November 25

Transfiguration in Music

At first glance, this post might look like a gripe about a single critical comment in an otherwise exuberant review from the Harvard Crimson – an obsession with a minor blemish from a perfectionist.  I assure you that it is not, I swear it’s really not.  I wanted to make an observation about music as an occasion for transfiguration, or how music can have the purpose to transfigure, and how that changes the approach that a listener should have (from a normative perspective) when listening to certain types of music.

One reason to listen to music is because music is enjoyable, in the sense that one enjoys it when music has certain audible properties (varying by the individual of course).  Music as enjoyment is probably the dominant form of listening – and one that is encouraged by certain advances in modern technology.

The Pandora algorithm, for example, is a way of identifying those properties that one enjoys when listening to music.  (Go look it up! It’s pretty cool.)  The goal of the Pandora algorithm is two-fold.  (1) It’s meant to help identify those basic properties of music that one tends to enjoy.  (2) It’s meant to filter music to the listener based on those properties that one tends to enjoy, in order to help maximize the enjoyment to the listener.  Of course, Pandora isn’t the only company to try and take advantage of this concept.  It’s the reason why people say things like “Wow, this Spotify Playlist plays all this new music that I love!” and so on and so forth.  It’s not an accident – it just turns out that your music listening tastes can be reduced to a compact algorithm.

The Pandora algorithm in some sense isn’t altogether that different from the Facebook algorithm.  Facebook has an algorithm designed to maximize enjoyment by filtering in things one likes and filtering out things one doesn’t like, by way of the moniker “Top Stories”.  So Pandora is a sort of echo chamber for listening to music.  And Facebook is a playlist for reading things that you would like to read.

Writing music for enjoyment can be a lot of fun.  If you understand the trends, you can develop your own makeshift Pandora algorithm, and write music that has those qualities that people tend to enjoy.  This project is slightly different from the algorithm, as just discussed – it adds on statistical and demographic information to help determine who it is that you are writing for.  So, if it turns out that you want to target young adults with disposable cash, you cover themes like, say, young ambition and passionate love.  Throw in some auto-tune and a top-40 four-chord pop progression, and you are half way there.

That said, music can have a goal to transfigure as well.  Generally, this is how new music gets created.  Maybe a writer adds in some new musical element that hadn’t been substantively used before.  Or, maybe a writer decides to write political music for an audience that doesn’t necessarily appreciate a particular political message.  Of course, music can be transfiguring in some ways but not others.  In fact, as a general rule, it’s probably best for it to not be transfiguring in too many different ways, for a variety of reasons

In the Ten Hymns record, I use a fair bit of modern pop memes.  However, the record also co-opts a variety of more historical elements and melody lines.  Lyrically, it also employs a form of descriptive realism as a way to give light to alternative political narratives that otherwise might not see the light of day.

Which brings me to “The Public School System”.  Why might public schools be important to the first and second generation narrative?  Because public school is supposed to be the great equalizer that provides oppressed communities with the tools to overcome adversity.  Societal, economic and institutional structures may exist to try and separate certain kids out into a separate, more privileged, educational track.  But if the public school remains a strong institution, then immigrants and children of immigrants – who oftentimes don’t have access to these more privileged tracks – still can compete and perhaps achieve great things in life.

For people unfamiliar with the public school system, the song is designed to be a transfiguring piece of music.  (For people who went to public school, it is a moment for reminiscing).  And transfiguring purpose requires a different approach to listening as well.  Especially these days with people going on about the echo chamber and the Facebook filter, it’s become harder and harder to hear things from the outside.  There is a feedback loop for listeners but also for writers as well.  When writers come to understand that their audience is filtered, it changes the way they write.  They start writing for pleasure and stop writing for transfiguration.  “The Public School System” (as well as the entire Ten Hymns) is not music written for enjoyment  It is meant to be unfamiliar.  As a listener, if it sounds unfamiliar, the goal is to sit and become transfigured until it becomes real.