the times they are a-changin’
what is the purpose of music? what does it do, why is it important? ever ask yourself that question? different people give different answers to that & the way you answer determines your approach to music, whether you are a musician or a listener.
the most common answer is that the purpose of music is to express emotion, create a mood or set an emotional tone. music has the power to communicate emotions, that’s why a motion picture would not be half as effective without the musical soundtrack to manipulate how you feel. you bring your special friend home after a date, light some candles & put on some sexy music. you throw a party & put on some dance music, which has the power to move your emotions to the point where your body starts to move in time with the beat. major chords sound happy, minor chords sound sad, major 7th chords sound ethereal, diminished & augmented chords sound suspenseful & anxious. heavy metal sounds powerful & brutal, hiphop sounds streetwise & sly, funk sounds earthy & pungent, punk rock sounds rebellious & often goofy. musicians who think music is for expressing emotion generally go for the simpler, more folky forms of music: blues, 3-chord rock, country-western, etc. they aren’t interested in the musical elements of chords, scales, time signatures, rhythm, harmony & melody, they can squeeze plenty of emotion out of one chord or two notes & that’s all that matters. generally they aren’t trained musicians, don’t know much about it, don’t listen to the more technical forms of music & don’t really respect trained musicians who know more than they do because that doesn’t matter to them. these kinds of musicians are doing therapy when they play because it is therapeutic to get your emotions out. they are there for themselves, not the audience, but if they think about it they say that the value of that for the audience, besides the entertainment value of watching a person do therapy in public, is to show the audience how to do their own therapy. i recently heard maynard james keenan of tool, perfect circle & pucifer give this exact point of view on a podcast interview. he said that what he had been doing with tool was basically just screaming, which was healing for him to do. he was getting his demons out in the only way he knew how. he felt that he was setting a good example for his audience. well, you would have to decide for yourself if that is a healthy place for an audience to be.
another opinion about the purpose of music is that it is there to present a point of view, teach, preach, sell a product, or otherwise influence the audience. religious music is selling religion, commercial jingles are selling soap & deodorant. to a widget manufacturer, good music is whatever sells a lot of widgets. a lot of composers & songwriters are presenting information or a philosophical or political point of view. that is where censorship comes in & certain kinds of people become intolerant of music that expresses a point of view that they don’t like. joseph stalin, a thug murderer, told genius composers like prokofiev & shostakovich how to compose because he turned everything into propaganda. so did hitler, who liked the grandiose pagan mythology of richard wagner & persecuted modern artists. both stalin & hitler hated modern art, which should tell you something about the nature of people who resist change in the arts & who actually want to destroy creative progress. a lot of the art that is around, funded by propagandists, is really this kind of political brainwash. a lot of pop music is really just corporate & religious brainwashing. most of the big mind-controlled american pop stars that came out of the disney stable are illuminati satanists doing kabbalistic rituals on stage. there are clubs in town where you have to go before a council of communists & justify your politics before them to get a gig there. hollywood is like that too, you have to be a leftist to get anywhere. when the propagandists move in, conformity is enforced & the quality of music goes down the drain. there is no artistic freedom with people like this, they enforce mediocrity & persecute creativity.
the german government has found another use for music: they play loud classical music when they meet to make it hard for the NSA to listen in.
there is another point of view about the purpose of music that is different from the previous ones. it blew me away when i first read it, because most of us just take it for granted that music is done for the reasons discussed previously. it came from igor stravinsky, composer of “le sacre du printemps”, probably the greatest work of music of the 20th century. what stravinsky said was that music is not there to express emotion, tell a story or convince you of something, music does not stand for anything but itself. music is to be taken on its own terms, not as the representation of some feeling or ideology. you see, the other approaches to music have it standing for or representing an emotion or an idea, & having value only in what it represents or is associated with, but not as what music is, which is organized sound. this is the approach that is put down as “art for art’s sake” by the propagandist & emotional schools. what, make music just because it sounds good & not because you are trying to brainwash somebody or make them dance or make them happy or appeal to their sexuality? to creatively explore new sounds & new ways to organize those sounds while trying to be as pleasing as possible? to express one’s individual uniqueness? it sounds very high-falutin’ & airy-fairy, but actually is very basic. it is music as sound rather than music as emotion or propaganda, it is the most basic physical approach to music. it is “coming to your senses”–the sense of hearing, in every sense of the word. they who have ears, let them hear.
sound waves effect people physically. sound waves change things. if you put sand on a drum skin & put sound thru it the sand will dance into geometric patterns. the reason that old guitars sound better than new ones is that the sound waves going thru the guitar actually re-arrange the molecules of the wood over time so that it conducts sound better. in my experience, there is music that will make you sick & music that will heal you, music that will hypnotize you & music that will stimulate your thinking. that is the effect of the organized sound itself. there has been times in concerts when i felt as if my molecules were being re-arranged. i think that’s why i go to concerts, ha ha. so ask yourself–who do you want re-arranging your molecules?
when i hear a beautiful orchestral chord, i appreciate it as amazing sound that pleases me, not because it reminds me of a movie i saw that had the music in it or that it represents the sea or a forest or takes me back to childhood when i first heard it. when i hear an electric guitar chord, i listen to the quality of the sound, wonder what kind of guitar thru what kind of amp it was because every guitar sounds different & every amp sounds different, & isn’t that amazing? there is infinite variety in guitar-amp-stompbox combinations & variety is the spice of life. if i am listening to a folk singer, whether that person is cryin’ in their beer, emotionally depressed or in love, or what political cause they are associated with, does not matter to me as much as how the music actually sounds. if the emotion in the singer’s voice makes it sound better, then i like it. if it makes it sound in a way that irritates me or gets on my nerves, then it isn’t so good. emotional expression in itself is a good thing, a musician has to be passionate about music & put that passion into their work for it to be convincing, but not all emotional expression is pleasing. an infant throwing a fit, crying @ the top of its lungs is certainly expressive but i don’t want to listen to a recording of it. a lot of punk music is like that–an infant throwing a fit. i am more interested in this–can you make cool sounds? are they organized in interesting ways, or is it the same old banal stuff that sounds like everything else? is it tight or sloppy? when you learn to delight in sound itself, then new sounds are often the most delightful. if you love sound, then how can you limit yourself to just one sound like an acoustic guitar & reject all other sounds? that’s like never eating anything but carrots–they’re good, but you won’t be healthy that way.
back to igor stravinsky. “le sacre du printemps” totally rocked the world. sure, it caused riots, but those people were the ones who resisted it, not the ones who got it. it is associated with a story of a pagan sacrifice, but really it is an adventure in pure sound. hearing it played live by a great orchestra is an amazing, powerful experience. yes, it is emotionally moving, but music like this takes you to emotional places that have no name. it’s about surprising new sounds, new ways to combine sounds, new ways to use instruments, new ways to unleash power, new strange ways to feel. i recommend the DVD of simon rattle & the berlin philharmonic doing it, it’s great. crank it up LOUD.
i decided that i wanted to play guitar as a kid when i heard the first fuzztones of jeff beck. now that was a new sound. the acoustic strummers & the twangy guitars of the pre-psychedelic days were ok but nothing exciting. then hendrix came along with the feedback & wammy bar & pedals & stompboxes & i saw the way. then i saw king crimson in the early 80s, with robert fripp playing a guitar synthesizer & adrian belew playing thru a rig that was a stack of rack-mount gear instead of the usual amp. both of them were making sounds that nobody had ever heard before. wow, totally exciting music. the acoustic guitar makes one sound, the electric guitar makes a few sounds but the electronic guitar makes thousands of sounds. i could never understand why anybody would want to limit themselves to just listening to or playing an acoustic guitar that makes only one sound, unless you wanted to go out in the woods where there was no electricity. actually, i have had to do that, we showed up for a gig in the california mountains one evening to find out that a storm had taken out the electricity & the people were drinking by candle light. the club owner told us to keep the people in the club in any way we could while they went to get a portable generator so we could play. somebody went & got me an acoustic guitar & i had to go from table to table taking requests & singing songs. i was glad to have that acoustic guitar that night & it was a very special, intimate experience going around that club singing beatles & tom petty songs & stuff like that by candle light, i will never forget it. but then they showed up with the generator & we got up & ROCKED that joint & it was even better. electricity is a wonderful thing.
in 1965 bob dylan went electric @ the newport folk festival after previously being only an acoustic solo, causing a huge controversy. it was a milestone in the history of pop music. he actually did it on a whim, making the decision the day before to play with an electric band because he was irritated by the narrow-mindedness & condescension of the folkie purist festival people, who looked down on electric musicians. he is reported to have said “well, fuck them if they think they can keep electricity out of here, i’ll do it.” a lot of the acoustic purists threw a fit, including some famous folk singers. pete seeger wanted the band to turn down because it was upsetting his old father who needed a hearing aid. WHAT? dylan must have realized that this was not the cool music people & he just blew them off & never looked back. i think a lot of these old hippie folkies who never forgave dylan for going electric became teachers who passed on their prejudices to their students, because the folkie purists in this town are mostly college kids. if you go into these folkie cafes you discover that the people are talking very loud & not paying much attention to the music, they are checking their phones & consuming food & drink & going in & out to smoke so it seems to me that what these people really hate is music that interrupts their conversations & phone-checking & food-drink ordering. it’s really a culture where music isn’t important, it’s just somebody going on in the background while you discuss politics or gossip or whatever. loud music that demands your attention is not something that they like because they aren’t there to listen to music much, except during a lull in the conversation.
well, that’s cool, ambient music is valid. if people are interested in other things that’s their business. but–what if somebody there actually wanted to listen to the music? the musician would probably prefer that people actually pay attention. i usually can’t hear the music very well in these places because the talking is so loud & you can’t really see too well for all the people getting up to smoke all the time. compare this scene with the berlin philharmonic, where people go to actually listen to music. you turn your phone off when you go in & if you take a call during a concert you will be kicked out. if you talk, make body noises, move around or otherwise distract people from the music they will stare daggers @ you. people go there to listen to music, not to hear you run your mouth, so shut up. if you have a cough, stay home. don’t ruin it for everyone else. there is no getting up to smoke & if you get there late after the music has started, they won’t let you in until there is a break in the music. these people respect music (more important, they respect the people who are there to listen to the music) & therefore the listening experience is amazing. organized sound can actually change your state of being & take you to places you have never been before if we ever stop to actually listen. that’s why i play LOUD. i am not there to be drowned out by gossip. there will always be people more interested in smoking their cigarettes & yakking on the phone but i try to play loud & clear enough where those people can’t ruin the music for everybody else the way they do in the acoustic cafes.
back to “art for art’s sake”. my approach to creating music is that creativity is its own message. when somebody is presented with something that is fresh & unique while being sonically pleasing, it will stimulate creativity in their own minds & souls & bodies. creativity is contagious. so is joy, & if you are doing what you truly love that joy will be there. now there are political & philosophical & psychological points of view in my songs, but i am not trying to convince anybody. it’s just material–writers look around them & use what is going on as material in their work. it is natural for me to talk about what is going on in my songs, but i am not trying to change anybody’s mind. i walked out on robyn hitchcock because he started to lecture the audience about politics. elvis costello is boring like that too. so is roger waters. save me from propagandists & their lectures, i don’t listen to music for that. my communication is in the sound waves themselves & the words are just part of that. i am first of all exploring new ways to make cool beats & sounds, new ways to combine styles into new styles, even new ways to play the same old songs while obviously respecting the original. uniqueness is a principle of nature, no two of anything are the same, so my music must naturally be unique. yours should be too. that inspires other people to be themselves too, no matter what anybody else says. some people won’t like it when you are being yourself. well, screw them to the pit! that’s the true rebellion & punk attitude, baby. be yourself & up theirs if they don’t like it. that’s creativity. but, @ the same time you want to please people, you aren’t trying to drive them away. i am doing music to please other people–the ones who get it–& to give them a special experience. i don’t want to take a punk attitude as far as, say, sid vicious, who comes out in that video & machine-guns the audience, mowing them all down in a bloody massacre. that’s going too far with the punk attitude, ha ha. i not only want to make music that sounds good, that is pleasing to the ear & to the body, but i want to make music that is surprising & interesting enough & satisfying enough to be worth listening to. above all, music must sound good! duh.
creativity brings change. new kinds of music bring excitement. people find their lost enthusiasm for music when a new scene erupts, blowing away the stale, moldy old scene. i saw that happen in LA with the new wave explosion of the early 80s. suddenly there was an alternative to corporate hair-farmer metal & people like me started going out to clubs again & hanging out. ahhh, the motels & oingo boingo @ madame wongs. . . then the red hot chili peppers appeared with their outrageous madness & completely rocked the town again. those guys were acquaintances on the hollywood scene & they inspired me a lot by just being completely unleashed & wild, but very good musicians who listened to everything. they just exploded onto the stage when they came on. when i first met anthony they were doing a rap version of a hank williams tune, completely off-the-wall. fishbone was like that too, taking tremendous risks on stage, flying this way & that. these people create electrifying excitement. a happening scene creates prosperity for everybody because more people are spending their money on musical entertainment. creativity brings prosperity. mediocrity & mind control bring poverty & boredom. we need places to hang out @ night, hear music & interact. let’s all embrace change & encourage exciting new music, while always honoring our musical ancestors.
if you want to get on my mailing list to find out about some cool live music coming up, contact me thru BMT. more about those sizzling, zapping electronic sounds next time.