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Deconstructing Musical Binaries: A Bialoge Featuring Isenordal’s Marisa Kaye Janke and Senior Editor Clayton T. Michaels

Fair warning: what you are about to read is a bit different than the average piece you’ll encounter here at the Vault. In fact, it may be the single most pretentious piece of writing in the history of the metal blogosphere, with a long and occasionally arduous gestation process to match. I may or may not be proud of that fact, especially since it may well be mostly my fault. I can’t help it – as I’ve mentioned a time or two before, my real-world hours are spent working in academia. I’ve never met a theoretical hole I wasn’t willing to dive down, especially with a willing accomplice.

That accomplice? Friend of the Vault (and friend in general) Marisa Kaye Janke, who plays viola and shares vocal duties in Isenordal. Back in February, she posted this on her Facebook page:

I am finding it increasingly degrading when bands of intense magnificence are described finitely as being “well orchestrated.” Modernism too often seeks to conveniently compartmentalize classical music as either pleasantly uplifting or woefully depressing.
But classical music has been answering to the necessity of human emotional satiation far longer and deeper than can be accounted for by these categorizations and it is one of my primary educational endeavors to highlight the wide breadth of emotional allowance in between this happy/sad binary so as to more accurately discuss contemporary music (for what more is it than a new translation/ recycling of older ideas?).

To which I responded:

I’ve been thinking about this since I saw it yesterday, and I wonder how much of your point here can actually be applied to music outside the classical realm as well. Obviously the well-orchestrated point doesn’t quite carry forward, but what you say about compartmentalization and binaries seems to be pretty universal. For example, consider metal’s obsession with genre (and sub-genre, and sub-sub-genre, etc.) – that seems like that obsession with compartmentalizing music taken to its most absurd extreme. Or the accessible/inaccessible binary and all of its various facets, but particularly when it comes to emotion: accessible = emotionally straightforward (i.e. those “all angry, all the time” metal bands that can fill outdoor amphitheaters) vs. inaccessible = emotionally complex (like Bell Witch, SubRosa, Isenordal).

A few DMs later, we agreed to try to turn that post into an article: a binary conversation about musical binaries between a blogger/critic and an actively recording and touring musician. So I started a Google Doc, and we spent the next six months or so trading responses back and forth before arriving at something that felt like a resolution. In the interim, we covered a lot of territory – music, philosophy, semiotics, and myriad other topics. The ensuing conversation isn’t for everyone – that’s for sure. However, instead of trying to shape it into something that might appeal to a broader readership, we made the conscious choice to embrace our pretentiousness and, aside from some editing for grammar and clarity, run the ‘bialogue’ essentially as it was written.

One final note before I bring this intro to a close. There’s a reason I wanted to do this ‘bialogue’ with Marisa: there are very few active musicians playing metal (or metal-adjacent genres) that I respect or admire more than Marisa. And since I hold her in such high esteem, I’m going to take this opportunity to plug another one of her projects. At some point in the last year, she started drumming and sharing vocal duties in Kihalás. They just premiered their first single since she joined the band, so give it a listen as you check out our extended conversation below.

Clayton T. Michaels: Part of the reason your post struck a chord with me is that I’ve had an “academic” (for lack of a better term) interest in things like binary structures and the inherent problems with compartmentalizing and/or naming things since I took a literary/critical theory course while I was getting my Master’s degree. It’s waaaaaaay too early in this piece for me to start talking theory, though, so let’s hit pause on that for the time being…

After thinking about it for the better part of a morning, I thought the topic might make for an interesting think piece – and what better way to do that think piece than as a dialogue? Especially a dialogue between two people who are coming at the topic from different angles: an actively recording/gigging musician (you) and a blogger/critic (me). In other words, a binary discussion about musical binaries.

And now that everyone’s caught up, let me ask you this: what was it that originally prompted you to write that post? You play viola in a black metal/dark folk band – was it in any way a response  to reactions you’ve heard or read about Isenordal, or was there some other impetus for it?

Marisa Kaye Janke: Greetings, IMV and readers. It pleases me that we are having this discussion.

Yes, so, in context, I shared Samuel Barber’s Overture to the School for Scandal  as focused comparison to Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s album Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, a lesser known classical piece to compliment the obscure/ artsy listeners of Godspeed (you may know Barber better for that wonderfully  emotive piece Adagio for Strings). My role in Isenordal pretty sufficiently highlights what I’m all about; carefully calculated interweaving of orchestral ideas into contemporary metal. The two realms are wonderfully similar, and often only simplified string work is comprehended as accompaniment to the intricacies of tremolo picking and blast beats. But Isenordal does considerable amounts of premeditation and analysis to every passage that incorporates our classical instruments (viola, piano, cello) and henceforth it frustrates me when this is overlooked. I understand it entirely, and certainly mean not to lessen the appreciation of any compliments given to our work, but given this extremely particular platform, yes- “well orchestrated” doesn’t really begin to scratch the depth of analysis involved, and this is true of many hardworking bands, absolutely not limited to those who literally orchestrate.

I also have just been reading a lot of disappointingly thrown together reviews of other bands and music in general and it saddens me that anyone would be lazy in discussing something so sacred as music. I’m getting really personal here, and I am known to take life frighteningly lightly, but since you asked, I firmly put my foot down at general orchestral comparisons. I know it isn’t common knowledge to differentiate between baroque style implied staccato and Romanticism’s chromatism, for example, but I would like to expand the understanding that music interpretation (especially that of classical music) is not cut and dry.

The binary thing was kind of a joke because I live in one of the most aggressively liberal cities in the country  (Seattle) and I also recently made a joke probably in poor taste sharing the discontent of misrepresentation by being “mis-genred” instead of “misgendered,” but I like where you went with it.

P.S. I’m ready to start talking about theory whenever you are 🙂

CTM: Well, then let’s dive into some theory. The way I’m reading it–and I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, so forgive me if I’m not totally accurate here–you seem to be making two separate but interrelated points here: one involving people’s need to place everything in some sort of category, and one about how those categories are often quite lazily constructed as binaries. And potential issues with the wording aside, I think your point about being “mis-genred” as opposed to “misgendered” illustrates that point really well.

On the one hand, it’s worth asking why these categories even exist. In some ways, they’re kind of like stereotypes, though obviously less pernicious: not very accurate, but a sort of shorthand that people use when forming first impressions. I think most people tend to prefer things that are familiar, that are comfortable – they want to avoid disequilibrium, because that causes discomfort. So everything goes into some sort of category, and the fewer categories there are to choose from, the more comfortable most people are. Ergo, binaries. Gender is the perfect example: only having two categories–male or female–makes categorization easy. Add in transgendered, gender fluid, non-gendered, etc. and things get far more complicated because saying that a person is “gender fluid” requires a degree  of understanding that saying someone is “male” or “female” does not.

What I find more interesting from a theoretical perspective, however, is the way that categorization dovetails with the problems inherent in giving things names. In Jacques Derrida’s essay “Violence and Metaphysics,” he makes the point that naming something is essentially an act of violence because it implies ownership over the thing being named. Interestingly enough, a lot of Derrida’s argument is rooted in theology, and you did call music sacred. And here’s where my twelve years of Catholic school starts to show, even though those years effectively turned me into an agnostic.

Think back to the story in Genesis where Adam gives names to all the animals. In most readings, that’s symbolic of God giving man dominion over all the livestock, the birds of the air, the wild animals, etc. Now fast forward however many years until you get to a 13th century German mystic by the name of Meister Eckhart, who recognized that relationship between naming and claiming ownership and applied it to man’s attempts to name God. He said it was akin to stuffing God in a basket and hiding him under a bench, or something to that effect – I don’t remember his exact wording.

So here’s my question: is this relentless need on the part of people to categorize music an attempt to claim ownership over it? Is it basically the same thing as stuffing music in a basket and hiding it under a bench?

MKJ: Aww…I thought you meant music theory.

Well, if we are to equate it to a god figure and hold those allusions to be true, then yes. But I’ll challenge that requirement as another possibly misconceived notion that I think many of our listeners/ readers will resonate with more kindly.

Sanctity assumes sovereignty. Sovereignty holds the highest authority over every subsequent jurisdiction and cannot be surpassed. Must “god” be the apex of aspiration? Or is human creativity more worthy of highest worship? Godliness need not be equated with supreme benevolence, and I think we probably see eye-to-eye on that with your testament to agnosticism, but I’d really rather not go down that dangerous path of theological labels, mainly because of what I expect to be an apprehension and repulsion from our audience of anything involving the word “god.” Though I am certainly not opposed to discussing it and know full well the importance of understanding opposing beliefs, I think it may derail us and…you know. Hail Satan and stuff.

But to the actual concept in illustration: Is the intangibility of musical expression to be credited for its sanctity? Yes, I agree that naming (or henceforth owning) anything threatens its ability for infinite expansiveness. But in light of my previous assertion, I believe a more human approach to a respectable understanding of extra-human phenomenon is attainable. The God basket story sounds fearful and removed as the man lowers himself in accessibility so far from God that nothing can be examined or discussed in terror of lessening its value. That seems like a convenient cop out to not giving oneself the possibility to brave an analysis. The extra-human essence of music is indeed transcendental but it is only through the vehicle of our humanity that its existence is observed. Therefore discussing it as humble students seeking to learn acknowledges our coexistent involvement with the phenomenon and rather increases instead of lessens humanity on the spectrum of divine proximity.  

Applicably: let’s scrutinize our terminology in musical analysis.

CTM: That’s a really fascinating point. I don’t suppose you’re familiar with the French literary critic Roland Barthes? He wrote an essay in the late 60s called “The Death of the Author” that I think makes a similar point to what you’re saying. In it, he’s essentially arguing that the idea of authorial intent is a fallacy – in fact, the idea that a given text has only one author and thus only one possible interpretation puts unnecessary limitations on that text.

For the sake of example: you’re aware that I’m a poet, and that whole “death of the author” thing is really at the heart of my aesthetic. Don’t ask me what my poems are “about,” or what I was thinking and/or feeling when I was working on them. Those things are totally irrelevant. Instead, I believe readers get out of my poetry what they’re willing to put into reading my poetry, if that makes any sense. Readers either find meaning in it based on the experiences they bring to their reading of it, or they end up frustrated that an easy interpretation of the work  isn’t being handed to them.

To put this in musical terms, let’s take a brief detour into the world of The Grateful Dead. My all-time favorite “Dark Star” is the one from the Fillmore West on March 2, 1969, (aka the one on Live/Dead) and right before they kick it off, you can hear Jerry Garcia say “free turf.” For Jerry,  ‘free turf’ was the empty space between the band and the audience where the music actually takes shape. The band plays it, and the audience receives it, but what happens to it in the time it takes to get from the band to the audience is different for everyone in attendance  – and in that respect, the audience plays just as active a role in the actual creation of music as the musicians.

Granted, there’s a fair amount of hippie-dippy drugged-out ‘logic’ at work there, but the concept at the center of it doesn’t seem too far off from what Barthes was talking about. And given the ritualistic aspect of a lot of those early Dead shows–and especially the performances of “Dark Star,” which was never played the same way twice–that sure sounds like the sort of “coexistent involvement with the phenomenon” that you were talking about.

Which I suppose presents us with another binary: experiencing music vs. analyzing it…

MKJ: Necessity of analysis is respective to the consumer, I think. When you’re in a an LSD-induced trance, sufficiently distracted/ entertained by the newfound accessible contemplation on the subtle occurrences of simple, normally overlooked bodily functions (i.e. breath, pulse, the hinging ability of the jaw and the strangeness of teeth in general) a thick bass line with some creamy guitars is going to feel quite alright (to most people**) regardless of its premediation if performed well by competent musicians. Similarly, punk bands sure seem to satisfy a brain soaked in Rainier.

But I personally require a great deal of contemplation to reach steadiness in my own brain, and I mean not to lessen by any means the satiability standards of anyone’s experience, but rather propose that some of the more hyperactive/ neurotic (sober) types find ease and relaxation by critically examining detail. In yoga philosophy there exists a Sanskrit term called vritti which we understand as brain “static”; stirring, directionless thoughts taking up space and causing unrest in the mind. We are taught to extend hyperactive focus into extreme particulars along the observation of flowing asanas (postures) so as to anchor to the potential (counter kinetic) energy of the otherwise fleeting static so as to drain the brain of thoughts by directing them elsewhere (and in strenuous postures you indeed cling to any option of focus away from hard physical work). This is where we can invite meditation, for the brain is still and neutral, which translates easily to feelings of happiness or enjoyment because tension and negativity has perhaps dissipated in the transference of the static.

I have a lot of vritti all the time, so intense examination- especially of something I enjoy (music)- is a little more satisfying to me than being blown away by the improvisational momentous decisions of a jam band. Though I am certainly fond of the untamable flowing currents of creativity, musical sedation for me is due entirely to multiple satisfactions of intense curiosity. “Readers get out of my poetry what they’re willing to put into reading my poetry” makes absolute sense, as is the case with anything challenging and henceforth rewarding.

**I do not like the Grateful Dead as a band. I do, however, like drugs.

CTM: And I, on the other hand, much prefer the Grateful Dead to drugs. To be fair, though. I’m also pretty sure I’ve got 20+ years’ worth of miles more on my tires (so to speak) at this point than you do. You can have the drugs – I’ll take the occasional bit of jam band improvisation.

There are two possible responses to that competing for space (causing vritti?) in my brain right now. Here’s the one I’m going with for now: how do you feel about modal jazz? Since I know you have a classical background, I can see how you might cringe at the whole idea of ‘improvisational composition.’ As someone who’s as passionate about music as I know you are, however, my guess would be that you can appreciate something like Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (which just might be my favorite album of all time) or John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, both of which rely heavily on improvised themes around a very basic, repeated set of chords. I would argue that what the Dead did during a song like “Dark Star” isn’t that far off from modal jazz.

That being said, I also concede that such distinctions are ultimately in the [mind? ear? something else?] of the beholder. Which (I think) brings us somewhat back around to the questions of compartmentalization and binaries that we started with. In my mind, I draw a parallel between the exploratory improvisation of “Dark Star” and the modal jazz of  Kind of Blue. Is that a kind of compartmentalization? Absolutely. Does that kind of compartmentalization help me better wrap my head around what the Dead were trying to do when they played “Dark Star” in any way? Once again, I have to respond strongly in the affirmative.

If you were to ask me whether I felt like I was doing either artist a disservice by drawing that parallel, though, I’m not sure how I’d respond. Legend has it that Duane Allman would listen to Kind of Blue each night before going on stage for inspiration, but I’ve never tried to do a side-by-side comparison with “Mountain Jam” and “So What” to try to gauge the extent of that album’s influence on Allman’s playing. I seriously doubt that Miles Davis, however, would have much cared for the comparison. But how much should that matter to me as a listener?

When it comes down to it, how much control does a musician have over the music she (or he) makes? When putting music out there into the world, do you just need to accept that some listeners are only going to engage with it on a superficial level, or only discuss it in reductive, binary terms like happy/sad, accessible/inaccessible, or even metal/non-metal?

Or…let me complicate this a bit further. I don’t know if you’ve read Jean-Paul Sartre (the existential philosopher of “Hell is other people” fame/infamy), but one of the cornerstones of his philosophical approach–and, by extension, his assertion that Hell is other people–is the idea that human consciousness is reflective. From an existential perspective, we don’t truly have an accurate idea of who we are until other people tell us. For example, I may think I’m the nicest dude to ever walk the face of the Earth, but if everyone else thinks I’m a complete shitprick then chances are I don’t have a very accurate self-image.

Does the same general principle work for musicians? If a guitarist, for example, thinks he’s doing something totally innovative, but everyone else who hears him thinks he sounds a lot like [insert name of guitarist], is he just wrong? Who gets to decide?

MKJ: Modal in the sense that a melody can be played in identical intervals but beginning its root note elsewhere? That’s a beautiful technique that any genre can apply. I do not know enough about jazz to discuss it at length, but I certainly enjoy it and certainly appreciate that it requires more cerebral activity than casual jamming. It’s going to be difficult for me to scholarly expand on that though because I like really really do not like the Grateful Dead, Clayton, I apologize. I could easily pull up a YouTube video of one of those “once in a lifetime/ never to be heard this way again” performances and seek to detail what coattail of an idea upon which they interpret and expand, but I am just not going to subject myself to that.

Re: control: nothing. If you think you have control over your mind’s vacillations then I think you’re giving yourself way too much credit. I do not personally believe in original thought and our only influence on the tangible form created when our physical matter intercedes and reacts with an idea is due only to a unique filtration process that exists uniquely only because of the rarity of individuation from person to person. That sounds a little miserable but it’s actually quite liberating. We don’t have to  be bound to our ideas but can play with the organization of them. As to the depth propensity of the listener, it really doesn’t matter. Wherever someone wants to exist, I hope what they enjoy can find them there.

Monte of Un just loaned me Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea. I haven’t read it yet, but he said it would make good tour fodder. I could rant about the idea of reflective existence but I’m not sure it’s appropriate for this discussion. I’ll just say that I lean firmly on Buddhist ideals and a zen explanation of this illusory human life is that the mind is a mirror and I take that to mean that your interpretation of another, your quality of perception, is what looks back at you (or is the void into which you are looking). So, yes, your niceness only exists insofar as an interpretation of kindness is granted merit, and only to whatever extent the observer of the interpretation agrees with the meaning of your words.

Have you ever wondered if maybe what you perceive to be the color green has always been experienced by everyone else as what you have always perceived to be the color red, but no one said anything because as far as they have always known, green is red and you agreed? I don’t know. I think about that shit a lot. Asserting that hell is other people to me really means that hell is a suppressed and stagnant creature within you that only wakes up when the mirrors walk by.

Great is a relative term. Wrong is a relative term. I should think there are some undeniable pleasantries in the audible world but that is entirely subjective to whomever is consuming it.

CTM: It’s okay that you don’t like the Grateful Dead. We all have our crosses to bear. I still respect you as a musician. Also, I have a copy of Nausea sitting on my to-be-read bookshelf at the moment as well. I picked it up after listening to the album Imber Luminis put out last year (also called Nausea) that was inspired by it. And now I want to start a metal book club podcast…

Anyway…your point about red and green is particularly prescient here, since my earlier point about Derrida comes at least in part from his reading of a Swiss linguist and semiotician named Ferdinand de Saussure. In the book Course in General Linguistics, which was a collection of his lecture notes that two of his students compiled and published after his death, he makes the exact same point – just a century or so earlier.

In short, he basically argued that all language is arbitrary. In his conception, language is a series of signs, each of which has two parts: a signifier (what we call a word) and a signified (what most people think of when they hear that word). Here’s his famous example:

Is there anything inherent in the arrangement of the letters ‘t-r-e-e’ that means they have to signify what we think of when we hear the word ‘tree’? No, there’s not. So why does everyone have the same mental image when hearing that word? Because apparently at some point someone or a group of someonses with the power to make such decisions decreed that is was so, and we’ve all just gone with it all these years because calling what everyone else understands as a tree something else, like an aardvark or a pustule or something, would make communication damn near impossible: “The pustules turn such lovely colors in Southwestern Michigan in the fall…”

To bring this back around to the original point of this ‘bialogue,’ though – does de Saussure perhaps provide the best lens through which to understand genre and categorization in general? I mean, if I use the signifier ‘ska,’ anybody familiar with the genre will likely have a very similar aural signified pop into their heads. Same for ‘metalcore’ or ‘thrash’ or any other relatively straightforward genre.

Take a band like Isenordal, though, and the signifiers seem to break down. You aren’t ‘black metal,’ or ‘funeral doom,’ ‘dark folk,’ ‘neoclassical metal,’ or any other category that’s easily understandable to the average metal listener. Is it possible to extend your red/green analogy to address music genres? Is the experience of colors as subjective to the viewer as the experience of music is to the listener? Or even the musician?

MKJ: Cue Pavlov-esque cringe reaction at the word ‘metalcore’ because yes, our brains want to associate, naturally, probably for the sake of efficiency of conversation. I think that there is probably nothing wrong with that as long as we invite the possibility of continuous re-examination; just because someone categorizes a band by his or her ingrained criteria of organization does not negate its potential to hold an entirely different meaning to someone else. I feel like I’m just stating obvious things at this point. It’s funny to me that you bring up the term “neoclassical” metal because I had a long preliminary conversation with the band about redirecting its focus from what to me sounded baroque in its former incarnation to what it sounds like now- something of a romantic/ neoclassical intention in the particular stylistic textures and presence of the strings paired with richer/ bolder emotional outpouring of the other instruments counter a former stoicism, but that’s probably due in part to my fascination with late 19th- early 20th century chamber music. I can elaborate if necessary.

I do wish to reassert here at this point in the conversation that my original aggravation was not at all related to any band in which I am involved. I sincerely hope this doesn’t seem like I am seeking specificity of compliments; I was honestly criticizing the potential and frequented laziness of music journalism in general.  That being said…

I think Isenordal is fairly understandable. Someone like yourself may dig into the deeper nuances for a more satisfying listen, but if your standard metalhead wants to take it simply as a heavy band laced with some pretty shit, I see no fault in that. People often say they get lost in it, I think that’s a compliment to any and all levels of analysis.  The fact that a band can appreciate many sub genres and seek to interweave them in a unique way is that same idea of appropriate thought- patenting. It’s useful when someone asks me to play something funeral-y vs. black metal-y because I anticipate him or her desiring slow and mournful passages on the former and tremolo induced atmospheres on the latter.

What I enjoy most about Isenordal’s approach to uniquely organizing these unclaimable ideas, as it were, is our emphasis on not necessarily pairing that which is to be expected. The mournful weeping sounds can be presented in a black metal passage…I do this by writing my viola parts with the intent of preserving its emotional essence while examining the riff in the same mentality by which the guitarists examined it – energetically depressing, perhaps? (“Eternal Winter of the Mind” @ 9:32) These are just adjectives that I’ve decided work for me in explanation.

CTM: ‘Energetically depressing’ is a surprisingly apt way of putting it, and it makes a nice contrast to what I consider the ‘beautifully depressing’ section that starts around the 7:30 mark. And I can totally see how your more tempestuous viola lines during the ‘energetic’ passage play off the emotional essence of the guitars. And I’m convinced that you and Lieu were trying to kill everyone with that ‘beautiful’ viola/piano interlude – I legit got teary-eyed the first time I listened to it.

So we’ve covered a lot of territory thus far, and I’m not sure we’ve gotten any closer to answering the question we more-or-less started with, and I think we may have taken a few tangents that may have led us too far away from the original point to fully circle back around. So let me put this to you instead: I think that we both agree that at least on some level, categorization, and particularly binary categorization, of music is lazy/reductive/irritating/etc. But  is it actually harmful in any way?

Or to put it another way, has this entire ‘bialogue’ been predicated on some sort of analysis/enjoyment binary notion of how one experiences music?

Photo Credit: Hail Yourself ‘Zine

MKJ: I think reductive is the most agreeable sentiment here. Harmful, however – and this is hilarious because you and I are both vegans who thereby take harmfulness to a particularly steep extreme-  is subjective. It may cause a snob to get a little sore consequent the lazy classification, but if that is as far as a spectator can take his or her examination, I suppose I wouldn’t want anyone to present fluffy terminology by default of ignorance. Side note, related, (and this is an extremely personal inference) a huge red flag to me that someone is about to talk about strings without a lot of backing knowledge is the use of the word “symphonic.” It often precedes a lot of fake grandiose vernacular, I’m serious, watch out for that.

I hope that answers the question, or feeds the discussion, and I appreciate you taking the time to address that passing thought so deeply. Cheers to anyone reading who stayed with us this long, and regarding the interlude, yes, we were. I hope everyone died.

CTM: Well, y’all damn near killed me. Luckily I have a tolerance for these things…or something.

One final yes-or-no question: based on what I’m getting from that last reponse, are you basically saying that as a musician, you’re fine with any response from the listener so long as it’s genuine? Basically, is superficial engagement > ‘fake grandiose vernacular’? Because if that’s where we’ve landed here…I think I can actually agree with that.

MKJ: (pause for dramatic effect)

Yes.

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