Sorry this blog has been all about the music-writing (and not much else) lately, my attention has been consumed by the Aught Music blog. It's not that there's nothing else on my mind, it's just that writing for (and curating) that blog siphons off almost all my blogging energy. I've gotten a bit ahead in these last few days, though, and will try to record some other thoughts in this space soon.
In the meantime, here's, uh, more music-writing actually, but in a different form:
I haven't read much of it yet, but I've been enjoying the pages of acronyms in the back. The first acronym in there is ACEPOS, for "Absolute Cosmic Eternal Perfect Ontological Structure," a product that Kimbro warns us is outside the scope of his notebook-based system. "The structure maps an individual's brain, not the universe," Kimbro says. "Don't even try," he continues, "madness that way lies."
Those of you who know me will probably not be particularly surprised to know that I'm immediately tempted to hack Kimbro's system to create an ACEPOS, madness be damned. I'm sort of being tongue-in-cheek when I say thatI don't really believe that a totalizing system can, in fact, be made (at least not without stoppingtime)but it's true that for a long time now I've been intrigued by structures / forms / frameworks / systems which can position all sorts of disparate information into some sort of meaningful relationship. Imaginary Year readers may remember Fletcher's desire to write a book-length poem, Everything, which is one manifestation of my desire to build an ACEPOS-like system; my blog-posts back in October about the "Novel of Adequacy" are another.
I don't think I'm the only artist-type out there tempted by this idea: I just got done reading Proposition Player, a Matthew Ritchie monograph, and throughout it Ritchie speaks in ways that seem driven by a desire to illustrate or model the entire universe. (Ritchie also references Joseph Beuys as an inspiration in this regard.)
I've also been reading two books of poems that might be said to function as "Everything Devices" of a sort: Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone With Lungs and Geraldine Kim's Povel, both of which take very different approaches to the predicament at hand. Expect me to write some more about them later.
Bart de Paepe, the proprietor of Sloow Tapes, recenly interviewed Chris and I for a profile of Number None that will appear somewhere, in some form, at some point in the future. I'm not sure that this bit where I talk about "the creative process" will make it into the profile or not, but I was proud of it, so I thought I'd post it here:
"Iíd never experienced learning an instrument as a child or a teenager and so the first time I started making music in any systematic way was in my late twenties, which seems relatively late to get started. I had a few advantages, though: and probably preeminent among them was a world-view in which I understand the 'creative process' as more or less a process of continual problem-solving, experimenting, hacking, and learning. This made it easier for me to embark upon a process with a lot of 'failure' involved. I donít mind trying and failingtrying and failing is sort of what 'creativity,' for me, is about. Making something that Iím proud of, that 'succeeds,' is really just an occasional side-benefit."
I can think of a few literary works that use the aesthetic strategy of subtraction (Radi Os, Ronald Johnson's erased Paradise Lost; Srikanth Reddy's work-in-progress, which allegedly erases Kurt Waldheim's biography) but I'm having trouble thinking of ones that work consciously with the strategy of accretion in a way comparable to the Washburn assemblages I talked about last time.
One could make the argument that all novels work "accretively," in some form or another, being built up from a thousand little data-points and observations as they are. That said, the rules of conventional realism usually require authors to mask whatever accretive practice went into the making of the novel, which means that few novels end up really looking like a vast beaver-dam of accreted material (the Burroughs cut-up trilogy may qualify as a nominal exception here).
I wonder if the reason for this dearth has to do with the fact that a novel is still traditionally designed to be read in a linear format. Most assemblages or installations have the advantage of a certain "all-at-onceness"--a room filled with debris hits you with a certain force the second you see it, in a way that a thick book simply doesn't. To experience the full "weight" of an "accretive book" you'd need to actually plow through pages of accreted material, an experience which I'd imagine many people (although not everyone?) might find to be laborious.
Is the best strategy for producing an accretive work, then, to step out of the domain of the novel and instead into the domain of visual poetry, hijacking the "all-at-onceness" of visual aesthetics? Steve McCaffery's poster-sized "typewriter poem" Carnival is still a masterwork in this regard; a beautifully dense agglomeration of language.
From here it starts to seem easier to find examples from the realm of visual art: can, say, Robert Smithson's Heap of Language be interpreted as a piece of accretive literature? What about some of Glenn Ligon's blackened text-works? What about Tom Friedman's "Everything," which is simply [?] every word in a dictionary written on a single largish piece of paper?
Sorry about the lack of regular posting over the past week; I've been busy with a guest in town and also finishing up a Number None submission for the Belgian Sloow Tapes cassette-only label. (More on that in a future post.)
In my "spare time" I've been thinking a lot about Phoebe Washburn, a maker of massive assemblages who I learned about in an issue of Frieze that CJO recently picked up. Frieze writer James Trainor describes Washburn's process as being a "calculated accretion" of everyday detritus, interesting in and of itself, but the part that really grabbed me is the way that she recycles previous works into new ones.
"Washburn is not just a salvager but a recycler of her own work: in 2003 the filleted cardboard from Between Sweet and Low was dismantled, packed up and transported to Rice University in Texas and refolded like cake batter into an even more ambitious four-ton work, True, False, and Slightly Better, which in turn was demolished and carted off to Grinnell College and reconfigured as a massive shingled wall of debris titled Heavy Has Debt, where the dead weight of exhausted, screw-riddled cardboard finally gave up the ghost."
I'm not a sculptor, but this sort of process feels familiar to me in terms of my music-making. In Number None, practically everything we improvise gets recorded, and before the archival recordings finally get "retired" I spend a lot of time cutting them up into samples or making loops from them, which then get worked into new pieces, which then might get cut up into new samples or loops, which might then be transferred to audiotape and fed live into a performance (which then, of course, gets recorded and added to the archives to be cut up once again). Any piece that Number None might perform live is represents a certain process of digestion and redigestion: it would be interesting to go through and chart the genealogy of bit of sonic cud that we're mashing together, although at this point some of these genealogies are so tangled and gnarly as to render this process functionally impossible.
Since one thing that's been hugely on my mind this fall is the Big Question of What To Write Next, I've also been musing on whether the strategies of monumental accretion and redigestion couldn't be put to use as a textual strategy: I think I'll save that post, however, for next time. In the meantime, here's a short interview with Washburn for y'all to take a look at, with some nice photos.
New Macs are coming bundled with GarageBand, a piece of loop-making / multitracking / music production software.
Predictably, the ease-of-use of the product has led some to question whether GarageBand is "truly" enabling creativity or is "just" allowing people to enjoy the experience of being "artistic" without the hard work and discipline that we normally associate with the actual making of art. (See, for instance, this parody of GarageBand: a fake Apple product called "AtticAuthor.")
The parody is admittedly clever. And it's true that, like many other easy-to-use production tools, GarageBand may enable some users to hurriedly produce formulaic output which appears superficially "professional." But I believe in creative amateurism, and so I come down on the side of cheap tools for cultural production every time. I'd defend the point more extensively in this post if I hadn't already done so in a very similar argument almost two years ago, and if Jean Burgess hadn't been doing so quite eloquently over at Creativity / Machine. Visit this archive for five thoughtful posts defending GarageBand, as well as other posts on the topic of "vernacular creativity" (great phrase!).
Like many, I spent my college days living with another person in a single room.
We used to set up a card table for playing games or working on creative projects, and sometimes we'd wake up the next morning and look at the table from the night before, and we'd find it littered with a strange array of items: puzzle pieces and cut-up religious texts and rubber bugs and electrical tape and plastic masks and empty containers that once held buffalo wings. We used to refer to this phenomenon as "crazy man table," because the weird items on display would hint at a single cryptic project of the sort you might find in progress in an insane man's workshop.
I've carried the term with me, and still use it to describe any tabletop evidence of radical parataxis. It's been in heavy usage around here since I started using Cool Edit Pro to revitalize my work with found sounds. In addition to the normal clutter of index cards, candles, and CD jewel cases, my desk is now littered with all sorts of soundmaking items including vibrators, a harmonica, a wind-up skeleton, the squeaky toy that Bonni sent me, and a handful of styrofoam peanuts.
Related: spent some time yesterday poking around the website of Brutum Fulmen, an electroacoustic act from CT. Main guy Jeff Wrench sprinkles some descriptions of his process around various pages of the site and they have some relevance to the Number None process.
Grading update: 75 done, which closes out this first batch of papers. 525 left to go before semester's end, including the 150 that will come in next week.
I recently downloaded the trial version of Syntrillium Software's Cool Edit Pro, an excellent piece of multitracking / audio editing software. Over the past week or so I've been putting it through its paces, both on my own and with Chris.
The process of making music with a program like this is very very different from the process of recording music directly to the MiniDisc recorder. One way to work with it, I suppose, would be to begin by recording an entire track (a rhythm track, for instance) and then to build things on top of it, layering upwards. But mostly I've been choosing a smaller building block to work with: I've been starting with individual sounds. The program allows you to perform a vast number of operations on a single sound, and once you're satisfied with it you can take that sound and place it anywhere you'd like in the mix, in combination with any number of other sounds.
One immediate result of working that way is that I immediately begin to develop a nonlinear conception of the piece. Seeing the whole mix, laid out before me, and having suddenly been given the ability to concentrate on any segment of it, interferes with my understanding of a piece of music as something that begins and then moves forwards, developing as it goes. Whether this reconceptualization will be creatively useful remains to be seenthe fact remains that the act of listening is still linear.
A second result is that the emphasis in my soundmaking has shifted from performance to process. (From performing to processing, if you prefer.) The program dramatically increases my ability to perform procedures on a single sound, and I'm drawn to the dramatic, unpredictable effects produced by certain sets of these procedures. I'm a long-time lover of process art, so I have no problem accepting the application of algorithms as a suitable substitute for the intentionality of composition. See something like the 9 Beet Stretch (thanks Judith).
But there are dangers here. Too much emphasis on processing reduces the social dimension of music: if you can generate interesting sounds just by sitting in a room with yourself and your computer, why bother seeking out other musicians? I've long been surprised by the relative dearth of musicians and bands that compellingly balance the digital and the acoustic. The division makes more sense now that I'm beginning to understand the procedural differences of each type of musicmaking, but I still feel like the membrane that seperates different musical worlds should be breached as often as possible. Much of music's power lies in its ability to cross-fertilize, and any tendency towards insularity must be resisted. Last week, I saw computer music and performance combined in a beautiful display, when I had the pleasure of watching George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell improvise (on trombone and sax) along with a Yamaha grand piano controlled by an algorithmic entity (programmed by Lewis).
Another possible danger is just the danger of becoming overwhelmed by the sheer preponderance of options. As I become more familiar with the various tools at my disposal I sense that I'll be able to use them with less bewilderment, but the sheer infinity of options inherent in multitracking perhaps reinvigorates the need for OULIPO-style artistic restraints, similar to those that govern Herbert's PCCOM (Personal Contract for the Composition Of Music).
Regular readers of this weblog know that I'm interested in rule-generated music, and in the process of making any kind of art. These two ideas dovetail in the Oblique Strategies, a deck of creative suggestions designed by musician Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt.
I've used the Oblique Strategies with some regularity for a long time now, and I recommend them to everyone. But when I used them in my recording sessions with Chris, I found myself occasionally craving a set more tailored to the specific possibilities of group improvisation.
So a few weeks ago I made up a deck of 56 cards derived directly from my own musical process. I call these strategies the Possible Moves, and they can be found here.
If there's any interest, I'll put these up as a series of PDFs so that people can print them out and make their own decks.
From the liner notes to Karlheinz Stockhausen's Hymnen (a recording that I can't find available anywhere):
"Hide what you compose in what you hear. Cover what you hear. Place something next to what you hear. Place something far away from what you hear. Support what you hear. Continue for a long time an event you hear. Transform an event until it becomes unrecognizable. Transform an event that you hear into the one you composed last. Compose what you expect to come next. Compose often, but also listen for long periods to what is already composed, without composing. Mix all these instructions. Increasingly accelerate the current of your intuition."
While diaries (and the related diary-based forms I discussed on Monday) are not novels, they could certainly be thought of similarly: as a serial literature of everyday life.
"What distinguishes [a term like the everyday and a form like the series] from other terms and forms ... is that they foreground repetition and ongoingness. They prompt me to insist on process."
The notion of process is an important one to me. I''ve begun to grow less and less interested in artworks (writings, paintings, songs) that present themselves as a completed, standalone work, and more and more interested in artworks that document the way a mind holds a nagging idea up to the light every which way, works and reworks particular sets of material, pursues themes, makes mistakes, tries strategies, abandons some, salvages others.
"Exclusively preoccupied with its great capitals (Work, Style, Inspiration, World-Vision, Fundamental Options, Genius, Creation, etc.), literary history seems deliberately to ignore writing as practice, as work, as play."
As Chris and I were putting together the Number None CD, we considered the model put forth by albums like The Faust Tapes or the Tower Recordings' Folkscene, albums which are less about presenting a particular set of "finished" songs and which are more about compiling a pile of promising odds and ends, weird experiments that blur into one another, unfinished bits and pieces, a portrait of the studio-in-process. (We eventually decided to err on the side of the more traditional album, but the model here still holds potential, and may be something that we explore more in the future.)
(Idea: the "process" album as a kind of companion-piece to the "official" album. I can say with great certainty that I'd love to hear a disc of, say, whatever was left on the cutting-room floor after the recording of Vision Creation New Sun, or abandoned experiments from the Beck/Dust Brothers Odelay sessions, and I can't be alone in that.)
Josef links to the Praystation CD-ROM, which contains 397 folders which hold all the data that Praystation mastermind Joshua Davis collected over the course of a year: "All original source files, art files, text files, accidents, epiphanies, etc." This SaskiWoxi album, also linked to from Josef, seems to be set up similarly.
At first, this article sticks pretty close to the normal journalistic line about laptop music, which, for the record, is usually an ambiguous mix of pros (look at the cool toys!) and cons (it's so boring to watch; for all we know the performer could be checking his e-mail / updating his weblog / playing Minesweeper). But about halfway through, it begins to pick at the tricky question about who is "in control" of this music: the musician, or the algorithims in the software?
This question does not have an easy answer. (It may not even ultimately be a meaningful question.)
I've been talking to people about the music that I make with Number None, and invariably whoever I'm talking to asks "oh, what do you play?" I've taken to answering machines, since most of the sounds I produce for the band are elicited from a computer or an analog synthesizer. And sometimes, I feel less like a musician and more like a technician of some sortsometimes the machines seem to generate the music on their own, and my role is simply to help that music find its way out into the world.
Or, as Shawn "Twerk" Hatfield says in the article:
"I'm trying to make new sounds, computer sounds. ... I'm never able to get the sounds that I hear in my head ... so I just play with randomness and let these things happen naturally. The networks of sound generation I set up are just spewing out all of this chaos, and from that I pull out the pieces that are worthy. It's like a garden that you're constantly trimming and manicuring."
The further Mould gets away from his Husker Du days, the less interested I get, but the review is interesting because it presents the dark flipside of Kevin Kelly's vision of new technological tools engendering a flowering of amateur music.
"Samples, drum loops, sequences, factory presets, combs, performance controllers -- on the best of the new equipment you can punch a few more buttons and twist knobs and change the noises without ever having to learn a grammar at all. Spend ten minutes with a Karma and you can have two club anthems and a car commercial. Give the Media Lab a couple more years and it won't even be that hard. Gesture, and you perform. Think, and you compose. You have music inside you, the promise goes; machines will remove the barriers that keep it from getting out. And as entertainment, this may be extremely engaging. But it isn't art. Or, more precisely, it isn't your art."
I don't know if I agree with all of McDonald's points, although he picks on them better than I can here, spending a formidable amount of time thoughtfully listing "clauses and clarifications and exceptions" to his own arguments.
Douglas Wolk, over at Lacunae, responds to McDonald's essay, by writing: "as much fun as [shortcuts] are to take ... having some kind of understanding of how musical theory actually works is what really lets you do worthwhile things." I might argue that theory (with the possible exception of Michael Nyman's text Experimental Music) doesn't always account well for conceptual music, a category which includes a great deal of the music generated by technological shortcuts. But, that said, I see Wolk's point, and my only qualification might be that the technology that makes it easier for amateurs to make something musical may be a gateway to the theory, not simply a replacement for it. I would never have linked to that page on polyrhythms if I hadn't spent a few months playing around with the drum machine in AudioMulch.
At the end of McDonald's review, he forgives Mould's digitalia experiments by writing "Some aspect of the new technology will let Bob Mould do something that nobody else could have, and how is he going to figure out what it is without trying all the buttons?" I would simply suggest that that statement has the potential to be true, not just for Mould, but for everyone.
John Zorn: "My concern is not so much with how things sound, as with how things work."
Reasonably thorough notes on John Zorn's "game pieces" can be found on this John Zorn FAQ, if you scroll down.
"A game piece ... is a method of group improvisation where the structure of the piece (the rules of the game) is set by a prompter at performance time, and the players have complete freedom within the structure. ... Just as people playing games or sports must follow certain rules which determine how they interact, but not exactly what they do (in baseball, for instance, the infield fly rule says what to do when one occurs, but there is no rule governing when a player must hit an infield fly), in his game pieces, Zorn creates structures and situations for improvisors to perform in, while providing little, if any, actual notated music."
Feel free to splurge on this 7-CD set of Zorn's game music, or just click on this link to hear a minute or so of Hockey.
Further reading: this article goes into greater detail about the inner workings of the game piece Cobra (the title is taken, I believe, from an old TSR wargame).
In considering how a band could operate "from a formal manifesto," Douglas suggests some basic rules that have been of some benefit to other bands, including "Not everybody has to be playing all the time. If it makes sense to sit out part or all of a song, do," which reminds me of this piece of acting advice from Christopher Walken, quoted secondhand over at Consumptive: "When you're in a scene and you don't know what you're gonna do, don't do anything."
As for myself, I've always found Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies to be a pretty good set of rules for any creative endeavor, and music-making is no exception. In addition, I like some of the mottos that come from the Zen Guitar Dojo, especially their "Simplicity and Repetition," and the more mystical "Fill yourself with the sky, then play."
As you draw closer to the world of conceptual music, of course, you begin to find works that are generated by nothing more than musicians following a particular set of rules, perhaps most notably Terry Riley's minimalist compostion In C. The score of this piece is available here (as a PDF) and it consists of one page of 53 short musical clusters and two pages of rules for how the musicians (on "any number of any kind of instrument") should use them.
The phrase "six-stringed object" was adapted/stolen from the name of an interesting-looking digital guitar festival, which set out to "recontextualize the guitar as an instrument and sound source," among other things. (There are some MP3s available from that site, and check out the thoughtful writeup by Needle Drops columnist Philip Sherburne.)
The entry touches on musical amatuerism, which readers of the site will know I am interested in (it's been a theme around here since the very third entry). The most recent relevant reading on this topic is this great Lester Bangs article on nonmusician Brian Eno. Amateurism, musical technology, generative systems: practically every paragraph of this article touches on some topic of great interest to me. Thanks to Dirk Hine from Subterranean Notes for the link.
Got together and played with Chris last night, as usual for a Tuesday night.
We improvised a fair number of pieces, but few felt satisfying. At some point we shifted into a discussion of what kind of music we'd like to make, and tried to identify why we weren't getting there.
We batted around some questions which are key for my understanding of music in general: is there a way to fruitfully balance experimental music and song? What is the ideal ratio of structured playing to unstructured playing?
We've enjoyed our attempts to play with pure improvisation (experimental / unstructured) and song (non-experimental / structured), but I think that our interest falls most squarely on the sector where experimentalism and structure overlap. This may be why both Chris and I have such a high level of interest in drone music and minimalism they are musics that are built around structures but which do not rely on the familiar song-based ones.
I don't think we will eliminate the song and improv elements entirely from our playing, but I think we are leaning towards integrating those elements into experimental metastructures.
The Weston entry is concerned with writing and amateurism:
"[J]ust this one thoughtif my technique in writing was as strong as my technique in photography could I not write despite confusion?for I am usually surrounded by near or distant confusion while photographing. I lack technique in writing, hence weak or incomplete expression. I have to thinkand one must not thinkhave no need to while creating. Yet I go stumbling along, and someday may arrive."