Monday, March 06, 2017
Louis Armstrong and the Snake-Charmin’ Hoochie-Coochie Meme
Some years ago I was looking for a way to open the final chapter of a book I had been writing about music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. The chapter was to be a quick tour of black music in 20th Century America, starting with jazz and blues and ending with hip-hop. So, I thought and thought and, finally, an idea crept up on me.
I had this book of Louis Armstrong trumpet solos that I’d been practicing from ever since my early teens. The solos had been transcribed from recordings Armstrong had made in the late 1920s and had been circulating ever since. These were classic Armstrong, “Cornet Chop Suey,” “Struttin’ with some Barbecue,” “Gully Low Blues,” “Muggles” (nothing to do with Harry Potter, “muggles” is old New Orleans slang for Armstrong’s favorite inhalant) and a few others. One was a response to a recent recording by McKinny’s Cotton Pickers, “Tight Like That” , and was called, naturally enough, “Tight Like This”. During his improvisation in Armstrong quoted a certain riff, not once, but twice (at roughly 2:04 and then 2:13).
How did I know it was a quotation? Because I was familiar with the riff from other contexts. For one thing, it showed up in cartoons, often to accompany a snake charmer, but also as general all-purpose Oriental mystery music . For another, I knew it as a children’s song that me and by buddies used to sing, with lyrics to the effect that the girls in France didn’t wear underpants – hotcha! But how did Armstrong know this tune? He recorded “Tight Like This” in 1928, the same year that Walt Disney produced “Steamboat Willie,” generally regarded as the first cartoon with a fully synchronized soundtrack. So Armstrong’s recording predated the tune’s use in cartoon soundtracks. Did he learn it as a kid growing up on the streets of New Orleans?
I made a few phone calls, sent some emails to friends, queried a trumpeter’s listserve (sponsered by TPIN, Trumpet Players’ International Network), and information began trickling in. In the first place, other people remember this tune from their childhoods. One Eric Johnson, from the TPIN list, told me that his daughters remember these lyrics:
All the girls in France do the hokey pokey dance, 
And the way they shake is enough to kill a snake.
Karen Stober, also from TPIN, tells me the tune was sung by two children facing one another and clapping hands to the lyrics:
On the planet Mars all the women smoke cigars.
Every puff they take is enough to kill a snake.
When the snake is dead they put flowers on its head.
When the flowers die they say 1969! [whatever year it is].
We’ve moved from France to Mars, but there’s that snake again, and now we’ve got cigars – a regular Freudian wonderland of sub-rosa implication. What fun. I found a somewhat fuller version on the web where the dance was characterized as a “hookie-kookie dance.”
I then followed a lead suggested by my friend, David Bloom, who suggested I check out the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition (aka World’s Fair). It was a major event in American cultural life. It was the first large-scale use of alternating current, and the first Ferris wheel. The exposition hosted delegations from all over the world, including Japan, the first chance Americans had to experience that nation and its people – who were here, of course, to learn about us as well. This is when and where hamburgers became all-American fast food; Pabst Blue-Ribbon Beer flowed freely on the midway; Kellogg’s Cornflakes debuted here as well. And, wouldn’t you know it? Elias Disney, Walt’s father, was a carpenter on the construction job. But all this is beside the point.
The point is about the entertainment on the midway. Yes, we had Wild Bill Cody, and we had John Philips Sousa. But we also had a lithe young woman who danced as “Little Egypt.” The exposition’s press agent, Sol Bloom, claimed that he had written our little tune just so Little Egypt could dance to it. The tune was a hit and was subsequently copyrighted under various names, including Dance of the Midway, Coochi-Coochi Polka, Danse de Ventre, and The Streets of Cairo . Just how it was copyrighted several times is a bit of a mystery, but the fact that several folks claimed it as their own testifies to the tune’s popularity. One of those folks, W. J. Voges, included it as the Koochie-Koochie Dance in the second edition of Pasquila Medley published in New Orleans in 1895. We’ve now got the tune in New Orleans at a date prior to Armstrong’s birth.
Another of my TPIN informants, trumpeter’s trumpeter Jeanne Pocius, told me that this melody appears in Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet as one of “Sixty-eight Duets for Two Cornets,” which follows “150 Classic and Popular Melodies.” Our tune is called “Arabian Song.” Arbans, as it is known among trumpeters, is the central method book for “legit” trumpet and cornet pedagogy. It was written and compiled by Jean-Baptiste Arban, a 19th century cornet virtuoso, composer, conductor and teacher on the faculty of the Paris Conservatory. He first published his Grande méthode complète pour cornet à pistons et de saxhorn in 1864, well before Sol Bloom claimed he’d written the tune for Little Egypt. Was Sol Bloom telling a stretcher – as Huck Finn called it – when he claimed that tune as his own?
Where did Arban get it? Roughly half the book is a set of technical exercises graded from elementary to extremely advanced. Those exercises are followed by complete tunes and compositions, real music. And that’s where we find our snake-charmin’ shimmy-shakin’ tune. The melodies Arban collected comprise what appears to be a European Songbook of the 1860s. Some of these tunes were by recognized masters of the European high art tradition—Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bellini, von Weber, and Haydn, among others. But many were just tunes, attributed to no one. And so it is with “Arabian Tune.” As I said in Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 253-254):
When we consider the lyrics this tune has attracted, its use in cartoons to accompany snake charming, and its title, it seems to be a musical icon of the Mysterious Licentious Orient, which had fascinated European peoples at least since the Crusades. It is the only song identified with the Orient in Arban’s collection, but other tunes have national or ethnic identification. Thus we find a “German Song,” a “Neapolitan song” and a “Swiss Song,” a “French Air” and an “Italian Air,” a “Russian Hymn” and an “Austrian Hymn,” as well as “Blue Bells of Scotland” and “Yankee Doodle.” In compiling his collection of melodies Arban clearly wanted to present music from all the civilized nations he could think of. It is thus in the service of a truncated ethnic inclusiveness that he included an “Arabian Song”—or, more likely, the one-and-only “Arabian Song” he knew.
Beyond this, the opening five notes of this song are identical to the first five notes of Colin Prend Sa Hotte, published in Paris in 1719. Writing in 1857, J. B. Wekerlin noted that the first phrase of that song is almost identical to Kradoutja, a now-forgotten Arabic or Algerian melody that had been popular in France since 1600. This song may thus have been in the European meme pool 250 years before Arban found it. It may even be a Middle Eastern song, or a mutation of one, that came to Europe via North Africa through Moorish Spain or was brought back from one of the Crusades. For all practical purposes we can consider it to be nearly as old and widely dispersed as dirt. And, on the evidence, equally fertile.
We still don’t know exactly how Armstrong and the tune found one another, but that no longer seems like much of an issue. That tune got around. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he learned it as a child, and that it had lyrics similar to those that I learned, and that others learned after me.
If we think of that melody as a meme, or perhaps several memes, then Armstrong’s uses – he used it other tunes as well – would be mutations and his use of only part of the melody would seem to be a kind of memetic recombination. But what is that fragment being recombined with? For one thing, it was being combined with other licks, or riffs as musicians call them. Some of these fragments may have come from the same pool that floated the “Arabian Song” across the Atlantic from Europe. Others may have been indigenous to the United States or even local to New Orleans or Chicago. Jazz culture, like any musical culture, is full of these licks, which can come from any place.
Musical quotation is rife among jazz musicians. Dizzy Gillespie often inserted a fragment of the “Habanera” from “Carmen” into his “A Night in Tunisia.” Dexter Gordon liked the opening phrase of “Mona Lisa.” Lee Morgan recorded an improvisation in which he quoted Ziggy Elman’s licks from Elman’s famous solo on “And the Angles Sing,” which he recorded under Benny Goodman. Morgan was too young to have seen Elman perform live and so must have learned those licks from a recording. As for Elman’s licks, they would have come from Europe with Elman’s Jewish ancestors.
Anyone who has read jazz biographies has read many accounts of jazz musicians hearing jazz on records or on the radio, becoming intrigued, inspired, and learning from recordings and broadcasts. These sources have likely been as important in jazz’s evolution as direct person-to-person transmission, for they allowed memes to spread over great distances in a matter of days or weeks. Musicians learned, not only from those whom they knew directly, but also from those who recorded and broadcast. Jazz culture was thus able to develop a huge pool of memes which musicians could use in performance. When jazz musicians play, they call on various intersecting pools of material which they then assemble into a performance.
Of course, jazz musicians and would-be jazz musicians weren’t the only ones to hear the broadcasts and the recordings. Everyone heard them and was familiar with the tunes and riffs, the licks and phrases, the memes of jazz culture. The audience was thus primed to hear and appreciate what the musicians played. And that priming is as important to cultural life as the performances by the musicians themselves. As I wrote in Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 255-256):
The greatness of an individual musician such as Armstrong is a function, both of his power to forge compelling performances from the “raw” memes and of the existence of that meme pool. While Armstrong may have been ahead of his fellows, he couldn’t have been very far ahead of them, otherwise they could not have performed together. Beyond this, without a large population of music-lovers familiar with the same meme pool, Armstrong’s recordings would have had little effect. By the time he went to Chicago, a large population had been listening and dancing to rags and blues, show tunes, fox trots and Charlestons and marches, all with a hot pulse and raggy rhythms. Armstrong’s improvisations gave them a new wild pleasure, and their collective joy made him great.
* * * * * *
 It appears in this cartoon from the 1940s, though not in the context of snake charming. It starts about 01:54:
It occurs again at roughly 05:10 where it is followed by a marvelous dance sequence with some fabulous trumpet playing on the sound-track (the reason I like this cartoon).
 Here’s “Tight Like That” by McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, arranged by the great Don Redman:
 Here’s Google query on “all the girls in France” that coughs up several hundred-thousand results.
 Check out the Wikipedia entry, The Streets of Cairo, or the Poor Little Country Maid. It recounts some of the history and has links to various versions of the tune, including in cartoons.
Shira also has a useful page: Streets of Cairro: That “Snake Charmer” Song.
Monday, February 27, 2017
There's a certain kind of conversation in which I find myself every so often, which can roughly be summarized as "What's the big deal about DJing"? As someone who was a quasi-professional DJ in a former life, and is currently what one friend terms a 'monastic DJ', I've sensed a substantial gap in lay understanding of not just what a DJ does while engaged in the act of mixing, but also the place occupied by DJs in the contemporary musical ecosystem. This attitude — not unlike looking at a Jackson Pollock while muttering to yourself that you could do just as well — has received further support from the rise and fall of the spectacularly excessive (and, to my ears, creatively bankrupt) EDM scene; the unholy marriage of superstar DJs, casino-based clubs and overpriced bottle service; and the fact that watching someone DJ is fundamentally uninteresting.
Is there any value in mixing other people's music? When viewed from the most reductive position, the answer is clearly not. As critic David Hepworth noted in a now-deleted blog post, "You must surely realise that you make your living by putting on records, which is only a tiny bit removed in degree of difficulty from switching on the radio." If that's all that DJs are good for, then I suppose it's a relief that streaming services and software-driven playlists have come along to put this particular horse-and-buggy paradigm out of its misery.
Instead, it's more helpful to look at the larger role that DJs play in parsing the ocean of music in which we swim in these post-Napster days. Just as we turn to critics in other fields to understand what we should be reading or watching, we also turn to DJs for clarity on what to listen to. In this sense, the appropriate metaphor is one of the DJ as tastemaker.
In order to talk about how a DJ guides others' taste in music, we have to address the DJ's own, internal process. Over time, a DJ is a collector, a curator and an editor. Of course, being a DJ involves inhabiting all three of these roles at the same time, all the time, but there is also a progression here. I'll go over each of these and then return to what it means to be a tastemaker at the end of this post.
Collecting is the baseline activity for any DJ. Obviously, pretty much everyone has a music collection, but DJs take it to an obsessive level. Whether you're steeped in a particular genre — probably the most common trajectory—or collect the music from a particular era or geography, a DJ's collection is the foundation from which everything else flows.
Collecting is an endless process. To be sure, there is a real joy in finding obscure gems that might be decades old, or music that's just extremely overlooked. This is generally known as crate-digging. Collecting can also become an arms race — ie, the competition to access new releases before they drop commercially. But even if you have the hot new remix from so-and-so, or a white label vinyl pressing that no one else does, you might be ahead of the game for a week, and then only in your little tide pool of the electronic music universe. And while the collecting arms race led to interesting collective responses, too, such as the creation, in 1975, of record pools, any DJ quickly finds out that simply having a solid collection is necessary, but not sufficient, for realizing the work itself.
If collecting is about wrapping your arms around as much of your chosen domain as possible, we may logically ask if there is a thing as too much music? It's not unusual for DJs to have 15,000 or more tracks in their collections, as well as stacks of records and CDs that patiently await a critical listening. To which I would say, that's like asking a painter if they have too many colors in their palette, or an interior decorator if they have too many fabric swatches, or a fashion designer too many styles of buttons. All of these professionals engage in the act of remixing their materials into new, exciting and perhaps most importantly, appropriate arragements that speak to the needs of a unique aesthetic moment. So it's not so much an issue of having too much music, but rather the possibility of owning something and not knowing that you do.
The DJ's collection is the DJ's instrument.
Curation is, admittedly, a word that's been beaten to death in the last few years. Everyone is a curator now — if only because they are ‘curating' their own life. This is nonsense. It's kind of like saying that we're all knowledge workers, or that everyone we work for is a client.
In a stricter sense, curation is the act of assembling a representative collection of (traditionally tangible) objects. The assembly makes sense in some way — it is literally sense-making. So if you went to the recent Picasso sculpture retrospective at New York's MoMA, you didn't expect to see all of Picasso's sculptures, but a strategic sampling of them, displayed and annotated to demonstrate the artist's progression through time and across media.
In the same sense, the DJ is a curator for a particular domain of sound. Having listened to thousands of tracks, the DJ can select the seminal compositions that demonstrate the development of a sound or genre through its history (indeed, in some musical cultures DJs are known simply as ‘selectors'). This curatorial act can be performed either in real time, or in hindsight.
In the case of the former, the DJ is helping to define the sound of the moment. Kool DJ Red Alert did as much for hip-hop in the 80s and 90s with his long-running show on New York's 98.7 KISS-FM. But DJs also continue to define the contours of a genre even after it's become well-established. A good example here is the seminal set of mixes that Solitude (Tom Bond) has done for UK dubstep.
One more distinction bears mentioning here: while valuable, the kind of curation seen in various oral histories and "bluffer's guides" around the Web differs from the curation a DJ does (a charming example is this guide to Italo-disco). It's also distinct from the kind of magisterial presence that trend-setters such as John Peel had. In Peel's case he cultivated a weekly show for BBC Radio 1 over the remarkable span of nearly 40 years and helped to break countless bands to a global audience.
In contrast to these functions, the DJ presents the results of curation in the form of a mix. This may seem trivial, but the fact is that much of this music is designed to be heard in a mix. For example, it's not uncommon for dance tracks to begin in a thoroughly uninspiring manner, as with a simple kick drum hitting every beat. That's because producers know that DJs need a few bars to sync up the new track to its predecessor; a naked kick drum is the toehold that allows for a quick and effective transition. By the same token, dance music tracks, unlike pop music, rarely fade out, but will have elements drop out over a regular increments of time (usually denoted in cycles of 16 beats), until there is usually only a kick drum remaining. This way the DJ can mix out of the expiring track in an elegant and seamless manner. Thus, this design for mixing carries the additional, curious trait that certain parts of a track aren't meant to be heard by anyone but the DJ.
The mix is the preferred, long-term format for understanding electronic music. When DJs listen to individual tracks they are always thinking about how those tracks can be made to interact with other tracks in their collection. A beautiful song that has no possibility of interacting with the rest of a collection is simply not useful, since the desired outcome will always be a series of relationships between musical thoughts. Another way of thinking about listening to mixes versus standalone tracks is comparing it to the difference between reading a paragraph and immersing yourself in an essay. A good mix is an extended, coherent argument.
In the same way that you go to a museum to understand how to think about Picasso, you listen to DJs in order to understand how to think about a genre, or to see where a particular sound is headed.
Finally, editing draws upon the DJ's skills in making decisions in real time. This can be within the context of a live gig or a studio recording. Both have advantages — the good DJ feeds off the crowd and tailors selections for the moment, while studio recording allows a DJ to carefully assemble a definitive statement over the course of days or weeks (this exemplary techno mix by British selector Objekt took several months to refine and polish).
In both cases, DJs not only select what they will play, and in what order, but make many other decisions. There's really no reason to play a track all the way through, and DJs who tend to only do this I generally regard as pretty lazy. It's more interesting if you can start Track A at the breakdown, then mix Track B from its beginning, then mix back into the beginning of Track A, and end with the second half of Track B. Even better, save the second half of Track B until you've played some of Track C.
All of these decisions are accompanied by the skills and tools that DJs have traditionally had — equalization, cross-fading, pitch shifting, simple hi-pass/lo-pass filters. Digital DJing has added many more, such as effects, loops, and cue points. The ability to access tracks, beats and samples quickly has also reduced the time it takes to perform an edit in real time, to the extent that DJs with the right raw materials and skills can execute what are essentially remixes on the fly, or custom flows that can never be repeated.
It follows, then, that DJing technology blurs the lines between the extroverted phenomenon of playback and introverted correlate of production. While it's not production as it's commonly understood, what's created is a grey zone that may make the source material difficult to separate out from the mix as a whole. A good DJ will emphasize specific aspects of the music, or bring elements from different tracks into dialog with one another. This is all in the service of showing a listener the best that a certain collection has to offer. I discuss an example from my own mixing here.
Good DJs take the most interesting bits and put them together in the most interesting ways.
To return to the idea of tastemaking then: the DJ stands as the interpreter through which listeners access sound. In fact, this is virtually a requirement for electronic music in particular, with thousands of producers working across hundreds of genres that are constantly cross-pollinating one another. Moreover, the tempo of production has increased dramatically, due to the falling cost of both studio gear and distribution (at this point, only a laptop and an internet connection are needed to launch a project or even a record label). This is radically different from any other genre of music, which either has a fixed repertoire (classical) or is expanding, but slowly (jazz, rock and pop). It's an ocean of oceans out there — let a DJ help you make sense of it all.
This post is an expanded version of the first post on my new Medium blog, which focuses on the art of mixing records.
Monday, December 26, 2016
A Permissive Circle: World Literature and Zumba Dance
by Claire Chambers
If you've read any of my blog posts for 3 Quarks Daily or columns for Dawn's Books & Authors section, you may know me for my criticism of world literature. But as it's the holidays, I want to write about something more frivolous.
I have a confession to make: as well as being a lecturer in global literature, for the last five years I have also moonlighted as a
Zumba, if you're unfamiliar with this high art form, is a dance fitness programme. Like all self-respecting cults, it has its own creation myth. Godhead and co-founder, Colombian Alberto 'Beto' Perez, began his career as an aerobics teacher in Florida. One day, the story goes, he arrived at his class only to realize he had forgotten his aerobics cassettes (yes, it was the 1990s...). He improvised a class based on the Latin music tapes he had in the car, and the punters loved it. He then teamed up with two more pragmatic and business-minded Albertos -- Alberto Perlman and Alberto Aghion -- and Zumba Fitness was born.
A typical Zumba class is built around four main dance styles. Most people are familiar with Cuba's elegant, sexy Salsa. (Less well-known is its offshoot Salsa Choke, which originates in Beto's native Colombia and intermixes Cuban panache with the rhythms of Zumba's next core dance, Reggaeton.)
Perhaps best described as Latin hip-hop, Reggaeton hails from Puerto Rico. Its edgy, urban lyrics and beats have made their way across South America. Some of Reggaeton's most famous musicians, such as Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, and Pitbull, have an even wider following across the globe.
Merengue is the third style, which most people have heard of but may not be aware that this is a fast march from the Dominican Republic and other parts of the Caribbean. It has an even beat but can become very frenetic, with moves that have names like double hesitations, pretzels, and cradles.
Finally, Beto introduced his national dance, Cumbia, which sprang from the history of slavery. Cumbia was one of the musical styles featured on the soundtrack to the Netflix series Narcos, about Colombian drug dealer Pablo Escobar, and has a hypnotic 'oom-pa' beat. In one move, called the machete, dancers mimic the cutting of sugar-cane in the plantations, while in another known as 'sleepy leg' they emulate slaves with their ankles in chains carrying candlesticks in their hands. Cumbia has probably travelled the most easily of all the Zumba styles, with most Latin countries having adapted it and invented their own versions.
Zumba is not limited to these four dances. Salsa, Reggaeton, Merengue, and Cumbia simply form the core of the class, and many others are thrown in by the instructor, from Flamenco to Samba to Belly Dancing. As a specialist in South Asian literature in my day job, my signature is to include a dance from the Indian subcontinent in every class, whether it is to Bollywood classic 'Sheila ki Jawani', bhangra such as 'Tunak Tunak Tun' or 'Hadippa', 'Jugni Ji' by British-Punjabi music producer Dr Zeus. The inclusive nature of Zumba means that it embodies the kind of happy hybridity famously championed by postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha.
Taking these diverse dance styles, most of which are traditionally performed with a partner, Zumba turns them in to a kind of high-energy line dancing (it's a lot better than it sounds, I promise!). The programme took off in the US in the early 2000s and went big in Europe around seven years ago. Other similar programmes such as Bokwa and FitSteps have tried to challenge Zumba's popularity, but Beto's following shows little sign of diminishment.
Zumba routines are based around songs with different speeds and levels of intensity, as compared with aerobics' more homogeneous four to the floor rhythm patterns. This ever-changing pace means that Zumba is a kind of interval training, a varied form of exercise which can trick the body into burning more calories than steadier rhythms. Additionally, Zumba's music should be uplifting and intricate, so that the time seems to pass very quickly and class members don't feel as though they're exercising. Finally, research suggests that Zumba -- and dancing more broadly -- is good for mental health. During the class, one has to think about one's feet and arms all the time, so there is no room for thoughts about work or other stresses, in what is a type of mindfulness.
Zumba attracts an international fan-base. At my Christmas Eve class at the University of Leeds, UK, there was a reduced crowd of 13 in attendance. Only one class member and I were white; the others were students from East and South Asia, or were Black or mixed-heritage. As well as hybrid music forms, then, Zumba apparently provides space for spontaneous ‘conviviality’. This space, Paul Gilroy explains, positively disrupts binary thought and ‘the leaky barriers of race and absolute ethnicity’ that dominated imperialist discourse and persist today.
The dance programme is less pluralist in relation to gender. In Britain, it is dominated by women and, to a lesser extent, gay men. Many buttoned-up Britons seem to think it is simply unappealing to straight men. In less inhibited Italy, I hear, Zumba cuts across genders and sexualities in a way that is genuinely inclusive.
Zumba also has a ruthlessly commercial side. Under the slogan 'Zumba Love', the company will sell you anything from neon pants to a bumper sticker emblazoned with the ominous slogan, 'Zumba Changed My Wife'. One of the best articles to pick up on those aspects of the programme most ripe for satire is by a feminist anthropologist based at Princeton:
How am I, an outsider, to follow these wordless instructions, dictated by gestures as subtle and specific as a swift movement of the head, or even merely the eye, in the direction of the foot intended to kick? The instructor offers no answers, merely pelvic thrusts and the shrill cry of an “arriba.”
Zumba is emphatically uncool. It nonetheless conveys important truths about the world and its music, which can be useful to the postcolonial scholar. With profuse apologies to Frantz Fanon for wresting his words out of context, when dancing I often think of this sentence from The Wretched of the Earth: 'The circle of the dance is a permissive circle: it protects and permits.'
At the end of what has been a very difficult year 2016, I think world literature and Zumba dance can help us keep sane in a milieu that seems to be collectively going mad.
Monday, November 07, 2016
"On the way from mythology to logistics…
machinery disables men even as it nurtures them."
~ Adorno & Horkheimer
A few years ago I heard the Seattle Symphony play Carnegie Hall here in New York. There were three pieces on the program. The first two - Claude Debussy's La Mer and John Luther Adams's Become Ocean - are clearly of a type. They share the subject matter of the sea and its sonic representation. More importantly, Become Ocean is a clear stylistic descendant of Debussy's seminal, impressionistic work. Written a hundred years apart, both pieces nevertheless explore shimmering textures and slowly shifting planes of sound. The emphasis is not on seafaring - a human activity - but rather on the elemental qualities of the ocean. So far, so good.
The third selection, however, was Edgar Varèse's Déserts. As the title implies, Déserts is possessed of its own vastness, but this is an expanse that is jagged and abrasive. Written in the early 1950s, that is at about half-way between La Mer and Become Ocean, its exploration of timbre is arid and dissonant, and is an early example of a score that calls for interweaving the ensemble's playing with pre-recorded electronic music. Some listeners may be reminded of avant-garde movie music where the scene calls for danger and uncertainty; one YouTube commentator wrote that "parts of this remind me of the music on Star Trek, when Kirk is facing some Alien on a barren world, kind of thing".
Varèse has always been a favorite of mine when it comes to the canon of twentieth-century "new" music. Prickly and uncompromising, he was a passionate and broad-ranging thinker. After meeting him for a possible collaboration, Henry Miller mused that "Some men, and Varèse is one of them, are like dynamite." Indeed, Varèse envisioned Déserts to be accompanied by a film montage - what we would casually characterize today as a multimedia experience. While the pitch to Walt Disney never went anywhere, the music is still with us today. But be that as it may, what is Déserts doing, sharing the stage with the marine masterpieces of Debussy and Adams?
As a counterfactual, had an algorithm been curating the evening, we would certainly not have had this juxtaposition. (Perhaps, in keeping with the evening's theme, we would have been subjected to Handel's Water Music instead). You may contend that it's absurd to think of an algorithm holding such sway over the well-heeled patrons of Carnegie Hall, but consider how much of our lives have been pervaded by exactly this sort of machine-driven ‘curation'.
So here is a seemingly uncontroversial claim: one of the great triumphs of modern software is the recommendation engine. From Amazon's ‘customers who bought this item also bought' to Netflix's ‘other movies you might enjoy', recommendation engines are ubiquitous and always ready to help, especially when they are wrapped up in the soothing tones of a Siri or an Alexa. Recommendation engines also occupy an interesting niche in our information ecosystem. In a world of infinite content, they are the osmotic membrane that regulates the exchange of data and preference. And they thrive on scale: the more data is thrown at them, and the larger the network of users, the better they function. This is true for both the raw inputs (what's available to be consumed) and the raw outputs (what is consumed). The design masterstroke of this paradigm is that the outputs are converted into new inputs. By simultaneously taming and leveraging the deluge of data, recommendation engines aspire to make a cornucopia of choice legible to us.
But this design masterstroke is also its fatal flaw. Recommendation engines are really good at homogeneity. If you like salsa music, start a Pandora station and keep giving the thumbs-up until you've locked in your sound. You can be sure there won't be any heavy metal songs popping up in your stream. Need more than one cordless drill? Amazon has got you covered. Have a look at some drill bits while you're around. And let's not even get started on the abundance of potential partners that online dating apps dangle before us. It brings to mind MTV's original catchphrase, "Too Much Is Never Enough."
They watch over us, these engines of loving grace. Obviously, sometimes you just need a cordless drill, in which case these platforms can be of great utility. But more broadly, what they are poorly equipped to do is help us understand or create the idea of difference. Or to be more specific, the hedgehog-like nature of this worldview gently deflects us away from the idea that there are styles, stances and yes, objects, that are not contiguous to our own narrowly formed desires and preconceptions. How do we find these, or rather, how do we acquire the critical apparatus by which we can find and judge these?
This question is worth elaborating because recommendation engines are growing beyond the simply utilitarian, and making a bid to occupy a more nuanced space. Here is an example from the world of design. In a recent article about the curious ubiquity of the so-called mid-century modern style, Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan notes that
It may also be the product of a great averaging: as algorithms track our preferences and shape our online lives accordingly, we're all becoming more and more similar. Siri and Alexa, for example, are killing off regional accents. Facebook crafts our news feeds so they match up to what it knows we already love and hate. Companies like Airbnb and WeWork are popularizing the same generic spaces across the globe; it even has a name, recently christened by Kyle Chayka: airspace. Midcentury modern design, it seems, is another form of technological averaging—the cream, gray, and wood-paneled amalgam of all user tastes.
To be fair, the decline of regional accents in the United States was a process that began with the advent of first radio and then television; current technology has merely hastened it. But mid-century modern design is an excellent example of how software-driven recommendation is flattening our preferences: Modsy, a startup playing in this space, uses a quiz to help homeowners plan their design moves, hopefully obviating the curatorial presence of a human interior designer. Overwhelmingly, its clients end up favoring this specific, anodyne style.
Now, one could make the argument that this is a self-selecting population and as such may have a bias towards this design paradigm. But the subtler point is that the individual's process of questioning, discovery, learning and discrimination is undercut substantially when the heuristic of a recommendation engine is employed. It is the opposite of engaging in the serendipitous act of browsing the jumble of an antiques shop, where one goes to explicitly find difference and therefore implicitly invoke the faculty of taste. The benefit of feeling the texture of a swatch of cloth, the heft of an object, the smell of a book? These holistic sensory judgments are forfeited in favor of a quicksilver virtuality, where only the eye is privileged. And of all the senses, the eye is the most easily deceived.
I'm not offering a romantic sentiment of days gone by. This way of going about being in the world is work. It is not by any stretch ‘efficient' - to invoke, with as much contempt as possible, one of Silicon Valley's favorite words. It cannot be. Recommendation engines putatively do this work for you, but the result, as evidenced by Modsy's result, is bereft of identity. I would not have much of an issue with this except I am certain that, once having made an interior design choice, these homeowners would be unable to describe why they made these choices, except in the most superficial terms (eg: "I like clean simple lines"). If you're such a fan of midcentury modern design, you should be able to distinguish between a chair designed by Arne Jacobsen and one designed by Hans Wegner.
Nor am I being unduly snobbish. For there is a difference between snobbery, which is at its heart a power play, and connoisseurship, which is a desire for knowledge and therefore an understanding of the importance of difference - the difference that a difference makes, if you will. A snob is someone who will tell you that the wine you are drinking is good because Robert Parker gave it 96 points and it cost $200 for the bottle (and aren't you grateful). A connoisseur will tell you that this wine is good because of how it is made, or what it tastes like, or why it tastes the way it does and how it is different from any other bottle.
Furthermore, our connoisseur will be able to describe what food goes well with this wine, and at what point in the meal it's most appropriate to drink it. A connoisseur ultimately understands each experience and object as existing in relationship to other experiences and objects. It is the interaction of these entities that ultimately creates meaning and value. As hokey as the phrase may be, this is the judgment that is required to find that one object "that really ties the room together". Recommendation engines, by their very nature, are incapable of providing an holistic experience.
To be clear, the kind of connoisseurship I am positing is not one of absolutes, either. Values are never fixed; rather they are always being negotiated. This is another failing of recommendation systems. The flatness of fully quantified consumption behavior sets the stage for feedback loops that gradually become divorced from other criteria. Something that is popular becomes more popular simply due to its increasing popularity (in this sense, political parties and stock market bubbles share significant characteristics with recommendation engines). Other choices may experience a decline in popularity, but the system may not be able to ascertain why. Platforms may attempt to remedy this flatness and market opacity by creating multiple tiers to privilege "influencers" but this is misplaced, since it continues to impose no effort of learning on the mass of people accessing the engine. Simply put, we still cannot answer the question ‘why' in any meaningful sense.
Not surprisingly, the abdication of decisionmaking in favor of a recommendation engine has another consequence. In a distributed scenario populated by many actors - customers, consultants, designers, manufacturers, marketers - information is continually being exchanged. It is lumpy and uneven, but it is vital and dynamic. Various actors acquire different degrees of knowledge which they then use to modify their tastes and behaviors going forwards. But in a recommendation engine scenario, knowledge tends to flow overwhelmingly inwards - into the network. As Michael Tyka, a biophysicist and programmer at Google, notes, "The problem is that the knowledge gets baked into the network, rather than into us. Have we really understood anything? Not really - the network has." Well, except for the people who own the network; they might have access to the sum of this knowledge, with which they dispense as they please.
More troubling is the suspicion that recommendation engines, socially speaking, function as a sort of gateway drug for generating consent for the much broader and more pervasive rubric of what has become known as algorithmic judgment. Amazon recommendations and Netflix suggestions are all well and good if this sort of impersonal guidance remains an elective activity. However, once we begin using algorithms to determine the likelihood that someone is a good credit risk, or is likely to commit a crime, then we have raised the stakes substantially. I'll take a closer look at this wave of technologies next month.
In the meantime, we have strayed rather far from that performance at Carnegie Hall. So why did Varèse's Déserts join Debussy and Adams? As George Grella elegantly stated in his review of that evening, "Two is a trend, three is an argument. The stated connection through landscape and ecology was window dressing for abstract music about form, structure and time." A good critical assessment always provides, in addition to analysis and interpretation, an invitation into further conversation and deliberation. Grella intuits the intention behind the programming, and generates a narrative that also invites our own engagement. We build stories on top of stories. Can we do the same in a society excessively informed by recommendation engines? You walk into a stranger's home; in a friendly attempt to strike up conversation, you take note of the décor, but the conversation begins and ends with "oh, the computer did all of that for us".
Monday, October 10, 2016
Imagine: Listening to Songs Which Make Us More Generous
by Jalees Rehman
It does not come as a surprise that background music in a café helps create the ambience and affects how much customers enjoy sipping their cappuccinos. But recent research suggests that the choice of lyrics can even impact the social behavior of customers. The researcher Nicolas Ruth and his colleagues from the University of Würzburg (Bavaria, Germany) assembled a playlist of 18 songs with pro-social lyrics which they had curated by surveying 74 participants in an online questionnaire as to which songs conveyed a pro-social message. Examples of pro-social songs most frequently nominated by the participants included "Imagine" by John Lennon or "Heal the World" by Michael Jackson. The researchers then created a parallel playlist of 18 neutral songs by the same artists in order to truly discern the impact of the pro-social lyrics.
Here is an excerpt of both playlists
Artist Pro-social playlist Neutral playlist
P!nk Dear Mr. President Raise Your Glass
John Lennon Imagine Stand By Me
Michael Jackson Heal the World Dirty Diana
Nicole Ein bisschen Frieden Alles nur für dich
Pink Floyd Another Brick in the Wall Wish You Were Here
Scorpions Wind of Change Still Loving You
Wiz Khalifa See You Again Black and Yellow
The researchers then arranged for either the neutral or the pro-social playlist to be played in the background in a Würzburg café during their peak business hours and to observe the behavior of customers. The primary goal of the experiment was to quantify the customers' willingness to pay a surcharge of 0.30 Euros for fair trade coffee instead of regular coffee. Fair trade coffee is more expensive because it is obtained through organizations which offer better trading conditions to coffee bean farmers, prohibit child labor and support sustainable farming practices. Information about fair trade coffee was presented on a blackboard in the center of the café so that all customers would walk past it and the server was trained by the researchers to offer the fair trade surcharge in a standardized manner. The server also waited for a minimum of six minutes before taking the orders of guests so that they would be able to hear at least two songs in the background. During the observation period, 123 customers heard the prosocial playlist whereas 133 heard the neutral playlist.
The effect of this brief exposure to prosocial songs was quite remarkable. The percentage of customers who opted for the more expensive fair trade coffee option doubled when they head prosocial songs! Only 18% of customers hearing the neutral playlist were willing to pay the extra 0.30 Euros – even though they had also seen the information board about the benefits of fair trade coffee – but 38% of the customers hearing prosocial songs opted for the fair trade option.
Interestingly, hearing prosocial songs did not affect the tipping behavior of the customers. Independent of what music was playing in the background, customers tipped the server roughly 12% of the bill. This is in contrast to a prior study conducted in a French restaurant in which hearing prosocial songs increased the tipping behavior. One factor explaining the difference could be the manner by which the songs were selected. The French study specifically created a playlist of prosocial songs with French lyrics whereas the Würzburg playlist contained mostly English-language songs, often with global themes such as world peace, brotherhood and abolishing boundaries. Supporting fair trade may be more consistent with the images evoked by these global-themed songs than increased tipping of a server in Germany. It is also important to note that servers or waiters in Germany are comparatively well-compensated by restaurants and cafés, therefore they do not really depend on their income from tips.
The Würzburg experiment raises some intriguing questions about how music – either consciously or subconsciously – affects our immediate decision-making. The researchers went to great lengths to minimize confounding factors by matching up songs from the same artists in both playlists. Their work is also one of the first examples of a field study in a real-world setting because prior studies linking music and pro-social behavior have been mostly conducted in laboratory settings where pro-social behavior is experimentally simulated. But one also needs to consider some caveats before generalizing the results of the study.
Würzburg is a university town where students represent a significant proportion of the population. The researchers estimated that more than 40% of the customers were in their 20s, consistent with a principal student clientele which may be more mindful of the importance of fair trade. The history of Würzburg is also noteworthy because more than 80% of the city was destroyed in a matter of minutes during the Second World War when the British Royal Air force firebombed this predominantly civilian city and killed an estimated 5,000 residents. Residents of the city may be therefore especially sensitive to songs and imagery that evoke the importance of peace and the perils of war.
Some of the next steps in exploring this fascinating link between background music and behavior is to replicate the findings in other cities and also with participants from varying age groups and cultural backgrounds. Another avenue of research could be to assess whether the content of the lyrics affects distinct forms of behavior. Are there some prosocial songs which would increase local prosocial behavior such as tipping or supporting local charities whereas others may increase global social awareness? How long do the effects of the music last? Are customers consciously aware of the lyrics they are hearing in the background or are they just reacting subconsciously? The number of questions raised by this study shows us how exciting the topic is and that we will likely see more field studies in the years to come that will enlighten us.
1. Ruth, N. (2016). "Heal the World": A field experiment on the effects of music with prosocial lyrics on prosocial behavior. Psychology of Music, (in press).
2. Jacob, C., Guéguen, N., & Boulbry, G. (2010). Effects of songs with prosocial lyrics on tipping behavior in a restaurant. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 29(4), 761-763.
Monday, August 22, 2016
Markos Vamvakaris: A Pilgrim on Ancient Byzantine Roads
These songs of mine have to be played. They mustn’t be lost, they have to be out there....They’re Byzantine and their ‘roads’, their tunes are ancient.
To read this book, this as-told-to autobiography of Markos Vamvakaris, is to confront how strange is this thing we call writing, the child of this strange thing in which we live, called civilization. It is not that Markos, as he came to be known, is uncivilized. It is not that. Living at the time and place that he did, Greece during the early and middle twentieth century, he couldn’t avoid it, this civilization.
But he could resist it. And that he did, with wine, women, and song. Hashish too, more than the wine, and the bouzouki, along with the song and more than the women. Civilization didn’t win, neither did Markos. But I wouldn’t call it a draw either. It was a dance.
* * * * *
I knew almost nothing about rebetiko – Greek urban folk music with Asian influence – when I began reading this book, this circle dance between Markos the road warrior, Angeliki Vellou-Keil, scholar and scribe who published the material in Greek in 1972, and Noonie Minogue, who translated and edited this English edition (2015). Yet the story herein set forth, Markos Vamvakaris: The Man and the Bouzouki, that story is a familiar one: poverty, social marginalization, drugs, rubbing shoulder with criminals, womanizing, dedication to craft, and the transformation of a nation’s musical culture. Rebetiko has been likened to the blues, and the stories of major blues musicians have all those elements. It is a story of resistance, survival, and transformation.
Markos Vamvakaris was born in 1905 on the island of Syra in the Cyclades in the South Aegean Sea. That puts it on one of the major crossroads of world travel and trade for three millennia, between mainland Greece to the West and Turkey to the East. Its largest city, Ermopouli, was the major Greek port in the second half of the 19th Century, and a center for commerce and industry. Many different peoples have lived in and passed through Syra, as they do today in these days of destruction and despair in the Middle East. The dance of snivilization, as James Joyce called it, power and domination, freedom and music, pomp and circumcision, the bouzouki vs. bullets. Markos snubbed the law and the songs won. For awhile.
* * * * *
His father was an unskilled laborer, a coal hauler, who played the bagpipes. His mother “made jokes, sang nicely, and was full of life” (2). As a boy Markos liked to dance to the organ grinders, and he was good too. When his father took to weaving baskets and hampers, Markos would help haul the reeds, 50 pounds per load and not yet 10 years old. Then with his mother in the cotton factory packaging thread and threading looms. And then odd jobs with his uncle, more hauling. All day, vegetables, hauling. Next, the cloth mill. More child than man.
Then a break, selling newspapers in Ermoupoli, a port town. And you know what happens in ports, don’t you? People from all walks of life meet and conduct their business. Markos met them all. Now he’s in the fruit business, delivering it, selling it. Then back to the newspaper business, and when he was done for the day, he’d read papers and magzines. Education.
In 1917 he left Syros for Piraeus, a port near Athens on the mainland. He began hauling coal and smoking hashish. Then hauling whatever, as long as it was heavy; Markos was big and strong. In the early 1920s he went to work in a slaughterhouse and worked one job or another until he was 35. How’d you like to dilate a carcas? Put a hole through the skin in a leg, insert a bellows and pump until the hide separated from the muscle. You get the picture. Markos was on intimate terms with physical labor.
* * * * *
And he was on intimate terms with physical joy as well. For that’s what music is. Joy in the flesh. Not only music of course, but yes, music, really. Markos in his own words (as translated into English, p. 94):
In Tabouria I was broken in to the hard life of the Piraeus docker, I fell in love, got married for the first time and got hooked on hashish. But the most important thing by far was that I went crazy over this instrument, the bouzouki. Just before my stint in the army late in 1924 I happened to hear barba Nikos from Aivali playing his bouzouki. I loved it so much I made a vow, if I didn’t learn bouzouki I’d chop my hand off with a meat cleaver, the bone chopper they us in the shop. I considered my oath sacred and binding. It’s such a great thing, such a great instrument this bouzouki. I said to myself, and that was the beginning of misery for my family, my father and mother. I stopped working altogether after that. I had a job as a skinner in the Piraeus slaughterhouse but I didn’t work. No. My work as only bouzouki and hashish. From then on this instrument held me in chains.
For the longest time he played music on the side. Slaughterhouse by day, bouzouki and hashish the rest of the time. For awhile he had a sympathetic boss: “Markos, you play bouzouki, we’ll do the work” (75). He was, after all, a “proper wild beast” of a musician. When he played the hash dens he got paid in drugs. And then there were the cliff-side caves, climb down, go in, get stoned.
It wasn’t until the 1934-35 that he began playing for money, enough so he could make a living. He’d begun recording for Columbia a year or two before that. Columbia, and other American companies, wanted to record rebetiko for expatriate Greeks in America. He was good at it: “There were people who spent ten hours just to record one song. I’d get it done in one or two takes” (130). The way of the beast.
* * * * *
Frankly, I don’t understand his relations with women. And I don’t mean in any deep metaphysical sense, as though women were anymore problematic than (us) men. He had two wives, I think; and how many other other women, mistresses and more casual? I wouldn’t expect a thorough telling of all, as it’s none of my business, but when he does tell, it’s hard to keep them straight.
Let me give you some pointers:
Page 53: Zingoala the tigress, he eventually marries her, but not on page 53.
Page 58: Irini, prostitute, who gave him money and clothes. “Even after my marriage, newlywed and all, we used to go with the floozies. There were so many everywhere at that time in Vourla.” This was before the tigress.
Page 76: “At that time I loved a gypsy girl. A beauty, but they’re filthy women.” She was married with four children. Called her the “Sultry Spaniard.”
Page 87: “I hadn’t had any children so far and that was my wife’s fault.” But his bouzouki above all else. Musicians! What beasts! At this time Markos and his wife were being supported by his father.
Page 132: “But my wife, the bitch was having orgies with that wretched friend of mine I told you about, who took advantage of me being out all night for my work.”
I could go on like this, finding bits and pieces, stitching them together, and eventually figuring out what happened. I think. I’m also wondering what kind of raw material our scribe, Angelika Vellou Keil, and our editor and translator, Noonie Minogue, had to work from. In Markos we have an intelligent man who’s read a lot and lived more, who’s not really broken to the discipline of the written word – but then, dear reader, are you? Have you ever tried to make sense of your life, your whole life, one thing after another, in tidy chronological order?
I’m thinking that Markos was talking from deep within himself, from within a place where emotional resonance overrides chronology, even where one person dissolves into another, and events interpenetrate in promiscuous polymorphic perversity. That is a virtue of this story, this life of Markos the beast, to bring us into the lair of the lizard within.
Zingoala, that tigress he met when he was working as a stevedore, is haunting him on pages 161 and after. On page 176 he meets Vangelio, and marries her on page 178, in 1942. She was his wife at the time he told his story, and they had children.
Then there’s Yorgia (181) and Rita (194). Ten years with Rita, and still married to Vangelio. His kids: “All three of them are great kids. I just pray to God and the Holy Virgin about the women they’re going to marry” (225). The oldest is a sailor; the other two are musicians, one follows the loads of laika, like his dad, the other’s “going for the big guns. He’s going to be a pianist” (224). And maybe he’ll even be invited to play the bouzouki in Vienna with “the big maestros, the big names.” Such are the ambitions of this proud father, this Markos Vamvakaris, that his son should conquer the concert halls of the people who occupied his country during the Second World War. Bygones.
* * * * *
You get the idea. A life richly lived, but not neat and tidy. Does anyone live such a life, neat and tidy, no matter how much they may try? Markos lived through two world wars, and the desert between them. He served in the military in the first one and managed to survive the German occupation during the second one. All the time trying to preserve his dignity as a man, as a mangas. From the appendix by Angeliki Vellou-Keil (278-79):
From amongst the workers emerges a group that perhaps is made up from the most intelligent, most seeking, most irrepressible and maybe most stubborn; include here those individuals with special abilities already developed within traditional styles who refuse to give up these practices. This group in the cities create a style of life that represents an opposition and resistance to the bourgeois way of life. In the history of Greece the manghes were such a group, and maybe before them the koutsavakidhes (with their fashions, worry-beads, canes, and a ‘special walk’). This is not exclusively a Greek phenomenon. […] The mangas, choosing the beautiful things, rejects any compulsive chasing after money. Work is necessary for his own individual independence and sustenance for his family – an obligation he accepts.
And, yes, Markos Vamvakaris accepted the obligation and supported his family.
I’m reminded of a scene in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, set in 14th century Japan. A rural peasant woman is told that one of the characters, a monk, has a charter from the Emperor. “The Emperor,” she asks, “who’s that?” And there’s Terence Malick’s very different The Thin Red Line, about a campaign in the Battle of Guadalcanal in World War Two. Malick is at pains to show us both the animal life on the island and the life of aborigines native to the island. For them the war’s just a noisy and somewhat dangerous part of the weather. It’s there, they have to deal with it, but it is not intrinsic to their lives. Sooner or later these foreigners go.
And so it is with Markos, the mangas. The world of the bourgeoisie is not his world. He’d deliver groceries to them, slaughter their meat, sell them newspapers, even serve in the army while they’re fighting over who’s going to run Europe. But they’re not his people. They’re furniture, weather, the socio-cultural landscape in which he traveled his ‘roads,’ the dhromoi or scales and modes, on which the music is based.
It is on those roads that he was able to build a reasonably prosperous middle age. Not wealth, but he could support his family, and he became well-known and respected for his music. A man of existential substance, but also a haunted man.
* * * * *
In his own words (p. 1):
I am driven to tell the story of my life. I want to see it written and to read it from the beginning to end as if it were someone else’s. […] The kind lady who’s acting as my scribe says the first Christians used to confess their sings aloud and then everybody forgave them. That’s how they got if off their chests. But now the world’s a rotten place and I know plenty of people will think I should be ashamed to own up to the things I’m about to tell you. But I’ll find the courage and take no notice of those people. […] The wrongs I’ve suffered and the wrongs I’ve committed are the same.
Think about it. In the fullness of youth he was driven to make music. Now in the fullness of life he’s driven to tell his life’s story. Think about that. What does it mean to be driven? It’s a real question, but you need not answer it now.
And so, in the late 1960s he began to write down his life. That’s when Angeliki Vellou-Keil met him (xxv):
It gave him particular pleasure that we were from America and that in the few days we had in Greece we’d found time to come and see him. He fondly remembered his glory days when he was the great ‘Markos’ and the whole of America wanted to see him. ‘And yet they didn’t let me go and earn money with my bouzouki because my name had a black mark on it from the times when I used to get busted for smoking hashish.
He feared that censorship would keep his story from being pubished in Greece but hoped it could be published in America. And now it has been.
I learnt all these things bit by bit from the old guys in the tekedhes, because I had a great passion and my life was all bouzouki. Like I said, I sacrificed everything for the bouzouki. It took me over – but it also took me up in the world, way up.
Monday, March 28, 2016
Nostalgia is a Muse
by Jalees Rehman
"Let others praise ancient times. I am glad that I was born in these."
- Ovid in "Ars Amatoria"
When I struggle with scientist's block, I play 1980s music with the hope that the music will inspire me. This blast from the past often works for me. After listening to the songs, I can sometimes perceive patterns between our various pieces of cell biology and molecular biology data that had previously eluded me and design new biological experiments. But I have to admit that I have never performed the proper music control studies. Before attributing inspirational power to songs such as "99 Luftballons", "Bruttosozialprodukt" or "Billie Jean", I ought to spend equal time listening to music from other decades and then compare the impact of these listening sessions. I have always assumed that there is nothing intrinsically superior or inspirational about these songs, they simply evoke memories of my childhood. Eating comfort foods or seeing images of Munich and Lagos that remind me of my childhood also seem to work their muse magic.
My personal interpretation has been that indulging nostalgia somehow liberates us from everyday issues and worries – some trivial, some more burdensome - which in turn allows us to approach our world with a fresh, creative perspective. It is difficult to make such general sweeping statements based on my own anecdotal experiences and I have always felt a bit of apprehension about discussing this with others. My nostalgia makes me feel like an old fogey who is stuck in an ossified past. Nostalgia does not have a good reputation. The German expression "Früher war alles besser!" (Back then, everything used to be better!) is used in contemporary culture to mock those who always speak of the romanticized past with whimsical fondness. In fact, the expression nostalgia was coined in 1688 by the Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer. In his dissertation "Dissertatio Medica de Nostalgia oder Heimweh", Hofer used nostalgia as an equivalent of the German word Heimweh ("home-ache"), combining the Greek words nostos(homecoming) and algos (ache or pain), to describe a medical illness characterized by a "melancholy that originates from the desire to return to one's homeland". This view of nostalgia as an illness did not change much during the subsequent centuries where it was viewed as a neurological or psychiatric disorder.
This view has been challenged by the University of Southampton researchers Constantine Sedikides and Tim Wildschut, who have spent the past decade studying the benefits of nostalgia. Not only do they disavow its disease status, they have conducted numerous studies which suggest that nostalgia can make us more creative, open-minded and charitable. The definition of nostalgia used by Sedikides and Wildschut as a "sentimental longing for one's past" is based on the contemporary usage by laypersons across many cultures. This time-based definition of nostalgia also represents a departure from its original geographical or cultural coinage by Hofer who viewed it as a longing for the homeland and not one's personal past.
In one of their most recent experiments, Sedikides and Wildschut investigate nostalgia as a "mnemonic muse". The researchers first evoked nostalgic memories in participants with the following prompt:
"Please think of a nostalgic event in your life. Specifically, try to think of a past event that makes you feel most nostalgic. Bring this nostalgic experience to mind. Immerse yourself in the nostalgic experience. How does it make you feel?"
Importantly, each experiment also involved a control group of participants who were given a very different prompt:
"Please bring to mind an ordinary event in your life. Specifically, try to think of a past event that is ordinary. Bring this ordinary experience to mind. Immerse yourself in the ordinary experience. How does it make you feel?"
This allowed the researchers to compare whether specifically activating nostalgia had a distinct effect from merely activating a general memory.
After these interventions, participants in the nostalgia group and in the control group were asked to write a short story involving a princess, a cat and a race car. In an additional experiment, participants finished a story starting with the sentence: "One cold winter evening, a man and a woman were alarmed by a sound coming from a nearby house". After 30 minutes, of writing, the stories were collected and scored for the level of creativity by independent evaluators who had no knowledge of the experimental design or group that the participants belonged to. Participants who had experienced more nostalgia wrote more creative prose!
This is just one example of the dozens of studies conducted by Sedikides and Wildschut which show the benefits of nostalgia, such as providing inspiration, increasing trust towards outsiders and enhancing the willingness to donate to charities. What is the underlying mechanism for these benefits? Sedikides and Wildschut believe that our nostalgic memories provide a sense of belonging and support, which in turn helps our self-confidence and self-esteem. The comfort of our past gives us strength for our future.
Does this mean that this longing for the past is always a good thing? Not every form of nostalgia centers on personal childhood memories. For example, there is a form of ideological nostalgia expressed by groups who feel disenfranchised by the recent progress and long for days of former power and privilege. The South African sociologists van der Waal and Robbins recently described the popularity of a song about the Anglo-Boer waramong white Afrikaans-speakers in the post-Apartheid era which may have been rooted in a nostalgic affirmation of white Afrikaner identity. It is conceivable that similar forms of ideological nostalgia could be found in other cultures and states where privileged classes and races are losing ground to increased empowerment of the general population.
It is important that we distinguish between these two forms of nostalgia – personal childhood nostalgia and ideological group nostalgia – before "rehabilitating" nostalgia's reputation. The research by Sedikides and Wildschut clearly demonstrates that nostalgia can be a powerful tool to inspire us but we have to ensure that it is not misused as am ideological or political tool to manipulate us.
1. de Diego, F. F., & Ots, C. V. (2014). Nostalgia: a conceptual history. History of psychiatry, 25(4), 404-411.
2. Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2016). Past Forward: Nostalgia as a Motivational Force. Trends in cognitive sciences (published online Feb 18, 2016)
3. van Tilburg, W. A., Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2015). The mnemonic muse: Nostalgia fosters creativity through openness to experience.Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 59, 1-7.
4. Van der Waal, K., & Robins, S. (2011). ‘De la Rey'and the Revival of ‘Boer Heritage': Nostalgia in the Post-apartheid Afrikaner Culture Industry. Journal of Southern African Studies, 37(4), 763-779.
Monday, August 24, 2015
A White Blackman
The first time I heard the phrase – “white black man” – Zola Kobas was talking about me. He paid me that compliment after hearing me play the trumpet at a July 4th party hosted by a mutual friend, Ade Knowles. When, three-quarters of a life ago, I had originally become interested in jazz, I was simply pursuing music which moved me. That Zola, a political fugitive from South African apartheid, should see me as a white black man affirmed the African spirit, the joy, the freedom and dignity, I cultivated in the heart of jazz.
When I was a young boy learning to play the trumpet I looked for musical heroes. Rafael Mendez, a Mexican-American who made his living playing in Hollywood studios, was my first. I admired his virtuosity and expressiveness. I was particularly attracted by the Hispanic part of his repertoire, with its tone colors and rhythms which sounded so exotic, and sensual. Then I discovered jazz.
By William Gottlieb, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY, April 1947.
My first jazz record was A Rare Batch of Satch, which I had urged my parents to get through their record club. I had heard that this Louis Armstrong was an important trumpet player and thought I should check him out. At first I didn't quite understand why this man was so important. For one thing, this was an old recording and the sound quality was thin. I had to hear through that. For another, I’d never heard anything quite like it.
But I listened and listened and, gradually, I learned to hear Armstong’s music. There was his tone – by turns jubilant, plaintive, tightly-coiled, tender – his ability to bend notes, to worry them. And his rhythm, his amazing ability to stretch or compress time, to float phrases over the beat. This rhythmic freedom was quite unlike anything I knew in the military band music which was the staple of my instructional and playing experience, the latter mostly in middle school and high school marching and concert bands. It was exciting.
Above all, there was the blues. Its emotional provenance, grief, resignation, longing. The sound, the particular notes, those so-called “blue notes.” It wasn't until much later that I learned enough about music theory to know which notes these were, and to know that these notes didn't exist in any European musical system. But I could hear these notes, I could grasp their expressive power. I wanted to make them mine.
Fortunately I had found a trumpet teacher who was a jazz musician. Mr. David Dysert was more than willing to teach me the ways of this strange idiom. He taught me jazz rhythm and phrasing – “It don't mean a thing if it don't got that swing”. He also told me that it was almost impossible for musicians with a “legitimate” background to play with a jazz feel. The ways of swing had to be learned when you were young. That was when I first became consciously aware of the cultural distance between my immediate background and the music I loved. But my parents had no reservations about my love of jazz even if they didn’t share it.
But it wasn't until I went to college – to study philosophy – that I began seriously to think about these matters. That was in the late Sixties, with the civil rights and anti-war movements in high gear. I read about the African origins of jazz rhythm and tonality – on my own, not for any courses I was taking – about how the slaves were forbidden to play drums but that didn’t keep them from clapping their hands or from singing those “blue” notes, the tones they brought from Africa. Reading Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones), among others, I became aware of how American music in general was tremendously indebted to African-American music and, by implication, African music. I began to understand that when I moved toward jazz, as many other European Americans have done, I was moving toward Africa and away from Europe. Whatever American culture is, in general, in the musical arena it is largely a hybrid of European and African elements.
Late in my college career I joined a local jazz-rock band called the St. Matthew Passion. One particular arrangement began with the horns playing avant-garde free-for-all passionate noise for a short time. Then the rhythm section started the song proper, with a regular beat and melody. At our last gig the sax player and I were alone – the trombone player couldn't make it. We began as usual, and then, something snapped. All of a sudden there was just the music, flowing through me. Through us. And the light, the almost blinding white light. It was wonderful. And frightening. We pulled back. The rest of the band came in on cue. The sax player and I never really talked about what had happened – what could we say? could talk bring it back? – but, with a significant nod, a mumbled “that was nice,” we managed to convey to each other that something special had happened.
Perhaps a year or so later I went to hear Dizzy Gillespie play a concert at Morgan State ¬– then a state teacher's college, now a university. He played a long solo in “Olinga” and, as the solo began to end, I had a definite sense that, in some way, Dizzy was returning to himself, as though his soul had left his body during the solo and now was returning – from a spiritual Africa, everywhere present, and available, to those who listen but do not seek the present in the future/past. While it is almost impossible to describe this event – perhaps because I must do so in the language of a culture which tries very hard to deny that such things happen, and are important – my sense of it is quite definite. To this day I believe that, if I saw a film of Dizzy playing this solo, I could indicate the precise moment when his soul rejoined his body.
Strange, and moving, as these experiences were, they were yet not unexpected. A child of the Sixties, I had read about ecstasies, about mystical experience, about “altered states of consciousness,” as the psychologists called them. But even before that, when I was first studying the trumpet, I had read Jean-Baptiste Arban's assertion that “There are other things of so elevated and subtle a nature that neither speech nor writing can clearly explain them. They are felt, they are conceived, but they are not to be explained.” That statement is from Arban's Grande méthode complète pour cornet à pistons et de saxhorn, a standard pedagogical text which has come down to us from Nineteenth Century France and which I knew as Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet.
The Nineteenth Century in which Arban wrote the book on the trumpet was the same century which saw the United States of America fight its bloodiest war, a Civil War growing from the cruel injustice of slavery. Those enslaved Africans survived to become free men and women in part through the strength of their religion, a vigorous religion in which an African spirit wore European Christian dress. When, back in college, I read that jazz – and the music of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, the late B. B. King, the Beale Street Blues Boy hisownbadself, and many others – springs from the African-American church, I was astounded. This vibrant, expressive, funky music was unlike anything I had ever heard in church. In my church people had given me puzzled looks when I sang with too much enthusiasm and improvised variations on the hymns.
It was only in late 1980s that I heard this church music live, and it was not even in a church that I heard it. It was in a concert setting on a Sunday afternoon in Albany, New York. First a local ensemble performed, the Wilborn Temple Ensemble. Then the Morgan State University Choir. Spirits were high. People in the audience shouted encouragement to the singers – “I hear you,” "take it slow girl.” Many clapped rhythmically and many were unable to remain seated. The joy and the love were infectious. I clapped, and cried, and felt renewed. This was home.
And then it was over. I returned to my apartment and reflected back on the afternoon. The music was what I had expected it to be. While it wasn’t a church service, the enthusiasm and passion of musicians and audience was what I had expected from all the descriptions I had read. I felt that, if I could have this experience every week, it might be worthwhile to attend a church where this music is sung. But I realized that, for me, it wouldn't work. Most, probably all, of the musicians I had heard that afternoon, and most of the audience, believed the religious doctrine in that music. I do not.
For me, the spirit must live in the world I can see, and hear, and taste, and smell, and share, with others. And work with them to make the world a better one, for us, for our children, and the nieces and nephews of their great-grandchildren. The human spirit was born on the savannas of Africa. It survived slavery, triumphantly so. We must not allow it to die in the ghettos of the Twenty-First Century.
That Zola Kobas saw me as a white black man is a good thing; just as it was a good thing that Ade had a party where Zola and I could meet. But it is not a good thing that we live in a world where such a good things seem remarkable. I would be happy to live in a world where racism is but a distant memory and so would Zola and Ade. That is not our world, not yet. And so we must acknowledge that I am white, they black, and work against the conditions which force that acknowledgment from us. To be a white black man is a good thing. It would be better to be just a man.
* * * * *
I first published this over a decade and a half ago on a long-gone personal website and then on a now-dormant site called Gravity. I’ve made a few slight changes in this version.
Monday, May 25, 2015
On the Sight of Sound
"I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas.
I'm frightened of the old ones."
~ John Cage
Not long after moving to New York around 2000, I picked up an odd little side gig, as a gallery sitter at a space called Engine 27. Taking its name from the decommissioned TriBeCa firehouse which housed it, Engine 27 wasn't your usual art gallery, but rather one that focused exclusively on sound art. It achieved this by meticulously renovating the ground floor of the firehouse into a nearly perfect acoustic environment. Floors, walls and ceilings were treated with rugs and acoustic paneling. Speakers were strategically situated throughout the roughly 2000 square feet; they could be found lurking in corners, or hanging from the ceiling. If you weren't careful you might stub your toe against a subwoofer squatting on a seemingly random patch of floor. Pretty much anything that wasn't already black was painted so, and the lights were kept low. Feeding all the speakers was a basement full of amplifiers, computers and other hardware. It was, to put it mildly, a sound nerd's paradise.
Engine 27 was the brainchild of Jack Weisberg, a self-taught sound engineer who earned his nut innovating approaches to both arena-scale sound and smaller, more high-brow projects. As an example of the latter, he worked with artist-composer Max Neuhaus on the 1978 MoMA iteration of his "Underground" project, which projected sound into the Sculpture Garden from beneath a ventilation shaft. (Neuhaus' Times Square version, sponsored by the Dia Foundation, ran from 1977 to 1992, then was reincarnated ten years later, but, befitting the fragility of sound, is currently ‘temporarily unavailable due to construction'.) Jack was a curmudgeonly fellow and used to getting things done his way. This is perhaps why Engine 27 became an extraordinary space for practicing what some people call "deep listening", which for me is just a tacit admission that we don't listen very closely to much of anything anymore.
Part of what makes good sound art so fascinating is exactly this prerequisite. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic here, though, since our culture, and especially what we consider to be ‘art', is so biased towards the visual. And for the purposes of the current argument – ie, I am sidestepping the question of what differentiates sound from music – the visual bias provides us with the dispensation of a quick scan. The people who speed-walk their way through an art museum will later on assert how great the museum was. They may even have the selfie to prove it. In some minimal way, they would be correct to say that they saw the art, but this is no different from saying that you "saw the grass" while driving down the freeway at 80mph. In this manner a viewer is entirely justified in dismissing an Ad Reinhardt painting as ‘just black' (although ‘none more black' might be more accurate). What else could he or she do, without spending the time needed to let the painting actually unfold before one's eyes, as was Reinhardt's intention?
Sound art does not really allow for this kind of aesthetic speed-dating. Nor can it rely on the conventions of concert-going, hence one indication as to how ‘sound' differs from ‘music'. A deep and complex installation, like the kind that Engine 27 sought to encourage, requires time and attention. It also requires movement, which is what one would expect when a work is spread over such a large space. One example was "Drift", a 2002 gamelan-inspired piece created by Christopher J. Miller, which explicitly leveraged the potential of Engine 27's 16-channel system. Some listeners would stroll around the space, while others would root themselves to a single spot. As the sampled swirls of Javanese gamelan – timbrally far less metallic and abrasive than the better-known Balinese counterpart – waft across the space, the immersive qualities of the piece began to make themselves felt. But in order for this environment to be successful, a certain modicum of patience is required from the listener, and a willingness to submit to experiences that, unlike the visual, may not have easy verbal, let alone visual, equivalents.
The ephemerality of sound art is also disadvantageous when it collides with the established tropes of the art world. Consider for example the time-honored Art Opening. Let's be honest and admit that no one goes to an opening to see the art. You go for the free booze and the mystery cheese cubes. Maybe you know the artist, or know someone who knows the artist. Of course, one hopes that the artist will be there, along with others – gallerists, collectors – who actually have some skin in the game, but they are generally difficult to recognize without a good deal of insider knowledge. If you do possess that knowledge, chances are that you are the one looking askance at the hoi-polloi rushing the bar.
Nevertheless, it is still possible to see the art at an art opening. It may be noisy, but the act of looking isn't generally impeded (unless the bar stays open too long). Not so for sound art. Without the explicitly visual cues of things-hanging-on-walls, you may not even realize you are at an opening; you may rightly ask yourself, Who are all these strangers having drinks in an overlit space? I had this experience recently when I went to the opening of David Tudor's "Rainforest V". Now, I should note that Tudor, a giant of 20th-century avant-garde performance and composition, passed away in 1996. But "Rainforest" stretches back to a 1968 Merce Cunningham commission; the fifth incarnation of the installation was realized by the collective Composers Inside Electronics.
Rainforest V is a complex installation that, according to one of the collective's members, takes "a simple idea of feedback and modulation that gives rise to monumental structure – the crafting of howls into symphonies. The act of folding input to output gives rise to expansive new worlds." This is obviously a somewhat grand claim, and illustrates the difficulty in translating sound art into description. Would a person reconcile these words with the experience of the installation? In more mundane, physical terms, a bevy of suspended objects are connected to one another and to a central computer that issues acoustic impulses, which are amplified via the resonant properties of those objects by means of attached vibrating units. Furthermore, these objects interact with one another through a deliberately inscrutable set of feedback loops. Despite the fact that the gallery provided us with stethoscopes so that we might engage in some close listening, the noise of the opening crowd rendered the entire installation as more sculptural than anything else.
"Displaying" sound art is problematic even without the crowds. An obvious advantage of visual art is the ability to cram many different pieces into close quarters, whereas the acoustic monopoly created by sound implies, at the very least, an uneasy co-existence of works, and at the very worst, an unmanageable cacophony. Anyone who has been to the end-of-semester show put on by students of New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program has had this experience. While not strictly sound art, many of the works have audio components, and these works, and the students explaining them, are jammed into a few rooms with little regard for the space that these works require. It's the unholy love-child of a thesis show and a trade fair, and is just as exhausting as it sounds.
The more general concern is how to make sound art a part of the art world mainstream. If sound art is to be regarded as more than just the eccentric step-sister of the visual and plastic arts, certain conditions must be met. In the first place, we need artists! But artists don't just spontaneously generate. It is true that the indefatigable efforts of people like Douglas Repetto have led to the creation of the Sound Arts MFA program at Columbia University, but more is needed. There must be a critical mass of gallerists willing to promote these artists and their works. As David Krasnow wrote about Engine 27 in the Village Voice:
Showcasing electronic and electroacoustic music as the last bastion of experimentalist formalism is some pretty high art, and its timing couldn't be better. Big sellers this year were Caipirinha's Early Modulations and Ellipsis Arts' Ohm, both compilations of electronic-music classics—which means there are electronic-music classics. And classics need institutions. Difficult Music meets scrappy DIY art space: a heartwarming tale of Old Tribeca.
On the other end of the feedback loop, there must be a sense among buyers that these works are in fact collectible, and that it is desirous to do so. I don't really know what this means, since ‘displaying' sound art at home retains the same problematics as doing so in a gallery. Nevertheless, given the ongoing, extraordinary bubble in the art market, there will almost never be a better time to strike. Finally, museums and other institutions need to grant their own imprimatur via well-curated retrospectives and group shows. In 2013, MoMA took a step in this direction, but unfortunately wound up creating a case study in how not to curate sound art, or for that matter, anything else. As a last resort, having a rock-star artist who almost single-handedly establishes the genre's credibility might do the job, but I'm afraid sound art still awaits its Bill Viola.
Setting aside these vexing questions, what would a compelling work of sound art look like today? I had a chance to experience one at the beginning of 2014 when I chanced across an installation entitled "The Sea Is A Big Green Lens". Installed at Studio 10 in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, brothers Douglas and David Henderson respectively divided the auditory and sculptural labors to create a magnificent environment. Inspired by the Paul Celan poem "Whitesounds", the installation asks what a message in a bottle can convey, if it were told from the point of view of the bottle itself.
The principal physical form of the installation is lenticular, but this shape is actually negative space. These contours are implied by the presence of several dozen ‘stems' of varying length, which look like golf tees that have been connected at the sharp ends. Half are rooted to the floor, while the other half are suspended from the ceiling. To add to the dynamism of the work, the stems are not vertical in relation to the room, but lean in one direction, as if they were being nudged by an ocean current. For its part, the negative lenticular space is also at an angle, further increasing the sense of motion. (Or, if that description didn't make any sense, just watch this video.)
Built into a dozen of these stems are speakers, which project Douglas Henderson's carefully composed soundtrack. Consisting of hundreds of maritime-themed samples that were recorded around the world, the piece ranges from incredibly detailed recordings of water splashing gently at close quarters, to the massively reverberant noises of a car ferry being unloaded after landing on a Greek Island. The recordings are pristine, and reproduced with exceptional clarity. The continuity of the fifteen-minute loop is seamless, and manages to be simultaneously abstract and perfectly logical (you can listen to an excerpt here). But the most compelling aspect of the piece is the deep integration between the physical forms and the sounds. As a listener drifts through the installation, there is the unmistakeable feeling of being drawn into a kelp forest. Time itself seems to slow and the rhythm and flow of the sound infuses itself into that of the physical objects, and vice versa. Despite the fact that the gallery's floor-to-ceiling windows flood the space with natural light, one soon acquires a distinct sense of being elsewhere. It is an achievement of great beauty, executed with craftsmanship, restraint and impeccable instinct.
It is works like "The Sea Is A Big Green Lens" that give me great hope for the future of sound art, simply because it succeeds in not being self-consciously about sound art. There is no hipster irony of obsolete technology that has been smirkingly repurposed. Nor is it tempted into attention-seeking by bludgeoning the listener with the abrasive potential that sound offers. While you can look away from an ugly painting, it's more difficult to look away from an ugly sound; also, the latter is infinitey more irritating. In the Hendersons' work, the medium melts away, privileging the experience itself. Like so much else, sound art will have found its stride when this experience merits placement alongside other mediums, in the same way that visitors to the new Whitney Museum can see painting, sculpture and video all in the same room, and not think anything of it. But there is still a long way to go.
Monday, August 18, 2014
Paul's Boutique: An Appreciation
"If you explain to a musician he'll tell that
he knows it but he just can't do it"
~ Bob Marley
It's hard to imagine that the Beastie Boys released "Paul's Boutique" around this time, 25 years ago. Even more astonishing is the fact that I recently had two separate conversations with members of the so-called Millennial Generation, which resulted in the extraordinary discovery that neither person had even heard of "Paul's Boutique." Now this may make me sound like an ornery codger complaining about how the young folk of today are illiterate because they have never heard of (insert name of your own pet artist). But taken together, these two events require me to submit a modest contribution to keeping the general awareness of "Paul's Boutique" alive and well.
What makes "Paul's Boutique" so extraordinary and enduring? The sophomoric effort by the brash NYC trio debuted in 1989, and was the much-anticipated follow-up to "License To Ill." But instead of a new set of frat party anthems along the lines of "Fight For Your Right (To Party)," listeners were treated to a continuous magic carpet woven out of a kaleidoscope of samples. Romping over this dense, schizophrenic bricolage, MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D traded lightning-quick call-and-response rhymes that embraced the usual MC braggadocio but at the same time drew on a vast range of sources and styles. The effect, to this day, is a delirious sort of aural whiplash.
No one is clear on how many songs were actually sampled, although the number is certainly well over a hundred. The exegesis of both samples and lyrical references is a time-honored tradition, too. Around 1995, one of the first sites that ever made me think the World Wide Web might be a good idea was (and continues to be) the Paul's Boutique Samples and References List. When studied, Torah-like, alongside the Beastie Boys Annotated Lyrics and the record itself, one begins to appreciate the catholic taste of both the rappers and their producers, the inimitable Dust Brothers, who would go on to provide much of the genius behind Beck's seminal "Odelay" album a few years later.
A few examples from the lyrics and the music should serve to illustrate this diversity. Who would think that when the petty grifter protagonist of "High Plains Drifter" is arrested and "thrown into a cell/With a drunk called Otis" that the reference is to Otis, the town drunk on the "Andy Griffith Show"? And how can combining Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin and the jazz stylings of Gene Harris to create the groove for "What Comes Around" be anything but reckless? How about referencing Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone school of composition ("Only twelve notes a man can play"), or mashing together no less than four Beatles songs to create a new one ("Sound of Science")? And for those who grew up in the New York area around that time, it is a treasure trove of nostalgia, for example with the boasts that they've "got more louie than Phil Rizzuto" and "got more suits than Jacoby & Meyers" (remember those infomercials about home loans and divorce lawyers?).
What's remarkable about this is not just the variety, but also the insistent lack of purpose. There is no conceit that really unifies the album. In contrast, consider De La Soul's "3 Feet High And Rising" – released a few months before "Paul's Boutique" – which carried a similar density of both pop culture lyrical references and sample-heavy textures. But "3 Feet High And Rising" was arguably the first hip-hop album to use a skit (in this case, a game show) to create a framework around which the rest of the album was structured, and despite its own diversity of sampled sources there was a genteel, accessible flow to the entire record.
On the other hand, "Paul's Boutique" exhibits a merry sort of disregard for the expectations of its listeners, with jarring shifts in mood and timing – for example, a jokey, extended banjo sample lifted from the movie "Deliverance" is decisively crushed by a subsequent combination of samples from Mountain and Pink Floyd, forming the introduction to "Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun." There is no transition whatsoever to ease the listener, like a record scratch, a door closing or any such sonic signifier. At the same time the transition is also utterly devoid of artifice; its suddenness forces us to reconsider our intention as listeners. Am I supposed to be chortling, or gravely nodding my head? The heaviness of the groove is initially supported by rhymes of equally heavy subject matter – and then completely undermined when we are informed that the protagonist is
On a mission
A stolen car mission
Had a small problem
With the transmission
Essentially, "Paul's Boutique" is 54 minutes' worth of exactly this sort of unbridled, priceless anarchy. There is a peerless sense of play in action here. The first time you listen to the album, you will probably catch about 10% of it. And 25 years later, I'm thoroughly pleased that I'm still picking up new details.
The surprising bit about "Paul's Boutique" is that as it has aged, it has only gained in stature, and, if I may say so, grace. But it didn't start off that way. Capitol Records had committed over a million dollars and eighteen months in top-shelf studios only to see its investment bear little initial fruit, both in terms of critical and listener reception. Soon enough, Capitol's executives were keener to promote a new Donny Osmond record. As a result, there was little promotion and no tour in support of the record (although the record release party footage is pretty entertaining, with skywriting, flag-raising, a Dixieland band and plenty of b-boy banter, starting at 15:34). And yet, ten years later, the album had gone double platinum; by 2003, a Rolling Stone survey of the 500 greatest albums had ranked it at number 156.
In hindsight, it's clear that "Paul's Boutique" happened to drop at the midpoint of what has since become known as ‘golden age of hip-hop.' Every genre experiences a period when it is essentially being innovated into existence, and every release has an outsized impact on the pathways of its future evolution. It's something akin to the Cambrian Explosion, where life burst forth in thoroughly unexpected and variegated ways. In hip-hop, this period lasted approximately from 1987-1993. Indeed, both "3 Feet High And Rising" and "Paul's Boutique" have been crowned the "Sgt Pepper of rap," but there were many, many other examples, including Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Gang Starr and more.
But all golden ages must come to an end, and a strong candidate for hip-hop's Ragnarok was the 1991 lawsuit, Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., which poured cold water over sampling practices in hip hop (Biz Markie was the defendant in this case). Even prior to that decision, De La Soul had been sued by The Turtles in 1989, and settled out of court for a reported $1.7 million. In contrast, and perhaps due to the alacrity of Capitol's lawyers, all the samples on "Paul's Boutique" were cleared for about $250,000, a sum that would be considered laughably trivial today. But in 1989 it was still unclear whether hip-hop had any staying power. Once it became evident that the money machine was just getting started, the limitless creativity that the sampling revolution had inspired became an obvious target for litigation.
In fact, to this day De La Soul has not been able to clear all the samples on "3 Feet High And Rising" in order to allow online sales to go forward on iTunes, et al. Last February, as an act of defiance, and in commemoration of their own 25th anniversary, the group resorted to giving away its entire catalog for a period of 24 hours. (For a fascinating overview of the vibrant state of remix culture and the dispiritingly overwhelming forces arrayed against it, please devote 30 minutes to watch Andy Baio relate his own experience in the matter.)
However, litigation is not the only factor ensuring the essential unrepeatability of "Paul's Boutique." Consider that 1989 was at the threshold of the digital era. Digital samplers existed but were very expensive and could only store minimal snippets of sound. All editing was still done on tape, using X-Acto blades and Scotch tape. So one must concede that, as madcap as the record may sound today, this was done with great intentionality and care. It's instructive to contrast this with the mashup artists of today. Thanks to digital editing and the ease with which producers can time-stretch samples and edit their placement in a mix (virtually on the fly) there would seem to be no limits, and mashup culture has indeed seen a thousand flowers bloom. But I'm not the first to maintain that rules, restrictions and boundaries can have a salutary effect on creativity, whether these constraints are imposed on us by our equipment, source material, or anything else. In particular, the limitations created by equipment in the early period of hip-hop and electronic music in general led artists to push their kit to the edge, and sometimes past it. The net result is the naissance of a genre, bursting with possibility.
As an example, a current producer who is exceptionally popular is Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk. Gillis has developed an aggressive, party-oriented sound that mixes rap a capella vocals with pop, rock and even heavy metal backing tracks (check out a recent effort, "All Day"). Given the preceding discussion, this sounds promising. On the surface, Gillis's work follows much of the "Paul's Boutique" playbook: a refined sound with lots of twists and turns, unexpected juxtapositions and an encyclopedic mastery of several genres. And from a technical point of view, Gillis's work is very, very smooth. But I am disappointed. Perhaps it is because the vocals are taken from hip-hop well past its aforementioned golden age; the subjects are weary and familiar (partying, materialism, narcissism, etc). But there is also, for lack of a better term, a relentless homogeneity in his work. No matter how well the samples fit together, that's the extent of it – and this is something that is true for most mashups in general. A good example is found on the irreplaceable Who Sampled website: Gillis sampling, among other things, "Hey Ladies," the first single from "Paul's Boutique." Here Gillis takes the Beastie Boys' vocals and jams them on top of the Misfits' "Lust For Life." To me, the result is jump-up-and-down party music, whereas the original "Hey Ladies" has a languid, funky feeling that takes its time but nevertheless delivers just as much, if not more, sampling variation. Simply put, the music breathes better. (I should also add that Gillis has not been sued to bits by this point, a fact that is utterly mystifying to me; but good for him.)
Others have approached the opportunity of "Paul's Boutique" completely differently. In 2012, DJ Cheeba, DJ Moneyshot, and DJ Food collaborated on a remix of the album, and released "Caught in the Middle of a Three-Way Mix," constructed entirely out of the original songs that were sampled. But these three DJs, themselves masters of the medium, have achieved something really remarkable. The closest analogy I can come up with is when scientists take anX-ray of a masterpiece of painting, revealing the layers that exist beneath what has been familiar to us for so long. The result is a sort of aural palimpsest, and it is exhilarating. In a sense, we are provided a glimpse of the process that brought "Paul's Boutique" to fruition, and we can appreciate anew all the work that went into cherry-picking only the most relevant moments from a galaxy of existing work.
Perhaps for the best, the Beastie Boys never tried to match the dense style of "Paul's Boutique." Their next effort, "Check Your Head," saw them move away from collaboration with the Dust Brothers and towards a more homegrown approach. The sample-driven paradigm yielded to a vastly stripped down approach, with the trio playing instruments on the vast bulk of the record. But "Paul's Boutique" remains unequalled, and it's with an almost giddy anticipation – and perhaps even a sense of privilege – that I'll be introducing a few young folks to its joyous meanderings. Gather 'round, children.
Monday, June 23, 2014
A Far-Reaching Liquidation
"For the last twenty years neither matter
nor space nor time has been what it was."
~ Paul Valéry, 1931
Ever since Napster tore through the music industry like an Ebola outbreak, there has followed a ceaseless hand-wringing about the ever-decreasing "value" of music. Chart-busting hits have been replaced by body blows to an industry that was once fat and happy. From Napster's peer-to-peer networking model to the current ascendancy of streaming services, the big labels have seen their fortunes scrambled and re-scrambled by the onrushing and ever-changing technological landscape. This is further complicated by the fact that young people are its most desired demographic, but are also the most ardent adopters of said inconvenient technologies. It's easy to say that there is no going back – and there isn't – but how can artists respond to this seemingly unstoppable race to the bottom, now that the link between a work of music, and the physical artifact that is its vehicle, has been permanently sundered?
Earlier this spring, we received a candidate answer from the venerable hip hop outfit Wu-Tang Clan. The Wu-Tang have been secretly recording a new double album for several years, an event that would commonly be greeted with much rejoicing by their legions of fans. However, the zinger is that only one copy of the album will be made, destined to be sold to the highest bidder. Even more interesting is the fact that, prior to the auction, the record will tour "festivals, museums, exhibition spaces and galleries for the public as a one off [sic] experience." (Imagine the stringency of the security that will be required to keep this particular cat in its bag; I am already anticipating the Twittersphere lighting up in outrage as museum staff shine flashlights into people's ear canals, conduct full body cavity searches, and generally out-TSA the TSA.)
Of course, such acts of conceptual brazenness are usually (and usually regrettably) accompanied by a manifesto, and Wu-Tang does not disappoint...
...although they seem to prefer the term "edictum":
Is exclusivity versus mass replication really the 50 million dollar difference between a microphone and a paintbrush? Is contemporary art overvalued in an exclusive market, or are musicians undervalued in a profoundly saturated market? By adopting a 400 year old Renaissance-style approach to music, offering it as a commissioned commodity and allowing it to take a similar trajectory from creation to exhibition to sale, as any other contemporary art piece, we hope to inspire and intensify urgent debates about the future of music. We hope to steer those debates toward more radical solutions and provoke questions about the value and perception of music as a work of art in today's world.
Now, the Wu-Tang boys bring up a real issue here. It's not hard for musicians to look at the contemporary art world, with its bloated traffic in fetishized objects that seem to spring, fully formed, from an inexhaustible well of cynicism, and wonder what wrong turns their own art form has taken. The concept itself has a very appealing simplicity to it as well: it is the re-attachment of the content to its vehicle. And what a pretty vehicle it is, too. But what kind of a "radical solution" is this? Because once the auction goes through, whoever buys owns all the rights to the music. They can distribute the album or simply squirrel it away for personal listening pleasure. They can bury it in their backyard, or douse it with gasoline and torch it. They can be as democratic or as perverse about it as they may feel inclined.
However, my disquiet runs even deeper than that. From the "conceptus" (!) page of the album's site, we read that
…a new approach is introduced, one where the pride and joy of sharing music with the masses is sacrificed for the benefit of reviving music as a valuable art and inspiring debate about its future among musicians, fans and the industry that drives it. Simultaneously, it launches the private music branch as a new luxury business model for those able to commission musicians to create songs or albums for private collections. It is a fascinating melting pot of art, luxury, revolution and inspiration. It's welcoming people to an old world.
This nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone of noblesse oblige makes me think that the author intended for this copy to end up on the Financial Times' How To Spend It, a sort of Whole Earth Catalog for the One Percent. While I value the provocative nature of Wu-Tang's act, I wish that they had stopped there. But by dressing up an old patronage system in new clothes, they are pointing to a cul-de-sac in the conversation. This has nothing to do with the radical opening of possibilities. It is merely about the enshrinement of exclusivity. It also grates against the intrinsic ephemerality that is the very nature of music. Even if I possess the only extant recording of a certain piece of music, I still cannot "consume" it just by looking at the recording. I have to play it, and once I have played it, that moment is gone. This is the deep appeal of streaming services. But the Wu-Tang Clan has conjured up the most radical opposite imaginable. Is it still music if it's never played? Or if there's no one around to hear it?
(There is another, greater irony here. Hip hop was once the voice of the urban voiceless in this country, and despite its commoditization here, it has gone on to fulfill this role in many others. Has hip hop reached yet another apotheosis on the way to perfecting its self-worship?)
I cribbed the title of this post (as well as the Valéry quote) from Walter Benjamin's seminal 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Anyone who has read (or who vaguely remembers reading) this essay would consider it the go-to critique for this sort of discussion. But Benjamin is mostly concerned with film and does not in fact mention music at all. It is also further problematic because Benjamin regards art as a point of contention between fascism and socialism – that the only possible response to the state gaining control of the reproduction of art is its politicization. The Wu-Tang stunt fits neither category. Instead, it's just another signpost along the way to the reductio ad nihilum of our late capitalist fantasyland.
However, there is another, more generous provocation that was offered by Beck in 2012. Beck, conjunction with McSweeney's, released a new album, except he didn't record a single note. Instead, he released 20 songs as sheet music, and invited everyone to create their own interpretation. You can view the results at Song Reader, the site set up to collect all these contributions. This may seem precious and retro, the kind of winking irony that would be at home in a snooty Williamsburg coffee shop. But this gesture is not dissimilar to the kind of "instruction art" that was refined by John Cage and Sol LeWitt, where the fundamental idea is that people can – and should – create the work for themselves.
Of course, prior to the advent of radio and 78s, sheet music was the primary vehicle by which music was distributed and popularized, and as such formed a significant part of the connective tissue of a society's culture. In her article "Before the Deluge: The Technoculture of Song-Sheet Publishing Viewed from Late Nineteenth-Century Galveston" author Leslie Gay notes that "communication technologies like song sheets are implicated within the myriad ways we build social relations, make exchanges and create meaning". There is something very important here: the idea of being a mere consumer is discarded. It is quite simply impossible. As a score, music only exists in its potential form. The musician is the vehicle. Put another way, the siting of "value" has shifted from the monetary expectation of the producer, to the experience of the participants.
Take as an example Russia in the 19th century, where orchestras would go on long tours. People in the town would know not only when the orchestra would come to town, but what it would be playing, sometimes months in advance. So households would procure piano reductions and work through the scores in anticipation of the big night. One can only imagine the intimacy with which the listeners were able to "consume" the music, having played through and argued over many of each work's nuances. In this way, the act of consumption was in fact replaced by an act of consummation.
Similarly, what makes the Song Reader project really groundbreaking is its expectations. In order to engage the work, you have to know how to read music. And I mean really read music – there are no guitar tabs here. There is something fascinatingly paradoxical about this. On the one hand, the fact that there is no authoritative recording – so far Beck has yet to put out a disc of his own interpretations – implies a vast artistic freedom. On the other, that world is only open to those who have a sufficient degree of a very specific kind of literacy (one that, nevertheless, was much more common a century ago than it is now). What Beck offers us is an invitation to engage deeply with the world around us, whether it is in the form of the text of the score, the playing of our fellow musicians, or the interpretations created by others. Having worked through this text ourselves, we are in a much subtler place, one that can appreciate why certain decisions may have been made or ignored. We have created a foundation for critique, and for pleasure.
The other, even more important implication in Beck's act is one of trust. Consider the courage that an artist must have in order to issue his art in the form of instructions. I'm pretty certain that Beck knows exactly how he thinks his songs should sound. I don't know if he thinks that he is more qualified than anyone else to interpret them. I know that if they were my songs, I would think that way. But by only giving the instructions, Beck is saying that this latter concern really isn't relevant. He is essentially saying "I trust you" to his fans. There is an empathetic generosity that is really rather astonishing. And what is given back to him is a richness of interpretation that will doubtless have an impact on the way he views his own composing.
This rhizomatic conception stands in stark contrast with the idea of a final object that is perfect, authoritative and unique, as is personified by the Wu-Tang Clan's gesture. The rhizome is resilient and unpredictable, whereas the unique object is non-negotiable and brittle. On account of its uniqueness, the object's ownership has real consequences, whereas the ownership of a score of music is of much less relevance to the purpose of that score's existence.
For its part, technology is always telling us that it will catalyze society into new, more effective forms of social organization. It does not necessarily ask what society is doing already, and what the value of that activity might be. Simultaneously, technology oftentimes devalues our own participation in society and especially culture by ensuring that that participation has less at stake. We are assured that we no longer need to read music in order to pretend to understand it; it only matters that we possess it.
Thus, in a final twist that emphasizes the poverty of choices with which technology eventually presents us, two Wu-Tang fans became determined to ensure the album's dissemination. This took the unsurprising form of a Kickstarter campaign. Since there was a rumored $5 million offering price for the album, the job of finding enough consumers committed to an altruistic redistribution was a daunting one. Indeed, by the time the fundraising window closed, the project had only raised $15,400. Maybe Wu-Tang's fans should have asked for a score instead.
Monday, May 12, 2014
When are you past your prime?
by Emrys Westacott
Recently I had a discussion with a couple of old friends–all of us middle-aged guys–about when one's powers start to decline. God only knows why this topic came up, but it seems to have become a hardy perennial of late. My friends argued that in just about all areas, physical and mental, we basically peak in our twenties, and by the time we turn forty we're clearly on the rocky road to decrepitude.
I disagreed. I concede immediately that this is true of most, perhaps all, physical abilities: speed, strength, stamina, agility, hearing, eyesight, the ability to recover from injury, and so on. The decline after forty may be slight and slow, but it's a universal phenomenon. Of course, we can become fitter through exercise and the eschewing of bad habits, but any improvement here is made possible by our being out of shape in the first place.
What about mental abilities? Again, it's pretty obvious that some of these typically decline after forty: memory, processing speed, the ability to think laterally, perhaps. Here too, the decline may be very gradual, but these capacities clearly do not seem to improve in middle age. Still, I think my friends focus too much on certain kinds of ability and generalize too readily from these across the rest of what we do with our minds. More specifically, I suspect they view the cognitive capabilities that figure prominently in and are especially associated with mathematics and science as somehow the core of thinking in general. Because of this, and because these capacities are more abstract and can be exercised before a person has acquired a great deal of experience or knowledge, certain abilities have come to be identified with sharpness as such, and one's performance at tasks involving quick mental agility or analytic problem solving is taken as a measure of one's raw intellectual horsepower.
A belief in pure abiity, disentangled from experiential knowledge, underlies notions like IQ. It has had a rather inglorious history, and it has been used at times to justify a distribution of educational resources favouring those who are already advantaged. Today it continues to interest those who prefer to see any assessments or evaluations expressed quantitatively wherever possible–-a preference that also reflects the current cultural hegemony of science. Yet what matters to us, really, shouldn't be abilities in the abstract--how quickly we can calculate, or how successfully we can recall information—but what we actually do with these or any other abilities we possess. Is there any reason to suppose that we make better use of what we've got before we're forty?
The prevailing view has long been that in the sciences people do their most important, original and creative work early. Einstein reportedly said that "a person who has not made his great contribution to science by the age of thirty will never do so." But he would say that, wouldn't he? After all, he worked out the theory of special relativity when he was twenty-six. But Einstein was perhaps generalizing hastily from his own case. A recent study entitled "Age and Scientific Genius," published by the National Bureau of Economic Research casts doubt on the prevailing view. After reviewing an extensive literature on the topic, the authors conclude:
In contrast to common perceptions, most great scientific contributions are not the product of precocious youngsters but rather come disproportionately in middle age. Moreover, perceptions that some fields, such as physics, feature systematically younger contributions than others do not stand up to empirical scrutiny.
Interestingly, the average age at which scientists produce their most important work is now several years older than it was in the early twentieth century when Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and co. were revolutionizing physics. One possible explanation of this is that at that time, because of the great paradigm shifts that had just taken place, young scientists didn't have to spend so much time learning about earlier theories that had been superseded. Today, however, the "burden of knowledge" that has to be assumed before one can expect to make an original contribution is greater.
But my main objection to my friends' claims about cognitive decline is not that they are wrong about the abilities central to scientific thinking, even if they are unduly pessimistic. After all, honesty obliges me to note that the same study of age and scientific genius cited above also makes this observation:
one of the salient features of Nobel Prize winners and great technological innovators over the 20th century is that, while contributions at young ages have become increasingly rare, the rate of decline in innovation potential later in life remains steep.
Sobering stuff if one happens to be, as the French say, d'un certain âge. No, in my view, the strongest objection to the claim that our mental powers peak in our twenties, or even in our thirties, is that in fields like literature, musical composition, and the visual arts, so many masterpieces are produced by people who are well past forty.
Now, as a philosopher I don't usually like to dirty my hands by doing empirical research, but in this case data is undeniably relevant. It's also interesting in its own right. Let's start with the visual arts. Since I don't claim any sort of expertise here, I took a shortcut andused as my representative sample the ten works that Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones considers "the greatest works of art ever." In two cases, the Chauvet cave paintings and the Parthenon sculptures, we can't say how old the artist was. But here are the other eight works, with the age of the artist when the work was completed given in brackets.
· Leonardo da Vinci, The Foetus in the Womb (c 58-61)
· Rembrandt, Self-Portrait with Two Circles (c 59-63)
· Jackson Pollock, One: Num ber 31 (38)
· Velázquez, Las Meninas (c 58)
· Picasso, Guernica (55)
· Michaelangelo (c 44-57)
· Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire (painted 1902-4) (63-65)
Only two of these works were produced by artists under forty. And if Caravaggio and Pollack didn't produce too many more masterpieces after the one's mentioned here it wasn't necessarily due to declining powers: Caravaggio died at thirty-nine, Pollack at forty-four.
How about classical composers? Here, I didn't find a convenient list of "ten greatest compositions ever," so I simply made my own list of ten celebrated works by composers who had lived well beyond forty (which excludes the likes of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Chopin) and would figure high up on anyone's list of "greatest classical composers." The selection isn't random; it's made with a point to prove in mind. But I think it does that rather effectively since there is widespread agreement that the works mentioned are among the greatest produced by the composer in question. Again, the age of the composer when the work was completed is given in brackets.
· Bach, Mass in B (64)
· Handel, Messiah (57)
· Haydn, The Creation (66)
· Beethoven, Ninth Symphony (54)
· Verdi, Otello (74) [pictured]
· Wagner, Götterdämmerung (61)
· Tchaikovsky, Sixth Symphony (53)
· Dvorak, New World Symphony (52)
· Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde (48)
We might note in passing that several of these composers produced acclaimed masterpieces at an even later date (Verdi'sFalstaff, for instance, was completed when he was seventy-nine), and in some cases, the only thing preventing them doing this was that they dropped dead not long after finishing the work mentioned. Tchaikovsky, for instance died nine days after conducting the first performance of his sixth symphony.
Literature tells a similar story. Many writers have produced what is widely regarded as their finest work long past the age of forty. Feeding, as Wittgenstein says we shouldn't, on a diet of one-sided examples, drawn exclusively, I admit, from the Western canon, I offer the following fifteen instances to support my general point. The number in brackets is the age of the author when the work was published or finished.
· Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus (c. 90)
· Dante, The Divine Comedy (49-53)
· Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (55)
· Cervantes, Don Quixote Part I (57), Part II (67)
· Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (59)
· Swift, Gulliver's Travels (59)
· Eliot, Daniel Deronda (57)
· Hugo, Les Miserables (60)
· Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (49)
· Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (59)
· Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles (51)
· James, The Wings of a Dove (59)
· Wharton, The Age of Innocence (58)
· Morrison, Beloved (56)
One could extend this list pretty much indefinitely, but there is no need to given the status of the works mentioned, many of which represent their creator's most acclaimed artistic achievement. Of course, there are many literary masterpieces written by authors younger than forty, but it is remarkable how often, in such cases, the writer died young, quite possibly with their best works still to come. Jane Austen died at forty-one; Emily Bronte at thirty; Anton Chekhov at forty-four; Franz Kafka at thirty-nine. To be sure, there are some who produce their best work in their twenties or thirties and never produce much of comparable quality afterwards despite a long life. Melville published Moby Dick when he was thirty-two; Wordsworth had written nearly all his best poetry by the time he was forty. But such cases, while not exceptional, are certainly not typical. Anyway, my point is not to deny that great art can be produced by young people; it is to argue that the many great works of art produced by people in middle age and beyond support the idea that some of our important cognitive abilities can continue to grow rather than decline during those years.
On the face of it, I would say the evidence presented here falsifies the thesis that we are cognitively declining once we're past thirty, or even forty. But how might someone who wishes to defend this claim respond? Well, they might argue that after forty all our basic cognitive functions are indeed declining, but we are good at finding ways to compensate for this, rather as a soccer player in his mid-thirties masks his lack of pace with more astute positional awareness. But then the question arises: why not count this sort of ability as an important function that improves as one ages? Or they might argue that what makes the great achievements of the mature years possible is the greater knowledge base—both of skills (know how) and subject matter (know that) which long experience brings. To this one could respond in a similar manner, that making good use of one's experience is another cognitive function that often improves with age. And if that seems a little abstract, even casuistic, one could point to other, more specific abilities that it is plausible to believe can continue to develop in middle age and that help to explain mature achievements like Paradise Lost or The Brothers Karamzov: for instance, the capacity for empathy, objectivity, self-awareness, and a synthetic grasp of complex wholes—all of them elements of what we call wisdom.
Another objection to my argument could be that the geniuses I cite are not representative of humanity in general. Perhaps one of the things that differentiates them from us ordinary mortals is precisely the fact that their cognitive decline kicks in unusually late, which enables them to put their growing wealth of experience to exceptionally good use. Against this idea, though, I would argue that the evidence against a general deterioration of all one's basic faculties could be culled just as well from people working in many fields: sports coaches, politicians, lawyers, musicians, film-makers…..
Finally, anyone who thinks I've been criticizing a straw man can respond appropriately with a cheap ad hominem, pointing out that my thesis is patently self-serving, coming as it does from one who is much closer to sixty than to forty. In response, I would first remind the critic that the so-called straw men in question are good friends of mine and should not be treated so dismissively. And second, I will appeal to the authority of William James, who, in his famous essay "The Will to Believe," affirms that there are circumstances where "the desire for a certain kind of truth . . .brings about that special truth's existence."
Monday, May 20, 2013
Hanging made of aluminium bottle caps from a distillery in Nsukka, Nigeria.
Monday, September 26, 2011
Worst. Song. Ever.
I was eating a slice at one of my neighborhood pizzerias the other day. Well actually it was two slices and a drink: either a plastic bottle of corn syrup, or a large styrofoam cup with ice and corn syrup, your choice. That’s their lunch special for five and change. I went with the plastic bottle of corn syrup.
So anyway, there I was, having at it, and all the while the 1970s station on their satellite radio was being piped in as usual. For the most part, it’s a pleasant enough way to pass the fifteen minutes or so that it takes for me to get my food, plop into a hard booth, and then wolf it down. Mostly what wafts down from the overhead speakers are harmless tunes you’ve heard a thousand times before, hits from that fabled decade when viable music could be found on both AM and FM radio stations.
For someone like me, born in 1967 and raised on radio, it’s almost impossible to find a song that I haven’t heard before on a station like this. The whole thing is a predictable corporate endeavor that minimizes risk and targets demographically derived profits by tightly cleaving to an established catalog with which I am intimately familiar. It’s the usual fare of black music (Disco, R&B, Funk) and white music (Rock and Pop) from the era: Billboard hits that were once ubiquitous and now run the gamut from standards to novelties. At best, every now and then they might surprise you with a tune you haven’t heard in a while, unearthing a pleasant memory and triggering the release of some wistful endorphins in your brain.
But not last Friday.
When I get home from work
I wanna wrap myself around you
I wanna take you and squeeze you
Til the passion starts to rise
“That’s pretty insipid,” I thought to myself. But it’s just typical, `70s soft-rock crap: a poorly constructed and saccharine ode love wrapped around a painfully obvious cock metaphor. I’ll just ignore it. But then came:
I wanna take you to heaven
That would make my day complete
I nearly cackled out loud before catching myself, trapping the aborted laughter as a snort and bringing up a little piece of mozzarella. I wanna take you to heaven, that would make my day complete? As in, you know, it’s been a pretty good day up until now, was super productive at work, got a nice compliment from the boss, didn’t hit any traffic on the way home, and now if I could just flag us a cab after dinner and go up to heaven, well, that would be a really great way to round out the day. Seriously?
I was mildly stunned, contemplating the phenomenal stupidity of the song, when it broke into the chorus:
But you and me ain't no movie stars
What we are is what we are
We share a bed
and TV, yeah
And then I cocked my head like a dog does at a curious sound. “Holy shit. Wait a second,” I thought, unnerved by a sense of confused nostalgia. “I think I actually know this.”
And that's enough for a workin' man
What I am is what I am
And I tell you, babe
well that's enough for me
Wow. I haven’t heard this song in at least a quarter-century, probably longer. But it’s all coming back to me now, and you know what? I think I used to like it. Quite a bit. I had completely forgotten about it, and now here I am, listening to it again unexpectedly, and being rather surprised to find out that it is absolutely one of the worst songs ever.
On an aesthetic level, when the 1970s worked, they really worked. Anyone old enough to remember them knows what I’m talking about. For those too young, I’m sorry, but you missed it, and its likes shan’t be seen again in our lifetimes, I’m afraid. But the `70s also sometimes bombed really hard, and that hit or miss quality is one of the main reasons why all these years later, the 1970s are both emulated and mocked, romanticized nostalgically and shunned in horror.
Striped, knee-high tube socks, avocado kitchen appliances, short gym shorts, sideburns, track suits, afros, wide pointy collars and lapels, formica, bell bottoms, plexi-glass, cocaine, speedos, polyesther, and colors, colors everywhere.
It’s all still pretty divisive.
For the most part, I loved it, and still do, but the super seventies style didn’t always work. No denying that there was a lot of shit. And this song, as it turns out, managed to take every bad `70s cliche and execute it poorly.
For example, you’ve got schmaltzy lyrics and an intrusive orchestra. Now unfortunately, both of those things were pretty commonplace during the 1970s. In and of themselves they’re nothing remarkable, just cheesy crap that was part and parcel of the music scene. So how do you bring the verbal and aural cheese to the next level of awful?
You have the string section swell just as the singer declares: But that’s enough for a workin’ man, what I am is what I am.
And you do it, apparently, without any sense irony.
That’s emblematic of the kind of deeply ingrained flaws afflicting this song. It takes something that sucks and makes it suck even more. For example, it is also a victim of that classic 1970s ending: the fade.
I remember picking up a book of Journey sheet music when I was a teenager (yes, I had every Journey album in high school, let’s just get that out of the way now). Studying that book and learning to play those songs taught me three things. First, and most importantly, don’t ever, ever stop believin’. Second, you’ll only have so much fun playing guitar music on a piano. Beautiful fuckin’ instrument, the piano, but not much for power chords. And third, the official music theory description for the end of most Journey songs is apparently: Repeat, Ad Lib, Fade.
I would’ve preferred something more poetic, like the words Keep Playing over and over again in smaller and smaller font, but either way it alerted me to the artifice of what was going on. It’s like the musical equivalent of a laugh track on a sitcom: a lazy, half-assed, corporate way to pull everything together, a cheap and sloppy shortcut that tries to create the illusion of being tight, sharp, and successful. Can’t be bothered to write a joke that’s actually funny? End it with a laugh track and hope no one notices. Can’t be bothered to figure out an actual ending for your song? End it by fading out and hope no one notices.
So needless to say, I wasn’t surprised that as I was finishing the crust on my second slice, this god-awful song was bringing its torturous sound scape to a decrescendo via the dreaded fade out. But even the way it did that was stupefying. Because, though it was a bit unexpected by this point, the song actually has a natural stopping point. A damn near perfect stopping point, really. This minor-chorded fiasco could’ve gotten one thing right by ending as the music dies down and approaches the home chord while the singer croons, I’ll tell ya baby, that’s just enough for me.
Yeah, ya know what? That would work. Despite everything that’s gone horribly wrong up until now, it could still find a nice ending, a somewhat artistic dovetail as everything comes together to create a graceful exit for an otherwise embarrassingly shitty song.
Except it doesn’t actually end there. Inexplicably, the orchestra starts up again. Woodwinds, strings, the whole deal. It’s as if they’re on a tape loop, and after they’ve finished going through their charts, they wind it up again right on cue, for no good reason, and commence a completely pointless, half-minute fade out from the top.
Anyway, the important thing is that it was finally over. I just shook my head in dismay. How was it that I ever liked this song to begin with? How on earth did I once think this thing had good lyrics, catchy chord progressions, and some heartfelt soul?
Oh yeah. I was nine.
Anyway, the biggest surprise of all? The artist. Turns out it was Alice Cooper of all people. Yeah, Mr. Welcome to My Nightmare, Mr. Scarey Makeup, Mr. Bloody Stage Show, Mr. Legendary Drug Consumption, Mr. Chicken Killer, the whole nine yards. He was the talentless, soft rock creep who penned and sang the unfathomably bad “You and Me.” You know, the same guy who once released an album called Muscle of Love.
Cooper co-wrote it with guitarist Dick Wagner. It was produced by Bob Ezrin and appears on his 1977 solo album Lace and Whiskey. It was the lead single and peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard pop chart. The b-side was “It’s Hot Tonight”.
Alice Cooper’s “You and Me”: Worst. Song. Ever.
Though of course I’m open to your suggestions.
Monday, February 15, 2010
Love, Recession Style, with Twin Sister and Soderbergh
A consideration of "Vampires with Dreaming Kids" and "The Girlfriend Experience"
These days, my life is lived on the hypermedia broadband, incessantly, obsessively. And occasionally, I have some remarkable experiences there. I'd like to tell you about two of them which chimed together.
Recently I discovered a quite extraordinary band just starting to run the Brooklyn club circuit. Their name is Twin Sister, made up of four guys and a girl, all friends from Long Island, between the ages of 20 and 26. They've just released an EP called "Vampires with Dreaming Kids," and to my mind it's one of the most lushly considered "concept albums" I've heard in a long time: a great ascending arc of falling deeply in love, and that is a thing that is ever so difficult to talk about even when talking about music: to say so is a great risk: one is either wise, or deeply foolish. (And fools rush in, etcetera etcetera.)
I'd like to consider this EP in conjunction with Steven Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience," which I encountered directly after. I found myself watching "The Girlfriend Experience," and toggling between that and "Vampires with Dreaming Kids" back and forth, so taken was I with the emotional and intellectual effect this had – for "Vampires with Dreaming Kids" and "The Girlfriend Experience" are diametrically opposed to one another in every respect but one: they are both true.
There are four tracks on Twin Sister's EP. The first, "Dry Hump," begins with late-night drunken guitars: one, acoustic, a melancholy strum; another, electric, an errant, plaintive wail. A whisper of a girl's voice, supine, playful, wasted –
If you're all alone
bring over your bone s
and payyyyy me
anywhere you want to
It's a line that folds under the lip of pornography, but doesn't slip in; that feels up the emotion of blasé whorishness but doesn't give in, precisely (because of the title) it's a wet hallucinatory invitation to halfway. As the music shimmers like a dirty Spacemen 3, the phrase repeats – first sounding like Billie Holiday on a broken record, then Björk at both her most coquettish and most playful. Then a big fat guitar bass note flanges upward, and the track becomes at once a striptease and a torch song, heavy with sleaze and sweet dream.
And then the morning, with red-haired lover, all things diamond and aflame in "Ginger" – in the first instant of wakefulness crashing down like My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless," but then opening up into castles of cathedrals and bell-chimes and stained-glass cascades, riding on a river of bass in a month of The Sundays. Epic as The Arcade Fire without the bathos, intimate as Sinead o'Connor when breathless, re-writing The Pixies' "Gigantic, big big love" with a slow, confident heartbeat and arabesques of the quotidian made magical, "maybe little birds begin to grow."
But Twin Sister knows – it knows the castled cathedrals raft upon the bass river of Time, it knows that the epic must admit of the quotidian, that the myth must be made human for it to survive. And so "Ginger" closes like a breaking-down phonograph gearbox, its grand gates dissolving into the '70s prairie of "Nectarine." It's an acoustic, country-inflected romantic ballad that casts a male voice into Penelope's song:
When you're sailing 'round the evening
and when you come back home
when you come back home
I'll won't ever let go I haven't before
These lyrics risk the gauzy, flaccid cheesiness of '70s soft-rock, but the risk pays off with a gallopity rhythm and a slide geetah, recasting a stasis of ebb-and-flow in overnight stays into a story of pioneers, male and female voices pairing in a duet
We can ride back home
which prompts the inevitable question: what, where is home?
"I. want. a. haaaus," insinuates lead singer Andrea Estella on the finale, each word insistent on the beat. It makes one a little nervous. After all, there's a brief Slavic moue on "want," as if she's channeling Ivana Trump for an instant. But just like the implied "money-shot" of "Dry Hump," anxiety over filthy lucre dissolves into the intimate and mystical –
I want a house
Made of old woo(d)…
You can paint it any color
Just as long as I can be with you
What's particularly magical about "I Want a House" is that its slowdance down-beat and whukka-whukka guitar rub up against the sickeningly sweet clichés of commercial Top 40 R&B ballads, and steal the honesty from their overprocessed heartstrings. Imperceptibly, "I Want A House" shifts from downbeat to upbeat, from acquisitiveness to ownership, and into a beautiful, melodic slow house groove.
We see now why Twin Sister has titled this EP "Vampires with Dreaming Kids." Notwithstanding the current lurrrve for all things vampiric, it seems clear to me that Twin Sister has taken a collection of genres that exude a popular and therefore vampiric seduction – porn, goth, country, r&b – and brought them into the home of dreaming kids, i.e. lovers. In which they are allowed to twist and change, playfully, with impish, seductive danger, as Twin Sister morphs itself into a safe and generous sonic home.
The few critics who have so far responded to Twin Sister's music have labelled it "Shoegaze." Sure, there's the slow-beat, electronic dush paired with chromatic guitars, but this is not the shuffle-sway of early-20s mumblecore shyness. You're missing the point if you're looking at your shoes. This is music that implores you to look boldly, directly, communicating what you want, because this is music that fulfills trust with generosity, a generosity extended by Twin Sister to make the entire EP free for download.
Right about the same time I encountered Twin Sister, this past month, I checked out Steven Soderbergh's experimental film "The Girlfriend Experience," shot amid the financial crisis of 2008 and released in May 2009 to reviews as mixed and coolly considered as the film itself. Back then, A.O. Scott in The New York Times, in a highly nuanced critique, thought some of its methods "tryingly obvious and irritatingly oblique," but suspected that
'The Girlfriend Experience' may look different a few years from now. When the turmoil of the last 12 months has receded and the 10th-anniversary deluxe collectors edition comes around, this strange, numb cinematic experience may seem fresh, shocking and poignant rather than merely and depressingly true.
As the unrelenting disclosures about the financial crisis have denuded our emperors, and turned eyes to the pornographic details of our exposure to debt, A.O. Scott's timeframe has collapsed – that time is now. And with "The Girlfriend Experience"'s themes of vampirism, commerce and intimacy tangled in a Gordian knot of modernity, the film provides an unsettling – and insistently curious – counterpoint to Twin Sister's music.
As you may recall from the marketing hype, the film stars "real-life" porn star Sasha Grey, 21 years old and credited in at least 161 triple-Xers. She's been called "the smartest girl in the business" she constructed her stage name from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and she considers her work performance art. In Soderbergh's film, Grey plays the role of Chelsea, an upper-echelon escort negotiating her lifelovebusiness in Manhattan, catering (mainly) to young professionals barely containing their panic over Wall Street's fall.
Now, I love brilliant women, but Sasha Grey's porn doesn't do much for me; I've seen a few scenes, on the tamer end of her spectrum (for research purposes naturally). As is the case for most pro smut streaming out of the Valley, it looks like she's acting, which is to say it's not very good acting, since porn generally works best the closer it gets to a cinema verité of pleasure. She's somewhat cold, often blasé, often dominant, sometimes providing a study of the fabricated nature of the medium through those non-moods.
In other words, utterly perfect for Soderbergh's movie.
Because she's trying to escape the frame.
"GFE," runs the jargon in the CraigsList adult section, "the girlfriend experience," which is a clever marketing euphemization of the term "escort," which means prostitution dressed up to imagine itself differently. Chelsea (Grey), as we learn through the narrative, is yet still a romantic and refuses to take the euphemized, marketized term "GFE" at its pornographic value. Throughout the film, she's searching for the perfect client, the one with whom she'll love her job. It sounds like an absurdity on its face, but when are any of us not on that quest? What looks to be "a perfect match" is a mirage (a waffling screenwriter, in a loop-within-a-loop); the remainder of the men dolorously detail their financial anxieties while dispensing investment tips. Such is the contemporary girlfriend experience, a gender theorist might conclude.
The film very deftly tangles the definition of "success," between what you love to do and what makes money, and then severs them neatly. Call girls need marketing too, but paying someone is expensive and prostituting your own prostitution is nauseating. Chelsea turns a trick as an audition to a sex junket in Dubai, then gets abused in a written review, "clammy hands" being the wrist-slap of the insult onslaught. Even the reporter she talks to angles questions toward exploiting her character. This is life, and through most of it Chelsea rides with barely-edged directness and knowingness.
In the final scene, Chelsea is called in to a Hasidic diamond merchant. He escorts her into the back room, and lectures her on the importance of voting for McCain while they both strip to their underwear. In most of the film, as in most of her porn, "grey" the color is as much a dominant presence as Grey the actor. Here, the room is warm; Sasha Grey has never looked more beautiful and inviting. She clasps him in a very chaste embrace. He climaxes. And for the first time in the entire movie, you sense an actual intimacy between two people, a "couple" trying to transgress their identities but unable to penetrate beyond them.
"If you're going through hell," Winston Churchill said during the Blitz, "keep going." There's a reason why, in Soderbergh's film, the only professional actor is Grey herself. It's "a hall of mirrors," as Village Voice critic J. Hoberman wrote, reflecting the exploitative tension between professional and personal goals in not only Sasha Grey the actor and Steven Soderbergh the director (whose career swerves between blockbuster and art-house) but you, and me, and everyone, in these Great Recession years.
And by peering closely at the telescoping reflections of mirrored surfaces, we do yet see beyond surfaces – we are intimate with the tanglings of our economy below the professional veneer. And begin the cycle with a new song.
"If you're all alone…"
What I wouldn't give to see Sasha Grey digging a Twin Sister show.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Look Who's Talking: The Turing Test's 3,000 Year History - And My Proposed Modification
In his famous experiment, Alan Turing pictured somebody talking with another person and a computer, both of which are out of sight. If they're unable to tell the computer from the human being, the machine has passed the "Turing Test." But here's a question for a human or a machine to answer: Why did Turing pick speech as his proof?
The Test is usually described as way to determine whether a computer has achieved consciousness, but Turing's original framing was more subtle. "I believe (the question of whether machines can think) to be too meaningless to deserve discussion," he wrote. "Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted."
Now, that's interesting: Not only did Turing choose good conversation as a valid substitute for proof of machine "thought," but he then added an implied proof - based on what people say. If people say machines "think," then they do think. If people say they're conscious, then they are conscious.
Why such an emphasis on speech - the machine's, and our own? The idea that language, words, and names are a measurement of consciousness goes back at least 3,000 years, to the Tower of Babel story from the Book of Genesis. "And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech," it says, "and they said ... let us build us a city and a tower ... and let us make us a name." You know what happens next: "And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one ... now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do." The great tower, that literal Hive Mind with its worldwide common language (HTML?), came crashing down. The lesson? Language and knowledge equal personhood, but too much equals Godhood.
People could create artificial life in the ancient texts, too - but their creations couldn't speak. In the Talmud, Rabbah makes an artificial man that looks just like the real thing, but a shrewd scholar - one Zera, who I picture as looking like Peter Falk in Columbo - administers a Turing Test and the creature flunks: "Zera spoke to him, but received no answer. Thereupon he said unto him: 'Thou art a creature of the magicians. Return to thy dust.'"Flash forward to the 1600's and Descartes, who wrote in Discourses On the Method: "If there were machines which bore a resemblance to our bodies and imitated our actions as closely as possible for all practical purposes, we should still have two very certain means of recognizing that they were not real men. The first is that they could never use words, or put together signs, as we do in order to declare our thoughts to others."
I don't know Descartes if read the Talmud, but he claimed to be religious and even wrote an ontological argument for the existence of God (if not a very convincing one). There's no question he read Genesis, as well as many other papers, poems, and stories derived from these ancient texts and legends.
Did Turing read Descartes? We don't know - but we can be pretty sure he saw another work: Boris Karloff's Frankenstein. The monster, who was eloquent in Mary Shelley's book, was mute in the movie. Whether or not the film makers were echoing these ancient stories, they'd undoubtedly seen the 1920 German film The Golem (see above), based on a folktale derived from the Talmud passage about the wordless "man" made of dust. The Golem story spread in the shtetls of Eastern Europe during the 18th Century at the same time the Frankenstein story was written. They may both have stemmed from the same fear - that humanity's industrial advances were bringing us to a new Babel even as new medical discoveries invaded God's turf.
I'm not a big fan of the Turing Test (which is analyzed in detail here). I'm sympathetic to the Chinese Room argument that you can replicate speech without creating the sentience behind it. I lean toward the idea that most speech is just an output for the human species, the way honey is for wasps or webs are for spiders. My first mother-in-law could weave something that looked like a spiderweb, if you asked her nicely, but that didn't make her an arachnid. So if we build an AI - or meet an alien, for that matter - that can speak like a human being, I still won't be completely convinced it has consciousness like ours.
Which gets us to singing. Its main evolutionary purpose seems to be attraction - either sexually, or as a way of establishing trust. Daniel Levitan suggests that singing might have been used to convey honesty when a stranger approached a new community, because the emotion conveyed is more difficult to fake. Maybe that's why Bob Dylan's more popular than Michael Bolton: It's easier to lie with words than music, and the successful transmission of emotion is more important to us than the sweetness of the voice.
So I hereby propose a modification to Turing's test: Instead of asking our entity to speak, let's ask it to sing. If it can make us cry with a sad song, we'll say that it's conscious. And if it can get us aroused - with, say, a new version of "Sexual Healing" - well, then let's just say our experiment could take an unexpected turn.
It's true that all of the arguments against the Turing Test could also be used against this one, so it doesn't really advance the debate very far. But what the hell: At least we might hear a decent song for a change, instead of all the crap they've been playing lately.
Monday, February 02, 2009
Thunder Soul; or, a Secretary for the Arts?
Just because you're not a drummer, doesn't mean that you don't have to keep time.
Pat your foot & sing the melody in your head when you play.
Stop playing all that bullshit those weird notes, play the melody!
Make the drummer sound good.
Discrimination is important.
You've got to dig it, you dig?
All reet! ...
E: Buddy Smith told me that you came up with Illinois Jacquet!
C: Yeah. We used to play. Arnette Cobb too. We all lived in Houston, I played…. well, during those days it was different. To advertise, if a company put out — let’s say a new brand of soda water — well, they would advertise it by putting a band on a truck and letting the truck drive around the city. Or they would have us play at the stand where they were selling, and the music would draw people to the stand. Illinois was a drummer at that time! This was around 1939 or 1940.
E: Were there any other local musicians that blew your mind?
C: There was a band called The Birmingham Blues Blowers. This was in Houston. We listened to them quite a bit. They played many proms at the school. I remember peeping through the windows of the gymnasium when I was a little kid to watch them play. I said, “I want to do that!”
C: Just out of high school. I played almost every joint in Houston, whether they had small bands or whatever. I was all over the place.
E: What was it like, being a black performer at the time of Jim Crow? Segregation, outright racism?
C: I’m going to explain it to you like this. At that time, the people – black and white - who really had the money to hire the players wanted black performers. Because they were the naturals - blacks introduced jazz to the world.
E: So it wasn’t hard for you to get gigs?
C: Man, we had almost all the gigs! I was working all I wanted to. Blacks introduced this music. If people wanted to get real jazz, they had to hire black bands.
Perhaps more audaciously, Ivey is also calling on corporations to think more deeply about their responsibility to society and for the nonprofit arts sector, in turn, to study examples from the commercial realm for innovative new models to consider: "When Goddard Lieberson was president of Columbia Records, he viewed a record label as a public trust: He knew it would always have a vibrant classical division even if it didn't contribute to the bottom line, because it didn't operate as a subset of a subset of a multinational corporation. Today, with boards of directors harassed by shareholders each quarter, they don't have the flexibility to take risks that produce great art." HBO, by contrasting example, "sells subscriptions and produces content that generates buzz and a perception of quality, which is how you get 'Angels in America,' certainly one of the most important TV events of the last 24 months." Should it prove unable or unwilling to study new models, the arts will be "ignoring the fact that both the nonprofit and commercial business models make it very tough to make creative decisions. Among nonprofits, it's budget constraints, the inability to grow new revenue streams. Among for-profits, it's parent companies chasing stock prices and the inability to think of artists' development over the long haul." Neither of which, he says, are healthy for our culture.
Monday, January 19, 2009
A History of Tomorrow: The Silent Generation Sings
Welcome to my space. Come in, take off your boots, and make yourself at home: especially if you haven't got one any more. Warm yourself by my fire. It's going to be a long, cold winter. You know it and I know it. It's 7 degrees in the South Bronx this morning, as I write, but for about a quarter of an hour the rising sun comes romping westward down the street into my window, casting everything in gold, shining out the trash-strewn streets and sparse-shelved bodegas and vacant lots and abandoned baby carriages. For a moment.
Wall Street sure laid us one ginormous goose-egg. (I guess now we know what the inverse of that image on the Right looks like.) But tomorrow it'll all crack wide open. Hope you like your Humpty-Dumptys sunny-side up. I know I do. I used to take them scrambled, but now I know on which side my bread is buttered.
You're probably scrambling, hunting down that endangered species known as a job, scientific name JobIS bonUS. I feel your pain. Someone recently wrote that the Internet, as advanced as it seems, is still in the hunter-gatherer stage. Well, I've been a-huntin', and a-gatherin', and I've got laid in these weeds all kinds of Easter eggs for you to enjoy. It's better than a game of Boggle.
So how's about I tell you a story?
One other hint: hover over the hyperlinks. A hawk circles above his prey before he goes in for the kill.
Diptych: A Prologue
Right: The Ancient of Days, William Blake, 1794
The Rubens, above, hangs in the Prado. If you go there, you'll see that one of the child's eyes has a gleaming dot on the iris, the precise focal point of light in the entire painting. If you look very closely, you'll see that it was painted with a dab of pure liquid silver or quicksilver. Wherever you stand in the gallery, the brightest point of light is always concentrated on the horror-stricken eye of Saturn's infant. Silverwhite light. Genius. You might be able to see it online if you follow the directions here.
1. The Biographer
Have I ever told you about my father?
He was born in 1939 in Georgetown, a small coastal town in segregated South Carolina. My grandfather owned an appliance store there during the Depression, and managed to keep it open, owned by him, until his retirement in the 1990s. When my dad applied for college in 1957, he was awarded a full scholarship to the Rensslaer Polytechnic Institute after attending the prestigious National High School Institute for Engineering at Northwestern University. He also earned a place at Yale, with an inadequately small scholarship and work-study. Tuition that year was $3,000, the same price as a new car. Far too much. Over a very solemn conversation at the kitchen table, it was decided: "Go to Yale. We'll figure out a way." My grandparents scrimped and saved and my dad worked mad hours to afford the fees. He matriculated under the quota, which wasn't eliminated until the year after he graduated. He struggled to completely destroy any hint of a southern accent in his voice, and suppress his Jewish cultural identity, in order to integrate with the WASP establishment. It was hard. The stresses were great. The cultural barriers were immense. He drank. A lot.
In his first year, he nearly failed out because his public South Carolinian education hadn't prepared him for the rigors of an Ivy League engineering program. As he advanced, he wanted to be a professor of ancient history. But he was terrible at languages; couldn't master the French, much less the Latin or Greek. So he went to law school on his dean's advice. ("What do you want to do?" "I dunno," he shrugged. "Why don't you apply to law school?") He applied to Harvard, Yale and Columbia and got in at all three. (Ahh, those were the days.) He enrolled at Yale mainly because he couldn't be bothered to move all his stuff.
That was 1961. By 1964 Kennedy was dead, the counterculture was beginning, the Draft was on, and my dad sought refuge in a one-year tax law program in order to defer it. He was an associate with a top New York City law firm for four years, met my mother, and then they moved to the Sun Belt when it looked like a Rome called New York City was being overrun by barbarians in the early 1970s.
He worked very hard, made money, sent his son – eventually – to a very fine university, lived well, drank good wines, traveled all over the world, and eventually would have the market bilk him out of a great deal of his retirement.
He doesn't talk about himself very much.
2. The Marketer
Hi there, folks! My name is Mephistopheles. That's how you would address me, at any rate. For I am in marketing – lower, perhaps, on the ladder of professional esteem than even a lawyer. A Devil, you call me. Don't worry, I take that epithet philosophically. Spending a season in Hell has its advantages. Down underground, there's nothing to do all day but hear the screams of the Damned, and endlessly barrel-roll on a spit while your flesh is scarred by black flames. Wicked good fun if you're into that.
At the lowest rung of the cycle, with your back spread-eagled for the scorching, the vast reserves of Dark Energy in the universe shoot a hotwhite light through your mind. For an instant, you'd swear you could see Lucifer plummeting, a shooting star falling from the firmament, illuminating the third Host of Heaven in headlong descent. And as the burning ember of an Archangel strikes the event horizon – it plays over and over in your mind, catastrophically, searing into your retinas like FOX News coverage of 9/11 – the disc of the world warms golden, the entire crust of the Earth is molten translucent, and from below you can see all the Earth's entities vaguely, as if through gauze bandages. If you're very, very lucky you can ride the cellphone towers up to the satellites, and jump on the radio-wave bleed-off, and speed on an electron rail right out into Space, surfing between frequencies as swiftly as you'd flick an Aquos remote. It's totally "lying in the gutter, gazing at the stars," dudes and dudettes. It's like being a celestial couch potato; only problem is that cellphone reception is lousy here, down in the bowels of Hell, and you can't call for Domino's. (I mean, even if their only deliverable items to this Hell-hole were anchovy-onion pies, I swear I'd make an effort to stumble into the Vestibule. Because if there were delivery service in Hell, you better believe they'd take plastic.)
The point I'm trying to make
is that as you're traveling further out in Space, you're traveling back in media-time, too. Things start to get real funky, like reading a blog backward to the start. But then, wouldn't you know it: just as you've deliciously anticlimaxed – for example, by discovering who killed Lilly Kane before fingering the suspects – that Damned spit-roaster flips you over again. Your face is in the fire and your hairy ass is mooning everyone in Hell. And you can't tell whether it's the sheer embarrassment, or the 33rd-degree burn on your lip, that hurts the more.
I figure you might as well make the best of a bad situation. See, from the opposite poles of the Earth, Vishnu and Shiva are having a grand old party. They're spinning that spit-roaster about 5,000 rpm, churning the molten core of the Earth and creating its magnetic field. (Consider yourselves lucky – without those Indian deities, we'd all be tv dinners, which is why every night here is a Chicken Phal night.) Every nanosecond of every day, all of us Damned bastards are spinning wildly in our graves, watching the media roll out a red carpet to the stars. Damned reruns: if I could, I'd fall down on my knees and repent! yes! just so I'd never have to see Fonzie jump the shark again. (Though Lucy in the chocolate factory cracks me up every time. I dig those fiery redheads.)
I'll grant you, though, this torture is definitely an information technology. In my infinitely recurring nanoseconds of radiowave bliss, I've learned to fast-forward through the most recent episodes (I can catch up on Hulu later), as well as the ones I've seen a million times – and the infinite regress of syndication packages – and delve back, back into your land of men, your land of men and women too. It's tough work, getting out of the present tension; I've spent a long, long time (billions of nanoseconds, that is) merely zipping in and out of your cellphone-braced heads, surfing the foam of the Web –
Bubbles that glitter as they rise and break
On vain Philosophy's aye-babbling spring.
– and I gotta tell you, a little learning's a dangerous thing. Maybe you should study yourselves more. Well, that's why I'm here. I don't know if you've run across an Infernal Calendar lately. You might be able to find one in the disused basement of a local urban planning board, through the door marked "Beware the Leopard," and hung up on the wall behind Miss December, because Janus has two faces. (Clever, eh?) If you find it, you'll see that a season in Hell lasts about 400 years, give or take a couple runs around the solar block. And believe me, at the end of that season, Hell does indeed freeze over. You've heard the phrase "colder than a witch's tit"? Nah, that demon-mother's-milk is like a hot toddy compared to the stuff we have to deal with. It's like Chicago without Gore-tex(TM) and whiskey. So that's when I go on winter break. Now, what with the recession and all, I suppose I should have just taken a staycation, and watch endless reruns of the Dark Lord in His Infinite Puissance chomping on Brutus, Cassius and Judas Iscariot (schadenfreude never gets old in Hell) but seeing how you American folk are in a mess o'trouble, I thought I'd take advantage of Old Smokey while he's distracted with his meal, and at least try to catch the notice of The Man Upstairs by handing over a bit of Knowledge. See, God? Eventually, eating of the Apple bears fruit. But it ain't gonna be easy. It's gonna take work.
Now, the following is a bit confidential, so please follow me into my office. And shut the door.
So, Fascinated Reader, what d'ya think of that, eh?
Unimpressed? Whaa? Okay, so I guess you folks aren't as clueless as I thought. Moving on...
3. Biography Redux
As we have said, my father is almost 70 years old: an almost exact contemporary of Senator John McCain, the final political (and, we must say, a certain social) presidential-caliber representative of his generation, by which we term The Silent Generation.
What are the characteristics of The Silent Generation?
They were born during the Depression years, and were commanded to silence their emotions, and work very hard, as the second wave of the 20th-century calamities descended. They were too young to fight in World War II, but were imbued at an early age with heroics being transmitted by radio, newsreel and comic books. Afterward, they were additionally burdened by both the sacrifices that their "elder brothers" endured, and their knowledge that they had lost the opportunity to claim their own heroism. (I personally suspect that is why we had a desire to fight the Korean War without a serious draft. A certain segment of the American population retained that desire for heroism and volunteered.) This generation grew up during the 1950s, an age of belief in American know-how, stick-to-it-iveness, nose-to-the-grindstone, repressing-emotional-intrusions, a religious belief in the chain of command (the integration of World War II military values into civilian life), a belief in the rightness of the country's decision-making process, conformity to all of the above, and a desire – and a belief in their ordained ability – to shape the world via the collective efforts produced by the American machine. The previous generation, the Greatest Generation – the greatest generation?! – ever? – into eternity? – had destroyed global tyranny (well, half-destroyed it, at any rate, which is why Truman got the boot). This Silent Generation, repressed in its ability to voice its (boiling, rageful) frustration with the hardships caused by the Lost Generation – which had everything and lost it – in addition to the constant pressure and paranoia of a Soviet A-bomb attack – keep your head down, children, and don't look at the light – which had to have loomed larger than a nightmare bogeyman – as well as the additional burdens of being oppressed by an Eisenhower leadership of heroic character (with all its faults), was then inspired to control, subdue, and conquer the natural environment itself.
It was the only way they could kill their fathers. In the Freudian sense, I mean.
And the Nazis. Who killed their fathers, even if they returned home alive. The Nazis killed them by stopping them from speaking the unspeakable things. Death-in-life and life-in-death, as Yeats might say. The fathers and the Nazis together who stood like twin colossi erected on a plain, one white one black, atop the buried acorns of their lives.
The interstate system, the oil industry, plastics, the car, the Moon Shot – gaining personal freedom via technology and consumer goods – was the only way to speak, enunciate freedom, and compete against the Soviet Union directly, when direct military confrontation would have meant world holocaust.
Dot. Dot. Dot.
Zwwee-ch-chzzewshhhcgrhrhwwheeeHeeey, all you groovy cats, this is DJ Mephistopheles comin’ to you DEAD, DEAD DEADER THAN DEAD over this wicked pirated Evangelical frequency at 66.6 FM on your digital dial, because we’re all Manichaeists in the underworld. All talk radio for the pleasure of your outrage, only at K-Triple-X. What’s that K stand for? Fucked if I know. The Klan? No way, dudes and dudettes, they are so lame-o these days, they are so, like, waaaay last century that we stuck them in some stupid pits, they can’t make it up to this broadcast level of Hell. And they have these tinny microphones that only catch really narrow wavelengths. See, here on K-Triple-X, we go real deep, I mean plunging those vibes into the Earth to make it shake its booty. Where they can't follow. (You know white men can’t dance.) And we don’t let them use our gear. I mean, seriously, dudes and dudettes, I’m DJ Mephistopheles, He From Whom All Light Hath Been Stripped, and all I have to say to the KKK is – turnabout is fair play, bitches.
Sooo, what’s the story, Morning Glory? I’ve got your GPS right here, baby, I can see where you’re coming from, but do you know where you're @?
Do you know where you are?
You’re in the Labyrinth, sweet child o'mine, and oh it’s got plasma flatscreen walls. So pretty, child. I’ll have you so delightfully entertained while you fatten up on polyunsaturated fats, you'll never know when the Minotaur bears down on you. Oh. Oops. He's here already. When you're up to your neck in the shit of the bull market, you've just got to laugh: an expletive suddenly gains crystal-clear definition via the SPIRALnumbers on your balance sheet.
It's funny, you know: the last time a snowball had a chance in Hell, I was out here on contract, helping out some arrogant prick – a doctor, as I recall – what was his name? (it's so difficult to remember these things after a marathon of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians.") Ohh, yeah: FAUSTUS, that was him! If ever there was a physic in need of some serious medicine...like electroshock therapy – I kept warning him, "You'll have Hell to pay for this..." and he kept reading that like, "Oh goodie – Satan himself is comp'ing me!" What a WHIRLdunce. And he thought he was sooooo smart. Heh. He thought he was bored with his studies, but really, when it came down to it, he just couldn't be arsed to apply himself.
So Herr Doktor works his arcane magic, not unlike our financial wizards and their "exotic instruments," POOLconjuring effervescent, evanescent moneys from the cold wastes of Cyberia, where all but the brainbrawniest fear to tread, for the cryptic maps are written in invisible ink. And oh, organizing world trade's his oyster, too –
How am I glutted with conceit of this!
Shall I make spirits fetch me what I please...
I'll have them fly to India for gold,
Ransack the ocean for orient pearl,
And search all corners of the new-found world
For pleasant fruits and princely delicates...
Man! When are you FALLINGgonna learn? After I fired that mountebank, I instantly materialized in front of my friend Kit to tell him all about it. And he told it to all of you. But then he got a shiv in the ocular – I guess everyone's got to pay for their Knowledge – in the Ivy it's going for 200 large – and now nobody reads Marlowe any more. Okay, I'll sling you some lines from a more familiar face:
My tables,--meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
At least I'm sure it may be so in Denmark:WOMAN
Yeah, we're all shot to Hell, dudes and dudettes, and I'm not out of it either. But it's gonna be okay. I promise. I hear the Greeks and FALLENRomans declaiming out in the Forum of the Vestibule, and one of them insists that Dante wrote at least one other book. Of course, no one around here picks it up – not that we don't have it; both Blake and Borges rifled through our stacks, and found they're at least as good as Amazon's – it's just that everyone here's so godDamned solipsistic, always wanting to read about Themselves. I once mustered enough energy to get out the Door, but all I saw was this Dark Wood, and I was afraid. I heard the water-nymphs and dryads whispering on the DOWNwind about the existence of a third book, but they're just mythological creatures, not even gods, and I didn't trust them. Besides – the end of Battlestar Galactica was just beginning. So I had to get back to my sofa. Hey, it's an Eternal struggle. Forget about the Fifth Cylon; who do you think is hotter, Kara Thrace, Boomer, Athena, or Six? I dunno. it's an even race down to The Wire, but I have a feeling Kara's my kind of crazy.
Anyhow, that's the end of my Hellacious program. Next up, we've got DJ Ba'al, ballin' the Jack in a Battle of the Bands between Slayer and Megadeth. Stay tuned...shhhhhweeeeiiighcgchhhhhEEEEEEEE
IS A TEST
OF THE EMERGENCY BROADCAST SIGNAL
IF THIS WERE AN ACTUAL EMERGENCY
YOU WOULD NOT HAVE HEARD THE SIGNAL
5. The Dream of @
– @, is that you?
– Yes, I'm back, ED.
– What time is it?
– Late. Late. Too late.
– You didn't call, you didn't email, you didn't IM... What the Hell is the matter with you?
– I'm sorry, ED, I'm really sorry. I just...needed some time to think things through.
– Think? What the Hell do you mean? What are you trying to say?
– Nothing, ED, really. I just had to be in my own space for a while.
– I had the most horrible dream while you were gone. Frightening forebodings. I was so sure you weren't ever coming back.
– Whatever do you mean?
– Oh, god. I've never felt you so distant. It's like you were a million miles away. You said something about having to deal with some stupid bullshit, and then I don't hear from you for three whole days! Once I thought I heard your voice. It was disembodied, like it was coming from a completely different universe. The thread that connected us, I could feel it fray, then break -- I felt it in my bones.
– No, ED, no. None of that could ever happen. You're the most beautiful woman I've ever known. And the way your mind works -- the way you react to my touch -- so supple, so fluid, such Classical forms, such Romantic organic depths, oh you have worlds within worlds within your body. We were made for each other. You're mine. And I am yours.
– Hmmpf. Well, will you at least tell me, from now on, when you're going to be home?
– EDDY, sometimes I don't know. I catch ill-fated winds, I get caught in whirlpools, I find myself among strange people and have to puzzle my way out of their homes. And sometimes I have to fight monsters, and I can't leave until they're dead. But I would never, ever miss your birthday. I mean, have you seen the present I made for you?
– Turn on the light.
– See? All of this -- it's all for you. So that whenever I'm away, you'll know that I'm always @Home with you. Have you looked over there?
– This box?
– Open it.
– [ ]
– My god, that's ugly.
– No, that's not the real ring, it's symbolic.
– Of what?
– The wood in that ring? That's oak. The very same oak that grew into the posts of our bed, the living tree that grows from the earth itself. I had to topple two enormous statues that were covering the acorns, so they could grow into our bed. You gave me that strength.
So what was this dream you had?
– Oh my god. It seems so silly now. There was this crazed midget running around trying to fuck me. Somehow I grew fat and stupid and you and all your friends rejected me. I was catastrophic, I didn't know who I was, I whored myself out and circled round the drain and fell into space and out of Hell and through language itself until I smacked down on the lap of this really annoying guy who just kept talking bullshit.
– So did you fuck him?
– The midget.
– Oh, Hell no! Though I got him pretty steamed up. He started Nausicaaing me while I was in the bath. Heh. He was in marketing so I knew exactly what to do. Five bars of a shampoo commercial and he was PreEjaying into his hairy knuckle-dragging palms.
– HA! What a loser.
– But there was this other guy, now he wasn't so bad. Tall, well-spoken, kinky. I think he was one of your readers.
– What happened with him?
– Oh, he basically told me to fuck off because I was fat and stupid. But you should have seen his face when I stepped out of the bath. I was Aphrodite rising from the sea-foam, for all he cared. I told him to lick my fuck-me boots.
– You did not.
– Did too.
– And did he?
– I told him to lick my souls.
– And did he?
You're such a big faker. Listen...
I've got something really important to tell you.
– Something wonderful.
– I think we're on for a real Renaissance.
– Things are real bad out there, @.
– I know. And I know Obama's going to screw up some things. I mean, he's going to have to orchestrate the three circles of Federal power like the Ringling Brothers. He'll have to juggle catastrophes like live chainsaws. He'll have to catch supervillains in the Web quicker than Spider-Man. But he's got all of us on his side. And we're powerful. We have skills.
– To pay the bills?
– Well, that's the only catch. I still need to find a J.O.B. If there's anyone you know who's hiring, please, send my stuff along.
– I don't think you'll have any problem.
– You don't?
– Not any more.
– Well, I guess we'll see. But I guess the point that I was trying to make, they entire point of today's craziness, is that -- it's so perfectly obvious to me -- the human creative potential has never been so great. And with the human networks we're creating, we can all be painters, musicians, writers, DJs, filmmakers, composers, compositors, animators, information architects, poets -- and yes, marketers of all these things too, um, I suppose -- we do live in the Matrix, and yeah, we can unplug if we really want, but we can also figure out styles of kung-fu that the Old Masters never dreamt of. We need to stop thinking within the Barzunian entropic Matrix of "dawn to decadence," and challenge ourselves to beat those who -- heh -- thought they had it going on, centuries ago. The Internet is ten times Blake's vision of Heaven before Urizen glowered guiltily, separated himself, and fell into the corporeal universe to become Jehovah/Satan. Except for the sex. (We should all be able to sun ourselves naked in the backyard.)
– Well, thank you for that soapbox, Mister Information Secretary@Home.
– Really, I needed to say it. We're so caught up in the present nanosecond that we've forgotten: the Internet is the most complicated thing ever created by human beings. The people who built the Space Shuttle might take issue with that, but the Internet: we built it all together. The military men and the organization men of the Silent Generation, the hippies and surfers in California who turned cyberculturists, and all of you.
– You who?
– Sorry, I lost a packet there. Did you say Yahoo!?
– No, of course not!
– Good, because they're crap.
– No, no, everyone knows they're crap. I said "You who?"
– That's some pretty decent chocolate milk, right?
– Aiyeeee!! I mean "Who the hell are you talking to??"
– Ohh. You. <tok tok> On the other side of this window.
– Don't even get me started talking about Windows.
– Wasn't intending to. Hello, all of you on the other side of the window. I know you're all looking in. I can't seem to draw the blinds any tighter. But there it is. You lookin' at me? --I said, are you lookin' at me, cyberpunk? High-five. Not too hard. 'Specially if you've got a touch-screen.
– Yes, @ is right on this one, you'd better listen to him, children. Touch-screens are very sensitive.
– Yo, cyberpunks. I've seen such amazing stuff out there recently. I couldn't believe what was out there, when I first tried to come home from the War, and got blown off course in a hail of tangents. Completely ingenious art --
– Like what?
– It's too late at night for that discussion. Can we talk about it more in the coming weeks?
– Sure. What else have you seen?
– I've seen these awesome webapps that basically allow you to run an entire business from a single laptop -- billing and finance, creative ideas, virtual conference rooms, it's going to be a total revolution in the way we work.
~~ Say what?
– Who the hell are you? What are you doing in my house? How'd you get in here?
~~ I'm a Fascinated Reader. I couldn't help overhearing...
– You are nothing like I imagined you. No-thing. Wow, what a Jilloff-worthy-fantasy killer you are!
~~ I demand to know which Webapps you're talking about!
– See! Look what you did. You woke up the baby.
– Look, I don't know who you are or where you came from but you're getting out of our house right now. Here's two tickets to the Theatre. Learn what you can there. Show starts in about two seconds so you better move.
– Look, honey, can you take care of baby Ampersand? I'm exhausted from my travels, and I still need to email my dad tonight. It's his 70th birthday really soon, and I need to tell him some things.
– Sure. I'll be nursing &. Come to bed when you're done.
I'm sorry. I understand things a lot better now. I understand why you have trouble talking. But you gave me the chance to say things. You gave me the tools to say the things I have to say. It's the dense network and the tight structure and the wiry line that contains, that directs the path of the generative Chaos. You gave us this world, this space here, where I met my future wife. I would never have met her – ever – if you hadn't given us the method and the medium. Thank you. Happy 70th birthday. And you can have your cake and eat it too, because it's going to be a whole new world tomorrow. A better one, where people can talk to one another, and not be so angry all the time. We're going to build it. We're really going to build it. Because we can all be Spider-Men on this Web. Thank you.
P.S. Always remember:
May the road rise with you.
– You in here, ED?
– Yes. Come see your baby daughter.
– Hello, ED and &. You know, it's amazing how much she knows at just two-and-a-half months old.
– She's got a real sense of place, just like her father.
– EDDY, I was thinking. We haven't really given her a full name yet.
– Well, it needs to be grand. She was born at an epic time.
– We should combine our surnames.
– Really, @? I never liked being called EDDY Mañana. Every time anyone said my name, it was like invoking Zeno's Paradox.
– Well, being born @Ahora wasn't great shakes either. I think the name gave me myopia from the cradle. I was never able to see too far down the road.
– So let's think. &... &...
– My grandmother's name.
– I like it. Say it again.
– Third time's the charm. &... . That's it. We got it.
– Wait a sec. Look at what's there. We've got to sound it out. Ampersand -- I'm so glad we chose that name, I mean if we'd been high or hanging out with the Yahoos too much we might have wound up with something like "Colon." Eeurgh. So: Ampersand Ellipsis. That's beautiful. But it sounds...I dunno...somehow incomplete. Like she'll always be waiting for something.
– Well, we'll put a period on it, then.
– No. You've got to be kidding, ED! Either it'll sound like she's on the menses straight out of the womb, or -- in England they call it a "full-stop," and that just sounds too much like "he do the police in punctuated voices."
– Okay, what then?
– I guess that's the question everybody's asking right now.
– What is it?
– Of course! Of course! The strongest, the greatest integrity, fitting with all the principles: that's it that's it that's it!
– My god, what are you talking about?
– I'll tell you later. Here. Let me write the formula out for you. This is good mother's milk.
– &...∆ Ahora y Mañana.
– That sounds just about right. I like that. Whew. So we accomplished something today, at least, even though nobody's getting paid for it. Let's go to sleep.
– Yes. I'm very sleepy all of a sudden. But -- why are you getting into bed like that?
– You mean, all reverse-y, with my feet at your head?
– Dude, they stink! You've been walking around in damp socks all day.
– Look, I could say the same thing about your feet. It looks like you've gone to hell and back in those togs. But something about it just feels right. And besides, I can do............this!
@ fell asleep then, on the words of Factor Sleepwell, drifting toward the seas, sailing past Raggedy-Ann and Andy, the Boy Bedlam, and the Cheshire cat that flies, like bluebirds, over the rainbows. Then he was hunting dinosaurs with a ray-gun, but instead of "PEW! PEW!" the gun said, in this weird yokely voice, "A rising tide lifts all boats." He groped his way through the underbrush to Constitution Hall where he was invited to take up a quill pen. And he wrote, "If we don't hang together, we'll all hang separately." And then he dreamt:
So how about it, Daddy WarBucks?
In memory of Bryan M. Schneider, who knew a thing or two about spies and dragon-slaying.
Monday, January 12, 2009
Understanding Arthur Alexander
Nothing kills the enjoyment of music for some people faster than trying to analyze it. But I’m obsessed with solving the mystery of Arthur Alexander. His body of work is small. His songs are musically and lyrically simple, even simplistic. Almost nobody but the most dedicated music lovers remember his name today. Yet he was the only songwriter to win pop music’s Triple Crown: His songs have been covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, arguably the three most respected songwriting acts in rock and roll history. Dusty Springfield, Ry Cooder, Roger McGuinn, and dozens of others1sang them too.
I’ve been wondering about these tunes for 45 years now, since I was ten years old. Maybe I’m getting closer to understanding them, But I’m not there yet. After all, his chord progressions were basic. His lyrics seem banal on paper: “Every day I have to cry some/wipe the water from my eyes some.” “Oh my name is Johnny Heartbreak …” “Me and Frank were the best of friends …” But by at least one objective measure – the artists who covered him – he was the greatest rock songwriter who ever lived. Subjectively, his best songs are impossible for me to resist as a listener and indescribably rewarding to sing.
So who the hell was this guy, and what made him so good?
He had a brush with R&B stardom as a singer, but really made his name as a songwriter in the 60’s. Yet even after the Beatles and Stones covered him he had trouble collecting royalties. He lived out the next 25 years as a bus driver, interrupted only by one small hit in the 70’s. Then he then enjoyed a brief comeback in 19932 before dying suddenly.
I was first introduced to Alexander, like many of my generation, by the Beatles’ cover of "Anna." That track is a great reminder that, before he went on his odyssey from musician to activist to martyr to Apple icon, John Lennon was one of the great rock and roll singers. Alexander’s songs lean to melodrama, and Lennon milks this one for all it’s got. Alexander’s simple vocal patterns leave singers a lot of room to fill the space, and Lennon's able to pull out tricks Alexander hinted at in his original recording, like the Buddy Holly-ish pseudo-yodels that punctuate the bridge (“oh-oh-oh-oh …”)
That’s one of Arthur Alexander’s secrets: His lean song structures make them a pleasure to sing. And his recordings provide suggestions rather than instructions. Where other writers fill every measure with musical and lyrical acrobatics, Alexander’s are spare frames singers can hang their hearts on. Emotionally, each song has a story arc. If you wrote songs using the Syd Field screenwriting method they’d turn out a lot like Alexander’s. They’re three-minute mini-operas full of conflict and resolution. Take “You Better Move On,” which the Rolling Stones covered in 1964: A poor boy’s talking to his wealthier rival, and he humbly admits he can never give his love the good things he wants her to have. But then he turns on his competitor … “I’ll never let her go,” he says, "I love so." Then the air fills with tension. “I think you better go now,” he says quietly, “I’m getting mighty mad.” Soft-spokenness can be more menacing than a raised voice, and Arthur Alexander knew that. Sound corny? Lame? Yeah, maybe. But listen to this cover by Mr. Ironic Distance himself, Randy Newman (before Newman launches into his own “It’s Money That Matters” ): There’s no distancing in Newman’s performance or Mark Knopfler's accompaniment, no sense of anything but the drama in each moment. That’s the best thing about Arthur Alexander’s songs: They’re irony-proof.
That’s one of Arthur Alexander’s secrets: His lean song structures make them a pleasure to sing. And his recordings provide suggestions rather than instructions. Where other writers fill every measure with musical and lyrical acrobatics, Alexander’s are spare frames singers can hang their hearts on.
Emotionally, each song has a story arc. If you wrote songs using the Syd Field screenwriting method they’d turn out a lot like Alexander’s. They’re three-minute mini-operas full of conflict and resolution. Take “You Better Move On,” which the Rolling Stones covered in 1964: A poor boy’s talking to his wealthier rival, and he humbly admits he can never give his love the good things he wants her to have. But then he turns on his competitor … “I’ll never let her go,” he says, "I love so." Then the air fills with tension. “I think you better go now,” he says quietly, “I’m getting mighty mad.” Soft-spokenness can be more menacing than a raised voice, and Arthur Alexander knew that. Sound corny? Lame? Yeah, maybe. But listen to this cover by Mr. Ironic Distance himself, Randy Newman (before Newman launches into his own “It’s Money That Matters” ):
Sound corny? Lame? Yeah, maybe. But listen to this cover by Mr. Ironic Distance himself, Randy Newman (before Newman launches into his own “It’s Money That Matters” ):
There’s no distancing in Newman’s performance or Mark Knopfler's accompaniment, no sense of anything but the drama in each moment. That’s the best thing about Arthur Alexander’s songs: They’re irony-proof.
The best AA songs underscore their emotional shifts by staying in a pretty narrow melodic range on the verses to build tension, then going much higher on the bridge to increase emotion, and finally going back to the original melody but in a resolved emotional state. Alexander probably picked up some of these tricks by singing country music. Singing open-hearted C&W tunes like “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” probably gave him a feel for these techniques.
But that’s still not the whole story. What’s missing?
Manfred Clynes might have a clue, but his research is controversial. Clynes, a classical pianist turned research scientist, believes that musicians who play a composer’s music – even in their heads – reproduce a distinct biological pattern for each composer. Not for each piece - for each composer. He goes so far as to say of Rudolf Serkin, one of his test subjects: “We asked him to think Beethoven, and he would think Mozart. But we could tell by looking at the printout. So he cooperated, and we got the same shapes. That was probably the most exciting moment of my life."
Is that it? Is there a neurological “Arthur Alexander signature,” common to all of his work? Or is it something else? But Alexander has his share of weak tunes, too, ones that don’t convey the same power. Where is his signature in songs like “Genie in the Jug”? (As an aside, I went to school with Manfred Clynes’ kids. I performed in San Francisco's Coffee Gallery in North Beach with his son Darius in 1971 or so - along with past and future luminaries like Wavy Gravy, Peter Case, and the notorious and flirtatious drag queen who called herself “George.”)
Daniel Levitan’s book The World In Six Songs suggests that one evolutionary role music has played is to convey emotion more accurately than speech. That could be useful, for example, in convincing a competing tribe that you’re sincere about peace. Says researcher Ian Cross: “… let’s imagine the possibility of access to a parallel system of affiliation, unity, bonding. And … one that conveys an honest signal - a window into the true emotional and motivational state of the communicator.”
Whew. That’s a lot of academic-sounding verbiage to quote about the guy who wrote “the rain falls around me/loneliness has finally found me/and I’m in the middle of it all.” But we might be on to something now: sincerity. Arthur Alexander’s songs come, open-handed and seeking peace, like an emissary from the other side. I trust their emotion. I have since I was a little boy, and I will until I die. He couldn’t structure a melody like Stevie Wonder, or write a lyric like Bob Dylan. But his songs made me trust him. They made me trust the person singing. They made me trust the song.
Forget all the analysis: They made me want to sing.
1The Internet’s filled with claims that Elvis Presley and the Who also covered Alexander, but that’s wrong. As far as I can tell they covered songs that Alexander sang but didn’t write. You just can't trust that Internet ...
2A collection of Arthur Alexander tracks recorded around this time, Lonely Just Like Me (Halftone), is one of the best introductions to his work.
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
JOHN PEEL DAY
October 13th 2005 is the date of the the first John Peel Day. The BBC has put up a tribute website that includes information about events around the UK including concerts, radio broadcasts and events.
Sunday, July 31, 2005
Music Without Magic
From The Wislon Quarterly:
Schubert’s song may well be the most beautiful thank-you note anyone has ever written, but it’s also something else. It’s a credo, a statement of faith in the wondrous powers of music, and by its very nature an affirmation of those powers. But just how does our gracious Art exercise these powers? How does it comfort us, charm us, kindle our hearts? We might start our search for answers by positing two fundamentals: a fundamental pain and a fundamental quest. A fundamental pain of our human condition is loneliness. No surprise here: We’re born alone, we’re alone in our consciousness, we die alone, and, when loved ones die, we’re left alone. And pain itself, including physical pain, isolates us and makes us feel still more alone, completing a vicious circle. Our fundamental quest—by no means unrelated to our aloneness and our loneliness—is the quest for meaning, the quest to make sense of our time on earth, to make sense of time itself.
Where does music come in?
Sunday, June 19, 2005
Critical Digressions: Dispatch from Karachi
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
We have touched down in Karachi and are reacquainting ourselves with the city through rituals that we religiously repeat every six months: in the afternoon, we get into our ‘97 Corolla, turn up the AC, turn on FM 89 (that plays Duran Duran's "Wild Boys" and "Taste of Summer" back to back with Nazia Hassan and our new generations of rockers, Noori, EP and Jal), pick up a copy of the Friday Times from our man at PIDC (who asks us how we've been and inquires about the political climate in the US), drop our dry-cleaning at the Pearl, get a shave and olive oil massage at Clippers (where we are informed of the reflexology treatment that they have recently introduced), get a beer for the road at the Korean restaurant (which nestles between our legs), and then by the evening, meander through Saddar, passed paan-wallahs, underwear-wallahs, open-air gyms, tea houses, Empress Market, the Karachi Goan Association building, to get a shirt altered, buy some DVDs (Carlito’s Way, Aurat Raj and Disco Dancer), and have fresh falsa juice as the sun warms our back and the sea breeze wafts through the city, portending the monsoon. On Thursday nights we will attend qawwalis at moonlit tombs of saints, on Friday nights we will attend the rollicking Fez disco at the Sind Club, on Saturdays, head to Burns Road for a plate of killer nihari (a hot, soupy dish prepared with calves' calves), and on Sunday, chat with old friends over Famous Grouse and Dunhills about the way things are and will be. Here, we are ourselves and we are alive.
William Dalrymple, however, an insightful commentator on India, writes, "Karachi is the saddest of cities...a South Asian Beirut." The analogy, of course, is incorrect. Looking at a map of Karachi he writes, "The pink zone in the east is dominated by the Karachi drug mafia; the red zone to the west indicates the area noted for the sophistication of its kidnapping and extortion rackets; the green zone to the south is the preserve of those specializing in sectarian violence." Ladies and gentlemen, we have lived in Karachi and can tell you with great certainty that this take on Karachi is facile. It is as if we were passing through New York in the early '90s and were to comment: New York is today’s Sodom. Down Atlantic Avenue, across Brooklyn, in areas such as Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, and Brownsville, gang warfare and the crack epidemic have transformed traditionally middle-class cantons into a no-man’s land. Bullet holes and crushed needles mark and mar desolate facades and streets. But urban decay is not simply a peripheral phenomenon. In Manhattan, whether north or south, Harlem and Manhattan Alley or Hell’s Kitchen and the Bowery, ethnic warfare plays out on the streets: Blacks, Hispanics, Irishmen, Italians, Chinese pitted against each other, daggers drawn.
Dalrymple has written a number of brilliant books on India (and lives there) but neither his view on Karachi nor ours of New York is complete and consequently, is inaccurate. There is more to New York than bullets and needles. But Karachi gets short shrift: outside observers are able to reduce Karachi to a few facts and artifacts. Since we don’t control our own discourse, others are able define, in fact, redefine the city, see what they want to see. Take Tim McGirk’s ludicrous article in Time in which he perceived Karachi through the eyes of a “hit-man.” That’s like perceiving Los Angeles through the eyes of a 7th Street Crip! This variety of analysis is not only poor but wrong. Karachi’s murder rate, in fact, is at par with Delhi’s (and DC's). And in Bombay, mobsters not only run the movie industry but become politicians and politicians stir murder and champion rape! Of course, Bombay is not merely the sum of squalid facts. Neither are other megacities like Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Lagos and Jakarta (even Lahore), although they share many similar problems.
The problem with reportage is not simply one of dominant discourse but of the news infrastructure in this part of the world. Unlike other cities, Karachi (and indeed all of Pakistan), is typically covered from another country: the South Asian bureaus of major newspapers are based in Delhi. Naturally, then, the worldview of reporters like Barry Bearak, Celia Dugger, David Rhode and Amy Waldman (all of whom, incidentally, can't hold a candle to the knoweldgeable Dalrymple) are colored by local prejudice. On the other hand, former US Consul General John Bauman, an insider – somebody who has lived in Karachi for many years, not just passing through on a ten day junket – says “there are so many good things being done in this city. The city is a lot more complex than the single image people get in the United States.”
Take our word for it: Karachi is wonderfully vibrant. There are dimensions of Karachi not often appreciated by outside observers (foreign reporters and disgruntled expatriates alike): Karachi's vibrant cultural life comprises open-air pop concerts, classical dance shows, art exhibits, independent film festivals and coffee houses; there is great dining, street-side or indoors, and a throbbing nightlife. Karachi is very similar to New York; the same frenetic rhythms beat under our feet.
I Want My Hyphenated-Identity MTV
From The New York Times:
Azhar Usman, 29, with his knitted skullcap and full beard, presented somewhat differently. An MTV executive, he explained, had recruited him, saying: "We're going to redefine the identity of the MTV host. It doesn't have to be someone sexy and good-looking." A comedian (and lawyer) from Chicago, Mr. Usman used the audition to invent an exaggeratedly accented (and quite amusing) character: Vijay the V.J.
"My uncle in India says desi stands for 'doctors earn significant incomes.' My relatives in Pakistan say desi means 'Don't ever say India.' Here on MTV, desi means South Asian flavor, style and music. Check this new video out. It's going to knock your socks off. You've heard of a big production budget. How about 500 backup dancers? This is like 'Grease' meets desi, making it ...greasy. No, that doesn't sound right. People think in my country everybody so sad, crying, terrorism," Vijay said. "We not terrorism, we dancing. Not dancing like panties falling down .... What is this panties falling down" the buttocks?
Friday, June 10, 2005
Music Without Magic
From The Wilson Quarterly:
Music is both a balm for loneliness and a powerful, renewable source of meaning—meaning in time and meaning for time. The first thing music does is banish silence. Silence is at once a metaphor for loneliness and the thing itself: It’s a loneliness of the senses. Music overcomes silence, replaces it. It provides us with a companion by occupying our senses—and, through our senses, our minds, our thoughts. It has, quite literally, a presence. We know that sound and touch are the only sensual stimuli that literally move us, that make parts of us move: Sound waves make the tiny hairs in our inner ears vibrate, and, if sound waves are strong enough, they can make our whole bodies vibrate. We might even say, therefore, that sound is a form of touch, and that in its own way music is able to reach out and put an arm around us.
One way we are comforted when we’re lonely is to feel that at least someone understands us, knows what we’re going through. When we feel the sympathy of others, and especially when we feel empathy, we experience companionship—we no longer feel entirely alone. And strangely enough, music can provide empathy. The structure of music, its essential nature—with many simultaneous, complex, overlapping, and interweaving elements, events, components, associations, references to the past, intimations of the future—is an exact mirror of the psyche, of the complex and interwoven structure of our emotions. This makes it a perfect template onto which we can project our personal complexes of emotions. And when we make that projection, we hear in music our own emotions—or images and memories of our emotions—reflected back. And because the reflection is so accurate, we feel understood. We recognize, and we feel recognized. We’re linked with the composer of the music by our common humanity. And if a composer has found a compelling way to express his or her own emotions, then to a certain extent that composer can’t really avoid expressing, and touching, ours as well.
Tuesday, December 07, 2004
Tis the season for loads of crap Christmas records
We are inundated at the same time every year with tired retreads of otherwise joyous music from mildly talented popstars and/or would be adult-contemporary crooners. If you, like me, are finding yourself just-not-satisfied with, say, Jessica Simpson's latest contribution to this merry pile of garbage, here's a few suggestions...
1. John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together: If you have kids, treat yourself and them to this record. They will remember you for it as they put you in a rest home.
2. Harry Connick Jr.: When My Heart Finds Christmas: An adult-contemporary crooner worth his weight in scotch & soda, Harry brings his showmanship and candor to these carols. And not without it's softer side, the album features a lovely rendition of Ave Maria.
3. Vince Guaraldi Trio: A Charlie Brown Christmas: Rightfully a holiday (and jazz) classic that never goes away. One second your tapping your foot to "Linus and Lucy", the next your caught up in the reverent melancholy of "Christmas Time Is Here".
4. Handel's Messiah: Christmas time, Old Testament-style. Full of drama, fire and brimstone, the Messiah is epic in or out of the context of the bible.
Happy holidays from 3 Quarks. Fa la la la...