Thursday, January 17, 2008

Escaping patterns

I'm not going to masquerade this fact: I'm a metalhead. An unabashed and long-term one at that. Not the metal you see on Vh1, nor the metal you hear on terrible Top 40 stations. I subscribe to various and sundry sub-stratified metal movements that, if they ever get any airplay at all, are found late at night, ferreted away on MTV2 where no one will have to be troubled by the unkempt hair, growled lyrics, and distorted guitars.

Troubled: now there's an interesting word. When I hear troubled, I think of a lot of different things. Frustrated? Sure. Offended? Possibly. Confused? Oftentimes. In short, the same emotions we often hear discussed when wrestling with contemporary art music. One of my greatest interests in regards to musicology lies in the convergence of what is traditionally termed "art" music with what is traditionally termed "popular" music. Now, I would make the argument that the metal I listen to is no more popular than much of the art music I listen to, but, nevertheless, it's still rock music, so it's still saddled with the (often derisive) label of "popular". So, what is it that drives people away from both metal and contemporary music? Are they the same emotions?

I would argue that, yes, in fact, they are. Listening to Dillinger Escape Plan (a band which I feel should be taught alongside new complexity in contemporary curriculae) requires much the same skill set as listening to any other complex music. To anyone who would argue otherwise, I would encourage a thorough examination of DEP's output: what sounds, to the uninitiated ear, like disorganized noise, is, in reality, fiercely technical, precisely notated and executed, and highly complex notated music. Bloated, self-indulgent wanking this is not, however. This is lean, aggressive music for the 21st century. I hesitate to even call it rock music: it reaches into electronic music, soundscapes, free jazz, new complexity, and even into mid-century conceptualism! I'm serious! Intensely layered polyrhythms recall Cowell's Rhythmicon, and "When Acting As A Particle" off of their new album, Ire Works, sounds like Cage or Feldman! Elsewhere, in the song "Baby's First Coffin", there is a 32-bar section comprised of alternating 8th and quarter notes (around 2:42 in the video linked above) that not once repeats a rhythmic scheme, tricking the ear into listening for patterns where there are none.

But, I digress. This is not so much a defense of Dillinger as it is a comparison to the way we listen to and understand complex new music. Just as Dillinger's output sounds disorganized and unstructured to the untrained ear, so does the music of Ferneyhough or Reynolds. The same listening skills are required to listen to both New Complexity and "mathcore". In similar fashion, the emotions evoked by difficult and discordant music (for example, Penderecki's "Threnody") are much the same as the emotions evoked by "extreme" metal. This is about as far from classical tradition as you can get, really. This is music intended to provoke the "unhealthiest" of emotional humours: anger, aggression, sadness, discomfort. Is there a place for these emotions in music? Does art have the right to make us feel "bad"?

So, if the results are similar, and the skills required to listen and perform are similar, why are Reynolds and Ferneyhough in New Grove and not DEP?

To conclude, here's a pretty sweet video of DEP playing in the Virgin Megastore in Times Square. I'll take sweaty, bruised, and enthused any day over sitting in a concert hall wearing ill-fitting dress clothes and listening to old men play Haydn.

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