– Prem Sylvester
Music, as with any other aspect of modern culture, has experienced a paradigm shift in the last couple of decades – from being a form of pure entertainment, it’s taken on elements of pop culture, as well as art, splintered and reshaped itself, and continues to evolve. While music remains an integral part of pop culture, often being its most visible – and audible – form, there is a sizable movement that approaches music like one would visual art. It derives from outside the commercial, challenges conventionalities and its purpose is provoking thought and discussion. But what makes music created with artistic intent different from that created with the aim to entertain?
Evidently, nearly all music is supposed to appeal to the listener’s sensibilities on what is pleasant to the ear (although there are notable exceptions, broadly placed under ‘noise’). But while a lot of music is created keeping in mind the significant chunk of listeners’ comfort zones, the artist – as they are wont to do – produces music that aligns with their own vision and objectives, thereby challenging the listener to defy easy listening, and approach the music as a participant, rather than a consumer. The key to this is how one processes music; it’s tempting to ignore the unfamiliar and stick with the tried-and-tested, but there is a satisfaction, as with any artform, in exploring its less-obvious sides, in deriving personal meaning and interpretations, and sharing these perspectives with others on the same journey of discovery. Also true of any art is its ability to provoke and inspire debate – it almost seems pointless that something with as wide a reach as music would stick to established tropes, thereby depriving people of a medium for ideas and personal and collective expression.
In some ways then, it is useful to compare musical art to schools of visual art.
Realism, for example, “sought to convey a truthful and objective vision of contemporary life. […] Rejecting the idealized classicism of academic art and the exotic themes of Romanticism, Realism was based on direct observation of the modern world.” A close parallel to this aim of displaying the grit of the disadvantaged, of the ones who are victims of those with privilege, can be found very evidently in hip-hop. The genre has historically sought to portray a side of society that is far from the fore, into high visibility, while challenging racism and systemic oppression.
Take Kendrick Lamar’s Alright, off the incredible To Pimp a Butterfly – it’s a grim reflection on the strife of the African American community, tackling issues such as poverty and police violence. Instrumentally too, it’s a marvelous capture of other music borne of struggle, such as jazz and blues. It’s catchy and a great piece of music, but perhaps more importantly, its artistic merit lies in the unapologetic depiction of the musician’s reality.
Surrealism, on the other hand, is much more difficult to describe objectively. Surrealists “sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination [and] believed the rational mind repressed the power of the imagination, weighting it down with taboos. […] they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.” The indefinability of surrealism thus makes it hard to describe music as such, but based on the key components of the artform, namely the imagery invoked by it and its strangely subdued textures, there is that rare musical piece that can be a parallel to surrealist art.
One such album is the cult classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. It’s a challenge to tell what the album is truly about – although most fans speculate, with fairly good reason, that it was inspired by Anne Frank – but it sounds like something out of a hazy dream. Lo-fi instrumentals and vocals are the platform for esoteric lyrics and themes that can be only described as surreal. With descriptors such as “king of carrot flowers,” “roses in her eyes,” and weirdly graphic/sexual imagery such as “push my fingers through your mouth” littered throughout the album, its threads are woven in manners decidedly enigmatic, but tethered to oddly personal, real emotions. The album’s surrealism is derived from its insistence on speaking to you, but in tongues.
Somewhere in between the terrestrial nature of realism and otherworldly nature of surrealism lies minimalism, which uses abstract forms in real space to invoke a reaction. This is an artform where “where any kind of personal expression is kept to a minimum, in order to give the work a completely literal presence. The resulting work is characterized by extreme simplicity of form and a deliberate lack of expressive content.” Minimalism has been somewhat abused in art, to the point where truly minimalist music is obscure. But the form of minimalist music is helpful in its stated purpose – using a few, meticulously shaped sounds to construct a space where the listener can react in his or her unique way, but guided by the artist’s vision.
Oneohtrix Point Never’s musical sculptures belong to this area, exemplified on albums such as R Plus Seven. The cover art for the album is minimalist art in itself, and its contents further that concept. Each song can be broken down into a limited number of key components that individually provoke the listener into reacting, but when interacting with each other, add new dimensions to their perspective – there is a sense of understanding of the cogs creating a stunningly layered and complex musical piece. Consider He She, that blends feminine vocal samples with zen-like strings, but arranged in aggressive, sharp patterns – with an occasional demonic growl – that contrasts a minimal number of seemingly disparate elements to form a comprehensive, if challenging masterpiece, that exploits the biases of the listener to convey an idea without really saying anything at all. It’s minimalism at its purest, and finest.
With this treatment of music as art that’s not necessarily pretty, there is the omnipresent danger of there being a degree of snobbery attached to appreciating it. It’s important, then, to remember that art is also subjective – there is no art that is objectively better than the other, only art differently suited to each perspective and purpose. The beauty of art lies in the connection, emotional or otherwise, that it establishes with the participant – here, the listener. And that connection is special irrespective of its merits or demerits. Art just is – and music is one of art’s most powerful expressions.