The Presence of People
56 · 22 February 96
various: Higher Learning
Just over a year ago, in the first issue of this column -- the first entry, even -- I reviewed the soundtrack to John Singleton's film Higher Learning. I admitted that I hadn't seen the film, so I only reviewed the soundtrack on its own merits. As it was offered on its own merits, that continues to seem valid to me, and I don't retract my conclusion that as an album of music it mixes styles too jarringly and arbitrarily to make much sense. After seeing the film last week on cable, though, I find myself drawn back to this idea, and to one particular comment in the review, where I said "it's hard for me to imagine that there are any significant numbers of people whose tastes span the full range covered here." I meant no more by this than what it says, but in the context of the film it echoes ominously.
The film, in case you haven't seen it, is about racial (and other) tensions at a fictional university. Omar Epps is an academically ill-prepared black student on a track scholarship, who spends much of the film struggling to understand how his personal experiences relate to larger social realities; Kristy Swanson is a socially unprepared white coed coping with what appear to be her first close brushes with cultural diversity and human conflict; and Michael Rapaport is an intense, awkward and over-impressionable white kid from Idaho who seems to have spent a good deal of his spare time snipping lengths of his own fuse off to use for some other purpose. Racial incidents escalate, people polarize, groups self-select, and most of this country's social problems end up getting recapitulated in the campus microcosm, just as you'd expect.
While some of the film's music is used for traditional soundtrack reasons, as aural MSG for mood, several scenes toward the beginning, as the new students are moving into their dorm rooms, use particular songs to very quickly establish the ethno-social contexts of the three main characters. Kristy's character gets a frail, waifish Liz Phair song, Michael's gets some aggressive Rage Against the Machine, and Omar's gets something hip-hop-ish that, tellingly, I couldn't identify. These scenes not only take advantage of the unmistakable cultural markings of popular music, they also introduce the musical genres as parallel characters in their own right, so that when the university's students attempt to come together for a concert/party celebration of cultural diversity towards the end of the film, the multiple styles that the performers represent are as much the objects of attempted unity as the cultures of the spectators.
My comment about the soundtrack, then, can be taken as a rather grim assessment of the viability of cultural unity. The film gamely attempts to shows students of all colors dancing uncritically to both a black jazz poet and a white alterna-punk band, but nobody who attended a show of the joint Public Enemy/Sisters of Mercy tour and watched the people with black skin separate themselves out from the people with black clothes during the set changeover between the two bands could ever be fooled by this fiction. There is "white" music, "black" music, "Latino" music, etc., and if these lines are only occasionally blurred, and if individual musical tastes tend to respect the color boundaries more often than not, then what does that say about the cultures the genres represent? If rap is a predominantly black art form, is disliking rap a form of racism? Or are the fates of the cultures linked to the fates of their art forms at all, or vice versa?
This is a question of more than rhetorical import to me. My tastes aren't exactly catholic, but I'd guess that they're broader than many people's, and there's certainly no conscious system to what I like, yet a quick inspection of my music collection, or the subset of it represented by these columns, will reveal a statistically overwhelming homogeneity of white people. Heavy metal, punk, Celtic, country, folk, Britpop, guitar pop, synth pop, arena rock, girl groups, ethereal women, progressive, ambient, new classical: these are reasonably different genres, yet when you start looking at liner photographs you'll find that skin-color exceptions, like Living Colour, Vance Gilbert or Tasmin Archer, are conspicuous and easily enumerated. If it was just me, that would be one thing, but I go to see Buffalo Tom play, or Loreena McKennitt, or Marillion, to pick three random examples, and the audiences are reliably seas of solid color. Near as I can tell, it's not just me, it's most of us (and who constitutes "us", for an online music-review column about the sort of music I discuss, is another interesting question, and quite possibly a case in point). Whatever music accomplishes in this world, it doesn't seem to be drawing different races together.
The most pertinent question, perhaps, is whether the race divisions in music are innate or manufactured. The marketing schisms between folk/country/rock/pop and hip-hop/rap/soul/r&b are clearly not of my invention, but do they reflect racial predispositions (whatever that means), or are they the byproducts of social structures and cultural history? Or are they actually instruments of maintaining those structures and legacies? Must we have united music to have united cultures? Can we have united music? Can we have united cultures? Should we? I wish I knew. After watching Higher Learning, I feel like I'm supposed to pull the soundtrack out and listen to it again, and suddenly all the music will be as one to me, and by Tuesday I'll be rushing out to buy all the Mista Grimm albums I can find, just like I did with Eve's Plum after I heard this soundtrack the first time, and before long there won't be "black" music any more than there's "blonde" music. But it doesn't happen. The stuff I didn't like the first time, I still don't like. I didn't dislike it out of cultural bias or ignorance the first time, so no amount of consciousness raising is going to change my mind. My consciousness isn't the problem. It's my subconsciousness, maybe. Or maybe it's my semi-circular canals.
Perhaps there is at least an observation or two that can be distilled from all this, if not any answers. I have said elsewhere that I think music is what humans do best, that art is communication, and that music can be one of art's most expressive forms. In all of this, music is still just a tool. People are tool users, we sometimes say. It is telling that in our self-image we are defined by what we do, not why. We understand means, in all activities, far better than we understand ends. Songs help us say things, but McLuhan notwithstanding (I think and hope), music itself is not the message. Our tools can redeem neither us nor themselves. A song that says nothing, or does harm, will not refuse to be sung. The tools do not judge what they shape. The glue in the spine of Mein Kampf does not reject the pages, and while the words there (which are tools are surely as the glue) ring hollow, this failing is their author's, not theirs. Knowing this, then, it is incumbent upon us to judge ourselves. If music is communication, our obligation is to listen to it, to think about what we are hearing, and what we are singing. Perhaps art can be an agent of progress, not just its record.
And perhaps, if music is only a medium, then it's okay that cultures use different music to tell their stories. It is the stories we are trying to reconcile, not how they are told. If we're all dancing, does it matter how many different soundtracks we hear?
various: A Chance Operation
Another possible scheme for excusing the apparent cultural divides in music is redefining what we mean by music to begin with. Perhaps the most ambitious redefinition of music, and one of the few pieces of music that can not only be performed by anybody, anywhere, but that can be fully appreciated even without hearing it, is John Cage's infamous "4'33"". This is usually described as four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, which misses the point of the piece entirely. The rules of the piece are simply that the performer does not intentionally make any noises during its course. Noise still happens, of course, and the performer's silence causes the sounds of the performance environment to become the sounds of the piece. This conception of music, then, is all-inclusive. Any noise may be music. Or, depending on how you look at it, all noise is music. And because everybody makes noise, everybody makes music, and the whole cultural-divide thing quickly becomes moot. Unless, I suppose, somebody in the audience brings a boom box and cranks up some NWA during the piece, which gets us into extremely thorny issues of indirection and reference, and ends with the piercing sounds of copyright lawyers sharpening their, uh, whatever it is that copyright lawyers brandish.
A Chance Operation is a 1993 tribute to John Cage, which I only ran across recently, on which a collection of noted musical fringe-dwellers like Laurie Anderson, Kronos Quartet, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Yoko Ono, David Van Tieghem, Frank Zappa, John Cale and Meredith Monk offer their interpretations of some of Cage's compositions. For those of you who have never been part of a Cage performance, I once was, so this is one of the rare occasions where I have some factual information to relieve the otherwise uninterrupted flow of opinions. The scores of Cage pieces are interesting things in themselves. The natural assumption, I guess, is that there is sheet music to "4'33"", printed on your usual two-staff paper, in which all the measures just happen to be filled by rests, not notes. This is wrong. While some Cage pieces do have scores in this conventional sense, a great many of them are simply sets of instructions. The Cage performance that I was part of, at Harvard, featured several dozen individual pieces, the order of performance of which was largely indeterminate. A few were highly challenging micro-tonal vocal pieces, but many were single sentences. Two of the ones I executed consisted entirely of the directives "perform some purposeful action, three times" and "leave the stage, and return some time later" (this second one I accomplished by bouncing down some center-stage steps in a wheeled office chair, rolling out of the auditorium through one exit, circling through the backstage, and repeating the maneuver in reverse from the other side). Even the specificity of the micro-tonal vocal pieces was undermined by the instructions to run the singers' microphones through random processing gear, in which random parameters were manipulated in random ways. This was another of my parts, and it found me using an absurdly complicated MIDI setup in which the singer's voice drove a pitch-converter that operated the tone-generation section of my synthesizer, while I used its keyboard separately to change the delay times on an echo unit, a combination that actually made some rather pleasant and calming sounds, or would have if I wasn't also stomping on a maxed-out distortion pedal whenever I felt like it, which transformed nice singing voices into the sound of ripping sheet metal. Sadly, I was not among the artists selected to participate in this tribute.
What the tribute does consist of, though, is almost weirder. As the compilers acknowledge in the notes, Cage himself was not interested in recordings. He regarded the live experience of music as an integral part of it, and thus categorized recordings as historical documentation at best, not art. So a recorded tribute to Cage is profoundly self-defeating. He wouldn't have listened to it. In the notes the compilers suggest creating a semblance of randomness by setting up two CD players in one room, putting one disc in each player (this is a double-CD set), and setting both players on shuffle play. The discs have had extra track indices inserted at random, so that shuffle play jumps into the middle of things more often than it hits the transitions between pieces. I actually did this, though, since a recent audio reconfiguration in my apartment resulted in two sets of independent speakers in the living room, and I can report that it no more reproduces the experience of a live concert than do those awful "Jazz Club" DSP settings on over-engineered consumer stereo gear.
Then again, Cage is dead, so producing something he would have wanted to listen to would be even more pointless than something he wouldn't. Personally, I enjoy this set. It makes great background noise, and since my basic attitudes towards recordings and live performances are almost diametrically opposed to Cage's, the fact that the pieces sound the same every time is a feature to me, not a bug. Cage raises the possibility that music is neither a means, nor an ends, but merely a thing in itself, without external significance. I'm far from ready to actually accept this stance, but on nights when I'm feeling that those of us that live for music are complicit in racial discord, having a perspective that exonerates us all from that guilt is a welcome change.
Dr. Fiorella Terenzi: Music From the Galaxies
Cage's quest was to purge his music of his own preferences and intent. The natural extension of this idea is to purge music of all human involvement. In this sense Music From the Galaxies may be the most purely Cageian work ever committed to CD. Dr. Terenzi is an Italian astronomer, and the inventor of what she calls "acoustic astronomy", which consists of taking the data from radio-telescope observation of distant galaxies, and translating it mathematically into variable-intensity noises in the audio spectrum of human hearing. While this is a strange premise, it's not intrinsically any stranger than converting the data into visible graphs, which astronomers do as a matter of course. This 1991 disc, then, is a recording wholly devoid, at least in theory (and excepting the final track, on which Gordon Bahary adds orchestral accompaniment), not only of human intent, but of any intelligence. I guess pointing a microphone at a virgin creek would be almost as pure, but there's something special about deriving music from sources that, assuming relativity is vaguely accurate, couldn't possibly be connected to us in any way.
The ironic thing is how little strangeness results. The music whooshes and beeps in appropriately celestial fashion, but the overall effect is not drastically different from those tapes of waves hitting the shore that you're supposed to overlay with subliminal messages so as to learn Mandarin Chinese while you sleep. My guess, reasonable but no more plausible for that, is that we are used to the kinds of patterns that nature makes, at whatever scale. The sounds of galaxies are no more shocking than the lines of a coast. A sunset is, even at its most breathtaking, breathtaking in very predictable ways. True strangeness comes from intelligence changing nature's courses. Mount Rushmore is much weirder than the Grand Canyon.
Turning this observation back at Cage, then, my personal inclination is to dismiss the idea that purging music of all intent is worthwhile. And if you accept that, then music, however broadly defined, will include some noises made on purpose. And once you've accepted that, then it seems to me that the artist might as well be the one making the noises. And we're back where we started.
The most ironic thing about Music From the Galaxies, actually, is that Dr. Terenzi is, outside of this album, a radically obtrusive artist. Her Invisible Universe CD-ROM, if it still resembles the beta I tried last year, is quite possibly the most personal multimedia work I've seen, and certainly the most provocative one with an ostensible educational rationale. Having detailed astronomical data explained by her thick Italian accent, while complex computer visualizations of observed variables share the screen with a picture of her reclining among the stars in a seductive dress, is singular. She isn't on the Cage tribute, but I have a feeling it wouldn't take too much searching through Cage's corpus to find a few of his pieces that she is effectively performing.
Steve Reich: Different Trains / Electric Counterpoint
Returning to humans, Steve Reich's 1989 composition Different Trains (I'm trying to catch up, okay?) seems superficially to share much with the Cage pieces on A Chance Operation. To compose Different Trains, Reich took taped interviews of several old people talking about train experiences, extracted from them spoken passages that had musical cadences, and used these snippets as musical themes for string elaboration. The final recording, then, has Kronos Quartet playing the string parts against a tape accompaniment of their source fragments.
In both motivation and methodology, though, I'm pretty sure that this is antithetical to Cage's philosophies. Where Cage saw no value in hearing anything the same way twice, Reich's piece is precisely a product of close repeated study of unplanned material. Different Trains both immortalizes and ennobles the briefest moments, whereas Cage's quest was always to wrest immortal urges into the evanescent present. That the results from these contrary strategies are, at least on a single listen, so hard to qualitatively distinguish, says something about, I think, both ideas.
In terms of communication, I can't quite decide what I think of Different Trains. On the surface, the project seems dedicated to distilling pure form out of the dialog, ridding communication of its content entirely, and I could probably make a case for this being a viable redefinition of pornography. On the other hand, the inclusion of the speech fragments in the final music turns the string parts into an odd sort of non-commentary on the texts. The quartet isolates the musical component of the words, but this also has the effect of placing the meanings of the phrases into negative-space relief, and the sense of the fragments is thus bizarrely enhanced. A piece whose origin sounds like a music-theory seminar exercise turns out to be a poignant observation of how the Second World War changed people, and how the eras before, during and after it live on in the survivors' memories.
John Oswald: Plexure
And lastly (I really have to write shorter columns; weeks are only so long), here is another musical experiment that blurs the line between randomness and intent. Oswald is a copyright pariah, an artist who constructs his work entirely out of samples of other people's songs. The only thing you can purchase easily in this country is Grayfolded, his two-disc composite extension of the Grateful Dead's "Dark Star", for which he drew on many hours of live tapes of the song to assemble one gargantuan meta-version that, one guesses, is as long as the band's devoted fans always wished the song could be. My import store, however, recently turned up this 1993 Japanese release, which US copyright police appear to have overlooked (and let's hope copyright police don't read online music reviews). For those of us to whom Oswald's Cuisinart approach to music sounded intriguing, but who quailed at the thought of even a normal-sized portion of a Grateful Dead song, Plexure is a concise (and at less than twenty minutes, I mean that literally) introduction to his oeuvre.
There are two things that I find interesting, in listening to this. First, it's amazing how many popular songs I can identify from the briefest appearances in these collages. I'm probably recognizing less than ten percent of the samples, but at the speed they pass with, this is easily a high enough hit rate for me to feel like the music is going essentially from one familiar point to the next. In that way this disc is like seven million episodes of "Name That Tune" compressed into twenty minutes. Why that's desirable I couldn't say, but it's at least novel.
The other thing that fascinates me about Plexure is Oswald's implicit claim (supported by the inclusion in the liner notes of the "score" to one of the pieces) that this stuff is the product of meticulous encoding, not merely technological mulching of his source material. After listening to this as many times as I could manage, I still can't see how I would know simply by listening whether the pieces of these tracks fell together or were put there. And they thus serve as exemplary demonstration of a principle I'd been idly contemplating recently about how the thought that goes into artistic creation is not necessarily reflected in its output. This came up in my life as I was making my 1995 year-end best-music lists. That issue took a very long time to do, much of which was spent in just deciding what would be on the lists, and in what order. I rearranged the rankings dozens of times before I was satisfied with them, yet this labor doesn't translate into anything you could appreciate as a reader of them. If I'd flipped albums three and nine on my list, only I (and possibly my downstairs neighbors) would have realized anything was amiss. Similarly, I'm willing to believe that each sample splice in these pieces took Oswald hours to decide on.
But listening to it, it just sounds like all of Western pop music has been fed through the CIA's top-of-the-line shredder. Which, some weeks, doesn't seem like the craziest thing to do with it. But somehow, after a week of belligerently conceptual music, pop music sounds better to me, not worse. I don't know what it's doing to the world, and I'm not sure how to find out, but an inexplicable conviction grips me that it is, if anything is, good for the world. And I will steep myself in it until I can speak the proof.
And so, next week, back to guitars.