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).

Saturday, January 23, 2010

High Fidelity

The long-playing (“LP”) microgroove record, what is commonly referred to as the vinyl LP, which in its final form held about 20 minutes of music per side, makes sense, as David Morton has observed, only “in the context of the long passages typical of classical music” (Off the Record 38-39). Peter Goldmark and Edward Wallerstein—the CBS employees who after the end of World War II pushed the invention of the “LP” record in that company’s laboratories—had found that the vast majority of classical compositions could fit on two sides of a single record if the storage capacity on each side was around seventeen minutes. Prior to the invention of the long-playing microgroove record, classical recordings were packaged in “albums,” that is, bundles of 78-rpm discs. In their pursuit of a storage medium that could hold 90 percent of all classical music (Morton 38), Goldmark and Wallerstein, perhaps intentionally, linked “high fidelity” with “high brow.” But as Morton points out, while the term fidelity (truth, accuracy) “remains central in the technical vocabulary of music recording and reproduction” (15), an understanding of common music recording practices reveals that sounds are not captured, but made. Nonetheless, companies which issued jazz records, such as Prestige, were formed after CBS' introduction of the long-playing record medium (Prestige, for instance, in 1949).

In contrast, RCA’s introduction in 1948 of the 7” 45-rpm single (which was able to exploit the technical improvements of the LP with the inexpensiveness of the 78-rpm single) was, as Morton observes, “aimed squarely at the largest market in the country,” popular music (155). Serendipitously, jazz music, with its extended improvisations, lent itself to the high fidelity LP format, and so, somewhat improbably, jazz became “high brow.” By 1957, in Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock, jazz music lovers are portrayed as snobs and elitists. Conveniently, a crucial scene in Jailhouse Rock has been recorded by Krin Gabbard in his important work on jazz and the American cinema, Jammin’ at the Margins (1996). The scene takes place at the home of Peggy’s (Judy Tyler’s) parents. Her father, a college professor, is having a party, during which the conversation has turned to jazz music and a jazz figure named “Stubby Ritemeyer,” a fictional musician whom Gabbard indicates is based on West Coast trumpeter-composer Shorty Rogers.

“I think Stubby’s gone overboard with those altered chords,” says one of the pompous guests. “I agree,” says another, “I think Brubeck and Desmond have gone just as far with dissonance as I care to go.” “Oh, nonsense,” says a man, “have you heard Lennie Tristano’s latest recording? He reached outer space.” A young woman adds, “Some day they’ll make the cycle and go back to pure old Dixieland.” A well-dressed, older woman says, “I say atonality is just a passing phase in jazz music.” Turning to Presley, she asks, “What do you think, Mr. Everett?” He answers, “Lady, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” and storms out of the house. (124)

While Gabbard observes in the scene (and movie) a “dizzy mix of black and white music and their imitations” (125), the scene also is about high (jazz) and low (popular) culture, high fidelity—the extradiegetic jazz recording playing the background—and “low” fidelity—the 45-rpm singles Vince Everett (Elvis) wants to record (“Treat Me Nice”). David Morton observes that “high fidelity became a mass market phenomenon after 1952” (39), and that sales of phonographs and high-fidelity equipment grew throughout the 1950s, one consequence of high-fidelity promotional “fairs” that began in 1949. By 1957, of course, Elvis had been signed to RCA, which had made the corporate decision almost a decade earlier to back and heavily to market inexpensive 7” 45-rpm singles to a popular music audience. Elvis, of course, was signed by RCA to produce singles, not LPs.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Historian David Morton indicates in Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America (2000) that the first significant mass-market success of audio tape technology in America was the “Stereo 8” cartridge system, otherwise known as the 8-Track. Introduced in 1965, the 8-Track was promoted by William Lear (after whom the Learjet is named), who built it “around an existing endless-loop cartridge for background music applications, the Fidelipac” (159). Morton writes:

After modifying the cartridge enough to win a set of patents on it, he [Lear] wisely combined his company’s resources with those of several other top firms: the manufacturing capability of the Motorola corporation, the record catalog of RCA-Victor, and the marketing organization of the Ford Motor Company. (159-60)

Priced at $128, the Ford 8-Track player was instantly successful, and quickly, Morton indicates, “other U.S. auto manufacturers and third-party equipment retailers offered it as early as 1966” (160). Hence the 8-Track’s success was a consequence of its portability, a factor that has determined the direction of research in home electronics and popular music for the past 45 years (think of the small, inexpensive transistor radio). The 8-Track was to the automobile what the Sony Walkman (in the 1980s) was to jogging, revealing the crucial connection between the home audio system and the need for portable music, otherwise known as compatibility. In other words, the crucial factor determining the consumption of popular music the past several decades is not “high fidelity,” but portability. Since World War II and the rise of home audio, the audio manufacturers have typically touted “high fidelity” as a major factor in determining home audio purchases, and while this feature is still no doubt crucial for many enthusiasts (so-called audiophiles), for the majority of consumers, the crucial factor is mobility. Hence, like so much other cultural activity, the automobile has organized our behavior.

The compact disc brought about the demise of audio tape technology, replacing the cassette (which replaced the 8-Track) with the iPod. Hence the iPod is to the CD what cassettes and 8-Tracks were to the vinyl LP. Reshuffling (randomization) replaces the predictability (stability) of the record, and the déclassé technology assumes the status of a found object, the technological equivalent of the fossil record. The archeologist is replaced by the antiquarian.

Monday, January 18, 2010


There’s an old saw that avers suffering transforms the common man into a philosopher, and this may express a certain truth. In one of her poems, Emily Dickinson uses “lead” as a metaphor to approximate mental and emotional suffering: “After great pain a formal feeling comes,” during which “The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs.” She goes on to write:

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow—
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

Traditionally, lead has been associated with the planet Saturn; hence, the emotional feeling Dickinson is trying to describe by “the hour of lead” is called saturnine. Freud suggested the mental energy required for this “letting go” was the difference between mourning and melancholy. In his Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1985), Italo Calvino suggests that “melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness,” just as “humor is comedy that has lost its bodily weight” (19). Calvino also observes that the ancients thought the saturnine temperament the one “proper to artists, poets, and thinkers, and that seems true enough. Certainly literature would never have existed if some human beings had not been strongly inclined to introversion, discontented with the world as it is, inclined to forget themselves for hours and days on end to fix their gaze on the immobility of silent worlds” (52). Calvino contrasts the saturnine temperament with the mercurial one, the former “melancholy, contemplative, and solitary,” the latter, mercurial one, “inclined toward exchanges and commerce and dexterity” (52). I can think of no better poetic example of the contemplative, solitary artistic temperament than that of Dylan Thomas’ “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” in which Thomas writes:

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

My astrological sign is Cancer, the crab, one who carries his home on his back. Hence my temperament is to prefer the solitary. Perhaps for this reason, I’ve always been attracted to Thomas’ poem, and especially the description of his writing as “spindrift pages.” Spindrift typically refers to the telltale spray blown from cresting waves during gale force winds, but the word is also used to describe the fine sand that is blown off the tips of sand dunes, or the fine snow that the wind blows off the top edges of snow drifts. Thomas’ “spindrift pages” are those pages that are whisked like fine snow from his writing desk, destined for an unknown reader, or perhaps no reader at all. Therefore, for me the image that best captures the saturnine temperament, or melancholy, is one of the ocean, or desert, or hilltop that displays the telltale wisps of spindrift. My personal image of melancholy is not necessarily one that is common or widely endorsed, of course, because it partakes of the wholly personal and private, eluding public endorsement. The musical equivalent of melancholy is perhaps private as well, just as the personal image of melancholy is, and so my list of some melancholic songs may not match those of others.

A Personal List Of A Few Musical Equivalents To Spindrift:
The Beatles – In My Life
Glen Campbell – Wichita Lineman
Neil Diamond – Solitary Man
Elton John – Rocket Man
The Grateful Dead – Box of Rain
The Left Banke – Walk Away Renee
Harry Nilsson – Everybody’s Talkin’
Phil Ochs – Boy in Ohio
Roy Orbison – In Dreams
Gilbert O’Sullivan – Alone Again, Naturally
Quicksilver Messenger Service – Spindrifter
Marty Robbins – Saddle Tramp
Bob Seger – Turn the Page
XTC – My Bird Performs
Neil Young – After the Gold Rush