Friday, August 25, 2006

America's Got Talent! That's Why They Hate Us.

(The following post was written in spasms when I had time to log in during our summer travels; discrete threads are highlighted in different hues).

August has been a month of visiting with parents and in-laws. Under such conditions, a person sometimes does things he or she wouldn't otherwise do... such as 1) watching eleven consecutive hours of late-night Hee Haw reruns while battling insomnia in Ocean City, Maryland (very inspiring: not just Roy Clark's absurdly great jazz-country picking and Grandpa Jones's clawhammer banjo, but also the ample Connie Smith and Buck Owens performance footage, and, of course, the animated donkeys), 2) musing on the nuttiness of heritage, cultural pride, and religious orthodoxy... and 3) becoming invested, to an unholy degree, in the finale of "America's Got Talent."

So, I find myself now fighting the urge to move from computer nook to TV-room sofa to see the remaining half-hour of "AGT." But I need to wrap up a post on the Montreal dissident-jewish musical group Black Ox Orkestar. For now, my wafer- thin work ethic appears to be winning in its David-Goliath match against my gargantuan trash appetite.

I have been putting off completing this post (partially) because I lost the inspiration that originally fueled it: a radio interview/solo acoustic performance with/by Black Ox Orkestar frontman Scott Levine Gilmore. Montreal radio station CKUT's archives allowed me to find it once, but not again, and I have not been able to locate in printed interviews exactly the quotes or sentiments that got me thinking about making a post about Black Ox Orkestar in the first place.

So, I broke down and watched the final half-hour of "AGT." First, in a blatant attempt to fill two hours of "suspenseful" television prior to revealing the contest's winner, the producers scheduled the Blue Man Group, whatever that is, to play a music/theatre piece. They played "Baba O'Reilly," by The Who, as it turned out.

First, two of the blue men, outfitted with pvc octopus tentacles and Gap mock turtlenecks, started playing the opening motif of “Baba O’Reilly” on tuned plastic bottles. Then another blue man assaulted a lidless piano, stood on its side, with an oversized mallet, to sound the "exciting" chords that signal the beginning of the "rock song" part of the tune. Then a full rock band started playing a faithful cover of “Baba O”Reilly,” making redundant, in my opinion, the banging on plastic bottles and Steinway whack-a-mole. At some point, the blue men hit oil drums with big sticks and lots of paint splattered all over the stage. What a mess! Hope the Blue Man Group have a mop!

As many rock fans know, the intro to "Baba O'Reilly," and the middle-8 fiddle hoedown, were inspired by 1970s New York minimalist composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The scene they started, at venues like the Kitchen, also helped give birth to the performance art craze that swept the New York theatre and gallery scene, which, in a rhizomatic orgy of repressive de-sublimation in the coked-up and cash-flush 1980s led to the Broadway-ization of the most cheesy elements of the 70s avant-garde-- multimedia spectacle and muscular polyrhythm-- in the shows of the Blue Man Group, and finally to the Las Vegas-atization of "Baba O'Reilly" on "America's Got Talent" by the Blue Man Group. The only upshot of this postmodern, snake-eating-its-own-tail "Baba O'Reilly" mise-en-abyme, you ask? It makes even more pathetic a certain obnoxious art-guitarist/poseur bragging, in a a magazine interview several years ago, about the brilliance of his decision to do a 30-minute, Boss delay pedal-ified version of "Baba O'Reilly" when opening for Fugazi a few years ago, thereby “heroically” bringing the minimalism to the ignorant rockers and thumbing his nose at the “elitism” of the new music crowd. What can I say? I am not above petty gloating. If Loren MazzaCane Conors ever gets tired of having his music ruined by said provocateur, the latter need not panic. The Blue Man Group may be interested in collaborating.

Tween yodeler Taylor Ware, my choice to win "AGT" got the royal shaft. Instead, Bianca Ryan, an appallingly ordinary girl with a terrifying, Jessica Simpson-esque "big" voice took home the million dollars. Ecch.

Watching “AGT” did connect to some of the thoughts I have been processing while putting off writing about Black Ox Orkestar. Taylor Ware’s yodeling immediately struck me as wonderful in a way that Bianca Ryan’s ostensibly equivalent talents did not. First, the wild ululations of the yodel communicate pure joy in the capacities of the body to produce weird and miraculous sounds; Bianca Ryan’s slick melismas demonstrate the perversions of musical technique produced by the tragic historical process of music’s subordination to narrative and spectacle. (Just to be clear, we are against the tragic historical process of music’s subordination to narrative and spectacle. Very against it!).

Second, the yodel (making its way from alpine mountain cultures to the Appalachians via the waves of immigration of working-class Swedes and Germans to the United States in the nineteenth century, where it was transformed by contact with African American [and other ethnic] vocal traditions, and finally transformed into the signature proletarian vocal effect in the country music of the 1930s and 1940s in the music of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Bill Monroe), testifies to the persistently polyglot, mestizo, and creolized character of America’s working-class cultural traditions. While Bianca Ryan’s consonant-crushing Mariah-isms may seem to represent a black-white cultural synthesis, it reflects more the material trace of racism visited on the bodies of African American performers. Forced to pander to white audiences, or “prove” that they were as “civilized” as Europeans, African American musicians from the Fisk Jubilee singers to Whitney Houston have subordinated local traditions to the fascist requirements of bel canto and Tommy Motolla. Nothing much good can come out of white kids paying tribute to this heresy… it would be like Jay-Z or P Diddy inspiring young rich white kids to be more into becoming CEOs and driving German luxury cars… wait, that probably has happened.

The yodel and the gentrified gospel crystal-shattering high C— are there equivalents of this dichotomy in other cultural traditions? I am not an expert on too many local musical cultures, but I have a hunch that most “folk” musics are marked by a similar dynamic, though each example is no doubt unique. Take British Isles folk music. There, the conflicts between various interpreters of traditional musical culture were waged between three principal antagonists: 1) Tory nationalists, wishing to bury the traumatic memory of class struggle under the idiocy of “glorious past” nostalgia (not coincidentally, “AGT” featured a couple of yankee exemplars of “Riverdance”-style bufooneery, step-dancing, and fiddling jigs, and juggling Shamrock Shakes ; 2) British CP traditionalists, who excavated amazing amounts of archival material occluded by Tory provincialism, but imposed too-rigid aesthetic rules of engagement, including a ban on guitar accompaniment (it was seen as evidence of creeping Americanism); and 3) 1960s and 1970’s folk revivalists, such as Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick, The Watersons, Maddy Prior, June Tabor, Dick Gaughan, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, etc.—who were able to forge a much more heterodox and demotic style by incorporating influences such as ragtime blues guitar and the post-Beatles/Stones group sound among other sonic elements.

This folk revival shattered any consensus regarding what an “English” voice might be, and decentralized the process by which music was considered authentically “English.” Of course, there is no such thing as authentic “English”-ness, or authentic anything else-ness, for that matter. Nevertheless, a common aesthetic bound the output of the revivalists—not some ugly Spenserianism like “Anglo-Saxon DNA” but rather an approach to life. The English folk revivalists found in the Child ballads and musty papers of Cecil Sharp a legacy of class feeling preserved over centuries (even from the nascently capitalist Elizabethean and Tudor-Stuart periods that generated what EP Thompson called “class consciousness without class” among the peasants and freeholders of the countryside, in bread riots, charivaris, rough music, fence breaking, etc.). This class feeling is the through-line that connects lyrics to performance practice, stage banter to fan culture.

In our age of class amnesia, we have to remember this crucial motor of cultural struggle. Classes make culture differently from each other. This is not determinism, nor base-superstructure sophistry. We know what aristocrats do when they make culture: lavish festivals of wealth destruction, what Bataille called depense, the burning up of vast stores of surplus value in concert halls, operas, symphony orchestras, and Sotheby’s auctions. We know what the bourgeoisie do when they make culture (when it is not somehow adapted, borrowed, or filched from aristocrats or the working-class). It is all around us, sometimes wonderful (Curb Your Enthusiasm, possibly J Crew) but mostly awful (everything else). Its spaces are uniformly unpleasant, its values nauseating. Of course, from sitcoms to stock-car racing, pop music to Hollywood, ethnic eateries to sneaker-design, we can find amazing and delightful (as well as tedious and degrading) cultural commodities pioneered by working-class visionaries, adapted by bourgeois business practice for mass production and distribution, and refiltered through chains of consumption. But can anyone think of a bourgeois cultural product or social practice that is worth liking? From CNBC to golf-course gated communities, “successories” to Dockers, the Land Rover to Josh Groban, Eddie Bauer to Jonathan Franzen, isn’t it all kind of icky?

Bringing us back to Scott Levine Gilmore’s presentation of the aesthetic issues with which Black Ox Orkestar contend. Not only do BOO take aim at the mind-numbing banality of mainstream bourgeois culture (which ought to be the decisive criterion for indie-ness, what should separate Jim Jarmusch and Deerhoof from Ed Burns and Coldplay), they negotiate the legacy of post WWII North American “cultural Jewishness.” Once, Jewish culture in the United States was highly variegated—working-class Jews of Eastern European descent occupied an entirely different cultural universe than the assimilationist and Americanized German immigrants of the nation’s big cities. Even within the Ashkenazic subcultures of New York, Montreal, and Chicago, Jewish identity was not unitary—one might identify as Litvak and Gallicianer, socialist or anarchist, observant or anti-religious, in a way that would not necessarily lead to feeling connected to “Jewry” as a collectivity. At the same time, a shared “minor language” (Yiddish), union culture, political disposition (antifascism), and perhaps a common hostile attitude towards the powerful and uniformly anti-Semitic WASP elite united Jewish proletarians—by appealing to class feeling in a manner not dissimilar to the folk music of the British Isles. I was not at all surprised, then, to hear Scott Levine Gilmore joke that BOO think of their project as a kind of Jewish version of Pentangle, the English group that perhaps epitomized the 1960s folk movement’s creative re-appropriation of British Isles roots music.

We need not review the tragic world events that nearly wiped out the Yiddish leftist culture to which BOO hearken, nor consider the tangled history of Zionism in America… but simply acknowledge that, with few exceptions, the Jewish culture in which I and others born after 1967 were raised is very different from that of the Popular Front-era Lower East Side. As Gilmore noted in his interview, Hebrew has replaced Yiddish as the Jewish language taught to youngsters. Israeli folk culture has replaced more Eastern European variants as the common heritage passed on by the mainstream Jewish ideological apparatus. Politically, Cold War realism mixed with robust Zionism is more or less dominant throughout North American Jewish communities, although liberalism regarding social issues remains dominant. The Yiddish theatre, press, and music scenes have all but disappeared.

While there has been a Klezmer revival over the past 30 or so years, it has been a problematic renaissance. Like Wynton Marsalis’s vision of jazz, it is beholden to elite aesthetic standards, ossifying klezmer in a safely dead museum culture.

Like bebop and bluegrass, klezmer has become an unholy temple of excess technical finesse and reverence to past masters. Finally, “klezmer” itself is a cultural construction. As Scott Levine Gilmore noted, its elevation, along with music from the Jewish cantorial tradition, and Israeli folk music as the music of the Jews is arbitrary and ideologically loaded. On their two recordings, Ver Tanzt and Nisht Azoy, Black Ox Orkestar eschew these fixed genres and build their own capacity to re-imagine an alternative Yiddish past (and future). By bringing back the leftist political edge of prewar Yiddish culture, particularly in the original and fiercely partisan lyrics, and daring to forge a truly folk music out of diverse archival materials, Black Ox Orkestar intervene in a most hopeful way in the renegotiation of cultural identity in North America. I am not always convinced that their music finds a satisfactory resolution of the Hava Negilah syndrome (deferring to the clichéd idea that there is still a hard kernel of Jewish-ness in harmonic minor scales, weepy rubato phrasing, and nervous group extemporization), but this is likely my hang-up, not theirs. There oughtta be a hundred Black Ox Orkestars. The world would be a much better place.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

It Wouldn't Do You Any Harm

I have a confession to make: I love first songs on albums-- so much so that one might suspect that I haven't listened all the way through a lot of records I supposedly like, which may or may not be true.

Here is a partial, off-the-top-of-my-head list of fifteen "first songs" that I like more than I could possibly like any of the subsequent songs on the respective albums on which they appear:

1) "You Aint Goin Nowhere," The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo
2) "Only Shallow," My Bloody Valentine, Loveless
3) "Come All Ye," Fairport Convention, Liege and Lief
4) "My Old Drunk Friend," Freakwater, Feels Like The Third Time
5) "Chasing a Bee," Mercury Rev, Yerself Is Steam
6) "Breadcrumb Trail," Slint, Spiderland
7) "Idle Hands Are the Devil's Playthings," Palace Brothers, There Is No One What Will Take Care of You
8) "Brand New Love," Sebadoh, Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock
9) "The Wagon," Dinosaur Jr. Green Mind
10) "Skip Steps 1 & 3," Superchunk, No Pocky for Kitty
11) "Running With The Devil," Van Halen, Van Halen
12) "Teenage Riot," Sonic Youth," Daydream Nation
13) "Tangled Up In Blue," Bob Dylan, Blood On The Tracks
14) "Shepherd O Shepherd," Martin Carthy, Sweet Wivesfield
15) "Straight Outta Compton," NWA, Straight Outta Compton.

I am not sure what I think I have accomplished by making such a list.

I started thinking about this topic while listening to a few new music acquisitions. I recently located a copy of a recording by Chris Newman (no relation) called New Songs of Social Conscience/Six Sick Songs/London (ReR, 1998). My friend Martin had this CD in his collection when I was his roommate in Toronto a few years ago. When Martin played it for me and my friends we totally flipped out. Only a crazy nutjob could resist the charms of Chris Newman's music.

New Songs of Social Conscience falls loosely in the category of radical British singer-songwriter music sung by "marginal" voices-- vocalists older or craggier or more out of tune or ethnic or deranged than are usually heard on mainstream radio (we could think of Ivor Cutler, Hugh Metcalfe, Marianne Faithfull, Terry Hall, Polly Styrene, Johnny Rotten, Shane MacGowan, Mark E Smith, MIA and Lady Sovereign as all connected to this lineage, albeit in very different ways). Newman sings songs with lyrics that are powerfully idiotic, distilling bits of cliche, nonsense, and cafe conversation into a schizo vernacular of which Judge Schreber or Artaud would be proud.

He notes that the songs are are "built of everyday material, 'nothing special' taken out of context, 'nothing special' put on a pedestal. Not the exception. No escapism. The always & everything material. Potentially anything from this potential anything I build my work. Material which occurs to me without censorship. I have no preconception as to what a song is ´meant´ to sound like. This material, having been collected in the net of my head is then compiled, but not in a collage-type way - I loathe collage - but in a way which spreads the material onto time, spreads its meaning along the line of time. In singing the songs I do not try to be a singer but rather a singing self; in the way the material is a potential anything, I am here a potential anybody, a potential anybody put up on a pedestal."

Newman sings in a way that reminds of the great tradition of marxist postmodern queer English irony (cf. Derek Jarman), though I don't know if he identifites as marxist or queer or postmodern or English or ironic. This position gives the artist a particularly flexible relationship with the fetish objects of "high" and "low" culture, which are revealed to be identical and co-extensive: Shakespeare, opera, the flotsam and jetsam of aristocratic decadence, the Royal Family, etc. As the wonderful Toronto queer subculture of Queen Elizabeth drag queens (brought to the wider public by Scott Thompson on The Kids in the Hall) demonstrates, the slippage between class and gender positions engendered by the simultaneous embodiment of radically contradictory personas is tremendously powerful. Newman provides a great musical corollary: one moment, he transmits his melodies in an elfin, lisping, baby-doll voice; the next he stretches a syllable over an absurdly ambitious operatic melisma which his hoarse and wheezing pipes are totally incapable of navigating.

Nowhere is Newman's genius more evident than the first song on New Songs of Social Conscience, "It Wouldn't Do You Any Harm," which is another example of a first song that totally rules. Michael Finissy, whose English Country Tunes was another major inspiration for me and my friends back in the days of pre-millenial musicking, provides the piano accompaniment: jaunty, rhythmically precise hockets based around seemingly arbitrary segments of the major scale. Newman intones the first lines with a slightly demented intensity, undercut by the sweetness of the melody line and the indisputability of the senitment expressed: "It wouldn't do you any harm to give some money to that old lady/It wouldn't do you any harm to give some money to that old lady/She has none, but you have some/So give some money to the female bum/Give your money to the female bum."

Finissy's piano part returns, reiterating the opening phrase. We think we might be in the realm of music hall novelty, but the song takes an abrupt turn, as if following an errant impulse-- oh, maybe I should write this kind of song, rather than that?-- and Newman begins pondering aloud when it is possible to say whether it is one or two, something about water running... and then the music returns to the main motif. Newman regains composure, and announces, "Excuse number one, excuse number two," and repeats the first verse. The same odd "chorus" recurs four more times: "slow consumption of soup... my head is a drain... give your dog a university education... answer your own question... taking a shit at the Musee D'Orsee... don't let your penis touch the sink" (that's all I got... but what incredible lyrics, no?) The "Excuse Number One" and verse repeat a few more times, too, no longer a pop song, more the endless, circular "round" of the madman... and with each iteration, we become less sure we know why the singer is telling us to give money to the female bum, if the singer is the female bum, of if there even is "a" female bum. At the song's end, Newman repeats the clunky mantra as a coda: "But these psuedo-intellectual feelings we/you must overcome and give your money to that bum."

New Songs of Social Conscience engages with another English tradition: the embrace of simplicity and melodic infantilism as a means to critique capitalist culture. After pioneering various strategies of collective soundmaking in the Scratch Orchestra and Portsmouth Sinfonia, composers like John White, Howard Skempton and Gavin Bryars developed an incredible corpus of deceptively simple melodic music. This impulse came from a variety of sources, not least of which was a global "melodic turn" on the part of socially committed composers who recognized in the advanced serialism of Stockhausen, Boulez and Babbitt an inherently elitist and reactionary politics.

Cornelius Cardew's late 1960s polemic Stockhausen Serves Imperialism was the key text articulating the rejection of Cold War mandarin experimentalism, although ironically he devoted a lot of time to critiquing John Cage rather than the indisputably odious Stockhausen (in the final analysis, Cage was probably an ally, if a highly iconoclastic and libertarian one, of the socialist avant-garde). John Cage was likely also the signal influence on the new weird melodicism (especially his Erik Satie-derived readymade "Cheap Imitation").

In the 1970s, Cardew turned, as Ruth Crawford Seeger and others had before him, to a much more literal musical engagement with working-people's struggles. Much to the chagrin of most new music lovers, the songs he wrote were pretty bad. As a rule, the songs that trained composers write for working people to sing are pretty bad. I am not saying they shouldn't do it (though a fairly unappealing Leninism underlies the notion that academic composers should write songs for the people), but we must face the facts. The proof of the pudding is in the eating; the proof of the horribly earnest composed protest song is in the wincing.

This is where the simple melodic music of the other Scratch Orchestra's alumni comes into play. John White's Fashion Music, Howard Skempton's accordion pieces, and Gavin Bryars's odd simulacrum of jazz lounge music in 1-2, 1-2-3-4 confront issues of aesthetic accessibility and commercial mediation by engaging listener's faculties ignored by agitprop music (which taps mainly into empathy and sentimentality): wonder, negative capability, creative dissonance, imagination, etc. I think of this music (and more modern versions, such as the music of Chris Newman, Michael Finissy and Victoria School composers Martin Arnold, Alison Cameron, and Stephen Parkinson), as not so much a critique of Cardew in folksonger mode as a gentle reminder that stimulating new kinds of perceptions can be just as "political" as naming the enemy.

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