A Song By Any Other Name

March 3rd, 2012

Prelude: watch this first! (I can’t embed videos without paying for the video upgrade.)

Secret Chiefs 3: The 3 (live)

Seeing Secret Chiefs 3 was revelatory in a couple different ways. There is of course the surface-level revelation that “wow, they can actually pull off these tunes live!”. Going below that, there’s the realization that in spite of (not because of) their technical virtuosity, the parts and notes they choose somehow “serve” the song, instead of merely stroking their own egos. This is an ultra-common pitfall in technical music, as in basically every guitar-based prog rock band (Dream Theater, Steve Vai, Nile) the “solo section” is clearly labeled in both the performers’ and listeners’ minds. “This is the part where they show off.” Or in the chorus: “This is the part where there is a singable, catchy melody that repeats a multiple of 2 (but not more than 8) times.” What’s apparent is that these musicians’ virtuosity lies in technique only. There’s no realization of what the point of the song should be, apart from highlighting their skill. The telos of a song doesn’t live on the level of abstraction where the song resides, but moves up/down a level to where we are aware that the song is being played by a person, and this is who we focus on/idolize/despise. We could say that the ego of the band gets in the way of the song, somehow. We cease to hear the song, to appreciate it freely. We hear it in the context of the virtuosity of the players, and the song fails, because it doesn’t engage us the way the players do. It’s like the song is the full moon, and the band is pointing to the moon, saying “look at the moon”, but because their voice is so pretty and their hand is so shapely, we look at their finger that points, instead of to what it is pointing.

Traditionally the crux of going to a show (in many peoples’ minds) is to see the band as people, to revel in the personality and skill of the players. You want to get to know them. You get their autograph, fawn over their devil-may-care social attitude, go backstage and have a beer with them. And the other stereotype here is the modest musician who can’t take a compliment. This is because she knows that it’s not about her. The fans, in her mind, are experiencing the show on the wrong level. The show’s telos is the display of personality, to the common fan.

And then SC3 comes out, dressed in robes and masks that obscure the personality. There are no lyrics, and they don’t speak to the crowd between songs, and don’t bow at the end of their set. They are very good musicians, technically speaking, but that’s besides the point. What they are doing is transcending the telos of the “show/musician as idol” gestalt. To play in service to the song, instead of having the song service your playing — this is transcending musical telos. Each song has a goal which is defined by the structure of that song. They might play a surf-rock version of the theme to the movie “Exodus”, in which case a trumpet gets the powerful brass lead, while the drums and guitar hold back and maintain a steady, Californian 4/4. Or they might play in a tuning based on the harmonic ratios of Pythagoras, in which case the song may have a highly mathematical structure, which hands off a melody between different harmonic modes and different instruments, which are all tuned to just intonation, an old non-equal-temperament method of tuning instruments, based on simple whole-number ratios (E.g. the just intonation ratio between a note and its fifth is 2:3). There’s something going on here which can’t be explained in terms of “the goal of the music”. It’s like each song is a hidden dark-matter shape, which lies out of bounds, and its shape is elucidated over time by each instrument probing at this shape — sometimes the shape pushes back, sometimes it yields. Gradually the shape of the song is further realized or further obscured. It would not be an exaggeration to say that for the first time at a live show, I felt like I experienced the songs directly, not through the filter of the band’s personality. In this way, the best compliment I could possibly give to SC3 is that they are transparent. The form of the songs are self-generated, and the generation itself is worn on the band’s faces, obscuring their eyes and heads.

Intermission: Secret Chiefs 3 – Zulfiqar III

This is exactly why I think Trey Spruance, the creative force behind SC3, will not explain his systems that he designs that ultimately lead to songs. He doesn’t want you to know, because you’d be missing the point. The point, the goal, the meaning of the songs is not in how they are written. And my apparent idolization of Spruance is anything but: I’m interested in the moon, not Spruance’s plans for a rocketship. I’m intentionally using the moon as in Zen cosmology it is a metaphor for enlightenment. The lesson from this show is not to look at the finger.

And I’m still circling around the central point I want to make. Perhaps that’s best. I’ve been interested in “serving the song” for a long time now — my electronic moniker, scion eidolon, means “servant/heir to the spirit”. Darshan Pulse, the name of my current project, references this idea as well — Darshan is a Hindi term that roughly translates to “divine seeing”. It’s used to refer to the idea that worship and experience of the divine can only happen when one is physically standing in front of a representation of a Hindi deity. That’s why there are so many temples and bas reliefs throughout India. They are *not* idols. They are pointers towards truth. And Pulse refers to the fact that physical presence is required. You have to be there. You have to see. Tu dois servir.

So I have to move past the Verse Chorus Paradigm. I can’t use it, and I can’t refer to it through its absence. It’s a form that allows egos to be stroked, because everyone understands it. You listen to the singer sing the chorus and you love them. Or, you note that their approach defies the VCP and you love them for their “out-of-the-box” thinking. Either way, you’re not hearing the song.