Appreciating Music With Purpose

Every time possesses its own culture, since culture exists in transparent layers based on who you are and where you are. Your civilization, often an empire, is the lowest layer, but then you add nation, social class, religion, general life philosophy, and any elective layers like enjoying death metal.

Now crush those layers of glass and make a kaleidoscope. You will see patterns formed of the different layers of your culture interacting, and these change over time, mostly based on what has gone before. Each combination is unique, but also belongs to a general type which is as old as time.

In our dying civilization — if you find this controversial, death metal is the wrong genre for you — our kaleidoscope consists of desperate excuses, feverish rationalizations, blind obedience, raging individualism, and the solipsistic isolation at the core of humanity.

Since we no longer have a culture, but a mixture of many cultures that has abolished standards of behavior, being inoffensive matters more than anything else. Equality cultures are dedicated to the mean, so whoever approximates the dead center of the spectrum wins, not the best or finest option.

Consequently we live in an age of eventless sonic wallpaper (archive) onto which we can project the drama of our lives:

Although I recognize the utility of listening to non-distracting study music, I nonetheless find it disheartening to see art being reconfigured, over and over again, as a tool for productivity — and then, when the work is finally done, as a tool for coming down from the work. It’s especially disconcerting to see the practice of active listening (which can be a creative act as well as a wildly pleasurable one) denigrated, dismissed, or ignored.

I am grateful for the beauty of ambient music, which intentionally prioritizes mood and feeling over melody and rhythm. But the best ambient music is carefully and artfully composed; it aspires to spark personal catharsis or deep release in a listener.

It makes sense that, in 2019, as we grow collectively more uncomfortable with our own quiet, inefficient sentience, we have also come to neglect the more contemplative pursuits, including mindful listening, listening for pleasure, listening to be challenged, and even listening to have a very good time while doing nothing else at all.

This fits within the stages of music that we might observe in our history:

  • Folk: not made by professionals or organized, folk music turned stories into songs which became social events.
  • Early: specialized groups, perhaps not professional musicians but closer, made worship music and ritual music for preserving culture.
  • Classical: when the force of study was turned to this music, mostly in cities, it developed into a professional musician arena and flowered in complexity and structure.
  • Product: as soon as bureaucracy and technology took over, the mercantile economy rewarded music that sold widely, so turned toward early country and drinking songs.
  • Lifestyle: product music became message music to signal identity, both through “protest songs” like hippie rock and blues, and cosmopolitan music like jazz.
  • Ambient: a futurism took hold, the question of how to use technology well became important, and music escaped message by instead broadcasting atmospheres of mental contentment and adventure.
  • Storytelling: as society collapsed from the weight of its own collectivized solipsism, it became necessary to rediscover both inner life and outward reality, including the question of the gods, so structuralist, through-composed, and journey-based music like death metal arose.

Contemporary ambient combines 1970s ambient with 1920s product music, producing a hybrid texture of genres with anything dangerous removed, rendering instead the perfect sonic backdrop to work, play, or anything else, since solipsistic postmodern cosmpolitans lack the focus to pay attention to music.

Journey music like death metal fought back against this, using its ability to recontextualize riffs and use the interplay of phrases to bring meaning to show us a path out of the mental fug of narcissistic drama. Most drama works in a cyclic pattern; stories move from ignorance to knowledge through experience and self-discipline. Journeys have beginnings, ends, and some quantum of knowledge taken away; contemporary ambient provides only a decoration, very much like the early product music.

We should ask why people find it difficult to pay attention to structuralist music like classical or death metal. Our answer will probably emerge as a recognition that the more social order we produce, the less people have any direction but conformity, and so they want nothing to interrupt their constant surface drama with meaning or other demands for change and adaptation.

So much of our review queue here consists of basically a metal version of the same. It has a few related riffs a song, and basically focuses on starting a mood and introducing a semi-contract with the chorus, then repeating the whole thing like a comfort blanket for people lost in their own reactions.

Tags: , ,

8 thoughts on “Appreciating Music With Purpose”

  1. Questioner says:

    Interesting how every listed historical genre is explained in terms of instrumental value. I take it that classical music is the only era where music became intrinsically valuable.

    1. All of it serves the same role, which is passing on wisdom. The commercial genres do just about none of that, same with the lifestyle stuff. Its instrumentality lies in distracting people while they work in factories.

  2. NL says:

    Some reflections:

    1. The closest thing to ambient I’ve ever been able to appreciate is TANGERINE DREAM – Ricochet (1975). Maybe I just don’t have the attention span for anything less active/busy than that.

    2. You had me drooling with “structuralist, through-composed, journey-based music.” Let’s have some more of that in 2021!

    3. When I was in high school, I found that listening to metal as “background music” ameliorated the dryness and unpleasantness of doing homework. However, as might be expected, I was never able to devote my attention properly to the music while “multi-tasking” like that.

    4. At most retail establishments, one can observe a sharp contrast between the soul-sucking, mundane affairs of commerce and the maudlin, terminally emotional commercial/pop music played (rather too loudly to count as background music) on the sound systems. I’ve always been a “sensitive” person, so I really wonder at how emotionally blunted and desensitized most people ostensibly are. I find myself debating whether that numbness is an acquired trait or simply the norm for those of lower intelligence.

    5. That 99.9% of video game music uses circular/pop song structures — as opposed to linear ones — is illustrative when one considers the purpose of that music, which is to set or accentuate mood.

    6. I shed a small tear whenever I visit YouTube videos of classical music and read comments saying, “great music for studying!” or “great music for falling asleep!”

    1. maelstrrom says:

      Usually video game music is meant to be cyclical background noise. I’ve found the Bloodborne soundtrack to be exceptional

  3. Gay R2D2 says:

    “This Mozart piece is so soothing, it really helps me relax my anal sphincter when I’m taking a dump!”

    Also I could never figure out why anyone would listen to music while trying to get to sleep.

    1. It’s not about listening, but environment control. If you are surrounded by fears or noises you dislike, then turning on something to tune it out is part of the modern experience.

      1. Gay R2D2 says:

        Huh, I guess. Personally, I prefer relative silence, but then again I don’t live in a third world nightmare or a dystopian hellhole. Not yet anyway.

  4. Avbyosmos says:

    Hello Brett, have you at any point considered working together with a band/composer to help them increase the quality of the compositions, or work out issues in structure (if not to fix them, at least to understand them clearly)? It is difficult for a review, no matter how well written, to convey in full detail the weaknesses and strengths of a work such that an artist can clearly pinpoint them and work on them through their intuition and senses, even more so in a medium as distant from formalism as metal. There always is a sort of chasm between artist and critic, the critic rarely if ever producing art, and the artist rarely if ever producing criticism. They are of a somewhat distant stock. Almost like man and woman, or man and dog, never fully able to understand the other, rather having the possibility to interpret gestures,”language” and methods more accurately through time and work.

    Perhaps it would be an interesting experiment if you could utilize your insights in a collaborative effort with a composer. I think the results could be worthwhile. All of this understanding that the resulting product will unavoidably be “Brett Stenvens-ized” to a greater or lesser extent.

Comments are closed.

Classic reviews: