A Didactic Lesson on Musical Aesthetics

The first aesthetic element (A) originally appeared here, on the Flying Lizards first album (the first album I ever bought, back in 1980):

The Flying Lizards – The Window (1979) (youtube.com)

The Window always unnerved me. It is presented here as (A) forms the ground for a drastic recontextualisation by producer David Cunningham which originally appeared on the B side to the 7″ version of Lovers & Other Strangers:

Wind (youtube.com)

This music hypnotised me, sent me places, taught me things, and it did this through the aesthetic. I still remember the moment listening to it aged 15 when I suddenly realised ‘this is postmodern’. Note the ‘religious’ use of electric organ and the strikingly original aesthetic. Here now we have an enhanced (A), (A’), where the sounds of Vivien Goldman’s voice, and the switched-off Dolby adding sibilance to the tape, and the hieratic music played on electric organ, are all of a piece. For me it’s a previously undiscovered beauty that transcends mere notions, including those of postmodern philosophy, and indeed is a great example of something inherent in music that’s capable of transcendence, even in a culture that denies transcendence. Music is magical like that.

We turn now to a Second Element (B), also of the voice, found on a release by Wim Mertens from the 80s:

A Visiting Card (youtube.com)

Between 1982 and around 1987 or so Mertens released a smallish amount of music that influenced me profoundly, for the rest of my life it would appear, particularly in terms of a primal importance of compression of information (as featured earlier on this blog) and how ‘less is more’ can gain an intensity and depth of meaning not possible through other means of transmission. I was studying at Surrey around this time and made strenuous efforts by composing and recording my own music to emulate Mertens’ ways of so powerfully minimising the notes while maximising their depth of impact, and completely failed. It was like successfully getting a few steps up the Mount Parnassus of composition using a portable stepladder, then looking up and realising there was a vast stone ziggurat looming above me that I lacked creative power to ever climb. I still wonder at how Mertens did it. Literally no other composer has written anything at this level of aesthetic minimal purity, intensity – and of course beauty. A Visiting Card teaches through a gnomic modal beauty of a restrained aesthetic perfection that gains its power through its saturatedly intense restraint. The outplaying of the musical story here often happens through keeping certain top notes held (quite briefly) and letting chord changes thus appear and move on in an interlocking interplay within the notes beneath them. (It’s not fugal though.) Aesthetic element (B) here appears perhaps most clearly around 5:50 in the multitracked female vocals. (As an aside, this composition is a rare example of music written for bass flute – it isn’t exactly prominent in the mix but it is there if you listen on headphones.)

The conclusion of this lesson features Fine Place, a ‘group’ name given to a collaboration between (the immensely brilliant) Frankie Rose (a gifted drummer who solo recorded a whole string of properly brilliant albums) and Matthew Hord from post-punk band Brandy. They recorded one album ‘This New Heaven’ around the time of the great lockdown of 2020, replete with that curious vibe of emptiness, of bright sunshine on deserted cities, of the world suddenly pausing, no idea of what was to come next, all days of the week the same, weeks thus turning into an endless succession of days. The two best tracks on it are an eerie cover version of Belgian band Adult Fantasies’ track ‘The Party Is Over’ from 1989, and this original number:

It’s Your House (youtube.com)

Here we find a new aesthetic (C) coming from a synthesis of (A’) with (B) to create something new, something very 2020 lockdown, all effected through musical aesthetics. (I’ve no idea if Fine Place had ever heard the Flying Lizards or Wim Mertens tracks but whether they did or not, living art has a curious way of appearing and reappearing across time, of the same inner ideas evincing iterations of the same spirit discovered independently by different artists.) This is how a new aesthetic is creatively born of pre-existing aesthetics, and living new music works its magic, yet the new music far from suddenly appearing from nowhere is in truth is a further growth along the ever-burgeoning vine of the art that is in time yet not of time.

Thank you.

Noumena and Geometry

“Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said listen, mate, *life* has surface noise”

John Peel

‘Numena [sic] + Geometry’ is the title of an album released in 1997 on CD by American ambient musician Robert Rich. It’s actually a reissue of two separate albums from the late 80s/early 90s. The 1997 CD artwork features Islamic art geometric motifs on the right-hand side and a kind of organic mould/rust ‘random’ patterning on the left-hand side, with a unifying ‘rose’ style symmetric roundel joining the two halves. There’s also artwork from the Alhambra on the inner sleeve including more geometric art but also weatherbeaten roof tiles. Rich himself comments in the liner notes on how he is ‘obsessed with the tensions between the symmetric and the organic, the pull between “shimmer” and “gloop” in respect of Numena, but in respect of Geometry, how he wanted to avoid “getting bogged down in rigid formulae” and how he is seeking “a more unified approach to music, where harmony and timbre merge”. He states that he wants “this music to be emotionally compelling, with a core of humanity informing the mathematics”. [Obiter dicta – bravo to Mr Rich for using the Greek plural of formula – I’m not a grammar snob but here it seems right somehow.]

It’s easy to see here once again Iain McGilchrist’s RH/LH dichotomy. RH is the noumena, LH the geometry, RH the (stereotypically) ‘female’, LH the (stereotypically) ‘male’. (Really it’s more a matter of these two modes of humanity having gradually accreted predominant ‘tones’ or ways of being that are more usually associated with the male and female – arguments about essentialism versus social constructionism are not only time wasting, but ultimately futile when seen from this deeper standpoint. Which in itself forms part of a still deeper standpoint…) But also note how the rose roundel represents a kind of organic coming together of the two aspects in a dynamic unity. (And again it must be stated forcefully that despite a lot of noise emanating from certain supposedly sceptical camps, the science behind RH/LH is high quality, and highly suggestive. If you’re content to obtain information from second-hand sources on this matter, or any other, you will never deepen your understanding of anything. Please do read The Matter With Things as whatever your view, it’s a fascinating read. As it is, Western philosophy whether supportive of the RH/LH hypothesis or not, is ultimately not fit for purpose when it comes to matters of meaning – but the RH/LH schema is a good start in practical terms for Western minds, helping to lead them away from the West and back towards more ‘Eastern’ thought, and thus towards Truth. It’s not immediately clear how much Mc Gilchrist himself is aware of how seriously his thought undermines the Western project as currently constructed, but it must be repeated that when dealing with Westernised minds, then a Western approach, a kind of Western thought-yoga, is initially required to get things moving in the right direction, i.e. truthwards. Truth is real, and if you lose that foundational concept, which includes reducing it to mere tautologies and truth tables, then your civilisation ultimately will die off.)

There is a tension here between the Western concept of creation and the Eastern concept of growth. With the West we have the idea that something is made that wasn’t there before, which can be visualised as a square wave that suddenly moves from 0 to 1, while the Eastern concept is one of a smooth movement that innately cycles, and thus in mathematical terms has no beginning or end. Fourier intuited something of this with his analytical technique, part of which applies to an analysis of a square wave that switches from 0 to 1 ‘for eternity’ as it were, with no off-switch. This could be seen as analogous to the creation ex nihilo of a static object as per Western theistic concepts. You weren’t here once, now you’re here, (a) you were created out of nothing and (b) you’re here forever. Which in its own way is quite the headfuck, and may well lend credence to the idea that Christianity is ultimately responsible for Western nihilism – if this is the way things are, you’d want to at least try to shut it all off at some point surely? But just as the sine waves of Fourier analysis are eternal, so creation is inherently made up of sine waves without beginning or end that can certainly seem to create ‘square waves’, real edges, real on/offs, but which can never in reality truly do so. Furthermore, as previously mentioned the square wave tends to produce infinite sidebands that result in the sound seeming ‘not quite there’ – in this analogy the ‘sine wave’ is essential for substance, and the hunt for actual solidity is doomed to fail. It’s not just doomed to fail however, it also creates, and comes from, a kind of hungry ache that can never be satisfied. (Why do we speak of hunger, of a nagging lack of fulfilment, and not truth tables or even maths, or even art? Why indeed. But right there is a key aspect of what it is to be human, somehow now hidden even though it’s in plain sight, because we’re addicted to looking the wrong way. We are not just brains, we’re embodied.)

Experimental electronic music displays this dichotomy too. There are two rough overall types in electronic experimental music – an exploration of pure sound involving oscillators, modular synths and the like, and a kind of earthier approach including sounds of real life, of nature, amidst the bleeps and ring modulator squeals. Michel Chion and Jacques Lejeune at IRCAM were masters of this latter approach. (Chion’s ‘On N’arrete Pas Le Regret’, his Requiem and Lejeune’s ‘Symphonie Au Bord d’un Paysage’ and ‘Blanche Neige’ are all worth checking in this regard.) The human voice is a particular feature in Chion’s work – a particularly full-on example being ‘Cris et Babils’ from On N’arrete Pas Le Regret. Chion and LeJeune’s music sounds like it was created by people who smoke cigarettes, drink wine, have sex, eat food, and are embodied in themselves and in life. This contrasts with, say, Francois Bayle’s approach which is purely electronic, though not without a certain French postmodernist flair. Bernardo Parmegiani’s approach meanwhile is highly electronic yet also more organic, with a less clinical, warmer electronic flavour. And so on. Generalising somewhat, French electronic music is more warm, passionate, earthy, while German electronic music tends towards the ‘nice’ (in its earlier technical sense), towards ‘geometry’ and precision. It’s not entirely lacking in warmth, but the emphasis is quite different to French electronic music. This contrast can be heard from early 50s experiments right through to contemporary dance music. However, unlike the profoundly broken, unbeautiful, shattered aspects of earlier electronic music, in recent decades there has been a large-scale infusion into the electronic of aspects more associated with classical music such as melody, beauty, warmth, the analogue rather than the digital, usually associated with dance music, often using its repetitive and/or rhythmic aspects to create a kind of expansion of the mind, with soul even, often these days including the human voice as part of a dance music made more along the lines of song (cyclical) rather than trance (repetitive), usually riding a kind of creative tension between those two key aspects of music. Humanity has been reclaiming its own electronic music from the clutches of LH overdrive.

This RH/LH dichotomy can also be seen in Western and Eastern approaches to beauty. To generalise colossally, in the West it’s geometry, in the East it’s noumena. Asymmetry, the organic, accidental beauty, the beauty of decay, of wabi sabi – these are particularly Eastern. It’s not as if Western art hasn’t featured these things ever, but these attributes have had to tussle with or fight their way through all that geometry, and modern art has a horrible tendency to take eastern concepts and uglify them, to misunderstand and/or misuse them, in the service of a uniquely western mechanicity.

Fractals are interesting to consider here. Cantor dust is clearly qualitatively entirely different to house dust, or mud, or the way tree trunks develop. In music, this kind of pseudo-dust can be heard in glitch. No matter how fine-grained it gets, it’s always digital ( ∑ ) in feel. But life is not digital in feel and any digital ‘feels’ it has only ever occur in undivided consciousness ( ∫ ). Fractals what happens when ∑ mimics, or tries to mimic ∫ .

As for sociological implications, there are an enormous amount of frankly silly comments on line to the effect that lossless formats such as FLAC are somehow ‘objectively’ better than vinyl because they are noise-free and distortion-free. But the only ‘objective’ judge is the subjective listener.  It’s like saying that vodka is a superior drink to red wine because it’s purer alcohol and has less other stuff in it.  But if people prefer red wine, then they do – you can’t tell them they’re wrong, that’s a category error. And red wine has distinctly different effects to vodka. And red wine can exist as enjoyable plonk or a grandiosely superb vintage. With red wine you can sink into a metaphorical comfy leather armchair. With vodka you ingest a kind of brakes-off land-speed-record disinhibition fuel. A classic vinous culture is France. A classic vodka culture is Russia. There’s a lot of human life experience in the surface noise of vinyl… in all surface noise… It’s essential in order to bring life into that paradoxically blurred clear focus needed to truly live it, to feel it, to be it…

As for the ‘perfect sound’ crew, they need to explain why during the recording process some kind of ‘noise’ or texture, or warmth, or hiss, is often added to ‘clean’ sound to give it character. There’s actually hardware and software equipment that can for example mimic old valve amps or ribbon microphones and so on precisely to add various stylistic flavours, or moods, or ‘vibes’ or production styles, to music. Why do we do this if absolute sonic purity is somehow the ‘best’ sound? Of course poor sound is a thing – but some kind of clinical perfection isn’t the answer. Certain kinds of noise or texture add flavour, while others are indeed unwanted and need to be minimised, altered or removed. But this is all a matter of aesthetics, of phenomenological associativity, not pure reason. Noumena not geometry, but geometry still included, geometry flexed in and through noumena. As with all ∑ enterprises, sonic perfection is but a chimera, never attainable and protected by the insurmountable asymptote.

A related analogy is that of tape bias. Consider a commonly-encountered aspect of (Western) nihilism, namely the alleged wastefulness of nature. Thousands of turtles hatching on beaches mostly eaten by predators. Vastly prolific production of seeds carried on the wind only a tiny handful of which germinate. Immense forests there for millennia, never visited by humans. The sombre grandeur of geologically ancient rock formations that existed hundreds of millions of years before humanity and will continue to exist long after we’ve gone. It can create awe, but in various Western intellectual milieux it can and often does evince a nihilist ache at the randomness, violence, waste and utter indifference of nature. That ache is a byproduct of the LH/geometric aspect of mind – the whole particularly Western question ‘what’s it for?’ which can’t be answered due to its inherently limited, ‘geometry’ aspect presents us with nature as meaningless and often actively hostile. But what would the ‘geometry’ aspect of nature look like exactly? That only the amount of seeds were produced that would germinate, that all baby turtles would survive, that forests could only be there in a neat co-existence with humanity. It would suffocate everything. Geometry must bow to noumena. The LH must surrender to RH. To return to tape bias, the alleged ‘randomness’ and ‘waste’ in this analogy represent a kind of bias frequency, an addition to the cyclic regularities of nature producing a necessary excess of phenomena to enable a kind of looseness necessary for freedom, a randomness that goes with the unrandom, a background ‘noise’ or repetition, that allows a sense of life that would otherwise be impossible. There has to be a sense of disconnect in the background otherwise everything gums up. Take the (metaphorical) ‘bias frequency’ away and you’re left with the sterile, the dead, the uncanny valley of AI art, the ache of Western nihilism. Tape bias (in its usual AC form) is of course still cyclic – but at a level or in a way not immediately accessible to the LH-dominated mind and thus in practice mysterious. But if you’re overidentified with the LH, you will fail to develop any sense of organic aesthetic appreciation, and because you have mistakenly simple inorganic repetition as the ultimate repository of meaning, you are left with nihilism. The next time you feel a pang of meaninglessness as you watch autumn leaves rush along the pavement with no purpose, going nowhere, remember the tape bias metaphor, value the disconnect between your life and those dead leaves, and feel how that looseness grants you the ability to sense aesthetic beauty.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. But swing is inherently numinous. The implications are momentous. You enjoy those implications every time you listen to music.

David Bohm has an interesting take on this issue. In his book ‘On Creativity’ he writes that there is no such thing as disorder. The title of the book refers to creation rather than growth. But on page 30 of the Routledge edition he states that ‘It is … clear that the confusion of the creative with the mechanical will have extremely deep and far-reaching consequences for the whole of the mind, with effects going immensely beyond more narrow and restricted kinds of conflicts’. This was in 1996. Bohm’s idea is that what appears as disorder to us can in fact be understood from a higher level as order by means of a necessarily complex curve that includes all the supposedly broken-up or chaotic elements. It appears to be his physicist’s way of intuiting the primacy of the whole, of ∫. Curves are after all ∫, not a result of enumeration no matter how much enumerated data has been included in their hypothesis. In Bohm’s scheme, that which is broken is taken back into the unbroken worldview. The ‘sine wave’, organic, unlimited, unbeginning/unending reaches into the broken, which can only be done through the whole. This gains a serious real-life significance when we consider how suffering can break people, how trauma can smash them up. But it is a non-hippy, non-facile, 100% serious ultimate truth that at our core we are ∫, we are whole, and ever-pristine.