Sunday, March 14, 2010

First impression of I'm New Here

I'm listening to Gil Scott-Heron's new album, I'm New Here, and it's really blowing me away. My first, facile, thought about it is that it sounds like a Black William S. Burroughs doing Scott Walker's The Drift, but that sells it short by making it sound derivative (not to mention that it's calling it a Black version of white things, which is goddamn crappy of me). Scott-Heron sounds really old now, in the way that the older Burroughs or Walker or Johnny Cash sound old--sometimes to the point of sounding apocalyptic.

It's also a startlingly short album; under half an hour, it feels far shorter--it just ended as I'm writing. And this is short in the good way--it gets in, does what it does, and leaves.

Incredible music, and this is all without responding at all yet to his words. Words take a lot longer to sink in for me than sounds, and I may return to this album later to write about them, and if I do I will hopefully have something more useful to say about the music as well. In the meantime: highly, highly recommended.


Justin said...

I haven't put these thoughts together so this is probably pointless drivel, but...

I had been thinking lately about pop music and our appreciation/expectations for it. I think you (or LP) wrote something here awhile back about how our tastes in music are part of The Spectacle and I think that is what set some of this in motion.

We expect albums to be 40-50 minutes long, or are generally disappointed. Such an arbitrary length of time, and as far as I know this is a function of vinyl record sizes, they needed to fill the space on those albums once the size of a record had been settled. We are sticking to that arbitrary standard, even though now, especially, in the age of digital music there really is no reason to keep true to the time.

We expect songs to be approximately 4 minutes long. Funny because that is a function of commercial radio programming.

I can barely listen to classical music, by my watered down norms the sound is too rich to bear. I've been to a few concerts and I am out of sync with the music, alternatively blown away/overwhelmed and bored/daydreaming waiting for a new song to come on.

I think one could draw some parallels here with publishing.

Newspapers and magazine articles that are posted online are the length they are because standards found in the physical limitations of paper, column inches, that make no sense online.

Books are similar to albums in that they are often way to long with a lot of fill, a function of the need to make a book project book sized.

Anyway, don't know that I have a point here other than to examine these arbitrary standards by which we judge works of writing and music.

Ethan said...

It's something I've been thinking about as well. I admit to a fondness for the 40 minute album and the 3 to 4 minute pop song (though a quick, anal, look at my mp3s reveals that they range in length from four seconds to just over two hours, the median seems to be right around 3:30 and the mean is about 4:30), but there is indeed no reason to stick to these conventions, especially not since fewer and fewer of us get our music in the form of radio broadcast or physical album. Beyond time lengths, there are all kinds of things--not just song structure, but even dynamic variation (mainstream music these days deliberately compressed to eliminate variation, and then radio stations compress again to even it out even more)--that are dictated by the needs of the Spectacle.

Another thing that's not exactly the same topic, but related, that I often think about is how overexposure can remove any amount of radicalism. For example, power obviously knows that very few people will actually pay attention to the lyrics of John Lennon's "Imagine" despite knowing every single one of them backwards and forwards. It makes me question not the value but the utility of radical art.

Any art in a capitalist consumer society is compromised, of course, as all human pursuit is. I tend to think that television programs like Dollhouse and LOST form exceptionally coherent critiques of the spectacle, but they themselves (particularly LOST, with all its multimedia ties and ARGs and cross-marketing and huge shooting budget and so forth) are massively, inextricably tied up in it. And as I think you pointed out once, while the artistic marketplace does allow for innovation and genuine, powerful expression, it exerts a dampening force even on this exploration, allowing only certain kinds, and allowing it only to go so far.

I am curious what you mean when you say "classical music," by the way--the term is incredibly broad. I have little patience for romantic music, say, but baroque (definitively dictated by the pre-capitalist version of the Spectacle) and minimalist music move me like nothing else.

Ethan said...

Another thing I wanted to mention in this context is this New York Times profile of Jim O'Rourke on the occasion of his album The Visitor, released last year. Towards the end of the article, O'Rourke talks about how one of the reasons he made the album as one 32-minute-long track, not (officially) available online, is that "You can no longer use context as part of your work...because it doesn't matter what you do, somebody's going to change the context of it. The confusion of creativity, making something, with this Internet idea of democritization...It sounds like old-man stuff, but I think it's disastrous for the possibilities of any art form."

I love Jim O'Rourke, and The Visitor is a fantastic album, but I cannot agree with him here. I think the Great Promise of the Internet is largely overstated if not actively false, but the ability to interact with and respond to works of art rather than passively receiving them is in my opinion a great thing. Sure, it can lead to awful things like shitty "interactive" ad campaigns, but it also has the potential to counteract at least some of the pernicious influences of the spectacle. And anyway, just because context can change does not mean that it is now unusable; on the contrary, the tension between different contexts is one of the things that makes recontextualization so powerful.

I responded to O'Rourke's grumpiness by making a piece of music, almost fifty minutes long, entirely out of four treated samples from various of his works (including The Visitor. They play against each other in different combinations and times, constantly shifting the context in which they all occur. I think recontextualization (familiar to students of the Situationists--psychogeography, detournement) is the duty of the radical, or whatever we call ourselves these days.

Justin said...

By classical music, I mean any music that does not follow the structure of commercial pop music. This is probably not a very good use of that genre, I consider going to a symphony hall listening to classical music even though it may be a contemporary composition. This more a defect of my knowledge than anything.

Lewis Lapham has an interesting piece up at on art and commerce, btw.

Ethan said...

Oh, no, not at all. I don't know that that's an adequate definition of "classical music," but it's at least as good as any I've seen, and better than most. I was just asking because I was curious what you meant by it--everyone means different things when they say it. "Going to a symphony hall = classical music" (or "something you could see in a symphony hall = classical music") at least has the honesty of basing on the means of consumption, which is the only meaningful way of defining such a broad genre classification, and also does have an effect on the cultural use and personal impact of the music.

I will read the Lapham article, thanks for the tip.

Justin said...

Bad form not to leave a link, here it is.

As for the definition of classical music being defined in terms of consumption, I see your point. The consumption/spectacle is very elastic though, which seems to be the point that everything in our daily lives occurs within the context of consumption. This raises the question for me, is there any experience we could describe outside the context of consumption?