Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sermon of the Aboveground

Questions without answers

This music is meant for something else, isn't it? Have we wrung all we can out of it? Is it now exhausted?

As the melodies spread throughout the mass, so faceless, blank, white, their features merging into one, their mouths melting into one loud clamor for diversion, the harmonies extended, pressed to bear the weight of so many more dreams, the aspirations and desires of one more dissatisfied soul, then another and another...all closing their eyes and wishing for a tomorrow, a world constructed artificially, the architecture of imagination where one's most heartfelt outpourings are stretched to the point of transparency - one dream carrying the dreams of so many others, and all bleeding this fantasy to gain energy for their own stagnant, useless rebellions...

Surely it is intoxicating, both before and after: being, for a time, the instrument of the gods in transcribing the music of the spheres, in its thousand-hued variations, and then watching as it is showered upon the External, all the others, and they drink it in, or as it opens them up as it did you, and blossoming, recreates itself...

But is intoxication the only end?

I am amazed, time and time again, by the messages that can be carried along the thin wire frame of melodies: how they, in turn, become symbols of so much more than the purely abstract, how they become political statements, how they lose power, fail, fall to ruin, how they are warped to speak in tongues that they were never taught...

So, the most basic political stance, that of the underground versus the aboveground: that of music composed for its own enjoyment, the outpouring of emotion as its own end versus music meant to be 'enjoyed' and paid for, music as art versus music as entertainment...oversimplification can not be avoided, but I will ignore that right now...

How can music be entertainment? What is 'entertainment'? First of all, diversion, correct? A series of sounds that allows the mind to escape the tyranny of the immediate, the environment around one - a series of melodies that acts upon the emotions, memories, or the body. Musical entertainment at its most basic speaks only to the body, and the body is moved by rhythmic exercises - beats, repetition, colliding rhythmic propulsion - all as a spur to action. Harmony and melody then ride upon this bed of mortality, they seek to entrance the mind...the simplest melodies, repeated ad nauseum, filter through the mass and infect the largest number of minds - Mozart's 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik', the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth symphony with its four-note 'doom knocking at the door' motif, nursery rhymes, pop music with its overt sentimentality - melodies so simple that they are easily converted to pure rhythm. Major chords, major scales, bright, transparent whole-step ascensions...assimilated with the greatest of ease into the mind's auto-digestion and then associated, based upon a long tradition that goes back through history upon the line of Strauss, Haydn, Pachebel, Telemann, Vivaldi: dance music, music to be spoken over, music to seize the body so that the mind may dream, for a time, without watching the movements of the limbs, music to make the dreams seem real. Music that is meant to smooth the passage of the immediate - the present - into the past, of memories, remembered dreams, wishes, unfulfilled (or, for the lucky, fulfilled), music that serves as a palliative to ease the emotional digestion of the present...

Entertainment, also, is intoxication: as the present is consumed at a faster and faster rate, the burning of moments becoming white-hot, the edges of time, frame upon frame, image upon image, curling and melting in the flames - time lost, becoming meaningless, time contracted, the body taking over perception, the instincts rising to the fore, the appetites clamoring for ascendency...but is this happiness? I refuse to think that happiness - true joy - arises from such shallow depths...no, it must be more profound...it must be given more respect. Isn't it true that we show our complete lack of respect for happiness based on the art that we borrow from it? Why is joy so cheap, so paltry, so ill-regarded?

Entertainment is illusion: removing one from the present, making you forget your bodily aches, your emotional pains, the pressing conflicts that lurk over the horizon...but this is only temporary, and at the end of its time in your life, entertainment leaves you with less than you had before its arrival. In the end, entertainment is a lie. It promises tomorrow but only steals today. These are the accepted views.

But how is this different from art? What does art give you that entertainment can never allow? Is one man's art another's entertainment? Is there a level of art that is a 'positive' experience for everyone? Is there really no difference at all between art and entertainment - are these only more illusions? Are art and entertainment equally 'profound', but only separated by the types of sensations they produce? How can art be profound, in any case? What does that really mean? Art, it can be said, makes one daydream, where entertainment only leads one to dancing, and my ultimate standard of art would be: has it appeared at some time in my dreams? But these are all only generalizations, and so completely meaningless...if you want the truth, my truth, the only one that really matters to me, I would say: art comes from suffering, and makes everyone who experiences it suffer, in some way, in turn...but then again, entertainment, for many, is also allied closely with pain...

As the music descends from the sky, raining down in cold torrents upon the parched faces of the mass, so faceless, eager for identities, for acceptance, for something with meaning - or as it ascends, creeping slowly, with measured pace, from the depths, climbing from the dark onto shelves in stores, into headphones and mailboxes and bedroom stereos in the middle of the night, windows open, a candle lit, the heart open for inspiration, the soul held exposed by trembling hands...and who are we to blame the bearer if it is not inspiration that flies to these bared souls, but another form of possession? There are forces at work here much stronger than the artistic, and the legions of Mammon, the self-destruction that flies through the wind, makes Love pale behind it in comparison...

And seriousness, of any kind, would seem to be the cosmic joke - the eternal laughter of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and a hundred others outside of Judaism - or rather, a soul that could laugh and cry at the same time, that knew the way that the universe blends tragedy and comedy into one, and the ease with which one is quickly changed into its 'opposite'. Art, to me, brings this conflict into the foreground of consciousness...for art, outside of all boundaries, free from all the politics and categorizations, stripped down to its pure essence, is only a dialogue: that of a man or woman with his or her soul, or with his or her own history, memories, desires...this dialogue can not fail to take into account the laws of the universe (or, at times, its essential lawlessness), as they are slowly revealed to one over the course of many years. Art, like any other kind of conversation, grows with time. A specific work either gains or loses powers of communication based on its 'relevance' to those who seek it out, those for who it exists as an external object, or symbol, from their innermost worlds. This is obvious. But what isn't so obvious is the process by which this work of art is removed from the internal world of the artist. That process, which so many have compared to giving birth, is still completely misunderstood...my contention is that art flows in a steady black stream from the pineal gland, where the mind and body meet, where meat intersects with spirit. But seriously...

Is art that must be birthed in pain, with the artist suffering torments almost too much to bear, is this art somehow more profound? Why? Do we require our artists to be masochists, or are we just sadists?

As the music arises in the night, seeping slowly from a thousand wounds inside, collecting, coalescing, clotting, putting pressure on those most delicate nerves, the fairy's web of the seratonin receptors, the gateway to dreams, as the blood, filtered or flowing freely, mired in water, diluting itself under the flux of chemicals, carries these melodies to the brain, to the hands, to one's mouth, where they slip out in the light of the moon and float away on the wind, never to be heard by any soul save the insomniacs, or as they collect like black ink in one's fingers, and the musician, upon awakening, feels his hands to weighed down, clotted with lead, as if wearing gauntlets, and the practice or exercise of hours is needed, to convert the music to air again, to breathe it out, to free his hands from inspiration...

If I compose music for a number of years, intent all the while only on remembering (by writing them down, recording them) the pieces, works, or individual melodies that, to me, seem the most meaningful based on whatever instinctive criteria I have come to accept as being closest to my own nature (which is again restricted by my own self-understanding), and then I publish this work, releasing it into the stream of the Other's experiences, what does this make me? Does it make me an artist, a 'musician', a tyrant of self-expression? What gives me the right to force others to experience my own attempts at communication outside the domain of speech? And if I am a painter, exhibiting my work before an audience, what do I hope to gain from this? As someone who composes music - that is, who constructs melodic passages for others - can I control the way my music will be received? Are there limits I can place on the 'understanding' of others? Categories that I can filter the music through, specific channels of interpretation, spheres of influence, methods of knowledge and power?

I believe that most musicians (or any kind of artist really) hunger both for the acceptance and praise of their peers as well as the acclaim of greater ranges of people, outside their most immediate circles. To balance these microcosms and macro-worlds is the bane of the artist who relates his own abilities of expression to what will later be interpreted from his art...that is, artists who listen to the criticism of others. There are many artists who do not listen at all to what their audiences say, a great number who pretend not to, and then an even greater number who can not live without the acclaim of others. I suppose it just depends on the personality of the artist himself, and I would not pretend to be able to judge the 'worthiness' of any of these different types compared with each other. They are all perfectly useless, really. How does the personality or character of an artist really matter, next to his or her work? What if they never produce a single thing, and their life itself is their 'work'? How are they different from anyone else?

For those artists who quite honestly believe that their attempts at communication, their works, are meant for a large audience, and so write melodies that they believe will have the widest appeal based on a cross-section of humanity from their own experience, these have it the easiest...I think that there are certain categories of musicians whose innermost ideas and feelings correspond in a unique fashion with the outermost emotions of their audience, in an inverse relation. The audience, seeking empathy, give over their most disposable emotions - those that are short-lived, transient, appearing 'everyday' - to lend support to the inner emotions of the mainstream artist. And, inversely, again, there are those people who suffer exquisitely, lost in memories or the sentiments summoned by the work, when confronting the most ephemeral art imaginable...there are not any standards at all for these kinds of emotional relationships between the artist and his audience, it is all relative, all a matter of accident. How can it not be? For all of the artists who are embraced by the majority and 'rise' to stardom (which means overexposure through experience) there are thousands more toiling away in their shadows, and their stories are never told - not artists who reject the mainstream, but ones who desire the empathy of the greatest number, without ever being able to reach it...the mainstream star is an accident of circumstances, and he or she rides to overexposure upon the bodies of all of those who never will make it to the same 'heights'...who can pretend to say how the currents of what the greatest number consider the 'acceptable' or 'easiest' emotions will sway; who, except the most jaded of producers (those merchants of trend and exploiters of emotion), can say where the mainstream will turn next in order to satisfy its urges for empathy and sentimentality?

The mainstream, in all truth, does not exist: it is not a certain category of people (although it can at times seem like this, but this in just another illusion) but a category of emotions that we all tacitly agree we will display in a public, or extroverted fashion - that is, the mainstream is a selection (and it always changing) of our own sentiments that we will readily show to others without a great deal of internal embarrassment. At certain times, we are all parts of the mainstream...the artists who directly appeal to these emotions are the ones who rise to overexposure, as I said above, and the people who only seem to find satisfaction in these common, acceptable emotions are what we often designate as the mainstream itself, even though these people are extremely rare and, as it were, form a minority instead of the majority. No, the mainstream (as a selection of the population) is always changing, metamorphosizing, contracting and expanding - some come into it as the emotions reflected back to them (the ones that they identify with) are taken up and paraded, others fall out...

In a certain state of mind, I sit on the edge of my bed, at one o'clock in the afternoon on a blazingly hot day in midsummer, with a blinding light barely filtered by the windows around me, and I listen to the music. I close my eyes, all I see is red, black, all I hear is anger, hatred, the voice of destruction, of madness...visions, unbidden, come to my eyes as they sleep, a vast pandemonium, a palace of Hell, is opened up before me, at the bottom of a volcanic crater, I tread the weak flesh of mortals beneath my sandals, I rain sand from clenched fists down upon their lidless eyes, I press their faces, scorched and bleeding, lovingly down again into the glowing magma, I fill their broken mouths with the boiling rock...upon the horizon I see a pair of stone basilisks, I swim through tides of arsenic and strychnine, choking, I stretch forth my hands and place them in the creatures' mouths, and, enraptured, I am turned to ash...

The underground, in a similar fashion, never exists as a cohesive, identifiable, concrete whole. What is the underground but the musicians who have not 'ascended' into the parleying of common emotions? Are these musicians somehow 'more profound' than their mainstream counterparts? I doubt it. I admit that it can often 'seem' this way, because many of these artists reflect emotions that are somehow not as 'socially acceptable' and the proponents of the underground automatically assume that these emotions are somehow 'more profound' than any other, mostly based on the desire that they appear (it all about appearances, the Other observing us) to be more profound themselves. But what does this really mean? How can one 'type' of music - or the music of one artist - be more profound than the productions of others? Is there a way of assuring that the sentiments a piece of music will summon are always of a certain type, or is the function of the underground itself - lending all sorts of extraneous messages to the art in the form of packaging, the search for the music, the people that one has to associate with in finding it, etc.? Isn't the underground just another form of packaging, of selling? If I find myself listening to a selection of music (say, Burzum or Abyssic Hate) and finding a great deal of empathy in myself after each witnessing of this artist's work...finding that the music raises pleasurable emotions in me, that is makes me daydream, that it is both painful and gives rise to joy...does this mean that the music is 'speaking' to me and me alone? That I and the artist have something in common, that we form a select group, as it were? But what exactly is communicated through the music? Are there definite emotions that can come across in this way? Can I understand another person's emotions in this way and thus feel a certain connection to the artist? Is this all I want from music? Connections on a level different from the 'mainstream'? And what if I were placed in a room with a hundred, two hundred - a thousand - others, who were all experiencing a similar 'connection' with the music...would I feel the same? Would I be nauseated? Would our separate emotions be, in any way, compatible? How is this any different from a member of the 'mainstream' enjoying the music he or she subscribes to, in a very 'deep' fashion, alone, letting it summon memories, regrets, or happiness that only he or she could understand?

Do those who frequent the underground have a stronger emotional connection with each other than those who listen to mainstream music? Does the music bring them 'closer together' than mainstream music could bring its own audience? Or is underground music, based as it seems to be on emotions that are not as 'common' or not as readily communicated - that is, emotions that we have earmarked to be more personal and less 'obvious' - a force that divorces, divides, and draws an audience apart? Is the underground at any time more than one single person - an individual, approaching the music on his or her own? Is the underground a collection of people - a minority - or a 'collection' of individuals who can never connect?

U. Amtey
20 March 2001