Archive for the thoughts Category

On artistic supercession

Thursday, 07 July 2015

On Tuesday, July 28, I gave a lecture on Aesthetics and Cultural Bias to a Cultural Anthropology class being taught by a friend of mine at the local community college. I decided against publishing the full lecture, as it is kind of an amateurish work on the whole. To give a synopsis: it calls out cultural pre-conceptions about art as having a white male bias, discusses aesthetics from a perspective hostile to dualism (Kant / Hegel), criticizes Capitalism as a dominant force in culture, discusses objecthood and fuzziness in terms of framing & the White Cube, discusses aesthetic arrest & the illusion of separation… all in the course of an hour. Yeesh. TOO MANIC. You shouldn’t wonder why I don’t want to share it.

At any rate, I finished the talk with a discussion of the Restoration of Ecce Homo by Cecilia Gimenez. In case you don’t recall, it looks a little something like this:

The talk pointed out the ethnocentrism inherent in the wide, public response to the work, seen in news reports and funny internet memes. One of the questions in the discussion led to some further thoughts, which I do think might be worth consideration (maybe because this is less scatterbrained than the whole lecture??)

This was sent as an email to the professors in charge of this class on the evening of July 30.

I’ve had some further thoughts on the discussion in class that followed my lecture on aesthetics and cultural bias. I was impressed that the discussion brought out a good deal of the complexity of the issues surrounding the restoration of Ecce Homo by Cecilia Gimenez. My prepared remarks covered primarily the implications of the judgments of whether the piece was “good” (a moral judgment) or not from a standpoint of whether or not it met cultural ideals of beauty, and also the fascinating phenomenon of the public shaming of Gimenez for not meeting those ideals (ideals which, I pointed out, are arbitrary and are used by the elite to exert influence over culture.)

The discussion, however, raised another very important aspect, and that is the act of superceding the previously existing artwork, and how one is to view that act from an ethical or even moral stance. Supercession, in art, results in a complete or near complete erasing of the previously existing work, as opposed to an appropriation wherein a previously existing work is incorporated into a new one and, in the process, given a new context, (an artistic tactic that is made easier and therefore more common in the recent age of mechanical reproduction.)

Supercession is another form of transformation in art, albeit a very severe one. Art has a long history of this, taking many guises. These supercessions can be interpreted as benevolent such as the friendly erasing of a De Kooning drawing by Robert Rauschenberg,
or malevolent, as in the case of the Taliban or Isis destroying historically significant artworks and monuments,
or ambiguous as in the non-consensual (usually due to the original artist’s death) erasing of previously existing frescos and murals (a practice which is most certainly not isolated to the case of Ms. Gimenez’ restoration – in fact much has been learned, both artistically and anthropologically, by X-Ray analyses of previously existing frescos that changed radically in form over the centuries, like peeling back layers of previously laid wallpaper in an old house.) I might even describe street art / graffiti as a kind of supercession: a safely ambiguous space, free of meaning, is superceded by filling the space with imagery that often aggressively demands a response. These street murals are quickly superceded again and again by new works. This is certainly rebellious, and a “loss of control” as I pointed out in my lecture, but is it “bad”?

How one may interpret artistic supercession as “good” or “bad” on a moral or ethical scale depends a great deal on one’s views about ownership (to possess an object) and legacy (the perceived ability to have one’s memory endure in perpetuity, to gain “eternal life”). As a budding Marxist who has been enculturated into and currently operates in this hyper-Capitalist society, I can say my opinion is, at best, mixed. Intellectually, I understand that one can never truly own something, and that every remark and action is ultimately forgotten, and every object returns to dust… but emotionally I do still feel a stir at imagining my own work destroyed by someone.

On the other hand, (intellectually again) I think that the pursuit of legacy is ultimately ego driven, and may even be an expression of territorialism. In my view, any moral or ethical consideration must heavily weigh the context. The context in Gimenez’ case is complex and muddled by the fact that much of what we know about the case comes from reactions after the fact of public shaming, when one can assume that people’s attitudes have been reformed in the flames of ridicule. I would certainly like to know what the church community thought about the work before the internet-empowered public found out about it, that seems to be one key missing piece of information in making any kind of moral or ethical determination. At this time all we really know about it is that her intentions were not malicious, they were in keeping with the values of that community. Given that and the history of remaking religious artworks to update them when old symbology no longer is appropriate, I would be inclined to issue a judgment of “good”, while still acknowledging that I am not really a member of that community and so it is not for me to make that judgment.

Conversation about 4’33”

Saturday, 07 July 2015

Who comes up with these sounds, I wonder?

Saturday, 02 February 2015

The second feature was a fairly normal sex flick, which meant it was even more boring than the first. It had lots of oral sex scenes, and every time they started doing fellatio or cunnilingus or sixty-nine the soundtrack would fill the theater with loud sucking or slurping sound effects. Listening to them, I felt strangely moved to think that I was living out my life on this odd planet of ours. “Who comes up with these sounds, I wonder,” I said to Midori. “I think they’re great!” she said. There was also a sound for a penis moving back and forth in a vagina. I had never realized that such sounds even existed. The man was into a lot of heavy breathing.

– Haruki Murakami – “Norwegian Wood”

Encouraging Feedback on Audio Works

Sunday, 08 August 2014

Last week, I participated in a really interesting conversation with a number of friends & strangers on Twitter. The topics include feedback, the idea of value in free work, and the participatory role of the audience in the act of listening. A few very good suggestions came up that warrant thought by anyone interested in artist feedback.
This conversation is particularly notable because it is a positive exchange between the netlabel and the podfic communities. I’ve long felt that these two communities have a lot of similar goals and concerns, and have potential for creatively productive crossover.

Big thanks to @parakapodfic for getting this conversation up on Storify!


Sunday, 09 September 2013

There’s a small, disconcerting shock that I experience when when I suddenly remember to be present and listen. It’s as though there is an unfolding, and opening of the world surrounding me and I step into it. It’s something like stepping out and the sun is too bright for my eyes, there’s a shock to my senses. Starting to listen is like stepping outside.

Why do you share?

Saturday, 04 April 2013

The question that lingers from my sessions with Jennie Kiessling: Why do you share your work?
Why do you make it? Why do you share it?
I wonder about it. It seems a compulsion, but without reason? I doubt it.

This section from Thomas Bey William Bailey’s book “Unofficial Release”, quoting David Tibet (whose work I feel very ‘meh’ about) rings true, it resonates to a surprising degree.

Steven [Stapleton] and I always thought [the recordings] would be sent into the wilderness, as no one would care. Apparently people do, either by loving what we have done, or hating it. I do it because I am driven to do it. I [also] translate Coptic because I am driven to do it.

Tibet then admits that small-scale approval is not unwelcome, but he firmly rejects that approval (or rejection) of any kind is an influencing factor:

I have met many friends through what I have done. And friends always help us in our self-inquiry. I am interested in what people who know me think of my work, but only inasmuch as I am also interested in what they think of my new cat. Finally the work is ONLY for me. If those who know me make comments on it, I reflect on them deeply; but they don’t affect what I would have done. If fans like my work, I am happy. If they don’t, I am equally happy,


Saturday, 03 March 2013

Campbell: Eternity isn’t some later time. Eternity isn’t a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time cuts out. This is it. And if you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere. And the experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life. There’s a wonderful formula that the Buddhists have for the Bodhisattva, the one whose being (sattva) is illumination (bodhi), who realizes his identity with eternity and at the same time his participation in time. And the attitude is not to withdraw from the world when you realize how horrible it is, but to realize that this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder and to come back and participate in it. “All life is sorrowful” is the first Buddhist saying, and it is. It wouldn’t be life if there were not temporality involved which is sorrow. Loss, loss, loss.
Moyers: That’s a pessimistic note.
Campbell: Well, you have to say yes to it, you have to say it’s great this way. It’s the way God intended it.

Fear of Silence

Sunday, 03 March 2013

Fear is on my mind.

The composer Jonathan Siemasko said this on twitter the other day:

Siemasko says this fear may be a reason he’s tended to employ segues between pieces on his albums. Alan Licht, in his book Sound Art, Beyond Music, Between Categories hypothesizes that fear of silence is partially related to the fact that the human voice can’t hold a note for long before running out of breath, he then goes on to suggest that the popularity of long delays and long reverbs in contemporary music is a manifestation of a fear of running out of breath, of dying. Perhaps the current vogue for digitally stretching durations is another, to wallow in an illusion of eternity.

A day or two after the tweet by Siemasko, I was getting some books together to trade in at the used book store, and I opened up a dog-eared page of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great to find this quote:

Le silence eternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie
-Blaise Pascal

That translates to ‘the eternal silences of these infinite spaces make me afraid’.

Coincidentally, that same day I found that quote in Hitchens’ book, I came across the very same quote by Pascal in the book I was reading by R. Murray Schafer The Soundscape: Our Environment and the Tuning of the World (which is a fun read, despite Schafer’s preachy, conservative stance (it might better have been titled The Way Things Ought to Sound))

Schafer describes the fear of silence, comparing silence to death. He says, “Man likes to make sounds to remind himself that he’s not alone. From this point of view, total silence is the rejection of human personality. Man fears the absence of sound as he fears the absence of life. … Since modern man fears death as none before him, he avoids silence to nourish his fantasy of perpetual life.”

There certainly seems to be a Western cultural aversion to quiet, that much is certain (quiet is often equated, but distinct from silence). Every individual and every business seems to want to fill every sound space with music. I wonder if our culture’s definition of silence is ‘the lack of music or conversation’, rather than the absolute silence that so frightens Pascal and Schafer’s modern man. That amended definition might dovetail with John Cage’s occasional definition of silence as those sounds that are not intended.

It’s also easy to argue that there is a Western cultural aversion to thinking about death. So strong is our aversion to thinking and talking about death that if we are making this connection between silence and death, it must be an almost entirely subconscious thought.

There are other complicated matters of class & identity intertwined in the disquieted reaction to quiet. The wealthy elite have always sought to separate and distinguish themselves by developing tastes in activities and possessions that are out of reach to the lower classes due to rarity and costliness. At one point in our not-distant history, recorded music was a luxury item. The poor had to find someone with an instrument to scratch out some music for them, if they couldn’t buy or make an instrument themselves. The well-to-do were able to comfort themselves with high-class recorded music delivered on-demand by expensive playback equipment, they could even listen to the music of the poor as an anthropological entertainment without having to bear the indignity of associating with them directly. Recorded music is now ubiquitous, but I wonder if music doesn’t still bear the vestiges of its use as a symbol of wealth. Fear of quiet may still be a fear of lack. Side thought: the fear of distortion mentioned at the outset of this essay, (specifically the fear of low-fidelity) fits here too, the elite can afford to separate themselves with ever finer playback equipment, ever higher-fidelity recorded media, users of music can signal their class(iness) by grousing about unwanted noise or low bit-rates. </tangent>

I’ve mentioned in other writings that music is used as social marker, a way of distinguishing and separating one person from all others, a way for a person to say “I am like this, I like this set of things, I am unique” – a way, in short, to reinforce the self – an increasingly urgent necessity in a culture where individuality is valued over and above everything, and on a planet where the booming population growth is rendering this sense of uniqueness harder and harder to achieve. Music is used like clothing. It is a reminder of who one is, and also as a marker of what social groups one belongs to. Music constantly reminds its user of her place in society and in the world, and, also broadcasts these distinctions to others. Music is used as a marker of sexual territory: consider people with expensive sound systems in their cars. Someone booming bass out of their car is filling the area with an expression of “I am here, this is who I am” as surely as a dog does the same by pissing on a hydrant.

Could this impulse be boiled down to death-fear: the need to feel separate and unique? The needs to broadcast one’s taste in hopes to become associated with desirable social groups, to attract sex partners and to intimidate sex rivals… are these expressions of fear too? Is it as simple as trying to assert self-ness in fear of not-self-ness?

I’m thinking now of some kinds of music… certain kinds of heavy metal, harsh noise… these kinds of music that sometimes use overt symbols of death itself as a social bonding, identity-reinforcing solvent of the subculture. I sometimes think about this in terms of what Immanuel Kant says about the sublime, how if we can perceive the terrifying forces of nature, and not be harmed by them, we feel powerful. The average fan of these kinds of music confronts and becomes accustomed to death imagery, knowing it still invokes fear among the uninitiated. They themselves have, up to a certain level, overcome this fear, and therefore they can feel separated from the horde, and privy to rare tastes. They can be of a higher class than those over whom the imagery still holds its fear-power. It is a very interesting subversion (I wonder if Amelia Ishmael might identify this as “inversion”) of the paradigm. And yet this music pushes away the quiet even more vehemently than pop music does, is it truly unafraid?

As people constantly feel the need to re-mind themselves of who they are with their own personal soundtracks, capitalism fills the spaces it controls in a cynical (at least I see it that way) exploitation of these identity functions of music. Highly tailored corporate soundtracks to retail experiences are a ubiquitous phenomenon, these soundtracks seem to say to the consumer: You belong here, there is nothing to fear. You are a part of something. You will spend more money if you feel a part of something bigger than you, and if you can relate to the corporation as having a personality that resonates with yours, if you have… chemistry. Muzak Corporation’s pioneering advances in the use of tepid, un-challenging music as ‘air freshener’ has been much refined through marketing research… people used to complain about elevator music, I don’t hear many people complaining about the current abuse of music in public space. Is it because it drives the fear away?

My life doesn’t need a soundtrack.
– Jeph Jerman

If you remove the soundtrack to your life, if you sit with the quiet, sit with unintended sounds, do you stop being who you are? Do you stop existing as this temporal material process that you keep insisting to define as you?

There is nothing to fear: everything has a sound. John Cage brought to our attention that the term ‘silence’ cannot mean the total absence of sound, everything is vibrating. Everything has a sound. One thing I like to do is go around touching things to feel for sound that I cannot hear, listening through flesh and bone conduction. In some louder environments, I can feel the sound ebbing up through my feet. When I saw Sunn O))) in concert I felt like the liquid in my body was making cymatic patterns in sympathy to the sound of the amplified guitars. Sound isn’t just in the air, not only in the ears.

Touch something. Do you feel sound? Even if you can’t feel any vibration, it doesn’t follow that there is no sound, so many sounds are out of our limited range of perception. Many sounds too quiet to perceive. Cage talked about atomic music, and hoped that someday we would be able to amplify the vibrations of atoms and subject that sound to our aesthetic appreciation. Other sounds are so loud they become painful or deadly, the windows in Chelyabinsk were blown out by a sound. (The pain threshold of sound in humans is subjective and depends on frequency, but usually falls between 120 & 140 decibels, over 194 decibels sound is registered as a shock wave.)

Many sounds lie outside of the spectrum of wave frequency we know as sound: some seismic infrasounds, for example, can be recorded, viewed as a waveform in a computer sound-editor, but would have to be pitched up many hundreds of times to fall within the frequency range that we can hear. Sound is energy within a certain wave spectrum.

Everything in the universe is . . . is . . . is made of one element, which is a note, a single note. Atoms are really vibrations, you know, which are extensions of THE BIG NOTE, everything’s one note. Everything, even the ponies. The note, however, is the ultimate power, but see, the pigs don’t know that, the ponies don’t know that.
– Spider Barbour

Pascal’s fear of silent infinity came to him upon considering the incomprehensible vastness of outer-space first suggested by Galileo’s discoveries with the telescope. Outer space is full of energy waves resonating in all directions, bouncing off masses of matter. These are electro-magnetic waves, not air-pressure waves (as sound is), but they act, physically, in very similar ways. Light, for example, can be effected by the Doppler shift.

What about inner-space? The Buddhists talk about how, through an awareness practice, one can glimpse what is described as a great void, a vast hollowness at the center of experience.

The word “sunyata” is one that refers to this void, there are other words. I’m not a Buddhist scholar, but I do find this concept quite intriguing, I need to do some more study in this direction. The first paragraph of Wikipedia’s entry for Sunyata is a pretty good thumbnail sketch: ” Sunyata is a Buddhist term that is translated into English as emptiness, openness, thusness, etc. Śūnyatā refers to the absence of inherent existence in all phenomena, and it is complementary to the Buddhist concepts of not-self”

ETA: above is a quote from Rebecca Solnit

If there are no frames, no center, is there sound?

How could I react to great emptiness? Do I fear it? Perhaps I am in awe, perhaps I am confused and don’t understand, so I put it out of my mind. When I was young, I was told that sinners have a great hollowness that could only be filled with Jesus. Jesus didn’t make a sound.

If I listen to sound, I fear no sound. If I listen to no sound, there is no I to fear.

I’m not really sure how to neatly tie up this essay, it’s obviously a huge subject with threads going in every direction. It is above my level of discipline to address it as an academic might, nevertheless these are the directions my curiosity is leading me. I will say this: It’s natural and healthy to fear death, less so to deny it, to pretend it away. It’s not necessary to fear the quiet. We have the chance to listen for the universe, let’s do it while we can.


Saturday, 03 March 2013

I’m having some suspicion about being a ‘fan’ of anything.

I have big fascinations with some certain artist, that artist’s work resonates with me, perhaps the work will continue to resonate with me, but…

When I come back to the work, is it nostalgia that drives me back, a desire for that feeling I had when I first connected vigorously to the work? That feeling that is now lost? Nostalgia is a longing for something lost. It is a kind of suffering. I don’t want to live while longing for something I cannot have.

If I am coming back to the work because “I am a fan of this”, then that’s just a re-inforcement of identity, is it necessary? Do I cease to exist if I don’t remind myself that I am a fan of this?

Do I need to identify myself as a fan of anything?

Ignorability and inclusiveness

Tuesday, 02 February 2013

I’ve been considering this term “ambient music” recently. In brief, the term and idea is usually credited to Brian Eno, with (sometimes) a nod in the direction of John Cage and also Erik Satie’s “Musique D’Ameublement”. The well-worn legend is that Brian was incapacitated in hospital and someone put on a record of some harp music but the volume was too low to properly listen to, and he was fascinated by his experience listening to the very quiet sounds and inspired to make music… um, intended to be backgrounded? I don’t know, I’m with him enthusiastically all the way up until he decides to make music that you are able to ignore, and then I wonder, okay, what’s the takeaway from that?

If you take at face value the idea that ambient music was designed to be backgrounded and ignorable, there is not very much of what is classified as ambient music that would fit the bill. Much of it virtually pounds you over the head with either feel-good, treacly vaporousness (sometimes with “ethnic” drums!) or overbearing, longing melancholy or with porn-soundtrack-ish techno (“chill out, beat off”).**

So there’s this whole body of work built on an original idea that apparently few of its contemporary practitioners agree with or adhere to. Fine.

I don’t want my sound work to be ignored either, but I then I don’t call it ambient music.

In tune with some of my other thoughts about sound, reminiscing about the above stuff got me thinking that maybe a couple of newer terms might be helpful. I’d offer these not as potential ‘genre’ names but just as something to consider. Categorizing music by genre is no longer useful anyway.

The terms I’m thinking of are “inclusive” and “insular”.

Inclusive sound would be that which combines easily with the surrounding sound of the listener. It’s not for ignoring, it’s for listening to – along with the naturally occurring, uncontrolled sound at the location of the listener. Headphone listening is not ideal with inclusive sound for obvious reasons.

Insular sound is that which is its own sound world, capable of removing the listener from their surroundings, when you listen to it, the rest of the sound world dissolves away. Isolationism was a word that was kicked around in the 90s as a genre name, but I’d suggest that ~most~ music is intended as, and is used as insular sound in an isolating way. Sound canceling headphones are probably most ideal for insular sound, a gathering of people might also share in the bubble that insular sound would provide, at a concert or a dance or something similar.

These terms are subjective, the originator of the sound may or may not have intended it to fit into one category or another, and the listener may have differing thoughts on that matter.

Since I started of ruminating about the frustrating term “ambient” I’ll bring it back up again. If ambient is your thing, this might be an interesting metric to consider, since examples from this music seem to fall along a spectrum between the two poles. Noise music and many other ‘out’ varieties of music seem more likely to have examples that would fall into various points along a spectrum, rather than being conclusively one or the other. On the other hand, at least from my point of hearing, most rock, pop, blues, techno whatever – most explicitly rhythmic / melodic music primarily is of the insular category.

I think it was Salome Voegelin who said that noise is sound that cannot be ignored. Insular music, because it pulls the listener away from the real world into a pre-constructed reality might be less ignorable, and more apt to be considered as noise by someone who doesn’t want to hear it. At least, that’s from my perspective. Nothing about any of these distinctions are objective.

Whether something is ignorable or not might be an interesting thing to consider about inclusive or insular music, but ignorability cannot define them: these descriptors base themselves on active listening.

I could envision an x-y graph with ignorable / unignorable at the poles of the x axis and inclusive / insular at the poles of the y axis. Attention slides up and down the x axis, at the ‘ignorable’ pole, there’s no attention, at 0 where the y axis intersects there is full attention, and at the ‘unignorable’ pole there is involuntary attention.

These are really just ideas borne of idle contemplation, and not a manifesto that’s been thoroughly thought out… so if you have some criticism or suggestion (maybe better terminology?) and/or want to point out that someone else has already said all of this and way better than I have… then feel free to comment.

** Blixa Bargeld said once that Basic Channel sounded to him like music to play at an expensive furniture store.

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