Friday, May 13, 2016

Musical "Gray Goo"

Writing about music is always difficult, which is why, when words fail, I always put up a clip. Then you can hear what I am talking about. I just ran across a little metaphor that might help us understand something about aesthetics. It was in an article about the science fiction editor and publisher Jim Baen: "Jim Baen and SF." Here's the quote:
Rather than exploring new frontiers, SF these days has retreated to trying to be just like all the rest of publishing and producing the gray goo that permeates so much of society these days.
It was that phrase  "gray goo" that caught my attention. Let me aim at it from another direction. I was in my favourite coffee shop the other day and whispered to a friend who works there, "isn't this music just awful?" They use an Internet radio to provide background music for the business and it is usually "gray goo" meaning music that thrashes around in some sort of stew of styles, making no particular musical point, but just providing a kind of rhythmic wallpaper in the background. The only reason I notice it is because I have a long-cultivated sensitivity to music. And I hate gray goo. But a few minutes later on came Joe Cocker's cover of "With a Little Help From My Friends" followed by "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" the last song on side one of Sgt. Pepper's. What happened, I wondered, why are they all of a sudden playing something decent? She had no idea, of course and I'm sure that the usual gray goo returned later on. Maybe it was an anniversary or something.

The problem is basically that there are no aesthetic principles at work: all music is more or less suitable for use as rhythmic wallpaper because no-one listens very closely. At the end of the day the real insult is that the music doesn't matter. And if it doesn't matter, it may as well be gray goo. But this is exactly what I, and most musicians, fight against. In our solitary practice rooms we work to control the phrase, the rhythm, the tempo and the timbre so we can make the music matter, or, perhaps better, let the significance of the music shine through. As composers and arrangers we are always searching for the telling phrase, the striking harmony, the enlivening rhythm. If we fail, we end up with the gray goo.

I wish I could provide you with some good examples of the gray goo. I hear it everywhere, but it tends to be anonymous, undistinguished, utilitarian so it is hard to hunt down specific examples. I suppose this "Café Bar Restaurant Background Mix" will do, though a lot of what you hear is a lot uglier. This is just pointless:

And for an example of the non-gray goo? The good stuff? How about one of the funkiest, most committed performances of Baroque music ever? This is La Forqueray by François Couperin played by Vittorio Ghielmi (Viola da gamba) and Luca Pianca (Theorbo):

Those guys were really in the zone. [UPDATE: As one alert commentator pointed out this is not the piece for harpsichord by Couperin titled La Forqueray, but rather the piece for viola da gamba and continuo by Forqueray titled La Couperin.]

UPDATE: Wow, the Music Salon is having an influence already! When I dropped into my coffee shop this morning the background music was Erik Satie, Gnossienne #1:


Ken Fasano said...

But it was Erik Satie who invented the term "Furniture Music", which is the precursor of elevator or background music. And when I think of "gray goo" I think of serial music...

Bryan Townsend said...

Right, I had forgotten that! But a Gnossienne is far preferable to the usual gray goo!

It's the harmonies in serial music that have a gray gooey sound.

Jeph said...

All the clouds turn to words / All the words float in sequence / No one knows what they mean / Everyone just ignores them

Those are Mr.Eno's comments on the fact the most people do not listen closely to music: To the point where words are just experienced as a series of vowels. That's the opening track, the rest of the album is instrumental.

Most striking example of grey-goo I have come across is in Herbie Hancock's (!) discography. Sometime in the 80's, circa his big crossover hit Rockit, he came out with a series of albums of smooth grey-goo jazz, which were just god-awful, I mean offensively bad coming from such a towering talent. You can hear the cynicism oozing out the speakers. I can only surmise that his people told him he could make a quick buck churning out some crap background music, so he did. Nothing could be greyer.

Still I do not balk at the 'furniture music' concept. Satie is just understated enough to make it into the "new age-ish" shuffle playlist at your local Starbucks. But just because music is capable of receding into background does not make it necessarily sub-standard. I listen to a lot of choral music which seems to serve both functions, atmosphere or close-listening, at need.

Bryan Townsend said...

And I suspect the best argument against me would be something a commentator wrote quite a while ago. She said simply that a lot of people like to listen to music to relax, to be comfortable, to relieve stress and so on. But for me, listening to music is a much more active experience: I want to be diverted, challenged, stimulated, intrigued and so on.

But what I think should be offensive to all of us is music that is thrashing around, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". The gray goo that really sticks in the mind is not relaxing or comforting at all as it is simulating real music without the content. Was that what Herbie Hancock was doing?

Haven't gotten around to listening to those Brian Eno tracks you recommended, but I will!

Jeph said...

yes, HH was doing just that: simulated music with no content. Like customer service "hold" music. He went back to the good stuff after a few years.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to compare that exquisite Satie piece with this transcription for guitar.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to nitpick but the piece is not La Forqueray by Couperin but, rather, La Couperin by Forqueray. (Likewise, Couperin composed a piece called Forqueray.) I guess composers liked to name their pieces after the names of the composers they admired.

Bryan Townsend said...

Au contraire, mon ami! Vous avez raison. It is indeed La Couperin by M. Forqueray. Don't know how I got that mixed up. For one thing, La Forqueray by Couperin is for harpsichord, not viola da gamba and continuo. French Baroque composers made up a rather exclusive club who all knew one another and many of whom were related. When M. Blancrocher died four different composers wrote tombeaux for him.