How I Think About Art: II

I’ve written another arrangement of the song I posted below, “Jane” and significantly improved the audio production, and now, despite the fact that it was recorded on an iPhone, it sounds really good, and honestly, after a lifetime in audio production, I’ve heard far worse come out of real studios. So, you too can produce real music with editing softwaresome sound libraries, an A/D convertergood headphones, and an iPhone. These are the particular products I used, but the point being, that with a few hundred dollars, and an iPhone, you can set yourself up to record top quality music. But the real reason I’m writing about this is because I’ve been thinking a lot about Dada art, and while I’ve always been a fan, since I’ve started my work in A.I., my interest in the genre has increased significantly, as I find kicking ideas around using Dada art incredibly useful, because Dada artists consciously pushed every boundary, which puts any ideas you have on the formalization of art to the ultimate, and most ridiculous test.

In this piece, I took a song that I deliberately wrote to be about love between two human beings, but then changed the context of the song using an icon as representative of the piece – the portrait of Joan of Arc below. This changes the context of the song, suggesting a love between humanity and God. The topic of religious love is beyond unfashionable, and I can imagine many people simply saying, “no thanks”. Moreover, an art-school style discussion of the topic is basically an anathema to the contemporary art scene. Using Dada art to express religious intution is a party of one (at most two, and if you’re out there, send me an email), in terms of producers of this type of product, but I’m fine with that outcome, as I think plenty of intellectuals have religious intuitions, and so there’s almost certainly unsatisfied demand for interesting, technically-minded religious art.

1024px-Gari_Melchers_-_Joan_of_Arc

Joan of Arc, Gari Melchers (date, unknown)

I do these things on purpose, because I want to trick people into thinking about the nature of reality, and the possibility of God, so I’ll write a song that sounds like an ordinary folk love song, and then completely change the context of the message with the addition of a religious symbol that is associated with the song. The goal being that you like the song, and are therefore tricked into considering the nature of something that I believe to be important, and too often dismissed, simply as a result of pretensions, or perhaps something more sinister, like the persecution of religiously minded people.

In this case, in this version, I’ve made the reference to God explicit during the final chorus, using a bit of repurposed, Dada poetry by Agnes Ernst Meyer, used as a spoken word overlay to the final chorus. The spoken word track is deliberately gutted in terms of EQ, leaving a tinny sound, that is hard-panned to the left. The net effect is that you hear the talking, but because it’s mostly limited to the left channel, and very tinny in terms of timbre, you’ll probably generally disregard the actual substance of the words, focusing instead on the rest of the music and the main lyrics. It’s almost like an unimportant subway announcement made in the midst of listening to a song that you’re trying to enjoy, which will change the sound of your environment, but without conscious attention, won’t change the message.

However, if you do listen to the text, it does change the message, and the manner in which it changes the message is arguably subjective, because the text is lifted without change, from a context that’s not a perfect fit for the song. This act, of taking a thing, and changing the context of the thing, by adding or removing information, is arguably a foundational tool of Dada art. Personally, I think a change in context in music is the most interesting, and intellectually challenging device a musician can make use of, as taking a melody, and placing it in a new context, or a new key signature, is, as a technical matter, extremely difficult, providing the listener with much to consider, as the familiar becomes the novel, requiring re-evaluation.

Marcel Duchamp was a ridiculous human being that did something like this in visual art, without shame, and without regard for the history of art, or arguably, civilization itself. Drawing a mustache on Mona Lisa could be dismissed as vandalism, and maybe that’s the right conclusion in that case, but the tool he brutally highlighted is the ability to change the context of a message by adding or removing information from the message.

The song itself, with just acoustic guitar and voice, is very beautiful, but the addition of flute, viola, and spoken word overlay in the last chorus transforms the piece from a simple folk song, to something unusual, which pulls the listener in, because the additional information forces you to think and engage. If you want to understand the piece, now you’ll have to pay attention to the tinny spoken word in the left speaker, which means you’ll probably have to listen to the piece a few times. This will in turn cause you to become better associated with the song, and probably, leave the melody stuck in your head as a result. So in addition to changing the sound of the piece, and providing new harmonic information to consider, the addition of the new elements changes the way the listener engages with the piece, thereby creating a fundamentally different piece of art.

The addition of the explicit reference to God, in the song itself, suggests, that perhaps there is a connection between understanding love, and God, since I claim to understand what love is, in the context of a song that would otherwise probably be interpreted as a love song about two human beings. In the context of modern pop music, this is definitely going to push some boundaries in the mind of the listener, since at the very end of an otherwise normal folk song, the listener is confronted with a collage of information that completely changes the context of the song, from an ordinary love song, to something unusual, that is possibly about God’s love.

I don’t say the word God, and instead say the word “odd”, simply because the text is lifted mostly as is, from the original text, but my intent was to evoke the word “God” in the mind of the listener. This is itself a game of signal and response, where my pronunciation, and the context of the message, changes the response triggered by the literal text of the message. In this case, it is the result of working with what you have, though it is clearly evocative of religious prohibitions on expressions related to God. Some religions don’t write down the actual name of God, others have prohibitions on creating images of God, and I’ll admit, several times in my work in mathematics and physics, I stopped what I was working on, because I thought I was pushing the boundaries of what human beings should know. Once I did it explicitly for personal, religious reasons, but usually I stop because I don’t trust human beings – as a practical matter, I don’t think we’re supposed to know all the things, given our performance thus far, with only some of the things.

So the idea of prohibitions on expressions related to God is fundamental to many religions, yet censorship is obviously in some sense an enemy of art. This places art in a difficult position with respect to religion, which is nothing new, and clearly why religious institutions generally seek to control the arts. At the same time, art is a great way to express your understanding of God, and God is, therefore, a frequent subject in classical art, before we surrendered ourselves to unmitigated commercialism. Unconventional religious art is likely to be poorly received by both religious institutions and deliberately atheist movements, like communism, because not only does it challenge conventional religious beliefs, it could also be used to inspire moral considerations beyond the laws of the state, which is effectively god for communists. So, by implication, with the mere suggestion of the idea of God, a flute, and a viola, we can turn an ordinary folk song into a philosophically, economically, and politically loaded work of art.

As an American, I refuse to be censored in terms of legal restrictions, but I do try to be respectful of religion, because I understand the nature of deeply held beliefs, that define how people see themselves, and the world. And I understand how important this is to people. But I understand, because it’s also important to me, and I think the bargain that we struck in America is the correct one:

You can say, and think, whatever you want about God, as a legal matter, but you have to tolerate whatever I say, and think about God, as a legal matter. This forces us to behave like adults, and understand that the world is a heterogeneous place, not only with respect to humanity, and ideas, but in general – just look around, you’re not going to find one thing at our level of existence, as this is a place of remarkable multiplicity and diversity.

And just like we don’t all speak the same language, we likely suffer from an inability to describe God in the same terms. As for myself, I can’t convey my notion of God using text on a page, because that’s not how I understand God. That doesn’t mean we have different gods, it just means I don’t speak your language. For me, describing God requires something different – I need to show you what I think, you need to hear it, and I need to write down some equations that describe how things move in space and in time, and then, and even then, I’m still not done, because I don’t believe that I can fully understand what God is, so I can’t completely describe God to you, but I’m certain I understand what love is, and I hope I’ve painted a decent portrait of my understanding with this song.

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