Tuesday, May 12, 2020

You Can’t Always Get What You Need

Imagine a time long ago, before Crawdaddy or Creem or Rolling Stone or Pitchfork, when nobody needed critics, when there were no Beatles scholars or Elvis specialists or authorities on krautrock or punk rock or post-punk or electro-funk, when everything you needed to know was written on the charts that were dutifully listed and updated in Billboard and New Musical Express, when there was no such thing a rock canon or that there was such a thing even conceivable as a rock canon, a long time ago when rock, or rock ‘n’ roll, had no past, when everything existed in the present moment.

What has happened since is that we have developed an historical consciousness. That time seems so distant because there was still breaking news. Now, there are mausoleums such as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Record stores serve as museums, where the artifacts of the past are nicely alphabetized and organized into a daunting number of genres, devised by and for musical archaeologists. Events such as Record Store Day (RSD) serve the collective dream in which all recordings from the past, no matter how famous or obscure, are always available. It is perhaps important to remember that events such as RSD are premised on Rule #1 of niche marketing:
  • There are approximately 3,000 people who are willing to buy anything
Corollary: There is a market for everything. And yet, our mass collective desire of plenitude is threatened by the possibility of shortages: the stark realization that while we can always get what we want (we scoff at the very notion of “out-of-print”), we can’t always get what we need. Case in point: I recently came across a collection edited by Bruno MacDonald, The Greatest Albums You’ll Never Hear: Unreleased Records by the World’s Greatest Musicians (2012). The jacket blurb says it all: “A Pink Floyd album with no instruments. A Sex Pistols record more incendiary than Never Mind The Bollocks. A sci-fi rock opera by Weezer.” (I take it the  self-parody is intentional.) Other such “You’ll Never Hear” lists can be found by doing a web search. If “Classic” album lists are premised on plenitude and the possibility of collection and acquisition, then “You’ll Never Hear” lists are perversely motivated, denying this possibility.

“You'll Never Hear lists do tell us something, though perhaps that meaning is unintended:
  • Greatness cannot be attributed to music we have never heard
  • Distrust any critic presumptive enough to tell you we can

Sunday, May 10, 2020


Premise: Echo is to exteriority as reverberation is to interiority. As Michael Jarrett observes: “Reverb sonically implies the size and shape of imaginary places that hold music” (Sound Tracks, 72). Echo implies the immensity of a large cave or cathedral (a single sound wave reflecting off a distance surface), while reverberation collapses this immensity into the claustrophobic space inhabited by the cell of a cenobitic monk (sound waves reflecting off a nearby surface). Because an echo can be heard by humans only when the distance between the sound source and the reflecting surface is greater than 50 feet, an echo is typically clear and can be easily comprehended because of the distance and time the sound wave travels. Reverberations, on the other hand, do not have enough distance or time to travel, which means the sound waves pile up on each other, challenging our auditory comprehension. Echo implies distance; reverberation implies propinquity.

In his discussion of Martin Hannett’s recording of Joy Division’s music, Simon Reynolds takes up a discussion of musical spaces. He writes, “Hannent dedicated himself to capturing and intensifying Joy Division’s eerie spatiality” (Rip It Up and Start Again, 112). He goes on to say:

“Digital,” Hannett’s first Joy Division production [in 1978], derived its name from his favorite sonic toy, the AMS digital-delay line. Hannett used the AMS and other digital effects coming onto the market in the late seventies to achieve “ambience control”....His most distinctive use of the AMS digital delay...was pretty subtle. He applied a microsecond delay to the drums that was barely audible yet created a sense of enclosed space, a vaulted sound as if the music were recorded in a mausoleum.” (113)

On Unknown Pleasures (1979), Joy Division’s first LP, Hannent used another effects unit, the Marshall Time Modulator, a device that, in the words of band member Stephen Morris, “just made things sound smaller” (114). That is not a positive assessment. What were the aesthetic benefits of making the band’s sound spatially “smaller”? For Reynolds, it gives the band’s music a desolate, alienated feel (113). Or, one could also say, that the music has the uncomfortably claustrophobic feel of acute hermetic isolation, like being enclosed within the bare walls of a monastic cell.

An interesting connection, since the cover image on the original Sordide Sentimental release of Joy Division’s single, “Atmosphere” (titled “Licht and Blindheit” on the Sordide release), features a solitary, hooded monk, his back turned to the viewer, standing on a rocky hillside gazing out on a landscape consisting of a thick layer of fog filling the valley below the mountains far off in the distance. As Reynolds observes, the cover image “captures the moment when a certain religiosity began to gather around Joy Division” (115). Perhaps so, since the contemplative figure of the monk stands enthralled by the fog and distant mountains, as if it were a moment of spiritual or religious insight.

The cover image seems to be modeled, perhaps unintentionally, on the painting by German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (ca. 1818).
By inviting the viewer to share the point-of-view of the wanderer or hiker, Friedrich is inviting us to share the same subjective experience as the figure in the painting. This applies to the single’s cover art as well, depicting a similar moment of reflection, the fog and far-off, hazy mountains suggesting an unknown future. However, the monk implies the cloister, the contemplative life, while the outdoor setting implies the active life.

Or, the cover picture of Joy Division's single metonymically implies two spaces capable of producing two distinct sonic possibilities: immensity (echo) or monastic cell (reverberation). The unusual spatiality of Joy Division’s music is captured by the contradictions of this single’s cover image. I prefer the trope of the monastic cell, but the suffocating space of the tomb is an unavoidable association, given the photograph by Bernard Pierre Wolff used on the cover of Joy Division’s LP Closer (1980), an image of the Appiani family tomb in Genoa’s Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno.