Pause a moment. Turn off your other faculties and just listen. There is sound surrounding you, enveloping you. You place yourself in your surroundings as much by sight as by sound. You know the space around you because the solidness of walls and objects around you continually echo back your breathing, your voice, even perhaps the music your streaming.
Now, listen more closely.
Listen to the sounds of the street, the air conditioning, maybe the person next to you whispering into their phone. Take none of those sounds for granted. None of them are simple. Each of them has their history, a relationship to another person, and an important meaning in society and culture.
Listen long enough, and do it daily, and you will notice entirely new rhythms offering a soundtrack for your life — the dusk and dawn flockings of invasive parrots outside your window; radio fields bleeding from the windows of rush hour commuters; the weekly passing of a dump truck carrying away the city’s waste; perhaps the laughter of a nearby kindergarten.
Is it just noise?
These sounds are your experience. They define the world you live in. These sounds are part of your body. They define who you are.
Press play. Turn on music and just listen.
There is always music around you, structuring your rhythm. You place yourself in society as much by your own biography as you do by music. And that’s true whether you’re actively listening or not.
You know every epoch in your life because events and happenings continually resonate with listenings, with memories of your father’s favorite artist, or a teenage cassette deck mixtape.
Now listen to something new. Turn off your FM radio, your podcast, your office’s music. Don’t simply look up last Friday’s new releases. Find something experimental, something you never imagined you could actually dedicate focus to, something that sits on the razor’s edge between innovative and outright unintelligible noise. If you have no idea where to start, don’t worry, I will get you there.
But first, as a minor assurance, know that experimental musicians are not necessarily esoteric, unknowable, or unenjoyable. They are not all fringe artists, not all marginalized and ignored. Some, in fact, would be considered pop-artists by every measure.
However, just as often as they make accessible and relatable, fun, and danceable music, they break with the traditional and familiar, and most importantly, their experiments in sound have always come to signify a change in society.
Nina Simone, for instance, recorded nearly 40 albums. Across those, her style transcended jazz, folk, and funk, but her real experiment was her demand for social justice. Janis Joplin, in her short career, pushed her voice and rock music to unbelievable places; though she owes much of her sound to the first experimenters in recorded Blues sound: Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith. Grace Slick’s clarion presence in Jefferson Airplane similarly pushed psychedelia to its greatest height in popular music, and Yoko Ono, well, she actually made the Beatles better.
Outside of blues, rock, and psychedelia, Grace Jones’ style bridged New York, Paris, and all but broke the barrier between stage, sexuality, and pleasure. Of course, there is Björk, who has always experimented at the triumvirate frontier between technology, body, and nature. And then, Amy Winehouse, who we might say committed so completely to her experiments in nostalgic rebellion and counter-culture that she even joined the “27 club.”
Take no music for granted. None of it is simple. Each orchestration has its history, its relationship to a progressive artist — an important and transgressive meaning in society and culture.
So the tradition continues…
Listen to Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter, Anna Wise. She released an unpredictable and indefinable album with John Bap called “Geovariance.” Previous to this, though, Anna’s range of collaborations speak to her sonic exploration. She has worked with Ab-Soul, Bosco, Cunninglynquist, Gonjasufi, Jean Grae and Quelle Chris, and, of course, Kendrick Lamar.
Listen to Kid Koala and Emiliana Torrini’s “Music to Draw to: Satellite.” Emiliana is one of Iceland’s most creative and catchy artists, and yet here Emiliana explores the atmospheric and celestial realm of sound. Listen to TOKiMONSTA and Gavin Turek’s work together, “You’re Invited.” It is so catchy and smooth that it is easy to forget how progressive and new their sound really is. Listen to Lucy Rose’s folk vocals. They are nothing unfamiliar, and yet something in Lucy’s songwriting, phrasing, and timber has drawn the attention of numerous remix artists.
By now, you’re probably accustomed to the range of sounds that can possibly… probably… perhaps be called music. If you are ready, listen to something by Fari Bradley. Listen to Pharmacon. They’re true masters at destabilizing any listener’s auditory regime — and truly, what else is the point of music?
To come back from that frontier, listen to Kelsey Lu. Kelsey Lu’s experiments are perhaps the most subtle, but her song “Liar” perfects the relationship between the human voice and the grain of vulnerability, pain, and honesty.
These listening suggestions are not meant to be peaceful or therapeutic, jarring or unsettling. (Though some are.) They are not meant for your health, or your individualistic cultural betterment. (Though reiki surely has its function, and musical therapy has its power.) They aren’t meant to key you into some avant-garde movement. (Though a cultured person certainly understands the latest trends in any number of genres.) This listening is fundamentally for the sake of listening, placing yourself in the world, and resonating with another’s artistic work.
These artists take sound seriously, intentionally rupturing our distinction between unknown noise and organized, temporally defined melody. This is more than a simple curation. It’s an exploration of your audition and an exercise in your critical awareness between that fundamental relationship between sound, body, and self; music, biography, and society.
Pause a moment. Press play. Take no music for granted. It is just noise?
Ruben Enrique Campos is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and works in the Department of Ethnic Studies. He studies culture and society, usually with a focus on issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and class inequalities. He’s currently writing his dissertation on the Hip Hop scene in Mexico City, where he lived and conducted intensive fieldwork for just over a year. Aside from constantly struggling to write, read, and be a serious academic, he listens to music, reads comic books, and exhibits a serious waste of potential.