25 April 2013

In the Shadow of Mount Harissa (Interlude)

Or the umpteenth return of the son of drummige...

This one falling somewhere midway between Ellington's own "jungle music" of a prior era, and the "jungle" sound of nearly three decades later. I fell deeply in love with the latter when it first came around, with its "'amen' break" sample chopped, reconfigured, accelerated, and pitch-shifted every which way.

Note the similarities with the beat on the above, its patterning and fills, which was recorded some three years before the Winstons recorded "Amen, Brother." The beat on "Blue Pepper" is an unusual one -- more of a "pop" rhythm more likely to turn up on a Ramsey Lewis jawn of the same vintage, but not something you'd expect to hear behind Ellington.

The drummer for the session was one Rufus 'Speedy' Jones, who I'm otherwise unfamiliar with beyond Ellington's Far East Suite. Maybe because I was never much of a swing/big band aficionado; which was the domain where Jones did most of his work. A little research reveals that Rufus Jones originally hailed from South Carolina, and first gained notice behind the kit while working behind Lionel Hampton and Maynard Ferguson. This was followed by a three-year stint in Count Basie's ranks before being lured away by the Duke for the recording session at hand. Here's a clip of Jones kicking up something more akin to the standard big-band style solo...

Some sources have it that Jones also played with James Brown at some point. But I can find nothing that supports the claim, and am inclined to call bullshit since I can't imagine how or when it might've happened. Dunno, seems unlikely, especially seeing how Jones (accounts concur) was forced to put down his sticks in 1973, due to the debilitating effects of early-onset arthritis. He died in 1990, after reputedly having spent his later years working as a janitor.

Admittedly, it'd been many, many years since I last heard The Far East Suite. I'd forgotten about this number until it crossed my path again the other day. Weird to be reminded, to hear that a type of riddim that would figure heavily into part of your adulthood turn up in another earlier form, as recorded roughly around the time of your own birth.

While we're on the topic: Bonus beats. Some classic, disrobed oldskool choppage...

An old personal favorite, that one.

24 April 2013

And We Thank You in Advance for Your Participation

Coincidentally and obliquely related to the prior post. Pere Lebrun/Mister Kasper easing out of a long blogging hiatus, weighing in on ritual, pageantry, and the social sphere...

"Those who orbit closest to these spectacles drift – perhaps in vain – towards that most ancient promise: to belong. Advertising explains to us the most efficient means of doing so. Billboards, policies, shop fronts, profits, policing and urban planning move towards an ideal of a city that exists as theme park in the social imaginary. The collection of fragmentary experiences aggregating into a thematic coherence, or rather an over-reaching alibi: the future. Or, when that fails to convince even its most loyal ideologues, a tradition that always threatens to be lost in social reality."

Excellent work.

{ image: Ian Berry, Docklands, 1992 }

23 April 2013

The Shapes of Things

"Perhaps they were a bit more adept than others at making out or even provoking the auguries of good fortune. Their ears, their fingers, their palates -- permanently on the alert, as it were -- lay in wait for such propitious instances, which could be set off by minute details. But when they surrendered to those feelings of unruffled beatitude, of eternity undisturbed by the slightest ripple, when everything was in balance, deliciously slow, the very intensity of their bliss underlined the ephemerality and fragility of such instants. It did not take much to make it crumble: the slightest false note, a mere moment's hesitation, a sign that was perhaps too vulgar, and their happiness would be put out of joint; it went back to being what it always had been, a kind of deal, a thing they had bought, a pitiful and flimsy thing, just a second's respite which returned them all the more forcefully to the real dangers, the real uncertainties in their lives, in their history."
- Georges Perec, Things: A Story of the Sixties [1965]

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22 April 2013

Learning from Las Vegas

Not that there's much to learn, really. Save for the fact that, in the end, the house always wins.

Images from Anonymization: The Global Proliferation of Urban Sprawl, a book project by photographer Robert Hardman Pittman. Also featuring essays by Alison Nordstrom, Anette Baldauf, and others. Interview with the photographer here, artist's website here.

[ Via We Make Money Not Art. ]

21 April 2013

Rothko Chapel

16 April 2013

'Bigger, Farther, Filled with More Stuff'

"Never tell one story. Always tell a second. That way, the first one won’t fall over." Mark Feldman writing at the Design Observer about "Illuminating the Petrochemical Landscape", discussing "narrative cartography" and the task of navigating the difficult gap between strictly documentarian and mere aestheticism in environmental landscape photography...

"In an interview for Aperture, Orff explains that she perceived Misrach’s photos as suggesting 'phantom stories' waiting to be explored and communicated. Indeed, 'Pipeline' and 'River Road,' like many of Misrach’s images, does seem haunted, more gothic than sublime, menaced by hidden forces. As a style the gothic has long been used to register secret desires and unhealed historical wounds; here the environmental gothic registers the fear that someday a well will burst, a pipe will leak, a toxin will bio-accumulate."

The article centers on photographer Richard Misrach's latest project Petrochemical America; an expansion of his earlier series Cancer Alley into a three-part published collaboration with landscape architect Kate Orff.

* * * * *

Also at the DO "Places" section recently: Post-critical architectural practice in the age of "Delirious Capital"...

"Teeming with ambition, modernity and difference, metropolitan culture, in the Koolhaasian perspective, functions as a modernizing force; and the architect has consistently sought out its latest manifestations around the globe. When he and three partners set up shop in 1975 — that is, in an era when cities were emptying out and post-modern historicism was ascendant — they went against the grain by calling their practice the Office of Metropolitan Architecture. And right from the start, in the spirit of Bataille, OMA has rejected what it sees as the rigid, repressive and divisive order of architecture in favor of the fluid, dynamic and productive disorder of the capitalist, market-driven metropolis. This is most evident in how the firm's projects — from individual buildings to urban plans — interweave diverse programs as a way to induce the culture of congestion. But they break from Bataille — and from the culture of critique — in their ultimate embrace of the power of capitalism to drive change."

Ellen Dunham-Jones weighs in with a lengthy walk-through of "The Irrational Exuberance of Rem Koolhaas." Adapted for the article from the author's contribution to a volume of essays to be published by Routledge in the late summer.

15 April 2013

On the Trifling of Clerks

On the culture of the Accultured Industry, via the editors of n+1:

"These would be footnotes, but what happens at the university doesn't stay in the university. The generation taught by these sociologist-citing literature scholars has now graduated and is attempting to make a place for itself in the arenas — once blandly uncontested 'areas' or vague 'spheres' — of cultural commentary, formerly known as “criticism,” and cultural production, formerly known as 'the arts.' Not everyone can be a professor. But without thinking too much about it, most of us, especially on the left, would agree that our cultural preferences (what used to be called “judgments”) are fundamentally influenced, or even determined, by a number of external factors,... The sociological view that both the production and consumption of culture originate in institutional environments, subject to power but also subject to changing powers, offers its own deterministic counterweight to the trending, neurology-based literary studies of 'cognitive literary criticism' and other evolutionary psych–based attempts to argue that humanity is hardwired to enjoy marriage plots.

"With the generalization of cultural sociology, however, the critical impact has vanished. Sociology has ceased to be demystifying because it has become the way everyone thinks. Discussions about the arts now have an awkward, paralyzed quality: few judgments about the independent excellences of works are offered, but everyone wants to know who sat on the jury that gave out the award. It’s become natural to imagine that networks of power are responsible for the success or failure of works of art, rather than any creative power of the artist herself."

Right -- nowadays it's all just Customer Service, really. And in the end everyone can lay claim to being a "cultural worker," if they aren't already doing so. Even (or especially) those who consume and collect or promote and discuss such stuff, because it all works in favor of a particular political economy. Supply, demand, and in the current marketplace of the middle-class, it's all only so much stuff. But don't go blaming it on Bourdieu.

The part covering the arguments of John Guilroy and Shamus Khan reminds me of an old Alexander Cockburn piece -- one of his food columns, actually, dating from the mid-1980s. In which Cockburn and a carload of friend drive a good distance along the California coast for the sake of trying some new and much-talked-about fusion restaurant. During the journey, they all discuss the various ethnic and national cuisines they've sampled. And eventually this discussion drifts into a debate about whether the emergent yuppie trend for transglobal foodyism constituted a form of gastronomic neo-colonial conquest.

And in other elsewhere reading: Giovanni at Bat, Beam, Bean with some thoughts on Evgeny Morozov's To Save Everything, Click Here.

The Wrong Side of History, I

A throwback jawn, yeah. One that's been nagging me, lately.

Returning to the previously-mentioned matter of affixing a record’s feet to "the floor of a certain era." At one point in the 1990s, talk of the future had to be consigned to the past. So often was it invoked or attached to this e-music thing or another that it quickly became a snigger-inducing cliché – as if the most trite thing you could do was to describe something as "future music" or, worse still, the “future sound of.” A hackneyed marketing slogan, that’s all it was. And yes, it seemed kind of silly because the music in question had been around for almost a decade, had been developing on the margins, already had a history behind it. Meaning that, for anyone who had had their ears turned in that direction during those years, it was really more the music of the Present -- the Now Sound or whatever.*

13 April 2013

The Malfunctional Sublime

Or accidental chem-pack random landscape generator, by way of William Miller's photographic series of "ruined Polaroids." Glitch aesthetics from misbehaving retro-/obsolete technology. A gallery of some of the series via the photog's website, plus much larger reproductions (for detail) from a recent posting at The Morning News here. What you have here is, I suppose, a sort of fubar aesthetics; one in which a technological glitch introduces "noise" into the process, but the noise doesn't just interfere on step on the intended signal, but instead overrides it altogether.

But all such maximized stochasticity aside, the images prompt thoughts of other things -- Rothko, Richter's squeegeed abstractions, enhanced satellite photography of vast geological formations, or the cloud belts of Jupiter. Art historian Robert Rosenblum had long ago pointed out that the canvases of Rothko, Clyfford Still and certain Ab-Ex/"color field" painters compositionally stacked up & ratio'd out like the landscape paintings by specific German Romantics of the early 19th century (specifically Friedrich and some of his contemporaries). Perhaps chalk up the aesthetic appeal of the above to some cognitive gestalt-seeking impulse, as intertwined with the hyper-associative nature of visual culture in general.

07 April 2013

Drummige (Belated Footnote Edition)

Back about 12 years or so ago, I had a job in publishing, and for a while I was working alongside a guy who had previously been the original drummer for an alt-rock band of the early '90s. The band had been one of those up-and-coming hopefuls whose career never quite panned out, but got a lot of buzz in their early days because Chicago was then being hyped as "the next Seattle."1  Like a number of drummers I've known over the years, he was intrigued by some of the stuff I listened to – especially of the jungle and breakcore variety – because the pronounced percussive element naturally grabbed his interest. This lead us to talking about his instrument of choice, the nature of recording said instrument, and the various rhythmic fads that had that had come and gone on the years. At one point we started talking about the brief fashionability of electronic drumkits back in the 1980s – how they appeared the music world as a whole, were briefly everywhere, and then began to disappear a few years later. "Yeah, everyone bought a kit. Even Def Leppard's drummer had them for a while," he said, grinning and rolling his eyes. "And it seemed like, with certain makes, no matter how you hit 'em, they always had that same shallow sound." He punched the air to illustrate,"'Doof!'"

Relatedly, I only recently got around the checking out the Onion AV Club's "Hatesong" series, beginning with Robyn Hitchcock's dismantling of Christopher Cross's "Arthur’s Theme." Naturally, the most popular installment of the series was with Steve Albini, who in the course of addressing Cher's "Believe," discusses how fads catch on and sweep the music industry:

"So [as a producer] I'm kind of sensitive to that stuff happening in recordings, and it happens a lot with recordings when there’s a technological advance, like in the '80s, when drum machines became really prominent in production. A lot of albums were made where, even if it was a band that had a drummer, the drummer didn’t appear on the record, because the drum machine was just so much more reliable in the mind of the producer or the engineer or whatever. You had all these bands whose drummer was just surreptitiously or even openly replaced by a drum machine. That sort of standardized the production aesthetic for a few years there. Everybody from Pat Benatar to Martha And The Muffins to Frankie Goes To Hollywood — there was a period when their drummers weren’t allowed to appear on records. Even hard-rock bands. I don't want to name any examples, because I'll probably be wrong in the specifics, but in the hair-metal era, you'd hear a lot of heavily produced synthetic drum sounds.

"Those things are kind of grating if you're aware of the area behind the curtain in Oz, and you see this happen. Whoever has that done to their record, you just know that they are marking that record for obsolescence. They're gluing the record's feet to the floor of a certain era and making it so it will eventually be considered stupid."

The irony of course being that Albini's first band, Big Black, sported a Three Johns-ish line-up of three guitarists and a drum machine, the album credits including the attribution "...And Roland just being Roland." I recall some time around 1986 a friend of mine telling me about an interview he’d read in some fanzine where Albini had said he preferred having a beatbox because most drummers he’d met or auditioned where "guys who just like hitting things."2

Back in the late 1990s, when the post-rave "electronica" trend was at it's peak, I remember seeing a bumpersticker turn up on a few vehicles, declaring: "DRUM AIN'T MACHINES GOT NO SOUL." An arguable assertion, and I guessed that the vehicle in question were probably driven by a musician. Drum machines (the 808, the digital "clap trap," et al.) had of course been a staple of 80s hip hop, a holdover from its electro-funk days that finally yielded to sampled breakbeats in the latter years of the decade. Certain beats -- from "It's a New Day" or "Funky Drummer" -- were sampled repeatedly, threaded uncountable number of tracks during those years. Perhaps one of my favorite oft-sampled breakbeat tracks from the era was the Five Stairsteps' "Don't Change Your Love," as produced by Curtis Mayfield; which sported a drum track that was absurdly frontal in the mix during the tune's opening seconds, and remarkably industrial in its almost robotic heaviness and consistency...

Changes are you know that beat, that you've heard it. Jeezus, that sound.

I believe that in one of my contributions to the "drummige" throwdown back around the new year, I lobbed in one of my lifelong gripes about the music of the '80s; about how -- in some respects -- it was a rhythmically dismal decade as far as mainstream trends were concerned. Felt like it at time, and I have no nostalgia for much of the music of that time whatsoever. My main complaint was the post-disco tendency toward simplifying the beat -- stripping the funk back to a cold, stark (sometimes almost oppressively severe) metronomic minimum. But this was also augmented by the craze for Simmons-style electronic drums, which -- no matter how loudly they were mixed in any given tune -- always sounded a bit anemic and inhumanly uninflected to my ear. And was happy to see them fall from favor, as they were bound to.3

But at the time, they had the status that any such technological novelty or gadget receives -- being adopted and widely bandied about the sound of Now, if not (the pretense goes) the sound of The Future. Which is the irony undergirding Albini's remark about "gluing the record's feet to the floor of a certain era."4  A lot of musicians hated synthesizers and drum machines. Musicians unions hated them most of all. The argument being that studios were using them as cost-cutting measures, using synths and drum machines in such a way that it was putting some session musicians out of work. In one respect, one could argue that they effectively were the sound of the time -- a sort of musical equivalent of the post-Fordist economy.

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1.  That didn’t quite pan out, either.
2.  Ironic too because a hallmark of many of the records Albini recorded early in his production career was a very distinct drum sound – quite heavy and prominently placed in the mix. Dunno if this was his choice or he was simply enabling the musicians' aesthetic preference, if there was some predilection for that sort of sound among a certain type of post-pigfuck, grunge-era American alt outfits. You can hear it to some degree on In Utero, but I remember it being a bit overdone on the first Jesus Lizard EP.
3.  I also thought they looked kinda retarded, as well.
4.  For instance, the Simmons electronic drumkit was widely adopted by veteran pop-jazz outifts at the time (e.g., your Herb Alberts and Ramsey Lewises) as one of many ways they sought to update their act and sound more "contemporary."

05 April 2013

God's Oasis

Ann Arbor, 1975-6. Images from the Destroy All Monsters temporary autonomous zone. Courtesy of DAM member Cary Loren, who is currently sharing his trove of DAM images and memorabilia with the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art. As part of the Institute's "Excursus IV" series, the images will reportedly be projected in the museum's streetfront interior from sundown to sunrise nightly. As the press release has it: "It’s a love letter to creeps, ghouls, first dates and bus stop bandits."

Via the "Excursus IV" Primary Information site.

Things Were So Much Simpler Then


A humo(u)rous take on this sort of thing, obviously. Surprised I hadn't bumped into it sooner.

03 April 2013

The End of History is Made at Night


"Amazing that these artists are so hip. It's like: take an urban culture, wait twenty years, take out all the emotions, all the opinions, all the oppositional tendencies, all the funk, all the sweat, all the vitality, all the black people, and then get a good agent and a good haircut. And someone will actually be fooled into thinking that YOU are the underground!"

Hilarious rant from Aaron at ATTT. Or at least hilarious for me, if only because so much of it rings familiar (based on a majority of my clubgoing experience in recent years). Just substitute Chicago for Providence -- or substitute any city you care to name, really.

01 April 2013

On (dis-)Location

Ersatz archeology and the simalucra of civilizations in the sands of western Tunisia, courtesy of Italian-born artist Rä di Martino's series No More Stars (Star Wars). Which is included in the current Tate Modern exhibition Ruins in Reverse. This portion of di Martino's series (obviously) focusing on abandoned sets intact by George Lucas and company after they completed filming the desert sequences of the movie back in 1976.

One of those more rare incidents when a set is left un-struck, and simply left -- due to the expense and the isolated location -- to have how it will against the landscape and local elements. It might bring to mind other such instances of cinematic abandonata, like the Reata mansion from the film Giant, sitting in an open field on in Marfa, Texas; gradually collapsing to a skeleton of its former self over the years, the slightest of its remnants still present on the site.

Another association coming to mind, prompted not only by vague visual reminders but also due to "empire" theme connected with the film in question: that of certain post-colonial abandonata scattered across the Maghreb, including Mussolini-era Italian architecture in Ethiopia, or the crumbing remains of Kolmanskop and former Nazi outposts in Namibia.

The exhibition title is, naturally, taken from Robert Smithson's text "The Monuments of Passaic." The underlying theme of the show, according to the curator's statement, is to gather and present work of artists which "sets up a central dichotomy between the matter-of-factness of an archaeological site and the fiction of its interpretation." Grouping di Martino's "No More Stars" with projects by artists Pablo Hare, José Carlos Martinat, Haroon Mirza, Eliana Otta and Amalia Pica, curator Flavia Frigeri was aiming to include projects that, "could be read as a form of subtly nuanced contemporary archaeology in which the tenuous line between reality and fiction is blurred."

Both of these themes coalesce in another portion of di Martino’s series, in which she traveled to the desert outside of Ouarzarate, Morocco; on lots previously used by Atlas Studios. The area served as a popular stand-in or substitute location for a number of locations, many of them for films that were epic in scope. Various spots on the landscape having served as a stand-in for Tibet, ancient Greece or Persia or Mecca, for the Biblical Holy Land, or – in one instance – the transplanted Americana of backland New Mexico in the form of a postwar-era gas station, left over from the filming of the remake of The Hills Have Eyes.

Some additional searching reveals that both locations (in Tunisia and Morocco) have become tourist destinations in recent years as well. But di Martino’s photographs don't resemble the usual touristic photograph. Instead, there’s a slightly haunting ambiguity about some of them, something both familiar and uncanny about them in the way they depict ahistoric landscapes in which geographic and epochal distance collapses, converges, overlaps. In the case of the Star Wars portion of di Martino's series, one almost thinks that they are instead looking at stills of establishing or transitional shots from some sort of amply-funded, slick and artsy postcolonial ethnographic film, a la Trinh T. Minh-Ha. This effect is accentuated in "Every World's a Stage (Beggar in the Ruins of the Star Wars)" a 2012 set of black-and-white prints of the same spot, ending with a shot of a local sitting in the center of the "Skywalker homestead"...

But that's the natural landscape.*  It's a different matter with urban settings, of course. Los Angeles has always played itself, and probably always will. But in other instances, Sydney can stand in for Chicago, Toronto doubles for New York and many other cities in countless film and television productions. Portions of Cleveland being useful if you need a backdrop that includes a certain type of vintage architecture. As far as the urban or built environment goes, there is – or increasingly has been for some decades – a certain degree of interchangability; an increasing degree of uniformity and erasure of localized historical "depth" or memory. Geographers first started referring to this scenario as a condition of "placelessness," a concept that might (if only slightly) align or dovetail with Rem Koolhaas's notions of the Generic City and architectural "junkspace."

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*  It goes without saying that there's a long cinematic tradition of farflung natural settings serving as generic backdrops, especially when it comes to specific genres. Be it Italy or southern California, this was especially true when it came to westerns. One ironic twist on this is the one time that Utah doubled as the Volgan steppes for the historical epic The Conqueror, a 1956 film about Genghis Khan. In which America's most iconic Western actor John Wayne (along with a good portion of the accompanying cast and crew) contracted cancer from filming in such close geographic proximity to/downwind from the Yucca Flat nuclear test site in neighboring Nevada.

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