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minitrue autotune

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The tune had been haunting London for weeks past. It was one of countless similar songs published for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department. The words of these songs were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator. But the woman sang so tunefully as to turn the dreadful rubbish into an almost pleasant sound. He could hear the woman singing and the scrape of her shoes on the flagstones, and the cries of the children in the street, and somewhere in the far distance a faint roar of traffic, and yet the room seemed curiously silent, thanks to the absence of a telescreen.

Hmmmm… Have to give a talk about 1984 in a week at Foyles. Catch is said talk is to be in “pecha-kucha” format. So I’ll need a load of images of some sort – probably other than Lana Del Rey. What would you choose?

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January 17, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Posted in music, orwell

mia “born free” / bureaucratic banality of evil

with 4 comments

I really don’t know what to make of MIA’s “Born Free” video. (Can’t easily embed it so you’ll have to go here if you want to watch it…) I think I generally agree with Voyou Desoeuvre’s analysis of the political content / message. The use of redheads as the persecuted minority group is the first problem. Following from what Voyou argues, racism relies about arbitrary distinctions that in the end aren’t all that arbitrary, when considered historically… Voyou is right – socially constructed categories aren’t any less real for being socially constructed. (See also, for instance, the infamous “brown eye / blue eye” pedagogical experiment, a favorite of Oprah and a symptom of self-hating liberal do-goodery, which relies, like most “progressive” liberal arguments on a sense that I too could be a victim of racism… Which really, in the end, isn’t all that true….)

But even beyond all this, as a short dystopian fiction, the video certainly is strange, especially at the end. To my mind, staging the killing of the prisoners as a bizarre sort of game on the part of the guards humanizes the brutality in a way that leads this video in the wrong direction… The starkest horror of the sort of situation that is being half-allegorized here is, I think, the horror of cold bureaucracy rather than individual or aggregated sadism. This displacement – from the filing and list-keeping of state terror to the helmeted insanity of the guard gone wrong – is the same sort of thing that made Abu Ghraib into an ironically safe subject for media and political discussion, as it was a story grounded in human perversity (even if structurally-facilitated perversity) rather than the boring mechanics of everyday terror.

Anyway, you might want to take a look at Coetzee’s old piece on the representation of torture for more if you’ve never read it. Probably deserves a post in itself, as it’s not an uncomplicated piece of writing both in terms of the argument and Coetzee’s personal situation vis a vis these issues… If I get a bit of time perhaps I’ll write something up…

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May 2, 2010 at 11:21 pm

Posted in music, torture

theme and variation

with 3 comments

Sadly, I know very little about classical music. This is because I am American and because I have rather uncultured parents and for a long run was rather shoddily educated, especially as far as non-fundamental topics like music and art went. The only lessons I ever got in playing an instrument were those mediocre group affairs called school band. I played the trumpet like all the other boys except for the one drummer and the single saxophonist, got just past “Jingle Bells” and then gave the thing up. Eventually, during college, I sold the slightly-dented instrument at my hometown music shop when I was hard up for book and Taco Bell money.

The girls played flute or clarinet, and thinking back, I bet their choice of an instrument indexed much of what was to come for them in life, though each in her own particular way.

I do have a feeling, however, that I may be the person who has listened to Glen Gould’s rendition of the Goldberg Variations more than anyone else in the world. I can’t remember why I first picked up a recording of it – must have had something to do with some book or other. But it basically has served as my work soundtrack for fifteen years or so – I am working well, generally speaking, when I am working with this on the stereo or playing out of the computer…

I took a helpful introductory course on music during my last semester of university (the same semester I took Greek I – fun, unuseful term that was….) But I still lack the vocabulary to say anything substantive about this piece of music or Gould’s performance of it. But I think that what it handles, what it productively preoccupies, is my brain’s (my mind’s?) anticipatory faculty. I have a jutting, clambering temporal tendency – I am no good at sitting still in the moment. This goes for work as it does for non-work (though, also, possessing or being possessed by this bad temporality has a tendency to make non-work feel an awful lot like work, too…) My mind’s always on what happens next with X, where this goes from here… I would love to label this a form of romantic idealism, or classical virtu, but really what it comes down to is a heady mixture of inheritances, perhaps one simply the abstractly psychological face of the brutely neuro-chemical underpinnings. I’d rather not spell them out here, but one has to do with an adaptation to capitalist social organization and the other with addiction – two faces of the same thing, really.

But listening to Gould, as I mark papers or type away at my book, has the feeling of box ticking, of boxes being elegantly and repetitively ticked. It feels like the invisible hand inside my head that normally points elsewhere, over there, with ever greater insistence, and then which gets frustrated, over there! over there!!!!, and then when it senses that I am simply not understanding the stakes of all this, makes a fist, knocks, bangs, breaks one knuckle and then another on the inside of the skull but just keeps knocking despite the throbbing pain… It feels like this hand is empenciled, ticking boxes on an infinitely scrolling roll, a standardized test sheet made of piano notes and thus busy for the moment and leaving me alone to work and think.

And so, just to broaden this out a bit, if I am against capitalism in any sort of visceral way (the other ways to be against it seem to me untrustworthy at best, inefficient at midbest, and complicitly hypocritical at worst) it is because capitalism fosters in a not-simply-metaphorical way the evolutionary development of body parts where they shouldn’t be. Hands in head, heads in cocks, hearts in eyes, and so on and definitely vice versa. It is an open and worthwhile question the relationship of the aesthetic in regard to (in treatment of) the sort of socio-genetic defect. The preoccupation of the parts that get in the way works to two ends – more than two ends – at once. The Goldberg Variations and similiarly constructed works serve as a form of local anaesthetic (like the shots of cortisone the ballplayers take to keep them on the field) that permits me to disobey the pain-signals coming from the knocking and scratching of the hand, such that I can be momentarily free…. but free to do exactly what other than slightly more calmly follow the prescriptions of this part that spurs me on?

If you have recommendation for other things I should listen to given the above (ha!), the comment boxes are yours for the ticking and typing.

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May 24, 2009 at 11:22 am

Posted in me, music

the “perfect day,” lou reed, radiohead, joyce, woolf, benjamin, etc

with 4 comments

Usually when we think about the literature of the single day (think of high modernist texts like Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway) we tend to think of the formal gesture at play as one that materializes, at base, the progressive and secularizing side of modernism. At least I usually think about it this way. Framing a text around a single day in the life of relatively ordinary people seems to represent a secularization of literary time, a turn away from the theologically-inspired teleologies and rhythms that normally structure (or had normally structured) literary works. Whereas the novel that follows its characters over long durations is the stuff of dynastic succession or in its more modern guise family inheritane, the work focused on a single day pulls us back to the everyday life of the man or woman on the street. There’s less room for parents or pedigree, more room for the common experiences and practices of modern life.

I’m not alone in thinking this way. Remember the conclusion of Erich Auerbach’s chapter on Woolf in Mimesis? Now, the chapter focuses on To the Lighthouse not Dalloway, and the former isn’t a one day novel but a two-day-plus-a-longer-weirder-stretch-in-the-middle novel, but I think the point that he makes here is appropriate:

Beneath the conflicts, an economic and cultural leveling process is taking place. It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible. And it is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and exterior representation of the random moment in the lives of different people. So the complicated process of dissolution which led to fragmentation of the exterior action, to reflection of consciousness, and to stratification of time seems to be tending toward a very simple solution. Perhaps it will be too simple to please those who, despite all its dangers and catastrophes, admire and love our epoch for the sake of its abundance of life and the incomparable historical vantage point which it affords. But they are few in number, and probably they will not live to see much more than the first forewarnings of the approaching unification and simplification.

There’s a lot to unpack here, of course, but I think you see why the quote interests me here. The “representation of the random moment in the lives of different people” seems to augur a coming “leveling,” the emergence of some sort of “common life of mankind on earth.” The equation seems to run, at least here, for Auerbach, that the focus on ordinary, random time (like the mostly random time of Joyce and Woolf’s novels) suggests a turn to a politics of ordinary commonality.

Again, this is how I usually see these things, talk and write about them, and teach them. And I teach them all the time…

But, on the other hand, I’ve been listening to a lot of Radiohead (hahaha) recently and tons of Lou Reed (forever). And of late, two songs – one from each – have crystallized into a little mutually reinforcing dyad in my mind. They somehow came together on a playlist that I made, and everyone knows that random playlist juxtapositioning represents one of the key dark arts of advanced literary criticism and analysis. So… Here are the songs.

I realize that these two songs focus not so much on an “ordinary day” but a “perfect day.” Reed’s seems pretty pointedly ordinary though, but, no, we have no idea what constitutes the day that TY references. (Given the songs that precede it on In Rainbows, it’s hard not to come up with better-than-usual adulterous sex, but really, who knows… I guess the more likely and much tamer reading is that somebody’s about to kick the bucket… But I like mine better…)

Anyway, why so melancholy, Lou and Thom? Why has thinking about time in terms of the “single day” become so menacingly depressive or depressively menacing? Or was it always this way, right from the start?

Look, I know that this is, well, quite a literary historical leap that I’m trying to make, tracing a dynamic from a point marked Woolf and Joyce in the 1920s to Relatively Recent Music for Perpetually-Adolescent Depressives. I’m playing fast and loose, but I still think there’s something here. I could get all Benjaminian on you and take you down the Erlebnis / Erfahrung path. You know, the one that goes like this in the Baudelaire essay that’s in Illuminations:

The greater the shock factor in particular impressions, the more vigilant consciousness has to be in screening stimuli; the more efficiently it does so, the less these impressions enter long experience [Erfahrung] and the more they correspond to the concept of isolated experience [Erlebnis]. Perhaps the special achievement of shock defense is the way it assigns an incident a precise point in time in consciousness, at the cost of the integrity of the incident’s contents. This would be a peak achievement of the intellect; it would turn the incident into an isolated experience.

This stuff, by the way, goes perfectly with one of the general thematic concerns of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, which this very interesting post labels “data melancholy.” (Short version: the pathos in “Videotape” is as much a matter of storing the experience on a degradable and obsolete medium like a VHS tape as it is about, you know, leaving this perfect day behind. The act of preserving the single day (whether in a song or on tape or in a song about tape) reechoes the data loss that occurs due to the shock defense and its characteristic temporality in the first place.)

All that’s there, but I think there’s something else – something that definitely runs in parallel with this issue – that’s at once easier and harder to get at.What the songs underscore, both in their own way, is that the very act of framing time in terms of the single “perfect” day is itself a stress reaction, one that exposes not so much perfection of the day in question as the disastrous or even dystopian nature of the other days that surround it. While Benjamin is getting at the stress or shock on the level of perception or epistemology; Reed and Radiohead broaden the scope out to history, personal (explicitly) and extrapersonal (implicitly). How else to explain the apocalyptic overtone that sneaks back into both songs: the biblical sowing and reaping in Reed and portentous vagueness of “No matter what happens now” in “Videotape.” (Again, if you listen to the rest of the stuff on In Rainbows and the supplementary materials the band released with it, like for instance this, which itself is a song preoccupied with the relationship between time and disaster, you get a few ideas about just what might be happening now in the context of the song…)

The literary historical conclusion that we can get to out of all of this is a little pedestrian, but still worth saying. If the modernist single day texts are vaguely utopian in terms of their very temporality, these utopian temporalities themselves bear the marks of being stress reactions to a string of epistemological, existential, and historical crises that provoked them. This seems a bit obvious, and it is, but not to everyone. (I once got in a fight with a dickheaded senior prof in my old department about a question that I asked in a PhD exam about the role that the first world war plays in Ulysses. He argued that it, of course, plays no role because the work is set in 1904, and thus my question was unfair and illegitimate. I was on my way out of the department, so it was really tempting to explain to him what a fucking idiot he was, but I generally save my anger for my blog, so I didn’t…) With Woolf, it is relatively easy to see how the ordinariness of Clarissa’s single day concretizes itself against the impinging historico-political exterior, trying unsuccessfully to hold it away as it threatens her party etc. With Joyce, this is a bit tougher to see, but it starts to shed light on the relationship between the temporal cut of the book and Franco Moretti’s brilliant reading in Signs Taken For Wonders that Ulysses is a strange sort of science fiction dystopia, strange in the sense that it is a science fiction dystopia set twenty years since…

But there remains an even more interesting point that that. (I hope). The songs bring to the fore a more profound melancholy, a haunting disturbance of the everyday. There is something wrong with our everyday, with our every day. We second-guess, we cannot help but second-guess, ourselves as we attempt to shave small spaces out of this world where we can be happy, or where we can even simply be. There are many reasons why we second-guess ourselves when we do this. Many of them are political or economic. Maybe some of them aren’t. (Is that even possible?) What sort of single day novel would you write if you were to write one today? If I did one, it would be tremulous, afraid of its own shadow and the shadow of its chosen/assigned form. It would be empty – too empty even to register Septimus, to stage an event like the one that happens in Cyclops. I would feel like a hypocrite were I to attempt to allow the outside in. I wish I could put it more concretely than this. There’s been an erosion of the clifftop we call time. All of it has something to do with the necessary movement past Benjamin’s formulation – we now long for the shock factor, even. We’d take Erlebnis. Our Auerbachian “random moment in the lives of different people” has become laughable, commodified, the stuff of ad campaigns, the stuff of the media forms of civic reinforcement. It’s tricky to name, this thing. The everyday has become something that we reach for when we’re at our worse, when the clammy hands of bureaucracy have finally touched our hearts and we try to be gentle, try to fit in.

Christ, I’m not going to (be able to?) name it in a blogpost, am I?

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September 8, 2008 at 12:56 am

impotent narcissus

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Nice piece by Nicholas Lezard on Don Giovanni and the various things people have said about it / him:

So, for all that Don Juan is driven by carnal desires, or perhaps precisely because of this, he has been a philosopher’s favourite. Kierkegaard devoted much of Either/Or to an evaluation of the opera, excusing himself with the declaration that music does not exist in the moral domain. Michel Foucault, in his History of Sexuality, took perhaps the most radical line of all: Juan represented “the individual driven, in spite of himself, by the sombre madness of sex. Underneath the libertine, the pervert … We shall leave it to psychoanalysts to speculate whether he was homosexual, narcissistic, or impotent.” (To which one might well ask: “Come again?”)

Moral philosopher Bernard Williams asked whether the Don was “fleeing from exhaustion and inner emptiness … or, according to George Sand and Flaubert, engaged in a despairing hunt for a genuine encounter with another person.”

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September 6, 2008 at 8:47 pm

Posted in music, sex

worldtownsoundtrack

with 6 comments

go read jane dark now!

Kala might be thought of as an attempt to destroy the softimism of world music™. Hands up guns out — represent now world town. The album moves past the bubbly syncretism of Arular; goes looking for beat and a form and a hook for the enraged new world and finds a proliferation of each, which is its wonder. Listening to “Bird Flu,” one has to suspect Maya’s been reading (or reading about) Monster at Our Door, the Mike Davis conjecture about the eventual arrival of deadly H5N1 influenza at America’s doorstep. It’s the exact kind of thing that Brooklyn sharpies who are also expats twisted on geo-social hard times like to read on trans-oceanic flights. You listen to the nervous squawks and fearsome, irresistible clatter of the track and you think, that’s not a song, that’s a revenge fantasy. And quite brilliantly, it locates blowback not in the romantic figure of some lone terrorist, but in global structure itself: terror as an inevitable outcome of evil voodoo poured relentlessly into the world-system. In Davis’s account, bird flu when it arrives won’t be an exotic catastrophe we couldn’t predict, but America’s bad faith returned to it after a mutating tour of the planet of slums, the world-ghetto. Funny thing is, that describes Kala exactly.

Always just about ready to give up on the form, and then somebody (often enough jane dark) writes something like this.

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January 21, 2008 at 6:40 am