sound and fury (recommendations)

•March 31, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Apropos of nothing, ten musical works to challenge your ears (and that thing in between them). Keyword: fringe.

cLOUDDEAD – “Jimmy Breeze” [2001] – A surreal elegy for a suicidal classmate penned by underground hip-hop’s psychedelic auteurs, with sounds lifted from old-school Nintendo and older-school gospel.

King Crimson, “Starless” [1974] – Prog-rock meets jazz, mellotron meets sax, and rock drums go tribal in 13/8 time.

John Adams, Nixon in China [1987] – A minimalist opera that shows Chairman Mao and the Nixons first as their historic personages and then, in the meditative third act, as human beings lost in their own pasts.

Boredoms, “Cory & the Mandara Suicide Pyramid Action or Gas Satori” [1992] – The Japanese metal pioneers welded reggae and rap to their explosive brand of metal in a ten minute assault on the idea of musical genre.

Konono No. 1, Congotronics [2005] – Three electric likembe pluck out melodies over percussion instruments salvaged from junkyards, the sounds jacked up through hand-carved amplifiers.

Sonic Youth, “Sister” [1987] – The legendary art-rock band had released all matter of weird, heady, and innovative material by this point, but “Sister” was all of that and an honest-to-goodness pop song besides

Herbie Hancock and V.S.O.P, “Clutch” [1980] – Hancock remains one of jazz’s most adventurous visionaries. On this entry, a multi-tracked calliope creates ambiance for the quintet’s funky fusion.

My Bloody Valentine, Loveless [1991] – The greatest indie rock album of the 90s presents walls of guitar drenched in reverb and distortion, churning, twinkling, and wailing their druggy melodies beautiful enough that they still produce awed consensus in a scene known for fractious nay-saying.

Iannis Xenakis, “Metastasis” [1955] – 61 instruments perform on this composition, which illustrates Einstenian time by changing intensity, register, and density of scoring as analogues for mass and energy.

Prefuse 73, One Word Extinguisher [2003] – Abstract rhymes folded into cutting edge hip-hop, lush instrumental samples and glitchy techno beats might sound obtuse, but this also an incredibly affecting record about a failed relationship.

Funkadelic, “Maggot Brain” [1971] – Eddie Hazel’s greatest guitar solo is Hendrixian blues pushed to brain-melting frontiers of heaviness.



•March 31, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Back from California for the spring and my final term at Carleton, so bloggish things ought to resume as I procrastinate the work I’m already behind on.  History is cyclical, and MTV is playing music videos again (plus Unplugged).

sightings and secrets for Agent Mulder

•March 25, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Because spring break demands nerdy diversions, I’ve been watching some early episodes of The X-Files online. The pilot’s a fine episode, but it’s the second, “Deep Throat”, in which the shows famous “myth-arc” begins to unfold. But it’s also the first to showcase the series’ subversive epistemological sensibility. Consider Mulder’s search for the Air Force base where, he beleives, new spacecraft are being developed from reconstituted UFO technology.  The base does not appear on any government maps. Rather, Mulder finds it by engaging in a conversation with a diner waitress who also happens to be an amateur UFOligist. Stoned teenagers provide another important source of information, as does an old UFO photo taken during the 1950s.

On the one hand, this establishes the “conspiracy” element of the series: the government conceals the truth through its control of information. But there’s something to it that goes beyond concealing. The horrifying dramatization of the government’s power is the ability of the agents to erase specific memories. In order to maintain their epistemic hegemony, the government must force forgetfulness. The epistemic hero, Mulder, cannot challenge the conspirators by recourse to the information at hand, rather, his investigation takes on a therapeutic dimension of recovery. He taps into marginalized channels of conversation – rumors, cults, seemingly deranged hobbyists, uneducated yokels – to find a counter-discourse  of subjugated knowledge which becomes validated as it connects, overlaps, and intersects with what is observable and provides a compelling explanation for the events which the government tries to repress. Underlying the everyday, a network of myths and implausible accounts that add up to – what?

In this way, The X-Files follows in the tradition of detective stories like Zadig and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in that the protagonist accomplishes “feats of analysis”.  That the investigation takes place in a netherworld of disreputables which undermines apparent reality also resembles it to Oedipa’s quest in The Crying of Lot 49.  And like each of these works, The X-Files also accrued relevance from the currency of its themes. In Zadig, Voltaire addressed metpahysical and religious issues of great controversy, while Poe’s detective story came when urban crime was a new kind of social horror. Pynchon, for his part, wrote when many felt that the counter-culture was undermining the unity of American society. The genius of The X-Files was its reconstitution of the detective story’s classic epistemological quest through the postmodern and psychoanalytic lenses, but this was also the key to its social resonance. The show  traded in pre-millenial information-age anxiety: with the internet emerging as a technological force, new information and media of all degrees of validity was ubiquitous, as it is even more so now, and this also creates ruptures and inconsistencies for social epistemology.

live cohen

•March 25, 2009 • Leave a Comment

NPR has Leonard Cohen’s entire two-disc Live in London streaming this week. It’s a gorgeous recording. I’ve just finished the first disc, which ends with “Anthem”: “there is a crack / a crack in everything /that’s how the light gets in.”

just remembrance

•March 24, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I’m working through Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting and I’ve reached his first notes on the question of a “duty of remembrance.” He approaches this as a question of the relation of justice to memory. This is a difficult concept following Ricoeur’s phenomenology of memory, which takes memory as potentially/partially spontaneous recall and therefor complicates the imperative “you must remember.” But here’s what surfaces so far:

First element of a response: it must be recalled, first, that among all the virtues, the virtue of justice is the one that, par excellence and by its very constitution, is turned toward others, We can say that justice is the component of otherness inherent in all the virtues that it wrests from the closed-circuit of the self with itself. The duty of memory is the duty to do justice, through memories to an other than the self.

Second element of a response: the time has come to introduce a new concept – debt, which must not be limited to the concept of guilt. The idea of debt is inseparable from the notion of heritage. We are indebted to those who have gone before us for part of what we are. The duty of memory is not restricted to preserving the material trace, wheter scriptural or other, of past events, but mantains the feeling of being obligated with respect to these others, of whom we shall later say, not they are no more, but that they were. Pat they debt, I shall say, but also inventory the heritage.

Third element of a response: among those others to whom we are indebted, the moral priority belongs to the victims. Todorov cautioned above against the tendency to proclaim onself a victim and endlessly to demand reparation. He was right. The victim at issue here is the other victim, other than ourselves.

The second of these is most novel. As Ricoeur has it, a rememberer is not just a custodian of information but a custodian of a sense of indebtedness. I’ll be interested to see how this develops following his discussion of forgetting.

power, corruption, and lies

•March 21, 2009 • Leave a Comment

There’s a lot of confusion as to how Power, Corruption, and Lies should fit into the New Order/Joy Division canon.  Robert Christgau calls it a “Joy Division II” album, basically a gentler, prettier version of what they’d always done up to that point.  Contra John Bush at AllMusic, who says that the brightened sound and dance-oriented songwriting was exactly what made the album such a leap forward. But like a good number of critics, perhaps unduly biased by the massiveness of “Blue Monday”, I think Bush overstates the case for the album as an early dance-rock artifact. And in that respect he is actually similar to Christgau, who locates the “ambient postindustrial polyrhythms” as the albums center.

But the finest New Order album revolves around three tracks: the opener, “Age of Consent”, plus “The Village” and “Your Silent Face.” Starting with “Age of Consent” demonstrates that whatever electronic interventions are to follow, this a fundamentally human affair. The synthesizers do minimal work, making a fine melodic counterpoint in the choruses, but leaving most of the work to Sumner’s jangly guitar playing and Hook’s rolling bass line. But what makes that track, and the similarly keening “Village” special is Sumner’s vocals, foregrounded and fragile as they hadn’t been before and wouldn’t be again. The two tracks signal a break from Joy Division’s clinical anxiety, but instead of veering for the dance-rock sound that would dominate on later releases, they showcase New Order as brilliant alt-pop romantics.

And then there’s “Your Silent Face”, the most gorgeous tune the group ever composed. Here, the synths do take center, but they aren’t made to dance floor specifications (and the drum machine hardly announces it presence). Rather, I’d apply two words rarely associated with the synthesizer: stately and organic. The melody practically swells out of the speakers, beginning as a magnificent backdrop to Sumner’s musings, but ultimately claiming the song by the power of its uninhibited melodramatic sweep. Sumner sounds vulnerable when the song begins, but next to the majestic synth chords his words, alternately sad and angry, are crushed – overwhelmed by emotions inexpressible in words, the duty of which then falls to the machine.

Power, Corruption, and Lies, then, is singular in the group’s catalog because it is their greatest pop album. It’s best moments are triumphs of songcraft, and of vulnerable human performance.

big yang motorcycle?

•March 18, 2009 • 4 Comments

From Le Guin’s remarkable essay A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be:

Utopia has been euclidean, it has been European, and it has been masculine. I am trying to suggest, in an evasive, distrustful, untrustworthy fashion, and as obscurely as I can, that our final loss of faith in that radiant sandcastle may enable our eyes to adjust to a dimmer light and in it perceive another kind of utopia…

Utopia has been yang, In one way or another, from Plato on, utopia has been the big yang motorcycle trip. Bright, dry, clear strong, firm, active, aggressive, lineal, progressive, creative, expanding, advancing, and hot.

Our civilization is now so intensely yang that any imagination of bettering its injustices or eluding its self-destructiveness must involve a reversal.

The ten thousand things arise together
and I watch their return.
They return each to its root.
Returning to one’s root is know as stillness.
Returning to one’s destiny is known as the constant.
Knowledge of the constant is known as discernment.
To ignore the constant
is to go wrong, and end in disorder.

To attain the constant, to end in order, we must return, go round, go inward, go yinward. What would a yin utopia be? It would be dark, wet, obscure, weak, yielding, passive, participatory, circular, cyclical, peaceful, nurturant, retreating, contracting, and cold.

In the italicized portion she is quoting Lao Tzu – the essay also brings her into conversation with Levi-Strauss, Dostoevsky, Kundera, and others. Le Guin’s uncanny imagination at its best. I’m now resolved to re-read The Left Hand of Darkness this break.