WELCOME TO SOUND AMERICAN ISSUE # 6
Music is similar to philosophy in the sense that it attempts to articulate a non-empirical idea or concept. Though the science of acoustics, for example, allows us to understand the mechanics of sound through waves and the biomechanics of hearing, the human perception and decoding of a musical gesture in time and space is as difficult to definitively express as the concept of Freedom, or Immortality. There is nothing objective about the experience of music; the individual listener can never map how music affects him or her onto the human species as a whole, which is what makes the subjective arguments concerning the merits of certain compositions, musicians, and recordings so compelling.
The desire to articulate a personal theory of what music is compels many musicians to while away the better years of their lives studying, practicing, and thinking about the construction of a melody, the minutiae of timbral differences, or the perfect transition from one melodic fragment to another. As in philosophy, the attempt to define a specific a priori truth from something as subjective as music becomes a game of how the musician expresses his or her point of view. Like the concept of darstellung in Walter Benjamin or Theodor Adorno’s writings, musicians define their position and their personality in the language and structure they use to convey their concept, in this case musical gesture or composition or song, to their audience.
The majority of musicians’ choices in this regard are based on a historical model of a specific instrument (instrument being defined here as essentially a machine for making sound). Even those engaged in radical presentations of ideas on these instruments are relating their vision of language and structure to the entire history of that machine. For each instrument, there is a range of musico-historical context that the musician can choose to fit in to create their darstellung based on the history of the repertoire, famous practitioners, and cultural and stylistic norms. Some choose to use a historically reproductive language to express what they perceive as a variation on the elegant structures of the past (think period instruments and repertory jazz orchestras), while others choose to use this historicity as a set of guidelines of what to avoid in their attempt to radically recast the instrument’s history.
In this issue, Sound American features a set of musicians that, while finding their own way of expressing a concept of music, have decided to sidestep this continuum and construct a system in which the language and the manner of speaking are outside of the agreed upon tradition of historical musical instruments. They’re expressing their “truths” by making new machines to create new sounds and add new dimensions to the human model of what it means to experience organized sound as something personal and worth experiencing. This doesn’t mean that they are stepping outside of the historical context but, rather, that they are choosing to experiment and engage with that sense of tradition to innovate.
There are few examples as strong as the musical mind of Harry Partch: one of the great American musical revolutionaries of the 20th century, he chose to look to the work of the earliest musical practitioners and fashion a highly personal darstellung, building instruments like the Kithara and using intonations more in line with ancient Greek models than our accepted modern equal temperament. Other instrument builders have followed different models, to more or less the same effect. Hal Rammel’s take on the AACM and the organic exoticism of Lou Harrison and Lucia Dlugoszewski, Cooper-Moore’s connection to the vocal quality of the blues, and Neil Feather’s mad-science connection to futurism and funk all feature prominently in this issue.
Sound American always strives to look beyond composition, to find connections within groups of artists and trace paths taken by specific musicians. In this, our sixth, issue, we feature a wildly disparate group that includes technology hackers, avant-garde improvisers, aesthetic engineers, and jazz storytellers. Yet they are all musicians in more or less explicit ways, engaged in cracking open the idea of music and trying to discover what is new inside.
In special homage to this spirit, Sound American is pleased to announce a small reprint of a fascinating booklet released in the 1980s called “New and Rediscovered Instruments.” Originally produced in the UK by Evan Parker, Paul Lytton, David Toop, Max Eastley, and Hugh Davies, it documents a period in British improvised and experimental music during which the development of new instruments flourished. Visit the shop page to preorder your copy, look at the special bundles we’re offering with the booklet, Widow’s Joy LP and DRAM subscriptions we’re offering for this issue, and please take the time to support SA and DRAM so that we can continue to do what we do.
-Nate Wooley, Editor