Saturday, September 3, 2011


Simon Reynolds' latest (and last) guest blog over at Bruce Sterling's Beyond the Beyond on the atemporality of the omnivorous listening generation's music (an omnivorousness that is a product of not only the increased access/availability of more music on the internet, but the consequent decrease in any sense of limitation/closed horizons to a musician's output) is a good one. One of Reynold's big points--via a piece by Justin Davidson in NY Mag--is that "with the musical past's archives splayed open, there is a constant temptation to regress;" he goes on to note that the music of a band like Battles comes across as closer in spirit (and in sound) to jazz-fusion or 70s prog rock than any kind of futuristic, forward-thinking, new millennium music, or, as he puts it: "both their aesthetics and their ethos echoed progressive rock and jazz fusion."

The problem with this echoing is the sense of atemporality that inevitably seems to accompany it. In the words of Reynolds: "The other thing worth saying about these nu-fusion or 'superhybrid' styles/scenes is that their very rhetoric and philosophical repertoire has a pronounced 'retro' air. These ideas and ideals have been around for what feels like forever." Whereas the jazz fusion or prog rock bands of the 70s were exploring and incorporating contemporary influences, "What gradually developed, with the passage of time, was the onset of atemporality: more and more elements in a new band's make-up cease to relate to the present genrescape and instead involve rummaging through the archives." So instead of prog rock picking up on folk or classical or contemporary black music, as Reynolds points out, or jazz fusion's engagement "with that moment in the 70s when soul music got looser and smoother and more electronic, and electric jazz started taming the wildness of improvisation with the slickness and structure of the pop song," as Jess Harvell mentions in re: Thundercat's new album, we have bands in 2011 engaging with moments in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, etc. and producing music that is not, in an distinguishable way, beyond that earlier era (Reynolds has written about this extensively [and I gather Retromania, his new book, explores this idea in some depth], and Mark Fisher has also discussed this on his blog).* This seems different than hauntological music, obviously, because whereas that features, according to Fisher, "cultural objects that return to a wounded or distorted version of the past in flight from a waning sense of the present," and whose purpose is to "preserv[e] . . . demands [for the radically new] in conditions where--for the moment at least--they cannot be met,"** this atemporal, omnivorous music is purely archival or curatorial: it highlights a dead style without advancing it, or by simply adding it alongside other dead styles, without the production of any kind of real cultural affect--it's the musical equivalent of the Ark of the Arts in Children of Men. In contrast with the superhybrid, the hauntological foregrounds the unanswered questions, the unexplored possibilities; it captures what is still alive in the "dead" genre but has been repressed, the ghost of the past-future and its potentially utopic energies.

The inevitable product of these "superhybrids," though, can only ever be pastiche, in Jameson's sense:
the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody's ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs. . .
Those blind eyeballs are unable to see unresolved questions or contradictions in the genres that are hybridized. What's more, they don't want to see them, don't want to have speak with a live tongue, because of the work and effort that goes into actually having and sustaining the necessary "ulterior motives," convictions, or beliefs. Nigel's answer to Theo's questioning of the purpose of the Ark of the Arts in a dying world--"I just don't think about it"--is the answer of the pastiche maker: there is nothing behind the mask of the art, no belief it can reference, so no viewers are even necessary. In this environment, the cleverest recombinations or resurrections of past genres wins. And those that are deemed cleverest are those whose chosen genres have been archived, or curated, for the present audience by the most prestigious curators/archivers (cf. Soul Jazz's Tropicalia: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound compilation, or the Ethiopiques series, or the granddaddy of the them all in some senses, Nuggets--and this is not to denigrate the music found on those compilations: most of the songs on Tropicalia are fantastic, and I own and enjoy several volumes from Ethiopiques).*** Who revives these genres becomes more important than why the particular genre is revived, or its resonance with the current cultural moment. Consequently, the wrong advocate, the wrong curator, can sink a genre's chance for successful revivification (in the sense of restoring to activity, but not to life or vigour--this is rarely revitalization).

For Reynolds, this "looks a lot like the way fashion operates. Or indeed how high finance operates. Where no value is immune from being abruptly and utterly devalued." The consequences, he notes, are rather dire:
the principles and practices of 'flux and mutability' have long ago shed their former subversive and utopian charge. Worse than that: they have become inverted, to the point where if anything they suggest the static and dystopian. Because in some fundamental and profoundly perturbing way, 'flux' and 'mutability' are actually isomorphic with the economy, characterized as it is by precariousness and the imposition of 'flexible' work patterns. 
This music works as an ideal soundtrack for the ascendance of non-places and non-time in the modern working world, or what Fisher calls "Itime, a distributed or unpunctuated temporality," which has been characterized by a "reflexive impotence in the face of a neoliberal ideological program which sought to subordinate all of culture to the imperatives of business." The reissue and compilation cycle work in tandem with the atemporal, omniverous musician: he or she creates a "superhybrid," and in explaining its roots in [insert various genres/locales/time periods here], sets in motion (if the musician is successful) the machine that gives us back those genres, locales, and time periods, like so many butterflies on a corkboard. New superhybrids arrive, along with their new butterflies to display, etc., etc. Isn't this just the music of the Last Man who lives at the mythical End of History? The man for whom everything is a museum piece?

It seems to me that, in some ways, the worst offender in this whole phenomenon has been krautrock and its champions. While Can, Neu!, Faust, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Cluster, Popul Vuh, Amon Duul, Ash Ra Tempel et al. could be incredibly forward-thinking (they could also be stultifying in being totally of their moment), the idea in certain circles seems to have become that German music of the 1970s is the endpoint for experimental leanings and tendencies. How do we know that a band is getting more "serious" and making more "challenging" music? They play a rigid 4/4 beat and say the word "motorik" a lot in interviews. What are recycled analog synth washes and occasional bits of string or flute in the hands of such bands? Attempts at channeling the same "kosmische" music that poured out of Germany three and four decades ago. The annoyance I felt at the sort of reflexive praise automatically heaped on any band with even a whiff of krautrock coming off their music (and again, I'm not blind to my hypocrisy here: there's a footnote praising Stereolab in this very post!) came to a head for me following Portishead's album Third. I should note that I'm a huge fan of Third: it's a great record, and it might be the record I've listened to most over the past three years. Indeed, going by the metric Nick Southall suggested recently for determining a favourite album--"how often you've listened to a record through choice"--you'd have to call Third one of my favourite albums (interestingly, if I sat down to write a list, I'm fairly certain Third would struggle to make the top ten, and maybe even the top twenty).

Perhaps, then, it's just a matter of overexposure, but when Portishead debuted "Chase the Tear," with an accompanying video that could've been made at any time since the 1970s it looked like, I'd had enough. This was good music by most reasonable standards--it sounds good, it's got a catchy melody, it's well-played and produced, you can even dance to it if you want--but it's not "new" in any sense other than the song was written in 2009. It's not likely to lead to "new" music, either. "Chase the Tear" is pointed firmly backwards, but it exists now--it is the mask, the dead language, that characterizes pastiche. Nevertheless, a lot of the language in reviews of the track suggested that this is music that is going forward. And I just couldn't be excited by it. I still can't. This is the same band who largely abandoned the samples that made up its first album (or sampled instrumentals played by the members) by the time they got to album number two for fear of repeating themselves. Now, it's not hard to say that a lot of Portishead's aesthetic was always looking backward, but it was never felt to me as much of an open plagiarism of the past, a copy and paste job of dead genres and styles, as it does on "Chase the Tear" (even when they were literally copying and pasting bits of the past to make new music!).

The problem, in a nutshell:
What is different about music now is that open-minded, curious musicians are responding to and fusing with influences from all across music history and across the globe. This ought to provide them with a palette of infinite possibilities. And for those who are very creatively strong, who have a filter, having such a superfluity of launching pads and diving boards works out well.
But most artists aren't strong enough to withstand such an influx.
Obviously there's nothing wrong with musicians having a set of influences from the past (it would be hard to say that the Thundercat album I just gave a fairly positive review of doesn't have a few influences from the 1970s and 1980s, say), but there is something "wrong"--and I think Reynolds does a great job identifying just what that is--with the automatic assumption that omnivorous listening habits and infinitely extendable spheres of influence automatically lead to new music. The facts seem to be pointing to the conclusion that they don't, or at least that they don't often enough. What we're left with the rest of the time is pastiche, a poorly reproduced simulacrum of the past that won't leave us alone, and which denies even the possibility of nostalgia for that past or an investigation of the promised-futures trapped within it, the desires that capitalism (and neoliberalism in particular) "captur[ed] . . . [but] which it could not satisfy." To close with Fisher's words--a few sentences that underscore, I think, the continued importance in considering the hauntological, even if its internet vogue might be long gone--"A genuinely new Left must be shaped by those desires, and not lulled, once again, by the logics of failed revolts." If there's to be any kind of post-capitalist society, it seems to me, its art won't sound (and look) like it's ensconced in the accompanying lulling cultural logic, either.

*I should say that technology also seems to be an interesting factor here: not that technology has stopped expanding and developing w/r/t music and production, but wrestling with technology and its possibilities doesn't seem as public and exciting as it has in the past, probably because outside of autotune--which very people are actually "experimenting" with in any meaningful way, to say nothing of its age: it's hardly contemporary technology, given the speed of technological advancement these days--there is little public grappling with technology when it comes to music. The technology that dominated in the 1970s and 1980s, synthesizers (particularly analog ones), are not quaint retro touches, the domain of middle aged men able to drop ridiculous amounts of money on Moogs and ARPs and Oberheims, etc., etc. It is, as Adrian Utley from Portishead agreed in an interview a few years back, a hobby like owning a caravan (or a set of golf clubs). Circuit-bending and software that allows user-written programs might be the closest thing to this, but they hardly seem like public interactions of music and technology (was Radiohead's "Go to Sleep," featuring Greenwood's guitar solo passed through Cycling74's Max/MSP the most public example of this? That was back in 2003. . .).  But then again, is it really that different than his guitar solo on "Paranoid Android?" And that was running through even older technology. . .
**That post I've linked to on Fisher's blog, thanks to the series of abstracts it contains, is one of the easiest and best summaries of hauntology and capitalist realism available on the web. A great resource, there.
***I'm also not necessarily denigrating bands who do this: Stereolab are one of my favourite bands ever, and they essentially functioned as highly selective and successful curators for a large part of their career. Ditto Portishead (but I'll talk about them more in the body of this). And of course there is a difference between genealogical exploration of a genrescape (I love that term!) and an investigation of its constituent parts and simple curatorial presentation; two very different kinds of critical apparatus are involved in these acts.

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