Saturday, December 12, 2009

Represent, Two.

Well, it's hard to tell, it's hard to tell...

So, we were talking about the Jasper Johns painting, “Flag,” & how I can’t quite figure out exactly what it is or what it does or what it says or what it means. At the end of the day it just sits there Sphinx-like, posing riddles.

(&, I know this is not normal, but: I get a genuine thrill out of this kind of shit. The longer I ponder the paradoxes implicit in this painting, the more excited I get. I can’t help the way I am.)

oh, & btw, I fully realize that nothing I’m saying here is the slightest bit original, right? I mean, the intellectual resources of entire graduate departments are daily devoted to just these kinds of semiotic inquiries, of which I’m presenting only my own little thumbnail sketch, no doubt full of holes. I’m not undertaking a comprehensive review of the critical field here, ok? I’m just thinking aloud is all. Hence, no footnotes.

OK so Music, right, we’re talking about music. & more specifically right now: audio recordings of music. Which, to my ears, can be ambiguous & paradoxical much like (spoiler alert!) the Jasper Johns painting. I do listen to an awful lot of music. & a lot of what I hear amounts to a capital-M Modern subversion of Art-as-Depiction, or Art-as-Representation kind of deal. Because (obvious exceptions aside), recorded music no longer purports to re-present any particular performance, fixed at any point in time.

As a pre-Modern point of reference, here is the recording of Robert Johnson performing his song, “Love in Vain.”

RJ-Love in Vain mp3

Beautiful. Brilliant.

This recording is a documentation of a particular event that occurred in the history of the universe, in Texas, & that lasted for about two & a half minutes on one particular day in the year 1937. It’s a snapshot. It’s a historical record of something that once actually happened. This is what recorded music was, exclusively, for a substantial period of time: an audio photograph, a record (a record) of a single performance that otherwise would have existed only in its own present, ephemeral moment, & then afterward only in the unreliable memories of whoever was there. Now having been recorded, it’s a regularized (institutionalized) memory of that one past event, rendered communicable to anyone & for all future time.

OK, now compare: Fire up your iPod or whatever & hear Beyoncé Knowles. You don’t even need me to post the link, right? “All the single ladies! All the single ladies!” & we’re off: that song is stuck in your head for the next 45 minutes, am I right? I’m using Beyoncé as an emblematic example here, just because I know you know the song. But here, hear:

BK-Single Ladies(Put a Ring On It) mp3

What is this music constructed of? Primarily I guess it's a Voice & a Beat, but there's a lot of spice here in this Ratatouille. The squealing synthesizer loop; the funk drums chopping so seamlessly into the bass that I can't always distinguish between them; vocal harmonies processed through a super wet flange & chorus combo; reverb repeatedly inserted then extracted with precision. All of it exactly coordinated, calibrated, all of it enmeshed & all of it in motion. A complex & very finely-tuned machine; a miracle of modern engineering. Oh, & I almost forgot it's fucking great music! (No comment on the lyric, though.) Most of the vocal is a series of interlocking chants, but Ms. Knowles does also make a point of demonstrating that (hello?) she can sing. e.g., listen to her navigate that key change mid-way through the bridge (~2:20). But then also hear how the song quickly reasserts its own recorded artifice when the vocal grinds to a quick halt like a busted loop, & then immediately recovers (~2:40). & just btw, if you can hold your hips still during any of this, well, somebody ought to check your pulse.

But here is what I’m getting at: a recording made today no longer constitutes a documentation of a past performance of that music. No. Now, the present moment is self-actualizing, self-perpetuating. It’s a continuous & perpetual present moment, now. There is no longer any reference made to any then-present, now-past moment. All there is is Now.

Initially & substantially, this is a by-product of overdubbing. Just from the mere fact of different instruments being recorded at different times, we’re already outside the realm of documentation, of re-presentation. The actual, present moment becomes a fiction. The end product is an artifice; it may connote a single musical performance, but without documenting any event that ever actually happened.

Early on, overdubbing is just a benign sort of “cheating,” right? You go back & “fix” that one part of the guitar solo or whatever, but the record still operates as a representation of the band playing the song, more or less. Later, artists begin making music that deliberately calls attention to this technical aspect of itself. Sounds & individual performances that physically could not have occurred together are juxtaposed for deliberate effect, dramatic & otherwise. Music starts getting described in cinematic terms, because it’s so clearly & deliberately constructed & edited in ways calculated to draw attention to its own artifice. Now, entire pieces of music are built from this aesthetics of juxtaposition & incongruity.

You know what I mean, right? Every single piece of music that uses sampling is an obvious illustration of this. The sample takes a piece of some other sound, song, spoken text, bass line, whatever --& combines it incongruously. Dramatic & musical effects are constructed from the bare fact that the recorded elements do not really belong together. &, as a whole, the recordings operate as recordings: Each calls attention to itself as a recording that deploys part(s) of another recording; it is not a document or a “record” or a re-presentation of a past event. At most, the recording re-presents the past fact of another recording –mirrors reflecting other mirrors.

The use of sampling is a clear example of this distinction, but not an exclusive one. Beyoncé’s song is not built around samples in any obvious way. But neither does it refer to, or re-present any event outside of its own intrinsic present. The instrumentation is, obviously & aggressively, an amalgamation of studio-generated sounds that are looped, spinning tight cycles in a way that evokes (without directly operating as) hip-hop samples, all in a way that insists, again, on the fact of its own artifice.

Listen to the Robert Johnson, & you know & understand that you’re hearing a record of a historical event. Listen to the Beyoncé Knowles, & what you’re hearing is that song, timelessly. You’re not trying to fix it in any particular place or time. At most, you might be picturing the video. (Itself, incidentally, re-presenting no time or place at all, as dancers are suspended surreally in shifting tones of white, gray, no floor beneath, no walls around.) “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)” never actually WAS; it just IS, as long as you’re hearing it. On your iPod or in your brain.

Anyway, here’s where I’m headed. I think the Robert Johnson is the Mona Lisa: there, you’re looking through that window, taking in the scene, & understanding that it’s a depiction of a then-present, now-past historical occurrence. The Beyoncé is “Flag”: it’s all icons & emblems & cultural signs, steeped in context & meaning & adding up to a physical object operating on your senses, a Modern piece of Art.

& I think this matters, why? Because there obviously still IS such a thing as live performance of music. & it’s frustrating to hear music so often performed as an effort to re-present a recording. That’s a failed strategy, dead on arrival & ass-backwards. Live music is exciting & alive to the extent that it can accommodate surprise. Live music should entail not actually knowing for certain what’s going to happen. More about that in future postings. For now, my point is just this simple: a recording of music and a performance of music are DIFFERENT from each other; they are not the same thing.


  1. holy shit.
    wicked post.
    really, well done. I read the whole thing.

    PS thanks for the RJohnson song. enjoyed it thoroughly.

    PPS when I hear the single ladies song (or even just think about it) the first thing that comes to mind is the video. ugh.

  2. So finally music catches up with painting and literature? I don't think so. I think you are stretching it, in an effort to rationalize new technology. Nice effort though, and in itself a piece of fiction writing.

  3. Lloyd, thanks for your comments. A couple of thoughts in response:
    Re: music “catch[ing] up.” Is there a hierarchy of media, with painting & literature somehow “ahead” of music? Or is your comment just wrt “popular” music? You may presuppose a high-art/low-art dichotomy, a view I don’t share. (Although, that’s always a fun point to debate over drinks.) Anyway, my purpose is not to rationalize or to legitimize any particular example. Recorded music has diverged from representation, is my thesis. It would be easy enough to illustrate the point with the work of “serious” composers, but I think it’s more interesting & more fun to use capital-P Pop (commercial, even) examples.

  4. Your article date is 12/12/2009, and you're just noticing differences between musical performance and recording arts? Not getting down on you, just truly astonished. Songs now are digital montages, often from DJ's with no knowledge of instrumental music or theory, just drag and dropping loops into tracks from compilation DVDs. 'Ooh yeah baby', (yep, that's a loop..) Add reverb, chorus, flange, and the ubiquitous robo-voice, the Morgan Freeman of studio effects, ('cause you can't have a hit without it..). Milisecond editing for machine tight bass and drums. Then a cherry on top, aka the singer, provides the generic vocal gymnstics necessary to pass a Simon Cowell homogeny test assuring pasteurised pap, in metaphoric contrast to France's talented, never pasteurized 'Live Cheese' aged with local fromagery bacteria. In a DownBeat interview, circa 1997 Brian Holland of Motown hit songwriters, Holland-Dozier-Holland, was asked his opinion of current black singers and said, "Black singers all used to have unique voices, now they all sound like Stevie Wonder.

  5. Of the arts troika, the sung and spoken history of peoples engendered notation, thus visual symbols, then written language. Music is first, though a picture is still worth a thousand words. Music resonates powerfully with brainwaves, obtaining a direct, locked-on connection with the autonomic nervous system. It enters the subconsciousness via sound waves paralleling and uniting with brain waves, while the organically tunable *vice-versaic mimicry of the brain reciprocates. *(yes, I originated that term). The unseen waves of pure energy, known as sound, touch, interplay with, and change human reality, and abstraction. The best of literary and artistic constructs are 'music like' , as in Van Gogh, or Kerouac, in order to intone, resonate with, and find their hosts receptive; sans musical meter, beauty and her admirers will not attend, and that's the facts Jack. Manipulating the physics of sound waves yields listeners physical and psychoacoustical experiences beyond human descriptors, though I like time-bending gravity, soul jarring emotional impact, and in your Robert Johnson example, spectral zeitgeist. Music summons attunement of consciousness, inviting creative abstraction, perhaps to flourish.

  6. Yes well, uh, & a Very Happy Xmas indeed to you, too.