this must be the place....goin strong , yeah baby!!!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Why Music Still Matters, part 1

Ok, that title is totally a joke. If it were a Rocky and Bullwinkle title, the second part would be:


What I Learned From Werner Herzog On Tour

So lets do it. I'm just going to ramble here, you are welcome to not read this, or to take it with a big ass grain of salt, cause I'm going to just go out on a limb here and let it all hang out (AKA bullshit, question mark?). Also, the tone of this was at least partially inspired by Dann's essay on 50 Cent. You have been warned.

Tour. Ha. Honestly the play-by-play wouldn't mean so much. I wrote a play-by-play, which totals about 20 pages single spaced 12 point times new roman font, and will be distributed to maybe 4-5 people, but mainly because they are interested in the trivialities of my life, as I they (AKA not because what happened is some big secret, although I still value my privacy in some measure.) But the summery would be much more useful.

The single most important thing that happened to me on tour is I became a reader again. All that time in the van surrounded by books with fucking nothing to do, and you start reading. The most affecting thing I learned came from a book, not experience, which hypothetically could have happened if I hadn't gone on tour at all. It was in my tourmates book "Herzog on Herzog" which was Werner Herzog talking about a bunch of shit. It was published in the last 10 years, so is mostly retrospective. The singly statement that affected me the most was one he made about the role of the artist (although there's a lot of great shit in there). Basically he said that a society needs relevant imagery to be able to talk about things. In what I understand of Herzog's view (or at least what I took from it) it's the artist's function to create and relate images, vocabulary, references, metaphors, or whatever you want to call it (after all, those are just words themselves) with which society can make analogies to life. This relevant imagery often comes from specialized knowledge, the most recent of which often, but not necessarily, shows itself most relevant (which should be expected).

There are ultimately many goals of creating such images, not the least of which in importance is the survival of the human race. But it goes beyond that, which in my estimation is good for the artist's point of view, since hypothetically the human race would have at least some chance of survival without updated imagery. In Herzog's view it is possible to create a life not just filled with happiness, but with meaning, AKA there is something beyond survival. Maybe this seems obvious to you, but I think its probably advantageous to have some sort of clarity in how a person, pulling against a biological drive towards hedonism in their daily life, is supposed to derive that conclusion.

It is certainly a humanistic goal to update a vocabulary with which people can relate to each other, and it's not a given as to whether in our lifetimes the parameters will be defined by the individual, the march of technology, or institutions with financial motives that will define the vocabulary which frames our lives. In my opinion, it's a constant struggle; the modern day equivalent in many ways to a sociological good/bad, us/them dichotomy that can be viewed as having defined human society for most of our species existence. But I am a humanist, and hold solace in believing that even as circumstances grow dire, the individual will always hold a trump card, that being that if society were to collapse, the individual would once again become the main agent for defining society.

So that was the most important thing conceptually that I came across this tour. There is actually one additional antecedent about Herzog I want to touch on. In his book he mentions his dream of starting a hypothetical film school. The requirements for entry is that a applicant would have to first walk x number of miles on foot. X number of miles was something like 5000 miles. Basically, in his view there is no substitution for that sort of way of relating to the world, and after tour I really can't agree more. If you want to see the world, that is the way to see it. That's where the people are, and the way to meet and relate to them. If a person wishes to be an artist (one who is able to create relevant imagery) that person has to live experiences in opposition to their prior biases. One root of their biases is their personal experiences to date, and the way to rob those experiences of their power is to have novel experiences, and a quick path to novel experiences is to remove oneself from an environment where one might have repeated experiences.

Still, Herzog's focus is of greater importance than that. First, the whole walking thing confines the rate of travel to what can be achieved with the human body. If we are going to address the question "what does it mean to be human?" why should our instrument of measurement be anything but the human body? Relatedly, it defines the survival of the individual as something outside of society, or at least technology. While in our current global society this can not be used as a rule (6.6 billion people could not all survive without farming and distribution techniques), it is important to note for our own decision making that we as individuals (especially in America) are not governed by this fact, and although the arrogance of technological and monetary supremacy is a main problem for our country, the freedom of movement that it provides as is a noble source for internal confidence (it is important to note that while provided, this freedom is rarely exercised. I found it an interesting and depressing comment in Florida made by a garage attendant who pegged our group as musicians and noted we were the only type of people who traveled anymore.)

I just traveled the United States in a car, but really, I'm letting a car (pervasive technology) get in the way of things. I'm making a concession, but that said, a musician necessarily creates something more bound to technology than a filmmaker in my opinion. The filmmaker can choose to create the deception of nature as might be viewed by the human eye, but with the exception of purely vocal music, the musician does not have that option. The human eye is a mechanical-lens-imitated organic technology (derived through evolution), but outside of the human voice, the sounds we describe as music (or the sounds we describe as "from an instrument") are instantly recognizable as synthetically produced, and furthermore the act of recording, or listening to recorded music is in my opinion more intrusive than that of film.

But this is only one way of relating. Although it may be said that this view lumps in the formalities of music theory, including timbre, harmony, rhythm, large-scale form, and even melody as a comment on technology, that is clearly only one angle of approach. The structural difference between relating to film and recorded music is not in the recording process, but rather in the human body, which is to say the eyes vs the ears. And of course the aforementioned formalities of music may all be reproduced by a single human voice (or group of human voices in the case of harmony, unless you want to count implied harmony, in which case, it can still be reproduced by a single human voice.) One of the main methods humans have for concise communication is through language, and therefore it should come as no surprise that much of the most lauded instrumental playing is said to imitate speech patterns (Jimi Hendrix's wah-wah solos being one prime example among many).

So that's the first and really big thing I learned on tour. That's already pretty long, so maybe I'll save more thoughts for a later post.

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