July 07, 2004

Clocks are melting

I like the new Ulrich Schnauss album A Strangely Isolated Place (or rather, reissued, forthcoming on Domino). I do. But there's something bothering me about it as well. Listen to track 5, "Clear Day." Those overdriven strings and chords buried deep in the mix -- you've heard them somewhere before, haven't you? Let's not be coy: it's My Bloody Valentine all over again, and when he pulls out the detuned drone, seesawing in and out of key, there's no mistaking the source. The strategy is essentially the same as the one that Dykehouse followed on his new album -- take classic shoegaze sounds, and cover them the way you'd cover a song. It's a kind of pastiche driven by a laptopper's ego: "It took Kevin Shields et al a massive studio to put this sound together; I bet I can do it with a G4." And in many ways the laptoppers are right.

But something in me cries out: is this all there is?

Culture revisits the past, this much I know. After a spate of blazing forward, it will periodically slip into a loop, returning to recent aesthetics and picking up room tones the way Lucier's voice does in his loop composition par excellence, I Am Sitting in a Room. We've been looping for a while now across multiple genres -- rock, electronic listening music, house, techno, electro -- and it seems like we've got the recent past pretty much covered. Garage rock? Check. Acid house? Check. Shoegaze? Check, and check. (Grunge is still coming, of course.)

Are we exhausted? Out of ideas? Have digital musicians pushed the software as far as they can, discovering that rippling glitches are a dead end, and that the only way to go forward is to move back to the discarded songforms and stylistic signatures of recent movements?

It feels a bit Tourettic, to be honest. In Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, the protagonist, a Tourette's sufferer, often takes an inordinately long time to do simple things -- close the glove box, say -- because his syndrome compels him to repeat simple mechanical actions. For most of the book, his tic takes six as its magic number, and so everything he does, he does six times. Tapping acquaintances on the shoulder, clicking the lock of the car door. It seems like musicians these days are cursed with the same compulsion, that before they can move forward they have to perform a well-rehearsed dance of OCD. Tap the past on the shoulder -- one, two, three, four, five... how many times? And when they've fulfilled their quota, will they be free to do something new?

Almost everything feels apres garde these days. There are exceptions, of course. But the zeitgeist, the one that cuts across rock, hip hop, techno, etc., the whole pop universe of recorded sound, feels like it's lock grooving. And lock grooves wear down, scuff needles, collect fuzz and disappear in a firecracker string of fizzle and hiss and dusty explosions. Pop music today is a necrophile, in love with from-dust-to-dust, pulverizing its way back to some idealized, ashen origins one pilfering at a time.

Posted by philip at July 7, 2004 10:53 AM

Hi Philip,
I beg to differ on one point. There are in fact not one but two varieties of historicists amongst today's musical culture. Those that look to conjure a zombie version of the past for self-serving or sentimental ends (nostalgia), bringing us in lock/loop formation, on one hand- and on the other, (perhaps it's the idealist in me) there are certainly those who are looking to refurbish or revise, saying, there's new knowledge now that can improve this.

We need to be able to differentiate between nostalgia (shoegazer is going to be one tough thing to rebuild- sentimentality is something that can't be recreated feeling for feeling) and adding onto a story that's not finished. Not every past statement of style got realized to it's fullest extent. We should expect and demand that revisionists give unfinished stories some kind of ending that might also be relatable for current culture.

I find myself attracted to hybridizations. I thought "I sure wish I could buy an album that brings the sentimentality of 90s guitar shoegaze, minus the actual guitars and minus the vocals, to bear into the cold world of digitalia.." and Tim Hecker's radio amor landed in my crate not long after. Mission accomplished. There's really nothing original in that album, except the daringness to combine unlikely parts and the off chance of success at doing so (he wasn't the first to attempt this). Hybridization might seem like a cop out to pure unmitigated innovation but it sure is welcome in the face of rampant re-creationism.

I recently discovered that "old time music," bluegrass and whatnot is hugely popular amongst the punk/hardcore crowd. certainly politically unstable ground to tread when the USA poltical status quo would have us be moving politically back into the 1800s. Why should the political/arts underground go into any reverse motion at all along with The Man? your point about nostalgia has a lot of implications. If underground arts culture is always looking backwards, what does this say about the rest of underground culture (politically)?


Posted by: Strata G. at July 7, 2004 12:56 PM

You are, of course, totally right. I certainly didn't mean to impugn all people reviving, in a variety of means, past aesthetics and impulses. Certainly, my own record crate is currently full of acid both old and new. On a more optimistic day I would have posted about thow great it is that the entire history of recorded music is available now and is being boiled together into strange and wondrous reductions. But I do worry about the faithfulness of some of these tributes. As gorgeous as the Schnauss record can be, it speaks -- to me, anyway -- of a kind of exhaustion that I find worrisome. Maybe I'm just being nostalgic myself, as I re-read Reynolds' Generation Ecstacy and regret that I missed out on the first waves of rave, and wish that such a paradigm shift would come along today. Of course, if it did I'd likely miss it, since I'm so deeply entrenched in electronic music, which is precisely where that kind of societal shift is not going to happen.

Posted by: philip at July 7, 2004 01:31 PM

I know what you mean Philip re: if there's going to be a paradigm shift, will I miss it. The thing is, that a book like Simon's can't account for, is that sometimes it's incremental, and sometimes it does swallow up us Oldsters/Embedded Journalists/Electronic Musicians. So don't lose heart yet! You're more culturally in-tune than most.

I didn't mean to say that w/ so much invective. Being in PDX has just meant grappling w/ years of nostalgic music culture so I've had way too many times I had to think about it too much. You have to make a lot of micro-distinctions to sort it all out. I'll probably miss the paradigm shift while I'm busy pointing out to my peers why nostalgia is bad!

Posted by: Strata G. at July 7, 2004 01:56 PM

Phillip or Strata G. do you guys have any books that you would recommend?
Im going to check out "Generation Ecstacy"

Posted by: jamie at July 7, 2004 01:59 PM

First of all great post Phillip. As to weather or not I agree with you as to the state of the current musical landscape the writing was lovely.

I actually like that album quite a bit, although I have referred to it more than once as that "my bloody valentine album" it still strikes an emotional cord with me.

As to the next shift in music one can only guess where or when that is going to happen. I occasionally find myself maudalin for that feeling craving the excitement that the next shift is going to bring.

There is however endless amounts of music in the past that I have missed out on and continues to change my life. ILM and yourself made me listen to talk talk for the first time in the last year and I have been completely blown away. I am still after all these years coming to grips with eno's early pop records.
Paradigm shifts are sometimes where you find them.

Posted by: hector at July 7, 2004 03:02 PM

Here's my two cents (Canadian - that's the equivalent of US pocket lint)......

How many laptop musicians had played an instrument prior to plugging away with virtual synth patches, samples and drums loops? I'm talking about sitting with a metronome and playing scales over and over 'til the eyes glaze. It's one thing to be versed in software and mods, which is fantastic and all, but there's only so far it can go as a programmer-with-musical-sensibility style. That is, as far as pushing electronic music to the next pigeon hole. The great thing about pop music is that it can draw on any source it wants to, thereby making a broader style. Nowadays, the Catch-22 for electronic music is that when it expands and draws on pop, jazz, etc it's considered as rehashing. Of course, that all depends on where you're starting from.

Thanks for the book recommendation.

Posted by: Gord Fynes at July 7, 2004 08:16 PM

Oh, and I enjoyed Schnauss' "Far Away Trains..." much more than the latest one, which is also great.

Posted by: Gord Fynes at July 7, 2004 08:22 PM

me, I'm waiting with bated breath for the early-microhouse revival. damn, I miss the early '00s.

Posted by: Matos W.K. at July 8, 2004 01:27 AM

Philip, I know exactly what you mean with regards to Simon's book. I've read and re-read it several times and each time I'm filled with some bizarre mixture of disappointment and longing for those innocent, seemingly care-free times. I didn't "discover" house/techno/d'n'b until 1994 largely due to the fact I had been living in St.John's, Newfoundland for several years. There was nothing happening here in eastern Canada, so I've had to live vicariously through accounts like Simon's.

Regarding your assertion that a paradigm shift is not coming from electronic music, I think you're wrong. It seems to me that, starting from the "demise" (did it really die?) of mainstream disco, electronic music has gone through the same shifts as conventional pop/rock, but at a higher speed. Early house/jack tracks are like Chuck Berry and Ike Turnerís early efforts, primitive and visceral. London in 1989 as the time between Monterey and Woodstock, Jungle as Punk, Drum Ďní Bass as New Wave. The last few years weíve been coasting through the a late-80s-like absence of Simonís rhythmic danger (the parallels between Whitney and Britney disturb me). Electronic music is past due for (tongue plant firmly in cheek) a techno-grunge.

Even paradigm shifts seem to be based on established patterns. I'm hoping that Usher and Li'l John herald the next one.

Posted by: at July 8, 2004 06:01 AM

Whoops. Forgot to leave my name.

Posted by: John at July 8, 2004 06:02 AM

"If underground arts culture is always looking backwards, what does this say about the rest of underground culture (politically)?"

Bingo question. My current occupation, in fact. I'm digging into a larger trend here -- modernism -- and its structural implications to power, i.e., the structures of fascism. Rave culture as fascist impulse, nostalgia mythology, is something that needs to be traced in light of the nostalgia inherent today to return to rave culture. A return that is masochistic and also a return to masochism (no future hedonism, too): at once a paradox, a knot, something that can teach you a lot about yourself--hence the paradigm shift--but can also overcome you. Burn-out, basically.

But the kids want none of it today. Rave culture is seen for what it became: a big party. There's not much sense of political force or rebelliousness or resistance--whatever you want to call it--in such a nostalgia.

The next paradigm shift is already happening: it's just barely experiential. We're still thinking music here, which is only a 20th century form of shifting. The shift right now is away from music entirely--which is disappointing for many of us but some kind of reality. The shift has more to do with connectivity, which is also a false term. I'm thinking banally here about things like text messaging. But check your local highschool and see how networks of SMS are undermining educational structures. This is another twist in the fuck-school syndrome that is also restructuring the apprent presence of any kind of shift. Rave culture aimed to secrecy and disappearance--now communicative strategies are becoming ubiquitous, Implanted. Early raves in the UK worked because of an advantage gained by using early cellphones and voicemail, ahead of the State security. Now the technological components are meshing out beyond what we, as post-ravers, grew up with (by far). It is from this mesh that something surprising will arrive. Flash mobs were perhaps a taste.


Posted by: [tV] at July 8, 2004 05:00 PM

I think that a lot of musicians are producing new and brilliant works of beauty although for the most part a lot of artists tend to draw on the old. In my production, I find that producing music which sounds really nice and emotionally connective at the time it is created, makes very new sounding music. I don't pretend not to draw from influences, they are there of course, but the music I produce is my own. I think a lot of producers sometimes get caught up in trying to fit into their 'genre' so to speak. I choose to produce what sounds nice to me, it has no genre, it has no need for one because it is plainly something I love :)

Posted by: Jesse Somfay at July 12, 2004 10:22 AM

I can see the reviews of schaffel acid tracks coming soon to this blog. Joking aside, " ... the whole pop universe of recorded sound , feels like it's lock grooving " Yipes. On a side note I remember telling Kit Clayton to make a program or a plug in that replicated the tape to tape sculpture of Alvin Lucier's piece. Or did that happen and I missed it ?

Posted by: John Friend at July 12, 2004 09:11 PM

You music nerds are just like porn addicts, always looking for a new face. With so much material out there in a myriad different genres why do you feel the need for yet more new stuff? I am personally still mostly concerned with the early-mid 90's and there is still so much undiscovered territory. It's all music at the end of the day, it's not qualitatively better just because it is dressed up in new sounds/structures. Do you find yourself craving for new ice cream flavors every year?

The search for new paradigms is by definition a blind one so loop-backs are inevitable. One does not know where one is going. Can you really blame people for not being creative enough?

Personally I think the next paradigm shift just as most of the ones preceding it will be technologically inspired. Namely the improvement of the human/computer interface where the computer will be a more equal participant in the music creation process. Instead of being painstakingly programmed people could suggest ideas and the general form of the track, act as the aesthetic filter.

Posted by: DigitalDjigit at July 23, 2004 10:11 PM

we live in a time of cultural exhaustion---i just prefer aping the thames valley scene(and I have openly admitted to doing so since square one) to the garage rock revivalists or neo- romantic synth disco crap that hipsters everywhere seem to relish.The only way I feel I changed the shoegazer formula was by adding post ironic 9th grade poetry loudly into the mix(I respect Jeff Koons and Vincent Gallo for doing similar things in their respective works) which isn't very radical but you know what folks?I hate the overground AND the underground and luckily don't fit into either grouping.I hate most of the "nu gazer" scene with a passion and feel that it is formless wallpaper in the same way that a great deal of contemporary techno is. I have taken a great beating from cocksure journies for my self loveletter to the past---but fuck em--especially that giant fucking cunt Chris Ott at Pitchfork(I can't remember fucking his mom AND his girlfriend but I surely must have somewhere along the line for the thoughtless verbal abuse he projectile vommited all over the place in his write up of Midrange!) My next record will piss yall off even more----------------love Dykehouse

Posted by: dykehouse at September 4, 2004 12:52 PM


Posted by: dykehouse at September 4, 2004 01:34 PM


Posted by: dykehouse at September 4, 2004 01:34 PM
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