EMP Pop Conference 2010 — Friday presentations

Rolling commentary on those presentations I attend will be posted here throughout the day!

Nate Chinen, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Pikasso” — starts with a film clip riffing on Pat Metheny as jazz fusion god, hurrah guitar geeks and their stupidities! As a Metheny clip plays, Chinen talks about early response to his new technological band setup, Metheny as guitar god for the geek squad, a discussion of his career follows from his ECM debut forward, and now the robot orchestra he uses, a steampunk ideal. Metheny born in the fifties in Missouri, grew up with plugging in the guitar, something that he has pondered more than most. Metheny quote about being around gear is like “reeds and mouthpieces for other people.” Clip is from Montreal and shows him using the Synclavier using it as a fretboard, creating almost pastoral/vibraphonic music. Wonder in solitude, tech as gateway to contemplation. Imagine the context of 1982, playing alone in this clip, and now where he plays with an acoustic guitar at first and then with the Orchestrion. Metheny quote about guitar possibilities as “one big instrument.” New clip of a 42-string acoustic guitar performance — pretty crazy! Form determining content, gives Metheny a broader palette, glissandi, cascading arpeggios. Mark Herbert commissioned to create a foot-driven instrument, things then built from there to the Orchestrion, apparently inspired by 19th century musical automation, playing the equivalent of the piano roll plus instant prompts, something that had driven him for years. LEMUR and Eric Singer was the cue to nifty gadgetry, Metheny asks and commissions more, samples shown of instruments, transcription of arrangement shown. Kim Caulkins involved, expertise in pneumatics brought in, sample setup shown with percussion, piano, more. Clip from Orchestrion played — no trace of herky jerky awkwardness, a self portrait of musical history. Example of not so much ends but means, totally in control yet not a solo gig either. Megalomania? Metheny: “You can predict the bad reviews!…But is it similar to someone playing a solo piano concert? This is my instrument, translates my ideas into sound….Really have been thinking about it since I was nine, but I have to admit a certain level of satisfaction, nice to get a direct translation of what I hear…a very clear representation.” By trading in PMG for OMG, deus in machina, chooses to do these things because he can, because they are easy, because they are hard. Live Italian TV clip played as a conclusion.

Geeta Dayal, “Brian Eno, Cybernetics and the Studio as a Musical Instrument” — she explains how it was strange that nobody had talked about cybernetics and Eno before, also that no women had written about him, also that the very difficult work Eno had worked with in the 60s and 70s had not been addressed (Cornelius Cardew etc.) Also that Eno was an legendary player — find the ex-girlfriends! (Eno prefers not to talk about the seventies now.) Graphics up, her favorite machines! 808, talks about playing with Fatboy Slim’s 808 in France (“I have a really strange life!”), TB-303, Jupiter 8. Let’s go back to the idea of the machine, Apple 1 from 1976 shown, but what happened pre-this? Flowchart of the idea of the machine shown, the concept of the machine, a cybernetics diagram, all interconnected. What is cybernetics? Widely misunderstood, confusion with cyborgs, people think it’s really hard, it’s not! It is the study of systems, Norbert Wiener definition about the science of control — but control isn’t scary! How things talk to each other. Stewart Brand (friend of Eno) thinks of it as whole systems thinking, Whole Earth Catalog connection, Cage/Rauschenberg, etc. Various systems discussed as examples, how things build on each other and are circular (thermostat as example). Post-Wiener, theory applied widely, including music. Feedback and control loops very important in this case. Wiener discussed in more detail as MIT icon, Geeta wondered about him, leading to more study. Also, UK thinkers following Wiener — Gordon Pask, Stafford Beer, W. Ross Ashby, all influences on Eno. Beer’s Project Cybersyn mockup shown, very Clockwork Orange. UK art school legacy in music discussed, Art Into Pop. Eno went to Ipswich, run by Roy Ascott, student of Pask. Ascott wanted to run his school as experiment, doing mind maps and the like, craziest school in the UK! Ascott ran it into the ground. Cardew and “The Great Learning” discussed — “Paragraph 7″ done with untrained musicians, gave them algorithms, follow these rules: sing any note, match it to someone around you — result: a gorgeous drone. Eno realizes it is self-regulating, cybernetics applied to music, small inputs leading to massive outputs each time. Also it sounds good! (Unlike a lot of Cage, however much she admires him — great riff on Cage as stickler, where Cardew was both process and product.) Steve Reich‘s “It’s Gonna Rain,” again process/product via the two tape machines played at slightly different speeds, set up machines, leaves the room, perfect for Eno, not as hard to create as musique concrete! Cybernetic Serendipity in 1968 in London at the ICA, attracts a lot of artists to science based art, Mondrian painting vs robot Mondrian painting. Peter Schmidt discussed, Oblique Strategies, etc. Eno into concepts, “Seven Deadly Finns” combines prostitute slang and systems theory, leading into Another Green World. Detailed quotes on studio and players as system, then Discreet Music discussed in contrast to Roxy Music’s Siren, hairdresser credits vs cybernetics theory diagrams! Metal Machine Music discussed — it’s a light record, can sleep to it! Released the same week as Discreet, Reed infamously lying about the record all over the place but he also created a cybernetic system, loops, guitars up to ten, music making itself. Ends presentation with “Totalled” by Eno and the Winkies, original “I’ll Come Running” from 1974, all very rocked out, then nine months later the dreamier AGW version, result of a major change, then a bit of DM played, more rapid change.

J. D. Considine, “The Devil’s Trombone: How the Hunger For Louder, Bigger and Heavier Tone Influenced Instrument Design and Function from Berlioz to Meshuggah” — instruments are tools that evolve according to meet the needs of composers. Since the start of rock and roll, guitarist have adjusted and experimented with their gear, the deep whuffy tone of heavy metal resulted from Tony Iommi’s accident and the resultant experimenting with strings and tuning, Master of Reality as the recorded shift, “making the tone a bit fatter.” “Sweet Leaf” clip played. Why did it get fatter? Length, tension and weight are the factors, equation shown illustrating the relationship, Iommi’s innovation by dropping downward readjusts the equation’s data and thus the results. Not many metal bands followed until the mid-nineties too slack therefore too difficult to play until Korn borrowed the 7-string idea from various forebears (tons of citations, including Epiphone and Fender models and prototypes, plus the Steve Vai connection and his seven string love). Munky went “Okay, tune that even lower…” — initially muddy, therefore a new amp setup to accomodate a heavy growling sound, crunchier. Clip played. Jonathan Davis wanted to scream, nu-metal born! Meshuggah went in 2002 to 8-string — “allow us to attain bass sounds on guitar, darker, slower, sinister.” Clip played. Tunings reviewed, extra chromatics added. This is what happened with the trombone in the 19th century! Started even earlier in church music, various kinds discussed. Tension of lips can result in differing notes, technical aspects discussed of various tones and a gap between low E and the pedal tones. For a long while, nobody cared! Tenor trombone rarely used in the classical tradition until Beethoven and Schubert, but Berlioz was the champion, “the true leader of wind instruments,” wide ranging in possibilities. Great extended quote given, really loved the low end, examples cited, segment played from a composition. Bass trombone changes discussed as well, new valves, etc. Rimsky Korsakov and Wagner cited, the latter comissioning the contrabass trombone, tuba plus trombone, took a while to perfect! Modern trombones discussed, shifting to guitar discussion and downtuning. Things can be reapplied — washboards, steel drums. Why the association of low tones with the devil and all? Who can say but to leave people unnerved — “loud and low is the way to go!”

Douglas Wolk, “Beyond the Celestial Jukebox” — talking about the future of listening to music, how people are able to listen to music now, William Gibson: “future is here, not evenly distributed!” First, electively receiving sound — virtual reality discussed, these days it’s more augmented reality, stuff on top of your senses, consider reading glasses. Music makes a natural sound environment more interesting. Earphones and headphones are there but ultimately inefficient, virtual but not augmented, lose the way you perceive loud sounds through your body. Can this be sent straight to your brain? Not yet, no cranial jacks, but there are cochlear implants, used by those with hearing damage, will get refined with time! Two buzzwords in sound tech, psychoacoustics and haptics. First term is too often abused, not about content! Idea that if you’re trying to document sound, you only want the stuff that humans can hear. Mp3s provide an option, most audible information with least digital information, signal not noise. Haptics — listening to speakers up close is different from a distance, so haptics allows for this sense of touch, but nobody wants a full body suit for it! So small and unobtrusive is the way to go — therefore use the skin, “skinput!” Your body as part of the playback. Second — hearing what you want to hear. Celestial Jukebox idea discussed, idea of total access anywhere anytime with minimal effort. Want playback, ownership, sharing, doing what we want with an easy interface. It is here but not evenly distributed. Billboard r’n’b chart listening project discussed, having to search for out of print stuff online, pretty easy to do. PCs are awkward jukeboxes, can work, iTunes does have more but still, something new will come along, perhaps via high speed access everywhere but it will happen. Third — hearing music you don’t know you want to hear. Pandora, sure, works with your taste, no unpleasant surprises, it’s improving its algorithm, etc. Context sensitive/location aware suggestions — “You scored some weed, how about some Acid Mothers Temple?” What will this mean? Greater overall integration, smartphones as carrying deliberate sound.

Nick Minichino, “The New Scarcity” — building off celestial jukebox, possibility of what is available, talks about finding a single that nobody seems to want to share online. Who is filesharing, what are they filesharing and why? Discussion of filesharing population and “natural familiarity” with its expectations and etiquette, typing an artist into Google and getting their songs. Bitrate quality discussed, limits of the jukebox, reactions to bad legal mp3 quality discussed. Examples of undigitized works noted (cassettes, etc.) as well as non-English releases. Who is invested in enough in the music to share it? Generally young middle class people who grew up with high speed internet, accustomed to the experience. Christgau on Rapidshare discussed. Last year looked for Michael Bolton songs written by Diane Warren, could only find a FLAC on a private service, not being shared by the celestial jukebox types. If you love stoner metal, you’re in luck, blog example shown. Something Awful discussed — grim stuff from SA brought up, so how welcoming will the filesharing offshoot be? Who is invited and who isn’t? YouTube file downloading can be wrangled but not easy, still it can be used many places. Michael Bolton examples shown, viewcounts and rarity discussed. Joubert Singers and ‘Larry Levan’ mix of “Stand on the Word” played, 100000 views, almost more heard than any actual Levan track, so is it a rarity? Now it’s down to things people just don’t care about, Built to Spill/Marine Research split discussed, scoring systems for who actually shares.

Ned Raggett, “The Listener as Electronic Librarian” — um yeah. More later! (EDIT — namely, over in this blog post.)

Tim Quirk, “The Quiet Revolution” — introduction of the Walkman and taping culture discussed — “Home taping is killing music” is funny because it’s sad! Unlike boomboxes the Walkman lacked a record button, but it gave people control. TC-D5 shown and the idea of the Walkman growing out of Sony’s cofounder wanting something to listen to on plane trips. Walkman offering stereo while taking out record was good but who would use such a thing? Turns out everyone! Stories of the orange button and double headphone jacks and more! Private listening in public seemed strange in 1979. Great ads from the time, lots of skating! Knockoffs soon appear, sociologists go nuts! So did Allan Bloom, oh god. Noise pollution and laws and UK tube arrests and plane travel and more — so why shut us up? Rey Chow quote about how the Walkman provides privacy, Vincent Jackson on the reactions to the symbolism of the Walkman. Transistor radios and boomboxes provided something but the Walkman was private, listener control has expanded exponentially with iPods etc. but ripping to tape was possible as he remembers a cross country move. Sony lost out on mp3 players via their content purchases and thus internecine warfare. Audio Home Recording Act discussed, music CDRs vs CDRs., trying to control mp3 players like Diamond, the market for mp3s went on without the majors, celestial jukeboxes discussed, etc. GAO trashes the piracy scare just the other day. Labels can learn what is desired from all the activity, if they can learn to relinquish control and hear what the listeners actually listen to, Big Champagne discussed as tracking who has what. Tables of tracks per fan shown, old/new, stylistic spread, shows how songs float and thrive out there! So if there are some lost dollars, 80% of listeners being new is a heck of a balance, new packagings for hyperfans, unexpected correlations between listener choices. “People are not radio formats!” to quote Big Champagne. Prince’s Lovesexy as one track — admire yet “fuck you fascist!”

Wendy Fonarow, “The Song May Be the Same But the Audience Isn’t” — entered in progress (sorry to be late!). Discussion of audience attendees using phone being photos, taking pictures, doing instant analysis, focus removed from show, more intermittent focus. Photos done as enumeration of your tastes, therefore you must record the events, life in real world done to gather material for life online. Instant wireless updating allows for quicker reaction, broadcasting self out of the venue, multiple spaces simultaneously. Immediacy has created escalating intolerance for boredom, less interaction with other audience members, disengagement from stage. Being with someone at a show, text a message to them. Audience members had expressed a desire for a sense of being fully present, something real, a real performance and experience. Now with phones, we become our own worst enemies. If desire to create a tasteful presentation online, very effective, but… More are holding their phones throughout shows, now an audience prop (lighters replaced by iPhones for rock ballads). Program demonstrated! Conclusion: audience in multiple perspectives, increasingly becoming cyborgs, no longer just there in the present tense.

Tina Majkowski, “Queer Gear: Percussive Technology and the Queer Sonic Body” — technology may suggest electronics in music, a vague archnemesis, but what about corporeal technologies? Rf Kaki King and her various performances. This paper is definitely gay! Pop music journalism has taken a love to people like Tegan and Sara, KD Lang, etc, but this journalism sneaks in a litany of questions on orientation as an “influence.” Too nebulous and flattening a term! Is it lyric subject matter, is it in fan followings? The answer doesn’t lie there, instead focusing on the gear that is used. King’s guitar god status via over-the-fret actions, Melissa York‘s innovations via gear. Kaki King “Playing with Pink Noise” clip shown, acoustic guitar complexity plus visual image of the performer against white background. How does the queer body use trad/DIY instruments? King is percussive and trained as a percussionist, use of fake acrylic nails rather than picks. York makes new gear altogether. The body in music: refers to her own “fights” with her lap steel guitar. Bulk of research on queering OF popular music (“Thong Song” as camp etc) focus instead here on performance as self formation. King says that it made sense to smack the guitar around a little, York wanted to jump around and dance and do vocals. Does sound form self or vice versa? Connection in training of personal training and sound, but what if this is bidirectional, to learn a different sense of self in relation to the instrument? Subjectivity discussed. All sound has musician backing it in some way. So is there a queer social body here? Produced not just because of self-identification. The title is a doppelgänger of sorts. Why is percussion worthy of attention? The idea of percussive skin discussed, downbeat compels the body where to be (refers to writer whose name I didn’t catch). What does the audience and performer actual feel in a show? Discusses feeling a performance via the stage. In watching and hearing King, York, etc, the body itself is a form of musical tech.

David Cantwell, “Log Cabin Songs in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” –begins with a Fiddlin John Carson recording from 1923 about a lonesome old man waiting for death and dreaming of the past and “the little old log cabin in the lane.” Written in Reconstruction, wiped of usual blackface dialect, given more universality, lonesome because everyone’s moved to the city. Country was never country but continuing mourning for a supposedly lost place, the rural one not rural anymore due to urbanization, from cabin home to decent sized town. One way or another the city was going to find them, Sherwood Anderson quoted. Comparatively rural mill towns were far more urban in feeling. Still, rare case for any listeners to have actually lived in a log cabin, though the song titles sure made it seem otherwise! All kinds of primitive mountain homes from logs or the like. Various rewritings of the titular motif cited, the Carter Family’s ‘cottage industry.’ Someone is always cut off from the people of the homeplace or the home itself, not working in the songs when the reality was hard backbreaking work on the road or railroad or in the city. The loss of it being “not country anymore” is key for country music, the appeal of the obsolete, the backward glance. This is NOT nostalgic, when nostalgia is supposed to be about a past that never was, a fabrication of twangy truthiness. But the backward glance does not idealize or imply the superiority of the past. Cabin songs now replaced by high school songs, but we do look back and do so without necessarily hating the present or loving the past. “Rocky Top” may be home sweet home but they ain’t go back! Glances to find benchmarks and key times and formations of who we become. Examples cited, a dynamic conversation with the past is not nostalgia but tradition, the two being opposites. The home to be returned to is not a fantasy one but a real one. The backward glance is a variety of grief, to mark the loss of beloved but imperfect days, then to move into the present and future. Various songs studied in more detail, focusing on the house, moving to a better place from a poor one. Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn songs discussed, memories of cabins gone, Parton with “The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad,” the mixture of emotions.

Roundtable: Freddie Mercury Deconstructed (will only be able to cover the first fifteen or so minutes) — Jason King outlines Freddie Mercury’s impact via Queen and in pop culture, notes that much of that impact is unclaimed in terms of ethnicity, sexuality, etc. Panel introduced — Barry Walters, Tavia Nyong’o, Daphne A. Brooks. Kandia Crazy Horse quote: Freddie as the first African rock star, international reach, clip from 2000 documentary shown with full participation with his family, much time spent framing his career and life starting in Zanzibar. Brief bio notes given, then clip actually shown. Argh, gotta dash, will try and duck back in later.

Andy Zax, “‘Don’t Ever Buy Nothin’ You Don’t Dig’: The Warner/Reprise Radio Spots, 1968-1972″ — this is a story of a pile of 45 rpm records! Spots promoting artists then recently deemed unfathomably weird. 100 made, 200 copies each for FM stations, few copies survive. Unfortunate as they are an accidental chronicle of pop evolution. Clip played of Neil Young promo — “Everybody knows!” “…Everybody knows what?” Deep hilarity. Young had flopped with the first solo album and he was just one of many people like Leonard Schaeffer! Proto James Taylor! Ludovico Technique with strings! Insane. Warner Reprise was sharp with the zeitgeist unlike most other labels, thus an ad for the Hook! Oh man that’s bad. The Glass Family ad in comparison is playful and ridiculous, featuring the band. 1968 was showcasing the shift to the album plus underground radio, an conundrum for record companies. Top 40 made sense, FM something else. Thus, radio ads for albums, plus Warners actually played the long game plus Stan Cornyn, the king of the liner notes. He recognized that things had to change and hated puffery. Therefore, apply soft sell techniques with wry ads for Newman, Parks — self deprecating, providing a personality. Radio ads less uniform in tone but were still straight talk, not hype talk. Neon Philharmonic ad played. Smothers Brothers on ad for Mason Williams, Gary Owens on Tiny Tim, amazing. David Ossman of the Firesign Theatre was given performing/writing gigs in 1969 — clips for the Fugs and Frank Zappa played, then Dean Martin! Amazing. Little Richard in his own spot is of course killer. 1970/1971 ZBS Media enters the picture — Captain Beefheart ad is astounding. 1972 was starting to change, freeform to AOR, all gets kinda boring. Good image builder! Finally ZBS Media on the second Faces album — non-Euclidean indeed!

(At this point I ducked back into the Freddie roundtable for a bit, then went up to try and catch Josh Chamberlain’s presentation but alas! He had finished and the panel had moved on to questions. I’m taking this as an omen and finishing conference coverage for today. Hope everyone enjoyed!)

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