Sunday, February 1, 2009

Post Rock

This article by Ann Powers in yesterday’s L. A. Times refers to the dwindling significance of rock music as a cultural force. She avers that rock music is in “its Götterdämmerung phase” and writes, “Not only does rock no longer dominate popular culture worldwide, having long been eclipsed by hip-hop and Celine Dion, it’s also past both its youth as an agent of rebellion and its midlife as a ‘temporary autonomous zone’ for nonconformists….” Alas, I’m afraid she is right. In my past two blogs, in the context of discussing progressive rock, I have discussed the way modernism supported the conception of the popular musician as artist. My point was a rather simple one: early 1970s progressive rock demonstrated the lingering power of modernist values to bolster the image of the rock musician as “artist.” To some extent, that image is still viable, a testament to the lingering influence of modernism: check out this article in the Telegraph, on the lingering influence of Buddy Holly, whose untimely death fifty years ago will be commemorated this coming Tuesday, February 3.

Don McLean’s “American Pie” was putatively motivated by the death of Buddy Holly, in which the singer refers to the moment he heard of Holly’s death by the cryptic phrase, “the day the music died.” Too bad Don McLean didn’t write a song commemorating the 1 billionth download from Apple’s iTunes store, which happened just about three years ago, on February 23, 2006. (The download, incidentally, happened to be Coldplay’s “Speed of Sound.”) That date should be commemorated as well, because it marks the day when rock music died, or rather, marked the death of the fundamental method of its consumption. If jazz culture is based upon the live performance, being present at the scene and moment of an actual performance, rock culture is based upon the record: the basic material artifact central to its consumption is the record—or, if you will, the discrete physical object, liminally demarcated, one imagines holistically as an “album.”

“Post Rock” musical consumption, in contrast, is entirely different, and is represented by the download. Today a piece of music exists, but it is not anchored in a discrete physical object such as a record (some “albums” exist only in downloadable form), and thus it does not have any liminal demarcation. The piece of music is also ontologically unstable, since it may exist in various states of incompletion known as a “remix.” The song may be found on an album (in the antiquated sense, most likely in the storage format of CD), but the album is not conceived of holistically, but rather as an arbitrary heaping of heterogeneous pieces. Indeed, it is possible now to make a record simply by recombining fragments of sounds sampled by other records—you don’t even need to know how to play an instrument. Some years ago, Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy put it this way:

We don’t like musicians. We don’t respect musicians…. In dealing with rap, you have to be innocent and ignorant of music. Trained musicians are not ignorant of music, and they cannot be innocent to it. They understand it, and that’s what keeps them from dealing with things out of the ordinary…. [Public Enemy is] a musician’s nightmare. (Keyboard, September 1990, pp. 82-83).

Interestingly, the trend in popular music identified by Shocklee was anticipated over forty years ago by pianist Glenn Gould. In his famous 1966 essay “The Prospects of Recording,” Gould warned that “the technology of electronic forms makes it highly improbable that we will move in any direction but one of even greater intensity and complexity.” (The Glenn Gould Reader, p. 352)

In the era of Post Rock, there is no equivalent for the discrete material object known as the record. To understand Post Rock, the era of iTunes and the download, one must turn to quantum physics for the cognitive metaphor. A download is like a photon, a liminal object neither particle nor wave, a burst of energy that appears but is anchored nowhere. (Marx: “Everything that is solid melts into air.”) The iPod, the retrieval system for downloads, is by definition a portable device, designed for neither café nor concert hall, but primarily for mobility, a technology whose purpose is to provide an ambient background to a life premised on speed, not reflection, a life in which politics is defined as taste. Viewed in this way, Post Rock represents the triumph of Muzak, the era anticipated by art rockers such as Brian Eno, who settled on the collocation “ambient music” as a name for such decorative sounds, what Erik Satie called furniture or furnishing music.

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