For The Love Of Boring Music

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Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.

The greatest living composer (Steve Reich) is currently writing a piece based on source material from the greatest living rock band (Radiohead) to premiere in March 2013. If I seem giddy between now and next spring, this is most likely why.

I have no issue with openly expressing my love for Radiohead or Reich, but I admit to having difficulty recommending the latter to a first-time listener. For one, Steve Reich's music is something I have invested myself in so deeply that I feel an unwarranted sense of rejection if the other party is not enthused. But I am mainly hesitant because I know that his music is not an easy listen. His works are exhausting, cathartic experiences not unlike what I imagine one would experience during a peyote trip.

I love boring music. Rather, some of my favorite music appears boring based on the standardized set of expectations most Western humans have agreed upon over the past hundred years. The unwritten rules state that songs must focus on a lead vocal, must have something blatantly exciting happen at least three times, and must be complete in less than five minutes. By these terms, Steve Reich is boring, as is half of Four Tet's catalog and roughly 85 percent of jazz. It is not the length, instrumentality, or lack of obvious high-fives that most people find jarring in Reich's work, but the overt repetition.

Music is a time-based art form, which is one of the principal challenges of the songwriter. Repetition is one of the only devices to make a musical event stick, to not let it disappear into vapor as the listener focuses on the next statement. In pop music, this is the hook, the aptly named device that grapples your subconscious and leads to song addiction.

Musical ideas are repeated for different purposes in "boring music." These themes are usually deliberately assembled with an obsessive ear for detail. These ideas beg for repetition, require it in order to be absorbed. To only play such an idea once would be like only allowing a sculpture to be viewed in five second intervals.

People refer to repetitive music as minimalist. This can be interpreted as uneventful, but I prefer to define it as fearlessly committed to a musical idea. The minimalist movement in visual art had a similar aesthetic - if your canvas only consists of one tiny blue box, it had better kick ass.

Time is the most important difference between visual and aural art. While you can view a painting for as long as you like, a song requires a defined period of attention. This is part of the explanation for the alleged riot at the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring; audience members put off by the dissonance could not simply skip to the next piece.

Of course, the modern music listener can easily skip, either on an iPod or iTunes or CD player or radio with a single pressing of two right-facing triangles. In discussions about technology and music, the decrease in attention span is a constant topic. But I see an opposite trend of listeners moving toward "boring music," perhaps as a reaction. Two of my favorite records this year are Hubble Drums by Hubble and Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads by Dustin Wong. Both are instrumental, loop-based solo guitar albums that use the hypnotic power of repetition to build portals to hypothetical galaxies. Generally ambient artists Eric Hall and Ou Ou are making some of the most exciting music locally, and I'm still floored that post-rock poster child / makers of background noise for homework Explosions In The Sky sold out The Pageant in 2008.

These are signs that the walls people build to keep out "boring music" are weakening. I'd like to think Steve Reich's Radiohead collaboration might widen the cracks.


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2 comments
Gilroywashere
Gilroywashere

greatest living rock band? Radiohead? Rock? Surely you jest.

Matt Ström
Matt Ström

It's amazing to me that one can be writing/listening and have a pretty tangible sense of "playing this 8 times sounds repetitive, but 9 times feels just right." It's even cooler when you have pieces like Reich's or Cage's or Glass's where it's repetitive at 25 times, and then at repeat #143 you get this weird tingly sensation and realize you've been drooling a little and haven't blinked for 7.3 minutes. Great article!

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