Aesthetics & Metaphysics: Framing The Abstract

I once heard an artist describe "impressionism" as a technique where the artists paints everything but
the subject, allowing the subject to unfold in the process. I remember sitting at a drum with some tribal members and a couple of kids joined us who were new to it, but had studied music. I explained to them that it's in 6/8 and they were able to follow the pattern. One of the drummers erupted telling me that "music theory doesn't apply to our music," totally missing the fact that this little bit of information allowed the two youngster to find the pattern and lock in with the rest of us. The fact of the matter is that all music with a melodic structure and tempo can be analyzed and interpreted with music theory.

A standard mantra of people who play music or instruments and never learned to read music is that they have more freedom than folks who know theory because they're not boxed in. By this same logic, illiterate people make better writers because they're not bound by an alphabet. While it all began as oral tradition, it was the introduction of the scribe that preserved the word. The sad reality is that the music that they "create" generally is either incredibly simple or so scattered and disconnected that it doesn't even work as free-form. I'll never forget the time I received one of these lectures from a cat who proceeded to show me his "free" composition and it turned out to be a very common three chord funk pattern. I had the advantage of teachers and elders who would tell me, "If you know the rules, you have a better understanding of how to break them."

The fine line between music and noise is structure. Even the most avant garde and free forms of music a structure, even if what you're hearing is working against the structure, like some of the more experimental tunes by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, John Cage, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane were reactions to structure as opposed to formless. I often think of Miles Davis' idea to take the compositions for "Bitches Brew" and remove the chord progressions -which is what musicians use to build their improvised solos- and build their solos from the melody and key.

In Hip-Hop, particularly of the late 1980's and 90's, there were producers who turned sampling into an artform in the same manner that collage is a visual artform. Pouring through thousands of records to find that one, obscure 2-4 bar section or "break" to paste over a drum machine groove, and sometimes layering several different samples over each other, or chopping and re-arranging sections of the beat to create their compositions can be seen as another way of framing the abstract.