On Appreciating Music and Reverse Engineering

04 Apr 2012, Athens, Greece --- April 4, 2012 - Athens, Greece - The famous ''Antikythera Mechanism'' is the earliest preserved portable astronomical calculator.The ''Antikythera Shipwreck'' exhibition takes place at National Archaeological museum in Athens. All antiquities recovered in 1900-1901 and 1976 from the legendary shipwreck off the islet of Antikythera, South of the Peloponnese will be presented for the first time in a temporary exhibition. The recovery of the shipwreck itself was the first major underwater archaeological expedition. It was undertaken by sponge divers with the assistance of the Greek Royal navy(1900-1901). The wreck is dated aproximately in 60-50 BC. (Credit Image: © Aristidis Vafeiadakis) --- Image by © Aristidis Vafeiadakis/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Music analysis and judgement (of any of its attributes or as a whole) can be done from different vantage points and with different emphases. Generally speaking, there are a few main approaches that are common in pop and metal reviews. Some judge it by its production qualities and its popularity, that is, mainly as a marketable commercial product. Others that are inclined to “feeling” the music will base their reviews on technically uninformed emotional impressions of the music. Others with a limited but comprehensive understanding of the technical will judge music as if it were a contraption, even being able to separate emotional impressions from material achievements of music. These are broad categories but individual reviewers usually fall in grey areas in between them with stronger tendencies towards one or another.

DMU’s approach has traditionally been one of judging music as romantic-era (19th century) literary and music critics would: an attention to evocative results as a function of technical means with a holistic emphasis. What this means is that what is most important is the final and total result and not the individual merits.  Additionally, we focus on the lasting evocative power arising from a layered and technically (at the composition level) competent work that moves beyond the technicality itself while not disregarding the musical balance it provides. In music we see the construction of Gothic cathedrals and not modern skyscrapers.

A useful analogy can be made between detailed music appreciation and reverse engineering in software engineering. Some might jump at the thought of comparing the two since “music is not a computer program” but these are nonsensically reductionist complaints. Anyone who truly understands how an analogy works knows that the source of its power arises from the insurmountable distance between the two obviously disparate objects being placed beside each other. The distance and disparity only serves to bring to the fore and underscore the characteristics we are interested in, achieving greater clarity by a negation of the irrelevant. The objects are not equated, they are superimposed. More precisely the main object under analysis is transposed into the space of the second one being used as an analogy.

To understand reverse engineering we must understand the order and direction of original construction. A vague idea is conceived usually behind a foggy screen since the builders have not yet figured out the details of how they will bring this into reality. Then, a step a time and usually with deviations from the original concept, the “material” shape of the concept comes into being. At the other end, when we are presented with a piece of software to reverse engineer, that is to say, to analyze and understand in terms of its parts, what we can see is the materialized concept only. The first step is to understand what this piece of software exactly does as we do not know how it was built. We get to understand what it does by categorizing input and output relations, which direct us towards an understanding its behavior in different situations — different contexts. The result of  a successfully reverse-engineered software program is a piece of code whose compiled object behaves the same as the original one in every conceivable way possible. This code is most probably different from the original one, but this is irrelevant since the importance of this code is the understanding and reproducing of the final piece of software. Original software building moves from details and into the solidification of a vision. Reverse engineering moves from the solidified vision and into the details.

In other words, what matters most is the total end result (as in music or software engineering) and not the judging of parts for their own sake (but only in relation as to how they affect that end result). This is why it is important as an analyst to move in a backward manner. But for this to be valuable, the person must understand this holistic result first, and this is only achieved through study and knowledge. This is comparable to the analyst of software who needs to not only see the input and output relations but understand higher-level concepts and probabilistic tendencies derivable from those. In the same way the analyst of music must through his own lenses and knowledge grasp a picture of the whole in its relations between harmony, rhythm and melody derive a map of sequences of movements and balances.

Going from the general to the specific enables us to keep a holistic view in focus. It helps us place the sum of the parts over the individual parts themselves. Trying to pick out the traits first and then judging the whole by making a recapitulation of these is not only obfuscating the whole which some with a more limited understanding judge to be impossible to put in objective terms but can be deceiving of just what the true quality of this work actually is.

To illustrate this point we can observe how appreciation of many so-called progressive acts is carried out. The positive reviews of these usually entail a shopping list of traits to be filled. Tempo changes, signature changes, contrasting moods, variety of instrumentation, instrumental competence, catchy and captivating melodies perhaps, too. An album like Dream Theater’s Images and Words fits these requirements to the letter and yet the result is a messy carnival train wreck that expresses nothing in particular precisely because there is no view of the whole in mind as a musically-balanced entity, but only as a sequence of cool moments.

This phenomenon can also occur through ignorance of what music constitutes. This happens in pop and the so-called symphonic metal, which I will re-baptize with a more honest name: metal-like pop, or just metal pop. In this vein, an album like Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful is received by its fans and judged primarily in terms of how catchy it is. How effective its hooks are and how much they will like its melodies. Arguably a more musically honest affair than the pseudo prog of Dream Theater, this reduces music to only one of its many aspects and judges the whole by its effectiveness.

Finally, I would like to mention the often mis-appreciated Obscura by Gorguts. Ignorant and pretentious journalist twats like Anthony Fantano spewing almost nonsensical and musically irrelevant descriptions such as “intense technicality”, “noisy surprises” and “dizzying structures” of Gorguts’ music in Coloured Sands represent the epitome of the post-modernist hipster’s appreciation of the band’s music. While popular arguments in favor of Obscura include how “technical” it is (while most fans barely even grasp what this actually entails, they think it has to do with how difficult it is to play or hear), how foreboding its atmosphere is while remaining “brutal” (an obviously superficial judgement of quality) or even worse, how “original” (by which they mean different) it is. They’ve basically reduced a masterpiece to “difficult to play and listen to, brutal and quite different from most stuff out there”.

The merits of Obscura are far more subtle than that, as are any real merits resulting from true excellence. The degree to which it sounds superficially different comes from a use of the riff that I would call mystical. That is to say, the riffs and their harmony here no longer represent what they traditionally do, but they remain significant in terms of the operations they build in the context of their neighboring riffs. They stop being translucent symbols that show the way into a harmonic and melodic conclusion and they become opaque, acquiring new meaning — a specific musical function dictated by their author– determined by their positions at different moments that instead causes the mind to reach that conclusion on its own through coherent indirection and dissimilitude of expression within a consistent language. In this, Obscura is the death metal counterpart to Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger.

Stepping away from the dynamic picture that music is and listening for the total results and relations in the big picture enable us to know exactly what to look for as explanations for these. In a way it implies focusing on an interplay between the subjective (our impressions of the whole) and the objective (the music structures themselves) to locate music — itself an expression of beauty, to which the dichotomy of objective and subjective is inapplicable — somewhere in between.

15 thoughts on “On Appreciating Music and Reverse Engineering”

  1. discodjango says:

    Brilliant!

  2. Ara says:

    It is known that I’ve disagreed with you on a number of things, such as more recently your bit on Morbid Angel, but this is easily the best description of the merits of Obscura that I’ve read, and one that I haven’t been able to put into words for what is probably 17 years now.

  3. Vigilance says:

    You call that YouTube personality pretentious, but you spent a good portion of this article and many others disparaging others and highlighting perceived deficiencies. I listened to that annoying fat man speak and he was able to get his point across without calling others stupid.

    You are consistent in two things:
    1) sheltering yourself from criticism via a veil of “you don’t understand”
    2) a failed attempt to create an in-group out of individuals (your readership) with perceptions of intellectual superiority.

    I’d be far less caring and harsh if you were capable of putting your thoughts and perspectives out there to stand on their own merits instead of on the bodies of those you deem inferior. These two characteristics are the hallmarks of pretentiouness.

    It would be excusable if you had an ounce of the charisma prozak brings by the barrel. But you don’t. This site is unreadable in its current configuration and incapable of competing with bottom of the barrel website’s like MetalSucks who, currently, are at a much higher place then DMU under Mighty Fenrir. Long winded, dry, faux intellectualism. I could forgive the lack of charisma if insightful commentary was present. What we get is lengthy descriptions of the objective features of music and an insistence that these features matter because……..? Well we don’t know why to care other than your opinion that we should.

    Take a page from Prozak. He listed the objective qualities of a piece of music but passionately and charismatically wove beautiful prose to elicit emotional responses in the reader – ie giving them reasons to care about what he was saying rather than rely on snark.

    1. “1) sheltering yourself from criticism via a veil of “you don’t understand””

      I do not “shelter myself” in it. I just state it after countless explanations go in one ear and exit the other. I do not “rely on snark”. I just enjoy doing it as an extra slap to those who take refuge in their right to disagree without understanding.

      Sometimes people disagree, sometimes people do not understand, these are two different cases. And very distinguishable cases at that.

      “2) a failed attempt to create an in-group out of individuals (your readership) with perceptions of intellectual superiority.”

      I haven’t attempted creating an “in-group out of individuals (your readership) with perceptions of intellectual superiority.”.
      I’ve only expressed my ideas WHILE being derisive towards what I consider incorrect, regardless of who that thought comes from. Hence my “failure to create an in-group” -> I’m not trying to get anyone “on my side”. The ideas are out there, if you want, you can take from it, if you don’t you can keep complaining.

      ” I could forgive the lack of charisma if insightful commentary was present. ”

      Oh, well… hahaha if there is no insightful commentary here… then I guess I’ve never written any insightful commentaries

      “Take a page from Prozak. He listed the objective qualities of a piece of music but passionately and charismatically wove beautiful prose to elicit emotional responses in the reader ”

      I am not THAT interested in “eliciting emotional responses from the reader” as much as I am interested in puting ideas out there that can if not provide direct understanding but can start a train of thought that can take the reader to a point of understanding on his own. For that, you need to be willing and interested.

      It is true, I am no politician or educator. I am merely someone with ideas and opinions.

      1. Franz Hohenholler III says:

        David, it’s clear you dislike Dream Theater but I’m curious to know what is your opinion
        on Symphony X. Personally I think they´re a classy power metal act.

        On this video you can observe the classical pieces used on many of their songs
        through out their discography.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGT6MKrDJy4

        1. They re ok. I would classify them as hard rock. Flashy hard rock. Nice guitar licks. Not particularly good overall except on their more proggy albums in their middle period.
          also, it is not a matter of what i like or not. Dream theater is just poor music.
          i like old arch enemy. They were also mediocre and poor music.

          1. Jae-yun Kim says:

            i like old arch enemy. They were also mediocre and poor music.

            Now I find that really interesting! I recall that Brett enjoyed Carcass’s Heartwork, despite it being “sold-out” and “cheesy.” Maybe you could write an article discussing your favorite “guilty pleasure” albums, i.e. albums that are enjoyable for you to listen to despite falling far short of your musical standards.

  4. Murph says:

    That review of Colored Sands had one good observation: that death metal is simultaneously cerebral and visceral. The rest of it was like listening to a wine taster ramble on about the intricacies of flavor in a glass of pruno.

  5. You're all faggots says:

    Rosales is ideology before substance.

    Why is a Messcan running this site?

    1. What ideology? Tell me because i don’t know what you’re talking about

      1. Jae-yun Kim says:

        Well you seem to be staunchly orthodox in your views. A shot in the dark, but your critic may have in mind these old DLA articles: “Chuck Schuldiner: Legend or Ideological Disaster” and “Art and ideology: inseparable.” The present article, among others, seems to be well in line with the following excerpt from “Art and ideology”:

        Returning to the question of whether or not an ideology produces art, we have only to think a moment about the process of artistic creation: an artist has some idea from which he or she produces an artistic work; there is concept, and then rendering of that concept into a sensual medium. In other words, there is a content outside the medium; great art is not achieved by randomness, or stupid people would do it. What makes art powerful is its ability to communicate, and what it transfers is the original idea of the artist as tempered through their past knowledge which like all philosophy or science is cumulative.

        The concept that art is purely aesthetic, and thus conveys no ideas from the artist, is a means of nullifying it and reducing any differences it has from other forms of art to purely aesthetic disagreements; one band uses melody and carefully structured arrangements where another band is cyclic and uses rhythm more than tone, and this in the view of the nullifiers is no more significant than choosing to paint the sky blue in one painting and electric pink in another. This nullification is moral and democratic by its very nature, and it is only through careful sleight of hand that we are trained not to notice is condemnation of certain “political” art as what it is — a subtle but aggressive means of excluding other political views from discourse.

        I’d say that much of DMU’s approach is summed up in these two paragraphs.

        For my part, I support David. I miss Brett, but I feel that he could hardly have picked a better replacement, given what I’ve seen from him so far. I may not agree with parts of his fundamental philosophy, but I appreciate his writing, which is intensely analytical and richly informative and insightful. And he’s prolific; he’s a powerhouse of a writer. Like the napalm bomber featured on the 5-26-15 SMR article.

        1. Dmu summarized, yes.
          the idea is that we think the product is inseparable from intention. Intention can never be exactly deciphered, but we can make educated guesses.
          it does not mean we think about ideology first. Always think music first. Ideology as a possible explanation or extra commentary

          1. Intention can never be exactly deciphered, but we can make educated guesses.
            it does not mean we think about ideology first.

            I do not think about ideology at all. This allows me to enjoy bands that advocate either of the twin evils of Communism and tyranny.

            Music is communication of intent. If it cannot be deciphered, the music stands as pure aesthetics and tends to have temporary value only.

    2. no troll says:

      Boy did you just contradict yourself…

      Brett is forcing diversity on you!

  6. Moloko + says:

    :: the drums ::whoa:: they’re tight! there’s a lot of stellar execukuishun on these things ::

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