June 17, 2007 (link)
Syndromeda, The Alien Abduction Phenomenon
When I put on a CD like this, my first critical instincts are often the wrong ones -- which is to say that I'm in danger of running afoul of an observation my father once made, something that I've come to regard as one of the golden rules of writing about music:
"Never fault something for not being what it's not trying to be."
There are a whole set of expectations that wouldn't necessarily be useful or even appropriate to bring to this music. That doesn't mean that those expectations aren't valid reflections of my tastes, or even that I wouldn't hold them to be appropriate for music as a whole, generally speaking; rather, I just mean that, if confronted by an object, one has to critically examine the object on its own terms. You can reject the entire concept of sports cars, and argue that they don't really lead to anything good for the world as a whole, but also acknowledge that when it comes from getting from Point A to Point B quickly, they're usually pretty good at it. (And that, on top of that, a Jaguar can make for a really nice ride.)
I've learned by now that this isn't really music to be listened to in the same way as, say, Stravinsky, or Miles' electric band, or whatever. When I listen to those recordings, I feel like I'm having a conversation with the composer, with the musicians, playing a game of expectation and of language. At times it's hard to listen to music like that in company, and in general it demands (and rewards) one's full attention -- the opposite of Brian Eno's definition of ambient music.
But neither does The Alien Abduction Phenomenon function in the same way that ambient music can, at least not for me. It doesn't slow down time, it doesn't elusively flicker in the corners of the room; it presents a clear foreground, albeit a foreground that's arguably very limited in scope.
Another thing I'm tempted to think about is the artistry involved in constructing a disc like this: does it sound like the person who made it worked hard, or does it sound tossed-off (and not in a good way, like some indie and punk stuff can pull off)? Does it sound like someone set up a bunch of loops and basically noodled over them? Does it sound like they're using factory presets, or sounds they made themselves? Does it seem like it's being played in real-time at the keyboard by someone who pretty much sticks to the white keys, or does it seem like the person who wrote it has at least rudimentary musical understanding?
But here, too, I question whether these are the right questions to be thinking about, in part because they misread the purpose of the music, and the conventions of the genre it works within. Think of film music, which so specifically exists to serve a particular purpose; something that's terrific as music for the concert hall can fail spectacularly as a soundtrack.
When I put The Alien Abduction Phenomenon on today, I was doing chores: putting away the dishes, walking to and from the laundromat. I'd grabbed my CD player and headphones because I'd needed something to keep me company, aurally, during these relatively dull and repetitive tasks. If this is its purpose, then the CD served admirably; through long stretches of the disc, I had much the same feeling that I would get when I'd put on mainstream techno when I had to clean my apartment. There was something in the music that made me curiously wordless, that made language seem like an aside. If ambient music seems to slow time down, then this seemed to neutralize time, somehow -- to turn it into a succession of discrete units that, relative to one another, had complete identity -- the way a computer might look at time, if it could reflect upon such things.
It seems to me that this is significant. I'd assume this CD is marketed under the headphone-trip bannerhead (and it looks like I'm probably right, more or less), and a lot of it no doubt has that effect for many people. M. C., the good friend who gave me this CD, works two jobs, both of which consist in large part of repetitive and relatively thankless tasks (or such is my sense, at least). It seems to me that music like this would definitely help him to get through the day, especially at his night job which is relatively solitary.
But this is exactly what I mistrust about this music. I find myself thinking back to the arguments I used to have with Morgan, about techno and about the function it serves. I can't shake the feeling that a lot of music like this -- sequenced music especially, with repetitive cycles, a clear metric, and a highly mechanistic conception of time -- I'm troubled by how effectively and neatly it turns us into, well, cogs. Little kids on Ritalin; workers in cubicles. Whether we're sorting laundry, cleaning an industrial plant, tweaking computer code, or whatever, this music provides a temporal superstructure that somehow leaves the foreground of our consciousness disengaged, i.e. for work. (I don't have any trouble writing this entry while simultaneously listening to the CD, for example.) No one's talking to us, yet the rhythms of activity are all around us, in glorious stereophonic sound. Every moment is different, while somehow exactly the same as the moment that came before it. Time is static, yet mobile, at times even frenetic; the pulse quickens, but without a goal.
(Remember that the old arcade games -- Pac-Man, Donkey Kong -- had no ending. Many of the newest games don't really have one, either, or they have so many that it'd be almost impossible to see them all without endless hours of commitment. More evidence that the NES/SNES era was the Golden Age?)
If I were reviewing The Alien Abduction Phenomenon -- which I'm not: this isn't a review, by any means -- I would say that, generally speaking, it does what it does quite well. None of the sounds seem to me especially tacky, which to be frank is something of an accomplishment in this genre. The songs are simple, but never insultingly so. For me, it's not a headphone trip, at least not without a visual component to supplement it, but for others it might do nicely.
And yet I think of other things...the intricately-crafted textures of Spool, or the rich depth of Datacide's Flowerhead, or the terrible sense of loss and sadness that creeps over me when I hear the opening chord to "Rutti". It's not fair for me to use The Alien Abduction Phenomenon as a poster child for sins of which mainstream techno is far, far guiltier; compared to a lot of other music, there's a fair amount of space in it. Perhaps it's for that very reason, though -- its proximity to other, subtler music -- that I find myself thinking of these things. That quality of detachment, of preoccupation with minutiae, the failure of affect...
(...or the look I've seen in my friends' eyes, more than once, after they've smoked weed. You're a bug under a microscope, those eyes say to me. How interesting.)
When I described the experience of listening to techno and cleaning, above, I left something out. It wasn't only my sense of time that was changed, I think, by the music; my emotional state felt altered as well. The music made me feel as though my affect were being suppressed -- as though my emotions were in the process of evaporating -- something which, at the time, neither frightened nor pleased me. It simply was -- again, like a computer.
Perhaps that's what troubled me most, listening today: how easy it was to slip into that state, that mode of being. Stars where no human race is -- and at that, there are no significant human voices on this CD, no sounds made by the breath and sinew of a living being. Frost looked to the cold implacability of winter, and felt no need to look any further. I too am from New Hampshire; to me the snow connotes silence, peace, home, and a slight sense of loss -- but perhaps that only reflects my own alienation from the realities of wintertime.
(And as I look up "Desert Places", the Google ads on the sidebar say:
"Escape from the masses - Discover the road less travelled in Spain/Canaries"
"Oh No - I'm Emo: Are You Emo? Take the Quiz!"
Atticus, Ron Hansen