April 21st 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The deeper causes of Australia's social malaise

GENDER POLITICS Queensland proposes transgender birth certificates

CANBERRA OBSERVED Malcolm at 30 (polls): the cloud on Turnbull's horizon

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell firmly denies sex abuse allegations

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Sydney Archdiocese aims to eliminate slavery in supply chain

RURAL DEVELOPMENT Irrigation along Fitzroy River proposed and opposed

LIFE ISSUES Abortion Rethink Summit: the case for care

VERBATIM WA food, drink producers face shortage of carbon dioxide

HOUSING AFFORDABILITY Land costs: economist Henry George's solution

ELECTRICITY Will Turnbull lose three out of three?

ECONOMICS Trade wars: tariffs unlikely to be fired in anger

SEX AND TEENS How about support for the abstaining majority?

VISUAL ARTS Layers of meaning in Botticelli's La Primavera and The Birth of Venus

MUSIC Is it good?: Or, do we just like the sound it makes?

CINEMA The Death of Stalin: Black comedy of a dark time

BOOK REVIEW Cool head on topic that generates heat

BOOK REVIEW Life's not so bad: from the outside



OPINION What a republic would really mean for Australia

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Is it good?: Or, do we just like the sound it makes?

by David James

News Weekly, April 21, 2018

Listener response is so intriguingly various it fatally undermines the claim that music can be objectively “good”. It is not just that different listeners react in very different ways to the same music.

Some people even, apparently, like rap – an occurrence that is all but inconceivable to this writer, but I am afraid the facts cannot be denied. Instead of violently throwing up and threatening to commit acts of extreme violence against the perpetrators of such tuneless, obscene, repetitive drivel (pictured below) – surely the only sane reaction available – these devotees instead turn it up loud and move in time with it, even appearing to find it rhythmically enticing.

Go figure. Or maybe it is an obscure type of masochism, I am not sure.

The picture becomes more complex when we consider that the same piece of music can produce very different reactions from the same listener. This is not just a musical phenomenon, it can happen in other art forms. I have re-read the novels of Samuel Beckett, for instance, in the hope that I could revisit the humour, only to find that the amusement had strangely vanished. That is no doubt part of Beckett’s extraordinary artifice: being able to produce something that is, on one reading, hilarious and, on another, desolate.

Sometimes changing perceptions of music are simply a matter of getting used to the unfamiliar. For this writer, that was the case when exposed to saxophonist John Coltrane, especially his late recordings, which were just a duet of sax and drums.

On first listening, the impression was that it was little more than ugly noise, albeit underpinned by exceptional technical dexterity.

But repeated listening opened up an entirely new aesthetic, rather like the eyes becoming accustomed to seeing in intensely bright light.

Eventually, it became possible to enter into his strange world of dervish-like extremes and be transported in a way that has few parallels in any music. It is the musical equivalent of flying, but in the full knowledge that it will soon end with crashing into the earth.

That is what happened with Coltrane. Many jazz musicians have been self-des­tructive and many have died young. But no jazz leader embraced with such ferocity death and the hope of transcendence in the manner of Coltrane. It is truly music of the void.

Music can be deeply enjoyed on one occasion, yet not have the same effect when heard again. Most popular music is of this type. Good songs have an initially powerful effect, but this tends to fade with repetition. That is hardly surprising. Most “hooks” in pop tunes are either four or eight bars, repeated. No matter how good those few bars are, they cannot survive being played continuously, which means that the music eventually turns into an irritant. 

Perversely that also means that the song becomes memorable. The key to commercial success in the pop music “industry” is to capture attention, even if it means being annoying.

It is estimated that to get the mass exposure to make a song a hit, a marketing investment of between $500,000 and $3 million is required. That is a large amount of money put into turning a song into either background noise or a memorable annoyance.

The better classical and jazz music does not become stale in this way. Listen to the keyboard music of Bach, for example. One is impressed by the short-term elegance of the melodic line but one also becomes aware of a slower evolving grandeur that affords an extra layer of beauty.

Something similar is true of Mozart, where the short-term surprises and deeply engaging, subtly simple melodies are accompanied by an underlying sublimity that takes much longer to become apparent, and, when it does, the listener realises that he was being prepared for it.

The better Miles Davis music also has this slowly evolving character, with the music often referring back to previous passages (this writer asked Davis if this was deliberate; he answered that it was not).

Such music takes the listener on a slow journey in a way that popular music usually does not. It is why such music can be played often without a diminution of the pleasure, because each time that journey throws up things not previously heard. If there is a mark of music that makes it objectively “good”, it is that.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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