Thoughts on "abstract" music

I was thinking today about a post on Killed in Cars from a few weeks ago, and I thought I'd explore my feelings/thoughts about "abstract" forms of music like EAI, free improv, noise, etc.  I wonder if the general music listening public might enjoy some types of music which get described as the above genres, or as "experimental," "atonal," "dissonant" and the like, if only a few different attitudes/approaches toward the music were more widely shared.

When I first started listening to noisy/atonal music, I was a teenager, and I suppose that I was interested in the potential shock value of the music to a large degree.  But like many other things that teenagers approach with less than noble intentions, over time it lost its shock value and developed many deeper strands of meaning for me.  And now dissonance and noise are rich within my favorite kinds of music.

One enjoyable approach for me is to think of musical styles/approaches as discrete languages.  And they are, really--all of the structural elements in a typical language are there, like alphabetical/pictographical components, vocabulary, sentence/phrase formations, punctuation, oral phrasing, emphasis, and so on.  If you enjoy learning languages, comparing dialects, or you read prose or poetry for its aesthetic value and flow, you might come to this music with an attitude like this and find lots to enjoy.

Another listening angle I like a lot is to treat the sounds and rhythms as though they emanate from the "primordial ooze" of music, a sort of unstable singularity from which all sounds begin to spin outward into perceptible patterns of order.  But you're looking so closely at this source that the patterns one expects are still in a kind of undifferentiated state.  I think of this as a fun, back-to-roots sort of approach, like taking the basic ideas of music, returning to unsorted source material, and starting over.  Where will these new approaches to music-making take listeners?  Could things evolve and develop in a new direction?  No one knows until it's happening, and that's the fun of listening this way.

Going in the opposite direction, one could treat this music as though it was coming from, or flying quickly into, the distant future.  In this way, one can treat the material as though it starts with the formats of music familiar to us and spreads out into new terrain, unfolding into unknown or unexplored dimensions.  Like many pioneer attempts, everything starts out feeling alien and unfamiliar on these futuristic edges, but gradually becomes part of us with our increased familiarity.

What, then, can be said of the potential for emotional responses to the music?  I think familiarity might be the most important component of this possibility.  Though there are probably some biological components of the human attraction to music, it's probably fair to say that most of our feelings about music are the result of cultural conditioning.  Most folks are surrounded by the forms of music popular in their culture(s), and those forms are "good" as much for their potential quality as for the familiarity we develop with them over time.  If you start listening to types of music that are somewhat outside of cultural norms, that same kind of familiarity generally happens over time and repeated listenings.  For me, I find that I have increasingly emotional responses to these kinds of "abstract" forms as I experience more of them and live with them over time.  Familiarity with the language will make space for emotional resonance.

By the way, if you like to read/think/talk about music on a fairly involved level, please do investigate Killed In Cars.  It's one of my favorite things about the internet.

And here's some sweet local improv for your enjoyment.  I'll be describing the surprisingly rich tradition of improvised music in the Lincoln/Omaha area in more detail soon.

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