Monday, 29 June 2015

My musical taste - an older musing!



This is something I wrote about 6 years ago. Since I've now got a blog, though it's a personal thing and really nothing to do with politics at all, I thought I might as well add it in here!

‘If music be the food of love...’, I’m always hungry!

For many years, as a lifelong self-confessed and utterly incurable musical obsessive, I have searched for something to describe and quantify my own musical taste. It ranges through many genres, and includes forms of music that seem to some to be totally disassociated to the point of incompatibility, and yet to me they all seem perfectly coherently bound together by a common thread. I have struggled to find a way of describing this thread, and how and why it runs through all the different genres of music that lift my soul and excite me.

I have never seen why being a passionate lover of the most extreme forms of heavy metal is considered to be something ‘different’ to being a passionate lover of ‘classical’ orchestral music, or grand opera, or light operetta, or choral music, or the more obscure forms of ‘space’ and ‘progressive’ rock, or folk or jazz, or any of the other forms of music I love deeply. I find them all bound together as one.

Of course, I realise there are many differences of form and instrumentation but to me the function and functionality is the same. The varying manipulations of harmony, texture, rhythm and so on between these forms seem to me linked in a way that doesn’t seem so exhibited in some other forms of music, such as the more ‘radio friendly’ forms of ‘pop’ and ‘dance’ music.

It’s not that I have anything against the ‘radio friendly’ as such (it’s not a longing to appear ‘different’ or ‘uncommercialised’ – that would be simple enough to explain!) but it just leaves me dissatisfied and unfulfilled in some way that I find hard to quantify in terms which can be described to others. Yes, there is some element of disliking ‘formulaic’ ‘music by numbers’ and ‘computerised’ music, as much ‘pop’ certainly is, but it goes much deeper than that. I can almost guarantee that if music is regularly on mainstream radio, it will be music that I don’t like particularly. Even though it may seem pleasant enough, and may produced by fine musicians, it is almost certain to be music that just doesn’t ‘get me’ on the ‘emotional’ and ‘spiritual’ level.

I’ve never been able to fully get that across to people who question why I like all these ‘different’ things and see them as ‘one’. Finally, however, I think I may have the answer.

‘If music be the food of love...’, I need to be fully satisfied. I need a full meal of many courses, with many different elements and flavour combinations to tantalise and excite my pallet. I need different textures blended together to fill my mouth with many different feels. I need my meal to include the sweet, sour, bitter and salty, as well as to contain blends of different fragrances to give me a full sensory experience throughout. I need to be assaulted by different sensations, ‘unpleasant’ as well as ‘pleasant’ – I don’t want things that are always easy to consume. I want to be actively involved in the whole process of consumption, carefully feeling my way through all of
the different the textures, flavours, seasonings, spices and so on. I want to have to work to fully appreciate both the constructive elements and the end result. I don’t feel satisfied ‘emotionally’ and ‘spiritually’ by the simplistic, the easy to produce or the easy to consume.

This sort of satisfaction I can derive from a Beethoven Symphony as I feel my way through all of the different ‘flavours’ within each movement, listening over and over until I ‘understand’ emotional (though not necessarily on a technical level) interactions between the different notes, sounds and textures of the orchestration. I can get it from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta as the harmony vocals twist around each other and the orchestra, particularly in the choral sections. I can also derive it from a Between the Buried and Me album of extreme heavy metal in exactly the same way, although the sounds being used are very different (and, I guess, offensive to the ears of some). Likewise, I can get it from a Gong album of obscure 1970’s ‘space’ music, or an early Genesis album, or an album of traditional Celtic or English folk music, or a Led Zeppelin album or a Jaco Pastorius album of modern jazz.

In these forms of music, you aren’t just expecting to hear a tune sung by a singer with a backing band – sometimes there might be tune, sometimes there might not. Sometimes there might be a tune, but not necessarily vocal – there may be vocals, but in extreme heavy metal as in grand opera, the singer’s voice may be being used as a part of the overall texture of the music while the melody is played out elsewhere. There is an endless variety of structural, rhythmical, harmonic and textural possibilities within each individual piece as it ranges through its different moods before reaching its conclusion. To me, these forms of music are the same in their effect. Despite their obvious differences to many, once you go beyond the simplistic definitions of what instruments are being played, ‘emotionally’ and ‘spiritually’ to me they are essentially the same ‘sort’ of music.

On the other hand, those more ‘radio friendly’ musical works tend to be a nice melody (and they can be very nice melodies, though almost invariably vocal) with an instrumental accompaniment, a repetitive rhythmical beat, and little else. There are no subtleties, no interwoven textures, no real changes of dynamic or pace, and no creative structural forms. It’s mostly ‘verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, verse, chorus, end’ – a few short minutes of something quite nice, but nothing more (and ‘extended mixes’ tend to be just the same thing played for longer, which is nothing short of torture!). To me, this is musical ‘junk food’ – burgers, sweets, chocolate and cream cakes. Nice enough now and again as a snack, but not the ‘real deal’, and not satisfying on a deeper emotional level.

Don’t get me wrong – I like a bit of ‘junk food’ now and again like anybody else, but I couldn’t live on it! I have to have a meal that satisfies me fully on every level, and on a regular basis. I need my main diet to be a varied collection of different courses and meals, all with their own subtleties and blends of flavour, fragrance and texture. The music I like provides me with that, despite the fact that many others seem to find it difficult to comprehend how I can slip seamlessly from Schubert to Slipknot without seeing an essential difference between them.

That, whether it makes sense to others or not, is why my musical taste is what it is, and isn’t what it isn’t.

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