Nonmusic, Pt. 1

Non-musical components have always been included in musical compositions. To go beyond the boundaries of normal or acceptable parameters in an art form is to explore, it is akin to scientific experiment, takes courage and commitment, and when most successful, the attempt can shed light into the dark corners of the soul. Whereas philosophy also often takes as its subject the intricacies of human nature, it seeks to evaluate its findings, in contrast to art, which is revelatory.

In a series of theoretical essays which I will post here on my blog, I will attempt to set down a theoretical basis for the inclusion of such components, including definitions of relevant terms, structural functions, procedures, a conceptual framework, along with some examples and quasi-philosophical method of evaluating preëxisting work.

When complete, the essays will form a larger whole, which will be a unit within a larger music theory manuscript. The sections within the unit consist of the following:

Section 1:

Linguistic: Prefix considerations - naming conventions (a-, anti-, non-)

Definitions: music, rhythm, melody, harmony; nonmusic, nonmelody, nonharmony

Purpose - why nonmusic: outside of normal or acceptable parameters, derangement

Structural Functions

Section 2:


As a conceptual framework

As a set of procedures

Section 3:

Evaluating nonmusic in music criticism

Relation to common practice and examples

Aleatory music

Noise music

Field recordings


For years as a teenager I focused on teaching myself music theory with as much energy, enthusiasm, and attention to detail as a trekkie would expend learning the ins and outs of warp drives. I tried to take theory classes when I got to college, but was told that my knowledge would place me out of them. I took them anyway and reënforced what I’d already learned.

As a songwriter, of primary interest to me has always been a hook, or a distinctive and memorable piece constructed of words and music together. These are a dime a dozen, easily made, and it always shocks me that more songwriters in my local music scene do not incorporate such a basic, entry-level method of making their music listenable. The majority of bands around here seem to have no concept of what a hook is, how to construct one, or how to incorporate it into a song’s design, and most of the ones who do write asinine, saccharine hooks that only the most unsophisticated listeners would find moving or compelling.

Even worse are the high-school journal keeper types who insist upon emoting their humdrum lives in song in a way that would better serve the world in the privacy of therapy. Greenville, South Carolina abounds with these types of musical dross.

If you’re reading this, then of course you’re excluded from all of the above blanket statements. You wouldn’t stoop to crafting such trite, forgettable, and meretricious nonsense, now would you?

In spite of a theoretical background (or perhaps because of it, who can say for sure?) the concept of noise, specifically when defined as unwanted sound, has always appealed to me. There is a perverse, transgressive pleasure in defining all of my sonic output as noise. It frees my guitar to howl like Allen Ginsberg on crack. (I don’t know if Ginsberg was ever a crackhead, but in my Mirror Universe, “crack” is the hypothetical fuel of all the wild and wonderful poetic crazies of history, the bards, the shamans, the heretics, the martyrs, the visionaries.)

It also frees me to make whatever I damn well please, as what I make is allowed to come into the world without regard for whether it suits the taste of anyone, living or dead. All of it comes through, be it angelic or demonic, and all of it is noise, foisted upon an unwelcoming world.

It's Him! Dim Jim - and more

About this time last year I spent a week recording this set of tunes. It’s something of a swan song, I guess, as I have no plans to record anything like this or to play in a band ever again.

As a document of the state of one person’s soul in a particular time and place, this set of songs reveals the fury and abandon of a man who is on the cusp of rising, phoenix-like, from the ashes of his self-immolated life into a new one. It is simultaneously my most abrasive and lyrically revealing work, and it hammers nails into coffins which it then sets ablaze, only to piss on them and put them back out again. It’s reckless and restless and libidinous and it just can’t remember where all the fucks it once had to give were put down.

There is also the sense that in spite of the dire circumstances the world finds itself in, there may always be found some hope somewhere that things can turn around, even if only (like these songs and the author’s life) through sheer force of will. Oh, and then there’re a few childrens’ songs to round things out.

Anyway, it seemed a propos to share this thing again seeing as this year’s almost through and it has some of my best lyrics ever, including such personal revelations as:

I am a trailer park Midas 
All I touch turns to shit 
No one would deny this: 
Lovin me is the pits 

(from “I Ruin Everything”)


I crave the feeling of rejection, 
the flip-side of love’s selection, 
a broken connection, a failed inspection, 
a landslide loss in my next election. 

(from “Next X”)

released December 31, 2017 

JAMES WESLEY NICHOLS - lead and background vocals, Jazzmaster & other guitars, Casiotone & other keyboards, drums, drum machine, percussion, effects, sequencing, ukulele. 

All songs written, performed, recorded, and mixed 
by James Wesley Nichols (ASCAP) 2017 

Recorded and mixed December 17-23, 2017 

Artwork by James Wesley Nichols

© 2017 James Wesley Nichols all rights reserved

And since New Year’s Eve is almost here again, there’s also this old thing:

Lou Reed & John Cale's "Small Town"

I won’t ask if you’ve ever heard John Cougar Mellencamp’s 1985 hit “Small Town.” I won’t sing it for you either, as the particular brand of sadism required to inflict such pain upon another sentient being’s soul is outside of the scope of my most esoteric kink.

“Small Town” is a disease. Thankfully, there is an antidote. The identically named first track from Lou Reed and John Cale’s 1990 album Songs for Drella cures the sick nostalgia for American small town life that Mellencamp perversely celebrates. The album was written as a tribute to their friend and collaborator Andy Warhol, and depicts the archetypal locale as somewhere one seeks to escape rather than somewhere one would wish to entrench oneself.

When you're growing up in a small town
When you're growing up in a small town
When you're growing up in a small town
You say, "no one famous ever came from here"

When you're growing up in a small town
And you're having a nervous breakdown
And you think that you'll never escape it
Yourself or the place that you live

Where did Picasso come from?
There's no Michelangelo coming from Pittsburgh
If art is the tip of the iceberg
I'm the part sinking below

When you're growing up in a small town
Bad skin, bad eyes, gay and fatty
People look at you funny
When you're in a small town

My father worked in construction
It's not something for which I'm suited
Oh, what is something for which you are suited?
Getting out of here

I hate being odd in a small town
If they stare let them stare in New York City
At this pink eyed painting albino
How far can my fantasy go?

I'm no Dali coming from Pittsburgh
No adorable lisping Capote
My hero, oh, do you think I could meet him?
I'd camp out at his front door

There's only one good thing about small town
There's only one good use for a small town
There's only one good thing about small town
You know that you want to get out

When you're growing up in a small town
You know you'll grow down in a small town
There's only one good use for a small town

You hate it and you'll know you have to leave

Songwriters: John Davies Cale / Lou Reed

Smalltown lyrics © John Cale Music Inc, Sony ATV Music Pub LLC

The Man in White

The afternoon was mild and warm and the breeze was soothing. Florence had been downgraded to a tropical storm and the light rain that sprinkled our corner of the state had yet to begin and the children and I were downtown for no reason other than it was more interesting than being at home.

I’d decided that given the chance of rain, rather than a wilderness day (admittedly more nourishing for the soul) it would be a city day, with some pizza and pavement pounding. After some slices we sauntered over to the Plaza where the wind blew water all over the place from the horizontal concrete fountains and the kids quickly found a playmate in a little girl called Amelia.

It was a medium gray kind of day, neutral, not taking anyone’s side, nothing outstanding in the way of good or bad occurrences. As a day it was a blank slate upon which one could carve a picture of whatever one might choose. The kids enjoyed themselves and I enjoyed watching them as they played with little behavioral correction, exuberant and energetic but not boisterous. It was the kind of day you might say was routine, if you didn’t know better.

Joan of Arc engraving by Albert Lynch (1903)

Joan of Arc engraving by Albert Lynch (1903)

Observing passersby and observing myself observing them, two songs came to mind, one compassionate, the other condemnatory, both from Leonard Cohen’s 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate: “Joan of Arc” and “Diamonds in the Mine.”

“Joan of Arc” moves me. The thing about Leonard Cohen’s songwriting and delivery that resonates with me is a deep empathy he creates between character and listener. It’s a singular power in a songwriter, a man who seems to have possessed a rare ability to create harmony between souls. Perhaps Mr. Cohen was a more highly evolved soul than most of the rest of us.

My own dearth of compassion is a pernicious habit of mind that begs correction. Too often I see individuals through the eyes of someone like the narrator of “Diamonds in the Mine.”

The truth about oneself is often painful. But isn’t admitting that you have a problem the first step in solving it?

Diamonds in the Mine

The woman in blue, she's asking for revenge, 
the man in white -- that's you -- says he has no friends. 
The river is swollen up with rusty cans 
and the trees are burning in your promised land. 
And there are no letters in the mailbox, 
and there are no grapes upon the vine, 
and there are no chocolates in the boxes anymore, 
and there are no diamonds in the mine. 

Well, you tell me that your lover has a broken limb, 
you say you're kind of restless now and it's on account of him. 
Well, I saw the man in question, it was just the other night, 
he was eating up a lady where the lions and Christians fight. 
And there are no letters in the mailbox 
and there are no grapes upon the vine, 
and there are no chocolates in the boxes anymore, 
and there are no diamonds in the mine. 

Ah, there is no comfort in the covens of the witch, 
some very clever doctor went and sterilized the bitch, 
and the only man of energy, yes the revolution's pride, 
he trained a hundred women just to kill an unborn child. 
And there are no letters in the mailbox, 
oh no, there are no, no grapes upon your vine, 
and there are, there are no chocolates in your boxes anymore, 
and there are no diamonds in your mine. 
And there are no letters in the mailbox, 
and there are no grapes upon the vine, 
and there are no chocolates in your boxes anymore, 
and there are no diamonds in your mine.

By Leonard Cohen

Four Feedback Compositions

A.  All four pieces are based on the following gear setup. Place guitar or guitars on stands, plugged into an amplifier system. Turn volume up loud enough to produce feedback. Wear hearing protection, if desired. Position guitars and amps in room for increased resonance, if desired.

1. Place an ordinary houseplant in proximity to the loudspeakers. Water regularly. Allow the plant to to be exposed to sound for 2 to 4 weeks. Does the plant continue to thrive? What effect, if any, does prolonged sonic bombardment have on a plant?

2. Brace guitars so they are not easily overthrown. Throw objects of varying size and hardness at the guitars' strings, causing an attack. What emotional response is elicited from the thrower? Does the piece continue to be enjoyable to perform?

3. Place an ordinary housecat in a cage in proximity to the loudspeakers. Water and feed regularly. Allow the cat to be exposed to sound for 2 to 4 weeks. Does the animal continue to thrive? What effect, if any, does prolonged sonic bombardment have on a cat? Repeat this process with a deaf cat. Note differences in response.

4. Turn off all lights in room. Wearing night vision goggles, direct a group of people into the room, and have them walk about blindly. Lock doors. Observe their emotional reactions as they stumble over instruments, hit walls, fall to the floor, and realize they are trapped. What emotional effects are produced from the combination of guitar feedback, blindness, and accidental injury?