The Interesting Instrument

Music has been called the greatest thing that humans do; some are of the opinion that it, even if only in the form of songs sung around the campfire, it is the oldest example of human art. However, whilst a huge amount of music’s effect and impact can be put down to the way it is interpreted by our ears and brain (I once listened to a song comprised entirely of various elements of urban sound, each individually recorded by separate microphones and each made louder or softer in order to create a tune), to create new music and allow ourselves true creative freedom over the sounds we make requires us to make and play instruments of various kinds. And, of all the myriad of different musical instruments humankind has developed, honed and used to make prettyful noises down the years, perhaps none is as interesting to consider as the oldest and most conceptually abstract of the lot; the human voice.

To those of us not part of the musical fraternity, the idea of the voice being considered an instrument at all is a very odd one; it is used most of the time simply to communicate, and is thus perhaps unique among instruments in that its primary function is not musical. However, to consider a voice as merely an addition to a piece of music rather than being an instrumental part of it is to dismiss its importance to the sound of the piece, and as such it must be considered one by any composer or songwriter looking to produce something coherent. It is also an incredibly diverse tool at a musician’s disposal; capable of a large range of notes anyway in a competent singer, by combining the voices of different people one can produce a tonal range rivalled only by the piano, and making it the only instrument regularly used as the sole component of a musical entity (ie in a choir). Admittedly, not using it in conjunction with other instruments does rather limit what it can do without looking really stupid, but it is nonetheless a quite amazingly versatile musical tool.

The voice also has a huge advantage over every other instrument in that absolutely anyone can ‘play’ it; even people who self-confessedly ‘can’t sing’ may still find themselves mumbling their favourite tune in the shower or singing along with their iPod occasionally. Not only that, but it is the only instrument that does not require any tool in addition to the body in order to play, meaning it is carried with everyone absolutely everywhere, thus giving everybody listening to a piece of music a direct connection to it; they can sing, mumble, or even just hum along. Not only is this a wet dream from a marketer’s perspective, enabling word-of-mouth spread to increase its efficiency exponentially, but it also makes live music that other level more awesome (imagine a music festival without thousands of screaming fans belting out the lyrics) and just makes music that much more compelling and, indeed, human to listen to.

However, the main artistic reason for the fundamental musical importance of the voice has more to do with what it can convey- but to adequately explain this, I’m going to need to go off on a quite staggeringly over-optimistic detour as I try to explain, in under 500 words, the artistic point of music. Right, here we go…:

Music is, fundamentally, an art form, and thus (to a purist at least) can be said to exist for no purpose other than its own existence, and for making the world a better place for those of us lucky enough to be in it. However, art in all its forms is now an incredibly large field with literally millions of practitioners across the world, so just making something people find pretty doesn’t really cut it any more. This is why some extraordinarily gifted painters can draw something next to perfectly photo-realistic and make a couple of grand from it, whilst Damien Hirst can put a shark in some formaldehyde and sell it for a few million. What people are really interested in buying, especially when it comes to ‘modern’ art, is not the quality of brushwork or prettifulness of the final result (which are fairly common nowadays), but its meaning, its significance, what it is trying to convey; the story, theatre and uniqueness behind it all (far rarer commodities that, thanks to the simple economic law of supply and demand, are thus much more expensive).

(NB: This is not to say that I don’t think the kind of people who buy Tracy Emin pieces are rather gullible and easily led, and apparently have far more money than they do tangible grip on reality- but that’s a discussion for another time, and this is certainly how they would justify their purchases)

Thus, the real challenge to any artist worth his salt is to try and create a piece that has meaning, symbolism, and some form of emotion; and this applies to every artistic field, be it film, literature, paintings, videogames (yes, I am on that side of the argument) or, to try and wrench this post back on-topic, music. The true beauty and artistic skill of music, the key to what makes those songs that transcend mere music alone so special, lies in giving a song emotion and meaning, and in this function the voice is the perfect instrument. Other instruments can produce sweet, tortured strains capable of playing the heart strings like a violin, but virtue of being able to produce those tones in the form of language, capable of delivering an explicit message to redouble the effect of the emotional one, a song can take on another level of depth, meaning and artistry. A voice may not be the only way to make your song explicitly mean something, and quite often it’s not used in such an artistic capacity at all; but when it is used properly, it can be mighty, mighty effective.

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Socially Acceptable Druggies

Alcohol is, without a shadow of a doubt, our society’s commonly acceptable drug of choice; no matter that one third of people admit to smoking cannabis at some point in their lives, or that smoking kills tens of thousands more people every year, neither can touch alcohol for its prevalence and importance within western civilisation. It’s everywhere; for most polite social gatherings it is fundamentally necessary as an icebreaker, every settlement from the biggest city to the tiniest hamlet will have a bar, pub or other drinking venue and many people will collect veritable hoards of the stuff, sometimes even in purpose-built rooms.

Which, on the face of it, might seem odd given how much it screws around with you. Even before the damage it causes to one’s liver and internal organs was discovered, it had been known for centuries that alcohol was dangerously habit-forming stuff, and it was generally acknowledged that prolonged use ‘pickled’ the brain. It also leaves those who imbibe it severely confused and lacking in coordination, which has proved hideously dangerous in countless scenarios over the years (even contributing to several assassinations), and can be almost guaranteed to result in personal embarrassment and other decisions you’re really going to regret when sober. If it wasn’t for booze’s noted enhancing of promiscuity, it might be surprising that drinking hadn’t been bred out of us simply thanks to natural selection, so much does it generally screw around with our ability to function as proper human beings

Like many drugs, alcohol has its roots in the dim and distant past when it felt quite nice and we didn’t know any better; a natural product when sugar (usually in the form of fruit) comes into contact with yeast (a common, naturally occurring fungus), it was quickly discovered how to make this process happen efficiently and controlledly by putting both sugar and yeast under water (or in some other anaerobic atmosphere). All raw materials were easy to come by and the process didn’t require any special skill, so it was only natural that it should catch on. Especially when we consider that alcohol is generally considered to be the single best way of making the world feel like a less crappy place than it often appears.

However, the real secret to alcohol’s success in worming its way into our society is less linked to booze itself, and has more to do with water. From our earliest infancy as a species, water has been readily available in the world around us, whether it be from lakes, rivers, wells or wherever. Unfortunately, this means it is also available for lots of other things to use and make their homes in, including a vast array of nasty bacteria. As can be seen with the situation across swathes of Africa and the Third World (although this problem has been reduced quite significantly over the last decade or so), access to water that is not fetid, disgusting and dangerous can be nigh-on impossible for many, forcing them to settle for water containing diseases ranging from cholera to dysentery. And that’s where alcohol came in.

The great advantage of alcohol is that its production can be very carefully controlled; even if the majority of an alcoholic drink is water, this is generally a product of the fruit or other sugary substance used in the brewing process. This means it is a lot purer than most ‘fresh’ water, and in any case the alcohol present in the fluid kills off a lot of bacteria. Even for those that can survive that, alcoholic beverages are far more likely to be bottled (or at least they were, before someone discovered the sheer quantity of suckers willing to buy what you can get out of the tap) than water, keeping any more invading bacteria, parasites, insects and other crap out. All of this was, of course, not known before Louis Pasteur first came along with his Germ Theory, but the facts stayed the same; historically, you were far less likely to die from drinking alcohol than drinking water.

Still, come the 20th century most of our sanitation problems in the developed world were sorted, so we didn’t need to worry about all that any more did we? Surely, we would have been fine to get rid of booze from our culture, throw out a feature of our lives that ruins many a night out, body or family? Surely, we’d all be far better off without alcohol in our culture? Wouldn’t we?

In many cases, this kind of question would prove a purely theoretical one, to be discussed by leading thinkers; however, much to the delight of all champions of evidence over opinion, the USA were kind enough to give banning alcohol a go way back in the early days of the 20th century. A hundred years ago, campaigns from the likes of the church and the Anti Saloon Bar League painted alcohol as a decidedly destructive influence, so successfully that from 1920 to 1933 the sale, production and consumption of alcohol within the United States became illegal.

At the time, many people thought this was a brilliant idea that would yield great social change. They were right; society as a collective decided that the law was more like a guideline anyway, and through their lot in with the mob. This was the golden age of organised crime, the era of Al Capone and others making fortunes in dealing bootleg alcohol, either dangerous home-brewed ‘moonshine’ liquor or stuff smuggled across the Canadian border. Hundreds of illegal speakeasies, clubs whose drab outsides hid their gaudy interiors, and in which were housed illegal gambling nests, dancers, prostitutes and a hell of a lot of booze, sprung up in every major American city, and while the data is inconsistent some figures suggest alcohol consumption actually rose during the Prohibition era (as it was known). Next to nobody was ever imprisoned or even charged with their crimes however, because the now-wealthy mob could afford to bribe almost anyone, and in any case most police officers and legal officials were illicit drinkers themselves; even Al Capone wasn’t taken down until after he was suspected of ordering some rival gangsters gunned down in what became known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Eventually a group of supremely dedicated policement known unofficially as ‘The Untouchables’ managed to pin tax evasion charges on him, and even had to switch a bribed jury to ensure he went down (a film, The Untouchables, was made about the story- give it a watch if you ever get the charge). By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt repealed prohibition upon coming to power in 1933, the message was clear: America loved alcohol too much, and it wasn’t about to let it go.

Alcohol is, in its effect at least, not a special drug; many others can be used to forget the bad times, enjoy the good times and make the world feel like a better place. But there’s something about, something about its cultural imagery, that makes it timeless, and makes it an immovable feature of our world. It could be that it’s probably the cheapest recreational drug, or maybe that it’s the oldest, but to me the real secret to its success is its weakness, combined with the way it is almost always served very dilute. Most illegal drugs give an instant hit, a huge rush followed by crashing downer, and this makes any use of it a brief, wild experience. Alcohol is more mellow; something you can spend an entire night slowly drowning your sorrows in, or casually imbibe whilst chatting and generally functioning like a normal human being. It’s slow, it’s casual, a feature of an evening that does not necessarily have to define it- that is the cultural secret to alcohol’s success.

Fitting in

This is my third post in this little mini-series on the subject of sex & sexuality in general, and this time I would like to focus on the place that sex has in our society. I mean, on the face of it, we as a culture appear to be genuinely embarrassed by its existence a lot of the time, rarely being referred to explicitly if at all (at least certainly not among ‘correct’ and polite company), and making any mention of it a cause of scandal and embarrassment. Indeed, an entire subset of language has seemed to develop over the last few years to try and enable us to talk about sexually-related things without ever actually making explicit references to it- it’s an entire area where you just don’t go in conversation. It’s almost as if polite society has the mental age of a 13 year old in this regard, and is genuinely embarrassed as to its existence.

Compare this to the societal structure of one of our closest relatives, the ‘pygmy great ape’ called the bonobo. Bonobos adopt a matriarchal (female-led) society, are entirely bisexual, and for them sex is a huge part of their social system. If a pair of bonobos are confronted with any new and unusual situation, be it merely the introduction of a cardboard box, their immediate response will be to briefly start having sex with one another almost to act as an icebreaker, before they go and investigate whatever it was that excited them. Compared to bonobos, humans appear to be acting like a bunch of nuns.

And this we must contrast against the fact that sex is something that we are not only designed for but that we actively seek and enjoy. Sigmund Freud is famous for claiming that most of human behaviour can be put down to the desire for sex, and as I have explained in previous place, it makes evolutionary sense for us to both enjoy sex and seek it wherever we can. It’s a fact of life, something very few of us would be comfortable to do without, and something our children are going to have to come to terms with eventually- yet it’s something that culture seems determined to brush under the carpet, and that children are continually kept away from for as long as is physically possible in a last-ditch attempt to protect whatever innocence they have left. So why is this?

Part of the reasoning behind this would be the connection between sex and nakedness, as well as the connection to privacy. Human beings do not, obviously, have thick fur to protect themselves or keep them warm (nobody knows exactly why we lost ours, but it’s probably to do with helping to regulate temperature, which we humans do very well), and as such clothes are a great advantage to us. They can shade us when its warm and allow for more efficient cooling, protect us from harsh dust, wind & weather, keep us warm when we venture into the world’s colder climates, help stem blood flow and lessen the effect of injuries, protect us against attack from predators or one another, help keep us a little cleaner and replace elaborate fur & feathers for all manner of ceremonial rituals. However, they also carry a great psychological value, placing a barrier between our bodies and the rest of the world, and thus giving us a sense of personal privacy about our own bodies. Of particular interest to our privacy are those areas most commonly covered, including (among other things), the genital areas, which must be exposed for sexual activity. This turns sex into a private, personal act in our collective psyche, something to be shared only between the partners involved, and making any exploration of it seem like an invasion of our personal privacy. In effect, then, it would seem the Bible got it the wrong way around- it was clothes that gave us the knowledge and shame of nakedness, and thus the ‘shame’ of sex.

Then we must consider the social importance of sex & its consequences in our society generally. For centuries the entire governmental structure of most of the world was based around who was whose son, who was married to who  and, in various roundabout ways, who either had, was having, or could in the future be having, sex with whom. Even nowadays the due process of law usually means inheritance by either next of kin, spouse or partner, and so the consequences of sex carry immense weight. Even in the modern world, with the invention of contraceptives and abortion and the increasing prevalence of ‘casual sex’, sex itself carries immense societal weight, often determining how you are judged by your peers, your ‘history’ among them and your general social standing. To quote a favourite song of a friend of mine: ‘The whole damn world is just as obsessed/ With who’s the best dressed and who’s having sex’. And so, sex becomes this huge social thing, its pursuit full of little rules and nuances, all about who with who (and even with the where & how among some social groups) and it is simply not allowed to become ‘just this thing everyone does’ like it is with the bonobos. Thus, everything associated with sex & sexuality becomes highly strung and almost political in nature, making it a semi-taboo to talk about for fear of offending someone.

Finally, we must consider the development of the ‘sexual subculture’ that seems to run completely counter to this taboo attitude. For most of human history we have comfortably accepted and even encouraged the existence of brothels and prostitution, and whilst this has become very much frowned upon in today’s culture the position has been filled by strip clubs, lap dancing bars and the sheer mountains of pornography that fill the half-hidden corners of newsagents, small ads and the internet. This is almost a reaction to the rather more prim aloofness adopted by polite society, an acknowledgement and embracing of our enjoyment of sex (albeit one that caters almost exclusively to heterosexual men and has a dubious record for both women’s and, in places, human rights). But because this is almost a direct response to the attitudes of polite culture, it has naturally attracted connotations of being seedy and not respectable. Hundreds of men may visit strip clubs every night, but that doesn’t make it an OK career move for a prominent judge to be photographed walking out of one. Thus, as this sex-obsessed underworld has come into being on the wrong side of the public eye, so sex itself has attracted the same negative connotations, the same sense of lacking in respectability, among the ‘proper’ echelons of society, and has gone even more into the realms of ‘Do Not Discuss’.

But, you might say, sex appears to be getting even more prevalent in the modern age. You’ve mentioned internet porn, but what about the sexualisation of the media, the creation and use of sex symbols, the targeting of sexual content at a steadily younger audience? Good question, and one I’ll give a shot at answering next time…