Richard Wagner wrote epic operas based around primal mythology as based on Nordic and German folklore. Almost two centuries later, Alexander Jacob sat down with piano scores by Richard Kleinmichel and created an album of spacious, otherworldly music using that interpretation of the original. Numen Media released Richard Wagner: Parisfal on digital and compact disc for an audience wanting to explore Wagner in a sitting and not an afternoon.
The selected scenes from the opera translate into music with strong themes emerging from dense backgrounds, giving it both the textural feel of contemporary electronic music and the depth of heavy instrumental complexity as is found in most classical and progressive rock, but in the single voice of the piano this becomes a comforting shift like transition from city to country to town via train. Themes arise and then recede, like ideas in a dream, and play off related ideas in a shifting scenery which reveals its contours only slowly.
Transitioning to a single instrument from the multi-layered score written by Wagner, which famously required larger orchestras than were normally used, requires sacrificing some detail as many voices become one. The piano, on the other hand, demands lack of outright repetition as it becomes too obvious. Jacob and Kleinmichel navigate those obstacles by isolating different leitmotifs and working them into the piano as complementary voices. The result strikes the listener as more peaceful than Wagner, and relies on subtlety to bring out its power, manifesting out of a background ambiance a striking and sudden clarity like an explosion in darkness, then returning to a piece that almost conceals itself in calm. As a result, Richard Wagner: Parsifal serves as soothing music which inserts its intensity like a revelation in the mind of the listener after the fact, leaving a lingering sense of being transported to a different and more epic era.
After a very promising debut album which the band explained as consisting of a collection of demos and other recordings, Antaeus released their first “proper” album in 2002: De Principii Evangelikum. Antaeus play a saturated black metal that foreshadows the developments of Sammath and shares with it an antecedent in Uranium 235 Total Extermination. For all the violence expressed here on the face, the riffs ride very short melodies that make up for the constant percussive assault. The more one gets familiar with the album, the more this balance is perceived. Like most black metal albums, the front assaults or deceives the listener (some albums present a saccharine front that actually contains very thoughtful and detailed music, even if not reflected in quantity or variation of patterns) that only reveal their whole worth after both repeated listens and emotioal immersion in the music.
De Principii Evangelikum does sound like a consolidated Antaeus, insofar as they choose a very particular approach narrowed down from their previous album, Cut Your Flesh and Worship Satan. In a Faustian gambit, Antaeus ripped all pretension of ambience and took the frontal assault that only figured as one aspect of their earlier music. As such, this is a condensation of that style that even if it limits the expression range of theband, it allows it to refine a very particular language and also sets it in a track in which a band attempt to perfect a sound until they get it. A parallel would be Sammath’s more-than-a-decade long efforts that finally culminate in 2014’s Godless Arrogance, a kindred spirit of De Principii Evangelikum.
As a first full-album effort, De Principii Evangelikum show us a highly focused band that knows what they want and that have matured musically. It is the realization and not the concept that is still being experimented on. In De Principii Evangelikum this is practically realized in potency and convincing excellence. The question is, is this all the band is aiming for?
The DLA/DMU has taken flak over the years for being unwilling to embrace new trends, but this criticism forgets that we also avoided endorsing older bad ideas. Our writers have generally avoided jumping on the bandwagon for the “trve kvlt” just as much as the new, millennial-friendly indie-rock version of metal. The reason we can do this is that we apply a simple quality standard instead of using the consensus of others to determine truth.
Despite having many editors, each of whom had somewhat varied opinions on the process, if viewed on the large scale the site has kept a generally consistent opinion. That is: some of the so-called classics are good, and few of the new school releases are good, but the determination is not made by category, but by analyzing each release on its own merits. This leads to sudden shock for some who expected us to be cheerleaders for anything that seems to “uphold the true spirit of the underground,” and dismay for those who like the newer material as release after release fails our test.
Metal is in a slump and has been since 1994, in quality. Correspondingly, it has been in a boom in terms of quantity of fans. We have more “metalheads” (cough) now than ever before. However, anyone who is not in denial — and most are — can tell you that quality has fallen off dramatically. The music has lost its energy, its nerve and its insight and been buried under a wave of bands that are either obedient and docile system products, or slaves to the underground record-collecting audience that does not care about quality so long as the aesthetics of previous generations are preserved. Both groups unfortunately are useful idiots for industry, which can keep producing low-cost clone bands and reaping the profits.
We discard bands for two reasons: not being metal, and not being good. The bands that are simply not good tend to have the most fans, ironically. Who among us can claim that, for example, Blazebirth Hall bands and Drudkh offered anything musical or artistic to metal? They cloned Graveland in a light and breezy melodic form that is essentially music for children. In the same way we refuse to celebrate underground “favorites” that consist of ranting and disorganized music like Sepulchral Aura, or avantgarde prog fanboy-bait like Fanisk and Deathspell Omega.
In addition, we discard that which does not uphold the artistic, intellectual and philosophical spirit of metal. There is quite a bit of overlap here with “not being good.” We would not endorse Cradle of Filth; nor would we endorse Opeth, back in the day, or Cannibal Corpse, on the basis that they were essentially rock bands trying to assimilate metal and thus produced a moronic mindset. Similarly Pantera and to a lesser degree, Anthrax. Back in the day we thought SOD was inferior to Cryptic Slaughter, DRI, and Corrosion of Conformity. We refused to endorse Wolves in the Throne Room, Animals as Leaders, Gojira, Mastodon and other indie-rock pretending to be metal. We ignore Pelican and all stoner doom bands because they are boring and terrible. This music is distraction from metal, not metal, but its fans make a big show of being “very metal,” which tells you exactly what they are hiding and deflecting your attention from.
This approach wins us zero friends in the short term, but trusted readers in the long term. People — especially those who lead purposeful lives and do not have lots of time, nor enjoy, combing through catalogs and blogs trying to figure out which 1% of the reviews are not lies — like getting the low-down on quality metal. They enjoy that moment of discovery when they find something really good, something they can listen to not just this week and six months or a year from now, but for future decades. That is ultimately the standard by which any music fan operates; they like music, so they veer toward the best, not just at a level of mechanics (technicality) but artistically, or its relevance to the ongoing philosophical and moral maturation of humankind. Most of humanity likes mediocrity or at least convinces itself that it likes those bands. After all, Third Eye Blind has sold more records than most segments of the metal genre. But popularity — whether among credulous hipsters or gormless mass media fans — has never determined quality. Consensus is not reality. Only reality is reality, and we make our best stab at it.
With that in mind, you may ask: why write negative reviews? The answer may surprise you. We seek to give music fans the intellectual tools they need to fight back the onslaught of Opeth, Pantera, Ulver, Cradle of Filth, Meshuggah, Vattnet Viskar, Cannibal Corpse and Deathspell Omega styled bands. We use both positive and negative examples to illustrate, to the best of our ability, what metal is and which approaches to it have produced the quality level necessary for prolonged listening. This puts us at odds with most metal journalists, for whom writing is a day job and as a result, is interpreted as endless enthusiasm for whatever is new and exciting because the consensus likes it. They are essentially advertisers because they are writing ad copy about these bands, not a look into what makes their music function. It is designed to make you buy music, because journalists who can sell music get famous and become editors. You will notice that major publications run almost no negative reviews. Why is that, you might ask? Because their job is to sell music, not review it, even if they call it “review.”
In all human endeavors our social impulses, which because we are selfish beings are actually self-interested impulses translated to altruism to flatter and manipulate others, override any sense of quality or purpose. The task ceases to become the task and becomes the process of creating the appearance of results instead of results; bands stop trying to be good, and focus on replicating what has worked before in new forms. The “best” (by consensus) bands “sound” different on the surface, but musically are extremely similar, because that formula has worked in the past. That is a social impulse: make what people like because it does not challenge them and makes them feel smart, profound or at least “with the crowd” to be listening to it. This social impulse has ruined metal since 1994.
Metal thrives — as it did during the mid-70s, early 80s and early 90s — under two factors: (1) it is ignored by most people, so it is free from the manipulations of those who want to sell rebellion-flavored rock to morons, and (2) it has some truly great artists to kickstart it and establish a standard. The former is self-evident, but the latter can be explained as follows. When early Norse black metal came out, it set a standard of quality and allowed fans, by simply choosing to spend their money on what was more rewarding, to exclude bands that did not meet that standard. Why would you buy Forgotten Wolves when you can get Darkthrone? Why would you pick up another speed metal clone when you can have top-quality death metal? Metal thrived when it was elitist, closed-minded and viciously competitive. Now that it has become a group hug, quality has suffered and no one seems to have noticed. Except us — and we are watching.
Fenriz as the archetypal metal drummer is perhaps a puzzle to most, perhaps considering his status to be a mere by-produt of Darkthrone becoming an icon. The status of most worthy personalities of metal tends to be double sided in that way. There is the respect for what came before, usually a blind fanhood of what is not understood and is only explainable in terms of some kind of historical relevance and then there is the underground ackowledgement of the musical talents of the artist in question that stand the test of time. The difference in perception arises from the fact that these artists’ greatest merit lies in subtletly. The Subtlety of where to use a specific technique, however rudimentary, so that the music is better enhanced, completed or open to being built on (say the drums got written before everything else).
In drumming in particular, the lack of appreciation for proper arrangement has been greater than in the vocal or guitar departments, perhaps because the only antecedents in this type of percussion come from rock and jazz. In rock, the drums are merely a time keeper and groove-adder. In Jazz, it is typical that they serve that function plus, like all the other instruments, allow the musician to keep masturbating on the instrument with little thought to how this adds to the music as concept and not self-referential indulgence. But in all fairness, there is an old school of jazz in which the music is kept together more neatly and in which the drums play a much more constructive role.
In metal, the drums are not only a support instrument but should blend in into a whole. In fact, ideally, the guitars should be doing this too. The point is so subtle and hard to grasp that even the musicians that acknowledge it have a very hard time translating it into practice. As with all great things coming from a simple concept, it is easier said than done. The most prudent drummers and bands limit the percussion to a function (that in metal is more prominent and important than in rock) rather than the spotlight, and this is at least a first step.
It was the increasing distance between all rock-like perspective in music that made metal approach a more purified and important integration of drums into its frameworks. Works such as Hvis Lyst Tar Oss or Transilvanian Hunger are inconceivable without percussion. That is not to say that the rest of the elements are not good, but they are incomplete without percussion. And so are their corresponding drum patterns without them. Metal had to go back to an extreme minimalism, stripping down every layer to realize the importance of every little element. This Burzum album belongs to end of black metal as an era, but I will place it here even if it appears counter-chronological.
After an initial dive into this primitivism driven (Celtic Frost, Bathory) by gut instinct of the most authentic kind, death metal proper developed and quickly escalated in its use of technical arrangements that went overboard in the sense that they were unnecessary for the point of the music itself, though not necessarily bad. Technicality was set besides essence and communication in importance. The formal music tendencies that are so prominent in classical music started to surface in metal.
A great overlooked exception to this rule was the work of Adrian Erlandsson within the framework of arrangements and indications of Alf Svensson for At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours. The fact that these integral arrangements are unmatched in death metal to this very day is a testament to how little understood they are. The fact that the drumming here twists, bends, propulses, stops, counterpoints in a great variety of different drum patterns that while theoretically rudimentary are often technically demanding, especially when performed as a whole, indicate that a sense of continuity in expression must be kept by the drummer through changes of tempo, time signature and character. What makes this superior to other progressive-oriented albums is that for all this variety, the style of expression is tightly restricted. The reduced repertoire of guitar and drum techniques to the minimal from which it builds its complexity in a language of its own endows it with this distinct personality. Without the guidance of the architect Svensson, though, this band completely floundered in mediocrity soon after his departure.
Today, few bands grasp the importance of the integrated drums let alone being actually capable of translating the concept to a concrete plan and then puting it into practice. As far as I have seen, with very particular exceptions, the most sober drumming comes from the modern tradition that has branched from (old, the only real) black metal. First of all, it may come to those learning it by virtue of studying the past, this makes the grasping of a concept much easier. This does not include the nu-black or post-black camps which represent a departure, regression and deconstruction of metal, a reflection of decadence.
It is rather in the work of Abyssum’s Akherra that we see the role of drums as an essential part of the music. For this, the rest of the instruments must accomodate the drums, not only run on top of it. The naive layering of instruments most bands are used to is precisely what makes them amateurs in this. In proper metal, the drums are inside, not under the music. This is part of what the metaphor “drumming in counterpoint” reflects. Drum patterns that are relatively independent in the sense that they aren’t just there as a support, but come into contact at every moment with the music, bending, yielding and transforming along with the rest of the music.
Such attention to detail goes far beyond just playing slower or faster, stronger or softer when the rest of the music does so. It is not only a matter of intensity or speed in correspondence. The drums must live in symbiosis with the guitars, and not like a running pair of athletes besides each other. Silences and types of drum patterns specifically tailored to different sections are exemplified in Abyssum’s “The Illusion of Pan” in which we see important decisions taken about the smallest details such as ride strikes in the rhythm of a particular keyboard melody speed, the variations between soft blast beats and other less forward-moving patterns as great inflections and indicators of the song’s pictorial journey that are not as clearly reflected in the rest of the music alone.
This entry is not about judging this or that band over another. The point is the study of drums for the future of metal. The recognition of the evolution in the use of drums throughout the genre. Surprisingly, Black Sabbath Master of Reality shows the kind of thinking that would go into Celtic Frost To Mega Therion in terms of the reduction and powerful use of elements into highly-personalized expressions. In this Black Sabbath showed how far ahead of their times they were. It took metal more than a decade to catch up to them. These musical transpirations in their music were refined through the black metal tradition going through death metal. The best we can hope for is bands today piecing out elements in this way, and being able to identifying what great drumming consists of in metal. But this must start out from the vision of metal as a proper music, as highly-integrated elements which conspire within an indissolubly dependent complex set of relations.
VI is a French black metal trinity, made of current and ex-members of Aosoth and Antaeus. Their debut full-length album, De Praestgiis Angelorum, bestirs within the characteristic black metal niche developed by the said bands, with the addition of expanded guitar work, choirs and subtle sample parts. VI describes their music as “extreme, devoted black metal with illuminated chaos”.
– Featuring INVRI (Aosoth, ex-Antaeus) on guitars and vocals.
– Featuring BST (Aosoth, ex-Antaeus, ex-Aborted) on bass.
– Featuring Blastum (ex-Aosoth, ex-Antaeus, Merrimack) on drums.
– Recorded, mixed and mastered in BST Studio (Antaeus, Hell Militia, Aosoth, Vorkreist).
– Cover artwork by Alexander L. Brown (Leviathan, Stargazer, Bölzer, Darkthrone).
– For fans of for fans of Deathspell Omega, Funeral Mist, Aosoth, Ascension, Svartidaudi, Antaeus.
Et in pulverem mortis deduxisti me.
Par le jugement causé par ses poisons.
La terre ne cessera de se consumer.
Regarde tes cadavres car il ne te permettra pas qu’on les enterre.
Une place parmi les morts.
Voilà l’homme qui ne te prenait pas comme Seigneur.
Il est trop tard pour rendre gloire. Ainsi la lumière sera changée en ombre de la mort.
Roaring subterranean primitive occult death metal band Blaspherian have signed to Dark Descent Records and plan to release their yet-untitled next album on that label in 2016. Comprised of eight tracks of Satanic blasphemy, the new album follows up on the Imprecation/Blaspherian split showing an increasingly focused style for this primeval band.
Blaspherian released the following statement:
By the blessing of SATAN, and the blasphemous pride we are excited to announce that BLASPHERIAN will be working with Dark Descent records, for our next full length release.
This full length will feature 8 tracks of old school SATANIC DEATH METAL….and is slated for a 2016 release….
Olivier Messiaen about 1940 at the console of the Cavaillé-Coll-organ St.Trinité in Paris
Famously noted for having claimed that he saw colors when listening to music, Olivier Messiaen was born very early in the 20th century (1908) and was one of the last in a bastard’s litter of composers to be caught in the crossfire between a lingering romantic spirit and modernist aesthetics. This extremely vivid perception of musical tones and his fondness for birds and their songs were, doubtless, a great influence on his methodical choice for musical language. This includes his own compiled and defined modes of limited transposition. These existed before but he was the first to compile them and examine their boundaries and relationships exhaustively.
Hanging in an interesting intersection of the concentrated meditations of Ildjarn Landscapes, Tangerine Dream’s and Klaus Schulze’s early improvisation-like soundscapes and the latter’s methodic motific constructions, Messiaen’s organworks such as Les Corps Glorieux anticipates them all and brings them together in a very personal language. Appart from that, we find passages that could be taken from the most bizarre organ fantasias dreamed of by Baroque or Romantic composers. What is special about these works is the convincing power with which he brings all this together without falling into the modern tendency of classical music to twist around and transform ideas so quickly the listener barely has time to be submerged in them.
In contrast, his music lingers in the ecstatic wonder that we might guess was induced by an appreciation of nature and its patterns as the grand work of the Judeo-Christian god as per his Roman Catholic beliefs. The exact source of it is not important, but the state of mind achieved in silent and inner introspection and outwardly-projected contemplation is transmitted in these organworks through a plethora of distinct techniques that Messiaen manipulate without incurring in an overcrowding of any particular piece. But even when a comparison between movements is done, the nature of the whole work is not disrupted, all come under an intent, even though each of these is an idea of its own. While any can lump compositions and songs in an album or title and call it a day, in Messiaen’s different organworks we find the perfect example of works as expressions of ideas in episodes. Integral works that divide individual ideas into self-contained movements.
The recordings of 1956 are said to suffer from audo-technical problems even for the recording technology of the time. A hiss is present here and there, and not all tones are captured in the pristine way that classical music audiophiles fantasize about. In addition to that, the way Olivier Messiaen himself plays his works on the organ is criticized heavily by some, arguing that he is not a real organist. This is quite a statement given that he held a post as an organist at a church for decades. The third condition that affects the recording is that the organ is said to be out of tune, with some pipes diverging slightly from how they should sound. In my personal opinion, given the nature and character of Messiaen’s music, and the fact that he wrote the pieces for that precise organ, the imperfect condition of the instrument is perfect for the performance. His talents are more than enough, as he composed and feels the music he gave birth to, filling it with expression in rubato and more as it flows through and out of him. The subpar recording and defects in hiss and what not only add to the eery atmosphere of mixed wonder and dread that probably represents the Christian fear of God. Love and admiration and extreme fear mixed together in irreconcilable battle for primacy in an endless cycle that fades into eternity.
The following is a three-part series of articles discussing this performance and contain links to horribly-tagged mp3 files of the 1956 performance of the composer’s works by himself:
“While he was instrumental in the academic exploration of his techniques (he compiled two treatises: the later one in five volumes was substantially complete when he died and was published posthumously), and was himself a master of music analysis, he considered the development and study of techniques to be a means to intellectual, aesthetic and emotional ends. Thus Messiaen maintained that a musical composition must be measured against three separate criteria: it must be interesting, beautiful to listen to, and it must touch the listener.”
Metal act Triguna release their first official music video for their debut record Embryonic Forms. Over the course of the next year they will release one a month. When all songs in the record have been released in individual takes, the band will collect them in a video compilation. Along with it, live footage as well as pre and post show footage will be released in The Embryonic DVD.
The video for the first song, “Rage”, has already been published on youtube.
Playing a style of black metal that became more prominent and perhaps common after the turn of the century, S.V.E.S.T.’s “atmospheric” approach is of the sort that creates a fog out of different layers of intsruments playing different notes to form dissonant chords and having the drums by a vehicle for intensity. Although black metal per se has inclinations towards minimalism and ambience, this explicit brand of atmospheric black metal stretches song durations as long as it is necessary to induce the sense of evaporating time and alienating experience they are looking for. While many different bands can claim to be part of this, very few retained an anchor in reality and still building something meaningful. S.V.E.S.T. Urfaust is such an album.
The way this balance is achieved in a style of black metal attempting to create a chaotic semblance is to always have one element that is static in proportion to how much other things vary or lash out wildly. For example, this band always keeps some sort of diffuse organlike notes playing in the background, either with some kind of synth or with tremolo-picked guitars, while the drums change slightly more freely, but always responding to changes in the music as a whole, and the lead guitars are allowed to roam around more freely creating the and blending the motifs that lend each piece its personality in a background that is a raging maelstrom.
Of course, the counterpoint between instruments needs to be maintained, it will not do to have an heavy riff underscored by drum patterns that take away the attention from a center in the music and rather give us two shows in one. Such an event spells out incoherence. The controlled way in which such chaotic force is wielded strongly calls to mind the prophetic work of Colombian pioneers Parabellum.
Urfaust is a gem of an offering whose music lends itself to an esoteric interpretation. Listened to from afar or in a distracted manner, the music may be perceived as a simple repetition of ideas throughout a long time. In part, this effect is intended as the listener is expected to lose himself in the music, instead of counting measures and the number of times this or that theme come and go. Furthermore, the density of the layers covering the details is such that to pierce the uniformity, the listener experiencing this must become acquainted with it in an almost meditative state in repeated visits.
In this, it is similar to the roads taken by Abyssum Cum Foeda Sanie Ex Ore, Kaeck Stormkult and Paysage D’Hiver’s eponymous album. All this leads to an effect in which content is blurred from an unattending audience but revealed to a foccused attention that can both let the music flow and attend to the relationships within it. Masterful music that achieves this must embed these details, progressions and variations behind a strong veil of consistency that also serves to preserve coherence in a rather forceful manner that is vindicated by the overall balance achieved.
This album has an art music work orientation with respect to its overall orientation in concept and publication. First of all, this is a three-song full-length album in which the songs are movements that belong together and not a collection of three songs. The relationship goes beyond a very clear and distinctive choice in voice and is made explicit in motifs throughout the album, with its most obvious gesture being that the opening section of the album in the first movement is the same as the closing one in the third. Another example worthy of attention and presenting an immersive experience is Fanisk Noontide.
The element of chaos is, of course, a metaphorical one, represented in disorienting rhythms that quickly come back to a stable state and are safely supported by anchors. It is their repetition, variation, combination and alternation between different motifs along with the unrelenting percussive attack that create the picture of crumbling sanity from compositions that are technically firm and delineated.
This is where a band like S.V.E.S.T. far surpasses the uncontrolled madness of later Deathspell Omega which incurred in a common mistake in nu-black metal: the attempt of becoming the atmosphere itself. The so-called experimental disorganization and hispterish disavowal of rules for the sake of breaking conventions displayed by Deathspell Omega leads them to the lazy decision to try to portray chaos by actually making a huge mess out of the music. Unfortunately, S.V.E.S.T. later took from this band the idea of uncontrolled freedom in fits of post-modern delirium.
The vulgar idea of attempting to imitate what is being portrayed in an overtly obvious and direct manner is not new, although in our era the clowns doing it come out to the unaware as being original thinkers of some kind. Great masters of music like Ludwig van Beethoven and Johann Sebastian Bach played in this line and warned themselves and others of the dangers of falling to either side of the narrow wall that music forms between evocation and aesthetics. S.V.E.S.T Urfaust stands proudly and firmly as a monument to this balance where both music is preserved in its formality yet evocation and idea envelop it as the non-destructive organization and manipulation of the aesthetics themselves become the door and medium to the experience.
“(…)a symphony of Beethoven presents to us the greatest confusion, which yet has the most perfect order at its foundation, the most vehement conflict, which is transformed the next moment into the most beautiful concord. It is rerum concordia discors, a true and perfect picture of the nature of the world which rolls on in the boundless maze of innumerable forms, and through constant destruction, supports itself. But in this symphony all human passions and emotions also find utterance; joy, sorrow, love, hatred, terror, hope, etc., in innumerable degrees, yet all, as it were, only in abstracto, and without any particularization; it is the mere form without the substance, like a spirit world without matter. Certainly we have a tendency to realize them while we listen, to clothe them in imagination with flesh and bones, and to see in them scenes of life and nature on every hand. Yet, taken generally, this is not required for their comprehension, or enjoyment, but rather imparts to them a foreign and arbitrary addition; therefore it is better to apprehend them in their immediacy and purity.”
The slow evolution of Western society (and in consequence of the whole world) into the post-modern paradigm arising inevitably from the purely mechanistic cosmovision of the Enlightment sciences, which in the best of cases allow for a Cartesian separation of the physical and the spiritual, pervade every corner touched by the status quo culture. This results in a relegating of anything which cannot be explained or described in purely mathematical terms to what is referred to as ‘subjective’. Anything that is experienced but cannot (yet) be explained is assumed to be subjective. There would be a certain justice to this if the phenomena that are still unaccounted for by science were squarely placed in a category under a truthful label by the establishment confessing: “We don’t know how to explain this in our terms, but that does not mean it is any less real or without possible objective basis.” What takes place is an arbitrary classification of these into morally-justified beliefs when they are in line with the status quo and into so-called subjective experiences when they are not.
The views held by society must be enforced in every discipline precisely because they are the result of dogma and not actual science (a word unfortunately hijacked by a corrupt establishment lead by weak minds elevated to positions of prestige and power by other weak minds). It follows that dogmatic belief cannot be challenged at any level since any divergence spells out potential intellectual catastrophes and conflicts that are not guaranteed to be won by the powers that be. As a result, not only does education suffer in the form of indoctrination but so do the supposed heroes of objective knowledge that the sciences are said to be comprised of turn into the priests of the temple to whatever the hive believes. It is only to be expected, then, that the humanities and the arts are the most easily and selectively suppressed, limited or made irrelevant, since the processes and phenomena studied by them are even further away from the grasp of mathematical explanations.
In the Western classical music tradition, the tenets of the Common Practice Period have been put into question for a very long time in progressively derisive waves. Very often, revolutionary thinkers that spearheaded such contrarian views had transcendent and elaborate reasons that motivated and justified their moving-beyond. But the hordes of followers understood only a portion of this, often inclined towards its most easily understood materialist explanation. In the case of Beethoven, followers of his defiance of what was expected of music were shielded from degeneration by the very fact that the then contemporary German culture was a very spiritual one, and its artists still acknowledged the magic behind music — occult properties and processes that can only be perceived but not fully explained. Contrastingly, in the age of Anton Webern, his decision based on artistic principle to move away from traditional harmony to work with a self-defined and logical set of rules that he would use without falling into an empty materialism was taken up as fashion — the next “big thing” in classical music development. This directly reflected the way Western society saw the world around it at the beginning of the 20th century: as its playground, where anything “I like” goes and the capricious human will is allowed to do whatever it wants because we are the nihilist masters of the natural world. Gone was the romantic respect of nature and its view of humans as part of it. We must ask ourselves what dissolved the old German mysticism? The simple answer is that they, too, had to change, even if slowly and reluctantly, in order to not be destroyed in a world dominated by French Enlightment and overarching Russian influences — both with primarily materialist tendencies.
Music theory is one such set of occult properties. Yet it is only occult (hidden but observable) because there is no theory developed for the relation between arranged sound frequencies and mental states, especially at increased levels of complexity. Contrary to what scientifically-ignorant artists think, this is neither impossible nor irrational, just difficult. Contrary to the beliefs of Blank Slate – indoctrinated scientists, the study of innate human nature can yield explanations as to why, as a species, certain tastes, visual and sound arrangements and textures have certain effects on the mind (itself rooted in chemical states of the brain). The reason why both groups tend to back away from such ideas is not rooted in reason, but in the fear of not being acknowledged for who they are, which for them translates into what they want, like or prefer to believe to feel validated. In other words, reality is shunned in order to give way to a truth built on the necessities of feable human egos. The ramifications are manifold and most are out of the scope of this article.
Out of the accusations levelled against Common Practice Period theory, one of the most common and often accepted is that it somehow limits the imagination of artists. Presumably, this is because its rules define a perimeter around permissible options in a finite-state machine, thereby prohibiting the random allocation of space and time to music tones selected purely out of gut feeling. And that precisely is one of the defining factors of the post-modern vision of art. At this point, it may seem like I am contradicting my previous statements regarding the possibility of harmony rules being developed and justified on the basis of human nature. If they are, then an artist following only his gut feeling should arrive to at least similar results. First, that these rules are based on human nature does not mean they are free of the constraints of their historical context, including not only cultural implications but also material possibilities for the construction of certain instruments with particular timbres. Second, the rules were developed through collective observations and philosophies over hundreds of years by many different people building on top and beside one another– in the same way that mathematics and modern science were gestated.
While older attitudes were nature-oriented, and tried to keep their understanding of human nature in line with what was then understood of the natural world, the Enlightment sees a rupture between them as a necessary effect of placing human beings over nature as overlords to do as they please with it– thereby setting them beyond judgement within it. It was an ideology-based decision, not a scientific one. As a result, there are those, especially among the post-modernist classical artists, that are not guided by a free search for musical perfection, but by contrarian and politically-charged statements that can only be described as the ultimate incarnation of a hipster’s dreamworld.
The comparison to mathematics is in dire need of further elaboration as it contains the potential to elucidate much about what musical theory is and what it is not. We may start by stating that they are both tools and means to an end. Admiring the organization and arrangement of a music passage on grounds of technique is akin to feeling a sense of wonder when shown a beautifully and clearly derived mathematical formula. But neither of them by themselves attest to the accuracy of the connection of these to reality itself. Both musical and mathematical theory are dependent on premises — they are both arguments developed from a set of assumptions which may reflect conditions and events in the real the world.
Common Practice Period theory arose from organizing tones in the spectrum of perfect consonance to most extreme dissonance as perceived by human beings. Not one human being arbitrarily writing up rules, but scores of audiences reacting to the works of many different composers through lifetimes. Each composer taking notes on the triumphs and blunders of those that came before them and adding their own ideas. It was a veritable scientific effort of occult nature. The fact that the notes were taken not from one society at one point but by the cumulative effort many through many generations also somewhat lends to the tradition a tendency towards the transcendental. Of course, this is completely dependent on a healthy balance between acknowledgement of tradition (whatever that tradition is for the artist) and a continuation of its ideals with a progressive intent.
To round off the metaphor of mathematics, we should stress that no development invalidates or properly subordinates older techniques to newer ones. This fallacy is so pervasive that it is common to hear people referring to the use of newer techniques in themselves as a sign of superior expression. This is related to the malady that is born from the cult of novelty. In truth, when it comes to mathematics, if one person solves a problem using simple algebra yet another fails using calculus, it is obvious that the simple use of a more sophisticated technique is not in itself superior. It may be true that in art and music we do not have the luxury of calling something right and wrong, but the comparison is done in parallel and not on the same plane as mathematics. This is the same as when Newton developed Calculus, he did not ditch arithmetic and algebra developed hundreds of years before he was born, but used them to build this tool that would allow him to develop theories concerning abstract models of the physical world.
Nobody is saying there is a right and wrong dichotomy in music. In fact, this is where it is necessary to part from the analogy. Music is much more comprehensive and complex than mathematics (which only has a cumulative complexity, not a multi-dimensional one). Mathematics is comparable to music theory, the tool, and not to music. Music is the resulting idea crystallized, probably through the use of music theory techniques, the same ways physics derive explanations of the universe by using different techniques from mathematics. By its occult nature, music’s domain being states of mind and evocation, what we do have in music is degrees of esoteric communication through sensory perception. It is a communication at many levels rather than only at the level of reason and goes beyond it and to our instincts and learned behaviors which as a total reflect a unique vision from a unique individual. “Personal taste” advocates need not get too excited as the variation can only be as wide as human minds allow — which scientific research shows is not as much as we like to think. Variation is wide with respect to how we see ourselves, but not that wide when we see the whole spectrum of possibilities. And as an occult discipline guessing at phenomena of the universe (and our mind in it) that we do not understand, music is more liable to wander off more than mathematics in its search for perfection.
Music as the manifestation of experience, as a gateway to purposely changing states of the mind in humans, is something that stands at odds with the idea of absolute music, for which music aesthetics themselves are the goal. This materialist vision based on the fact that current (this is a 19th century idea) scientific limitation of not yet having a mathematical model outside of aesthetics and certain organization cannot accept or encompass the higher-level processes of creation that reach for proportion, balance, direction and movement in an attempt to communicate. Ironically, it is rather this lack of tradition or significance that results in theory and rules being all there is that produces a much more limiting paradigm. The race of stretching aesthetics could only go so far and an artistic compound devoid of transcendental goals quickly gave up as they broke the boundaries of tonality, declaring music as we know it to be dead. Needless to say, this was as short-sighted as limiting literature to the number of “clever” arrangements of words — precisely the dead end of poetry without meaning, or poetry without form, all products of post-modernism. In any case, the disavowal of all meaning leads to music pursued as a sport, for the excitement that its physical acrobatics produce and not from what it communicates in and beyond its forms.
The other branch of a materialist appreciation of music surfaced more clearly in the freedom afforded by the post-modernist world to idiots to call themselves artists and plague us with moronic musical expressions supporting themes of self-pity communicated only through lyrics. Going further, many artists not only took this liberty but openly rejected any sort of tradition or knowledge as being only an obstacle for their expression. Again, ironically, their rejection of it resulted not in a revealing work transcending the ages, but an extremely simple product that even a child banging on the wall and singing with no thought or experience could produce.
This is not to say that you need theory to create good music. As was explained before, theory is only a tool based on cummulative observations over many lifetimes. We do fine geniuses and other people with an outstanding aptitude for music creation who will find ways to create solid music that is often technically rudimentary but complex in communication.
As with any mathematical techniques or grammar in language, theory augments and sharpens the natural talents of the person. But the catch here is that the artistic intent and vision of the artist is often as important as his natural aptitude towards creation. Whereas a Varg Vikernes consistently tries to find an ever-more ephemeral depuration of the essence of his music against the tides of trends in what is fashionable, a Luc Lemay gets lured in by what is chick, his talents wasted on kitsch. Granting a directed vision of music in a clear direction rather than with vague adjectives to justify fashionable aesthetics, the person with average talents can, with appropriate training and dedication, become a Franz Berwald, while the talented may reach the heights of Johannes Brahms.
The importance of following a transcendental route versus a materialist one are exemplified in two products of the 20th century. One followed the mechanistic descriptions of music to the point of absurdity and was hailed as a genius by the hipsters crowding the halls of academia. These were the many frauds of John Cage. Intellectually interesting experiments devoid of the basic dimensions of music: melody, rhythm and harmony. Contrasting the first comes a work that attempts to communicate a sense of wonder in nature without the vulgarity of dissoluting music proper for recordings of nature or other cheap tricks of post-modernism. This is the Fourth Symphony of the romantic Jean Sibelius, reviled by academic theorists and critics looking forward to the mechanistic augmentations of aesthetics and possible transformations rather than for the actual content of music. This was music for the music fan, not the ironic intellectual.