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View Full Version : What is the appeal of 'difficult' music?


NineToTheSky
10-26-2010, 08:16 AM
I've just come across some articles about 'difficult' music. (It must be the time of year.) The ones that come up frequently include Nico's 'The Marble Index (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7kznyH_GjM)', Scott Walker's 'Tilt' and 'Drift', and Captain Beefheart's 'Trout Mask Replica'. What they, and most difficult albums, have in common is that they are - at least in part - discordant, atonal, bleak and unexpected. So why do those who listen to that sort of music enjoy it?

I like some difficult music. For example, I find 'The Marble Index' very impressive: it's jagged like slices of ice; her voice is stentorian, and John Cale's arrangements are squally, shrieking; things rattle in the wind; the music falls off the edge. Not a bundle of laughs, admittedly, but she traps you into her world; it's very involving.

On the other hand, I find Scott Walker very difficult. On Bouncer See Bouncer from 'Tilt', he intones in that extraordinarily deep, rich voice over endlessly repeating percussion. But 'Tilt' is positively easy listening compared to 'Drift'. I want to like it; there's clearly something intense and considered there. But mainly I find it just scary. It's the sort of music I wouldn't want to meet in a desolate place on a dark night. And that may be the problem: this sort of music is confrontational. I'm not sure I'm up to it.

RealityChuck
10-26-2010, 08:22 AM
Because some people like discordant music. Also, for someone like Captain Beefheart, the music sounds discordant and disjointed at first, but repeated listenings reveal that there are melodies hidden in there. Very few people like Captain Beefheart on first listen, but as you keep rehearing the songs, things slowly make more sense to you.

But the music was never meant to be appealing to the majority of listeners, and most do find it hard to get into. There's nothing wrong with not liking it.

NineToTheSky
10-26-2010, 08:53 AM
Purely in the interests of research, I have just listened, for the first time, to Lou Reed's 'Metal Machine Music', another famously difficult album. Well, I say listened; more like trying a few moments, skipping to a further point, and so on. It doesn't seem so weird now that we've lived through the likes of My Bloody Valentine, but I fail to see the appeal. Even Lou Reed has said "Well, anyone who gets to side four is dumber than I am." I'm assuming he was trying to be provocative, but he did make over an hour's worth of that stuff, so he presumably made an effort - but to what end?

Pitchmeister
10-26-2010, 09:21 AM
Music (or any art, for that matter) has to find a balance between two things:

1) Meet our expectations so it sounds familiar and makes sense to us and
2) Disappoint those expectations so we don't get bored.

Depending on your musical knowledge, taste and cultural background, that balance will vary quite a bit. So music that is 'difficult' to you might be fascinating to someone with a lot of experience listening to that style of music. Some people may even enjoy listening to Schönberg and the like, because they actually understand the underlying logic (I for one most certainly don't).

There is a point of 'optimal complexity' in music where we recognize the patterns and build an expectation what the next chord is going to be, but are also surprised when we hear something entirely different. Through repeat hearings that point is going to shift, so it's possible a piece might grow on you.

This is the reason why children's music is usually very predictable and follows very simple rules in chord progressions and rhymes, because that way it is more easily understood by the target audience.

cjepson
10-26-2010, 09:24 AM
I'm not sure there's an answer to this question. Like the OP, I enjoy some music that others might consider very "difficult", but then there's a lot of other stuff that just leaves me cold. I don't know that I can define what differentiates the two. One factor is that the stuff I like tends to have some element that strikes an emotional chord in me -- the stuff I don't like tends to seem dry and emotionally barren. But that may just be another way of saying that I like stuff that I like.

NineToTheSky
10-26-2010, 09:31 AM
Pitchmeister:

Very true. But I remember, when I was younger, back in the '60s, that I revelled in the fact that an awful lot of what I heard was new and unexpected; not just to me, but to everyone. I found it intriguing and exciting to be challenged by what I heard, on an almost daily basis. I didn't like all of it, of course. That curiosity has lasted throughout my life. To appeal, the music must emotionally or intellectually stimulate me. Why some achieves that, and some doesn't, I can't explain.

RealityChuck
10-26-2010, 09:35 AM
Purely in the interests of research, I have just listened, for the first time, to Lou Reed's 'Metal Machine Music', another famously difficult album. Well, I say listened; more like trying a few moments, skipping to a further point, and so on. It doesn't seem so weird now that we've lived through the likes of My Bloody Valentine, but I fail to see the appeal. Even Lou Reed has said "Well, anyone who gets to side four is dumber than I am." I'm assuming he was trying to be provocative, but he did make over an hour's worth of that stuff, so he presumably made an effort - but to what end?There is some belief that the album was a "fuck you" to his record company, and it was savaged by critics when it came out. I reviewed it for my college radio station and couldn't listen to it -- and at time time two of my favorites were Captain Beefheart and the Mothers. Evidently this sort of music has become popular and the album is considered a precursor, but I don't see it (not that I care much for techno or trance -- I have a low threshold of boredom and if something is repeated more than five times, I lose all interest).

Fried Dough Ho
10-26-2010, 09:42 AM
I stumbled on Scott Walker's Tilt through the song Farmer in the City. I had no idea who he was, anything about his reputation, or his music. But that particular song haunted me and forced me to seek out the entire album.

While I have a hard time listening to the entire album in one setting, when it appears in my shuffle there is something about the timbre and intent that sends shivers down my spine. It resonates and invokes genuine emotion. I can't explain why, it just does -- Farmer in the City more so than any of the other songs on the album.

Ogre
10-26-2010, 09:49 AM
OK, so is anyone here a fan of Jandek? I have no trouble with most forms of difficult, or outsider, music, but this guy...oy vey. He almost systematically rejects musicianship, as far as I can tell. I guess it's a logical extension of atonality, but no thanks.

Look him up on Youtube, if unfamiliar.

wolf-alice
10-26-2010, 11:04 AM
OK, so is anyone here a fan of Jandek? I have no trouble with most forms of difficult, or outsider, music, but this guy...oy vey. He almost systematically rejects musicianship, as far as I can tell. I guess it's a logical extension of atonality, but no thanks.

Funny, I heard a little of him the other day when listening to Daniel Johnston radio on Last.fm. I tagged him as "worth investigating further", which isn't exactly a ringing endorsement but I certainly thought he was worth returning to.

... I just played some of his stuff on Hypem.com. I honestly couldn't tell you if I really enjoy him or if I'm just being perverse, but I sat through quite a lot. It does sound like a piss-take, doesn't it? I like his vocals though. I could see myself getting into it. I imagine any genuine musicians or fans of melody might find it hard going. He got an immediate "What the fuck is this?" response from the wife, for example.

wolf-alice
10-26-2010, 11:08 AM
Oh actually, I'm finding some of this really appealing;

JUST MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSEY *ping* ONNNNNNNN LIIIIIIIIIKE I DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO *twang*

It must be a perversion, this is genuinely horrible. I don't think normal people like this, no.

My colleagues have made me turn it off :(

Jackmannii
10-26-2010, 11:22 AM
...I like stuff that I like.I have a low threshold of boredomWell, yes.

There are some people who like to be "challenged" by music and other art forms, a sentiment that may be akin to solving a puzzle. Atonal/"difficult" music may be right up their alley.

Some go for this stuff because of snob appeal. "I don't like the easy stuff that has rewards right away; I'm willing to work to gain the hidden meaning that others are too lazy/dumb to appreciate." :rolleyes:

And some people's ears are set differently and what is "difficult" (syn.: lousy) to us sounds OK or neat to them.

Whatever.

I'm willing to give new music a try, but not to go through prolonged aural unpleasantness in order to "get" it.

Snowboarder Bo
10-26-2010, 11:35 AM
Okay, I'm up now.



Gimme some time, and I'll answer all these posts. I swear, you could have just titled this thread "Bo, wtf is up with that shit you listen to?"

:D

Snowboarder Bo
10-26-2010, 11:42 AM
Because some people like discordant music. Also, for someone like Captain Beefheart, the music sounds discordant and disjointed at first, but repeated listenings reveal that there are melodies hidden in there. Very few people like Captain Beefheart on first listen, but as you keep rehearing the songs, things slowly make more sense to you.

But the music was never meant to be appealing to the majority of listeners, and most do find it hard to get into. There's nothing wrong with not liking it.

Fortunately for me, RC already provided an excellent, succinct summary.

I like the jarring. Music, like life, is all about tension and release. Discordant music, difficult music, etc. just has a lot more tension than most people are used to. It's also, as was pointed out, a very confrontational form for music to take, and most people will go to great lengths to avoid confrontations. I understand that most people won't like it for those and other reasons, and as RC says, there's nothing wrong with not liking it any more than it's wrong to dislike feeling like someone is about to start a fight with you.

jordanr2
10-26-2010, 11:48 AM
OK, so is anyone here a fan of Jandek? I have no trouble with most forms of difficult, or outsider, music, but this guy...oy vey. He almost systematically rejects musicianship, as far as I can tell. I guess it's a logical extension of atonality, but no thanks.

Look him up on Youtube, if unfamiliar.I think he's great, but then I've heard most of his albums - it takes a long-term familiarity with his work to realize the diversity of what he does. There are a lot of albums where he's working in prototypical Jandek mode (i.e. the sound of Ready for the House), but then there's stuff that's even more melancholy and desperate (Blue Corpse, Six and Six), some very minimal and cryptic stuff (Ruins of Adventure, Put My Dream on This Planet, the latter of which is a totally gripping a cappella album) and the recent live albums, like Glasgow Sunday, where he just rocks out.

As for the question in the OP, I find this music appealing initially because of the challenges it poses: forcing you to find interest in repetition, veiled beauty in superficial ugliness, etc. A lot of this music does very compelling things with sound, too - listen to Lambkin/Lescalleet's The Breadwinner through headphones, for instance, it's like nothing you've ever heard. When it steps outside the bounds of what's conventionally appealing and comforting, music can open up whole new emotional spaces.

Snowboarder Bo
10-26-2010, 11:48 AM
Purely in the interests of research, I have just listened, for the first time, to Lou Reed's 'Metal Machine Music', another famously difficult album. Well, I say listened; more like trying a few moments, skipping to a further point, and so on. It doesn't seem so weird now that we've lived through the likes of My Bloody Valentine, but I fail to see the appeal. Even Lou Reed has said "Well, anyone who gets to side four is dumber than I am." I'm assuming he was trying to be provocative, but he did make over an hour's worth of that stuff, so he presumably made an effort - but to what end?

MMM is one of my favorite albums; I paid $45 for a special order import of the CD back in the 1980s, because it was the only way I could get a copy. I've listened to it well over 2 dozen times, although a few of those were specifically so I could compare & contrast it with Neil Young's Arc (a live album of feedback) and with Null's Sonicfuck U.S.A. (more live feedback).

The appeal, to me, of this is that I like feedback and how it can be manipulated, and I'm interested in what other people have found worthy of committing to record and then trying to sell. There's a bit of a dada-esque thing going on, I'll admit.

Pitchmeister
10-26-2010, 11:54 AM
Pitchmeister:

Very true. But I remember, when I was younger, back in the '60s, that I revelled in the fact that an awful lot of what I heard was new and unexpected; not just to me, but to everyone. I found it intriguing and exciting to be challenged by what I heard, on an almost daily basis. I didn't like all of it, of course. That curiosity has lasted throughout my life. To appeal, the music must emotionally or intellectually stimulate me. Why some achieves that, and some doesn't, I can't explain.

The Beatles (or whoever it was that intrigued you in the 60s) didn't create their music out of thin air - they relied on 500 years of music that you, through cultural osmosis, were also familiar with. So when they "broke" some of those rules, that's what became interesting about the music. However, music completely devoid of an internal logic is not appealing to most folks because the other half, recognizing familiarity and being rewarded for that, is missing. The music that you like strikes that perfect balance (simplistically speaking, obviously there are also other factors at work).

Snowboarder Bo
10-26-2010, 11:59 AM
Music (or any art, for that matter) has to find a balance between two things:

1) Meet our expectations so it sounds familiar and makes sense to us and
2) Disappoint those expectations so we don't get bored.

Depending on your musical knowledge, taste and cultural background, that balance will vary quite a bit. So music that is 'difficult' to you might be fascinating to someone with a lot of experience listening to that style of music. Some people may even enjoy listening to Schönberg and the like, because they actually understand the underlying logic (I for one most certainly don't).

There is a point of 'optimal complexity' in music where we recognize the patterns and build an expectation what the next chord is going to be, but are also surprised when we hear something entirely different. Through repeat hearings that point is going to shift, so it's possible a piece might grow on you.

This is the reason why children's music is usually very predictable and follows very simple rules in chord progressions and rhymes, because that way it is more easily understood by the target audience.

While I agree completely with the entire post, the part I bolded is particularly true and worthy of further discussion.

If you go and search for the threads about metal that I've participated in, you'll find that I recommend a lot of bands with the caveat that it's difficult music and not for everyone, and one reason is that it takes time to build an ear. Back in the 1980s, I couldn't listen to Black Metal or Death Metal because of the CMVs. Which was weird, because I was totally into hardcore and punk, and if you'd have asked, I'd have said that my favorite type of singing was really yelling. But I couldn't do more than laugh or twist my face in disgust at the low, guttural, almost barking Cookie Monster Vocals or black/death metal.

Over time, that changed, as my favorite bands began to accept influences from those other genres, and as black & death metal evolved a bit. Now, some of my favorite music of the past decade is solidly in the CMV area, and frankly, I think that a lot of people are missing out on some incredible music because they haven't/won't take the time to build that ear. Ihsahn, Enslaved, Amon Amarth, Opeth, etc. area all incredibly talented bands that make some of the most complex & beautiful music I've ever heard. But if you can't get past the CMVs, you'll likely never hear much of it.

The same is true of the newer deathcore/mathcore bands, like Trigger The Bloodshed, Bring Me The Horizon, and (my favorite) Architects. It's very difficult, challenging music to play and listen to, but OMFG the releases they provide for the tensions they build is FUCKING AWESOME. Again, tho, without that built ear, it'll prolly just annoy the crap outta someone as random, unrelated riffs and arrhythmic flailing.

jordanr2
10-26-2010, 12:00 PM
MMM is one of my favorite albums; I paid $45 for a special order import of the CD back in the 1980s, because it was the only way I could get a copy. I've listened to it well over 2 dozen times, although a few of those were specifically so I could compare & contrast it with Neil Young's Arc (a live album of feedback) and with Null's Sonicfuck U.S.A. (more live feedback).

The appeal, to me, of this is that I like feedback and how it can be manipulated, and I'm interested in what other people have found worthy of committing to record and then trying to sell. There's a bit of a dada-esque thing going on, I'll admit.Your next challenge is to pull a Zaireeka with those three, and perhaps throw Boris's Absolutego into the mix to round it all out.

Snowboarder Bo
10-26-2010, 12:04 PM
OK, so is anyone here a fan of Jandek? I have no trouble with most forms of difficult, or outsider, music, but this guy...oy vey. He almost systematically rejects musicianship, as far as I can tell. I guess it's a logical extension of atonality, but no thanks.

Look him up on Youtube, if unfamiliar.

I'm a Jandek fan. I just missed getting a ticket for his first ever US concert (web sales only, and I was too slow typing and hitting submit :mad:). I have a handful of albums and I've watched Jandek On Corwood at least a dozen times. I think my review on IMDB is still the featured review.

Some of his albums are good, most aren't, but when a song of his resonates with me, it's almost impossible to get it out of my head. And there's no one else making that type of music. That's another part of the dada appeal, I guess: knowing that what you're hearing is totally unique, that no other person or group could have made that music, because there's an idea behind it.

Snowboarder Bo
10-26-2010, 12:07 PM
Your next challenge is to pull a Zaireeka with those three, and perhaps throw Boris's Absolutego into the mix to round it all out.

I don't care much for Boris, but I do like Earth and Om and Sunn-O)) quite a bit. I loves me some drone with my feedback. :D

Snowboarder Bo
10-26-2010, 12:08 PM
I think he's great, but then I've heard most of his albums - it takes a long-term familiarity with his work to realize the diversity of what he does. There are a lot of albums where he's working in prototypical Jandek mode (i.e. the sound of Ready for the House), but then there's stuff that's even more melancholy and desperate (Blue Corpse, Six and Six), some very minimal and cryptic stuff (Ruins of Adventure, Put My Dream on This Planet, the latter of which is a totally gripping a cappella album) and the recent live albums, like Glasgow Sunday, where he just rocks out.

As for the question in the OP, I find this music appealing initially because of the challenges it poses: forcing you to find interest in repetition, veiled beauty in superficial ugliness, etc. A lot of this music does very compelling things with sound, too - listen to Lambkin/Lescalleet's The Breadwinner through headphones, for instance, it's like nothing you've ever heard. When it steps outside the bounds of what's conventionally appealing and comforting, music can open up whole new emotional spaces.

Ready for the House, Blue Corpse, Glasgow Sunday are prolly his best, IMO. Especially Glasgow Sunday; I really like that album.

The Hamster King
10-26-2010, 12:26 PM
There is a point of 'optimal complexity' in music where we recognize the patterns and build an expectation what the next chord is going to be, but are also surprised when we hear something entirely different.Do you have a source for this particular insight? I'm working on a book of aesthetics and this ties into my argument in interesting ways. I have Leonard Meyer's Emotion and Meaning in Music but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet.

Snowboarder Bo
10-26-2010, 01:34 PM
Do you have a source for this particular insight? I'm working on a book of aesthetics and this ties into my argument in interesting ways. I have Leonard Meyer's Emotion and Meaning in Music but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet.

I would highly recommend reading Frank Zappa's The Real Frank Zappa Book, Chapter 8 - All About Music. Frank talks a lot about the role of tension and release and compositional complexity in that chapter.

Anything can be music, but it doesn't become music until someone wills it to be music, and the audience listening to it decides to perceive it as music.

Most people can't deal with that abstraction - or don't want to.

It's prolly my favorite chapter of the book, as my initial reading of it caused me to sit up and exclaim "OMFG someone else perceives music the same way I do!" Plus, he put it into words better than I was able to at the time, so that helped me coalesce my own ideas more fully than I was previously able to.

thelurkinghorror
10-26-2010, 02:14 PM
Does anyone listen to Merzbow for fun? Some of the Japanese noise is decent, Boredoms, and even Melt-Banana. I don't know about him though.

Snowboarder Bo
10-26-2010, 02:20 PM
Does anyone listen to Merzbow for fun? Some of the Japanese noise is decent, Boredoms, and even Melt-Banana. I don't know about him though.

I don't have any of his solo stuff, but I do have collaborations such as Merz-Banana and Merzbow Null.

Steophan
10-26-2010, 03:26 PM
I don't care much for Boris, but I do like Earth and Om and Sunn-O)) quite a bit. I loves me some drone with my feedback. :D
There were the bands I thought of when I read the thread title, along with Khanate - add some pure noise to the drone.
Also, all Funeral Doom metal fits. For those not familiar with the genre, very slow, heavy and repetitive extreme metal, with deep, incomprehensible growled vocals. Done well, it's extremely hypnotic and cathartic. Examples would be Thergothon, Pantheist, Ahab, and Esoteric.

Snowboarder Bo
10-26-2010, 03:38 PM
There were the bands I thought of when I read the thread title, along with Khanate - add some pure noise to the drone.
Also, all Funeral Doom metal fits. For those not familiar with the genre, very slow, heavy and repetitive extreme metal, with deep, incomprehensible growled vocals. Done well, it's extremely hypnotic and cathartic. Examples would be Thergothon, Pantheist, Ahab, and Esoteric.

Thanks for those names. I know Pantheist, but the others are new to me. I'll have to check them out. I agree that when it's done well, it's very cool.

Jackmannii
10-26-2010, 04:23 PM
Back in the 1980s, I couldn't listen to Black Metal or Death Metal because of the CMVs. Which was weird, because I was totally into hardcore and punk, and if you'd have asked, I'd have said that my favorite type of singing was really yelling. But I couldn't do more than laugh or twist my face in disgust at the low, guttural, almost barking Cookie Monster Vocals or black/death metal.The growly vocals are the reason I have purged a couple of freebie death metal compilations from my music library. The music often isn't bad and I could get to like it; the vocals are a non-negotiable turnoff.

Besides, given that abusing one's voice tends to cause the development of vocal cord polyps, I don't want to think about what's growing in the larynxes of those lead singers (http://www.ghorayeb.com/vocalcordpolyp.html).

jordanr2
10-26-2010, 05:08 PM
Does anyone listen to Merzbow for fun? Some of the Japanese noise is decent, Boredoms, and even Melt-Banana. I don't know about him though.He's not my favorite noise artist (his "signal-to-noise" ratio is kinda low, so to speak) but I listen to him here and there. He's definitely not doing anywhere near the same things as Boredoms and Melt-Banana - he's more pure noise, while I think of those guys more as noise-rock.

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