Tuesday, April 26, 2011

More rebellious than thou

Recently had the pleasure of watching Until the Light Takes Us, a fascinating documentary about the Norweigian Black Metal scene. I knew pretty much nothing about this music going in -- I wouldn't say I came out of the experience as a full-on fan, but my curiosity has definitely been piqued.

In some ways, the movie gets at the same old conundrum the avant-garde has been grappling with ever since the triple whammy of serialism, punk, and free jazz. Specifically: if your aesthetic is driven by rule-breaking, where do you go once you have broken all the rules?

(I realize of course that serialism in particular has a lot of rules--but note that they all seem designed to break the old rules about how music should be made, or about what sounds beautiful.)

Anyway, for evidence of this conundrum in Light, see, for instance, this fascinating interview exchange with Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell (of the band Darkthrone). (Disclaimer: English is clearly not Fenriz's first language.)

Interviewer: For me, I have the impression when I read your interviews and also when I listen to your lyrics that you've now become a little less provocative than you were maybe eight or nine years ago...

Nagell: Wow! Wow! You think so? That is so interesting, because I think. like, eight years ago, I didn't really do, like, provoking shit, I did... because Christian people were not going to read my lyrics, right? So they're not going to be provocative. What I wrote then was, I see now in hindsight, I see that this is what people that were into occult, or obscure, or anti-Christian things, that was the sort of lyrics they wanted to read. It maybe give them strength, but it was also sort of fiction and maybe it created an outlet for my fucking head. What I've been doing the last two albums is what should drive people to suicide and it's really taking out the strength because you can't really get strength from the lyrics in the last two albums [...] So I'm thinking, I'm really just pleasing, and I'm caressing the dog with its hairs, you know, as we speak, "dogs" being the fans or whatever, that want to listen to the album, I'm just, it turns out, I was writing just what they wanted, okay, and now I'm writing what no one wants, because that is to be really fucking depressed if you really understand it, and then, wanting to take your fucking life. At least I do. Because looking at my lyrics for the last two albums, I'm seeing my fucking world in hell.

(A pause.)

Interviewer: Okay, thanks for taking the time.

Nagell: Okay, thanks for your time.

Interviewer: And I wish you a nice evening.

Nagell: Oh, have a beautiful evening. Alright! See ya later, hey hey!

It's hard to convey through the transcript, but as I listened, I could have sworn I detected a bit of disappointment in Fenriz's voice. And where he goes from there -- one could paraphrase it as "I'm so provocative that I'll make you want to kill yourself" -- is an almost perfect illustration of the trap some artists find themselves in when they subscribe to the rule-breaking model of creativity.

And yet the rule-breaking model of creativity is where the fun is, isn't it?


Anonymous said...

Loved this documentary...very poetic.

yknow, I never thought that black metal artists were concerned with breaking the rules, but rather making sure they adhere to their own rules. Much like the serialist...


Vikram Devasthali said...

I've always thought of rule-breaking as a categorically destructive enterprise, not a creative one. The flamethrowers do important work, and the fires they start can be mesmerizing, but an aesthetic of indiscriminate destruction cannot sustain itself for long. If "the rule-breaking model of creativity is where the fun is," I suspect it's because clearing dead brush is easier than coaxing new life from the ground.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't it seem to discredit these artists buy implying that their creativity begins and ends with rule-breaking?


Andrew Durkin... said...

Am I correct in concluding that rule-breaking is a pejorative concept for you guys? If so, why is that? I look at my first grade students, and -- perhaps I'm projecting, but I don't think so -- I could swear that they never seem happier than when they are coloring outside the lines, or when they can make the sun purple. It's not that they are interested in destroying anything, or that they never get around to seeing the value of the Apollonian approach (maybe purple suns becomes the new rule eventually) -- only that they want to follow their own path.

Rule-breaking as an aesthetic has nothing to do with easier or harder, in my view -- it can be as easy to follow rules as it is to break them -- but it *is* more fun, I think, because it engages the play impulse much more directly.

Of course, maybe my problem is that I have become too inclined to see all creativity in terms of how little kids approach it.

Also, just to clarify, I would never say anyone's aesthetic "begins and ends with rule-breaking" -- I don't even think that's possible. But I do think an artist can place different degrees of emphasis on rule-breaking as a creative strategy. Having your aesthetic be "driven by rule-breaking" is one kind of emphasis -- but it doesn't mean that rule-breaking is the only thing going on in those cases.

In the case of black metal, especially when you consider the social context helpfully provided by this documentary, it's hard for me to see how these guys weren't responding to a negative situation they found themselves in, and that that response involved ignoring the prevailing rules in order to construct something new.

Vikram Devasthali said...

@ian: I don't think so. Rule-breaking is as legitimate an end of art as creativity is; I'm merely drawing a distinction between the two. Most artists do a little of both. However, if we take Mr. Nagell at his word when he says his aim is to write "what no one wants," it seems he self-identifies as a pure rule-breaker. This does not necessarily discredit him, although the fact that he seems to have failed at his stated task (to "drive people to suicide") might.

Vikram Devasthali said...

@Andrew Durkin: Both creativity and rule-breaking can be hugely beneficial, and both can have disastrous consequences. The artistic value of either action, in my view, is measured by endurance. For the creator: does your creation last, whether on paper, record, or in the minds of those who witnessed it? For the rule-breaker: have you truly wounded us, or have you dealt us only glancing blows, leaving no mark?

I'm glad your students enjoy drawing outside the lines, but it is possible to draw within them just as joyfully.

Anonymous said...

durkin, my last response was direct to vikram. sorry for the confusion. and i guess there's a difference between rule-breaking for the sake of it and divergent thinking. i don't know...

vikram, i never thought that creativity had the potential for disastrous consequences. thats a new one! :)

Andrew Durkin... said...

Ian: Ah! I dig. Thanks for clarifying.

VIkram: "I'm glad your students enjoy drawing outside the lines, but it is possible to draw within them just as joyfully."

I don't disagree that drawing inside the lines can bring a kind of satisfaction, but "just as joyfully" seems a bit of a stretch to me, unless we're talking about a particularly muted kind of joy. If art at its most basic level is about the pleasure of self-expression, where is the joy in doing exactly what is expected of you?