Christian Holden is a youth worker living in and around Worcester, MA. He also sings and plays guitar in the Hotelier. He often tries not to identify as a musician but just recently bought a string winder, so it’s kind of unavoidable. His four-year plan is to develop a model for facilitating self-education for children living in cities, build some habitable hut, and own a pick-up truck purely for aesthetic purposes. You can follow the Hotelier on Twitter here.
“We only hear, we know nothing.”
I’d like to interact with an existing idea regarding art: Nothing is truly original. When we think of “original,” we are talking origins, lineage and birth, and saying that something cannot come from nothing. We are saying that every piece of art or event in life is what history has always been building up to. The line goes back as far as the eye can see, beyond the horizon and out of sight.
Origins are important to understanding not just an artist or a piece of music, but also music as a whole. All listeners keep origins in mind when experiencing music, as a way to compartmentalize and contextualize what they’re hearing, and to build an understanding of non-physical realities. Pythagoras, the ancient Greek mathematician responsible for early innovations in music theory, understood music as a pathway to universal laws and laid out mathematical formulae to show how harmonious tones related to one another. As composer Igor Stravinsky once said, “The phenomenon of music is given to us for the sole purpose of establishing order in things, and chiefly between man and time.”
Let’s change gears. Enter Nipple Tapes, whose most recent album uuu has slipped by, for all intents and purposes, undocumented. uuu continues in the same sound-collage style as their previous albums iii, yyy and aaa, and falls firmly within the scope of the Dadaist edict “music is dead, long live music.”
Well, maybe. It’s sort of hard to tell.
You see, Nipple Tapes has done a careful job of telling us absolutely nothing about itself. The tracks are all named with three seemingly non-sequential letters. Most of the tracks on uuu feature free-form sound accompanied by juxtaposed drumbeats and the subtle hiss and wobble of decomposed tape, starting and ending in a fairly random manner. The album feels like found footage that ranges from the lonely, watery marimba tones of “rvr” to flanging piano loop and breakbeats underneath a distorted voice (at least, I think it’s a distorted voice) on “ami.”
Having listened my way through Nipple Tapes’ discography as many times as I have, I’m often left asking myself, “Who are they? Where did they come from? Why are they here?”
Such questions stem from my tendency to expect a few things from the music that I listen to: that it will adhere to the frequencies of Western tonality; that it will transmit symbols that I can understand, and that it will hold my hand through the journey. Instead, I feel a hunger for a voice that will dictate instructions to me on how I should interact with this difficult piece. I lash out with anger, throwing fists with a swing and a miss as I walk stiffly through its darkness. What is making me feel so helpless in interacting with this piece? Why is this terrain so unfamiliar? Where is the narrative, the master plan, the tonic voice that saves me from the resonant tension?
Whenever I interact with music, it has always been as a way to interact with God. With its focus on universal narratives, fixed tonal structure and resolving harmony, the music of Western culture is saturated with the infrastructure and history of God’s existence. The history of Western culture is one of expanding our borders in the name of God’s plan, of men of desire and affluence erecting monuments to the heavens, and a sense of the physical world around us as having been built in the name of monolithic oneness. The world we normally pull from is one of great artists and thinkers dancing to the music of a unified universe.
So to exist in this landscape of nonsense that Nipple Tapes has created, I am asked to remove my shoes and step off the carpet; to separate myself from everything I have known as constant and real.
Here and now we have a culture that is flaccid and stagnant in the postmodern condition, and yet we push on stubbornly. Scientists have given us a countdown to environmental armageddon, and the current state of the economy leaves cities bankrupt and the working class without economic mobility. It’s clearer than ever that the whole narrative has fallen through, that the earth is dying, and that we probably never really knew God at all. We were only projecting. Maybe we gained no wisdom after eating from the tree of knowledge. Maybe when we believed we were speaking with God through our tonal frequencies, we were actually speaking into a void and only hearing the reverberations inside our own skulls. Maybe what we thought was God was just man all along.
Nipple Tapes responds to this fear by maintaining that life is inherently absurd and chaotic, following no discernible path. The only audible words on uuu are “Death is there… the world is going to die. The earth, the world… it’s over.” By removing from music whatever we think of as human — conducted instrumentation, the narrative voice, fixed tonality — Nipple Tapes has entered into a non-coercive relationship with the world. One which would never attempt to speak for God, but takes sounds that have passively existed, that our ears may have under-heard and thus overlooked, and presents them in the language of God.
To an eager listener that language may sound like nonsense. But maybe God is not in what we perceive to be everything, but in what we perceive to be nothing. And maybe “nothing” is truly original. Like matter filling a vacuum, the conjunction of something and nothing, thesis and antithesis, is what builds a strong foundation. Philosophy is currently busy unpacking the universal narratives that built it. (See, for example, Slavoj Žižek referring to environmentalism as the new religion.) I think Nipple Tapes is where music can start to do the same thing.