Interlude: Art and Music in a Time of Discontent

&lWe take a moment out of Weekend Cat Blogging to share some thoughts on art and music in a time when not only we at CatSynth, but many of our friends seem to be having a difficult time. It truly appears to be a “Summer of Discontent.”

Well-intentioned friends have often suggested turning to music, “you can turn your angst into a great punk-rock ballad” or “channel your energy to finishing that album”, or something else similar. Of course, that's not how such things work. For me, music is best created in a state of dispassion, or contentment. Despite the stereotypes of “the artist”, I have always found it difficult to make music in a state of discontent, such as anxiety or unhappiness. In such times, we at CatSynth often turn to writing and film as our preferred forms of art:

Not just any film will do in a time of discontent. The avant-garde shorts with which Luna poses above, are thinking films, all detail, and best suited to a more content and thoughtful mood. The work of Brakhage, previously discussed on CatSynth, contains numerous examples as well. Similarly, the music from my album Aquatic is really suited for either a very relaxed or thoughtful state of mind. The tradition of “modern classical” from the 20th century fits here. Some of the most extreme “noise” music, or academic computer music, fits in this category as well. One must listen an appreciate the details of different sounds, timbres, harmonies, phrases. In film, it's about the images. Those who are looking for overall structure of melody or narrative are likely to be disappointed. And while I find much to appreciate in this category of film and music, I find it best to experience when happy, contented, and unencumbered by anxieties.

On the other extreme are the films that move one to passion through the story or the characters. Dramas, comedies, sci-fi classics, of varying technical quality, but that one nonetheless loves. Musically, this is the domain of the best dance music, disco, techno/electronica, latin/salsa. Melodic classical and jazz falls into this category as well (this would be most of the well known classical composers, e.g. Bach, Beethoven, etc., and the jazz greats in the “Ken Burns documentary” sense). In such music, one doesn't focus on the individual details, though might take delight in a particular phrase or lick. Things have a melodic structure, a chord pattern and familiar cadences, such as 12-bar or 16-bar blues, or the familiar harmonic structures of classical music. Sometimes, a memorable tune. This is film and music for “feeling”, and in the case of dance music, passion and motion, almost like a drug.

In a time of discontent, I often turn to a third category of “dispassionate” film and music. The recently discussed work of Antonioni (and to a lesser degree Bergman) fits into this category. I would put David Lynch here as well. More akin to the modernist visual art I favor, these are films you just watch, and forget whether you like/dislike the characters, or whether they make narrative sense. That is unimportant. “Filmmakers films”, perhaps.

Similarly, I would identify examples of “musicians music”, where one gets lost in the listening or creation process. On the more experimental/electronic/noise side, I would put the some of the “improvisations” I have done for synths like the Evolver or Octave CAT. It's easy to get lost, but also easy to keep going.

But such music need not be so experimental, and indeed some of the examples are the so-called “two-chord jams.” While not always strictly two chords, they usually follow a pattern that stays very close to the original “tonic” chord. A one-four-one-four pattern works particularly well:

One of the best known examples of a two-chord jam using this minor mode (or dorian mode in western music theory), is Herbie Hancock's classic “Chameleon” as heard on his 1970s Head Hunters album. The synth and bass patterns just keep going on for ever, back and forth between one and four, until the “end phrase” that can really come in at any point, or not at all. Additionally, there are the free solos on the Arp Odyssey that are completely unencumbered by harmonic/melodic structure, while the rhythm players can continue the main pattern. There is an even better version of the synth solo to be heard on the live album Flood (if one is lucky enough to actually find a copy).

The reason such a jam works is that it really is only “one chord,” structurally speaking. It never leaves the tonic, in a since, no strong “dominant chord” to ever break up the continuity into harmonic structures, cadences, etc. This is the sort of thing that drives music theorists (and some modern-western-music purists) crazy. Even though the have a term for it: ostenato. But like I said earlier, this is really “musician's music.”

The effect can be hypnotic for both performer and listener alike. Such single-harmony patterns are also invaluable for online jamming, such in the Ninjam sessions presented in June. With all performers at various time delays, but still metrically in sync, the single harmony allows everyone to continue to play together. At the same time however, one is free to get lost.

I recently came across some more examples of still of music in Tony Allen's 1970s Afro-beat classics “Progress” the aptly named “Afro Disco Beat.” Many examples were also to be found Afro-beat of the 1970s (more so than contemporary versions), the Ethiopiques recording reviewed at CatSynth, and the extended solos in James Brown's brief stint with the Original JBs in 1970-1971. In many of these examples, the horns and voices fit perfectly into the continuous pattern, with hits or short phrases, rather than attempting to be melodic.

In a more contemporary electronic context, this effect and discipline can be “trance” music such as some of the tracks on the recently-reviewed John B recording. More dance-oriented music is less dispassionate and more likely to “push listeners' buttons,” and thus really falls into the earlier category.

So why bring this all up now? Well, the Tony Allen tracks from the 1970s and others have been the perfect kind of music for this time of discontent, dispassionate but still drawing one in, even to jam alongside the recordings. And I do see patterns to be drawn between these jam pieces, the free “noise-improv” and the detached films described above.

And finally, I think this type of music is the answer to “why don't go make music now” – getting away from passions and anxieties, rather than making some vain attempt to express them. And as such, is probably the key to revisiting and completing my album 2 1/2. Indeed, I think I might be able to further use the “three categories of appreciation,” thinking, moving and detached, as a way to better organize the existing tracks of the album and create the missing elements.

We will have to see if any of that actually works. But for now, just keep getting lost…

3 thoughts on “Interlude: Art and Music in a Time of Discontent

  1. It's that kind of summer here, too. So many deaths and so much sadness all summer. And this was the last day: back to work tomorrow. Everybody has left, I'm alone, and if I were to listen to music it would be a disaster. Too many memories. I carefully considered the alternatives you suggested and I can't do it. Guess I'm too far gone for this night.

    But am saving the ideas for the next bout of angst.

  2. meeyauw, hope things'll get better for you.

    Luna, you sure know how to pose. You're the 'super model' of kitties. 🙂

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