Archive for April, 2011

Writing and authority

April 26, 2011

What is happening when we abandon rockist channels of authority and circuits of creating-meaning (writing/producing), which say broadly that those responsible for writing are responsible for meaning and value?

Let us look to some examples that might help in developing a position. Clearly the rockist framework is displaced and intensified in the situation of singers such as Tony Bennet or Ella Fitzgerald – or, to take a random example, Roberto Alagna – who are engaged in the interpretation of standards, where both the original writer/s, and the new one, are being celebrated. But when we are faced with artists such as Britney/Kylie/Girls Aloud/Elvis, who all make consistently strong work but rarely ‘write’ it (in the limited sense of either composing formally or composition-in-performance), an abandonment similar to the one suggested in the opening is required of us.

This abandonment raises some questions. How is there consistency to the above mentioned artists’ music, and how have they consistently made things of value? Does the consistency simply result from the constancy of the voice and the ‘author function’ (the biographical-psychological retinue that the audience brings to the music) in the work? Or is it also, or rather, in the constancy of writers/producers, or, more interstingly, is it in a certain strange effacing of any sense of authorship in congress with the acsession of the voice?

Some level of consistency is obvious in the case of Girls Aloud, due to their team being relatively constant – though here I’m reverting to the old model of critique that sees consistency and integrity in a closed circle of collaborators and authority in only the most obvious form of authorship – but the others work or worked with a wide range of producers/writers.

Might we say, in seeking this consistency, that these artists, in addition to having access to a wider range of resources than others in their position have, simply exercise great discretion, and that they thus produce stronger output, and/or might we draw attention to the importance of the auto-cursive nature of singing, of its affective superposition in music?

My feeling is that both of these observations are important: of course a greater range of resources will lead to stronger work, and it is also obvious that the voice in pop music is the most important element and thus will produce at least a surface level of consistency in an artist’s work. But we are working with a deeper level of consistency here than that, in support of which we could adduce these artists’ consistently high standards.

Something else is needed, then. Could we displace models of creativity to include performance and/or personality, or another some such object petit a? Could we, in addition or alternatively, insist on an incomplete methodology: a disorder that ends in a sort of order, or at least a discourse? This would give us access to a more complex notion of authorship, one anchored in personality, performance, ‘writing’, and, above all, in the strange synthesis that squares the circle of performer, writer, and listener.

If we don’t leave room for this type of remainder then we are ought to make silly conclusions that do things like doubt artists’ contribution to their own music. This is nearly always the most reactionary and least interesting of positions. We could always, in seeking to understand these artists’ consistency, follow an evidence-based chain by comparing the outputs of their writers/producers in those writers/producers work with other artists, and determine whether a significant quality is present in the relevant artist but not in the other/s with which we have built our comparison. We might reasonably then conclude that it is in this ‘significant quality’ that the artist’s own contribution lies.

But that is to subscribe, after a fashion – in looking for a direct causality that I suspect would be incongruous considering the amorphous nature of musical creation -, to the same model of meaning as is being employed by the rockists mentioned above (and the rockists are only foot soldiers in an army that traces back through the centuries).

I would prefer to cleave to a methodology of incompleteness, and think instead of this music as being a part of a sort of a system, a system in which the named artist is likely the most important element, give or take. This system would simply seek to recognise the aporic space of authorship that persists in (pop) music, without ignoring the writerly contributions of relevant parties. I do not know precisely how this system would play out in practice, but it seems a valuable starting point nonetheless. This aporic space might give, depending on the circumstance, a sort of intelligibility at a remove from meaning that could help us organise better our relationship to music.


April 21, 2011

Japanese sound and video artist Ryoji Ikeda’s datamatics (version 2) feels at points like a time machine speeding us into the future, or, at least, like a time machine that allows us to be in a sort of future.

This is curious for a work that purports, in its content and its form, to tell through the audio-visual medium a sort of history of technology, of computer aided design, and (to a much lesser extent) of electronic music. Thus datamatics obliquely and non-linearly stages a progression from comparatively primitive 2D 8-bit visuals to multi-layered, rotating 3D views (mostly in black and white).

But how can we be in the future if we spend time looking to the past? This might be how: The condition of history over the last few decades has, if we are to allow a certain process of metaphor into our reasoning, been dispersed and diffracted to the degree that the contemporaneousness of a work like datamatics, far from being threatened by the use of antiquated technological modalities and artistic forms, is actually precisely secured by that technique. In other words, we currently view our future in terms of a reflexivity with our past.

Another way that futurity might be seen to co-exist with the backward glance in datamatics, more straightforwardly, is that within the context of the work even the most primitive of visuals quickly give way (datamatics features a dizzyingly fast frame rate) to complex geometric and abstract visual syntheses, and thus is the old infused with the new – and vice versa – in a tight process of symbiosis.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here. Let me explain a little more about the nature of the piece. datamatics seeks to capture and depict, at least suggestively, the data streams that undergird contemporary life. In Ikeda’s own words, datamatics is ‘an art project that explores the potential to perceive the invisible multi-substance of data that permeates our world’.

In the piece itself (as noted above I am responding to version 2, an expansion of the 2006 piece of the same name) this means that one after another and in strange configurations computer programming source codes, apparently random fields of static, models of DNA, lists of names and other text, and geometric projections that look like strange monochromatic versions of the kind of CAD models of nebulae and galaxies and other such cosmic phenomena that you see on programmes such as Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe, are all presented to us, in this case on a very large screen that took up the whole central field of vision on the Barbican’s vast stage.

Accompanying the visual presentation was an exotically loud soundtrack of drones, static and white noise, bleeps, and, occasionally, looped glitch (i.e. of prime number periodicity) beats and warmer electronic tones, which soundtrack is closely synced to the visuals so that at times it appears that we are following an alternately straightforward and hieratic form of digital musical notation. The two fields – the musical and the visual – thus engage in a sort of mimesis, the former delineating, ‘perceiving’ for us, Ikeda’s invisible multi-substance of data, whilst also moving away much of the time to delineate only abstractly the data being presented to us visually. datamatics, in other words, understands that its interpretation of the data is, at best, suggestive, metaphorical, and as such seeks in the main to engage on the level of poetics with how data such as that on which it focuses might be captured and represented in audio-visual terms.

I have described the material of the presentation without quite getting at its aesthetics. Whilst hardly without precedent in the field of experimental film and video art (Hans Richter’s Rhythm 21 and Rhythm 23 and some of the Whitney Borthers’ work are inevitable reminiscences), Ikeda’s piece, primarily I would suggest in its wild intensification and magnification of previous techniques – and in the technical prowess by which that intensification and magnification is achieved – nevertheless feels fresh and unique, and even demanding (particularly for its dromological demands on cognition referenced above in the mention of the dizzying frame rates). It is also extremely well put together in terms of basic mechanics: silence, for example, is used well to aid comprehension of the natural dynamics of the form, whilst single movements of seemingly unified material would rarely last more than about eight or nine minutes before giving way to a new visual and/or musical space. Basic artistic building blocks such as these, as much as conceptual advancement and technical wizardry, are extremely well managed in datamatics.

Ikeda’s presentation at the Barbican to a packed and demographically mixed crowd sitting thrilled and stunned (it would have seemed by the occasional whoop and the common look of wonder) in the dark whilst the future happened all around them called up certain tensions to which it is always fascinating to be exposed: though this is an ostensibly high culture conceptual project, the aesthetics of the music and the abrasiveness of the visual form, not to mention the sheer Warp-like danceability of the whole package, means that datamatics feels pitched between various stalls. If this had been Barcelona’s Sonar festival, for example, where the piece was staged in 2006, people would have been drunkenly throwing themselves around the place. Confined to our seats in the Barbican as we were, we had to restrict ourselves more to enjoyments that emanated from the head.

This displacement of the body did not, though, feel regretful; to the contrary, the constant channelling of energy from the body to the mind allowed a certain palpation, a focussing of erotics, that had a charm and intensity all of its own compared to the all-body pleasure that might have been derived from a performance given in a freer atmosphere.

The Song

April 14, 2011

What is the song, as a unit, an aesthetic unit? It’s one thing, which you permit to happen again. At most, it’s two things. There’s a derivation of the thing that is actually simply the thing happening for the third (retention, introjecting) and fourth (protentive, extrojecting) times. Then, the fourth time proper.

Anyway, the above is amongst the greatest things. It’s immediately a little tacky, but also mesmerising in its sheer bloody obviousness. But then it’s everything!

Review round up

April 5, 2011

Some recent articles and other stuff by me:

At the Journal of Music, on lo-fi music. This piece was prompted after listening to Lady Lavender and reading David Toop’s Sinister Resonance.

At the Journal again, on a concert of Martin Creed’s. Creed’s great strength, as an artist and a musician, is his reframing of the relationship between an idea of the aesthetic and one of the everyday. Each collapses into the other in the hands of Creed, but not without preserving what is individual in each one at the same time. Reminds me a little of Gabriel Orozco, whose show I saw the other day at the Tate. What is most vivid in each artist is their insistence on the flexibility and the fluidity of the category of the aesthetic.

At Musical Criticism, on an interesting and engaging concert of works by or inspired by Xenakis, the latter category including new pieces by Roger Redgate, Michael Finnissy, and Haris Kittos.

I also saw Kylie last week, and, apart from the sore lack of ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, she was awesome. Especially ‘Get Outta My Way’.