This last Friday we were invited to a private view at Craft in the Bay to see (mainly) the Guest Maker show by ceramicist Lisa Krigel. Inspired in part by the documentary photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the work evokes a Bauhaus-like aesthetic without being in any way derivative. Beautiful and, yes, fully functional.
Our imaginations, haunted by the old archetypes, have remained far behind the sophistication of the machines. The various attempts to integrate modern science into new myths remain inadequate. Meanwhile abstraction has invaded all the arts, contemporary architecture in particular. Pure plasticity, inanimate and storyless, soothes the eye. Elsewhere other fragmentary beauties can be found — while the promised land of new syntheses continually recedes into the distance. Everyone wavers between the emotionally still-alive past and the already dead future.
A mental disease has swept the planet: banalization. Everyone is hypnotized by production and conveniences — sewage systems, elevators, bathrooms, washing machines. This state of affairs, arising out of a struggle against poverty, has overshot its ultimate goal—the liberation of humanity from material cares—and become an omnipresent obsessive image. Presented with the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people of all countries have chosen the garbage disposal unit.
Our struggle is to open every moment and fill it with an activity that does not contribute to the reproduction of capital. Stop making capitalism and do something else, something sensible, something beautiful and enjoyable. Stop creating the system that is destroying us. We only live once, why use our time to destroy our own existence? Surely we can do something better with our lives. Revolution is not about destroying capitalism, but about refusing to create it.
Douglas Carl Engelbart is one of those people who should by now have become a household name, one of the pioneers of the computing revolution that we take for granted. I am saddened to learn of his death. Decent obituaries here and here. This from the latter:
In December 1968, however, he set the computing world on fire with a remarkable demonstration before more than a thousand of the world’s leading computer scientists at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, one of a series of national conferences in the computer field that had been held since the early 1950s. Dr. Engelbart was developing a raft of revolutionary interactive computer technologies and chose the conference as the proper moment to unveil them.
For the event, he sat on stage in front of a mouse, a keyboard and other controls and projected the computer display onto a 22-foot-high video screen behind him. In little more than an hour, he showed how a networked, interactive computing system would allow information to be shared rapidly among collaborating scientists. He demonstrated how a mouse, which he invented just four years earlier, could be used to control a computer. He demonstrated text editing, video conferencing, hypertext and windowing.
For our final composition study we looked at the early work of Brian Eno, in particular his generative or systems pieces.
By way of introduction, it is perhaps worth noting that Eno’s career did not begin with Roxy Music: like Brian Ferry he had a lengthy and decisive art-school background informing his every move. Whilst at Ipswich he was tutored by Roy Ascott and Tom Phillips, both now elder-statesmen of the British art scene. It was Phillips, in particular, who opened up the conceptual doors for Eno: Cage’s Silence, jazz and beat poetry, Minimalism, the New York school of composers (Tudor, Wolff, Feldman, Brown), and the British experimental composers (Bryars, Skempton, Nyman, and perhaps most importantly, Cornelius Cardew). Later, at Winchester, Eno became notorious for his chance/non-intentional activities which included a solo performance of La Monte Young’s X for Henry Flynt. Another influential figure, Peter Schmidt, introduced him to the first Velvet Underground album. In 1968 he even wrote an “analytical essay”, a “brief theoretical discourse inspired by lessons learned from John Cage, Christian Wolff and George Brecht” entitled Music for Non-Musicians (Sheppard 2008: 54). The seeds were sown.
The first of the pieces we listened to and discussed is ‘The Heavenly Music Corporation’ from 1972’s No Pussyfooting with Robert Fripp. The set-up is very simple: two tape recorders connected in a feedback loop (a configuration directly derived from Terry Riley’s “time-lag accumulator”) with something like a simple mixer inbetween them, allowing control over what is exactly fed back.
‘The Heavenly Music Corporation’, as a system, anticipates Eno’s own ambient style. First of all, the piece is a system, or process: it represents a way of making music, a concept of music-making, as much as it represents a composition in the traditional sense. The process allowed Eno to operate in his favoured gently guiding, rather than authoritarian, role. Making the piece required thought and attention; Eno had to contemplate and inspect the sound as it rolled by, making changes and adjustments. The process, meanwhile, yielded maximal output (a lengthy, complex piece of music) from minimal input (selection of pitches and switches). Finally, the signal-loop procedure itself, with its gradually decaying tone quality, exemplified one of Eno’s cherished axioms: “Repetition is a form of change.”
‘Discreet Music’ from 1975 was the track we looked at next: it uses essentially the same process as ‘The Heavenly Music Corporation’ but with synth sounds as the musical sources and a graphic EQ in the feedback loop. The things that affords this track its mythical status are a) it us usually identified as the first example of ambient music, and b) the chance conditions that surrounded its creation. Legend has it that Eno was trying to make a backing track for Fripp, but that the phone kept ringing and people came to the door interrupting what he was doing, with the consequence that it almost made itself. As Eno describes it “I almost made it without listening to it”. And “I thought it was probably one of the best things I’d ever done and I didn’t even realize I was doing it at the time” (both quotes from Tamm 1995: 135). Pure Eno.
Finally we considered ‘2/1′ from Music for Airports from 1979. Again, a very minimal means: nine recordings of a female voice singing “ah” at nine different pitches. Cut these up into tape loops of different lengths. Play and record the resulting process:
And so onto this week’s composition, which simply required the students to make a piece using one of the two techniques described above, or a mixture of both. Although I didn’t start out intending it this way, my piece ended up as a mixture of ‘Discreet Music’ and ‘The Heavenly Music Corporation”: looped synth melodies (actually going through a delay plug-in rather than being actual loops) and a distortion track that I generated using a variation on the “time-lag accumulator” idea (that is, using a plug-in delay but sending the delayed signal “out of the box”, through a valve EQ unit, and then back into the system):
Sheppard, D. (2008) On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno. Orion.
Tamm, E. (1995) Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound. Da Capo.
The background to the organized sound of Gregorian chant, in a mediaeval monastic community, was not random noise. Silence—the silence of nature itself, in which the random noises of culture were swallowed up—was one of the facts of mediaeval life, outside the cloister as inside it. Against the quietness that enveloped the ear, and the tracts of unaltered nature—wood, bramble, heath, swamp—that made up its solid equivalent, any designed structure of sound or stone acquired a corresponding rarity and singularity. In an ill-articulated world, a place not yet crammed with signs, images, and designed objects, the impact of a choir heard in the vast petrified forest of a Gothic cathedral might well have exceeded anything we take for “normal” cultural experience today. Now we see the same cathedral through a vast filter that includes our eclectic knowledge of all other cathedrals (visited or seen in photographs), all other styles of buildings from primitive nuraghi to the World Trade Centre, the ads in the street outside it, the desanctification of the building, its conversion into one more museum-to-itself, the secular essence of our culture, the memory of “mediaeval” sideshows at Disney World, and so and so forth; while similar transpositions have happened to the matrix in which we hear music. The choir competes, in our unconscious, with jack-hammers, car brakes, and passing 747s, not merely the rattle of a cart or the lowing of cattle. Nor does the chant necessarily seem unique, for one can go home and listen to something very like it on the stereo. Because nothing could be retrieved or reproduced, the pre-technological ear listened to—as the pre-technological eye was obliged to scrutinize—one thing at a time. Objects and images could not, except at the cost of great labour, be reproduced or multiplied. There was no print, no film, no cathode-ray tube. Each object, singular; each act of seeing transitive. The idea that we would live immersed in a haze of almost undifferentiated images, that the social function of this image-haze would be to erode distinctions rather than multiply the possible discriminations about reality, would have been unthinkable to our great-grandparents—let alone our remote ancestors.
We live in a world in which change is primarily driven by emergent technology. We live in a world in which, I suspect, technology trumps ideology, every time.
Our reaction to these things is amazingly similar to the reaction of the Victorians to technologies like the railroad and the gramophone. If you go back to first-person accounts—diary entries of individuals encountering those things—it wasn’t like, “Wow, that’s wonderful!” They were scared shitless. They were reeling with the shock of the new. They didn’t know where anything was headed, and it made them sort of angry, often as not. I think it’s the way we react to these things.
The surprising thing about it - I almost said the insidious thing, but I’m trying to be anthropological—the surprising thing, to me, is that once we have our gramophone, or iPad, or locomotive, we become that which has the gramophone, the iPad, or the locomotive, and thereby, are instantly incapable of recognizing what just happened to us, as I believe we’re incapable of understanding what broadcast television, or the radio, or telephony did to us.
I strongly suspect that prior to those things we were something else. In that regard, our predecessors are in a sense unknowable. Imagine a world without recorded music: I always come to the conclusion that it’s impossible for me to imagine that, because I have become that which lives with recorded music.
Minimalism in music is the avante-garde sound of absolute frequency. Listening to pulsed minimal music, hearing every repetition, is like having the experience not of one consumer, but of all consumers at once. You are the mass market, and you feel the entire pressure of the mass media’s power to construct desire—in other words, in a consumer society, the irresistible power to construct subjectivity itself—directly on your consciousness. The impossible attempt to represent that pressure directly gives the music its teleology, its content—and ultimately its shock and awe. It is not necessarily an unpleasant sensation; it can be quite literally entrancing, as the shoppers floating down the aisles of the local supermarket right now could tell you. In minimal music, the message is the (direct perception of the power of the) media. Or, more pithily, after McLuhan:
In minimal music, the media (sublime) is the message.