March 13, 2003

From the Horse's Mouth

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My Right to Incoherence

Musicians today have carved themselves the unique privilege of being allowed to be purposely obscure and to freely stray from the coherence popular culture requires. We have come to expect a level of obscurity that is, by convention, assumed to be meaningfully connected to the musician’s persona. I don’t pretend to understand what most songs by my personal favorites are about. I usually have no clue. I attach the music to the words and enjoy the emotional picture my imagination can forge with the two. Usually there are no conflicts, except for some occasional there misfires. I always assumed Radiohead’s “National Anthem” was a an emotional, serious piece of music, only to recently discover that it was intended to be funny. Go figure.

The truth is most songs tend to be simply meditations on an aesthetic, the jumbling of elements to make them sound good. The murkiness created is exciting when an exciting mind creates it. What instrument can be coupled with a sparse piano chord? What word should rhyme with ‘wolf’? The answers spawn from random mental associations but that individual randomness makes them fascinating. Logical coherence is usually the first things to go and it’s a good thing too.

In art, clean-cut coherence isn’t a virtue; it’s a defect. Nothing is worse than art that gives its audience nothing to do since the meaning is spelled out. Lately, I’ve been unable to listen to political music precisely because once I know the message and my need to go on listening disappears. I can appreciate how a song gets its message across, but if the cleverness is merely the means to a concrete higher ideal, once that message has been recognized the whole is somehow cheapened. Maybe it’s old age but I am feeling less and less connected to art that serves anything but the utterly individual desire to create. The picture of people sitting down to write a piece of music about the death penalty; corrupt governments; the status of women; the war in Iraq; Sep. 11th etc feels wrong. This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t respond to these events but music should mediate and alter the individual response and not merely play the role of a blameless vapid messenger. Nothing excites me more than music that confronts me with my own ignorance and leaves me awed and asking a simple question, namely, “How did they do that?” After all if you’re sitting down with a guitar and in some time end up in a familiar place with a familiar progression, you know that somewhere you’ve missed a wrong turn you should’ve taken. Peace, “the dark horse”

Archived article by The Dark Horse