Sunday, April 27, 2008

Toward an Empirical Music

Music is about people listening to sound forms out of a desire to satisfy THE EAR. I prefer this hedonism to the puritanical rejection of it.
THE EAR holds the supreme place. It has it own domain independent of and thus not subservient to other mediums and disciplines. To the argument that all is Political or Philosophical, I answer that all is Musical. THE EAR has its own worldview, which might be its ‘tastes’. Yet these ‘tastes’ have nothing to do with ego. We are here finding out what it can tell us. It is not the slave to other disciplines.
What we know of the Ear is by empirical experience, not through rational means, although the two often, but not always coincide. And it is here that music has gotten itself into trouble.
As music took on more ambiguous forms, it became possible for rational methods to produce satisfactory results yet strayed from the empirical experience. In other words, ‘what worked’ had been found as a byproduct of the rational but did not rely on it. Still the rational offered the opportunity of charting ways into unexplored territory, and rational methods will always be useful in this way. Since this ‘rational’ is associated with ‘scientific’ it became an end in itself, especially in institutions. Promising falsely that this art would and could become a ‘science’ or that a ‘scientific’ approach would be a path of progress. In fact this ‘diversion’ turned its back on the perceived and the experienced. Somehow the empirical child remained locked in the cellar. This has been the result of turning against the ear in favor of upholding a ‘rational method’ at all cost. The question should always be why something works or not.
It is not that the ear is irrational, quite the contrary. Empirical approaches have led for instance to how rational numbers coincide with harmonics and in turn influence the formation of chords. Patterns in scale formations have also been discovered. Yet even here, there has been resistance in realizing that other harmonies or scales in the world are equally based on other acoustical phenomena. This has been done empirically in the field, I might add, by less “scientific” cultures. It is this arrogance and bias toward viewing these cultures as underdeveloped that marks our own dark age.

Let us look at some false assumptions that persist owing to a ‘rational’ approach:

1. Good (logical) ideas = good music.
Good (logical) ideas and syntax are no guarantee of good music. Many great and transcendental works have been based on simple or little ideas. Philosophy has been useful, yet empirically it has manifested as varied forms of sonic monotheism. The concept of total freedom has empirically produced little beyond the sonic domain already in place. With the hippies, you could do anything but you better stay in the key; atonality is a mere extension of this concept to more pitches. Like a swarm of gnats, each is free to do what they want as long as they turn back if they go too far. We need not look further than other cultures to see exactly what musical realities it does not envision. It is only by imitation that it would ever be approached. Not that we are against the free idea, but the empirical results have not led to a free music. How one would get there remains to be seen. It seems best to follow the extent of where the ear has to lead us before we get rid of it.

2. Interesting rational methods/processes = interesting/compelling music.
Interesting rational methods and processes are no guarantee of interesting or compelling music. Often very different and complex methods will produce sounds that are indistinguishable from other methods often banal in methods or sound. Some of the most engaging and mysterious examples of music and timbre we find around the world are created by some of the most simple (yet we must add refined) ways. Hence there are opposite approaches whose interest cannot be attributed to the process.

3. Complex music = developed music.
These are not synonymous. The empirical difference between the two lies in the capacity of recognition allowing an interaction with memory. Complex music (especially when ambiguous) will create divisions into sections in only the most simple and crude ways. It is only by changes in density, volume and timbre that any shape or form is realized. When these elements are static, it quickly degenerates into homogeneous fields of limited scope and expression. In a sense it is the most ‘primitive’ of music possible. In the past, complexity and development were capable of being realized empirically with the use of recognizable elements. This is due to the mere fact that the manipulation of these could be followed in more different and subtle ways. Yet we know that it is something we often can ‘sense’ or ‘feel’ more than define, and this subconscious recognition has yet to unveil its full horizon. It is this very area that the ‘rational’ is useful in giving us examples of both success and failure. It is time to assimilate what has already been done as ‘rational’ experiments, or perhaps that work will be in vain. It is without a doubt that ‘rational’ constructs have expanded the type and ways of unity in music that is possible. However, there remains a form of ‘higher unity’ that it cannot approach. This is found in the flow of one musical idea into another in an immediate way. The assumption is that it’s not possible to hear something internally that is not related to what we have heard or made before. And so be it if it is unexplainable. It is THE EAR and what it tells us, sometimes near yet sometimes far.

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