September 08, 2004

Experimental Rock as Contemporary Music - Just Another Crossover Gambit?

The acceptance of the rock band as a contemporary music ensemble - is it really deliciously subversive or another ploy to garner audience share with music that couldn't cut it with the classical crowd?

Art rock ensembles can certainly be considered an attempt to not just create a popular avant garde, but to act childish in the face of this current contemporary music gerontocracy. But what really is the difference between experimental/minimalist rock and a band like Godspeed You Black Emperor or Sigur Ros in the end? Has the language of rock really been enhanced by the inclusion of random or polyrhythmic elements and atonal melodic stylings? And in the end, how often is this new complex rock that much different than those horrible Chick Corea records where the entire ensemble played simultaneous and complex modal octaves until they were blue in the face?

For me, song structure, in particular, the placement of dramatic solos, forms the basis of great rock music. If the textural elements become so complex, the integral distortions of the instrumentation can become merely fatiguing rather than an enhancement to the capabilities of the small ensemble.

David Harrington, in a recent interview commented that he doesn't even listen to new music that much anymore; that Radiohead, Sigur Ros, et al are just as interesting because they've incorporated contemporary music stylings into their rock.

And let's face it, you can play practically any random notes on an electric guitar, vaguely on or off the beat, add drums and a repetitious bass and get that impression of uh... kickin' ass.

In fact, some groups, do merely that as their primary working method - algorithmic rock. The real question is there any really interesting music being done with rock band ensembles or is it all an excuse to hide under-rehearsed ensembles and ordinary minimalism by adding drums and bass? I have to admit, I've yet to hear a rock ensemble that is more compelling than recent Tortoise or Sigur Ros records. If the contemporary rock ensemble can't even blow away a few Icelandish 20-somethings I can't imagine the future of the ensemble is much to contemplate.

I will admit to a fondness for early Branca guitar orchestra work, however, but that seems to defy the definition of experimental rock as it was the misuse of gigantic numbers of electric guitars that made his early work so compelling.

And I'd like to mention the work of Daniel Stearns, in particular as a standout, original example of an Ivesian approach to rock music with his combinations of microtonal melodies and bizarre theatrical climaxes.

Why couldn't a rock ensemble, well-rehearsed, with great instrumentalists, and really compelling music, be the model for a contemporary music that actually maintains and grows an audience? I suspect, though, that the temptations to degenerate into silliness, the egocentric mannerisms of the soloists and the nature of the popularity of the ensemble in the marketplace, stale as it is, might make that impossible. The beat and the buck enslaves all, it seems, to mundanity.

Posted by jeff at September 8, 2004 12:57 PM

This topic comes back again and again, and from one generation to the next, and most serious composition has little chance against the forces of popular, mass-marketed cultural production. Little serious music survived the approach to Ragtime and Jazz with the critical detachment of Satie, Ives, Debussy or Stravinsky. Even less has survived the initial approach to rock in the late sixties -- does anyone else remember Joseph Byrd's "United States of America" or Silverman's "Elephant Steps", or even Bernstein's "Mass"?

Sure, the instruments used in a rock ensemble are potentially useful; _all_ the materials of rock are fair game, and there are indeed rock bands whose playing is so tight that their discipline may be advantageously emulated. But the real liberating aspect of serious music lies in its divorce from the imperative to entertain. Serious music is a gift to the ear and mind external to the entire structure of market supply and demand. We're already so well enough entertained by the mass of commercial musics out there that we have a desperate need for musics for which entertainment -- if present -- is only one point of departure, and only one point of departure among many.

Posted by: Daniel Wolf at September 10, 2004 06:02 AM

I must admit, I'm confused by "But what really is the difference between experimental/minimalist rock and a band like Godspeed You Black Emperor or Sigur Ros in the end?"

Are not Sigur Ros and GYBE both considered experimental rock bands? What else might be considered such if not? And then in this instance, the aforementioned should be considered what? New music ensembles or conventional rock bands?

Perhaps my fanbelt is slipping on this, but please ease my mind by clarifying.


Posted by: Steve Hamann at September 10, 2004 03:22 PM

My point (maybe I didn't express it well) basically was related to the relevance of contemporary music groups which are basically rock ensembles, like the BOAC All Stars and Dr. Nerve.

Posted by: jeff at September 11, 2004 05:17 PM

Much clearer. I figured it had to be a reaction to some specific kernel of information. But see, that's the problem on topics like this. Everything gets relegated to some taste ghetto, and most points of data are self-referential, derived from one's experience of the club, rather than being commonly experienced exemplars of the greater whole.

I thought we'd all moved on years ago from these battles over low vs. high art. That ArtsJournal Critical Conversation came off as embarassing to me on this exact point. How do you seperate Phill Niblock from Nobukazu Takemura from Johnathan Coleclough from Jeff Harrington from Tery Riley and so on? There's room for qualitative critical assessment of the arts, but what use is outright dismissal?

Back to the point at hand, it strikes me all the ensembles/bands you've mentioned are defined by those they perceive to be their peers rather than their music explicitly. BOAC doesn't seem to be so different than GYBE unless you or they wish them to be on paper. I'd guess you'd be pretty hard-pressed to find many 20 year olds listening to Bang on a Can, except maybe their Eno album, and likewise, probably not a lot of 40-something New York yuppies listening to Godspeed You Black Emperor.

Where would a collective like Rachel's fall on this scale? They perform essentially chamber music, though with occasional drums, and tend to release on record labels more closely associated with the rock side of things. I'd guess that most of their music is formally scored as well.

Lines blurred mostly because someone unrelated to the whole thing wants to feel better about themselves.


Posted by: Steve Hamann at September 15, 2004 11:50 AM

Well, my comments weren't meant in any way to be an outright dismissal; more of a questioning whether they were relevant or even up to date in their techniques when experimental rock - non classical style - were moving ahead. David Harrington's comments were what got me thinking. What is remarkable is the staticicity of the contemporary classical scene even as it emulates the cooler groups. Why is that? And I know a lot more 40 something NYC Yuppie GYBE fans than I know BOAC fans. Hehe... And that says something in itself.

Posted by: jeff at September 15, 2004 02:00 PM

Hmm, I listen to BOAC and GYBE and Adams and Ives and Radiohead and Daniel Stearns and even *some* Chick Corea and Sigur Ros. But I don't see any patterns here other than eclecticism and a bias towards sophisticated use of electrified instruments, Ives notwithstanding.

I do wonder if we are headed towards some kind of consolidation and conservatism in music, as we saw in the 1930s versus the wild 1920s. This would imply a trend away from experimental rock but who would be Copland in this scenario?

Posted by: Robert Gable at September 22, 2004 08:32 PM

Hey jeff, thanks for the kind words. At the zebox page you linked,which is mostly just very old demos, there's a reworking of The Housatonic at Stockbridge that you might like relevant to this discussion. It was kind of an early experiment,but it really helped me get an idea of what I wanted to do later on with pieces like Day Walks In. Anyway, thanks again.

Posted by: danstearns at October 18, 2004 10:15 PM