Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In B flat

One of my students recently showed me In Bb 2.0, "a collaborative music/spoken word project." I gather it has been around since the spring, and might be old news to some of you, but if not, check it out.

It's pretty awesome. The creator, Darren Solomon, noted that the flash-based video player used by YouTube and other video hosting services allows for multiple players to go at once, and this can sound pretty cool. After experimenting a bit, he invited people to submit YouTube videos of themselves playing different instruments in the key flat. There are some standard choices--a violin, muted trumpet, piano, etc--together with an e-bowed banjo, the KORG MS-10 emulator available on a Nintendo DS, and, most interestingly, one bit of spoken word performance. Solomon chose examples he liked, and puts them all on the one page. You, the user, can stop and start videos at will, adjusting levels easily.

My class had a fun time playing around with it, managing to get every single video going at one point. While there is obviously a lot of freedom on the part of the players, Solomon does specify that "simple, floating textures work best, with no tempo or groove," and that thick, low sounds don't work well. And since he gets to choose the videos, presumably he enforces that aesthetic. He does a good job. Just when the sound world threatens to veer into just a dull wash of sound, you stumble across a few modules that contain more discrete, articulated sounds--the spoken word, for example, and the DS-10, retained my interest for quite a long time.

The obvious musical ancestor, as Solomon notes and my class quickly saw, is In C. Or at least, both are made of discrete short modules that work well against each other in almost any combination. In each piece the modules can also be repeated at will, although the lack of a "loop" button on a flash video player makes repetition cumbersome, and Solomon recommends beginning and ending clips with ten or so seconds of silence. That fading in means you miss the exciting moments that can occur during In C when some polyrhythm suddenly pops up. And of course, the big difference is that the modules of In Bb (it seems better to hyperlink than italicize the name of the piece) can go in any order, rather than that prescribed by Terry Riley.

Coincidentally, another class I'm teaching just covered In C. Our study included doing our best to play through it. None of them are music majors, so we had an eclectic range of instruments: a sax, a guitar, two pianists, and about five people smacking music stands. I was the pulse, and I will be honest with you, we only made it up to about module 15 before falling apart. But I think everyone had a good time, and we reconvened near the end to finish things off. Got to hand it to In C--still has it after all of these years.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Whither Cultural Studies?

I blogged last week about Michael Bérubé's essay, "What's the Matter with Cultural Studies?" Now, I direct your attention to a more considered response from assembled members of the Cultural Studies program at UC Davis, posted at Bully Bloggers. As a matter of trivia, one of the authors of the response is an old college classmate of mine (hi abbie!), and in fact part of the "Sex Toys Not War Games" group I mentioned in my earlier post. Small world!

At the risk of appearing feckless, I think I actually agree with both arguments. Or rather, I should start by saying that I disagree with something both do, which is set themselves up in opposition to each other, making constructive discussion difficult. We're all on the same side, guys! The academic left in this country is a big and diverse world, and it's great to hash things out, but I think the Davis folks react rather harshly, and don't give Bérubé the benefit of a generous reading--which I think he deserves. That said, Bérubé himself does write in a somewhat snide tone that does little to encourage dialogue either.

But as to their arguments, each has some very important points. The Davis people are right that Bérubé's conception of Cultural Studies is limited. Yes, the British tradition of Cultural Studies has limited impact in this country, but we shouldn't be surprised that different theories and methodologies might be useful over here. Cultural Studies hasn't maybe had such a huge impact in sociology and political science disciplines here, but it pops up in lots of places where Bérubé might not be looking--performance studies, for example, and in the legion of interstitial academic centers and programs that might be called Women's Studies or American Studies or Ethnic Studies, but all owe a tremendous debt to Raymond Williams and company, and do tremendously important work. And the Davis people are totally right to call Bérubé on only speaking to a U.S.-U.K. conception of the discipline.

On the other hand, I think the Davis people fall into the very trap Bérubé rightly criticizes: their ultimate argument is that neoliberalism, and its attendant privatization of the university and delegitimation of the humanities is the real enemy of Cultural Studies. It's not that this isn't true, and not just for the various incarnations of Cultural Studies. It certainly is. But Bérubé is spot on, for me, when he points out that ascribing everything to base and superstructure leaves you powerless to change anything if you can't change everything.

The Davis letter doesn't address one of Bérubé's points that I found to be the most important, so let me highlight it again: whatever impact Cultural Studies has had on the academy and on a range of political movements, it has most definitely not had an impact on the the left's only ally in this country's electoral system: the Democratic Party. Electoral and legislative politics are not the only kinds of politics that matter, but neither are they irrelevant. From ENDA to the gay marriage "debate", or immigration "reform", or the new colonialism in the middle east, the Democratic Party is intellectually at sea. Would that Cultural Studies could somehow step into that gap.

One final point: I just want to point out that musicologists never talk about these issues. Am I wrong? Why not?

Edited to Add: I wrote this without realizing there was another response to Bérubé on Bully Bloggers. I don't find it particularly useful, but there is a very interesting discussion in the comments. And also, see Michael's response to the Davis people on his own blog.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cut Time

Since every time I blog about John Cage I get lots of, uh, feedback, I'm going to try and get something useful out of that. So let's take a look at Williams Mix, Cage's epochal eight-channel tape piece from 1952. You can listen to it at the previous link, and here is the one little excerpt of the score that is widely known:

Although premiered in Illinois in 1953, most people first heard it thanks to its performance at his twenty-fifth anniversary retrospective concert in 1958, which was released on LP. Funny story: the LP was based on a live recording of the concert, so when you hear Williams Mix you also then get to hear the audience cheering and jeering afterwards. Douglas Kahn has noted that some textbook accounts of Williams Mix mistakenly think the applause was part of the piece!

For the uninitiated, Williams Mix is for eight-tracks of standard quarter-inch magnetic tape. The original sources of sounds are recorded previously, in six categories: city sounds, country sounds, electronic sounds, manually produced sounds, wind sounds, and amplified "small" sounds. Then using an elaborate score that Cage produced with almost a year of incessant I ching coin tossing, you cut and splice your source sounds along the patterns provided.

Texan composer Larry Austin has delved into Williams Mix probably more than any other human being. Working with digital copies of the original tape reels provided by the John Cage Trust, he has not only restored the original realization but also attempted his one realization based on his own sounds, Williams [re]mix[ed].

There is tons to be said about the piece. I, for one, have yet to go look at the full score that is kept at the New York Public Library, and which I hope will answer some of my questions. But one question that strikes me initially, as it strikes most people, is the following: was it ever possible to truly do a manual realization of this piece?

In the stories told by Cage and others who worked on the project (including Carolyn Brown's recent memoirs), the score was fiendishly difficult to follow. I mean, they spent months intricately cutting tiny little bits of plastic that would often float on the floor and get lost. There is that amusing story in Silence where they realize some ways in that Cage and Earle Brown were measuring differently because they were sighting their rulers differently. Most legendarily, there is one moment in the score that supposedly calls for three inches of tape to be cut into 1,097 different pieces and then spliced back together. Now again, I haven't yet seen the full score, so I have no idea if that is true or not, but it is a widely repeated story. And when pressed on this very point in interviews, Cage was quite clear that he indeed followed the score exactly at this moment.

But...really? If you were wondering, the width of an average razor blade is .009 inches, and so in theory you could only make about 333 razor-blade width cuts in three inches of tape without basically going over previous cuts. Which obviously must have happened. But...really? I'm certainly not one to take Cage the mythmaker at his word about everything, so maybe he was exaggerating for effect in his memories. But Cage circa 1952 was a pretty OCD guy, and I have the sinking feeling that he really did do it, probably to the detriment of his eyesight and mental health.

But how, exactly, is the question. My next step: acquire some old-fashioned magnetic tape, a razor blade, and some scotch tape.

[Editorial Note: In the interests of scholarly productivity, I am now only allowed to blog about topics related to my research. maybe teaching. and maybe Gossip Girl. Hey, they're off at college this season, so there's relevance. Speaking of which, what is up with Dan's new haircut, I ask you?!]

Monday, September 21, 2009

Man's Man's Man's

I meant to post this video in the wake of Michael Jackson's death, but just realized I never did. It's of a poor quality and is widely seen around the intertubes but still pretty amazing: a 1983 James Brown concert in which he invites up on stage not only Michael Jackson, but then Prince, both in their 1980s heyday. I think they are vaguely playing "It's a Man's Man's Man's World."

Amidst all the amazing things about the video, check out at about 00:32, where you catch a glimpse of James Brown's fabled total control over the band. The band is just sort of grooving along while Brown and Jackson walk to the center of the stage chatting, and suddenly Brown just makes a little hand gesture and boom--they instantly cut out.

If you don't have the time to read Anne Danielsen's justly-praised
Presence and Pleasure, there was a decent Rolling Stone profile of the Godfather written by Jonathan Lethem that talked about those hand signals:
Throughout these ruminations, the members of James Brown's band stand at readiness, their fingers on strings or mouths a few short inches from reeds and mouthpieces, in complete silence, only sometimes nodding to acknowledge a remark of particular emphasis. A given monologue may persist for an hour, no matter: At the slightest drop of a hand signal, these players are expected to be ready...

During the playback session, guitarist Keith leans in and whispers to me, "You've got to tell the truth about what goes on here. Nobody has any idea." I widen my eyes, sympathetic to his request. But what exactly does he mean?..."We're supposed to follow these hand signals," Keith explains. "We've got to watch him every minute, you never know when he's going to change something up. But his hand is like an eagle's claw -- he'll point with a curved finger, and it's like, 'Do you mean me, or him? Because you're looking at me but you're pointing at him.'"

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pop Face Off

Okay, so now that Kanye West is a presidentially-certified jackass, we are still left with the most important question: which video should have one for "Best Female Video" at the VMAs? (Side note: do videos have genders?)

There were of course other contenders as well: Katy Perry (oh dear god no), Kelly Clarkson (meh), Lady GaGa (as a friend on Facebook put it, she'd be better off in a Performance Studies department than on stage), and Pink (way too 2001. And I don't like people cutting down trees, even [especially?] to prove that one is a rock star.)

I carry two biases into this choice. Bias #1: I have a slight unironic affection for Taylor Swift because I really liked her duet on "Fifteen" with Miley Cyrus at the Grammys. (Really, I'm not being ironic. I thought it was great for what it was.) Bias #2: I'm not a huge Beyoncé fan. It's not like I have a huge problem with her or anything, but I've never been impressed with her singing. It's a stock point of mine so I've probably already blogged it before, but her voice is quite weak and insubstantial. That's why it took the supporting voices of a girl group for her to get her career going in the first place, and why her solo work is endlessly overdubbed.

Onto the videos: Beyoncé's video has the advantage of being utterly and thoroughly weird. I mean, it's really weird, isn't it? Weird. It looks a little bit like it was choreographed by a heterosexual Klaus Nomi with a pinch of Sun Ra. And yet, it caught the attention of people like few other videos did this year. Endlessly parodied and copied. Definitely wins the zeitgeist prize. The music is great, of course, even if I'm not sure it deserves MTV's claim of "female empowerment with a catchy hook." Or maybe it does. Who really knows what that song is about? I don't. Last semester I used this song for my usual "let's brainstorm ways to analyze music" exercise on the first day of class, and neither I nor thirty upstanding young students could figure it out.

Taylor's video, on the other hand, is supremely conventional, from the standard boy+girl narrative to the gratuitous use of the ugly-girls-wear-glasses trope. The song is not my favorite, despite it's overall competence. However, I am most definitely not its target audience, and therefore have little idea if it might be a worthy heir to the longstanding tradition of music aimed at (and often written by) teenage girls that offers a realistic and sympathetic portrayal of adolescence. I'm not a teenage girl, so I don't know. But from a distance, it doesn't read quite so true as some of Taylor's other work, like "Fifteen." Perhaps it is as simple as the story of "You Belong to Me," which is a girl telling a boy that his girlfriend is bad for him and that she, the narrator, would be better. There is certainly a long tradition of girls putting each other down to compete for a boy, but it's not a particularly uplifting tradition, and Taylor's version is uncritical. "Fifteen," on the other hand, mimics the swirl of teenage emotional confusion and yet manages to maintain an introspective distance.

So between Beyoncé's Afro-Futurism and Taylor Swift's reactionary stance, I'm afraid that I will have to pronounce in favor of Beyoncé. But here's hoping that Taylor's step backward is merely temporary--I'm optimistic, myself.

Any other opinions?

Monday, September 14, 2009

On Radicalism

The great Michael Bérubé has an excellent piece in this week's Chronicle Review about the failures of Cultural Studies. Entrenched as I am in one discipline I can't speak very well as to whether he is right or wrong overall, although within musicology, I think he is sadly quite right that the methods of Cultural Studies has become almost exclusively identified with popular music, and are all too rarely brought to bear upon the canon.

What struck me most about his essay, however, was a point made towards the end of the essay having to do with the relationship between the original British cultural studies folk and Thatcherism. In it he puts voice to a certain discomfort I feel with political discourse on the left these days. This paragraph, in which he heavily quotes the work of Stuart Hall, is key:
In an especially rich essay...Hall wrote: "The first thing to ask about an 'organic' ideology that, however unexpectedly, succeeds in organizing substantial sections of the masses and mobilizing them for political action, is not what is false about it but what is true." What, in other words, actively makes sense to people whose beliefs you do not share? Hall proposed that leftist intellectuals should not answer that question by assuming that working-class conservatives have succumbed to false consciousness: "It is a highly unstable theory about the world which has to assume that vast numbers of ordinary people, mentally equipped in much the same way as you or I, can simply be thoroughly and systematically duped into misrecognizing entirely where their real interests lie. Even less acceptable is the position that, whereas 'they'—the masses—are the dupes of history, 'we'—the privileged—are somehow without a trace of illusion and can see, transitively, right through into the truth, the essence, of a situation."

I find this particularly trenchant because sometimes it feels as if we on the left are spending most of our time complaining about how crazy and radical the right is. It is not that I don't agree that the right is crazy, and also wrong. They are both. Especially the wrong part. And although this might be a slightly heretical statement, I have the distinct impression that the endless chain of right-wing frenzies in these last eight months--teabagging, the birthers, Glenn Beck, Joe Wilson, etc--have been driven by left discourse as much as by right. I a nutshell, I think we are spending too much time convincing ourselves that the opposition is crazy, and not enough time either promoting our own agenda, or, in a true Cultural Studies fashion, considering what might be "right" about the opposition, and working within and against it.

For example: this weekend there was a big anti-Obama protest in DC. The left has had a field day with the overt racism of the event, not to mention its conceptual incoherence. Fair enough. But what good does it do to snicker, as one of the Daily Kos editors did on their main page, that most of the protestors were country folk who didn't know proper escalator protocol?

Lord knows I think those marchers were idiots. But you know, I've been to marches in DC, and in those marches have myself been on the radical fringe. For example, in April of 2002, I went to DC as part of a large protest against the invasion of Afghanistan, and preemptively against the stirrings of War in Iraq. To protest our country's (largely imaginary) retaliation against Afghanistan was, and still is, unthinkable in our current mainstream political discourse. And even within that already unthinkable position, I was part of a group that attempted to introduce a specifically-queer critique to the surrounding. We carried signs that said things like "Sex Toys Not War Games." It was college, we had a good time.

This is all to say, I've been that crazy holding a weird sign on the lawn in front of the Capitol building. And I therefore have an appreciation for that particular kind of inchoate political anger. Sure, those people out there on the Mall last Saturday were having their anger channelled and shaped by Dick Armey and Glenn Beck, but frankly, ours back in 2002 was shaped, largely against our will, by ANSWER. And despite that, and despite the utter failure of those anti-war marches to achieve their goal, marching against the war was a very affirming experience. It plugged us into a wider world of activists; it built community.

I hope the anti-Obama protestors fail in their goals. But I suspect that at the very least they will feel that sense of community. And if we on the left really want to make permanent change, really want to change people's lives, then we have got to respect their passions to the extent we can. And even less than that, I just don't see what it good it does to put all this work into convincing ourselves that they are crazy. Really, all we are doing when we complain about the marchers, or Joe Wilson shouting "You Lie," is register an appeal to the centrist political discourse for a judgment in our favor--"Look, they are out of bounds! Choose us!" I hate to break it to us, but in a world where mild government subsidies for health care is the "radical left" position, the center is never going to rule in our favor. Best to do without their help.

What we learn from Cultural Studies is that indeed, the corporate-produced media works in its own interest above all else. But the rejoinder is that no matter what the corporate media--read capitalism at large--produces, it is a big mistake to believe that those interests are automatically injected into those who consume it. If it is that simple, then we should just give up and go home. In reality, we know over and over again from cultural studies that people consume that media so as to produce a multiplicity of often divergent meanings, and towards divergent ends.

How then, should we best respond to the anti-Obama protesters? I certainly don't mean to suggest we validate their feelings and give them hugs. But I think there are more subversive ways to criticize; I rather liked the approach of a cousin-in-law of mine, who with his friend went to Saturday's march holding fake signs. (His read: "Gee, There Sure Are a Lot of White People Here.)

But as usual, there is no real substitute for engagement, and for emphasizing commonalities over difference. Sometimes the best political action of all is conversation. And in the meantime, let's get this goddamn middling health care reform passed, alright?

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Case of the Missing Church

The weather has taken a turn for the better down here in Virginia. We've gone from the sort of heat that probably would have killed a few dozen colonials back in the day to a more reasonable damp, but not suffocating, warmth. At the height of the heat, Mabel and I would try to keep our walks for the mornings and evenings, and even then criss-crossing back and forth tracking shady bits of sidewalk. Also trying to avoid the horses and sheep. Mabel's never really met a sheep before, and I suspect that meeting one for the first time in the midst of the tourist throng of Colonial Williamsburg would not be a good idea.

I can't deny that it is slightly odd to be teaching in colonial Disneyland. The campus and the theme park are actually surprisingly separate; the part of Colonial Williamsburg nearest the college is "Merchant's Square," where there is a Williams-Sonoma and the like, and although the historic part of William & Mary adjacent to this is actually the oldest and best preserved part of Williamsburg, it's not as swarming with tourists as you might think. But if you venture a few blocks east, you start to run into the aforementioned sheep, as well as the costumed actors who want to tell you about blacksmithing or making wagon wheels or whatever. To their credit, many of them also carry dog biscuits.

The whole scene is irresistible for a historian. Not so much the colonial aspect, as those of us who actually do history professionally are somewhat bemused by Mr. Rockefeller's folly. But it is impossible not to be fascinated by the many layers of history here, and the sometimes surprising negotiations that have gone into creating them. For example: alongside the road I travel to get to school is this big empty green spot.

According to the plaque, this empty lot is the former site of the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, an early African American congregation that formed in the eighteenth century largely because they were unwelcome at the Bruton Parish Church now at the center of the Colonial theme park. There were several iterations of this church, but in 1856 the congregation was able to build a proper brick church that looked like this:

Being a curious sort, I've been trying to figure out what exactly happened to the 1856 church, as both the plaque and information on the official web site are decidedly fuzzy. Sure I could probably ask somebody, but this being a blogging enterprise, I decided to see what I could find just with my handy Google Toolbar. Best as I can tell, in 1956, the congregation sold the church to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for $130,000, and used the proceeds to build a new, larger church elsewhere in town. CW then proceeded to raze the church to the ground.

Now lest I throw random accusations out there, let me make clear what I do not know: I don't know the circumstances of the sale, or why the church was razed, or what the congregation thought about it. Maybe it was their idea. I have no idea, I just moved here two weeks ago. But I do know the historical context, and I therefore know that there is a possibility that a small southern town in 1956 might not have been overly interested in preserving the historical heritage of certain people. And I know that Colonial Williamsburg has torn down or altered many nineteenth-century buildings for not being appropriate to the colonial setting, and a church built in 1856, even one on a somewhat secluded side street, doesn't have the right historical vibes. But the real story awaits proper research.

So, a digression: One of the most influential concepts for dealing with history in performance studies is Joseph Roach's idea of "surrogation." In Cities of the Dead, describing how "culture reproduces and re-creates itself," Roach writes
In the life of a community, the process of surrogation does not begin or end but continues as actual or perceived vacanies occur in the network of relations that constitutes the social fabric. Into the cavities created by loss through death or other forms of departure, I hypothesize, survivors attempt to fit satisfactory alternates.

Being a smart guy and all, Roach of course doesn't romanticize this process, and indeed points out that it is the failures of surrogation, the "mildly incontinent sentimentalism to raging paranoia" that make the process interesting.

This a very useful way to think about the missing church in Colonial Williamsburg. The actual warm bodies and ritual traditions of First Baptist moved a few blocks north. But what surrogate stepped into the vacant lot on Frances Street? In terms of buildings, Colonial Williamsburg has gone the route of historical literalism: across the street from the vacant lot lies a reconstructed carriage house enclosing a small museum, marking the spot where the congregation met in the eighteenth century before building a permanent home. You can even meet Gowan Pamphlet, the preacher and former slave who founded First Baptist.

These efforts, however, are more recent. It wasn't until the 1970s that Colonial Williamsburg started more thorough efforts to include African American life, culminating in what is now a "Department of African American Interpretations and Presentations." What filled in the gap in the 1950s and 60s? Interestingly, it was music. Four years after the destruction of the First Baptist Church, CW made a movie called The Music of Williamsburg, and hired Alan Lomax to provide the music. Well-known African American singers from around the south were brought to town to perform self-consciously "historic" black music, old spirituals and work songs and the like. I only know about this because Carol Oja, now at Harvard but formerly at William & Mary, once taught a seminar in which her students did a historical ethnography of the making of that movie. She wrote it up in an article for the ISAM newsletter, and there are many fascinating implications not just for the history of Colonial Williamsburg but for how our knowledge of antebellum black music has been passed down to us. But it also shows it shows us that music can sometimes do an unfortunately good job at maintaining the color line from a safe distance. Colonial Williamsburg in 1960 wanted the music, but not the actual people making it. The performers brought in from out of town were not allowed to stay in the segregated hotels of the town, and had to be housed with local black families.

Luckily, the failures of surrogation can still force their way through. One of the most touching stories from this episode was the experience of Bessie Jones [MP3], the great gospel singer, who was one of the musicians hired for the film, and who showed how the historical record is sometimes more true in performance than in buildings. Oja tells the moving story, drawn from Jones's memoirs, of how the singer was invited to a party hosted by a white family. Asked to sing for the crowd, she couldn't help but telling the assembled interracial audience of her family's history in this town: her grandfather had lived in Williamsburg, as a slave. As she put it later, "Wasn’t a soul saying a word but me, and I just told them like it was.”

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Blogging by Bullet Points

Side note: Is there appropriate internet etiquette for tipping one's hat to the source of an interesting link if that link came from Facebook friends? Like these?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Philly Meetup?

Attention leading lights of the m u s i c o l o g i c a l blogging sphere. (I'm sure I missed a bunch there.) It's a little ways off, and it's a little 2007, but regardless: any desire out there to have a blogger meetup at AMS this fall? Perhaps outside of the hotel at a local drinking establishment? I think it could be fun.