Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Aesthetics of Obscurity

When first examining the question of obscurity in music, at first I was prompted by habit to begin by limiting the nature of exactly what it was that I was proposing to investigate. And here is where the first problems began cropping up: is it possible to define 'obscurity', in the abstract, as it relates to music? Isn't it at times just the term we give to elements in music that are difficult to define or adequately extract from their surroundings - elements that are elusive, ill-formed, incomplete, and not given to lending themselves to direct analysis? Isn't it completely counter-productive to embark upon the analysis of elements that, by their very definition or internal structure, defy all investigation? Is such an examination even possible? So before I begin I think it would be best to rigorously define the limitations I am placing on this essay: above all I would like to define, if possible, what it means when music is obscure, what this 'obscurity' directly refers to, and why this is so important - to me if to no other person.

I believe I first began thinking about the notion of obscurity in relation to Polish black metal a few years ago - prompted by Graveland and Veles. Here was a new form of black metal - distinctly original, singularly evocative, and absolutely elusive when it came to a direct emotional connection between the melodies used, their effect on the listener, and that listener's interpretation of what the musicians were trying to communicate. I wondered: how was it that a piece of music could be both extremely evocative and completely 'obscure' at the same time? Because music is most powerful when it avoids the inevitable delays of the Rational in our minds and speaks directly to the sympathies: the ego, the id, the unconsciousness, our desires, drives, emotions, our convictions (and their emotional correspondents), etc. it is not difficult to understand how a series of melodies could continue to deny rational definition while concussively affecting the Psyche. There is a long tradition in Western music (or even more so in Eastern music) now of composition patterns that attempt to speak directly to the sympathies instead of the rational mind, especially since the decay and collapse of Enlightenment ideals of composition and the rise of the postmodern. It is extremely difficult to draw forth all the varied abstractions of a listener's artistic/aesthetic/musical apparatus into the light of the day and delineate the effected components, and one feels almost instinctively that an investigation of this sort should not be attempted, ala Kant, in a realm in which the tools used are limited, by their own eternal capacities, to capabilities that are completely ineffectual. Let me ignore this for a moment and attempt to rationalize the process irregardless. But what is it that is considered 'obscure' in Graveland's music, for example? First (and I believe these points can be abstracted to apply to almost all 'obscure' music), it is the nature of the compositions themselves: they do not directly align themselves with any major traditions, and based either on the personal styles of the musicians involved or the incapacity to follow guides such as prior black metal recordings, the music can be at times completely original: it speaks to new faculties of interpretation in the mind, and it combines methods of evocation that have not been touched upon before. Secondly, the melodies used (as in the album 'Thousand Swords') can be seen either as failures in the black metal melodic tradition (a very rigid law), as they do not tread the well-worn paths of prior melodicism, or they can be listened to with an ear for determining their new and original melodic style. It depends on one's own capability to experience novelty. Surely there is enough of the black metal tradition in these melodies to justify the place that Graveland has among their brethren, their reputation, place in the hierarchy, etc. - but also you must notice that at no one point is there a direct reference in the music to the styles of bands that have come before. This is truly a delicate art: the weaving together of melodies that somehow evoke the 'abstraction' of black metal stylistics without directly referring to any one band in particular. This is also a distinctively postmodern art, as we moderns, living in the ruins of our ancestors, are almost always conscious of what has come before - our art's history, and their voices can be heard in almost all of our endeavors. Third, these characteristics of the music are aligned with the imagery of the band: the deliberate use of monochrome, the hidden faces, swathed bodies, painted visages, heroic postures, original locales in nature (where the band members are pictured always alone in each photo), the pseudonyms, etc. All of this speaks to their deliberate methodology of obscuring the patina of prosaic reality in order to exchange it for something else. When reality is obscured in art - say, in photography - it is done by either a juxtaposition of elements, an inversion of characteristics, or an appeal to the unconsciousness. In some black metal photographs, for instance, you will notice the deliberate obscuring of locale, time of day, etc. - and all of this leads to further confusion and ultimately feeds our capacities for creative invention: i.e., our sense of 'mystery' as it is related to our imagination. In the absence of particulars or concrete elements of reality our minds take it upon themselves to fill in the blanks with stories, ideas, cause-and-effect equations, etc. of our own invention. Every time that you see a black metal band photograph filled with an obscuring mist, or the darkness of night, then, your imagination is being directly summoned: you must fill in the holes in this abstraction, this 'represented' reality with your own beliefs as to the musician's legitimate personal realities - and you will have no doubt witnessed the power of the imagination to completely transform an image or melody from something quite common or hackneyed to an object of obsession, based on the associations you form between your faculties of invention or fancy and the objects that seek to stir these aptitudes...these faculties are what the tool of obscurity is designed to manipulate.

The various problems of interpretation here can be quickly done away with when we apply ourselves to a literal or strict definition of the term 'obscurity' itself. This is a specific noun, etymologically derived from a Latin word for dark or 'darkness', and refers to the after-effect of a political process: namely the deliberate placement of elements (in photography it is often darkness itself, in music it is the unwillingess of the melodies to correspond with compositional tradition in the alloted genre) that block or interrupt the free transmission of information. Or, to put it another way, to 'obscure' is tantamount to controlling the interpretation of represented reality. In the light of the fact that is often very difficult to control a band's imagery, reputation, the reservoir of fact, fiction, and myth that surrounds any artistic endeavor, etc. it has been seen that to obscure beforehand the information alloted to expand the audience's knowledge of the musicians' reality can only increase the sense of 'mystery', adulation, fear, or respect, and if this does not exactly give a musician complete control over the way his art is interpreted, it does stop the obvious misinterpretation of particulars as represented by 'official' art, photography, etc. at the same time that it opens the door for audience speculation. It is also a deliberate rebellion: while these items of information have been traditionally alloted to increasing the audience's store of information pertaining to a band, the black metal groups take this function and invert it, spreading 'mystery' instead of light. Obscurity reduces the store of objective information while it freely fosters subjectivity on the part of the audience - and taken realistically, is this not a form of manipulation? If I were to present two photographs to you, for example, of my band's rehearsal space, the one that contained less information in the form of concrete particulars of objects, time, space, locale, environment, etc. could only be more evocative or inciting because it allows your imagination free reign to derive your own ideas about the existence of these realistic items. The less that a work of art communicates, then, the more that we have to imagine in order to fill in these blanks. One can easily see how this function of the understanding - the relation between reality, presentation, and obscurity - readily becomes a tool for the manipulation of information. The other elements of this function have been already investigated, I believe: the fear we all feel when approaching what is unknown, the fascination we feel for the same, and the power of works of art that require us to become imaginatively (or emotionally) involved in their interpretation. Several aboriginal or primitive tribes, for example, paint or mask themselves, wear the skins of animals, or otherwise obscure their faces when engaging in battle or in the religious/mystical rites of witchcraft (historically, the Saxons, Jutes, and other societies of Scandinavian origin were notorious for this) in order to draw the mind immediately to the realm of imagination, fear, free association, and superstitious dread - by masking reality they gain all the power of the dream world's freedom from realistic cause-and-effect relationships as well as a direct application to the reservoirs of myth and the atavistic or unconscious terror of the unknown that exists within us.

In withdrawing from the real, the actual, obscurity beckons, as I said above, to the imagination: it invites the faculty of fancy to 'fill in the holes' it has left behind, substitute missing information, or complete the picture. In this way it transforms what could have been a purely objective representation into a opportunity for subjective, unconscious creativity - and also initiates a relationship between the audience and the art that could not exist without the work of art's need to be 'completed' or brought into reality through interpretation. It is very difficult to view (or listen to) abstract or obscure art and not try to make the elements of the piece fit into some kind of subjective or personal meaning. In Houston, Texas there is a 'chapel' dedicated to the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, and inside, on the walls of this austere gray concrete building, are placed several of his 'darker' abstract paintings. As you view these formless and purposely obscure works of art you will suddenly catch your mind trying to make 'sense' of them: i.e., forming the lines, planes, shapes, colors, and symbols of these paintings into completely subjective patterns of representation - as if they were a 'puzzle' or if there were really a 'meaning' for the rational mind to find in them. Why? Because this is what the rational mind does with the array of experiences we meet with every day: it orders them, processes them, places them in some sort of hierarchy for the understanding - it allows the interpretation of what would 'normally' be an enormous number of separate and completely random incidents or subjects of experience. It is very difficult to witness, on another level, this function of the mind and examine its influence on one's thinking.

When I was taken to this Rothko chapel when I was younger I remember asserting that I, in fact, saw nothing at all in the paintings - my fellow students were aggressively asserting that they saw 'Jesus' or 'Golgotha' or 'ghosts', and I didn't know what to say to them. On some level or another I either assumed they were lying or completely missing the point of the exhibit. An hour later we were on our way to lunch amidst the urban squalor of what the Houston 'elite' assume is their 'cultured' section of the city - and to watch these people who had supposedly just seen Jesus Christ in an abstract painting argue over where they were going to eat and yuppie-watch was too much for me. I had to leave, I walked away.

But I guess the moral of this story is: since the 'interpretation' was on a completely subjective level (placed there by Rothko himself when he created the art) I didn't have the right to complain when my fellow students' interpretations didn't suit me. In a completely subjective or relative world there truly isn't any room for self-righteousness, only the personal responsibility that comes with realizing that you, and no one else, are the Creator and Benefactor of your own reality.

Obscurity frees the mind, then, and frees the unconsciousness from its chains of the Rational in the initiation of the imaginative reflex, and this freedom, I believe, exists in the exact locus, or meeting place, of the realms of artistic interpretation, personal conviction, social responsibility, and the desires of the human form. You will have doubtlessly noticed that the imagination is most often pressed to bear fruit when confronted by a limitation or obstruction in reality: the Freudian tenet of the 'pleasure principle' and fantasy-satisfaction. If this is the case then obscurity creates the necessary conditions for a release of the fantasy life, an unchaining of the unconsciousness (because it must be summoned forth to interpret and fill in the gaps in such an 'interrupted' transmission) - and as these faculties are let loose, and the subjective nature of our being is elicited in our own interpretation, we witness our own true identities before us - our personal histories, our most secret thoughts, the minutiae of our conscious processes: what we think and why we think it. In examining our desires as they are elicited by concrete objects or events and situations in our experience, or by studying our most evasive wishes, beliefs, or wants, we can form an image of ourselves that is probably the closest to 'reality' we will ever reach. It can be argued that 'obscure' art is really only another form of 'personal' art or, to put it bluntly, modern art, the art of today. Because of the struggles of the Modernists to free their capacities for self-expression from the ties of traditional form or artistic 'history' we now have a half-relativistic approach to art: I say 'half' in this instance because (in music at least) we have never really had a musician (at least none are known to me) who was so solipsistic that he/she made music that no one else could listen to and appreciate on some level or another. Why? Because music always exists on the level of absolute abstraction, and in order to translate his/her emotions or thoughts into music, the composer must pass a barrier of communication that transforms (as a touchstone - an Alchemist's stone, really) his subjective reality into universals. The 'free jazz' of musicians like Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, or the late work of John Coltrane, is probably the most 'obscure' music ever made, and yet it has a long tradition now of being accepted as important 'expressionist' art. The harshest of Japanese noise artists, I think, could not even compare in terms of the ability to communicate psychological distress with the overwhelming thoughts of the average man during an average day, if only his thoughts could be directly transmitted from his mind to a 'listener'. No, the world of abstractions, in baptizing every construction and element in the waters of indefiniteness, blurs every outline and softens each message. But still, given all of this, I do not think there can be any other way out of our human dilemma: in seeking to become 'more universal' in our art, we only reduce to it to a meaningless serious of pale abstractions. In delving deep within and seeking to transform our personal reality into a show of truly subjective phenomena, at least we have the satisfaction of recognizing ourselves in our works, as in a mirror.

U. Amtey
August 10-11, 2000