I got three pianos and a snare drum, y’all

Via Fluxblog, here’s a fascinating interview in NewMusicBox with Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces. The interview has some very smart things to say about what makes rock music rock music: the importance of performance, and (somewhat paradoxically) the importance of recordings. In particular, this comment from Matthew:

You know the Beatles as Musicians books? There’s no Dylan book like that. But even that book is really hard-pressed to talk about the tones on the Beatles records. What’s the guitar solo on “Taxman”? You could try to transcribe it, but you have to talk about its overdriven sound. I wouldn’t see how you could technically notate the colors of rock. And it’s even more complicated on Dylan records since they come out of this sort of Chicago imitation of crazy background/foreground relationships. Think of Chuck Berry and what he’s playing in relation to the band – the piano in the background. The strangest thing is how it’s over there on the record, the piano and his voice. You could maybe write a piece for three pianos with the snare drum fff. There’s a big problem talking technically about rock music. Maybe there isn’t, but I’m too illiterate to see how you could properly notate it, especially Dylan. It’s really the singing. And that’s where rock music is interesting, I think. It’s the different ways, the weird things people do when they sing.

Elsewhere, the interviewer points out that even a very close, accurate transcription of a rock recording, even performed by sympathetic, skillful chamber musicians, would lack something…that something being, at least, the notion that the performer is part of the performance, the performer brings something of himself or herself to the performance, and in an essential rather than merely ornamental way. Even more so: creating such a transcription to be performed misses the point. Such a transcription might be interesting or useful in other ways…but for performance (or recording), only as a rough guide, a sort of elaborated skeleton for the performers to flesh out with something of their own.

The other part of rock is that it so often is primarily experiential in nature. What’s most important is what’s going on when you’re hearing it, particularly in a live setting. An interesting and underexamined listening skill, actually, is knowing when and how to foreground time: Matthew points out that something like Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” isn’t necessarily meant to be attended to in all its detail; more that it creates a flow of experience (which might, as he points out, just be being stoned). By contrast, a longish Queen song (he’s probably thinking of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” of course) has a sequence of parts, a lot of information: many different sounds and structures interacting. It wants to be listened to, in other words (no matter how much it also wants you to pump your fists in the air as well). I remember when I was in college, I had Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach playing, and my friend Eileen came by and asked me what the hell was this and that it was driving her nuts, repeating the same phrase over and over. Essentially, I think, she was listening in expectation that something was going to happen, and happen in the sort of teleological manner of classical music. In fact, she was confusing the ground with the surface: those repeating arpeggios aren’t for listening to, they’re for providing a way of framing time, within which the slowly evolving series of small changes gradually transfigures the music, rather in the way one might slowly revolve a kaleidoscope.

The most disappointing part of the interview isn’t part of the interview, really: the interviewer quotes Amanda Petrusich’s review in Pitchfork of Rehearsing My Choir, wherein Petrusich writes that “you can pick it apart, but can you dance to it, roll around on the floor with it, weep to it under your favorite blanket?” That’s very poetic: maybe you should try listening to it? (Part of Petrusich’s problem is that figure/ground issue as well, I’m guessing…) I think it’s rather tragic that, at this point in musical history, people are still telling particular music exactly what it should do to and for them…rather than letting the music inform them how they should react. It’s as inane and idiotic as criticizing a Bach fugue for not having a phat bass part.

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