It’s no secret that the music of Tom Waits has had a large impact on my own music and recording philosophy.
Yet, as with all influences, they are all just a path to additional research. They create a path back to earlier developments in the musical spectrum. I have always been fascinated by the influences of the people who are now doing the influencing.
Waits represents two or three main branches of music in one: blues, piano bar/cabaret, and the avant-garde (defined broadly, but including noise and all manner of strangeness).
Having already explored much early blues, and not being a particular lover of piano, I decided to enter into a private study of noise and randomness which has logically led to discoveries in the world of electronic music.
Two invaluable sources have been An Anthology of Noise & Electronic Music, a series of double CDs and the book/CD packages Orbitones, Spoonharps & Bellowphones and Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones: Experimental Musical Instruments both by Bart Hopkin . I’ve also been spending a lot of time listening to Bjork and NIN (for the uninitiated that is Nine Inch Nails).
NIN is a perfect example of how what we heard as “acceptable” music can change and how art remains a fluid dynamic. My first exposure to NIN was via the seminal Pretty Hate Machine album and the early-90s anthem “Head Like A Hole.” To this day the album remains on my Desert Island collection. Every time I listen to it I find something new. I hadn’t kept up with them very much over the years, but returning to Trent Reznor’s recent efforts such as Year Zero and The Slip has been rewarding. The group has remained passionate about, and adept with music technology – an area that has made incredible strides in the last ten years. NIN has coaxed life and soul out of an art form that could easily deconstruct into simple noise. They may be one of the only groups that has mastered a way to invoke beauty with so much metal and plastic, and in Reznor’s voice you can still hear vulnerability – not just screaming.
What has this exploration taught me? Much of the material I’ve discovered would not be tolerable to most people. To say it is an acquired taste is an understatement. At times I’ve found myself rather close to my own threshold of patience when listening to John Cage. I dare anyone to try getting through both disks of Empty Words in one sitting.
On the other hand, I’ve come across some things that I like very much… Glass Cage – Music for Piano by Philip Glass and John Cage by Bruce Brubaker is calming.
The upside is that by listening to such material, I’ve become more sensitive to how my own songs work. When something really gels, it is clearer to me why. When something “clashes” I am able to listen to it in more objective terms and decide if it is truly out of line or adds a necessary dissonance that serves the piece.
Even away from the mixing desk, I am less annoyed by ambient noise around me. At times I pick things out as being more inherently musical than perhaps I would have if my ears were not being re-trained by the exposure to more experimental music.
Another aspect of listening to such music (sound/noise/experiments) is that it sheds light on how we attribute meaning to songs. Once any contemporary structure is stripped away, and the unfamiliar is allowed to frolic, we can see how arbitrary meaning really is, and how personal the musical experience can become.