Charles Kronengold

Charles Kronengold has published on popular music, Western art music, film and aesthetics. This paper’s focus on “puzzling interfacing” expands on a theme in his second book, Different Methods, Different Signs: Crediting Thinking in Soul and Dance Music. He teaches musicology at Stanford.



"Sensing Thinking, Puzzling Interfacing"

Early-eighties experimental music in New York City looked and felt as odd as it sounded. Your typical performance might include game-calls blown into pots of water, slow-moving tape-loops cordoning off the performance space, a trombone played without its mouthpiece, contact-miked coat-racks assaulted with canes, drumsets with cracked cymbals and average pieces of wood, kit-built drum-machines with LEDs peeking through duct tape, maybe some shitty keyboard straddling the backs of two stack-chairs, too low for standing and too high for sitting. What were the musicians thinking? An initial sense that they were simply making do or that they were setting off in pursuit of novel sonic effects quickly gives way to the realization that these funny interfaces made things harder than they had to be. This was partly the point. But we can be struck as well by the ways musicians naturalized these strange musical behaviors.

Artists like Fred Frith, George Lewis and John Zorn may have been huffing and puffing but they managed to habituate themselves to the body/brain processes these techniques demanded. Improvising in unusual musical, social and physical contexts, they got to the point where the hard work of making these sounds could come and go as an object of conscious attention. As such they gave audiences a new picture of nonverbal musical thinking, all the more because they were producing sounds whose codes were still under construction—sounds that audiences might consider “unproductive.” The activity of trying to sense the thinking, without knowing the content and goals of the thoughts, made these performances the site of affect-laden multisensory experience: their often quiet sounds were only one part of a collective encounter with musicians’ thinking.