Music Spoken Here

Most music, with the exception of a certain type of dogmatically free improvisation and the later works of John Cage, consists of sound that is organized in some perceptible manner. We can speak intelligently of the organization, whatever it happens to be, using the terms semantics (the meanings of certain musical gestures) and syntax (the ways in which the gestures are permitted, within a given style, to be joined to one another).

I’m quite familiar with the syntax and semantics of both classical and pop music — speaking here strictly of European-American music, not of other kinds. Today I’m struggling with the question of what sorts of syntax and semantics may be found in the more abstract forms of electronic music. In quite a lot of it, very little seems to be happening. A certain texture is presented, and the texture flows onward with very little in the way of overt dramatic structure. But yet we can say that a given piece produces a certain feeling, be it exuberant, nervous, dreamy, or disturbing.

I’m not quite willing to say that such music is devoid of syntax and semantics, but I don’t know quite what to make of it. One term I’ve been playing with is “process music,” process being a loose term that can refer to almost anything that is ongoing rather than punctuated by dramatic contrasts or neatly distributed in little cells called phrases.

In his book Musicking, Christopher Small observes that the Euro-American classical music tradition derives from the dramatic traditions of opera as it developed in the Renaissance. This music is theatrical: It’s about struggle and passion, about tension, climax, and an eventual triumphal resolution of conflict. He’s right, of course. It’s useful to be reminded that this tradition is not the only thing that music can be; nor does it necessarily represent the highest form of music-making (if it even makes sense to speak of music-making having a highest form, which is not at all clear).

Aside from this one very cogent point, however, Small’s book is infuriating. He generally equates all of music with the concert tradition of Western classical music, in order principally to dismiss that tradition as artificial and stultifying. What he might replace it with, other than group singing and dancing, is unclear. Other forms of music-making don’t fit nearly so neatly into his paradigm, and he seems not to be aware of this fact.

For him, musicking is something that happens in a room where some people are making sounds while others perhaps listen, dance, or shout agreement. He sees the role of the composer as providing a written score that allows this essentially social activity to occur. This narrow view of what a composer does has, of course, vanishingly little relevance to what quite a lot of people are doing these days sitting in front of computers in their homes, creating and recording music directly without ever writing down a score. Without, perhaps, even considering the tastes or social needs of an imagined audience, and quite likely without intending performers ever to be involved in the music-making.

The price we pay for enshrining dead composers, Small asserts (p. 73), “is that the majority of people are considered not to have the ability to take an active part in a musical performance. They are excluded from the magic world of the musicians, whose separateness is symbolized so lucidly … by the division of the concert hall into [the onstage area and the seats where the audience passively sits]. They are fated to be no more than consumers of the music that is produced for them by professionals.”

This is charmingly democratic, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t actually want anybody from the audience coming up on stage and grabbing a tambourine to bang on while I’m playing, much less trying to sing along or whip out their electric guitar and plug it in. I’ve played in entirely enough godawful crappy jam sessions in my younger years, thank you very much. I can tell you in no uncertain terms: The majority of people do not have the ability to take an active part in a musical performance, whatever they or Christopher Small may fondly imagine. Not in my performance, thanks. If someone whose training is less than first-rate wants to get up on stage and jam, I’m going to put my instrument in the case and go home, because trying to play with them would be too fucking painful.

I may seem to have veered off on a tangent there, but I didn’t. The most important question that one has to ask, when listening to a piece of recorded electronic music, is, “Is this piece any good?” What is it in this piece (if anything) that makes it worth listening to? Has it, in other words, been produced by someone who possesses a fine technique, understands the theoretical underpinnings of their craft, and has a clear vision of what they hope to achieve? Or is it just a piece of crap? And how are we to tell the difference?

What form of semantics and syntax is to be found in this piece? Is it just gibberish, or is there a cognizable (and ultimately admirable) organization guiding the process? Once we have cast aside the strictures of the Western classical tradition, what are we to replace them with? Or should they be cast aside at all?

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