It sounds like music, it looks like music, but is it?

I find the concept of music to be extremely subjective. As we discussed in class, music is a way of expressing truth. In our society, we have strict rules about what constitutes music, but these rules are far from arbitrary. We create these rules to help us define the truth that we search for in the world. Additionally, music, in my scope, needs to tell some sort of story. If I hear something that both tells a story and highlights a truth, then I consider it to be music. Music is also impossible to define without a clear sense of context. What is music to me may not be music to someone else of a different culture or from a different country. Also, when I hear something without any situational context, I may not know whether or not I consider it music. A worldwide musical education is clearly vital for understanding. For example, I don’t think it’s acceptable for someone who only listens to pop music to hear something experimental or unknown to them and immediately cast it off as noise without knowing the history of that genre and culture.

This first audio selection comes from Rutherford Chang, an artist who is currently displaying a work called “We Buy White Albums” at the Recess Gallery in SoHo. As the title suggests, Chang buys The Beatles’ White Album and sets the gallery up as a pseudo record store stocked with 693 original copies of the album, all in various stages of wear and tear. As part of the exhibit, Chang made a recording with many of the albums in his vinyl collection playing in unison. The result, which I included below, is this piece, entitled “Side 1 x 100.” In the United States, most, if not all, people will agree that the songs on this album are musical. Even if someone does not like the Beatles (which is also very rare,) they will not dispute that the White Album fits the criteria of music. Yet, when the many copies are layered on top of one another, the album’s definition as music becomes much less obvious.

The beginning of the audio piece sound very much like the original, only with slight distortion. But by the end of the piece, the songs themselves are an unrecognizable conglomeration of noise: ethereal, repeating vocals bobbing in a sea of jangly percussion and muddled sound. When I first heard the piece a few weeks ago, I wasn’t sure what to call what I had just heard. Is it music just because it once was or is it just unstructured noise, layered to a point of non-musicality? I didn’t feel comfortable labeling it as anything until I knew more about the artist’s vision.

Rutherford Chang was influenced by the white cover of the White Album. It is a blank slate, acutely susceptible to wear and tear, both accidental and purposeful. This led him to collect the album and study the vastly different weathering among the original copies. When he overlaid the albums, it was just an extension of his goal to observe the relationship between time and art. After reading an interview with Chang and some reviews of the exhibit, I have a vastly different opinion on the work. I believe that “Side 1 x 100” is music. Although the sound does not fit our cultural description of music in a variety of ways, it tells a story and shows a truth. As an art piece, it tells the collective stories of the album and highlights the variety of ways that the same medium can age. Each album is individually special, with unique skips and distortions. When they all combine together, the result is an unrecognizable mash of musical sound. It made me rethink what I consider to be rock music: structured sound, typically with vocals, guitar, bass, and drums. Yet when the structure of sound is removed, my entire perception of music is altered. Context is, in my opinion, of the utmost importance when deciding if sound can be classified as music. I believe that Chang’s piece is music, but I am also aware that I came to this conclusion using my limited scope of Western musical experience.

An interview and some other info if you’re interested:

This audio selection is entitled “Factory Sounds” and can be found on YouTube. The clip features the rhythmic sound of a factory machine, working to a steady beat. Among this machine noise, shuffling and other movement can be heard. There are a variety of other sound bytes like “Factory Sounds” that feature other types of ambient noise from other more intense sounds like a highway during rush hour to soft waves breaking on the shore.

In “Factory Sounds” the beat of the machine becomes highly repetitive, thumping and whooshing away at the same tempo for four minutes and fifty-five seconds. One could probably argue that this piece, with its steady rhythm is some sort of percussive work. It does have identifiable qualities of most music, like a rhythm part and a set structure. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in other cultures, this piece could be considered musical. It gives a strong beat to work by, a variety of timbres within the sounds from the thumping to the whooshing. If someone is a worker, they may have a very important, personal story that is provoked by the piece. Additionally, they may find it to hold a certain truth because it is relevant to their life and experiences. Therefore, this piece could be considered music to someone who sees truth in the piece and analyzes the sound as a form of storytelling.

Personally, I don’t consider this piece to be musical. I don’t see the truth or the story within the rhythmic thumping. Although I am able to see how others could relate the factory sounds as music due to certain personal experiences, I, with my current set of experiences, do not find it to be musical. To me, these sounds only represent the monotonous drone of the machines that create the noise. This drone does not tell me a story or highlight a truth of any kind.

The audio clip:

Both of the selections that I chose could be considered music or not, depending on who is listening. Music is only music in context. Everyone who listens to a piece comes from a very distinct background and may analyze a work in a variety of greatly contrasting ways. I have considered the first piece of art to be music, maybe because of my geography and interest in abstract art. Because I have never worked in a factory and also get annoyed by monotonous ticking like that of a clock and the constant banging of construction work, I did not consider the second piece to be music. Music is all about context, experience, and finding a personal truth in the waves of sound.


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