It’s been two years since I updated my blogging on music, but alas it’s finally time to get up to speed! I promised I’d get around to it in my inaugural post here last year, where I listed my best and favorite blogs from my previous blogspot (which I still maintain, frozen in time), all except my blogging on music, which I said I’d get to later. Well, here it is. The latest in musical science, philosophy, and likes. I’ll brief the “boring” stuff (philosophy and science) and then get into my latest musical playlist and how it confirms my previously-blogged theory that we live in a “postmusical age” (a phrase that doesn’t mean what you think). Ready? Here we go…
Philosophy of Music
To get to the science, we first need a wrap up on the philosophy: I discuss the metaphysics and epistemology of aesthetics as part of my naturalist worldview in Sense and Goodness without God (Part VI: Natural Beauty, pp. 349-66). I used the neuroscience of visual beauty response as my primary example, but I note that similar principles apply across the aesthetic spectrum, including the domain of music. Aesthetics is a subject often neglected by philosophers, even philosophers keen on building worldviews. (Which is why I was so happy that I got to talk a lot about it in my favorite interview about my naturalist philosophy for the presently-dormant Polyschismatic Reprobates Hour [that link is an mp3 download].)
Understanding the best attributes of art and beauty and their causes and effects adds an important dimension to human experience, happiness, communication and understanding. Our aesthetic response is partly evolved, partly cultural, and partly idiosyncratic. But it always has its basis in the biology of the brain. And it has fundamental adaptive functions evolved into us over vast spans of time. And part of that started with our sophisticated use of sound to communicate. (Hence of all animals likely to be found in the average home, only humans and birds independently evolved the ability to perceive and respond to rhythm–basically, your pets don’t hear music, they just hear noise…unless your pet is a bird; or a gimp locked in a trunk or something…consensually, we hope).
My three principles of higher art (the functions we add on to art’s biological foundations to make art greater than something it would otherwise be) are art’s fulfillment of the roles of communication, education, and display of skill (VI.3.3, pp. 363-66). And my favorite demonstration of how music can fulfill those roles are the interviews with composer Greg Edmonson on the artistic decisions he made in scoring the series Firefly (IMO, one of the most brilliant film scores ever made, and it wasn’t even for a film) [he is briefly interviewed in the making-of-Firefly special feature on disk four of the series DVD set, and again in Done the Impossible], and its theoretical analysis by Jennifer Golz (“Listening to Firefly”) in Finding Serenity: Anti-heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon’s Firefly (ed. by Jane Espenson, 2005), pp. 209-15–combined, of course, with a hearing of the score itself.
Science of Music
But for Sense and Goodness without God I chose visual aesthetics as my paradigm example because at the time that was the one field in which the scientific study of aesthetic perception was the most advanced. And good philosophy always builds on and coheres with the well-established findings of the sciences. But since my book came out in 2005, the science of aesthetics exploded with all manner of new studies, which have essentially confirmed the general philosophy that I laid out in my book (to catch up, read Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution  and Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like ).
These new scientific studies include the aesthetics of literature (Lisa Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel  and Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible: Cognition, Culture, Narrative ), the aesthetics of smell (Rachel Herz, The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell ) the aesthetics of humor (from before I published, there was Robert Provine, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation , but now there is Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams Jr., Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind ) and play (Stuart Brown, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul ), and of course the aesthetics of music.
Top works on that subject now include:
- Daniel Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music (2006)
- Aniruddh Patel, Music, Language, and the Brain (2007)
- Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia (2007)
- Philip Ball, The Music Instinct (2010)
All of these fields are very young and new, so not all their claims and theories are necessarily well-established or true, but you can see tremendous progress already toward increasingly verified conclusions in all these domains. The overall finding is that music is both a byproduct of our various neurological tools of communication, and a tool in itself adapted to communicate emotion and coordinate action, and may have co-adapted to facilitate social cohesion and sexual selection.
As to that last possibility, whether biologically or not, it has certainly been culturally adapted to those functions; but an example of evidence that it has biologically evolved to promote social cohesion is the fact that rhythm perception in the brain is deeply integrated with motor control: beats are hard-wired to be infectious, which cannot easily be explained as a byproduct of language use, but looks more like serving the function of community harmonization (playing music together; dancing to music). Evidence of its role in sexual selection include links between sexual arousal and musical and harmonic performance (the ability to sing, play, and dance well), and the fact that a passion for music tends to arise and peak in intensity around and shortly after puberty. These features could have other explanations, but they certainly do have some explanation. They are not accidental.
What science can also help us explain is why we like what we like, why we universally respond in certain ways to certain kinds of music, how musical pleasure is generated, and how we can make use of these facts to enrich our experience and better our lives. Science is making great strides toward these ends already. But that’s the biological and objective side of the matter. Now to the cultural and subjective…
What Is the Postmusical Age?
My blogging on music began with The Postmusical Age. Apart from explaining how eclectic and undefinable my musical interests were, the basic thesis of it was this:
I’ve been telling people about a realization I’ve had: we now live in a Postmusical Age. I don’t mean music is dead. Quite the contrary. It has finally arrived. Every decade of the 20th century has had its distinctive “sound.” The teens and twenties had their jives and folk ditties, and the 30s and 40s evolved into big band (I still love Glenn Miller) and pre-rock pop like The Ink Spots (which I love even more). And then the 50s spawned rock and roll, Elvis became the King, and there definitely was some good stuff going around then (though I have a hard time finding the grittier roadhouse stuff I like rather than the radio bopper crap, but that’s another story–any help with great 50s music would be appreciated!).
Still, the first half of the 20th century generally isn’t my area of expertise. Stock sounds become much clearer to me after that. The 60s had such a distinctive sound you need merely name the decade and everyone can hear its music. The 70s, again, with its Disco and protean metal and punk–though diversity was rising, you can still peg almost any song to that decade when you hear it. The 80s, once again, with its New Wave, and though a diversity of alternative sounds was rising even more, you can still peg almost any tune to that decade. But in the 90s, things started falling apart. You had Grunge, and so-called “Alternative Rock” (which I still call “Alternative to Talent”…sorry, but the 90s was the worst decade ever for music). Along with this came a general confusion and creative malaise. No one was really sure what the 90s should sound like. But they cobbled together a kind of banal sound, which you can still peg to that decade, as bland and pretentious as it was.
And then the 21st century began. And sound was no more. There is no distinctive sound now. None. Zero. There is no identifiably 00’s music. Why? Because every sound is now explored, and often brilliantly. People are doing what they want rather than what the decade expects. Real creativity, true freedom from the constraints of cultural and corporate expectation, truly rules the music scene now. And I don’t mean the pop crap that radios play and corporations still peddle. I’m not talking about bulk sales. By “rule” I don’t mean “at the bank.” I mean the good stuff that’s being made and sold, often under the boring crowd’s radar, stuff that’s being heard the world round, regardless of whether it makes millions or is even noticed by the bland masses. New technology has made this possible, at every stage of the game, from composition, recording, and mixing, to distribution and consumption. Now anyone with talent can join the fray–and not only make great music, but sell it, and actually expect people, anywhere, to buy it and listen to it. All on the relative cheap.
I then gave a tour of my latest music list to illustrate the point: retro-50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s music is being produced next to creative hybrids of them next to experimenting with completely new sounds. Just listen to Nouvelle Vague, Goldfrapp, Belle & Sebastian, Queens of the Stone Age, Lily Allen, and Arcade Fire and try to figure out what their decade’s “sound” is. There isn’t one. It’s all divergent. Yet all brilliant. I don’t think this will change. There will never again be a “sound” distinguishing a decade. Art has been liberated.
After making my point with a whole tour of examples, I then updated that list year after year. If you want the whole tour (which is essentially a tour of my favorite music all up to 2010; this post will get you up to 2012, but I still listen to all of it) here is a complete link-list in chronological order (I’ve rigged each link so it will open a new window or tab and not take you away from here; if that feature works with your browser):
- The Postmusical Age (22 July 2007)
- The Postmusical Age II (12 February 2008)
- More Music of Late (28 May 2008)
- Musica Hauntica Nostalgica (27 March 2009)
- The Music of May (28 May 2010)
But now on to the latest…
The Latest Best and Greatest
Many of the artists I mentioned or praised in previous posts have come back with more good work since. Too much to survey. So I’ll just mention the new stuff, and how it reflects my Postmusical Thesis. Except I have to mention the latest by Garbage (Not Your Kind of People), Arcade Fire (The Suburbs), Moby (Destroyed), Schiller (Breathless), and Ringside (Lost Days). Because those are such masterpieces you really can’t afford not to have heard them. And they are, altogether, a living example of our postmusical age.
That said, now to the new. Everything I’ll list below is on my playlist and among my favorites (collected since 2010).
I’ve been discovering a lot of new, cool music over the years not only from reading the music reviews in The Week but also from watching So You Think You Can Dance, in which professional dancers and choreographers produce often brilliant works of performance and dance art in competition–a show that alone often captures and exemplifies my three higher virtues of art; if you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch this, this, this, and this. That last piece in particular is an example of what I mean here: it introduced me to DeVotchKa, a postmusical group if ever there was one.
Of course by now everyone has noticed Swedish pop star Lykke Li (you haven’t? get a listen…that’s a postmusical girl). And I hardly need tell you about Adele or Florence and the Machine, or Gotye or The Black Keys (I don’t like everything they all do, but I love a lot of it, and altogether they also demonstrate the postmusical). But have you heard Kasabian? It’s rare that any group produces one album almost the whole of which is great (usually even for good artists you cherry pick the brilliant stuff and leave the often outnumbering failures behind). Kasabian has produced four. Try it. Listen to what the Beatles would sound like if they were still playing today (and had evolved as they always did, absorbing the influences of the last forty years). This is now my favorite band (second perhaps only to The Black Angels). They combine 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s sounds and add in the original and new, to produce a classic postmusical product.
And hey, want to hear a postmusical hybrid of oldtimey big band having sex with modern pop and sixties soul and giving birth to another British white girl who does Motown better than Motown did? Just like Duffy, Joss Stone, and Amy Winehouse, yet Paloma Faith sounds like none of them–welcome to the postmusical age! Just listen to her tracks “Upside Down” and “Broken Doll” to get an idea of what she’s about, and then realize how different this is from anything else going on today, how much it really doesn’t fit any identifiable “sound” of this or the last decade, how much it incorporates retro elements, yet would not have fit into any past decade whose sounds it borrows. Then contrast Paloma with Phantogram (Eyelid Movies) and you’ll see what postmusical means.
Then there are film scores, which I have always said are the “classical music” of our era. They are written by the Mozarts and Beethovens of our age. Because movies are really the modern operas. The film score to Inception (by Hans Zimmer) is an example of the recent best, but surprisingly so is the film score to the 80s post-apocalyptic “wigga” film parody The FP (score by George Holdcroft).
My wife and I watched The FP one night because it was in the On Demand queue and looked and sounded like one of the worst movies ever made. After the first five minutes it was already so appalling we really couldn’t tell if it was mind-blowingly offensive or a deliberate parody–we had to pause and grab the iPad and find out. It’s a parody. And as such, awesome. I won’t describe it further. Unfortunately no one can be “told” what The FP is. You have to see it for yourself (click to watch the film trailer…warning, offensive language and nudity). When my wife heard I’d bought the entire film score she thought for a moment I was lame…until she listened to it…and admitted it was, okay, like, totally awesome. Imagine the best 80s film score possible for a Warriors–Repo Man–Assault on Precinct 13 genre flick, and that’s the film score to The FP. It’s something when a parody becomes even better than what it parodies. And lo, this did.
But it’s not the greatest achievement these last few years. One of the most brilliant film scores produced in a very long time is the score to Tron: Legacy (by Daft Punk). Say what you will about the movie, the music is a 100% must-have. But this is just as true of Trent Reznor’s score to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (for which Reznor paired with Atticus Ross). That last I especially love, not only because it’s so brilliant yet so unlike anything ever done before, but because I had always wondered why he had never done this, ever since I heard “A Warm Place” on The Downward Spiral (for those who don’t know, Reznor essentially is Nine Inch Nails), one of the most beautiful compositions ever produced by a heavy metal band, bizarrely out of place on that album, but to this day my favorite NIN track. Well, my wondering was answered when Reznor finally did indeed produce a film score. And it’s as good as I expected it to be.
That wraps up my latest. Now you know what I’m listening to. And how wildly diverse it is. And how postmusical.