On the Primacy of Non-mediated Language in Music or The Exquisite Bliss of Being Alone in the Midst of a Crowd

I’ve been going to shows ever since I was sixteen (that’s twenty years now, give or take, for those of you counting, waiting for my demise). My interest

11 days ago

I’ve been going to shows ever since I was sixteen (that’s twenty years now, give or take, for those of you counting, waiting for my demise). My interest in these shows has waxed and waned over the years but, even when my interest is at an all time low like it has been recently, I still find myself going to them. I also suspect that there are plenty more people like me, who go to shows even though they don’t necessarily fully enjoy the experience. And yet, going to concerts is still incredibly popular. It might seem kind of silly to ask the question but why is that exactly? Have you ever stopped to wonder just why people go to live shows? And, out of these reasons, which one, or which group, is the one that appeals to me or to you, the reader?

To be sure, sometimes the answer is the music itself; there’s some sort of quality to live music that makes it second to none. Reproducing this quality on a recording is a feat which is almost impossible for anyone but the greatest of bands and producers. Personally, I don’t relate to this motivation all that much. While I definitely understand this quality, I don’t necessarily feel it (which is the entire topic of this essay, but more on that later). Live music doesn’t carry some special attribute for me. The sounds themselves aren’t any better. Don’t take me the wrong way; I’m not some perfectionist who seeks note by note recreations. There’s just nothing inherently better to me about how live music sounds.

So, for me, it’s not the draw of quality. Others might state that they attend live shows for the theatrics. Light shows, backdrops, dance routines; all of these play a big role in augmenting the music being played and “setting the stage”, if you’ll excuse me the pun, for the act playing. However, while I definitely appreciate the skill behind light shows or the work and design that goes into stage backdrops, I haven’t had my breath taken away by any (except for the light show that Explosions in the Sky puts on, that stuff is pure magic). It’s always nice to have good ones but, to me, they are what they are: backdrops. So too the prancing of musicians on stage; I enjoy a good dropkick or hoisted guitar but it’s a momentary thrill and not the central event.

OK, not the theatrics then. Yet another group, and thankfully last in what I can already tell is going to be a long winded essay, begins to come close to my own perspective and that is those who attend shows for the interaction with the bands themselves. You could make the case that seeing bands live, and reacting, interacting, and acting in response to their show, is the closest and most intimate you can ever communicate with a musician (and perhaps with other types of artists as well). Sure, you can attend Q&As, get backstage passages, and even interview these artists, if you happen to work for a publication. But what’s a deeper connection, asking an artist pretty formulaic questions (even if you put a lot of time into thinking about them) about their lives, experiences, and preferences, or seeing them pour their heart and guts out on the stage and participating in that? For me, the answer is clearly the latter and that’s part of why I haven’t done many interviews in my time with Heavy Blog (the other is just that they’re tedious affairs to set up, execute, and distribute). There’s just not a lot more that an artist can communicate to you with mundane, colloquial words, that they can’t with the visceral, poetic language of the performer.

Ah, finally! The point. This is, for me, the main reason I still end up coming back to shows: there is something ineffable about them and the form of communication which they foster. There is literally nowhere else where you can see such a number of people (whether you’re attending a small show or an arena-buster) engaging in poetics. What do I mean when I say that? Poetry is the skill or effort or attempt to communicate, with language, things that are non-communicable by language. Poetry is more and less than the words it uses. More because in the non-obvious and mentally rich way in which it combines words, it transcends their colloquial meanings and conjures forth new ones (for example, the phrase “leonine fish” makes no literal sense but can easily conjure images and ideas around bravery, absurdity, or fantasy, depending on its usage). Less because, when used to describe a fish (for example), “leonine” is missing much of the meaning it usually carries (since the fish obviously does not literally look like a lion unlike, for example, your friend’s cat).

This is also why poetry is so impactful, useful, and important. Our brains are capable of configuring the outside world in infinite ways within our internal landscapes; many of these configurations are obscure, obtuse, and obfuscated, shaded territories where the rules don’t exactly apply and where intimation and metaphor are more important than literal understanding. Poetry is our highly elastic, ever-shifting access point, vent, tour guide, and voice for these unruly mental spaces.

Have you ever heard a better definition for exactly what passes between audience and performing artist at a live show? I haven’t. Like I pointed out above, there’s some inimical and hard to describe manner about live shows and why they draw me and I think that’s because they are poetical. If you try to break them down into their parts, into the disparate dropkicks, shreds, chants, claps, and lyrical moments, they lose something in the process. But when you are in the midst of a crowd and someone on stage sweeps their hands over you and you all suddenly explode into sound, like a school of leonine fish bursting forth from a corral barracks (yeah, that’s a good one), there’s something inimical and inimitable to it.

Suddenly, you feel as if you are no longer alone, not just because you are surrounded by like minded individuals but because you were all strangers just a moment ago. Participating together in art, communicating together with an artist, is one of the surest, most direct ways to experience the rush of the poetic, what some philosophers have called the aesthetic moment. And yet, this is of course not unique to shows; you can experience this moment when, well, reading poetry or seeing great art. And while I do read poetry and go to museums to see great art, I’m not really drawn to these practices if I don’t feel a need for them. That is, if I don’t feel like reading poetry, I won’t but if I don’t feel like going to shows, I’ll still end up going to a few of them. It feels as if shows are a different kind of poetic experience, something unique that makes them essential to me.

So what’s uniquely poetic about going to see a live show? I think it’s that participatory element to it. You can experience either elsewhere (like in interactive theater or when playing roleplaying games, for example) but there’s nowhere that you can experience it as viscerally as you can at a live show. I think that visceral element comes from the tension between how together and alone being in a crowd at a live music show feels. Like I hinted at above, there’s a sort of instinctual, primal togetherness at shows which you can only find at rallies or riots (if you’ve never felt the rush of standing with people in protest by the way, you are missing out on one of life’s greatest highs). No one really tells you how to do a wall of death or, to give a simpler, more common, example, wave in rhythm with an audience. You sort of just do it, like you sort of just sing in key together (and there is research that shows that people sing better when singing with others), like you sort of just mosh and figure it out, like you sort of just dance with other people. 

Of course, this is the exact participatory element of attending a live show. In a crowd experiencing live music together, you are making the show happen. This is also true for seeing a painting in a museum (if you want to dive deeper into this, I recommend Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) but it’s less true. Someone can enjoy a work of art (and be impacted by its aura, to use Benjamin’s term) even in an empty museum (in fact, the aura is often enhanced by that emptiness). But you can’t really enjoy live music the same way, and certainly not have it enhanced, if the place you’re seeing it at is empty; in fact, there’s nothing more deflationary for the enjoyment of live music than not enough people for the space its being played at. This goes beyond just numbers: your participation in the music being played is not discharged simply with your presence. Instead, your enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm of the audience with you, is paramount to the success of the show. Anyone who has been at a live show with a lame, annoying, unmotivated or even antagonistic crowd will agree. It sucks the life right out of the performance, even if the numbers are there. Put simply, not only is enthusiasm infectious, creating the electric mood that sets live shows apart, but the lack of it is just as viral, blocking the larger body’s ability to find enjoyment in the show. 

But hey, if communal participation is such a big part of enjoying, and creating, shows, why do I keep working in loneliness into the equation? If you guessed “the dialectic”, congrats! You both got it right and also you’ve been reading too many of my essays and/or Hegel. Regardless, there is a dialectic relationship between being alone and being together, at music shows and in life in general. Like any dialectic, both sides of the equation appear to be, and are in ways, contradictory, but are absolutely dependent on each other. First, there is the extent to which both are defined by the absence of the other. When you are alone, what you are feeling is the absence of other people, that part is obvious. But when you’re with other people, the joy that you feel is both a presence, a positive feeling you have towards being in the presence of others, but also your memory of how hard it is to be alone and a relief at its dispelling.

In this regard, absence can also be a positive feeling - a relief from the pressures of togetherness and the demands of other people. And therein we come to the last stage of the dialectic, the synthesis, the negation of the negation, as Hegel would call it. In this dialectical maneuver, we come to understand both togetherness and aloneness as possibly, under the right terms, an “absence of absence”, a complex emotion that is its own thing but also the (positive, productive, desirable) void left by the removal of the other state. This third state arises when we seek out togetherness or aloneness, from the tension between these states as negations, but also from what is in common between them, their interdependence.

I'm in this pit somewhere by the way

OK, but what the fuck does this have to do with going to shows? I’m actually being a bit facetious here because I’m sure you’re all smart enough to have figured it out - going to shows is an excellent way to seek out and encounter this third sort of state. You’re standing there, surrounded not only by people but by people with whom you inherently have something in common: you like the band playing, you like shows to some extent, you like music, and, most importantly, by being there and feeling things, you are participating in the show. But, on the other hand, even as you’re experiencing this togetherness, you are intrinsically, inherently alone. I don’t mean this in some edgy, “teenager who has just read Camus for the first time, we all die alone man” sort of way. I am, rather, gesturing back to the poetic nature of music; poetry, like most artistic meanings, is also consumed, understood, made sense of, connected with, alone.

It’s your brain and the words, your brain and the sounds, and that’s why people can experience the same song or piece of music in very different ways (I’ll spare you the Kantian and materialist analysis of this phenomenon I could have inserted here; read this instead if you’d like). It also relies on your interpretation, by which I mean on your history, your affinity for certain words, your lived experiences, your family; the totality of your perception and how it “meets” the poetry. Going back to music, some song might reference, even unintentionally, a series of notes that were a massive part of your childhood and elicit within you a massive feeling of nostalgia. While for someone else, it might just be a song, with no special meaning. Or a lyric might eerily describe a mental state with the same words you use to think about it internally and make you feel seen. Or even reference a smell you’ve always thought only you could smell (and maybe that’s true). Or it could be a bridge, a chord progression, an album cover…you get it.

Because of all of these things, live shows are a massive opportunity to experience that third state, the synthesis of being alone and together that I mentioned above (to which I need to find a good name at some point).  And that feeling is so exquisite, painfully sweet, mellifluously bitter, a true state of jouissance, the unique feeling of having transcended something even while you’re floating in it, that it keeps me coming back to live shows. It is so hard to describe because it is below, beneath, and before words; it springs from the poetics of art and of the human experience, from the dialectics of belonging and estrangement, from a place that’s the very reason we have art, the exploration of which is impossible without the un-mediation of art. To be clear, I don’t feel it at every show; that would be like feeling inspiration every day or loving every person you ever met. This is also because feeling this elusive state is a skill; you need to work on being open enough to sense it once it’s there and allow it to bloom. Or, rather, you need to become sensitive enough to the endless minutiae (the song being played, the lighting, the location of the venue, the smells, the people, the clothes, etc.) that make that state possible and then learn how to let it grow. 

Elsewhere, I might write about the philosophy behind anticipating this moment (lots of Levinas and Buber, if you want to get your reading done in advance) but for now, let it suffice that a surefire way to get better at “allowing” this state is to go to lots of shows. Even if most of them are “just fine” or even if a lot of them are bad, a waste of time, I’d rather be home catching up on my reading or getting more sleep. And that’s why I go to shows, even if I don’t really enjoy the experience. Because, one time out of ten or maybe even less, I will find myself tripping into that synthetic state, into the jouissance of seeing a crowd melt away before my eyes, into the transcendental pleasure of being alone together with so many people, singing a song together and by myself, hearing the thoughts in my head echoed out into the world while being sure no one else understands them or experiences them quite like me, of looking into the eyes of an artist performing and seeing myself performing alongside them even as the gulf of the stage separates and protects us. Of crying without being able to explain why beyond a set of wild gestures to the stage and to myself and being perfectly understood by whoever happens to witness this series of movements and grunts. By a really fucking good show, yeah?

Eden Kupermintz

Published 11 days ago