The dorm room philosopher that still lives in my brain has been thinking a lot about iPhones lately. We carry these pretty hate machines in our pockets at all times, and when life makes us anxious, we raise them up to our faces and allow the ugly glow of social media to freak us out even more. Why put ourselves through it? Are we conquering fears? Bearing witness? Bracing for end times? My only half-optimistic half -theory is that we’re applying our forager instincts to digital space, scouring hostile landscapes for little flecks of psychic sustenance. And sometimes, we find great things.
The last great thing to come out of my phone was a song called “Finite” by Joshua Abrams and Natural Information Society, a jazz ensemble based in Chicago. “Finite” is nearly 40 minutes long, which makes its title both funny and true. Playing the guimbri, a three-stringed bass instrument, Abrams gently draws his seven comrades — including the multi-instrumentalists Lisa Alvarado and Hamid Drake — into a groove that instantly feels like it’s spinning, but with enchanted slowness. The horns and winds politely swap single notes. A piano glints, then goes poof. The percussionists observe time rather than dictate it. And all of this is being done with human hands and human breath. No electricity. It’s beautiful.
So beautiful it made me wonder what beauty even means in relation to music right now. Is it just a balm against the nastiness wafting out of my phone? If I’m reading the 19th-century German critic Eduard Hanslick correctly, my phone has nothing to do with it, and neither do I. “The beautiful is and remains beautiful though it arouse no emotion whatever, and though there be no one to look at it,” Hanslick writes in “On the Musically Beautiful,” his 1854 book about the aesthetics of sound. “In other words, although the beautiful exists for the gratification of an observer, it is independent of him.”
True, “Finite” would still sound beautiful had it arrived on a sunnier day, but I can only listen to it today, and today is incredibly stressful. And that makes me worry that “Finite” might belong to beauty’s dumb cousin, “chill” — a burgeoning musical format seemingly invented by streaming services to better soothe the itchy minds of their subscribers. Spotify has hyper-populated itself with “chill” playlists, all of which treat music as a utility, a de-stressing agent, a sort of anti-loneliness perfume. Pleasant and present.
And while the chill and the beautiful can each help listeners cope with the cruelty of this world, they aren’t the same thing. In order to keep us tranquilized, chill music isn’t allowed to be weird, whereas beauty has to be at least a little bit weird, (and the mysterious curves of “Finite” fit the description). Here’s the art critic Dave Hickey quoting Charles Baudelaire back in 1993: “As Baudelaire says, ‘the beautiful is always strange,’ by which he means, of course, that it is always strangely familiar and vaguely surprising.”
Hickey is talking about retinal pleasure, but I think we can apply it to sound, too. It’s the strange surprise of beautiful music that gives it its heft. Beauty isn’t a balm. It’s a counterweight. As the ugliness of this American moment grows heavier, let’s add “Finite” to our scales.