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Monday, November 17, 2003
Kind of disconcerting to hear Gillian Welch's "Look At Miss Ohio" when Utne puts you on hold right after it comes up on your Winamp playlist. How much of a random selection is pop music, anyway? When you think about it abstractly (i.e. without the real-world experience that of necessity must inform any criticism of the genre), given the massive number of songs that have been written and recorded in the last 80 years, what are the chances that the exact same one would come to my ears from two sources at once, both unbidden by my hand? If you could load every single one of those songs produced by everyone, from major-label artists to obscure hand-cranked acetate 78s from the 30s to 4-trackers to bedroom MCs to living room organists, what would it sound like on random play? What if, instead of playing whole songs, it simply played randomly selected 2-second bits of songs? Is there a way to program a MP3 player to randomly select not only between tracks but between parts of tracks? And if you loaded a statistically significant sampling of pop music's history in there, what would it sound like, in general? Since recording equipment became cheaper and more widely available in the last 10 years, would the sounds from that time period dominate, or would there be a slow enough sense of stylistic change in earlier eras to overcome that? When you chopped it up all fine and threw it back together without a guiding hand or principle, is music actually abstract enough that it would form some sort of coherent song or musical statement? You can, for instance, arrange thousands of small pictures to form one larger picture, like with, say, the posters in which a bunch of film stills from Star Wars are arranged to look like Vader's face when you back up enough. This conscious arrangement is necessary in a visual medium (and in a language-based one too, honestly) because we prefer to see recognizable forms. But isn't music abstract enough that any arrangement of any tones--even atonal tones--will sound, if not good, at least recognizably like something else? Or is music really not that abstract after all? ("Music sounds better as you," as Sasha puts it.) But since this is built from 99% tonal music, won't it imitate "real" music anyway? Is there a way to cut it that it sounds like beats anyway? Or is repetition such an ingrained part of our musical acclimation that its removal will confuse us utterly? This would be, of course, not only removal of repeated riffs or melody or chord structures or even rhythms, but also the removal of repeated sounds, tones, timbres, etc. Guitar on "Kashmir" sounds different from guitar on "Johnny B Goode" sounds different from guitar on "Sweet Child O' Mine" sounds different from guitar on "Purple Rain" sounds different from guitar on...
How do we trick our ears? How do we break out of what is expected? Well, the second answer is easy: do something different. And there's lots of stuff you can do that's different. But most of it we don't want to do because it doesn't sound good, doesn't sound like what we expect. This is why I say, for example, that innovation is easy but quality is hard, and that maybe all qualities are mostly equal.
But that's not even the point of this entry. What is?