Thursday, June 9, 2005

Art School Rock

I did something quite out-of-character two nights ago and went to a rock-and-roll concert at a "hip" New York venue with a dear old friend (thanks again, Coz). I went to rock shows all the time in college, but since then my tastes have tended towards mellower music and a more laid-back nightlife. Over the past half-dozen years I've seen lots of folk, country, bluegrass, jazz, blues, and classical performances, but the closest I came to a rock-and-roll show was when I saw Jonathan Richman. However, even though I was out-of-practice, I ended up having a damn good time. The only not-quite-enjoyable part of the evening was listening to the opening act, but at least that was interesting in an "At Least I Can Blog About This" way.

The openers were a hip-looking instrumental trio (with a cute girl on bass, 'natch), who performed in near darkness. I suppose they were so hip-looking they didn't really feel the need to have the audience actually see them. They introduced themselves and started to play. At first, I thought they said their name was "Paint", but after a few minutes listening to their music I thought I must have misheard them and that the real name of the band was "Pain", but that turned out to be too obvious. When I got home, google helped me discover that their name was actually "Paik", named after the Korean video-artist Nam June Paik. They performed what my friend assured me was "psychedelic" music and what a googled CD review described as "space rock". However you want to label it, Paik's music failed just about every category on my personal Rock Checklist:

(1) I tend to like a little showmanship with my rock-and-roll, but the performers in Paik said not a word and moved hardly at all the entire show. I suppose this is a kind of anti-showmanship that is meant to signify that they are Artists and that It's All About the Music, but I've seen people suffer strokes from taking themselves this seriously.

(2)Other things I appreciate in my rock-and-roll are songs, catchy tunes, and cool riffs. Paik was more into droning waves of sound, with a little guitar noodling in the background. They made use of a lot of noise fx, too.

(3) I know rock-and-roll is meant to be loud, and, generally, I don't mind loud as long as it is combined with "energetic" or "exciting" or "upbeat". But Paik was not only really, really loud (they sounded, to my untrained ears, a good two-or-three times as loud as the headlining act), they were also aggressively depressing. They seemed like they wanted to punish the audience, rather than give them an enjoyable musical experience.

In other words, though I had done nothing wrong, I found myself subjected to a good 30 minutes of Art School Rock.

The Art Rock and Prog Rock of the 1970s was made by musicians who fused rock-and-roll with ideas from jazz and classical music and fueled it all with high-falutin' literary ambitions. In many ways, it was the continuation of the kind of things the Beatles were doing with Sgt. Pepper's. It pissed off a lot of rock-and-roll purists and a lot of it was pretentious, but, when all was said and done, it was still basically rock music, and most of it would've sounded perfectly at home on a Classic Rock radio station.

Art School Rock is a completely different beast, owing more to avant-garde art music than to Rubber Soul.

Not surprisingly then, as Paik's performance went on, I noticed that I was listening to it the way I listen to a lot of minimalist-style art music: only kinda-sorta paying attention to the general droning, letting myself be pleasantly surprised by the itsy-bitsy variations, and then zoning out again. Though I can't say that I ever want to hear anything like it again, by the end of their set I was semi-digging it. While I, and most of the other people at the show, probably would have had a better time listening to Paik if they were a Led Zeppelin cover-band, I couldn't help but admire their dedication to making music that is so willfully awful, unappealing, and solemn. Good for them that they have been able to find a small measure of success and artistic fulfillment.


vvoi said...

it sounds strange, the way you seem to have a need of going against whatever you heard, admitting you ended up by (to some extent) liking it, but then dismissing it, as if the fact of it not fitting the right definition (or fitting the wrong one) didn't allow you to enjoy it!

Jon Hastings said...

Not so strange, really. I guess I'd say that I ended up liking Paik to the same extent that I like pro-wrestling: watching it doesn't float my boat and I think its kind if silly, but I can understand why other people enjoy it. If I have to (because its on TV at a friend's house, or something), I can watch it without wanting to run screaming from the room and actually pick up some of the finer points of what's going on. However, I'd be perfectly happy to never watch pro-wrestling again and there's tons and tons of other ways I'd rather spend my time.