Last week, Joe Cadagin, The Michigan Daily’s Fine Arts editor, wrote about 1965’s Getz/Gilberto, and as I read his piece, all I could think of was Merzbow. In referencing shibumi, the beauty and complexity to be found in simple things, Cadagin effectively touched on the aesthetic pleasure of the album — how pleasant it is, how loud it is in its quietness, etc. But there in my head as I finish Cadagin’s last paragraph is Merzbow, the veritable Japanese God of Noise. It seemed to me at the time, that he’s just as shibumi as Stan Getz and Gilberto/Jobim. There’s a body-high, sensory hypnotism to his creations that’s so anti-aesthetic, anti-melody and anti-music it practically redefines shibumi. Less is more versus more is less … what, between silence and noise, is left?
So much of the music I seek out is music that achieves my own set of personal aesthetic criteria, my own personal shibumi. This is the social theory of uses and gratifications at its basest level — we listen to music that pleases, comforts or moves us. We listen to a song for a few seconds and if it hits that high and personal watermark, we grant it 2011’s most valuable commodity: our personal time.
A lot of the popular independent music being traded on the Internet now is almost radically innocuous. Coming out of dorm rooms and laptops, so much of it sounds adamantly intimate and aesthetically pleasant. It sounds nice. And the backlash cycle (now faster than ever — instantaneous, even) has been quick to accuse this music (chillwave, coldwave, lo-fi, what have you) not of badness, but of something even worse: boredom. Some of it is rightfully condemned, while much of it is casually and unfairly dismissed.
In this golden age of availability (how long can it last?), we have the opportunity to hear just about anything we want. The ultimate insult to any new artist or music would be that it is “boring” — it isn’t worth our precious, dollar-on-the-minute time.
But assessing boredom is tough to do. It’s the challenge I go through in evaluating plenty of films. Take Terrence Malick’s movies, for instance. On one hand, they’re monumentally empty, dull and histrionic. On the other, they’re hugely personal and possibly medium-defying — we’re uncomfortable with how slowly they move and how little they regard our personal sense of aesthetics. We are forced to accept them on our own terms — and maybe we are rewarded for letting them stretch our aesthetic limits. I personally think there are plenty of better directors we can pick for this value, but my question is this: Are we afraid of boredom?
There is the need, I think, for any artistic medium to be subversive and foster subversive content, to redefine priorities and conceptions, to color them in a new way. But there is just as much a need for music that is radically quiet — that pushes the boundary of what popular form is, while meeting it in the void between what appeals to us and what scares us.
Somewhere in us, there’s a borderline or a gap between which our taste weighs music on a Libra scale. Unfortunately, that gap seems, for so many people, to be thoroughly stuck in that traditional Western scale. If we are pushed to exist outside of what comforts us, we may reject it. This brings free jazz to mind, with wholesale rejections of musicians like Ornette Coleman (whose Dancing in Your Head proceeds to do exactly that) or John Coltrane (whose music has its own damn religion) as they branched out of the established tenets of jazz into something wholly new, wholly undefined and aesthetics-free.
Some called it crap, some a revelation. Others called it dull.
But maybe it’s time for us to reassess boredom. There is too much music now for us to consume it all. We owe it to ourselves to consider the limits of our personal aesthetics and abolish them with equal speed. Crying “boredom” is an easy out. Not of all of the world’s music is going to meet our prim and trim standards, and plenty of it doesn’t merit our time. But rejecting music without giving it the time of day does our taste no favors. It’s only us, standing in the face of all this noise and refusing to listen.
Cadagin touched on Mark Rothko’s paintings as well, which, to me, are emblematic of this divide. Upon viewing them, audiences surely declared them tepid — their artistic standards collided with something radically free and uncomfortably shibumi. Within those chromatic masses are borders, spaces and shades of a spiritual depth the casual eye could glance and dismiss with a shrug. The first time I listened to Merzbow, I shrugged it off as noise. I listened closer. And after nine minutes of teeth grinding, I began to hear contours where boredom called it quits. And I actually found myself laughing, hypnotized … as my stubborn old defenses slowly and surely eroded.