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Live Music; or, the Song in the Age of Digital Reproduction, an Essay in Eight Tracks

 

Track 1: This is me, around 1991. I still had long hair in my dreams for years after I cut it.

Track 2: Eight years, age 15 to 23, I could only imagine music, being a Famous Rock Star. It’s hard to say how many hours a day or days a week I practiced, because it was never work.  Even then, I loved that English used to the word “play” for an instrument, because that’s what I felt I was doing. But it was as much as I could: a few hours a day, not including at least six hours a week of band practice, not including at least two shows a month, not including going to other bands’ gigs twice a week.  I held down a job (record store) and earned easy A’s in school, but I lived music.

Track 3: And then, suddenly, I didn’t.  I spent the next decade learning to be a reader, writer, teacher, husband, and father.  For years, I didn’t even have a guitar. No one knew who I used to be, who, in some sense, I really was.  Music was the secret identity I left behind.  It was too hard to be everything.  Like the mopey tween calendar montage in Twilight: Breaking Dawn, or the mopey tween sun rising and falling montage in Beastly (I need to lay off the mopey tween monsters), time passed.

And as time was passing, something interesting happened, almost behind my back: music went digital.

Track 4: I am no vinyl purist. I’ve always preferred electric to acoustic. Unlike the fans who booed electric Dylan in 1965, if my favorite heavy rock band showed up with acoustic guitars, I’d boo them. (I’m looking at you, Nirvana.) Thank God the unplugged fad of the 90s is over. I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more, either.

Yet I can see why the folkies didn’t feel that electric music was authentic. The electric guitar puts more steps between the player’s fingers and the listener’s ear.  Not just the vibrations of the string, but the pickup, the signal, the wire, the amplification, and the distortion—sweet, dirty, deliberate distortion—of the signal. The electric sound of the guitar’s amplification is then further captured electronically by microphones, processed even further into the analogue of reel to reel tape, then mastered onto vinyl.  So many steps in the process of producing and reproducing the sound, each step, for the purist, one further away from the original.  Not the reel but the real.

But going electric and going digital are not the same. Something about listening to all music in MP3 format seems different, the final step that remasters once more, finally and irrevocably converting the analogue sound into binary computer code, Dylan’s plaintive wail (is there any other kind?) and guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s rich squeals into a cold series of ones and zeros, compressed, then uncompressed.  Look, overall, I love the iPod, love having 6332 songs made portable, love the slightly junky, slightly tinny, slightly robotic tone, love the intrusive insertion of the earbuds jacked directly into your brain, rather than warmly, maternally enveloping  your ears like the admittedly superior hi-fi earmuffs of yesteryear. (Yes, I know you can still get them. No, I never see anyone wearing them.) But I don’t mistake what I’m hearing.  Not music exactly, but an excellent simulation: “I’m not the song, but I play one on an iPod.”

Track 5: Walter Benjamin, from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936): “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.…  By making many reproductions it [the technique of reproduction] substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”   The part that messes with people today is that Benjamin, a Marxist when the word still meant something, saw this AS A GOOD THING. The destruction of the aura could only benefit the masses.  With the artwork’s aura destroyed, the work’s hegemonic power, not artistic power, its elevated class and economic status, would disappear, since the same picture would be available to all.  Technology, and ultimately “the capitalistic mode of production,” could “create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself.”   Yet that is not what has happened to art in the time since Benjamin wrote his essay.  Instead, the more frequently a work of art is reproduced, the more expensive and more coveted the original becomes.  Look at yesterday’s New York Times article on the subject of rich, famous art—including Munch’s Scream, mentioned in last week’s entry, now likely to “fetch” (Times’ word choice)  $150-200 MILLION.  That’s some puppy.  But music is an altogether different animal. It wasn’t records or tapes that finally destroyed music’s aura, but digital reproduction.  Music, in every sense of the term, now is free.  

 Bad joke. Sorry.

SIDE B

Track 6: Jean Baudrillard, from Simulation and Simulacra:

“Such would be the successive phases of the image:

it is the reflection of a profound reality;”

[me: i.e.,  acoustic guitar string]

it masks and denatures a profound reality;

[electric guitar string –>pickup –> amplifier]

it masks the absence of a profound reality;

[electric guitar string  –> pickup –> amplifier –> analogue recording]

it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum.”

[electric guitar string –> pickup –> amplifier –> analogue recording –> converted to digital recording]

Track 7: But I started to listen to music again, and play.  A few years of noodling, riffing, realizing that the hours of play had hardened into neural muscle memory and that there was no remediation needed.  My first real foray back into playing came when I bought a new amplifier last year, a Fender G DEC 3. Not to get all ad-speak with Walter Benjamin in the room, but it’s a clever idea: build MP3 backing tracks right into the amp and loop them to simulate playing with musicians. 

As an actual amplifier by itself it doesn’t sound that great.  In fact, it sounds exactly like a digital simulation of an electric guitar amplifier. But with the simulated tracks, the simulated sound is perfect. And as recorded by my digital camera, and uploaded onto my laptop, and linked to the world wide intermesh, and fed through your speakers, who can tell?

Electric guitar string –>pickup –> digital amplifier –> digital recording –> my laptop –> internet –> your laptop

  But because it’s digital, we could reproduce it a thousand times, a million more times, and it would sound just like the original.  Benjamin missed his prediction for art, but foresaw the future of music.

Track 8: Then, not long after I got the amp, I started playing again, for real, with actual people.  And it’s not like playing with simulated tracks at all.  I could hardly eat before or after each rehearsal, and when we were done I left wracked with stomach pain. I thought it was the stress of singing after a long hiatus, the churn of old pipes and machinery, or even nerves.

But later, I realized I recognized and remembered that pain.

It was called excitement.

Same guy, same guitar, one haircut, 21 years later

Jesse Kavadlo

Time: Over again, which is becoming the new norm. Eighty minutes, not including making the amp video just for this occasion. Time to go back in time to 60 minutes.

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Listening to Barack Obama on Shuffle

 

In the 1989, as an impressionable Poli-sci major about to defect to English, I was blown away that Václav Havel, playwright, poet and protester, could become Václav Havel, President—as it turns out, last president—of Czechoslovakia.  Naturally, I thought: Never in America.  And ten years later, when professional wrestler and professional lunatic Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota—a year before I actually moved to the state under his governance—naturally, I thought: Only in America. 

Yet after reading Dreams of My Father, I can’t help but think of Barack Obama as a writer first and a politician second, a man of letters, one of us who made good, real good.  And while I like the book’s merging of memoir with manifesto, of a personal identity crisis with a national one, much of my admiration comes from the way Obama himself reads it.  Mode and code shifting, voices, rhythms, accents reflecting Nairobi to Chicago, multiple inflections: the man knows how to tell a story.  Obtuse teleprompter jokes on the one hand and overblown praise on the other both aside, Obama’s verbal dexterity is best reflected in writing, and his reading of his own writing, rather than off the cuff comments or speechwriter’s words.  Obama—Barack, as I keep wanting to call him after listening—exhibits the consummate writer’s power to ponder, picture, revise, and reflect[i].  

I don’t have many audiobooks, but I couldn’t help getting Barack Obama’s DoMF during the 2008 campaign.  Yet a funny thing happened: I seldom listen to it linearly or chronologically. Like many iPod People, I mostly listen on shuffle. 

Ah shuffle.    

Does any word better reflect contemporary sensibilities toward music? The word the kids love and, therefore, lovingly abuse, is “random,” but I’m a bigger proponent of using “shuffle,” or “on shuffle” as slang for unlikely, juxtaposed, or unexpected.  [Using old man voice] Back in my day, we used to argue about what kind of music was the best, although not as bad as the previous decade’s “Disco sucks” wars or the decade before that seeing Bob Dylan booed by his own fans for going electric.  But now, ask a college student what kind of music she prefers and prepare to be bored: a gamut of responses ranging widely from “I like a lot of kinds of music” to “I like all kinds of music” to [puts on breathy haughty voice] “My musical tastes are… eclectic.” In other words, the musical genre that they like is called Shuffle.

But I digress.  Taking up six discs and 108 tracks, Dreams of My Father inevitably pops up occasionally, mixed in with my tunes.  And I always ponder the significance of the juxtapositions between Obama and the songs that precede and follow.  So as an experiment I decided to hit Shuffle and, for the first time, keep track.

Exhibit A—Track: “The first thing to remember” (page 35)

Summary: Lolo, Barack’s stepfather, sees young B with a lump on his head from an unfair fight with an older boy and teaches him to box.  Lesson: male bonding mixed with self-defense in an hostile, alien environment of Jakarta.  

Before: Ramones, Locket Love

Sample lyric: Hang on a little bit longer
Hang on you’re a goner

After: Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone

Sample lyric: How does it feel ?
How does it feel ?
To be without a home ?
Like a complete unknown ?
Like a rolling stone ?

Commentary: Clearly, The Ramones set the tone of perseverance and the budding paternalism and commonalities, aside from funny names, between Barack and Lolo. But then Dylan throws a curve, as he always does, by reinforcing the literal and metaphorical unmooring Barack copes with throughout the whole book, even as he exposes the secret hubris one must feel to be the subject of any attention: a fight, a song, especially one’s own book.

 Exhibit B—Track: Preface  (pg. vii)

Summary: Obama describes his surprising victory in the Senate race and the mixed public responses, one of which was the reissue of this book.  Obama finds that his feelings are still similar, but the world’s context after 9/11, and from Clinton to Bush, is now very different.  Lesson: things change, for better and worse.

Before: Yngwie Malmsteen, You Don’t Remember, I’ll Never Forget

Sample lyric: It was you, it was me,
And we would last forever.
Any fool could see, that we were
Meant to be

After: Ratt, Givin’ Yourself Away

Sample lyric:

It’s there in every move you make
You can’t hide your heartache away
Hey, it’s somethin’ you don’t have to say
It’s written in the tears on your face
I see through the part that you play

Commentary: The book is all about memory, what Barack can’t help but remember in spite of the pain. Or maybe he remembers precisely because of it.  But concern with memory and forgetting aside, Malmsteen’s lyrics basically suck, so let me focus on what people take from his music: the virtuoso guitar playing.  Obama’s writing, however,  is not the equivalent at all: his vocabulary and syntax are complex and engaging but not, I don’t think, showboating or technical. The Preface concludes with a touching encomium to Barack’s mother, who died of cancer just after the book was published, lending the book a sense of emotional urgency that Malmsteen’s solos don’t really strive for.  Yet, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, the Ratt lyrics bring the emotion directly to the surface, even as they allude to one other point Obama makes in the preface: that some of the book’s material is less politically expedient on the national stage but that he refutes none of it.

Exhibit C—Track: “One day as I sat down at my computer” (136)

Summary: Barack hears from a long lost half-sister who wants to visit. But she cancels when her brother—and, really, his, too, although he does not know him—has been killed in a motorcycle accident. Lesson: Things get better and worse.

Before: Miles Davis, My Funny Valentine

Sample lyric:

My funny valentine, sweet comic valentine

You make me smile with my heart

Your looks are laughable, un-photographable

Yet you’re my favorite work of art

After: Black Sabbath, TV Crimes

Sample lyric:

One day in the life of the lonely
Another day on the round about
What do they need
Somebody to love

Commentary: Of course, Davis’s 15-minute live version is instrumental, so there’s less irony in Barack’s tragic loss and estrangement and the lyrics’ goofy celebration of imperfection.  Instead, Davis’s version is plaintive, piercing, and painful, a perfect set up for the book’s distant but real bereavement.  Meanwhile, Black Sabbath’s song is precisely the opposite: a particularly hard rocker, dissonant even for them, with raging, screaming vocals by Ronnie James Dio, even as they lyrics point out the loneliness endemic to modern society that we try and fail to quell though media.  Dio’s, and Obama’s, pain requires human connection that, in both tracks, remains thwarted.

Exhibit D—“I awoke to the sound” (pg. 87)

Summary: Chronologically earlier than “One day as I sat down at my computer…,” this section recounts Barack’s grandparents fighting because, he discovers, his grandmother is upset that a black panhandler asked for money, and his grandfather is upset at her unconscious racism. This is the “Obama threw his grandmother under the bus” section that conservatives like to point to.  Lesson: Critics miss the point: that the people we love and who love us are capable of contradiction and complexity, that racism is often unconscious, impersonal, and systemic,  and that having a black grandchild is not an automatic inoculation against bias.  

Before: Black Sabbath, Neon Knights

After: The Ramones, Ramona

Weird! Black Sabbath and The Ramones twice each.  But I spent too much time on this already, and my hour is out so I need to wrap this entry up right now.

Supposedly, iPod customers have long wondered about the secret logarithms that determine the obvious sentience behind Shuffle. They are certain that it’s not random at all. It’s hard to argue with, given the possible relationships that emerge, even though it’s not, of course, that a pattern emerges or that there’s intelligent design. Rather we, as humans and listeners, invariably create those patterns.  

History and politics have patterns, too, even if the truth is that the cosmic iPod of Life is also on constant shuffle, so that one decade’s wrestler in the State House can lead into another decade’s writer in the White House. We like shuffle because life is on shuffle, and I can’t help but see the track sequences as another great example of life’s, and maybe even America’s, many great eclecticisms.

Time: 80 minutes (!), not including listening to all those tracks, although I tried to write and listen at the same time when I could.

Jesse Kavadlo

 


[i] Unlike yr humble Hourman, who writes fast and sloppy and edits faster and sloppier.  Look for a six-month anniversary entry in a few weeks on what I’ve learned from blogging.  

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