Notes on (new) musical forms

I came upon this youtube video featuring vsauce discussing the question “Will we ever run out of new music?” Vsauce approached the problem on two planes, first on the level of theory, ultimately coming to the conclusion that because the number of all possible combination of tones, notes, rhythmic patterns and sonic qualities (forgive the necessary jargon) is freakishly enormous, it can be considered that the possibilities of more new music coming are, in theory, almost limitless. However, coming from a more practical approach, he argued that there are certain discernible musical patterns (chord progressions, harmonic consonance, etc) that remained virtually unchanged since time immemorial, this huge number of possible musical permutations may be greatly diminished. Finally, he articulated the condition of contemporary pop, or even non-pop, music wherein he showed how tried and tested formulas have dominated the global music paradigm, primarily because these formulas are catchy and, henceforth, guarantee commercial profit. If you reached this part of the paragraph without understanding anything, I strongly suggest you watch the video first.

On The German Ideology, Karl Marx said that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” The truth of this claim can be easily seen in juxtaposing the history of music with the history of the  development of economic, political and social relations. For instance, while travelling bards and patronized court musicians typify the feudal monarchic way of life of Renaissance Europe, commercial pop groups on the other hand dominate contemporary capitalism until today. However, folk musicians and the patronized royal composers of the  Renaissance were given special social stature as artists which led to the sprouting of European culture and Western music as we know it. On the other hand, modern pop music has ballooned into an industry itself, albeit volatile, which has proven itself to be be lucrative and even culturally influential.

Because music has transformed into a large cultural-industrial complex, and also perhaps of the worsening social conditions inherent in a capitalistic system, musicians are steadily being stripped of their social roles as artists and are pressured to gravitate towards the mere production of ‘sell-able’ musical productions, many of which are often artistically rigid, safe, conformist, and most of all catchy at the expense of intellectual weight, which eventually dumbs the musicians and also the listening public. Musicans are pressured to make their work commericially-geared. Listeners have become contented with catchy phrases and hooks. Both ears have developed tolerance of musical and intellectual junk food.

So the question becomes more pertinent as the years go by and ‘new’ music is being produced every second: “Will we run out of authentically new music to listen to in the following centuries? Will we be contented with sporadic nostalgic fits, as postmodernists claim, leaving us too exhausted to search for new forms and hence be contented with recycling past forms?

From popular reception to popular production 

Contemporary artists seem ready to answer this call for newer musical forms with curious enthusiasm. Despite the intensity of popular culture and commercial music, many artists are emerging from every part of the globe carrying their own musical ideas. One thing I noticed, which is worth stressing, is that many of these artists come from the periphery and often are engaged in independent production. I would like to introduce some of them.

From Monuments to Masses describes themselves as  a “politically charged post-rock band” from San Sanfrancisco, California composed of Francis Choung, Sergio Robledo-Maderazo, Matthew Solberg. Being a post-rock band, they are determined to create a sound wherein there is no dominant melody which overrides the other sounds, an obvious challenge to the “Great man theory” and to traditional rock band set-ups. Obviously for a post-rock band, they do not feature vocals and instead have spliced samples often of political nature. Outside the band, every member is involved in political work in League of Filipino Students-SFSU, Challenging White Supremacy, Kalayaan School for Equity,BAYAN USA. From Monuments to Masses is groundbreaking precisely because they are a proof that political messages can be expressed not only in spoken language but in the abstract language of music.

The video below is a music video for “Deafening”, from the album Schools of Thought Contend, featuring a poem by Chilean revolutionary poet Victor Jara.

Also check out Low Leafa young and prolific ‘room musician’ also from the US. She sings, plays the piano, the harp, the guitar, among others, and produces her own works. The interesting aspect of her works are their interesting sonic textures, often made by meticulous splicing of sounds, which transgresses accepted perceptions of the song as an organic whole. Check out her soudscapes at the Soundcloud. Did I tell her she is one of my musical crushes? hehe.

Last is an art/music community called Tabakk (Tanghalang Bayan ng Kulturang Kalye) based in Manila, The collective promotes socially aware street culture. Utilizing mainstream musical forms (hip-hop, rock, punk, spoken word), they infuse political messages into their songs, perhaps with the mindset of going against commercial hip-hop which usually glorifies misguided violence and decadence. The group is composed of different ensembles, namely, Plagpul, Talahib People’s Music, BLKD, et al.

I had an epiphany a couple of days ago about how this search for new musical forms relates to the role of music in society in general. During the 60s to the 80s, artists from different ideological perspectives proposed new approaches to form in art, all with the common goal of finding fresh trajectories for formal development. Groups like the avant-gardes created new forms that reveals the vulnerability of art-production and the pretenses of social life in general. Yet these forays into the experimental seem to have alienated common viewers of art and even drew lines in the sand between the artist and the non-artist, thereby making art sometime of an elite (or at least petit-bourgeois) privilege.

Contemporary artists, however, have innovated and utilized available technologies to expand not only the listeners base but also the musicians base. While in the past decades, artists sought ways to make their music ‘popular’ with the masses, now artists saw that together with this popularization in terms of reception, the production of music must also be popularized. By showing that anyone can make their own music and and express themselves through the tools available to them, they also demolish the pedestal of the privileged artist. For example, local enthusiasts of hip hop or flip-top from the ranks of the urban poor are now organizing themselves and voicing their thoughts. Indigenous groups who decades ago found their own music too traditional’ for popular consumption are now utilizing the internet to at least deconstruct exoticized views of their culture. While access to this technological tools are still limited to the relative few, this number is far larger than it was a few years ago. I think it is time to exploit the opportunities at hand.

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