Chris Cornell and the Exercise of Dissonance

Chris Cornell is a musical genius. Yes, I was raised on the heavier music of the post-punk pre-Nirvana-breakthrough wave, and therefore have a preference for these tones, but what Chris Cornell has accomplished as a “Futurist” is extraordinary.

If you listen to Chris’s first popular band, Soundgarden, you might fight it off as “heavy metal.” If you listen carefully you realize the band is practicing the art of dissonance. Practicing, or at least being able to identify, dissonance is the anchor to being a Futurist. Each Soundgarden (and his solo stuff, and his time with Audioslave) record, performance, and song is an exercise of dissonance. He is weaving into the mainstream-songbook the external forces of marginalized sounds. Nearly of all of his songs, the structures, the chords, the vocal ranges, are built on dissonant chords that find moments of serene resolution, and then break back apart into dissonance.

There are many historical examples of weaving dissonance into the mainstream. Specifically related to Chris, is one that has been replicated since the birth of “print-making” and is now found in Instagram. Let’s use punk-rock bass playing as the pivot point.

Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols didn’t know how to play the bass. It didn’t matter. The band had a strong drummer and guitar player; both “professional” studio musicians. They were the forces of resolve… weaving Sid’s dissonance into the mainstream. This allowed Sid, and Johnny Rotten, to be the “punks” they are now famous for being. If you listen to Sid’s playing you realize that he can’t play, but what he did bring to the band is the historical print-making technique of, “over-biting,” or “foul-biting.”

Way back when, when people realized they could duplicate things, they relied on the printing press to be their duplication machine. They eagerly attempted to make things perfect. The key problem of early print techniques is it required the use of acids to burn the texts or images into the metal printing plates. When all went well, the ink would remain within the cracks, scratches, and acid-made lines in the plates. These plates were then used to press the ink into paper. But acid is volatile, and it would leak, run, and escape the lines the printmaker carefully laid. Somewhere along the way, dissonant printmakers found a beauty in the overrun of acid. They created techniques to make it happen on purpose. They were our culture’s early punk-rockers.

This overrun is called over-biting or foul-biting. It added a genuine quality to the prints; it added an unseen force, a “filter” to their images that was out of their control, but still exciting, and even beautiful to the eye. If you should browse through Instagram, you are made acutely aware that this dissonance trend is in full force. Thousands, if not millions, of images are struck with an over-bite layer to give them that “old school” quality. It’s as old as people making prints, any type of prints. And it is an obvious example of the weaving in of dissonance into the mainstream, or potentially the other way around. This specific “print” wave took around two hundred years to crest.

Back to music…Sid Vicious was the over-bitten plate. Chris Cornell is Instagram.

Through Chris’s songwriting and performance, he continues this over-bite tradition and elevates it to a genius level. Through following Chris’s career, as an exercise of dissonance, you could predict Instagram. The western culture is becoming more and more dissonant as the voices of difference become available on social networks. This effect is illustrated within the adoption of filters on Instagram.

Even so, dissonance works both ways. And if we look to Chris Cornell as the trailblazer of the dissonant wave, it seems the next step is to take the popular, resolutive sounds of our day and to weave them backwards into the force of dissonance. This is an unwinding, a drawing out of the dissonance from the popular and putting it back into the wave of change. Like a tornado pulling up the hot ground-air from the plains to power its might, the next wave will be a powerful change, a shift to the marginalized, a shift away from a one hegemonic force and into the facets of a multi-force web of cultures, people, and voices.

Case in point: Chris is currently on tour. On the news of Whitney Houston’s death, Chris learned one of her songs, overnight, but wove it through his dissonance filter. The outcome is still her song, some of his song, but ultimately a genius moment where a futurist listened deeply to his surroundings, found the resolutive force, and pulled it back into the roots of dissonance.

Chris Cornell, live, San Francisco, 2/16/12, “I will always love you”

Super, freaking, genius.