stamping tube music of the Solomon Islands
August 16, 2009 10:12 AM   Subscribe

Better than Radiohead.
posted by flapjax at midnite (114 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why yes! I see your point! Music hasn't evolved past the point of banging rocks with sticks! How clever! How wry! *sips tea*
posted by fungible at 10:20 AM on August 16, 2009


Those aren't sticks, they're tubes!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:22 AM on August 16, 2009


Hugo Zemp being the name of the ethnologist who collected the video, and 'are'are being the type of music being played. A bit confusing there.

Still not sure why the Radiohead slam, and I'm not even a fan of Thom and his minions.
posted by hippybear at 10:22 AM on August 16, 2009


Why was it a slam on Radiohead? That music was good.
posted by voltairemodern at 10:25 AM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


hippybear, let me head this all off at the pass. It's all in fun. Radiohead fans needn't get steamed up. It7s just a goof. OK? A little good-natured fun-poking. Lighthearted. Etcetera. Everybody take your defensive hats off NOW! Enjoy the stamping tubes! then go listen to some Radiohead! i love you all!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:25 AM on August 16, 2009


How was the sake tonight, flapjax?
posted by bardic at 10:26 AM on August 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


I had a dream a few weeks ago where I was a scientist working on a new super-weapon. In recognition for my efforts, the government sent me on a vacation to Las Vegas where I saw, of all things, Blue Man Group.

For reasons not entirely clear to me, I had brought my new weapon with me and it accidentally got into the hands of my trained monkey (dream logic, eh?) who proceeded to set the weapon to "liquefy" and turned the performers into Blue Man Goop.
posted by boo_radley at 10:27 AM on August 16, 2009


I cast Circle of Protection: Radiohead
posted by kid ichorous at 10:28 AM on August 16, 2009 [6 favorites]


Also, it seems like their basic rhythm is 5/4.
posted by kid ichorous at 10:30 AM on August 16, 2009


Nice post—I'd never heard of this, and I'm kinda into this sort of thing.

Starting at 5:10, the performer explains some things, and starting at 6:19 there's a three-person ensemble performance, so don't miss those.

A little good-natured fun-poking. Lighthearted. Etcetera.

I don't think that's the kind of thing you should joke about. Radiohead is Serious Business.
posted by ixohoxi at 10:32 AM on August 16, 2009


flapjax: thanks for that. I love the video, but I I've come to learn that I can expect a shitstorm if I phrase my FPP as a backhanded negative instead of as a positive. I love what you post, so don't take it the wrong way!
posted by hippybear at 10:33 AM on August 16, 2009


Yes, it's just banging sticks on rocks, because there's no way that a that a materially simple culture could possibly have sophisticated aesthetics.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:34 AM on August 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Your favorite indigenous musical form sucks.
posted by felix betachat at 10:37 AM on August 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Wow, thanks for clearing that up, WhiteSkull.
posted by rumsey monument at 10:39 AM on August 16, 2009


I cast bolts of sarcasm and eyeroll of despair, and invoke graduate degrees in anthropology.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:46 AM on August 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


really cool - slippery rhythm
for more neat percussive melodies see Bali Gamelan

gotta say poor post framing though - it manages to insult everyone ("radiohead is so crappy that even this crap is better!") - but thanks for the link!
posted by sloe at 10:49 AM on August 16, 2009


If you thought it was really cool, sloe, why do you also call it crap?

I thought the link text was just an allusion to the radiohead song link below.
posted by kenko at 10:52 AM on August 16, 2009


Coooooooooooooooooooool!
posted by ageispolis at 10:53 AM on August 16, 2009


When you said "better than Radiohead", I thought you were referring to this.
posted by echolalia67 at 10:58 AM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


see, rock music is a lot older than we thought
posted by pyramid termite at 10:59 AM on August 16, 2009 [7 favorites]


I'm digging the video despite the built-in derail, but flagged anyway out of principle.
posted by chimaera at 10:59 AM on August 16, 2009


Metafilter: built-in derail
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:00 AM on August 16, 2009


see, rock music is a lot older than we thought

It's not rock music; it's a series of tubes.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:07 AM on August 16, 2009 [6 favorites]


Great stuff, Flap. I love the bass/drone tubes played with the feet.

As it happens, I was looking forward to seeing these Are Are pan-pipers this fall, but unfortunately the entire N. A. tour has been cancelled!

For these musicians it's all about a series of tubes.
posted by Herodios at 11:07 AM on August 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Marisa: looks like I took too long to assemble the links.
posted by Herodios at 11:08 AM on August 16, 2009


blasphemy.
posted by krautland at 11:10 AM on August 16, 2009


they look so bored
posted by empath at 11:11 AM on August 16, 2009


Thom Yorke usually looks pretty bored, too.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:12 AM on August 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


Predictable result is predictable.
posted by Artw at 11:18 AM on August 16, 2009


If they play too quickly the tubes will get clogged.
posted by scrutiny at 11:21 AM on August 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Fangirl SMASH!


I liked this, thanks flapjack.
posted by jokeefe at 11:24 AM on August 16, 2009


Yeah, Herodios, the Are Are pan pipe stuff is totally badass, too, thanks for those loinks. I thought about making a full-on Solomon Islands music post, lotsa links, in-depth, more along my usual lines, but this time around... hey, if folks wanna look deeper, they will. The music itself is deep, and it's out there for those who enjoyed this little taste of it. Happy exploring!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:26 AM on August 16, 2009


Loinks? Yeah, loinks!


I'm going to bed now...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:27 AM on August 16, 2009



Zoiks, Skoob!
posted by Herodios at 11:33 AM on August 16, 2009


I thought we were getting a Rodeohead post
posted by cyphill at 11:35 AM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Neat stuff. My wife mentioned panpipe stuff when she heard this playing; it's interesting how the sound can be both recognizably similar and yet so distinctly different with the different method of sounding the tubes.

Agreed that it's not a great choice of post text, it's-all-a-lark intentions or not, though. Any time you have to come back to your own thread with "no, I was just kidding!", it's probably time to reconsider the posting aesthetic a little, if only for the sake of the otherwise-interesting content you're posting.
posted by cortex at 11:44 AM on August 16, 2009


"Also, it seems like their basic rhythm is 5/4."

Radiohead? Because I was trying to do a beat count on the Solomon Islands clip, and it also seems to be in 5 (but I don't know 5/4 from 5/2 or 5/17, so I can only guess the dividend, not the divisor), so I'm not sure if you mean "Their (Radiohead's)" or "Their (Solomon Islanders')".
posted by Bugbread at 11:51 AM on August 16, 2009


As it happens, I was looking forward to seeing these Are Are pan-pipers...

It's interesting how they use similar instruments and sounds, but the song is more "Western". I'm sorry I don't have the vocabulary to explain quite what I mean, but I think the melody(?) is a smaller part of the FPP video, but the main part of that one. Almost as though the rhythm(?) has been downplayed and replaced with melody to make it more acceptable for ears attuned to Western music. Forgive if I'm not making sense, but that's what I can hear, and I don't mean to judge bad or good, just comment.

Oh, and the 'Are'are are the people themselves. Technically if they played Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on those tubes, it would still be 'Are'are music (and damnably impressive).
posted by Sova at 11:53 AM on August 16, 2009


This is trance-inducing music. Thanks!
posted by nosila at 11:54 AM on August 16, 2009


Sova: there are a lot of things that make that sound more Western. In no particular order, I would say they are:

1. a wide variety of instruments woven together to form a polyphonic (lots of voices) texture instead of just one basic sound
2. as you said, melodic instruments (pan pipes)
3. traditional percussion
4. more consistent Western-style rhythm (lots of beat patterns in 4, no rhythmic fluctuation to speak of)
5. use of the human voice, even if it's just shouting
posted by nosila at 11:57 AM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Radiohead have nothing to do with these musicians either.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 11:59 AM on August 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Mesmerizing. Fascinating musical system - If there's only one player, he uses ten tubes and plays in three voices at a time. If there are three players, they each play one voice. Amazing. It looks like this takes quite a bit of skill and a musical ear, even if to us the tools are a bit primitive.

It's interesting how they use similar instruments and sounds, but the song is more "Western." ...and everything else sova said.

That does make sense. Another analogy might be Vedic chanting set to music contrasted with Asian Underground. One is less pleasing to western ears because we're not used to the scale and instruments, but add the scale and instruments into a remix or into the dance scene at large and you have something Westerners are more likely to enjoy.
posted by neewom at 12:07 PM on August 16, 2009


Sova: there are a lot of things that make that sound more Western.

Oh cool, thanks for explaining. I'm sure it's obvious to people with more musical skill, but I'm happy to know I could at least hear the difference.
posted by Sova at 12:08 PM on August 16, 2009


Better than Chipmunks.
posted by Brocktoon at 12:24 PM on August 16, 2009


Why yes! I see your point! Music hasn't evolved past the point of banging rocks with sticks! How clever! How wry! *sips tea*

This is pretty ignorant. The idea that art evolves is a nasty holdover from the worst days of Western chauvinism. Don't let their tools mislead you into thinking that this music is unsophisticated in comparison to what you listen to.
posted by invitapriore at 12:30 PM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is what I imagine Radiohead would do anyway.
When the power was out.
In a bamboo furniture factory.
If they were barefoot.
And had large rocks in their pockets.
And pipes.


Seriously; lovely music, great post.

posted by Hardcore Poser at 12:36 PM on August 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Those are some pretty sneaky tubes. I like them a lot.
posted by orme at 12:38 PM on August 16, 2009


This just makes me want to play Bamboo Hero.
posted by Casuistry at 12:43 PM on August 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


Needs more bass.
posted by jeffamaphone at 12:46 PM on August 16, 2009


Needs more bass cowbell.
posted by RussHy at 12:49 PM on August 16, 2009


MeFi police, arrest flapjax
His hyperbole
Is making me feel ill
And we have flagged his posty.

This is what you'll get
This is what you'll get
This is what you'll get when you mess with us.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:51 PM on August 16, 2009


I love the start, where the guy is unpacking his tubes and getting set up. And every time a tube hits the ground or he bangs two together, a note comes out. It's like the music is trapped inside those tubes just fighting to escape.
posted by Nelson at 1:21 PM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: It's like the music is trapped inside those tubes just fighting to escape.
posted by hippybear at 1:28 PM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


The idea that art evolves is a nasty holdover from the worst days of Western chauvinism.

Really?! Explain this: I left Histoire de Melody Nelson out on the counter when I went for vacation and when I came back I had 450 copies of Arcade Fire's Funeral. Where did it come from??
posted by geoff. at 1:32 PM on August 16, 2009 [12 favorites]


Hardcore Poster, when the power goes out, they just hum.
posted by jokeefe at 1:34 PM on August 16, 2009


Whoops. Harcore Poser. Heh.
posted by jokeefe at 1:34 PM on August 16, 2009


Hardcore Poster, when the power goes out, they just hum.

I had a friend who could whistle a 2400 baud handshake into a telephone. Does that count?
posted by hippybear at 1:38 PM on August 16, 2009


I had a friend who could whistle a 2400 baud handshake into a telephone.

That's nothing. I can walk down to the corner and turn into a drugstore.
posted by Herodios at 2:03 PM on August 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Until the relatively recent advent of syntactic language in modern humans, Mithen maintains, it was music that helped hominids find a mate, soothe a child, cheer a companion or provide a group’s social glue."

HUGH: You will expect me to accept a notion that Neanderthal man found a method of making music out of minerals?
HOWARD: I believe I can prove that actual melodies, crude, of course, but melodies, based on the diatonic scale similar to the Norse Ventengum chants...
JUDY: I love those Ventengums.
HOWARD: ...really existed as far back as 7 million B.C.
LARRABEE: You can prove this?
HOWARD: Given the time, and the money, of course.
HUGH: But really, music from rocks?
JUDY: It so happens, Mr. Simon, that Howard had discussions with Leonard Bernstein about the possibility of conducting an avalanche in E flat.
-- What's Up, Doc?

posted by dhartung at 2:09 PM on August 16, 2009


bugbread: Radiohead? Because I was trying to do a beat count on the Solomon Islands clip, and it also seems to be in 5

Yup, both. Lots of Radiohead songs since Kid A (if not in 5 outright) have a slack 5th bar at the end. And the first two Solomon Island songs patterns were in 5. Actually this reminds me of damn good Autechre more than anything.

posted by kid ichorous at 2:33 PM on August 16, 2009


Man, the soloman islands have some great traditional music. Deep Forest samples the singer of a now dead soloman islander language on this track. Thanks a ton for this flapjax.
posted by phrontist at 2:37 PM on August 16, 2009


I like this music, but I'm disturbed by the fact that we have no way of knowing if this guy is a good tube player. What if he's, like, the Yanni of the Solomon Islands?
posted by Faze at 2:39 PM on August 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


This is great. It sounds very like something I've heard on Hearts of Space, although other people probably don't consider that a compliment -- I do.

Ancient instruments like these probably wouldn't leave any trace in the archaeological record unless made of bone, and even then, would their function be apparent to us?
posted by Countess Elena at 2:53 PM on August 16, 2009


The idea that art evolves is a nasty holdover from the worst days of Western chauvinism.

Everyone's going to let this go unchallenged? Of course art evolves...
posted by empath at 3:01 PM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


...but there's never a guarantee that evolution is progress.
posted by voltairemodern at 5:32 PM on August 16, 2009


...and the music I like IS more sophisticated than this music. Not to take anything away from his Solomon Islander's innate capabilties, which are obviously significant, Bach's "St. John's Passion", Handel's "Acis and Galetea", and the Beethoven string quartets (and about everything between and much after) are much more sophisticated than this proto-Blue Man Group guy's music. For that matter, the Beatles are pretty much more sophisticated than this guy's music. He IS, however, better than Radiohead, which I listened to for the first time yesterday, and discovered were just some kind of trance band with a groany singer...
posted by Faze at 5:35 PM on August 16, 2009


That's a good comeback, empath, but nonetheless, I still agree with invitapriore. The "evolutionary" or "progress" or "Oedipal" notion of cultural development can lick the sweat off my balls.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:40 PM on August 16, 2009


Thank goodness the sole barometer for how good music is is how "sophisiticated" it is.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:46 PM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


can lick the sweat off my balls.

That's a good comeback Joseph, but nonetheless, I still agree with empath. The notion that art does not have a dialectic aspect to it, responding to and enhancing what came before, can eat the corns on my feet.
posted by ericost at 5:53 PM on August 16, 2009


Woo-hoo, let's do this all day! No, wait, I have a job. Fuck.

Mmm...corn...
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:03 PM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


The "evolutionary" or "progress" or "Oedipal" notion of cultural development can lick the sweat off my balls.

These are certainly equivalent concepts, all right.
posted by kenko at 6:09 PM on August 16, 2009


This is pretty ignorant. The idea that art evolves is a nasty holdover from the worst days of Western chauvinism. Don't let their tools mislead you into thinking that this music is unsophisticated in comparison to what you listen to.

You think it became not unsophisticated out of nowhere? Or (on the other hand) perhaps the people who make it understand themselves as makers of something that can be discussed and evaluated, and changed in response to discussion or evaluation?

The idea that makers of sophisticated music who use relatively simple technologies just somehow do it is a nasty holdover from the worst if somewhat later days of Western chauvinism.
posted by kenko at 6:14 PM on August 16, 2009


I am totally going to buy some PVC pipe and try this.
posted by waxboy at 7:04 PM on August 16, 2009


If the dialectic of artistic self-awareness and progression feels like giving me a footrub or something, I'd be okay with that.
posted by cortex at 7:10 PM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


And that footrub will be a welcome relief after you've been practicing your Are Are technique with tubes between your toes for a few hours.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:13 PM on August 16, 2009


It's an interesting video. On the surface it seems like a very simple concept, but I doubt I'd be able to sit down with the same tools and create anything like it without a lot of practice. I haven't watched / listened to it more than once, but I'm curious whether the patterns evolve over time or if there is a structure which I'm not picking up on immediately.

This brings to the surface the question about musical sophistication. What is that, exactly? Is Wagner more sophisticated than Bach? What about Glass or Reich? To my own ear, there is much more subtlety taking place inside Reich's "Music For 18 Musicians" than there is inside Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I've listened to both of them a zillion times, and my classical music trained brain has pretty much grokked the theme and development structure of the symphony, and I can sit even without the score and draw diagrams of the structure of the piece as I listen to it. 18, however, even sitting with the score leaves me feeling lost within the sound, at times without a clear line to follow. Is that sophistication? I'm not even sure what that means at this point.

I have little or no grasp of the structure of Native American songs and dances, even though I have repeated exposure to them.

What does that mean, anyway? "Musical sophistication"??? For myself, I know I have yet to compose anything that doesn't sound like yet another version of Kum By Ya. But I find whatever this man is doing with bamboo to be pretty intensely structured in ways I have yet to grasp.
posted by hippybear at 8:16 PM on August 16, 2009


yet another version of Kum By Ya

Hmm... wasn't that the X-rated B-side to "Stand By Me"?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:42 PM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


What does that mean, anyway? "Musical sophistication"???

It's shorthand for "music composed by men in powdered wigs".
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:46 PM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I also thoroughly enjoyed that but didn't quite mentally grasp what exact structures they were using. Perhaps it's not really meant for that same thin cerebral mathematical spectrum that most classical Western music resides in. It speaks to a living reality larger than the head can encapsulate.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:54 PM on August 16, 2009


I come back here at the end of the day and find my silly little jab at the top of the thread (in response to the FPP's unnecessary haterade) has sparked a ethnomusicological discussion! Bravo internet!
posted by fungible at 9:04 PM on August 16, 2009


The notion that art does not have a dialectic aspect to it, responding to and enhancing what came before, can eat the corns on my feet.

It's impossible to deny that there is a dialectic, yes. It is not Hegelian, though, as there is no synthesis to speak of. In my mind this is especially true of music, where the semantics of a style are so heavily context dependent. "Enhancement" seems to imply that the history of a particular culture's art tracks a journey towards an ideal form. If there is a "better," is there then a "best"? Or is there an infinite succession of styles, each better than the last? It seems much easier to assert that art fits a particular context and that sophistication does as well.

Of course, early forms of every kind of art had comparatively limited means that grew in breadth over time. My opinion is that after a certain stage of development, it becomes impossible to compare the relative sophistication of two different art styles. I don't know much about the music linked above, but I've had this argument with regards to, for example, West African dunun ensembles, a style that I think at least matches Western music in its "sophistication." A lot of people would disagree because of the percussive means of that music, but it's just a case of the parameters being different.

So, kenko, I guess I reject your implication that I'm of that particular clan of jerks that thinks that the marvelous natives of wherever are just born with the rhythms in their blood, and oh my god they just have such a beautiful connection with the earth, and...nope. I just hate seeing music built on completely different means rejected as primitive.
posted by invitapriore at 9:45 PM on August 16, 2009


It is not Hegelian, though, as there is no synthesis to speak of.

"thesis-antithesis-synthesis" is not a Hegelian concept; it is, I think, Fichtean (or maybe Schellingian). The Hegelian Aufhebung is not a merger of a thesis and an antithesis.

FACT!
posted by kenko at 9:55 PM on August 16, 2009


fungible : "Enhancement" seems to imply that the history of a particular culture's art tracks a journey towards an ideal form.

I hear you, and you're right, the word does carry that baggage. I was thinking of it more on the level of the artist within a particular cultural context, where constant riffing/reducing/enhancing is the normal churn of things. I don't think there is movement towards an ideal form, but there is certainly a movement towards the Art of any given time and place, and that movement is I think safely described as sometimes "evolutionary" and sometimes "revolutionary".
posted by ericost at 10:12 PM on August 16, 2009


fungible didn't say that! invitapriore did! Sorry.
posted by ericost at 10:44 PM on August 16, 2009


I just hate seeing music built on completely different means rejected as primitive.

It is primitive, though -- not that there is anything wrong with that. I think there's a limit to what musicians can accomplish without musical theory and years of written and recorded music to draw on. Without that, all you have is essentially oral tradition -- and while that can produce spectacularly good work, it's somewhat limited in range and depth.

I think its actually a bit patronizing to lift this kind of thing up to be better than it really is. It's interesting, it's unique, it's accomplished, but any of these musicians would do better work with a real musical education -- doesn't matter if it's western or eastern or whatever tradition.
posted by empath at 12:32 AM on August 17, 2009


I'm sure that for a trained musician, this could be interesting, but it left me cold. As in - Guy plays music I could never hear on bamboo tubes - cold.

I'm sure this guy is a big hit in the social circles he moves in, but if some well-meaning sort with too much time pulled this out at a party I was at, I'd be out of the door before he could get the stones in the right place for his feet.

There are only four situations I can see where this is going to be of any interest to you.
- You're from an area that plays this instrument.
- You're an anthropologist.
- You're a musician who's intently interested in different forms.
- You're an idiot.
posted by seanyboy at 12:42 AM on August 17, 2009


He certainly has as much gear as Radiohead. Some people say you should be able rock with just a guitar and an amp, but this guy has 2 rocks and 12 tubes! All he needs is a Kaoss Pad and he's ready to start recording Kid A.
posted by awfurby at 12:55 AM on August 17, 2009


I think its actually a bit patronizing to lift this kind of thing up to be better than it really is.

"Better" is a completely subjective judgement call. You may hold the opinion that Bach or Burt Bacharach is 'better' than this. But at the end of the day that would be your opinion, nothing more. Objectively speaking, no music is "better" than any other music. There is only your personal taste.

any of these musicians would do better work with a real musical education -- doesn't matter if it's western or eastern or whatever tradition.

"Better work"? What does that mean? Work that you personally find more appealing, that's what it means. Beyond that, there is no "better work".

As far as a "real musical education"... oh man, I'm not even touching that one.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:54 AM on August 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Objectively speaking, no music is "better" than any other music. There is only your personal taste.

Not true. I think that it can be proved objectively that some music is better than other music. I can see where you're going with this, but you can take the whole "art is in the eye of the beholder" argument too far.

Even if I subjectively prefer the fridge paintings created by my friends children than some of the paintings that can be found in any national gallery - I know which is "objectively" better.

There are fashions in any creative area, and these are vague and fickle, geographical and temporal. Don't believe though that these preclude the ability to objectively judge what is good and what is bad. Bonnie Tyler is a good singer. I am a shit singer. It's that simple, and that easy to make a proper judgement.
posted by seanyboy at 3:36 AM on August 17, 2009


Cool post flapjax. A nice find.

wow. What a delightful surprise. The guy came out and when he unloaded a couple of rocks and sticks with other sticks inside, the last thing I expected with that sublime music.

It was as if the sound of rain became melodic and fun. Reading more about the Are'Are people, I think they were influenced by the sound of rain and water.

Looked up a little more: Hugo Zemp (now curious about his brass band vid and all his videos actually) Here's his head and chest music) l The Music Boys from Are'Are [pdf] l Solomon Islands l A tiny bit more about the 'Are'Are people of the Solomon Islands and their panpipe music l Solomon Times Online.
posted by nickyskye at 3:47 AM on August 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


PS a small handful of other Hugo Zemp videos on YouTube.
posted by nickyskye at 3:52 AM on August 17, 2009


Better than Radiohead
Setting the bar very low - The Banana Splits are better than Radiohead.
posted by hooptycritter at 4:10 AM on August 17, 2009


Not true. I think that it can be proved objectively that some music is better than other music.

I think this depends entirely on how you define "better", really. If you mean to what degree a work of art is born from studying theory and the history of that art form, or if you mean how it pleases you personally. Are you judging skill or what it does to you? I can say it's obvious that this guy never went to Peabody, but I find his music more enjoyable to listen to than Billy Joel. Anyone with an interest in music would benefit from learning theory and history. Would it make their music "better"? Depends who's listening.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:15 AM on August 17, 2009


The guy never went to Peabody, but I'm pretty certain that he didn't pick up the sticks ten minutes before filming started.

Is he objectively better than Billy Joel? All personal opinions aside, I think you could judge both to be "talented musicians." And as they are both talented musicians, it becomes much more difficult to judge which is objectively better. Personally, I don't care which is better - I just care that they're both good and that blanket statements such as "no music is better than any other music" be dismissed.

That guy hasn't spent the last x years of his life practising with bamboo sticks and rocks & performing to appreciative audiences to be told that some 18 year old kid with a new guitar and a garage audience of his two "bandmates" is better than him.

As to how to tell if something is objectively better, I'd posit that the two areas to look at are that the musician is skilled (i.e. not everyone can do what they do) and the music they produce affects large groups of people.
posted by seanyboy at 4:40 AM on August 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


* the last thing I expected was that sublime music
posted by nickyskye at 4:57 AM on August 17, 2009


As to how to tell if something is objectively better, I'd posit that the two areas to look at are that the musician is skilled (i.e. not everyone can do what they do) and the music they produce affects large groups of people.

Guess I better get started on building a concert hall on the Solomon Islands then, or get this guy an agent to start touring.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:25 AM on August 17, 2009


anything is better than radiohead. i've said it before and i'll say it again- radiohead blows...
posted by frankbooth at 5:56 AM on August 17, 2009


It's shorthand for "music composed by men in powdered wigs".

Well, there's a harder truth to it than that, and it does transcend the talcum accoutrements of a Western court. For example, there's undeniably more going on in Vietnamese classics like Nam Ai than in your average karaoke pop. But it's a skewed contest from the start; the former being nothing but the latter - some peasant plainsong, or an aleatory riff - elevated by centuries of creative development and exploration. Technology leaves us equipped to throw so much more into our music today, but not patience. So I tend to think our music today is equally interesting, but less monolithic and deep than variegated and wide. Outside of the most wankery jazz and maybe the most virtuosic extremes of IDM and hip hop, I haven't heard anyone actually trying to compete with the baroque or classical periods on their terms. We are coping with musical availability, not scarcity, and this makes us much more the society of the short story (and the advertising blurb) than the epic poem.
posted by kid ichorous at 6:15 AM on August 17, 2009


To be fair, my powdered wig remark was more of a backhanded smirk aimed at how people often cite the first three classical pieces that spring to mind in order to define what "sophisticated" music is.

Funny you bring up Vietnamese music. For a long time, I was going back and forth between Vietnamese and Khmer traditional music. Viet Nam is of course comprised of many, many ethnicities with all sorts of musical styles, but what struck me was the Dan Bau. It looks simple enough - one string stretched along a bamboo body, tied to a peg at one end and to a flexible lever at the other. You play it by letting the edge of your hand touch a harmonic point on the string while plucking it, and using your other hand to pull or push the lever to bring the pitch up or down. In this way, you can cover every note over several octaves. It looks very easy to play. It is, in fact, maddeningly difficult and I say this as someone who taught himself a few stringed instruments.

I sat at the Dan Bau for a couple hours a day, every day, for three weeks before I was able to successfully produce a sound. I cheered when, a month later, I was able to go from A to B to A again. I got to the point where I was able to go from A to B, bend it up a half step and back down, and then go to A before I had to return it to my friend. Overall, it took me six months to accomplish this.

Now, I'm not a trumpet player, but I can pick up a trumpet and produce a trumpet-like sound from it. I could probably manage Twinkle Little Star if you let me have it for a few days. I could say the same for pretty much every instrument in the orchestra pit - I'm no musical genius, I can't even read music, but given some time I could probably suss out a simple melody on a clarinet or cello. Not so with the Dan Bau. No musical instrument has challenged me as much as the Dan Bau, despite its simplicity of form, and you'd be surprised (or maybe you wouldn't be, since you seem to know Vietnamese music!) just how rich and varied the melodies produced from this instrument can be.

That, to me, is some incredibly sophisticated music at work. And writing about it, I think today I'm going to go to the Vietnamese shop downtown and see about trying to make one myself. Thank goodness for YouTube tutorials.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:49 AM on August 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


As to how to tell if something is objectively better, I'd posit that the two areas to look at are that the musician is skilled (i.e. not everyone can do what they do) and the music they produce affects large groups of people.

These are two of the worst rubrics to judge music by.
posted by speicus at 7:28 AM on August 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm imaging an archeologist finding an ancient bag of rocks and tuned hollow sticks. "While these people did have rudimentary knowledge of some vaguely appreciated property that we would call tuning, they never achieved the insight of constructing a proper instrument from them, and most likely used them to punctuate chants in simple animistic healing rituals."
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:46 AM on August 17, 2009


I'm willing to posit that these guys are the best damned rocks & sticks players that ever lived, and that the most trained western musician in the world couldn't produce better music with rocks and sticks than these guys do.

I still think that they'd be better musicians if they had access to more instruments and exposure to more different kinds of music, and a written culture that lets them talk about formal music theory and criticize music.

I suppose that these guys are playing traditional music and improvising, yeah?

Even the most talentless garage band in the US is going to have one guy who knows about chords, melody, harmony and time signatures, and has access to 2000 years of development in musical instruments.

These songs may exhibit complicated harmonies, melodies, unusual time signatures, etc, but from what I understand, these traditional songs are developed over decades and centuries, almost by trial and error -- I bet it's incredibly rare that somebody ever just composes a new song that gets picked up and remembered.

Again, I don't doubt that a lot of these guys could pick up that stuff quickly if you gave them the words to talk about concepts that they already have a good innate feel for, but that would still count as having a musical education.

Really though -- music is music and if it works, it pretty much works all the same way -- it pushes the same buttons in the brain of the listener. It doesn't really matter how it happens. But most people (and I'm going to include these islanders), given a choice, are not going to choose listening to a guy banging rocks and sticks together -- no matter how good he is at it -- over professional musicians.
posted by empath at 8:21 AM on August 17, 2009


As to how to tell if something is objectively better, I'd posit that the two areas to look at are that the musician is skilled (i.e. not everyone can do what they do) and the music they produce affects large groups of people.

It is a logical impossibility to reach an "objective" (whatever that is), reductive position on something that is by definition subjective. Is blue a better colour than green? More people may like green - does that make it "objectively" better? If blue was scarcer than green, would that make it "better"? No.
posted by MajorDundee at 9:37 AM on August 17, 2009


anything is better than radiohead. i've said it before and i'll say it again- radiohead blows...

frankbooth-- as I noted above, I'm a Radiohead fangirl. However, I take no offense at your opinion-- it would be a dull world if we were all the same, as my mother says. But it's irritating to deal with sniping that is nothing but name-calling. Think Radiohead suck? Say why. You find Thom Yorke's voice unlistenable and groaning and wavery? The lyrics to be introspective and miserable? The music unfairly characterized as innovative when anyone with a musical education can see that it is not? Give us something to go on, you know? But running in to say "your favourite band sucks" doesn't add much to the conversation.
posted by jokeefe at 10:18 AM on August 17, 2009


Interesting to bring up the whole "it's purely a matter of taste" argument. On one hand, I cannot deny for a second the role that subjectivity plays in artistic taste. On the other hand, I just can't get around the conviction that some things are truly better than some other things.

I guess you could put it this way: yeah, we all have different tastes, but there is a baseline humanity that almost all of us have in common. Art can reflect on and speak to this fundamental human nature, and in accordance with this fairly constant set of characteristics, some things really are truly better than some other things. Sometimes it's just a matter of education, as in learning how to understand the "vocabulary" of the work, or sensitizing yourself to the subject matter or medium.

But other times, it really does come down to personal taste. There's enough that's different between us to account for a large degree of subjectivity. I guess my point is that sometimes we pay attention to this too much, and neglect that vast commonalities that we all share. These commonalities can be thought of as a baseline for many things, including aesthetics (and morality, but that's another discussion).

With this model, it's very easy for me to say that art can improve as a culture maintains a constant tradition. In this context, art is a conversation (or dialectic, if you prefer academic jargon), and artists refine their illumination of what we all have in common. Of course, a lot of cultural baggage gets mistaken for human nature, so some of this is contextual. Also, our unavoidable differences make it impossible to completely eliminate subjectivity. Thus, we might not be progressing towards a strictly ideal form, but we are constantly refining our understanding of what it is to be human, through art.

Since my basic premise is that art can shed light on human nature, and the culture of art is an ongoing project, I have a problem with the idea that art cannot "advance." To suggest that artistic culture cannot evolve and progress is to suggest that artistic culture is stagnant, and all of this dialectic is just mutual masturbation, and art is merely a cultural artifact. I wonder if you can feel otherwise and truly take art seriously.
posted by Edgewise at 10:19 AM on August 17, 2009


Sorry...that last sentence was a bit confusing, but I think it should be apparent what I'm trying to say.
posted by Edgewise at 10:21 AM on August 17, 2009


I don't think art 'advances', but I do think that art continuously adapts to the environment -- it's the only way it can remain relevant. I don't think any art is timeless, even the 'classics' only remain classics as long as people continuously recontextualize them -- Shakespeare is a prime example of that -- very few people would be interested in seeing Shakespeare as it was originally performed, accept as an academic exercise.
posted by empath at 10:23 AM on August 17, 2009


As to how to tell if something is objectively better, I'd posit that the two areas to look at are that the musician is skilled (i.e. not everyone can do what they do) and the music they produce affects large groups of people.

The problem with these criteria is that they are neither necessary nor sufficient for determining the "objective value" of music. Skill is neither necessary for making good music (as long as you allow for simple music to be deemed good), nor sufficient (see: wanker). Likewise, a large audience is not necessary (if you allow for the reclusive genius) nor sufficient (see: whatever brand of manufactured popular music that annoys you most). Criteria that are neither necessary nor sufficient can usually be deemed "useless".

Whenever a discussion on the "value" of art comes up, I find it helpful to remind myself that human aesthetic criteria can be applied to a wider class of objects than "the art created by human beings". I've recently come to the conclusion that human art actually has very little aesthetic value, when compared to the larger body of work created by the universe. No picture ever painted, by child or master, comes close to the beauty of an actual sunset. And I can't think of a more diabolical hell than the inability to hear anything but human music. The idea of not being able to listen to the soundscape of my environment, with all its errant noises and quirky clues to the context of my being, is frightening. I believe that points to the limited aesthetics of human music when compared to all other sound.

My point being, if you could ever create a scientific device capable of objectively measuring the absolute aesthetic value of anything, all human works would be below the limits of precision of such a device, making them all effectively equal. Which, as an artist, is an idea that holds great appeal to me personally.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 10:31 AM on August 17, 2009


I think there are a lot of quite different arguments rattling around here. The issue re "better" is, to employ an academic term, bollocks. However, the issues around art shedding light on human nature and the evolution of artistic cultures are separate from the sort of crude judgementalism evinced by "better" and are perfectly valid. Having said that, the hardy perennial that is the "what is art?" question (together with its myriad spin-offs) is pretty much of the "why are we here?" existential angst variety, and the real answer is "I'm fucked if I know". Everyone has an opinion, some are more cogent and sophsticated than others, but they're all, essentially, wank.
posted by MajorDundee at 10:47 AM on August 17, 2009


the hardy perennial that is the "what is art?" question (together with its myriad spin-offs) is pretty much of the "why are we here?" existential angst variety, and the real answer is "I'm fucked if I know". Everyone has an opinion, some are more cogent and sophsticated than others, but they're all, essentially, wank.

I must respectfully disagree, Major. You can't just roll in here and sweep everything off the table, replacing it with a big ol' "wank", and expect that to be the end of it. "Why are we here?" is certainly existential, but by no means angsty, unless it causes you some particular duress.

Here's a more reasonable question: Why do you make music? Because in a sense, that question ultimately boils down to "Why are we here?", but there's no reason to dismiss it outright. Do you never think about what music means to you, about how it affects your being, or what compels you to create? If you've ever thought about these questions, then you have, despite your gruff inadmission, considered the question of why we are all here. And that's okay.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 11:16 AM on August 17, 2009


When I say "better", I'm not going for "I like it more". There may be occasions where unskilled musicians produce something that we like, but for the most part, a musician must practice before they produce anything that can be appreciated. This is the single reason for my objective measures of "goodness". You can argue the semantics of "good", but it's a fact that as a race, we prefer the things created by those that have practiced creating those things.

And I've no doubt that a reclusive artist could create something good. My point is though that we can use a collective measure to judge. Without it being judged, we don't know - one way or the other.

And when I talk about art, I'm talking about the stuff people create. Nature is beautiful, but it's beautiful because it suits us to see it that way. There's a definite difference between what we're programmed to see as beautiful and what we create to tickle those "it's beautiful" pathways.

A couple of minor points to finish -

a) I'm loathe to go down the "..are not going to choose listening to a guy banging rocks and sticks together -- no matter how good he is at it -- over professional musicians..." road because it assumes that the stick-banger is not professional. There's nothing in the film to suggest he isn't, and it seems a bit condescending to differentiate him from western musicians. His music isn't western, sure - but that's all.

b) Here's a more reasonable question: Why do you make music? The answer here is the same (I suspect for everyone). Doesn't matter if you're a western indie-pop outfit or a powdered wig or a stick banger. You make music because it gets you laid.
posted by seanyboy at 12:53 PM on August 17, 2009


abc - apologies if I've offended with my "gruffness". I'll keep my opinons to myself. Suffice to say that I don't ask myself those kinds of questions. I make music because I like doing it. Its a natural and instinctive thing - always has been. And I don't do it in a solipsistic or hubristic way - I don't have one eye on posterity or regard myself as contributing to "culture" - I do it for me. I should imagine most creative people are the same. Perhaps not. Hey ho.
posted by MajorDundee at 2:57 PM on August 17, 2009


You make music because it gets you laid.
Ah...not always, sir.

posted by Minus215Cee at 3:26 PM on August 17, 2009


You make music because it gets you laid.

Dilemma: not gay, but wanting to shut Coldplay up
posted by kid ichorous at 4:42 PM on August 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


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