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8 May 2012

Deep thoughts on recorded music, concert music & silence

John Cage. Carlos Castaneda. The effects of recorded music. These are things I think about. And apparently, these are things that author and professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was thinking about in 1990 when he published his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. i.e.

Some people argue that technological advances have greatly improved the quality of life by making music so easily available. Transistor radios, laser disks, tape decks blare the latest music twenty-four hours a day in crystal-clear recordings. This continuous access to good music is supposed to make our lives much richer. But this kind of argument suffers from the usual confusion between behavior and experience. Listening to recorded music for days on end may or may not be more enjoyable than hearing an hour-long live concert that one had been looking forward to for weeks. It is not the hearing that improves life, it is the listening. We hear Muzak, but we rarely listen to it, and few could have ever been in flow as a result of it.

As with anything else, to enjoy music one must pay attention to it. To the extent that recording technology makes music too accessible, and there fore taken for granted, it can reduce our ability to derive enjoyment from it. Before the advent of sound recording, a live musical performance retained some of the awe that music engendered when it was still entirely immersed in religious rituals. Even a village dance band, let alone a symphonic orchestra, was a visible reminder of the mysterious skill involved in producing harmonious sounds. One approached the event with heightened expectations, with the awareness that one had to pay close attention because the performance was unique and not to be repeated again.

The audiences at today’s live performances, such as rock concerts, continue to partake in some degree in these ritual elements; there are few other occasions at which large numbers of people witness the same event together, think and feel the same things, and process the same information. Such joint participation produces in an audience the condition Emilie Durkheim called “collective effervescence,” or the sense that one belongs to a group with a concrete, real existence. This feeling, Durkheim believed, was at the roots of religious experience. The very conditions of live performance help focus attention on the music, and therefore make it more likely that flow will result at a concert than when one is listening to reproduced sound.

But to argue that live music is innately more enjoyable than recorded music would be just as invalid as arguing the opposite. Any sound can be a source of enjoyment if attended to properly. In fact, as the Yaqui sorcerer taught the anthropologist, even the intervals of silence between sounds, if listened to closely, can be exhilarating.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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29 September 2010

Zigs when others zag: A short attention span esssay on Alex Ross on John Cage on poverty in the arts & why I like Ross better than Sasha Frere-Jones

Let me present a backhanded insult about Alex Ross. (Which is to say, a compliment.) Here’s the thing that pisses me off about the guy. As a MacArthur Award-winning classical critic, Ross feels obligated to devote the majority of his writings to his specialty, that being 20th century-composed music. Say what you will about composed music, but from the perspective of the early 21st century it’s looking like an increasingly rarefied, quite specialized, and relatively unlistened to form of music.

The tragedy: I think Ross’s real gift is his ability to write shockingly illuminating and intimate criticism and profiles of more popular artists such as Radiohead, Pavement, Bjork and Bob Dylan. (Most of these articles, originally published in The New Yorker, seem to have been scrubbed from the internet, but a number of them appear in his recently published book, Listen to This.)

Ross’s writings on popular music are illuminating in large part because he seems oblivious or disinterested in the sectarian conflicts that make much pop criticism especially irrelevant to normal people. Viewing music from the perspective of a classical fan, he realizes “newness” and originality are something that happens once or twice a decade rather than five times in every month-long blogcycle; he realizes that “bestness” is something you must observe over a career rather than a single record.

The tragedy: I wish Ross wrote about popular music more often. He’s certainly better at it than The New Yorker‘s pop critic of record Sasha Frere-Jones. Frere-Jones is better than 95% of pop critics out there (maybe more!) and he is often an erm, impressive risk-taker who leads critical opinion rather than following the pack. But it’s also obvious that he’s as intoxicated by a personal notion of rock stardom as any of the pop musicians he covers. I get that tinny, foreign, metallic taste of ego on the tip of my tongue almost every time I read one of his pieces.

Unaffected by rock & pop groupthink, Ross’s shiz-nit is a paradigm of clarity in a pop crit universe dominated by the same morass of crap that makes popular culture (sans criticism) so hard to navigate, so glutted with dross.

And now, as if to go back on everything I’ve said I want Ross to do, here’s an excerpt from his excellent profile in this week’s magazine about composer John Cage. I think there’s a tiny bit of chronological fuckery going on in the piece (and even the excerpt) but who cares with writing this good. Ross’s clear-eyed identification of what makes Cage so inspiring — his realization that this “composer” is, as much, a philosopher, an artist — is a perfect instance of Ross’s genre-agnostic vision of what makes music good:

    When [composer, critic and professor Kyle] Gann talks about “4’33″” in classes — he teaches composition and music theory at Bard College — a student invariably asks him, “You mean he got paid for that?” Kids, Cage was not in it for the money. The Maverick concert was a benefit; Cage earned nothing from the premiere of “4’33″” and little from anything else he was writing at the time. He had no publisher until the nineteen-sixties. After losing his loft on Monroe Street–the Vladeck Houses stand there now–he moved north of the city, to Stony Point, where several artists had formed a rural collective. From the mid-fifties until the late sixties, he lived in a two-room cabin measuring ten by twenty feet, paying $24.15 a month in rent. He wasn’t far above the poverty level, and one year he received aid from the Musicians Emergency Fund. For years afterward, he counted every penny. I recently visited the collection of the John Cage Trust, at Bard, and had a look at his appointment books. Almost every page had a lit lie this one:

    .63 stamps
    1.29 turp
    .25 comb
    1.17 fish
    3.40 shampoo
    2.36 groc
    5.10 beer
    6.00 Lucky

    “I wanted to make poverty elegant,” he once said.

    By the end of the fifties, however, Cage’s financial situation had improved, though not because of his music. After moving to Stony Point, he began collecting mushrooms during walks in the woods. Within a few years, he had mastered the mushroom literature and co-founded the New York Mycological Society. He supplied mushrooms to various elite restaurants, including the Four Seasons. In 1959, while working at the R.A.I. Studio of Musical Phonology, a pioneering electronic-music studio, in Milan, he was invited on a game show called “Lascia o Raddoppia?” — a “Twenty One”-style program in which contestants were asked questions on a subject of their choice. Each week, Cage answered, with deadly accuracy, increasingly obscure questions about mushrooms. On his final appearance, he was asked to list “the twenty-four kinds of white-spore mushrooms listed in Atkinson.” (Silverman supplies a transcript of this historical moment.) Cage named them all, in alphabetical order, and won eight thousand dollars. He used part of the money to purchase a VW bus for the Cunningham company. The following year, he appeared on the popular American game show “I’ve Got a Secret”: as he had done on “Lascia o Raddoppia?,” he performed “Water Walk,” a piece that employed among other things, a rubber duck, a bathtub, and an electric mixer. Cage charmed the audience from the outset; when the host, Garry Moore, said that some viewers might laugh at him, the composer replied, in his sweet, reedy voice, “I consider laughter preferable to tears.” (YouTube has the clip.) Radios were included in the score, but they could not be turned on, supposedly because of a union dispute. Instead, Cage hit them and knocked them on the floor.

Enjoy the visuals:

(Image of John Cage score “Fontana MIx” at top of this post via Data Is Nature.)

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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4 April 2010

What Mark Morris thinks about butts


Of late I have been endeavoring to understand dance. A review of Mark Morris‘s “Socrates” at BAM helped me some with its inclusion of a quote about…butts.

This led me to the quote’s original appearance, a passage from The New Yorker writer Joan Acocella’s book on the choreographer:

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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