Fly That Freak Flag Loudly

a0984583777_16.jpg

This is a soundtrack to being on the right side of history: the Spring 2017 compilation from the excellent metal label Southern Lord. It’s available for name-your-own price, but I encourage you to toss them at least a fiver, because all proceeds go to the ACLU.

 

via ▶︎ Southern Lord Spring 2017 compilation. Proceeds to benefit the ACLU. Never give up the struggle. Never give up the fight. Name your own price. | Southern Lord Spring Sampler 2017

Tip Jar

A gentle reminder, there is an ongoing fundraiser here at the Big City. Every little bit helps, even tiny donations.

If you can give more, I have many of what the public broadcasters call “premiums.” Since I’m below even subsistence level, your donation means a lot more to me, and if you can’t give any more to NPR since they got rid of jazz coverage, consider helping out here.

Hitting Amazon links for purchases helps, a few pennies go to me instead of their company. You can also buy my excellent book!

9781628929430

Even more, treat yourself or a loved one to a signed, personalized copy. A donation of $20 (add $5 for expedited mailing if you need this in time for Christmas) gets you a copy with the inscription of your choice. It’s a way to give and get.

Thanks.

Einstein On The Beach

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

The complete Einstein on the Beach in the production seen at BAM in 2012. You’re welcome.

One Two Three Four

One Two Three Four Five Six

One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight

[These are the days my friends these are the days my friends]

Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight

Four

Three Four Five Six

Three Four Five SIx Seven Eight

[Will it get some wind for the sailboat] Three Four Five Six Seven Eight

One Two Three Four Five Six . . .

. . . We sit in the audience, and watch and listen to Einstein play his violin. The sound comes to us in waves. Einstein sits at the beach, playing his violin, producing waves of sound. He sits at the beach, Einstein, playing the violin as the waves come in. The waves come into the beach as Einstein sits there, playing the violin. The waves come in, and the waves come out. And the violin. And Einstein. And the beach. And we sit in the audience, watching the waves come in and Einstein waving the bow and the waves and sound come into us in the audience. And we sit in the audience and see this all in terms of waves, just as we hear this all in terms of waves, just as the waves come into Einstein on the beach. . .

It’s not easy to experience Einstein on the Beach, that grand collaboration between Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, live on stage, and I mean that in both senses. It premiered in 1976, and then was revived twice at BAM, in 1984 and 1992. It’s fortunate then that I’ve moved back to New York City, where as a surprise the Philip Glass ensemble gave a concert performance of the work at Carnegie Hall in December 2007, roughly marking its 30th anniversary. The performance was wonderful, and left me not so much curious as why it’s such an infrequent event – opera is an enormous and enormously expensive undertaking, after all – but why, a generation later, this work stand so much alone.

It’s puzzling. Glass is arguably the most well known living composer on the planet. He has enormous appeal outside of the world of contemporary classical music, with fans and followers who ordinarily are only interested in rock music. He’s got an increasing number of scores for an increasing number of increasingly popular and well-known films. He’s produce a rock band, Polyrock, and recently collaborated, wonderfully, with Leonard Cohen on the excellent Book of Longing. And, while his work can be uneven and certainly repetitive (no, that’s not a joke; when Glass is weak he falls back on repeating too much previous repetitive material) his operas are a substantial body of work, the first three especially are stunning masterpieces, and Einstein on the Beach is one of the most important works of music for the dramatic stage ever created and one of the most important artistic achievements of the previous century. It opens the door to many areas of exploration and innovation, even more now than 30 years ago, yet no one working in classical music drama, in opera, seems to have gone through any of those doors. A mystery.

Now seems the time for composers to open those doors. What Glass and Wilson did in creating Einstein, and what they could not have realized they were doing at the time, is create a work for operatic stage that demonstrates the strengths and possibilities of art in the digital age.

No, the opera is not made or performed with computers. One of the pleasures of the concert was the ensemble coordination and energy, the dramatic feeling of change when the human voices of the chorus enter, singing something as simple as a sequence of numbers, the physical pleasure of a sustained tenor saxophone solo over pumping keyboard arpeggios, the dry calm of Lucinda Childs and Melvin Van Peebles recitations and Tim Fain’s passionate violin playing in the various “Knee Plays.” The Philip Glass Ensemble is based around electronic keyboards, but his work is completely made for human performance. It’s the style and content of the opera, it’s structure, that matter. Glass’s composing style can also be described as digital in nature. He works with discrete loops of melody, counterpoint and chords and builds small and large-scale pieces by fitting those blocks together – on top of each other, next to each other, cantilevered. His rhythmic augmentation and diminution changes only the relative duration of these blocks, their contents are constant (this gives his work an episodic structure that is not unlike Bruckner, although with a very different sense of time and activity). Digital processes work in a similar fashion; software performs its functions by accessing instructions sets built into a computer’s microprocessor. These sets include instructions for performing operations based in arithmetic, logic, data or program control instructions, and depending on the complexity of a particular action they can be chained together in discrete units to function as directed.

Einstein himself is a figure in the opera, not just in the title, as he sits on stage, playing the violin. Superficially, the work seems to have nothing to do with Einstein’s great breakthroughs in theoretical physics. But the nature of the opera does elide with one of the most important contributions of the scientist. Not the Theory of Relativity, without which the man would never have reached the height of fame from which operas are made, but his conception of light as both particle and wave, simultaneously.

We hear sound as a wave, which is what it is, cycles rolling through the air to tickle our ears, just as we watch waves themselves roll in from the ocean to meet us at the beach, the place where land and sea occupy the same space simultaneously. And if what we hear, from our computer speakers for example, or through our ear-buds, is a wave then what we see is also a wave, one that conveys quanta of particles to our eyes. In terms of what comes off our computer monitors and our television and movie screens, the waves and packets of light from the former are produced via digital technology, through a process of the quantization of discrete bits of information. The words I am just this moment writing, via my keyboard interface, onto the simulation of a piece of paper on my computer screen, are translations in digital quanta from the interface to an image, which recreates them into a simulation of something that I am familiar with, words on a physical page. Until such time as I produce this information on a physical page, these are not really words, but it’s necessary for my computer to interpret my desires to produce these exact words in such a way that I can read them and recognize them, so that I can know if I have actually executed what I intended. The screen is the wave, roughly, of my own production of digital quanta.

This digitization means that I can also take words I have written, or am writing, or will write, and copy them to other locations, move them forward or back, cut them from here and put them there instead. I can even create blank space going forward, down the page, or into the future, if you will, since I need to advance from one particular point, the present, into a point further along, the future. Through the means of digital technology, I can take the idea from my head which is ideally conveyed and best understood in a linear sense, in the logical and orderly presentation of one thing after another, as in a clear plot in a story, and make the same passage discontinuous. Does that necessarily destroy the meaning I mean to convey?

I cut them from here and put them there instead. I will write or, have written, or am writing, and copy them to other locations, passage discontinuous. Does that necessarily destroy the meaning I mean to convey? Move them forward or back I can take the idea from my head, digitization means that I can also take words can even create blank space going forward, down the page, or into the future, if you will. This, which is ideally conveyed and best understood in a linear sense, since I need to advance from one particular point. Through the means of digital technology, the present, into a point further along, the future, in the logical and orderly presentation of one thing after another, as in a clear plot in a story, and make the same.

It doesn’t read in a standard way, but it does express the idea, both in content and in style, even though that style would not ordinarily be accepted as successful. That is, not only does the discontinuity of the altered passage convey the same idea, but also the fact that it conveys the ideas through discontinuous means integrates the content and the style and proves the argument. Einstein on the Beach does this same thing musically, although I don’t believe that Philip Glass and Robert Wilson intended to demonstrate that an opera could be made based on the ideas of information theory. However, that this work can be seen even more effectively through the perspective of the next generation of audiences is a great measure of its artistic success and value.

The opera does not present drama in any conventional sense. There is no story. There are essentially no characters, although there are people who speak, dance and sing. The work presents a rotating sequence of set pieces, repetitive in the nature of Glass’s music. The pieces themselves begin at a particular point and end, since time argues they must, but the opera as a whole has no beginning and end. It starts, has duration, and then ends. But that doesn’t mean that Einstein is empty. Rather, it is full of content, or what in this case is better to call information. It is full of dramatic information, although it makes no arguments towards the meaning of that information, or even they way that information could be considered. The scenes come in discrete quanta, and this structure says more about Einstein then even the title or the work, or the crazy-haired figure with the violin. How we take these quanta is up to us. Every member of the audience can replace and reorder the particular scenes in our own preferred way, and then reorder them at will up to the limits of our memory and our interest. Einstein on the Beach is a means to convey dramatic information to the audience, and the audience has the responsibility, for good or ill, to determine just what the drama is. Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria” produces a similar result, with a narrative of events that seem to follow each other at random, until the final scene ties the entire skein together with emotional concision and power. But that is a movie, and absolutely constrained by the physical limits of film spooling through a projector. And whether it is a movie or the opera, this is by no means easy to accomplish. The order of the work can be rearranged and yet the structure is never anything less than ironclad.

While that is a way the opera can be experienced in performance, and a way which Glass and Wilson encourage audiences to experience it by suggesting that, during a complete performance, people should feel free to wander in and out of the theater as needed during the five hours or so it takes to run through the entire work. Not everyone will actually experience the work this way, however, not all opera-goers want the responsibility of imposing their own structural order on the work they are encountering. Since this is now the digital age, however, anyone with a computer, an internet connection and an account at the iTunes store can indeed experience it just this way, they can literally impose their own order on the work by downloading or importing the work and making their own playlist out of it. The iTunes software is really nothing more than a database, and the flexibility and power of a relational database on a digital platform, even one as minor-league as iTunes, is an astonishing technological change from 30 years ago. It’s a new context which brings out so much more of the inherent quality and power of Einstein.

The iTunes database really begs the question of what composers are doing, or not doing, or missing, when it comes to the possibility of structuring dramatic pieces. iTunes, as a free application, is everywhere, and millions of users have music loaded, or downloaded, into their database. Millions of users/listeners can, at will order and combine individual tracks in any genre available digitally into absolutely any order and structure they desire. It is the mix tape on steroids, crystal-meth and peyote. The means of making the highest quality mix tape – choosing a variety of music and its order, and ensuring that the duration would fit into each side of a 60 or 90 minute cassette, and then taking real time to record that exact duration of music on the tape and most likely having to repeat the process, LP and CD by LP and CD, for each copy of the mix tape – ensured a frequently overly-obsessive attention to the details of song content, style, genre and aesthetic flow from track to track, with the ultimate didactic point of the track order losing focus and direction around the end of side A, never to be recovered . . . With iTunes, a playlist of hundreds, thousands of tracks can be created within seconds or minutes by dragging and dropping tracks, dragging tracks to reorder, listening to fragments of the beginning, middle and end of each track to discern the content and context. Or, with properly obsessive attention to each detail of the database of each track of music in iTunes, a ‘smart’ playlist, which contains every track that contains one or more pre-determined criteria, can be created almost instantaneously. Whether the contents and the results are mundane or thrilling, the technology makes each user/listener an all-powerful impresario of their own database of digital music. Contemporary composers have all the same tools, especially the conceptual ones, to consider their own dramatic materials with the same power and ruthlessness.

Outside of opera, however, there is music that is specifically meant to be re-thought and reordered by each listener, independent of other listeners. This is possible because the music was created for reproduction on a ubiquitous bit of digital technology, the iPod. International Cloud Atlas is a set of pieces for performances by Merce Cunningham’s dance group that were composed and recorded by Mikel Rouse. In performance, each audience member was given an iPod with the music pre-loaded and encouraged to listen to the one hour set with the shuffle feature on, so that the iPod would randomly choose among the ten tracks, and ideally do so in a different random order for as many listeners as possible. Each listener thereby gets a different listening experience from the same piece, and so a very different concert and performance experience within the same context. The same music can be reordered again, at home, via the iTunes database, so that a specific re-ordering can be created out of the listeners’ desire. Rouse’s music is certainly not opera, and his idiom is very much a popular one, with a progressive rock flavor, but International Cloud Atlas is a work for the stage and one that consciously exploits the opportunities available with current music making and reproduction technology, and is a descendant of close relatives of Einstein on the Beach.

Another contemporary musician working with the some of the ideas Einstein suggests and which have become more familiar and pervasive through time is John Zorn. A large part of his work is specifically narrative, though not in any traditional sense. His particular aesthetic sense is filtered through his full-throttle embrace of contemporary culture, with all it’s obviousness and paraphilia, and he has produced a number of abstractly narrative works that use procedures borrowed from and inspired by his love for his cultural environment, like Godard/Spillane , in which the titles say it all. These two works feature brief and highly varied bits of music that follow one in another in rapid and immediate succession, without any consideration of musical transitions of any type.

Unfortunately, each is recorded to a single track and so there’s no way to parse out the subsections into an iTunes database and then reorder them at will, or at the whim of the applications shuffle function. This seems a bit of a shame, since Zorn’s music seems to call out for this treatment, but then again perhaps the random sound world of the pieces is a result of an exacting idea of order and structure. So we are back, not unhappily, at taking the explicit and non-variable and re-creating our own sense of narrative and drama. He takes the film editing of Godard, the tough-guy writing of Mickey Spillane and a musical style and structure learned directly from the slap-dash-bang turn-on-a-dime quick change of cartoon music. Writing about Carl Stalling, the composer of Warner Brothers cartoon music, 1936-1958, Zorn has this to say: “Separating the music from the images it was created to support, it becomes clear that Stalling was one of the most revolutionary visionaries in American music – especially in his conception of time. In following the visual logic of screen action rather than the traditional rules of musical form (development, theme and variations, etc.), Stalling created a radical compositional arc unprecedented in the history of music. . . . No musical style seemed beyond his reach – and his willingness to include them, any and all, whenever necessary (and never gratuitously, I might add) implies an openness – a non-hierarchical musical overview – typical of today’s younger composers, but all too rare before the mid-1960s. All genres of music are equal – no one is inherently better than the other – and with Stalling, all are embraced and spit out in a format closer to Burroughs’ cut-ups, or Godard’s film editing of the 60’s, than to anything happening in the 40’s.” It’s not opera, but he does craft a style of musical juxtaposition and discontinuity that belongs explicitly to the aesthetics of the digital age.

Zorn has not applied this technique to opera, though, and while Rouse has written several hybrid rock-contemporary music operas, they have a linear narrative and musical structure. In the classical field there are contemporary composers who are working with some mix of ideas of dramatic music, contemporary experiences and the ideas and the means of digital technology. Some of this even makes explicit claims to be opera. However much the individual pieces or complete bodies of work may succeed on their own terms, or succeed in laying claims to the contemporary milieu, they fail in terms of opera, and thus fail the results that this argument seeks.

It’s the cut-and-paste idea that, for good or ill, is missing from opera. It’s a musical idea, a technique, so not inherently better or worse than other styles of 20th century music; Neo-Classsicism, Serialism, Aleatory. We’re in a new century now, and digital technology has become so pervasive that it’s easy to overlook the larger, conceptual possibilities it affords. It’s perhaps a human inclination to concentrate on the large-scale, the surprising and the extraordinary. Those certainly grab our attention, and do so dramatically. But we have computers everywhere in the contemporary world, and we use them constantly for personal ease, interest, pleasure – not to mention how many of us have been earning our living with computers and technology. That too should prompt our attentions.

Digital technology gives us portability of media, but, like most computers and their applications, there is a high ceiling of untapped power and possibilities. This portability also has important implications for the structure or opera, again showing a way towards ideas that have yet to be exploited in opera but that are ubiquitous in the experience of contemporary life. If the digital world is one where anything – a photo, a CD, this essay – can be chopped into discrete bits and rearranged so that the same elements have an entirely new effect, then opera can be structured to take advantage of this. An opera of discrete elements, interrelated but each self-contained, can take advantage of digital technology in two important ways; it can be re-ordered at each performance so that the experience and drama could differ without any loss of coherence, and it could be presented to the audience through digital media so that they may re-order the same material in their own ways, recomposing the same structure to find their own meaning and satisfaction in the composer’s material and ideas. This is music as information technology, and the stage – whatever or wherever it may be at this point – is the information media. The new tools of digital technology make this feasible and even easy, but the idea itself should not seem startling because music itself is a form of information, and music notation on manuscript paper is nothing but information technology; it conveys a set of instructions with which musicians produce music. Digital technology is not a better form of this for music, but it is a different one, and just as useful. If Richard Taruskin can write a valid history of music that begins with the start of notation – a means to share musical information beyond hearing in both space and time – then this age awaits the understanding of just how much more musical information can be shared in so many more ways.

First in a series of several articles

How Composers Learn, Part 2

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

They read, and they write, and not music. They read books about all sorts of things other than music. They gather material, experience, knowledge, ideas. They react to these things. And they write.

Composers are, generally, excellent prose writers. This isn’t a surprise when one considers that the way to learn to write well is to read and write – read good writing, and write and rewrite your own. Composers already work towards clarity and precision in a difficult and abstract language, so writing in their own vernacular usually comes fluidly. The goal in both music and prose is clarity and precision of expression, exactitude. Composers get a lot of practice at that, moving slowly from incoherence to coherence, which is both a short-term and a long-term project. The latter covers a career, and former projects such as this, where I write in main part to bring out and stitch together some coherent voices from the riot going on in my mind.

And that’s the fundamental issue; how are ideas made to cohere, particularly complex ideas, because music, even at its seeming simplest, is a language of complexity. And nothing is more complex, not a novel, not computer code, not a credit default swap, than an opera. So John Adams has produced a great opera and a great book.

The striving for coherence also means exploring the way get from here to there, no matter how short the journey may be. For myself, and this post, the journey begins during the live HD broadcast of Dr. Atomic, last Saturday. After seeing the premiere in San Francisco, a dress rehearsal last month and now this broadcast, I am confident of my knowledge and memory of the work (this was also the first Met HD broadcast I’ve seen, and it was a great experience – excellent sound, interesting and intimate backstage views, documentary material added for the movie theater audiences. While I don’t know how well a spectacle like Aida would come across, the ability to experience Dr. Atomic close-up gave emphasis to how fine the production was, and also the overall excellence of the cast).

I was impressed with many things during this performance, beyond the almost overwhelming emotional impact the opera has. There is something powerfully exciting in being a living witness to a work that will last in the literature, and to seeing true, long-term greatness develop in an artist. Adams has gone from being an interesting associate of the American Minimalist style, to a developing Neo-Romantic composer, to a fine American contemporary composer, to a truly great national and international artist who has subtly but effectively pioneered ways to make music fresh in the 21st century. How this all happens is a mystery in some ways, but clear too. While his memoir cannot describe how his craft improves through work, it can describe how his ideas and style change, both serendipitously and willfully. He is asking important, coherent questions about the American experience, as he alluded to in a backstage interview with Susan Graham; he sees the important questions of today as being about politics, terrorism and science. I don’t think he’s wrong.

Like learning to write by reading great writers, Adams has also learned to make a new style by synthesizing those of other composers. It’s not copying or stealing, it’s more like reverse-engineering, taking something apart to see how it works and putting it back together to see if you can make your own version. This is one of the features of Dr. Atomic, which creates the musical drama through standard means – particular phrases that are matched to characters and dramatic moments – and by conveying different styles for different dramatic purposes, very much in the Romantic operatic style and especially taking after the methods of Berg. All this synthesis mates the means of other composers with Adams himself to produce something new; the bustle of activity around the Trinity project comes by way of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, intimate moments between Oppenheimer and Kitty are in the manner of Ravel’s Daphnis et Cloe, while a great deal of the slow rise in tension in the second act comes from lessons Adams has learned from his own music, especially Shaker Loops and his underrated El Dorado.

If composers learn by reading and writing, and writing conveys a sense of thought and knowledge, what to make of the contrast with people who are, astonishingly, paid to write? What to make of this:

I like Sarah Palin, and I’ve heartily enjoyed her arrival on the national stage. As a career classroom teacher, I can see how smart she is — and quite frankly, I think the people who don’t see it are the stupid ones, wrapped in the fuzzy mummy-gauze of their own worn-out partisan dogma. So she doesn’t speak the King’s English — big whoop! There is a powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes. She uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist.

I make it out as someone who knows nothing about music, and can’t think or write coherently. So, no surprise that it’s by Camille Paglia. I read Sexual Personae oh those many years ago, and was struck immediately then, as now, by how she knows nothing at all about music. I don’t mean facts and figures, I mean she can’t listen, she can’t hear it. In that book, she belabored her point by claiming that jazz musicians didn’t dig Debussy because it’s too feminine, which means she’s never heard La Mer or Maiden Voyage. And now this latest drivel. I would say there is a fundamental difference between Sarah Palin and Charlie Parker, and it has to do with intelligence. Parker’s “jumps, breaks and rippling momentum” are impeccably clear and coherent, even at the superhuman speed of his thoughts, even when he was fucked up, which was frequently. My partisan dogma is that I work with language, and like to see it used coherently to convey meaning. Sarah Palin speaks in gibberish, almost randomly tossing out words. She literally makes no sense – I have no idea what she thinks because she cannot say anything that has meaning, so she practically is not thinking anything at all. But that’s okay with political writers like Paglia, or Palin’s sponsor Bill Kristol, another example of how lack of ideas and convictions leads to incoherence. I usually cannot understand what he is trying to say, although it frequently appears to be completely wrong. How’s that new century going, Bill? Strange how this incoherence leads to professional gigs, especially now that I’m unemployed again, and still trying to write whatever I write – essays, music, code – better and better. But then I come from the arts where, like science, bad ideas are left to die, while in politics, we are cursed with them seemingly forever.

[paypal_button hosted_button_id=”XQ4RKEY869EJG”>

Be a regular supporter
Reader : $1.95 USD – monthly
Patron : $5.95 USD – monthly
Philanthropist : $10.95 USD – monthly
Medici : $15.95 USD – monthly

The Man Machine

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

In the fall of 2009, Capitol/EMI issued a lavish and long-awaited box set, collecting the catalogue of recordings of one of the world’s most beloved, and most important, pop music groups. The music this group made was not only great in its own right but revolutionary and hugely influential. Whole genres of popular music of the last forty years are impossible to imagine, and would have been impossible to create, without the legacy of this band, arguably the greatest of all that came out of the rise of pop culture and mass media. That band is, of course, Kraftwerk.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=thbicibl-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=B002LCOQTG

I find the most beautiful lyrics in all of pop music are:

“Radioactivity/It’s in the air for you and me”

I’m neither exaggerating nor being facetious. That brief phrase fills me with a blissful, joyous feeling. Because of all the things in my life, one of my great loves is Kraftwek. Ahhhh, Kraftwerk . . .

If you hit that last link, you saw a good depiction of the group’s aesthetic, and when I say I love them, I love the entire package, the vision that goes beyond just music and conveys what I feel is a vision of the future. Kraftwerk doesn’t offer predictions of the future – they are from the future, coming back to visit us and tell us that everything works, and everything is going to be fine.

So it is some sense of comfort that I find so wonderful in Kraftwerk. The music certainly conveys it. I’m not going to make an objective, critical argument that it is great, but it is great to me. The timbres of the electronic sounds they use please my ear, as do the rhythms, and so I find their music very warm – their sense of humor adds to that. And their is a willful naiveté they embrace that I find utterly charming. You can see it in this early video for “Radioactivity,” which takes something sinister and gives it a bit of sweetness:

Almost 40 years later, they are perhaps wiser, certainly more sober and ‘professional’ in the way they present themselves. No longer time-travellers, they are technocrats, using technology to clean-up the messes made by misguided projects:

Despite the ominous opening, the performance is still uplifting. Radiation is still something to be made beautiful, or around which beauty can grow. In Chernobyl itself, nature is returning, adapting to a new environment rapidly in the absence of human activity. This touches on another Kraftwerk aesthetic, the idea of the beauty of lasting technology. If they are truly visiting us from the future, perhaps they are robots, and what they are telling us is that although mankind no longer exists, the earth abides, and we have left behind beautiful examples of our technology that await rediscovery, perhaps the alien finger hitting the “Play” button. It’s “Wall-E” with a human facade.

Kraftwerk also mark the nexus between technology, engineering, communications and the creative and applied arts. They have always been as much engineers as musicians, engineers of beautiful machines for making music. That idea was not new when they appeared, but it was new in the realm of pop music. Their aesthetic forefathers were the Futurists and their idea of the Art of Noises, and especially the American composer George Antheil.

I think of Antheil as an inventor and a revolutionary, and although he was not a great composer, he was an important one who produced one far-seeing masterpiece. His Ballet mécanique was an idea so far ahead of his era that it is only in the past few years that it can be realized appropriately. It’s a piece for machines, and Antheil envisioned mechanical control of all the instruments, the pianos, xylophones and drums. That was not technically feasible 70 years ago – it’s only with the advent of MIDI sequencing that a good performance can even be ventured, and I had heard enough mediocre realizations to think that the piece was nothing but a mediocre imitation of Stravinsky, with a bit of Varese tossed in.

I’m glad to say that I’m wrong. I saw a performance in the spring of 2008 that finally produced the work as Antheil imagined. It was entirely mechanical. The vital added feature was a number of robotic beaters, built by LEMUR, used to play the xylophones and drums. This were extremely well designed and built, and so the piece could be performed via computer control with a degree of precision that the human ear heard as unvaryingly absolute. And it was stunning, thrilling. It is the workings of machinery and manufacturing made into music, and it is an incredible work. It’s also a nostalgic one, because the factories that the Futurists thought were the cathedrals of a new age are essentially gone. The ones that are left are more and more populated by . . . robots.

And from Antheil, via Kraftwerk, we get to . . . Hip-Hop. Indeed, Hip-Hop is impossible without Kraftwerk, and here’s the Rosetta Stone which proves it:

And why not? Hip-hop is pop music that is pioneering the use of technology in the means of production. To a great extent, it is manufactured music, put together with physical pieces of raw materials (which used to be tape splices and are now digital files). Musicians and producers use machinery to engineer beats, which they sell like tools or cars. Americans are still making things, it seems, adapting the aesthetic of fine German engineering. Now that’s free trade we can believe in, my friends.

Culturally, the affinity between a bunch of pale toningenieurs and a bunch of B-Boys from the Bronx is closer than the skin color and clothing styles might suggest. Kraftwerk carved, via sound, carved out space in the popular imagination that the nexus of music and science-fiction fit into neatly and warmly. And science-fiction, from proto form in the theology of the Nation of Islam and the concepts of Sun Ra, to Rammellzee and the Jonzun Crew, is an important part of African-American popular culture. Again, why not? Imagine that you are born and raised in a country that your forefathers were integral in building, not of their own desire but because that had been taken from their far-away homes and forced into labor, and that, while nominally free and equal, your were regarded in general with hostility and suspicion by the majority population, the ones who engineered your existence here, and most of whom had roots far younger and shallower than yours (yet who claimed to be the true and natural citizens of this land). Wouldn’t you feel like an alien from outer space, wouldn’t you look to someplace off the planet, or some technology that would get you there, as your home, your heaven?

But back to the future. The enduring legacy of Kraftwerk is a utopian one, that the future will be good. It just may not be a human utopia – it’s a place where everything works, and perhaps better because we may not be around anymore. Of all the worthy Kraftwerk tributes out there, I think the best one to end with is this one:

[paypal_button hosted_button_id=”XQ4RKEY869EJG”>

Be a regular supporter
Reader : $1.95 USD – monthly
Patron : $5.95 USD – monthly
Philanthropist : $10.95 USD – monthly
Medici : $15.95 USD – monthly

"You're Still Going to Get Dated"

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

52157.girltalkalbum.jpg

This image proudly not used with permission.

What does it mean to be digital? Only a computer can say for sure, and they’re not talking. As for us human’s, we’re still analog in the way we think and function and act, and I hope we’ll stay that way for the conceivable future. We are not digital, but our tools are increasingly digital. It’s the conflation of the two which leads to the wrong question being asked, which further leads to answers that are jejune and materialistic. Why isn’t Negroponte’s book completely available digitally? Because being digital loses out to making money.

So, asking the wrong question means we can never get close to the answers we need. The right question, I think, is what does it mean to have digital tools? This is the answer that a lot of people and organizations, record labels most famously, are struggling with. Having digital tools means, fundamentally, that information of all kinds can be immediately and widely available (except, of course, “Being Digital”) and that the same information no longer has the structural integrity to which we’re accustomed. We think of things like books and recording as objects, when their physical manifestation is their packaging. This is not to denigrate the packaging – the Kindle has no appeal to me, because their is a physical part of reading that has to to with the pleasure of holding a book, smelling it and turning the pages. The package can also be an important part of the work itself, as it is with McSweeney’s, which consistently finds exciting and satisfying ways to put words in the palm of the reader’s hand. The same is true for music. Although I currently have almost 60GB of digital music, that’s still far less than what I have on CDs, and digital music cannot produce the same rich packaging that is possible with the physical object.

Still, what books and music are, fundamentally, are structured sequences of words and sounds, and those exist independently of their packaging. And those can be digitized. With that, all of a sudden, a book or recording can be broken down to its component parts. Again, and this is because we are proudly analog machines, with a free-flowing and unpredictable imagination, this is not a new idea or procedure. But with digital tools, it’s far easier to make use of these opportunities than it was when scissors, razor blades, glue and tape were the means of (re)production.

Artists have been challenging the integrity of works for at least 2000 years, and it was the early 20th century that saw the creation of new work from fragments of other work become a codified method. With digital tools, this method suddenly becomes available to everyone, and this is the exciting and to some worrying possibility. We are all post-modern now, and in the dated, practical, not theoretical sense. The means of (re)production are in the hands of the masses, and development of material history that Karl Marx never predicted, especially because he didn’t have much use for the masses themselves. However, when you see how frightened politicians, news organizations and especially record companies are of the digital masses, it’s clear that we are seeing some constructive threats to the status quo. That part is good; most politicians, news organizations and record companies are ignorant, stupid and sclerotic, knowing only “how things are done,” rather than knowing howto do things, and of benefit to only a very small circle of people.

The part that’s not good, however, is that revolutionaries are also utopians, and attempts to create utopias on earth always end up damaging people’s lives, often permanently. With digital music, i.e. the world of sampling and file sharing, the damage is taking money out of the hands of the actual producers, the musicians themselves. And it’s happening, clothed in the easy language of anti-corporate rhetoric. I have no sympathy for the giant music labels – they bully, they use their weight to take possession of work they themselves did not make, charge almost $20 for something that takes about $.75 to produce, and pay salaries to a select few that have no actual relation to the worth of their work/contribution. The fact that musicians can now produce well-made music inexpensively and sell it, digitally, directly to listeners is fantastic. But there’s some problems as well.

Take Girl Talk, and his new record “Feed The Animals.” Until last week I had never heard of him, and now, as if he were my proverbial tipping point, I not only have heard him enough but I’ve been brought to the point of . . . blogging! Indeed! I read the article with interest and was moved to download “Feed The Animals” as a sort of experiment. I used to spin records at dances in college, and I love radio, so for a long time that was what my idea of a DJ was. I’ve been interested in this rising and hazy connection between DJs as record spinners and DJs as musicians – something that digital technology makes incredibly simple – and I certainly see the possibilities in have previously recorded music and sound available as the raw materials to make new music. What seemed different about Girl Talk was his use of well-known contemporary material and his complete thumbing his nose at the idea of copyright (here I should mention that as a composer, I think copyright is important in that people should be able to not only make money from their own work but have it identified as their creation, but I also think copyright is granted for too long and is too restrictive). Composers and musicians have been making music out of other people’s music for more than a thousand years, that is they have used previous material as a basis for making their own new work. It’s how composers learn and it’s how jazz is made in general and it’s how garage bands practice. Now it’s become an entire branch of pop music, and people like DJ Shadow and especially DJ Spooky are taking material and truly transforming it into their own new work, and no a more avant-garde basis Christian Marclay has been doing tremendously creative work for decades, making music out of old LPs, the ultimate DJ as musician, and a point where they package and the content are equally important material.

So then, I wanted to hear this for myself, and I came at it feeling a bit of sympathy for his defiance of the record companies. But this was an experiment for me, and since he himself is freely taking other people’s material, I felt that $1 spent on “Feed The Animals” was appropriate. I’ve now listened to it, and I think it has two serious flaws, one philosophical and one aesthetic. But first I want to say that it is incredibly accomplished technically. Just because digital tools make it possible to splice together and mash-up recordings doesn’t make it easy to master. And it is masterful. Aesthetically, it’s interesting to hear bits and pieces of contemporary pop history appear over the transom, little evocative surprises; “What is that from?”, “I know that!”. It’s also, ultimately, dull, relentlessly 4/4 square, a digitally quantized beat and the same tempo and dynamic level for the entire length. Girl Talk says he wants to be a musician, not just a party DJ, but he’s not the former and not much of the latter, it seems. Though the impression I get is that’s okay with his fans, mainly young and white, who want music to drink beer to.

The biggest problem, though, is not musical. Girl Talk is proud of not paying rights, which means he’s proud to be a criminal, because the record is pure theft. I am a great believer in fair use, and also in giving that as generous an interpretation as possible. But when Girl Talk uses a songs entire lyric, sampled as is and recast but not transformed into his own material in the least, that’s is simply not fair use. That is plagiarism. Fair use exists to allow discussion of work and to allow the creation of new work from older material. Girl Talk is doing neither. The article states that his is possible because “his samples are short, and his music sounds so little like the songs he takes from . . . ” is simply not true, and anyone with ears can hear that it is otherwise. His samples are extensive and his use is so mechanical and so without musical quality and thought – he has not made music so much as shown how other music can be stacked and shoved together – that there is none of his own quality in the record.

An example of what I feel falls under fair use, and which takes previous material and transforms it into something utterly new, and wonderful, is the work of Ergo Phizmiz. His collaboration with People Like Us on “Perpetuum Mobile” is delightful and astonishing, made with great humor and musicality. Here is a case where most of the samples are indeed short, and at best only vaguely identifiable as perhaps something heard in passing, somewhere, sometime before. The more extensive samples are turned into new pieces of music that successfully take old memory, of which music is the ideal art, into new memory. The difference may fundamentally be that instead of revving up a party to a specific number of beats per minute – and how unbearably material and dull is that – they seek to make music. That’s what makes a musician, and what makes possible the new out of the old. Here’s an interesting take on that process.

Digital tools especially made “Perpetuum Mobile” possible, the collaborative process and the final production. This is a whole new world of music that is happening right now and is genuinely new. Musical ideas have been reworked through history, by Bach and Mozart and Stravinsky and before and beyond. But now actual music, that actual piece of grooved vinyl or magnetic tape or binary code is being reworked in an almost physical process, and digital music making is starting to require an entirely new way of thinking about make music. I welcome this, and I welcome that fact that anyone with a Mac and a microphone can make a record. There’s a lot of musicality out there, and the means of production are now in the hands of the artists. I think more than anything else that is what scares the record companies. They existed to finance huge chunks of studio time and to distribute recordings, but now musicians don’t need the studio and can distribute everything themselves. The chairman of UMG should make himself useful coming up with a better business model. It’s not like it isn’t out there. The established companies that I see taking advantage of the ease of recording and distribution are DG and Decca, as well as the in-house labels of institutions like the Chicago Symphony. Yeah, it’s the stodgy world of classical music that has adapted to new technology the best (that and Peter Gabriel, of course). Recording complete concerts and making them digital downloads, with PDF booklets, is simple and brilliant. No expensive takes and retakes in the studio, and a unique musical experience. Want to hear great orchestras play great music in the concert hall? There it is. Also, if the prices I’ve been buying this stuff at are truly accurate, than these same type of labels are making profits off their excellent back catalogs and still making it dirt cheap for the consumer (hurry, the comparable Eugene Ormandy set I paid $9.99 three weeks ago is now $49.99 download). By offering something unique at a good price they essentially remove the need or desire for file sharing. It’s not complicated. But of course these labels don’t need to huge margins to finance their CEOs’ salaries.

I’m sorry I spent that $1 though. And I don’t doubt the thief is going to keep it. You should go take it for free, though. And pass it around.

"You're Still Going to Get Dated"

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

52157.girltalkalbum.jpg

This image proudly not used with permission.

What does it mean to be digital? Only a computer can say for sure, and they’re not talking. As for us human’s, we’re still analog in the way we think and function and act, and I hope we’ll stay that way for the conceivable future. We are not digital, but our tools are increasingly digital. It’s the conflation of the two which leads to the wrong question being asked, which further leads to answers that are jejune and materialistic. Why isn’t Negroponte’s book completely available digitally? Because being digital loses out to making money.

So, asking the wrong question means we can never get close to the answers we need. The right question, I think, is what does it mean to have digital tools? This is the answer that a lot of people and organizations, record labels most famously, are struggling with. Having digital tools means, fundamentally, that information of all kinds can be immediately and widely available (except, of course, “Being Digital”) and that the same information no longer has the structural integrity to which we’re accustomed. We think of things like books and recording as objects, when their physical manifestation is their packaging. This is not to denigrate the packaging – the Kindle has no appeal to me, because their is a physical part of reading that has to to with the pleasure of holding a book, smelling it and turning the pages. The package can also be an important part of the work itself, as it is with McSweeney’s, which consistently finds exciting and satisfying ways to put words in the palm of the reader’s hand. The same is true for music. Although I currently have almost 60GB of digital music, that’s still far less than what I have on CDs, and digital music cannot produce the same rich packaging that is possible with the physical object.

Still, what books and music are, fundamentally, are structured sequences of words and sounds, and those exist independently of their packaging. And those can be digitized. With that, all of a sudden, a book or recording can be broken down to its component parts. Again, and this is because we are proudly analog machines, with a free-flowing and unpredictable imagination, this is not a new idea or procedure. But with digital tools, it’s far easier to make use of these opportunities than it was when scissors, razor blades, glue and tape were the means of (re)production.

Artists have been challenging the integrity of works for at least 2000 years, and it was the early 20th century that saw the creation of new work from fragments of other work become a codified method. With digital tools, this method suddenly becomes available to everyone, and this is the exciting and to some worrying possibility. We are all post-modern now, and in the dated, practical, not theoretical sense. The means of (re)production are in the hands of the masses, and development of material history that Karl Marx never predicted, especially because he didn’t have much use for the masses themselves. However, when you see how frightened politicians, news organizations and especially record companies are of the digital masses, it’s clear that we are seeing some constructive threats to the status quo. That part is good; most politicians, news organizations and record companies are ignorant, stupid and sclerotic, knowing only “how things are done,” rather than knowing howto do things, and of benefit to only a very small circle of people.

The part that’s not good, however, is that revolutionaries are also utopians, and attempts to create utopias on earth always end up damaging people’s lives, often permanently. With digital music, i.e. the world of sampling and file sharing, the damage is taking money out of the hands of the actual producers, the musicians themselves. And it’s happening, clothed in the easy language of anti-corporate rhetoric. I have no sympathy for the giant music labels – they bully, they use their weight to take possession of work they themselves did not make, charge almost $20 for something that takes about $.75 to produce, and pay salaries to a select few that have no actual relation to the worth of their work/contribution. The fact that musicians can now produce well-made music inexpensively and sell it, digitally, directly to listeners is fantastic. But there’s some problems as well.

Take Girl Talk, and his new record “Feed The Animals.” Until last week I had never heard of him, and now, as if he were my proverbial tipping point, I not only have heard him enough but I’ve been brought to the point of . . . blogging! Indeed! I read the article with interest and was moved to download “Feed The Animals” as a sort of experiment. I used to spin records at dances in college, and I love radio, so for a long time that was what my idea of a DJ was. I’ve been interested in this rising and hazy connection between DJs as record spinners and DJs as musicians – something that digital technology makes incredibly simple – and I certainly see the possibilities in have previously recorded music and sound available as the raw materials to make new music. What seemed different about Girl Talk was his use of well-known contemporary material and his complete thumbing his nose at the idea of copyright (here I should mention that as a composer, I think copyright is important in that people should be able to not only make money from their own work but have it identified as their creation, but I also think copyright is granted for too long and is too restrictive). Composers and musicians have been making music out of other people’s music for more than a thousand years, that is they have used previous material as a basis for making their own new work. It’s how composers learn and it’s how jazz is made in general and it’s how garage bands practice. Now it’s become an entire branch of pop music, and people like DJ Shadow and especially DJ Spooky are taking material and truly transforming it into their own new work, and no a more avant-garde basis Christian Marclay has been doing tremendously creative work for decades, making music out of old LPs, the ultimate DJ as musician, and a point where they package and the content are equally important material.

So then, I wanted to hear this for myself, and I came at it feeling a bit of sympathy for his defiance of the record companies. But this was an experiment for me, and since he himself is freely taking other people’s material, I felt that $1 spent on “Feed The Animals” was appropriate. I’ve now listened to it, and I think it has two serious flaws, one philosophical and one aesthetic. But first I want to say that it is incredibly accomplished technically. Just because digital tools make it possible to splice together and mash-up recordings doesn’t make it easy to master. And it is masterful. Aesthetically, it’s interesting to hear bits and pieces of contemporary pop history appear over the transom, little evocative surprises; “What is that from?”, “I know that!”. It’s also, ultimately, dull, relentlessly 4/4 square, a digitally quantized beat and the same tempo and dynamic level for the entire length. Girl Talk says he wants to be a musician, not just a party DJ, but he’s not the former and not much of the latter, it seems. Though the impression I get is that’s okay with his fans, mainly young and white, who want music to drink beer to.

The biggest problem, though, is not musical. Girl Talk is proud of not paying rights, which means he’s proud to be a criminal, because the record is pure theft. I am a great believer in fair use, and also in giving that as generous an interpretation as possible. But when Girl Talk uses a songs entire lyric, sampled as is and recast but not transformed into his own material in the least, that’s is simply not fair use. That is plagiarism. Fair use exists to allow discussion of work and to allow the creation of new work from older material. Girl Talk is doing neither. The article states that his is possible because “his samples are short, and his music sounds so little like the songs he takes from . . . ” is simply not true, and anyone with ears can hear that it is otherwise. His samples are extensive and his use is so mechanical and so without musical quality and thought – he has not made music so much as shown how other music can be stacked and shoved together – that there is none of his own quality in the record.

An example of what I feel falls under fair use, and which takes previous material and transforms it into something utterly new, and wonderful, is the work of Ergo Phizmiz. His collaboration with People Like Us on “Perpetuum Mobile” is delightful and astonishing, made with great humor and musicality. Here is a case where most of the samples are indeed short, and at best only vaguely identifiable as perhaps something heard in passing, somewhere, sometime before. The more extensive samples are turned into new pieces of music that successfully take old memory, of which music is the ideal art, into new memory. The difference may fundamentally be that instead of revving up a party to a specific number of beats per minute – and how unbearably material and dull is that – they seek to make music. That’s what makes a musician, and what makes possible the new out of the old. Here’s an interesting take on that process.

Digital tools especially made “Perpetuum Mobile” possible, the collaborative process and the final production. This is a whole new world of music that is happening right now and is genuinely new. Musical ideas have been reworked through history, by Bach and Mozart and Stravinsky and before and beyond. But now actual music, that actual piece of grooved vinyl or magnetic tape or binary code is being reworked in an almost physical process, and digital music making is starting to require an entirely new way of thinking about make music. I welcome this, and I welcome that fact that anyone with a Mac and a microphone can make a record. There’s a lot of musicality out there, and the means of production are now in the hands of the artists. I think more than anything else that is what scares the record companies. They existed to finance huge chunks of studio time and to distribute recordings, but now musicians don’t need the studio and can distribute everything themselves. The chairman of UMG should make himself useful coming up with a better business model. It’s not like it isn’t out there. The established companies that I see taking advantage of the ease of recording and distribution are DG and Decca, as well as the in-house labels of institutions like the Chicago Symphony. Yeah, it’s the stodgy world of classical music that has adapted to new technology the best (that and Peter Gabriel, of course). Recording complete concerts and making them digital downloads, with PDF booklets, is simple and brilliant. No expensive takes and retakes in the studio, and a unique musical experience. Want to hear great orchestras play great music in the concert hall? There it is. Also, if the prices I’ve been buying this stuff at are truly accurate, than these same type of labels are making profits off their excellent back catalogs and still making it dirt cheap for the consumer (hurry, the comparable Eugene Ormandy set I paid $9.99 three weeks ago is now $49.99 download). By offering something unique at a good price they essentially remove the need or desire for file sharing. It’s not complicated. But of course these labels don’t need to huge margins to finance their CEOs’ salaries.

I’m sorry I spent that $1 though. And I don’t doubt the thief is going to keep it. You should go take it for free, though. And pass it around.