Live Dose 1. Gilead Media Music Festival. 4/28-4/29. Oshkosh, WI. Part 1.
“Metal is shouted at its devotees, and the loss of melody from the vocal line emphasizes this. Not that melody is entirely absent, of course; it is allowed in with the guitar solo, which is often a poignant reflection on its own loneliness—the ghost of the community that has vanished from this harshly enamelled world. The world of this music is one in which people talk, shout, dance, and feel at each other, without ever doing those things with them. You dance to heavy metal by head-banging, slam dancing, or “moshing” (pushing people around in the crowd). Such dancing is not really open to people of all ages, but confined to the young and the sexually available. Of course, there is nothing to forbid the old and the shrivelled [sic] from joining in: but the sight of their doing so is an embarrassment, all the greater when they themselves seem unaware of this.
To suggest that people who live with a metric pulse as a constant background to their thoughts and movements are living in the same way, with the same kind of attention and the same pattern of challenges and rewards, as others who know music only from sitting down to listen to it, clearing their minds, meanwhile, of all other thoughts—such a suggestion is surely implausible. Likewise, to suggest that those who dance in the solipsistic way encouraged by metal or indie music share a form of life with those who dance, when they dance, in formation, with the spirit recorded so eloquently by Schiller, is to say something equally implausible. The difference is not merely in the kind of movements made; it is a difference in social valency, and in the relative value placed on being with your neighbour rather than over and against him.” -Roger Scruton, “Soul Music”
“What is a poet? An unhappy man who conceals profound anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so fashioned that when sighs and groans pass over them they sound like beautiful music. His fate resembles that of the unhappy men who were slowly roasted by a gentle fire in the tyrant Phalaris’ bull—their shrieks could not reach his ear to terrify him, to him they sounded like sweet music. And people flock about the poet and say to him: do sing again; Which means, would that new sufferings tormented your soul, and: would that your lips stayed fashioned as before, for your cries would only terrify us, but your music is delightful. And the critics join them, saying: well done, thus must it be according to the laws of aesthetics. Why, to be sure, a critic resembles a poet as one pea another, the only difference being that he has no anguish in his heart and no music on his lips. Behold, therefore would I rather be a swineherd on Amage, and be understood by the swine than a poet, and misunderstood by men.” -Søren Kierkegaard, “Diapsalmata,” Either/Or
“And though I feel that music is an art which to the highest degree requires experience to justify one in having an opinion about it, still I comfort myself, as I have so often done before, with the paradox that, even in ignorance and mere intimations, there is also a kind of experience. I comfort myself by remembering that Diana, who had not herself given birth, nevertheless came to the assistance of the child-bearing; moreover, that she had this as a native gift from childhood, so that she came to the assistance of Latona in her labor, when she herself was born. The kingdom known to me, to whose utmost boundaries I intend to go in order to discover music, is language.” -Søren Kierkegaard, “The Immediate Stages of the Erotic,” Either/Or
The last band to go on was Baton Rogue’s Thou, performing their first album Tyrant in its entirety. Somehow I made up to the very front of the stage for this, and by the time sound check was almost over the crowd had packed in so tightly that most of us up front took to putting one foot on said stage—a stage at most two feet off the ground. On one side of me was an either purposefully dispatched or opportunistic photographer, and on the other was Joseph, the tall, lion-maned bassist from Santa Cruz’s Fell Voices. I think I fell into Joseph or he fell on top of me a good half dozen times throughout the set, balance not really ever being assured, and the crowd sometimes swelling forward as if to overtake the stage.
And there were the times I was practically prostrate on the floor of the stage before guitarist Matthew Thudium, hands reaching up in the classic, gnarled gesture of invocation, a gesture lost between play-acting and hardened seriousness, between a utilitarian expression of ‘please, more of this guitar’ and a Faustian ‘please, remove the burden of the soul from my mortal body.’
And there were the large swathes of time erased from retrievable memory by the blood thinning effects of untold cigarettes and bottles of New Glarus and slow, deliberate, very much deeply meant “head banging.” Head moving back and forth slowly. Davening. Prayer. Gesture one makes, eventually subconsciously, to be with a music purportedly only ever over and against them. And I have to confess it works. Very straightforwardly, as your chest meets your propped and raised knee and a nearly 7 foot bassist grasps your shoulders for his own support and Bryan Funck is dissembling the microphone and putting it inside of his mouth, it all very much works.
It is almost too easy to speak of “metal” only in the context of violence and immorality. To not even have to specify the particular stripe of metal at stake. You can point anywhere in the field, utter a demonstrative, and follow it with “is inherently x,” where x is to be any set of words that are not necessarily disagreeable or even incorrect about “metal” but are intended nonetheless to exhaust any further need for interrogation. It is “dark”, say, or “scary,” or “depressive,” it seems prima facie directed “at” and not “to” its “devotees.” And then this is it.
Roger Scruton admits that his assessment of metal “is not yet a criticism, of course, but it is moving us towards recognizing what seems to me an important truth about pop music, which is that what seems like rhythm, and the foregrounding of rhythm, is often in fact an absence of rhythm, a drowning out of rhythm by the beat [his example thus far, it should be noted, is Meshuggah].” Certainly this suggestion begins an interrogation beyond labeling, and Scruton seems to be suggesting that it is the phenomenological rhythms (he gives as an example the eightsome reel) that are being drowned out, “in the one case they are heard as regular beats, like the pulse of a machine [metal]; in the other case they are heard as repeated movements, of the kind that our bodies produce when running, walking, or dancing.” Would it be too much of a stretch to suggest that Scruton believes complex melodic structuring to be ‘natural,’ with the phenomenological ‘feel’ and accessibility of this music serving as evidence? Scruton would apparently contradict this when quoting Schiller’s examination of the reel as demonstrating the link between gentility and beauty—an account which seems at bottom to hinge on the order and rigidity of the reel and the music which accompanies it.
But this is Scruton’s point as well—this order is at the heart of an argument about the moral validity of certain strains of music, as “whatever we wish to say about the moral character of music, it is bound up with the movement that we hear in music.” If that movement is “natural,” genteel, ordered, disallows a certain level of unpredictability and risk (the Schiller excerpt is keen to note the dancers in the reel “change their direction willfully but never collide”), then for Scruton it achieves “ a difference in social valency, and in the relative value placed on being with your neighbour rather than over and against him.” This is like a normative moral account—moral music gives us the rules (or perhaps in accessing morally instructive music we access moral instruction), its capitol rests in its corrective aims as well, I guess, as in its aesthetic merit alone. It is ordered and yet, paradoxically, this is the music Scruton suggests we are in some deep way already “with,” invited into, while other music might (Scruton insists this exercise is a suggestion of the possibility for a critique of pop music and not a firm assertion of any one critique) demand we submit to it, that it is only ever “at,” “over and against,” and “external” to us. We cannot seek to lodge a similar complaint against the order and routine of the reel, for instance. We cannot ask “but aren’t we, in your account, just submitting to a teleological, ‘morally instructive’ subset of music?” We cannot because the phenomenological efficacy of this music should just strike us, it ‘naturally’ taps in to our lived experience, it as well needs no further interrogation.
This is not to say we ought to build a pyre to immolate the 500+ years of Western music Scruton enjoys over others, it is not to say there aren’t important discussions about music and morality, or even, begrudgingly, that Scruton does not make complex, salient, difficult-to-dismantle claims. All of this is just to say that there appears to be, especially for music “of the margins,” readymade presuppositions. There must be a way past them. Scruton attempts to justify his assessment of Crystal Castles and Meshuggah as at least morally un-instructive through a metrical analyses—the sublimation of ‘natural’ rhythms wherein, at least in the case of live consumption, “your freedom is overridden, and it is hard then to move in a way that suggests a personal relation to a partner—the I-Thou relation on which human society is built.” Is there no way in which atonal, amelodic, ‘abnormally,’ ‘unnaturally’ constructed music reflects something about its creators and does so with its listeners in a way that is positively instructive? After all, it seems easy to suggest that this music is potentially amoral or worse immoral by disavowing it as inhuman and “unnatural,” ignoring completely that it is still humans that craft and build and produce music. Must it only ever reflect their moral dubiousness? Can a kind of music exist which avoids or does not enter into moral analysis? Why do I listen to metal? What about it is ‘instructive,’ to me, at all? Do I ‘submit’ to metal? How is it that I feel, often deeply, the opposite—that I am with this music? Does my own experience deceive me?
One answer: one may come to metal to hide. One may go to Gilead Media Music festival to hide in solidarity with others.
Part 2 tomorrow.
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