There’s a concert on a Friday night in the Reina Sofía Museum, a space better known for its vast collection of Picassos and Dalís than its weekend music scene. I’m trying not to get stuck in routines here in Madrid, and it’s clear this museum isn’t either, so I decide to go. After some exploration I manage to find the painting-free section of the building, where I follow a path of dimming lights and building sounds to Sala 400, Paraninfo, for the show.
By my side is a friend I met just a few hours ago, and that’s very special kind of friend when you’re in a new city and trying to conocer whoever you can. He’s an anthropology student with an abiding interest in music and he thought my concert plans sounded good enough to join. Being blind, he follows my lead through the tight doors and uneven auditorium stairs. We’re running about 10 minutes late and already the theater is pitch black, so I make for a lousy guide, and we stumble and feel our way to an unoccupied row. It’s finally then that we make our first attempt at paying attention to the music around us. I hadn’t read the program beforehand. I hadn’t in honesty checked what kind of concert we were going to. Well, now that I was here, I know: I’ve stumbled into the weird stuff.
There, in one corner, I hear what sounds like the clicking mandibles of a ferociously large insect. It seems to scuttle toward me. Before it arrives, the sound is overwhelmed by hollow bleeps and thunderous percussion. There is no tempo. There is no tune. I begin to feel paranoid, and shake off chills, and tell myself not to be afraid even while all my senses tell me I’m in the cargo bay of a haunted spaceship. It’s harsh, chaotic, and abstract. It surfaces and cascades around 40 high definition speakers. There is only sound. Wire is snapping, bass is rumbling my chest, and I can’t tell if the high-pitched ringing is coming from the sound system or my breaking ears. For ten minutes we sit in stillness while the room vibrates with this inscrutable cacophony.
It ends. Like the rest of the audience, I don’t trust the silence and wait a few long moments, but when we finally do clap, it’s as deafening as the music.
“I’ve never heard anything like it,” my friend says to me. “Were there pictures that went with it? Visuals?”
“No,” I tell him. “You saw what I saw.”
He laughs and shakes his head. “I don’t know how to interpret it.”
Of course, that was just the first song, and there was plenty more to not-interpret as the night wore on. Alien gods seem to war and flirt above our heads; something is eviscerated; an audience that is not us periodically claps and goes silent in the far extremes of the room, bottled up in the same audio-world as the rest of it.
As I listen to these eldritch tunes, the blackness I’m staring at starts looking a lot like a chalkboard, and ideas start to surface. If the ‘point’ of the show is to experiment with chaotic sounds, why does all this music sound so evil? Even the songs with no explicitly disturbing elements make me deeply uneasy—can’t these composers create a piece that’s chaotic, but good? Discordant, but pleasant? Or must beauty be ordered by a metronome, bounded by refrains and chords and catchy tunes?
Yet for its horribleness, there’s something profound and impressionable about this soundscape, which explores at every moment the edges of chaos and discord. It presses onto the blackness of my eyes a vision, perhaps a distorted mirror of myself: it is Generic Exchange Student 1.
Here they are, in a different café every day of the week. Here they are, ordering the menú del día, drinking whatever wine the waiter recommends, paying clumsily with loose coins. They have no favorite food, they have no go-to lunch spot. Those would be stifling, right? There they go, always jogging a different route, determined to know every street of Madrid. On the weekends, they bar hop and makes friends with whoever they see. And all those friends will last a night, and then they’re lonely again. On Fridays, they go might go clubbing, or they might go to a mystery concert at a famous museum. Who knows? They live it up, aprovechar, are gonna know more secrets here than in their own home. It’s always improvisation. It’s always chaos. And when they feel alienated, lost, ungrounded? Well, that’s ok. That’s life, right? Sometimes it’s not supposed to feel good.
But even as I’m thinking this, a song comes on unlike the ones before. It’s like an alarm clock, all high-pitched and ringing, and it circles around through the 40 high-definition speakers with gross regularity. This tone, this insistent 10-minute song of equal notes, equal beats, predictable movement, is enough to drive me crazy, and maybe it does. Another vision troubles my sight: again a false autobiography, it is The Generic Exchange Student 2.
Here they are, in their favorite restaurante. It’s “Tierra Burritos” because it’s cheap and reminds them of Chipotle. They come here 5 days a week and always order the ensalada con arroz integral, vegetales, no maíz por favor, agua de grifo, ya. They’ve calculated a 2.5 mile running route from which they never deviate. They take their coffee like they take their friends: Americano. What’s to complain about? They eat well, keep fit, and have friends. It’s safe without variation.
The shrill-beeping-music fades out and leaves me alone again in the dark with my friend. I feel grateful for this concert, but tired of it. Music, I decide, lies somewhere between these experiments, between fire-alarm and hellfire. Music rides on routine, but becomes beautiful with variation. Yet even these extremes of chaos and order I’ve heard this night must have their place. After all, I listened to a few minutes of experimental audio and this entire blogpost emerged from my brain as whole as an egg. Spotify’s never done that for me. Sometimes you need comfort, and sometimes you need chaos.
As my friend and I make our way down the stairs and he bobs his head and says: “Impresionante, ¿no? Increíble.”
I agree, but not with many words. I was saving them for now, I guess. This semester I’ll be riding that line between order and chaos, that line where I think the music might happen. There’s a lot of beauty here, and I hope to hear as much as I can. I’ll tell you about it sometimes.
Love from your friend,