Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The Mechanics of a Musical Bliss-Out: Roboseyo Talks about Music He Loves

It doesn't actually take much to make me love a musician. Just a good bliss-out will do.

Oh. Wait. That's hard.

This song has gone up on my site before... and it probably will again, too. Rock Plaza Central: "Be Joyful"

There are a lot of artists out there, making a lot of different kinds of music, and there is a ton of music I love for different reasons.

Some breaks your heart.

Some is really clever.

Some is really poetic -- read the words, and they'll knock your socks off.

And I love a good songwriter. I love poetry and grace and wit in a song. I love something intriguing, I love a bit of sadness harsh as a hot coal that drops right into your soul. I love a bit of rage from time to time (though I'll admit rage is my weak spot: got less of that than the others), or a spike of unaltered adrenaline, or a world-weary sigh, or a bit of sick technical skill mixed with pure blues soul, or a really gorgeous voice.  I tried to parse Bob Dylan's lyrics with the best of them, and sometimes a rusty, creaky voice can break my heart, too.

But sometimes, what I really need is a good, solid bliss-out.

So what is a bliss-out, Roboseyo?

Well, I'm glad you asked, dear reader.

A musical bliss-out is one of those spots where everything else disappears, where the only thing left is pure joy.  There might be words, there might not be; either way, the words aren't important.  Bliss-outs could, I suppose, be traced all the way back to the earliest ecstatic musical rituals, if I were a scholar (read up on Quawwali singing for a good example of this).  Bliss-outs can appear in any musical genre, occur more frequently live than on studio recordings, and are always, always better if you play it loud.  They're the moments when the band stops following the sheet music, and cuts loose with pure joy, and carries everyone else along with them (if they don't carry the listeners along, it's not a bliss-out; it's a musical circle-jerk).

Most bliss-outs don't occur in a vacuum, and here's the hard thing about them.  See, you could never make a "bliss-out mix tape" or a "bliss-out playlist" because bliss-outs are too powerful, and putting them next to each other would diminish their impact: it would be like eating three courses of extra spicy food in a row: the spice is no longer something special, or think of eating a bag of skittles or ketchup chips, where after the first three, your tongue is so shell-shocked with sweetness or saltiness that you don't even taste the rest of the bag.  After the first bliss-out, the rest of the playlist would lose its impact, in the same way that walking along a mountain ridgeline is not as exciting as reaching that peak for the first time.  In fact, with many good bliss-outs, the setup is an important part of the experience: this is why very few albums can get away with putting a bliss-out on the first track of a CD (though some have).

Think of a roller coaster: you wait for an hour to get on.  That waiting is part of the ride, and I swear, the ninety seconds of thrill is better when you've waited thirty minutes, than when you just walk on the ride during a slow day at the park.  Getting on the ride partially gratifies the anticipation, but then, think of this: no roller coaster ever boards passengers on the top of the hill, because they know that that first, long climb up the first tall hill is essential to the experience, too.  It builds up suspense, heightens the emotional pitch, so that the rest of the ride will be more exciting again, than if you start the ride at the top of the first drop.

In the same way, a truly excellent bliss-out requires a good set-up.  My favourite bliss-outs require an entire album to create them -- one (Silent, by The Field) won't stand up as a bliss-out without all the five songs leading up to it, but WITH them (and loud), hoo boy!

So here's the second bliss-out I'll offer up to you: Festival, from Sigur Ros' newest album.

This song takes almost ten minutes to unfold, and the songs before it help a fella get into the Sigur Ros aesthetic, without which, the first four minutes of this one risk floating off into fruity nation (Sigur Ros -- what a band!  It took me three years to get used to the idea of what sounds like a band inspired by whale sounds, but once I did, they create perfect moments of music with startling regularity, and know exactly how to shape a soundscape.)

But if you skip the first four minutes, it's JUST NOT THE SAME.  It doesn't have the same impact.  Rare is the bliss-out that dares to appear without context, and smack your face with joy out of nowhere.  (OutKast's Hey-Ya counts among that number) but even those ones often appear in context of the rest of an album, and should.  The dynamic shift and contrast, the way the bliss-out is balanced by the rest of the album, gives it shape which enhances its meaning.

Case in point: maybe the most famous musical bliss-out ever: the final movement of Beethoven's 9th symphony, which spends forty entire minutes of decoy bliss-outs (which keep topping themselves), passages of storm and thunder, hints of joy, snatches of peace, just so that when the payoff DOES come, buddy, it'll flatten you, if you play it as loudly as it SHOULD be played.  (Rule of thumb: play it loud enough to clearly hear the low strings introduce the final theme in the 4th movement.  (The part that comes at 11:05 in this clip.)  Then do NOT turn down the volume when it gets louder.  That quiet part is in there to tell you how loudly the rest ought to be played.  [bliss-out begins in earnest at 21:00 -- and you thought it had already begun five minutes ago!])  

This is the stuff that you play, loud, on your headphones, and start smiling for no reason in the street.  It's the stuff that gets you out of bed when you're having a hard time, or gets you feeling like "heck yeah, I CAN finish this project on time."   It's the stuff that stays in your head all day, and makes you happier, instead of annoyed.

I'm tempted to put twelve video-clips up right here, but as I explained earlier, a bliss-out needs, and deserves room to breathe.  See my explanation of why you can't make a bliss-out playlist.

So for the next few weeks, from time to time, I'm going to put a "roboseyo bliss-out" up on the blog.  Play them loud.  For a few, I'll explain how and why they make me feel awesome.  Get on the joy train, readers, and don't skip them by!


ColdCalc said...

Awesome article. Bliss-out will probably be a part of my vocab from here on out. I'd like to suggest some of my favorites, but I've never thought in these terms before so I can't remember bliss-outs... I can only feel them.

Roboseyo said...

Glad I could be of assistance; though I can't remember where I first encountered the phrase, "Bliss-out" I don't think I can take full credit for it...but that's how it goes.

Glad I could supply you with a name for it, though.


vesperinlimbo said...

"Roboseyo" kinda sounds like a Sigur Ros word...

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