Energies: A Note on Music and Disbeliefs

I do not believe that the act of making music, however deliberate or spontaneous it might be, aspires to a preordained ideal. That is, there is no perfect music, except insofar as a given musical piece or performance fulfills the needs of its participants — listener, composer, and performer alike. This fulfillment is, in the end, all that matters.

I also do not believe that all music aspires to art, nor should it, any more than any other activity aspires to art. I emphasize my use of the word activity because I believe music is something one does.1

  1. This idea will be familiar to readers of Christopher Small’s Musicking, a book I’ve only recently come across. I recommend it to anyone who’s interest in music is more than passing. His development of a theory of music-as-action has inspired rather than deterred my remarks here.

Energies: A Note on Music and Utility

I am, like many people I know, a person whose identity has been discovered, determined and formed through the music I listen to. This is more than the cigarette-smoking or various haircuts and wardrobes I adopted to suit my nascent rock-and-roll, metal, or punk phases; it is in fact the way I have learned to view the world and be a part of it. By which I mean that without music, there is little doubt that I would have ceased to exist some time ago. In this way it has been and is useful to me.

Of course, the criteria for utility vary according to need. Hollis Frampton, in an essay whose title I cannot currently recall, describes art as a practice whose utility has become obsolete. His example, as I recall, is painting, which initially appeared on cave walls as warnings (“Keep an eye peeled for bears!”) or narrative (describing, perhaps, a hunt). From there, it evolved into religious iconography, and only later into a secular mode of entertainment, expression, or reproduction. He distinguishes photography as falling outside this progression, positing that it moved in reverse, from expression (a substitute for amateur painting) to utility (a recording medium whose veracity was intact without question for nearly a century).

Music falls somewhere in between or alongside those media: music has sustained its utility throughout its history, as prayer, as communication, as entertainment, as expression, as rallying point. That is, rather than evolve from utility to art, music has remained a utility and evolved into art simultaneously.

Energies: A Note on Records and Listening

My record-buying and listening pattern is a combination of impulse, artwork, artist, review, and genre. I tend to listen exhaustively, by which I mean I latch on to an artist or group and pick up whatever I can from them until their music is either assimilated into my listening-repitoire or the buzz of the new music simply fades. Most music falls into the latter group but it doesn’t matter.

Reckless Records, Chicago, IL

As Ezra Pound once said, art of any kind in any era requires journeymen, whose works serve “to sustain the art.” Likewise, these eventually-mediocre records serve as journeymen in my listening. They keep things moving, keep me in the habit of listening and seeking, keep things afloat. Once they recede from the turntable and playlists, I’m left with the indefatigable records that are useful and endure.

From My Old Blog, October, 2006: Thoughts on Seismosis

John Keene and Christopher Stackhouse’s *Seismosis* arrived today. It’s a wonderful-looking book with texts by Keene and drawings by Stackhouse. I don’t know the latter’s work but Keene’s *Annotations* has been one my favorites lately.

For what it’s worth, the poems remind me of *Annotations* though Keene’s style has developed remarkably, assured and matured in both subject and delivery. *Seismosis*, is less of a personal history than *Annotations*, though no less thoughtful, reflective or considerate. Keene’s approach is to take his subjects as objects in hand, noting their materials, weights, surfaces, contours, and variations. The drawings pre-register these notations, providing a record and measure as a fortifying context for Keene’s meditations.

Stackhouse’s drawings are scribbles, mostly, likened here to the titular needle-jumps of a seismograph. Taken as the book’s point of entry, they’re a pleasurable, bodily foil to the shape of Keene’s texts (lines, grids, blocks). The opening and closing poems, for example, share the title, ‘Process’; both are printed on recto pages, faced by Stackhouse drawings of dissimilar stroke and light: the first concentrates its vigorous strokes over each other and in the center of the page; the latter keeps its strokes to a relative minimum, creating two forms on the left and right sides of the page.1 Of the poems, the first reads, “In the mark event, you enter your signature.” The final poem, after much speculation on — among other things — spatial relations, human relations, and the relations between the drawings and texts of the book itself, acts as an aphoristic resolution of the first: “In the mark, we choose and lose signature.”

The distiction between the mark itself and the mark’s event is a crucial one for these collaborators, whose marks are contingent on the event of their collaboration; that is, the event (the book) of the marks (poems, drawings) amplifies the effects and meanings of the marks and transforms them into a single event, the way single notes form a chord. The resulting unity is no small feat. Most efforts at such union of illustration and text suffer the egos of their makers, an unwillingness to see their work subsumed into a greater project. For Keene and Stackhouse, on the other hand, it seems that *Seismosis* was occasioned by likemindedness, trust, and an abiding kindred sense between two artists.

  1. The drawings, part of his *Perpendicular Series*, are not entirely scribbles. Stackhouse’s use of straightedge, in particular, generates effective armatures for the works, directing attention from the page margins to the structure of his forms: drawings XII, XXI, XXIX (my personal favorite and the most ‘perpendicular’ work in the book), L, and LI (described above in conjunction with the second ‘Process’), are examples of this practice.

Energies: Authenticity & Slow Culture

Further thinking about slow movies1 has brought me to both a more general and a more specific idea about the distinction of slow culture, inspired in part by this insightful piece by Matt LeMay.

Slow media 2 are not necessarily the same thing as slow culture, though they are certainly related. The term *slow media* as I’m using it here refers to a direct, physical contact with a medium’s material; *slow culture*, on the other hand, is not so limited and refers to a culture which produces reflective, meditative, deliberate, and/or restful gaps in its material. Mainstream culture’s works bear revisiting because we look forward to the known satisfaction of their resolution; how we get there is less important than that we know it’s coming, and, for the most part, the sooner the better. Slow culture’s payoff comes generally in the works’ process. That is, slow culture gives its participans and audience members a chance to think about what they’re participating in while they’re participating in it. This thoughtfulness is essentially creative and mutual, an investment by the artist in the audience as well as an investment by the audience in the work.

Though the formats and modes suggested by the *slow* terms are generally appreciated by many people, they exist outside the main channels of production, exhibition, performance, broadcast, and spectatorship: it’s cool to know they’re there but they’re not the money-makers of their fields.
They remain, nonetheless, characteristic of a kind of hipness that is less obsolete than it might seem.3

I’ve digressed from my original intention but not irrelevantly. We’ve grown accustomed to the speed of not only cultural works themselves but also their accessibility. Even though the ideas here can probably be applied to any aspect of artistic or cultural life, for the purpose of this piece, I’ll stick to music.

The last decade has yielded an exponential increase in the number of musicians and musical artists and a subsequent increase in recorded and performed output. And yet there has been little *new* music in this period.4 We’ve seen new ways of getting it, new ways of making it, storing it, and distributing it; new places to discuss it, new places to see it, new places to bring it. But the music itself tends toward retro/nostaglic styles 5 whose chief asset is described according to the artists’ *authenticity*.

So from the soulful voices, hard or smooth MCs, sassy cheerleaders, brooding journeymen, laptop-toting maestros, cool popsters, forthright post-punkers, and whoever else has shown up in the last ten years, we learn that many of these artists write their own songs, or that their talent first emerged in early youth; that they heard the call of G-d to sing out in His name. Yet none of these experiences is unique to them or artists in general.

Let me be clear: I do not mistake the experiences of these artists for pretense. On the contrary, I believe we have all been moved by our faith, our youth, our need to find or build a community around what we fear separates us from everybody else or might, however tenuously, connect us. But for these expressions and performances to be meaningful takes time, and what’s been increasingly absent is a culture willing to take the time to think while it listens.

Observed from a different and more pointed angle, the artists, captivated by the availability of recorded music’s entire history, give or take, are deliberately making derivative music. This is not simply the case of punk bands sounding like their predecessors or tenor players adopting the modes of post-war heavies, which practices are rooted in identity-formation, alignment, alliance, homage, tribute; in most such cases, the younger artists anticipate finding their own voice through inspiration. What I’m trying to get at is the widespread assumption that copping styles from older music is good enough. It is not. The standard for original playing has unfortunately been replaced by a standard of authentic fandom, which is fine for fans but diminishes the prospect of hearing anything new when held to by the people who make the music.

  1. See my brief entry on slow movies here.

  2. e.g. LPs, a preference for movies in which people who don’t say very much don’t do very much, books as opposed to magazines or the internet, live performances in small venues

  3. That is, hipness to the kinds of material described above; knowing that vinyl is cool, for example, does not mean that one is buying any. To be *Old School* is, a surprising amount of the time and somewhat paradoxically, to be hip.

  4. Jaron Lanier discusses this subject with great intelligence in his book, *You Are Not a Gadget*, a terrific if sometimes opaque manifesto on life online, its evolving homogeneity, corporate control, and a host of other relevant cultural and economic stuff. Worth a look.

  5. e.g. the last-several-years’preponderence of so-called *psych* music; the americana boom at the turn of the century; hip-hop’s relative stasis compared to its evolution from, say, 1980-2000; the odd mini-boom of British soul singers highlighted by Amy Winehouse, Adele, and Duffy; the mostly-Madonna-derived successes of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Other genres present their own examples, which are surely known to their constituents. This note sticks to the well-known to avoid confusion.