painting with sound 1

Think about the following two phrases: painting with sound and making music. Do they mean the same thing? Is it useful to make a distinction like this?

To answer these questions we have to be sure what it is we mean by the words music and useful. If, for instance, we define music to include any sound or combination thereof then the two phrases will mean the same thing. And by the word useful we have to ask useful for whom or what purpose?

Of course not everyone is so generous as to recognize a harpsichord sonata and a jackhammer pulverizing asphalt as the same phenomenon beyond the fact that they both involve the production of sound. But with just a minimal amount of reflection we can see that this has to do with conditioning, which is another way of saying that the criteria involved are subjective and arbitrary.

Think of your current favorite piece of music. Now listen to these short piano pieces by Arnold Schoenberg:

Does it sound like the music you had in mind? If not do you still recognize this as music? You won’t walk away from this whistling a melody, and you’d certainly be hard pressed to analyze the harmony with common triads and their extensions. But to assert that this is not music (which is a different assertion from whether someone actually likes this or not) would seem fairly extreme.

This piece was written in 1911, so it’s by no means new. It still can sound new because the prevalent styles of making music are based upon a model of “melody + harmony” which Schoenberg obviously did not employ.

Here’s another piece which works along similar lines, Morton Feldman’s Violin & String Quartet (1985):

Yes, this piece clocks in at over 2 hours (and it’s by no means Feldman’s longest piece).

So let’s take up our second question, namely, is it useful to make a distinction between making music and painting with sound? Because music is a cultural activity (it has a history, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, etc), and usually making music involves some amount of training and the  accepting of certain (probably implicit) aesthetic criteria, distancing oneself from the ideas of making music is useful for those who want to participate in or create an altogether different style of music.

Of course then the question becomes why? Why make an altogether different style of music? There are many possible answers to this question, such as why not? Why arbitrarily limit ourselves to what is immediately accessible (in any endeavor)? Maybe by pushing into different regions not only new but beautiful things will be discovered — we can’t really know until we try.

And specifically as relates to music: perhaps by making use of musical sounds or of using certain kinds of sounds musically beneficial effects will be produced in the listener. Maybe trance-like states can be induced, or meditative states obtained simply by hearing certain combinations of sounds?

Furthermore (and something that is from time-to-time demonstrated by groups who freely improvise music) sometimes employing the mindset of painting with sound can yield music that almost everyone agrees is beautiful.

This is the beginning of a series which will explore how this mindset is beneficial for musicians and non-musicians alike. Please share any thoughts you have, or topics you’d like addressed. And keep painting with sound!

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5 Responses to painting with sound 1

  1. Toby says:

    Hey Charles,

    Your links to the videos aren’t working for some reason.

    As for your ideas, I like to listen to heavy metal and I think that there are a lot of those kinds of bands out there that are doing what you might consider painting with sound. I know that the vast majority of people don’t care for the kind of music I’m talking about. I liked very little of it until I started giving it an honest listen. Now I think some of the best musicians in the world are making music, or painting with sound, in the multitude of heavy metal genres. They are largely unknown, however.

    And you don’t have to be a hard ass to like heavy metal music. I think that’s a misconception that a lot of people have. I’m a very mellow person. You won’t find me picking fights or giving people attitude. A lot of that music is very angry sounding, but the anger is usually righteous anger. A lot of those singers are singing socially conscious lyrics and providing an outlet for a lot of disaffected people.

    • nycpopband says:

      I’ve always felt that heavy metal is quite demanding musically, from the guitar playing, the singing and the overall rhythms. And, what’s surprising to some people, is how melodic it actually can be. I’d love to hear some of these bands your talking about…

      And true that about giving voice to the disaffected!

    • nycpopband says:

      Thanks for the heads up about the videos: the first video was removed by the user. I added a different video of the same Schoenberg piece (by the great, and greatly immodest, pianist Walter Gieseking). Please let me know if there are any other issues…

      • Toby says:

        Thanks, they are both working for me now.

        Both pieces sound like they would be difficult to play. The second one is subtle in that regard, but there are small, incremental changes that make it seem like it would be hard to keep time while playing the piece.

        Do you know if the creator of the second piece experimented with drugs? I mean that in a serious way. It sounds to me like something that may have been inspired by the use of psychedelics.

        • nycpopband says:

          That’s a good question. I don’t know much about Morton Feldman, except that he was friends with the painter Mark Rothko, and that John Cage described his music as being “almost too beautiful”. He would not be the first musician to experiment with psychedelics for sure. I’ll look into it…

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