Unique among the arts, music has the ability to present as a cabinet of curiosities. By this I mean that it is possible to create a musical work without any of the traditional forms or structures of music, and still make it sound good. A film or novel made of a series of utterly disconnected scenes without any relation to each other would be simply annoying and incomprehensible; on the other hand, a painting made of disconnected bits (like this one by Wassily Kandinsky) can’t help but be connected anyway, merely by the virtue of all the bits existing on the same picture plane. Why is this? Why can music be made of disparate, disjointed, unrelated elements and sounds, in no structural arrangement or relationship whatsoever, and still be pleasing to the ear?
This week I’ve gathered some of my favorite examples of music which exists in this “cabinet of curiosities” idiom, with some descriptive notes attached to each selection. I hope you enjoy!
Pink Floyd, Ummagumma (YouTube / Spotify)
The first half of this album consists of live versions of fan favorites extended and modified in stereotypical late-sixties art-rock fashion. The second half is an assemblage of whatever the four members of the band were thinking of at the moment; it is relentlessly amorphous, disorganized, and stochastic. There are some moments of gorgeous beauty (the slide guitars on part 1 of “The Narrow Way”), and some moments of uncategorizable weirdness (“Several Species of Small Furry Animals Getting Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict,” which really has to be heard to be believed).
Et Sans, Par Noussss Touss Les Trous de Vos Crânes! (Bandcamp)
This album’s title is, I think, translated “all the holes in your skull are by us,” but I don’t really know. The album’s second track is probably the most ferocious of all the music on this list; it’s abrasive, noise-based rhythms are relentless in their pounding insistence. Yet there are moments of profound serenity on the album as well. None of the four tracks on the album have any developmental structure other than “keep the groove going,” and none of them sound like each other at all. So why are they on the same record? Because cabinet of curiosities, that’s why!
John Oswald, Grayfolded (YouTube / Spotify—part 1, part 2)
This double album is ostensibly structured around the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star” but is just as freeform as the band themselves could be when playing their signature tune. John Oswald’s curated selection of samples from thirty years’ worth of archival recordings is at times straight-up groovy, at times surrealistically freakish, and delivers surprises at every turn. Sometimes Oswald builds his textures out of sonic particles only seconds in length, but he also includes a fourteen-minute-long jam in its entirety, just because it sounds good.
Cluster, “Apropos Cluster” (YouTube / Spotify / Bandcamp)
The last track on Cluster’s 1991 album of the same name exemplifies the cabinet aesthetic. my favorite aspect of this song is how the goofy sound-effects loop which first appears at 6:04 becomes the center of the track’s focus. This particular curiosity, it seems, was so fascinating that Dieter Mobius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius just had to let it run for long stretches. Although they leave the loop to concern themselves with other sounds, they keep coming back to it, and it dominates the listener’s attention each time.
Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma (YouTube / Spotify / Bandcamp)
Steven Ellison, AKA Flying Lotus, is part of the circle of extremely talented musicians from Los Angeles which includes Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, and Kendrick Lamar. His Comsmogramma album is a very eclectic mix of live instruments, found samples, video-game noises, beats, and guest singers which somehow manages to cohere into a whole, unified by nothing more than its unflinchingly experimental ethos. This one is probably too randomized for some, but I find every sound on the record to be interesting.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, EARS (YouTube / Spotify / Bandcamp)
This collection of pieces is more song-based than some of the others on this list, but the subtly repetitive structures of the individual pieces are subservient to the overall aesthetic of surprises and sonic discoveries. Synths, processed voices, and Terry Riley-esque saxophones blend together into a warm, rich soup that bubbles and churns while exuding an aura of satiated calm. Smith limits herself to a narrow palette of sounds but deftly melds them into a very satisfying whole.
Niccolò Paganini, 24 Caprices for Solo Violin (YouTube—Midori / Spotify—Itzhak Perlman)
This is the classic collection of musical oddities; a giant portfolio of basically every awesome move and fancy trick that can be made on the violin. The last piece (at 1:12:23 on the YouTube video) is the platonic example of the theme-and-variations genre, and the inspiration for many more sets of variations, by composers as diverse as Brahms and Andrew Lloyd Weber. A profoundly taxing piece to perform, it is quite delightful to listen to—but it’s certainly not “classical music for relaxation” or anything like that.
Well, that’s enough for now. What is signified by the cabinet aesthetic? For me, this kind of music is immensely appealing to listen to, but does it communicate anything that cannot otherwise be said through more traditional structures? All art communicates something. What does the cabinet of curiosities have to say? What are composers and musicians saying when they pick this specific style for their art?
Have any other sonic curiosities that you’d like to share? Just touch the red button below to
My assessment of the 1975 film adaptation of The Hiding Place was published in Agape Review last month. The film has a very different tone from Corrie ten Boom’s book; where the book is sentimental about the ten Boom family’s house and childhood, the film zooms in on the spiritual struggles the family faced. I’m going to be doing film reviews for Agape on a regular basis going forward; here’s another one about The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, a movie with serious flaws but also a valuable message.
While doing research for my earlier essay on graphic novels I stumbled upon this splendid mosaic by Frans Masereel. Here it is in situ, on the only remaining side of an otherwise demolished building.