Friday, 23 March 2012

Feeling it and Knowing It (Eno, Reich, Nancarrow; Marc and jumping Keef)

A recent blog thread about the use of "glitch" effects in music provoked one poster to suggest that Eno was "deeper" than Moby. Arguments like this often reveal the overlap of feeling and knowing around music.

We can care about music because it affects how we feel, and because it is structurally intriguing and we want to know how things are made. There's no point in arguing with someone who says Moby is better than Eno if their reason for saying this is how Moby makes them feel. It doesn't matter, in those emotional terms, how carefully or knowingly the music in question was made.

'Get It On' by T-Rex, or any track from the first Roxy Music album will probably always be "deeper", for me, than anything by either Eno (solo) or Moby, because of the circumstances in which I first listened to those tracks. I don't even care if Brian Eno tells us that Roxy Music were all about artifice [1]. For me, their early music causes the involuntary recall of adolescent emotions. I can't resist, and unless I want to eradicate my sense of the person I once was, I don't want to.

As well as feeling things, I also want to know how music is made. Here, Eno's solo work was interesting to me once, prompting me to experiment with cassette recorders, homemade instruments and guitar effects instead of doing my homework. By the time Moby came along (decades later) the structural things he could have showed me were quite familiar, and I already had musical markers for most of the feelings his music evoked for me. I had found that Steve Reich's early works or Conlon Nancarrow's player-piano studies (for example) were more structurally intriguing than either T.Rex, Eno or Moby. What's more, the Reich and a few Nancarrow pieces made me feel something, too, so I wanted to listen to them and figure out how they were done. These composers were technically clever but also, apparently, emotionally invested.

Caring about music is inconsistently related to knowing about it, in all the ways we can know about it. Virtuosity and history are both overrated and underrated. To those whose listening is intertwined with their knowledge about music, performance (as interpretion) and lineage (provenance) really matter. To others, they hardly matter at all, as long as the desired emotional hit (upper or downer) is delivered.

Returning to glitch effects. My teenage copy of The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street used to skip a groove or two in the playout of 'Torn and Frayed'. The cassette copy I listened to most often, as a suggestible youth, included just such a skip. That recording made the jump in the record a predictable certainty. Consequently, "my" 'Torn and Frayed' is one that interrupts Keith Richards half a syllable into a word, adding a few loops of unintended (thirty-three-and-a-third r.p.m.) rhythm into the playout. I can't hear that track anywhere now without anticipating the jump, and I'm slightly disappointed, emotionally, if it doesn't happen. I now have a cleaner recording of 'Torn and Frayed' on my iPod, but it lacks the emotional particularity of the version that glitch rewrote for me.

There is a plug-in called Grungelizer, for old versions of the music creation software Cubase VST. It simulates audio reproduction from old records, and I used it on the track 'Sheffield Philharmonic' when trying to evoke a memory my grandfather's suburban music room. He gave me his old record player, probably hoping I'd get into classical music, but I destroyed it listening to T.Rex and the Stones, Eno, Faust, Can and Tangerine Dream. Maybe I listened to Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and Holst's The Planets a few times. In a final twist on the feeling/knowing theme, a correspondent on SoundCloud who seems to me to be an accomplished pianist [2] commented that the tone of my 'Sheffield Philharmonic' piano was 'too clean and prominent'. In this case, then, it doesn't matter how well I thought I knew the music I was making, or how reasoned my approach; my listener just didn't feel it.

[1] e.g. in Simon Frith, Howard Horne, Art Into Pop (London: Methuen, 1987), p. 118. On Google
[2] Tom White:

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