Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Difference Between Dissonance and Whining

I have been an artist of sorts most of my life. For many year I debated the meaning and purpose of art. This was, in fact, the topic of my final project is college. The conclusion I drew was that art had multiple meanings, was simultaneously reflective of society and shaping of society, and ran on a continuum from realism to abstract. My own art felt squarely on the abstract end of things.

Having grown up in the 1960s and 70s, the art I witnessed was often people baring their souls and working out their issues in public. One of my favorite artists was John Lennon. I admired, especially on his "Plastic Ono Band" album, the depth of his exploring his own soul. He primal screams, cries, groans, and does not hide any of his powerful emotions. (But when John Lennon was doing it, it was unique, and not the norm.) Much of this became a part of me, and for many years, I have, in addition to the other sorts of music I play, performed in free-jazz bands, with a great deal of screeching and squawking and the likes.

But dissonance can be beautiful. We live in a dissonant world, and making sense of this dissonance is an important part of understanding the world.

Several months ago, I was reading the book "The Yoga of Sound" by Russill Paul. (And I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the subject!) This is the paragraph that has stuck out in my head ever since:

I asked His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] what advice he had for artists today. "Learn to deal with your inner issues in private," he said. "Don't burden society with them; it is burdened enough. Transform your own energy first, then use your gifts to bring healing to society." (The Yoga of Sound by Russill Paul, page 130.)

This really struck a note with me. I stopped listening to pop music some time ago, because so much of it sounded like whining. Most songs on the radio seemed to be about an immature type of love and about loss. Plus whenever someone came up with a big hit, all the other songs seemed to start sounding like the hit song.

There is, unfortunately, but undeniably, much pain in the world. However much of the art that deals with this pain discusses the suffering, but fails to propose an alternative to the suffering. The aspect of art that is reflective of society definitely captures the great hopelessness that is endemic in our society. There is some music and art that proposes an end to suffering, but very little. And as the art reflects back this suffering, it only increases. Maybe there is something to the old "misery loves company" adage, but, then, how do we get out of it?

There is much healing art out there, but people have to look pretty hard to find it. The mass media is filled with this proliferation of suffering.

Part of the music I play is consonant and people immediately see it as healing. But what about the side of me that is drawn to dissonance? I find it very healing to play. When I'm honking on an instrument or playing close tones, and so on, I am not doing it to reflect suffering or pain. I am usually exceedingly happy.

So I looked through my library of dissonant music, and this is one of the first things I found: (Tibetan horns and shawms played by students)

And how is this different than this? (Peter Brotzmann Trio)

In Buddhist temple music, the first example, the horns and shawms, and often, also, the chanting use tones that are certainly unfamiliar to the Western ear. In asking people familiar with this music why it is dissonant, the message I usually get in response is "huh?" Since to listeners of this music it is not. This music often lasts many hours, if not many days. I can relate this most closely to my old training in Shamanism. In this practice, atonal drones, as well as drumming, can be used to alter one's thinking patterns. Shamanic practitioners use Carlos Castaneda's term "non-ordinary reality" to describe a shift of paradigm, sometimes into a totally different reality. Most Shamanic practitioners use sound as a way of doing this, rather than medicinal substances, especially in the West.

I believe Tibetan music may have the same purpose - to shift the mind, through the use of unusual sound waves, into a place of higher meditation. I can attest to this being true, after listening to this sort of music for prolonged periods of time, or engaging in atonal chanting, where chanters are chanting in their own distinctive tone, which are not at all tuned to each other. It is also wonderful to play Tibetan singing bowls that are atonal together and listen for the sounds that arise.

I cheated a bit by using a clip of Peter Brotzmann. He relates a lot of the dissonance of his music to the suffering he endured while a child growing up in Hitler's Germany. However, I believe he plays so passionately as a healing tool. But to be fair to my thesis here, I would like to introduce John Coltrane playing "OM."

Coltrane was a very spiritual man, who played very dissonant music. Often, we equate spiritual music with very melodic, pretty tones. I think the really heavy hitters often transcend that.

We play to very small groups of people - often only a handful, if anyone at all. People are leery of atonal sound. The people who do stay around to listen, sort of as an oddity, often want to know why we are playing the way we do. Usually I relate it to our dissonant society:

Certainly, we are pounded daily by all sort of awful noises. We listen to traffic, and jack hammers and lawn mowers, and who knows what? Life is much more than a lot of people can handle, and the dissonance of life wears people down and fatigues them. So what so people do for salvation? Watch more dissonance on TV! People watch the unbalanced lives of other people and revel in the fact that their lives are not as bad as the people they are watching. This is a very immature type of compassion - to feel better because other people are worse off.

Artists have a unique way of looking for beauty in the dissonance of the world. The artist who can use dissonance as a tool is the one who can find something amazing in the awful, and drawing our attention to the fact that within every 'awful' thing that might be happening, there are beautiful things as well. Truly enlightened people can see equal amounts, or more beauty in even 'awful' thing.

Another aspect of this comes from sound healing. There is an old trick that if you hear a sound that is just driving you nuts, start to imitate the sound. Make the sound, to the best of your ability, with your mouth or an instrument. Become one with the sound. After doing this, the sound is not as annoying, because it is now part of you. Some artists and musicians do this as a tactic as well.

Personally, I combine all these tricks when playing dissonant music, or free-improv music. I don't have a clip of myself playing in a format I can easily get on this blog, and so I offer a clip by my musical partner, Paul Mimlitsch with Wilhelm Matthies.

So, the title of this blog is "The Difference Between Dissonance and Whining." Our music is not giving into suffering, which I believe whining is. A lot of the music, and I refer particularly to lyrics, has to do with feeling victimized. People are expressing their hopelessness and helplessness for losing a relationship, or losing their job, or feeling unappreciated, and so on. Whining is talking about the problem without looking for the solution. We are only a moderately solution-oriented society. We will look for solutions when we are paid or forced, but, as a culture, when it is up to us to find a solution, we tend, instead, to revel in the pity. Often the solutions aren't very difficult, but to ask people to do things like exercise 30 minutes or meditate for a little bit, or eat healthy food are well beyond what people are willing to do. That is what the Dalai Lama is referring to when he talks of working out your own problems in private.

A lot of dissonant artists are solution finders. These are not, typically, those who are brought down by the dissonance of the world, but are those looking for the beauty - the solution in it. It is a lot easier to play music that people are used to, and going to listen to, than to play music that people run from. But if people stop and look for the beauty in the sound, or the painting, there is a great deal there.

"Squiggles" painted by me in 1996 or so.


Since the original posting of this article, we have finally gotten our websites together for my free-improv jazz group "Concept," a duo with Paul Mimlitsch and myself. Here are some links where you can hear our music:

This is where we have our completed albums: You can listen to the entire albums for free, and pay what you want if you choose to download any music.

This is where we have pieces we are currently working on: We update this site as we get new improvisations recorded that we like.



  1. Great article...enjoyed the clips...particularly the guitar improvisation...very, ah-, post-apocalyptic...Belewian...I didn't want it to end...


  2. Wow! Thanks! I added some links where you can listen to and download some of our music.