Since today’s posting focuses on Canadian music archives and contemplates notions of canonicity in popular music, it somehow seems like kismet that today also happens to mark the 20th anniversary of Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette. It therefore seems wholly appropriate to include her very much culturally significant, affectively electrifying, and well-crafted first album to start, and to counterbalance another not-quite-so-renowned representative of Canadian culture later.
The day after taking in presentations for the Canadian University Music Society (MusCan), I attended talks (and gave one myself) for the Canadian Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentations Centres (CAML). My talk, about musical omnivorousness, recommender systems, genres, and my study of listener perceptions of similarity, was the odd one out in relation to the others, as they focused quite a bit on archives. That said, I could see some parallels with my own work to varying degrees, in particular during a talk about the prejudices that some professional archivists seem to have against popular music.
The first two talks related to digitization projects for specific collections, including one at the University of Toronto for Canadian violinist Kathleen Parlow (1890-1963), presented by Suzanne Meyers Sawa, James Mason, and Houman Behzadi. The other collection, for French tenor Louis Delaquerrière (1856-1937), is housed at the University of Western Ontario, and described in a presentation by Lisa Philpott and Joanne Paterson. To many, the idea of a French tenor’s archive appearing in Canada (and in “dull” London, Ontario, to boot) makes no logical sense at first glance. However, it turns out that Delaquerrière’s granddaughter ended up in London and, through a series of fortuitous events, entrusted her grandfather’s materials to the university. A similar story is true for the large Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) archive that also resides at UWO, as Mahler’s nephew (through his sister Justine) ended up teaching there, and his widow donated a collection of Mahler-related materials to the school in the 1980s.
The two collection-specific talks lasted approximately 20 minutes each, with the remaining 10 or so minutes for questions. However, the morning session’s final presentation, given by Isabelle Ringuet and Maureen Nevins of Library and Archives Canada (LAC), lasted an hour. The second half of that talk, presented by Nevins, consisted of samples from the collections in a variety of media. My personal favourite was a series of clips that consisted of the always independent-minded Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) arguing with some sound engineers. The first half of the presentation, given by Ringuet, covered the parameters of the collection, as well as its current charges to become more visible and broader in scope overall, whether in terms of increasing the diversity of musical styles, making access to materials easier to the broader public (especially through digitization efforts), and trying to reach out to Canadian musicians to secure “legal deposit.” This is particularly thorny, and not just because of the rather threatening-sounding name attached to securing materials that reflect Canada’s cultural heritage. As Ringuet mentioned, not only are a number of musicians (and possibly their representatives) unaware of legal deposit, but LAC has to figure out how to contact musicians them when they’re on tour and not at the “home bases”; deal with the sound recording practices of independent bands whose albums may be limited in number (in part due to their own budgetary constraints); and figure out how to deal with or leverage the ways in which various forms of technology (social media, relatively affordable recording tools, access versus ownership models, etc.) have changed music-making and recording practices. And all this is to be done as Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has slashed LAC as a whole, and as “austerity” dictates that the arts are frivolous and not worth studying.
After my talk in the afternoon, the presentation (or rant, I believe he called it) by the University of Toronto’s Brock Silversides pertained to “The Professional Archivist’s Fear of Popular Music” (which, as he explained, ties in with the tendency to stick with materials related to “classical” and “experimental” music due to their “seriousness”). It seemed an apt segue from my own presentation, whose primary leitmotif, and initial impetus from years ago, pertained to thinking about music categorization and recommendation beyond the confines of genre. Certainly, Silversides’ talk also tied in with the LAC presentation from that morning… how can an archive that collects music-related documents in a diversity of formats, whether at a national or local level, whether in Canada or elsewhere, be a truly good one if it flat out refuses anything related to popular music, especially if there are ties that make sense?
Of course, one must take practicalities into account, such as the ability to provide proper housing and care to such materials, which may come in a variety of formats requiring different methods of preservation, as well as the financial resources required to start and maintain a dedicated collection (which may include navigating thorny and constantly changing rules regarding copyright). As well, how does one assess the potential value of such a collection, at least in terms of potential value to researchers and cultural significance? Although these seem like legitimate concerns, many of the others mentioned by Silversides did strike me as amusing (and, it bears repeating, that Silversides’ main point was to express skepticism about their validity):
* Popular music is too ephemeral and not serious enough to merit serious value; it’s too “simple and inane.”
* Popular music is not an art. Its primary purpose it to make money.
* Popular music has “unsuitable” content, like sex and violence.
* Popular music is created by ne’er do wells who indulge in sex and violence themselves.
* Collecting popular music can ruin the reputation of an archive, or its archivist.
To be fair, the last point might make sense if one thinks about the “austerity narrative” mentioned earlier. People in general enjoy popular music, but might not understand why related archives would be worth their tax dollars. Otherwise, the above points are also rather lame. As I told Silversides during the post-session break, I could immediately think of counterexamples as he was going through the list of archivist prejudices against popular music. And certainly, he mentioned during his talk how Franz Liszt (1811-1886) and Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) were examples of classical musicians who didn’t have squeaky-clean reputations.
I also thought about how “rock and roll” has been around for 60 years (or, at least the mythologized history of it, with a canon all its own). How old are these reluctant archivists, anyway, and what are their frames of reference for assessing “greatness”? Have they been living under a rock, willfully avoiding anything that isn’t considered “great”? Have they heard absolutely no “popular” music, broadly speaking, that has value that one might consider akin to how they perceive classical music (and vice versa, considering that not all classical is great, and there’s quite a bit that could be considered fluff… especially compared to well-crafted popular music)? Have they shut themselves out from much of the standard operatic repertoire, and even some “story-based” tone poems, where sex and violence run rampant? Do they not know of Paganini, Liszt, or any number of “classical” musicians with “shady” reputations (depending on one’s tendencies towards judgmentalism)?
Of course, popular music may not be to one’s tastes, and that’s fine. I pretty much had that attitude when I was a teenager, but have since outgrown it (luckily by gradually finding popular music I did like, and being honest with myself that not all classical music is to my liking). But when one has the job of building an archive, especially to reflect culturally significant phenomena, that’s when one must leave one’s prejudices at the door. And I would imagine that in Canada, it’s even more important, given how much American culture (as well as certain political attitudes from about a decade ago) surges northwards… even if aspects of Canadian culture may riff on its southern counterparts.
Now, for instance, I’m not sure if there’s a Nickelback archive in the works, or if there’s one that’s completed already. But if I were placed in charge of a music archive in Canada, and if someone came to me asking if my archive would house various primary documents related to the band, I would jump at the chance to build a definitive Nickelback collection, if I had the proper support. Of course, I’m also aware of its reputation as a shining example of a band that sucks. Even so, for better or worse, Nickelback is also an example of Canadian musical culture. Despite its reputation, it has also become a major musical act, and perhaps an archive of Nickelback-related materials would help scholars who might want to discern why it has gotten such a bad reputation, while also having a fairly substantial fanbase.
In the final presentation I attended, Simon Côté-Lapointe of the Université de Montréal discussed usage of “non-text” archival materials to create new content. Of course, using pre-existing materials is nothing new, as Côté-Lapointe illustrated with hip-hop artist Afrika Bambaataa’s sampling of “Kraut rock” ensemble Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” (1977) in “Planet Rock” (1982)
This, of course, is especially interesting if one thinks about the ties between Kraut rock and avant-garde musicians from the 1950s, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, and how avant-garde music is tied in with “legitimate” music. This illustrates how the lineages among various genres connect through a tangle of strings, wandering beyond seemingly strictly-structured silos. Côté-Lapointe went on to describe a multimedia project of his own, which drew upon archives within Montreal, and discussed a variety of factors (copyright, quality, availability, etc.) that both creators and archivists should consider in the creation of new works that draw upon older ones.
This is, of course, nothing new, but (as in the case of doing a professional-sounding recording one’s own music) it’s *relatively* easier to create such projects than in the past. Certainly, this has implications for deciding what to include for metadata; what documents (or excerpts thereof) are used in the creation of a new work, and (in whatever systems of descriptive cataloguing) what fields would be most appropriate to account for them? How and where would one account for the connections, in a manner that makes sense to users?
The diversity of archive-related issues discussed at CAML demonstrates the dynamic nature of a field that might strike the uninitiated, completely ahistorically-minded, and possibly unimaginative as rather “dull.” But, as demonstrated above, there is much lively ongoing work that occurs in archives, including figuring out the best ways to preserve historical documents, making them available to interested parties, and the impact that emerging technologies can have on handling collections. As well, there’s debate over what’s “suitable” to include in archives (whether in terms of cultural or “timeless” value), and there are interesting implications with regard to the ways one could use archival materials for one’s own creative projects. One can hope that, even in a time where financial “austerity” somehow maintains itself as the driving narrative behind practically everything, archives at all levels can continue to do the work necessary to maintain a healthy cycle of cultural understanding and creativity that keeps us alive, whether individually or as a society.
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the joint Annual Conference of the Canadian University Music Society (MusCan) and Canadian Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres (CAML). The title for this posting derives from this year’s theme for the broader Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, of which the MusCan / CAML conference was a part, and where various scholarly organizations in Canada hold their annual meetings. This year’s venue was the University of Ottawa, its location within the Canadian capital likely accounting for the pun-worthy theme.
My ability to travel to Ottawa was made possible by winning CAML’s first-time presenter award, which covers pretty well all travel expenses. My talk lasted 20 minutes, which necessitated covering just the essentials of my research interests…musical omnivorousness, recommender systems, the construction and problematic aspects of genre, and the methodology for my doctoral research (a topic I have yet to discuss on here). The purpose of this posting isn’t to provide an overview of my talk, however. Rather, I want to discuss the other ideas that emerged from the conference, including the ones from presentations that were part of the same session as mine, and which shared some affinities with my own research.
The talks I attended on Wednesday tied directly to MusCan, so I suppose the ideas I took away (and the questions I brought) were more uniquely tied to my library and information science background and the perspectives of casual listeners. Like the CAML session where I presented, each session consisted of four talks lasting (ideally) 20 minutes each, followed by 10 minutes of questions.
The session on Europe oriented more closely towards “classical” music, with presentations that had personal resonance for me. Kenneth DeLong, from the University of Calgary, talked about the usage of musical excerpts from Robert Schumann’s Carnaval (Florestan, Coquette, and Lettres dansantes) to underscore the first person interior monologue in Fräulein Else, a 1924 novella by Arthur Schnitzler. The name might be familiar to Stanley Kubrick fans, as Schnitzler’s 1926 Traumnovelle was the inspiration for Eyes Wide Shut (although one could imagine the novella under consideration as more fodder for Kubrick as well). No questions emerged right away after the talk, so I felt compelled to throw out my own half-baked ones. One related to parallels that emerged for me between the novella’s climax, where a naked Else’s thoughts are further underscored by the Carnaval excerpts, and the dances / “mad scenes” from Richard Strauss’ operas Salome and Elektra. Of course, I realize that Schumann’s music is supposed to be diegetic, and that one can’t reach any definitive conclusions “as an academic” (to use DeLong’s words) without further evidence. But the connections seem in keeping with the turn-of-the-century Viennese Zeitgeist, and Schnitzler was a contemporary of Strauss’ (born in 1862 and 1864, respectively). Indeed, DeLong did mention that Schnitzler knew Strauss fairly well, so maybe my impertinent question wasn’t too far off, at least for further consideration of parallels, if nothing else. That said, I have no real stake in the matter, but the potential connections strike me as at least intriguing in terms of broader trends.
Adalyat Issiyeva, a doctoral candidate at McGill University, discussed the influence of French Orientalism on its Russian counterpart during the 19th century. In the realm of music, Russian composers tended to critique (at least in writing) the French approach to portraying broadly “Asian” themes… even as some of them borrowed musical ideas from the same composers. An interesting undercurrent is their admiration for Hector Berlioz, who was also French, but whose approach to orchestration a number of Russian composers found particularly noteworthy. My notes include some scribblings about artistic truth (rather than literal truth) and harmonics being important to the Russian composers discussed during this session. Some personal favourites of mine were name-checked, including Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (quite a bit) and Alexander Borodin (more towards the end) in relation to the topic. They were among some of the first composers I listened to when I got back into classical music in high school, so it was especially interesting to hear about another dimension related to the context in which they composed.
Also from McGill University, Christopher Antila and Lydia Huang attempted to contextualize both the “Girl” and the Mandarin from Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, drawing upon “[Michel] Foucault’s and [Homi] Bhabha’s writings about sexual and racial identities.” Is “Mimi” (Huang’s name for the Girl), for instance, actually a prostitute (per conventional wisdom), luring men like the Mandarin into a room to be robbed by her three associates? Or is her identity, even backstory, more complicated than previously imagined? Especially considering the time period during which Bartók worked on The Miraculous Mandarin (1918-1924), is the title character more of a flesh-and-blood contextualized person… not so much an allegory, but more a bureaucrat who escaped from the 1911 China Revolution? Certainly, it goes to show that seemingly allegorical works don’t just “happen,” but that they are historically-situated. As well, I’ve always wondered about the city in which the work takes place. The presenters leave it at Budapest, given Bartók’s nationality, which makes sense. But for some reason, I always imagined someplace like New York, which would have had more urban hustle and bustle, as represented in the piece’s opening. In any case, it’s good to hear an original contextualization that brings the admittedly vague “story” of The Miraculous Mandarin to much deeper life.
Also original was Julie Anne Nord’s presentation about the role of the bass clarinet in Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, which also happens to celebrate its 150th anniversary this month. Expanding on Strauss’ claim that the bass clarinet symbolizes “solemn resignation” on the part of King Marke, Nord draws upon Thomas Turino’s ideas of semiotic snowballing to claim that the instrument symbolizes ideas of chivalry and Marke himself throughout the opera. Among other things, the bass clarinet makes its final appearance at the beginning of the Isolde’s concluding Liebestod (“love death”), likely symbolizing the supplanting of chivalry with forgiveness of Tristan and Isolde. Interestingly, as I mentioned to Nord in the Q&A session, the bass clarinet seemed to sound more like low notes played on a regular clarinet. But the bass clarinet is there in the score, which perhaps makes the assumption (by Wagner at least) that more discerning and musically literate minds would detect the bass clarinet’s presence. And, as Nord suggested to me, perhaps it’s because of my own musical background. Indeed, my own formal training was in trumpet in middle school band, and I don’t recall bass clarinets in that. In any case, a compelling argument on the topic of “tone-speech” or timbre, which apparently isn’t studied much in music.
This session, which focused on a more diverse range of genres (albeit with two of four talks related to classical music, broadly speaking), began with a presentation by Jon-Thomas Godin (Brandon University in Manitoba) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Drawing upon a brew of Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Lacan, and Sigmund Freud, Godin took a psychoanalytical approach to discussing why audiences end up feeling sympathy for the title character, even with his rather sordid actions. At the risk of oversimplifying Godin’s ideas, such sympathy emerges due to Giovanni’s lack of identity (which is defined by others in the opera) and self-awareness, the latter equating with a sense of mortality, which only emerges as he is literally being dragged to Hell near the end. Prior to that, however, Giovanni is more action-oriented, his thrill-seeking in petites morts standing in for achieving self-awareness and identity (even if, despite his reputation, he’s generally unsuccessful in his pursuits of women).
The second presentation, by Steven Hicks of Carleton University’s Music and Culture program, discussed the identity of one composer tied in with that of another, with deeper cultural and political undertones. He focused on Richard Wagner’s A Pilgrimage to Beethoven, which I found rather amusing, as I kept thinking about Wagner’s piece as a kind of proto-FanFic, with him as the tale’s Mary Sue. Wagner inserts himself into his story as someone who is eventually able to befriend Beethoven (never minding that Wagner was a young adolescent when Beethoven passed), diligently drawing connections between himself and his idol as “pure” artists. A moneyed Englishman also appears in the story as an antagonist, with the ultimate goal of figuratively “collecting” composers in order to build prestige. Of course, there’s a strong German nationalistic element as well… at least in a cultural sense, given that Beethoven was Austrian and Wagner German (even though Germany didn’t actually form until 1871, roughly around the final decade of Wagner’s life). Indeed, one can imagine the story tying in with the notion that Germans care more about art and culture instead of money, unlike “those people” who may or may not be wealthy Englishmen.
Although Wagner certainly has cult-like aspects attached to him, the next presentation by Dawn Stevenson (also of Carleton University Music and Culture program) talked about an actual cult leader and his own dabblings in music. More specifically, she discussed the formation of the Apollo Stars by none other than L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology fame. Of course, L. Ron was a polymath… more so than Wagner… who knew what was what, on everything under the sun, including music. He developed a rather idiosyncratic view on, and quite colonialist classification system of, various musics of the world. Whatever one thinks of his beliefs about music, the formation of the Apollo Stars reflected his own awareness of trends in popular music over the years, as well as his own interest in possible connections among different kinds of genres. Given my own research interests, this idea intrigued me, so I asked after the talk what kinds of discernable connections existed among the music on the Apollo Stars’ 1974 album The Power of Source (especially given its ostensibly religious connections ), and how Hubbard conceptualized connections across genres. Stevenson mentioned that there seemed to be nothing readily discernible in terms of connections among the album’s tracks, and that Hubbard’s ideas about connections across genres mentioned concepts like “melody,” “harmony,” and other such terms. On that topic, perhaps it remains up to an exceptionally intrepid scholar to try getting into the mind of old L. Ron, although it seems apt to take a few minutes to chill and listen to a sample of his stylin’s…
The final MusCan talk I attended was given by Jada Watson of Université Laval, and focused on the connections between various kinds of country music and the construction of geo-cultural identities by country artists. More specifically, Watson considered Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood, and (perhaps better-known to Canadian audiences) Corb Lund of Alberta as case studies related to different regions. More “hard core” musicians tend to have a firmer sense of place in their music, while other “soft shell” musicians talk more broadly about romanticizing rural versus urban environments. Of course, such tendencies may change over the course of one’s career, from writing and performing songs about one’s sense of place to a broader notion of “the simple life.” (Although I’m not sure where one would actually be “tipping cows in Tulsa.”) Interestingly, the ideas from Watson’s presentation resonate with my own research, as a fair number of respondents in my study have made some interesting observations about the kinds of country music they like. More specifically, they’ll contrast their country preferences with the kinds they don’t; in one case, one respondent described alt-country (which Watson described as a more “hard core” kind of country) as a contrast to “contemporary country” with its pro-America (or, perhaps pro-‘Murica) stylings. It will be interesting to see what further comments emerge regarding country music in my own research, especially bearing in mind that I’m speaking with people who are currently living in an urban environment in Canada (which, as alluded to above, has its own versions of country music as well).
(Actually, at least a few times when traveling to and from Texas during my time living there, I might have driven through “where 69 meets 40″ [U.S. and Interstate routes, respectively].)
Conclusion to Part I
As one can see just from the sessions I attended, MusCan offered attendees an opportunity to learn about music from a variety of genres. Of course, “classical” remained prominent (although it might’ve just been the sessions I attended), but it’s interesting anyway to think about how a diverse range of music can be discussed in a manner that accords them some degree of serious attention, regardless of our own personal opinions of value, and even as the narrative of “austerity” in higher education tries dictating that such research is basically frivolous. As mentioned by someone whose talk I’ll describe in the second part of this posting, there are definite reasons why various kinds of music resonate within broader cultural contexts, and they are all worthy of study, regardless of whether they are slapped with “high-“, “middle-“, or “lowbrow” labels. And certainly, that’s part of the reason why I’m doing my own research into notions of similarity beyond the conventional confines of genre… which is why I found just the handful of sessions I was able to attend at MusCan so fascinating and worth writing about.
June 10th marks the 150th anniversary of the premier of Richard Wagner’s opera (or music drama, per Wagner’s preferred terminology) Tristan und Isolde. Given its importance to the history of opera, as well as its personal resonance, it seemed appropriate to do a related and timely posting. That said, I have nothing truly new to contribute, other than this updated (and hopefully improved) version of some musings I wrote in early 2013.
This posting relates to connections between Tristan and another work that seems “very different” on the surface, but which (to me, at least) might share deeper affinities. This is by no means a proper, polished academic study, and this blog is no place for such a thing. However, what follows does demonstrate how a listener might make “odd” connections between different kinds of music.
Richard Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde is one of the most sublimely beautiful works within so-called Western art music. It is also one of the most influential, inspiring a number of creative minds outside of music as well. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo provides one such example, with the score by Bernard Herrmann alluding strongly to the opera.
One would be hard-pressed to come up with a polar opposite to Tristan, but industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 album The Downward Spiral could serve as one possibility. Certainly if assessed side-by-side, the conventions of the genres with which they are associated would underscore the case.
And that’s the problem.
What if both Tristan and The Downward Spiral contain complementary elements? Or perhaps, in fact, share more connections than people might feel comfortable acknowledging? What I write below explores the possibility, which is why this blog continues to remain outside the periphery, or perhaps beyond the pale, of more legit writings on music.
Two years ago, the Canadian Opera Company put on a new production of Tristan. Some interesting talents contributed to this particular version. Director Peter Sellars is well-known for iconoclastic opera stagings, such as a version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni set in Spanish Harlem.
In the clip below, Sellars describes the contributions of Bill Viola, whose video images explore states of mind within Tristan. Sellars’ and Viola’s work on the opera dates back to 2004 with The Tristan Project, developed in conjunction with Esa-Pekka Salonen, then-music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (and the conductor of the Vertigo Scène d’Amour at the top of this posting). Since that time, the production has moved among different venues. Whether for characters or performance attendees, Sellars mentions how Viola’s visuals create, “a synaesthetic world where you don’t know where your senses begin or end.”
Viola also provides a link between Tristan and Nine Inch Nails, as lead musician Trent Reznor brought him on to provide complementary visuals for some of its concerts. Viola describes how he used lighting and imagery to suit the change of mood between a high energy song to one of lower intensity, from storm to calm sea. The name of the latter should be familiar to fans of Claude Debussy.
Water imagery seems appropriate in relation to Tristan as well. The entire first act takes place on a ship returning from Isolde’s homeland of Ireland to Cornwall. Why is that, you ask? Well, like both opera and some relationships on Facebook, “it’s complicated,” both in the sense of “what’s happening” and in the relationship status of both characters.
Here are the essentials, which readers familiar with the opera can skip: Tristan is bringing back Isolde on behalf of his uncle King Marke, who wishes to marry her. Isolde is none too happy about this situation, however. On top of killing Isolde’s fiancé Morold, a wounded Tristan was brought back to health by Isolde under the assumed name (and interestingly apt anagram) “Tantris.” Isolde tried killing him in revenge when she figured out who he was, but couldn’t bring herself to do so when he looked into her eyes. Still, she wishes to poison both herself and Tristan. Isolde’s handmaiden Brangäne throws a wrench in this plan by switching the poison with a love potion, which Tristan and Isolde drink as they approach the shore. The opera continues for two more acts, concluding with both title characters dying together. Tristan goes first from wounds incurred during the second act. By his side, Isolde expires for no rational reason upon singing the Liebestod, or “Love Death.”
Thus concludes their journey into the endless night.
One could consider the on-stage action as literal, of course. Taking a cue from the discussions about Viola’s video installations for Nine Inch Nails and The Tristan Project, along with the twists and turns inherent in the plot, it seems more fruitful to consider Wagner’s music drama from a more symbolic perspective. The Act II Liebesnacht (clunkily translated into English as something like “night of love”) provides a perfect example. Tristan and Isolde have an illicit liaison while King Marke goes on a nighttime hunt. Since sexual union can’t be portrayed easily on stage for a number of reasons, directors have to figure out what the characters should do besides sing for approximately 30-40 minutes.
The Liebesnacht breaks abruptly with what some aptly call opera’s “most famous moment of coitus interruptus,” as King Marke and his retinue unexpectedly return to discover Tristan and Isolde together.
Even listening to the final minute makes this assessment quite clear. The same theme re-emerges in the Liebestod, but followed by a “satisfactory” conclusion that releases the tension that has built up, whether over roughly four hours or (in a typical concert performance of the opera’s Prelude and the Liebestod) ~15 minutes. La petite mort writ large.
In writing about the challenges of indexing “nonbook materials” (mainly images and sound), Elaine Svenonius mentions that “what music represents, when it is used for the purpose of representation, are dynamic processes” (1994, 604). At least in contrast to so-called absolute music, which is typically about nothing per se (except whatever personal meanings we attach to it), we might have some clue what a piece of music is “about” if it has already a non-musical idea or story behind it. Nonetheless, it’s still difficult to describe or capture music easily in words. On the other hand, whether based on instinct or cultural conditioning (or, as I tend to think, a complex mixture of both), we can pick up on implicit similarities between music and just about anything from the everyday world. To underscore these points, Svenonius quotes extensively from the entry “Aesthetics, problems of” from The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In fact, it mentions the Liebestod as an example:
‘… the patterns of rising and falling, crescendo and dimuendo, rising gradually to a climax and then concluding (such as are to be found in the “Liebestod” of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde) possess a considerable similarity or isomorphism with, the rhythm of the sexual climax (Hospers 1972, p. 48)’ (In Svenonius 1994, 604).
If such composition techniques are (more or less) “universally” understood as cultural conventions, intended to mimic a specific phenomenon in the everyday world, with the likely goal of creating certain feelings in the listener, it makes sense that musicians from different genres (at least within a broadly similar cultural context) would use them as well. Attach words that more directly portray what’s “happening,” especially in the language of the listener, and the non-musical meaning of the music becomes even more clear.
In some cases, starkly so.
The ninth track of The Downward Spiral is an unnerving and terrifying song, befitting themes explored throughout the album: self-aggrandizement, self-destruction, and ultimately hopelessness. “Big Man with a Gun” graphically portrays the protagonist’s rock-hard, but essentially impotent, machismo; an empty desire to use sex for power and humiliation. The lyrics make this very clear. In a way, so too does the guitar theme, which draws upon conventions similar to those described by Hospers. Not that it sounds exactly like the Liebestod, but there are vague echoes of it. Significantly, the melody for the Liebestod soars, while the guitar theme in “Big Man with a Gun” generally plays the same notes over and over, with no apparent resolution aside from a slight crescendo near the end.
Some of you may disagree, of course, that there’s anything to this idea whatsoever. I can understand why, and not just because we’re “supposed” to see Tristan as “high” art with poetic lyrics, while “Big Man with a Gun” is of a “lower” form with obscene lyrics. Maybe I’m merely isolating the convention noted by Hospers to hype up similarities between two works from very different genres. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to deny the presence of such a convention, along with the extramusical theme of sex… even if it’s portrayed in very different ways in both.
In reality, I’ve considered such connections for many years, long before beginning my research, and even further back than when I encountered Svenonius’ reference to Hospers. The proof? A customer review I wrote for The Downward Spiral on Amazon.com, way back in 2001. I say some admittedly daft, pseudo-intellectual stuff in flowery prose… and I still stand by some of it.
According to the review, my first encounter with The Downward Spiral occurred upon hearing “Closer” on my car radio, with a certain word removed to appease the Federal Communications Commission. (I wanna what you like an animal? Lick? The imagination runs riot!)
I felt “entranced,” probably by the weird tension between its ethereal and mechanistic aspects. Oddly enough, before finding the review and while pondering this particular posting, I had thought that my first encounter with the song occurred a year or two earlier. A mild summer evening in 1995, near the sand volleyball court of a park in my hometown, with “Closer” rumbling angrily and hypnotically from a pickup truck parked nearby.
While my genre interests had begun to expand by the time I first heard “Closer,” it wasn’t quite at the same level as it is now. It seemed curious that I, a classical person, could be drawn to an industrial band’s song. Nonetheless, I’ve always felt drawn to music with trancelike, ethereal aspects. This includes some recordings that one might readily dismiss as “New Age.” Classical has some of that as well, with both Debussy and Philip Glass coming to mind almost instantly. For what it’s worth, rather than using music for sleep and relaxation, I usually turn to white noise or, for brief naps, this track from Brian Eno’s 1983 album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks:
When I wrote the Amazon.com review, I zoned in on the parallels I noted between Tristan and “Closer,” perhaps the best-known song from the album. Half of the first paragraph (and all in parentheses) outlines this idea:
My opinions on the similiarity (sic) of themes of all-consuming love in both “Closer” and Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde” would constitute an entirely separate, and likely incoherent, essay. Sufficed to say that one must consider Reznor’s agonized plea, “Help me think I’m somebody else…” It’s Tristan without Wagner’s newly-knowing, newly-glowing quasi-spiritual Romanticism, reduced to a panting animal. Listening to this, followed by Isolde’s “Liebestod,” is an almost heartbreaking experience.
So, what the hell was I talking about? More or less what I was alluding to at the beginning; the notion that The Downward Spiral, or at least parts thereof, shared some similarities with Tristan, or (again) parts thereof. In this case, the extramuscial parallels stood out. Even if they’re more stark, the lyrics from “Closer” parallel some aspects of the Liebesnacht. From the latter portion of the song:
Tear down my reason
It’s your sex I can smell
You make me perfect
Help me become somebody else
I wanna fuck you like an animal
I wanna feel you from the inside
I wanna fuck you like an animal
My whole existence is flawed
You get me closer to God
Self-destructiveness. Becoming somebody else. Sexuality as a means of obtaining a divine state. Those sound awfully familiar.
That is, of course, if one believes that Tristan and Isolde are (at least subconsciously) on a self-destructive path as well? One might argue that Wagner’s music sounds more lush, glorious, ecstatic than Reznor’s, with “more poetic” words besides. Nonetheless, one could also argue that it almost renders us anaesthetic, or helps us forget, how Tristan and Isolde’s mutual intoxication ties in with a desire that would be considered toxic in the everyday world. (I borrow this notion of “aesthetics and anasthetics” from a 1992 article by Susan Buck-Morss. It actually mentions Wagner quite a bit towards the end, and many of its ideas seem potentially relevant to this posting as well.) The final minutes of the Liebesnacht make Tristan and Isolde’s death-devoted path abundantly clear:
O endless night,
night of love!
Those whom you embrace,
on whom you smile,
how could they ever awaken
from you without dismay?
Now banish fear,
death in love!
In your arms,
devoted to you,
ever sacred glow,
freed from the misery of waking!
Furthermore, Tristan and Isolde wish to “become somebody else.” Again, going back to the Liebesnacht, a bit after the last passage and right before King Marke and his men burst in on them:
Without languishing …
enfolded in sweet darkness.
Without separating …
ever at one,
in unbounded space,
most blessed of dreams!
no more Tristan!
no more Isolde!
supreme joy of love
glowing in our breast!
Along with self-destruction in both Tristan and “Closer,” there’s also the theme of obtaining some kind of divine experience, which at least entails letting go of one’s ego. “You get me closer to God.” Perhaps Tristan’s anagram “Tantris” provides some clues about that aspect, with its possible connections to Tantric Buddhism. And, as discussed in the Canadian Opera Company interview with Viola and elsewhere, Wagner was influenced by “Eastern” culture through the writings of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
Of course, I might be reading too many extramusical parallels between both Tristan and “Closer.” The same could apply to my thought that Hospers’ observations, about the musical patterns of rising and falling in Tristan, could apply to “Closer” as well. And maybe I’m reading too much into Bill Viola’s contributions to the The Tristan Project as another connection.
The same could also be said for an article about underground industrial musician Pig, where we are asked to:
Imagine for a moment that Trent Reznor and Richard Wagner had an illegitimate mutant child and raised him in London on nothing but tequila and peyote with plenty of power tools and knives to play with. Next, imagine that they unleashed him on the unsuspecting world of underground industrial music in 1988.
Or a discussion thread that lists The Downward Spiral and The Best of Wagner as the best Gothic albums of all time, per Q Magazine.
Or the lineage mentioned in Metal Evolution from “pre-Metal” (which contains Wagner and other musicians from various genres) to Shock Rock to Industrial Metal.
Or an article about a University of Calgary undergraduate research symposium, which happens to ask by way of example, “What was Richard Wagner’s influence on Heavy Metal, Rammstein and Nine Inch Nails?”
Or, in a posting about his work with film director David Fincher, some discussion about Reznor’s usage of leitmotif in albums like The Downward Spiral:
What makes these albums so cinematic is not only their emphasis on story but their reliance on leitmotifs – that is, the repetitive use of short melodies, chord progressions, and/or rhythm patterns with which the Romanic opera composer Richard Wagner experimented in the nineteenth century. An example of the use of leitmotifs in Reznor’s work from this time period is the simple piano figure with which “Closer” closes and reappears in later songs on The Downward Spiral.
(Although that figure actually reminds me a bit of Va, pensiero from Nabucco, but we’re not talking about Verdi here…)
I will resist, however, trying to contemplate the possible connections among Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Reznor’s musical contributions to the film with collaborator Atticus Ross, and the fictional Nazi-tainted anti-Semitic (ahem) “Vanger” clan…
Currently, a number of recommender systems generally draw upon collaborative filtering algorithms, which take into account similarities among items or users, but not much deeper levels than those (and which end up reflecting genre-based categorization). However, as discussed above with regard to Wagner and Nine Inch Nails, notions of musical and extra-musical similarity might be more complex than current systems typically take into account, with seemingly “random” connections potentially belying deeper sociocultural and psychological roots, regardless of genre.
As is known by friends, colleagues, people following me on social media platforms like Twitter, and anyone who reads this blog when I publish a posting, music has been an integral part of my life. Although I appreciate other forms of expression, there’s something about music that can move me like no other medium. Even when a more visual medium, such as film or television, evokes strong feelings, there’s usually some non-diegetic spectre that takes me over the edge. As well, I’ve used music as a basis for my doctoral work from the perspective of Library and Information Science, with an interest in how we conceptualize musical similarity, and the degree to which genre-based categorization influences such perceptions and our tastes.
Despite my keen interest in music, there are times when I don’t listen to it as often as I normally would, or when I hardly listen at all. Although it’s gotten somewhat better, I’ve dealt with this state of mind recently; of not treating myself as often to music as I normally would. What prompted this posting was something that happened earlier this week, although this was certainly not the first time it has happened of late. I took out my iPod at the bus stop near home, all set to listen to something. And then I listened to nothing, arriving at my destination and putting my iPod away without even pressing “Play.” It’s a paradoxical state, I suppose, given that one of the reasons why people listen to music is to regulate one’s mood or emotions (Clarke, Dibben, & Pitts, 2010). Can’t I just listen to Strauss’ Heldenleben or Bowie’s “Heroes,” and feel ready to take on the world? Isn’t that exactly what I should do to give myself a boost, as it somehow usually does if I find just the right thing? This posting is a brief reflection on the role music has played in my life, which was also perhaps spurred by a lecture I heard this week by Berthold Hoeckner on “Music, Media, and Memory.” It was a fascinating and complex talk on the ways in which forms of mechanical reproduction that came to the fore in the early 20th century (in particular sound recording and cinema) tried replicating human memory, with some references to Walter Benjamin’s ideas.
Almost always, music has been able to provide me with a range of wonderful feelings, from elation to comfort (even if it’s from “sad” music). I have vague memories of hearing and enjoying some of the classical long play (LP) albums my mother would play. In some cases, as with Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, I would even run around the house, my own imaginings very different from those intended to be conveyed within the “story.” This older music somehow made me feel something, even if I didn’t know the names of the specific pieces. For some reason, however, I at some point developed an aptly youthful coolness towards classical. That is, until my first year of high school, when I rediscovered some of those old favourites tucked away in a two-drawer chest. My mother had moved on to cassettes, some of which were recorded from the aforementioned albums. But something prompted me to look for the music that had captured my childhood imagination, even if I can’t remember exactly what. It began with an enthusiasm for Russian composers, eventually followed by an enthusiasm for Germans, with some likely spins of discs for composers from other countries as well. I finally connected names of compositions and their creators with those aural memories, and even began a collection of my own, first on cassette, then eventually on compact disc (CD), when it became clear that the classical selection for the former was becoming increasingly slim.
So there I was, listening to the likes of Prokofiev, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov, and then Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss, and then various others (such as Berlioz) who had their own appeal. Maybe it related to my childhood, or maybe they somehow reminded me of music from movies I liked, or maybe it was some of both. But then there was the reality of small rural town life in the Midwest and being an adolescent, topped off with living outside municipal limits and having parents who were older than practically everyone else’s. When it seemed like everyone else was listening to poppy synthy crap or hair metal, I felt like I would probably end up becoming the last advocate ever for classical music… an odd brew of false prestige and genuine love. Whether on bike rides or walks, in the countryside or in town (where we moved when I was 16), I would encounter others my age, who would occasionally ask what I was listening to. Maybe some of them said a good thing every so often, but I generally got (or at least remember more clearly) questions and comments wondering how I could listen to such stuff.
Along with my dislike of current recommender systems, which more or less draw upon genre (or, rather, algorithms that are used to interpret user behaviours), I consider the aforementioned experiences as another foundation for my research interests. More specifically, how could I have found music similar to what “everyone else” was listening to, and that I would have liked as well? Although this was quite a while before recommender systems or me knowing anything about information science, I actually did wonder how I could “fit in” more. I suppose I could have just pretended to like what I thought everyone else liked, but I wouldn’t have been me, and the ruse would’ve cracked eventually. But I did pick up on a few things that sounded reasonably good to me during high school dances; most especially some older “rock,” as well as whatever was playing when someone I liked danced with me. And, as the 1990s started to arrive, some rap.
When I arrived at university, I came with my well-established love of classical (or at least certain composers), as well as some classic rock (including The Doors, with some convincing from my much-older brother) and some rap. During my time there, I found that there were other people my age who also listened to classical… and other genres, too. That one could, for instance, encounter a music major who wears a Bach t-shirt one day, and a Metallica t-shirt the next. My first two years at university, I was lucky to share living spaces with other students who had a diverse range of tastes, including a music major from New Orleans.
After university, I’ll just say that the things I started figuring out during my time there, at least regarding musical diversity and similarity, continued to expand. Over the decade-and-a-half since obtaining my Bachelor’s Degree and beginning my PhD, I was lucky to keep finding more “non-classical” music I enjoyed. Somehow, hair metal even sounded good (although I still dislike poppy synthy stuff). I kept finding more connections, whether intended by musicians or somehow formulated in my own mind, among specific works from “very different” genres. This blog has quite a few stories about the initial thrill of such discovery. And I am definitely not the last person who will carry classical music and opera forward. Constantly coming up are younger performers and fans (and composers, too), a number of whom are even more avid about classical music than me, and who have an aptly hip sensibility to keep it dynamic and alive.
I can’t count how many snippets of musical memories, along with the circumstances in which they occurred, emerged in writing this. Many of them come from good times, whether the highs I’ve felt from the thrill of hearing something new (either a piece I’ve never heard before, or a striking interpretation of a pre-existing favourite), or events for which certain music was in the background. As described near the beginning, however, I haven’t felt as much like listening to music… or at least the usual things that help boost my mood. Typically, I can listen to something that I’m pretty sure will perk me up, make me feel motivated to get through some difficult tasks or the day, and it will work. But for the time being, I’ll just say that using music as a mood regulator doesn’t work as much as it has done typically. The possible reasons seem to vary: maybe I’ll enjoy something too much, even though I feel I don’t have the mental luxury to indulge in it; feeling overwhelmed and numbed by music that usually spurs me to feel like I can accomplish things; or not wanting to listen to anything that might break through the toughness I feel I need to maintain to keep pushing through things. In other words, based on my understanding of the lecture I mention at the beginning of this posting, might the memories and desires I associate with these pieces (or at least the interpretations of them carried in objects for listening) be too much? Certainly, being able to interact with other people has helped the most. But it’s difficult when I can’t get the usual burst from music otherwise. In any case, I’m hoping to return to some form of equilibrium.
Ich soll lauschen.
Just this past week, I had a guest posting (Defining Musical Similarity: Genre and Beyond) put up on the brand-new blog for the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T). Given that blog’s intended scope, it’s of a different flavour from my usual postings here, which typically focus on specific instances of cross-genre similarity, both real and “imagined” (or, the ones I tend to perceive). The guest posting for ASIS&T is more closely related to my discipline, library and information science (LIS), and it provides an overview of my research. Although it isn’t really about specific music, anyone who’s interested in the idea of cross-genre similarity at an abstract level might be interested in the posting’s encapsulation of the relevant research
More specifically, the posting discusses how genre has become the “best” mode for categorizing music in a variety of systems, with similar principles indirectly manifesting themselves within recommender systems. And that this continues to remain the case, despite:
- the limitations of behaviour-based algorithms of recommender systems;
- the lack of a definitive and immutable taxonomy of genres;
- the individual ways we perceive similarity and preference;
- the usage of similar musical principles across diverse genres;
- the emergence of “omnivorous” listeners; and
- trends in how one describes “legitimate” musical tastes (in other words, it isn’t all “classical and opera”).
Of course, relevant citations to all of the above points are given in the posting itself.
I also describe the scope of my proposed doctoral research, which relates to the ways in which people describe similarity as it pertains to music. It will be interesting to see the extent to which genre emerges as a factor, or if other factors also play a role as well. The posting concludes with potential applications and implications. Of course, I’m quite keen on the idea of recommendation (and even modes of categorization) that more actively breaks genre-based habits. That said, there are some potential issues with that as well. But that’s another guest posting…
Everyone has probably heard at least one piece by German composer Richard Strauss, born on this date in 1864. In fact, it is likely the same one. A progression of three notes that culminate in a suspenseful chord that remains unresolved, followed by a rhythmic thumping on the kettledrums. A similar theme appears again, and a third time, now evoking a sense of the sublime in a new theme. A ritual somehow sacred and profane, a worship of the sun, a feeling of the power of the universe.
For the first part of this posting, visit here.
My decision to listen to singer/songwriter Poe’s album Haunted (2000) after a rather long hiatus happened a few Fridays ago, following a conversation I had with someone at a coffee shop. We focused on music, politics, and the ways in which the two of them can intertwine. Somehow, I brought up Haunted, focusing on how Poe’s career became stalled for many years on account of some truly twisted legal b.s., precipitated by the merger of Atlantic Records (with whom Poe had a contract) with AOL Time Warner in 2001.
On the way home, while listening to some of the more high-octane sections of Richard Strauss’ orchestral piece Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”), I stopped it suddenly and decided to switch to the title track of Haunted instead. This was due in part to the coffee shop conversation, as well as the desire for something that still sounded as thrilling as I find Heldenleben, but somehow not as overpowering. And, with autumn finally arriving in its brisk and colourful glory, with leaves falling on yards and roads and houses, the atmosphere seemed just right. Read more…