“Sometimes I feel like discovering what art you like — as opposed to what art you wish you liked — is a life-long process.” I wrote that on Twitter, so I had to be brief, but I’d like to expand on it here.
Two months ago, when I was at Fresh Inc, Stacy Garrop asked me to make a list of characteristics that described the kind of music I want to write. I found myself unable to say anything very specific, because I was trying to be as open-minded as possible. But more and more now I feel like I’ve taken the cultivation of open-mindedness too far. I wind up spending an awful lot of time listening to music that I don’t like very much, hoping that something will click and I’ll suddenly “get it,” while I neglect the music that really excites me. It’s only recently that I’ve realized how totally backwards that is.
It’s been particularly weird to discover that the more attention I pay to what I actually like listening to, the less interested I am in the avant-garde. When I was in college, I found the idea of “difficult listening” very exciting. But ten years later, how often do I actually want to listen to difficult music? How often do I find difficult music aesthetically, emotionally or intellectually rewarding, as opposed to forcing myself to sit through it out of a sense of obligation and finding it “somewhat interesting” at best? Occasionally — but not often.
I know there are people out there who genuinely love avant-garde music — ultra-complex music, ultra-minimal music, music made by quietly scraping household objects together, two-hour free improv marathons, pieces that are 75% silence, and so on. And that’s fine. But I wonder how many others there are who are trying to convince themselves to like it because they don’t want to be dismissive or closed-minded. Part of the reason I’ve struggled with this myself is that I’ve met a lot of people who really were dismissive and closed-minded, who were actively hostile to the avant-garde, and obnoxious about it. So I want to be clear: I’m not saying, “that stuff sucks.” I’m saying, “that stuff is mostly not for me, and maybe it’s mostly not for you either, and that’s OK.”
Getting back to the question that Stacy Garrop asked me: what if
we reframe it a little? What if composers made lists not of characteristics that describe what kind of music they want to write, but of musical elements and characteristics that get them excited as listeners? Here’s my first attempt; I’d love to see other people’s in the comments:
major seventh chords
a clear pulse
angular, complex, catchy melodies
engagement with TV and advertising iconography
engagement with the pop-culture landscape
(so-called) bad taste
multiple sonic layers
multiple conceptual layers
audible motivic transformation
surprises of all kinds