David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: December 2004 (page 1 of 3)

2004 Music Wrap-Up/Geek-Out

The most memorable piece of music criticism I read this year was Dan Warburton’s Time, gentlemen, please. Warburton acutely describes the sheer impossibility of listening to, much less reviewing, the onslaught of avant-garde albums coming his way. (I would call it Sisyphean, but his rock never seems to make even temporary progress.)

Next to his valiant efforts, it seems silly for me to construct a best-of list from the paltry number of albums I heard this year. But I figure I’ll still use my small soapbox to boost my subjective and non-authoritative favorites out of what did cross my way.

I did much of my listening in the subway this year, and consequently heard a lot more pop, jazz, and classical music, and a lot less of anything requiring attention to timbral subtleties or the layering of sounds. Next to the uppercase sounds of the trains, especially the far louder older models, it seemed pointless to listen to music that wasn’t primarily melodic. There are some improv musicians I still intensely follow–Otomo Yoshihide, G&#xfcnter M&#xfcller, Tim Berne, Franz Hautzinger–but in general I pursued that scene much less than in prior years.

So here’s the (unordered) baker’s dozen:

Tetuzi Akiyama/Martin Ng: Oimacta Ng on turntables, Akiyama on filthy, metallic acoustic guitar. Dirt and drone.

Autistic Daughters: Jealousy and Diamond A sentimental choice, actually. I haven’t been a fan of Dean Roberts’ noisier, more experimental work, but somehow when playing pop songs, he uncannily summons up the sounds and spirits of Kiwi music of the 80’s, music that I have loved since I was 14. Roberts is from New Zealand, but I’ve never heard him sound like this before. In that context, Martin Brandlmayr’s intricate, precise drumming (his sounds remind me of Tony Oxley, but not the way he uses them) is totally anomalous, but enjoyable anyway.

Bach: Mass in B minor (cond. Celibidache) A very late addition to the list. Since I don’t especially care for HIP performances, my tastes for choral Bach are more in line with Karl Richter and even Otto Klemperer. Celibidache’s lush, flowing version has already become my favorite performance of recent years. For Celibidache detractors: this is surprisingly one of his less eccentric performances, with fairly normal tempi.

Dungen: Ta Det Lugnt Totally derivative psych-pop, but the most well-crafted thing of this sort since the heyday of the Olivia Tremor Control and the Green Pajamas. Near-perfect production even when the material is weak.

Frog Eyes: The Folded Palm/Ego Scriptor Blackout Beach: Light Flows the Putrid Dawn Three short records from Carey Mercer, one solo, one with his Frog Eyes band backing him, and one with just his wife on drums. What can I say? I heard a lot of undifferentiated pop music this year, and Frog Eyes immediately jumped out at me. Mercer’s histrionics (see David Thomas, Captain Beefheart, Peter Hammill, Russell Mael, that sort of thing) come off shockingly well, and the music absorbs a lot of influences without getting showy or self-conscious about it. And for reasons I can’t quite explain, I adore their publicity shot.

Milford Graves/John Zorn: 50th Birthday Vol. 2 I like Zorn the most when he drops the conceptual baggage (or most of it) and turns into a reconstructed free jazz player. With Graves as the ideal partner, here we go.

Jason Kahn/G&#xfcnter M&#xfcller: Blinks Fellow ex-Angelino Kahn (late of overlooked LA rock bands like Leaving Trains, Trotsky Icepick, Universal Congress Of, and Slovenly) was responsible for unearthly, ringing percussion work in Repeat with Toshimaru Nakamura. Here he meets the more energetic and restless M&#xfcller for eight short series of textures that portray tensions between stasis and motion. Kahn moves more than usual, M&#xfcller less.

Thomas Korber/Erik M/Toshimaru Nakamura/Otomo Yoshihide: Brackwater Guitarist/electronician Korber is one of the most interesting younger improvisors. Not so much for his sounds, but for his overriding sense of macrostructure. It’s most noticeable in his solo work, but even here, the sounds that Korber makes at any time seem to be made with as much reference to the distant past and future of the piece than to the present, and usually more. Korber can sound less “in the moment” as a result, unwilling to abandon a larger plan and join in a spontaneously arrived-at communal direction, but it’s not like there’s a shortage of that in improv. Korber’s careful sense of placement and organization puts me more in mind of Georg Gr&#xe4we, Anthony Braxton, and Fred Van Hove, and it makes Brackwater stand out from other (often excellent) recordings that it superficially resembles.

Otomo Yoshihide New Jazz Quintet: Tails Out Their fourth album. I really liked their first, was puzzled by the second, and bored by the third. This is as good as the first, and it’s a progression from all they’ve done before. It includes tunes by Charlie Haden, Charles Mingus, James Blood Ulmer, and the Beatles, all in varying styles. On the last two tracks, they add electronics and drift off into more experimental ether. I’m still not sure what to expect from them next, but Otomo is enough of a musical genius that I have high hopes, especially now that crazy saxman Alfred 23 Harth appears to be in the group.

Radian: Juxtaposition The apotheosis of rhythmic, repetitive, geometric “post-rock.” Martin Brandlamyr again on drums, again amazing.

Keith Rowe/Axel D&#xf6rner/Franz Hautzinger: A View From the Window Hautzinger, who plays trumpet primarily with percussive breathwork, continues to be my favorite of the crowd of aggressively experimental trumpeters (D&#xf6rner being another). I loved Hautzinger’s Absinth album with John Tilbury, Sachiko M, and Werner Dafeldecker, and here he brings unusual textures to the fold again. The album also gets points for its two tracks sounding nothing like each other: one is a comparatively normal exercise in interplay and texture, the other is a monolithic, compressed, seething rumble.

Mark Wastell: Vibra #1 Up until this, my favorite music of Wastell’s was his overtone-laden cello-scraping in “Fermage” on Quatuor Accorde’s Angel Gate. I haven’t followed his recent, quieter work, but Vibra #1 is a twenty-minute drone on a gong-like tam-tam, with much richer variation than I expected. It made me think of the early portions of “Omaggio a Giacinto Scelsi” by Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuovo Consonanza (off of their Musica su schemi album), a piece I like far more than any of Scelsi’s own work.

Robert Wyatt: Cuckooland I was late to hear this one, but it’s Wyatt’s best since the 70’s. Unlike his recent albums, this is a collection of songs, not just moods.

REISSUES Can: the first 4 albums in vastly better sound
Dumptruck: the first 3 albums Eno: the first 4 pop albums in notably better sound The Homosexuals: Astral Glamour The Prefects: Amateur Wankers Sviatoslav Richter: Russian Archives 5cd Max Roach/Anothony Braxton: One in Two, Two in One Cecil Taylor: One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye

ALSO WORTHY Tim Berne + Big Satan: Souls Saved Hear Sabine Ercklentz/Andrea Neumann: Oberfl&#xe4chenspannung eRikm/Gunter Muller/Toshimaru Nakamura: Why Not Bechamel Mission of Burma: ONoffON Andy Moor/Yannis Kyriakides: Red v. Green David Thomas and 2 Pale Boys: 18 Monkeys on a Dead Man’s Chest Shannon Wright: Over the Sun

These and other fine recordings are available in various combinations at Erstwhile Records, Squidco, Aquarius Records, Verge Music, and elsewhere.

Susan Sontag

Daniel Green is thoughtfully compiling notes and obituaries of Susan Sontag, who died today at age 71. I knew much of Sontag’s writing by reputation more than through actually reading it, and I never did get far into The Volcano Lover, so I can’t offer the most informed thoughts on her. But I want to salute a few particular things.

Sontag’s death comes as more of a surprise than most because I thought of her as being at a fundamentally restless stage of her life, before the period of old age where writers settle down and start repeating themselves. When I was younger and discovering writers through remainders at The Strand and small press reissues, Sontag popped up all over the place. Wherever I went–E.M. Cioran, Alexander Kluge, Roberto Bolano, Imre Kertesz, Bela Tarr–Sontag had been there first, writing introductions or analyses. At the Japan Society’s retrospective of post-war Japanese film earlier this year, she had made the selections, and they were hardly common choices: these were movies and directors I’d never heard of, even after having followed Japanese film for several years. And her appreciation of Shohei Imamura was spot on.

I disagreed with many of her enthusiasms (Cioran, for one, and certainly Peter Nadas), but this is an almost inevitable consequence of the breadth of her tastes. At a time when specialization and depth take precedence over exploration, Sontag’s eclecticism is something we need more of.

Update: Also see Professor Nightspore’s just-right memories of Sontag:

It’s strange though how she feels central but unimportant to my own sense of self and intellectual world.

Music: Rzewski, Johnson, Whitman

Frederic Rzewski is best known for The People United Will Never Be Defeated, a more-accessible-than-most theme-and-variations piano piece. It takes a Chilean folk protest song and weaves increasingly complex structural and thematic variations on it in various permutations, but because the source material is so anthemic and accessible, it plays nicely as a modern Diabelli Variations, except that the composer has the utmost respect for the original theme rather than condescension towards it.

A friend pointed me to an early score of Rzewski’s, Les Moutons de Panurge, from 1968. (See the score of Moutons, and an interview with Rzewski.) Given any set of instruments, the idea is that increasingly (then decreasingly) large pieces of a single melody line are played by everyone in unison, starting off at a fairly zippy tempo and accelerating. Rzewski’s directions:

Always play loud, never stop or falter, stay together as long as you can, but if you get lost, stay lost. Do not try to return to the fold. Continue to follow the rules strictly.

The point being that the musicians will inevitably get out of sync and the overlapping out-of-phase lines produce weird effects. I’ve never heard the piece and can’t find a recording–anyone know of one?

There must have been many other pieces written in recent years based on the idea of a score that cannot be accurately followed by humans, where the point of the score is to integrate mistakes, but the only other one that I know of (not being too familiar with this area) is Tom Johnson’s entertaining Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for String Bass. The text of the piece (spoken by the bass player while playing) explains the piece, and since it’s a short, funny piece, the recording of the piece at the above link is well worth hearing. Listen all the way through: Johnson has a good punchline at the end.

Finally, I’m late to the party on this one, but if you haven’t already, check out Brian Whitman’s A Singular Christmas, made with his mysterious Eigenradio software, which does some sort of statistical sampling of large amounts of music (in this case, Christmas music), and outputs some sort of sonic amalgam.

The question with all such conceptual works is: how much do you get out of the experience that you couldn’t get merely by reading the description of the work? In this case, a fair bit. With the exclusive use of Christmas music, the homogeneity of the input produces some eerily familiar, uncanny sounds. Joe Milazzo wrote up his response to A Singular Christmas at Bagatellen. My own reaction is less visceral and more sympathetic; hearing such sounds removed from their irritating contexts rehabilitates them. I wish there were a way to remove this sort of baggage from so many other kinds of sense data.

(Thanks for the pointers, Jason!)

Kripke for Beginners

I have asked many children, “Do you believe that your mind is the same thing as your brain?”…Among those who answered no, one said, “The mind cannot be the same thing as the brain because the brain is something tangible and the mind is not.”

Raymond Smullyan, 2000 BC

I’ve always felt, justifiably or not, a similarity here with Saul Kripke’s argument against mind-body identity, which roughly amounts to this: mental properties are essentially mental, and brain properties are essentially physical, and thus they aren’t the same. If you grant that “tangibility” is a constituent property of physicality, or identical to it, the child seems to be making the same argument Kripke’s notion of “essentiality” derives from modal logic and possible worlds. In essence, since it is logically possible (to Kripke, anyway) to have a single mental state with different physical instantiations, it is not necessary that a mental state be correlated to any particular physical instantiation, and therefore mental states cannot be reduced to physical brain states.

I never engaged with modal logic, which Kripke establishes and relies on for his anti-identity argument, because it seemed more about a question of imagination than logical possibility (pace early Wittgenstein, in my opinion, though Kripke would not agree). And in Kripke’s defense, he appeals to an intuition that is so strong that it has the appeal of being possibly epistemically primary, enough so that a child naturally bifurcates the world into mental and physical in such a fashion. She can imagine clearly that her mental states have no necessary physical instantiation.

Intuitions are constantly overturned, but what is the etiology of the strongly held belief of mind-body non-identity, especially if it is not shared by all? Is it cultural conditioning, as with Greeks who saw the mind in the chest, or is it a more innate disposition? (Or are those other kids zombies?)

Either way, the ability to locate such intuitions in children is what gives Kripke’s mind arguments such force (if not persuasiveness). There is room for extending his other necessary/contingent arguments, like the business about the Morning Star and the Evening Star, over to Piaget’s developmental stages of object relations. If a star appears in the morning and the night, Kripke proposes that it’s not necessary that “the Morning Star” and “the Evening Star” be the same thing, even if in our world they actually are.

This distinctions are more meaningful to me psychologically and linguistically than they are metaphysically. At what point can a child know that the Evening Star and the Morning Star may (or may not) be one and the same thing? At what point is the distinction even meaningful?

Thomas M. Disch: On Wings of Song

Thomas M. Disch was born in Iowa and raised there and in Minneapolis. On Wings of Song is his first extended treatment of the Midwest, and it is infused with the visceral, unmasked fury of a refugee. Disch is an angry writer, and large portions of his work are directed without mercy at his chosen enemies: the Catholic church, conservatives, middle America. Disch does not have any interest in humanizing the individuals of these targets; his natural inclination is towards unmitigated horror, and he is always willing to portray it in the form of average Americans.

On Wings of Song, written in the late 1970s, predicts a mid-21st century America that has split in half, into a Midwest that functions as a set of police states of wholesome values, and decadent cities like New York, which is presented as an extension of the pre-90’s city. I will concentrate on the Midwest.

Disch portrays the Midwest states as split themselves, going into fortress mode with vocal, fanatical contingents of fundamentalist jingoistic “undergoders.” (Think the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and other such highly mobilized groups, extended into significant community organizations.) Minnesota becomes a hotbed of sin, allowing pornography by a small margin, while Iowa, by six percent, has made possession felonious. The undergoders fight against even the mildest Supreme Court decisions that protect freedom of speech. There is no resolution here, but Disch implies that the undergoders are growing, conservative policies are dominating, with the constant threat of new state-level initiatives, and no serious opposition exists, partly because the opposition keeps leaving for New York and other more hospitable places.

This is where our hero, Daniel Weinreb, grows up, and, after a stint in jail for possession of porn, he gets the hell out, only returning to Iowa at the end of the book, where he is shot and killed (maybe–it’s complicated) by his old undergoder high school teacher. That, at her trial, she defends herself with the Pledge of Allegiance is as good a summation as any.

The depiction of the heartland could come across as cartoonish and excessive, but Disch delivers the message with such a sober directness that it reads as a memoir: “Look, I have scoured for the depths of these people and found nothing, as you will see.” The novel repeatedly reinforces that these people are exactly who they appear to be, no better. Their baldly horrific characters eliminate any trace of humor or satire as well. In light of his concerted emphasis on the simplicity of these people, it makes sense that Disch, in his later fiction, moved towards the horror idiom, where broad portrayals do not require justification and are de rigeur. (John Crowley wrote an article on his later work a few years back, but I have yet to track it down.)

Yet it is here that it is most striking, because of the justification. The most fleshed-out conservative is a powerful upper-class government official, who pragmatically explains the use of the various draconian policies of Iowa to Daniel. It is not the logic of a Karl Rove, wrecking the nation to trick assorted constituencies (who in the White House is wholeheartedly aligned with Christianity, rather than with power for its own sake?), but of a man who truly believes that the good old repressive Christian state makes the best polity. This is the most “credit” Disch gives this sort of character; afterwards, he seems to have lost patience.

There is much else in the novel, including a heavily symbolic degradation in which Daniel has his skin dyed black, hair frizzed, made a gay sex slave, and forced to wear a chastity belt. (Disch also used the theme of whites being dyed black in the suspense novel he co-authored with John Sladek, Black Alice, and it merits further examination.) But now, unsurprisingly, it’s the political scenario that resonates. Reading On Wings of Song today, it seems much more of a warning than it did when I first read it, an allied message from enemy territory. I suspect Disch partly meant it as such. The message is, as all such things are, debatable, but the survivor’s stare with which it is delivered is not.

Update: Maud Newton presents the email of an estranged middle American who can no longer read her site due to filtering software at work. His attitude reminds me of Disch, but with frustration replacing anger.

It’s also a sign of how bad things have gotten that squeaky-clean Homestar Runner, with its strict avoidance of vulgarity beyond the word “crap,” was somehow blocked anyway. The thought of children growing up without Homestar Runner is really depressing.

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