Electric music for the mind and body

By David Parkinson

Formless, random, unpredictable... what forces are driving the raindrops into this pattern and no other?

Things continue to be busy. 2011 looks like being the year when a number of projects come to some kind of fruition, although we’ll see just how many new projects pop up this year. There is a sense of ferment and rapid change starting to settle in. Oddly, I find myself feeling like something of an old-timer around here now, although I’ve only been in Powell River for just over four years. So much has changed in those four years, and I wonder if others feel that the pace of change is becoming a little wild. Undoubtedly there are whole swathes of the local culture which feel much as they always have done; but when it comes to food, community organizing, and independent media, the landscape is changing almost daily.

I have always felt as though Powell River was an exciting place to come to as an outsider because so much of the terrain was wide open and waiting for more voices, more hands, more heads to come together and start plotting the ways forward. There was enough tabula rasa for everyone to scribble on. But enough stuff started up to find a way to get involved quickly. This sense of potential appears to increase as we fill in ever more unclaimed areas and continue to define the region we want to live in. This has been going on for as long as people have lived in this area, and will continue as long as there are people here. It might only be the egoism of the moment to think that more is happening now than in the past. (And yet that’s how it feels.)

We had another great public meeting of CJMP FM yesterday evening, and once again we saw many new faces. New arrivals to Powell River are gravitating to the community radio station just as I did when we moved here — people who really understand the power of community radio to unleash creative energy and bring people together. Some of these people bring the skills and experience that a startup community station desperately needs: fundraising, publicity, engineering, broadcasting, and so on. We’re accumulating a hard-working gang of people who are up for anything. It’s brilliant.

Towards the end of the meeting, as we were breaking up into smaller groups to talk and plot, we listened to two of our programmers broadcasting live, for the first time in well over a year. After so many months of computer-generated programming, it was incredible to hear our friends’ voices coming out of the radio. This thing is coming back fast. Hang on tight.

Along with over a dozen other local folks, I have submitted a program proposal and I hope to be on the airwaves soon. My show, provisionally titled The Unending Subtleties of River Power, will be going out sometime on Saturday afternoon. I had all kinds of ideas for shows I wanted to present, but in the end I decided to present a weekly program of — as I described it in my program proposal — “beautiful sounds from the middle distance where structure breaks down without disappearing altogether.”

What I want to spend my time (and yours) investigating is the blurry frontier of music which occupies itself more with texture than with rhythm and melody. I’m fascinated with this area, which we might call “ambient” or “experimental” or various other adjectives without really touching on what’s so intriguing. The reason I’m fascinated with this whole unnamed zone is that music which is structurally abstract but still somewhat melodic or ‘pleasant-sounding’, however we define that, is usually considered really out-there or difficult or boring. I struggle to understand why this is.

Most people seem capable of appreciating abstract visual art for its inherent qualities of colour, arrangement, optical effects, and so on. We acknowledge that there is something uncouth about demanding that a work of art tell a story or otherwise depict something easily recognizable; in the case of music, the mainstream is still stuck on fixed rhythm, repetitive melody, predictable modes of harmony, and narrative content. Some of these might be missing from some songs, but once we start stripping away too much of these structural elements we begin to feel anxious. I don’t know why this should be, but I want to spend some time out on these edges where we start to feel the loss of structure. The best part is that I know enough about what’s out there to be reasonably sure that there will be listeners who will be happy to travel there with me once a week.

Projects like this illustrate perfectly the value of community-owned not-for-profit media. If I pitched this program to one of our local dispensers of commercialized radio waves, they’d laugh me out of their offices. It wouldn’t appeal to enough people to make it interesting to their advertisers and therefore would get exactly zero seconds on the airwaves. The commercial clampdown on popular taste is similar to our first-past-the-post voting system: winner takes all and second place might as well be nothing. In commercial radio the name of the game is to claim the maximum amount of listeners by optimizing and standardizing your programming for the greatest overall appeal. Anyone who craves other sounds can suck it up or turn it off.

I’m excited because we now have a venue for niche media like this and like many of the other programs being proposed. It’s no sign of failure to have a constrained area of musical content or to stray from the standard sound of the radio station — because special-interest programming still serves a part of the listening audience which deserves to have its own shows, and because there will be no standard sound. That idea goes nowhere and attracts no real interest. It’s a pale imitation of the commercial model, only without the fat paycheques and snazzy gear.

The time we’re moving into is one which calls into question many of the foundations of our society. (Or so I hope.) Anyone who is sick of being fed the same old dreck might find that the position of lonely crank will become more respectable, as it becomes harder and harder to maintain faith in institutions which serve no real purpose aside from siphoning money out of communities and reducing us all to the position of consumers of the culture we ought to be creating. And there are so many creative artistic types around here…


2 Responses to “Electric music for the mind and body”

  1. 1 Thug Brutsen January 20, 2011 at 21:12

    I would have named yr radio show “This Week’s Mrs. Powell River,” but that’s just something I would do for random fun.

    My treatise on “the deliberateness of ambient/experimental music vs. pop via abstract expressionism” is available by request. Sadly, I don’t know from where it can be requested.

  2. 2 David Parkinson January 21, 2011 at 06:58

    Dear Thug,

    Thank you for your thoughts. Whenever you get around to having any.

    Thanks for reading!

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