I have never been really good at music, but I have always been compelled towards it. I remembered hating being forced into band in 6th grade. Music did not make much sense to me. You were given a list of absolute commands, and then judged upon how well you could become a robot that repeats these instructions. To me, this seemed like an alright thing to do for a little bit, just to get an idea of how frequencies and rhythms were encoded onto paper, but once you had that part down, it seemed like the appropriate thing to do would be to program a synth or computer to perfectly replicate whatever you composed. The playing of the actual instrument itself seemed a flawed a pointless pursuit to me then. I felt that the only value in making music could come from composing new songs. However no one could really describe what the true point of music was anyway. Other arts seemed to have absolute value at least in representation; you could paint a picture, or make a sculpture to obtain a lasting record of parts of the world. There was nothing we were explicitly replicating with music however.
Music had no explain-able higher purpose. You did things because they sounded good, and things sounded good if that’s the way we were used to hearing them. It strictly relied on following conventions agreed upon unconsciously by our culture. Particularly when I was younger, this notion of following conventions purely for the sake of appreciation by others seemed to be the antithesis of creativity.
I still appreciated good songs and secretly admitted to myself a fondness for popular catchy tunes, but the schism between analytic and emotional appreciation of music just drove my curiosity further. I sought out music that broke conventions and did strange or discordant things that you could grow an appreciation for like Zappa, Aphex Twin, John Cage. No matter what, though, I could still get a terrible song by Train stuck right in my head.
So I had this slow burning question that I always carried with me from a very young age:
What is music?
What is its function? How does it work, and why do we enjoy it?
The first thing I did when I moved away from home in High school was create a band to violently deconstruct music (http://jpom.bandcamp.com/). Maybe by stripping it down, I could finally see the naked truth of music.
Even the band’s unpronounceable and unreadable name, Ju9mp_ily PLant Orgasm > Mayhap, was developed for cognitive jamming. Scientifically speaking, the methodology involved to pursue this inquiry involved taking one assumption and then applying one algorithm.
Assumption: we were the best band on earth, and thus had unlimited creative freedom to define an artifact as “music.”
Algorithm: if I could identify a musical convention or standard, I would try to do the opposite.
A lot of this is your standard teenage contrarian-ness, but I very consciously always tried to channel this push to inversion towards its limits in investigation and general weirdness. The first thing to destroy was any pre-determined roboticism about creating music. So no rehearsing, no aiming for particular notes, no written poetry, just fill a room with energetic people, hit record for a certain amount of time and accept what results as the purest of music.
After a while I would identify other commonalities in music to attack: the proper way to play instruments, non-disgustingness of lyrics, types of juxtapositions of content and form, and standard components such as rhythm, melody, and tempos. We also explored all the satellite activities that constituted being in a band such as making music videos, producing records, battling other bands, creating the official soundtrack to major motion pictures, and even starring in our own documentary about the prices such an amazing band must pay for fame.
After exploring one factor thoroughly in experiments, such as the point of percussion in a song, I would relax the constraints on the banishment of this particular feature, and allow a song to have normalcy in this aspect while I experimented with some other part of music. Towards our later albums the contrarian-ness became more subtle and songs started to almost sound like real songs as I focused on attacking more and more specific parts of songs. For instance, the impetus behind the “Pee Pals” song was to see if I could make a simple song that people could dance to the beat whose content was also about something less appealing like peeing all over the dance floor. And this all started as an attack on the common reference in so many songs to the roof or ceiling as holding down the dancing. So in this song I tried to paint the picture of the roof holding in everyone as they literally drowned in their own piss as the dance room filled with party urine. Like all my songs, this exact sentiment may not have come across, but this manic process always did lead to something.
This still never directly answered questions for me about music as a whole, or even about this specific component (i.e. “oh, songs need percussion because of X”), but slowly I began to tacitly understand the impact of certain conventions. In fact, it was becoming clearer and clearer to me that music was a recursive set of conventions scaffolded deep in the trenches of history beyond memory.
Over the 15 years of this thought and analysis, I have currently arrived at two definitions that have been bouncing around in my brain.
Now prepare for conjecture…
One of my earliest definitions for stating precisely what music is came to me at a Ladysmith Black Mambazo concert.
The group danced in front of the audience, and followed and played with the musical rule-sets. Musical algorithms developed amongst themselves and the unconscious genetic and cultural regulations governing our thoughts and bodies. As they twisted and undulated, and non-verbally encouraged the rest of the audience to clap along, I was struck with a vision of the creation of life. The arbitrary rule sets were no different than the arbitrary universal constants set forth to govern the universe at t=0; the entangled patterns that repeat themselves in these musical rule sets were no different than the forms, and behaviors that have distilled from the chaos according to the universal laws. Music was biopoesis. Music created the simplest version of “life;” a single note resonating against the void. The persistence of a pattern throughout space and time could serve as the simplest definition of a “living” entity for me, and music was the conjuring of these patterns. At a concert everyone participating is aiding in the birth, exploratory life, and eventual death of a living creature.
The other definition upon which I arrived for music was an oblique one. It defines music indirectly by describing the conditions for the experience of it.
My thought is this:
Music is what you receive when you are no longer an individual. Static and discord are only felt when a thing exists as an single organism. Musicality is what your bodily cells live in every moment of their lives until they die or turn cancerous (perhaps in cancer a different tune takes over, perhaps the biological equivalent of getting a terrible Coldplay song stuck in your head).
This definition had been with me for several years, but did not manifest itself as well into words until I made a concert video for peter and his friends in their band Ptarmigan. I had them perform an acoustic concert with Peter’s research animals, the Azteca ants living in Cecropia trees.
[Video of Ptarmigan’s performance in the jungle with their research creature/collaborators]
Watching them follow the secret patterns governing the actions between them (both the band and the ants), solidified for me that what we call music was the experience of living as a larger entity beyond our “individuality.” Also with things like Mirror-Neuron theory stating that our brains actually enact what we see others do, the idea that listening to music is cognitively similar to playing it removes a categorical distinction between musicians and audience. Thus living in music is the same as living in a superorganism. Living in static is living as a solitary singular creature.
To find the atomic organism at a given moment, we travel up levels of organization until the music experienced starts breaking down.
Music is the dissolution of identity. It is ego solvent.
It may be communication without meaning. A meaningless medium.
When social insects like honeybees slowly evolved an increasingly tight social co-dependence, the musicality of their everyday encounters would be increasing. Evolution is the ultimate composer, crafting species specific songs over millions of years. Individuals merge identities not through explicit goals, but through a developing drive towards a certain sought after harmony bred into their brains. The ant collects and returns food to the nest not because it has a stated intent of helping the group, and perhaps not even because she herself is hungry, but instead because she is caught in a musical rapture.
Brains are little more than multi-dimensional harmonic oscillators shaped by adaptation and genetics. They are software both learned and burned-in. These oscillators respond to our environment and actions, and when our behavior shapes the external world to vibrate our brains correctly we experience music.
Dissolution into the Conjured Being
I think both theories are interesting to ponder, both music as the simplest living creature, and as superorganismal glue. They need not exclude each other also. Perhaps music is a creature to which we can become a part. Music can be the female anglerfish, and by following its siren spell, we the male anglerfish attach, dissolve and become just an additional appendage of this larger animal. The function of music as an art can be to let us create new forms of life, and leave ourselves to become part of this new creature, if only for a brief period.