I had to have an MRI done a few weeks ago, and after hearing various horror stories about the process I was relieved to find the reality far less traumatic then any myths had led me to believe. Somehow or other I had come to the impression that you were shut up in a coffin shaped box for something like 45 minutes and bombarded with sonic waves that left you feeling like you had intimate relations with a jack hammer. Thankfully the coffin turned out to be merely a larger version of a CT scan machine – sort of like a deep donut instead of a skinny one – which you were slid into until the area of your body requiring examination was completely inside.
As far as the so-called aural assault that was supposedly part of the experience, it too was nowhere near what I had been led to believe. In my case it involved a series of three scans about four minutes in length and of differing frequency and intensity. While the first two waves of sound were seemingly formless noise, I couldn’t help noticing the third wave bore striking similarities to some of what is referred to as industrial music. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t show up in some DJ’s mix on a dance floor periodically. All of which naturally led me down paths I really don’t like going, mainly when is something music and when is it noise? Could these sound patterns being used to offer up an image of my inner workings be considered music, and if it wasn’t, why was something similar in sound considered music and not noise?
I’m sure most of us have had the experience of being told by somebody of an older generation that what we’re listening to isn’t music, but only so much noise. That highly subjective opinion hasn’t been based on anything other than that person’s individual taste and I’m sure has been said down the ages about everything from swing to thrash metal by those who have had their delicate sensibilities offended by something being played at a decibel level higher than they prefer. However, if looked at objectively, a string quartet playing Mozart and two guitars, bass and drums playing an Anthrax tune have more in common than either of their respective listeners would admit. While they may not sound much alike, each is playing a piece of music that follows the recognizable patter of rhythm and tune combining to form a song.
It’s when we start looking at some contemporary compositions or avant-garde jazz the argument “this isn’t music, it’s noise” might be considered to have some legs to stand on. Most of these pieces have no real discernible rhythm and just try to find any sort of tune to hum along to! It’s not going to happen.
So why should we consider them music? One word, intent. Unlike the MRI or any piece of machinery that produces noise, a mind has gone through the process of deciding what and why specific sounds are to be used or has created the framework for the sounds to exist in. While there may be some elements of randomness in a piece’s generation, the sound is not being produced incidentally but deliberately. A machine does not decide to make a particular noise, it does so as an ancillary result of carrying out its function or, as in the case of a MRI, as part of its function.
Much as the way we appreciate abstract art utilizing different standards than we would employ for figurative works, avant-garde jazz and other forms of contemporary composition require their listeners to open their minds to new possibilities. A perfect example of this is the latest project from composer and coronet player Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra. Stars Have Shapes, recently released on Delmark Records, combines musicians, found sounds and electronics in the creation of the four pieces found on the CD.
In his liner notes Mazurek offers us a setting, or a context, within which we might place these works. At night we can see the beauty of stars reflected back to us in the dark water of a lake, an image which conjures up expectations of quiet and deep stillness. But that’s not all we see or hear at night. It only appears calm because of the contrast to the usual bustle of human activity that surrounds us during the day. However, the night has its own sound – what Mazurek describes as, “In the down time, when the world is asleep there is a roar. In the night, in the moments, as our eyes adjust, we can see the shapes and shadows dart and dash.”
“Ascension Ghost Impression #2”, the 20-minute piece opening the disc, recreates the experience described above perfectly. The sound of the solitary whistler opening the piece immediately captures the sensation of a single person alone in a vast emptiness. While there might be something inherently cheerful about the sound of a whistle, it also rings soft and small, which only serves to emphasize the initial impression of nothingness. Gradually the lone whistler is joined by other instruments, first a piano, then flute, saxophone and others begin playing individual motifs. Each additional sound represents a steadily increasing awareness of the activity in the night around us.
At first each of the instruments is playing something we would recognize as a tune, and we hear them as distinct sounds in their own right. Yet, almost without us being aware of it happening, they begin to meld and compete against each other and blend into a background of what is an ever increasingly loud wall of sound made up of everything from the sound of bicycles to rain in the Brazilian Amazon. As the sound crescendos, as our awareness of what is truly happening during the night increases, it comes close to being overwhelming; a sensory overload. Then just as it threatens to become too much, at about the half-way point of the piece, the wall of sound relents as if we have become accustomed to the night around us.
Yet it doesn’t fade away completely, for the night never retreats, and while we might become used to it, we will never feel really safe during the dark hours. When the sound swells again the pervasive feelings of threat we feel when we’re alone in the stillness and the dark becomes all the clearer because of the momentary relief brought about by the pause. As we listen to the second half of the piece two things come clear. First just how alien this environment is to us and secondly how we have become so used to the unnatural sights and sounds of our civilization, the quiet and stillness of the organic has become strange and frightening.
Sound and music don’t have to come in neat little packages like songs or concertos to tell a story. However, unless there is some sort of intent behind what a composer is doing, an intent he or she is able to make clear to their listeners, than there is little to separate what they do from the random noise generated by machinery. While Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra’s latest project, Stars Have Shapes might initially sound like noise, there is a method behind the madness. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Mazurek has drawn upon some of the best players in the Chicago avant-garde scene to help him with this project including; Nicole Mitchell flutes and voice, Jason Adasiewicz vibraphone and Josh Abrams bass to name only a handful. Not only are these players uniquely gifted as solo performers, with this recording they prove how talented they are when working as part of an ensemble.
While it’s not the easiest thing in the world to sit and listen to the Exploding Star Orchestra, or any avant-garde jazz for that matter, neither is it the easiest thing in the world to have to confront our own inner demons and fears. Jazz has always been about an emotional reaction through music to a subject matter, and this piece shows how that process has taken the next steps in its evolution. Its disturbing, unsettling and isn’t something you’re going to want to put on your player as background music or as a means of relaxing. However there is no denying either its power or its ability to touch us, two of the most important things any work or art should be judged by. You may not enjoy or like Stars Have Shapes very much, but I bet you can’t help but be impressed by it.