A Love for Simple and Confusing Music

by Jeff Morton  ¦   January 18 2018

It’s really great to have this chance to write about some music I have been listening to lately. I want to say a big thanks to Pat for the chance to contribute.

I like to think that when I listen to music I am doing some sort of research. I listen to pieces and albums over and over again, I turn the musical object around as many ways as I can, trying to understand it on terms that I enjoy. I search for unusual, surprising, and confounding things in music. I listen to the music my friends make, and to gems and oddities from all periods. Specifically, in this post I want to share two fusion and easy listening tracks from 1989, and two contemporary popular electronic tracks from 2016 and 2017.

First, I want to say why I find this music interesting. I like to listen for a human or a vulnerable gesture in music, in how an instrument is played and equally in how a composition is structured and conceived. I look for something awkward, unusual, or surprising to help point out the special consideration and challenge that the composer or performer set for themselves. I value experimentation, failure, and success against great odds. High or low fidelity sound are equally fine for me, and sometimes I find having to listen ‘through’ a medium actually enhances the musical experience. Laughing with music, feeling stupefied by it, and being amazed by simplicity and boldness are all aspects that draw my attention.

The first track I want to share is entitled The Argument, from a 2017 album entitled Call Him a Doctor, by UK pop star GFOTY (Girlfriend of the Year). GFOTY is a fascinating artist. Her songs, videos, and short films are catchy and uncomfortable. Her work is deep in addressing topics of self-esteem, gender roles, and feminism, and at the same time it sounds shallow in its composition, derivative of familiar pop-electronic, punk, or club music, but bent and obscured enough to be unmistakably a new work, and an experimental work too, in my opinion.

In this particular track, I admire how language is misshapen, how familiar and nostalgic harmonic and rhythmic elements suggest a kind of safety and unoriginality that is betrayed by the nonsense of the words. What is the argument the title refers to? The lower ‘male’ voice, by my best acoustic investigation, is the same artist’s voice pitched down. There is no clear argument in the words, they are nonsense like this: “harum, hum humm klum, crumb cum cum crumb crumf lumb lum, ma’am, marum, mum mum mum marum, neuron, pflum”, and like this: “gallows bird, gray catbird, gray kingbird, hummingbird, ladybird, mockingbird, myna bird, myrtle bird, overheard, phoebe bird, satin bird, thunderbird, tropic bird, time bird, undeterred, wading bird, wedding bird.” That’s like Joyce right there. I mean, I’m not on the leading edge of what’s up next in pop music, but I really didn’t see that kind of lyric writing coming. This track is both familiar and entirely new for me. I am amazed by the boldness in doing something unusual with cliché materials, and by the seeming intention to challenge wide appeal while at the same time making something very accessible.

Something else I’m listening to these days is an emerging genre called low-fi house music. This is music played generally at parties, clubs, and other social settings. It has certain familiar electronic music patterns, nostalgic and cliché elements of house music, and importantly, an aesthetic centered around broken or outdated technologies that celebrates the sound of cassettes, tape hiss, and low-fidelity media. That alone is fascinating to me, resonating with much of what I gleaned from reading Marshall McLuhan. Here, an older medium is literally contained inside of the new music, used now as content and information, whereas in the past it was simply the best or most economical means to transmit information. This is particularly well-illustrated in the track Life on Earth by DJ Kick Ons. Released in 2016, it incorporates a long-form sample from the 1979 television series Life on Earth, hosted by Sir David Attenborough. Here DJ Kick Ons mixes familiar contemporary house music with the soundtrack to one of the episodes of that old television series. We hear David Attenborough narrating an accompaniment to a visual component that we do not see, and then the theme music plays, not remixed, not cut up, not re-pitched, just present. “She is doing this entirely on her own initiative. She is seeing others doing it and she is copying. And that ability to imitate as well as to use tools is something which started on monkeys, but has been brought to a much greater level among the apes.” That the words invoke topics of evolution, tools, mimetic learning, and consciousness makes it all the more compelling for me. But is it a joke? Is it evidence of a great musical mind that imagined and then realized the potential of mixing these elements? I honestly don’t know. What matters to me is how this piece runs my imagination towards concepts of cliché, humour, and juxtaposition of media. Plus, it has a good beat, just listen to the personal touches in the bass drum programming.

The third track I want to share is entitled Sa Fosca, from the 1989 album Born, by Spanish composer and musician Joan Bibiloni. This is fusion music with a touch of jazz and a touch of easy listening. (Side note: I don’t mind the genre term easy listening since it is playfully irreverent, and I am similarly amused by the genre term MOR (middle of the road), since it too seems humorously self-deprecating, and I think that’s an interesting point of departure for any musical enterprise.) When I first encountered the music of Joan Bibiloni, it was on a social media group dedicated to electronic music. My first thought was ‘Wow! A contemporary throw-back MOR-themed electronic music track!’, and I assumed it was something like low-fi house music in how it was containing a previous musical style and aesthetic. I bought the album immediately, and very shortly as I continued to dig into the music and learn about the artist, I realized of course I had been wrong. This is not a new work that is a throw-back to a classic sound, it is the classic itself. I love this music. The atmospheric sound, the patient, jazzy riffs, and the groovy drum machine programming really pull me in.

Finally, I want to share a track by German composer and musician Frank Fischer. This is, I think, the stupidest of the four tracks I’ve talked about here. I was floored the first time I heard Frank Fischer’s work, as I couldn’t believe how unambitious and simple it was. However, the more I listened to it (because I wanted to follow my confusion and interrogate the stupidity I found there), the more I came to love it. The sounds are cheesy, and the compositions don’t seem much more complex than greeting card poems. But when I learned to not expect more from this music, I discovered it was already enough. The success of the music for me is in the sound of it, the musical moment more than the musical direction or trajectory. I’m pleased when it keeps going, because I don’t want it to change. Listen to Gone with the Wind, from the artist’s 1989 album of the same name. It is a beautiful and pathetically austere piece that rings bells and gives wind to the wings of soaring smooth saxophone melodies. Of course, it features prominently the bass playing of Frank Fischer himself. Notably, this track was also released in a radio edit version. I cannot imagine the world where this kind of music requires a radio edit. Unusually, the original mix of the piece features both a fade in as well as a fade out. Any DJ could fade in and out themselves with little change to the original on those terms, and besides the radio edit itself saves a mere 29 seconds from the original version. What purpose did that serve? I love the feeling this music gives me, how it challenges me to like it, and how it rewards with deeper and also more superficial questions and mysteries. It may not be for everyone, but if you can get past the irritation, I believe there is a world of beauty in this music.

Okay, so there you have it: a few thoughts on some music I’ve been listening to lately. I hope you found something interesting in all of this. Here’s wishing you an inspiring year ahead and continued pleasure and challenge in the music you listen to.

Jeff Morton is a composer, musician, and media artist based in the rural Southeast corner of Saskatchewan. His projects are playful, experimental explorations of sound, sound-making, communication, and compositional processes using found and musical objects or materials. In performance, composition, and installation, his work has been presented by ensembles and in galleries and festivals across Canada and internationally.  www.jeffreydavidmorton.ca



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