Click here to [close]

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Between silence and noise - what is music?

I often get reactions from my close family members (wife, children) like "How can you listen to that stuff?", "Is that music?". And they have a point. Because that's what I thought too, many years ago. I could not understand how anyone could listen to this kind of noise (free jazz, avant-garde jazz, free improv, ...). Today, I realise that much of the music I liked then, so many years ago, now comes across as bland, superficial, uninteresting and boring. Personal taste evolves, but not for everything. The great masters still hold strong, and that's probably what makes them masters.

There is a lot of music that I still do not understand. Some for cultural reasons (Chinese music!), some because probably my mind is not open enough, or simply not big enough to understand all the nuances and subtleties.

Here are two recent albums, which are very close to one another, yet miles apart in my appreciation. And I'm not sure why.

Jean-Luc Guionnet / Seijiro Murayama - Le Bruit du Toit (Xing-Wu Records, 2007)


The first, by French saxophonist Jean-Luc Guionnet and Japanese percussionist Seijiro Murayama is called "Le Bruit Du Toit", "the sound of the roof". This is zen music. There is more silence than music (I kept turning up the volume at first, but there was nothing to hear ...). And when there is music, it is mostly Guionnet playing one single tone in all its variations (if that's not a zen paradox, I don't know what a paradox is), multiphonic, with different pitch, shading the sound color. The other sounds you hear is the roof of the zen temple creaking, and the occasional percussive noise by Murayama, although he gets all intense at the end of the first track. This is music which creates a tiny ripple effect on a silent pond, a breeze on a still lake, a shadow of a cloud. Gentle, music as a hesitating question, as a refusal of anything more than this simple sound, the absence of expectations. Despite the sparsity of it all, I can listen to it, I can even enjoy it. It is even impressive in its uncompromising rich emptiness.

Tim Barnes, Nate Wooley & Jason Roebke Trio (Esquilo Records, 2008)

By comparison, percussionist Tim Barnes, trumpeter Nate Wooley and bassist Jason Roebke just released (100 copies only) their first trio album, called "Trio". The comparison with Guionnet/Murayama is in place, because silence also dominates this record. You do not hear percussion, you do not hear a trumpet, you do not hear a bass. The only thing you hear are some ruffling sounds, some whispers, air escaping valves, some crackles maybe, a few unidentified sounds. I listened to this album. I listened to it twice. I don't know what it says. I don't know what it means. Maybe it says a lot, too much for me to grasp. It makes me feel small if that's the case. Maybe it says nothing. Maybe it's just pulling my leg. It makes me feel silly if that's the case. Yet I know these musicians. I know of their skills in more "traditional" environments. They are excellent musicians. Why would they use their talents for this kind of music? I appreciate their search, yet I do not even understand what they are searching for.

There isn't that much difference between the two records, though. Silence and limited sounds. The first is musical and understandable. The second offers nothing more than meaningless sounds to me. I do not even understand the difference of my appreciation between both albums. Maybe one day I will understand. Maybe one day, I will hear what I miss today, like some years ago, when I did not like what I like today. The variability of judgment. The absense of universal truths. Maybe one day, this will be a great album.

Order from Xing-Wu records.
Order from Esquilo records.


Anonymous said...


I have been meaning to post a comment to say how much I enjoy your site. Like you my taste in music has evolved toward the more adventureous (weird, my wife says).
Thanks very much for your reviews. They have lead me toward a number of albums and artists that I knew nothing about before.


Nick S.