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!