First posted on Mark Is Cranky:
A bunch of years ago, I went on a serious Captain Beefheart jag. Trout Mask Replica was fed through my ears on a daily basis. My officemate at the time, spying the CD’s bizarre cover art (yes, that was a real fish boys ‘n girls), become interested in what was going on inside my headphones. I offered an overnight loan (“spread the word”, I was thinking).
The next morning I arrived late to work to discover the Beefheart CD on my chair, affixed with a short Post-It note:
- This Is Not Music
Well, that certainly left no room for debate!
Seriously though, it’s fairly easy to hear why Trout Mask isn’t for everybody. In fact, there’s a whole world of music with limited appeal that I like to refer to as ‘difficult listening’. That categorization for me has always pushed forward the mystery of why things sound ‘good’. That’s a giant problem best left for another essay. A more basic question might be: what is music?
Dictionary definitions tend to bring up melody, harmony and rhythm, all of which are categories of organized sound. Folks in the West like to think that melody is the most important aspect of music (read: if there’s no melody, it’s not music). This ‘rule’ leads to heated debate (OK, shouting matches) about the musical validity of certain forms. Rap music takes the most heat here.
After years of pouring (maybe too much) music into my head, I’ve come to the conclusion that none of the “big three” are necessary for sound to be music. Nosir. Instead, it’s closer to the following dictionary entry:
- An aesthetically pleasing or harmonious sound or combination of sounds: the music of the wind in the pines.
Think of it as: perceive it as music…and it is. I’ll admit that this is a sort of over-intellectualized stance (go ahead, call it eggheaded) but if it was good enough for people like John Cage and Frank Zappa then it works for me.
What, a sensible person might ask, does this open door policy do for me? It doesn’t really work like that. See, the reason I’ve adopted this ‘rule’ is that it appears to explain, and I suppose legitimize, my hankering for odd sounds. So, periodic thunking tones of mallets on stalactites of ice? Music. Electric guitar strings being scraped behind the bridge with a spatula? Music. A snare drum struck crisply in a cavernous room? Music. The human voice rhyming a story on top of a shattering beat? Music. Definitely.
Of course, none of this means that other folks have to like (or even appreciate) any of this music. It’s just a framework that I use to justify the honks, shrieks, and clanks that ooze by my earbuds or out from under my listening room door. I will say this though…when a person declares that something is not music (let’s use Rap as an example, where the most conflict occurs) maybe they should stop and think about the parallels to legitimacy being ignored. A spoken phrase, no matter how aggressive, has a contour to it – not unlike a melody. The syllables form a rhythm. Hey, we’re two thirds of the way there!
I didn’t blame my old work associate for pullin’ the ripcord on Trout Mask Replica. The psychotic jazz/blues/field recordings presented there easily quality as ‘difficult listening’. I can only hope that the seeds of the tree of odd music had been planted.