My friend and musical companion Jeremy once gave me this advice when I told him I was having trouble writing songs: “Start with a philosophical concept and try to make the sound describe that concept.” It was an interesting, if startling method that I had never encountered before. Should music proceed from some base of an idea and build from there? Or do what we call “philosophical concepts” even have a place in music? Don’t we still put stock in the transcendence of the musical experience, in its absence of direct reference and metaphor? Only in a very restricted sense. As many worthwhile contemporary artists have proven, idea and form are mutually illuminating projects. One does not follow the other. They contain and advance each other.
And then there is the question of poetry. I mention poetry because it is so fine an example of how music is more complicated than we give it credit for when we examine it through a philosophical lens. How to delineate the spaces of music and language? How can we think of music as autonomous from “everyday experience” when its very essence is inscribed by Being, the most important entity in Heideggerian (and other influential) philosophy. Stuart Watson, who records under Order or Ardor, shows us how these issues must be met head on in music. His songs are the familiar imbued with a spiritual intensity that emits an inspiring radiance. Not only does Order or Ardor deal with “pure sound,” it deals with pure feeling, pure being and the dynamic play between those forces in carefully constructed auditory space. Watson is a towering intellect, so it comes as no surprise that his music deftly handles weighty themes while still remaining fun in sound.
Writes the man himself: “The band’s name is meant to evoke the Apollonian/Dionysian split described by Nietzsche in ‘The Birth of Tragedy’. In this project I am attempting to harness both intensity of feeling and clarity of composition; I want there to be a dynamic, almost dialectical tension between the elements in the songs themselves. In certain instances, generally my more experimental pieces, ardor wins out over order, as it were, but in other cases, ecstatic energies are reined in and dominated by the “songness” of a piece–passion in the service of reason, order over ardor.
“Musically I draw on Neil Young as a kind of ethical center, while Johnny Cash and Ian Curtis have had the most direct influence on my singing. I have a background in jazz guitar and bass, and that in some measure informs the kinds of songs I write. Among contemporary artists I have the highest respect for Larkin Grimm, Woods, Dirty Projectors, and Animal Collective; these people are making music that inspires me on a daily basis. Philosophy and poetry inform my writing on account of my day gig as an adjunct professor and English PhD student, but I try to keep my songs as direct as possible lyrically. Simplicity of expression is something I value, as are emotional openness and honesty, and I try to make music that reflects that. I am a believer in the visionary and transforming power of love. I am also an adherent to rationality. These two elements come into conflict, hence the band name. These songs were recorded by me in my studio, Deep Dark Carlos. “Borderlands” is a meditation on change, on transformation, on traveling through liminal spaces. “How I Am Blind” is a coming to terms with failed love. Both songs represent a version of the balance of order and ardor in my life.”
On A-side “Borderlands,” the self-ascribed Ian Curtis influence rings true, but as with other bands who draw inspiration from the Joy Division frontman (Interpol comes to mind), Order or Ardor has something deeper below the surface. The synth textures call to mind the grooves of Brian Eno’s otherworldly masterpiece, Another Green World. There are also hints of the restless post-punk experimentalism of Xiu Xiu. The drum machine has that crisp analogue sound of New Order and other similar 80s New Wave bands (it is in fact the same drum machine used by New Order). One shouldn’t take this as an act of gearheadism. Rather, this points to one of the more distinguishing features of Order or Ardor’s music—that is, the sound space in itself. Watson happens to be an expert producer (full disclosure: He’s engineering and producing my new album) with an uncanny ear for mix, richness and instrumental clarity. It’s a rare thing to have a musician with battling talents in songwriting and production, although I suppose in the age of laptop studios it’s becoming increasingly common. But this is more than just some slapdash home recording experiment. It’s the continuation of a method made possible by home studio heads like This Heat and Phil Elverum. In other words, having New Order’s drum machine in your studio, if you’re not a jive fool, means incorporating a texture that has great meaning for you after years of listening. By entering that sound into the mix, Watson is participating actively in music history, recycling and readapting sounds to create new combinations. This is how music goes forward (I hesitate to use the word “progresses”) and creates a somewhat coherent narrative instead of little style islands, episodic flashes in a vacuum
But let’s not get bogged down in historical musicology. Though Order or Ardor certainly provides a platform for waxing philosophic (like all good music), it’s also about enjoyment. Take B-side “How I am Blind” which places us into poppier territory than does “Borderlands.” An Aphex Twin-reminiscent drumbeat and humming synthesizer provide the perfect background for Watson’s pleasantly simple guitar progression. However, the brighter the pop song, they say, the darker its demons. “I showed how I am blind” intones Watson, simultaneously deadpan and crushingly emotive. Sad dance!
Ultimately, if these songs prove anything, it’s the overwhelming and inescapable presence of feeling in music. Scoff if you will at the idea of philosophy in music, but both derive from two important sources: Being and Feeling.