Distal Muse Archives

Music and Science Fiction

by Mark W. Tiedemann


     I've been wanting to write this for some time.  I'm preparing something revelatory and controversial for the next Muse, so maybe this is a good time to do a piece on my musical aesthetic.
     Not particularly light, but...
     In the Links section, I have a few websites listed of bands that have been really important to me.  These groups and artists have contributed to my overall emotional perception of the universe and my place in it.  If that sounds a bit over-the-top, well, sorry.  I think a lot of people fail to appreciate how music shapes their basic approach to the Good and the Beautiful, to how they relate to others, to the way, in fact, their brains actually work.
     When asked once why music is so important, Leonard Bernstein replied, "Music is our best tool for exploring the geography of the psyché."  That stands, for me, as the best answer such a question could possibly have.
     And it's a very skiffy answer.
     The Geography of the Psyché...
     Sounds like something Kafka might toy with or Terry Gilliam.
     You must understand that to me music is a Pure Form--or, at least, a potentially pure form.  It's the sound.  Just the sound.  The combination of tone, tempo, timbre that sinks into the mind and touches places that react.  How they react...
     Before I get to that, a bit of history.  I grew up in a house where music was, at least for the first several years of my life, an important element.  My parents as newlyweds purchased a large Capitol Hi-Fi set, blond wood, heavy-armed Gerard turntable, tube-driven.  When it warmed up it had a strange, quasi-organic odor that I have to this day equated with fine music and a low-lighted, almost erotic exoticism.  Forty watts, fifteen-inch woofer, this set later became a guitar amp through which magnificent feedback could be generated.
     Along with this magnificent piece of technology they bought a pretty decent collection of a wide range of music.  Peggy Lee and Bobby Darin, Duane Eddy and Chet Atkins, film scores and classical selections from Brahms to Tchaikovsky.  About a third of it, maybe more, was instrumental.
     I grew up listening to Gershwin and Lizst, Boris Minnavitch and Les Paul & Mary Ford.  The Peer Gynt Suite and Hoffman's Tales From the Vienna Wood stuck in my ur-memory like the first coos from my mother.  Along with the records, I grew up during the Golden HeyDay of the Variety Show.  Andy Williams, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jimmy Dean, Ed Sullivan, the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, and on and on, and we watched them.  NBC, in its early days, and throughout the Sixties, did regular musical specials.  I remember seeing both Leonard Bernstein and The Nice on tv.
     And at six PM on Saturday nights, usually on the local channels, stuff like Porter Waggoner would be on.
     At some point I discovered that there was some music I did not like.  The evolution of taste had begun.  And it later led to a split with my parents' aesthetic that was less painful than it could have been but as baffling to them as it occasionally still is to me.
     Being the Odd One in school was a central fact of my life.  I never got used to it, but I learned not to fight it, at least not to the detriment of personal pleasure.  If what I liked didn't fit with what the Group liked, I went off quite willingly by myself to indulge my own thing.  I didn't read the same comics, didn't follow sports, was perpetually behind on current slang, and, horror of horrors, didn't listen to the same music.
     I didn't "get" Beatlemania.  Not when it was happening.  I saw them on Ed Sullivan and frankly didn't understand what all the fuss was about.  They were loud, simplistic, and brief.  (I might have felt differently if I'd been able to listen to any of their records on our magnificent hi-fi, but my allowance didn't cover the cost of albums, and it frankly wouldn't have occurred to me that there might be more on the record than what I could hear on tinny AM radios or over television.)  Also, the fever that seemed to grip my friends unnerved me and when they realized I wasn't sharing in it, it set me even further Outside.
     To be fair, not all pop groups at the time left me cold.  I rather liked Herman's Hermits and, a little later, The Turtles.  But a good deal of what made the airwaves in the Sixties did nothing for me.  To this day I still don't like the Stones, Dylan, or Sonny and Cher.
     I was learning to play keyboard then.  The people that inspired me were mostly classical pianists and the occasional organist.  I was listening to a little jazz then, what I could get, but I suppose part of my aversion to contemporary pop then was the dearth of prominent keyboardists.  Guitar, bass, and drum, and a scratchy-throated vocalist didn't appeal.
     A classmate of mine saved me.  Not that we were great buddies, but we had lunch at his house, which was directly across the street from school, from time to time.  His older brother, who rode a motorcycle and was an emerging hippy, had a record collection which he took pleasure in exposing us wee ones to.
     I heard Hendrix for the first time there.  It would be years before I fully appreciated what I was experiencing in Hendrix's work, but something drew me.  Our host played Blood, Sweat & Tears, the Doors, Blue Cheer, early Deep Purple (and there, finally, was that magnificent Hammond sound, Jon Lord gliding through his classical "borrowings" amid the howl and scream of Blackmore and Gilliam) and, best of all, The Nice.
     Ah, Keith.  Keith Emerson.
     I had to tune out the vocals.  To this day, I care very little for the almost monotone gruntings of Dylanesque vocalists, and the "singer" in the Nice was a man with a singularly rangeless and abrasive voice.
     But Emerson...
     That summer, I recall, the Nice played at Kiel Opera House and it was the first time I ever snuck out to go see something.  No way my parents would have allowed it.  I spent the night, supposedly, at a friend's, and went by bus to downtown St. Louis and sat for the first time ever in a rock concert environment to see this act.
     I began then to actively look for the music not being played on AM radio.  We didn't have an FM, so it was some time before I found the AOR stations.  I had to hang out in small records shops and listen.
     My keyboard work began to change.
     Things in my life seemed to take longer than in others' lives.  I guess I was seventeen before I got my first stereo.  But by then I knew what I was looking for.
     So now, thirty years later, I can sort of explain it.
     First off, I realized eventually that I don't really like vocals.  The human voice to me is a distraction except in those rare instances where the singer realizes that he or she isn't "singing a song" but playing an instrument.  Even so, there's an implicit demand that one listen to the words, and I frankly give not a damn about lyric content.  (Of course there are exceptions, but they are, in the end, exceptions.)  At best, the words are there to hang a note on, and serve only to help the singer shape the sound.  When the lyrics become more important than the music, the performance fails.  I much prefer instrumental, which delivers that psychical exploration undiluted by language concerns.
     I love Santana.  I tolerate-to-loathe most of the vocal elements of his music.  I listen for those moments of guitar ecstacy he reaches for.  When Emerson joined with Lake and Palmer, I was okay with the singing, because Lake has a grasp of vocal music as instrumental element.  And his voice pleases (or did then--it's rather gone into the subterranean basements of late and is much less evocative).  Ian Anderson sings very well, but I listen to Jethro Tull for the compositional pleasures of what they do with theme and structure.  It's the Sound.
     (To address the Exceptions briefly:  there are a number of vocalists I simply like.  I do not recommend or condone, and even with them I occasionally wish they'd just shut up and let the music play.  This is a matter of taste, though, and I rarely place a vocalist on the same level as an instrumentalist.  There is a purity to instrumental music that allows for that psychic geographical exploration that vocals--with its complication of lyric content--simply impede--in my humble opinion.  Among those I like: Lake, of course, Sting, Jon Anderson, Ian Anderson, Steve Walsh of Kansas [70s & 80s vintage], Enya, Loreena McKennitt, Maire Brennan of Clannad, Annie Haslam, Annie Lennox, Joni Mitchell...more women than men, in fact.)
     Which leads me directly to one of my biggest aversions.  I loathe Country.  It is almost all about the lyrics.  They think they're doing ballad, but it comes nowhere near.  Moronic lyrics underpinned by simple-minded chord progressions played with as little delicacy as possible so as to let the audience know that they ain't big city sophisticated type musicians, but foot-stompin', hand-clappin', hollerin' country folk that don't need all that pretentious musicality.  In fact, a lot of sophistication goes into the charade that tries hard to present us with what is supposed to be heart-felt, spontaneous, grass roots melody and rhythm.  There is an innate anti-intellectualism in it that is a lie on its face and appeals to that lowest common denominator element that made Sixties AM pop so void of substance and musically inane.
     Blue Grass is magnificent.  Especially the instrumentals.  Given that I still don't like vocal music as a rule, I like Blue Grass vocal even less, but the music is rich and filled with variety.  It is as different from Country & Western as Beethoven is from Rap.
     The same can be said for almost any commercial perversion of a particular form, but somehow the structure and harmony of C & W grates across my nerves more than anything save opera.  (Yes, sadly, as much as I love classical music, I cannot abide opera.  It's the singing again.  As soon as the diva opens her mouth or the baritone thunders, I react almost physically, wanting to run away.  In this case, I know it's the vocal element, because I quite like most operatic scores.)
     Here's the thing about commercial music: it is not designed to do anything but feed a manufactured nostalgia, a false tag for happy memories.  While I certainly understand that music serves as place marker for memory and anniversary, it should be because that music in and of itself meant something, not because it was in the Top 40 when the memory was made.  Just because "My Sharona" was playing on the stereo when you got laid the first time doesn't make "My Sharona" a worthwhile piece of music.  But the ostentatious use of major key melody and tried-and-true chord progressions has evolved into an effective propaganda tool for guaranteeing that the Pop Machine will be continually fed with shekels at the expense of authentic musical expression.  Because, like tv ad jingles, those songs are meant to be fly paper, things that get stuck in your psyché and attached to memories.  That it works so well is less a sign of the quality of the music than it is of the susceptibility of people to kitsch.
     Part of this is that we live in a society wherein all such artifacts are used as background.  If they intrude into the conversation, they are eschewed.  This requires that the background, like Muzak, be essentially innocuous, ultimately contentless.  If, in other words, you have to actually LISTEN to the music, it is not useful in advancing the interaction of the moment.  Donna and I attended a Renaissance concert once.  Renaissance the band, which is an example of successfully adapting classical (specifically Romantic) musical elements to a contemporary rock quintet.  (This is also one of the exceptions to my No Vocals policy--Annie Haslam has one of the most heavenly voices ever heard.  Go, get thee to a good stereo, turn it up, LISTEN.)  Anyway, this was well past their heyday and not the best setting.  Essentially it was in a glorified bar.  Nevertheless, the band performed well, they were pros.  It mystified me--and annoyed my wife no end--to have people carrying on Conversations during the show.  How could they do that?  Weren't they listening?
     No.  They were not.
     This is a battle I've engaged almost my entire musical life.  Listen.  Shut up and listen.
     It is nearly as difficult as getting someone to go read a book when they don't understand the pleasure.
     But here is where, to my mind, music and reading come together in purpose.  For me, music must transport you.  It must take you out of yourself and allow you to experience a kind of transcendence.  It must lift you out of the mundane, so to speak, put you on another plane, give you an Experience you cannot get any other way, and it must be profound.
     Granted, most music never quite achieves that.  But when it does...
     When it does, and you experience it, you wonder why you ought to bother with anything that fails to do that--and you wonder why people get so charged up about music that intentionally avoids doing that.
     There are ancillary experiences that substitute for this.  Concerts have become more orgy than music, the supposed thrill of being swept up in a huge crowd synched to the beat of the drum master on the stage.  Heavy Metal does this especially well.  It's not the music, it's the Event.
     There's the common currency of being up on what's current, making you part of a social group.
     There are the politics of various musical expressions--rap and hip-hop most especially indulge this--and the drawing on your moral sympathies gives the music more substance perhaps than it actually possesses.  To be fair, there is a primal power to a great deal of hip-hop that is the musical equivalent of a key to the lock of your psyché, allowing better access for the Message.
     And then, of course, there's that element of nostalgia, Anniversary Marking, which most pop music for a century now has relied upon for a quick buck and a momentary sense of community.
     I don't have time for that.
     When I sit down, and drop Sibelius' Fifth Symphony in the player, and close my eyes and let the swelling strings flow through my mind, I want to experience transcendence.  I want, for the duration of the piece, to be taken Somewhere Else.  Sibelius can do that.  Reba McIntyre can't.  Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaiskovsky can do that.  Britney Spears, Whitney Houston, and Rod Stewart cannot.
     Yes, ELP, Genesis, and UK can do that.  The Oak Ridge Boys, Toby Keith, Clint Black, and Arrowsmith cannot.
     (The problem, I concede, to indulging music the way I do is that you continually require purer and purer, more sophisticated doses in order to achieve the same high.  Some things always do it because they have achieved a condition of near Absolute--not perfection, because as often as not it is the flaw in the music that makes it work--but perhaps Purpose.  Beethoven, Howard Hanson, Samuel Barber, Miles Davis, Steve Vai...there are many more.  But for the most part, a great deal of music I've encountered, much of it I find myself still fond of, has turned out to be simply a step along the way, a stage, a point of understanding.  But what's wrong with reaching for better?)
     I have a particular fondness for electronic music, which has the grace of being different enough to sidestep the filters of expectation and so enters the consciousness more directly.  Back when everyone in my class was raving about Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Turtles, the 1910 Fruitgum Company, and the Beatles, my favorite new album was Walter Carlos' Switched-On Bach.  Needless to say, this led to some friction between me and, well, everyone else.
     You might wonder that I ever came to like rock'n'roll at all.  On a panel once about music and SF, I listened while my colleagues waxed nostalgic about Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis (early Elvis) and spun out a lot of ideas about why that music was great.  I then asserted that as far as I was concerned nothing of any real interest happened in rock'n'roll till 1967.  Everything to that point was prelude.  1967 was the time when, seemingly all at once, rock musicians decided to shuck all the junk that was cluttering up rock'n'roll till then--cutesy lyrics, coy phrasing, attempts by many to appeal to the Mitch Miller and Perry Como crowd--and decided to do the pure stuff.  Of course, the Beatles released "Sgt. Pepper" and the Beach Boys released "Pet Sounds".  But beyond that a lot of bands began to form that wanted to do Something More.  The Moody Blues released "Days of Future Past" late that year, too.  It was a harbinger.  The Who, an already established band, went stratospheric musically speaking with Tommy. Buffalo Springfield started experimenting heavily, Janis Joplin started singing her soul, and Jimi Hendrix exploded in London.  Hendrix, above all, seems now to have been the Shape of Things to Come.  Listen to those three Experience albums closely and you hear occasional throw-away lines that many later bands built entire careers around.
     Cream began in '68.
     Led Zeppelin in '69.
     All at once, everywhere, the music Emerged.  The music.  Not the lyrics (though they changed, too), not the fashion--The Music.
     I got mixed up in a number of bands throughout adolescence, most of them short-lived, more excuses to get together and play records than actually perform, but a few of them gelled into something that actually got out and played.  Once in a while, we'd just about reach that transcendence.  The audience would synch with what we were playing and you could ride the vibe.  Almost like good sex.
     Yes is the band that nailed it for me.  I loved many, but when I heard Yes, it all came together.  Through them, I later rediscovered my love of classical music.  And from The Yes Album on, Jon Anderson's approach to lyric content showed me something that I can now explain.  He didn't use the music to convey lyric, he used the shapes of the words to hang a sound around.  The intent of the words was secondary to the function they served as conveyors of Sound.  So when you read their lyrics, more often than not they make only coincidental sense in any ordinary way.  It didn't matter--it was the Sound that counted.  (For example, the one song of theirs that has always left me flat is "Don't Kill The Whale".  It's overtly political, pedantic, and pretty much does what a lot of better-than-average pop music does, sublimating the music to the verbal message.  Give me "On The Silent Wings of Freedom" any day.)
     And the instrumentalists!  What a collection of symphonically dynamic performers!  All in service to music that, for the most part, sought the road less traveled, looking for the best way into the uncharted territory of the Listener's psyché.  Listening to "Close To The Edge" has always made me feel I have been on a journey to a place that is still largely unexplored.
     These days I listen to jazz a lot.  I sometimes feel that if I had it all to do over, I would be a jazz pianist.  The free flow of sound over a basic idea, the interplay between musicians--the Conversation, as Wynton Marsalis calls it--is very much in keeping with what I think music is supposed to do.  I'm finding it more and more in jazz, which I'd always listened to, but till the last few years had paid too little attention.  (Add to that, unfortunately, another category of vocals that simply annoys me no end--jazz vocals.  They get in the way of the Sound.  Sorry about that.)  But of late my pantheon of musical heroes has been added to by the likes of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, Pat Matheny and Russ Freeman, the late Grover Washington jr. and Bird.  Brave explorers, going into the hidden places, and bringing light with them to show us the inside of our imaginations.
     What does all this have to do with science fiction?
     You figure it out.
     Thanks for your time.

copyright © 2004 by Mark W. Tiedemann