers than music with no clear purpose. Functional music, like dance music or ambient music, is useful to the point in which it would be hard to tell if a person being enthusiastic about it is drawn to the music or to the function the music fulfills. If we dig deeper, though, we will find that all music is functional. So-called abstract works like The Art of the Fugue or the Goldberg Variations by J. S. Bach are fully functional in the sense that they were composed with didactic purposes. This illusion of purity doesn’t stand close scrutiny in most cases: I remember being startled at the time when discovering that the origin of Variation No. 30 of the Goldbergs, my favorite variation of the set, was likely based upon a racy drinking song. To examine the possibility that people may not know what they mean when they say they love music is to face the problem that people do not have a clear distinction between ethics and aesthetics when talking about music, and lack the perspective to compare to other cultures. Ethics, for instance, have a much bigger dimension in music in the Muslim world than aesthetics, while in Occidental culture the opposite is true.

Composers may think they are writing the music they want to write, but unless they tackle the sizable number of social and historical conditionings exercised on the forces that make the individual, the notion of artistic independence will be a mirage. Factors that have nothing whatsoever in common with music often have more impact upon the production of a composer than any sort of musical model or technique, in so far as these don’t happen in a vacuum. As Morton Feldman once stated, you can’t have Bach without Protestantism. Similarly, most music composed in the XXth century can’t be explained without negative dialectics. For Pierre Boulez and the composers at Darmstadt, music wasn’t something that just happened. Music was something to be constructed, by writing it down to paper according to logical ways in order to substitute the old order of tonality with a new one every bit as logical as the old. Sound can resist even the best of ideas, however. Extensive preoccupation with the logical aspect of musical development along the lines established by Webern and Stravinsky led to the total serialization of musical parameters in ways that soon crippled even its most staunch defenders, as Boulez found quite soon. Since the main justification of a piece of music is the analysis of the score, music becomes an abstract web of pitch that makes full sense on paper but can often sound like chaos and anarchy upon first listening to those unable to read music. Music becomes not something one hears, but rather something one reads on musical staff, a mental construction with some relation to the sound it makes when interpreted by actual musicians. The score, once created, is dismembered to find relationships between groups of notes, because otherwise it would remain unintelligible. You break the picture in order to assemble it back by putting the pieces back together and call it musical analysis of the score. The use of negative dialectics in this case can be formulated as composition (thesis), analysis (antithesis), and interpretation (synthesis). As logical and elegant as this sounds, it actually points out the misunderstanding that plagued most of the music made in that period, namely the assumption that the score is the music. If the score is the music then music is an intellectual exercise reserved for people with music reading skills. The music resulting from musicians engaging with the score is justified by the score, not by audition. This process may result in a composition that is more interesting to look at than to listen to, as happens with most graphic notation of the sixties. Obviously, one consequence of this is the widening of the gap between composers and audiences of music, since most people base their judgment on music upon the resulting sound. People want to somehow know a bit of the rules of the game: to recognize somehow the ways in which a motif changes along a musical work is where a lot of the fun resides for the non musician, whose relationship to the music is not one of stern adoration of a dead master.

As a tribute to a man who wrote Schoenberg is Dead, I’ll say that for a period during the fifties, Boulez didn’t like music.

The music of the serialists was, for the public, much like being witness to a game whose rules remain obscure. Of course, with repeated auditions such initial aversion can be turned into acquired taste, but this initial disdain from the composers towards the sound aspect of musical communication doomed the work of Boulez, Goyvaerts and company to obscurity, with even Boulez himself publicly distancing himself from works of that time. Sixty years are enough to take the edge off any music, but Structures for Two Pianos remains as harsh and unpleasant as ever today. Now, negative dialectics as such have undergone strong criticism (and fresh alternatives to boot) from Wittgenstein to Deleuze; historical perspective allows us to ponder both the music and the ideas that fed the minds of its creators as points in time, impossible to understand without its context: a collective neurosis brought up by war trauma and the destruction of Europe. A period music. As a tribute to a man who wrote Schoenberg is Dead, I’ll say that for a period during the fifties, Boulez didn’t like music.

Music is not free. Music is bound to sets and systems of belief, sacred or profane, religious or secular. Acknowledgement of how deeply rooted these systems are in our individual and collective experiences is a prerequisite to sorting out the contradictions between traditional beliefs and/or commonly assumed notions and our current, quite exhausted, version of Platonism and positivism that places the human experience as a tragic movement upwards, ascending the ladder of history to self improvement. Simply put, you take out Plato out of history and with him go the symphony and the cathedral. A very superstitious composer, Arnold Schoenberg used numbers related to significant events (his birthday being the most evident) in his life as an organizational device. Alban Berg practically wrote his autobiography in his music, sometimes quite evidently and sometimes hidden so well that it requires a detective with musical reading abilities. The control enforced by the composer is always in a battle with forces outside of the control of the composer. The composer may choose to ignore some of the forces affecting the creation process, but some of these forces will make themselves heard in the music in ways the composer could be fully unaware of.

Music is, among other things, a function of thought. Since people at large are prevented from fully developing their own perspective according to the full potential of their brains, their thinking process is more or less impaired when it comes to certain functions of thought. The ability to think about music is one of those functions being impaired, and this is due to many factors, education being maybe the most visible one. Other factors are perceived in subtle ways. A hard day at work may call for comfort music rather than challenging music. If we imagine the hard life of a miner or a steel worker we can also understand that such a person will more likely listen to Oasis than to Van Der Graaf Generator. Over and over, I hear friends and coworkers complaining about my choice of music, and for some reason it is always the same music: Bach’s Goldberg Variations, played by Glenn Gould (the one he did in the eighties). I’ve been told that this music is pedantic. That this music has way too many notes and too little feeling, that it gives you a headache. These are the opinions of people that most likely feel that they love music. They surely like some music, and by virtue of ubiquitous media exposure people are led to think that everything that is relevant is happening as media. A work like the Goldberg Variations requires from the listener not only time and concentration, but actual engaging in the game of identifying the ways in which the themes are stated and transformed. It can be hard work if you are already tired, and if you have a grueling schedule and a too short weekend this music, by virtue of itself, could be off limits to you. Ironically, that ring tone you fancy on your cellphone could be a tune by Bach, even from the Goldbergs.

About the poor quality of musical files on the internet, much remains to be said. On the one hand, people can get easy access to music. On the other, there’s a low standard of fidelity. One of the myths of the digital world (that of the digital copy being an exact replica of the original) here is tweaked to make people swallow much downgraded copies of music files thinking that they are listening to the real thing. Even here it is difficult to speak of generalities: if what we are looking for in the file is information (pitch, tempo, general approach), a 192 Kbps could suffice. If we are looking for a copy of the original recording, two things can happen: we assume that the original record sounds just like the downgraded copy and make a biased judgment of the music, which unfortunately is what happens most often, and we abstain passing judgment and take the contents of the file as general information, as you would take a reproduction of a painting in a newspaper. The fact that people have left the work of searching for new music to search engines and services like Spotify tips the scale towards the side of disadvantages, but there are alternatives. Not everyone intending to help disseminate music on the web is bent on short-term profits at the expense of ethics and quality. Resolution of files won’t be the problem in the future. The problem will likely be one of ethics, and how to resist current trends considered to be negative in the long run. The cultural shifts in the file sharing age often benefit the status quo of the music business. They state that the contrary is true, but the fact remains that the trends in musical consumption brought about by the file sharing revolution were actually the return of the old paradigm of the single and the downgrading of the album. Music forms that adapted to the album format have it much harder nowadays. In the land of the soundbite, the album has little chance of getting properly heard.

Music in its earliest form was most likely a combination of voice and percussion. The music had a strong ritual element and was a defining characteristic of the tribe. This tribal aspect remains essential to our relationship to music; nowadays we use the term musical genre in order to sell a manufactured product known as a record, but in essence a musical genre and a musical tribe are so closely related in function that they are the same. Examples of musical tribes and communities with high visibility, such as the metal scene, the electronic scene, the folk scene, the jazz scene and so on, show that tribal attitudes are to be expected from the members of the group. The way a fan defends a favored artist is typical of the zealots of any tribe, but it is often mistaken for love of the music. It is primarily love for the tribe. If we want to fully understand the impact of music in our lives and the social and economical realities of music making we need to look further than the tribal relation to music and music making, which doesn’t mean one has to leave the tribe in the process.

Musicology could benefit as a whole from empirical thought to balance inherited notions before they become stifling, at least while the academic system remains as it is today. If a person correctly identifies the link between the music made by cowboys in Texas, by gauchos in Argentina, or by llaneros in Venezuela, namely the way in which speech and song remind the listener of the mooing of cows, could we say that that person is doing musicology using empirical methods? This is one example of how focusing exclusively on cultural differences will fail to give you the full picture, no doubt the reader can come up with examples of their own. People react to their environment in ways that predate culture. Animals make sounds to mark their territories; so do we, but we use music. The wrong type of music in the wrong place can cause conflict, but an understanding of this aspect of musical codes, and the need for those codes, can help defuse conflict and diminish friction as much as possible; by showing with clear examples not only common roots, but the many different ways of dealing with similar problems along the globe, tribal thinking can become more aware of differences that give each tribe its character and appreciative of them, while never losing sight of that what is common to all tribes. To leave the tribe for a while is a healthy exercise, and to become a guest member of other tribes can only benefit one’s own tribe unless that tribe has fully ossified in its rules and codes. Similarly, critical (and respectful) thinking regarding the assumptions and statements from the elders of the tribe can help to prevent such ossification and can only be good for the tribe.

One of the many paradoxes of art (and music) today is that there is too much of it. This instant, free availability of recorded music has the effect of cheapening not only the monetary value, for the loss of value also happens at the reduced attention span of the average music fan. In the words of Jean Baudrillard, “In a world headed towards indifference, art can’t help but contribute to this indifference: doing rounds around the void of the image, of the object that ceased being one”.[1] Regardless of the quality of the music, once it becomes a product it is another drop in the ocean, and should we say, more dependent on extraneous content and glamour than ever if it wants to keep some visibility. Obscurity can do wonders for some artists; one of the key traits of the serious music fan is the pleasure of discovering a new artist. The journey is the destination and those obscure items that were so hard to track and obtain may hold a value that’s beyond the actual value of the music contained therein. There is a number of records that I have to keep close at all times, not too many. One of them is Opposite, by Taku Sugimoto. I haven’t played this record in more than ten years, and I seriously think that it could remain so for the remainder of my life. Do I hate the music in it while dutifully paying respect and recognition by having the object close at hand? Or do I love the music contained in it by not taking it for granted anymore, to the point in which I relate to it by way of memory? Love of music might mean that you listen to less of it as a way to try to restore value in music.

Love of music might mean that you listen to less of it as a way to try to restore value in music.

We do this with some of our favorite music, in order to keep it that way. The ubiquitous presence of music in every day life and the absence of meaningful silence have contributed to a relationship of mankind with music that could be labeled as pathological. We can listen to music all day, blasting it away so that the sound of it obliterates all relevant sonic information, or with headphones that give the illusion of control over the sonic environment. But can we give, say, ten minutes of absolute concentration to a piece of music? How many musical works highly regarded would crumble upon close scrutiny, and reversely, how many musical works, previously ignored, reveal a trove of treasures to the listener prepared to give time and effort to get them? One can listen to very little music and think about music all of the time.

The paradox of the composer of music that doesn’t need to hear the sound of music remains endlessly fascinating. As a proof of music as a function of thought, I imagine Gustav Mahler, composing on a cabin by the lake, without piano, in the quietest environment he could find. Music happens, without being heard by anyone but the composer, and his work consists in trying to translate the music into notation, in a compromise between the ideal nature of the music and the realities of music making at the time of its writing. A more recent example, and perhaps much more radical, is the recent work by Manfred Werder, whose scores often call for non-action and are realized as non-transferable mental constructions or processes. There is, in the recent work by Werder, a sense of renouncement as well as one of celebratory freedom from the history of music, and one could begin to ponder how much love must a composer have for music, for him to sacrifice the sound of it once he has found the same sound in the world around him.■

[1] Taken from Duelo, Jean Baudrillard, Fractal No. 7, year 2, Volume II, pp. 91-110. Translated from Spanish to English by the author.

About the Author

Gil Sansón (1970, Valencia, Venezuela) is a composer/improviser, artist, writer and curator.
Some of his musical works has been released on record labels such as winds measure, contour, con-v and impulsive habitat.