Propaganda and Music: The Questionnaire

To Our Participants:


George Orwell, in his essay “No, Not One” stated"...we have moved onwards into a period in which any sort of joy in writing, any such notion as telling a story for the purpose of pure entertainment, has also become impossible."  This issue of Sound American questions whether the same idea applies to music: is it possible that our culture has lost the “joy in” music as a pleasant assemblage of sound and the ability to create music for the purpose of pure entertainment”?

Below is a short questionnaire meant to gather a broad set of impressions on this topic from a group of artists working in different corners of the contemporary music world. Participation has been based on the participant’s history as a questioning artist, the diversity of their experience, and their ability to openly reason and express their ideas.


One short note about the format of this exercise: the term “questionnaire” as used by Sound American takes as its meaning a different historical model than our modern fill-in-the-box and short answer medium. SA’s “questionnaire” is more closely related to the format that reached its height in Eugene Jolas and Elliot Paul's 1930s Paris based magazine transition which challenged writers such as William Carlos Williams and James Joyce to stretch the limits of their formidable creativity to find unique ways to answer broad aesthetic queries. The most successful answers tested the boundaries of what the written word, drawn line, or organized sound could mean. We invite you to see how far you can push these mediums in your own way as you attempt to answer our questions.

With that in mind, and your formidable creativity ready to be stretched, please find the SA15 Questionnaire below.


1.     What does the term “pure” music mean to you?


2.     Is there a music, existing presently, that is free of any alternate non-musical alternate reading (narrative, political, sexual, emotional, etc.)?


3.     If music was split into two streams of thought, music as idea and music as a tool to represent a non-musical idea, how would you categorize the music you make and why?


Rodrigo Amado

Josh Berman

"Pure" music, for me, is just a concept, meaning that it doesn't necessarily exist in reality but it does exists in my head as a very strong defining concept. As a matter of fact, this concept is probably the most important element that drives my musical thought and activity, as a player and as a listener. In today's world, I'm inclined to share Orwell's notion and believe that every artistic activity, whether it be writing, music or other, is necessarily contaminated by social,

political, emotional or functional aspects. I imagine that, even in remote areas of the world, like deep Africa, Cambodia, or Alaska, people making local music are conditioned to a certain degree by the energies left by spreading global tourism and ubiquitous communication networks. A few years ago I was in the Merzouga village, in Morocco, and rode a camel into the Sahara desert with two other people. We traveled for a whole day and saw no one, not a single person. When we set camp, night was already falling, I started playing my saxophone for a while and, almost immediately, a guy came from behind a dune, out of nowhere, with a set of bongos asking to play with me. Well, what he played could qualify as some of the most pure sounds I heard in my life, but in reality he also did it with the intention of getting in touch, meet the foreigners and possibly get something to eat, which he did. I wonder what he might have played if he hadn't all these expectations in mind. Of course all this falls into pure speculation ground. So, what really interests me is how far can we go towards pure. When I started playing, more than 30 years ago, I was immediately drawn to improvised music, although I was also playing with many experimental rock and alternative pop bands. When it came to my own projects, I was basically doing what I do today - total improvisation. And I remember the term I used most to describe what I was searching for - organic. When I thought about organic I was in fact thinking about pure, but pure in the sense of unadulterated. The music I was doing was idiomatic improvisation - I was dealing with elements derived from rock, blues, jazz, basically every sounds that formed my musical personality. But I was trying to go to the roots of those sounds, to identify the "pure" element in them. When it came to rock or punk, the pure element was probably just an energy, when it came to blues it was an emotion, an emotional color, and when it came to jazz, it was for me an intervallic structure that I can trace as far back as Louis Armstrong as much as the spirit of freedom, of invention. Since then, I've been in this process of real time composition, dealing with idiomatic elements that are very sensitive to contamination, trying to strip them to the most pure element, hopefully forging a language that is totally my own. This means, of course, avoiding all kinds of common and predictable elements, clichés, not only those of each specific type of music but, most importantly, our own clichés. Being interested in "pure" music, I could have opted for non-idiomatic improvisation, making it more easy to avoid contamination. But this would give way to a music that wouldn't be as close to my own personality, to who I really am as a person. That's basically everything, this connection between who you are and what you play.


I also feel that in each development stage of a specific kind of music there are new elements added to that music's "pure" core. An example would be, some of the developments made by musicians such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Coltrane or Cecil Taylor, becoming elements that belong to the "pure" core of jazz. This also means that this core, this pure root of music, is not static, it keeps evolving, changing with the addition of new layers of pure elements. Even a synthesis music like Rashad Becker's sonic experiments (re: Traditional Music of Notional Species Vol. I) can come across like highly pure, that is, even though it's music that origins in well identifiable electronic languages that we're all (or we can be) familiar with, it's fused to a point that gave way to a whole new highly personal music, adding a new, important, "pure" element to the core of electronic music. After listening to him, my overall view of electronic music changed. And that's what happens, as I see it, with each innovator. Even though a big musical revolution like bebop is hardly possible these days, advancement is happening on a much smaller, but very intense, scale. Like a huge continuous fragmented revolution. This is also one of the reasons improvised music is probably the one who gets closer to a "pure" music, because it's a music of the moment, and it can evolve organically in time, constantly regenerating itself and constantly incorporating these "pure" increments. For those interested in "pure" music, the big challenge is to listen - to the music of the past and to the music being done today. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, not only different styles and aesthetics but also different levels of complexity, and I'm always trying to identify, within the (apparently) infinite universe of existing music, the one that has that "pure" element in it. When I find it, I always feel that I advance a bit in my own musical concepts, like a valuable lesson. That is basically how I learned to play music - listening.


One last thought on "pure" music. Yesterday, I was walking outside and it was a bit windy. Eventually I heard a soft banging coming from the lid of a plastic garbage container. A beautiful noise. That's when it came to me - how about concrete music and field recordings? Can they be seen as an example of "pure" music? Well, although they use sounds that are as pure as you can get, when they are put into a context and used as music they become heavily conditioned and they're not pure anymore. But this opens a possibility for the existence of a truly "pure" music - the one we form in our heads by listening to nature and the sounds that surround us.


3. If music was split into two streams of thought, music as idea and music as a tool to represent a non-musical idea, how would you categorize the music you make and why?


I would definitely say music as idea, because for me the music is the idea itself, although it can contain non-musical elements like an emotion, or a pure energy of some kind. For me, it doesn't make sense to create any kind of distance between the music and the idea, the intellect, on the contrary. Everything I do on a daily basis is to shorten that distance. Radically speaking, we can become the music ourselves. This would be the ultimate stage of development in a "pure" music process. Coltrane was aiming for it. Sun Ra. Jimmy Hendrix. I definitely can't see music as a tool. When I think organic I am thinking of music as part of our organic system, integrated with our emotions and our senses. Of course this is extremely hard to accomplish, if not impossible, but it's a powerful and beautiful concept. When I practice the instrument, that's what I'm trying to do - to shorten the length between my musical thought and my actions. For this reason I try not to practice musical ideas. I focus instead on repeated mechanical processes and sound. Or else, I just play, but then, although than can also be considered a practice routine, I am not practicing anymore, in the strict sense of the term. I really try to keep the musical ideas for when I am playing, in a rehearsal, a concert or studio situation, and let them come to me as instinctive as possible. That's also why I never discuss with other musicians what to play. And I don't even think about it. One second before I hit the first note on a concert I don't know if I'm going to play a fast run of notes or a long note. Nothing.


Gust Burns

“Absolute music” was a well-known fiction. Even so, fictions can be valuable. We've known for decades (since at least the 1990s in the case of musicology, and since decades earlier in the case of art theory and practice) that musical material and compositional procedures are always (already, before the composition is written or the piece played) indexed to specific and various contexts and nodes of sociality. But it would still do us good to consider the value of Eduard Hanslick's anti-transcendent argument of 1854 – that music is qualitatively different from language, that music does not “represent” anything, let alone “emotion.” Taking seriously this position, i.e. considering the “autonomy” or difference of musical material and procedure with respect to language and representation, allows us to distance ourselves from “linguistic turn” music criticism that insists on all art projects as mere signification, and stipulates that contemporary music and sound projects should be valorized only to the extent that they are about sound.


Music is always a performance, whether a recording or “live,” and there is always so much congealed or gathered up in performances and their receptions: labor, (re-)production, consumption, signification, representation, affectation, self-location... Better, following Guattari, we could say that music itself is a beautiful example of what he and Deleuze called assemblages – a complex relation of engagement between human, non-human, and technical elements, including listener, recording media, architecture and geographic-political space (domestic, commercial, or other listening venue), recording studio and/or equipment, instrument, performer, notation, composer, etc. This list doesn't begin to take into consideration the elements that make up the conceptual and affective contexts in which we compose, perform, and listen, and the political-economic elements through which music flows, that is, the larger assemblages of which any specific music is a part.


Furthermore, in the post-colonial, post-culture-industry world, “creative” projects (including the musical) always function as parts of larger capitalist and racializing assemblages (and of course, we know that these are always, to some degree, two aspects of one movement, or that the two, racialization and political-economic subjectification, are always complementary), either as directly engaged in capitalist enterprise or simply as the means of reproducing social reality under the relations of current ruling political ontology. Capital continuously performs the real subsumption of the faculties and actions of all workers and non-workers (these, what a music-canonical understanding might take to be the roles of musicians and listeners, respectively); personality, affective habits, and physical and cognitive capacities become (suddenly, but also increasingly) conditioned and enabled, “enslaved” within assemblages that reproduce capital and (white, “landed,” hetero) “Man.”

For my part, I want to make projects that help us find other sides. Or, to the extent that modern capitalism is founded on the reification, prescription, and prohibition of faculties to discreet liberty-ed subjects on the one hand and “surplus human material” on the other, it should help to find ways of not-listening, not-seeing, not-working (and the “erasure” of each of these faculties would also involve the development of an exquisite audition, hyper-sight, some kind of ultra-productivity). This will involve dis-assembling our entrenchments via ideology critique less than it will (un-)learning self-hoods, possibly with the help of music.

Alexander Hawkins

I suppose I’m taking ‘pure’ music here to mean a putative music which is not only without a message (it’s not ‘Hymn to Freedom’) or dedication (‘Sonnet for Hank Cinq’), and which is un-programmatic (it’s not about Till Eulenspiegel’s pranks); but which is somehow ‘only’ about the sounds themselves.

For my part, I want to make projects that help us find other sides. Or, to the extent that modern capitalism is founded on the reification, prescription, and prohibition of faculties to discreet liberty-ed subjects on the one hand and “surplus human material” on the other, it should help to find ways of not-listening, not-seeing, not-working (and the “erasure” of each of these faculties would also involve the development of an exquisite audition, hyper-sight, some kind of ultra-productivity). This will involve dis-assembling our entrenchments via ideology critique less than it will (un-)learning self-hoods, possibly with the help of music.


So perhaps the thing is not to think of ‘pure’ music as opposed to some other kind of music (‘impure’ seems unduly pejorative…), but rather as describing one end of a range of behaviours, ranging from the more thoroughly instrumental to the more thoroughly expressive. At the former end, we might put the caricature of the super-commercial pop songwriter, whose purpose is to make money, and whose means is music. Near this on the continuum – though a different case – might be some extremely loud K-Pop being played over a border, to irritate some people on the other side. We might move along the spectrum via the likes of ‘Strange Fruit’, ‘Meditations on Integration’, ‘A Fungus Amungus’. Nearer the ‘pure’ end, we might find ‘Marshmallow’, or Sonny Rollins going in on Oleo for more than 15 minutes, seemingly just for the joy of it. But in seeing Sonny this way, we’d be acknowledging that the beauty of what he’s doing lies in how different he is to various (cynical/recreational/ritual/etc.) instrumental uses of music: in other words, perhaps he represents some ideal state of being.


So back to my point about music as organized sound: I think the intentionality involved in organizing sound means that the resulting music can by definition not just be about the notes themselves. If we want to characterize something as ‘pure’ sound, I wonder maybe if it should be non-organised sound – a raindrop, a thunderclap, or a car exhaust – but probably not birdsong.



2.  Is there a music, existing presently, that is free of any alternate non-musical alternate reading (narrative, political, sexual, emotional, etc.)?


Following on from my argument above, the answer would be ‘no’, insofar as any music on the planet could be read as a product of its social context.


But I would say that I love the idea that somewhere in the world, there is a music happening, for which people haven’t offered a reading. It’s fun to talk about music, and even important to do so in certain cases: but doing the music and experiencing it are much more important to me, and so it appeals that somewhere out there, there just might be a music over which we haven’t spilled ink. Or used up pixels.



3.   If music was split into two streams of thought, music as idea and music as a tool to represent a non-musical idea, how would you categorize the music you make and why?


I would be reluctant to commit to one or other of these streams of thought. The latter – music as a tool to represent a non-musical idea – I find awkward, because ‘tools’ are typically quite purposive. To take an intentionally banal example, I certainly would never use music to represent, say, the beauty of a sunset. In a world overloaded with information (and where this overload ironically leads to it being harder to isolate the truly useful/meaningful information), I would be looking to watch the sunset itself. And, empirically speaking, ‘music as tool’ doesn’t resonate with how I experience making music: which is a process, at least in the creation stage, much more focused on the musicians and, yes, the sounds themselves. I can say for myself that there are hardly ever (almost never?) non-musical ideas in play: I am, despite what I have said above, interested in music as an end in itself.


In this sense, my music probably tends more to ‘music as idea’ than to the other stream of thought. However, just because there are hardly ever non-musical ideas in play (defining ‘musical’ broadly, that still leaves an often bewildering amount of information still in play, after all) does not mean that the music is ‘pure’: it is an end in itself, but cannot just be that. For me, it is a gesture in itself to avoid explicit attempts to represent non-musical ideas. To put it another way, I would rather reflect my political and ideological beliefs through musical models than through writing a ‘Hymn to Freedom’ (damn, that’s twice now; for the record, I love Oscar Peterson: I won’t hear it from the naysayers!). That is to say: deeds not words. Being aware of the make up of an ensemble; developing and adhering to musical systems in which strengthening the collective voice, far from diminishing the autonomy of the individuals, enhances it; exploring interdependence; and so on…these structural norms convey what I feel more profoundly than trying to use the sounds themselves representationally.


So music is an end in itself, but for me it is essential to acknowledge that, at the same time, it also conveys certain messages and ideologies, irrespective of whether this is its purpose.


…and finally, just on Orwell’s quote: I’m finding it hard to get my head around. I simply don’t buy his seeming inference that there being a message involved in the act somehow precludes taking joy in doing the act itself. I couldn’t speak for authors; but ‘joy in playing music’ impossible? I don’t see it. If Mr. Blair were still around, I’d take him to see the Arkestra, and defy him not to see the joy Marshall Allen, for one, takes in making noise. [Actually, either Mr. Blair could probably usefully listen to the Arkestra, but that’s above my paygrade.] The joy Marshall takes, and any number of others, including me.

1. What does the term “pure” music mean to you?


The term “pure” is not descriptive of any kind of music I have experienced. But, then, I don't think that much of what humans do reflects purity. I am thinking about Melanie Klein here. That the work of our lives might be trying to tolerate the existence of good and bad in the same person—tolerating impurity.


But the question did make me think about how one might make a pure music. Thinking about makers, there would be two pure musics for me: First, a music where there’s a reckoning with impurity, where the player knows something about what it means to him to be playing it, assessing social motives within the music: connecting, being special, creating unique work, selling, all of the above, or something else. Second—and this feels totally squaresville writing it down—but I think there is something pure about singular genius. The originals and originators in the music traditions that have affected me most include Ornette Coleman, Morton Feldman, Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Derek Bailey, and Thelonious Monk. These people lived in a context—and perhaps recontextualized their world—but what they also did is, to me, indescribable. The depth of their originality is pure because it resists explanation.

2. Is there a music, existing presently, that is free of any non-musical reading (narrative, political, sexual, emotional, etc.)?


No, I don't think so.


3. If music was split into two streams of thought, music as idea and music as a tool to represent a non-musical idea, how would you categorize the music you make and why?


In the idea/tool dialectic, I think the music I make is an idea. (I don't know how to use tools very well.) As much as I strive to do new work, a good argument could be made that only a certain percentage of the idea is my own, because most of my work is so related to the history of jazz, free jazz, and improvised music. This also presents the inevitability of the non-musical reading (see question 2), since each one of these music histories emerged from musicians who were part of scenes and the time that gave rise to them—their social and political context. I think a lot about my relationship to influence, about embodying musical parts of the past in the present.

Leila Bordreuil

Photo by Peter Gannushkin/

What does the term “pure” music mean to you?


It is tempting to define “pure music” as an equivalent to “art for art’s sake”, or according to the philosophy that “true” art is divorced from any didactic or utilitarian function. I believe, however, that music, perhaps more than any other artistic medium, is intrinsically utilitarian. Music is always used as a tool for a non-musical end, be it entertainment, a religious or transcendental experience, a political message, or simply the conveyance of a feeling. Bach’s “Mass in B minor” is one of the most poignant and moving pieces of music ever written; yet the Mass was created with a very specific end in mind and within limited theoretical guidelines. But the non-musical motive that constitutes music for worship and the musical limitations entailed were a source of inspiration for the composer. The result is a work of art that deeply reflects the composer’s soul and aesthetic voice. To me, “pure” music is not necessarily abstract or stripped of social responsibilities; it is simply music that is an immediate end product of the composer’s intentions. Once non-musical factors, such as market value, obstruct the composer’s voice, then the music looses its purity.



Is there a music, existing presently, that is free of any alternate reading (narrative, political, sexual, emotional, etc.)?


I do not believe that any music is free of a non-musical reading. The nature of art is communication -a means of intercourse between one human being and another.

Music can be abstract and non referential, but it is created and experienced by cognitive beings. While music does not always have a narrative or political reading, it always has an emotional reception, even if the listener does not respond much when listening

While music does not always bring about a narrative or political reading, it always has an emotional reception, even if the listener barely responds when listening to a certain piece. In fact, I consider indifference itself to be an emotion. An opinion is always formed when experiencing art, and that opinion, that reading, is formed through our subjective language, not through the language of music.



If music was split into two streams of thought, music as idea and music as a tool to represent a non-musical idea, how would you categorize the music you make and why?


I have a variety of different projects so it is difficult for me to choose between these two categories. My work is rarely a tool for representation, with the exception of my sound-installations. The immersive quality of installation work makes it a powerful tool to prove a point. Aside from those, my music is often “conceptual”, which I believe falls into the category of music as idea. Concepts (musical and extra-musical ones) are often a motivation for my pieces or recorded works. When creating a new piece, I generally start with an abstract idea –a philosophical question, an atmosphere, or a subject that affects me deeply. I then attempt to write about it with words, and a stream of abstract graphics and symbols referring to musical motifs naturally develop from this writing process. I then progressively delve into more and more detail, and gestures, rhythms, and textures fall into place. However, over the course of this process, I sometimes drop the initial concept and the music takes me to a new place I had not foreseen. Although there is always thought involved in my music, I ultimately have a very sentimental and expressionist relationship to it. The “idea” is a vague starting point for a cognitive process, but emotional impulses are what actually “shapes” the music. I find an incredible freedom of expression in free-form and noise music, because they are devoid of concrete emotional signifiers, such as the dichotomy between verse and chorus or Major and minor. [For this I thank the academic composers and thinkers of the twentieth century, who through their rarified philosophy and aesthetic theories, defined the avant-garde in such a way that allowed my generation to be expressive and emotional within radical musical forms.] As listeners, we are free to experience the music as a reflection of our own thoughts, within and beyond the musical.

Sky Macklay

1. What does the term “pure” music mean to you? To me, the term “pure” music means music that is chiefly concerned with sounds in relation to other sounds within that specific piece. Pure music doesn’t contain any words, representational images, or other semantically meaningful intermedia elements. If pieces of “pure music” could speak… Steve Reich’s Piano Phase might ask “do you hear one monophonic melody? How about now? How about now? How about now? Now? Now? How many melodies are there?” Maryanne Amacher’s Chorale 1 might ask “are those counter-melodious pitches in your head or coming from the speakers? When did the rhythmic congruity between the left-speaker pattern and the right-speaker pattern go away? Did you hear how I sneakily turned sine waves into square waves?” J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg 5 (first movement) would probably inquire, “Do you hear this clever interplay of voices? Do you remember this crisply-orchestrated, energetic tune? It’s the ritornello…and it’s BACK AGAIN!” The third movement of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet would demand to know, “Can you tell which voice is in which instrument? Don’t the subtle textural differences really come to the fore when the registers and timbres are so blendy? Are you getting tired of this slow, monolithic ascent? Well good because now’s the big, climactic change in material!” Grisey’s Prologue from Les Espaces Acoustique could ask, “Do you hear how limited my material is? Do you hear how I’m gradually expanding the number of overtones involved? Now do you hear how it’s progressively evolving into noise?” Some of Erin Gee’s Mouthpieces might ask, “do you hear these subtly-changing vowel sounds coming from my mouth and organically expanding through the instrumental textures?” and Marc Sabat’s Jean-Philippe Rameau would ask “do you hear the subtle beatings? Ahh, now it’s a justly tuned interval, but wait…do you hear more beatings? Ain’t sound grand!” So to summarize, all the questions that pieces of pure music ask involve the materials, organization, and structures made of sound itself. Pieces of “pure” music from the Baroque or Classical periods might have names like “Sonata,” “Interlude,” “Rondo,” “Allegro,” “String Quartet,” and “Theme and Variations.” Today pieces of “pure” music might have names like “Sound Walls and Sound Falls,” “Sound Objects (of Affection),” “Vibrations, No Vibrations, Vibrations,” “Noise Tone Noise Drone,” “Doo doo doodilly schnee-da-doop-BAH! Chht chht chht,” “High Low Soft Loud Loud Loud Loud Loud” (P.S., anyone can feel free to use these titles I made up…I’m guessing I won’t be able to use them all myself!). Pure music can have more pictorially/spiritually/narratively suggestive titles, but if the listener, without knowing the title, could not infer even loosely what extramusical stuff the piece is “about,” then I still consider that pure music. For example, I classify Alice Coltrane’s Universal Consciousness as pure music even though the title suggests a spiritual dimension beyond music. Pure music can definitely be read politically or narratively, but anybody reading its extramusical meaning would need to consider the social, historical, and political contexts outside the data of the music in order to draw conclusions about what it’s meaning is beyond music. 

2. Is there a music, existing presently, that is free of any non-musical  reading (narrative, political, sexual, emotional, etc.)?


No, I think all music can have political meaning; even if the composer did not intentionally endow the music with political meaning, it can be read that way. Making art is always a political act because it inevitably asserts or subverts the artist’s own identity and is in dialogue with the history of the art. Making something new (in the modernist sense of searching for truly new sounds and uncharted paths) is political because it reveals a discontent with, or at least a vision for the possibility of something different than, the

artistic status quo, and the artistic status quo is reflective of or analogous to the political status quo. Another reason that weird music is so political is that it usually goes against capitalist values and capitalist logic. We’re putting so much labor into making something that probably has little “value” in a monetary, capitalist sense, and just doing that is a protest against those capitalist values. Also, all music can be read narratively or emotionally, but I think that’s super personal and subjective. To use some of my previous examples of pure music, but now to read them politically: According to musicologist Susan McClary, J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg 5 is a social commentary on class hierarchy. In the concerto form of the time, the well-ordered solo-tutti relationship represents the individual's "proper" relationship to larger society, but in Brandenburg 5, Bach and the "working class" harpsichord break free and completely overthrow the typical hierarchy with the long, dazzling solo.  Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet from 1931 (specifically talking about the 3rd movement here) can be read as a feminist rejection of hegemonic musical values. The movement shuns melody, motive, salient rhythmic patterns, and serial techniques (which she used in other pieces). It’s uniqueness can be read as a defiance of the musical influences of her paternalistic male colleagues.

Marc Sabat’s Jean-Philippe Rameau (2012) consists of successive unadorned intervals and sound objects. It’s trying to highlight the beauty of sonic phenomena without drama or drastic changes in materials or texture. Is that political? I think it is in our modern daily lives where we have the 24-hour news cycle, dozens of browser tabs open on our computers and our brains and hundreds of media outlets, products, and services constantly vying for our attentions…well, this music is a big “shut up” to all that.


In Alice Coltrane’s Universal Consciousness, the micro-polyphonic violins are all playing similar melodies but with a measure of individual freedom; the bombastic, noisy, free-jazz solos, are all within the carefully-orchestrated “band” environment; the twice-present homophonic chord progression that formally grounds an otherwise very free piece: all of these musical elements present a (black, female) utopian vision of individuality and freedom within an interdependent and supportive community. So no, there is no music that is free of any non-musical reading.


3. If music was split into two streams of thought, music as idea and music as a tool to represent a non-musical idea, how would you categorize the music you make and why?


I have individual pieces that belong squarely in each of those two categories. For example, in the “music as idea” side, the piece I am writing right now, a septet for Wet Ink Ensemble, is all about sonic textures and sonic parameters, how the textures change over the journey of the piece and the concept of granulation. It’s all very abstract and its grammar is only sonic. I feel similarly about my series of Doppelgänger pieces for two oboes and other instruments, though in the context of the oboe concerto tradition they are sort of an “emancipation of ugliness” which is political and provocative in the larger oboe world (haha!). My large ensemble piece White/Waves and my violin and piano piece FastLowHighSlow are also “music as idea” But all of these “music as idea” pieces are political in the “modernist-striving-for-newness-and-envisioning-different-possible-realities” sense that I discussed above.


On the other hand, I do write pieces that are very explicitly “about” specific extra-musical topics; in other words they are “music as a tool to represent a non-musical idea.” Though if I were making up my own category I think it would be more accurate to say the music communicates a non-musical idea along with other extramusical elements like words or theatre (rather than the music “representing” a non-musical idea), so these are really intermedia pieces, which may be a completely different category. Some other composers that I see doing amazing work in this category right now are Jennifer Walshe, Kate Soper, and Rick Burkhardt. An example of an intermedia piece I’ve recently written is Lessina, Levlin, Levlite, Levora for speaking male violinist and ring modulation. The text is a collage of names of contraceptive drugs and devices, advertisements for the contraceptives, and personal testimonies by internet reviewers about their experiences with particular contraceptives. With this piece, I create a framework for the male performer (and through him, male audience members) to more deeply empathize with women’s pregnancy-prevention struggles by verbalizing and therefore embodying the names, the side effects, the testimonies. Hearing both the burdens that inevitably fall on the shoulders of women and the disembodied voices of the pharmaceutical industry vocalized and musically heightened by a male voice and processed with ring modulation creates a surreal sonic simulacrum of the gauntlet women face when trying to prevent pregnancy. I’ve also written a Black Lives Matter-themed choral piece and I’ll soon embark upon an opera in which a woman’s uterus is both the setting and the main character.


Whatever the kind of music, the way that I come up with the initial ideas or concepts for my pieces is very intuitive. That first seed of an idea is often like a flash of inspiration and sometimes it is “purely” musical, sometimes it is “about” something beyond music. I do have one piece, my string quartet Many Many Cadences, that actually uses music as a tool to represent a very specific non-musical idea without relying on extramusical elements within the piece. I think it’s really hard to do this with any degree of “accuracy” and clarity of communication, but I think I’ve done it with this piece. The piece does, however, refer to the history of Western art music to get its point across. This piece uses lots and lots and lots of formulaic tonal cadences; so many that it’s ridiculous. It deconstructs them and transforms them into a mockery. In this piece the functional tonal cadence (and all its hierarchical nature and historical baggage) represents the colonialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and the point of the piece is to bring it down through the power of humor.

Jessica Pavone

1.     What does the term “pure” music mean to you?


Pure music, I believe that comes down to intention.


I've actually thought quite a bit about the fact that, sometimes regardless of genre or my own personal taste, I can appreciate and discern if there was a genuine intention behind the music I am listening to.  Although there is no concrete evidence or a hard fast analysis to prove this statement, it is true for many discerning listeners.


We could argue that if a song or piece is well crafted, therefore given ample time and attention, it was handled with care.  Care in craft is good intention.

But the concrete elements don't hold as much weight in this particular analysis as much as the subtle.


There is a whole other unexplainable translation that comes through music that isn't as simple as the nuts and bolts of how a piece was crafted.  There is a transcendental element to music that is only felt instinctually.  After all, music is a vibration that we can't touch or hold and that is one of its more fascinating aspects to me.  It happens in time and when the sound is over, it's gone.


In general, I tend to think about things that are overlooked simply because they are not concrete or even visible.  Music is one of the more tangible of these abstractions.


I really started thinking about this quite a bit at a time when I was transcribing some of my favorite songs only to find out that they were 3 chords or just two notes, or completely repetitive.  Technically, they were very simple, but these simplest elements were still translating something that so strongly reached my gut that the only logical answer that made sense to me, is that music has a soul.


Pure music can be categorized by music that speaks to us.

That is going to be different for everyone, so I suppose the answer is very individualized.


Could I argue that there is a connection between you and the person who made it even if you've never met?  Is that why it is speaking to you?


I can hear when an artist's intention personally resonates with me.

It's not about technique and it's difficult to define exactly what it is, but I have a strong feeling of commonality.




2.     Is there a music, existing presently, that is free of any alternate non-musical alternate reading (narrative, political, sexual, emotional, etc.)?


Diversity in music is extremely vast, but simply, music is vibration.  A sonic vibration is a frequency within the audible range of the human ear, however everything is in a constant state of motion whose vibrations are creating sound.

You can hear the hum of the lights because the voltage is causing the filament to vibrate. The average person wouldn't consider that music, but some would.

Could we say that these vibrations that simply exist are free of any alternate non-musical alternate reading?


Everything is in a constant state of vibration. Even the slowest rotations can be considered a vibration and as we defined earlier, vibration is music.


My friend, the astrologer Rick Levine, elaborates on this idea in a way that is very striking to me:


"The planets revolve around the Sun and the Moon revolves around the Earth in regular periodic motion. We can’t hear them because our ears are tuned in the range of cycles per second.


Not only can’t we perceive the music of the planetary frequencies, we can’t even calibrate them with scientific instruments because calibration requires regular periodic repeatability. It would take a thousand years to measure just 4 cycles of Pluto.


We cannot hear the Music of the Spheres, but it’s possible that we are biologically attuned to these ultra-very-low frequency vibrations and that we each dance to the music we cannot hear"


Music is created by all matter, not just by human beings, so I believe it does exist outside of human narrative/political/sexual/emotional readings.


3. If music was split into two streams of thought, music as idea and music as a tool to represent a non-musical idea, how would you categorize the music you make and why?

Music as tool, I'll take to mean functional music, defined as music that is used to serve a specific purpose; in a ceremony, to enhance a dramatic scene, or for entertainment purposes.


Music as idea, existing for its own sake or to convey an idea or principal, would fall more into a category of for its own creative purpose, art, or concept.


Being both a composer and instrumentalist, I definitely participate in both types of music.  As an instrumentalist who relies on my craft to earn a living, I am very much engaged in music as tool, however, the music that I personally create falls more into the music as idea category.


Some recent themes of musical compositions of mine include:


-An interest in repetition, song form, and sympathetic vibration


-Mirroring the concept of perpetual motion in nature by using a consistent ostinato over multiple time changes


-Song cycles that meditate on themes of destruction and rebuilding, migration, falsities, and undeniable truths


-A belief that the shifting balance between light and dark, as well as other environmental changes constantly affect us regardless of how conscious or aware we are of them. Our external environment has a direct effect on our moods and feelings and therefore, in a sense, has ultimate control overall living beings.


In addition to music as idea, my participation in music is also strongly based in the satisfaction I gain from a tactile need to create vibration and to connect with other people through the unspoken bond that occurs when people make sound together.

I've always been drawn to the tactile experience of playing an instrument as well as in ensemble.  I've been playing music since I was 5 years old, so to be fair, I don't really know different. However, as I gain more clarity in my life, I find this to be one of the most stabilizing components.


Overall, it may be said that my music stems from idea but also the physical need to remain in motion, feel vibration, and to connect with other people through the unspoken bond that occurs when people make sound together.

Lester St. Louis

1.     What does the term “pure” music mean to you?


 Pure music to me would be music that is about itself. Music as sound interacting with itself regardless of its mass; music that isn't thought about in a context other than experiencing vibrations.


2.     Is there a music, existing presently, that is free of any alternate non-musical alternate reading (narrative, political, sexual, emotional, etc.)?

 A large part of my mind views music as something that’s indicative of nothing other than itself. Music isn't about anything, but isn't it interesting that our minds can naturally associate music’s sounds, interactions and vibrations as something other than itself. I do not think historically or contemporaneously that there is music that removes the external readings from itself. Possibly the music of autechre as pieces that try to remove themselves from narrative contexts, or spectralism in idea. I think that its a great thing that it is difficult to remove these readings from music, because with enough impetus and curiosity the infinitum of these readings open the door for new explorations of similar actions.

3.     If music was split into two streams of thought, music as idea and music as a tool to represent a non-musical idea, how would you categorize the music you make and why?


I would choose music as a tool to represent a non-musical idea. The non musical idea would be infinite possibilities. I am genuinely interested in what potentialities exist, and can be created in the common experienceable world.

I write and create my music with the hope of a synthesis of these two points. I want the sonic environment to be a place where discovery of things unknown/known to the listener. I also use it as a tool to better illustrate the details of things not directly related to the music.

Weasel Walter

What does the term “pure” music mean to you?


Not much. Purity is a subjective construct, and when the term “pure music” is evoked, it smacks of pampered intellectuals in white robes congratulating each other for playing bells and sine waves. I am more interested in complication and tension than purity, per se. My personal idea of integrity, or “purity” in music probably has something to do with art which succeeds in execution far surpassing the original intent. Honestly, the most “pure” music I am currently dealing with at the moment is that of the obscure Fort Worth, Texas rock band Complete. A string of vintage cable-access videos of the group circulates on YouTube and functions as incredible, jaw-dropping documentation of unguarded artistic synchronicity in action. Essentially, Complete attempts to work in what they perceive as the conventional ‘70s/’80s “classic rock” format, however their technical naivety and lack of artistic sophistication accidentally reveals a complex new language. Their songs tend to be based on several long, unwieldy Major-chord organum guitar phrases, countered by stiffly executed polytonal bass lines and spasmodic, almost random sounding drumming which clearly acknowledges the native forms of the guitar lines at sporadic moments. On top of this gridlock, the singer improvises on a limited lyrical theme (i.e. “Beautiful Sunrises”), interjecting spontaneous variations in severely asymmetrical phrases which usually culminate in either a bombastic “falling off a mountain” bellow or strained Howlin’ Wolf style vocal fry. The performative aspect of the instrumentalists is non-existent - they mostly stand stock still, holding together the shifting mosaic of their individual parts with a sort of grim determination, while the vocalist represents a Dionysian visual aggression, as if prodded by a stun gun after each of his larynx-shredding outbursts.  In the accompanying interview, the singer, Curtis Brambalon, comes across clearly as the most extroverted member of the band, and his role as front person is fearless, unexpurgated, and heroic. The overall momentum of the unit has a leaden, dogged quality, their collective lurch issuing regular blunt force traumas at regular intervals before stopping unexpectedly. The automaton-like stamina of the performance is simultaneously monotonous and surprising, suggesting a catatonic, delirious dream state or fever dream. Their timbral lexicon is narrow but reflects a strong group aesthetic. It is clear that Complete has a unified vision based on tradition which incorporates an unpretentious sense of experimentalism. Now, the “purity” of Complete’s music has to do exactly with this nexus between what they intended and what they delivered. On so many levels, the individuals seem to be performing completely in the moment and realizing an end result possibly surpassing what they intended. Of course, this is wholly subjective in my interpretation. When I see art which builds on the past and moves forward across so many dimensions, I have to stop and look. The 1997 video documentation of Complete may have been their debut public performance, and possibly their peak, but everything about it, from the grainy quality of the video, to the rough camera switching, the chroma key titles (“Music Venue”), and the hilarious cut-away to a dancing cowgirl stripper marks this event as a powerful art work, worthy of multiple examinations. Extremely pure, if you ask me. Sometimes genius is an accident, or a single fleeting moment. When unplanned, this genius is the purest art of all, possibly never to be repeated.

Is there a music, existing presently, that is free of any alternate non-musical alternate reading (narrative, political, sexual, emotional, etc.)?


I probably don’t want to hear it. I am cynical enough that I could probably find some kind of political motivation in ANY music, no matter what. The whole point of my

personal music is to NOT BE FREE of alternate readings. Subtext is extremely important to everything I do, as are symbols, gestures, intent, politics, etcetera. I have generally sought to overload my work with as much metadata as I could possibly infuse it with. It is up to the audience to decide or interpret the meaning. I have no control over this. I am extremely interested in how my music is packaged and performed because it is yet another platform for the total expression.


If music was split into two streams of thought, music as idea and music as a tool to represent a non-musical idea, how would you categorize the music you make and why?


I probably tend more towards the former most of the time. My music IS about ideas, and the execution of sets of implied or understood signifiers. As abstract as any of my music might be sonically, there will always be some kind of underlying narrative, whether structural, political, or emotional. I am always trying to express music AS music, not as a metaphor for something else. Of course there are levels of representation in my work, but ultimately the actual output has tended to override whatever intellectual masturbation preceded it. Most of my work has come from the mindset of, “I want to accomplish this- or that- goal/sound/gesture, etcetera.”, i.e. the idea. I think once I tried to write a complex chamber piece expressing a maze, or something like that, but I lost it on a failed hard drive, so you cannot hold that against me. I have often been inspired by visions of a fiery apocalypse, but once I start working on the actual music, process (idea) always takes over and eclipses the initial non-musical impetus.

Many Thanks to all those that participated in Sound American 15's questionnaire. All answers were presented exactly as they were presented to us. Each artist was allowed to express themselves exactly as they desired, with no editorial guidance or copy editing. If you like their ideas, you will probably like their music even more, so we suggest you do a little sleuthing and track then down in digital form, physical content, or live flesh and blood performance. - Sound American