On A Certain Band

Neeraj (in response to this),

I was thinking about how you rank art (music and movies) via categories and rankings. Almost as if you are attempting to classify, ala Lineaus, the unquantifiable and nebulous realm of creative interaction. When I tend to think of art that I enjoy, I don’t break it down into quantifiable bits. It’s not about meeting certain qualifications that makes a piece of music or a book or movie “good” in my mind. It’s a much more holistic and intuitive interpretation.

You mention learning how to judge classical concerts as being good or bad. Classical music is somewhat different. Much like literary criticism – good classical music becomes an academic pursuit – not an emotional one. You must realize the difference between the two. And while a critic of classical music might pick out a particularly moving piece – Scheherazade or Appalachian Spring or Ode to Joy – their quantifiable criteria isn’t what makes the music flow within me.

Lets use Interpol for our example – since its a band we’re all familiar with. Though numerous snooty critics have compared their sound to 80s band Joy Division, labeling them derivative and done – I’ve not heard anything like them before.

Aside from the using a minor key (for both chords and vocals), plodding melodies, and gritty, urban lyrics, Interpol utilizes repetition to create “visual” soundscapes. It might be difficult to describe, and perhaps its a minor form of synthesezia – but when I listen to a number of Interpol songs – it is almost as if they are creating geometric shapes with their music.

Interpol uses the repetition in a way I’ll call “recursive” It’s a common technique in music to find a small melody or theme and repeat it throughout the piece, adding variations and harmonies. However, Interpol executes their recursion with almost mathematical precision. Take NYC. There’s the percussion, the ambient tone in the back, then two or three layered, pounding bass and guitar parts (all unique and complementary). Then the vocals. The song almost takes the form of a stack, maintaining the lower elements (the ambient tone, the driving, simplistic melody), but popping on increasingly complex “recursions” of the sound. The vocals build in the middle, at the height of the stack. Then the elements pop off the same way they came, even the ambient tone steps down in the way it was built.

In the instrumental part of PDA, the two guitar parts are laced together – alternating back and forth, up and down. If you were to draw blocks to represent each octave of pounding chord, you’d get a staircase. This motif shows up all over the song. Often the bass part will be a mirror or inverse staircase, moving up as the guitar moves down. Each staircase also goes through its own recursion – some of the complex songs remind me of musical fractals. =D

Fact is, these are just metaphors to try to explain how the music affects me. It’s a very holistic, intuitive thing. For how many times I’ve listened to Interpol, I still have trouble remembering the lyrics or the names of songs after hearing the first couple chords. That’s because the music hits me at a lower, more baser level. For me the actual tones and sounds are not intellectual, they’re visceral. In a way it shares similarities with electronica and instrumental music.

Recursive music and “drawing” visual geometric shapes with sound is not a new thing. But I think Interpol reinterprets it in an important way, with enough strength, talent and originality to make us see something new.

Note: Antics does the same thing, but differently. It might be difficult to see at first, but its definitely there.

Recursive, binary elements can be heard pretty well in: (Leif Erikson, Time to be Small, The New, Untitled)

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