uses for music

So I was following some links from the STEIM blog and somehow ended up on  Richard Scott's youtube channel.  On there I found some beautiful video pieces by Yoann Trellu.  Specifically this one caught my eyes/ears.  Scott created the music on an analogue synth of some kind.  Anyway the point is, someone operating under the handle trojjer left some typically youtube comment to the effect of:

What's the point??? Argh... Is it a "Magic Eye" video or whatever, or just pointless A/V noise? Although it does seem like there's some sort of Asteroids style spaceship navigating through tunnels at certain points... It's still stupid though.

I couldn't help but respond:

music is pointless.

I know it's probably shocking to some people, especially ones who might be so caught up in some peculiar incarnation of postcolonial capitalist dreamland
that they have been trained to act as though they have forgotten the pleasures of immediacy, that music, the stuff that costs money to produce and costs you money to put on your i-pod, has absolutely no value whatsoever.  And I mean this in a way distinct from the way that money itself has no value-- money has the metaphorical value of a promise, and nothing that can be pointed to symbolically has immediate value (or pleasure).  What I mean is that music has no practical value, which separates it from things like food and infrastructure.  Are people 'helped' by the production of music?  (Obviously one can answer 'yes' to this question, but only if one is being extremely metaphorical, to the point where one uses mental, social or even psychological terms, which is another level or two up from what I'm referring to.)  I'm saying that music is as purposeless and necessary as play or gossip.

Of course if you know me, you know I have a problem with the term Music at all.  Typically I like to be more specific, by providing some kind of cultural frame to the term.  Terms like 'Western Music,' 'West African Music,' 'Karnatak Music,' and 'Film Music' (usually associated with a region and period) provide a necessary frame, without which it seems pointless to discuss the topic at all.  This effect is the result of the many different roles musical behaviours can play across cultures.  Rather than attempting to nail down all musical behaviour as some kind of intrinsic substance (the "organized sound" definition) or even experience (the "musical expression" caveat), I feel much more comfortable with the notion that, being a cultural practice, we can only describe how things that are called music by someone interact with things that person gives other names.  It can only satisfactorily be examined "in vivo," or in use.

Thus, I have a few specific examples of uses for music, all my own:


1.)    Solkattu

The only portable music system I have that works right now.  Solkattu is an oral system of rhythmic notation originating from South India.  It is similar to a solfege system, except Karnatak (South Indian) music already has solfege for working with scales.  Also, in a solfege system, it is generally required that there be a one-to-one relationship between vocal syllables and some aspect of the sound, generally fundamental pitch or scale degree.  Solkattu diverges from this because there are many syllabic substitutions that can be applied to the same rhythmic material.  Thus, it has a wider vocabulary.   It is also proper solkattu grammar to apply the same syllable to a different rhythmic value, thus leveraging the system's ability to perform expansions, contractions and other operations on a phrase while maintaining relative relationships within that phrase.

I use solkattu while I commute through the greater Manhattan area, generally on the subway systems.  I find it less conspicuous than an i-pod.  Also, it leaves the option open for me to interact with my surroundings immediately and without recap.  Most importantly it is free and open source.  (Tee - hee.)

*note the wikipedia article refers to konnakol, or the act of performing solkattu.  solkattu is the system, and konnakol its performance.

2.)    Robert Ashley 

I love to drive long distances.  Especially at night.  Something about the stark simplicity of the lines you have to follow and utter deprivation of other senses really appeals to me.  I spend time driving in silence at times, other times it is not uncommon for me to listen to music or to do solkattu while I drive, depending on my level of arousal.  When I do listen to music in situations without conversation, the music I most commonly listen to (especially these days) is Robert Ashley.  Specifically I listen to his operas, which do not seem to resemble the work of or reactions to Monteverdi at all (ie what is generally called opera), at least on a superficial level.  I would also say that Robert Ashley himself resembles Monteverdi, the New Media artist who invented opera in 1607.  Ashley's scenes are incredibly visual, but sufficiently abstracted that they work over a very extended period of time.  The time experienced in his work is not narrative time, but something more akin to my experience of internal time.  Another way of saying this is that I'm always listening to Robert Ashley operas, but sometimes, especially when I drive long distances at night, I make the stereo play them for me.

3.)    Ella Fitzgerald

I like to solder naked.  Actually I think I solder best naked.  One thing I do when I solder, especially if I'm really concentrating,  is to sing jazz "standards" of the Cole Porter, Richard Rogers, or Jimmy Van Heusen variety.  These songs belong to a cannon of work that I became very familiar with as a cocktail pianist.  The specific style of phrasing, melodic interpretation and arrangement I seem most susceptible to is that of Ella Fitzgerald.  For reasons beyond my understanding, I find myself belting these renditions out when I solder or prototype a circuit.  I don't (generally) do this when I shower, nor when I drive, or when I ride the subway.  I don't even do this when I disassemble and desolder components I find.  And don't even ask-- I can barely chew gum while I play the piano.  Only when I'm soldering.  Naked.

One popular use of music that I truly do not understand is as a substitute for notifications by electronic devices.  I have never successfully been aroused by an alarm clock whose setting is to play music.  I also don't get the whole ringtone thing.  Also the "please enjoy the music while your party is reached" phenomenon on cellphones now is something I have trouble relating to.  That being said, I generally don't mind it when other cellphones cause pop music or ringtones to play because who knows how long this phenomena will last.  I imagine we have already seen the extinction of many ringtones.

One last anecdote.  Jenny worked at a BOCES school for mentally retarded and autistic people a few years back.  We were dating at the time, but living in different states that summer.  For the longest time all I heard were her stories about this one autistic person named Florin, who would spend most of his time apparently unresponsive, but would occasionally take requests and sing, nearly inscrutably, songs from popular culture such as Madonna, the Beach Boys, or Disney.  I imagine his 'use' of music as the point of convergence between his language and mental states and those of the people around him.

One thought on “uses for music

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *