An Impression of Overwhelming Sameness
Last weekend the Experimental Music Yearbook held its first Los Angeles concert of the year at the wulf. Along with Eric KM Clark and Casey Anderson, I performed Christian Kesten’s untitled (placing in space) for violin, soprano saxophone, and accordion. For all its outward simplicity, it is a deceptively difficult piece to perform, with exposed, sustained textures that leave little room for error. But I found myself very taken with the piece, especially its approach to microtonality. At one point, the interaction between microtones creates powerful difference tones that sound like what I can only describe as a furious, blowing wind.
Here is an excerpt from a different performance:
Like a great deal of experimental music, it definitely demands patience from the listener. Another piece on the program seemed to test one concertgoer’s patience to the breaking point, as he attempted to engage his friends in whispered conversation throughout the performance. I wondered for about the zillionth time why this kind of music is so beloved among certain people and completely detested by others.
I will probably never fully know the answer to that question, but there is an approach to sameness and difference in this kind of music that I find fascinating. Often stasis is conveyed through repetition, but this is a different sort of stillness. Perhaps it originates with Morton Feldman, though I find the current vein of experimentalism to be somehow more extreme with its approach to stillness. The general retort is that of course this music is not really still at all—there are fine gradations that are undergoing change at every moment. Becoming attuned to those minute differences (and finding them interesting) is the only way to get anything out of this music.
But I don’t wish to call people who don’t care for it bad listeners. By way of contrast, here’s one of my favorite K-pop songs, “Naega Jeil Jal Naga” (“I Am the Best”) by 2NE1:
While this song is full of apparent changes, a listener fixated on harmony (as I was when I was younger) would find this painfully static. I’m not saying that these kinds of music are similar, exactly, but I can imagine a listener having the same reaction to it, and struggling to discern difference when confronted with an impression of overwhelming sameness.
Avoiding this reaction entirely is impossible, because all music is still in some way. For change to have meaning, an element must remain fixed, and often the most hyperactive music conveys no motion at all. At times I feel paralyzed by this stillness, like the occasional dreams where I want to wake up but can’t move. But if I can accept the stillness, a miraculous change occurs: I can be awake and dreaming at the same time.
1. R. Andy Lee has written a great article about this from the performer’s perspective, “Minimalism is Boring.”