Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

LATRALMAGOG Sessions IV & V and some philosophical rambling.

July 28, 2007

I think about music a lot as you can (i’m sure) imagine. While thinking about my recent activities as half of latralmagog, I have realised that in a lot of ways, it is an answer to some philosophical problems I have been tossing about in my head for some time. I supposed that makes perfect sense, and I imagine this progression from thought to action is normal for most people if at most times completely unconscious. However for me, it seems to have taken place on opposite ends of the same track where now there is a meeting at the center in latralmagog. On one end is my (seemingly inate) desire to make “difficult” music, and on the other are my philosophies about the personal/social politics of music and the making of music. When I started, both the making of music and the thinking about music were still very young, and so distant were they, that I did not really see them as connected, or as an answer to one-another yet. Here are two of the questions, and the thoughts (not to be seen as “answers” in an absolute sense) behind them.

First a quick caveat… I’m thinking outloud here. I don’t really know how to write, and I modify my position all the time, as I grow and change. This is here to encourage thought, not to get you to agree with me. Hopefully you will think, and come to your own conclusions. In the meantime, I hope you at least find my rambling entertaining. 🙂 Oh, and I also didn’t feel like editing this, so you know…

What is music?
Way to start with an easy one huh? Well, from what I have been able to mete out in a combination of my own thoughts and the illuminations of others, it is whatever you think it is. Which is almost an alarmingly simple answer, but it’s almost a stupid question when you think about it, that it’s amazing how it has dogged so many BIG thinkers. When it comes down to it, “Music” is just a word… and like all words that define or deliniate space, its boundaries are only solid in inverse proportion to how much they are being attacked. Thanks to John Cage, the most formidable (in my experience) of the attackers, the word “music” is all but meaningless. In order for it to have any meaning at all, each individual must put their own restrictions on it, but don’t be fool enough to think that anyone will agree with you.

In my personal point of view I differ from Cage. He sought to prove that every sound can be music if you are willing to view it as an aesthetic occurance. He often referenced Rauchenberg’s ready-mades as a parallel in the visual art world, stating that the art he liked best directed you to the beauty that exists outside the artwork itself. So that in Cage’s world, all sound is music, all matter is art, and all experience is theater (and all these naturally overlap, a fact in which he took great pleasure). But this point of view maintains that art is everything you can appreciate aesthetically, and this is where I depart from Cage. I still maintain that art needs the artist. Not the Artist (with a capital A) that Cage deplored, but the finger pointing to the stars. The curator of the aesthetic. Why? Because people are as beautiful, curious and interesting as nature and while you can call their likes, dislikes, preduduces, etc., weaknesses, they are weaknesses which I feel are too tied to our human experience to sever. They like us together is a kind of maladjusted mutual sympathy that I think is ipmortant, even though it can lead to various ills that I have not time to get into now.

Now here’s where Cage’s idea and mine only really differ semantically (oh how useless language really is!). He says everything is art, I say art is whatever you think it is, but everything is beautiful. See Cage views the aesthetic appreciation of an object as a declaration of it’s existence as art, whereas I don’t link aesthetics and art at all. Art is what you say it is, but everything is beautiful. I guess this is beacuse I view art as a construct not a continuum. Art is the domain of the artist, and you can take it or leave it really, because beauty is everywhere if you choose to accept it.

In music this idea means that 1) I can still be a curator of sound if I want to because human experience is important 2) Music is whatever I say it is 3) Not everything I present for aesthetic consideration within the confines of a recording has to be “music” or considered by me as such. This philosophy produces nearly the same effect as Cage’s, but where Cage says the artist must be elliminated so that there is no artist/non artist dichotomy, I say, everyone is an artist if they think they are. (Which is funny because I refuse to call myself one, I guess that is because my philosophy exists in the utopia of my mind (like Cage’s) wheras, I live in a sad state of reality-by-commitee) Like I’ve said many times before, the only difference between me and anyone else is that I have the balls to say that what I do is “art”.

What is the relationship between the medium, availability and value of music?
Why is music pressed on records and why do we buy it? Why do we collect it, own it, etc.? Why do we have record labels? Do they serve a purpose other than fronting money for the production of “art” in order to (hopefully) make an ROI? Does the medium in which a work of “art” is presented affect the way in which it is perceived and how does that relationship function with “musical” “art”? Has our construction of a marketplace for art served us for the better and how?

Edit: Now that I’ve gotten flack for some of these statements, let me be more clear. I believe the art marketplace can be a good thing. If it wasn’t for some very giving souls who decided to use their money to bring the art they valued to light, we may all be bereft of some works we value highly. However, as I’m sure anyone can protest, this situation of money for art is extremely dangerous and that danger is not confined to the “mainstream” world.

I’m not going to answer all of those questions, but I do find myself asking them and stewing about them frequently. Especially in our current climate where we are basically innundated with high quality free music, most often in digital form. There are countless out of print record blogs where one could easily obtain for free, (a digital copy of the audio content of) a record that previously commanded prices of $5,000 on ebay! The value of music is changing, but exactly how remains to be seen. Personally I see the value going down, but I’m not sure we can be so black and white about that.

Is a piece of music put on record because it is valueable, or is it valuable because it was put on record? I’d say a little bit of both. I think it’s put on record because someone valued it and somehow because of the value they placed upon it, it then becomes valuable to others because they value it as well or value the person who deemed it valuable in the first place. But does it have any intrinsic value over and above everything else? Maybe not, I’m not sure I can say, it would depend upon how you define value. I have to say though that after hearing large qualities of amazing records by unknowns that easily rival records by our societal golden calves, it is hard to look at the art market as anything other than a spotlight. Am I alone in having heard steaming piles of crap on reputable lables, that become gems as they are accepted by the easily lead? Is the value of what I do directly linked to who else thinks it’s valuable? Well? Yes, but only if that is what I believe.

(Note: I’m omitting the questions about specific media that were here, because I don’t want to take the time to mede it out and it only distracts from the poit anyhow.)

Or we could ask a similar but different question. What’s more valuable to witness; The Velvet Underground live in the 70’s, or the music made in ones own family? (don’t answer too quickly now 🙂 ) I think a lot of these questions are taking on the dichotomy existing in the world now, of the “art star” and “art star” infrastructure, versus the personal and communal. And why does this exist? Because we buy it. These people, concepts and objects are only more important than others because we have agreed that it is so. So where is value in all of this? It’s wherever you think it is. In this stage in the game relying on any definition of value other than your own pleasure in “art” is just asking to be lead off a cliff.

Now if these things are only of at their hieght in valuable because we buy them, what happens if we stop? What happens if we have so much fantastic music that we can’t even keep track of it and it is all free. We have so much that every record only gets one listen. What happens when even what was previously considered to be “the best” is so common we don’t need it any more? How does it effect how we place value on “art”, or how we approach our own? I would say it evens the playing field somewhat don’t you think? I think it has the potential to take us out of the fog of commercialism and offers us the chance to see, choose and make for ourselves. (Not that all music that is sold is commercial, but that ugly culture does exist.)

Edit: (The paragraph here previously was an ill thought-out rant that actually did more to confuse my point than make it. It is being replaced with something I think is more the point. I can’t stand by any of those previous statements.)

These ideas have definitely shaped latralmagog. These questions in part affirm my decision to improvise. For me, improvisation confronts fleeting value by being instant, commercialism and style by being amorphous, and the question of the definition of “music” by being an exploration.

In a way I feel like there was a time I was tying to cram what I really wanted to do into a box that I thought would be more easily palateable to others, and resisting the real impulse I had toward something less defined. I felt as if I was trying to train myself to make what was essentially other people’s music. Why? Because I guess in a way I thought it would be more “credible”. When I finally thought about it, I realized that I had been improvising for some time, but I had been casting it off because it didn’t fit with what I for some reason thought I ought to do. Once I opened up however, I realized how fun and fulfilling it was to give myself over to all of the ideas and feelings I had pushed aside for so long.

I realize after some of the comments below, that a lot of what I say above can be very easily misconstrued. I wish I were better at expressing my thoughts. I think the bottom line though is that everyone should feel free to do and think as they like about art, theirs or anyone else’s, no matter what the established art world thinks, or what trend it is worshiping today. There is no intrinsic value in anything, we bestow value, so feel free to cast yours wherever you like.

I also want to make it clear that I am NOT saying improvised music is better or cooler than any other kind of music, only that is better suits a certain set of ideas that are occupying me presently than anything else.

LATRALMAGOG, Session IV
– Part 1
– Part 2
– Part 3
– Part 4
– Part 5
– Part 6
– Part 7

LATRALMAGOG, Session V
– Part 1
– Part 2
– Part 3
– Part 4
– Part 5
– Part 6

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Enter LATRALMAGOG!!!

July 2, 2007

So my partner in musical debauchery Al and I decided to make our collaborative efforts offical by branding ourselves with a name. Now, this brings me (of course!) to a deluge of pholosophical questions… “How do you give a name to something that is undefined?”; “Can there possibly be a word or words that evoke an accurate concept of what this is?”; “Why does the name Ashtray Navigations have to be taken?” (yuck yuck).

LATRALMAGOG Notes

Above: Notes from our naming experiment

So after a couple false starts we decided that we would use two of our favorite devices in music making – improvisation and chance – to come up with a fitting name. We began with the use of our temporary moniker “AL B & ET”, subjecting the letter order to chance, but ultimately what came of it left something to be desired. Then we tried our full first names, which had a similar effect. Through all of this we were in hysterics at the alien sounding names that were coming out. Finally I suggested a nonsense word writing excercise. Improvised words. So we took turns writing off the top of our heads. Our goal was a longish word, and in retrospect, apparently one with neanderthalish qualities. We then chose which word would become our names by using the I Ching. Thus we became LATRALMAGOG. Pretty epic.

I am also posting our third session now. This one is much more ambient than previous efforts. It seems the music we make is very much effected by our moods on any given day. This is bay far the most peacful thing we have done. It is also quite beautiful at times. I hope you enjoy it.

Implements used in this recording:
Cymbals, tape machines, loop cassettes, Heathkit oscillator, Silver platter, circuit-bent tape player, melodica, shakers, bells, toys, cookie tin lute, appalacian mouth bow, air organ, electric kalimba, various effects boxes, etc.

no real clean way to chop this one up, so here’s the whole thing as one track:

– LATRALMAGOG – Session III

Taking Chance.

June 24, 2007

(Though the following is not directly related to music, I think it has some relevance in it’s relation to my life, I hope you find it at least mildly amusing.)

Montague: You studied Zen Buddhism in the 1940s and ’50s, which had a great influence on you. How much does the I Ching govern your life? Do you throw the I Ching each morning?

Cage: My life, as you can imagine from what I said earlier, is not governed. And certainly not by the I Ching. I attempt to move according to circumstances. I now have 200 plants, and when I’m home, they have first priority. I spend the first two hours of each day without the I Ching taking care of them. I use the I Ching when it is useful, just as I turn on the water faucet when I want a drink. I find the I Ching useful to answer questions, and when I have questions, I use it. Then the answers, instead of coming from my likes and dislikes, come from chance operations, and that has the effect of opening me to possibilities that I hadn’t considered. Chance-determined answers will open my mind to the world around.

The above is an excerpt of an interview with John Cage by Stephen Montague. I found this recently while searching for information on the I Ching, and this portion in particular struck a chord with me. I have thought a lot about this tendency we have to run our brains needlessly in the attempt to make the simplest decisions… which restaurant to go to, what movie to watch, whether to stay or go to an event. None of these are “crucial” decisions. Sure, if I choose to go to an event, It may change the course of my life, but so can staying home. In the end I don’t really know, so my decision is arbitrary. Neither here, nor there. So why not subject it to chance?

All of us have weird little preferences that don’t have a whole lot of rationale behind them. We stay within our little area of experience and shun certain other areas for no apparent reason. For instance, I myself have weird preferences with movies. There are certain genres that I never want to see. War movies for instance. I hate violence, especially when it is done in a close-to-life manner, so due to this, I avoid movies such as war movies because I’m afraid they will be violent. Now, is violence all a war movie has to offer? Of course not. There are some very brilliant and meaningful war movies that could have the potential to expand my mind… but with my preferences unchecked, I’ll never see them.

I was talking to a close friend about this not long ago and he made the brilliant observation that in a lot of these decisions, the criteria amounts to “no data”. If I have decided to see a movie at a respectable movie watching establishment, where almost anything will be of some “literary” value at least, and yet I am not familiar with any of the movies, how then do I base my decision? In most cases I look at a website that has a small photo and a crappy review. So my decision is based on the recommendation of a person whom I do not know, (and who probably has countless prejudices of their own) and a small photo. How could this be an accurate description of my possible experience with this film? There is NO DATA! So why not subject it to chance?

I decided it was time to answer this question for myself. So with the support of a patient (but also intrigued) wife, I embarked upon what I am jokingly referring to as “chance month”. Starting this past wednesday, all of our evening entertainment options (within certain limitations) will be decided by chance. We have a real problem of plopping down in front of the tv every available night and this seems like the perfect opportunity to subvert that. Now of course as John Cage states above, it has to be within reason. For instance, I’m not going to turn down dinner with a good friend because the dice told me to watch a movie instead. I feel like that would be an infringement on one of the richer aspects of my life. But for those countless nights when my wife and I are determining the evenings plans, post work and tired and are probably going to end up veging in front of the TV, chance will be the deciding factor.

Here’s how it has worked thus far. While making dinner (I’d subject that to chance if we had the cash to go out more often) I stop for a moment and roll a dice 3 times. One for movie/tv, one for reading, one for projects… high number wins. From there on out other decisions can be made by chance as well, but are not required in our simplified model. For instance, lets say the dice says to read a book. Well, I always have the one I am currently reading, but I have many other books (art books, photo books, encyclopedias, atlases…) I could look at as well, so I may choose to flip a coin to decide if I am to read my current book or explore some of the others. The same could work for many other scenarios as well. This area isn’t strictly chance based, but chance being in the air, if a decision comes up chance is most likely how it will be solved.
Now I realize that this is a fairly narrow grouping of options. One could argue that I could add a few more things to the initial chance list. Of course! But one has to start somewhere. I am sure we will modify this as time goes on, but even if it remains this simple, I am still optimistic about it’s potential to move me into activities I may not choose otherwise. Thus far it has been a few days and I am loving it. It has helped me to be both open minded and motivated. Who knows this may last more than one month…

Indeterminate composition techniques

May 31, 2007

In the music I make, for some reason, I am always persuaded to incorporate a certain amount of chance. In a way, I want the music as an experience to remain somewhat “new” to me when I first listen back to it, even though I made it. I also seek in some ways to make music that doesn’t sound like it is being “played”, but instead appears as though it just is. I guess in a way I am looking for a sort of lightness of hand. I think this is why in some ways I am attracted to the theories of John Cage. He believed in separating the self from music as much as possible in order to let something more subtle and natural come in to view, something unburdened by popular culture or personal intent. While I don’t take these concepts as seriously as Cage, I do firmly believe that no matter what we do, no matter how mundane, there is a piece of our personality fingerprint on all of it. No matter how far we stand back, no matter what we use to block it or smudge it, it is there, naked for anyone with the sense to look. What they see is the unconscious mind, the true self.

Unfortunately the conscious and unconscious minds are at constant war with one-another. The conscious mind has all of the emotional needs, paranoias, hang-ups, ego, etc. that we turn about in our heads daily to seek even the most basic understanding of our place in the world. It is a jungle of frauds and misperceptions that must be constantly unravelled like a ball of string that has been left in a junk drawer for too long, if we are to be of use to ourselves or anyone else for that matter. This fact makes it extremely difficult for us to do anything truly genuine. The network of opposing influences, misconceptions, misperceptions, hopes, needs, oversights, crutches, etc. etc. etc. that we must sort through to make any form of creative decision is so dense that most people will never manage to cut through it. This does not mean of course that we cannot make anything pleasing with our creative minds, but it will always be somewhat addled by the burden of consciousness.

One way to avoid the trappings of the consciousness, is to utilize chance, randomness, or generative processes to dampen it. Probably the most familiar form of this process is the cut-up, brought to some prominence by William S. Burroughs and popularized by David Bowie and later Kurt Cobain. While these techniques on the surface may seem “cold” or “scientific”, this assumption is in ignorance of an important point. As I stated above; we are never free from our unconscious mind, so that all the decisions we make in selecting and deploying our randomness techniques are governed by our innermost self and therefore, no matter how abstract, still form an image of ourselves. This image, expressly because it is so unconscious I believe, is the truest form of expression we have of who we are and in creativity, our overarching aesthetic sensibility.

In my personal musical explorations, this idea of “randomness” has taken many different shapes. the following are a few of the techniques I often employ:

Field recording and the use of physical spaces as a randomness field
I consider these to be one in the same as it applies to my music. I carry around a mini-disc recorder most of the time and at home I have a beat up, but no less sublime Marantz Field Recorder. Whenever sounds strike me as interesting or somehow meaningful, I record them and save them for later, usually with no real idea of how they will be used. When I have a need for something, I go through my recordings and select something I think will work, drop it into my composition somewhat randomly and listen to the results. At times I use it straight, at times I take pieces of it, and at times I process it somehow. Almost always this is done with some form of respect for randomness, so I try not to edit too much.

The use of spaces as a randomness field, is the idea of recording in some form of unstable environment (like a room with a window open to the street) so as to capture the juxtaposition of played and ambient sound and to inform the music with a sense of place in a direct manner.

Blind Overdubbing
This is the practice of overdubbing by recording a new track within a composition without listening to playback while doing so. This frees one from having any idea of time or composition and so the final result often contrasts with the rest of the piece in an unpredictable and interesting way.

Improvising with elastic time
This is simply allowing yourself to speed up or slowdown time in your playing at will. I often find that in doing so, more complex rhythmic structures emerge which I am not aware of at the time, but am always surprised by on playback.

Cut-ups
Similar to Burroughs technique but with music. Parts are recorded and either cut up pseudo-randomly and placed back together, or, cut up based on some kind of rule, and reassembled by numbering and drawing.

Back to consciousness
All of these techniques can produce either wonderful or horrific results, and this is where the conscious mind comes back, but ultimately in a much more sober state, to make some kind of aesthetic sense of the mess. This is of course a fine line. With the advent of digital music editors (I use protools ironically enough) it could be very easy to edit everything into oblivion and destroy any of the piece’s subtler characteristics. Lets just say I try not to let myself get out of hand.

The ironic thing about all of this, is in order to communicate it here, I am forced to use language and descriptive techniques that inherently make this all sound very boring and intellectual. This is a shame, because in practice it is much more like playing a game. You have your strategies, but when push comes to shove, you are playing the game to have fun. Part of the fun of employing these techniques is seeing what kinds of interesting things come of them. It can be really cool to hear the result of a process for the first time, or the result of a blind overdub. And when something interesting or compelling does happen its very exciting.

The piece I am posting today was made with a few of the above techniques and I am quite pleased with it. With each new piece I apply these techniques to, they become more refined and my aesthetic for their use becomes sharper. In a way I feel like I am inventing my own form of music, even if that feeling is a complete illusion. Either way it is exciting, and a lot of fun.

– Birds, Bells, and Barnacles

A short video of John Cage

May 20, 2007

As I think I have stated before, I love John Cage. Though I don’t always agree with the totality and finality with which he presents his ideas, I always find him remarkable, challenging and ever posessive of a beautiful perspective on the world in which we live. This video is a great example of that. It takes a bit of time to get going, and it is really his final remark that is most striking, but it is certainly worth watching. This clip is part of a larger movie I can’t seem to find out much about, But I’d love to see it. Check out the other clips from it on youtube for more wonderful thought from Cage.

What I love about the last remark, is this idea of things always being new. It is our minds that tell us that an object is always the object, forever and nothing more. But, if we slow down our minds that are so quick to analize and catalog and take the time to appreciate what we see and hear in it’s ever unique enviroment, our lives will be all the richer for it. Essentially, he is saying – don’t take things for granted!

Going to art school and spending a lot of time painting helped me to to look at things this way, and I am always greatful for it. You spend so much time looking at things in detail and being mindful of light and colors, that you never again just see the object as an object. It took me longer I think, to do this with sound, but now since that has changed I am always struck with the beauty of the interactions of the simple sounds around me. Of course, here is where I differ from Cage, he realized that was all he ever wanted to hear, but I’m still a sucker for a good melody. 😀