Art as knowledge

o3XBHag

In this short essay I will try to defend why I think art is a form of knowledge and why it is so important to support art and artists, specially, experimental art, that due to its condition is usually unable to generate revenue to support itself.

Our language is our world, however, language is limited. Language is insufficient to explain or express certain phenomena that happens with and within us. When we taste something new, for instance, or when we need to describe a color to someone, we can only use analogies. It is absolutely impossible to convey this kind of sensorial information to other people only through the means of language as we know it. Therefore the sensorial experience that I have when I taste a “Blue sky” flavored ice cream is something so exotic that only I can actually feel it, and no matter how I try to describe it to you and no matter how hard you try to understand that experience, I know for a fact that you are not fully grasping nor feeling it.

There are a serious number of experiences that one has to go through them to actually feel them and to acquire whatever is possible to acquire from them.

I believe that music, in particular, and art in general is a vast universe composed of those kinds of things. Art is deeply connected with our mind and body at the same time. We cannot dissociate them in terms of experience. While we can understand how exact sciences, like maths or thinking processes like philosophizing are deeply rooted in what one would call “mind experiences” that can happen “inside yourself”, “in your mind”, most of the arts have a component linked to embodiment: think for instance about dance and music, or even the feeling of pulse or rhythm or groove. Or when you think about painting and sculpture, the dealing with textures and materials. There is something very physical about the arts that has to enter the equation.

The combination of these two factors is also heavily linked to the experience, perception and recognition of emotions, moods and affects. And this is the main part of it. Art is something that deals with these dimensions, and when we are dealing with them, we are dealing with one of the most important things regarding our definitions as humans.

Art is able to trigger these things (emotions, moods or affects) in people that are totally out of context or unaware of what is happening. Sometimes it is not predictable at all. And it is a very subjective and personal experience that language fails many times to account for.

Therefore most of the times we are dealing with a whole plethora of concepts that cannot be translated into something that can be quantifiable, measured or even conveyed to the other through the meanings of conversation or writing.

I would define the outcome and result of these experiences, these sufferings, as a form of knowledge. These sufferings are something that shape your personality and change your life significantly. Without art your life is poorer. With art, and with many artistic experiences, you earn something that, again, is not quantifiable, nor measurable, neither possible to describe in simple terms. The constant accumulation of these experiences shape your way, and, as any other form of knowledge contribute to make you rounder, a better human being, a more complete human being in the sense that you lived more. You have more insight about the world and other human beings, you are able to know more, you are able to interact better with others, and most important, you are able to feel more empathy towards others.

On the moment you too experience the “blue sky” ice cream you also feel what is it like. And somehow you believe that now you have a better idea of how others feel when they taste it. You may never know exactly how they feel, but you have the ability to empathize with them. So you know more about others and the world. And you also have now access to information to use in the future.

These aesthetic experiences provide you with a new set of tools for creation, for manipulation and for expressing something through objects, analogies or even, new forms of languages that prior to your experience did not exist at all. Therefore they are important. They are a new and useful resource to build new things or to mix with others that already exist to whatever end you pursuit.

Of course, if the idea is to increase knowledge and the basic materials, the building blocks with which you create “worlds”, then it is of extreme importance to push boundaries, to experience and manipulate new concepts. To drag them around and to shape them in new ways. As any other kind of knowledge it is important to play with it, to give space to chance, and to simply use it to see if something good comes out of it, to understand its usefulness, patterns or rules.

So, like any other form of knowledge, it is very important to experience with the arts. Sometimes people don’t understand why people receive money to make up “stupid contemporary art works” or things that make no sense simply because they don’t value them or don’t recognize their usefulness or even they feel threatened and mocked when some work challenges the values of their society or context. Well, perhaps it’s just something that has to be done. It’s a means to a better end. It’s just like trying out different doses of reagent in a lab.

Sometimes one has to experience really strange things, to push boundaries and to see those effects on themselves and on others so we all acquire this knowledge. This kind of non measurable, non quantifiable and ineffable knowledge, that will play with our emotions, moods and affects and that in the end will make us all richer and wiser.

Finally, even if you recognize that there is, in fact, some kind of knowledge associated with the arts, with the mere aesthetic experience, you still might not recognize its boundaries or its practical application given that you feel that it cannot be “mixed” with the “traditional symbolic knowledge” and notations one uses in maths or biology for instance. Therefore you could still question its utility in a pragmatic world.

If you are thinking this way, then you are thinking of yourself as a brain living in a void. For as much as you may understand neurobiology right now we are limited and do not understand all the processes of the brain, consciousness and the flow of life in general. The mere existence of experiences that we cannot express in language tells a lot about our own limitations. And again, our mind does not exist without a body, neither without emotions, moods and affects. So, if there is knowledge associated with the way we interact and empathize with others in general, and that affects and shape us as human beings, and more, interferes constantly in our daily lives with our activities in general, it has to mean something. We may not know exactly how, or how to deal with it exactly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful or valuable. On the contrary, it just means we are ignorant towards it, and therefore should explore it further to learn to take the best out of it.

Finding one’s voice: assembling and mixing the little bits that ring inside yourself.

Eléctrico_em_Lisboa

There’s the famous theory that everything is a remix, that we are entangled in «webs of significance». Culture, according to the notable anthropologist Clifford Geertz, is «a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life». Everything that surrounds me matters. Everything is constantly creating associations and emotions and feelings, and in the end every experience and interaction has been allowing me to develop a world of my own, inside myself.

Regarding my own composition process, I take it to be mostly self-taught and experimental and dwelling into several “worlds” – not only I constantly gather information and feedback from “serious composers” that attend institutions and academic contexts, I also read books from people who spend their lives composing and achieved notable recognition among their peers, in their social contexts, and, furthermore, I listen and experience music and performance practices from people who are totally unaware of systematic rules or algorithms and who just play for the sake of playing, or compose for the sake of fun.

Therefore, I find myself influenced by a melting pot where the only relevant criteria is the effect that the object has in myself. “Does it work for me?”, if “Yes”, then I use it! It’s like cooking an exquisite dish with several ingredients or flavors. Sometimes you don’t need a gourmet restaurant neither a sous chef to have something meaningful in your plate. Sometimes even fast food works.

Regarding this melting pot I started being aware of the sounds that I found myself listening constantly and that bring great pleasure to my mind. One particular work that “worked” it is “Les Jours Heureux” by Yann Tiersen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpgSulqSYfk). Since the first moment I listened to it I knew there was something special about it. Perhaps it’s the instrumentation, but also the vivid rhythm. It’s a work where the chord progression is simple, minimalistic and repetitive. And that is a useful resource I can use. Then, it’s the accordion providing both an ostinato-like pattern that keeps it moving and serve as a base, but also a layer that makes it pulsating and makes you kinda-want to dance, but not exactly. Finally that fantastic metalic-clinging sound provided by the harpsichord puts something into it. On the other hand I was not that keen on the strings – they are far too common and vastly used, except for the last bit, when the violin goes up the scale with a portamento – that feature is to keep, as I will explain later.

The second work that captured my attention, and that is somewhat related is “Om du Möter Varg” by Detektivbyran (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBU3waTWrv8). There you have the same pulsating accordion giving an ostinato base with a simple chord progression. You also have a clinging sound, this time, metalophones – I like these timbres more than the harpsichord. For me, by now it’s settled that I’m using the Toy Piano – it’s the perfect compromise between the clinging, metallic, fantasy sound, that evokes childhood, innocence and dreamland.

The most amazing trait, however, in this work, is the choice of the theremin for the melodic solo. As soon as I’ve heard it I could not describe how perfect it was!… I HAD to use a theremin. And I can explain why – because the “pure” timbre of theremin somehow captures the most essential things of the human voice. It has the flowing quality of a constant legato and the ability of moving in continuous steps instead of discrete steps of a scale. There is nothing more annoying than discrete steps and equal tempered tuning. On the other hand I get chills and deep pleasure whenever I listen to well put portamentos and glissandos that cover the continuum. That’s what one encounters in the human voices, specially in Portuguese Fado, in the “Amália Rodrigues” style I am so keen in listening to. That is also why the violin in the end of the previous piece “Les jours Heureux” works – because it makes a “scream”, it resembles the apex of a human voice in the end of a performance, a catharsis.

I’ve realized I’ve been trying to mimic that vocal feeling all around in my melodies, and with the theremin I found the perfect resource, even though, I concede, many people find the theremin to be a rather annoying instrument; However, I find it is the perfect use of a timbre to heighten and expand the characteristics of the human voice, that constantly give me the chills.

Finally the “third influence” is not a specific work, but the realization that many of these traits come from Fado – the way people sing and perform Fado vadio in Portugal. The way the melodies are build and ornamented. And the way there is constantly a counter-melody developed by a Portuguese Guitar on the background, since Armandinho and Raul Nery developed this style of accompaniment during the 20th century. So I figured out that I needed the Portuguese Guitar – or something very similar to it – in my music. Something that would provide that constant answer to the melodic line and that would flow with it in an interplay of extremely ornamented and out-of-scale melodies. I knew I wanted to capture much of the ambience I saw in “Júlia Galdéria” parody by Dulce Pontes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYT4iQ8ukWE).

I think these are the main traits that work for me and that form my voice, the way I think it would work. So, having this in mind, I started composing “O eléctrico”.

I formed an ensemble with four instruments (actually eight, since they are all doubled) representing these characteristics. I would have a theremin (doubled and reinforced with an analogue synth) to be my erratic, flowing, continuous voice. I would have a guitar (doubled) to be the counter-melody to it. Then I need the accordions to give the pulsating ostinato bass and chords and rhythmic base. Then I would need the Toy Piano to be the foundation, to be a kind of central base, because of the timbre, gluing everything together. The Toy piano will make melody, harmony and rhythm, it is mainly the structural skeleton and the filling.

I started by writing it as a solo. I prepared a small piece fado-style. The toy piano does a melody with a simple accompaniment. Then it repeats the melody, a tad more ornamented and varied, with the accompaniment having also slight differences. It’s what one can call an introduction with thematic material. And can stand by itself. Then you have it replayed in a way that everything seems duplicated and expanded. This same base is a layer for the soloists to shine. The theremin enters performing like a legato voice and the guitar answers to it. The accordion varies the pattern of the toy piano bass line, to a more vivid rhythm – a real bass line, and a chord-like structure to give harmonic base, but also with some melody hidden in it. Every time that the chord progression is repeated there are some melodic motives that are changed to add color. One can think of it as a strophic structure where the instrumentalists are having fun and styling and improvising every time they have to repeat the pattern, or by going a third or fifth up, or by adding a mordent, or by changing the melody within the same contour and base tones. Again, the structural development is the same of the typical fado songs.

This structural development is the same used by my references as well. And by folk and popular music in general. That is why they sound so repetitive and “simple” in the ears of “erudite” composers, however they work so well for most of the audiences. It’s a formula that’s here to stay and I stick to it because it works for me: you pick up a simple chord progression and stick to it from beginning to end. You make a simple work, not long, 3 minutes around it. Contained in itself, with just two melodic themes and variations.

Usually the interplay is between “verse” and “chorus” however I decided not to follow this way, instead I played a small trick. Instead of going for a chorus in my work, I decided to do it strophic all the way, adding a break in the middle, with a small extra measure to build up a modulation. The guitar and the toy piano do a little ascending pattern there and then the “fado” goes up a tone, and it is repeated all over with the melody going crazy and departing each time more and more from the original. The guitar goes nuts and starts to improve on the counter-melodies going somewhat virtuosic at spaces. I decided to emulate something that often occurs in live contexts in strophic songs – to create a continuous crescendo show off on the same basic material, just like you can see in the Fado reference I provided. So in the end what one has is just a build up to an apex around the same thing over and over and over until…

Well, until the point of breaking. When the voice can no longer sing it screams. And that is my apex. Instead of a chorus, I decided to build up a longer “coda”, and ending. A contrasting section in the end to support the voice just doing “screams”. Somehow I’m also mimicking and exaggerating what happens with the violin in Yann Tiersen and what happens with the theremin in Detektivbyran. But instead of a measure or two, I provided a whole 8 measure section for this to happen.

Then, of course, like many Fados, all ends up with the instrumental cadenza of the arpeggiated tonic with the added 6th. And like all Fados, if you want to mimic a folk performance you have to tweak the tuning – even in the melodic instruments. The guitar, the accordions, please let them be slightly out of tune, so that they blend together colorfully. Just a few cents, but that’s mandatory!…

When you boil down all this reflection and composition process what you get?

Well, you get a 3 minute piece, that has the structure of a strophic folk or pop tune. And that has a most strange instrumentation. And the most boring chord progression, but lives itself by the interplay with all actors. It is like making pop music with minimalistic resources and an erudite thinking. Everything is symbolically notated, crafted and perfected. Nothing is really improvised, since all the “improvisations” are well thought and notated!…

Does it work? Does it speak an original voice?

All that I can say is: for me it’s perfect. It has all things that I like in a song in this moment of my life. In 10 years when my life experience changes, probably I will think otherwise, I don’t know. But right now, it this moment, THIS makes sense. I love it! I’ve listened to it one hundred times in the last few weeks. And every time I listen to it the world gets a better place. And all my brain molecules are tickled inside. I find pleasure in my own music as the cook finds pleasure in his food. I also find a great deal of pleasure in sharing my results with other people.

Does it work for you? Does it sound original and meaningful to you? I don’t know. Your references are very different from mine. And the reasons why you’ll love it, be neutral, or hate it can be immense. And you can probably think about it and explain them. Or not. Just feel it, and if it works for you as well, then I’m glad I’ve accomplished something!

What is great music and why isn’t Beethoven that great after all

Dave Dyet

© Dave Dyet

In the era of digital age and technology, computers and digital media changed our perception and values regarding making and consuming music. However, it seems to me that history (and specially western academia) haven’t reflected that change and still regard on values connected with symbolic musical notation to write their values – what was adequate to judge and value music that goes c. 1300 – 1950 in western world, is still being used as a paradigm in many circuits, and often, erroneously applied to other musical traditions that do not and ever depended on that paradigm (namely popular music). I will try to challenge all those assumptions.

In order to do that I will state my own basic assumptions, to avoid later misunderstandings, and so, in order to disagree with my conclusions, I believe one has to start by challenging my basic assumptions.

No human being lives in a void. Every human being is part of a system, is integrated in a society, in a culture, and thus, embedded in a system of values that shapes his understanding of the world around him. Therefore, I use mainly tools coming ethnomusicology that are themselves based on methods from anthropology, sociology, linguistics and even biology and neurophysiology to integrate the perception of that individual in his context.

Based on these studies and tools, I’m assuming for a fact that:

Music has no intrinsic qualities – All is attributed externally. This doesn’t mean a judgment on music. It just means that our perception of music is determined by each individual within his own cultural system of values. If anyone disagrees on this particular point, regarding the universals on music, I’d be very happy to discuss their evidence before we move on to the next step. My main reference concerning the lack of universals in music, except for a few ones stated by biological and physical factors comes from the reading of Bruno Nettl [1] and Patel [2].

Drawing on these studies I was able to formulate theories on why do we make music, how do we make music, how and why do we perceive music and how and why do we value music the way we do. And that has lead me to question a series of almost sacred assumptions people have in the western world, namely, people often assuming Mozart and Beethoven to be examples of greatness.

I had to wonder «What’s so great about them? I can see thousands of people nowadays writing equally great to them (they just don’t have the same visibility).» As much polemic this questioning might be it was legitimate to be done after I’ve realize how this assumption has been made in the first place.

One has to think what made Mozart, Beethoven being valued today as great, when there were at least two thousand composers in Vienna at that time and no one can recall them now. Political factors? The writing of history? Innovations? Were they the first ones to do something, that become banal afterwards and entered the “canon”?

When something is repeated into the exhaustion it becomes true. The typical “canon” of the western world regarding Opera, for instance, is about seventy works from German-French-Italian composers, roughly from XIX century. That’s the “canon”. That’s all the music there is to be given their massive repetition in concert halls and the media. [3] Is this what one would call great music?

All the western music from countries besides those is virtually non-existent, in those same circuits. It is not performed in the “great houses”, it is not shown in the media, it is not taught in schools, it is absent from the discourses that legitimate great art by those who usually do that. Those factors in themselves justify part of the “problem” or the skewed perception and ideas we’re grown into.

Not to mention, all the great music from the other places in the world. Chinese music, music from India, Persia or Java. There are masters out there, no one hears about them, in the western world. They seem to be “local phenomena” without repercussion outside of their own scope. I went to a workshop about Indian music and theory. I was appalled with so many names I new nothing about, a system I couldn’t understand and a lot of ancient masters and composers highly gifted and crafted I totally ignored and still ignore. Because I’m outside that livelihood and context, and I’ve never been exposed to that knowledge by academic or western media.

Somehow great music is, so often, equated with orchestral music. Technology brought us new pallets of sound, endless possibilities. One should wonder about progressive rock, for instance. Not my cup of tea, for personal subjective reasons, but there is a lot of craft and work there.

I find genius and mastership on Bosques de mi Mente. On Bjork (not consensual, I don’t like her either, but I find her experiences great). And on Manu Chao. Manu Chao is absolutely delicious – the perfect example of a “crafter” – he has been collecting samples for over twenty years all over the place and they keep appearing all the time everywhere with a lot of wittiness. It’s a whole art of recombination. His craft equates his personal life experiences, travelings and interactions with real world. That has enormous value to me.

«Everything is a remix». If one equates greatness with craftsmanship and inventiveness then one will not find great music nowadays in the genres he expects because novelty has been somewhat exhausted on those contexts. One won’t find it in the scales, pitches or even rhythms – given the very nature of their existence in the western tradition, constraining them to very limited combinations. They have to be found in the people who are producing and remixing new things – on the use of effects, plugins and automation. Those are craft in themselves Old ideas with new ones. Some spectralists are great. There are a lot of great masters out there, one just don’t know they are masters yet because the criteria and context to become a “master” has changed.

One has to perceive how the “canon” and “history” is being written now, and how it will be written in a thousand years. Was Bach considered “great master” in his time? And what about one hundred years later? And how often was he played… moreover… will Bach still be great five hundred years from now?…

What do we attribute value at? If a music video is watched by more than one hundred million people is great? I guess Gangam style is great and a work of master then. It was not predicted. It was not planned that way. It happened. Viral phenomena are the greatest challenge nowadays, everyone wants to be one… but no one can make one before it happens.

If it happened the question is: why it happened? People must have seen something great in there.

So now one just has to extrapolate that to someone doing that over a lifetime and consistently.

Considering film/classical music what do we have regarding XX/XXI century? Bingo: John Williams. I have little doubts he will be an iconic figure, regarding western tradition – because he has been consistent year, after year, after year, keeping all the standards that make him appeal a reasonably vast audience inside his “niche” or “canon”.

Do we have any other so consensual? One has to look up the various niches, and there we will find our guys. What is the living and most consensual Chinese guy? Bollywood guy? etc…

And then analyze their work. Probably we won’t find anything special per se, analyzing just the typical parameters of harmony or melody. As I can’t find anything that special in Mozart or Beethoven. A lot of V7-I and great melodies. And then a lot of other tiny details that make a difference (the interplay and the ability to manipulate expectancies of the listeners who are inside the conventions of the style?).

In the end – it’s the whole over time that makes someone great. Consistency, context, coherence. And when one has someone like that – eventually we’ll consider the works of that someone memorable, examples of a great “style”, “voice”, “genius” or whatever one wants to call it. And they will enter the “canon” pushed by the media and the many, many fans.

That’s why I believe Bjork and John Williams are examples of great music nowadays (in “Western Canon”, there are other “canons” as I’ve exposed); just like Stockhausen, Xenakis and Berio were the most “recent greatest” ones in the “Art/academic western music canon” – they’ve already made into the “history books”, they are being analyzed and taught in universities and they are being deemed as “important” and “relevant”.

Within the western stylistic conventions, it is so easy to be seduced by “Anyone who composes singable melodies in diatonic temperament” that all our own barriers and prejudices fall when listening to their music. That is the ultimate power of a great composer. He will touch your soul even if you resist. It should be that simple to listen and appreciate music. No pre-requisites.

That’s my own personal empirical requirement so far perceived, all the rest is built. Perhaps I’m not a good example because of that but I’m deeply moved by music with a beautiful syncopated melody and two chords… I keep asking professors and all around why does that happen. If I’m an analyst and I should know better bla bla bla, why simple melodies over two chords are the ones that keep “working” and “move me”… (context? life experience? some kind of universality in predictability? In human interaction?). I guess the main reason is because I really was brought up listening to that kind of music and created good memories and associations regarding it. As me, many of my contemporaries living in similar environments share this same tastes.

The ones that are seen as “great” composers often use singable-beautiful-melodies as the base of their works. And pop music respects that. And modern contemporary western classical composers have forgotten that in most part, that’s why they are mostly forgettable too inside the communities that appreciate the formers.

Those are my two cents on music that touches my soul without asking permission. Subjective and probably culturally related to the western context I was grown into.

Actually not all levels of musical creativity are equal as art. The external attribution of value does exactly differentiate them.

When one says “pop music is a lower form of art” one is indeed establishing a series of personal/social/cultural values and criteria to reach that conclusion.

If one believes that spending an entire life working a craft is a value, he’ll treasure a work that comes out of that mind and put it into a higher place.

If one believes that the product by itself is the value that he’ll value it regardless of who produces it with whatever means.

If one believes that symbols mean nothing and he only cares about sound he will end up only liking acousmatics and devaluing pop or even classical music…

So in the end, I do not see how exactly how one can challenge the basic assumption that music has no intrinsic value, yet (We’ll get there).

One often hears: «Well, some music simply contains so much soul that it’s still relevant hundreds of years later». That’s the whole point – it does NOT.

That “soul” is the external value attributed by one and by the hundreds, thousands, etc of his cultural community/society/species, whatever, because he (solo or group) interpret that way.

For someone who could not make sense of those frequencies the soul lying there is zero.

I bet there must be a community where whistles around 25 000 hz make sense and are the great work of the creator, I’m not able to interpret them and give them a value.

Moreover, I think that the “soul” one is referring to, most of the times is attributed based on several other parameters than the mere “sound” – concerning Beethoven is attributed also regarding the concept that “Beethoven was a man, learned a craft, his work reflects a suffering, a living, an experience on the planet, represents symbolically a whole set of values that are praised in our civilization, etc, etc, etc”. But all those “values” and “characteristics” are given subjectively and from the exterior.

If one is trying to seek some kind of universal argument in music that is “ineffable” and “intuitively understood” by human beings just because they are “human”, I’d go for biology/physiology and neurophysiology, and look out for what is present in every human being that can really connect us all.

If everything is externally attributed because it is within ourselves and not in music – then we must find out what is inherent and equal in everyone of us.

That being said, we all have a heart beat that is somewhat steady around 60 beats per minute…

This is one objective and mensurable reason for our inner time and pulse to have a common feeling regarding steady beats and rhythms and perceive slow music as calmer and fast music as exciting.

Also there must be something universal that can be deducible out of the harmonic series or the harmonics, although I don’t know exactly what, after being baffled discovering that there are actually some cultures in Indonesia area that have “larger octaves than octaves” and thus breaking the “universality consensus around the octave pattern”.

I think the path might be somewhere along these lines – one will have great music when knowing exactly what makes great music great, or even not knowing that, accidentally striking one of those “things” that are “universal” to every (or almost every) human being living in the world, in whatever time and context.

Often people say that «there are objective standards that make music great (and any other art for that matter). We all recognize them, I think we all agree about most of them».

Now we’re just going in circles. I believe there are not objective standards. No one has ever shown me a single one. Please show me a single objective standard in music that hasn’t been built by a system in a culture, and that is universal. I’ve exposed the only one I known is the heartbeat equating rhythm. All others are artificial and not universal.

When I’m trying to have an objective discussion about this subject, many people lose themselves with personal beliefs instead of arguments. That is why no one goes nowhere.

I often hear «music is about depth»; Then what is depth? «Oh it can’t be defined» – if you can’t define something then it’s a personal belief to you and you don’t expect others to understand what you’re referring to.

I say, Beethoven is not great nor deep. Now what?

«You’re stupid».

«What’s so great about him?»

«If you can’t really see, then I can’t tell you!»

These kind of discussions arise all time. Well, these are not discussions, because someone refuses to have a point at all! What is obvious to him, might not be for others, think about that when one expresses a point. One can’t assume that music has some kind of universal and intrinsic quality that is expressed in itself, and can’t be defined, and the ones that can’t grasp it are “untalented” or “ungifted” or “uneducated” and are missing out the greatness and depth in music. That’s just a matter of faith.

It seems it’s obvious for most people around the western culture that Shakespeare and Beethoven are great. I keep insisting they aren’t (at least not for the reasons most of the people I know believe they are).

Pretend I’m the African native that just heard Beethoven’s 5th for the first time, when ethnomusicologists from the mid 40’s arrived in Africa with gramophones and I fled running afraid of the thunder noise!…

«You are not expecting an African native, a savage to understand the beauty in Beethoven?? He doesn’t have the knowledge to understand it!»

Exactly. Because it’s not universal. It’s a culturally built concept (chords, harmony, etc), and one has to be exposed to some kind of cultural knowledge and background to understand it! If one is exposed to another form of base-knowledge their values will be different and he will be unable to see the greatness in Beethoven. He’ll see the greatness in other things.

I have a friend that only listens to electro-acoustic music. only sounds. That is great music. He finds melody and harmony boring. He never listens to it and fails to see the value in it – he understands the concept but doesn’t feel it. Because he was never grown under those values.

If one really think there is something great and universal about music that can’t be explained – then he should think twice, three times, research more until he really finds out what is it and why so many people are not grabbing it… perhaps it’s because… well, there isn’t!

I can “understand” all the hype in Beethoven and Bach and Mozart – they were inventive, they mastered a craft (but a craft that is only relevant in West after 1300 – symbolic notation – despite being invented much earlier, its use was not common nor standardized), and they were socially relevant (noble connections, etc) to the point that they were mediated and made their ways to the scholar system when other valid and crafted men were totally forgotten. These are some of the factors that I believe contributed to their hype, and they are all subjective and cultural and artificially built.

Honestly most of the times they don’t “push my buttons”… (2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th does, but a thousand other works from many other composers also do that). On the other hand Dulce Pontes, Satie, Yann Tiersen and Danny Elfman do. They are the greatest!… I know my background and my values and I get excited when I hear them in action, it’s intuitive, I don’t have to think about it!… I was grown to feel that way.

So, in the end, all I ask is for the defenders of “universals” and “objective things in music” to prove their point by pointing out concrete things so I can understand their point and learn. While they refuse or can’t do that, I will just remain ignorant.

Exactly this.

We are humans. We have access to the world through our senses and we build reality and a sense of reality based on that. On perception!

Some people seem to have a concept of an ideal music, and ideal reality that is there beyond us. Some people seem to conceive a world that just lies there indifferent to us.

Well, they might be true. Reality is out there. but our only way to access it is to our flawed, imperfect, skewed perception.

My perception of reality is mine. Yours is yours. And everyone else’s is everyone else’s. That is why there are no universals concerning music, art, science or whatsoever.

The consensus is built trough language (Wittgenstein studied this very deeply, how our language was our world) and a series of cultural conventions. We only share some things out of sharing the same background and cultural conventions, yet we differ in so many other things because we grew up in so different conditions…!

So yes. My mind is closed because I can only see that dark alley… My senses only show me that..

But guess what, yours too! and everyone else’s! We only have access to a tiny portion of reality.

So one’s ideal that music is there, and great music is there and there is a way to grasp it without using our flawed senses and our cultural constructs seems very suspicious to me… seems more faith or romanticized than anything else.

One might believe that he can grasp that ideal out of nowhere with paranormal senses. I don’t think so, I have no evidence of that whatsoever. Therefore I believe we only grasp that with our senses and only what we perceive is real.

«Beauty in in the eye of the beholder»… the cliché is true.

When we talk about music we are talking about ourselves not about the work[4]. Me enjoying Dulce pontes says a lot more about me than about Dulce Pontes. One admiring Beethoven and believing in extra sensorial capacities says a lot about him too.

I reaffirm what I said before: I only believe in universals when it comes to things that we all share. Like a heart beat at around 60. That sense is universal. It’s objective, it’s there.

Now “the interplay in Beethoven” is symbolic and it’s only in the mind of those ones who grew into that tradition and studied it. – so it’s tautology : only the ones who studied those values will perceive them. Only the ones who perceive them are “privileged” to realize they’re there! Not everyone can grasp them. Of course not, because not everyone had those values in the first place. So the values make you perceive greatness, and because you perceive that greatness you assume it was there regardless of you perceiving it or not! Oh my…

This is not necessarily stupid. This just fits the purpose of enlightening a discussion and provide some background for new perspectives pertaining the topic. As an ethnomusicologist after having these assumptions sorted out, one can understand easily that if you can’t measure great music outside a scope of social and cultural values, this will lead that what is relevant is not “music” but “the processes”. What happened in order to get “the music”.

And that is the main point of this topic. Because the technology that became disseminated in the West during the XX century changed the whole process of making and consuming music, in a revolutionary way, like the use of symbolic notation did in Europe after middle ages. It changed the values and perception of those living in those cultures.

One is judging all that greatness in orchestral music after Bach, roughly because he was the first composer to achieve a consensual “greatness” in mastering the craft of European symbolic notation (and even that consensus was much posterior to his own existence)! Prior to the era of symbolic notation, in Europe, there was no way to register the craft, there was not a tradition of music based on symbolic notation at all – the tradition was invented at that period and because of that.

Well, we are living a new paradigm now, because we have the computer, a new tool that also enhances the possibility of making music in a whole new way – namely mastering the craft of synthesis, of sonic objects, sampling, impossible textures to obtain in real life, and even impossible spaces or combinations.

A composer of the digital age approaches the craft in a different way of pen and paper. Most of the times the approach is much more fragmented, because there is not a real possibility for an ars combinatoria in the same sense. When one was writing polyphony or making canons, retrogrades or inversions, one was crafting symbols in a paper, and it was doable. Orally it would be impossible. Now, with a DAW and real time playing, layering, one tends to approach the combinations in a different way: more linear, more copy/paste, more loopable. The main details of the craftsmanship goes into the production, effects and not so much for the symbols. One tends to craft the “sound” itself, not the symbols.

Basically, this new craft is setting a change in the way music is faced, valued and judged. History is always seen according to the past and constantly rewritten.

So, what I am saying – again – is that the great music and composers are already out there. But they are still not being evaluated according to those values, at least by not many of his peers, historians, neither taught in schools. A tradition based on manipulation of sound as data, and all its potentialities, regarded as an extension of the previous written one, is yet to be established in western academia and media, and to be legitimated discursively. And not dichotomously.

The process is not moving yet!…

In conclusion:

I believe in 200 years or so, people from that time, living under those values will look back, put all into perspective and say «Composer X was a master in crafting all these tools – not only he understood symbolic notation perfectly, he dominated technology as well – he was the greatest.»

We are not able to see the world through those lenses yet, so we can’t predict exactly who are they going to be. I’m just saying they already exist.

And if the world population changes in shift the centers of power (which is already happening) – for instance the Indians really having a bigger impact on the planet and its history, then you can even re-write history from another not euro-centric perspective and reach the conclusion that an indian Bollywood composer was the greatest – because he dominated several theoretical systems and crafts and that Lata mangeshkar was for sure the “greatest singer of all times” (anyone wants to contest on this one? – I can easily see this happening).

It takes time, but it will depend on what society we will have in the future and what values will be valued. They keep changing. That’s all I am saying. So yes, Bachs and Beethovens are “the greatest” now, under our western skewed glasses, but there already other “greatest” ones out there under other glasses and time will make justice for them.

A tiny more “provocation” or not into the fire: I can easily see it happening and already have some evidence that the process could go that way – that Frank Zappa was clearly the greatest composer of the XX century. He mastered and fused the relevant concepts and worlds, and left behind a legacy of theory and aphorisms and explanations to support it. He has all the “ingredients” to be picked up by future peers and historians to get mediated into the relevant canons.

[1] B. Nettl, The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-one issues and concepts. University of Illinois Press, 2005.

[2] A. D. Patel, Music, Language, and the Brain. Oxford University Press, 2008.

[3] A. P. Vargas, Música e Poder. Edições Almedina, 2011.

[4] T. Videira, «Describing Music: Perception and Metaphor», The international Journal of the Arts in Society, vol 6, n 4, pp 255–262, 2011.

My Music is very good: You were just expecting something else.

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Illustration by ©RGBstock.com/Robert Proksa

I will tell you some personal stories today. One of the things I most love to do is to create. I create stuff. Often. It is a process that I can’t really explain, I’m just lying around and then, out of the blue, I make some nifty associations and I come up with something new or, at least, that is new to me. Regarding music this process is often very visual. I’m making a kind of movie in my head. I think about someone, about some situation, often a daily situation, nothing uncommon at all. And then I picture that scene. Sometimes it’s triggered by a conversation, a picture, other times just by a dream, because it often happens when I’m asleep or just after I wake up. This essay, for instance, started happening as soon as I woke up and read one email in my smartphone.

I’ve been delighted writing a virtual orchestral piece. I pictured a friend in a certain situation and made a short movie inside my head regarding it. This movie doesn’t exist in real life and never will, I just made it up. And as soon as I was making it up I could hear the music that was going along with it. It was a very silly theme played in an oboe going along with some pizzicato strings and a triangle and a glockenspiel making subtle counter melodies. I found it so funny that I had to make it true so I could hear it properly and share it with my friend. I had that urge: “Oh my! This is good stuff! Let’s make it happen”. Often this is what happens when I create music – this kind of urge to make something in my head real and share it with the person that made it possible to happen in my head.

Then, I sit at the piano and make a rough sketch of the music. I play out the themes and the chords that go along with them. And I get a very simple melody/accompaniment texture for piano, often somewhat incomplete and with some variants regarding the true sound that I hear in my head.

After that stage I open up my notation software and start writing it down, “properly”. I engage in a very “scientific/algorithmic” process where I literally mount an orchestral work out of a flawed piano reduction. Often this happens much with trial and error comparing the sounds I have with the ones I have in my head. Mozart would never do it this way, but it is the way I like to do. I begin writing my oboe line, my strings and the glockenspiel. And then? Then in my head I realize that the answer to the first line is not exactly the same sound as the oboe. Humm, I need something else… I’m probably hearing a clarinet, and not an oboe anymore. And so, cut and paste that second part of the theme to the clarinet. Let’s hit play – yes, that’s it, it sounds much better. And then the repetition? Again, I have a motif and an answer, and both are two distinct sounds but not the oboe/clarinet anymore… could it be a flute and a bassoon? I try it, not… it’s not that. Perhaps an english horn? Oh, yes, the english horn is perfect. But it’s still not a bassoon… oh, it’s the flute, but on the upper octave!… Then let’s hit play again! Perfect, exactly this sound I was looking for. It matches what I had in my own head and desires. It’ perfect because I wanted to hear it this way, these sounds! It fulfills my expectations!… Or not? No, I’m missing some kind of answer, a tinkling sound somewhere, and it’s not a woodwind, neither a string, neither the glock… perhaps a harp glissando here will do the trick?… but from where to where?… again, methodic. I observe the notes I’m playing… humm… I’m playing something with g’s, b flats’ and e’s… I’m playing a C7 perhaps… so, a rising gliss from a low c to a high c will do the trick?… I try it, no, too long, let’s come from an octave upper, still too long, let’s start a beat later… oh, yeah, this will work!…

And I keep doing it. And doing it. And then I rest and have a meal… and go see a movie… and then I start later. And I hear it again, and all of a sudden it’s all fresh. It is like hearing something new again. And it’s a pleasure because everything is so perfect! The second time I hear what I compose sounds much better. But still could use some more detail. Perhaps a percussion here and there to add color?…

This was just an example. A detailed and colored one, but my reality is not much different. I use a kind of scientific/algorithmic process because I know that these notes will go along with the others and this meter makes sense here, and then if I have a kind of structure, I already know that some bits are going to be repeated in the future, and then I shall transpose parts of it, and that this line should be duplicated by that instrument. These kind of decisions are very rational and all based in my experience and my theoretical background. I’ve learned in university and by studying scores from the past that some people did some things in some ways. And those that I liked I assimilated and replicate their ideas and processes now. So I’ve come up with a “way of doing this” that is a mix of a lot of “how to do” from several other composers that I like.

On the other hand I have a lot of trial and error comparing the lines that I write with the expectations in my head until they match. This second part of the process is something that would be virtually impossible decades ago. How could you trial and error entire parts of orchestral sounds until you have what you want?… Technology makes wonders.

This is a process that can take several days. Or just a few hours. It depends on the purpose, on my free time, on my will to be refined. Sometimes I get satisfied very soon. I like it the way it is. Other times I decide to rest, to do something else and then come back some days later. In the case I decide to come back later I cannot hear the song again. If I start hearing my song, I get so used to it, that I’ll find it perfect, and I will not be able to change it anymore. While, when I let it rest for a few days without hearing it, when I come back later, my whole life has changed in between. My life experience and expectations changed. A tiny bit perhaps. Or just a few things. It is enough for me to find that some things don’t make sense anymore. It is enough for me to decide that I will erase an entire line of harp and make it a Toy Piano instead, in another region, in another register. So, letting a song to rest can be very beneficial or can be very dangerous. On one side you can refine it and make it more complex. On the other side you can make it more fragmented since you are erasing your ideas and substituting them for another ones brought up in a new life context. It is like you’re mixing the movie you made in your head while you were in the beach, with the new one you made while you were in the countryside. You had two very opposite experiences and now you’re putting in the virtual paper those two. And the outcome might sound chaotic after a while if you keep doing it.

I don’t know which process is the ideal one. I just do it, go with the flow, depending on how much time I have. And how good it sounds in my head until I decide: “it’s finished, I have a nice score now!”.

After I have a nice score I have another huge problem in my hands. Now I have to record it!… If I had real musicians would be a pain to coordinate them all. Having virtual ones it’s not less of a pain. I have to do it by myself, not being a proficient in any of them. How the hell do I know if this trumpet line I wrote is playable in real life? I know it sounds good in my head and in the computer, but I have no idea if a real player could play this! At this point the assumption is: who cares?…

A virtual instrument is NOT a real instrument. What I have in my head is what I want it to be fulfilled so I record what I want to hear and I don’t care about real life. I open up my Digital Audio Workstation and I start refining one instrument by one. I start by choosing the sounds for each line – lets put up this flute here, tweak it, etc. I decide on the fly that some notes are in the wrong place, or they are too mechanical, let’s drag them around; other times, it’s too clumsy, let’s quantize this so it sounds more strict. It’s all individual decisions note by note based, sound by sound until every sound by every instrument sounds exactly the way I want on an individual basis. Sometimes I feel that something is just impossible to achieve. I don’t have that sound at all!… I wish I could have it, but it’s impossible to make it with these samples. And I’m not hiring a real musician to do it!…

Other times I just decide, yes, It sounds fake, in real life it would never happen, but I WANT that sound. It sounds GOOD to me! It fulfills my desires to have this synth sound at this point. So, there are a lot of decisions made by compromise according to the limitations of the technology and the resources that I have. Others, I assume, can be out of ignorance. Some times, perhaps, I could achieve that sound using the resources I already have, I just don’t know how to do that, yet. In those cases advice can be useful. This is why one should never stop learning and seeking advice and feedback. Each new book I read, each new video I see, I learn some new technique that I know they will be handy in the future in case I want to achieve some kind of result.

After I have every track recorded there comes another pain. How should this sound and blend together?… when I play every track at the same time I realize that my dear glockenspiel vanished in the thin air in my phones. But when I hear it through the speakers it seems loud, dry and in my face. Oh my!… I want to hear it, but I want it in the back!.. and I want it “fuller”… and not this aggressive… I need to decide that the glockenspiel has to be equalized, and then panned differently, and probably have a bit of extra reverb. Don’t get me wrong, I usually send all the instruments to a channel where I put a reverb into them all. And they are already panned like they were on a stage. But even when I “Fake a real orchestra room” globally, still some instruments just don’t work for me. They have to be individually tweaked, and so I’m adding another layer of faking. If I already have my glockenspiel on a stage and on the center back, why do I think that putting it on a Cathedral, before all this, will make it better? I don’t know. I just think it does, in this particular piece. It’s an empirical thing for me, trial and error, and someone else can think otherwise. Again, very personal and subjective decisions.

The same goes for the Guitar. I know it is supposed to be a guitar, but this guitar sounds so fake and lame in my eyes. I know I will never have a genuine guitar sound unless I have a real one, but can’t I make it more appealing? What if I load 3 different samples? Perhaps a harpsichord being placed in the exact same place as the guitar with the same reverb at a very low volume… this way it will sound 80% guitar and 20% harpsichord, and this extra “harpsichord” sound will blend and make it sound more risp and convincing. Convincing for whom? A musician will still notice that it is not a guitar at all. Perhaps he would prefer the original sample or a totally different one. But my hears want that sound I imagined. So again, it’s all personal decisions. I’m pleasing myself and no one else. Even when I decide that I’m mimicking some kind of sound that I saw on a certain context, it’s my judgement. Another guy could hear it and think “no, man, listen to these harmonics, If you want to mimic this sound you have to use a totally different sample and panned elsewhere, you’re doing it all WRONG!”. He would be using his ears and his expertize, while I’m using mine…

So, in the end, you may know one thing: When I export and publish a song, it is because it sounds good enough for my hears in my phones, and in my speakers and in my TV. I usually test it in these three different places and I try to balance it to sound good enough FOR ME on these.

After this whole process, that may take from several hours in a row if made intensive and the track is simple, or more than a week, for a two minute piece, if it is complex and I’m in the mood, I can tell you that I deflate like a balloon. I feel relaxed and fulfilled. And I enjoy myself. It is like a cooking lady enjoying her home made baked cake. I enjoy the music I make. I hear it in repeat one hundred times and I get pleased all the time. The cooking lady often cannot try it out. But me, I had tried it out several times, so it’s perfect. My music is perfect in the sense that it comes out exactly the way I wanted. If it doesn’t come the way I want it is because I had no resources to do so. I confess here right now – voices, guitars are the two instruments I’m never satisfied with when I have to do them by myself. I can’t sing or play guitar they way I imagine in my head, and I cannot absolute fake those two instruments. It’s impossible for me. So those two instruments, unless I hire real people, will never come out good.

But generally speaking, toy pianos, pianos, strings, woodwinds, synths, drums, sound rather good to me. That’s a “problem” I have. I am not a bassoon player. I am not a trumpet player. I am not a violin player. I never played in an orchestra. So when I play with them in a virtual world I have not the experience of dealing with those sounds in real life and knowing their subtleties. So for me if they sound “approximate” they are fulfilling my expectations, and probably most people one’s. Of course they will sound dreadful for the real players. A real clarinet player will found appalling my clarinet lines – “How come this guy recorded this clarinet like this?.. It sounds dreadful! A clarinet would NEVER sound like this! This is BAD!”. The maestro would say “Real musicians don’t interact like this!… This is all WRONG! You need to spend some weeks with a real orchestra! Listen more! Learn more!”.

Well, guess what, I’m playing with virtual instruments, in my place, trying to come up with the sounds that I hear in my head. Just that!… The sounds that I hear in my head are fuzzy and not connected to anything in particular in real life. Why they have to be perfect for you, clarinetist, and you maestro, and you sound engineer?… and moreover, to you, mailman, to you, journalist, to you 10 year old kid?…If they already fulfill my expectations, if they please me to the point I hear it one hundred times, If they give me immense joy, isn’t the purpose achieved?…

Well, it depends. Again, my music is good, it is perfect to my hears. But I’m not inside anyone else’s head. Each individual is unique, has his own life experience, musical associations. Music is not objective at all. It’s relative and highly personal. We all hear music in different ways, and we all interpret it, give value and meaning to it according to very personal and cultural backgrounds.

So, the problem and what baffles me is when I share my music. I share my beautiful, perfectly crafted virtual music that I made thinking about my home village on the country side and my best friend tells me “Tiago, what a fantastic sound about a beach you made! The sea is so perfect, this is beautiful!”, “What?? Sea?? How come a toy piano reminds you of the sea?”, “Toy Piano? What is that? I was referring to that nurturing sound you have all over the place that is so calm…”.
Then I share it with a guy that all of his life has played heavy metal and he goes “Oh man, this is circus music. And it is way too squared! And what kind of shitty guitar is that? No one plays like this. This sucks bad.”, and then you’ll have the one that just goes “Oh, it sounds nice. I have no clue what instruments are playing! It is nice, keep doing it.” and the ones that will go “This is exactly what you’ve done before. It’s the same thing isn’t it?… you keep doing it all over. That clinging sound is always there, I don’t know what it is, and then the pfft pfft, you’re making the same music all over again.”, and then you have the pro that will go “Oh dude, this is all wrong. These levels are crap. My subwoofer was never used, you should go try a filter here and there, and you are missing a drone in the back just to give atmosphere, and perhaps a bit of stereo imaging in that sound…”.

Argh, I’ve lost it by now. It’s impossible to please whomever. My music is not good because it doesn’t fulfill your expectations. If you’re expecting a real orchestra it will suck. If you’re expecting heavy action in the woods it will suck. I don’t know. Whatever you’re expecting it is probably NOT what I wanted to do, neither what I was imagining in the first place. And that’s the beauty of things. The beauty is when I just do whatever I wanted to do, whatever it felt RIGHT to me, and then some random stranger comes up and tells me “Hey, I really liked your music! It sounded great and I repeated it and shared it with my friends. Please keep doing it!”. I have no idea what kind of associations it triggered in this person’s mind, but apparently it worked! And in the industry I guess the bottom line is: “It works!”.

Some people say that there is a craft. That there are objective patterns by which you can measure this kind of thing and then you’ll be able to optimize your targets and please a larger number of people and also be able to make profit out of it. I don’t know. My personal experience tells me the most unexpected pieces of work, some that sound like garbage to me, made it to please everybody and earn tons of money, while other works that I find are absolutely brilliant are hated all around. I see in the media all kinds of works. Trashy ones and really crafted ones. The media plays a huge role in making associations and trying to impose a “fashion” and a proper “way to do it”. Institutions also try to impose a “correct way of doing and presenting it”. Gatekeepers, directors, etc. But in the end it just seems that every kind of piece can find its own niche market, even in the comedy one, after all, it’s all entertainment industry – even the “erudite and western classical bubble world” is about entertainment in the end. That’s why I’m becoming a relativist. It seems my music will never be good, to some people’s ears. But on the other hand, it seems that every music I’ve ever made will eventually be good to someone else, in a certain time and context.

One awful track I made back then was bought by a foreign client. I call it awful, because back then I had very few resources and recorded it on the fly with a very cheap computer mic and really lousy free samples. I was not pleased at all with that sound. It didn’t fulfill my own expectations. I just did it because I had to do it and had no other way to do it at that time. Still, it was bought over other “good” ones. Because that person, hearing that piece of crap somehow found it good and “It works for my purposes”. And after being used the feedback was not bad at all. So I guess my own judgment was impaired. Or not.

So I guess, in the end, my conclusion is: perhaps I should just keep doing it. Keep fulfilling my purposes and expectations, asking advice and slowly building my pace and techniques. In the end I just have to please myself. If I put everything I have in each track I make, I believe I’m being genuine and honest. And that is the most important thing for me. If I have any kind of “evolution” or “learning curve”, perhaps I’m just following some kind of cultural expectancy related with some kind of “professional expectancies of the peers and the industry in a certain context”, after all, if you’re working with a client you have to please him, not so much yourself. One thing is working for pleasure, another one is working for money. The ideal is having a lot of pleasure and earning money. It is a constant internal struggle for fulfilling my pleasure and trying to please a future imaginary audience. That can be an awesome challenge, but in the end I don’t really know if it matters anymore.

Da música Portuguesa votada ao ostracismo

Pressuposto número um: se é que a ideia de país, de uma pátria, de uma comunidade imaginada que nos une a todos faz sentido, então muita coisa vai errada connosco. A ideia de Portugal e de defender o que é Português pode não fazer sentido de todo. É uma questão ideológica, já havia o adágio, «Não sou Ateniense nem Grego, sou um cidadão do mundo», e num mundo cada vez mais global, se calhar as fronteiras, mesmo as culturais, podem não fazer sentido para muita gente. No entanto para outras fazem. Ou deveriam fazer. Mas depois na prática não é bem assim.

Choca ver um país infestado de programação sempre dedicada aos mesmos. Entramos numa Gulbenkian, num São Carlos, num CCB. Quantas obras de compositores Portugueses escutamos? Vamos aos conservatórios, às faculdades, que obras, autores e compositores Portugueses fazem parte dos currículos? Vamos às lojas de discos, quantos estão editados? Quantos passam nas rádios? Quantos as pessoas conhecem, ouvem e compram?

António Pinho Vargas tem arvorado esta bandeira e é altura de se começar a ir atrás. A experiência internacional (viver nos Estados Unidos faz destas coisas à gente), mostra-nos que por muitos recursos que os outros tenham, por muito melhores que sejam em muita coisa, há também muita coisa em que em nada somos inferiores e tudo o resto são mitos e narrativas. E que fazem toda a diferença.

Eu quando regresso ao meu país gostaria de vez em quando de ouvir música do meu país. Sei lá, faz algum sentido para mim. Tenho saudades das minhas referências, do meu arrozinho de tomate malandrinho, das pataniscas, dos sonhos, dos carapaus, de um pastel de Nata, da Torre de Belém… E depois fico confuso porque olho para o CCB e vejo que a Metropolitana está a tocar Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, Bach no grande auditório. E depois no pequeno António Rosado apresenta-nos as músicas festivas do Lopes Graça. Mal o menos, temos um compositor português, com obras de há cinquenta anos no pequeno auditório… E temos compositores estrangeiros de há quatrocentos no grande. E é isto a nossa oferta de Natal? Se calhar sou só eu que acho bizarra esta programação, e isto é apenas uma gota no oceano.

Simon Frith escreve no seu livro “Performing Rites” a maneira como as narrativas e os programas foram sendo estabelecidos historicamente. Keith Negus vai na mesma onda. Há toda uma certa perversidade na maneira como nos foi vendido Beethoven como um grande génio e o maior compositor indiscutível de todos os tempos. Ou Mozart. Ou Bach. Ou como o repertório Operático se resume a uma centena de Óperas dos séculos 18 e 19, de meia dúzia de compositores do centro da Europa, repetidas à exaustão. A leitura de “Música e Poder” de António Pinho Vargas é uma lufada de ar fresco neste contexto etnomusicológico.

É então muito intrigante que tenhamos os músicos do nosso país a gastarem o seu tempo a tocar compositores mortos há séculos, de paragens longínquas e com experiências de vida culturalmente distintas. E se esqueçam do quem está aqui mesmo ao lado com um desprezo infantil.

«A música Portuguesa é fora de tempo e não é interessante.»

Mas desde quando um Rey Colaço é menos interessante que um Chopin? Porque é que a ópera do Ruy Coelho é inferior à de Verdi? Desde quando a sinfonia do António Victorino de Almeida é uma banalidade comparada com as de Mahler?

Ora escutemos aqui uma coisa: a música, que eu saiba, reflete toda uma experiência de vida. Um sofrimento, como diria a Louise Bourgeois. Não sofrimento no sentido estrito de dor, mas sim um sofrimento de sofrer continuamente experiências na pele, de estar vivo, de existir. E tudo o que nos aflige, faz sorrir, nos traz algo de novo e nos muda, tudo aquilo que sentimos condiciona depois a maneira como transmitimos e criamos. E dessa forma, cada obra, cada acto de criação é interessante. Tem valor por isso mesmo. A música como acto humano tem valor intrínseco por representar o sofrimento, a experiência de vida, cultura e o contexto de um dado autor. É por isso que vamos ver e ouvir música. Para desfrutar de algo novo, do que é que alguém tem a dizer sobre o mundo. Que visão aquele ser humano criou e compôs em som baseado em tudo o que viveu até então, num dado contexto. Dessa maneira não consigo conceber como a música, seja de quem for, é inferior ou menos interessante que a de outrem. Cada música é única, é um universo único repleto de sentido, significado e valor próprio. E isso pode ser apreciado e depois criticado e, porque não, analisado e estudado.

Se a música do António Victorino de Almeida é banal então explique-se porquê. Eu gostaria de saber porque é que os Dó menores dele são inferiores aos do Mahler, a sério gostaria de saber. Ou porque é que a linha melódica da flauta não é imaginativa ou lhe falta profundidade ou a textura é desinteressante. Só essa mera experiência de compreender os valores das pessoas que dizem isso e as suas justificações é, em si mesmo, toda uma experiência cognitiva que de certeza valeria a pena. E uma aula de análise musical baseada nisso, talvez valesse como mil e uma de analisar uma ópera de Mozart pela milésima vez. Ou talvez se descobrisse que afinal de contas, mesmo seguindo critérios e valores “canónicos e estéticos” se percebesse que afinal os nossos compositores em nada são inferiores aos outros…

Valores como “novidade”, “complexidade harmónica”, “foi feita por dinheiro”, “tem apenas dois acordes”, “é previsível”, tudo isto e muito mais pode ser debatido. E no final não haverá quem não me acuse de “um disparate relativista do princípio ao fim”, com base em tudo o que disse, estou a dizer e vou dizer ainda. Seja, neste momento, neste contexto, ninguém me demove desta opinião. Talvez daqui a dois ou três anos tenha outra, se alguém me argumentar e mostrar melhor.

A verdade é que para mim, tudo não passam de humanos a comunicar com humanos os seus sofrimentos e complexidades e contextos. E essas experiências por si só têm o seu valor. E como tal, se somos Portugueses, vivemos em sociedade, deveríamos escutar o que temos a dizer, o que fazemos, gerar dinheiro entre nós e projectarmos a nossa imagem e cultura.

Faz-me confusão cada vez que ligo a televisão e vejo reportagens em música de fundo ouvir Yann Tiersen pela milésima vez. Eu adoro o Yann Tiersen, adoro a banda sonora da Amélie, e todos os Comptines que ele escreveu. Mas eu também escrevo música minimal para piano. E milhares de outras pessoas em Portugal. Porque será que quem produz estas reportagens continua a pagar direitos de autor às banalidades e sofrimentos do Yann Tiersen em vez de pagar dinheiro às banalidades e sofrimentos dos seus pares Portugueses? Quanto mais não seja pela questão económica!…

 Por isso, quando se insurgem contra Rodrigo Leão, B Fachada, a moda do fado em geral, fico incomodado, a sério que fico. Deixem comer os Portugueses. Prefiro mil vezes que dêem dinheiro a estes senhores do que darem à Beyoncé ou à Rihanna. A sério que prefiro.

Sejamos práticos, há nichos e nichos, há mercados e mercados, há narrativas e narrativas. Quem dá dinheiro por um B Fachada se calhar não está minimamente virado para dar por Tantra ou Emmanuel Nunes. Percebo que a discussão se possa colocar nesse nível – ao nível do género ou dos valores da música em si. Mas o meu ponto não é tanto ao nível da música e dos seus valores relativos, ou absolutos, mas sim, da nacionalidade entre músicas de igual ou similar teor/valor percepcionado.

É um argumento de nível económico, social e político. Não é tanto um argumento estético. E nesse prisma, defendo, portanto, que o nosso mercado, para nosso próprio bem, devesse estar literalmente infestado de autores portugueses e das suas obras. Os media devessem promover o António Pinho Vargas, o António Victorino de Almeida, o Tiago Videira. Que os músicos os tocassem nos conservatórios, que as faculdades analisassem e debatessem as suas partituras, as suas técnicas e as suas fragilidades e pontos fortes. E depois os pudessem comparar com referências passadas ou estrangeiras. Que as suas obras estivessem a tocar nas salas de concerto e aparecessem depois nos jornais e na televisão. Que os seus autores fossem entrevistados e convidados para falar do assunto.

Nada tenho contra os músicos de outras paragens, do passado, referências culturais e histórias. Tenho tudo contra um obscurantismo cultural e um filtro mediático deliberado e constante que continua a ignorar ou rebaixar, sem razão aparente, os autores do nosso país e do nosso tempo.

Sem querer fazer saudosismo, ou qualquer apologia política ao fascismo é preciso reconhecer uma coisa boa que a política do espírito trazia: nos anos sessenta a rádio e televisão Portuguesa teve três orquestras – a da emissora nacional, ligeira e a típica. Tínhamos uma escola de cantores. Tínhamos músicos e autores a trabalharem uns com os outros. E a serem difundidos. Foi o tempo do chamado “nacional-cançonetismo” com uma imensa profusão e produção de música. Pode-se debater e discutir, como sempre, a sua qualidade, o seu interesse. A questão é que existiu. E os músicos conseguiam viver disso e entreter os seus contemporâneos e conterrâneos. Tudo isso desapareceu, e mesmo este espólio está todo votado ao esquecimento, na sua grande maioria.

Historicamente e antes da tecnologia sonora, a música era uma arte efémera, local e contextual. As pessoas ouviam o que se fazia naquele momento, naquele sítio. Talvez não fosse mal pensado reaproveitar um pouco desse hábito.

Parece-me, que ao nível da música dita popular, actualmente, e em certos sectores e contextos, as coisas estão a começar a melhorar. Ao nível “erudito” e da academia, há todo um trabalho por fazer. E tem de partir necessariamente de nós.

 

Six puppets

Some food for thought, just facts, not judgments. A typical European Family: Joe and Anne, two post-teens. Joe is graduating, never worked. Lives with his parents, depends on them for everything. Has some friends and a boring life, home, college, bars. Anne got pregnant in high-school and dropped off. Lives with his parents and also with the baby. The father is absent but pays the food pension. Anne just takes care of the baby and can’t find a job. Both post-teens act like teens the whole time. Spend their lives on the internet, the cell phones, the mall, the movies, the night. The entertainment industry is everything for them. They follow the trends, they never thought about using their own minds to make anything productive. Their wildest dream is to go on vacation to Fiji, have a big house with a pool or owning a Ferrari.

Then there’s the parents almost in their sixties. Mark worked many years in the industry but had an accident and now is retired and receives a generous pension. Linda was a teacher and also receives a pension for early retirement after teaching primary school for thirty-two years. They both maintain a small house in the suburbs and provide food and caring for them and their kids. The routines are basic: shopping, taking care of the food and cleaning. The rest of the time is occupied at home, totally dependent on the entertainment to not get bored to death – we mean television. They don’t know how to handle computers. They don’t have many friends or money to go on vacation. But they have +100 cable channels. So, between soap operas, reality shows and the biased news they live their lives.

Finally the grandparents. Marcia and John are in their eighties. Also retired for almost twenty years now. They can’t live alone anymore and it would be too expensive to have them in a nursing home. Their pension is enough to pay for their expenses and so everyone keeps cool having them at home. We just have to feed them and take them regularly to the doctors. They don’t pay the doctors or medicine, everything is free due to a good social healthcare system. Their lives are devoted also to chatting with the family and watching TV. Marcia used to knit but her eyes don’t allow anymore.

Basically we have a typical European family. Six people, producing nothing, living at the state expenses and being totally manipulated and kept on the verge of the sanity by the entertainment industry. Or totally manipulated, perhaps. I really don’t know. I don’t even know the point in this essay. Perhaps I don’t want to make any point in particular. I just thought it would be very curious to present this perspective and let people try to think for themselves what is happening to this family and many others that may be similar. And why does this happen. And what would be the consequences if some of these parameters changed…

Politics and Music – a symbolic analogy or How and Why Schoenberg invented Musical Communism

Formal systems and abstractions are everywhere in our world and dominate the thinking and the reasoning on how we organize ourselves and theorize and speculate about it. Therefore I am proposing yet an amusing and interesting mental experience – the analogy and the mirroring of political systems/ways we have used to organize our societies and the construction of musical systems through time. It’s amazing how can we perceive the similarities!…

We can start by saying that the first modern composer, fully aware of the power of a systematic approach to music using symbolic notation was Bach, and what a composer he was! In fact I recognize him as the first deity of our narration. Bach was a clear example of despotism: the notes follow strict and clear rules, they should not let be free and yet, there was an amazingly strong hierarchy within the system. If we look at the species counterpoint and the fugue there is no doubt on how strict this formal system was. So, I’d say that a Tyranny absolutely fits here. And seems to make sense.

When we travel to a more lose system, yet still full of rules, clichés, perfect defined hierarchies we find the monarchs: the likes of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Monarchy is the system that follows Despotism – not so rigid, yet with enough constraints to be recognizable as non free and dependent within a governing center. Of course, there are subtleties within it, and we can also account on them, if we think of the absolute monarchs like Louis XIV, full of ego and with an all ornamented society we can think of this “evolution” in Monarchy as the same provided by Chopin or Liszt when they just stretched the system to a point where ornaments and virtuosity garnish the music to almost unbearable ways.

The next step is, of course, the start of the protests: when we step right out of monarchy and there are dissonant notes and harmonies that refuse to follow the rules, that want to stubbornly come out of the pre-established hierarchy, when we want no more a stable tonic attributed by God, we start seeing the offspring of the Republic, and we have to associate it with the likes of Wagner or Debussy. The system is becoming loose and flexible, adapting to the times.

Then, oh, my! Is it a retrogress or simply a derivation? It’s a whole new thing and concept! Schoenberg comes up with Communism! Of course, the creation of a system where the hierarchies vanish completely. There shall be no note above other, no rhythm prevalent. All shall be equal, so be it. Of course, like most of Communist regimes in history, also this one tended to fail miserably: most people couldn’t handle it and refused its application, its consequences were devastating to the audiences, questioned all the aesthetical status quo, and promoted another very questionable evolution – fundamentalism.

We already know from history that there are right wing tyrannies and left wing ones. Well, if Bach was our right wing Despot, we have in Stockhausen, Boulez and the serialists, the left wing ones – the rise and rise of the religious fundamentalism across music – the complete abolishment of hierarchies within the system, yet the total control of all systemic parameters, rules, rules, rules. What to say about it? Of course, some would follow this systems as a religion, as fanatics, where others totally stay out of the way. Usually you can’t have a mid-term mild attitude before this kind of organization.

We know what happens when the masses are pushed to a limit: they convulse and explode. And then they go in all possible directions. The reactions were huge. And we had a multitude of them. Of course, the left wing extremism, the Anarchy just imposed itself in the realms of Cage. Music shall have no rules at all, let chance be it!

On the other way, some new regimes and systems that were not quite politics but more of ways of life emerged also. That also happened in music – some new systems that were more “ways of organizing sound” also emerged. If we can think of the hippie movement, to set people free with very simple rules, very simple clichés and ways of organizing life and society in small communities, repeated all over, with the same routines, with very small hierarchies, most of the time only residually functional, you can for sure assume the existence of the minimalism and the likes of Glass, Reich and Young.

But, the system that outdone all these quasi-peripheral ones was of course, democracy. Democracy was the resurrection of the rules of the past combined with the freedom. More or less a potpourri where it could co-exist everyone in harmony without excluding no-one. Tonality could exist and should be prevalent as a norm, however, why not have meter changes, counterpoint, atonal moments? Why not? That is the like of most modern composers, they are democrat. We can see the reel of John Williams, Nyman, Arvo Part just to name a few.

Then we can recall small flourishing of a time when all seemed possible, yet not so sophisticated, we are of course remembering that obscure and marvelous period in the renaissance: the ars subtilior. That awkward movement that questioned everything and produced wondrous content without parallel in history – that was the greek democracy, yet to became a serious regime in the future.

Of course now we can understand that all before that were simple tribal organizations with few rules, and even renaissance might be mildly compared to derivations of feudalism and chivalry – if we ought to consider them political regimes, or perhaps just “ways of organizing society”.

And we still have to consider the point and borderline where formal systems not quite political, but more philosophical or organizative try to emerge as ruling the politics. That borderline can also be defined when things that are not quite music, more sound, perhaps, emerge to organize themselves. We have the flourishing of capitalism, that is politics or economy? All we know is that, for some reason, the system sometimes seems to dominate the other. And also we have the concrete school of Paris and the electroacoustic world, growing in parallel, and with a proper theory: sound and noise should govern themselves, and with the digital world we’ve lost track completely. We don’t know exactly where is the border between noise, sound, acoustic sound. Is it an oboe played by a computer still an acoustic musical sound? What’s the difference between an orchestral rendition and a midi computer rendition if you can’t tell the difference? What is the difference between your democracy or the banking and the finance world ruling your country if you can’t tell the difference?

And, of course, there are also the neo-philosophies that mix all that: the politics, the economy, the nature and try to co-exist in a niche of their own, organizing the society as a whole. We are talking of the environmentalists or all the neo-zen movements that try to use technology, nature and a simple way of life. We can see also the new age and relaxing music and still wonder what that would be: synthesized minimalism? Neo-tonal non functional derivations? We’ve had them since Satie, yet we are yet to find exactly how to co-exist with them in democracy and to acknowledge if they are really part of it, or just a side-effect of its own.

In conclusion: men has always find ways to theorize and organize things in little drawers and categorizations. What is funny is that many aspects of these formal systems overlap. Perhaps that’s because we reason in a certain way and we find useful to group things and try them out in certain ways. So, playing with ways of organizing societies and treating humans as numbers or symbols, or playing with notes and rhythms in a staff is not that different at all – symbolic manipulation I’d say that is!…