We’ve all been there – you’re showing your friend a cool band you’ve just discovered. The song you’re playing may be a little abrasive or unorthodox and the denunciation arrives: “This isn’t music”. It’s an insult most have heard applied to music as normal as punk, free jazz, and rap by particularly closed minded listeners. However, it does offer an interesting question, where is the boundary between music and sound?
One definition could be that any human organised sound is music. But does that make audiobooks, performances of poetry and stand-up albums music? Most would disagree, the primary purpose of these sounds is the words they convey rather than the sound itself, but much of humour is dependent in rhythm, think of comedic timing, much of music relies on poetry and messages to give it emotional weight.
Artists who deliberately explore the grey areas between music and sound have produced some of the most challenging music ever: noise music, field recordings and lowercase. I like to call this music conceptual music, alike to conceptual visual arts in its question of what makes music music. Field recordings my artists such as Bill Fontana and Jana Winderen are akin to objet trouvé, noise music and lowercase similar to abstract expressionism in its use of single varied timbres for entire songs.
However, these experimental music genres are somewhat alien. So caught up in high minded aesthetic questions that they fail to speak to the human experience. Phil Elverum’s A Crow Looked at Me may be the first in questioning the boundaries of what is musical, whilst keeping it strongly tied to the human experience.
Elverum has always used moments of abstraction, most notably in his album Mount Eerie, but the majority of his work across his 20-year career has been noted for its musical and emotional power. On a personal level I have grown up with the songs and soundscapes of Phil Elverum more than any other artist. This connection gave A Crow Looked at Me an especially potent punch to the gut.
A Crow Looked at Me is the first album Elverum has released since the death of his wife six months prior. The album is purely focused upon this event, Elverum’s approach to the topic giving the album its conceptual/musical grey area status. This approach is stated immediately in the first song: “Death… [is] not for singing about… it’s not for making into art”. Elverum acknowledges that death is so empty that no real art can be made of it.
This self-denial of art puts it in an unusual place. It most certainly is musical, featuring pretty sorrowful guitars and floaty percussion, however, contrasted with the complex arrangements of Elverum’s previous work, this bare bones album seems comprehensively amusical. The purpose of this album is not to produce a work of art for people to enjoy but as a visceral release for its author. Elverum refuses to make his grieving process attractive to the voyeur. Criticisms of this album, denounced as ‘uneventful’, ‘lacking’, or ‘dull’, are failing to realise that this is exactly what grieving is, to make an album that wasn’t any of these descriptors wouldn’t be an accurate portrayal of grief.
Phil Elverum’s efforts in stripping his style down to minimal forms and challenging the role of the audience and a crowd to be placated is deeply conceptual, however unlike other conceptual musicians, it carries a message beyond questioning art: it is a treatise on the nature of grief. By taking experimental ideas surrounding music and art as a whole and being able to connect it to a deeply personal and emotional subject makes this album a triumph of music as high art. Listen to this album, hear Phil’s pain, but don’t expect to enjoy it.