Singing Into The Corner

Twenty-some years ago, when I was in my early 20s, (me: bewildered, chain-smoking, a disaster, really, but discovering the joys of experimental guitar improvisation and critical theory), Martin Arnold (him: a little bit older, much wiser, and a supporter of my musical endeavors) took me in as his roommate in a sprawling apartment over a failing midcentury modern furniture store in Toronto’s Little Italy. A life-saving gesture, the likes of which he repeated many times over the years. 

Even then, I think, we were always talking about folk and experimental music and critical theory. Before moving in, I had spent many afternoons at Martin’s place, hearing things for the first time—each a little tab of Owsley acid for the ears: Dick Gaughan’s Coppers and Brass, Mike Cooper and Joanna Pyne’s ’Ave They Started Yet, the Dick Raaijmakers box set, Maddy Prior and June Tabor’s Silly Sisters, Jemeel Moondoc’s Nostalgia in Times Square, Misha Mengelberg’s Impromptus, The Bugger All Stars, Rudolf Komorous, John Cage’s number pieces, the music of the Chantilly Codex, Lemon Kittens, Carla Bley, on and on, endlessly. At the same time, we were working through different ways to process Adorno and Benjamin, British cultural studies and feminist film theory, Deleuze and Guattari and death drive and dialectics.

I was just starting to figure things out as a musician (and as a person), and these afternoons with Martin lit up in me all kinds of new desires to explore sound, as did the concerts Martin presented at the Music Gallery, Mercer Union, or the Array Space. Most often the concerts featured work by others but occasionally involved Martin himself performing on different combinations of melodica, hurdy-gurdy, vocoder synth, whammy pedal and gated CD players, and a vintage 1960s-era Vox Invader guitar (with its unrivaled onboard electronics). 

Some of the experiences I had then set me up to think about folk and experimental music, and the aesthetic politics of each and both—in a specific way that has come to organize my music activities (and, more generally, my sense of how to retain an ethics within the lifeworld of capitalist stupidity). They include, for example:

  • Playing lap steel in Martin’s group Marmots, which included Eric Chenaux, Stephen Parkinson, Ryan Driver, Allison Cameron, among others,
  • Martin’s kind of non-arrangement of the child ballad “Sheath and Knife,” where everyone just played the melody in octaves, leaving space where there would be instrumental breaks in Eliza Carthy’s version of the song,
  • Taking part in ad hoc ensembles that performed Scratch Orchestra pieces like “Drinking and Hooting Machine” at the Music Gallery on Richmond Street,
  • Watching the early mutations of folk and experimental that would congeal as the music of the label and concert series Rat-drifting,
  • Playing these days with Martin along with Ryan Driver and Janet Macpherson in the fried-British-Isles psych-folk group Mermaids. 

What is true for me in these experiences is true for dozens of friends, colleagues, and strangers all over the world. A lot of the people whose work probably matters the most to you are Martin’s students as well as his friends. An extremely humble person, he would never tell you that (and would probably fake-angrily admonish you if you tried to make that case), but it’s true. 

Martin and I sat down the other day to talk about folk and experimental music, their affinities and mutual tensions and combined and uneven vicissitudes. As much as possible, I’ve tried to present Martin’s thoughts below as continuous flowing text.1 At the end of the interview, I offer a few concluding thoughts with some help from some contemporary musicians whose work exemplifies the ideas that Martin and I bat around here.

KN So, I guess we’re going to talk about the folk and experimental musical traditions . . .

MA That’s the tricky thing with this, just knowing where to start. I mean I guess the big thing is that we’re both musicians who, like . . . I would consider myself an “experimental” musician and I’m definitely also a fan of, and influenced by, musics that get called “folk music.” So, I’m guessing that’s why I was asked to ruminate on this. I suppose, in some sense, it would be good to come up with some sort of a working definition. I’m not 100 percent sure that one can assume to know what is meant when someone says “experimental music”—or “folk music,” for that matter.

For me (and this isn’t anything new), I do think of “experimental” in a post-Cagean way, where the way I engage music is to discover both otherness and difference (extreme or insidiously subtle), but where I don’t really have an idea ahead of time—either when I’m listening or I’m making it—of what it’s supposed to mean.2 It’s not based on goals other than opening oneself to some kind of unknowable experience. It’s also understanding that any time you’re dealing with music, you’re dealing with something that’s radically mediating all kinds of other things, historically in terms of personal history, social history, cultural history . . . 

The filmmaker and cultural theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha was asked in an interview whether she thinks her films are experimental; I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from her response: 

“Experimental” for me is not a genre nor an approach to filmmaking. It is, in a way, the process of unmasking readymades, or more commonly put, of making visible what remains invisible (ideologically, cinematically) to many, including oneself; what does not correspond to the established codes and is not always known in advance to the spectators as well as to the filmmaker. “Experimental” is a constant questioning of the relationship between the filmmaker and the filmmaking.3

For me, what Trinh is talking about is not fundamentally a matter of critique or realization. I am not interested in unmasking readymades for the sake of some kind of exposé. Rather, I want to experience, as part of an art-event, something in excess of the endless texts the work mediates. For me, the readymades Trinh refers to are the conventions that explain an art event, reifying it into something static that can be evaluated rather than something intrinsically fluid that can perpetually change me in ways I can’t imagine. So for me, constantly questioning isn’t about getting answers. It’s a process that’s continually in motion because it’s never satisfied with an answer.

Lydia Goehr wrote this essay: “Explosive Experiments and the Fragility of the Experimental.”4 It’s dense, but I like her idea that the experimental as a sensibility isn’t the same thing as an experiment; they’re actually different kinds of human activities. I like the idea that in the Cagean realm of things, the experimental is something fragile. It’s not even about concertedly seeking after something unknown as a directing motivation. Rather it’s about not hanging on too tightly to conventions and methods and things like that, but just putting yourself on the way of something other.

This fragile sensibility—I actually think it’s something that can give rise to a folk music approach to making experimental music. 

So, what makes folk music folk music to me? It’s the idea that it’s music that belongs to a community, not something that is produced by a maker and consumed by an audience. Instead, there’s a sense of shared experience, where there isn’t really a qualitative difference between sounding the music and listening to it. It’s more a sense that a music-maker is putting sound into the air and that event—that happening—is being shared by everyone who can hear it.

This is not to minimize the complexities inherent in the ways traditional folk musics mediate the cultural identities, politics, and histories of the societies that gave rise to them. But I do think it’s interesting to imagine communities where experimental music acts as a kind of folk music. The idea is that you could actually have a community based on a kind of fragile not-knowing; that its identity is a sort of non-identity in that you are all agreeing to experiment with subjectivity in a way that can give rise to unknown potentials, as opposed to saying “as a group, this is who we are, this is what we believe and this is what we are trying to achieve.”5

There’s this author, Sally Banes, who mostly writes about dance, but she’s written more broadly about the arts in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.6 She talks about Fluxus as being a kind of experimental community folk music. This idea that it wasn’t about personal auteur-ship—and that there was a sense that people were making something they could experience and enjoy together—is pretty compelling.

I guess this brings us to talking about what matters to me about some traditional folk music—music that has been given rise to by a society over time—in relationship to these ideas around the experimental. I should say, I am not deeply attached to all music that is typically identified as folk music. And my relationship to sociology or anthropology or ethnography doesn’t motivate my engagement with the music I love. It comes after being changed by it. For me, the idea of authenticity is a readymade in Trinh’s sense. What draws me to the so-called folk music that I love is that I hear it as experimental in relationship to the conventions, or the readymades, I was conditioned to believe as intrinsic to musical experience. It unmasks those conditionings. It makes these conventions, that had been operating covertly as truths, visible, and I’m allowed an experience that is different from—other to—those conventions.

KN Would you say that these conventions are still alive?

MA Definitely. But before continuing pursuing this I would like to say I recognize that a lot of the ideas I’ve already expressed (and am about to express) are problematically compressed here. However, if I were able to follow the complexities, even inaccuracies, that spill out from these ideas more closely, it would not be by way of somehow “getting them right.” Rather, pursuing these ideas for me is also about perpetual change; they help me engage and produce music differently. 

Anyway, back to the conventions: For me, the core thing around any bourgeois European take on music is that it is self-
expressive
, in the sense that music is on some level a medium, almost like a language, that one uses to express something of oneself; something that is not inherently musical.7 This can include everything from a songwriter believing their song expresses a feeling of being rejected by their beloved in a way that discursive language alone can’t to believing that a symphony can give a glimpse of how the being of an enlightened subject can be unified with their life-world, (if that’s how you reify listening to, let’s say, Beethoven). This belief in music as a language and/or a complex metaphor is relatively recent and relatively narrow in its logistical origins. It’s something that developed in Europe gradually over the late 16th and 17th centuries, before really grabbing hold, with many of its conventions operating as invisible conditionings, by the 18th and 19th centuries.

And these conventions are not even European per se. They come out of rich, powerful European culture; that is, they belong to the class that gives rise to what we call Classical music. But Traditional Irish music, for example—Gaelic, Celtic music—is European, and has nothing to do with bourgeois quasi-narrative music.

The history of European classical music follows a logic that says if music is a language of sorts it can tell a story of sorts. It is very much involved with developing conventions that allow music to emulate European narrative: dramatic changes in speed/volume, modal textures that the listener is conditioned to hear as having a prescribed emotional content (like minor textures = sadness/melancholy), harmonic tension and resolution, development and progression, climaxes, formal unity and closure, and so on. These are all the readymades/pre-conditionings that go into movie music fulfilling its dramatic function, for example. I guess a lot of it is geared toward wondering what’s going to happen next. 

The two traditional musics that matter the most to me—West African music and Gaelic/Celtic-influenced music of the British Isles—embrace sound-in-time in a way that is utterly different than this quasi-narrative model. While they are profoundly unique, I understand both as kinds of continuums, a kind of perpetual present tense. But these continuums are filled with a multitude of discrete moments, arrays of wonderful details that appear and recede without any progressive trajectory. I’m thinking of how master drummers in some West African traditions will find ways to bring into focus different aspects of incredibly complex polyrhythms or the importance of ornamentation in Gaelic music—that feature of all Celtic art where the ornamentation is more important than what’s being ornamented.

I think I’ll take a breath here; maybe leave it at that. Except to say that I am in no way presuming that I practice these musics as one who is a member of the cultures they take part in. On the contrary, part of why they matter so much to me is that I can engage them experimentally—they unmask readymades of my culture and offer other experiences for me, experiences that can change me; not into something West African or Gaelic but something other, something I can’t imagine.

It’s interesting that these two traditions in which I find an altering otherness ended up—in historically transmuted forms—being brought together and further transmuted to give rise to rock and roll. I never thought of rock and roll as being my music—as a prairie WASP Canadian, I never thought of myself as being part of a culture that had a music—but it is what I grew up listening to. I think these non-dramatic, non-quasi-narrative, non-metaphorical, non-representational approaches still typify a lot of pop music that draws on African-American and/or old-time country influences. But, the bourgeois European self-expressive discourse still persists. 

I’m a fan of John Miller Chernoff’s African Rhythm and African Sensibility; is it still a reputable source?8 Anyway, it’s filled with interviews with master drummers (Chernoff’s teachers) and they all stress the importance of coolness. They talk about how drumming cools the mind, takes you out of yourself; and they criticize young drummers who bring too much individual heat, too much of their own emotions, personal feelings, and passions to the drumming—they make a bad sound and don’t integrate into the communal flow of the polyrhythm. 

Or with Gaelic solo singing—sean-nós—it was traditional for the singer to sing into a corner, or pull a cap over their eyes, or cover their eyes with their hand when they were singing. It relates to that old “the eyes are the window to the soul” cliché, the idea that a person’s eyes can tell you something about them and how they’re feeling. Well, a sean nós singer traditionally takes away their eyes from the sounding of the song. It’s like they’re saying, “what we’re hearing now isn’t about me, or my feelings; this is our music and I’m being a vessel for our music here.”9

This denial of self-expression is also apparent with traditional Irish dancing; it’s incredibly virtuosic, using the feet to sound complex and really funky polyrhythms that cut across the continuum of the seemingly perpetual stream of melody that typifies jigs and reels. But the dancer is still from the waist up. Again, the self-
expressive parts of the body—the face and the hands—are taken out of the experience. There’s a social politics inherent in this denial of self-expression in an art-event that is very inspiring to me but it also gives rise to very particular musics that I find wonderfully altering; musics that offer continuation without sheer repetition and an abundance of detail rather than drama.

KN So you said that as a music-maker you consider what you do as being experimental. And I know you’ve made a number of pieces that draw on (usually British) folk songs in various ways. Can you talk about how the ideas about Gaelic music you’ve just presented affect what you do as a music-maker?

MA Sure. I actually rarely use traditional folk tunes in my compositions. Like, even when I use folk lyrics, I almost always write a different tune. I’m not at all trying to emulate British folk music stylistically or even invoke its aura. The new tunes I write sound like folk music to the extent that they tend to be modal diatonic melodies, but I try to make them nebulously in-between, reminiscent of Brill Building and/or Laurel Canyon pop and/or lounge music and/or late-14th-century secular song and/or bloody-minded desanctified chant. I’m not wanting the listener to be thinking about some particular traditional source.

KN There is that tradition. For example, Aaron Copland using “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” that’s not what we’re talking about . . . 

MA Not at all. I think I am working with an affinity with the politics that are implied in some traditional British music, while trying to make it clear that I’m embracing that politics in an experimental way. I like to re-set Scottish muckle ballads, long ballads, between 20 and 30 verses long. For one thing, most of them have many different tunes that go with the words (again, folk music isn’t concerned with individual authorship). And with any version of them, regardless of whether they are about bloody murder, encounters with the fairy world, or love conquering adversity, you can’t tell by the music or the performance whether they’re happy or sad.10 

And, even if the song might seem sentimental, you don’t know from the music what the sentiment is—it isn’t taking part in those kinds of preconditionings.

So I’m not trying to invoke the sound of British Isles folk music. It’s the fragility of the experimental that I’m finding there and wanting to take part in. My music is interested in non-repetitive continuation, in arrays of quietly flagrant details, in not-developing and, in not narrating, not even making the motivations behind it apparent, not metaphorically asserting some ideological position.

KN From a performance perspective, one of the things that has interested me while learning certain folk traditions of the U.S. South is just how brutally one is expected to repeat some initial melody or figure and not modify it.

MA Yeah, the bloody-mindedness is fascinating. I’m pretty sure most of that music has sources in British folk traditions. I’ve often wondered about the relative lack of ornamentation (relative to Gaelic music anyway) in those American musics. I think it might have something to do with the Scots-Irish roots of a lot of settlers in—and coming out of—the Appalachians; they were largely Protestants, Presbyterians, I think. There was an austerity thing going on there. But there’s still a continuum operating with a lot of that music. There’s momentum but it’s profoundly directionless and the repetition reinforces that. It is different from something that’s progressing or climaxing. It really is, for me, like being on a fairground ride, an impossibly long one. I’m not travelling to a new location (at least, not literally); the ride is about the ride. It’s visceral. I’m not wondering what’s coming next, that’s for sure, but I’m also not bored. To me it’s incredibly present-tense music, and it’s like the present tense just keeps expanding. I don’t feel like a story has unfolded, like I’ve progressed from a beginning to an ending. The thing just starts and eventually stops.

Conclusion: Farewell, Whiskey

Like the music, at some point our conversation eventually stopped. (As with every conversation with Martin, I was sad when the time came for the talk to stop.) Typing up my notes, I’ve puzzled over how, exactly, to conclude this piece, hoping that the universe might send me a sign of some sort. Fortunately, the universe did. 

Last night, as I was doing the dishes, I put on a YouTube video of a recent concert by my favorite old-time folk duo, Allison de Groot and Tatiana Hargreaves.11 I would be so happy if readers puzzling over the premises floated here would watch this concert and take note of its preponderance of expressive detail and the simultaneous absence of “self-expression.” There is a surplus of sentimentality, but it is all but impossible to tell if the songs are “happy” or “sad.” Even though making this music is, no doubt, hard work, it seems refreshing and cooling for de Groot and Hargreaves, like the sort of thing you would do after you get home from the factory or field or office park to unwind. When Hargreaves sings, the face is kept still and the eyes closed, calling to mind Martin on sean-nós singing: “What we’re hearing now isn’t about me, or my feelings; this is our music and I’m being a vessel for our music here.”

At the end of the video (at about the 1:04:46 mark), de Groot and Hargreaves invite Ruth Alpert, a clog dancer, up to join them on the traditional tune “Cotton Bonnet.” Hargreaves quips: “The traditional old-time trio: banjo, fiddle, and foot.” And here, we see Martin’s observations about Celtic dance (and dance that derives from Celtic dance) borne out. It is the feet that matter in this aesthetic sensibility, and for that reason, Alpert maintains a calm poker face and relaxed hands, providing maximally favorable conditions for the polyrhythmic interplay and momentum to prosper. As I watch and listen, I think to myself: “This is how music goes to them.” And I remember that this is a phrase I learned from Martin years back. If a performance was particularly mind-blowing, Martin would express wonder that this was how music goes for someone, marvelling at the polymorphous and endlessly differentiated mutations of musical sensibility. “This is how music goes to them!” Like, can you believe it, how many different ways there are for music to go to someone?

Listen, for example, to the way de Groot and Hargreaves play their version of “Farewell, Whiskey,” learned from a Works Progress Administration field recording of the Mississippi fiddler John Hatcher.12 “Farewell, Whiskey” could be thought of as a “gimmick” tune, an aural representation of the perils of drunkenness. The fiddle veers from spirited melody to ghostly and dissonant harmonics, glassy and unstable tones gliding around the air, like white smoke rising signalling a fire below. But these evanescent fiddle harmonics tend to break free of any attempt to make them signify. And drunkenness, after all, is one of the passions most closely related to musical experience, to alterations of perspective and duration and proprioception that free us temporarily from the rigidity of capitalist orderings of time and space. Which is to say that these wispy harmonics tend to break free of any force binding them to any “this is me, expressing my deepest feelings” or “this is a symbol of something else, even of inebriation or the loss of control.” Instead, they invite us mostly to tarry in slack-jawed amazement, to simply find ourselves living for a moment or two in the hic et nunc of a sweetly whistled tone hanging in the air. 

And who doesn’t like that?

1 The voice in these footnotes is Kurt’s, for better or worse.

2 Here, one ought to try to think of John Cage not as the provocateur behind pieces like 4'33",—really quite a bad piece of music and a spur to mostly silly kinds of philosophizing—and more as the gentle advocate of musical possibilities powered by values other than those of bourgeois Europe. As demonstrated by the quip quoted in Lydia Goehr’s essay “Explosive Experiments and the Fragility of the Experimental”: “When once Cage heard someone tell him that ‘it must be very difficult for you in America to write music, for you are so far away from the centers of tradition,’ he responded to the contrary: ‘It must be very difficult for you in Europe to write music, for you are so close to the centers of tradition.’ ” John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 73. Lydia Goehr, “Explosive Experiments and the Fragility of the Experimental.” In Paulo de Assis, Experimental Affinities in Music (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2015).

3 Trinh T. Minh-ha, with Harriet Hirshorn, “Questioning Truth and Fact” from Framer Framed (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 183.

4 Lydia Goehr, “Explosive Experiments and the Fragility of the Experimental.”

5 One might begin a meditation on identity and folk music by revisiting these now-classic texts: Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), and Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991). On the tensions inherent in the notion of “community,” see Miranda Joseph, Against the Romance of Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

6 Sally Banes, Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effer­vescent Body (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).

7 The literature on the politics of bourgeois aesthetic subjectivity is vast. Two great texts are: Donald Lowe, The History of Bourgeois Perception (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), and Peter Jaszi and Martha Woodmansee, The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994).

8 John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979); also, see Robert Farris Thompson, Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music (Pittsburgh: Periscope, 2011).

9 See, for example, Joe Heaney’s discussion of singing into the corner in a 1964 conversation with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. Joe Heaney, The Road From Connemara (Topic: TSCD518D).

10 Interested listeners might want to start with Martin’s beautiful long piece, “Tam Lin” (https://soundcloud.com/martinarnold/tam-lin, and follow up with Martin’s conversations about the piece with Pete Johnston, http://www.petejohnstonmusic.com/northernstatic/

11 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiSWo6EvxUo Accessed online June 10, 2020.

12 “Farewell, Whiskey” starts at about the 35:00-minute mark. Hatcher’s performance of the tune can be heard here: https://www.slippery-hill.com/recording/farewell-whiskey

Singing Into The Corner