Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Century XX - XXI

Yet again, I responded to a question posed in an online forum, and stuck the response here. The original question posed was from someone who had just attended a concert featuring Boulez, Messiaen and Lutosławski, and found that he couldn't talk to his friends about it.

My experience with Difficult Century XX Music began when I was about 15 or so (fyi - that’s almost three decades back) when I suddenly found myself laboring under the likely misimpression that it was the “coolest” possible thing to seek out the most challenging music I could find and see if I was up to it or whether I could stretch my ears around it over time. All I remember having to begin with, really, was a 1979 Frank Zappa interview in which he referenced Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Webern, Varese and Conlon Nancarrow. Not bad to be going on with, though. Years later, the intellectual-exercise-for-its-own-sake aspect has faded, to be supplanted by a notion of “beauty” something like the very unsentimental way art critic Dave Hickey has used the term: as a challenge to other agendas. Good music is good music, and it usually sounds good, too, no matter how challenging it is. To that end, what I’m enjoying about Century XXI is how the XX musics have already begun to differentiate themselves. I suspect it won’t be long before having Boulez, Messiaen and Lutosławski on the same program will engender cognitive dissonance. They don’t strike me as being all that similar, now. As a listener, I find Boulez’s doctrinaire serialism an awful lot like taking a beating to join the Crips, and frankly I don’t doubt that was how Boulez intended much of his music to function. I appreciate his “Pli Selon Pli” plenty when I listen hard, but only then and no more than that. On the other hand, I find much of Messiaen’s music to be beautiful without qualification. “Quartet for the End of Time” is like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue for me – obvious in its appeal only because its means and its rigor give its unequivocal pleasures a special gravity. I’m also very fond of “From the Canyon to the Stars” and “Vingt Regards.” It’s like harder wood giving a hotter flame, when you get it going. It can also make all the earlier "classical” music that we think we understand sound even better, because what it cost its creators is made more apparent by our understanding of what it costs our contemporaries.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What Is the World Music Market?

Someone just posed this question on an on-line forum, so I'm double-dipping and putting my response here, too:

I'm not so sure it's a demographic so much as a sub-cultural inclination. The intrinsic problem with the "World Music" category is that it means music from wherever you're not. Not only does it jumble soukous together with clog dancing, qawwali, and gamelan (although we're okay with that), but also from a where-the-consumer-is-at marketing standpoint the designation turns the whole confused kaboodle into field recordings. That's a deceptively difficult threshold for people with dollars to cross. People who view "World Music" as a discrete category may dabble a bit on totems like Buena Vista Social Club (good album though it is), but unless they're well versed in a reasonably broad range of traditions on their own home turf, they're not likely to become real "consumers" of World Music, as such, because beyond distinguishing "World Music" from the familiar (read: "popular" music), they'll be ill-disposed to distinguish the various alien forms from among themselves. Nothing makes you want to buy Congolese music in quantity, for example, more than hearing enough of it to understand just how much of it there is and how radically different its practitioners are from each other. Then, what sounds like pop music in Kinshasa has more than a shot at sounding like pop music elsewhere, because you'll start hearing stuff from within the foreign context that you don't like as well as do like and you'll have some idea why. If people in the US heard soukous all the time, it would sound like pop music here, but they don't, they won't, and wishing won't make it otherwise, so it doesn't. By definition, therefore, I'd say the World Music demographic couldn't be a World Music audience only -- it would have to comprise people disposed to listen to (and buy) anything and everything. Maybe because they just can't help it, or something.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Three Memos to Self About Bob Dylan

  1. Don’t write about Bob Dylan. Everything written about Dylan by anyone other than Dylan melts in the air instantly except for Greil Marcus’s 1970 review of Self Portrait, which began “What is this shit?” and included “I once said I'd buy an album of Dylan breathing hard. But I'd never said I'd buy an album of Dylan breathing softly.” That piece is currently absent from Rolling Stone’s on-line review archive. But also absent is Jann Wenner’s embarrassing apologia for Street Legal, which shortly followed Marcus’s takedown of that album. The latter review is online, but it doesn’t matter any more than Street Legal mattered. Self Portrait was a singular assault on the concept and mechanism of taste, and Marcus’s invective delineated that shock in precise terms. Addressing Dylan’s other records in normative critical fashion – good ones and unlistenable ones alike – means describing a taste concept within the framework of that concept. Dylan’s work illuminates the impracticality of this, insofar as...
  2. Taste is irrelevant.
  3. Louis Armstrong loved Guy Lombardo. Wayne Shorter loves Paul Anka. Bob Dylan loves Johnny Ray. There are more than a handful of Dylan records that define “canonical” as far as rock-ish product goes (by "consensus," or something), but classifying them that way – great, abysmal, whatever – obscures how any of the “great” ones could possibly exist. Even a casual familiarity with Dylan's public comments makes clear that his standards in music have less to do with perceived intrinsic quality than with conductivity. That's why his thefts make the music work. "Masters of War" is the same tune as "Nottamun Town," and "Rollin' and Tumblin'" on Modern Times is the same as Muddy Waters's "Rollin' and Tumblin'," right down to the tempo. But they’re not the same songs. The signifying character of Dylan’s constructs are contingent upon his indifference to concealing the thefts comprising them, or spackling originality or "self-expression" onto them. On the records that work - with odd exceptions, the early ones and the very late ones - the ready-mades and not-so-ready-mades are altered just enough, and no more, to accommodate his voice and temporal sensibility. That is also why most of Dylan's attempts to fabricate “Dylan Records” throughout the 1970s and ‘80s sound so lost and so tiresome. That's also why, whenever he does do a cover, it can make you jump like seeing a ghost.
  4. His voice is really ugly for a dead guy.
  5. I have never known a time when rock & roll was not Really Finished. I bought my first record in 1974 (a 45 of “The Bitch Is Back” off a drug store rack down the street in Yarmouth, Maine); the first Rolling Stones record I ever owned was It’s Only Rock’n Roll; and the first Dylan record I ever heard (on the radio) was “Hurricane.” My reaction to the latter, in so many pre-adolescent words, was: “If it’s by that Dylan guy, do I have to learn to like this repetitive didactic shit?” The answer was (and is) “naaaah,” but I also can’t say I took “Like a Rolling Stone” as anything other than an impersonal totem, either, at first. Liking him took work and acclimatization and, even now, Dylan remains for me the most recondite of musicians relative to his ubiquity. Even when the music is pretty, it’s pretty ugly, and for a solid decade now, his records have been really, really ugly. But this is unqualified praise. Leonard Cohen sounds like a Really Old Guy. Bob Dylan doesn’t; he sounds like a Corpse. I play “Love and Theft” as often as anything he recorded before 1970, but one of its peculiar fascinations is that I can’t imagine an actual live person singing any of these songs, let alone living the circumstances described. Yet even on the 40+-year-old nonpareil genre experiments comprising The Basement Tapes, the songs sounded inhabited. No matter how abstract the imagery or circumstances, there was no question of the “I” relating them, when there was one. The voice put Dylan there, wherever “there” was. On “Love and Theft”, Modern Times and quite a lot of Tell Tale Signs, the voice has the opposite effect. The songs are like phantoms. They’re there and we’re hearing them, but because they're delivered in that weird corpse voice, there’s nothing to reassure us that anything in the sentence you are now almost to the end of is true.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Records Are For Perverts

I have a longstanding difficulty with cultural decay as a model for anything, unless I can learn something from it. Certainly, when anyone says, “All music sucks now,” I tune them out as quickly as I would tune out “Chicago X is the best album ever made. Period. Pete Cetera kicked ASS!” It’s not news that all artists, milieus and entire genres lose focus and generating principle over time (not to mention aesthetic principle), and we know how traumatic the simultaneous lessening definition of one’s cultural landmarks can be when middle age hits (I was about 18, myself). But that only means that somebody you don’t know (or like, probably) is getting all fired up somewhere, and the attendant manifestations are coded for a different audience (not you, Gramps). It’s somebody else’s pimple misery now. Well … another time for that. More pressing to those who ponder how recorded music will proceed right now is the apparent decline of the audio fetish object. Vinyl records were fetish objects; CDs work better, but they're not.

That is not to say I’m sentimental about vinyl. I buy CDs and I download (legally) at the highest resolution I can obtain. Digital music in digital formats – of course, why not? The tiny niche market for current releases pressed on vinyl is such an obvious dead end that it just depresses me to hear about. But even back in the ‘80s, the notion that everyone should replace all vinyl with CDs was such blatant snake oil that I still can’t believe how many did just that, even though keeping a working turntable now is no snap and movers curse me when they lift the record boxes. And you know what? Ask any archivist what the only durable format for audio is. Not most durable: only. All digital formats – discs and hard drives, both – fail eventually. Digital failure doesn’t mean increased background noise; it means unplayable music. So, all of our non-vinyl music will have to migrate ahead of that obsolescence. Or we can just buy it again. (Right?) For me (and probably you), it's a bit late to turn back now so it's a contradiction I'm resigned to. Neo boutique vinyl is too expensive, anyway.

The one aspect of vinyl records that I am oddly sentimental about is what CDs made go away and now miss: the difficulty of reproducing their contents. That’s what made them fetish objects (cf. Webster's: "a material object regarded with superstitious or obsessive devotion"), and not all the groovy art on the LP covers. “Analog” means what it says: analogy. Etching a master recording for vinyl pressing means making a model of what was on the original recording, whereas a digital format is a reproduction of the original signal and nothing but. Whether analog gives you a smoother, warmer and more complete sound than the super-approximation of digital is neither here nor there, really. It was more significant that you couldn’t copy what was on vinyl records (by taping or whatever) without getting an inferior signal and you still can’t. Accordingly, I doubt anyone in the record industry ever regarded home taping as a serious threat twenty or thirty years ago. Vinyl was like Walter Benjamin turned on his head: a privileged reproduction in the age of mechanical originals. The content of vinyl records was coextensive with what they were as physical objects.[see ill-advised footnote]

Unlike vinyl recoords, CDs are not privileged reproductions in any essential way, except legally. They are conduits for digital sound files that you can extrude and reproduce intact. The fetish aspect parallels the commercial dilemma, although the dilemma is very old news now. For as long as CDs were viewed as a bright, convenient and capacious alternative to vinyl records, their attraction and massive salability were assured. But CDs are not fetish objects, because their content is readily separable from its container. No matter how groovy the art in the booklet and inlay card, their audio content is what’s privileged and – if you’re so inclined, and millions are – it’s a spirit you can exorcise from its host with a few keystrokes.

I still buy CDs, like I said. I have to, given some of my tastes (pervert!) (uh…nerd!), my professional belief that artists need to be paid, and the plain fact that I’m not inclined to put 700 MB of .wav file on a damn hard drive for everything I own. (You aren’t either, but you don’t care.) Recorded music is essential for me and it’s not going away commercially. But it is not the goopy lens of youth that causes me to regard CDs and vinyl records very differently, and that goes double for their respective commercial prospects past and present. If the fetish aspect of salable recorded music product units is eroding (or gone), we have to assume it is now elsewhere (or about to show itself) and that proper re-contextualization of this aspect will mean a new CASH COW. For somebody. After all that pimple misery…

[Ill-advised footnote:]
Aside from the cautionary tale of Reality D. Blipcrotch, a lunatic signed to Jefferson Airplane’s vanity label in the early ‘70s who expected the RCA engineers to rig a marijuana leaf to pop out of his record (literally) at the end of side one, my favorite extreme illustrations of vinyl object-ness are these:
  1. “Record Without A Cover” (1985) by Christian Marclay, a fantastic conceptualist who used to do live sound collages with four (and more) turntables simultaneously. “Record” was one of them (and very good listening it is), but it was exactly as advertised. The scratches and pops from the records used were as relevant as their ostensible “content.” Moreover, storing “Record” without any protective covering (as it instructs you to do, etched into the flipside along with the credits) would simply add more content to the thing. It certainly has to my copy.
  2. “Sonic Destroyer”/“G-Force” by Underground Resistance (d/b/a X‑101). These secretive Detroit techno guys were vinyl-fetishists to a fault (Mad Mike Banks, especially), but I’m particularly fond of this 12”. Side A has no take-up or take-off grooves and three disconnected bands, the last of which does things with a Roland 303 even more punishing than CJ Bolland’s “Horsepower.” Side B runs in reverse from the center to the rim.
  3. “Mentok I” by LFO (Warp 1991). There’s a great story in Simon Reynolds’ Energy Flash (Generation Ecstasy in the US) describing how these guys got an enormous bass sound on their 12” by convincing the mastering engineer to turn the filters off on the cutting lathe. This could have easily caused the lathe to burn out, but it didn’t, apparently. I only have the track on CD (came with UK edition of Simon’s book, in fact), but even there the bass is such that your ass will follow whether your mind is free or not.
Note that all three examples postdate the mass availability of CDs.
[Back up there...]

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Mash-Up Retrospective

Only a few years ago, mash-ups were a hot topic and they’re not one anymore. If you draw a blank at that term-of-art, you might recall hearing (or hearing about, more likely) the pre-Gnarls Barkley DJ Danger Mouse’s splicing each vocal track from Jay-Z’s The Black Album into samples from The Beatles’ White Album to make The Gray Album back in 2004. That’s just one mash-up – probably the best known – and there have been numerous others. My personal favorite was made about the same time by a British hacker, monikered “CCC,” who most notoriously spliced each track of The Beatles’ Revolver together with sundry bedfellows ranging from Madonna to Norman Greenbaum (“Spirit in the Sky”). The high point for me was the “Good Day Sunshine” track which combined that song with “All You Need Is Love,” “Getting Better,” “Eight Miles High,” “I Can See For Miles” and “Groove Is In The Heart.” Yes, it smoked. No, EMI didn’t stand for it, anymore than it stood for The Gray Album. Record companies and publishers can’t stand this sort of thing, constitutionally, and please don’t break your heart expecting them to do otherwise, not least (or even) when the Beatles are involved, and note also that the Beatles tend to be. Jay-Z’s comparative forbearance at the time probably references the singularities of the mixtape economy as then constituted (and when I have that figured out, you’ll know before I do) (whoever you are). Inevitably, the half-life of mash-ups kicked in as it would for any other form, not least because mash-ups are a trick with immediately understood and self-limiting parameters, like meme-hacking (e.g. substituting “Cocaine” for “Coca-Cola” in the latter’s typeface and logo). But while The Gray Album is a less scintillating alternate version of The Black Album (I don’t care if you think Hova was overripe by then; he’s Marvin Gaye to me), CCC’s Revolved project illuminated something else for me when I heard it – a simultaneously aesthetic and legal issue, which almost never happens. Really witty mash-ups differ fundamentally from sampling in its typical forms. In hip-hop, for example, whether you can identify the source recordings sampled is incidental aesthetically (if not legally), even when it’s a frankly derivative work with a vocal introduced onto a pre-existing song sampled or recreated largely whole (Diddy’s oeuvre, for instance). In that sense, The Gray Album was actually more a set of unlicensed remixes than a mash-up. In contrast, it is impossible for a mash-up like Revolved to work aesthetically unless the identity of every appropriated fragment is completely obvious. You have to hear every theft. And theft is what it has to be – impecunious solo guerrilla laptoppers snatching music too famous and expensive to license, or even to profitably mount a fair use argument over. Otherwise, it wouldn’t seem so clever. But it also wouldn’t be so effective if the digital audio content had not become so vulnerable to being so appropriated. I can think of no other phenomenon in music more emblematic of that critical shift.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Gang of Four

It’s pretty late in the day to be bearing down hard on Gang of Four, but I had a couple of amusing thoughts after catching up with their second album, Solid Gold, only twenty-seven years after it came out. First, I realized they reminded me a lot of The Band. This got funnier when I subsequently came across an old interview in which Andy Gill cites Music From Big Pink and The Band as two of his favorite records ever. How similar? The strategic contrariness and the implicit rectitude that went with it. Public Image Ltd. charmed me a lot more than Go4 at the time just by being lazy pretentious screw-ups who liked Can, Miles Davis, Jah Woosh and Trinity’s “Pope Paul Dead and Gone” (not to mention - shhh! - Yes and Genesis). Of course Lydon & Co. couldn’t follow their own act, and Gang of Four could. But I never played the Gang's records much. Which is not to say I didn’t like them fine then, and maybe like them more now, while my resistance is on all fours with their intentions. They nagged you for betraying the people’s history (I’m doing that right now). They avoided tube amps in order to minimize the expressive character of the guitar sound. Andy Gill told Hugo Burnham to always drum the opposite to how he wanted to. And now I can’t hear Entertainment! without hearing the upside-down-and-backwards rhythms and impossible screeched vocals on Big Pink as a rough analogue. Solid Gold, considered even “drier” than Entertainment! at the time, now sounds to me like a groove album in the properly Brechtian sense (haven’t used that word in eons) – they map everyplace the groove isn’t and you hear it in your head instead. Sometimes, anyway. But it also inspired the second thought that came to me, which is what I think their two moments of greatness are, both somehow beside their ostensible Point: (1) the live version of Solid Gold’s “What We All Want” on the Another Day/Another Dollar EP (nothing Brechtian about it; unequivocal expressive character in the composed guitar line and as sad a song as the Pet Shop Boys’ “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” [“Now I can do what I want to…FOREVER!”]; and the groove takes them over, completely counter to their stated concept; in other words, they succeed by cheating just like Brecht did). And (2) the cover art for Warner’s ex post facto corporate compilation A Brief History of the Twentieth Century (two 1 Franc pieces depicted - one from 1961 saying “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”, the other from 1943 saying, “Travail, Familie, Patrie.”). After the fact and beside the point is the fact and the point.

P.S. For the record, my favorite track by The Band is “Ain’t No More Cane” from The Basement Tapes.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith

Thanks to old friends and some vaguely related legal work, I was sitting last night in a vintage swivel chair in a Williamsburg performance space watching Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith being “honored to be honored” (his words) by the Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT). Then he proceeded to play a lot of loud trumpet in a duet with Pheeroan Ak Laff . The drummer appeared to lead, the trumpeter appeared to follow, playing intermittent bursts over and off the percussion, but sectioning it off and telescoping its time axis. Then at the end of the program, the honoree trumpeter got all four of the other trumpeters who were there that night on stage with him and played a lot of soft trumpet at them, which was even more alarming. I’ve been listening to this man’s records for almost thirty years and even the pieces I’ve played over and over, like “Images” and “Divine Love,” I still can’t describe accurately. I always remember them as motionless and pointillist, and maybe they are, but whenever I play them I’m always shocked at how aggressive they actually sound without any discernible pulse (usually). My understanding of his self-designed notation is limited to how he's described it: a system that organizes his pieces (solo and group) into episodic event cells, with a set of appropriate contingencies for the players at each station. If you bear down as a listener, you can convince yourself (maybe) that you’re hearing how all of that structuring works as the pieces unwind. But they don’t unwind. Time doesn’t just pass and it is not marked. Something has to happen at a sufficient level of intensity such that something else can happen next, something that absolutely must happen, and then it has to stop and vanish.

(P.S. Thanks for the photo, Frank.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Jump Fly

It is likely that this blog will be primarily verbal (my sister does the visual stuff awfully well - see blog menu at right), but here's a video of my son and me levitating.