This is a blog devoted to music on the edge - experimental, underground, alternative, subversive, or just plain weird - new music that tries new things, or old music that broke old rules. It's a place to discuss ideas, share discoveries, to think about what makes music interesting and challenging but still good to listen to. Join in and have your say!!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Does music have a shape?

I hadn't thought much about the shape of music until quite recently when I happened to stumble across an octagonally-shaped CD, with the rather puzzling name of xAj3z by a relatively obscure duo called Soisong. And then, when I played it, it did strike me that there was something oddly octagonal about the music, as much as the CD itself.

Of course, suggestion can be a pretty powerful thing, and maybe if the CD was triangular, or nonagonal, or in 3D, or shaped like a clothesline, that's how the music would have sounded to me too (presuming I could get my CD player to play it, which was challenging enough even with an octagonal CD). But, still, it raises the question about the shape of music - whether there is any and, if there is, how we recognise it.

xAj3z, even without the power of suggestion, seems to abound with straight lines and obtuse angles. Soisong is the collaborative work of Throbbing Gristle's Peter Christopherson and Coil's Ivan Pavlov - two artists who are well used to doing interesting things with music. Which is what they do here, but in a simple, rather beautiful, sort of way. More interesting, say, than a square; more jagged, say, than a circle; but somehow still geometric, balanced, formed. The music is the product a mix of electronic and acoustic sounds, strings and keyboards and percussion, with the occasional slightly alien sounding vocal; angular melodies, squeezed harmonies; all of it soft, pleasant even, and yet more than just a little bit creepy too, like a union between children and devils. Bach on LSD, perhaps.

It's a unique, irresistable sound and, even without seeing the shape of the CD, it's hard not to notice the bare, simple, startling lines that this music draws in the air.

The geometry of music is just one of the million and one things that make it so interesting - the angular music, the rounded music, square music, cubed music, music in symmetry, music that gets its shape and form from its chaos.

The seemingly endless shapes and sizes of music are created by the permutations and combinations of what is actually a relatively small stock-pile of elements: rhythm, melody, harmony, tone. There's only so many notes you can play to make a melody, only so many different ways of dividing and ordering their durations to make a rhythm. But, like the lines and angles and empty spaces that coalesce into shapes, there are so many more sums to music than there are parts. Music seems to be able to take on so many more forms than its rather lean skeleton would ever suggest could be possible.

But does any of this mean that music really does have a shape? Or is the geometry of music just another way that our minds, which always need to put everything in its place and space so as to make sense of it, play tricks on us - tricks that only serve to make people like me feel better about spending that few extra dollars on buying an octagonally shaped CD, because we think it's something profound, rather than just another marketing gimmick?

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