Sunday, February 3, 2008


joe strummer
Joe Strummer

Of the arts, music and architecture are my weakest areas of knowledge and appreciation.

I suppose that, given a media-saturated culture such as ours, music in bars, restaurants, department stores, car stereos, etc., has become environmental, like architecture, and less subject to conscious regard--unlike painting and sculpture, or even high fashion.

I like music--the Supremes, Mahler, Nine Inch Nails, Peggy Lee--but I am not its biggest fan.

Hasn't someone--haven't several people--said that the man who doesn't appreciate music is dead in his soul?

I hope I'm not too far gone, but I have to say that I feel the allure of music less intensely than most people I know.

I'm not one to play a lot of music at home alone, for instance. I'm fine with silence. I don't need music to settle into a good book or unwind at the end of a hard day.

I usually drive to and from work with my car radio off. And I don't use my iPod, so I've found it a new home with one of my friends, who seems astounded that I would just throw away such a valuable object.

And I'm not at all confident in my "taste" in music. I'll admit it: my tastes are shallow.

Too often I can be accused of picking music for reasons other than the quality of the music. A good-looking artist catches my attention--I like Jeff Buckley, Liszt, Paul Weller, Chris Martin, Jake Shears, and Gene Pitney for altogether suspect reasons.

Or I simply associate a particular song with a moment in my life, regardless of its significance in art and culture--for example, I will always be able to have good sex to Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street or the Bloodhound Gang's The Bad Touch, even if you do think it's pop pablum.

A lot of music in film seems, to me, overdone, distracting. I admire directors who pull away from underscoring every emotion in the film with a musical motif. I respect Alfred Hitchcock's decision not to use a music score in The Birds. The absence of music in many key scenes of the Coens' No Country for Old Men demonstrates that it is unnecessary for building suspense or conveying complex feelings.

In film, 90% of the music can be dropped, I think--just as in prose you can usually dispense with most adverbs.

Jonny Greenwood's score of There Will Be Blood is an exception--its harsh and intrusive modernism acts like another actor in the film--big and chewing up scenery like Daniel Day-Lewis. It is an indispensable part of the experience of watching that movie.

But often a musical score diminishes the impact of other qualities of the film. Bette Davis once asked a director, "Will it be me or Max Steiner walking down the stairs?"

I would be unhappy to live in a world without music, but still on most days I wish my neighbors would turn their fucking stereo down. And I'm often, but not always, put off when I'm in the car with someone who insists on turning the radio up to full volume.

The worst college roommate I ever had was a classical bassoonist. Nice guy, on the whole, but he breathed a different air than I did. And, besides, and more to the point, he wasn't very good looking.

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