Sense and Sensuality

I received a CFP in my inbox today that served to rekindle several thoughts simmering in my head since Shadetek went babelfishing

Analysing the Musically Sensuous
Society for Music Analysis Autumn Study Day

University of Liverpool, School of Music

22 November 2008

For most listeners to music, sensuous affect is of primary, perhaps even singular, importance. Our responses to music in everyday situations, ranging from background ambience to pounding film scores to sources of studious contemplation, are mediated through music’s sculpting of sensual, physical, emotional and affective experiences.

Yet when it comes to analyzing the musically sensuous, music theory and analysis have proved stubbornly resistant to (and perhaps even fearful of) engaging with the musically sensuous, often retreating instead into ostensibly more cerebral studies of the musically syntactical. This one-day conference seeks to contribute to the process of redressing that imbalance, not least by acknowledging that separations of the sensuous and syntactical in music are, at best, artificial necessities for study and, at worst, utterly misleading. …

The focus of this conference relates closely to a point Ripley brought up in a comment as well as to my own initial trackback linkthink. And the question of music’s sensuous qualities — esp independent of textual/lexical/syntactic primacy — is one thread in the wide-ranging discussion @ DuttyArtz that has been rather underexplored, in my opinion.

I’ll grant the post-struct folk that we’re always already contained by language/discourse/ideology, but even so a phenomenological account of musical experience should not elide the bodily dimensions of listening/dancing — never mind the pleasures we take in vocal timbres (that Barthesian grain) and rhythms and melodies irrespective (certainly sometimes) of their being saddled to or propelled by words, those ideological phenomena par excellence.

I think we do music a disservice when we impose such narrow confines on the various interpretive frames that musical experience opens into. One of the most convincing exegeses of the listening process in all its complex glory can be found in Steven Feld’s, “Communication, Music, and Speech about Music” (pdf), which happens to be one of my favorite ethnomusicological essays of all time.

From a more personal standpoint, I can attest that I don’t always listen to lyrics. In fact, I often ignore them — sometimes so habitually that I’ll have heard a song dozens of times, and attended to and noticed all sorts of details in it, but will have no idea what it’s about. I may have developed this listening mode when waist deep in hip-hop tapes, especially in cases when “lyrical skill” — as we sometimes called it back-in-the-day — was sorely lacking, while “flow” — referring more to the voice’s non-lexical performance — was not. Sheeeeet, in some cases, the beat was actually good enough to sustain one’s attn against some truly awful rapping. (A few Gang Starr album cuts come to mind.)

Whether a matter of habit or an active aesthetic choice (or, more likely, something flittering back and forth between the two), I apply this mode of listening across language and genre. It doesn’t matter if it’s Engllish (my first language) or Jamaican English / “patois” (which, mostly, sounds as comprehensible as any English dialect to me at this point) or Spanish (which I kinda understand) or German (which I understand far less) or Portuguese or French or Italian (some cognates here and there) or the hundreds of other languages I might come across in my musical wanderings. I tend to listen to human voices as simply other voices in the musical texture; I pay no mind to phonemes, just phones. Or at least I try.

Indeed, I say tend because I’m not always able to ignore the powerful work that words can do.

If we’re gonna attend to lyrics, as we sometimes do — for better and for worse — then we still have to ask, what good is an injunction to respect, as Shadetek puts it, “artistic intentions”?

Let’s take what seems to be a common limit case in discussions of which songs DJs will play (or not) due to their lyrical content: Buju Banton’s “Boom Bye Bye.” Indeed, it’s the track that Matt himself offers as an example — and calls “a good song” “nastiness aside” (nastiness aside? but i thought that “we really need to make sure that if we’re gonna engage in a style that we’re doing it on all levels, not just formal”).

I disagree that it’s a good song. Catchy as Buju’s melody is, pleasurable as his gruff tones may be, and enjoyable as I find that chintzy, R&B-flavored riddim (which first endeared itself to me via Mad Cobra’s “Flex,” especially given that track’s ability to incite lascivious dancing at high school jams), I find my experience of that song to be constantly, consistently tripped up by Banton’s intolerant vitriol.

If someone’s artistic intent is to urge violence against gays as a way of puffing up his manhood, I’m just not down wit waving the wannabe flag for that one, you feel me? My own urge is the opposite: to disrespect artistic intent, to distort and subvert, to do something like this —

Buju Banton, “Walk Like a Battyboy” (w&w splice)

Now that’s a Buju track I might actually play in the club.

The playful but critical gesture embodied in that mp3 is not gonna make me any friends in Buju’s camp. And, no doubt, it’s gonna ensure that I’ll never set foot in Buju’s camp again. But you know what, I could never be Buju’s friend. Beca’, to be frank, Buju’s an asshole. Simple and plain. (Motherf*ck him and John Wayne.) Even so, I can’t help it — I love ‘Til Shiloh. You done know.