Genre Trouble: Post-Rock and Other Lost Sounds

Even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, ready-made genres, and audiences lying in wait, some sounds still just seem to don’t fit anywhere. As I wrote previously about another post-something band, when genre-specific adjectives fail, we grasp at significant exemplars from the past to describe new sounds. Following Straw (1991), Josh Gunn (1999) calls this “canonization” (p. 42): The synecdochical use of a band’s name for a genre is analogous to our using metaphors, similes, and other figurative language when literal terms fall short. Where bands sometimes emerge that do not immediately fit into a genre (e.g., Godflesh, Radiohead, dälek, et al.) or adhere too specifically to the sound of one band (e.g., the early 21st-century spate of bands that sound like Joy Division), we run into this brand of genre trouble.

Mogwai live [photo by Leif Valin]
Pedal power: Mogwai live. [photo by Leif Valin]
Storm Static Sleep by Jack-ChuterPost-Rock would seem to be just such a genre. Ever since Simon Reynolds etched the term into the annals of music journalism, there has been a post-everything-else. Sometimes it’s just lazy writing, sometimes it’s for marketing purposes, and sometimes a genre has truly emerged alongside its parent designation. Regardless, in Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock (Function Books, 2015), Jack Chuter tries to get to the bottom of all things post-rock, even devoting an entire chapter to Reynolds himself. There seems to be very little consensus on exactly where Rock crossed the line and became something else. The roots of the genre run deep and in many directions (e.g., Prog, Brian Eno, Jazz, CAN, PiL, Industrial, Jim O’Rourke, et al.), and Chuter goes as far back as the New Romanticism of Talk Talk and its separate ways before moving on to Slint and Slint-inspired rock.

If any band is worthy of its own genre, it is Slint: a band certainly more talked-about than listened-to. About such talking-about and genres as they emerge in writing, Lisa Gitelman (2014) writes,

As I understand it, genre is a mode of recognition instantiated in discourse. Written genres, for instance, depend on a possibly infinite number of things that large groups of people recognize, will recognize, or have recognized that writings can be for (p. 2).

As Star (1991) and Gunn (1999) describe canonization above, Gitelman contends that genres emerge from discourse. Subsequently, we internalize them. They are inside us. She continues,

Likewise genres—such as the joke, the novel, the document, and the sitcom—get picked out contrastively amid a jumble of discourse and often across multiple media because of the ways they have been internalized by constituents of a shared culture. Individual genres aren’t artifacts, then; they are ongoing and changeable practices of expression and reception that are recognizable in myriad and variable constituent instances at once and also across time. They are specific and dynamic, socially realized sites and segments of coherence within the discursive field (p. 2).

Sounds of the UndergroundChuter’s pathway through Post-Rock also goes as far out as the Post-Metal of Neurosis and Isis, and as current as 65daysofstatic, God is an Astronaut, and This Will Destroy You. Just when you think Post-Rock is too narrow a designation for a book-length exploration, with a quick list one sees how wide its waves crash.

Further mapping the fringes, Sounds of the Underground (University of Michigan Press, 2016) by Stephen Graham covers everything from extreme noise to black metal, and from hardcore improvisation to the festivals and venues that host them. Graham distills a massive amount of cultural, political, and aesthetic history into his investigation, and his attention to the means of production, the shifting control thereof, changes in consumption, and the lack of change in content are all paramount to the story.

Graham concludes by writing, “whatever boundaries I’ve laid down should be understood as liquid and tentative” (p. 243). Noting the gauziness of genre doesn’t necessarily negate the pursuit of classification. As radically subjective as music fandom can be, it’s nice to have some signposts. These two books are maps made of many.

References:

Chuter, Jack. (2015). Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock. London: Function Books.

Gitelman, Lisa. (2014). Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Graham, Stephen. (2016). Sounds of the Underground: A Cultural, Political, and Aesthetic Mapping of Underground and Fringe Music. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Gunn, Josh. (1999, Spring) Gothic Music and the Inevitability of Genre. Popular Music & Society23, 31-50.

Straw, Will. (1991). Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Communities and Scenes in Popular Music. Cultural Studies, 5(3), 361-75.

——–

Apologies to Josh Gunn for the title of this post.

Sonified Solipsism: Digital Economies of Sound

One of the many lessons of chaos theory was that the limits of numerous traditional scientific and mathematical approaches had been reached. The elements filtered out by the methods in use kept edging in, refusing to be ignored. Information theorists, physicists, and mathematicians were all grappling with similar, persistent problems: noise in phone-lines, measurements that varied wildly at different scales, fluctuations in computer-generated weather, the onset of turbulence in vastly different dynamical systems. New lenses were needed to see a more finely grained world. New tools were needed to measure it.

As a discipline, media studies has been struggling with a similar filter bubble (Parser, 2011). Its sister subdiscipline, sound studies, has been vying to help fix it (Sterne, 2012). Music journalist Alex Ross (2015) writes,

Shortly before his death, in 1992, John Cage said: “We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist, upon a river of time, that we have come to delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies.” Stream, delta, border, boundary: we keep reaching for geographical metaphors as we speak of genres and we sense that the real landscape of musical activity ultimately has little to do with our tidy delineations, or indeed with the dismantling of them. Fluid and shifting, music is spread out like populations around urban centres, and certain communities could plausibly be assigned to one city’s suburbs or to another’s. Genre may be a kind of gerrymandering practised by musical politicians. Indeed, composers routinely complain when they are described as busters of genre or crossers of boundaries; they tend to view themselves simply as artists working with various kinds of material.

Ross is writing about Björk and musical genres, but thinking outside of the usual boundaries, the usual filters, is exactly what makes sound studies at large so compelling.

The Tones of Our TimesIn The Tone of Our Times: Sound, Sense, Economy, and Ecology (MIT Press, 2014), Frances Dyson writes, “It is really only in the last half century that, à la Cage, we have created an environment from our inner workings, that we have sonified a form of solipsism… Mobile media might move us out of the house and into the world, but the world is now domed by a data cloud” (p. 119). The borders, the boundaries, the bounds may blur, but we still try to draw discrete lines between sound, music, and noise. We still try to control what enters our ears. Earbuds. Noise-cancelling Bose. Beats by Dre.

Félix Guattari wrote in 1989,

Contemporary human beings have been fundamentally deterritorialized. Their original existential territories — bodies, domestic spaces, clans, cults — are no longer secured by a fixed ground; but henceforth they are indexed to a world of precarious representations and in perpetual motion. Young people are walking around the streets with Walkmans glued to their ears, and are habituated by refrains produced far, very far, from their homelands (2015, p. 97).

Chaos MediaAs Stephen Kennedy points out in Chaos Media: A Sonic Economy of Digital Space (Bloomsbury, 2015), these theoretical viewpoints “periodically cohere to form a ‘refrain'” (p. 130): “The refrain calms the chaos — settles things down — resolves anxiety…” (p. 130). Kennedy uses Foucault, Bergson, Bachelard, and Latour’s Actor Network Theory to draw his lines. He writes, “This is a book about space, digital space. As such, it is concerned with boundaries, thresholds, and borders” (p. viii). Music went from strictly live performances to portable recordings. Playback went from ephemeral events to the home hi-fi to the pocket player (see Bartmanski & Woodward, 2015; Bull, 2005; Frith, 2013; Levy, 2006; Zagorski-Thomas, 2014). Lines may be drawn, but they are not so easily maintained.

Ross (2015) continues, “…it becomes clear that for all of her career Björk has created a body of work in which the landscape around her, she herself and the landscape inside of her – her blood, her organs, the sounds made by her and perceived by her – are all one universe of objects and subjects, subjects and objects, robots and humans, plants and animals, stone and volcanoes and oceans at the same time.” With nothing filtered out, we are the tone of our times.

References:

Bartmanski, Dominik & Woodward, Ian. (2015). Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age. New York: Bloomsbury.

Bull, Michael. (2005). No Dead Air! The iPod and the Culture of Mobile Listening. Leisure Studies, 24(4), pp. 343-55.

Dyson, Frances (2014). The Tone of Our Times: Sound, Sense, Economy, and Ecology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Frith, Simon. (2013). The Industrialization of Popular Music–Part II. In S. T. Horsfall, J-M. Meij, & M. D. Probstfield (Eds.), Music Sociology: Examining the Role of Music in Social Life. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 223-231.

Guattari, Félix. (2015). Ecosophical Practices and the Restoration of the “Subjective City.” In G. Genosko & J. Hetrick (Eds.), Machinic Eros: Writings on Japan. Minneapolis, MN: Univocal, pp. 97-115.

Kennedy, Stephen. (2015). Chaos Media: A Sonic Economy of Digital Space. New York: Bloomsbury.

Levy, Steven. (2006). The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Parser, Eli. (2011). The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You. New York: Penguin.

Ross, Alex. (2015, February). How Björk Broke the Sound Barrier. The Guardian.

Sterne, Jonathan. (2012). Sonic Imaginations. In Sterne, J. (Ed.), The Sound Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, pp. 1-17.

Zagorski-Thomas, Simon. (2014). The Musicology of Record Production. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keeping Records with Christian Marclay

John Cage once said, “…music instructs us, that the uses of things, if they are meaningful, are creative; therefore the only lively thing that will happen with a record, is, if somehow you could use it to make something which it isn’t.” (quoted in Block & Glasmeier, 1989, p. 73). As much as any legitimate Hip-hop turntablist, Christian Marclay has made a career of repurposing vinyl records. Exhibits that include rearranging record cover art into new pieces, lining a gallery floor with records for patrons to walk upon (and then playing those trampled records later), and of course manipulating records on turntables to create new sound collages have all been parts of his extensive body of work.

Christian Marclay: Tone Arms

The punk movement was a liberating influence, with its energy, its non-conformism, its very loud volume of sound. Its amateurish, improvised side gave me the courage to make music without ever having studied it — Christian Marclay (quoted in Szendy, 2000, p. 89).

Like two of his more obvious forebears, John Cage and Brian Eno, Marclay is more artist than musician. Hew told Kim Gordon (2005), “I went to art school, not to music school. I don’t think like a musician” (p. 10). To wit, he’s worked in many other media besides sound. Readymades, collages, video, and performances all find their way into his work. “The more I worked with records,” Marclay told Alan Licht (2003), “the more I realized the potential of all the sounds generated with just a turntable and a record and started to appreciate all thes eunwanted sounds that were traditionally rejected: skipping, clicks and pops, all this stuff that people didn’t want. I started using these sounds for their musical quality and doing all kinds of aggressive, destructive stuff to the records for the purpose of creating new music” (p. 89).

On & By Christian MarclayIn On & By Christian Marclay, edited by Jean-Pierre Criqui (MIT Press, 2014), Marclay adds, “I try to make people aware of these imperfections, and accept them as music; the recording is a sort of illusion; the scratch on the record is more real” (p. 42). He questions each medium itself in terms of itself. One of the most extensive explorations of his work, On & By Christian Marclay boasts pieces by Douglas Kahn, David Toop, Zadie Smith, and Roalind Kraus, among many others, as well as several artist statements and interviews with Marclay himself. It’s as good a place as any to start and an essential text for anyone already familiar.

Borrowing term “telegramophony” from Derrida (1987, p. 90), Peter Szendy writes of Marclay’s Telephones (1995), “The fact remains that Christian Marclay does not reject this ghostly, phantasmal telegramophony. He plays with it, trifles with it, turns it into the tacked-on plot of his story/ies. Of his stories without a story, abstract like the color charts of memory, but each time concretely arresting like a call that cannot be delayed” (p. 115). Marclay uses the broken metaphor, “Memory is our own recording device” (quoted in Khazam, 2000, p. 31), but his works can be seen as montages of broken metaphors. There seems to be something damaged or at least slightly off about the connections he makes and breaks. “For a fragment of the past to be able to be touched by the present,” wrote Walter Benjamin (1999), “there must be no continuity between them” (p. 470). This temporal discontinuity and its interstitial ghosts are the raw stuff that Marclay works with. Records, tapes, telephones—the fragmented ghosts of history are in there, speaking out and seeking their way out of the threshold.

Is history simply a matter of events that leave behind those things that can be weighed and measured—new institutions, new maps, new rulers, new winners and losers—or is it also the result of moments that seem to leave nothing behind, nothing but the mystery of spectral connections between people long separated by place and time, but somehow speaking the same language?
— Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces

Christian Marclay: Record Without a CoverGreil Marcus (1989) describes punk as remaining “suspended in time” (p. 2), an unfinished nihilistic revolution. And just as punk has a dubious relationship with Dada and the Situationist International, so does Marclay. Guy Debord‘s first book, Mémoires (1959), was bound in sandpaper to wreck the books filed next to it on the shelf. Noise-punk band White‘s “Life on the Ranch of Elizabeth Clare Prophet” 7″ record (1996) came bound in a self-destructive sandpaper sleeve. Christian Marclay released Record Without a Cover (1985/1999), which is just what its name implies, with the same thought in mind: This record will sound different every time you play it. Its slow decay will become a part of its performance. Leaving the record unsleeved and unprotected was an act of creative destruction.

“The loss of control in music is actually what interests me the most,” Marclay tells Russell Ferguson (Criqui, 2014), “The struggle between control and loss of control is so much the core of improvised music. Many artists have been interested in that threshold between determinacy and indeterminacy, and not just John Cage, but also Duchamp, Pollock, Burroughs, and others” (p. 76).

The exploration of the land between those lines now belongs to Christian Marclay.

———-

Here’s Marclay live on the October 29, 1989 episode of the short-lived music television show Night Music:

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References:

Benjamin, Walter. (1999). The Arcades Project. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

Block, Ursula & Glasmeier, Michael. (1989). Broken Music: Artists’ Recordworks. Berlin, Germany: Berliner Kunstlerprogramm des DAAD.

Criqui, Jean-Pierre. (2014). On & By Christian Marclay. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Debord, Guy. (1959). Mémoires. France: Allia.

Gordon, Kim. (2005). Interview with Christian Marclay. In Christian Marclay (pp. 6-21). New York: Phaidon Press.

Marcus, Greil. (1989). Lipstick Traces: A secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 4.

Szendy, Peter. (2007). Christian Marclay on the Phone. In RE:Play. Zurich: jrp/ringier.

Szendy, Peter. (2000). Le son en Image. L’Ecoute. Paris: Ircam/L’Harmattan.

Bring the Noise: Systems, Sound, and Silence

In our most tranquil dreams, “peace” is almost always accompanied by “quiet.” Noise annoys. From the slightest rattle or infinitesimal buzz to window-wracking roars and earth-shaking rumbles, we block it, muffle it, or drown it out whenever possible. It is ubiquitous. Try as we might, cacophony is everywhere, and we’re the cause in most cases. Keizer (2010) points out that, besides sleeping (for some of us), reading is ironically the quietest thing we do. “Written words were meant to evoke heard speech,” he writes, “and were considered inadequate until they did so, like tea leaves before the addition of hot water” (p. 21). Reading silently was subversive.

We often speak of noise referring to the opposite of information. In the canonical model of communication conceived in 1949 by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, which I’ve been trying to break away from, noise is anything in the system that disrupts the signal or the message being sent.

If you’ve ever tried to talk on a cellphone in a parking garage, find a non-country station on the radio in a fly-over state, or follow up on a trending topic on Twitter, then you know what this kind of noise looks like. Thanks to Shannon and Weaver (and their followers; e.g., Freidrich Kittler, among many others), it’s remained a mainstay of communication theory since, privileging machines over humans (see Parikka, 2011). Well before it was a theoretical metonymy, noise was characterized as “destruction, distortion, dirt, pollution, an aggression against the code-structuring messages” (Attali, 1985, p. 27). More literally, Attali conceives noise as pain, power, error, murder, trauma, and youth (among other things) untempered by language. Noise is wild beyond words.

The two definitions of noise discussed above — one referring to unwanted sounds and the other to the opposite of information — are mixed and mangled in Hillel Schwartz’s Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond (Zone Books, 2011), a book that rebelliously claims to have been written to be read aloud. Yet, he writes, “No mere artefacts of an outmoded oral culture, such oratorical, jurisprudence, pedagogical, managerial, and liturgical acts reflect how people live today, at heart, environed by talk shows, books on tape, televised preaching, cell phones, public address systems, elevator music, and traveling albums on CD, MP3, and iPod” (p. 43). We live not immersed in noise, but saturated by it. As Aden Evens put it, “To hear is to hear difference,” and noise is indecipherable sameness. But, one person’s music is another’s noise — and vice versa (Voegelin, 2010), and age and nostalgia can eventually turn one into the other. In spite of its considerable heft (over 900 pages), Making Noise does not see noise as music’s opposite, nor does it set out for a history of sound, stating that “‘unwanted sound’ resonates across fields. subject everywhere and everywhen to debate, contest, reversal, repetition: to history” (p. 23).

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.
John Cage

The digital file might be infinitely repeatable, but that doesn’t make it infinite. Chirps in the channel, the remainders of incomplete communiqué surround our signals like so much decimal dust, data exhaust. In Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture (University of Minnesota, 2011), Peter Krapp finds these anomalies the sites of inspiration and innovation. My friend Dave Allen is fond of saying, “There’s nothing new in digital.” To that end, Krapp traces the etymology of the error in machine languages from analog anomalies in general, and the extremes of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (RCA, 1975) and Brian Eno‘s Discreet Music (EG, 1975) in particular, up through our current binary blips and bleeps, clicks and clacks — including Christian Marclay‘s multiple artistic forays and Cory Arcangel’s digital synesthesia. This book is about both forms of noise as well, paying due attention to the distortion of digital communication.

There is a place between voice and presence where information flows. — Rumi

Another one of my all-time favorite books on sound is David Toop’s Ocean of Sound (Serpent’s Tail, 2001). In his latest, Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener (Continuum Books, 2010), he reinstates the human as an inhabitant on the planet of sound. He does this by analyzing the act of listening more than studying sound itself. His history of listening is largely comprised of fictional accounts, of myths and make-believe. Sound is a spectre. Our hearing is a haunting. From sounds of nature to psyops (though Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is “torture-lite” in any context), the medium is the mortal. File Sinister Resonance next to Dave Tompkins’ How to Wreck a Nice Beach (Melville House, 2010) and Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare (MIT Press, 2010).

And how can we expect anyone to listen if we are using the same old voice? — Refused, “New Noise”

Life is loud, death is silent. Raise hell to heaven. Make a joyous noise unto all of the above.

———-

My thinking on this topic has greatly benefited from discussions with, and lectures and writings by my friend and colleague Josh Gunn.

References and Further Resonance:

Attali, J. (1985). Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Evens, A. (2005). Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Goodman, S. (2010). Sonic Warfare. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hegarty, P. (2008). Noise/Music: A History. New York: Continuum Books.

Keizer, G. (2010). The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise. Philadelphia, PA: Public Affairs.

Krapp, P. (2011). Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Parikka, J. (2011). Mapping Noise: Techniques and Tactics of Irregularities, Interception, and Disturbance. In E. Huhtamo & J. Parikka (Eds.), Media Archeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Refused. (1998). “New Noise” [performed by Refused]. On The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts (Sound recording). Örebro, Sweden: Burning Heart Records.

Schwartz, H. (2011). Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond. New York: Zone Books.

Shannon, C.E., & Weaver, W. (1949). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Sterne, J. (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Tompkins, D. (2010). How to Wreck a Nice Beach. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.

Toop, D. (2010). Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener. New York: Continuum Books.

Voegelin, S. (2010). Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. New York: Continuum Books.

Before, Beyond, Beware: Books on Noise and Music

In the words of biographer Richard Kostelanetz, John Cage (no relation) was so full of original ideas that he begged to be misunderstood. He did for music what Duchamp and Warhol did for art: His work questioned and critiqued the establishment in which it existed. Infuriating to many, inspirational to others, his place in the history of art, music, and other creative acts is undeniable. As Kostelanetz (1989) wrote, “Even though these ideas usually attract more comment than commentary, more rejection than reflection, he is, to an increasingly common opinion, clearly among the dozen seminal figures in the arts today” (p. 47). Ironically, his most famous composition 4’33” consists of no written music or planned sound whatsoever: It’s four and a half minutes of silence.

Excerpt from John Cage’s “Water Music” circa 1952.

As a matter of course, there can be never be real silence in human endeavor, which was Cage’s whole point (To wit, one of the many recent books on Cage and his work states it plainly in its title: No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33” by Kyle Gann; Yale University Press, 2010). The idea that any sound — be it ambient, noisy, environmental, whatever — can be music is the core of Cage’s aesthetic belief. As he wrote in Silence (1961), “I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard” (p. 3-4). We’ve seen this play out in everything from turntables and tape machines to Moog synthesizers and laptops. Musical rules create similarity. Serendipity comes from difference. For Cage, making music was a matter of making music strange.

John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950 edited by David W. Patterson (Routlege, 2002) is the only book out that concentrates on Cage’s early career, and it includes contributions from an international collection of art and musicology scholars. Insights into his early years are rare, and this book is full of them, insisting correctly that revisiting his early years proffers up a deeper understanding of his later work and philosophy. For instance, his time in my adopted home of Seattle marked an oft overlooked turning point. Cage lamented the move to an increasingly urban society until he learned to listen to it — as music. This transition was paramount to his abandoning traditional composition, his shift to a percussive composition style, and his move squarely into the avant-garde.

There has been much writing about John Cage’s music, by him and by others. For the uninitiated, the editor’s introduction does a nice job not only of placing this book in its historical context but also of providing an overview of the writings about and by John Cage.

Though his work was arguably as groundbreaking and influential as Cage’s, Iannis Xenakis is a lesser-known and written-about composer. Like Cage, he used strange maths in his compositions. His own book, Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (Pendragon, 1971), set out to, well, formalize his mathematical approach, and it illuminates much of his work in the process. In Xenakis: His Life in Music (Routledge, 2011), James Harley sets out to do the same. A composer himself, Harley studied with Xenakis and completed two compositions on the UPIC (Unité Polygogique Informatique de CEMAMu), Xenakis’ computer system “based on a graphic-design approach to synthesis” (p. x). This background obviously informs his writing, but his aim is to give the reader an entry point into Xenakis’ complex techniques and compositions, as well as his intellectual history and his contributions outside of music. I can’t claim to know if he succeeded — math and music both look like alien linguistics to me — but in its updated paperback from, Xenakis should help spread the word about Xenakis’ work and help secure his place in the history of experimental music.

Paul Hegarty’s book, Noise/Music: A History (Continuum, 2008), follows experimental music and noise from the aforementioned John Cage to Japanese noise artist Merzbow (who remixed a track from Xenakis’ Persopolis in 2002), illustrating the vast influence of the former, and if you already think progressive and experimental music is too nerdy for you, then Hegarty and Martin Halliwell’s new book, Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock Since the 1960s (Continuum, 2011), is not a book I would recommend. If you’re interested in an overly academic treatment of a selected history of prog rock, then this might work. I feel especially nerdy critiquing a book so nerdy (I have my twenty-sided die at the ready), but there are a few things about this text that need to be addressed.

Buy This Book from Powell's

There are always differences of opinion as to what should be included or excluded in a book about a particular genre or subgenre, and the authors admittedly were not trying to be comprehensive; however, mentioning The Decemberists (in an already questionable chapter about folk) and completely omitting the mighty Mogwai is a glaring oversight and downright reprehensible in a book about progressive music, a book that also discusses Black Metal at length. And while I’m at it, what about Neurosis (one record is mentioned here in passing), Isis, Jesu, Godflesh, Pelican, and Cave In, as well as the many progressive Hip-hop acts (e.g., dälek, Anti-Pop Consortium, El-P, New Flesh for Old, DJ Spooky, New Kingdom, Techno Animal, et al.)? At least a brief discussion of prog-core and progressive Hip-hop seems appropriate. The authors’ close reading of prog’s nerdy bits and album art is not only chronically annoying but also regularly myopic, often leaving them blind to the bigger picture when it matters most.

Even if it misses some key trajectories and follows others too closely, Beyond and Before does a fine job of placing progressive rock in its historical context. Their discussions of the core artists of this movement (e.g., Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Rush, et al.) is solid as well. As I said, the authors weren’t trying to be comprehensive, they run skimpy on Brian Eno and David Bowie (giving Kate Bush as much space as the glam rock dual pillars; prog-pop stalwart Todd Rundgren doesn’t garner a mention at all), but their treatment of Peter Gabriel is worth mentioning. His work is discussed throughout the book, as it should be. He’s been active, innovative, and successful as long as anyone else associated with progressive music. Their inclusion of a chapter on the women of prog is as commendable as it is contemptible (when will female artists cease to be categorized as such and be considered in their own right?). Whereas neo-prog group Porcupine Tree finds a solid home in these pages, Hegarty and Halliwell seem hesitant to classify Radiohead as same, but spend a lot of ink discussing their work, deservedly so (who’s keeping the progressive torch burning brighter than those guys?).

Here’s John Cage performing “Water Walk” in January, 1960 on the TV show I’ve Got a Secret [runtime: 9:23]:

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The peripheries of music are always sliding outward as the universe of sound continues to expand. If you’re bored with your current listening, follow Cage’s own advice that one shouldn’t listen to music that one no longer hears. Make music strange and find your limits. These books discuss a few of the major artists going postal with the envelope.

References:

Cage, J. (1961). “The Future of Music: Credo.” In Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Gann, K. (2010) No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33″ . Newhaven, CT: Yale University Press.

Harley, J. (2011). Xenakis: His Life and Work. New York: Routledge.

Hegarty, P. (2008). Noise/Music: A History. New York: Continuum Books.

Hegarty, P. & Halliwell, M. (2011). Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock Since the 1960s. New York: Continuum Books.

Kostelanetz, R. (1989). On Innovative Musicians. New York: Limelight Editions.

Xenakis, I. (1971). Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition. Oakland, CA: Pendragon.

Too Much Information: Four Recent Books

In his 1995 book, Being Digital (Vintage), Nicholas Negroponte drew a sharp and important distinction between bits and atoms, bits being the smallest workable unit of the digital world, and atoms being their closest analog (no pun intended) in the physical world. In the meantime, this distinction has become more and more important as our world becomes increasingly digital or reliant on digital technologies.

The Long TailAs an over-simplified example, shelf space in a regular “bricks and mortar” bookstore is limited, but online it isn’t. In order to pay its rent and stay in business, a physical bookstore has to carry books that sell at a faster pace than an online store, which can afford to carry books that sell less often. The latter is called “the long tail,” and it’s how Amazon was able to stake its claim as “The World’s Largest Bookstore” and eventually to expand into every other product line one can put in a box or an inbox. When it comes to purely digital artifacts and products (e.g., digital file sharing, music downloads, ebooks, etc.), the power law on which the long tail is based isn’t truncated (as it is eventually in the Amazon example, and sooner in the traditional bookstore example).

The Long Tail (from Chris Anderson’s site)

Chris Anderson admittedly didn’t invent the idea (Jeff Bezos for one has been making millions with it for years), but no one else has covered it like he has in his book. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (Hyperion, 2006) is the concept shot from every angle, through every available lens. The idea is that blockbusters, hits, best sellers form “the short head” of the graph, and the niche items, cult phenomenon, lesser sellers form “the long tail.” Our culture is moving down the tail (i.e., it has become “niche-driven” as opposed to hit-driven) and off the shelf (online as opposed to in the store). Most retail stores only have room to carry items in the short head, while online “etailers” can carry items further down the tail. And when it comes to digital products, shelves are no longer an obstacle, in more ways than one.

Everything is MiscellaneousWhen products move from shelves to databases, the way they can be organized changes. Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (Times Books, 2007) is David Weinberger’s take on Web 2.0’s tags and folksonomies, set in contrast to objects in physical space (bits vs atoms). “Orders of order” he calls them. Items on shelves are limited by the rules of the physical world. Items in a database are not. The former can be filed in one category, on one shelf, in one place (the first order of order). The latter can be searched, browsed, alphabetized, tagged — all at the same time (the third order of order). These orders of order also apply to encyclopedic information — Wikipedia’s bits as opposed to Encyclopedia Britannica’s atoms — and the way it is created.

InfotopiaIn Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge (Oxford, 2006), Cass R. Sunstein continues some of the work he did in Why Societies Need Dissent regarding deliberation, group polarization, and emergent knowledge. The most obvious and most successful example is Wikipedia. Whereas mindless mobs wait at the bottom of many collaborative slippery slopes (see a sharp antithesis to Wikipedia at Urban Dictionary), Wikipedia is frighteningly accurate. My friend and colleague Tim Mitchell proposed a great test of Wikipedia’s success: If you doubt the site’s aggregate knowledge, check its information against something you do know, as opposed to something you don’t. Sunstein’s book goes a long way to explaining the ins and outs of why collaborative filtering might provide the best method for knowing things.

Bit LiteracyMark Hurst’s Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload (Good Experience, 2007) approaches the infoglut from more of a self-help angle, proposing an ambitious plan for getting things done and getting things organized in the digital deluge. It’s not quite the panacea it purports to be, but useful ideas abound. Finding signal in the noise — especially in the noise of your own email, photos, files, to-do lists – is what bit literacy is all about.

As bandwidth increases, Negroponte’s observation from over a decade ago is finally showing its impact. The distinction between bits and atoms is an important one, and perhaps more important than we previously realized, whether we’re trying to find something or just find something out.