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Discarding the notion of traditional influences in music

February 17, 2014
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Our brains light up when we surprise them.

At least, that’s what UCF professor of neuroscience Dr. Kiminobu Sugaya told me last year, when we were discussing his popular course Music and the Brain. (His course investigates the way that the brain responds to music – everything from the impulse to nod your head to militaristic mind-control through specific marches.)

What stuck with me from our conversation most, though, is the notion that the human brain is constantly seeking patterns to interpret stimulus it receives. Your brain wants to figure out what to expect and prepare. Formulaic music – the Miley Cyruses, the pop punk bands, the radio rock – the brain has no trouble setting up your synapses to interpret these songs. But when you have a vastly creative, unconventional artist – like the John Cages, the Bjorks, the Beatles-es – frequently, the musician is intentionally disrupting the patterns they create in their compositions, and so, for the music nerds whose brains feed off such manic energy, the listening experience becomes much more gratifying and evocative. There is no way to prepare.

I was contemplating this a lot while I was fixing to interview Lou Barlow, whose style of bass play is the fodder of many a musicians’ forum, due to the fact that he decided at a very young age to approach the bass guitar differently from other bands that were popular at that time.

As a listener, I find myself drawn to musicians when I can’t immediately figure out how they are achieving the sounds on their recordings. That, for me, is almost the entire draw of the live performance: to witness for myself what the hell is going on.

Of course, we have YouTube, and we have this glorious ability to immediately investigate the sounds that intrigue us without waiting for a tour to stop through. Right now, I’m going through a severe Arto Lindsay phase – spawned by a very recent and fresh fandom of his ’70s no-wave project DNA. If you’re like me, and haven’t fully delved into no-wave territories before now, but are open to noisy, arrhythmic and improvisational music, you are in for a mental treat with this:

Lindsay, like Barlow, looked at his guitar differently, treating it as a percussion instrument, rather than a straightforward device to coax melody. He, actually, cast off melody. And certain live audiences freaking loved it.

I’ve been reading everything I can find on Lindsay as a musician and producer over the past week or so, because he’s one of those rare, serendipitous talents who just happened to be in the right place in order to realize his potential as a musician, without any prior training. In one interview I dug up, he admits his first-ever show was based on a lie he told Television’s manager, Terry Ork, when Ork casually asked Lindsay if he had a band. He said yes; he didn’t, but he got one quick.

Many people have fixated on who or what influenced Lindsay. Critics and journalists are always trying to needle musicians about their influences. I think this is another way to prepare our brains to interpret the music. If we’ve already made our minds work through understanding what the Doors sound like, we can apply that to how someone influenced by the Doors will sound. We can be ready.

Lindsay, though, had this poignant moment that struck me in that same interview. He points out that the bands we love aren’t necessarily our direct influences. Instead, our creative perspectives draw from a varied pool of experiences: What we’ve read, what we’ve seen, who we’ve known, where we’ve been. And as fascinating as it is to draw sonic connections between different bands or artists, I might be starting to think that the “surprise” that Sugaya spoke of, is likely drawn from these disparate origins/inspirations. [Disclaimer: These are the musings of an unqualified music lover/not a scientist.]

Lindsay and his bandmates didn’t even want you to listen to the songs in a traditional sense, when it came to DNA: “We were interested in this notion of compression – a lot of the songs were really short so that you’d absorb them in memory rather than when you’re actually hearing them.”

But, ANYWAY, do you think it’s possible that this DNA song influenced the folks doing theme music for Super Mario Bros? ’Cuz I totally hear it.

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