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30 June 2011

History Dependent

::  Stars of the Lid - "Tape Hiss Makes Me Happy (Edit)"

Vinyl Reckonings

Some months back, Mark "K-Punk" Fisher curated a guest podcast over at Pontone. Beginning, ending, and threaded by the leitmotif of crackling vinyl surface noise and featuring tracks by the likes of Philip Jeck, William Basinski, and The Caretaker, the mix played out like a musical séance for moribund audio media. By way of accompanying liner notes, Fisher wrote about the spectral (there/not-there, presence versus absence) nature of phonography in relation to Derrida's ideas about the "metaphysics of presence," adding:

"With vinyl records, the more that you often hear is crackle, the sound of the material surface of the playback medium. When vinyl was ostensibly superseded by digital playback systems – which seem to be sonically ’invisible’ – many producers were drawn towards crackle, the material signature of that supposedly obsolete technology. Crackle disrupts presence in multiple ways: first by reminding us of the material processes of recording and playback, second by connoting a broken sense of time, and third by veiling the official ‘signal’ of the record in noise. For crackle is of course a noise in its right, a ground becomes a figure."

The concept of spectrality and haunting was a central theme in The Caretaker's project from the very start, with the artist having derived both his moniker and his creative premise from Kubrick's The Shining. Basinski emerged on the scene some years ago with his acclaimed requiem cycle The Disintegration Loops, which deals with mortality and entropy by way of the material and sonic degradation of timeworn magnetic tape. And Jeck's work owes it melancholy creakiness to the notions of obsolescence and abandonment it invokes...

Many of these tropes harken back to the work of noisician and artist Christian Marclay, who himself began working with LPs and record players back in the late 1970s. From the beginning, Marclay was fascinated the materiality of recorded media, especially with the record LP as a physical object – as document of a performance, an ephemeral and intangible moment in time, arrested and affixed in material form, commodified and mass manufactured in serial units, circulating in the cultural domain of commercial society.

Plasticity aside, there was also Marclay's affinity for "the unwanted sound." Primarily this was the sound of technology being intentionally misused and abused, but it was also the sound – or the combination of sounds – of all the bygone and discarded musical products of previous years and decades, now amounting to only so much landfill fodder or cents-on-the-dollar clutter in the bins of second-hand music shops. All of it – the exemplars of former zeitgeists, even – rendered equal by its outmodedness, its use-value amounting to little more than the part it plays in a layered cacophony. Same too with Marclay's later works involving album sleeves or other formats such as audio tape – in the end it comes down to the utility or stylishness of last year's model seeming so remotely quaint or clunkily alien when seen from just a little further down the evolutionary chain.

Sure, LPs and turntables were the dominant technology for home listening at the time that Marclay first started working with them. And he wasn't the only one messing about with gathering and manipulating these items for the sake of making noise in the late 1970s.

Some quotes...

GRANDMASTER FLASH: At the time, the radio was playing songs like Donna Summer, the Tramps, the Bee Gees – disco stuff, you know? I call it kind of sterile music. Herc was playing this particular type of music that I found to be pretty warm; it has soul to it. You wouldn't hear these songs on the radio. You wouldn't hear, like, 'Give It Up or Turn It Loose' by James Brown on the radio. You wouldn't hear 'Rock Steady' by Aretha Franklin. You wouldn't hear these songs, and these are the songs that he would play.

TONY TONE: I was working in the record shop, so I used to know all the records....but I didn't know the records Herc was playing. So now it's grabbing me, now I'm trying harder to order them for my record shop, but I can't find them 'cause they're not records that are selling right now – they're older records, jazz records, whatever.

So "digging" always involved hunting and unending quests to excavate the rare and the funky, but it also – once upon a time – meant sifting through the unwanted and the forgotten. Used bins, "cut-out" bins, thrift stores, or even – in the case of Grandmaster Flash – running the risk of catching an ass-whooping from your pops after being told, "Don't ever touch my records."

By now it's a little trite to make a case for framing the creation of cutting and scratching (and eventually sampling) as a street-level, mother-of-invention version of musique concrète. But one may as well make one for the first-gen practitioners of hip-hop DJing – Herc, Bam, Flash, and many others – as being early pioneers of some musical equivalent of salvagecore, if only for the sake of "keeping the funk alive" in the face of the monocultural sweep of disco.

* * * *

But: Surface noise as sonic patina – as signifier of the music's physical format and vintage, as a deliberately skewed figure/ground relationship. That's a later and different development. Initially, it was something to be avoided at all costs – only so much noise contaminating the signal, or undesirable syntagmatic slippage.

* * * *

If the nature of the "hauntology" rubric has been difficult to nail down with any sense of certainty, it might be due to the facts that (a) it was never that firmly formulated of a concept to begin with, and (b) the term and corresponding concept suffered a denotational shift as soon as it began to circulate more broadly. At first it referred to something slightly intangible and impressionistic; something not too different, in certain ways, from Freud's notion of the Uncanny (especially in that both involves varieties of cognitive dissonance and a sense of dislocation or "dyschronia"), and how it plays out aesthetically.1 But soon enough discussion of the hauntological began to focus less on the nature of the sensation or condition, and rather on the mere things that might bring the notion to mind. And by things I mean just that – books, toys, films and TV programs, photographs, and various other ephemera from one's childhood, from prior eras. In the end – objects and the associations projected onto them. Which, in many ways, borders on mere, mundane nostalgia of a sort. Not that nostalgia doesn't factor into this in the first place, but that's a whole other line of theoretical speculative – a line that could draw from a rich backlog of philosophic ink that's been spilled on the topic over the past century and a half.

And I'm fairly certain that aspects of all of this overlap – however tangentially – with the topic that Simon addresses in his new book Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its own Past. I haven't read or even gotten a copy yet, so I can't say for sure. But Alex Niven recently posted some thoughts on the book's focus that struck an intriguing note...

"Moving quickly into the realms of massive theologico-cultural conjecture, the whole retromanic thing seems to me to have something to with the occlusion of death in a modern technocratic society. Death has replaced sex as the great taboo. We just don't know what to do with death – the one thing a culture of pluralism and excess cannot find a space for: the absoluteness of an ending. Hence, things that are obsolete become weirdly fetishized. The sobering fact that the past is absolutely no more is replaced with a sort of adolescent inability to let go of childhood toys and move on."

An "occlusion of death" perhaps, a way of stacking some barricades against the door in an effort to hold off a particular type of existential dread. Or what happens when a schizophrenic economy of scarcity and surplus flatlines into one of equally-available "pluralism and excess," and – sensing it may have hit some teleological impasse – suffers an extended spasm of insecurity in regards to where it was all supposed to lead in the first place, and compulsively doubles back on itself in a frenzy of archiving, retrofitting, taking inventory and what-have-you.

Static, surface noise and signal interference, however, is more bluntly about the big D. It ultimately points to the corporeal fragility and impermanence of it all, a nagging momento mori that nothing will ever ever be as it was despite whatever effort or technology is employed to stave death and degeneration away. If, as K-Punk once phrased it, the history of recording constitutes a "science of ghosts," then the metaphysics of crackle (or of the sputtering, atomizing digital glitch) serves as a reminder that it's an imperfect science. Or as he stated early in the discussion, the figure and ground are inextricably linked by the sheer materiality of the medium...

The spectres are textural. The surface noise of the sample unsettles the illusion of presence in at least two ways: first, temporally, by alerting us to the fact that what we are listening to is a phonographic revenant, and second, ontologically, by introducing the technical frame, the unheard material pre-condition of the recording, on the level of content. We're now so accustomed to this violation of ontological hierarchy that it goes unnoticed.

The rest, as they say, is just noise.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

1. Or I suppose another way that this could be discussed, given the excretal economy of consumption and waste that all of this points involves, might be by way of Kristeva's notion of the Abject.

22 June 2011

Saving Objects from Themselves

"But, you might say, doesn’t object-oriented ontology, with its isolated objects that never enter into relations, make the mistake of commodity fetishism to an even greater degree than the anti-consumerism argument, by completely removing objects from the social relations of which they are the bearers? I’m not sure it does. One of the things that object-oriented ontology rightly reminds us of is the importance of distinguishing between ontological dependence and causal dependence. That objects cannot be reduced to their relations does not mean that they could have come to exist without these relations. The relations of production which produce commodities as commodities are no less visible on an object-oriented view. Furthermore, for Marx commodity fetishism is not just an illusion, a misrecognition of relations as objects. Rather, commodity fetishism is a material reality: capitalism really does produce autonomous objects which gain their powers from the relations which produced them. Object-oriented ontology’s account of objects is compatible with this materialist analysis of commodity fetishism, indeed, may be better placed to explain commodities than a philosophy which focuses on the human subject."
--  via #

* * * * * *

Over at Things mag, a contributor speculatively wondered, "What do sites like Shred of the Month and Will it Blend? actually mean? A form of capitalist self-hatred (the wanton destruction of all that is held sacred)?"

I suspect that a fair amount of the "meaning" doesn't extend much further than the merely testosteronic -- being the product of that undying male adolescent urge that never tires of seeing things blown up, dropped from a tall building, shot out of a cannon, or what have you.

But there are a number of ways to speculate on or analyze it -- such as attributing it to an assuaging of lingering puritanical impulses, or as a manifestation of subconscious resentment toward the ceaseless parade of goods and gadgets and at the artificial needs and desires that are created to sell such stuff to people.

As far as the practice of shredding and blending is concerned, something similar came to mind some years ago when I first encountered the fetishistic internet meme of "Unboxing." Would we, could we, maybe see the emergence of an opposing trend? Such as one in which people upload videos documenting the destruction of high-end commodities -- whether discarding them in anticipation of their almost-immediate obsolescence, or gleefully smashing or mutilating them for the baffling, transgressive thrill of it. In the latter case, I figured that this could constitute a form of consumerist "snuff porn."

In some ways, this sort of thing has been a trope in installation art over the decades, or at least it was once upon a time -- displays of wasted and rotting food, gestalt configurations of mass-consumables or everyday expendable items, etc. But ever since the Simulationalist/pop-conceptual development of the 1980s, there's been a considerable amount of art devoted to this very thing -- dealing (sometimes critically, sometimes not) with consumer objects, the design of same, and the various desires or fetishistic associations that coalesce around such objects.1 But of course this sort of thing only makes sense in a certain economy. Which is why for a while now I've been wondering if we're not due to see the emergence of some variety of Arte Povera 2.0 sensibility in the contemporary artworld.2

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

1. This is to say nothing of another corresponding curatorial trend -- the post-Krens, faux-populism sort that offers the gen public exhibitions of motorcycles, celebrity wardrobes, and the like.

2. After all, it looks like we're going to be stuck in this situation for a good while longer; so it isn't like the relevance of such work would be fated to a short shelf-life.

Concrete Islands (Slight Return)

21 June 2011

'It has since been turned into a luxury apartment building.'

In other words, we have an aesthetic, but no ethos.

Very nice and intriguing piece by Alex Niven over at the online arts & lit journal Wave Composition. Modernism, pop music and the common culture, the deferred dream of "taking it to the streets," history made by night, and the death of Romanticism by way of aesthetic impasse. Titled "Not Simply for Those Moments’ Sake: A Retroactive Manifesto for Late-Twentieth Century Pop Music," it reads something like Paul Morley on a theory bender. It's the publication's debut edition, and it looks to be shaping up very well at the launch.

Winding down on a somewhat plaintive note, Alex touches on something at the end of his piece, an idea that I saw curiously echoed by Simon Reynolds over at FACT mag. Discussing his new book Retromania in an interview by Matt Woebot, the baton passes thusly...

MW: Does music matter anymore? Are games and movies better, more Wagnerian contexts for [music]? Are the social networks better and more efficient ways of sopping up our need for a disembodied connectedness? What value music as a discreet cultural form in the 21st century?

SR: There does seem to have been a long moment when music had a particular prestige and and it does feel like that moment has passed. Music was a sort of sovereign zone: it demanded the listener’s complete immersion, you were subjugated to the temporality of the Album. Now music is much more about being at our disposal, it’s become convenient, a backdrop to other activities, a space-filler. Music is ubiquitous today in a way that it actually wasn’t in the Sixties and Seventies. It’s in the soundtracks of games and movies, it’s in TV commercials, it’s piped out as Muzak in supermarkets and cafés. We take it wherever we go with our iPods and iPhones. Yet this omnipresence and superabundance has ultimately led to a depreciation in music’s value.

Which dovetails in many ways with what Alex's comments about the role music, art, certain modes of expression or communication circulate in within a given society or culture. Or, more specifically: the means by which they carry or stimulate ideas, prompt discussion, or bring some shared or vicarious means of connectedness. Or has that too become a thing of the past?

14 June 2011

No Frogs Were Harmed in the Writing of This Post

Some two years after the publication of his book Sonic Warfare, National Public Radio talks to Steve Goodman (aka Kode9) about acoustic weaponry, in conjunction with the current Dead Record Office exhibition at Art In General gallery in NYC.

* * * * * *

Which brings us to the item above. Until recently, I wasn't aware that the industrial music scene of the early 1980s had its own equivalent of Smithereens or Wild Style, but it appears that the 1984 German film Decoders was exactly that. Set in a dystopic, semi-authoritarian Germany of the near future, the film follows the story of a young musician who seeks to use his own musique-concrète recordings to combat the Skinnerian effects of Muzak and to wage sonic warfare on a string of burger joints, if not against German society in general. If this sounds somewhat ludicrous, then you find that there's a few overreaching sequences in the thing that are guaranteed to incite some chuckles. Still, it's got visual style in spades and coasts along very nicely on its own sparse economy. It features F.M. Einheit (of Abwärts and Einstürzende Neubauten) in the lead, with both William S. Burroughs and Genesis P-Orridge putting in appearances, as well. Of note is the supporting lead, played by old-school East Village boho actor and artist Bill Rice.

Apparently the script of the film was developed from a piece by Burroughs, who helped with the adaptation. I'm guessing the idea germinated from an incident in the Burrough's life, which I recall some item about him that I read many years ago. Apparently, while Burroughs was residing in Tangier, the owner of some business had slighted Burroughs in some way. So Bill supposedly slipped into the guy's establishment with a tape recorder some time weeks later, and a long stretch of the business's daily ambience. He returned to the location some time later, playing the tape back, letting the prerecorded noise mix with the real-time sounds of the place. Burroughs claimed that the establishment closed some weeks later, theorizing that his actions had effectively put a curse on the place, causing it to become "unstuck in time." (Right...that's the sort of thing you can expect from William Burroughs. Ever hear the one about his short-lived obsession with the Church of Scientology's e-meter therapy?)

01 June 2011

And with that...

By this point, I'm thinking the tagline for this blog could be: "Your one-stop source for pinching pics via Google image search (providing you weren't directed here by a spam site in Belarus)."

But no matter. I'm out of here for a short while. A brief vacation, in which I again head to the Gulf. This time I might actually end up at the beach -- the quiet and remote part what's off of a nature preserve. (Which would make it the first time I've been there since before the BP oil spill.) And then I have to diligently bang away at a bunch of things once I return.

So I'll see you when I see you.

Bluesology (Evolution and Flashback)

Truth be told, some of us had been expecting to receive the news for some time. Hearing what we'd heard, knowing what we knew, we figured that the word would come any day now, and it had been like that for a good many years. And then finally, word arrived.

I don't know if there's much I can say about Gil Scott-Heron's music or his passing that won't prove redundant to what's already been said elsewhere. While there was a point in his life where his work almost faded into obscurity, that certainly hasn't been the case for some years now. It is (thankfully) very much the stuff of an ackowledged history by now.

Gil Scott-Heron had a tremendous run in the 1970s. It wasn't until the 1980s that I encountered his music, about the time that his public profile had begun to dwindle and fade. Dropping off the register, dropped by his label, continuing to tour and play live but less and less often as the years wore on, and then all but disappearing somewhere in the back streets of New York during the 1990s. The explanation, we would later learn, was on account of his having succumb to a particular fate.

As narratives go, the story seemed too numbingly banal, lent itself a little too predictably and conveniently to the insidiousness of a shrugging cynicism. But cynicism was the order of the day, one reckons, especially considering the decade when all of this began to unravel – amidst the shallow, self-serving cultural tide of the Reagan era. Sure, he probably didn't do himself any favors by letting egotism and "creative differences" poison his relationship with his longterm creative partner. But the whole enterprise might've already been doomed, perhaps, because it went so wildly against the temper of the times. For some, such words and music seemed like little more that a peculiar remnant from another era.

Almost, but not quite. It wasn't too much later that a new generation of artists took up the banner, and in doing so helped place the music of Gil Scott-Heron in the cultural canon. The artist himself, admittedly, was never wholly comfortable with his newfound status as the "Godfather of Rap." Partly this was due to aesthetic reasons, but also because he saw himself a merely one among many upholding a long line of discursive and artistic traditions. And what do such designations amount to, anyway? In the end, one could argue that he as much the offspring of Nina Simone as he was of -- say -- Langston Hughes or Amiri Baraka.1

As far as what happened to him in his later years – yeah, it was shocking, tragic, disheartening to learn. Still, I can't say that I ever felt it tarnished or eroded his legacy. If anything, the fact that he eventually fell victim to very same things that he'd previously warned and written about only served to underscore the urgency of his original message. He may have started out with literary aspirations, but what he chose to write about wasn't the stuff of mere myth or fable. It was, and remains still, just a little too real.

* * * * * * * *

But about the music. Everyone has their favorites, often they're the same handful of tunes -- the ones that shook them or smacked them upside the head the first time they heard it. No need to mention them by name, I suppose, because chances are they're the first thing anyone thinks of when they think of Gil Scott-Heron. But the discography runs deep. Wading through that discography, despite its unevenness, I always found there were a good many other tracks that stood out, that shone brightly, but seemed to have been often overlooked or undercited. Were I to compile a collection of personal favorites, it would easily fill four discs, perhaps five.

So here's a few favorites of my own...

"Pardon our analysis, America..." These later spoken-word/monologue pieces constitute a category all their own in the way that they framed the events of the era, the way they put things into perspective. As such, many of them rank among my favorites. "H20 Gate Blues," "Bicentennial Blues," "The Ghetto Code," etc.

Aside from the words, there's that voice -- especially when it slides into speaking mode. The grain of the voice, plus the prosody and cadences and tone -- the delivery. Sharp in the early days, mind you; but once he put all the barking and proclamating aside, his voice took on a more direct and personable quality. Casual and offhanded, friendly and direct, warm even in the way the speaker leans in -- with a slight, wry smile and a bemusedly arched eyebrow -- and intimates to the audience/listener in an among-friends lowered register, "I'm sharing this with you, because you and I both know that all of this is bullshit." Part standup comedy, part street-corner punditry, part agitprop, always killingly on-target.

The two-parter that bookends Winter in America. "You're my father, you're my uncle, and my cousin, and my son. / But sometimes I wish you were not." Part lament, part tribute, the song's a testament to the frailty and fallibility of human nature. As the years would play out, this one took on additional layers of meaning; as it seems that Scott-Heron might as well have been writing to his later self -- rebuking the demons and personal failures that were as much his own as anyone else's.

But all of that aside, it shows Scott-Heron and Jackson slipping into a rare "celestial," "cosmic," invocational mode. While part of the tune is rooted in a bluesy here-and-now, the stunningly lovely backing vocal on the chorus opens the song up, stretches out into a more expansive domain.

Perhaps one of the most ambivalent songs of praise I can think of, written as a response to the famous "Drop Dead" verdict of 1976. America's long had a love-hate relationship with its cultural capitol. Judging from the variety of comments circulating in the public domain in the days following the attacks of September 11, I'd say that this is no less the case now than it ever was. Which is probably what prompted this song to spring to my mind at the time.

It's of no small significance that Gil Scott includes gay rights among the litany of fundamental equal rights in the lead-in monologue of "B Movie." What, considering that it amounted to him turning his back on his own previously and altogether different position on the matter a few years earlier. That in many ways represents what those peak years of development and productivity were for the artist -- broadening the frame, connecting the dots, discovering how things aligned and diverged to form the bigger picture, a more universal and fundamental struggle. An extended and open critique that was prone to self-correction and revision.

Which brings us to this song, from an album that often got short shrift over the years. Yeah sure, the anti-nuke stance of "Shut 'Em Down" wasn't such a controversial one to hold in the days following the Three Mile Island incident. Considering the political climate of the day, this can hardly be said of the album's pro-immigration anthem "Alien." And in terms of taking unpopular positions, this applies triply so to the song above, written in honor of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Putting it in the context of a larger, global struggle of "power to the people," it offered:

My name is what's your name / I am the voice of same,
Remembering things that I told me yesterday.
My name is what's your name / I am inside your frame.
We knew the devils, had to make them go away.

Soon followed by the chorus...

You only take it as a symbol.
But look closely, tell me who does it resemble?

Which now seems all-too-prescient as we sort through the conflicted and inherently contradictory rah-rah discussions of the events of the so-called Arab Spring.

* * * * * * * *

At any rate, I could go on at great length. And I suppose I could do a lot more to make all of this more comprehensive and coherent, if not a more fitting tribute. Having spent the better part of three decades seeking out the man's music, wading through it, it's a difficult task to impose order on, to attempt with any hopes of doing thoroughly or properly.2

Gil Scott-Heron often spoke of the blues, usually situating and emphasizing his own music as being firmly of that continuum. To my mind this brings LeRoi's Jones's 1966 critical essay, "The Changing Same (R&B and the New Black Music)." In the course of discussing the relationship between "avant-garde" jazz and more traditional or colloquial blues-based music, Jones wrote:

"The Blues, its 'kinds' and diversity, its identifying parent styles. The phenomenon of jazz is another way of specifying cultural influences. The jazz that is most European, popular or avant, or the jazz that is Blackest, still makes reference to a central body of cultural experience. The impulse, the force that pushes you to sing...all up in there...is one thing...what it produces is another. It can be expressive of the entire force, or make it the occasion of some special pleading. Or it is all equal...we simply identify the part of the world in which we are most responsive. It is all there. We are exact (even in our lies). The elements that turn our singing into direction, reflections of our selves, are heavy and palpable as weather.

We are moved and directed by our total response to the possibility of effects. [...]

The differences between rhythm and blues and the so-called new music or art jazz, the different places, are artificial, or they are merely indicative of the different placements of spirit."

Part of this realm of cultural experience included what Chester Himes was referring to when he spoke of "the quality of hurt," of what Scott-Heron was talking about when he asked, "Why should the blues be so at home here? / Well, America provided the atmosphere." But it includes a number of other things too -- love, hope, the promises of a better day, the joys of music, etc. -- that Gil Scott-Heron often wrote and sang about.

"What we do with the truth is the key to our freedom," he once said. Indeed. And peace go with you.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

1. Being asked, sometime in the early 1990s, by a hiphop magazine if he had any words of advice for aspiring emcess, Scott-Heron crustily responded, "I'd tell them to learn to play an instrument, that way you can make what you do your own. And while you're at it, keep your hands off of my shit."

2. For instance, I hope that in acknowledging the darker passages of Gil Scott-Heron's later years, that none of this aligns itself with a particular type of insidious narrative. That being the sort that I've repeatedly encountered over the years whenever it comes time to eulogize some former counter-cultural figure. The sort where you often find, tucked away somewhere in the middle or later passages of the thing, a comment to the effect of: "In the final years of his life, he became increasingly unhappy/depressed/frustated/erratic in his behavior...". Tedious, that...but more often more than a little unctuous, as one senses the author(s) taking their revenge on the deceased by decreeing: if only he'd just been able to accept things the way they were, hadn't criticized or gone against the tide, then perhaps he might've found happiness and stability. Ultimately it's the backlash narrative, or the self-serving and -congratulatory voice of the status quo, effectively declaring the subject to have been on the "wrong side of history" for having chosen another, more difficult path. And I hope that none of my comments or thoughts above might be interpreted as lending themselves to that sort of account.

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