En Garde

My CD collection continues to grow by leaps and bounds.  My spinning CD rack that holds 800 CDs is just about full.  I’m planning for the purchase of the bigger model that holds 1600 CDs.  Yeah, it’s a problem.

Anyway, while on one of my shopping runs, I came across a CD from a band I don’t see very often at all – The Residents.  I have a couple of their albums and I don’t really get them.  Regardless, I had to buy this CD anyway, just because their catalog is so infrequently seen.  I popped it in the stereo on the drive home.

I don’t think a lot of people have even heard of The Residents.  More people have probably heard of Frank Zappa.  And of those people, fewer still have actually listened to Zappa.  And of those people, fewer can even “get” Zappa’s music.  Now, I listen to Zappa and can get along with even some of the weirder stuff, but The Residents are on a whole level beyond that.  I can’t even really handle it.

So as I’m listening to this album of terribly performed songs, I’m trying to think of what I’m supposed to be experiencing, other than, “This is ridiculous.  I did stuff like this when I was 15.”  Although, I really didn’t.  I didn’t have a full studio and multitrack recorders and other period technology to make sounds like that.  That’s kind of the idea to keep in mind.  A lot of The Residents stuff might be described as “creation of sound”, rather than “making music”.

And the fact that I was exploring how the music made me feel, rather than enjoying the music, made me characterize the album listening as more of an artistic endeavor.  And The Residents would be clearly classified as “avant garde”.  Coming to this realization was almost like taking a burden off my back.

When I’m faced with “music” that is just so difficult to understand, that seems to make no sense, that is completely unstructured, I try to figure it out anyway.  In the end, I’m just frustrated and come to the conclusion that “this music sucks.”  But I’m unsatisfied with that conclusion because obviously the artist spent time on this “music” and it makes sense to them, somehow.  But, approaching the album in the same way as visiting an art museum, it becomes palatable.  Similar to visual arts, you just absorb it and consider how it makes you feel.  Are the sounds menacing?  Humorous?  Does it stop and start unpredictably?  Are there multiple “subjects” conflicting or cooperating?

With that new perspective, I could classify some other CDs in my collection as “avant garde”, too.   Buckethead’s Cuckoo Clocks of Hell makes absolutely no sense to me.  The best I could come up with when I listened to it was that it was primarily rhythm-based.  There wasn’t really a traditional song structure with a melody line and a defined chorus.

And my final takeaway from my epiphany is that I granted myself license to only listen to an album once.  Like visiting an art gallery or a performance, you take in the whole experience in the same way you take in a speech.  You leave with a singular overall impression – motivation, happiness, uneasiness, or whatever.  And that experience is done.

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