Sunday, June 28, 2020

thinking about music

A dialogue between me and Ezequiel Fanego of Caja Negra  (my publisher in Argentina) for the Chilean music webzine Grieta Mag, on the subject of  the role of writing about music.  (Spanish language version here.). 

Grieta editor Laura Estévez kicks things off with the initial question:   

How to think music? 

Simon Reynolds: 

The first thought I had in response to this question is another question: do we need public thinking about music?  What function does it serve? Especially at the present moment, but generally as well – it would seem to be an inessential activity. I have long thought the relief of human suffering, whether physical or mental, is the highest calling, and that belief has a new sharpness in the current crisis. Writing about music would seem to occupy a fairly low status on the hierarchy of human needs.

Then again, you might say that the inessentials are what actually gives life flavor and elevates it beyond the grind of everyday survival and getting by.  These things are luxuries, but ones we feel we can’t live without. 

But even then, many  people – perhaps most people on the planet – enjoy music in a fairly thoughtless way. And are no worse off for it, at least in terms of enjoyment. Patterned sound provides an unreflective pleasure that might affect them intensely, but it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with a larger significance – it’s on the same plane perhaps as food, or sports, or clothes, which are all things that people feel passionate about.  But they don’t look for criticism or theory to make sense of it. What are they missing? Is there a surplus value that can be created through public thinking about music that deepens the experience of it, or helps to sustain a community around the music -  a community of disagreement as much as consensus?

The second thought I had stirred by this question is to do with how much of the pleasure of music –  what makes a piece of music “good” or what makes it work – actually bypasses thought.  The challenge for me as a critic from very early on was to do with wanting to register in prose all these thoughtless elements – the insistence of rhythm,  the sensuality of sound, in a sense the violence of music as it floods your body. These elements are where the power of music largely lies, as opposed to the cultures around music or the expressed intent of the artists. But they’re very hard to verbalise, and accordingly, have largely been written around, in a circuitous dance of avoidance, by music critics. 

This aspiration comes across in my writing more for a native English speaker, where the prosody of the language, the kind of tricks I use (“cheap tricks” like alliteration, subtler ones like assonance, rhythmic effects and cadence) are things I do instinctively and viscerally – and likewise affect English speakers in a largely unconscious way. Some of that necessarily gets lost in translation, as it’s do with the musical properties of the English language; if you reading the original text as a second language, you can’t access the playfulness or “dance of words’ that is going on.  But this kind of instinctively deployed word-magic, this musication of language itself – this is actually me “thinking music” – allowing the music into my thought, rather than describing it from a distance.

What about scholarly music critics who know about keys and structures? Technical musical language can describe these intensities in a very narrow sense, like a diagram of an electrical circuit, but it doesn’t  convey what an electric shock feels like.  When critics use that kind of specialist terminology,  the main effect for the layperson reader is an aura of authority: you feel “this person knows what they’re talking about”, and that might give you confidence in their pronouncements. But you don’t understand what they’re offering as “proofs”. Indeed a synesthetic metaphor or a ripe piece of imagery that someone like me might come up with is probably more effective as a way of conveying to listeners – who like me don’t know the technical terms -  what they might experience when they listen to the music.

I am interested in the huge gulf between how musicians think about music and how critics and fans who lack musical training think about it.  At least 90 percent of what the musician is concerned with is what I call “nonsignifying craft” – how to structure a piece of music in terms of intros, outros, bridges,  key changes; how to technically achieve certain sounds; how to construct feel or groove. Composition, arrangement, engineering, production – this effort results in about 90 percent of our pleasure and sensation in music. We are caught up in the way tension builds and releases, the surprising twists,  the juxtaposition of textures across a vertical organization of sound. And yet it’s something that’s very hard to write about in anything but the vaguest terms when it comes to a specific song or track.  Critics tend to approach music as if is primarily about communication – the transmission of a lyrical statement, or of an emotional state. But much of the pleasure and excitement of listening to music is about structure – the structuring of an emotion, a construction that moves through time and is built in four dimensions rather than just three.  And it’s about sensations.  Again, it’s very hard to think this stuff and put it into words. But it’s the pressure of those sensations and movements against the mind that produces the most interesting thinking about music for me.

My final thought on “thinking music” is that it’s not something you can be prescriptive about. As a writer, you are trying to get people to think the way you do about something.  But as a reader, what I am looking for is thoughts I could never have had myself. So often the most excitingly disorienting thing is when I encounter a new writer whose mind moves in a completely different way. I think, “how on Earth did you think of that?. Where do those images – that particular sensual response to sound – spring from?” To the extent, that I’ve managed to get people to think the way I do about music and use a similar kind of language in their writing  – it’s self-defeating.  You don’t want to read something and think “I could have thought that”. You want to be startled by completely alien perceptions.

Ezequiel Fanego:

 First, I would say that as publishers we were always interested not precisely in thinking music but thinking through music. Music can be a life changing experience: a record or a song can change the way you feel about politics, friendship, your own life, etc. And not only through the lyrics but also through the perceptual world that it triggered. So we like when the writing doesn’t impose it´s own concepts to the music, but when it´s rather affected by it, and express how it was enriched or impoverished by the aural experience. Music has its way of thinking, it´s has it´s own concepts expressed as perceptual configurations. And if you let it affect you it become your own perceptual reality, and you may accept that or refuse it.

Yesterday for example I was listening to this chopped and screwed hip hop mixtape. You know, chopped and crewed is a technique of remixing hip hop music which developed in the Houston scene in the early 1990s and it consists in marely dramatically reducing the pitch of the original compositions to give them an hypnotic, heavy sound. It´s supposed to recreate the experience of being under the influence of the purple drank, a street narcotic made from the prescription opiod Codeine that treats mild pain and acts as a cough suppressant. One doesn’t has to use purple drank to fully understand it effects because the music itself slows your brain down,   you enter in a purple hazed environment and your perfection is complete transfigured. So you can write about this music as if you very transfigured by it.

Another idea about musical writing that influenced as a lot as publisher was this notion that Simon shared with us,  I think it was in an interview he did with Pablo Schanton when we published Después del rock. It´s that musical writing can not only reflect the aural experience but also to catalyze it, to intensify the listening experience. It happens to me a lot that I read one of Simon´s pieces, or David Toop´s or Kodwo Eshun´s, and I desperately need to listen to the music again because I know that the record won’t be the same. I will even hear thinks that I didn’t knew they were there!! So writing can also chance your experience of music by injecting those alien perfections that Simon mentioned before into your mind

Simon Reynolds:

I am intrigued by the idea that there are people for whom listening to music is unaccompanied by thought – because it’s so foreign to me. But there was a time when I just listened to music in a completely unreflective way, totally without preconceptions, or a desire to understand, purely swept up by its flooding sensations. When I was a child, hearing my parents’s records – the soundtracks to musicals like West Side Story, Frank Sinatra’s Songs For Swinging Lovers, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Holst’s The Planets. Or hearing things on the radio, the Beatles, Bowie’s “A Space Oddity”, one hit wonders like Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”. One of the reasons I was drawn to glam as the subject of my last book was that it was among the first music I could remember, from a time when I still had a primal response to pop –  particularly the really kids-oriented teenage rampage stuff . I have a kind of primal scene with T.Rex on TV, a memory that I referred to in the intro to my first book Blissed Out and then again in the introduction to Glam book. A sort of personal creation-myth based on the audio-visual impact of hearing and seeing Marc Bolan, a mixture of excitement and astonishment mingled with disturbance and even fear. An encounter with the pop sublime.

But then as teenager I got into punk and very soon after discovered the music press, and all that changed for me – listening to music became inextricable from thinking about it. At its wildest, the writing about the music could be as exhilarating as the music. But the two were so intertwined that you couldn’t separate them – they propelled each other forward. Since that time – 1979 onwards – the listening to music has almost always been generative of ideas and images. Only in states of great intoxication have I returned to that primal, thoughtless, purely sensual response that I had as a child. 

So yes from the age of 16 or so I was a trainee critic, already forming sentences and judgements in my head, for years before I became one. I don’t know any other way to be. I think it intensifies my enjoyment of music; I’ve never felt that criticism or theory is something that makes you have a colder, detached relationship with music (or with anything – film, books, TV), it actually takes you deeper, it heightens everything. But I would admit that there’s a way in which being a writer-thinker has given me a warped relationship with music.  I’m locked into this search for newness, in part because of the sonic rush of the new, but also because it generates new ideas. I’m always looking for, and I’m hooked on, the way music can spur fresh arrangements of words in your mind, tropes and images that don’t feel stale. And this will push me on, because at a certain point, even a supremely fertile and fast-moving genre like, say, jungle in the 90s, will eventually slow down and fall into settled patterns. As a commentator, I’ll start repeating myself and that’s a sensation I don’t like - the feeling of self-predictability, a sluggishness in the troping mechanism of the mind. The genre might still be producing quality material, but I’ll be ready to move on, as a writer even more so than as a listener.

I happened to get into music seriously during postpunk, which was a high fever time for both the music and the discourse around it. That is a potent drug to taste when you are so impressionable and susceptible – 16, 17, 18 – and seething with idealism and impatience. The combined effect of the rapid mutation of postpunk music, and the way writers at the NME in particular, but also Sounds and Melody Maker,  tried not just to keep up with all the changes but to make things go even faster -  the combination of that is what I’ve called the quickening. That’s an old-fashioned word that no one uses nowadays (“quick” used to mean “living” as in “the quick and the dead”).  But the quickening feels like the right word to describe the effect of that combined sonic and literary stimulus on a young mind: it’s a power surge of cultural electricity, a galvanic rush.

I’ve been chasing that feeling for the rest of my life.  If you happen to get into music during one of these !UP! phases, you might get locked into a bipolar rhythm, like I did. A period of sustained acceleration is followed by a crash, a terrible slowing down, the scene gets torpid and disparate. That’s what happened in the mid-Eighties, what I call the Bad Music Era. Then things picked up again and became insanely exciting. That bipolar rhythm of rush and crash -  ultra-intense excitement and emotional over-investment, followed by disappointment and despair – can actually be unhealthy, if you happen to have manic-depressive tendencies, as did my poor friend and comrade Mark Fisher. But for someone like me who is naturally stolid, the combination of the music and the writing (by others, by myself) has worked as a jolt, shocking me alive again and again. 

Ezequiel Fanego:

There is a crucial aspect that we have not mentioned yet and that is as fundamental as the intimate experience that your body or mind can have of a piece of music. I mean the social, relational aspect. When I think of the impact that music had in my life I can hardly reduce it to a private listening experience. Of course, like all of us, I have had several  epiphanic moments in which the discovery of some  track  or some artist resulted in an expansion of the doors of my perception: the revelation of some aesthetic possibilities totally unthinkable so far. But above all music always involved, at the same time as a sensitive experience, an access to a world of cultural exchanges, the possibility of making new friends, embarking on new projects, enriching your networks. 

During my teenage years I used to go to a park near my house where a book and record fair took place. When I started going I was looking mostly for hardcore bands, things like Minor  Threat,  Dead   Kennedys, D.O.A., etc. Soon, just as a result of the exchange with the record sellers or local friends, my musical horizon expanded considerably: I discovered dub, garage, postpunk. For some reason music mobilizes that curiosity (one always needs more) and also the need to share with others our discoveries. It may have to do with that ineffitable aspect of music: the emotions they generate are sometimes so difficult to understand, so irrational, that we need to share them with others to somehow verify that there is something objective in that experience. We soom become preachers of our musical passions. 

Which brings me to Simon's first reflection about the need of public thinking about music. Do we need this public thinking to give social meaning to our most intimate emotions? I remember when music download blogs started to emerge in the early 2000s.  At full speed there were countless blogs about the most diverse, super-documented micro-scenes, from where you could download the most esoteric records around the world. Faced with this overload of information andi nevitable one wondered about what drives this cyberculture heroes to take the effort to upload all those records with their corresponding covers and brief historical reviews. There was probably something to do with reputation, but most of those blogs were anonymous, besides that only a few achieved some kind of notoriety. So the right answer seemed to be that they took that effort simply because of the need to share the music that passionate them, to cultivate a determinate subculture. Of course, one could say the same about literature, film or even sports. But I think music's tendency to generate such an urge to share your personal experience and to built an identity around a certain cultural consumption is somehow superior to any other form of art.  

Simon Reynolds:

Yes Ezequiel is right, there is much more to music and to thinking about music than just this individualized experience of rapture or the rush of ideas in one’s head. It’s not just this solipsistic drug-like thing. Simply to write about music at all presupposes people reading it, the existence of some kind of audience – and not just as a recipient of the ideas, but as an audience that critically engages with them, building on them or disagreeing with them. Even the loneliest blogger is engaged in an act of communication that relies to some degree on the notion of a  community out there.

One of the attractions of the British music press as a place to work was the idea that if I managed to get into it, I would find people I could talk to – that I would be entering a space of argument and shared enthusiasm. And also of antagonism – an environment that to some extent was fueled by the sparks that came from friction, the clash of ideas. The music press worked as a  space in which competition (all these young egos looking to make their mark and distinguish themselves in some way, to define their own path) and collaboration were finely balanced.

If I look back at the times when I’ve been happiest in my working life, it’s been periods when I was part of a team engaged in a collective project. In my early twenties, my friends and I operated our own magazine, Monitor. We were ex-students living on unemployment benefit but the magazine was very much like creating a job for ourselves, a purpose. There was a tremendous collective energy of us all pulling together to finish an issue and then get it out into the world. And a ferment of ideas between us -  an article by one would spark a reply or an expansion from another in the next issue.  

Then a few years later, I had the experience of working at Melody Maker, one of the weekly music papers, and being involved in giving it a new direction, a reborn sense of intellectual energy, an escalating excitement about underground bands and emerging directions in music.  In those days, before email, writers had to physically bring in their copy to the office and so there was a hub of socializing and face-to-face discussion – drinking and thinking aloud. This  institutional vibe is something I have seen gradually disappear from magazines during the Nineties as  the writers increasingly sent in their work remotely and never met each other or the magazine staff. After around 2000, you might go into a music magazine office and it would be like a ghost ship in there – a few editorial staff, often no music or music playing very quietly.

And then the third time I had that feeling of being part of a community of thinking about music – with that balance of frictional competition versus reciprocal influence – was the early days of the blogs. Not the music download blogs that Ezequiel referred to, but the circuit that included K-punk, Woebot, and many others. Once again there was that feeling of a common purpose, even if undefined – that electric sensation I referred to before as the quickening. Which I realized is actually an old fashioned term for the moment when the mother can first feel the unborn baby moving.   But that makes it even better because it describes the way that the music scene, which is always a combination of musical creativity and the critical discourse around music, can go through these phases of entropy, when everything feels disparate and scattered – a terrible sluggishness that can feel like a kind of death. And then suddenly it all lurches into vibrant life again. Things start moving. And this quickening is a collective feeling as much something in your own nervous system.

As an individual writer you can have a feeling like that – of surge and focus - on your own, when you launch into a large project like a book or some kind of really energizing thinkpiece or feature that involves a lot of research and discovery.  But it’s much more fun if there are a bunch of you engaged in a shared mobilization of energy, synchronized to the same accelerated and propulsive rhythm.

So one thing I still look out for hopefully with music magazines is when they seem to be a hub of energy –  a publication becomes an attractor for a bunch of lively and peculiar minds, and they all inspire each other in that collaborative-competitive way. Publishers can work in the same way, as we see for instance with Repeater in the UK, which in fact was an attempt to build on the energy of the blog scene in the first decade of the 21st Century and siphon it into larger, long-lasting projects.

I don’t see it very often with magazines in recent times – probably one of the last ones, in terms of music,  was Tiny Mix Tapes, which has now gone into some kind of indefinite hibernation, but definitely had a collective identity for a long while.

It’s harder to create and maintain a hub of vibe and intellectual synergy in the internet age, when people aren’t meeting in person so much. But perhaps the current crisis and the enforced isolation of people is speeding up the process by which we find inventive ways to create virtual communities of ideas.    

The original dialogue was done about six weeks, when crisis meant covid-19 and lockdown - before the other crisis blew up in this country. Subsequent to that, Ezequiel added a final comment, which went straight to Spanish. You can probably work out what he's saying. 


Mientras terminamos con esta conversación llegan las noticias del brutal asesinato de George Floyd a manos de la policía de Minneapolis. Casualmente me entero que Big Floyd, como lo llamaban sus amigos, era parte de la Screwed Up Click, la familia musical de Dj Screw. No puedo dejar de pensar en sus últimas palabras, “I can´t breath” y en la relación que hay entre la respiración, la poesía y el ritmo. Y en cómo la música puede ser de alguna manera un ejercicio para respirar con los otros, crear comunidad, habitar los barrios y las calles de un modo estrictamente no-policial. No sé si será cierto, pero hay algo de poético en eso que cuentan de que ayer Anonymous hackeo las radios policiales de Minneapolis para que suene ininterrumpidamente “Fuck the police”.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Brazilian Nao Wave and Postpunk

Nao Wave: Brazilian Post Punk 1982-1988
(Man Recordings)
The Sexual Life of the Savages: Underground Post-Punk from Sao Paulo, Brasil
(Soul Jazz)

Village Voice, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Postpunk's seam has gotten severely depleted these last few years. So it makes sense that genre-mining bands and arcana-excavating archivists are now moving into the non-Anglophone world. The smart hipster money would surely have been on Germany (in the early '80s, a Sprockets-y wonderland of art-into-pop) as the next gold-rush zone, or maybe Belgium and Holland (both rife with Factory-fixated aesthetes).  Few would have imagined Brazil as a contender. But that's precisely what's happened, with the bizarrely synchronized arrival of two compilations documenting Sao Paulo's postpunk scene. It's tempting to imagine a cargo cult scenario: a handful of Liliput and Flying Lizards import singles arriving to catalyse a mutant subculture, the local bands filling in the huge aesthetic gaps using their imagination. But given that Sao Paulo, for all its sub-tropical location, resembles a European city somehow drifted loose from Continental moorings, far more likely the megalopolis' hip youth (many descended from German or Italian immigrants) were just totally plugged into every last thing going down on Ladbroke Grove or the Lower East Side. 

Nao Wave kicks off with Agenttss' "Agenttss."  Released in 1982, it's a historic single not just for its mélange of then-modish but still thrilling elements (flanged guitar, synth-bloops) but for being Brazil's very own Spiral Scratch--a pioneering example of release-it-yourself autonomy. Throughout both compilations, the foreign influences are obvious but seldom to a slavish degree, and coordinates get pleasingly jumbled up. Akira S & As Garotas Que Erraram's "O Futebol' (on Nao Wave) and "Sobre As Pernas" (on both) respectively resemble Birthday Party crossed with Martha & the Muffins and a tropicalized Joy Division, balmy and sweat-stippled rather than cold as the grave. Sexual Life includes a fetching pair from Fellini, "Rock Europeu" (flinty drone-rock chipped from the same quarry as Josef K) and "Zum Zum Zazoeira"  (garage punk gone languid in the humidity).  

Inevitably, what captivates the Anglo-American ear is the exotic Brazilian tinge that creeps in every so often, whether intentional or not, as with  Chance's sultry "Samba Do Morro" (another track on both comps) and Black Future's "Eu Sou O Rio", whose bassline doesn't so much walk disco-style as sashay carnival-style.  Approaching the end of its 1982-88 time-span, Nao Wave sags somewhat (the UK's Bad Music Era kicking in, with horrors like The Bolshoi becoming reference points?). And Sexual Life is marred by occasional outbreaks of "quirky," like Patife's Camper Vannish "Teu Bem." But overall, language difference notwithstanding, you can easily imagine most of these tracks getting play-listed by John Peel or working the dancefloor at Hurrah's.

Sunday, June 14, 2020