Can You Hear The Music?: A Series of Questions to Overcome Musical Xenophobia and Techniques to Appreciate Music in Different Ways

A cult is a cult is a cult.

All followers think they are the chosen ones – the only ones who get it and truly understand what their messiah is saying. Admittedly, in a world full of doubt and spiritually vacuous consumption, it is nice to discover something to frame our experiences and it can be a relief to find answers for yourself at that time. But it’s also useful to recognise that we are born to flux and flow, not to stagnate and rot.

Blood, Milk and Blooms

Blood, Milk and Blooms

Solve: Breaking the problem into pieces

If you find yourself hero-worshipping the same artist for a lengthy period of time, I challenge you to ask yourself why. If it’s because the values and inspiration you have an affinity for ring true to your experience, ask yourself what other, better, deeper, more wonderful things are waiting to be discovered. Spending hours inside an art gallery filled with beautiful things is fine for a while, but what’s waiting for you in the great outdoors?

Do you only listen to one or two types of music? Why? What feelings and values do they represent? Have you thought about understanding these in different ways, through different music? Or does your favourite music have the monopoly?

There are always going to bands that you just don’t like. I have many in my shit-list but in my defence, they’re all bands from diverse genres. Regardless of how my bespoke critical faculties limit them from being good, I still recognise that they have value for other people – and that all music in itself is a vehicle for our fundamental human right to express ourselves.

For those of you who have made a particular kind of music a focal point of your existence, it can be easy to forget that other genres have value. Fans tend to gravitate towards scenes, to form ghettoes, to join cults. I get it. Communities are safe, and like ugly ducklings, we can feel like we’ve come home. But what does it say about your need to belong? Is your self-worth dependent on belonging to something for the sake of it? “I care about hardcore but I hate the scene,” said Zoli Teglas. Not only can I identify with that, I can apply it to many of the other scenes I move through (but that is a topic for another time).

Be honest: is there anything about your sub/culture that you don’t like? Is it catty, is it elitist? Is it too-serious or not serious enough? Is it monotypic – made up of a majority of people from the same gender, ethnicity, spiritual affiliation, political persuasion, sexual orientation, class background, and/or lifestyle choice? If so, why? Is it because outsiders find acceptance difficult, and are you part of the problem or the solution? Do you judge people who don’t fit in, and why? Is the fact that they’re not wearing the right uniform really a threat to your enjoyment of the music? And do you realise that everything you profess to rebel against might just be the same shit you are perpetuating in your judgements?

 

Set: Experimenting with content

Listen to music that you hate, and try to find something good about it.

Listen to music you don’t understand and try to find out the appeal.

Listen to aggressive music and feel what arises in your guts – is it a cathartic release of anger? A distillation of rage?  Is there beauty in the ugliness? Maybe you find it ridiculous or maybe it scares you. Does it make you uncomfortable, do you hate it? What does this say about anything you may be suppressing?

Listen to something challenging, perhaps some discordant noise or psychedelic jazz. Does it frustrate you that you can’t figure it out? What does this say about your love for the safety nets of rules and law and order? What do you fear about chaos? What untapped potential lies in that tangled fertility?

Listen to some heartfelt love ballads and some melodic eulogies for the fallen. Are you uncomfortable with how it makes your heart hurt? Listen to the despair and longing in that voice. Do you remember ever feeling like that? Does it make you cry? Is this okay – are you accepting of your heavy feelings? Or do you want to skip the song?

Listen to something mainstream, something not cool in your reckoning, or something the hipsters are hyping up. Are you contemptuous of its formulaic simplicity, of its overtly vacuous overtones? Or can you appreciate that silliness and lightness inspires frivolity and just letting troubles go? Does it make you stop thinking and just move, and isn’t that rad in its own right? Or does there have to meaning in music, does its profundity have to be spelled out and hand-fed to you? What does this say about your lack of imagination? What does it tell you about your need to define art only on your own terms, and not wonder about the myriad of other operating systems out there?

Listen to some politically-charged punk rock. Does the energy sweep you up or do you resist it? Or does it just make your ears hurt? What does this say about your ability to let go, and what does this say about your judgement on the validity of dissenting voices? Does it sound like a battle-cry, a call to arms? Does this inspire you to make a difference in the world, or a lifestyle change? To educate yourself and others? Ian McKay once said“At least I’m fucking trying! What the fuck have you done?” How would you answer him?

Listen to some socially-conscious folk music. Is it just whinging, or might they have a point? Where are they coming from? Do they have a right to express their frustration in a creative way, or only in a way that you see fit? Does this raise questions of how unyielding your condemnation can be for those you don’t understand or agree with? Or does it make you feel guilty that you’re ignorant and apathetic? Perhaps it makes you despair that the world is too fucked up and too far gone. And so, will you turn the song off and ignore the message, or will you have a go regardless?

Listen to some hip-hop. Is it ugly because of the way the lines are delivered, or is it beautiful for its passion? Do the beats make you nod in appreciation, the bass pumping your heart to its own beat? Or is it too repetitive? What does this say about your attention span? If, to you, it all just sounds like bullshit gangster drivel, I would suggest that you’ve bought into the mainstream music industry’s marketing ploy. Dig deeper. Find the real stuff.

What about electronic music – is it exciting, does it make you dance? Or is it just annoying doof-doof repetition? Can you see the value in loud repetitions as a vehicle for ecstatic dance, as a tool for embodied transcendental meditation? Is it not ‘real music’ because it doesn’t utilise the generic holy trinity of bass, drums and guitar? Or is it clever and creative because the artist invents new sounds from recordings and manipulations and distortions? If you think they’re not ‘real’ musicians because they don’t play popular instruments, please consider that many deejays are proficient multi-instrumentalists who want to push the envelope and evolve.

Listen to some authentic music from another sub/culture – one you don’t know much about (yet). Can you get a sense of the people, of the place, of history? If there are vocals and they’re in another tongue, can you intuit a meaning from the timbre and the way the singer releases it to your ears? Do you feel contemptuous; do you think the music is too simple or too strange for you to enjoy? Does this say something about your belief that only your sub/culture’s music has reached the epitome of artistic integrity?

Do you see foreign music as spiritual and moving even if in all likelihood they are just singing about mundane life? Does this tell you that perhaps you romanticise the Other too much? That you look outside for the spiritual, and can’t see it in your own backyard?

If in any of these you find yourself drawn to artists of one gender or sexual orientation, try something different. Does it give you a glimpse of another worldview, a tangible way to dance a thousand miles in another person’s shoes? Do lyrics that are too soft make you uncomfortable? Are you ill-at-ease with your untough side? Why do other lived realities really make you squirm?

Do misogynistic lyrics make you angry or uncomfortable in any way? What about racist or homophobic or other discriminatory language? Listen deeper. Does the artist really believe what they are singing, or are they providing a valuable social commentary by playing devil’s advocate?  Is it just for shock value, to generate controversy? If so, is there any value in that? Can you use them as an example to generate a dialogue about narrow and harmful paradigms? If they are dead serious, would the artists profess these values in the street individually, without the support of an incestuously like-minded band? Would they shout it in a crowd of those they seek to vilify, without the safety of the stage or recording studio for protection? If not, they’re likely just agent provocateurs – too weak to walk the talk.

Listen to music from way before your time. What kind of world did it emerge from? Was it ground-breaking or was it in the spirit of the age? Does it transport you back to an imagined past, or does it make you cringe? Is it surprisingly good, and what does that say about your assumption that your generation has a patent on epic music?

Listen to music your parents love. What was the soundtrack to their youths, and how does this inform your understanding of their lives before you were thought of? What was going down when you were conceived (pardon the pun), and does this put you into context?

Listen to music by very old and very young people. What are they concerned with, and can you relate? What gravity do you give these issues; can other generations relate to your weighty troubles?

Listen to the first album you ever bought. Does it still excite you or does it embarrass you? Why? Listen to the music you loved when you were rebellious, when you first took drugs, when you first made love. How does the music frame your experiences? Are the memories painful or nostalgic? Do you feel like a kid again – carefree – or is your younger self a stranger to you now? What does that say about your complicity in the world’s efforts to tame and to mould you, to clip your wings and to weigh you down with its responsibilities?

 

Setting: Experimenting with context

Do you really listen to music, or do you just use it as background noise – the soundtrack to your life? Can you choose an album and do nothing but listen to it, or do you need to hear it whilst working or exercising, doing chores or socialising? Try it. Put something on; feed it through superior speakers or headphones and just listen until it’s done.

Do you hear things you’ve never noticed before? Is there more to it than you previously assumed? Do you get lost in the layers: the high and low; soft and sharp; shallow and deep? How do they harmonise and fit in, or not? Do you find yourself swimming against the tide and overanalysing it, or do you float in oblivion? What pictures does it paint in your mind, what feelings does it invoke? Can you synthesise this and create your own music in response? Can you draw or talk or write about what you’re holding?

If you don’t usually dance or headbang, try moving and just going with what feels right. What does embodying the music do for your interpretation of it? Do the endorphins add more depth to your enjoyment? Does your whole body feel like another instrument; does the music play you instead of the other way around?

If you usually move, try being still. How does it enhance your listening when there are no other distractions? Is your whole body an extension of your ears? How does being anchored affect your listening? Try the same with your eyes opened and closed, singing along and being silent.

What music do you like to make love to, what do you like to fuck to? Do you prefer it aggressive or ephemeral? What does this say about your sexual expression? What would happen if you changed it up a bit?

If you usually go to gigs with friends or a partner, go alone next time. Is it out of your safety zone? Do you need familiar faces around you, or is your own presence enough? Did you have fun, and will you do it again?

Are you always drunk and/or high at gigs? Try going straight. Does the music sound different? Do you hear new things? Are you still having fun, and can the music be enough? Do you remember more the next day, and does the feeling stay with you longer; does it settle in deeper?

How do you discover new sounds? Through friends, or festivals, or do you do your own research? Do you allow the media to dictate for you?

Do you look at the influences of your favourite artists? What bands inspire them, what is their heritage? Look at their label mates, bands they’ve toured with, scenes they grew out of and bands they’ve come from. Look at their side-projects and collaborations. All music is connected through time and across space.

Who does your favourite version of that cover song you like? Is the original the best? Is the new interpretation blasphemy or is it tits?

Are you fiercely loyal to an artist, a genre, a scene? Can they do no wrong in your eyes/ears? What happens when they say something you don’t agree with?

Do you appreciate style changes in bands, understanding that everything eventually evolves? Or do you resent experimentation, believing that your favourite band’s sole purpose is to cater to your tastes that are stuck in time? Do you love all albums from a particular band, or are you able to wipe the stars from your eyes and be critical of less grounded efforts? Are you suspicious of them selling out, or do you empathise with their struggle between the rock of artistic integrity and the hard place of trying to pay the bills?

Do you get obsessed with an album, playing it over and over and over until you know the lyrics, every tempo change, the ins and outs by heart? Have you ever considered that this takes away its power and mystery, or do you need to have everything all figured out? What does the obsession do for you? Does it validate your worldview? Or does it close you off to other music and therefore other ways of experiencing life at the same time?

 

Coagula: Picking up and synthesising the pieces

We all go through phases: they reflect and are a reflection of our internal states. Musical phases mirror our desires and our values, but surrounding yourself with nothing but reflections of your validations, and staring at your own likeness for too long is essentially just masturbation. Are you self-serving, narcissistic? Are you wanking to your own image?

What phase are you in now, and what does it say about what’s going on in your life? What are you grateful for right now? What kind of person do you want to be, what do you want to change about yourself? Can you open up your ears and your mind? Can you shift your parameters to include different things?

Fuck oath you can. There’s a whole world of music out there waiting to be discovered. Go and play!

– Defender Of The Faith, 03.04.2013

ROLLING STONES – CAN YOU HEAR THE MUSIC?

Writing About Art Is Like Talking About Music (which is apparently like dancing about architecture)

I have drawing on the brain

A few months ago, I enrolled in an art course called Acrylics for Beginners. I had really wanted to do an oil painting course because I have never used them before, but alas! the oils course wasn’t running that semester. I thought, “Fuck it; I’ll just start here.” I am no beginner of acrylics, having used them extensively throughout high school and sporadically beyond, and I have had my work exhibited – but it has been a while. For the last few years, I’ve been moving around a lot to different towns, different states and even different countries. If I wasn’t half-arsed about painting before I began my wanderings, my nomadic existence became the most convenient creative cop-out. Money-wise, it just wasn’t feasible to buy new materials wherever I hung up my hat, and it has always been highly impractical to bring it all with.

However, I was never willing to break up with art completely. So instead of painting, I started drawing. It is much easier to create art with whatever is at hand – scrap paper, pens and pencils – than to set up paints and canvas, brushes, water and drop sheets whenever one gets motivated, because there is no time for the inspiration to be diluted. Drawing is truly a portable art form. I have drawn at the beach, in the bush, in the mountains and in cities; antisocially at peoples’ houses and at cafes; in buses, cars and trains, on trams, ferries and planes; on my way to and fro gigs; in work breaks; when I had nothing better to do and especially when I had ‘more important’ things to do. It’s even been a cheeky little icebreaker at times.

In the beginning, I never thought of myself as a good drawer (whatever that means). In fact, I had the idea that I could be a decent painter, but because I never had the time/space/money to get stuck into it I would never fulfil my potential. This is because it is practise, and not proclivity, that makes perfect. In hindsight, I would say that I’ve always had wonderful – wondrous! – ideas, but travelling was the perfect excuse to not even try to execute them. Drawing, however, became my foil. The ideas that I have can be quickly and basically outlined by pen or by pencil, and it is far less heartbreaking to screw up on scrap paper than it is to fuck up a pristine canvas. Yes, canvases can be painted over, but not without a prequel of guilty hesitation. Paper can be ripped up and recycle-binned without remorse.

And, may I say? That while I was apparently wasting my ideas on pissy little doodles, I accidently got pretty good at it. And by good, I don’t mean that I can draw objects realistically from memory or even by looking at the object and copying every detail. I can’t. Anyway, that’s what photography is for (which is what I started telling myself as a balm for my frustrated ego with such failed lofty goals). By good, I mean that I became proficient in manifesting on paper the pictures that swim around blindly in the deep dark grottos of my mind. Quite by accident, I discovered how much I love lines and shapes, negative space and suggestion, patterns and repetition, anomalies and deviations. Each drawing is an artistic fugue, with every line adding a more interesting layer and building the picture up, variation by miniscule adaptation. Straight up drawing, without worrying about materials and the ritual of setting up and planning and packing up and cleaning, for me, is true psychedelic art. Etymologically, the word psychedelic means “mind-manifesting” and so it goes with me – the pictures in my psyche are quickly projected onto paper. Whilst my drawings are a long way from photorealism, they do turn out exactly the way I want them to. There’s a giddy kind of freedom in that for perfectionist cunts like me.

I still surprise myself. I will start off with an idea; something that I’ve previously glimpsed and then gestated in my verdant imagination, that suddenly expresses itself in a dream or a vision or some other altered state. I’ll feverishly put down the lines and the shapes that suggest the image that I hold in my head, and I just keep at it until I’m smug and satisfied. Sometimes it turns out approximately the way I’ve visualised it, but more often than not it grows into a better version that I never could have imagined. I’m always amazed with the product:

I did that? Fuck off!” The astonishment is not with the level of shit that swarms my headspace; more so the fact that the execution always fits. It’s a fucking grand old feeling.

And while I’ve grown to love my drawings, I’ve felt for some time that some important thing has been missing. I’ve secretly been yearning for something to bring this up to some next-level shit. I live and breathe beautiful colours and textures; anybody who has seen even a tenth of my dressups can attest to this. Coloured pencils just don’t cut it. They’re too soft or too streaky or too unpredictable in their texture. And while texta is pretty decent compared with pencils, there’s no subtle blending allowed. It’s all solid blocks or nothing, which is comparable to art fascism. That’s fine sometimes, but the shit that comes out of my imagination is too intensely layered to be represented in colours that are just this or only that. In-betweens and fade-outs and subtleties and fierce vibrant rainbows are more fitting embellishments for my style.  My forays into colour thus far have been tentative and cowardly at best. Some things I am happy enough with, but most I feel could have been achieved more beautifully in a richer, more pliable medium…such as oils! And here, in my roundabout way, I have come full circle.

I moved to this city six months ago with the intention of staying at least a year – an intention I have not had for a few years now. I moved out of my ghetto beach shack in early 2010, and I’ve moved residences a lot since then. I slothed on Mum’s couch for a bit, then I moved out bush, then back to the beach and on friends’ couches for a few weeks, then I lived in hostels in London, a huge share house in Brixton, back to the coast and on Mum’s couch again, then briefly at my Auntie’s house in the west, and here I am in [insert city name here] – a set of keys, suitcases unpacked, a real-enough bed, and a door that closes on my own room. The gypsy lifestyle was awesome while it lasted (and I must confess I still yearn for the open sky, where my roots are firmly planted) but it is nice to have a place that I know I’ll be at for longer than a few months. Here we go! Did I just accidently take you on another revolution? I hope you’re not too dizzy by now, and you have my utmost gratitude for staying with me on this literary merry-go-round.

I decided to start painting again – seriously this time. But a few weeks and then months went by and I hadn’t yet made room in my busy life to splash around in paints. One day I walked past my local art supplier and picked up a brochure for art classes, and the Oils for Beginners course caught my glittering eye. After enquiring within as the text requested, I learnt that the oils class would not be running that semester. So, I had two choices: I could wait nine weeks or start a different course straightaway. And so, I chose the acrylics course, knowing full well that I otherwise wouldn’t put brush to palette in that two-month interim. The class was on one evening per week for two and a half hours per session. At the time I started writing this, I had just finished my final class and although it wasn’t anything revelatory, I was actually painting again on a regular basis! The exercises were basic tasks: playing with tones, shades, lines and composition; mixing colours and using different mediums; and interpreting masterpieces, still life, landscapes and painting from photographs. It was a decent socialising date too. There were some lovely characters in my class and at the end of my solitary research days it’s nice to have a yarn and interact with flesh and blood for a while. Most importantly though, it was a time and space in which I had done what I had wanted to do for such a long time. I work well within the boundaries of vague routines; ‘a time for everything, and everything in its time’. And, regardless of the exercises that I would not have attempted if left to my own devices, it was fucking nice to just put some colour down again – to defile holy white canvii with maniacal brush strokes.

Now I have the background trout out of the way, I am going to get to the point of this. This is a story about wishful thinking and blessed synchronicity and good things coming to those who wait work and happily ever afters.

A few Sundays after my last art class, I was down at my local markets buying my weekly food the way it should be bought – direct from the farmer, fresh, organic, in the open air and with the lonesome sounds of a proficient blues slide guitarist soulfully licking my eardrums.

(Fuck supermarkets. Fuck fluorescent lighting; fuck crowds of unhealthy and stressed-out drones; fuck 90% of the ‘food’ being wrapped in plastic for ‘freshness’; fuck the other 10% of unwrapped food coming from interstate or overseas, grown from clones, watered with chemicals and sprayed with pesticides to preserve its already subpar colour, texture, flavour and nutritional value. Fuck government subsidies for farmers who pollute the earth, fuck the cheapness of this ill-gotten produce that shuts down small businesses and drives the price of real food up, and fuck the middle-men who profit at the expense of the farmers without doing any real work. Fuck the Coles-Woolworths duopoly. But I digress.)

I actually look forward to my food shopping; the whole experience soothes my soul and the feeling is refreshed momentarily throughout the week whenever I bite into a crunchy and juicy apple, and when I create gourmet feasts from my happily purchased and lovingly grown organic produce.

It was within this mellow high that I accidently wandered into the art gallery at the markets and was warmed to my very cockles to see an entire room adorned with the beauteous art of some Eastern Arrente women. What a fantastic surprise! May I advise the uninitiated that this art is magick, pure and sweet. Not only do the designs look gorgeous, they also tell the most important stories that only symbols can describe – those of eternal and creation and dissolution, breaking and healing, living and dying, ad infinitum, played out simultaneously in the past, the present and the future; known to many as Dreaming stories. It is almost impossible to describe, but the canvas shimmies and shimmers right before your eyes. Two-dimensional planes come alive and create depth in your perception, thus forming the holy trinity of our known three dimensions. I highly recommend appreciating such art for yourself in person. Try not to be enchanted in the physical presence of such art, I dare you. Small-scale images on the internet flatten and render the music silent, so the Divine Matrix just won’t cut it this time I’m afraid.

I circled the room, drinking in the magic of these works. Each and every one mesmerised me, and it’s a memory that I will carry in my eyes forever. It was in this heightened state of stokedness that I mused to myself, “I would love for my art to decorate public spaces, and for people to stop and to get lost therein.” That desire sparkled within me for a while and then danced away into the ether, and I made my way home soon after.

Later that afternoon, I went to my favourite café in the universe for a late lunch. I noticed that they had painted the previously garish acid-pink walls a crisp and soothing white, and this pleased me. I felt less harried there, and I enjoyed my ramen at leisure. Whilst digesting, I took out my sketchbook and I got working on a design that I’d been fucking around with. Soon the bubbly manager approached me. We had a little yarn, then she asked to look at my work and I obliged. She asked if I was “an artist”. I said, “yes, in a way”, because I still find it supremely difficult to define what I am and describe it to others in minimal words (have you noticed?). She told me that they had painted the café white because they wanted a mural to decorate that space. They wanted a big cherry blossom tree painted upon those virginal walls. Then, she asked if I would be interested in making this happen. Oh!

I skipped home and sketched. Trees are my forte, and tree is the metaphorical meaning of two of my mother- and grandmother-given names. They are an absolute pleasure for me to draw. My Dharug ancestors grew and lived and died under the ancient darani (ghost gums) on the banks of the Deerubban (Hawkesbury River). My Lebanese ancestors grew and lived and died beneath the strong and fragrant cedars of Lebanon. They were tree people, all of them, and therefore I am too. I dream of them more often than not. They are spiritual guardians for me; the shapes and the colours and the textures and the scents make me feel balanced and whole. One day I will live in a tree house, and when I ride the lightning on my final trip out of this dimension, my body will be sung back into a tree where it belongs. But in the meantime, I drew some sketches and wrote a geeky little introduction letter to go with, and dropped it into the owner that week. He told me he was impressed and we discussed timeframes and materials and rates of pay and other unimportant niceties. And so, I was casually commissioned to create my interpretation of a thick and gnarled tree in cool dark browns that burst forth sprays of pale pink cherry blossoms from their fingertips in airy clouds like fairy floss. I started my sample paintings a few weeks ago. The first brush stroke was drawgasmic, and every day the tree grows in these preliminaries, branch by branch, as my psychedelic design comes more alive. There has not yet been any further talk about the whens and wherefores of the painting, but even if this mural doesn’t blossom on the wall of that café, the seeds of self-belief have germinated and taken root in my mind.

Make of this what you will, dear reader. Think of it as the law hypothesis conjecture of attraction if that is your proclivity. I personally cannot do the karma/fate/‘meant to be’ angle because in my understanding of my life there are no straight lines to just desserts; just baby steps in a marathon, monumental journey. All such fantastic coincidences have more layers of meaning than such a limited explanation will allow. But this is not a rant on spiritual lore (or is it?). If anything, it is just my writerly worship of things that are impossible to delineate in words, and an offering to you of one shining facet of my otherwise confined existence at the moment. And all that really matters is that I am fairly fucking pumped on life right now – the way it should be.

PS: to each and every one of my amazingly creative but devastatingly lazy friends, acquaintances and other passing readers – your apathy pisses me off. Have a go! Scare yourself. Pick up pen or paintbrush or musical instrument or whatever form your magic wand takes and create something new today. It will soothe you and make you feel human again. And if you die tomorrow, you can be at peace knowing that you have left something beautiful and tangible behind for us. Go forth and play. Solve et Coagula cunts!

 

Defender Of The Faith – 02.09.12