Why Dissonance is the new Harmony (a lesson in Authenticity)

In +1/-1, creativity, culture, Miraverse, music industry, npr by Michael Tiemann

I’ve always had a soft spot for Youth Radio on NPR, but What’s is the new What? has taken that affection to a whole new level.  The story Dissonance is the new Harmony prompted me to set a bookmark that day and commit to blog it when I had the chance.  Now I have the chance…

First off let me what I love about Youth Radio, and that is that the kids who file their reports are passionate participants in the stories, not pundits, spinmeisters, or supposedly disinterested observers.  And you can hear in their voices their own excitement, surprise, embarrassment, disgust, and/or wonder, depending on the subject, context, and their own authentic relationship to the story.

Reporter Avery White is a student at Dunwoody High School, who has already had the benefit of participating in a mind-expanding and awareness-expanding program called “Minority to Majority”.  In a different report she writes:

I went to a private middle school that has one black child out of 300 students. I now attend a public high school that’s about forty percent black, thanks to the “M to M,” or minority to majority program. The program brings kids from areas of town with struggling schools to my high performing school in a different community. I think the program benefits everyone.

I remember the reaction of my friends who had never been to a public school when they enrolled in my school: “Oh my gosh! I’ve never been around black people before!” they said. The lack of diversity they had experienced in their previous schools hurt their understanding of different cultures. Some of them were even racist. Our school is still no racial utopia. But over time, my friends have grown more comfortable around students who aren’t white, through classroom collaborations and plain old friendship. I have bonded with many “m to m” students, and can’t imagine what my high school experience would be like without them.

The minority to majority program is helping to shape brighter futures for many children.

With that background you can tell that she has an open and affirming mind, which is just what’s called for when she interviews Better People‘s Doug Patterson, who says of his own music “I dare you to enjoy it, because it’s anti-music and qualifies as unlistenable.”

Avery not only listens to it, but shares it with us (one of the great features of radio!).  And she finds Tyler Rosebush, a 21 year-old fan who speaks for the growing mainstream interest in such anti-music:

“Since it’s so on the spot — it’s not re-rehearsed it’s not prerecorded — the final product reflects the entire process, and you’re intimately acquainted with every step of the way this music is created.  With digital music and iPods and stuff like that, it’s easy to get caught up and just lost in this sea of stuff that is the end and not the means.

“This isn’t about being weird; it’s about going into another state of mind. Pop music doesn’t exactly make you think when the lines include, “Get you drunk off my humps, my lovely little lumps.”

In other words, for Tyler, authenticity trumps every other aspect of music, including listenability!  Ironically, as Alex Ross teaches in The Rest Is Noise, this is nothing new, at least not in the 20th century.  Every musical generation seeks to master the art, and then distinguish themselves from the generations that preceded them.  When the legacy of Western Music had grown to include not only Bach and Handel and Mozart, but also Beethoven, Liszt, and Chopin, and then Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss, not to mention Ellington and Gershwin, at some point the new generation looks at how little opportunity there is to rebel musically, and turns to the frontiers of noise.  And in some cases, even silence.

We are not precisely where we were culturally when Arnold Schoenberg departed the world of melody and harmony in preference to his so-called atonal system, but we remain locked in the same battle between convention (the status quo) and authenticity (that which is true to itself).  Today those battle lines are increasingly defined by technology (which facilitates deception) and overbearing commercial interest (which seems to overwhelm any and all artistic integrity).  And today, such is the level of deception in current commerical music that folks like Tyler Rosebush won’t believe anything they cannot experience directly and contemporaneously.  That’s a pretty bad thing if your business is making and selling records (which, by definition are separated in time and space from the actual performance)!

Is there truth is noise?  Perhaps, but I don’t believe that truth is to be found only in noise.  I think John Keats got it right when he wrote

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I know that I heard an enormous amount of truth when I heard the Toronto Symphony Orchestra play at Roy Thompson Hall without any amplification whatsoever.  It was simply fantastic and absolutely authentic, and I’m sure I will remember that performance until the day I die.

What the Youth Radio piece teaches me is that a new and growing mainstream of listeners are craving authenticity, so much that they are willing to listen to the unlistenable.  What a great competitive position to be in if one can offer both authenticity and listenability!  Indeed I believe this validates one of the principal business premises of The Miraverse.  Namely, that when an audience can witness and participate in the whole recording process of a production, and when they can make the story of that production part of their own authentic story, then there’s a chance that these authentic stories will reach folks like Tyler Rosebush.  And that the intensity and meaningfulness of those stories might make her take a renewed interest in music with lyrics and melody and rhythm again.

And someday she might herself become an authentic co-producer of something not only meaningful, but also intensely beautiful as well.

All this we can glean from listening to noise!

Thank you, Avery.

P.S.  I added the tag “buchla” because even though this noise is made with other machines, the Buchla 200e is certainly a wonderful platform for this kind of creativity/authenticity.