Music & Literature Part I: Experimentation

a guest blog by Ryan Werner

A while back, I wrote a post about how music influences my writing, which led to not one but two Writer’s Notebook exercises about writing from music. But I said in that initial post that my relationship with music is purely as a listener–I don’t have any experience with playing or composing music. And then I referenced Ryan Werner, who has plenty of experience with both and is also a heck of a talented writer.

So I contacted Ryan and asked for his thoughts, and they were so extensive and so interesting that I decided to just turn over my blog to him and let him write a series of guest posts on music and literature, from the perspective of a musician and a writer.

This is the first of those posts.

Zero Tolerance for Silence, by Pat Metheny

Perhaps it’s partially because I’m still relatively new to the local music scene—a pithy twenty-five years old and not officially a local, meaning I not only missed out on the all-ages shows that dominated the youth of a lot of my contemporary’s early teens but also that I didn’t have a chance to start going to shows until I was twenty—but I’ve only recently noticed, in the past few years, a surge in the number of noise bands being formed.

Actually, noise bands usually aren’t bands at all, but, rather, some dude (I’m yet to see a female noise musician) with a keyboard or guitar altering a continuous loop of tones or (even worse) feedback for a half hour to 45 minutes. I’m not sure whether performing this kind of music is for catharsis or experimentation or both. I’m still trying to understand it. As far as I can tell, it’s like performance art without the performance—or the art.

I went to a few noise shows (the first one purposely, the rest by accident) and noticed that I could stay home and make heavy breathing noises into a deskfan and produce the same result. This struck me as neither catharsis nor experimentation, neither an emotional release nor a deviation from the norm.

If there is supposed to be catharsis, there must be tension. I understand the release: the aural pillaging. The tension is mostly internal, though, and it often seems to go undefined for the audience, upon who there is an opposite effect. In theory, a noise performance works in a beautiful way: the internal tension of the artist is released as a punishing swirl of noise, the noise becomes a form of tension for the audience, and the silence following the noise because the audience’s release and the noise artist’s return to building internal tension.

In actuality, what happens is that some angry kid gets up there and tries to experiment with sound as a way to feel all right. Again, that’s fine in theory. The youth and fervor with which these noise musicians (usually guys my age or younger) attack with the music is interesting, but those same two things that propel them are the same things that end up making me challenge the purity, depth, and development of what they’re doing. How can someone deviate from norms that he knows nothing about? To be an alternative to something that you don’t know you’re being an alternative to makes your experimentation hollow.

I’m not saying experimentation can’t work. To use experimentation correctly, I believe that it should be done both with the goal of using it to form context and with the door closed, as an exercise. Exercises themselves are experiments, and can be endlessly helpful in progressing a work along. But if you can tell that something came from an exercise when it’s done, you there’s a problem: too much exercise, not enough performance.

Every once in awhile, I see someone using noise in the perfect way: as an effect, a part of the overall idea instead of the entire idea. There’s a difference between an album like Medulla by Bjork and an album like Zero Tolerance for Silence by Pat Metheny. Every sound on Medulla is made by the human voice. Bjork walked into the studio to prove a point: that the human voice is beautiful enough to carry an entire album all by itself. While atypical and certainly kitsch, the album wouldn’t have worked with any other instrumentation or tweak in style. If it wasn’t experimental, it wouldn’t have succeeded.

Zero Tolerance for Silence, on the other hand, is a bunch of noise (literally: guitar feedback and blues-wank solos, no other instruments than guitar on the record). It’s still talked about 15 years later as a milestone in experimentation. Pat Metheny himself says, “That record speaks for itself in its own musical terms. To me, it is a 2-D view of a world in which I am usually functioning in a more 3-D way. It is entirely flat music, and that was exactly what it was intended to be.” To me, that’s an exercise. That’s also walking into a recording studio to prove a point, but it gets caught up in the experiment instead of the end result. If it wasn’t experimental, it wouldn’t have existed.

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

When the experimentation is scraped away, there should be a failing work underneath it instead of nothing at all.

Maybe it’s just an issue of semantics. People have projects these days. Where did all the bands go? Don’t people have bands anymore, or just projects? Similarly, in the literary world, people have pieces, not stories. I know I use them interchangeably, but the emergence of “the piece” scares me (I know I sound like an old curmudgeon. Really, I’m twenty-five, I swear). House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski seems to only function as a piece. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying does, too. The experimentation of those two books is what gives them their appeal (the layers of how to read the book, the multiple voices, the daunting concept in and of itself), and the depth is what gives them longevity. With “unsuccessful” pieces, the experimentation is both the appeal and the longevity, which equates to something that isn’t necessarily non-literature, but just cheap.

So, don’t expect me to buy your six-album box-set of you running a belt-sander against a fifty-five gallon drum of nails. Also, don’t expect me to buy your book of fiction based on evil recipes, anything that reads like a choose your own adventure for the MFA crowd, your 1,000 page novel of stream of conscious rambling, or anything else that is experimentation without a grasp of why it’s experimentation, internal tension and external release, and/or something I can do at home in my spare time.

You can check out some of Ryan Werner’s literary experiments at his blog, Our Band Could Be Your Lit; to find out more about one of his several bands, look for Bull Dyke Rodeo on MySpace and Facebook.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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