Saturday, January 30, 2010

In My Tree

About three weeks ago, I wrote a short blog entry on the famous cynic Diogenes, the great anti-Socratic. Diogenes was greatly admired by Alexander the Great for the freedom exemplified by his way of life. According to legend, the famous conqueror approached the sage on a day when he, Diogenes, was sunning himself. Alexander the Great asked him, Diogenes, if there were anything he could do for him. “Yes,” said Diogenes, “Get out of my light.” It’s said that Diogenes asked to be buried standing on his head, because, so he thought, one day down would be up, and up would be down. In the earlier blog, I claimed that one can hear Diogenesian thought in many pop songs, including Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” when Dylan sings, “You don’t need a weather man/To know which way the wind blows.” One can hear him in the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off Of My Cloud” and in Ian Hunter’s “Standin’ In My Light.” It occurred to me this morning that one may also hear Diogenes in the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” written by John Lennon. I have excerpted a few of the lyrics below:

Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
No one I think is in my tree, I mean it must be high or low
That is you can't you know tune in, but it’s all right
That is I think it’s not too bad
Always know sometimes think it’s me,
But you know I know when it’s a dream
I think a “No” will mean a “Yes” but it’s all wrong,
That is I think I disagree

I was prompted to revisit “Strawberry Fields Forever”—a recording which, in my view, represents one of the Beatles’ finest moments—because according to Dave Haber’s The Internet Beatles Album, it was on this day in 1967 the Beatles shot the night scenes for the “Strawberry Fields Forever” video (available here), in Sevenoaks, Kent. Watching the video this morning, shot over forty years ago, I thought of Jean-Luc Godard’s observation that the cinema also happens to be a documentary record of persons and things at a particular moment in time. Godard said about his film Breathless, for instance, “This film is really a documentary on Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo.” Thus the “Strawberry Fields Forever” video is really a documentary recording about how the Beatles looked on 30 January 1967—an example of how photography connects us to what we, even now, still call “the real.”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Song Of The Vipers

In Chapter 2 (“The Rise of Individualism and the Jazz Solo”) of James Lincoln Collier’s book, Jazz: The American Theme Song (1993), Collier discusses how the forces of modernism enabled the transformation of jazz bands from ensembles to vehicles for soloists. Modernism privileged the individual, championing the virtues of “individualism.” It valued “freedom of the spirit, the virtues of primitivism, belief in living spontaneously . . . and . . . individual expression” (44). Adherence to these values led some to refuse to read, study, or rehearse music, “for fear that a conscious knowing of what they were doing will inhibit spontaneity and the free flow of feeling” (45). However, if modernism privileged freedom of the spirit, primitivism, and spontaneity (the latter expressed in the form of the improvised jazz solo), modernism also was a consequence of the so-called “machine age,” which valued predictability rather than spontaneity, the planned rather than the improvised, and interchangeability (replaceability) rather than individuality.

It’s possible — to theorize a little — that drug use became a fixture of early jazz (sub)culture as a reaction against modernism, that is, the machine age that was dominated by spirit-crushing, that is, mindless and unfulfilling, labor. I’m aware that what was called Romanticism in the nineteenth century was called “Modernism” in the twentieth; drug addiction (such as Charlie Parker’s), as a form of self-destruction, conforms to the Romantic myth of early death as a sign of heightened sensitivity and consciousness. Yet it is also true that the early “drug subcultures” arose in Paris in the early modernist period, the city to which the mercurial Sidney Bechet was drawn in the early 1920s, to the detriment of his recording career in the United States. Among the first of the Parisian drug subcultures (or at least one of the most famous) was the Club des Haschischins, which flourished in Paris in the 1840s and ‘50s. Its members included Charles Baudelaire, Alexander Dumas, Gerald de Nerval, and Théophile Gautier. In the mid-twentieth century, writers such as William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin revived the myth of the “Hashishin” or “Assassins” — a secret group of drug users at odds with the material culture in which they lived — as a way of conceptualizing the modern “drug subculture” or so-called “drug underground.” The important point is to notice the link between esotericism and the individual’s need for a quasi-religious transcendence that can occur only with the secrecy of ritual. “The structure of modern life tends to eliminate possibilities of radical change,” Luigi Zola astutely notes, which is why secret or esoteric societies hold such imaginative power for individuals in modern desacralized urban society (see Mike Jay, Ed., Artificial Paradises 367). Mike Jay has observed that drug subcultures “share many of the underlying dynamics with initiatory secret societies” (Artificial Paradises 366). Such occult or secret societies are premised on initiation ceremonies  (employing drugs) allowing individuals access to a higher state of being — what is meant by “high” in the first place. The French expression for being high — “il plane” — expresses the meaning of being high as being metaphorically elevated to a different plane, or level of conscious awareness. The urban jazz subculture, in turn, shared many of the features of a secret society (exclusive membership). “Speaking of 1931,” Louis Armstrong wrote in “Tight Like That Gage,” “we did call ourselves Vipers, which could have been anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected gage. That was our cute little name for marijuana, and it was a misdemeanor in those days.”

Coupled with what Ted Gioia has called “the primitivist myth” (The Imperfect Art, 1988) that has informed much of the early critical writing about jazz, drug use (or perhaps excessive drug use, addiction) became the imprimatur of authenticity—the positive indication of tortured artistic genius.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

High Infidelity

Friedrich Kittler (Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 1999) argues that from around 1880 on, composers of music have been “allied with engineers” (24). After this date, he writes, “The undermining of articulateness becomes the order of the day” (24). As a consequence of sound recording, noise itself became an object of scientific research, and the previous conceptions that governed musical theory became antiquated.

The phonograph does not hear as do ears that have been trained immediately to filter voices, words, and sounds out of noise; it registers acoustic events as such. Articulateness becomes a second-order exception in a spectrum of noise. (23)

Recording is a form of engineering. Consider the composers who became significant since 1887: Schönberg, for instance, Ives, Varèse (all born in the nineteenth century), John Cage (born 1912), and Stockhausen (born 1928). David Morton (Off the Record) indicates that Arnold Schönberg, along with many other composers, writers, and scholars (think of John Lomax, and later Alan, recording folk music “in the field”) became “avid users of sound recording equipment” such as the portable tape recorder (144). (An implication of this development, of course, is that we live in a world in which we will most likely encounter a reproduction of something rather than ever encountering the thing itself.) For tape recording, says David Morton, “destroyed the already tenuous concept of an “original” performance and made the performance a source of content to be refined rather than something to be preserved” (46). Morton cites Steve Jones, who made the observation, “it has become sound—and not music—that is of prime importance in popular music production and consumption” (qtd. in Off the Record, 46). Recently developed (historically speaking) digital recording technologies only made it “easier than ever,” Morton writes, “to create and manipulate new sounds and have little relevance to the concept of high fidelity” (44). Hence the concept of fidelity (truth, accuracy, realism) is no longer relevant when judging a recording (what Kittler calls an “acoustic event”). It must, more than anything, sound good. By way of analogy to the terminology employed in rhetorical theory, perlocution (the effect on the listener) is privileged over elocutio (“purity,” correctness or faithfulness of utterance).