By Corey Dargel
The author, Dave Hickey, writes in response to the question of how to transplant his argument from visual art to music:
The argument I’m making is essentially formal and abstract. It does presuppose culturally acquired musical assumptions, of course. I am proposing that works of art that are sufficiently patterned and sufficiently surprising are receptive to radical interpretation regardless of their narrative content.
In culture, formal devices can take on ambient and often fleeting meanings that speak to extra-formal issues. Some pop examples: As Wilson Pickett said, “The back beat IS the midnight hour.” James Brown jumping the downbeat became an icon of black aspiration. Reggae dropping the downbeat creates what a friend of mine called the “mary jane swoon.” Octave jumps and octave drops in melodic structures are associated with attenuated and rising aspiration because melodies usually retreat after octave jumps and rise after an octave drops (“Over the Rainbow;” “Shining Hour”). Keith Richard’s I-V rock and roll chords and open fifth country harmonies both speak of cultural instability because [the major/minor third is missing]. The cultural aggression of the Rolling Stones derives absolutely from Keith playing on top of the beat with Jagger and Watts behind it. The first rule of disco–cover every note length with a pattern–actually teaches you how to dance.
These, I realize, are very tiny, simple devices but they have large consequences. They demonstrate the way formal manipulations acquire cultural meanings.
Contemporary composers of my acquaintance, of course, sneer at pattern and pulse. They should listen to “Heart of Glass.”
I am taken by the phrase “sufficiently patterned and sufficiently surprising” which is a variation on what Hickey writes on pages 9-10 of The Invisible Dragon:
Without the urgent intention of reconstructing the beholder’s view of things, the image has no reason to exist, much less to be beautiful. The comfort of the familiar always bears with it the frisson of the exotic, and the effect of this conflation, ideally, is persuasive excitement–visual pleasure. As Baudelaire says, “the beautiful is always strange,” by which he means, of course, that it is always strangely familiar and vaguely surprising.
It seems to me that the composers who sneer at pattern and pulse no longer have a monopoly on any but the most conservative musical institutions (and they certainly never had any clout in the marketplace). The most obvious examples–in contemporary classical music–of “sufficiently patterned and sufficiently surprising” can be found in late minimalism and post-minimalism. Not surprisingly, then, these genres of contemporary classical music have had the most appeal outside of academic and institutional circles.