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Music: Culture & Symbolism

This article features a concise introduction on the significance of music; followed by a succession of interesting books and media relating to its cultural influence; then more media relating to its symbolism; and concluding with a list of the relevant links.

Books: The Rest is Noise; Retromania. DVDs: The Mighty Boosh

Of all the arts, music is the one that has the most influence on society—be it a primitive or a civilized one. Music is intangible: it is not felt, or seen, which makes it a more potent form of subliminal influence than visual and physical forms of entertainment.

Furthermore, rhythms of sounds do seem to affect humans on an intrinsic level. And I find it striking how many songs that sound so impressive (and even profound) suffer from an impoverishment of meaning—if not a subversion of meaning—when one simply reads the lyrics. For these reasons, it can be rewarding to become more conscious of the ways in which music influences society.

Music & Culture

The Rest is Noise – Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross (2007)

This book is a broad and detailed account of the development of music in the last century; but more importantly, the mutual influences between music, society, and politics. For example, how dictators utilized classical music for their desired societal ends; and how, in turn, this has led to giving classical music a sinister edge in modern culture—exemplified, above all, in it so often being associated with villainous characters in movies.

Revolution and Romance: Musical Masters of the Nineteenth Century (BBC 4, 3-Part Documentary Series, 2016)

Tunes for TyrantsMusic and Power (BBC 4, 3-Part Documentary Series, 2017)

These two three-part documentaries, presented by Suzy Klein, very much go hand-in-hand with The Rest is Noise, in that they seek to show the connection between music and social influence. Additionally, I find that of all the subjects to read about, music is the one that is best complimented by documentaries, as it provides an accessible way of having particular music described whilst also being able to hear it.

Retromania – Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, by Simon Reynolds (2011)

This is one of those unique books on a specialized topic, that being Britain’s (postmodern) obsession with its immediate cultural past, i.e. endless revivals, reissues, remakes, re-enactments, sequels, tributes, reunions, etc. Whilst the book is not exclusively about music, it is the main form through which trends in nostalgia and retro culture are found.

The Mighty Boosh (BBC TV Series, 2003-2007)

This uniquely strange show, which I had not heard of before reading Retromania, is described in that book as “A loving satire of hipsterism … [where] pop history becomes phantasmagoric, a hallucinatory bestiary of absurd and sometimes grotesque memory hybrids.” Even more intriguing was a direct quote of the lyrics from one of the show’s trademark bizzaro music videos:

We are running backwards
Running through time into the past
Taking retro to its logical conclusion.

Pretty striking, if one considers society’s “retromania”—and what the “logical conclusion” of it could turn out to be.

Music & Symbolism

When Albums Ruled the World (2013 BBC Documentary)

This was a fascinating and eye-opening documentary for me, showing the evolution of the music album from a collection of disparate songs, to a conceptual work of art. Albums ‘ruled the world’ during the late 60s and through the 70s, until the 80s, when MTV and music videos eclipsed the marketability of concept albums, which then declined (at least in prevalence).

The best thing about this documentary, I found, is that it explains why concept albums are so rewarding to experience as intended; that is, undisturbed, in one sitting. Various artists and music-related people also discuss how important the album cover was, and how it was common for buyers to enjoy closely examining and appreciating its artwork.

At one point, they show (a retro reenactment) of a man—having placing his LP in his player—relaxing into his armchair whilst holding the (large) vinyl album cover (‘Dark Side of the Moon’, I think it was), with his head leaning right back—as if to, very deliberately, transport himself into the ‘world’ of this album.

This documentary basically made me rethink the way I listen to music: since then, I have looked out for interesting albums from all decades and genres, bought the CDs, and listened to them straight through, undisturbed with headphones. I also examine the cover and lyrics booklet, and generally think more consciously about what the imagery, sound, and lyrics are conveying—and I find the experience much more enjoyable and rewarding than with my previous manner of music listening.

When every song ever recorded fits on your MP3 player, will you listen to any of them? Karla Starr, June 5, 2008, Pheonix New Times (Article)

This short but incisive article gets right to the heart of what I meant by “my previous manner of music listening”, i.e. an iPod filled with mp3s, custom playlists of various kinds—shuffled or not—and often skipping tracks before they finish to switch to something else. To which I would add, ‘listening’ to music pretty much only whilst doing something else.

Books: A Brief History of Album Covers; Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. CD Albums: Dark Side of the Moon; In Rainbows

A Brief History of Album Covers, by Jason Draper (2008)

In the Introduction to this book, the author essentially explains the significance of album covers, and mentions that the purpose of this book is not to be a catalogue of the ‘Best’ album covers of any kind, but to select ones that are or were significant for one reason or another, and to concisely summarise these aspects beside a photo of the album cover. This was more the kind of approach that I was looking for when seeking a book on album covers—and I only found one more like it (all the rest were of the ‘Best Covers’ variety. Also note that there is an updated 2017 edition of this book).

Album Cover: Bjork – Debut
Book Text: The author’s accompanying description of the significance and symbolism of Bjork’s album ‘Debut’

For the iconic album cover ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ by Pink Floyd, the author’s description provides some interesting trivia from a music fan’s perspective, but I didn’t find it insightful analytically, as some of his other ones were (to be fair, analysis was not his approach, and so I appreciated his analytical meanderings whenever they appeared).

Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd (1973 Music Album)

When thinking of the image on the album cover of the Dark Side of the Moon—the prism refracting the ray of light—the first thing that comes to mind is the symbolic association of light with wisdom, i.e. ‘illumination’, which is the more occult term; and ‘enlightenment’, which is the more commonplace term.

Therefore, the refraction of the sole ray of light into a various rays of colours makes me think of the modern sociological aspects of specialization and compartmentalization, which have—over the decades—diverted what traditionally used to function as a stable body of wisdom (i.e. not that it was ‘The Truth’), into an incohesive array of conflicting schools of thoughts on pretty much every subject.

At the same time, darkness—as in the “dark side” of the moon—symbolizes ignorance; and is generally associated with bad things. Furthermore, the concept of the ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ album is based on the madness-inducing effects of modern society—which places the use of the symbol (the prism refracting the light into a rainbow of colours) into a “dark” context, i.e. not intended to signify anything nice, despite that it looks quite nice.

In Rainbows, by Radiohead (2007 Music Album)

This album by Radiohead (who have often been likened to a modern Pink Floyd) also features this theme of refracted light, in the form of a rainbow; and specifically, in rainbows—as if something, in some way, is involved with many of them…

As it happens, I did not make this thematic connection (Pink Floyd ↔ Refracted Light ↔ Radiohead) when I first purchased the album, nor after I had listened to it for the first time. The second time I listened to it, I read through the lyrics booklet beforehand, which I found to be mysteriously (i.e. confusingly) interesting—until one group of lines instantly clarified everything to me:

Lyrics of ‘The Reckoner’ (from the ‘In Rainbows’ CD Album lyrics booklet)

The second-from-last group of lines read:

Because we separate like
ripples on a blank shore
In Rainbows
Because we separate like
ripples on a blank shore

This immediately made me realize why the lyrics in the booklet—similar to the title(s) on the cover, except more so—are all separated. And not just by space, but by colour.

As with the Pink Floyd album cover, I identify this symbolism of refraction and separation as alluding to these aspects becoming more prevalent in society in various ways: with the aforementioned specialization and compartmentalization of knowledge; with, if you think about it, the dismantling of the music album into playlists of selected tracks; and also with multiculturism: from one indigenous culture to a culture of cultures; from a ray to an array, you could say [A thought: multi-culture → multi-colour → we separate like ripples on a blank shore, In Rainbows].

Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, by Christopher Caldwell (2009)

This book is an excellent and relevant examination of the mass immigration Europe has experienced in recent decades, including the changes it has brought about, and what these changes and trends could mean for the future. He has quite thoroughly inquired into the subject, and in doing so, has raised many significant aspects of it—for example, his distinguishing between ‘assimilation’ and ‘integration’. Should one sense that society has undergone a kind of ‘refraction’, and that people(s) are becoming separated (or dis-integrated), this book offers a detailed circumscription of the topic, which can serve as a good start towards investigating the reasons how and why.


Stepping stones . . . . and the rest is noise . . . .

Author: Simon Kanzen

I value reading substantial literature, enjoy thought-provoking entertainment, and above all, I think every day. With Stepping Stones, I develop my thoughts in writing and share references to relevant media, intending for other readers and thinkers to find these writings useful.

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