Articles and Essays

Articles and Essays

Disappearing Barlines

When was the last time you heard beats in 3/4, 6/8 or 12/8 unless it was a sample? Beats aren't about meter. Like some African drumming, it's not about the music that you listen to--it is a way to tell a story, and beats are the backstory.

Too much "music" can sometimes get in the way of telling stories. This may be why we have delta blues, rock 'n roll, punk, hip-hop, grunge, and so on. None of that music was really about musical rudiments or music theory. Delta blues players used open tunings as a shortcut, based strictly on the sound of the chord and the ease of fingering. The stories and the feeling in the music were more important, and the basic chords and riffs they learned to play were sufficient. But the odd thing about blues is that it gradually adopted a more sophisticated harmony, fusing it with the harmonic complexity of jazz and its classical parentage. The natural tendency may be for music to gather complexity as it matures; and consequently the cultural narrative or stories may get drowned out. The more you know, the more complicated it becomes, and we collectively devise ways to winnow it down. Complexity is not an end, but a means to simplicity.

In Kenneth Goldsmith's essay Being Dumb, he sings the praises of being "dumb", a self-deprecating word to describe militating against being smart:

"Dumb loves easy. Eschewing climaxes and crescendos, dumb favors stasis, grids, and predictable systems simply because they require less effort. Similarly, dumb favors re—recontextualization, re-framing, redoing, remixing, recycling—rather than having to go through the effort of creating something from scratch. Dumb embraces the messiness of contradiction and revels in the beauty of the ridiculously obvious. Trading on the mundane and common, dumb plays a low-stakes game. Since dumb has nothing to lose, dumb owes nothing to anyone, and in that way it is free."

Perhaps "dumb" is not the greatest word, but it is an excellent concept for illustrating how simplification can be liberating.

Notions of simplicity in modernity can also be counter-intuitive:

In one of his Mellon Lectures, the late art historian Kirk Varnedoe quoted British art historian Kenneth Clark on the irony of "dumb" minimalist artwork in a technologically sophisticated society:

"...here is seventeenth-century Holland, the most philistine, crass, mercantile, money-grubbing society imaginable, and what do they get in the way of art? They get Rembrandt. The reverse seems to be true about the art of the 1960s. Here we are in the age of Kennedy's New Frontier space program, of political assassinations, of Vietnam, of huge student protests, of the sexual revolution—one of the most dramatic and exciting possible periods in the life of our times—and what do we get in the way of art? We get dumb boxes, lattices that look like jungle gyms, metal rugs that spread on the floor, and things that seem to be mute and inert in the face of the insane dynamism of the time...In a provocative and challenging world, we get art that seems as dumb as a post."

Perhaps the doing away with strict metric structure is a way to make music more dumb and less geeky. Like the delta blues musicians, just knowing how to finger a few chords was liberating in itself. Similarly, perhaps meter has been redefined as to not necessarily be marked off with bar lines, just as guitar tunings could be altered.

The vertical aspects of music (harmony and meter) are evolving into a more "melodic" horizontality with roving bar lines. The shift is towards a more liquid sense of time, set not by a metric structure but rather by samples and phrase lengths. Jazz swing rhythms were more liquid than ragtime, with an evolution not unlike what is happening today.

Grids Are Still Good

One of the problems with a liquid theory of meter is that patterns are less likely to be predictable. As Artificial Intelligence becomes more integral to everything that we do, we'll be focusing more on pattern recognition. To the extent that sound and music are "fractal" in nature, it is natural for meter to be burned in. But fractals don't necessarily define aesthetics or art driven by ideas or concepts. The seed might be an "idea", but It takes organic human intelligence to make it all work in terms of what we understand as "art", i.e. anything intentionally "made" as extensions of ourselves or our environment. Ultimately the creative process is about reducing a set of processes to a final result or product that is done through pursuit of aesthetics or ideas, not necessarily to stay on the grid. But grids are still a useful tool to at least identify the pattern as a guide, that one either follows or diverges from. Breaking rules or traditions is more satisfying if you at least know what they are.

It is ironic that electronic music, an inherently "futuristic" genre, would defy adherence to the grid. A loose metric structure is actually "smarter", but more difficult to follow. Metronomic time might actually be too dumb or banal, and a randomized pulse makes it more contemporary, or to introduce an element of intentional "accident" into the work. This is largely a borrowed device from modern art that embraced random accidents. Timing accidents generally don't work in music because it will simply sound bad, not just wrong. Grids in art are a guide for scaling, but they are not in its DNA. Most of modern art has been "wrong" and it has worked out just fine in retrospect. Jazz initially sounded wrong melodically and harmonically but it would be anathema to tamper with the tenets of swing.

Beyond liquid meter, is meter that strictly synchronizes sound and visuals using open-source software such as OpenFrameworks. Some are interpreting this as the Third Era in art, but the point is well made that this is just another annex to art history, not a complete reconstruction. The world would be incredibly boring if you couldn't dip back into history, and incorporate it into what ever is considered The New.

Pattern Recognition

Most cultural narratives are based on patterns and rules. But even when the patterns are recognized they are still binary explanations of reality. Randomness and chance create a kind of "dumb" factor whereby nature breaks the pattern. Sometimes we do this intentionally to break the monotony. But it is one thing to be able to identify patterns, and another to use them in new and novel ways that keep us interested. The rhythms of language while sometimes musical, only become musical because they line up with a grid in some way. Language sometimes has melodic aspects, but the rhythms of language (and storytelling) typically defy meter.

Stories don't necessarily need music for us to be enriched by them. We can just read them without a soundtrack--and leave music for other things, complete with meter and bar lines. But it may be easier to tell stories without having to tell them in 7/8.