Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"Does he have to like the...?

...Jesus and Mary Chain!" is a line from the song "Do You Want a Boyfriend?" by the Tender Trap. (It's a good song, but the video is self-consciously amateurish, featuring people my age pretending to be teenagers, so it's a bit uncomfortable.)

There's another reference to the Jesus and Mary Chain in "We Looked Like Giants" by Death Cab for Cutie ("Do you remember the JAMC?"). They (the JAMC) were my favorite band for a while in high school. I used to listen to "You Trip Me Up" and "Never Understand" getting ready for school in the mornings (12" singles--do they still exist?). The band was famous for causing riots by playing for only 15 minutes when people had paid money and maybe traveled miles to see them live. Comparisons were made with the Sex Pistols. Apparently they are still iconic or considered representative of some age or mindset (I almost wrote "vibe").

Their look is very 1980s (especially the hair), combining 1960s elements (I waited every year for the always-predicted psychedelic revival that never came) with goth-y black. And the sound is presumably inspired by the Velvet Underground: '60s innocent niceness plus feedback and lots of noise. Everyone in those days copied the Velvets in one way or another, because they were about the only band from before 1977 that you could admit to liking. (That probably sounds like an exaggeration, but as I experienced it punk happened almost literally overnight and changed completely what was socially acceptable in clothes and music. I was only about ten, and not exactly hip, but even I noticed it.) It's the noise that I'm interested in right now.

Dave Maier has an essay on noise music here. He's talking about this kind of thing:

Unlike the Jesus and Mary Chain, I can't really see this being used in a romantic Hollywood movie. Philip Larkin judged music by this criterion: "As it enters the ear, does it come in like broken glass or does it come in like honey?" (All What Jazz, p. 28) The JAMC deliberately went for both (as, I think, do The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, although they blend the two, while the JAMC gave you one in one ear and the other in the other). Noise music, as far as I can tell, wants to be like broken glass. I vaguely approve of this, but I can't honestly say I like it. There's a grumpy Larkin in me that rejects it, and a skeptical Wittgenstein, the Wittgenstein who wonders what Europeans who claim to appreciate African art could say about it except "How charming!" Would they, for instance, be able to offer critical suggestions while such a work were being made, telling the creator to add more here or take some off there? If not then it all seems a bit shallow. And I feel that way (I emphasize 'feel' as opposed to, say, 'judge after much careful thought') about noise music.

I'll try to let a series of quotes from Maier explain what the point of noise music is meant to be. He begins with a paraphrase of an argument by Nick Smith:
According to Adorno, language, art, and philosophy are all manifestations of underlying sociocultural phenomena.  Everything Adorno deplores – the economic inequality and social oppression which he sees as the inevitable result of capitalist economies based on the principle of abstract exchange-value – can thus be diagnosed in the analogous ills afflicting the corresponding spheres of culture, including philosophy itself. The engine of capitalist culture is instrumental rationality, which abstracts from individual things and persons for the purposes of economic and social efficiency
Adorno sees art's [...] independence from conceptual understanding as a possible way to resist the cultural hegemony 
Unfortunately, as Adorno recognizes, this role for art is futile from the beginning.  First, there is an irresolvable tension in using art as a tool to combat instrumental rationality. Similarly, even to the extent that it succeeds, art is in constant danger of succumbing to its own success, which commodifies it and subjects it to the same concept of exchange-value that it was its cultural task to overcome.
All that art, even the best art, can do is to mourn the loss of meaning to those who are capable of mourning with it (that's us), and to dramatize the current desperate situation in the vain hope of shocking the rest of us out of our complacency and complicity with the system. 
If this is right, then the mourning seems to have some possible value, but the attempt to shock seems like more instrumentality. Maier goes on:
If there is to be effective resistance to the pop-cultural juggernaut, it must be sought in a different place. Smith locates the contemporary battlefront at the interface of music and noise.
Like Adorno – on Smith's interpretation, anyway – Smith seems to assume that only in total subversion of traditional aesthetic standards can the virtuous resistance to commercial culture take its (here regrettably final) stand, and that every other kind of music (except perhaps those few dogged academic serialists?) is fatally complicit with ruling-class ideology and thus aesthetically worthless (and vice versa).
One thing I don't get here is how virtuous resistance to commercial culture (and nothing else) can be one's reason for putting on some music. Why bother? The JAMC approach makes sense to me: you listen for the nice tune, the horrible noise makes it culturally palatable. But why would anyone choose to listen to just the noise (except to annoy their parents, impress their peers, etc.)? But wait.
Smith’s picture is much more pessimistic than Adorno’s, essentially conceding defeat by the forces of consumerism.  However, his conception of the aesthetic significance of noise is neither sufficient as it stands nor shared by all noise artists.
Spanish sound artist Francisco López [says]: “I think this [listening to a waterfall or radio static, "sounds that initially appear as a solid mass but slowly reveal themselves to be made up of myriad micro-particles"] is actually completely different from the traditional conception of listening to music, in which you want to listen to melody or rhythm or whatever.  What I want to do is something that is more blurred, something that does not have a definite structure.  But it has some inner richness that you can appreciate, if you listen carefully.  If you do this, you’ll discover many things there.  This is a question of going really deep into the listening experience.’ 
After we become accustomed to the necessity of listening in more than one way at once, this experience itself becomes a single, expanded way of listening.  Such expansion results in greatly expanded possibilities for the pointed disruption of interpretations-in-progress.  Our concepts need not be overwhelmed by an object for dislocation to occur, but simply eluded, if this can be made to happen in an appropriately subtle way – and thus by sounds potentially quite unlike those made by that unfortunate cat with his tail in the blender.  
There are a few issues here. One is the problem of instrumental thinking again, but I think this is not fatal. If artists aim at creating disruptive or dislocating works, or if consumers of such work consume in a conscious attempt to achieve disruption or dislocation, then the kind of instrumental thinking that is meant to be avoided has not been. But if people make or listen to this stuff just because they like it and the reason why they like it is its liberating or dislocating effect, then that seems OK. The remaining questions that occur to me (apart from whether the Adorno/Smith thesis is right in the first place) are whether that is why people like this stuff (and they aren't just being fooled or fooling themselves) and then the practical problem of how one gets to like it in the first place. I would much rather listen to rainfall than noise music inspired by the experience of listening to rainfall. This could get boring, of course, but a walk is usually more pleasant if you (i.e. I) turn off the iPod and listen to the birds instead. But there's no reason why you couldn't do that and then go home and listen to noise music, if that's your cup of tea.


  1. Duncan,

    What a fun post!

    It seems like we ought to distinguish between (1) why people make art, and (2) why they listen to art. What is true of (1) may not be true of (2) and vice versa. (In that regard, however, it seems that if you listen or make something because you like it--regardless of what the reason is--then this, too, is instrumental).

    Also, while I find López's idea of "eluding" concepts interesting, I don't think it really makes that much sense. Do we really "elude" concepts in listening to waterfalls or noise? Or are the concepts just uncertain or fleeting or hesitant or fuzzy? (In this sense, and this may be a stretch as I haven't thought this through, is such an experience any different *formally* than Kant's notion of the beautiful object, where the understanding and imagination enter into a free play, unable to pin the beautiful object to any one concept?)

    (Another way to ask my broader question here: what might it mean to *elude* concepts altogether? It seems to me that McDowell's points against Dreyfus in their debate could easily be ported to apply here...)

    By my lights, I think that noise music is a failure as a form of resistance (at least according to Adornian standards) because, at best, it might be able to reflect or exhibit something like our social/economic totality, but it is unable, then, to offer any moment of critique, let alone try to mediate between these two, and, if that's the case, then, while superior to something like commercialized pop music, it's really just a sort of naïvely antagonistic art...

  2. Thanks, Martin.

    I don't know how well my response will hang together, but let me try to take your points in turn.

    I agree that it's worth distinguishing between why people make art and why they listen (or whatever) to it. (Although I'd like to think that in each case the answer should be something like: for its own sake.) I wouldn't call doing something because you like it instrumental though. "Because I like it" is not "in order to ..." It's more like "just because." This is a point that Anscombe makes, but so does Chrissie Hynde in one of my favorite painfully bad lyrics: "No reason, just seems so pleasin'" Maybe Hynde, Anscombe, and I are wrong though.

    Secondly, I'm not sure what exactly eluding concepts is either, although perhaps every encounter with, or experience of, the uncanny could be said to elude concepts. (I'm not sure that 'uncanny' is the right word here, but it seems right to me. Heidegger probably has a term for it. I mean it in a way that should apply to just about every natural thing, every person, and every work of art. Everything that is not purely a tool.) What you say about Kant sounds like a very good point.

    Thirdly, I don't recall the debate between McDowell and Dreyfus, although it sounds as though I should. So I can't comment on that. Thanks for bringing it to my attention though.

    Finally, some of it seems naïvely antagonistic, yes, and some of it seems experimental (in a sense that might translate as 'boring'--but I'm not in a position to judge whether the experiment fails or not). I don't really see how it could achieve anything as long as it is just noise, but López's claim is that it's more than that. And I don't think I can assess that claim without getting into it more.

  3. I'm curious about the instrumentalism argument. I can see how this might play out one way, say, in the philosophy of action, but in aesthetics, I have trouble seeing how it doesn't come down, even if we're with Hynde and the Pretenders (there's no reason, just seems so pleasin') to thereby by being instrumental *to* bringing myself pleasure.

    Isn't "just because" literally when you have no reason? Whereas, "because I like it" is more like, well, having *some* reason, namely pleasure. (i.e. I could see myself listening to or doing something "just because" even when I *don't* like it...the way, e.g., that I might watch infomercial late night).

    I ask this because it's a huge question in aesthetics about the "autonomy" of art. One way to think about art (say a roughly Kantian way) is to say that objects of beauty are appreciated for their beauty--that thing that happens when our conceptual capacities enter into a free play with our imaginary ones. In such a state, no one concept captures what the object is about and the imagination continually, but also unsuccessfully, tries to fit or find additional concepts for the object. This is a sort of free play (akin to how one might just want to kick around a soccer ball on a weekend--just to "play"...to move and run and play...for no reason, not for exercise or competition, nor even pleasure), *from which* pleasure follows. In such a case, there is no "interest" involved--I am not interested in the object because it does this or that, but rather solely in the object (i.e. any interest in the object--that it produces pleasure or that it will be a powerful political statement or that it is humorous or pleasing--would prohibit the sort of free play that can only arise when I am, in a sense, "open" to the object *producing* those effects). (This is not to say such effects couldn't follow after...)

    Now, there's a lot of kinks to be worked out in such a theory (and it also presupposes that art and beauty are a natural--perhaps even exclusive--pair, and this need not be the case, I think), but it gives us a plausible way of understanding how art can be "autonomous" (i.e. non-instrumental)--because "disinterested."

    So curious to hear your thoughts about the instrumentalism bit...

  4. Let's see. Say I walk into an art gallery and look around. Here are three kinds of reasons why I might be doing this (there are others): 1. I'm wandering around aimlessly, killing time perhaps, and just happen to wander in off the street, for no reason that I am aware of; 2. I like art and go in simply for that reason, to see some art; 3. I've been feeling down lately and have read that looking at art can be therapeutic, so I go in hoping that I will feel happier as a result.

    Case 3 is clearly instrumental (right?). Case 1 is not. It's case 2, I take it, that we might disagree about. You seem to want to regard it as something like (though not exactly the same as) case 3, while I might have presented it as being something like case 1, which is not really what I want to say. What I want to say is that it is neither 1 nor 3. It's more purposeful than 1, but without the kind of instrumental, purposive thinking of 3. What draws me in is the art itself, not something else (pleasure, an experience of beauty) that I hope to derive from it.

    On the other hand, it isn't like visiting a grave or a prison that doesn't allow visitors. That is, I don't simply want to be near the art in the way that I might want to be near someone I love (even if I couldn't see or talk to them). So maybe it's not the art itself that draws me in to the gallery. Maybe it's the prospect of seeing the art, and of course I do anticipate this experience having a certain kind of quality that everyday visual experiences don't have.

    I think it's like this: what I'm thinking of in my decision to go to the art gallery is the art, but in my thinking the art is connected to a certain kind of experience, as a dog is connected to its tail. What I want is to see the art, not to have an experience as of seeing such art, nor to acquire a certain art-gallery-visit-sized quantum of pleasure, but I really want to see the art, to have that experience. (I want the whole dog.) And the better I am at appreciating art, the more I think and am moved by thoughts of the art alone. The less good I am at art appreciation, the more of a novice I am, the more I think of art, or seeing art, as a means to some other end. The more I know art, in other words, (where knowing is tied up with loving) the closer it comes to being an end in itself. But I don't think it's really ever wholly a means or wholly an end.

    I wonder whether that makes sense and/or is true.

  5. i am disappointed that i can't find a link to my favorite skullflower song, 'dying venice', but here's a sample of their more recent work:


    i suspect that saying things like 'no definite structure' about noise music short-circuits a variety of things that are involved in listening to it with enjoyment.

  6. Thanks, j. I thought I was almost sort of enjoying that until it stopped and I felt relieved. But that's probably a function of my age.

    Would you have to find some sort of structure in it to enjoy this kind of music? Presumably it would have to sound like something other than just noise. When Lopez says he wants to create something with no definite structure, perhaps he just means no structure in the usual sense. Or perhaps he is driven by an impulse that those who enjoy his music will be better able to analyse and explain than he is.

  7. i personally don't want to listen to skullflower very often. and that record in particular, less so.

    but the relief can be really remarkable, especially if you go all in and play an entire album. as it plays you get used to it in a kind of way, and pass through stages of becoming annoyed again (for reasons that are subtle to fathom, given that you are hearing what seems like more or less the same thing constantly and have acclimatized yourself to it) and of kind of marveling that in some sense this sound is able to maintain your interest (or maybe not interest, but something like that, your non-disinterest or your lack of full-blown aversion sufficient to make you jump up and switch it off).

    after something like those experiences, the satisfaction you can derive from sheer silence seems profound to me. not just satisfaction, but enjoyment. if i really listen for a while to something like that, then i might want nothing to do with any kind of music for anywhere from an hour to several hours to (once) a day or more. and it's not just through an aversion to more sound, i think. sometimes it feels like i can hear the silence itself more, it has become more interesting; AND like i retain the memory of the noise and it stays so impressive that regular, actual music can feel like an annoyance, hollow and conventional. ('oh, sure, you with your notes and your coordinated rhythms and your feelings.')

    my thought above was that lopez would have to mean something like 'no structure in the usual sense', but that it's false to say there's no structure of any sort, because these things are always full of micro-structures, temporally and sonically induced phenomenological effects, etc. whether or not one wants to privilege some other sense of structure that counts such things out as properly structural is up in the air, i guess.

    perhaps there are reasons this is misguided, but i tend to think of noise music like skullflower as belonging to the same family as drone music which other people would find eminently more listenable. like my favorite track from last year's eleh cd:


    (it's better on some proper speakers or headphones, and louder, because it is very resonantly deep.)

  8. by the way, i think one major thing that often goes missing in discussions about music like this is comparative and stylistic effects. just like first-wave or second-wave viennese school classical has a lot going on that's salient to people familiar with the style, familiar with work of other composers in similar or different forms, etc., some of the interest in noise music comes from internal relations within the 'noise field'.

    i think that eventually encompasses, say, pan sonic


    (who had an amazingly inventive career successful on pretty traditional artistic criteria, i think - their development as artists, their exploration of basic forms, synthesis of styles, development of and then revision to a signature sound, some kind of critical dialectic with tradition and with 'the popular', etc.)

    and goes back to things like sonic youth


    (or your JAMC, of course, and ultimately back to rock and jazz generally)

  9. after something like those experiences, the satisfaction you can derive from sheer silence seems profound to me. not just satisfaction, but enjoyment.

    Yes! I felt pretty much exactly that (if I can just steal your words and claim your insight). It would be hard to argue that this is not just bull, or that it justifies listening to the noise to begin with, but I can at least imagine that you are right.

    You're probably right about Lopez, too. I was imagining him being an enthusiast and, in that spirit, talking about "no structure" in the way that a Dadaist might talk about wanting to reject or overthrow all art, even while working on a collage or painting or something. Exaggeration, I suppose, is the phenomenon I'm talking about.

    As for proper speakers or headphones, I'm out of luck there. I'm going t have to devote a day of spring break to Steely Dan and noise when there's no one else around.

    Internal relations are always important. People like to sniff at TS Eliot for his references to other works, but you can't like anything properly in a vacuum. There's always some kind of reference, or some kind of (significant) relation to context. When the Sisters of Mercy played the opening of "Stairway to Heaven" it was a stroke of genius, not because they played it well or it's a great song but because a) it was completely beyond the pale to do so at the time, and yet b) it was completely in keeping with what they and their audience had become. At least it seemed like brilliant satire to me. (But then so did what happened in the Hannibal Lecter series of books, though I fear it wasn't meant to be self-satire after all.)

  10. This makes a lot of sense, Duncan. If we gloss your last paragraph as suggesting essentially that you want to have the experience of the art for art's sake, not for anything else (which is what I think you basically say), then I think we're essentially proposing similar things.

  11. Yes, that's basically it. There's art for no reason, art for art's sake, and art for some other reason. I want the three to be kept as distinct as possible, and don't regard the middle one as instrumental.

  12. Makes sense...the only thing I'd have to add is that, as I suspect you'd admit, "art for art's sake" is a complex proposal that's very hard to pin down without sliding towards option 1 or option 3...but in that respect, I suspect, it's not any different than a wide variety of other actions in the sense that it is embedded in a broader web of dispositions, desires and expectations/hopes.

  13. Yes, I do agree with that. But I want to insist that sliding all the way into option 1 or option 3 is not inevitable. (I'm not saying that you disagree with this.)

  14. I don't really understand your problem with pure noise as a mode of expression. It seems almost obvious why most people, especially that of the 00's, were making "noise" in many different forms and for the most part, experimenting with sounds and not really over analyzing it. Take a band like Wolf Eyes or Black Dice for example, both notorious for extremely loud performances in an effort to engulf the audience into some kind of trance and there gear miss-use and anti-talent stance doesn't come off as nihilistic as much as it does inspiring to would be noise makers. I've attended my share of noise shows, again the 00's exploded with all kinds of noise acts, and almost all of the artists who make this kind of music simply do it for the feeling of it, the freedom, and as mentioned the non-structure or in some cases the controlled noise ( an effort to make structured music out of chaos) and that was really the extent of the thinking that went into the music. In many respects it was a neo-free jazz movement, jazz in the sense of ascension era John Coltrane or the 90's Supersilent. The influence of JAMC is there, but I really have to give it to My Bloody Valentine for taking it into a new realm and ultimately probably influencing more people of the noise realm. The sheer face melting guitar of MBV and the insistance of playing records like Loveless at max volume really opened the gates for people to incorporate "noise" into their music. Artists like Fennesz and Tim Hecker, who dominated "noise" with melody in the 00's really changed noise for the better, both of which site MBV over and over again as their main influence and inspiration for creating chaos meets order music. Over the past few years i've seen a massive shift in noise, it seems the raw noise of merzbow is being replaced and labeled passe. With acts like Oneohtrix point never and Emeralds, who are rooted in noise and noise off shoots, you get the hybrid and ultimate return of My Bloody Valentine/JAMC type of noise, melody meets noise blasts. I think this is just an aesthetic choice, I don't think its so inconceivable for someone to like the sound of pink noise or white noise. Take the 2010 release Worry by Big Troubles for instance, it's so similar to JAMC/MBV and it is for a reason, they simply like the sound of noise. It go's with the tape culture too, the resurgence of tapes as a proper medium for distribution has led to a renaissance in crappy recordings with beautiful songs underneath.

    I don't know if any of this makes sense, I don't really know that much about philosophy, so I apologize in advance.

  15. No apology necessary! On the contrary, thanks for your comment.

    I have no problem at all with people just liking the sound of noise. It doesn't seem like a very sophisticated kind of pleasure, but there's nothing wrong with simple pleasures. And I understand bands wanting to engulf the audience. In the 60s and 70s Hawkwind used to try to do just that with their light shows and the volume they played at, taking pride in giving people fits and making their ears bleed, and I used to go and see them play whenever I could (in the 80s), as well as spin-off bands like Motorhead and Inner City Unit. Noise without tunes doesn't appeal to me personally though.

    On the other hand, "melody meets noise blast" and "crappy recordings with beautiful songs underneath" sound great. Somehow I missed My Bloody Valentine first time around (or they passed me by), but I'll have to check them out again. And Thee Milkshakes (I think it was) deliberately tried to make their recordings sound as though they were playing down a well, which is what I think of when you mention crappy recordings. That's all I remember about that band (although the Wikipedia entry on Billy Childish is worth looking up), but I love the Del Monas, who had a similar approach (and also involved Billy Childish). So I think I understand where you're coming from.

    In short, I don't object to noise music, I just don't like it if all it is is noise. And if it really is just noise, then I don't think it can be a very sophisticated or profound kind of art. But that's OK.

  16. Yeah that makes total sense, In the pure noise circles i've always seen, it's more or less just a testosterone filled agressive spectacle, much in the way of 80's hardcore punk, but even more so in some cases. To really call it sophisticated or profound art like you say, is kind of not the point to the people who do it and I guess they don't care if it is art. I have seen people who really think they are making art with pure noise and that's a grey area for me as well. I always preferred the bands who were trying to implement noise with some kind of meaning (Tim Hecker does this flawlessly).

    This has some more recent examples: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hP4fX_h5iVA

  17. Thanks for the link. It's interesting stuff, and I can imagine getting into it. I don't mean that I'm going to, but I wouldn't write off people who do as crazy.