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15 January 2010

Wonky spiritual reggae: a short attention span essay about Zomby, fractal geometry, dubstep & some adherents and ancestors I can really get behind

I like new sounds.

I only really like new sounds, however, when they are encased in a structure that propels them — be it a folk music architecture of repetitive and/or shopworn patterns; composed music’s cerebral, considered developments; or a dance music’s tension and release model.

I dislike music that prides itself solely on being free jazz, experimental, avant-garde classical. That’s the equivalent of priding yourself on “being fun at parties.” (What do you do when the party ends and it’s time to do household chores or eat breakfast?) The real problem with music that is insistently & exclusively devoted to extremity, however, is that it’s rarely fun enough to give me a reason to put it on. I don’t know about you but I’m a busy guy. For music to work well, I need to desire it, I need to want to put it on while doing other things: the laundry, for example, or cooking. Folk, composition & dance structures are like spoons full of sugar that make the medicine go down.

I think this ethic of mine as being somewhat au courant, even. It sort of echoes the current vogue for sustainability: Everyone and everything should have multiple uses, expansive comfort zones, real utility. When slaughtering a pig, the bladder should be saved to make sausage, the skin can be turned into cowboy boots. Don’t buy disposable clothes. Don’t take that filmsy, black, plastic shopping bag.

Similarly, I believe the music we advocate should work well on headphones and as ringtones and in a room filled with pleasant company (or, well, okay, unpleasant company, too — I’m cool with that).

You may disagree with the killing of a pig part, but with the rest I think most sane humans would agree.

I disagree with the pursuit of a perpetual avant-garde. Especially when it comes to individual artists seeking eternal progress within the scope of a single career. This is, in part, a Darwinian notion. Unless you’re a creationist you’d never expect an amoeba, in the span of its life, to sprout legs. Nor would you expect a dinosaur to grow wings, or an ape to change the cut of it’s jib, the bulge of its jaw.

Why, then, do some musicians think it’s a realistic life goal to do more than find the natural limits of their individual creativity? to do more than find the secret sound of their unchained heart? to discover anything more than the vibration that they were meant to make?

At best humankind is a bell not the clocktower. You can stand on the shoulders of giants. But after puberty — short the intervention of drugs or science — it’s very hard to grow.

Speaking of which, let’s start talking about the exciting & “mysterious” (aka “trying real hard to be…”) UK electronic musician named Zomby. His music is my favorite kind: a new sound housed in an old kind of building. The critic Simon Reynolds places his music in a genre those taxonomy-obsessed Brits have created called “wonky.” In his least Rock Critic-like moment, he blames the sound on drugs in the same way that baseball Mark McGuire blamed his drug use on the sports culture of the 1990s. Here’s the clip:

    Then again, “wonky” does happen to be street slang for ketamine (see also “wonky donkey,” which plays on the notion that the drug is used by veterinary surgeons as an anaesthetic for horses). And how about the fact that Zomby is the name of the genre’s leading producer, while “zombies” is the most common description of K-heads made by people who deplore the drug’s effect on the vibe in clubs? Just coincidences, maybe. Still, even if it is a myth, like the connection between jungle and crack you heard a lot about in 1993, it’s a revealing one. Rumours are social facts in themselves.

Want to test his thesis for yourself. Well, here is a second jam from our friend Zomby. How does it make you feel?


RE: mystery
Well we are, for example, made to understand that this is a picture of the artist (via photographer Sidney Lo): zomby

Okay then, fair enough. I doubt he gets his morning coffee dressed like that, but there’s no doubt people are as authentically excited by his sound as I am.

As well, I am excited about the larger movement dubbed “dubstep” of which Zomby is part. He’s put most of his records out on the scene’s most noted label Hyperdub. And the “wonky” genre that Reynolds places him in is actually a subgenre. Here’s another track which foregrounds where all the dub talk comes from:


It’s a scene poised for a mainstream breakthrough which, when it happens, will very likely sound something like this just leaked song by M.I.A. which was produced by Rusko:


Reynolds describes the “wonky” sound as taking “dubstep’s rhythmic grid and scrawled woozily all over it with fluorescent marker pens” — though “woozily scrawled flourescent rhythmic grid” sort of gets at the defining characteristic that makes me like a lot of the dubstep I’ve been hearing. To me it sounds something like spiritual contemporary reggae — mixing up the echoing beats & samples of Jamaican music and turning those iterations in on their head in technicolor spirals until what you have sounds less like a lazy day smoking joints than an evening of studying Mandelbrot sets on a dance floor:



Though I am not much for the power of da club I like it.

So, what is it that I’m hearing in this music? Well, recall that the most fascinating thing about fractal geometry is not the multi-colored neon in the computer models which illustrate it, and which have previously decorated Grateful Dead albums and the homes of potheads everywhere. Rather, the most fascinating thing about fractal geometry is its applications for understanding nature. Image of this Romanesco cauliflower via the UMass Boston computer science department website; images of leaves via me:


berlin11 berlin10 berlin13

I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more about Zomby in the US now that Animal Collective have featured him on the cover of their guest edited issue of The Fader.

As for next steps to digging this kind of music? Might I recommend the work of fellow travelers from Los Angeles like Flying Lotus (whose connection is explicit having released material on the Hyperdub label), and J. Dilla (who is more of an ancestor, having passed away in 2006). As befits two African-American residents of Los Angeles, both are more rooted in hip-hop than Britain’s tradition of abstract dance music. But the whole lot of it = excellent.



Mia Doi Todd (remixed by Flying Lotus) “MY ROOM IS WHITE”

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13 January 2010

Deep Thoughts About Security, Obscurity, Etc.

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11 January 2010

Vincent van Gogh and the Community Function


Today’s take on the Community Function is via late 19th century France & The New Yorker. The title was “Van Gogh’s Ear: The Christmas Eve that changed modern art.” In fact, though, the piece is about the isolation & collaboration & community artists have saught, lost & found in our modern era.

It begins on a pessimistic note, and I was reluctant to share it for that reason, but by the end, the message has turned around.

    Most of all, van Gogh was in pursuit of an old romantic dream: the dream of a collaborative community. Art could be saved from mere commodity if artists lived and worked together as they once had done. The Nazarenes, a secretive sect of painters in Rome in the early nineteenth century, seem to have been the first to revive the ideal, while John Ruskin’s Guild of St. George, a pseudo-Gothic band of pseudo-Goethic Masons, became, in the eighteen-sixties, the most unintentionally comic. The Impressionists, urban painters par excellence, saw themselves at moments as a band of brothers, but theirs was an infantile form of community. Renoir and Monet played and painted side by side like two-year-olds, rather than fully engaging in a club like twelve-year-olds. The idea that van Gogh, and others of his generation, pursued was deeper: a sort of religious revival that might be found in a renewed monastic arrangement.

    The vision of an ideal community runs through the letters. If we could all work together, we’d be like . . . Icelandic fishermen! Buddhist monks! Peasant craftsmen! Members of the French Foreign Legion! Not long after he arrived in Arles, he wrote to Gauguin, “I must tell you that even while working I never cease to think about this enertprise of setting up studio with yourself and me as permanent residents, but which we’d both wish to make into a shelter and a refuge for our pals at moments when they find themselves at an impasse in their struggle.” . . .

    For van Gogh, the story ends conclusively: the Yellow House empty, the dream of community gone, the asylum’s doors the only ones open to him. He left the hospital in January and returned to the town, but his behavior was so strange that the peopel of Arles put together a petition to have him committed to an asylum or sent back to his family–breaking for good the vestiges of his dream of an organic rural community. Arles was as tight and closed and suspicious as any other small town. In his letters, the old fantasy, the fishermen and the monks, disappears . . .

    The only authentic community he found was among the insane. At least they supported one another. “Although there are a few people here who are seriously ill, the fear, the horror that I had of madness before has already been grately softened,” he wrote to Theo’s new wife, Jo. “and although one continually hears shouts and terrible howls as though of the animals in a menagerie, despite this the people here know each other very well, and help each other when they suffer crises.” Artist scould not be fishermen, or monks, or Legionnaires. They were artists. Collaborative creativity? We live and see and work alone. Collective responsibility? It ends in a crazy house. . .

    The letters of van Gogh’s last year mark his acceptance of his isolation, coupled with the belief that the isolation need not be absolute — that, one day, there will be a community of readers and viewers who will understand him, and that his mistake had been to try and materialize that community in the moment instead of accepting it as the possible gift of another world and time. “One must sieze the reality of one’s fate and that’s that.” The real community is not that of charmed aritsts living like monks but the distant dependencies of isolated artists and equally isolated viewers, who together make the one kind of community that modernity allows.

I am somewhat loathe to quote the author of this piece, Adam Gopnik, at length. I have no great disdain for him, but I feel some harmonic resonance with Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott‘s infamous takedown of Gopnik in The New Republic. (i.e. “It isn’t that Gopnik is ungifted or imperceptive, or a slickster trickster like his colleague Malcolm Gladwell, who markets marketing. He is avidly talented and spongily absorbent, an earnest little eager beaver whose twitchy aura of neediness makes him hard to dislike until the preciosity simply becomes too much.”) Read the whole thing here.

That said, this piece of writing was as sharp as Wolcott’s critique was barbed.

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8 January 2010

Fun with problems

The urge is to disclose all my problems.
The problem is that I don’t realize they’re obvious.

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10 December 2009

Will Oldham and the Community Function


Will Oldham compiled a list of his favorite music of 2009 for the current issue of Artforum. The best part was his introduction:

    “The editors of this publication asked me to compile a list. They asked that I not be too esoteric, and I will try…. However, as most people are coming to realize, we as individuals are finding greater connections to smaller things; things smaller in scope and more specific to our tangible and imagined communities. I find that the music that transports me often has a community of admirers bound together only by the love of that music. When I take a look at the dominant music news and discover that, essentially, Bruce Springsteen = Radiohead = Yeah Yeah Yeahs = Madonna = Arcade Fire = Bat for Lashes, it compels me to turn away from the lot.”

Actor, musician & my mustache style icon, you may know Oldham as Bonnie “Prince” Billy aka Palace Music aka Palace Brothers aka Palace Songs, et. cetera. At the risk of overstatement, his songwriting, his flexible method of reinterpreting his own work, and the complicated system of ethics & belief which play out in his lyrics could have made him a Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen for our age.

But he’s not that, and we live in a different kind of age.

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