Eyes That Can See in the Dark

a music journal


June 29, 2001 (link)

11:14 PM

I recently learned that there are circulating demos for Slowdive's watershed album Pygmalion, and they're said to be beautiful. I've managed to track down an incomplete MP3 of one track, "Ambient Guitar", but the quality of the recording is not great -- lots of distortion and flutter -- and it's hard to really make a call. (Perhaps I'd be able to find more were Napster still intact; Gnutella is a real drag.)

In any event, pristine copies supposedly exist, so I'll have to get one.

I've also been listening a bit to David Bowie's Low album, which I'd never heard and which is supposedly quite a seminal work. I'm a somewhat unlikely candidate to be a Bowie fan in some ways, but I've always enjoyed the two albums I knew well (those being Ziggy Stardust and Love You Till Tuesday). What was originally the A-side of the Low vinyl doesn't do much for me at all; it's OK guitar-pop, but seems stilted and unfocused, and none of the songs are nearly as winning as anything on Ziggy Stardust -- or even "Let's Dance". (I understand that Bowie's trying for something new here, and I respect that; I just don't find that it particularly engages me.) The second side, though, is practically a different album; the Eno influence is very strong here, and I'd imagine that it's this side that really caught people by surprise, and which a lot of people have since used as a point of departure. I'm not sure what I think of it yet, but I find myself more receptive to it than to the first side.

Listening to this album got me to thinking about the role of technological innovation in music, and how, in the long run, music that gains notoriety through its association with new technologies often doesn't wear well. How much of the reputation of Low depends on its novelty? Would I be more struck if it were 1977, and if these sounds hadn't yet been assimilated into the vocabulary of countless other bands? Of course, in a sense, nearly everything in Low had been seen before; certainly, the electronic content was old news -- just ask anyone from Pink Floyd, to Otto Luening, to John Cage. What really struck people, I suspect, was the adoption of this minimalist-ambient vocabulary by someone as high-profile as Bowie. Or, as this review says, "Bowie made the experimentalism not only of Eno, but of the German synth-group Kraftwerk and the post-punk group Wire respectable, if not quite mainstream."

Classical music has had the luxury of time, through the course of which those works whose seminal quality was predicated mainly on novelty have been slowly weeded out, or at least de-emphasized (to some extent, at least, though I'm certainly not going to pretend that the outcome has been perfect). The works that have endured, like Le Sacre du Printemps, are works whose content would stand tall in any era, regardless of any role they might play in the teleology of music history. Pop music is too young to have really gone through that process, although some records have definitely established their place already -- Revolver comes to mind, for one. I'm not saying that history will diminish Low, but I'm not convinced that its impact stood apart from its novelty -- whereas when I listen to something like Satie's Gymnopedies, though they're more than a century old, I feel the impact (in other words, the fact that they're exquisitely beautiful and genuinely haunting) and the novelty. One can feel, simultaneously, that something new was said with this piece, and that it's a beautiful something. What's the quote I read recently...something along the lines of "Great pieces of music create whole new styles, but the greatest pieces create them and complete them" -- in other words, that the very greatest pieces leave nothing more to be said, no room for genrification. Again, Le Sacre has that quality, as does Petrushka. Stravinsky was probably the best example ever of that kind of composer; each of his best pieces could constitute an entire school of composition in and of themselves, and yet they're so great that there's really no room for anything more. And that's why he never wrote "another" Petrushka -- and perhaps that's why, to return to the initial premise of this post, Slowdive essentially ended with Pygmalion. They said something, and said it perfectly, and knew that they could neither continue ,nor go back to what they'd been doing. (Of course, this explanation, convenient as it sounds, fails to account for Mojave 3...)

2:25 AM

The last four lines of the KOWH song "Doctor, Doctor":

It's not fun to joke around and play with people's lives
You keep secrets to yourself and then pull out the knives
Listen here, doctor dear, remember while you're scheming
The day will come when you'll be on that cold table screaming

Really, what can you say to that?

1:37 AM

After listening to a few jazz songs on the radio (didn't catch any names, I'm afraid) and ruminating a bit, I was gung-ho to write a mini-essay on the would-be ahistoricism of pop music, but I just had a great three-hour debate about (among other things) Hegel with a good friend of mine, and I'm a bit drained. So instead, I'll point to The Kids of Widney High, which got linked recently on Josh blog. I've been hearing about this for quite some time; a few friends of mine used to pass around the CD and make fun of it, which inspired the ire of other, perhaps more principled friends of mine, but I never actually did hear any of it. Well, I just finished listening to the first (to coin an acronym) KOWH track I've ever heard, "Primary Reinforcement"...and indeed, it's grotesque, charming, priceless, and pathetic (in the Greek sense of pathos more than in the pejorative sense). I'm not sure whether I think it's exploitative; I'm inclined to say no, but it's certainly a very different ballgame than, say, Wesley Willis. The incongruity of the synthesizer accompaniment seems more pronounced, though I may just be used to Wesley's choices.

Still, that's just it -- they're Wesley's choices; Wesley himself performs the accompaniment to his vocals (and, of course, he's schizophrenic, not retarded). These kids don't have that kind of control over their music, and are, however willingly, being shepherded into this by a third party. Somehow that makes a big difference -- the synthesizers end up seeming more like an ironic commentary. Or, they're someone else's bad taste, bad judgment; if the kids wrote the music, it'd be more "genuine". But would it please them as much? Surely they love the opportunity to have their songs accompanied by what, to them, probably seems like the Big Time; should my moralizing, or anyone else's, take that away from them?

Hmmmm. No easy answers tonight. My tentative answer for the moment is that it's foolish not to laugh -- it is ridiculous and incongruous, and to pretend otherwise is wrongheaded -- but that it's possible, and desirable, to do so without contempt.

(Comments for June 29, 2001) (2 comments so far)

June 25, 2001 (link)

1:05 AM

I've been giving a few spins to a cute little compilation called Electronic Toys. It's a compilation of various bits of synthesizer music, most of which were used for commercials, library music and that sort of thing. Some of it is quite appealing, especially the opening track, "Catching Game" by Cecil Canterburn, which is weirdly reminiscent of the theme music to the Super Nintendo game Mario Paint. For that matter, most of it sounds rather like Nintendo music, if a bit more elaborate.

I noticed recently that the first bar of the bassline to "Rapper's Delight" (or "Good Times", if you prefer) is identical to the first bar of "Another One Bites the Dust". It's a simple rhythm (three quarter notes, a rest, a pickup sixteenth and an eighth on the downbeat of the next bar) and an even simpler melody line: all E. Still, it's interesting that the profile of both lines is largely determined by what comes after -- which, in the Queen song, is only one bar of music before it repeats, whereas it's three in "Rapper's Delight" (or is it seven? Now I don't remember).

(Comments for June 25, 2001)

June 20, 2001

9:46 PM

Yes, it's true -- as I discovered today, AC/DC was much better with Bon Scott on vocals. With Brian Johnson, it's always felt like camp to me; with Bon Scott, it's...well, it'd be a stretch to call it serious, but you know what I mean -- it has a genuine edge to it. Bon Scott makes me believe that he might actually do some of the things about which he sings, and that he'd try to beat the crap out of anyone -- even someone bigger and stronger than him -- who dared suggest otherwise. A bit like Jim Morrison (who was also a complete drunk), he's the crazy guy at the party, sitting in the corner, of whom everyone's just a little bit afraid. By comparison, Brian Johnson's strutting seems like a pose.

And yes, as I've been told at least a dozen times, "Big Balls" is pretty funny -- and not at all what I expected.

(Comments for June 20, 2001) (1 comment so far)

June 19, 2001

1:49 PM

Some material for listening:

  • The home page for Soundhack, a venerable DSP program for the Mac that's long been one of my "secret" weapons, has a streaming radio station devoted to experimental electronic music (I'm not sure whether it's a prerequisite that the pieces played use Soundhack in their composition). It's a good listen, although the quality varies widely.
  • There's an interesting program on capital punishment, featuring excerpts of the Georgia tapes, to be found here. If you can overlook the inevitably smug commentary (it is NPR, after all), the excerpts -- especially the last words of the condemned -- are worth hearing.

By the way, the Metabolist record seems much tamer now. My initial listens were over headphones; played through my speakers, it all somehow seems less patently bizarre -- in part because the canned, almost otherworldly quality to the sound is less pronounced. Perhaps I've just gotten used to it, but I don't think so.

(Comments for June 19, 2001)

June 17, 2001 (link)

1:00 AM

One of the nice things about MP3 downloading, on the other hand, is randomly checking out artists about whom you know nothing, or next to nothing -- since you're not out $15 if you don't like it. I've had good luck with random buys, but they can be a disaster, too.

So, tonight, along with an album by the legendary Silver Apples (who, I'm afraid, are not really wowing me), I've been listening to one of the odder things I've heard in a while -- Hansten Klork, released in 1980, by Metabolist. I really don't quite know what to call this, or how to describe it. For starters, a lot of it sounds pretty lousy -- canned and dull, as though it had been sent over a telephone line, and practically mono -- but at times it'll suddenly improve dramatically, for no obvious reason. It was encoded from vinyl, but I'm not sure that's the culprit; after listening for a bit, I dug up this page, which has an article on Metabolist which informs us: "All these recordings have been made at the group's studio with members of the group being responsible for recording, mixing and editing." In 1980, that was much more of an uphill proposition than it is now. On the other hand, maybe it was just recorded from a grade-Z turntable -- who knows. (By the way, there's also this page, which apparently belongs to a member of Wire.)

Anyway, it's a strange album indeed. A couple sound a bit like the Residents, but most of it is something else entirely -- or rather, several different somethings-else, ranging from reasonably straightahead punk-pop tunes ("Curly Wall") to feedback freakouts ("Merchandise"). The drum sound is very late 1970s -- dead, tight, and miked very close -- but the snare is notably small and crisp, a bit like Pierre Moerlen's (from Gong). The lyrics are spoken or shouted, sometimes with heavy delay, and are often completely unintelligible. (Occasionally it sounds as though they're in a foreign language, but all the band members have Anglo names.) The guitar parts are either fragmentary and unpredictable "chops", or medium-long distorted squalls of feedback.

So is it any good? Not really, no. Would I give it a second thought if it weren't such a rare bird? Probably not. But as a curiosity, it's worth at least a listen or two, and it's always a little exciting to think that you're one of a bare handful of people who have heard something (as one might infer, "1980" + "experimental" + "obscure" = "hopelessly out-of-print"). I'm not sure how much of its language I'd really want to assimilate, though, because I suspect there's nothing coherent or extensible behind it -- and even if there is, it's not really what I want to say, nor how I want to say it.

(In other words, I have a feeling the album just doesn't make any sense. I think I need to listen to Piano Magic's A Trick of the Sea to cleanse my musical palate -- great album, that.)

(Comments for June 17, 2001) (5 comments so far)

June 16, 2001

10:46 PM

I went to the Philadelphia Zoo today. I won't bore my readers with the details of the trip, but suffice it to say I enjoyed it. It was interesting to see which animals responded to the sounds we made, and which didn't; there was a macaw who would ignore us until we tried to leave, at which point he would invariably caw loudly.

Getting back to music, I've given a couple listens to the Low/Dirty Three collaboration (In the Fishtank) recently. I actually rather like it; it's a bit lightweight, of course, but it's got some attractive songs -- not to mention that it's really nice to have some new Low that's not recorded by Steve Albini. I'm not a big Dirty Three fan, but I find their approach, which normally strikes me as rambling and uninvolving, works a lot better with additional vocals/instruments thrown into the mix. If, as it seems, Low is going to permanently give up on that aspect of their music that reached its pinnacle in Curtain Hits the Cast, then I'd rather they went faux-country than keep the tack they've been taking -- at least the faux-country is fun, and oddly enough, seems more joyful and honest.

I also heard Neu!'s first album. It would be foolish of me to make a pronouncement after one listen, but I can say that I enjoyed the opening track a fair amount, and the others not as much. Unfortunately, it's impossible for me to listen to it with completely fresh ears, having heard Stereolab, who reportedly in their early days cribbed a good bit from Neu! among others. Speaking of cribbing, I've long thought that Wynton Marsalis more or less ripped off Booker Little's tone; is that a known fact, or my own wrinkle?

(Comments for June 16, 2001) (2 comments so far)

June 15, 2001

2:33 AM

Three quick notes:

1. Am I the only person who's noticed that I've had Othello up as translated by Kittredge? Oy.

2. I neglected to mention -- or, more honestly, forgot all about -- the fact that there's a near trainwreck about four minutes into the version of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" I touted so enthusiastically below. I still like the performance a lot, and find the mistakes to be more amusing than anything, but since I waxed so lyrical about it, I thought I ought to correct my omission.

3. Two more sites have been kind enough to link to me: Taj Mahal, who had some very generous compliments to offer, and People Talk Too Loud. My thanks are due to both.

(Comments for June 15, 2001)

June 14, 2001

12:30 AM

Apropos the discussion linked below, I've been listening to, among other things, bootlegs -- specifically, the earliest Led Zeppelin concert known to exist on tape (Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA, 12/30/68), and the final show of Pink Floyd's Animals tour, which, other than the Wall shows, was the very last Pink Floyd concert with Roger Waters as a member (Olympic Stadium, Montreal, QC, 7/6/77). The Zeppelin is about what you'd expect -- somewhat ragged (they drop a full beat in the middle of "Dazed and Confused"), but raw and powerful, with Plant in fine form. The recording's a bit rough, with plenty of distortion, but quite listenable.

As for the Montreal show...through the years, as their stage shows have become more and more elaborate, Pink Floyd have courted a growing reputation for complacency on stage, coasting on the merits of their visual effects and topnotch sound system. It's a reputation that is at its most apt when applied to the post-Waters Floyd, but there's been an element of truth to it ever since about 1974, when all of their more open-ended, improvisational numbers were dropped in favor of the more conservative Dark Side of the Moon material. (Making matters worse, they began to use click tracks about that time, so as to synchronize their performance with cues in the "backing films" they'd incorporated into their set.)

Anyway, for whatever reason -- exhaustion, anger, desperation -- that complacency was nowhere to be found on this performance. This show has long been infamous as the concert where, exhausted from a long tour and enraged at having his songs marred by noisy crowds and exploding firecrackers, Roger Waters spat on an audience member. David Gilmour has been quoted as saying what a shame it was that they finished "such a great tour" that way; he came away with the impression that they'd played an awful gig, and refused to join the rest of the band onstage for their third encore (an impromptu blues number which they played to try to calm the rowdy crowd). But he's quite incorrect -- other than the ragged vocals, this is perhaps the most fiery show you'll ever hear from Pink Floyd. In particular, the version of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Part VI-IX)" is outstanding; unlike so many other performances, it feels like it could go just about anywhere, and even though it doesn't stray far afield at all, the rawness and electricity in the air is palpable. It's as though, given all the chaos and conflict, they collectively abandoned the idea of putting on some sort of perfectly synchronized pageant, and just played. One of Pink Floyd's greatest strengths has always been their capacity for restraint, and the sublimity of their greatest music owes much to that capacity. But, much like Low, it makes it all the more exciting when they finally do rock out. We gradually learn to adjust to bands that are constantly going for broke, and before long either the law of diminishing returns, or complete saturation, tends to set in. But when a sleeping giant stirs, it's quite something.

(Comments for June 14, 2001) (2 comments so far)

June 11, 2001

2:30 PM

People have been typing some interesting things into Google to get here:

  • "how to see in the dark" (sorry, can't help you there...)
  • "beethoven's fifth remix"
  • "oh brother where art thou sound track mp3" (Jim Ruiz was first!)
bits and pieces of other albums, I only have Sister -- which, however, I quite like (except perhaps for the drumming).

1:23 AM

Though I agree that the new American Analog Set song isn't exactly what I'd hoped for (Scott, I'll drop you a line soon), Insound.com had a couple pleasant surprises, both related to Ida. First, from Ida themselves, a solid rendition of a song I'd heard them play live, "Blizzard of '78". It's not revelatory, but it's pretty good, especially after a couple listens.

Then, a song by Karla Schickele of Ida, recording under the name "K." (which is a little silly). I've always liked her contributions to Ida -- I can't imagine how they got along without her, actually, as by now she seems just as indispensable as Liz and Dan -- but for some reason I didn't have very high expectations of her solo work. (I've spoken before about my bias against solo projects.) Anyway, I was quite taken aback by how much I liked the track available for download, "Reminder". Compositionally, it's a perfect combination of the straightforward and the slightly off-kilter, and I find it very memorable. It's rather more angular than one might expect from a member of Ida; the unusual harmonies (is that opening melody in G-sharp Locrian? Call it A major if you want, but I hear it as Locrian), prominent bass (played with a pick), marching drums, and frequently heterophonic texture all give it a kind of sound that's normally associated more with "post-rock" bands like the Mercury Program. Thanks to a strong melody and tight construction, though, it doesn't fall prey to any of the wankiness or aimlessness often associated with that genre; the quirks all make sense, and a good song is the result. It might not be to everyone's taste -- especially lyrically -- but it works for me. I'll have to check out her old band Beekeeper, of whom Insound speaks highly.

(Comments for June 11, 2001)

June 8, 2001

Humor. (Intended with affection, of course.)

(Comments for June 8, 2001) (1 comment so far)

June 5, 2001 (link)

1:20 PM

Here's a post I made to the Low mailing list today, regarding "hi-fi" and "lo-fi" and the relative meaning (or meaninglessness) of those terms:

As someone who's worked as an audio engineer, I have to take exception with some of this:

to imply that being on an indie labe has anything to do with the sound of a record is, frankly, stupid and not a little insulting. seems you associate money with quality recordings.
is lo-fi how fuzzy something is, a style of music or how much money your record label has?

Well, much as I'd rather have it otherwise, money is not insignificant. There are certain kinds of sounds that you're only going to get if you have the right equipment; you simply can't, for instance, really nail certain engineering styles from the late '60s without going out and buying at least a couple pieces of costly vintage equipment. I was reading an article with Steve Fisk where he said, essentially, that nothing can duplicate the sound of a guitar, played through a tube amp, going into a Neve console onto 1/2" analog tape, and that sound is a powerful signifier for many listeners, whether they can consciously identify it or not. Compared to that, the same signal going through a Mackie mixer onto ADAT sounds completely different and, in his opinion at least, not nearly as good.

Furthermore, major-label records often have a different sound than most independent-label records do, because major-labels have the kind of funding to send a band into those studios that have $5,000 microphones and $50,000 consoles. Those pieces of equipment aren't prized because recording engineers are stupid or avaricious; they're prized because they have some kind of sound that can't be gotten otherwise -- either a distinctive/flattering tone-color, or extremely high fidelity -- and if you record with them, your recording will reflect that. On top of that, major-labels can afford to send the finished album to top-drawer mastering engineers; their black magic is a huge part of what makes a major-label record sound the way it does.

Here, we need to define our terms: what is the major-label sound? And this is a problematic notion, because when most people including myself hear the phrase "major-label" we tend to think "slick" -- and in my book, that "slick" sound is often a huge demerit. From about 1979 onward, slowly but surely, a lot of the records put out by the major labels have been practically shellacked, with more and more of a patina of artificial gloss. Heavy compression and limiting is one element in this (heavily compressed songs cut through better on radio and TV) and there are many others, but the point is that that larger-than-life, in-your-face sound which is wildly popular right now is not particularly to my taste, and when I and many others rip on major labels that's the sound I have in mind.

But there's another kind of major-label sound, one that I've rarely heard duplicated on independent-label albums: a super-clean, super-detailed, but super-warm sound that's hard to describe, and has always been an endangered species in the pop world. It's easier to find on jazz and classical music albums, in part because they use so much less compression and limiting. But albums like Curtain Hits the Cast and Dots and Loops rather fit the mold, to my mind, as does Pink Floyd's Meddle. (I suspect even their detractors have to admit, that record has an incredibly beautiful sound.)

It's also a sound that's extremely difficult to get with budget equipment. About a month or two before I quit my job, my boss and I went to record the rehearsal and performance of a choir in Center City. Due to a packing error, we initially had to use a Mackie 12-bus mixer for the mic preamp; between the rehearsal and the performance, we ran to the studio and brought back a Jensen Twin Servo preamp, which we subbed in for the Mackie.

The difference was astounding -- I would've never expected it to be so apparent. Compared to the Jensen, the Mackie sounded artificially harsh and close; all of the breath and lip noises that the singers made were very upfront, and rather annoying. By comparison, the Jensen just sounded pure, and warm, and transparent. And whereas the Mackie costs $250, the Jensen costs about $1500. Again, the Jensen doesn't cost more because people like to spend money or want to feel superior; it costs more because it's capable of either reproducing the original signal with greater fidelity, or in a more flattering way (I'm still not sure which is the case). Whether that cost reflects the materials involved, or supply and demand, or something else, I don't know -- but whatever the reason, it costs more.

Now that project studios are becoming more and more affordable, the notion of "lo-fi" is becoming more and more dubious. Take a band like the American Analog Set; they record in their flippin' living room, and one of their albums costs under $100 to make, but they make some of the loveliest-sounding records I've heard. Are they lo-fi? Not to my way of thinking. Of course, they're a bad example in some ways, because they use analog equipment -- the real narrowing of the gap has been in the digital domain, where just about anyone can cut a respectable-sounding album with a computer, a sound card, a mixer and some mics. On the other hand, there are a lot of digitally recorded albums that sound like shit -- canned, tinny and cold; are they lo-fi? Is that really a meaningful term anymore?

One thing I love about the sound of many indie bands is the absence of the slickness I referenced above. Indeed, it's part of what drew me in to independent music in the first place. I don't think I'd find Transona Five's work nearly as enjoyable if it were produced by some hotshot who compressed the hell out of everything and jacked the treble so that it'd catch the ear of the boombox and car-stereo circuit. And that's actually one of the things that really bothers me about Albini's treatment of Low -- I find that, while his treatment of the drums is decidedly unslick (WHACK! WHACK!) and not to my taste, his treatment of Al and Mimi's voices is overly slick, especially on the Secret Name LP, where they're way too upfront and compressed-sounding for my liking. (The CD's rather better.)

But I do think that some bands could benefit from cleaner recording techniques (which is, again, not the same as slickness) -- and the cleaner it gets, the more expensive it gets. Take Slowdive's Pygmalion -- the sound of the opener, "Rutti", just hangs in the air, beautifully fragile and lush and transparent. I don't know the details of its recording, but if they got that sound with SM58s and Mackie mixers, I'll be as surprised as a very surprised person who has a special reason to be surprised. Clean and warm recordings, with a rich stereo image, are especially crucial to slow and quiet bands, or any band with a big dynamic range and an intricate sound. You just lose nuance if you don't have it -- and, although it's getting easier as the technology gets better, there's still a cost gap, and a fidelity gap, between "consumer" equipment and "professional" equipment, especially in the digital domain.

All that being said:

1) The skill of the person behind the console is almost always more critical than the equipment they're using.

2) A "good recording" is one that, first and foremost, complements the sound of the band/performer being recorded. That supersedes any other consideration.

(That's why I don't like Albini's recordings of Low; rightly or wrongly, I find that it detracts from my ability to enjoy the music, so it doesn't work for me -- I don't care whether it's lo-fi, hi-fi, or guy-fi. I don't have the same problem with his recording of Bedhead, which I rather like.)

3) You can make a beautiful album on 4-track with inexpensive mics, as long as you understand the limitations of the medium. Just ask Landing!

(Comments for June 5, 2001)

June 4, 2001

2:30 AM

This quote, from the Momus discussion --

'As far as his discussion about ostranenie-onanie, it is worth noting that the freer, lighter attitudes towards sex here have an important counterweight in the stifling formality of general daily office life and human interaction. While not anti-sexual per se, the "straightjacket society" represses human intimacy and informality in many contexts, including the sexual. Thus, it is not that "Japan is open about sex and the west is repressed;" rather, the oscillation between the polarities of openness/sexuality find different manifestations. In the West there is more chance in daily life to act sexual but less tolerance for extreme forms of sexuality; in Japan, there are times when no leeway is given for spontaneity in human interaction (including but by no means limited to sexuality), and conversely, times when anything goes.'

-- makes me think of Brave New World. How prescient that book was; it's easy to overlook the fact that it predated Orwell's 1984 by nearly two decades. If you haven't read it, get it -- it's crucial. All too few people have internalized the lessons in it, let alone heeded Huxley's warnings. Orgy porgy!

2:14 AM

So: Those who booed early performances of works by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern were wrong. However, they were wrong not in that they failed to apprehend the value in the new formal considerations that the Second Viennese School introduced (i.e. atonality, 12-tone composition, pointillism), but rather that they were unable or unwilling to assimilate these new forms in order to be receptive to the viable content in the music. For the forms in which the 2VS composed were not the "point" of their music -- they sat down with the same aim as most anyone else: to write great music of aesthetic value and emotive power. And history has judged, correctly I think, that they often succeeded. So, then, was it the audience who suffered from excessive formalism -- that is, they demanded "strict adherence to established form"? That doesn't seem right -- was it really "form" that the audience wanted to hear, or something else? (Mozart, probably.)

1:15 AM

One interesting essay, and one not-so-good essay, about Othello, which I just finished. (A quote from the latter: "Essentially, Iago is a representative of the white race, a pre-Nazi figure who tries to inform the public of the impurity of Othello and Desdemona's marriage." Among other things, describing Iago as a "pre-Nazi figure" is anachronistic and silly. His motive isn't racebaiting, it's personal gain, vengeance, and freefloating malevolence.) It's not really fair to compare the two essays, considering their respective sources, contexts and vintages, but there it is.

I've been listening to far, far too much downtempo and IDM over the past few days. An occasional album is pleasant, but it's gotten a bit oppressive. I've been digging out things like Ida's Losing True EP and Luigi Nono's Prometeo to combat it.

Earlier in the day, I was raring to go and wanted to write a raging attack against hipsterism and self-indulgence, having read essays about things like "cute formalism" and grown steadily more and more exasperated at the (literally!) masturbatory tenor of the essay and its discussion. Much as I like what I've heard of Momus, this entire way of thinking strikes me as a hopeless dead end. The original essay opens with a quote that contains phrases like this:

"...content in art -- any content whatsoever, narrative, imitative, or political -- was out...For the moment and for the future, realism and imitation were no longer valid options: 'The alternative to Picasso is not Michelangelo, but kitsch.'

Things like that set off tremendous warning bells in my head. Perhaps, working as I do in music -- an inherently nonrepresentational art form -- I have a different perspective on these sorts of things than do visual artists, for whom the question of representation in their work is an unavoidable confrontation. Still, to say that, Picasso having spoken, a return to representation would inevitably be kitsch, is a kind of sweeping pronouncement whose tenor I find objectionable, and which leads me to instantly distrust the speaker.

In fairness, Momus uses this quote as a point of departure, not as a thesis. Still, I find his essay to be a gross oversimplification of Japanese culture, tailored to fit a tidy little point that I find to be of little import. And the subsequent replies have grossly abused the definition of formalism and have generally been somewhat disappointing, though I do like the response (linking to this article) that nails Momus -- whose music, again, I quite like! -- on his claim that Japanese culture is free of "onanie in the context of anomie". Really, there's a tinge in the whole essay that's a bit condescending; I think it fails an important test, in that there are a lot of passages that I can't imagine a Japanese author would have written. But, on the other hand, there are some interesting ideas in it, at that...

Sigh. I'm too tired, and not enthusiastic nor well-prepared enough, to argue this right now. Truth be told, part of the root of all this is that I have a powerful distaste for the word formalism; it conjures up images of the persecution of Russian composers at the hands of Stalin and his cronies (not to mention legions of humorless deconstructionists). And to me, the belief that content takes precedence over form -- the antithesis to which is practically the definition of formalism -- is so fundamental that I find it hard to believe that anyone could ever really think that it could be otherwise.

(Comments for June 4, 2001) (4 comments so far)

June 2, 2001 (link)

12:13 AM

I've been listening to Labradford's first album, Prazision, and the Complete Tape Music of a Dutch composer named Dick Raaijmakers. I'm amazed at how "dodgy" (ahem) the Labradford is by comparison with, say, A Stable Reference. I borrowed Prazision from Jonathan a couple years ago, but never got around to really listening to it, preferring instead to focus on the Flying Saucer Attack album he lent me at the same time. Anyway, it's OK, but it's not even close to their later stuff.

The Raaijmakers is pretty good so far (I'm listening to it as I write this). It started off strong with a bit called "Tweeklang", but right now the piece I'm listening to, "Canon 4", is not as engaging, as it's essentially made up entirely of static. Overall, though, I'm enjoying it, and it serves as a worthy reminder of that elusive quality that so much early electronic music had. These pieces were often the outcome of processes first and foremost; there was a spirit of "Let's see what happens if I try this!" in the air that, I think, is palpable in the music. Perhaps I'm also projecting my own knowledge of the ungainliness of their tools onto the music -- that is to say, perhaps my awareness of the difficulties involved in the creation of these pieces makes them seem miraculous in a way that they wouldn't, were the exact same sounds to come from a G4 running Pro Tools. But, on the other hand, I think that processes over which one doesn't quite have complete control, but which reside relatively close to or within the analog/mechanical domain, have an organic quality that can be quite appealing. The rough edges inherent in the technology help to give the finished composition life, and character.

I'm going to sit down and try to get a handle on Sigur Ros. So far, I haven't been terribly impressed at all, but I think I'll set aside some time and listen to Agaetis Byrjun two or three times. If I still don't find it as astonishing as everyone else seems to, I'll have to put them in the same "enjoyable-but-overrated" category in which, for me, bands like Godspeed You Black Emperor! currently reside.

(I've found the Godspeed tracks I've heard to be a pleasant listen, but they're much more derivative than any of their partisans seem willing to admit. And I find the final track of Dots and Loops more apocalyptic than any Godspeed track I've heard to date; the second half of "Contronatura" is infinitely menacing to my ears, in a way that I find difficult to describe but which combines the kitschy mechanism of Stereolab with the infinite horror of a genocidal joke played on mankind, as though robots, drawing on misunderstood archives of 1960s pop culture, had composed music to be played as truckloads of human deportees arrive at the center at which they're to be ground into pulp -- or more properly, music to serve as accompaniment to the dawning expressions of horror on their faces, as they begin to understand their imminent fate. The song somehow has that tone of mocking-glee-in-the-unspeakable, some combination of "I told you so" and the pronoucement of a death sentence, both made all the more sinister by the crushingly simple beat -- indeed, the simplest on the whole album -- that underpins it like a man-killing machine, pumping steadily back and forth. It's like Nintendo game death music -- in Ninja Gaiden, say -- but far more sophisticated and brutal.)

(Comments for June 2, 2001)

current reading:

The Odyssey, Homer, trans. Robert Fagles

just finished:

Othello, Shakespeare, ed. Kittredge
The Iliad, Homer, trans. Stanley Lombardo


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