dance & aesthetics, mostly
To listen is to shudder: on music
March 14, 2011Posted by on
For a while I was beginning to wonder if I’d already grown too old for new music. Over the past few months, however, I’ve had my ears opened to a whole world of beguiling, engaging music I never knew existed. This music is often categorised under labels such as ‘microsound’, ‘modern classical’, or ‘post-ambient’, though I must admit I have no idea what any of those terms actually mean; typically it is open in its form (as opposed to the rigid verse-chorus structure of most pop music) and tends to use natural acoustic sounds that are then heavily processed, often beyond recognition.
This openness of form is key, I feel, to the appeal of the music: as there are few memorable melodies or repeated phrases, each track ‘vanishes’ as soon as it finishes, and each time it is heard is like hearing it for the first time. Listening becomes like wandering through an old castle or country house, where each individual sound has its own room; some rooms you enter and spend time in, others you only glimpse through the doorway, and with each visit you take a different route and discover new things you hadn’t noticed or paid attention to before.
Theodor Adorno (one of my heroes!) argued in his classic essay ‘On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’ (1938) that commercial popular music had become ‘fetishised’, a term he borrowed from Sigmund Freud. What this means, in a nutshell, is that the listener is able to neutralise whatever is strange and disturbing about the music (its ‘otherness’) by turning it into a comfortable and familiar ‘same’, in other words a reflection of the listener as she perceives herself. According to this view, a lot of popular music lacks the power and value of art not because it all sounds the same, i.e. lacks invention, but because its form allows for the easy conversion of the psychological and metaphysical ‘other’ into the ‘same’. (Hence Adorno’s oft-misunderstood aversion to commercial jazz, in which expressions of unfamiliar, radically ‘other’ black cultures are transformed into suitable background music for genteel white middle-class households.) In his late work Aesthetic Theory Adorno argues that what could be called the ‘dumbing down’ of art is precisely this repression of art’s unsettling and provocative otherness, which amounts to a kind of castration (although he didn’t use this term himself). Allowing art to have its full transformative and liberating effect means cultivating an “aesthetic comportment”, which Adorno defines as “the capacity to shudder”.
I’m beginning to have doubts about the usefulness of the binary terms ‘Same/Self’ and ‘Other’: they have become such fluid and unstable concepts to the point of being almost meaningless. However, I think perhaps part of the value of this new music I’ve been talking about has to do with the way in which it is always perceived as ‘other’, rather than becoming safe and familiar. In other words, it’s like being left to explore the house freely, rather than being led through the same set of rooms in the same order every time.
mimosa|moize – Live at Unit 3.03 (Dragon’s Eye Recordings) – free download!
12K are donating all profits from their online shop in March to the Japan Society’s Earthquake Relief Fund, so if you’re a ‘have to hold it in my hand’ kind of listener, get over there now and give them your money!
Downloads (inc. high-quality lossless flac versions) are available from the wonderful digitalised Aladdin’s cave that is Boomkat.