[Music] exists as and for appearance. There is no actuality underlying it… Musical coherence is abstracted from actuality, not based upon it… [Music’s] appearance and its actuality are one and the same.
Geoffrey Payzant, Glenn Gould: Music and Mind
Clearly, it’s possible to create believable, effective, amazing recorded works independent of the quality of the music on which the recording is based. Even when a recording’s musical content is lackluster or unremarkable, vibrant elements (a great vocal performance, a hook, or clever stylistic choices, etc) can work to make the recording itself into a potent creation, such that the so-called “deeper” content doesn’t matter.
This seems obvious enough. Is anyone really going to be troubled by the suggestion that the sounds within a recording are of comparable importance to the so-called content (i.e.,the musical ideas, words, melody) that we ordinarily perceive to underlie it? I doubt it.
Now, some critics might say that this sort of music makes silk purses from sows’ ears, and common sense would probably agree. Anyone who has ever noticed a vapid lyric or a tired chord progression underpinning a beloved popular song has had that view, if only for a minute. Silk purses from sows’ ears.
But when we look more closely at a recording, we get into some trouble, because (to state the obvious) the true contents of a recording consist only of the actual recorded sounds themselves, and nothing more. The recorded sounds are not just of comparable importance, they are all there is.
Music is, as Payzant says, “entirely phenomenal… [it] actually appears, and its appearance is the kind of actuality is has.” In other words, that “coherence” that we recognize as a song is something that we abstract from the actual music.
This is both obviously true, and also more than a little unsettling, since most of what I hear when I listen to music, and most of what I am seeking when I listen, has to do with the sense of a song that is behind the one I can hear. I am hearing content that is implied by the recordings contents; or, to use Payzant’s terminology, I am interested in what I can abstract from the sounds I am hearing.
It is usually the excellence of those perceived deeper implications, and the quality of the communication transmitted through the music from another human soul who somehow found and adapted their experience into art, that matters to me, much more, apparently, than what I am actually hearing.