If I learned anything as an Anthropology major in college, it’s that when we speak of “human nature” we’re almost always talking about culture. Countless ideas and institutions deemed natural for the human spirit are in fact part of a complex web of learned vocabulary. Take the Western notions of consonance and dissonance, the supporting base of musical tonality. It is in no way apparent a priori that certain tone combinations are pleasing while others are unrefined or disagreeable. Clearly, tonality is as much a constructed system as ethics, something which is produced by (not before) human interaction and disseminated, with constant re-adaptations, from generation to generation. An invocation of the musical philosophy of John Cage is appropriate here: “The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.” This quote has always haunted me because I think it penetrates the problem of the question of music. What is and is not music, the obsession with exclusionary division, has marked every stage of Western musical history. Combining Cage’s challenge of traditional aesthetic binaries (reflected in tonality’s consonance and dissonance) with the insights of anthropological thought, we see that the resolution of this historic problem is to nullify the binary by looking beyond our present cultural systems and imagining new systems awaiting to be forged. It shouldn’t be as scary as it sounds. As Cage puts it, “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” Doesn’t the very health of our cultural spirit depend on an understanding of where we have been and where we can go? Are we to remain forever trapped in an outdated mode of thinking about sound? There are plenty of artists that understand this imperative, but the larger cultural landscape must recognize that sound is sound and must be reckoned with in any context.
Brooklyn’s Little Women understand the issues at stake here. The quartet, comprised of Darius Jones (alto saxophone), Jason Nazary (drums), Travis Laplante (tenor saxophone) and Andrew Smiley (guitar) deal in sounds that present a real challenge to traditional notions of beauty and pleasure. It takes about 1 second of listening to A-side “ Untitled” from the Teeth EP to hear what I mean. A waterfall of high-pitched shrapnel comes raining down without warning. The drummer sounds like a robotic octopus gone haywire. It’s not all sonic warfare here, however. About a minute in, some serious rhythmic unison interrupts the free-jazz tapestry being woven previously. Another minute goes by and suddenly the rhythm section has disappeared. We’re floating in a saxophone cloud assembled by Ornette Coleman’s long-lost evil brother. A roaring punk section rips us out of that zone. Proving that “out” music doesn’t necessarily mean pathological melody-aversion, the last few minutes of the song ride out on a pretty serious hum-dinger (well, before dissolving into another atonal freak-out at the end for good measure).
At this point, some of you faithful readers may be questioning my commitment to this Cagean Zen philosophy of “everything is beautiful.” After all, there are certainly some parts of the song we just listened to that would really stretch the essence of the word “beautiful.” Isn’t the point rather that ugliness has its place in music alongside its glorified Other? It’s important to remind ourselves here of the precarious nature of cultural ideals with large amounts of stock. Our theories of musicality and aural pleasure are like an anesthetizing distraction from all the directions we artists and art consumers have to choose from. Who said music had to be beautiful all the time? Or is there even a transformation effect, where beauty becomes displeasing and the base reclaims the upper hand? Walter Benjamin prophesied that man’s aesthetic telos was to find beauty in its own self-annihilation. The question then remains: Why can’t there be a place for the grating, the deranged, the violent in our musical universe?
As a perfect example of the grating, the deranged and the violent in music, let us now turn to Side-B “ Untitled” from the same EP. The song starts off with a dissonant (gotcha!) foghorn which at one point inexplicably begins dueling with bagpipes (not actually). After a minute or so of this raw bleating, the main event begins. Someone fingers a saxophone almost inaudibly while the remaining band members whimper into microphones like scared children. This continues until these grown men (not Little Women) are screaming like possessed lunatics. Then, they growl like animals and slowly die out. It’s sick, disturbing and incredibly powerful. I find the theatricality of this piece really interesting. It’s a forward-thinking composition that introduces new realms to me. If you find this stuff intolerable, I don’t blame you. But before you write it off as “unlistenable” or whatever, think about the language you’re using to describe these sounds. Think why you’re turned off by it and what this has to do with your learning of a certain system of musical signs. Invoking Cage again, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”