Why I Like “Weird” Music

I listen to a lot of music. Some of it is what I think a lot of people would consider “normal”, while some of it is what I think that same group of people would probably consider “weird” for one reason or another. Whether it’s because it’s atonal, really long, built on repetition of short musical phrases, or simply instrumental (some people are bored by lack of singing), or maybe all of these things at once, it’s outside of the mainstream, and right on the fringes of the underground.

From time to time I’m confronted by the accusation that those of us listening to weird music are doing so as an affectation; that we couldn’t possibly enjoy it, we must instead be trying to build an image of being intellectual. That awful word “hipster”. There are several ways to respond to this.

The short response is: go fuck yourself you condescending prick.

There’s more to it than that, so a tediously detailed response follows.

Everyone who listens to music for pleasure does so on their own terms. There exists a wide spectrum of music listening, and I don’t really need to identify and label everyone into particular sub-groups. However, for purposes of illustration I will talk about several.

For many people music is a casual companion to their lives, it’s background noise, and the substance of it doesn’t much matter so long as it’s experienced passively as a smooth arc of familiar styles and trends – with the option to sing along or maybe even drunkenly dance and get laid to. Often they like the predictable beats and smooth production, but they’re only really invested in the words, the singing, a specifically catchy instrumental hook. Whatever is on the surface basically. And hey, that’s fine. I don’t mean to put people down who listen to music like that. Popular radio stations are designed for this.

One Direction, seem as vapid and awful a media concoction as I can personally imagine, but lots of people seem to love spazzing out to their latest catchy tunes and hairdos.

Sure I take issue with the likes of X Factor, American Idol, Glee and all those other vapid marketing exercises that dilute and even actively harm the cultural impact of music as an art form. And by take issue I mean hate with all of my heart, but I actually don’t blame people for watching these shows. They’re not designed to support the creative act of music making, they’re designed as national “water cooler” TV events, a kind of semi-interactive mass hypnosis. The musical content is songs everyone already knows and finds inoffensive. It’s not music, it’s television. But this is an issue for another post (that I hope I never write).

The point is that I consider a more active music listening to be on a higher level of involvement. To me, an active listener is someone who seeks out music, who chooses to listen to specific music. Perhaps collecting records by their favourite artists, going to a few gigs, that sort of thing. For me, this is sort of the minimum level of involvement required before you can really say that you “love music”.

Back in the 90s, there were plenty of people who were really, really into Oasis, for reasons which always escaped me, but whatever.

People have tastes. They like certain genres, certain bands, certain songs, for whatever reason. Doesn’t matter. People who say “I like pretty much anything” are pretty much liars. Some people like rock music, that kind of feel of teenage rebellion and energy, while at the same time hating hip-hop because “it’s just some thug talking about shooting guys over a drumbeat.” Some people love one band above all others. Sometimes they’re obsessive about it (as I once was for several of my teenage years about Slipknot, and then about Pink Floyd).

That’s all TOTALLY FINE. There’s lots of music out there, you can enjoy as much or as little as you want. It’s up to you.

And then there are people who really love music, for whom it’s their primary hobby. Whether it’s collecting, or listening or playing their favourite tracks on guitar. This is the stage that obsession creeps in and often subjective opinions get twisted and perceived as fact, resulting in endlessly petty bickering across the internet.

Personally, I love a lot of music. Music is important to me, to the point that I probably over-think my relationship (and the relationship of others) with it. But that fascinates me, psychologically. That’s true of me in general. If I like something, I like to define why, I like to objectively understand my subjective tastes, and I love to delve deeper and learn more about the music. I want to know the music inside and out. Without necessarily knowing a great deal of music theory, my interest is more in terms of pure sound, texture and timbre, structure and form. It’s about the shape and the colour. I like to listen from different perspectives, to learn about its context in the ongoing cultural and musical continuum.

However, I feel it’s important to note that for me, listening to music is rarely, if ever, an academic pursuit. I listen for pleasure. Sometimes the pleasure is of a catchy melody or funky rhythm, other times it’s the peculiar timbral qualities of a metal chain scraping across a violin, and sometimes it is an appreciation of formless improvisation with extended techniques.

I want to say this again because it’s important: I listen to music for pleasure.

Now let’s get to the meat of this, starting with a fairly extreme example.

This is the kind of naked improvisational approach that is often met on youtube by dismissive cries of “emperor’s new clothes” and that it is a “joke” played by the musician on those who pay to pretend to enjoy it.

This is quite insulting and not at all accurate.

Fred Frith is improvising with a guitar with various things stuck on it. That’s literally it. If you have a problem with this music, it’s probably because he’s not playing a guitar like you figure a person is supposed to. And you’d be 100% right. This is not the way a guitar was designed to be played. It’s also probably because he’s not playing anything you recognise as a song. Again you’d be 100% right about that. It lacks a repeating chord structure, and consistent rhythm.

There’s a name for this technique, “prepared guitar”. As an extended technique it is all about exploration of the instrument’s potential sound, and ways to manipulate and change those properties. Frith is a fairly notable proponent of techniques such as this.

Prepared guitar derives from prepared piano, "popularised" by John Cage. This is an example of that.
Prepared guitar derives from prepared piano, “popularised” by John Cage. This is an example of that.

There are millions of guitarists in the world who could play you a lovely song you could sit and enjoy – and for the record, Fred Frith – one of the world’s greatest guitarists – is more than capable of doing so, and does on a regular basis – but there are comparatively few who choose the financially unrewarding path of exploring the instrument’s limitations. There is basically no monetary gain to this, as its appeal is understandably limited.

So what exactly is the appeal of this? Well, I can only speak from my perspective, but this is almost certainly not something I would listen to for relaxation. Interesting improvisation is rarely something I can engage with passively. The pleasure for me, is in the frenetic, almost angular movement between ideas, and the abrupt shifts in timbre. The use of a ribbon to mute the strings and create a rhythmic element in the piece is particularly interesting. I also enjoy his use of slapping and tapping techniques on the lower strings in a fast rhythmic run to contrast the harmonics he plucks out of the higher strings. It’s the contrast of light and dark.

That’s part of what I get out of it. Another part is the spontaneity, that without warning little specific ideas can emerge and solidify before our ears (as several do during this small excerpt) and before the ears and fingers of the performer themselves. There is an electricity in this, the natural and audible evolution of thought into action and reaction.

I hope that explains my thinking, my interest. You may see no value in any of these qualities, but I hope you can at least see that they exist.

I usually look for interesting things on the fringes of any given genre or style, since I assume that’s where the richest rewards lie. From there I can work my way back towards the centre.

There are many other examples of “weird” things that I love that I could go into, but the same principle applies. You don’t really need to know why I enjoy music that self-identifies as noise (for which that old lazy insult of “but it’s just noise” finally becomes apt), nor why the scores of Xenakis and Cage are so fascinating to me. You just need to know that I’m not pretending to like these things. There are reasons, reasons I have thought about extensively.

Merzbow. Yes, that looks like a chunk of wood and metal he appears to be hitting with a rock.
Merzbow. Yes, that looks like a chunk of wood and metal he appears to be hitting with a rock.

Can you say the same about all the music you love? If not, then please don’t dismiss things outside your area of interest as hipster-bait. That’s all.

And yes, there are people out there who do try real hard to have “weird” tastes, but those people are few and far between, and pretty easy to spot.

I sure hope that didn’t come across as condescending. Thanks.

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