Dreamers, they never learn

Radiohead belong to ‘rock,’ and if rock has a characteristic subject, as country music’s is small pleasures in hard times (getting by), and rap’s is success in competition (getting over), that subject must be freedom from constraint (getting free). Yet the first notable quality of their music is that, even though their topic may still be freedom, their technique involves the evocation–not of the feeling of freedom–but of unending low-level fear. — Mark Greif, “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop Music

Yesterday I immersed myself in the new Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool, and it brought me into an emotional space I hadn’t been in for a long time. Reflecting on the times when Radiohead had been most important to me — urgently, even embarrassingly important — I recalled that it was always when I most felt like I needed a way out. I didn’t want sheer fantasy, I was always too cynical and pessimistic for that. Nor did I want to wallow and emote, at least not in an immediately legible way.

A song like “Lucky” hit exactly the right mark, which means that it displayed all the right contradictions. The lyrics were “officially” optimistic and yet the musical context — not just Thom Yorke’s delivery, but the dark and foreboding sound — made them feel sarcastic. And even within the lyrics themselves, there’s a strange contradiction:

Pull me out of the aircrash
Pull me out of the lake
‘Cause I’m your superhero
We are standing on the edge

The superhero needs to be rescued? And the edge of what? We can’t be sure, but we do learn, in the next track, that we need to slow down — idiot, slow down, slow down. An airbag may have saved your life, but don’t tempt fate. Perhaps survival is the real superpower.

This album feels like a return to the OK Computer/Kid A ethos, not least because of the reappearance of one of their great orphan songs from that era, “True Love Waits.” The extant live recording (from the I Might Be Wrong EP) plays it as an earnest “acoustic guitar guy” ballad, a rare eruption of the raw emotion of the pre-OK Computer Radiohead. The current version presents that emotion — the desperation of an adolescent crush — as a ghostly memory.

It’s a foregone conclusion: dress like her niece all you want, she was never going to stay. That’s always how it was going to turn out, and the younger singer who is barely audible in the preternatural calm always knew (or wants to believe he always knew) that that was the case. Yet there’s nothing cynical about it. It’s not mocking the emotion — it’s somehow enshrining it in the very gesture of deactivating it.

By taking up a stance of contemplation, we become free, and dwelling in the deactivated versions of our feeling of being trapped, of all that paranoia and desperation and total alienation, is our way out. “Dreamers, they never learn” — but perhaps we can learn to dream differently.

Teaching music

I have frequently been called upon to teach the intro to fine arts course at Shimer College. It is a challenging course because it falls outside the “read books and talk about them” model that professors and students alike are most comfortable with. Talking about art and music in an intelligent and collaborative way requires a different set of skills than talking about texts, a problem that is compounded by the fact that many people believe those skills are an occult discipline that is unattainable by most — especially in the context of music, with its complex theoretical apparatus. In the worst case, you get some students making up narratives to go with a classical piece, other students (those with some musical performance training) trying unsuccessfully to explain basically what the sheet music probably looks like, and a critical mass sitting in sullen silence because they don’t know what they’re supposed to say.

My approach has been to sidestep the technical terminology to the extent possible and focus instead on giving them obvious things to listen for. Read the rest of this entry »

Music in The Leftovers

One of the most striking things to me about The Leftovers is the music. The signature gesture of the soundtrack is to deploy a “highbrow” version of a pop song — for instance, the piano arrangement of “Where is My Mind” or Lo-Fang’s slow, melodramatic cover of “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease. The latter only occurs once, at a time when the viewer is starting to wonder whether the love between two main characters is merely circumstantial — basically a more dramatic and fraught version of a teenager’s summer fling.

The former is a more constant refrain, which sometimes sounds like the beginning of the show’s own “dramatic piano music” and sometimes transitions into the Pixies’ original recording. Here I think we’re supposed to hear a Fight Club reference, given that Justin Theroux’s character is living a double life (though we almost never see the dissociated version at first hand, much less the two versions interacting as with Ed Norton and Brad Pitt). Given that so many of the characters’ problems center on a fraught relationship with the Guilty Remnant, we might also view that cult as an evocation of the more militant “fight club” of the second half of the film. As with the evocation of Grease, though, in both cases the stakes are much higher, as we are dealing with an apocalyptic event rather than a nameless ennui.

More than any specific intertextual reference, however, I believe that this gesture of “classing up” pop music or cult movies reflects what the show as a whole is doing. After all, what idea could be tackier or lower-class from the perspective of high-brow cable drama than the fundamentalist Christian trope of the Rapture? What could be more distant from the cultural aspirations of the HBO audience than the Left Behind novels and films?

A question of interpretation

I’ve continued to work on the Schubert piano sonata I described in one of the least-read AUFS posts in history. I feel pretty confident on the first movement, though there are still places that need work. Now most of my efforts are directed at the second movement, which begins on pg. 12 of this PDF score.

Its most striking feature is a repeated background pattern in the left hand (modelled by the four C-sharps in the first measure). Being familiar with the piece from recordings, I didn’t find it difficult to execute, though it might have been hard to figure out how it all fit together without the recording. Yet it does present a question of interpretation: should the top note, which crosses over into right-hand territory, sound like a part of the melody? Read the rest of this entry »

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Eine Kleine Blogmusik: Stumbling through Schubert

I’ve played piano for most of my life, and I still try to keep it up by practicing my old favorites and learning new pieces. Since I started teaching at Shimer, I’ve increasingly been called upon to teach musical materials, and that has shifted the way I look at my piano playing. I’m unlikely to do much if any public performance, so it has all largely been for my own pleasure. Now I’ve become more analytic — learning to play a piece can be a way of picking it apart and figuring out how it works.

Recently I set myself a major challenge: Schubert’s last piano sonata. (Click here for links to recordings and scores.) I’ve been working on the first movement for several weeks, and at this point I’m pretty confident on everything up to the repeat (pg. 6 of the first PDF listed, going by printed page numbers) and have established an outpost beyond it. There’s relatively little in this movement that’s “difficult” in the sense of requiring a lot of repetitious exercises (though I’m not looking forward to the last few lines of pg. 7), but it is surprisingly difficult for me to sightread (admittedly not a strong skill for me in any case).

As I’ve worked on it, I’ve started to understand why: Schubert is constantly trying to subvert expectations. It’s very difficult to place the intended emotional tonality of the first movement, which seems to lurch back and forth very quickly between different emotional registers. This is clear already from the very beginning, where we have a very stately opening theme, followed by the unexpected interruption of the low trilled G-flat and an indefinite pause. When the main theme returns, that very interruption already makes it feel different somehow — you’re set up to expect deviations into playfulness. But this very expectation of the unexpected is subverted on the second page when the main theme returns with the undercurrent of triplets. Things become very dramatic, setting up a shift into a minor key with the introduction of a secondary theme, initially underpinned by triplets and then repeated with variations over 16th notes. Things gradually unravel into a length passage that I would characterize as both playful and halting (especially the first ending, which is apparently not always performed, given how incredibly long the movement is even without the repeat).

The variation on the opening theme after the second ending has strangely proven to be the most difficult passage for me to learn so far (pg. 6). It took me several days of repetitive work, including with the left hand alone, to even get a feel for what seems like a very simple segment. I finally realized that it’s because the left-hand accompaniment will never settle into a standard pattern — instead, it shifts back and forth among what I would call three different standard patterns that never stay in place for more than a measure at a time. This makes what should be a straightforward minor-key variation on the theme feel vaguely unsettled, an intuition that is confirmed by the abrupt and unexpectedly early burst of major-key playfulness that follows. And that only serves to set up a very dramatic section (the dreaded pg. 7) that might itself be undercut by its very length.

This kind of fine-grained unsettling of expectations occurs throughout. In the section with underlying 16th notes on pg. 4, for instance, the base note of the left-hand accompaniment continually seems to shift at the “wrong” time, a beat too late or too early. And even in the opening theme itself, there are strangely dissonant notes that you hardly notice listening to a recording (the second full measure even briefly lands on a tritone, B-flat to E-natural), but that have an unsettling effect that makes the strange left-hand trill less jarring than it might otherwise be — or allows the trill to “preemptively” unsettle the main theme.

Overall, I can understand why these late sonatas had such a revival in the 20th century. Within the apparently very conservative framework of a piano sonata deeply indebted to Beethoven, there is an insistent undercurrent of experimentalism. And maybe by winter break I’ll finally be playing through the whole first movement with confidence.

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The uncomfortable origins of ‘Afrofuturism’

The term ‘Afrofuturism’ was coined by Mark Dery in his article ‘Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose’. I finally got round to reading the piece recently; as you might infer, it’s not my area of expertise, so it’s more than possible that someone has made these observations better than me, before me. But I thought it was worth writing about: firstly because I was so taken aback by how uncomfortable it was to read, as a white person who’s minimally aware of the many perils that beset the work of white people like me writing about black culture; and secondly because after a throwaway comment I made on Twitter, Mark Dery took it upon himself to sealion me, and demand that I explain in detail my critique of his work:

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I’m doubtful as to the sincerity of this demand – the Panopticon is, after all, a tool of discipline rather than reflection. But as a scholar of Žižek, one thing I’ve learned is that sometimes the most ethical thing to do is simply to take a person at their word.

‘Black to the Future’ opens with a conundrum: ‘Why do so few African Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounter with the Other – the stranger in a strange land – would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists?’ Why is it that African Americans are not producing the sort of culture that Mark Dery, a white guy, thinks they should be producing? Dery does at least realise that if there’s an answer to this question he can’t figure it out on his own, and so the bulk of the article consists of interviews with Samuel Delany, Greg Tate and Tricia Rose. Most of the words are not Dery’s own. It’s not clear how closely the text itself hews to the original interviews, but on the account that Dery himself gives, the bulk of the analysis the article contains is Delany’s, Tate’s and Rose’s. They’re fascinating, smart, insightful interviewees, with a lot to say about the relationship between black culture and science fiction. Dery? Not so much.

For someone who is so sure about his competence to assess the contributions of African American science fiction, Dery is remarkably unreflective about his own position in relation to the people he is interviewing. African American culture which engages with technological, sci-fi and futuristic imagery and concepts is a ‘largely unexplored psychogeography’ towards whose exploration Dery himself is taking ‘a first, faltering step’. That’s right: Dery, a white guy, is positioning himself as bold explorer into a largely unknown region populated by people of colour. A voyage into the heart of darkness, if you will. This ‘largely unexplored’ region is so unknown, so previously unthought, that Dery must appoint as his native guides an author and literary critic (Delany), a musician, producer and cultural critic (Tate) and a Professor of Africana Studies who is ‘currently at work on a book on rap music and the politics of black cultural practice’ (Rose).

Dery is right, however, that his first steps into this region are faltering. His unfailingly gracious interviewees spent a truly remarkable amount of time gently correcting the assumptions which underlie the questions he asks them. It’s excruciating:

Dery: One thing that intrigued me about your brief essay [on cyberpunk] is that you made no mention of the orbital Rastafarians in Gibson’s Neuromancer. I find that curious.
Delany: Why should I have mentioned them?
Dery: For me, a white reader, the Rastas … are intriguing in that they hold forth the promise of a holistic relationship with technology.
Delany: You’ll forgive me if, as a black reader, I didn’t leap up to proclaim this passing presentation of a powerless and wholly nonoppositional set of black dropouts, by a Virginia-born white writer, as the coming of the black millennium in science fiction; but maybe that’s just a black thang…Your question is indicative of precisely what I was speaking about in the essay you cited: the interpretive idiocies that arise as soon as a book is lifted out of its genre and cut loose from the tradition that precedes and produces it.

Dery: Why, then, would black youth be alienated by SF signifiers for high technology?
Delany: The immediate answer is simply that the sign language is more complicated than you’re giving it credit for.

Dery: Wasn’t there an elitist, if not crypto-right, slant to [science fiction] literature from the very beginning?
Delany: Once again, that sounds to me like a simple historical misunderstanding about the history and tradition of science fiction … I’m not even sure what you could be referring to.

Dery: Why has there been so little overtly gay SF?
Delany: There is, of course, a whole bibliography full of gay science fiction … And there is a considerable gay fandom …. There is at least on annual gay science fiction convention … And the gay programming that regularly, today, turns up in other science fiction conventions is almost always among the most crowded, standing-room only event.

Dery: Why hasn’t the African-American community made more use, either as writers or readers, of science fiction?
Tate: I don’t know that that’s necessarily true.

Dery: I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an inherent dichotomy in hip-hop between a displaced people’s need to reaffirm a common history and the quintessentially American emphasis on forward motion, effected through technological progress. Don’t these contradictory impulses threaten to tear hip-hop apart?
Tate: No, because you can be backward-looking and forward thinking at the same time.

It’s clear that Dery simply hasn’t done the work required to be a good interviewer. He asks his interviewees about areas of culture in which, as they make clear to him, they have no interest or expertise. Many of his questions draw not on Dery’s own observations but on work that has been done by other people. The article ends with the final interview: Dery writes no summary, and makes no attempt to sketch out a map of the terrain in whose exploration he describes himself as a pioneer. What’s interesting about the article, one of Dery’s best known works and the reason why his name is so omnipresent in discussions of Afrofuturism – a phenomenon which he both names and claims to have discovered – is precisely how little work he does. A great deal of intellectual labour is visible in the essay, but almost all of it is undertaken by Delany, Tate and Rose, who not only tolerate Dery’s ill-informed and – let’s be honest – occasionally racist questions, but offer smart and insightful accounts of the areas in which they are, after all, experts.

There’s so much in here that I want to reflect on, to digest, and to be formed by intellectually. But I can’t cite this work on the part of Delany, Tate and Rose without citing Dery himself. What’s worst about ‘Black to the Future’ is that Dery has found a way to identify an area of black culture, declare it unknown territory, and, by appropriating the labour of black creators of both culture and critical reflection on that culture, has ensured that this terrain has come to bear the name that he chose for it.

Music about art: Fragmentary thoughts on Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the classical pieces that is most familiar to me. Ever since my high school marching band did a show based on it, it has been a constant companion, at least in the version orchestrated by Ravel. More recently, however, I have been spending a lot of time with the original piano version, in part out of simple curiosity, but more directly because I plan to use it in my fine arts course — not only because of its unique status as a piece of music “about” visual art, but also to highlight how orchestration affects our reception of a piece of music.

For those who are familiar with the orchestrated version, it can be difficult to believe that Mussorgsky ever intended it as a solo piano piece to begin with. Leaving aside its unwieldy length, some segments seem to be screaming out for full orchestral treatment — most notably the majestic horns of “The Great Gate of Kiev.” The orchestrated version is so much better known, in fact, that the original can seem like a work of subtraction or abstraction, taking away the variety of a full orchestra. In a way, though, it also adds an element. The dissonances are much harsher and stand out more clearly when they’re not spread across a variety of sections, so that some of the segments (like “The Gnome”) can even sound like precursors to atonality.

The question that has returned to me again and again, though, is why exactly Mussorgsky would have started out with a piano version in the first place. It seems so counterintuitive in so many ways, and it’s not as though he lacked the ability to write for a full orchestra. If we take seriously the notion that this is meant to somehow resonate with the effect of an art exhibition, though, I think it makes more sense. Contemplating art is, after all, a very solitary and cerebral pursuit in most cases — hence why a solo instrument could seem more appropriate. In the piano version, the one aspect that struck me as manifestly more convincing are the recurring “Promenade” interludes, which when performed on the solo piano seem much more evocative of the act of reflection while walking between two canvases.

Further, the very inadequacy of the piano (most striking, perhaps, in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle”), the manifest limits the performer (even a very gifted performer like Evgeny Kissin, whose recording on Spotify I recommend highly) strains against, seem to speak to the difficulties of responding to art, the sense that there’s “something more” that one can’t quite capture. With the full arsenal of the orchestra, it’s almost too easy, and this very perfection betrays the experience that it’s meant to recreate.