Saturday, December 13, 2008
This album is just a fairytale in the supermarket. This album must be imaginary, it's still a singularity that reality hasn't quite figured out how to deal with.
There's obviously a lot of neo-Marxist/Feminist themes running through here, which is refreshing, but it's really all about the praxis. Say what you will about how “musically skilled” these musicians are, they make some really compelling music. Really, each one of these songs is brilliant. If you dare deny that, I would say you're listening to music with all the wrong organs!
And it's so ramshackle. There's none of that bullshit equilibrium you get so much of in other music. Whereas in some songs every instrument is perfectly in time with the others, and so creates the illusion of a fixed point moving in time, the fixed point here is entirely virtual. It is a strange attractor that all the voices struggle to reach or struggle to slow down towards. As such, all the instruments are always clamoring for that supreme unity but never attaining it. No one member of the band defines it, because there is a fierce egalitarianism in operation. Now isn't that a much better metaphor for life than all the other music you've been taught to appreciate because of its simulated perfection?
Did I mention they do a cover of “Lola”? Yeah, it's great.
About the music itself, this is “post-punk.” Post-punk is just the logical progression of punk, in that it assumes the same goal of deconstructing music but takes it one step further (the step into “The Void”). This particular album sounds like a mix between The Shaggs and The Ramones, if you don't mind me referring to one artist more obscure and one more popular to provide a popular definition. You have everything you could want: brass, strings, bass, drums, guitar, and girls, girls, girls! Really, this is an album for everyone, especially people who love/hate music.
This album works because it likes all the same albums I do. It appreciates Mission of Burma, Joy Division, The Byrds, Richard Thompson, Brian Eno, Slowdive, etc. It's a synthesis the likes of which I have never seen before: it goes through all your favorite records and identifies the peaks, then cuts them out and pastes them all together into a collage of everything that is the best about all the music you already love. As such, it is one of the most depressing albums I've heard in a while.
Not only does it refer back to all your favorite music, it even refers to itself. So contemporary it's contemporary of itself! Microcastle... everything has been digitized, synthesized, reduced in size, and fit into a box. After all, a castle is just a glorified box. As is a computer, or an album, or a womb...
But I digress. This album is like a river. Like the river of life. It ebbs and flows, it brings you to a new high and to a new low. But it is not this straight-forward, it must pay its tribute to irony. Irony, which is the guiding force of our new lives. Irony in that the highest points are also the lowest, such as on “Nothing Ever Happened,” which climaxes after the line “I never saw it coming, waiting for something from nothing.” A self-defeating anti-climax, in an age where we rely on technology for most of our climaxes. So what's this? Why won't Cox deliver? What is with his apathetic, disinterested vocal delivery and his depressing lyrics? Can't he go be depressed somewhere else?
That's not it at all. This album is, first and foremost, a mirror of our times. Our new synthesis is not one of making disparaging styles click together, it is one of breaking down the ideas which supported those styles and then throwing everything together until it is easily manufactured and reproduced. Music isn't marketable unless it fits a template or reduces previous music into a template. This album does that so well it's incredible, but at the same time, it does so with an air of melancholy and irony. It has to rely on the past, because what is there to rely on now? “Saved by Old Times,” expresses that sentiment perfectly. The past still provides an aura of meaning, whereas our present provides only disillusion and unreality.
This album is an experience. It divides between the really catchy song-songs, like “Agoraphobia,” “Little Kids,” “Never Stops,” “Nothing Ever Happened,” and “Saved By Old Times,” and the other songs which are more ambient mood pieces. It's tempting at first to say, oh well there's the singles and the other crap that fills it up. But the transition between them is really impeccable, and both are completely necessary to complete the “feeling” of the album. That completely enveloping mood, what I like to refer to Baudrillard for and call “melancholy and fascination,” the dominant ethos of our times. It's always a back and forth of breaking down our musical systems and then running back to them. That is essentially the loop we are trapped in. But doesn't it sound great? Or at least... fascinating?
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
What is minimalism? What drives it?
John Cage said, “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” Whereas other forms of music rely on various devices to convey emotions and themes, minimalism seems content to express nothing. Or does it, rather, use its own devices to express nothingness?
Western philosophy always begins with the reality of being. “I think, therefore I am.” All truths are contingent on this duality of existence and perception. The 50's and 60's were a turbulent time; everyone was still reacting to the horrors of WWII and the formation of the Soviet Union. In the art world, Dada, Surrealism, and abstract art continued to demand a response. Every artist took it upon himself to smash every necessary truth he could find. And the most primal of these is that of being. Thus, many minimalists turned to Eastern philosophy.
Buddhism and Taoism, when specifically contrasted against most trends in Western philosophy, take an inverted approach. Rather than start with the conception of being, they begin with the idea of absolute nothingness. This idea is much less familiar to us than being. To form a conception of nothingness is to negate it. And yet, as wise men tell us, it lurks beneath everything.
1952 saw the first performance of 4'33”. Many were outraged when the musical performance they paid for just ended up being four and a half minutes of silence. John Cage, however, denied any such thing. The human mind does not have access to absolute silence. John Cage wanted his audience to realize that although the performance they were seeing was one of nothing, it was nonetheless a performance. Even though nothing was played, sound still filled the room. Something had still happened.
What everyone expected from the performance was a drama. Each sound is supposed to be an actor, working to increase or resolve the central conflict. Minimalism strips music of its illusions. A sound is simply a sound, and should be appreciated on that level. To assign meaning to certain sounds, to interpret abstract music, is to look away from life and to enter into the game we have draped over it.
Minimalism is about the journey, not the destination. No future moment in the music will justify what you are hearing right now; each moment is its own justification.
Where does this piece of music fit in? Arvo Pärt's music is often described as “sacred minimalism.” But how does all the drama of religion sneak into minimalism without tearing it apart? Although minimalism sacrifices many elements of the drama, it most often retains tonality. Pärt finds God in the trinity of tonality, the triad. He uses a technique he calls tintinnabulum, whereby the three notes of the triad ring out like bells, and form the foundation of the piece. The drama now consists in sounds pulling themselves out of the void, in the patches of silence that tend to subsume everything, and in the divine relationship between pure tones.
Is this a cop-out? Has minimalism been torn from staring into the abyss to contemplating the infinite? For me there is no difference. Steve Reich was fond of Pärt's compositions, and said that they filled an essential human need. According to Reich they missed the zeitgeist of the times, but thereby generated their own appeal. This music is on many levels a reaction—a response to the detachment of atonality as well as the excesses of Romanticism. But more than this it is an affirmation. Arvo Pärt went through a long period of silence. Like John Cage, he may have come to the conclusion that the artist betrays himself by speaking. Ultimately, however, something led him to compose—and the results are divine.