Unheard #2: Origins
Recently I've started thinking about how I ended up so attracted to unconventional music.
That's the word I use to describe a lot of the music I listen to -- 'unconventional.' To me, there isn't any better way to phrase it. Referring to a whole motley of disparate genres and sounds -- drone, free jazz, noise, psychedelia, warped pop, and so on through all manner of weirdness -- the lone common element amongst all the noise is a defiance of custom. Of course, music has been spurning convention for a long time now, and genres we would presently call 'conventional' were often considered nothing short of rebellion when they first arrived. Surely, my definition of unconventional itself is vague and subject to eternal adaptation. But the premise of surpassing the 'accessible' in the good name of creating something legitimately novel -- that's a righteous challenge for both the musician and the audience. And that's where the true glory of 'unconventional' music lies.
So, definitional issues aside, I'll reiterate the fundamental investigation -- what draws me to unconventional music? Why do I allot as much rotation to gradual, glacial drone as I do to pop? I used to think it was because I listen to so much music, that it was simply an inevitability that I would become exhausted with the homogeneous subject matter that comprises the mainstream. I posited that an over-saturation with familiar pop forms had led me to seek novel approaches -- distinct textures, sounds, even new ways of organizing sound. Consider the 2006 release of Geoff Mullen's “The Air In Pieces.” Here is a powerful and haunting statement of an album designed around the range of moods and textures produced by electric guitar, pedals, and quixotic percussion. Entire worlds are evoked by feedback and the occasional pick n' twang, ranging from melancholy to ire. It doesn't spell out feelings like a hackneyed pop song, but elicits raw sensations by way its own aesthetic nature.
So one might argue that it was too much pop exposure which led me to artists like Geoff Mullen. But mainstream over-saturation doesn't explain it all. There is no shortage of folks who listen to droves and droves of music but never tire of dire commercial fare. My dear neighbor has played the new Lady Gaga disc more times than hours have passed since its release, and his enthusiasm hasn't waned in the least. I'm beginning to think that there is a constitutional difference between those of us who stay Top 40 and those who seek divergent sounds.
I once conducted an interview with Mike Dixon, the very friendly man behind People in a Position To Know Records. He drew a distinction between “active music fans” and their more passive counterparts. His own journey down the former path was triggered by the acquisition of several cassettes at a garage sale hosted by the family of a girl he liked. As he explained his own background, it occurred to me that it takes a certain amount of chance to build an 'active' fan -- right place, right time, and so on. When people describe how they became deeply involved in music, there's often a haphazard event that sets the whole thing off -- a hip older brother, a chance mixtape, or a late-night radio broadcast. But besides a healthy dose of serendipity, also necessary is an explorer's spirit -- a willingness to go off and do the legwork necessary to discover new music. To read fanzines, to pore through label catalogs, to navigate droves of music blogs. It's all part of the fun. And, of course, the details vary from individual to individual.
Let me trace my own path to 'strange' music. The earliest incarnations of my musical tastes revolved around music videos, and in grade school I used to carefully follow the pop hits of the times. I remember White Town's “Your Woman,” a big hit on Canadian mainstream radio, being my favorite song for a long while. The unique composition -- whose melody was founded on a brief sample from an obscure 1932 Al Bowlby song, and whose lyrics dealt in convoluted gender confusion -- could perhaps represent the earliest traces of my interest in the weirder regions of music.
At about that same time, I became taken with dance music, listening judiciously to a local techno station that was positioned right on the fringes of the radio dial -- Energy 108 FM. Their programming was largely club-centric, but I quickly lost interest in diva-led house anthems in favor of the more inventive side of electronic music. One late Friday night, I happened upon an airing of Aphex Twin's iconic “Windowlicker” video, which changed me forever. The utter strangeness of the visuals themselves, with Richard D. James' rotten face superimposed onto bosomy, bikinied dancers, perfectly framed the wondrously mutant beats and melodies contained within the song itself. If there ever was a defining moment on my pathway to unconventional music, this was it -- to this day, I consider “Windowlicker” a singular example of pop music made weird.
From Aphex Twin, I bounded outward to other IDM acts -- Autechre, Squarepusher, Plaid, Plone -- and eventually ran into indie rock as the two scenes were intertwined by a common, nebulous fanbase. This all was pretty daring fare for a twelve year old, but the burgeoning internet generation aided my quest greatly. Frustrated by the narrow musical tastes of my classmates, I ventured deeper into independent music. It took me awhile to stray from those old standbys, rhythm and melody, but the netherworlds of convoluted Autechre beats and ambient music soon revealed themselves to me.
At some point during this upheaval of musical tastes, I found myself scouring the web through some obscure free association of links pages and DIY label webrings, and unwittingly ended up amid the maudlin Geocities network of early 00s noise labels. I was particularly taken by the website for the now-dormant Anti-Everything label. Amongst the (even for 2002) atrociously designed, AOL-hosted red-and-black HTML disaster were impressive catalogs of hand-crafted limited editions. Each release was accompanied by a titillating thumbnail photo and a brief, spacebar-deficient blurb describing the contents (“ASD spins convoluted phonograph deconstructions.TVGoffers up some frightening experimental power electronics.packaged in cut up phonograph sleeves with added collage and paint.”) I was utterly fascinated by the concept of people buying (a) tapes, in (b) random cases made of scrap metal, toothpicks, spraypaint, circuit boards, cockatoo feathers, French buns, orange marmalade and everything in between, and released as (c) editions of seventeen, or fifty-four, or six hundred and sixty-six, or negative four, etcetera.
Anyhow, my perusal of the Anti-Everything website eventually led me to a -- snicker snicker -- mp3.com page for Japan's Facialmess. Scrolling down the page in my state-of-the-art Netscape Navigator browser, I naively clicked play without so much as a second thought, let alone a volume adjustment. And unsurprisingly, I had to stop the track within seconds. Yes, folks, that was my first experience with noise. And, to be honest, it frightened me. There was something downright unnerving about realizing that there were whole communities of people playing, releasing, and buying records comprised of this harsh, violent, frustrated chaos. Even the band names were chilling, the words chosen to be somehow malevolent and nasty -- Prurient, Sickness, A Sonic Deterrent. And the websites -- often in Japanese, removing all sense of context -- were rife with macabre imagery, hellish and careless web design, and perverse (when intelligible) text.
But my early experience with noise laid down the tracks for a raying-out of my musical oeuvre. Ten seconds of Facialmess may have proven aversive to my ears, but they were also a few of the most exciting moments worth of sound I had heard up until then. That brief experience revealed a whole new avenue of sound, reconfiguring the very idea of music in my mind. Music's appeal was not tied to rhythm, melody, and image, and as I would gradually learn, some of the most original and appealing sounds relied upon none of the three. While pop hooks make songs easily digestible, they can be a hindrance to the production of more abstract, nameless sensations. This is why some of the most powerful passages in otherwise “rock” bands' discographies -- e.g. King Crimson, Genesis, Lou Reed & the VU -- were those which eschewed traditional song structure and devoted themselves to mood, texture, and dynamics.
So here I was, perhaps fourteen years old, with a whole world of possibilities splintered open in front of me. The internet playing a large role in my quest for new sound, I quickly amassed a piecemeal but broad knowledge of music scenes both ubiquitous and obscure. I became especially consumed with New Jersey's flagship radio station, WFMU, and its massive online archive of old broadcasts. One of my favorite things to do was to isolate strangely named bands on the station's playlists and hunt and hunt until I found any information about them. This practice alone exposed me to a wide spectrum of sounds, commensurate with the station's eclectic programming. I became engrossed in such disparate music scenes as the obscure sixties psychedelic archaeologists, the Japanese sine wave artists and “onkyo” scenesters, and the expansive drone composers. Band names like BIDZILIBA, Metabolismus, and Sshe Retina Stimulants titillated me then, and I suppose they still do today.
At some point that year, I started my own website, and the nine years since then are now all but history. No doubt the story is far from over -- it seems like every month I'm exposed to some new collection of minds making novel and legitimately original forms of music. And I suppose that's where the fun lies. I have my fingers crossed that I never end up a closed-minded old curmudgeon, dismissive of all new musics and pining for the good old days of Merzbow and Prurient. “Back then, now that was real noise!” But I suppose that happens to the best of us, whether we realize it or not. When it comes to unconventional music especially, preferences are largely dictated by the lottery of personal experience. But that's a topic for a whole other piece. Instead, I'll leave you to ponder over your own liberation from music's conventions. Perhaps, like me, you'll learn something along the way...
-- Michael Tau (16 December, 2009)