What kind of music do you do?

‘What kind of music do you do?’

This is the question I get asked the most when I say I’m a musician, and one that I’m asked primarily, but not exclusively, by non-musicians. It’s not an easy question to answer, partly because I’m not interested in only one type of music, and partly because the types of music that I’m interested in obstinately demand not to be hedged in by definitions, categories, types or genres. And it’s not because they don’t fall into any category or because they necessarily try to cross different genres, but rather because the very way in which they wish to exist is anti-generic and anti-schematic.

But this is exactly the kind of abstract generalisation I don’t want to waste any time on. Let me get straight to the point.

I’ll try to answer this all-important question once and for all, at the same time being true to my ideas and without turning away from the challenge of giving an accessible answer for people who aren’t so conversant with music.

Music research is at the heart of my music.

As an expression, ‘music research’ is both broad and ambiguous, and I mean it in the most radical way there is: a music which is an inquiry into the very secrets of music itself.

There have been countless, profound discoveries concerning music in past centuries. Each period and each culture has formulated its own technical rules around the various secrets in its keeping.

Western culture, for example, created an extremely complex and refined system of rules that determines the use of musical notes: this note may be used together with that note, while another note is impermissible unless signalled by an intermediary note, and so on. All combined, these rules form what‘s known as ‘harmony’ and ‘counterpoint’, with the dichotomy of consonance-dissonance as their main principle.

Not all cultures have this opposition between consonance and dissonance, or if one exists, has a complete other significance or operates in other ways. This doesn’t mean that these cultures don’t have, in terms of sound and music, a ‘harmonic’ sensibility (a feeling for the harmonious combination of different sounds), or a ‘contrapuntal’ sensibility (an awareness of the simultaneous and non-chaotic interweaving of different melodies). What it means is that the musical sensibilities of other cultures are different, and even more, that these sensibilities have dictated technical rules and generated structures of sound that are radically different with respect to ours.

Some cultures have developed a highly acute and refined rhythmic sensibility. Traditional Indian musical rhythms, to give an example, are of such complexity as to make most Western musicians – me, for example – turn pale. Again, this doesn’t mean that we don’t have a rhythmic sensibility; what it means is that our rhythmic sensibility is utterly different and has in itself profoundly different symbolic implications.

But almost all musical cultures have one thing in common: the importance of notes and rhythm. 

We could say that the material on which all periods have constructed their musical systems can be attributable to the practice of song and of dance, although their influence may sometimes be quite subtle and indirect. This may be a gross simplification, but it allows us to proceed less blindly as regards what I’m about to say.

The dismantling of every certainty is typical of contemporary thought, not only in music but in psychoanalysis, philosophy, politics, science, religion and so on. Contemporary western music thought, by calling into question all previously held beliefs has also challenged, among other things, the value of notes and of rhythm, or at least the value placed on their ‘singability’ and ‘danceability’.

Of course, not all contemporary music has done this. There have been infinite schools of thought within and also outside the fringes of the avant garde which have instead tenaciously defended just this ‘singability’ and ‘danceability’ of music (in the most poignant sense of these terms). Rock is the most conspicuous example of this. But the fact is that every musical tendency in the 20th century has also searched for other things.

To go back to rock music: melody plays an important role (see the prominence given to the lead vocalist and solo guitarist), as does rhythm (see the structural importance of percussion instruments, and particularly of the drums). But we can’t assert for certain that rock, in its broader meaning, is distinguished by only these two aspects. The distinctive sound of the band itself – think of the sound of the Beatles, for example, compared to that of Black Sabbath – assumes an enormous significance. And neither can we say, however, that this is a counterchallenge against the most classical traditions of western music theory. The importance of the rules of harmony and, above all, of orchestration attest to the enormous significance which has always been attributed – and not only in our culture – to the question of ‘the sonority of the whole’ of the structure of sound.

But the point is this: there are many secrets to harmony and counterpoint that we know, secrets that permit us to choose and put together different notes to make them speak to our affective sensibility. We know how to write a melody that touches the heart, to put it crudely.

We know many secrets of rhythm, secrets that allow us to use sound to shake up the internal organs and the entire body. We know how to write a piece which provokes the desire to dance, again to put it crudely.

But if we try to move into the field of pure ‘sonority’, eliminating all melody and rhythm, what are the secrets of sound that would permit us to manipulate and put it together in a fruitful way? How do we move and rouse the human being without recourse to melody you can sing to and rhythm you can dance to? And above all – is it possible?

There’s no doubt about it: it’s not possible that the mysterious force of sound exists only in melody and in rhythm. This consideration comes from the observation of music from every part of the world, and from different periods. There is no musical system that can be reduced, without important traces remaining, to the rules which determine notes and their duration, that is, broadly speaking, melody and rhythm. 

But these forces of sound that are concealed beyond – or maybe we should say within – melody and rhythm, can they sufficiently sustain a ‘musical’ composition as such? Can they sustain a structure that ‘speaks’ simultaneously to the heart, to the internal organs and to the mind, without undervaluing, without excluding any of the three from play?

Contemporary music thought more or less explicitly attempts to give, in my opinion, a response to this question. I myself explicitly attempt to contribute, to give my own responses, or it would be clearer to say that I pose the question and undertake the inquiry in my own way. Often, my music completely strips away almost every melodic and rhythmic sense in order to work on the ‘pure’, incandescent substance of sound.

Many parameters remain at our disposal, more than are commonly thought. Even if we have to isolate each one with some schematic straining, let’s examine them one by one. 

First of all, ‘volume’ remains. The careful regulation of piano, of forte, and of the infinite possibilities in between conceals in itself an immense expressive, or communicative, or evocative – or whatever you wish to call it – potential.

Then there’s the profound realm of what was once simply called ‘timbre’. Under its reign, a universe of sound characteristics gapes open: what’s known as tone colour, its consistency, its inner movement, its diffusion or projection in space, as well as an infinity of other aspects which music theory hasn’t yet managed to name satisfactorily, nor above all, universally shared conceptually.

Then there’s an aspect to music which is particularly dear to me, also because it has been explored less systematically, less organically, less rigorously in past decades. It’s what I call ‘experiential contagion’. With this term, I’m referring to the way in which, during a musical performance, the listener empathizes with the psychophysical dimension that affects the performer in the act of producing and modulating sound. And vice versa, because the performer in his or her turn perceives the reactions and the psychophysical state of the listener, and becomes – one way or another – infected.

This last parameter clearly doesn’t exclude from play the psychophysical reactions – as much of the performer as of the listener – that are drawn out of sound itself. I want however to underline that ‘sound in itself’ doesn’t exist in music. There is never a sound ‘in itself’: sound exists ‘in so far as it is produced’ by somebody (whether live or recorded), and in the case of ‘pure’ electronic music (that product of the computer), a sound ‘in so far as it is structured by somebody.

Then – and after I’ll stop, because the most fertile research area is on the relationship between all these aspects, and any relationship by its very nature tends to unequivocally defy rationalisation – then, I was saying, we have ‘experiential contagion’, which takes place between the composer of the sound (in the case of written or any music which isn’t improvised), the performer and the listener

Let’s remember that we’re not only talking about the ‘invention of sound’ but about the ‘creation of music’. To be more precise, the creation of the definite and exact forms that are imprinted on sound: first, there’s this sound, then that one, then that one together with another, and so on. All have to be considered on a large scale (the overall form of the piece of music), small (the regulation of every auditory detail), extremely large (as much the totality of the compositions that constitute the work of a composer as the relationship between the composer’s style and the tradition he or she is drawn to or is calling into question), extremely small (the almost imperceptible but decisive nuances of the modulation of sound).

The composer has his or her own mental, emotional, conceptual and also physical relationship with these forms, and the listener doesn’t perceive these forms only ‘in themselves’ but also ‘as much as is desired by somebody’. In fact, ‘What does the composer want to express?’ is one of the most spontaneous and often unconscious questions concealed in every form of artistic appreciation. The delicacy or the violence, the sweetness, or the harshness of every musical composition matters, whether for the effects provoked in the listener, or for the spiritual and ideal communion (and it is never a given that this takes place) that can be created between the composer and their public. When composing, the composer in turn asks, consciously or not, how the listener accepts the sounds that are being distilled. And oplà, experiential contagion is effected, on every level.

The dynamics that govern the phenomena of experiential contagion make for a very thorny field. One can’t expect to have complete control of the psychophysical reactions that intersect the area delineated by the four elements considered above and which are summarised below: 

  • sound which occurs;
  • a composer who arranges sound;
  • a performer who realizes sound;
  • a listener who receives sound.

Basically, complete control would be the negation of the same mysterious force that makes these dynamics so interesting. To use a metaphor which is particularly dear to me: to want complete control of everything would be like wanting absolute control over the emotions of an erotic encounter. If there were absolute control, it would no longer be an emotional experience, in the deepest sense of the term.

We don’t want absolute control but neither do we want to completely renounce control. We can, in fact, learn to make love (tantric yoga is only one of an infinite number of traditional or individual possibilities). Similarly, we can learn to create music.

And in the same way that we can practice and explore the secrets of sex without necessarily – to give one example – having children, we can practice and explore the secrets of music without necessarily – to give another – spurring people to sing or dance.

We know that the child of sex, as precious as real offspring, remains inside us: it is happiness and the knowledge of one’s self and the other to which sex can lead (essential conditions, incidentally, to having – if one really wants them – children that are truly loved, by ourselves and by the world).

We can likewise affirm that the song and the dance of music, as precious as real children, remain inside us: they are excitation, wonderment, strong emotion, the wholeness to which music can guide us (essential conditions, incidentally, to creating – if one really wants them – melodies and rhythms that are truly loved, by ourselves and the world).

On the final wave of this discussion, I underline a fact which I have passed over until now: I am also referring to music which is not concerned with research – not in the narrow sense, at least.

I have a profound and visceral love of melody, harmony and rhythm, which I have studied, which I study still, and which I use and share with my public.

My heart’s core is nailed to the research that I speak of above. But a heart cannot survive on nails: that is called ‘crucifixion’.

And with that, I’ll finish.

‘What type of music do you do?’ It’s a simple question and I hope I haven’t worn you out with my answer. At heart, these are the considerations that safeguard the meaning of my life, though not necessarily yours!

Copyright © 2009 Dario Buccino

Photo © Saverio Turano