Overdrive

Overdrive is an excess. Overdrive. But it’s often used on purpose in music, making it not an excess, but an effect – a deliberate distortion.

A distortion is a deviation from verisimilitude or an expected, comfortable shape. This makes immediate sense in the context of a distorted image – when one can recognise the deviation from a ‘natural’ form – or in the case of a distorted sound that is equally ‘natural’; a field recording or a note from a canonical instrument.

A voice, for instance.
(This Obnox track doesn’t really have overdriven vocals, but fuck it. Most of them do).

The overdriven sound in garage punk has the effect of illusory amplification. The music always sounds loud, even when it’s quiet. Giacometti sculpted his figures to always appear distant, eluding proximity – you can’t get up close no matter how much you try. On the contrary, you can only be up close to this music. It’s invasive, confrontational.

 

It’s interesting when the sense of something pushed beyond its limits is applied to something that doesn’t have established or intuitive limits. Such that we recognise the exertion and distortion, without knowing what it is that has been altered. Or, more accurately in this case, we sense distortion when there is no real distortion at all, but simply an original sound with morphological similarities to distorted ones.

Abstract, artificial sounds rendered tangible by association with the concrete. A shadow cast by a 3D wireframe.

 
I suppose it’s a part of the lo-fi aesthetic that’s appeared in various forms in recent decades, but Beau Wanzer, Container, Nick Klein and others don’t appear to harbour the nostalgic yearning of lo-fi’s indie pioneers, nor the overt political subversion that punk’s DIY aesthetic symbolised.

Nevertheless, authenticity, anti-commercialisation, purity and directness are all impulses that a certain strand of the underground share.

These artists – although borrowing from vintage electronica – face forward, with a futurist low fidelity that’s more like scratchy broadcasts from space than found tapes from the past. The brutish ugliness of their palette and electronic primitivism suggest a society rebuilt after dystopian end-times in contrast to the high-gloss futurism of Quantum Natives, Fatima Al Qadiri and James Ferraro.
The latter artists’ dig at commercialism lies in a strange, disorientating appropriation that’s equal parts satire and celebration. They recognise the inevitability of technological change (like the original Futurists) and play around with the glitchy, shiny, intangible quality of the contemporary digital landscape.

Maybe it’s in opposition to the fragility and disposability embodied by software, digitalia and internet muzak that overdriven electronic distortion finds its rationale. Bulk, heft, overuse, degradation – dwindling characteristics.

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Horns

I find myself with less time to write and, worst of all, think these days. Or maybe I just lack the inclination. Or the ability.

In short: I’m dying.

As if the words on this blog or any other weren’t already desperate scratches at the edges of mortality and loneliness, now I can’t even be bothered to pretend.

Anyway, what I mean is, the rather neatly composed and thoughtful (not my words*) micro-essays haven’t been flowing of late so I think I’m going to start utilising this blog to share music. Something I find comes naturally and easily. When I remember.

Where I can, I’ll fit things into some sort of logical/impulsive grouping and say something interesting about them. Otherwise, I might just post a track without comment.

*My words

Horns

Horns are much maligned. They invariably ruin dance tracks and loads of people (/lesser species) hate jazz. Why? It might be something to do with their ostentation. There’s no burying them in the mix – they’re shrill and clear and vocal in their range – and I think this offends some people. They’re so fucking chirpy.

On the contrary, horns can, of course, be all sorts of other things – from the percussive, rumbling tuba of Oren Marshall to the swirling, scattered saxophone of Stockhausen’s Spiral.

Here are two recent things – from brass veterans – that do great things with horns. The first is from John Butcher. The piece I’m thinking of is at the end of this radio show – it’s called Hamon from his Nigemizu recording. The sax isn’t too high in the mix here, because there is no mix. It’s just John frantically squeaking notes that veer in and out of the sonorous and the dissonant. It’s busy and disorientating and beautiful.

On the other hand, here’s something much less sweaty and frantic, but no less brilliant, from Jac Berrocal in cahoots with David Fenech and Vincent Epplay. It’s a new release from Blackest Ever Black and, as the label continues to surprise and diversify, so it continues to improve. Being ostensibly an old school trumpeter’s album, it seems far removed from the disquieting clatter of Cut Hands or Vatican Shadow. But there are obvious continuities – BEB have re-released classic Ike Yard cuts and Berrocal played with No Wave / Post-Punk royalty like Lizzy Mercier-Descloux and James Chance.

The trumpet is here weaved into a smudged soundscape of distant shouts and buzzing electronics, with a foregrounded sparse guitar line. It’s like some sort of No Wave Western.

 
I’ll have something on Overdrive, Repetition and…stuff in the coming days.

Berlin

Berlin
It’s a great word, visually. It feels composed.
With a proud B followed by a subtle curve, formed by the peak of the l,sloping into in.
Austere and romantic, assertive and seductive – Berlin.


Berlin is great art.

It’s not effusive like Paris or rarefied like Vienna, but elegant and tragic; its absurdist logic imbues the steely exterior with an intoxicating poignancy. It’s turgid with potential energy – the echoes of horror; restrained tears; austere concrete veined with graffiti arabesques (matte neon, dulled vibrancy); serious fun.


Muffled kick drums, silver noise, beautiful bludgeon, concrete flowers, murdered gypsies in as-far-as-the-eye-can-see park, white sun, a flash of gold at the edges.

The tears are brought on by beauty, by spectacle, by death, by love, by endless possibility.
Hedonism is no vacuous escape here – it’s meaningful immersion.


That sunset orange stays long.

Trickling Music

The next part of my 25 RECORDS OF THE YEAR will appear soon; here’s a distraction:
Trickling Music
It’s probable that innovations in the musical avant-garde ‘trickle down’ into more popular forms. 
This notion appears to provide an easy justification for the often technocratic and rarefied explorations of ‘difficult’ composers and sound artists.
“They make waves, and slowly inspire more popular artists that actually have a direct impact on mass sonic culture”.
In a real avant-garde, activities are (ideally) unfettered by the need to function and can be truly autonomous, allowing the sort of genuinely innovative developments that would otherwise be filtered out. These innovations don’t just stay floating around in the world of musical academia however; there exists a sort of musical hierarchy of mass appeal, through which ideas can be passed.
The need to see these avant-garde experiments as having a real ‘impact’ or ‘effect’ completely undermines the very notion of a rarefied culture of innovation that isn’t smothered by the crippling demands of utility. In seeking justification for avant-garde art, we succumb to an implicit capitalist ideology, wherein nothing has inherent value beyond its power to generate further value (defined abstractly).
We shouldn’t view this web of inspiration as a justification of the initial act, but as an inevitable process of cultural digestion.
Do avant-garde artists feel vindicated by their displaced notoriety? What happens to these ideas once they are adopted in other forms? Are they bastardised or simply utilised? If we layer a William Basinski loop over a drum-track, is it even the same thing at all? What’s carried over into the new form, if anything?
I have a feeling that, in the main, avant-garde composers are imbuing their work with a fair amount of conceptual content that cannot possibly be carried, in toto, into other forms.
But, this amounts to saying that two pieces of art are different, having different inceptions and different meanings. A Cageian would say that two different performances of Beethoven’s 9thhave two different meanings and effectively constitute two different artworks.
When sonic tropes from the underground (e.g. early dubstep) are imported into other cultures (e.g. brostep), we are simply witnessing different attempts to realise the objective potential of aural materials.
We must be careful in conflating the morphological similarity of sounds with an ideological or functional proximity.

What is Painting, What Can Painting Be?

What is Painting, What Can Painting Be?

 

In some sense, any painter is asking these questions whenever they make a painting.  As Kosuth suggested: every artwork is a definition of art. There is a parallel between this reflexivity of art – and its inherent historicity – and that of philosophy.

 

Jean Hyppolite makes the case that philosophy comes to question itself by interrogating the very basis of metaphysical thinking (á la Wittgenstein). This is not to say that it loses touch with questions of being and meaning, but that it thinks its way through to the good stuff in an indirect fashion. It never stares straight at the sun but becomes faintly aware of light at the edges of its vision.

 

Artists must also interrogate their artwork’s roots in non-artistic factors (its existential conditions) at the same time as they explore its content. If we take Badiou seriously and consider art to be an autonomous domain of truth-production (as I think someone like Richter does), then we must question the nature of its truths, and the relationship between its objects and its means.

 

What is confusing is the plurality of these domains’ truths. Rauschenberg suggested that any aesthetic will always challenge someone else’s, implying that we might consider any painting – in the light of Kosuth – as a prescriptive assertion of what painting should be. This might be a confusion arising from the cross-pollination of art and philosophy; their ‘suturing’, as Badiou would put it. When we conceive of philosophy as an a-historical discipline (pace Hyppolite) then we might import the apparent linearity of its thinking into art and assume that paintings are incompatible rival doctrines.

 

According to Hyppolite, metaphysical questions are as indeterminate as artistic ones, and opposing accounts of being are as sustainable as opposing accounts of beauty. The question is: are there artistic ‘truths’ that sustain but reappear among different truth conditions (capturing the slide between eternity and temporality that Badiou recognises), or does art function differently? We can safely say it isn’t like mathematics, whose truths collapse into a given present, but is it akin to Hyppolite’s philosophy; weighed upon by its history to the point that it is always in a process of becoming – its thinking through of its history being an integral part of its function?

 

If so, then both the story of art history and the story of philosophy are ones of becoming, of complex dialectics without resolution, and of infinitudes made temporarily finite – not ones of linear progression, superseded theories and transient forms.

 

Each new painting becomes, then, not a novel definition of what painting is (or what painting can be) but an attempt to gesture at something eternal by giving it a temporary glance.

Its newness is not total, but relative.

Apocalypse Dreams (Part 4)

Apocalypse Dreams (Part 4)
 
The dreams of apocalypse don’t explicitly feature the end of the world and I don’t believe they are borne of a serious fear of global annihilation. I’m keenly aware of the many potential eschatological scenarios that might befall us but I maintain a cowardly optimism that amounts to almost total psychological avoidance.
 
I could never understand Heidegger’s ‘being-towards-death’; the assertion that the proper approach to an Existentialist life lived in ‘good faith’ is to live it towards death, in the shadow of it, with complete contented awareness of its inextricable relationship to life. That life implies death is a philosophical platitude; it is not a matter of metaphysical certainty, just a contingency of extant biology. What is ‘human’ is not an eternal mode of being – a la Dasein – but a mutable fabric of diachronic biological and socio-political facts.
 
This abstract thinking allows me a small sliver of redemptive doubt regarding the fate of humanity, and an even smaller one about my own (virtually) inevitable demise. Of course, the end of the human race is vastly different to one’s own death, and it’s not at all about its cosmic significance: one’s own death could not fail to be more significant to oneself, and the human race’s importance is equally reliant on the perspective of interested parties (i.e. the collective ego). In space, no-one can hear the entire human race scream.
 
Instead, these ‘apocalyptic’ dreams carry within them the implication that vast, uncontrollable events, on the scale of the sublime, are unfolding. The promise of annihilation is merely a subsection of that greater menace: brute action, mindless occurrence, the Godless Universe.
 
Creationists face the Uncanny appearance of design in our world with the appropriate trembling, but they resolve it with the myth of comforting sentience: a mind that can be pleaded with, reasoned with and understood. In these dreams, the same insentience possessed by tree roots is ascribed to human society, and it is made clear that we can no more control the direction of global policy, macroeconomics or technological change than we can implore God to redeem sinners, relieve suffering or prevent the Sun from exploding.
 
This, I believe, is the significance of aeroplanes, monolithic towers and traffic jams. In my dreams they appear as un-designed as a snail’s shell and as alien as vegetation. They are archetypal symbols of the city – the most concentrated evidence of human creation – but they appear as arbitrary carbuncles; sinister remnants of an uncaused process. This is not a fear of chaos, by the way – quite the opposite. It is the uneasy observation of order without orchestration. Sometimes the towers and the aeroplanes carry the whiff of sentience: a desperate illusion, seeking minds in the objects themselves in the absence of a conscious creator.
 
It’s a solipsistic universe too. My fellow humans, en masse, appear mindless. My detachment is total, finding no solace in familiar locations (just the uneasiness of confrontation with distorted realities) and finding only fear in the presence of man-made objects. What a strange mess these cities are, the planes are escaping.
 
The common structure of these dreams is the juxtaposition of a very present, forceful occurrence (explosions, crashes, gunfire) with a distant, slow and quiet menace. This ‘thing’ can’t be called an event, it is too intangible and indistinct – it is an atmosphere. It’s a gestalt that’s caused by the re-presentation of familiar things; the most familiar and human things possible (cities, cars, buildings) become organic and unexplained (a touch of the Nausea).
 
The menace is in the distance, at the edges, glimpsed with the mind’s eye. It is too terrible to grasp in toto, but the very elusiveness of its scale engenders this terror. It is a mutable and intangible situation that coalesces and garners enough gravity to form a semi-tangible thing – we might wonder whether it’s a plague or a war but, really, its very inability to be grasped is the totality of its content.
 
The blast that happens right in front of me is the force of banal reality – it serves to remind me of the interplay between those distant energies and the very tangible actuality of falling buildings, authentic pain, real death. These two dramas resemble the constant oscillation between prizing hedonism/nihilism (there’s panic outside, we’ll stay here and eat) and recognising the occasional need to grope for meaning (staring at the rubble).


Nothing really matters because we’re all going to die, but art is important because it helps us to understand. Lumbering global crises suffer personal tragedies, and the inhumanity of the mindless Universe implicates me in its cold unfolding.

Postmodern YouTube Comments

Postmodern YouTube Comments

 

Any medium through which humans convey information is structured, limited but infinitely malleable.

 

The limitations of a medium invite the manufacture of clichés and canonical archetypes – there are novelistic clichés, painterly clichés and cinematic clichés. There are also key examples of any given medium that we often take as paradigmatic: other iterations resemble or subvert them in varying shades.

 

The development of clichés and the ossification of a canon lead to an inevitable stage of conscious reflection upon the qualities of the medium, as witnessed in the birth of modernism and postmodernism in various art forms throughout the 20th century. Modernism in painting defined limits as it tested them (flatness, a framed edge) and postmodernism dismantled them.

 

This process is evident in media everywhere, even YouTube comments. YouTube comments are restricted by a character limit and informed by their given function as brief opinions about a video; these are some basic limitations that the medium presents.

 

In its nascent, unreflexive stage the YouTube comment is representational and serves an external purpose. It is about that video at the top of the page; it serves to pass judgement on it, highlight aspects of it or question it. Just as a novel is conceived as a vehicle for narrative and a painting is faithful to its subject.

 

Some YouTube users introduce stylistic variation and begin to develop an oeuvre, with their own brand of crafted comments that do more than simply make observations about the video. Medium-as-vehicle is challenged and users start to delight in the possibilities that the comment board provides.

 

Micro-genres emerge as memes become established: variations on the joke about the number of people who disliked a video (‘X people Y’), ‘I liked the part where…’, ‘First!’, ‘Thumbs up if…’ are established as jokes with wide applicability – a sort of template that can be filled out with different content, like restaging Othello in contemporary America or producing iterations of the Cubist guitar. Badiou suggests all artworks are manifestations of particular ‘truths’ that are anchored in different contexts – one story retold, one song replayed or one picture reworked.

 

These memes display an awareness of the medium’s history and an insider’s knowledge of the form. A dialogue is established that entrenches – and tests – users’ facility with the tool. The modernist moment arrives with complete reflexivity: not just comments about the content of other comments, but comments about Comments.

 

Can we get postmodern comments? They can possess the requisite irony, they can borrow elements from other media (with a little creativity) but can they melt existing boundaries between ‘a YouTube comment’ and something else…?

 

Keep an eye out for a user attempting to post recipes, paintings and overtures ‘as comments’, questioning the role of comments in contemporary society , exploring the tension between comment and not-comment, inhabiting the liminal zonein which

Noise

Noise

 

Noise is apparently whatever isn’t meaningful – ‘the rest is noise’, ‘that’s just noise’. Data that’s irrelevant to a scientific theory is called noise, noises don’t signify.

 

We ask kids: ‘what noise do dogs make?’ but not ‘what noise do humans make?’ because we intuit that human emissions are meaningful, while doggy ones are unstructured and don’t refer. What, then, does it mean to call a musical genre ‘Noise’?

 

Coming from the outside, it can seem like an insult – noise is, almost by definition, not music. It is unstructured and meaningless: music is formed out of noises. It’s a middle-aged put-down for teenage rackets.

 

Coming from the inside, it’s defiant and strident. It pre-empts accusations of being ‘noise’ by labelling itself as such from the very beginning. It reclaims the word for punks, bohemians and metalheads who want noise and aren’t ashamed of it. Ok, so noise isn’t music but neither is archery. Something that doesn’t aspire to the status of music (as defined by reactionaries) cannot be criticised as not-music. We might as well call Picasso tone-deaf or say that Shakespeare was a lousy saxophonist.

 

We are obsessed with music, such that anything aural that doesn’t conform to our expectations of it offends us. We treat it as a zero-sum game, as if the presence of Prurient or Wolf Eyes negates the presence of Mozart or Frank Sinatra, as if they fight over the same territory.

 

Noise can convey emotion (but need it do so?) and can provide information. In this way, it isn’t strictly noise. It utilises the morphology of noise (quameaningless, unstructured sounds) to do the job(s) of music. Once noise is put to use, it is no longer noise, but Noise.

Being Original

Being Original

 

We are impressed by originality, but not by any originality. Pointless World Records are original, but they raise a smile, not Arts Council grants. Yes, you can safely say ‘I am the only person to have thrown 6,000 bottles of fortified wine at a pile of trench-coats’ but no-one will be impressed by this little permutation of possible acts.

 

 What’s the line between an impressive originality and a banal one?

 

We want someone to create a means of generating new permutations, not to simply explore currently possible ones. We are impressed by the invention of new systems, new mechanisms and new tools, not new outputs.

Drone

Drone

 

A drone is an unpunctuated sound. It’s always a sound – it can be a complex of different sounds, but they must coalesce and adhere to form something with a certain aural unity. Too much complexity and it ceases to be a drone, a drone is one thing.

 

A drone has to be long; a drone with duration of less than 1 second is a note, not a drone. But if we slowed that same note down so that it was 10 minutes long, it would be a drone. A drone emerges at somewhere between 1 second and 10 minutes in length.

 

The word ‘drone’ suggests monotony, which implies dullness. Are we meant to endure a drone, or enjoy it? A drone’s lack of differentiation and the very slowness of its unfolding test us. A drone can change – our appreciation of drones usually hinges on the difference between the beginning and the end, but the drone challenges us not to notice. Eliane Radigue draws out sounds for hours, with subtle modulations that flirt with imperceptibility. Its machinations are hidden within its slowness and we are impressed because we recognise that a monumental transformation has occurred without us seeing it; like a drifting glacier or our own ageing.

 

The drone can be a spectacle – extremely quiet, extremely loud, extremely long, requiring extreme patience or requiring extreme levels of submission. It’s interesting because it asks of us something we can do, but that we don’t normally do when we hear music. It doesn’t expect to hold our attention, but it returns us to the world with a different sensibility (if only temporarily). In this way the drone is almost inherently Cageian. It adjusts musical parameters to those ends of the spectrum that bring its own musicality into question, and its real function is displaced: it’s a slow stroll from A to B that teaches us how to walk.