i think its about experimental music. .. ... .... ..... ...... ....... ........ ......... .......... ...........

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Shoshin Music Project

So, its been a long while since I last made a blog entry or even thought about this thing for that matter. Its shaping up to be a pretty random collection of entries. It started with an opinionated essay-like piece about emotion and experimental music, then a fan zine type piece about Zach Hill, now I’m going to write about what has been keeping me so busy: The Shoshin Music Project.

Initially, the idea of Shoshin (a Japanese word meaning “beginner’s mind”) came from reading the book Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki (1970). It had a quote that I liked: “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” The reason why I liked this quote so much is, applying it to music, the idea intrigued me that one can return to a state of mind where the canvas is totally blank (or in aural terms: totally silent), where there are limitless musical possibilities. It may seem that musicians and artists create this way but we are almost always starting with and building on some set of stylistic tendencies we have developed over time. Before a musician even picks up his guitar for instance, there is music already there: the song he played last, the melody that's stuck in his head that day, the rhythm he has been tapping with his foot, etc. Musicians, artists, human beings as a whole for that matter are not designed to create from nothing. We build on the past. We take what already exists and change it, tweak it, combine it with something else. For the avant garde artist concerned with doing something new, however, it becomes important to think from nothing: not building on what’s already there but tearing it down and truly starting over.

When I concocted what was to be the Shoshin Music Project, I had this vague creating-something-from-nothing idea but the project had no flesh and bone yet. Then, I came back to an old idea I’ve had for a while: through limitations we see new possibilities. This may seem contradictory at first. It is indeed a little paradoxical. The idea came to me I after being introduced to a film actually, by Peter Bogdanovich called Targets (1968) in a cinema of the 60’s class. Bogdanovich was given by Paramount some Boris Karloff footage from one of his last films and asked to “make a film around the footage.” Bogdanovich was initially stumped by the challenge. What was a director in the 1960’s to do with classic horror film reels that no longer seemed relevant or scary for that matter in today's world? In the modern world of the 1960's in which one can walk out of the house and be shot by a sociopath on a shooting spree, are dracula and frankenstein really that scary? With this thought in mind, some classic horror reels, and some money from Paramount, Bogdanovich made a film starring Borris Karloff that juxtaposed the now impotent and phony classic horror genre with this more real kind of horror that we see on the news and read about in the paper every day. Hollywood and reality collide in a very thought provoking film that would not have occurred to Bogdanovich had he not been tasked with making “a film around the footage.”

So, from this the idea came to me: that starting with a unique set of limitations like that of Targets can create something potentially interesting, that would not have otherwise occurred to the artist. This is basically the premise of the Shoshin Music Project. The project will raise funds for Wood Craft Rangers, an afterschool program in LA that teaches music to middleschool students (among other activities). The funds will be raised with a compilation album and a live benefit show. A group of about 20-30 musicians will be formed that will then be split up into smaller groups (mp3s will be traded online most likely) that will contribute tracks to the album. Each group will be assigned or create a "game," a set of limitations to work within for the sake of creating something unique. Some examples of these “games” as we’re calling them, include: write something using only 3 notes, only use one guitar string, beat must change every measure, use instruments in unintended ways, just to name a few. Through these different writing processes, every track on the album should be unique and distinct from the average song, while still accessible to the greater alternative music community.

If you have any interest in participating in the project in any way, please contact the creator of this blog or go through the facebook.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The many bands of Zach Hill....

Zach Hill, the talented Sacramento drummer is in so many experimental, progressive, and math rock bands its easy to lose count. All of these bands are interesting, and many, but not all, have a math rockish sound similar to Hella, his main band/duo, formed in 2001 with long time friend and band mate Spencer Seim, with whom he played in Legs on Earth (his first band I believe). Dan Elkan was also in Hella From 2005 to 2006.

Most classify Hella as math rock, or experimental rock. With seemingly complex, crazy, angular guitar riffs, electronic sounds, drum machines, samples (that sometimes seem to have no rythmic relation to other melodies or to the beat), complex rhythms and odd time signatures, Hella’s music, like Zach Hill’s drumming style in general, I think, can be called excessive. They ironically put “minimalist” as their genre on myspace. But as he said in an interview on thewigfitsallheads.com: “I don’t set out to make something weird for the sake of being weird. I do like to go about things that create a new experience and I don’t set any limits for myself. I am open to trying new things and experimenting. It’s never a cautious thing, but it isn’t really about intentionally going out to do things to be weird. I try to avoid anything contrived, for the most part. You can hear it when an artist does stuff like that purposefully.” He is also a visual artist and photographer, being credited with much of the album art work for several of the bands he’s played with. You can check out some of his card board paintings here.

Here’s a list of all of his other bands besides Hella that I could gather:

Holy Smokes: (I couldn’t find much information on Holy Smokes, but I hear the voice of Rob Crow from Pinback on one track. You can listen to holy smokes here.
Nervous Cop: With drummer greg saunier of Deerhoof, this was supposedly a jam session between the two drummers that was later edited, also features electronics guru John Dieterich, and harpist joanna newsom of The Pleased. You can buy/download the album here.
El Grupo Nuevo (de Omar Rodriguez Lopez): with Omar and Cedric from The Mars Volta, its pretty much The Mars Volta, as the title states: its "Omar’s new band."
Team Sleep: With Chino Moreno from Deftones, and Rob Crow from Pinback. Mostly melow, ethereal, Deftonesy, with lots of effects and drum machine beats.
Goon Moon: Folksy, alternative, indy, Zach was just a collaborator in this band.
Marnie Stern: An experimental/progressive guitarist from new york, really interesting, fairly accessible for a progressive artist. Zach doesn’t always play with her.
Crime in Choir: sounds like an 80s prog band to me
The Ladies: With Pinback’s Rob Crow.
Bygones: With Nick Reinhart of Tera Melos. Some of it is metal/ hardcore, good but typical, other times they are pretty interesting. Similar to Hella. The song “Click on That (Smash the Plastic Death)” is cool. sounds like a more accessible Hella song to me.
CHLL PLL: Electronic, midi, happy yet perverse, odd and heavy. Catchy rythms and melodies.
Flössin: Free form, improve, electronic, noise, jazz, pretty cool.

And of course his solo stuff: http://www.myspace.com/zachhillmusic, He's going to do some shows coming up in April with Nick Reinhart.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Can experimental music be expressive?

The term “experimental music” is generally applied these days to lots of different musicians that are innovative, or just plain weird. Although these musicians can be soulful, in a more strict definition of the term, coined by John Cage, emotion doesn't have much of a role to play. Cage and some of his contemporaries in the twentieth century, attempted to extract or minimize the influence of the composer’s will by using arbitrary systems or processes to choose which note comes next, where it will go, how loud it will be, for how long, and how it will sound. These pieces are interesting for the processes they employed, the end product of which is sometimes cacophonous or bizarre. This wouldn't seem, on the face of it, to exemplify the notion that music is the language of the soul, emotional short-hand, etc.

Traditionally, I’ve considered the purpose or motive behind art or music (if any) to be emotional expression. We create it or consume it because it feels good. The reason why one musician, for instance, might switch from the verse to the chorus at a certain time in a pop song is the same reason another might makes noise with a circuit bent toy for half an hour: it feels good. The idea of experimental or art music serving a purely intellectual purpose is almost a paradox: can something emotional even be intellectual? Is music a means to an end, or an end in itself? Is it rational, irrational?

Obviously, logic and reason do play a big role in music. Knowing and recognizing patterns are essential to playing or just listening to music. Even in the sappiest of songs, a song writer must decide how the song should be organized, the arrangement of notes/beats, how the various instruments are coordinated, how fast to play it, time signature, key, etc. There are a lot of decisions to make. These decisions are usually made intuitively, but also involve math and reasoning skills.

So obviously, the intellect has a place in music along with emotion. I think in "normal music," emotion is the guiding force, the inspiration, the muse (whatever you want to call it), while our prefrontal cortex helps decide how that emotion is specifically expressed and organized. When understood this way, the idea that music is both rational and emotional is not so paradoxical: it is a rational, deliberate expression of something more irrational, mysterious, and emotional. Can the same be said about experimental music?

One could argue that experimental music is more rational, or scientific even, than other music and I don't think many people would object. The name "experimental" obviously implies there is something being tested. What's fascinating to me about experimental music is it seems to bring two worlds, or ways of thinking/being that are traditionally thought of as opposed to one another in western culture: scientific and artistic. To be both a scientist testing or playing with the fundamentals of sound, time, structure, etc. and musician (or maybe "artist" is more apt?) with the desire to express and create is a pretty unique job to have.

The early experimental musicians of the last century did have more intellectual methods of composing music (in contrast to the pop music we're all used to anyways). One pioneer of experimental and avante garde music in the twentieth century, Milton Babbitt, was also a math teacher, and regarded his music as purely intellectual. In his use of the serial, or twelve-tone method, he attempted to compose purely mathematical music. Serialism was a technique developed by Arnold Schoenberg, an Austrian and American composer, and teacher of another pioneer of experimental music: John Cage. Serial composition, or the twelve-tone technique, was widely used by modern composers as a method of choosing the order of notes. It works like this: you start with twelve notes, say the twelve notes in the key of C Major (CDEFGAB). Then, you can play these notes in four ways. In it’s:

1. Original order
2. Reverse order
3. Inverse order (if the second note is three steps up from the first note, now it is three steps down, etc.)
4. Reverse Inverse order

This method was normally just applied to melody, and maybe just to certain parts of a composition, but Babbitt, like Cage, was an extremist, and applied it to every aspect of music: rhythm, pace, time signature, dynamics, timbre, etc. (Anton Webern and Pierre Boulez used total serialism in Europe as well). His compositions were extremely complex and difficult for musicians to play, so he eventually turned to electronic instruments that he could program to play anything. The Mark II electronic music synthesizer, developed by the David Sarnoff research center with Babbitt as a consultant, was a giant, room sized computer that featured a binary sequencer using a paper tape reader. It had an array of switches that controlled things like pitch, octave, volume, timbre, and envelope/dynamics. One of Babbitt’s more famous piece composed with this sequencer is Philomel (1964):

Other composers that have used some form of serialism include Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Jean Barraqué, Béla Bartók, Luciano Berio, Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland, Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, Walter Piston, Alfred Schnittke, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Igor Stravinsky.

While Babbitt sought a completely intellectual method of composing, John Cage was trying to detach himself completely from the music, being neither intellectual nor expressive. With his indeterminate or chance compositions, he used, for many of his compositions, a random method contrived by him to choose the various musical aspects of a piece. This method should be distinguished from aleatory. Like serialism, aleatory was normally applied to some but not all parts or aspects of a piece. Cage’s indeterminate compositions, however, applied the method to all aspects of music. Cage’s methods became increasingly complex, but one of his earliest methods, which demonstrates the idea of indeterminacy well, is that which he used to compose Music for Carillon 1954. Cage placed a piece of graph paper underneath a sheet of cardboard. He then marked the imperfections in the piece of cardboard (discolorations, stains, etc.) with a pen by punching through to the graph paper. One horizontal inch on the graph paper equaled one second in time, and each vertical inch indicated a certain pitch.

Another indeterminate piece by Cage, composed using the ancient chinese text I Ching, or book of changes, is Music of Changes (1951). Cage would "ask" the book questions and then refer to charts that corresponded to pitch, duration, dynamics, and tempo:

Other composers that have used aleatory or indeterminacy are Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

One could argue that serialism, aleatory, indeterminacy or any other systematic method one can imagine for composing music, although they may seek to extract the expressive influence of the composer, in a way, fall short of that intent. Is is realistic to think that one could completely extricate his feeling, whim, intent, or will from a piece of music? Babbit had to at least start by deciding the order of the 12 note series, and what permutations of that order were to follow. I’m willing to bet that if you questioned him on every little aspect of his composition, more than half the time he wouldn’t have an answer as to why he composed it exactly that way, why he used that order, formula, permutation, etc. Perhaps there's still some intuition involved in musical experimentation.

Cage’s indeterminate pieces probably come the closest to non-expression, (it’s non-composition really). But consider his cardboard and graph paper method, for instance: did he not have to decide what counts as an “imperfection” in the cardboard? Or what if the mark he made on the other side landed in an ambiguous area? He’d have to make a judgment call about what note to play. Even in Music of Changes, where he apparently thought of an arbitrary way to make every little decision, the system itself was contrived by him. Had someone else been assigned the same task, the system, and therefor the music, would necessarily be different. This music can hardly be considered expressive in the common sense of the word, but isn't doing something like this, doing anything for that matter, an expression of who we are in that moment?

As I touched on before, there is no logical purpose to art or music. Music can be logical only in method, not purpose. Maybe methods like serialism and aleatory/indeterminacy are more an expression of a curiosity than an emotion. Maybe these composers are driven by a desire to see how delightfully mad it will all turn out. In Cage’s case, however, he was concerned with letting things just happen, letting the universe write the music, so to speak. This was, no doubt an expression of his spiritual and philosophical background in Zen Buddhism. One of his most famous pieces, 4’33” (1952), consisted of four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence in which a pianist just sat at a piano, not playing. The idea was that all the little unintentional sounds in the room (people shuffling feet, etc.) are, and should be considered music. He also wrote music for the prepared piano, which, by placing nuts and bolts and bits of rubber on the piano strings, introduced an element of aleatory or randomness to the sounds the piano would make. Music for Marcel Duchamp (1947) is one of the more famous pieces written for the prepared piano. This has also been done with guitar and other string instruments by the way.

The experience of listening to music, I think, is also inherently emotional. If you compare the two pieces above, for instance (Cage's Music of Changes, and Babbitt's Philomel), two pieces written in ways that intended to deny the composer's emotion, the experience is similar: maybe delight or fascination by some, uncertainty, unease, maybe even annoyance at what is perceived by most people as "just a bunch of noise." The point is: regardless of how music is composed, it produces some emotional effect in the listener, which may or may not be a result of its method of creation.

These composers did create some really interesting music by obsessively following their ideas to their logical end, which is a quality American artists and musicians seem to have in common. I think, however, that its best to avoid extremism. A mixed approach is usually the most interesting and entertaining. And always listen to your artist's intuition. I say, follow your experimental curiosity but let your musical gut get the last say.