Wednesday, September 03, 2008

More Blogging About Buildings and Sound

It's been quite a busy week, hasn't it? The Democratic convention wrapped up, Putin continued coaxing heat from long-cold embers, Japan lost its second prime minister in as many years, New Orleans was struck by a dreadful deja-vu, Thailand's esteem as a vacationer's paradise plummeted, and (as put it) Hurricane Bristol hit Minnesota. As the above links give away, I've been listening to an inordinate amount of Nick Cave because his dank, sleazy Jeremiads seem well-suited to the atmosphere. But I'm not interested in talking about Nick Cave today.

My friend JD is a devotee of '70s big-band funk & r'n'b - the Gap Band, Chic, P-Funk, and the like. Last week, he noted that (outside the state fair circuit) this species of act has gone extinct, and wondered aloud why this happened. The easy answer is that their moment in the sun had expired and they had to hang up their sequined jumpsuits. But that's as intellectually satisfying as saying 9/11 happened because They Hate Our Freedom.

A better explanation would be an economic one. The ascension of hip-hop in the late '70s was nothing less than the first homemade-music revolution: no longer was it necessary to have bulky amps, prohibitively priced instruments, PA, or (often the most troublesome variable) a secure practice space. If there was a turntable in the household, there was the sole necessary musical tool. By tapping into a streetlight's electricity, a home stereo could turn a park or street corner into a music venue as MCs battled unamplified in public.

This phenomenon grew exponentially and across genres with the advent of samplers, 4-track cassette recorders, and laptop computers equipped with a plethora of user-friendly software. In The Psychic Soviet, Ian Svenonius argued that a housing crunch exacerbated the trend towards smaller ensembles and amateur production. Following the urban blights of the 1980s, the forces of gentrification launched a full-scale invasion of major cities in the 1990s, leading to vanishing vacancy rates and skyrocketing rents. When a basement efficiency is costing upwards of 60% of your income, you can't afford to be concerned about practice space - you make the most of what you've got.

There's also the social element to consider. Bands are considered creatively compromising by, uh, everyone who's ever been in a band, which is why they all break up, spin off, or implode. The chance to be the lone (wo)man on the mic, solo and center-stage, is irresistible to the ego. As a matter of format, hip-hop is a soloist's idiom. Particularly gifted - or at least bankable - MCs can have their pick of the production litter while remaining the locus of attention, if only because they're the sole constant over the course of a whole album. Conversely, a skilled producer also adept at rhyming can run the whole show unfettered by conflicting opinions.

Also, though there's an unmatched magic in the balance of multiple strong personalities, every additional person in a creative venture represents a risk. At best, they're an extra voice in the conversation, but at worst they're a liability - a truth clear to those familiar with Professor Griff of Public Enemy, The Game, or, heck, Scott Weiland.

Having taken extensive notes, the rock underground (Jacking black culture since 1951!) has produced its own reconstitutions of the above creative considerations. Electroclash, mash-ups, chiptune, hardware-free solid-state techno, whatever the fuck it is village idiot Dan Deacon does - these are all self-produced, small-ensemble subgenres born of cost-efficient equipment and claustrophobic spaces. But unlike hip-hop, they're also tainted by the nebbish indie insistence upon an intrinsic smallness of the music; when made, grand gestures and spectacle invariably wink so hard the irony drips out like crocodile tears.

And so begins the bitter expostulatory portion of the essay! Following the analogous relationship between religion and music, I'd define myself as a kind of gnostic pentecostal; my philosophy is antithetical to Momus' anti-metaphysical "superflat" nihilism. Consequently, I find that the deconstructive materialism of much indie rock misses the whole point, smirking itself into an artistic Limbo instead of shooting the moon with the crosshairs on Heaven. There's little solace in hip-hop either, but for an entirely different reason: I find the human voice to be an invasive, traumatic presence. Card-carrying Lacanian Slavoj Žižek put it in layman's terms in his Pervert's Guide to Cinema:
Voice is not an organic part of the human body, it is coming from somewhere in-between your body. Whenever we talk to another person, there is always this minimum of ventriloquist effect, as if some foreign power took possession... It is as if we are expecting the famous scene from Ridley Scott's Alien to repeat itself. As if we have just waited for some terrifying, alien, evil-looking small animal to jump out.
In that regard, most of my favourite vocalists are pointedly unpleasant, exaggerating their assaultive presence within the music: David Yow, Mark E. Smith, El-P, early Nick Cave. (He made it into the conversation after all!) If only because their skills are rooted in street-corner braggadocio, most MCs have no interest in psychically unsettling the listener. They opt instead for either political discomfort (considerably easier to dismiss), or paying tribute to their own boundless star-power.

Though this comes as no suprise given how often I refer to His Worship Kevin Shields, the music I find most effective is a pan-sensual miasma, a syrupy narcosis, or a searing hail of sonic shrapnel. It boasts mass and velocity, but of a mercurial, chaotic sort. The music that ultimately means anything to me is an audial short-circuit to Stendhal Syndrome - immersive, overwhelming, yet organic. Being a mechanical artifice, the digital is incapable of transcendence. As noted last week, "Events that don't happen in air have no medium for existence, sounds made in a totally digital environment are effectively stillborn" - or, more horrifying, undead. But, stripped of digital alchemy, it becomes very difficult to produce music capable of sensory overload as a solo act.

And so, for all the squabbles, cramped quarters, and clumsy stacks of equipment... we're back in a big room, full of hotheaded humans, armed with steel, wood, and speakers.

By the way, the next time Earth, Wind & Fire come to your town, check 'em out. I hear they're still able to kill it. Click on the mix title to download.

Sensory Overloud

1. Ashra - "77 Slightly Delayed" (00:00)
2. Can - "Oh Yeah" (06:31)
3. Fugazi - "Steady Diet" (13:45)
4. The Jesus & Mary Chain - "Upside Down" (17:23)
5. Faust - "Krautrock" (20:16)
6. Brian Eno - "Here Come the Warm Jets" (27:45)
7. Tim Hecker - "Blood Rainbow" (31:30)
8. Jonny Greenwood - "Henry Plainview" (35:19)
9. My Bloody Valentine - "All I Need" (35:48)
10. Sonic Youth - "Eric's Trip" (38:47)
11. Tricky - "Christiansands" (42:32)
12. Fela Kuti - "Roforofo Fight" (46:11)
13. Boredoms - "Super Going" (53:57)
14. The Psychic Paramount - "Gamelan Into the Mink Supernatural" (01:05:56)
15. The Beatles - "Tomorrow Never Knows" (01:15:48)

Non-Sequitorial Postscript: Well, a pity - looks like we no longer live "in a whurruld..."


Momus said...

People who love life too much to need metaphysics could only be described as "nihilists" if you think that the metaphysical realm is the only possible source of value.

Seb said...

I might've expected a direct response to that; after all, no one likes being accused of "nihilism" - not even nihilists.

So - Life, eh? Well, that broadens the scope considerably, at least so far that I'd hope neither your ideology nor mine could be glibly summed up in about four words. In that bright, diffuse light, I'm an athiest - pretty far from either gnosticism or pentecostalism, and obviously not of the belief that value lies only in the metaphysical. (Though don't lump me in with the Ayn Rand materialist-individualism crowd. A bunch of spoiled solipsists straight out of Bonfire of the Vanities.)

The slinging of labels had strictly to do with musical philosophy, à la Svenonius. In that context, I imagine you can forgive me for attaching the "nihilist" tag to sentiments such as, "I'm all about not meaning it, and being quite happy with flatness and inhibition." Though I suppose such thinking could as easily be linked to Buddhist self-annihilation, or perhaps Benedictine Catholicism, if spun properly.