Friday, October 2, 2009

Personal Short (Against)

Against the window the city was framed against the window was the city and framed was what a building built falling out of frame of window against the city framed behind the building. I was framed by the window from the building, the city, window frame.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Article theft

I found this to be interested reading. It was lifted from Pitchfork's end of decade music retrospective. I knew I liked Matmos. (Bands were asked to do a top ten from the last ten years.)

"Drew Daniel, Matmos
Photo by David Serotte

People Who Died: Nine Deaths from an Unfinished Decade

These are people who died. Some are famous enough to have already merited orgies of public mourning and some are not. Celebrity death lists trivialize what makes people worth knowing about, creating a false equivalence of "noteworthiness" that levels down the difference in cultural significance between, say, Rosa Parks and Pat Morita. Risking that, these deaths marked the cancellation of something that mattered to us (Matmos) as a band and/or to me as a music fan, and I'm going to try to say what each death subtracted from the mostly finished decade that we've just experienced. Accordingly, this is not a "top ten" but a negative nine.

Edward Gorey:
I stumbled onto Edward Gorey's work as a child, demanding that my parents shell out big bucks for the poster-sized collection of his drawings of the sets and costumes for his New York City ballet adaptation of "Dracula". I was smitten by his elegant, spidery world of kohl-eyed ballerinas and Edwardian aristocrats who seemed to disappear into their fur coats amid the Imperial clutter of endless dark estates. Only later did I get the nasty punchlines hidden inside his work, stances which the silly violence and the stagy, unreal despair only hint at obliquely. In his work the creepy and the ridiculous coincide-- a very easy trick to describe but very difficult to pull off well, as the derivative trash that pays homage to him now indicates (The Corpse Bride, anyone?). If we are now living in a decade in which goth aesthetics have scored a Pyrrhic victory and in the process surrendered any genuinely critical edge (consider: the Twilight franchise, "True Blood", Hot Topic, etc.), then Gorey's death this decade looks awfully symbolic. He was the last Goth who mattered.

You probably noticed that a lot of amazing singers died this decade. I won't play favorites but will console myself with the idea of a "We Are the AfterWorld" style choir in which Julie London, Nina Simone, Peggy Lee, Celia Cruz, Blossom Dearie, Odetta, June Carter Cash, Ray Charles, Syd Barrett, Johnny Cash, Isaac Hayes, and Luther Vandross all take turns killing it. Heaven must have an insane karaoke bar rave-up going right now.

Among this bitter harvest Aaliyah's loss felt the cruelest because, unlike those acknowledged and sanctified greats, one feels that she had yet to truly peak when she crashed. She radiated potential energy, and had the once-in-a-generation pop career that promised to keep transforming itself, turning into something rich and strange. If Timbaland has had ample opportunities since to demonstrate his production prowess with other singers, there's no question for me that his peaks with Aaliyah remain the defining goosebump inducing pop-music-right-now-is-so-awesome moments of the last fifteen years. The empty space of the virtual catalog that might have been still aches.

Roger Vadim:
Many people who inspired our band died this decade. It's certain that we would not even exist were it not for the work of, say, Robert Moog (mass produced analogue synthesizers), Les Paul (multi-track recording), Martin Denny (spooky pop instrumental mood music)... The list could go on. But I have to single out Roger Vadim as a particular source of inspiration.

In a decade in which Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died, why pause to mourn a creepy wifeswapping hack like Vadim? Sometimes the trashy and the minor figures make something that touches you more deeply than the acknowledged masters and Criterion Collection certified great artists, and for me, Roger Vadim's film Barbarella is foundational. It transcends kitsch and offers a design for living: music (those fuzz guitars! That Bob Crewe generation theme song!), clothing (that peekaboo plastic bra! Ugo Tognazzi's fur suit!), design and architecture (the fonts! The sets! The spaceship!), sexuality (Q: "What are you smoking?" A: "The essence of man."), philosophy (Jane Fonda asking "why would anybody want to invent a weapon?"). We love it so much we named our band after the Matmos, the sentient psychedelic goo beneath the city of Sogo that "feeds on human evil". While we're at it, let's pour one out for Barbarella's oily, chiseled hunk of man-flesh, John Philip Law, who played the blind angel Pygar. He too died this decade, and if you don't know his oeuvre, go rent "Danger: Diabolik"." Repeat after me: "An angel doesn't make love, an angel IS love."

Bo Diddley:
A few years ago my partner M.C. Schmidt and I were asked to play a Matmos concert at the Fondation Cartier in Paris as part of an exhibition about 1950s rock and roll. Since we make weird conceptual electronic music we were kind of baffled as to why we were even asked (such are the vagaries of European arts funding), but we immediately knew that in this context the only sincere and heartfelt response was to focus entirely on Bo Diddley, a musician we both adore. Everybody loves "Mona" and "Pills", but have you heard the comedy records where he tells the dozens with his sidekick? Seek out the Chess boxset immediately.

We built some "diddley bows", the African-American monochord folk instruments from which he flipped his stagename, and then played his eponymous anthem "Bo Diddley" nonstop for 45 minutes, much to the exhaustion of the two Parisian friends that we talked into playing that shaker rhythm on the front of the stage unceasingly. I'm sure guitar players could say far more than I about the secret mojo of that inimitably gnarled, tremolo-ed-into-next week swampy guitar tone, but from my perspective Bo Diddley offers electronic beat-makers a lesson in the lifechanging, hallucinatory possibility of a simple, elegant pattern. Boom Boom Boom, bap bap x infinity. The beat goes on.

Michael Jackson:
I mean no particular disrespect to the Niagara Falls of sentiment poured out over Michael Jackson's death when I point out that it contains more than a few trace elements of hypocrisy and schadenfreude. For some listeners at least, Jackson's death functions symbolically as a kind of "just punishment" for the now-forever-unresolved pederastic crimes he stood accused of for so long. For these people he can seem to be both a martyr to public curiosity and, yet covertly he is now also someone who finally paid in death a debt that his acquittal of the legal charges left irritatingly outstanding. Many people who acted sad about his death were in fact relieved by it: Now he wasn't around to survive and age further and embarrass himself/us by getting in the way of the nostalgic investment in childhood that his art makes so wonderfully portable.

I loved his music and I loved its shameless pleasure principle, but I winced as much as anyone else at the permanent distortion induced by the radioactive decay of child-stardom. Many years ago I bought his autobiography "Moonwalk" and read it in search of ironic hipster chuckles, only to be blindsided by the genuine pathos of his weirdly needy behavior (i.e. the anecdote about MJ locking an employee who is phobically afraid of snakes in a room with his pet boa constrictor). If we gawk at his gestures with a mixture of longing and censure, that says more about us than it does about him. When you're done reading the lyrics to "Morphine" and speculating about his life, I recommend that you listen to him sing "Butterflies" and think about his art.

John Balance & Karlheinz Stockhausen:
Once, backstage at the Sonar festival in Barcelona I witnessed a meeting that taught me a bit about the scalar logic of admiration. As does happen at these starstudded European festivals, I was nervously meeting in person a musician I had idolized from afar since I was teenager: John Balance, the visionary mystic singer for the industrial occult group Coil. Balance (nee Geff Rushton) and his partner Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson were my romantic and artistic ideal: a queer couple who made esoteric, powerfully ambitious, and uncompromising work together. A lifeline for me as a teenage closet case, they were my best case scenario for what I wanted in my own life, and now they were right there in front of me. When I met Balance, he turned out to be entirely free of otherworldly trappings and sinister fogbanks but was in fact a friendly, sweet, and approachable sprite.

It also turned out that he too was bubbling over with nervous energy, because he in turn was about to meet a musician he had idolized since he was a teenager: the Grand Old Man of experimental modernist composition, Karlheinz Stockhausen. After the composer, clad entirely in white, finished majestically diffusing a spatialized multi-channel live mix of his musique-concrete masterpiece "Hymnen", I watched Balance nervously meet and greet with Stockhausen, replicating my shy introduction to Coil but at a higher order of sidereal magnitude. Coil informed Stockhausen that they regarded him as already an honorary member of the group, a fervid compliment that Stockhausen accepted with an aura of serene gratitude. This enfant terrible of high academic elektronisches muzik was gracious in person, happy to talk about tiny details of source recordings for his early works with shy and not-so-shy admirers such as myself, and clearly comfortable on Planet Earth despite his stellar origins.

The fact that John Balance and Karlheinz Stockhausen are both now dead makes this memory of witnessing their brief meeting particularly precious to me, and it also makes me feel unbearably old on the other side of this decade. In both cases, there is still much that is left unfinished by their departures from this planet: the Stockhausen magnum opus weeklong "Licht" cycle remains to be performed in its entirety, with several sections still un-premiered. John Balance was growing more stable and productive as he tried to wrestle with his demons of alcohol and depression, and if the late work of Coil is an index, he had a great deal left to transmit. Their deaths were grievous losses for experimental music, and I can only hope that, in the lines of a Coil lyric, "they walk serene / in spaces between."

"Bimble" was the handle of someone I interacted with online. If it is not quite right to say that I even knew Bimble, it's not quite right to say that I didn't just because we only typed things at each other. I knew that Bimble was passionate about post-punk, about divas, about queerness, about argument, and I came to savor the informed, juicy opinions (and completely over-the-top rants and tirades) that he posted and posted and posted on the internet discussion boards I Love Music and I Love Everything. When I learned through ILX of Bimble's recent death by suicide, it showed up for me as a new kind of experience: the ghostly negative space left in the wake of the all too real death of a virtual, web-based acquaintance. Many of us take part in online discussions now without ever meeting our associates, endless flickering symposiums of chit chat spiced by occasional trolling, brutal snubs, darted zings and decisive bans. No less than files and images and links, all kinds of affective charges flow through these spaces: people encourage and inspire and connect with each other, and they bait and torment one another, online as in offline, world without end.

As the years of this last decade have gone by, our emotional and psychic lives are increasingly ported into the shared spaces of networks, and their transparency across platforms and across geographic distances can lead us to tacitly succumb to the "digital = immaterial" sophistry of bygone cyber-utopias (so 90s), beliefs that we don't actually hold but which still underwrite our sense of etiquette about what is and isn't part of the so-called "real world". But if our web-life offers escape routes and avenues of outreach that sidestep material boundaries, Bimble's departure from the discussion boards and subsequent suicide enforces a painful sense of limitation. Nobody needs reminding that web life is supported and contained by Real Life, and it risks the height of disrespect to treat Bimble's real death as thinkpiece blog fodder. But on a space like Pitchfork, a site which, if it means anything, means that people's overwrought, a little-too-passionate online views about music are worth transmitting and reading and thinking about, this also feels like the right place to honor him. RIP "Bimble". Now go and listen to some Section 25 and Fra Lippo Lippi.

Jacques Derrida
Maybe it makes for an easy target to mourn Derrida on Pitchfork at all, but it would be dishonest of me to not include him out of pseudo-populism. I saw Derrida speak at Oxford when I was an undergraduate there and the atmosphere of pilgrimage surrounding his visit was electric, suffused with a worshipful fervor that makes perfect sense in the context of, say, musical fanculture, but which is rarely displayed so nakedly in the austere realms of critical theory. His death was the same kind of blow to the intellectual life of a decade that the nearly paired deaths of Levinas and Deleuze produced in the mid-1990s. Derrida's death offered many things: A sudden pause for thought as the political and ethical turns of his late work came to dominate the discussion of what he had been up to all along, a relief from the pressure of his insistently self-transforming voice, and a void into which opportunists poured in to appropriate and eulogize, while institutions squabbled over the rights to the archive and the estate.

The ugly NY Times obituary with its cretinous carping only proved that Derrida's work still annoyed and escaped capture: it remains easier to dismiss the half-read than to do the work of reading, easier to claim that the undigested is indigestible than to train yourself to engage with difficulty. I'm going to let Derrida have the last word: "This is what must be enunciated, this is what must be recalled, for at stake is an act of memory- this is what must engage memory in the present, in the presence of the dead, if that can be said; for however difficult this remains to say (Cicero will agree: difficillius dictu est, mortui vivunt), the dead live and the absent are present." (Politics of Friendship, 95). Amen."