Monday, October 25, 2010

Figures of Involvement

Minutemen (L to R: d. boon, George  Hurley, Mike Watt) at the 1984 Los Angeles Street Scene (photo by Eric Stringer) (Source).

While we are on the topic of statistics [1], I only need to remind you of a song verse. It goes something like this:
Let's say I got a number. That number's fifty thousand. That's 10% of 500,000.   Oh here we are in French Indochina.  Executive order. Congressional decision. The working masses are manipulated. “Was this our policy?” Ten long years — not one dominoe shall fall.
Some of you will recognize these as the lyrics to “Viet Nam,” from the Minutemen’s ground-breaking Double Nickels on the Dime (1984).  Released by SST Records the very same year as Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, Double Nickels on the Dime was a blast of jazz-funk-inflected agitprop that continues to be recognized as one of the most important rock albums of the late 20th century, if not all time.  Combining guitarist d. boon’s slinky, trebly guitar parts, Mike Watt’s muscular and melodic bass playing, and George Hurley’s acrobatic drumming, the Minutemen did much more than just create the definitive sound of America’s music underground during the early 1980s.  They created a template for punk rock’s labors by setting a minimum threshold for band membership and songwriting.  Guitar.  Bass.  Drums.  That was all that was needed to write songs.  With hardly a guitar solo, and with tight compositions that made the most of the band lineup and instrumentation, Minutemen albums were, sonically-speaking, lean affairs.

Top: What Makes a Man Start Fires? (1982) (Featuring cover art by Raymond Pettibon).  Bottom: Double Nickels on the Dime (1984)

But that’s only part of it.  Not only could the Minutemen play songs better than most (they were all incredible musicians), but by the time your shitty band finished a song, boon, Watt, and Hurley already played four or five.  This was the Minutemen equation: don’t just play better music, but play more music.  The result was a head spinning catalog of music where almost all songs clocked in somewhere between 45 seconds to 2 minutes.  Listen to a Minutemen album, and suddenly the idea of diminishing returns is turned on its head.  Each musical volley leaves you wanting more and more.

Here is some statistical evidence.  Their first full-length, The Punch Line (1981), contained 18 songs.  The longest track from the album, “Tension,” clocked in at 1:20.  The shortest, “Fanatics,” at 0:31.  The album’s total run time is only 15:00, which, by my math, is over 5 minutes shorter than Rush’s epic “2112” (which is somewhere around 20:33).  The Minutemen’s second album, What Makes a Man Start Fires? (1982) also had 18 songs but ran at a slightly longer 26:39.  The 8 songs from Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence of Heat (1983) could technically qualify their third studio recording as an EP, but it was marketed by SST as a full-length LP (its run time was 15:30).  These songs tended to be longer affairs, a trend that would continue with Double Nickels on The Dime (43 tracks, with a 73:35 running length).  Their last album, 3-Way Tie (For Last) (1985) featured their one of their longest songs, a cover of Blue Öyster Cult’sThe Red and The Black” (4:09).  With 16 songs, its run time is 36:11.  Here’s the final tally: 5 albums; 103 songs; and 4 hours, 16 minutes’ worth of recording time.

But back to “Viet Nam.”  The song is a furious, nervous exchange of ascending and descending figures between bass and guitar (a popped bass note marking the transition between each phrase).  Underneath all this, Hurley begins with a crescendo/decrescendo of drum rolls, eventually sliding into a crisp, brillant, breakneck high-hat motif.  The drumming only hints at something that is not-quite-disco, not-quite-funk.  But whatever it is, it is thrilling and propels the song forward like a cannonball, its concussion rattling your tympanum, your brainstem, until something gives, and the very thing within you that resists the urge to get down suddenly, beautifully, gives way.

Detail to back of gatefold sleeve for Double Nickels on the Dime (1984), "Viet Nam" begins on the second line
(Photograph by Francisco Ramirez)

The excerpt that introduced this piece contains all of the lyrics to the song.  It is the song “as heard.”  However, if one were to peer at the back of Double Nickels’ gatefold sleeve and look at the lyrics to “Viet Nam,” one would see this:
Let's say I got a number. That number's fifty thousand. That's 10% of 500,000.  These are the figures of our involvement in French Indochina.  Executive order. Congressional decision. The working masses are manipulated. “Was this our policy?” Ten long years — not one dominoe shall fall.
The difference here, of course, is that the lyrics as written refer to the statistical number as “figures of involvement.”  Never sung in the recording, yet part of the original song, this small clause points to the political nature of much of the Minutemen’s work.  The name "Viet Nam" suggests that this was a song protesting American foreign policy, and if you were—like d. boon, Mike Watt, and George Hurley—in the business of politically-oriented punk music, you would probably be writing songs about the Vietnam war as well as American involvement in Nicaragua or El Salvador (for example, cue the first track, second side, second album of Double Nickels, “Untitled Song for Latin America”).  As Michael Azerrad points out in his definitive Our Band Could Be Your Life (2001), "America was in a catatonic state through the Eighties, and the Minutemen's music—all angular starts and stops, challenging lyrics, and blink-and-you-missed-'em songs—was a metaphor for the kind of alertness needed to fight back against the encroaching mediocrity"[2].

Rear to gatefold sleeve for Double Nickels on the Dime (1984) (Photograph by Francisco Ramirez)

In addition to their music, their look, and their ethos, the Minutemen used their catalog to communicate their message in unique ways.  Along with “Viet Nam,” all of the lyrics to Double Nickels on The Dime—in fact, all Minutemen albums—fit in a compressed space, covering only up to 20% of an LP's 144 square inches of graphic design real estate.  Although this layout reflects the band’s brand of short, urgent songs, it is nevertheless visually compelling.  This is because when printed, the lyrics do not look like lyrics; that is, they are not presented as poem-like verse.  Instead, all lyrics on a Minutemen album  are displayed as a single block of unjustified type, with the titles of songs (usually in italics, bold, or both italic and bold typefaces) separating the songs.  The lyrics to a single song are therefore printed to appear as a single sentence with hardly any punctuation.  The effect is twofold.  On the one hand, the seemingly unconnected song lyrics become part of a single stream-of-consciousness rant.  On the other hand, they mimic the actual listening of the recording.  You can’t just pick up at one point only to go to another.  You read the lyrics in the way you listen to the recording: from beginning to end.

Top: rear sleeve to What Makes a Man Start Fires? (1982), also featuring artwork by Pettibon.  Bottom: detail of sleeve (Photographs by Francisco Ramirez)

Such presentation of lyrics rings quite familiar in this day of Facebook status messages and clipped 140-character Twitter bursts.  To be tapped into the constellation of social networking sites requires one to be clipped and to the point.  It is as if one's online existence is reduced to short sentences and paragraphs.  This kind of practice has a visual component: strange as it may seem, you only know if a person has updated their status or Twitter stream when a new sentence, phrase, or clause appear.  Your existence in ætherized, online space is mediated by episodes of smallness: short messages, blips, utterances comprised of few characters that announce your presence to the world.

Top: book of poems by Charlotte, Emily, and Branwell Brontë measuring 2 3/4in x 1 1/2 in (Source).  Bottom: excerpt from Charlotte and Branwell Brontë, The Secret (1833) (with accompanying ruler for scale) (Source)

Robert Walser, "A Will To Shake That Refined Individual," Microscript 215 (Source)

This kind of economy by virtue of size has some important precedents, to be sure.  Emily and Charlotte Brontë (along with their brother, Branwell) wrote miniaturized “books” that were large enough to be held by dolls and often included their own maps and illustrations.  Robert Walser composed thousands of cryptic “microscripts” on the backs of business cards, book covers, and other found paper objects using a special alphabet that was only millimeters high.  For the Minutemen, however, their economy of size was inversely proportional to the influence of their output.  Their shortened songs (with shortened lyrics) amounted to a music that was easily consumed and that delivered a maximum wallop.  The visual presentation of their lyrics in condensed blocks of text was a vital part of this strategy. 



[1] An edited version of this piece appeared in Junk Jet 4, the "Statistics-of-Mystics" issue.  A big "thank you" goes to Asli Serbest and Mona Mahall for letting me publish a version of this piece in their wonderful, offbeat "jetzine."
[2] Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001), 71. (Note: this book's name is a reference to "History Lesson, Pt. 2," from Double Nickels on the Dime).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Volume to Space

Olivier Messiaen in Bryce Canyon, Utah, 1971 (Source)

More remains to be said about the relationship of music criticism to architecture criticism. Or put another way, music criticism should be considered as a kind of architecture criticism. This is not to say that the two realms have been far apart. Far from it. In fact, books like Mark Treib's Space Calculated in Seconds (1996), Robin Evans' essay "Comic Lines" from his posthumous The Projective Cast: Architecture and Its Three Geometries (1995), or even more deeply historical works such as Emily Thompson's The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (2002) all consider, to a certain extent, a spectrum of relationships between music and architecture.  These relationships are both literal and figurative. As Treib's and Evans' work shows, the relationship between Le Corbusier, Iannis Xenakis, and Edgard Varèse went beyond physical artefacts such as the Phillips Pavilion (1958), but also extended to design methods as well. And as Thompson expertly demonstrated in her influential book, the history of architectural modernism could be understood through acoustical technologies.

There is still more work to be done. Take, for instance, the role that the trip to the desert has played in the late 20th century. From Robert Venturi's, Denise Scott Brown's, and Steven Izenour's Learning From Las Vegas (1972), to Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), to Luis Buñuel's Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto) (1965), and even, to a certain extent, David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the desert has become a place of reinvention and a site of reinvigoration. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has even given the desert an architectural significance of sorts. "What attracts the stranger to the city is what makes the city and desert alike," he writes. "In both, there is just the the present, united by the past, a present that may be lived as the beginning, and a secure beginning, a beginning that does not threaten to solidify into a consequence ... In the city as in the desert, the stranger, the wanderer, the nomad, the flâneur finds reprieve from time."[1] And yet this timelessness operates on a musical register as well. Thus in his preface to The Rest is Noise (2007), critic Alex Ross describes the effect of atonal music on 20th century audiences, noting how something noisy and disorienting can be "so singularly beautiful that people gast in wonder when they hear it. Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, with its grandly singing lines and gently ringing chords, stops time with every performance."[2]

Cover to a CBS recording of Des canyons aux étoiles ... featuring an image of Bryce Canyon.

The reference to Messiaen is very apposite, as the French composer created one of the most important desert-related works in recent memory. In 1971, philanthropist Alice Tully commissioned Messiaen to compose a piece for the upcoming U.S. bicentennial. To prepare, he took a research trip out west to Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah to study the various birds and landscape colors there. Messiaen, who had bi-directional sound-color synaesthesia, created a system for correlating the colors of the landscape, the local species of birds, and various sounds. Music historian Jonathan Bernard recognized the importance of Messiaen's ailment:
His synaesthesia, like the true form of the phenomenon in any affected individual, is involuntary, the pairings of colors and sounds out of his control. What Messiaen has managed to do, however, is to find the particular sound combinations that will give rise to an extremely wide and variegated range of color responses, an accomplishment which affords him the ability to paint, as it were, in sound what is visible. It is difficult to know for sure whether this reverse aspect of Messiaen's synaesthesia—that is, visible transmuted into audible rather than the other way around—is also involuntary or simply a well-oiled habit, but the fact is that he can do it, with significant impact on his creative output.[3]
The result of the desert trip was Messiaen's most important work, the massive, 100-minute Des canyons aux étoiles... (From the Canyons to the Stars...) (1971-4). Arranged into twelve movements, many named after a specific bird, Messiaen's piece is a combination of conventional and unusual instrumentation. Stringed and brass instruments are paired along whips, wind machines, sheets of metal, and even a geophone (an instrument of Messiaen's own invention), the end result being the evocation of a particular landscape unmoored in time. Oliver Knussen, who published a review in 1976 of the very first performance of Messiaen's magnum opus cannot but help bring in spatial and architectural observations:
It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to encounter a relatively intimate and genial work, employing an orchestra that is by Messiaen's standards modest … This restraint was no doubt conditioned to some extent by the dimensions of Alice Tully Hall in New York, where the work was premièred. This hall is one of the most beautiful and warmly resonant that the present writer has experiences: a fact worth bearing in mind while listening to Canyons in the dryish acoustic of the Festival Hall, where the imagination had to supply some of the inscapes of reverberation which Messiaen characteristically takes into account.[4]
The review continues with its hints of architectural and spatial orientations. Movements are "polychrome edifices."[5] Each places "things next to another in horizontal juxtaposition."[6] It may not be fair to impart the author with an architectural understanding of Messiaen's work, yet the connection remains useful as it points to other realms in which architecture and music collide.

More analogies could thus be made of the various instrumentalities shared by architecture and music criticism. In addition to analyses of forms and structures, of shapes and compositions, there is always volume. Volume is an important concept to architectural modernism. And yet the conflation and confusion of something tangible like mass with something intangible like volume yields productive observations. A key point of reference here is Frederick Etchell's famous mistranslation of "volume" into "mass" in his 1927 version of Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture (1923).[7] Another would be the fact that the term "volume" has another set of spatial connotations that have to do with just more than form. Erwin Panofsky famously described Renaissance perspectival techniques as the transformation of "psychophysiological space to mathematical space"—a transformation resulting in a view of space as a "quantum continuum."[8] And later, in "Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures," he described the combination of sound, movement, and image in film as both a "dynamization of space" and a "spatialization of time."[9] When combined, these two observations lead to an idea of space as something defined by the presence and movement of light and matter. In other words, it is a framework that could be understood as a way for sound to create and define space. Sound emantes from a source, and waves shape and define the space and objects in the same way that radar or sonar use wave phenomena to "paint" a picture. Volume, in its musical sense, can refer to either the quality of a sound or to its combined strength, power and mass. And yet volume is not only a way of describing three dimensions, but it is also a way of describing how sound travels in three dimensions.

Consider, for a moment, the sonic call-to-arms "MAXIMUM VOLUME YIELDS MAXIMUM RESULTS." It is an equation of sorts, a seemingly pithy grouping of words featured on all of Sunn O)))'s albums. Comprised of Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson, this Los Angeles-based outfit specializes in a blend of low-frequency bass and guitar feedback drone combined with a sometimes-baroque sensibility—it almost goes without saying, but this is some very loud music.

1969 ad depicting Sunn Orion amplifiers (note logo at bottom left)

Schematics depicting location of Sunn O)))'s gear

Volume is a product of the band's massive array of Sunn and Ampeg amplifiers and cabinets. The band's logo, which references Sunn's own logo, shows an eye-like "O" emanating unidirectional waves. And yet a 2005 schematic published for the band's European tour hints at another dimension of architectural-ness. Note the placement of the various cabinets and amplifiers. Here is something of a sonic equivalent to Ludwig Hilberseimer's Hochhausstadt (1924), obsidian-like rectangular forms distributed across an empty, isotropic expanse. Or, squint your eyes a little bit, and there is a passing resemblance to Le Corbusier's drawing of Buenos Aires from the River Plate, an negative image where fields and black and  white are confused for one another.

Ludwig Hilberseimer, Drawing of a Hochhausstadt, from Groszstadtarchitektur (1924)

Le Corbusier, drawing of the Voisin Plan of Paris in Buenos Aires, from Precisions (1930)

[1] Zygmunt Bauman, "Desert Solitaire" in Keith Tester, The Flâneur (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 140.
[2] Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York: Picador, 2007), xvi.
[3] Jonathan W. Bernard, "Messiaen's Synaesthesia: The Correspondence between Color and Sound Structure in His Music" Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Fall, 1986), p. 44.
[4] Oliver Knussen, Review: Messiaen's 'Des Canyons aux Etoiles...' Tempo, New Series, No. 116 (Mar., 1976), p. 39.
[5] Ibid., p. 40.
[6] Ibid., p. 41.
[7] For more on the mistranslation of Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture, see Jean-Louis Cohen's introduction to Toward an Architecture, John Goodman, trans. (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute Publications, 2007), pp. 1-82.
[8] Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, Christopher Wood, trans. (New York: Zone Books, 1997), p. 31.
[9] Panofsky, "Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures," in Irving Lavin ed. Three Essays on Style (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1997), p. 96.

Wes Anderson vs. Jacques Tati

Check out Wes Anderson's new spot for Stella Artois.  A little Mon Oncle, no?

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Patina, Provenance, Mass Production

Sticker sheet and 'zine included with Fender's Sonic Youth-model guitars (Source)
Is there an industrial, mass-produced object that resists change the way that an electric guitar or bass does?  Electric guitars and basses have withstood changes in consumption patterns, company ownership, construction techniques, and even fashion trends while maintaining their basic aesthetic, material composition, and to some extent, signature sound since their introduction into the American marketplace sometime after the Second World War.  Together they comprise a family of very provocative industrial objects.  This is because unlike airplanes, speedboats, sneakers, tennis racquets, jeans, and a host of other industrial objects, electric guitars and basses just keep on staying the same the more things change.

A guitar or bass made by companies like Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker and others has followed the same basic design for over half a decade.  They all feature similar bodies, pickup configurations, tuning peg arrangements, bridge locations, and electronics.  All are made of a dense wood like maple or alder, and all have rosewood or maple fingerboards.  Some may have glossy or painted finishes.  Fretwire is usually made out of a softer alloy.  Inlays are made of mother-of-pearl or some other synthetic plastic.  And there are even more expensive variants, each guitar or bass crafted from more expensive or exotic woods.  These are not as widespread as the entry-level, mass-produced bass or guitar.  And this leads to an important point: that there are more of these baseline Stratocaster, Telecaster, Precision or Jazz Bass guitars than, say, the $4200 bass that is manufactured to look (and sound) just like the bass that Jaco Pastorius played on all those Weather Report albums.  And like any other industrial product, an electric bass or guitar sells better if played by a famous musician.  This is the case even if the instrument is an inexpensive, entry-level variant.  Is it possible that Ernie Ball, Inc. sold more instruments after thousands of aspiring bass players saw Flea play a Stingray bass on MTV?  Of course it is.     

This is not to say, however, that such objects do not have any cult value, or that they are not somehow fetishized by music freaks everywhere.  Far from it.  In fact, no object demonstrates the value of patina like an electric guitar or bass.  Patina equals more sku's.  

Fender's Sonic Youth custom guitars (Source)
This is precisely the point made recently in the excellent things magazine, where it was observed that "Signature guitars were once the preserve of conventional rock gods, but the inevitable spread of alt culture into the mainstream has created a market for slightly more eccentric instruments, ironically productionised versions of objects that were once customised by their owners to be unique."  Images of some very expensive equipment—specifically from Fender's "Artist" line of instruments—were included to make this point: Sonic Youth members Lee Ranaldo's and Thurston Moore's Fender Jazzmasters and Kurt Cobain's "Jag-stang" (comprised of parts from Fender Mustang and Jaguar guitars).  These instruments no doubt sounded a certain way, but it is more than likely that they are prized for the way that they looked.  And in some instances, as demonstrated by the Jaco Pastorius "relic" bass, such instruments are crafted to look worn or beaten.  It certainly presents an interesting conundrum, as these objects prove that in some instances, mass production techniques are not necessarily used to produce new, sparkling products, but rather to create and sell products that already look and seem old.  It is as if issues of provenance are sidestepped by virtue of the fact that such guitars and basses can be made quickly, cheaply, and sold at a higher per-unit price.  It's not that Thurston Moore owned this particular Jazzmaster.  The fact that Fender can make something that looks like something Moore, Ranaldo or Cobain played is good enough.

By purchasing such instruments, one also buys a ready-made narrative about a guitar or bass.  These are instruments that are manufactured according to the musician's specifications, often duplicating the way pickups are wired or how switches are bored and located.  And as pointed out in things magazine, the Ranaldo Jazzmaster "comes with a custom sticker sheet and a full-color, 24 page ‘zine that contains photos, set lists, tuning charts, illustrations, tech info and extensive interviews." One could, given the right amplifier, ostensibly duplicate a specific sound from a Sonic Youth set in the 1990s.  In other words, Fender is not only marketing their own version of provenance and patina: they are also selling you history.

The ability of an object to elicit an emotional response in a user is the Holy Grail of industrial design.  At least that is what many of the interviewees in Gary Hustwit's well-received film Objectified (2009) say in front of the camera.  Design luminaries such as Dieter Rams, Karim Rashid, Paola Antonelli, and others all spend valuable camera time describing how the ability to create an emotional response is secondary to the ability to produce and sell more units.  An object is fleeting, but the narrative that it can create is not.  And as IDEO's Jane Fulton Suri says in the film, the ability to create such stories is a result of the users' own creativity and restlessness.  Adding crushed Dixie cups to a bicycle's rear tire fenders to prevent our backs from getting wet while riding on slick streets; leveling a lopsided table with a matchbook cover to make sure our dinner does not wobble while we are trying to eat: these are practices borne out of our dissatisfaction with the things that we buy and own.  These are the very things that are difficult to capture in the design and manufacturing of a consumer object.

Sonic Youth's customized guitar arsenal, from Objectified (dir. Gary Hustwit, 2009)
Soon after Suri's celebration of users' ability  to create new narratives and uses for a product, Hustwit shows us a montage of customized industrial objects.  And towards the end of this sequence, we see, in order: a closeup of an electric guitar bridge held together with epoxy and a rusty screw; a bunch of dirtied pieces of tape bearing the names of chords and tunings on the body of an electric guitar; and finally, other electric guitars sitting in a tour rack in a recording studio or in a concert venue's green room.  It would be very hard indeed for even the most casual observer to note that we are not just looking at a group of Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars.  Notice the words "Sonic Youth" stenciled in the background.  These are Thurston Moore's and Lee Ranaldo's guitars.