Eyes That Can See in the Dark

a music journal

May 29, 2005 (link)

1:55 AM


1:47 AM

("...which I need not detail here" -- except to say, or perhaps to add to the implicit, and/or the chorus: the highs were once higher, weren't they? Is it foreordained that it all be a y = sin(x)/x sort of thing?)

1:11 AM

I've been borrowing a friend's DAT recorder for the past week, and have taken the opportunity to transfer a bunch of Low live tapes to CD. The last time I got to use a DAT for any extended period was back in 2001, when my friend H.V. lent me her deck for a few days; I only had a 6 GB hard drive at the time, so with all the CDROM backups I had to do between transfers, I was lucky to get the WMF shows and my old worktapes done before I had to give the deck back. This time around, I've got a much bigger HD to work with, so I've been transferring shows left and right -- some of which have been waiting for me to put them on CD for five or six years.

Consequently, 75% or more of the listening I've been doing since Monday has been old Low shows. I don't think I've listened to Low this heavily in years, and it's been (predictably enough) an experience of mixed emotions, the outlines of which I need not detail here.

One thing it's given me occasion to do, however, is look through my (very patchy) archives of the Low mailing list. In the process, I found an old post of mine from May 1999 that (however imperfectly) said some things of which I was "gladdened and saddened" to be reminded:

Back in high school, before I'd heard of Low, I began to realize that a part of my musical interests were centering, and had perhaps long centered, around music of a very quiet, ethereal bent. I slowly became aware that certain pieces of music could somehow change, or even stop, time. At first, I noticed a degree of it in fairly mainstream music -- things like Pink Floyd ("Grantchester Meadows", "Breathe", "Echoes") and the Doors ("End of the Night").

Then, as I began to take music more seriously, I found more and more pieces that explored these ideas to a far greater depth. I noticed it first in jazz -- Miles Davis' Kind of Blue struck me that way, as did a tape I had by the European bassist Eberhard Weber. Then classical music began to open up to me, and with it a lot of composers who were cognizant of the role of silence and understatement, like Stravinsky and Bartók -- though they never stayed there, somewhat to my disappointment; it always seemed like they backed away from it, with the equivalent of a cymbal crash or somesuch, whenever they got very close to something really sublime.

One of my biggest revelations was hearing the music of Claude Debussy -- in particular, a CD of his piano music played by Pascal Rogé, and [a disc] of three of his orchestral works, conducted by Max Pommer. I had never heard music like this...describing it is very difficult for me -- I'm not prone to synesthesia, but perhaps likening it to sunlight through morning fog wouldn't be amiss, although that barely scratches the surface. It had the elusiveness, the understatement, the qualities I had been looking for, and unlike the other composers I'd encountered it didn't really shy away from that precipice.

Once I knew about Debussy I began to find other composers...in Ravel, Satie, Ives, Webern, Monteverdi, and even Schoenberg I found moments or pieces where they examined the kinds of questions I've described above. I became more and more interested in music that explores those realms, and eventually (particularly when I came to college) my own work began to focus on these ideas. I began to be somewhat disenchanted with music other than classical music and jazz, feeling that rock music, while I still couldn't help but love it, wasn't really doing what I was most interested in.

Then, I was introduced to I Could Live in Hope by my friend John, and suffice it to say that my world changed. Like Debussy, Low was the first band I'd heard that had the courage to stay in that marvelous place. I remember when I heard "Slide", it seemed as if it were the answer to a question I'd been carrying around in my head, or the realization of an idea I'd believed only I had considered...anyway, nothing was the same after that, nor has it been since.

Throughout all this, I began to find there was a troubling aspect to the things I was exploring. I knew about it from the beginning, in a way, but perhaps as the law of diminishing returns began to hit me, I became more and more aware of it...anyhow, it's simply this:

Music that preoccupies itself with the kinds of issues I've described above is incredibly fragile. In particular, when a piece of music concerns itself with exploring things like understatement and "slow time", and especially if it explores the borders of silence...then when that silence is substantially disrupted, the music is often at best damaged, and at worst utterly destroyed. They just don't sound if something is keeping the silence from being silence, be it anything from a sputtering radiator to a drunken slob.

As a composer, I've written a few pieces that, if they're played in an essentially silent environment, I find can be genuinely beautiful, at least to me...but if they're played in a noisy room, or for a noisy audience, suddenly that elusive element is lost, and they sound monotonous, irrelevant, or ridiculous. I can't tell you how many times I've casually listened to something and found it vaguely interesting, and then gone back to it in an ideal listening environment and suddenly realized it was wonderful, or at least had something of the beautiful about it. (This happened to me with Labradford and Amanset, among others.)

I find the same thing happens to Low. When they're at their very best, and they have a genuinely quiet audience, you will probably never see a more beautiful live performance. I have never, ever been touched by live music as I was the first time I saw Low...I ran in very late to the show, a few seconds before they went into "Coattails"; within a few minutes I was crying. The crowd was silent, the sound system was crystal clear, and my heart was rent in twain. I hope everyone here gets to feel that at some point, even though it really can be surprisingly painful (rather like true love).

But if you see them with a noisy crowd, I really doubt you'll get anything like that. Oh, "Immune" will still work, and "Cut", and songs like that...and maybe, if you're very good at tuning people out, more directly emotive songs like "Over the Ocean" or "The Plan" will sound to some extent. But songs that really dwell in the regions I've described -- like "Coattails", or the original (and beautiful) version of "Be There", or "Stay", or even "Boyfriends & Girlfriends" -- just won't happen, in part because those songs demand such an intense degree of listening that you can't do with glasses clinking in your ears. You'll be left wondering what the point was, or what was missing, or something like that...and to me, that's terrible, because so much of Low's beauty is invested in those songs. It's not just an annoyance, to me, when people talk -- it can honestly keep the music from succeeding.

Anyway, that's my $0.02...sorry to go on at such length, but this is something I feel strongly about. I suspect that a lot of people aren't as aware as they might be of the beauty that lurks just on the edge of silence...and anyone who listens to Low, and has yet to become acquainted with that beauty, has missed out on one of the more wonderful things music has to offer. I'm honestly not the same person since I started really looking into these things...I equated it above to true love, and like that as well, it really changes you once you experience it. Perhaps some of the people who truly believe in God (or any benevolent, omnipotent deity) feel this way all the time...for those of us whose solace must be more secular, though, this is as close as I've come.

Current music: Low - Live at the Crocodile Café, Seattle, WA, March 2, 1995

(Comments for May 29, 2005) (2 comments so far)


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