David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: April 2003 (page 2 of 4)

Entertainment Through Stomach-aches: Suicide, Keith Rowe, Masayuki Takayanagi

Out of Nick Hornby’s 31 significant pop songs, there are four that I’d claim reasonable familiarity with, and two that I actually like. And the only one of those that I was curious to hear his thoughts on is Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop,” which didn’t make it on to the cd that comes with the book, even though there was plenty of room left and I can’t imagine the licensing would have been too expensive. (I couldn’t have resisted, anyway.) Of course there’s a reason, which is that Hornby feels differently about “Frankie” than about the other tunes:

I need no convincing that life is scary. I’m forty-four, and it has got quite scary enough already–I don’t need anyone trying to jolt me out of my complacency. Friends have started to die of incurable diseases, leaving loved ones, in some cases young children, behind. My son has been diagnosed with a severe disability [autism], and I don’t know what the future holds for him. And, of course, at any moment there is the possibility that some lunatic will fly a plane into my house, or a nuclear power plant….So let me find complacency and safety where I can, and please forgive me if I don’t want to hear “Frankie Teardrop” right now.

I’m going to ignore the pathos (some would say bathos) here, other than to note that I’m not a fan, and just say that this is a pretty strong reaction to a shock-horror story complete with screaming about a Vietnam veteran shooting his wife, kids, and self over a minimal synthesizer pulse. It’s not pleasant, but even the first time I heard it I thought it was dull–listen to “Cheree” and “Rocket USA” off the album for better results.

What I don’t get is that the “song” works on the level of an exploitation flick (if you can believe it, Bruce Springsteen is supposedly a fan), so a more understandable response would be distaste, not repulsion or fear. I can see that Hornby might not want to hear it for the same reason I don’t want to watch Michael Haneke or Takashi Miike movies, but the thing shouldn’t pose the sort of moral threat he attributes to it. It’s possible there’s some past association or memory, or simply a visceral fear implanted by Alan Vega’s loud screeching, but this is a secondary effect; primarily, it’s like wanting to avoid the sound of jackhammers. I don’t want to listen to Suicide when I have a headache or when I’m stressed, but even less do I want to listen to DJ Scud.

Since it’s difficult to make music representational, the associations one has with it tend to be on the level of pure physiological or conditioned effect: major chords equal happy, sine waves equal pain, Yamaha DX-7’s equal 1980’s, etc., etc. This is why Throbbing Gristle‘s music never reached the disturbing heights it had pretenses towards: gross-out lyrics over thin synthesizers only at most have the association of mild nausea. If you want raw, elegaic emotion, Shayne Carter and Peter Jefferies’ “Randolph’s Going Home” has it in rare doses, but the sadness isn’t painful. Neither is “Frankie,” which is less effective emotionally as well.

Consequently, as you reach towards representation in less idiomatic areas, as clicheed associations become less accessible, physiology becomes paramount. Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” doesn’t make it onto the stereo too often because it induces acute nausea in me and others (those damn frequencies), but the work is effectively symbolic rather than representational; you could call it “Threnody for Your Long-Suffering Stomach” and its effect on me wouldn’t differ. The association with the historical event is secondary, and requires conscious effort to appreciate, an effort which would be easier to make if my innards didn’t feel so attenuated.

Keith Rowe has spent decades in the free-improv ensemble AMM, who always maintained that there was a strong political side to their work. Drummer Eddie Prevost has been the most vocal about it, but there’s one quote of Rowe’s on his solo album Harsh that addresses these particular issues:

I wanted the CD to become more of a statement about “harshness”, rather than merely a “recording” of a performance. A music that reflects something about the harshness of the lives of the majority of the world’s people, economic harshness, political harshness, cultural harshness. A music that presents questions about taste, the nature of performance, technique, an arena of problems rather than solutions. Where we find long sections of unrelenting, constant, enduring, unforgiving sound, the grinding functionality of unformulated techniques, often unpleasant.

This is actually fairly complicated. The album is pretty damn harsh (the three pieces are called “Quite”, “Very”, and “Extremely”), but those who are going to find it unpleasant are (a) going to be those least familiar with this sort of music and therefore least likely to pick the album up, and (b) are those least likely to make the representational connection with other sorts of “harshness” in the first place, since Rowe’s harshness will be so unpleasant for them. As for me, I like the disc (when I don’t have a headache), but the problems it presents to me are concertedly aesthetic.

In contrast, there is another solo guitar album that has a very different effect on me: Masayuki Takayanagi’s Inanimate Nature. From what I gather (I don’t speak Japanese), Takayanagi had prickly, outspoken political and aesthetic views not dissimilar to Rowe’s, but the “emotional noise projection” of Inanimate Nature is something else entirely. It doesn’t make me physically ill, but the album gives off such an ineffable bad vibe (without any noticeable abuse of volume or frequencies) that I’m usually in a noticeably worse mood after I finish listening to it. It presumably goes under the physiological rubric, but the impact is so primarily mental that for non-eliminativists it could easily move into the realm of the metaphysical. It’s a rare effect that deserves investigation and I think it’s a great album anyway, but please forgive me if I don’t want to hear Inanimate Nature right now.


Let us consider this [weblogger]. His [writing] is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the [reader] a little too quick. He [posts] a little too eagerly; his [words], his [responses] express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the [reader]. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his [writing] the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while [revising] his [site] with the recklessness of a tightrope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a slight movement of the [topic at hand]. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his [posts] as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a [weblogger].

The source is Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

Lucretius on Apprehension

From De Rerum Natura (Rolfe Humphries translation):

Or is this
More probable?–that in a single time,
No longer than it takes an eye to blink
Or mouth to utter half a syllable,
Below this instant, this split-second, lie
Times almost infinite, which reason knows
As presences, and in each presence dwells
Its own peculiar image, all of them
So tenuous no mind is sharp enough
To see them all, must focus, concentrate
On only one, so all the rest are lost
Except the one mind has determined on.
Mind does prepare itself, and hopes to see,
Anticipates the next successive image,
And therefore finds it, as it must.

Lucretius seems to have had something of a short-attention span; a page after this he’s offering a preview of Darwin and tearing apart Aristotle’s causes. Most of De Rerum Natura is more metaphysically oriented, but I noticed this little passage, which seems to be very much tied to apprehension.

Lucretius draws on the Presocratics a fair amount; his atomism and materialism draws on Empedocles, and here there’s a bit of Zeno. The question of the mind imposing structures on empirical data wasn’t new, but the emphasis is on paying attention not to aspects of a moment, but to one moment out of many, and from first principles inferring the causality of the next moment (and all those in between).

The continuity of time, then, is assembled from fenceposts taken by the attention of the mind, which, like attention, are not arbitrarily chosen. The sequence of anticipation to a necessary finding of the anticipated moment seems to imply that the flow of time was not as fundamental as Lucretius’s eternal atoms; rather, it’s something that the mind participates in.

Ursonate, Kurt Schwitters

When I first heard Ursonate, I thought it was the tedious ramblings of a mental patient. The dadaist Schwitters is better known for his paintings, but his sound poetry has had a more esoteric influence. Ursonate in particular was one of the earliest works to treat pure spoken syllables as musical form. Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara were playing in similar areas, but Schwitters’ work has more of a pleasing, formally poetic structure. So said Schwitters:

You yourself will certainly feel the rhythm, slack or strong, high or low, taut or loose.

I heard it years later with more open ears, and felt the rhythm, but also felt the boredom. Over the course of about forty-five minutes, Schwitters’ stiff recitation of the score couldn’t sustain interest:

Fümms bö wä tää zää Uu, pögiff, kwiiee. 
Dedesnn nn rrrrr, Ii Ee, mpiff tillff toooo, tillll, Jüü-Kaa? 
Rinnzekete bee bee nnz krr müüüü, ziiuu ennze ziiuu rinnzkrrmüüüü, 
Rakete bee bee. 

And that was that, until I recently heard Eberhard Blum’s version. Blum is mostly known as a flautist who worked with Morton Feldman and recorded some of his longer endurance tests. But his version of Ursonate is revelatory. There are three other versions here: Schwitters’ original, and links to Jaap Blonk’s rather bombastic recital (I prefer him on his own work, which is more pyrotechnical and more playful) and Christian Bok’s rather overexcited version, about which he says:

[My] “Ursonate” is what I imagine the poem by Kurt Schwitters might sound like if performed at high speed by F.T. Marinetti.

Blonk and Bok’s versions benefit from being delivered at roughly twice the speed of the original, but I didn’t make it through either of them in one sitting.

Blum’s version is different, though it’s also just as fast. His voice is far more sonorous, and he works very hard to bring in traditional musical qualities to the text; he comes closer to singing it than any of the others, and there are discernable notes and even melodies that get associated with specific phrases. This makes it all easier to take, but it also vindicates Schwitters’ original text: given enough of a dynamic vocalizing, sections stick in the memory more easily and Schwitters’ structure becomes more apparent. The irony is that Blum has to bring so much traditional musical baggage in to draw out these qualities.

Unfortunately, the Blum version is out of print, a casualty of the Hat label, but I can offer an excerpt from the third movement: Scherzo (2 mb). Reissue!

Invisible Adjunct on Grad School

I have to put in a plug for Invisible Adjunct’s incredibly moving entry on grad school and “unalienated labor.” After years of sniping, resentful articles in the New York Observer and endless reports of backbiting from inside the academy, she comes much closer to distilling the conflicts between embodying a life of critical thought and achieving subsistence and harmony in the world. IA also isolates the sort of legitimacy conferred on studies by the academy. It’s not just being printed up by a university press and the establishment of norms and rankings for work; it’s the validation of a life and lifestyle based around that work. Even if it’s only people giving each other’s existence legitimacy a la Quine, it can be invaluable in the ideal situation. As Ray Davis points out, the ideal situation is rather uncommon.

I was speaking to someone yesterday about grad school. He happily reported that he had just been accepted to a graduate program and proceeded to tell me how highly the program was ranked, how the school was one of the top ten for this sort of work, how 80% of their graduates got tenure, how respected the professors were in their fields, his sizeable stipend, how much they wanted him to come. I’m happy for him, of course, but I’d be happier if the first thing he’d mentioned was what he wanted to study. I’d be happier (and less worried) if he’d even brought it up.

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