josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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14 Dec '01 06:34:27 AM

For a number of months the phrase "make a glorious noise unto the Lord" has been periodically popping into my head, when I'm especially surprised or elated at a piece of music, sometimes just a moment, that strikes me as noisy in the right way.

I'm not sure how the phrase started coming to mind. I must have picked it up somewhere floating freely in the culture, because I'm not sure that I've ever read the book of Psalms, where the correct quote, make a joyful noise unto the Lord, and a number of similar phrases, comes from.

I thought of it again tonight, repeatedly, while hearing Nels Cline and Gregg Bendian play "Mars" on their album Interstellar Space Revisited: The Music of John Coltrane. I'm not sure if I've ever written about the original Interstellar Space before, aside from a comment or two. It's a difficult album to say something about, for me. Not that I've listened to it a lot, but I've listened to it pretty regularly since getting it. It's always a disorienting experience, especially if I sit through the entire thing (it's harder to do on headphones). I find it easier to be led astray by it, moment-to-moment (or maybe I should say, I find it easier to get stuck on a specific moment), than most other "out" music that I listen to, and I find that strange because the music seems so much more precise and ordered than all that other music. It should be easier to see the forest for the trees, so to speak. I don't think I'm being wowed by Coltrane's phenomenal technique, as if it were just the fact that he's playing very very fast or doing something people didn't do before, or something that's just too hard for most people to do, that I found so amazing. But I am amazed again and again by little moments that seem to have something important to do with the technical qualities of the playing. I think that the difference is that I have a reaction, and also notice that the reaction is due to something so aggresively unbeautiful, so apparently intentionally unlikeable. But it's beautiful!

Cline and Bendian are doing their own thing, but also doing Coltrane's (and Ali's) thing, in a way. Plenty of people have commented on the advisability of their doing this, and their success or lack of success at it. So far, it sounds to me as if they got it right. It is different, but that's to be expected. I can't say how they got it right at the moment, but my reaction to it, and to the original, makes me think that it worked. And also the phrase, coming to mind again. "Glorious noise."

I've been thinking about the phrase in response to a wide range of music, but all of it seems to have a similar quality to me. Even in cases where it might be considered "beautiful" sound, or at least the kind of sound that people don't normally think of as noisy now, as long as they are comfortable with pop or rock at all, the music strikes me as quintessentially noisy. In all the cases there's something to it that makes me say, when I hear it, "oh god, will you listen to that!" Grating, repetitious, squealing, vulgar, dirty, piercing, angular, fat, gaudy, garish, silly, primitive, exuberant, sublime. At one and the same time, the sounds seem glorious to me (which is why I changed the quote in my head, I suppose), but I have no problem with "joyful" in its place. There's something so pleasurable about these noises that they demand glory. They are the sort of thing that people should praise, that should make them jump up and down and shout, that should send chills down the spine and across the skin. The noises often seem as if they are the spontaneous expression of that kind of state. At first, when I realized that I had thought (more or less) of a phrase from the Bible, and that it was followed by "unto the Lord", I reckoned that this was the sort of thing that should be offered up to the Lord, if anything should be: these special moments of beauty, unbelievable in the way they seem so inimical to "beauty", that come out of the joyful interaction of people with one another and the world.

I'm not entirely sure what I'm talking about. I'm not religious at all. I don't mean this all to be some kind of indication that I understand the religious impulse, or that I believe in some kind of secularized or naturalized sublime state which takes the place of religon, replacing it with supposedly sacred joyful noise. I just want to make sense out of the phrase that keeps popping into my head, if sense can be made of it. Perhaps keeping something like this in mind from time to time can illuminate the way we hear music, too.

12 Dec '01 11:01:19 PM

I'm glad Ethan is still writing hip-hop reviews for Pitchfork, but his new Roots Manuva review seems to miss the mark. As Tom noted, it doesn't seem like the review (and thus Ethan) got a very good handle on the music - why is it supposed to be so bad, if it's that bad? Ethan gives some hints - the stabs he takes at Mauva's flow, lyrics, and production - but they come off sounding like generic reasons why any music of this sort would be bad, rather than reasons why this particular record is bad. Now, it may be that these are actually reasons why his particular record is bad, because records like it are just bad for the same reasons, but I doubt that that's true, and a record review of the sort Pitchfork runs isn't really the place to make that kind of judgment. (Though some would argue that, in keeping with Pitchfork's ever-growing pulsating tradition of offhandedly dismissing music that it doesn't understand, it's exactly the place to make that kind of judgment.)

Part of my reason for expecting less "generic" reasons is that the review would then be clearer about whether or not the things Ethan thought were wrong with the album are things that Ethan personally just doesn't like, or things that a number of people would be hard-pressed to like. (If it's the latter, then a number of interesting questions come up: would that be a specific group of people? would their reasons for not liking the record have much to do with what group of people they were? if so, would they actually be good reasons for not liking the record, or would more "enlightened" listeners be able to see past those group affiliations, or at least the preferences that mark them as members of the group?) Ethan, for example, is very much devoted to hip-hop, so it may be that he has a very different notion of what "good rap" is compared to your average Pitchfork reader, who maybe doesn't listen to much hip-hop.

I think that Tim was getting at some good points here when he talks about Run Come Save Me. I also think that the qualities he's getting at aren't especially limited in appeal to people who are British (well offhand I can't remember if Australia counts as "British" right now, but he's more British than me, ha), or people who like as much pop or rap or dance music or electronic music as Tim does. So it's not as if his appreciation of the music is just orthogonal to what Ethan is expecting, somehow.

I also happen to know that Ethan wrote the review at the last minute. I wonder if that didn't have something to do with his assessment. Often it's easier to tear into a record than be fairer to it. In talking to Ethan it seems that he likes the album a bit more than he admits in the review or on ILM, so I think that he could have more (good) to say about it.

12 Dec '01 05:08:04 AM

This morning was the first time I'd ever cried on hearing the national anthem.

Later at night I heard that at the WTC site they played it on a solo trumpet. That seems right to me. On the radio, I heard the band playing at the White House. It was indistinguishable from any old time that a band plays the anthem, like on the Fourth of July. A little nationalistic pomp here, a little bluster there. It's not as if they were trying - that's just how the anthem sounds. I don't doubt that a lot of it's just due to association. Take a blustery song thick with pomp, set it in front of a band, repeat for decades.

It didn't sound right to me.

So it was a political act, of course, not just an act of mourning. Even the solo performance was a performance of the national anthem. The national anthem is the kind of thing that you can't help but be making some kind of political statement, even a very indirect one, in playing. Was the song for the dead people? Or someone else?

This stuff bothers me, but I didn't think about it when I cried.

It was just sad.

11 Dec '01 06:10:05 AM

And now they're at the part where they're banging on metal and shit and it makes me wonder, are they really all that much more advanced than your typical droner since the 60s? (Did they ever claim to be? Well they've got respect at least.) I could be listening to Zoviet France or a quiet part on a Neubauten record right now. Is it the "compositions" that set them apart? Is the possibility of finding systematic, rule-like order really what clinches it? Is that order that intrinsically valuable, or is it just contingently the mark of western art music?

11 Dec '01 06:01:30 AM

The two albums sound very similar, but Deep Listening sounds like "electronic music" and Dempster's Cistern Chapel record does not (it sounds special, but not electronic). I guess that's why they felt compelled to emphasize in the liner notes to the former that it was done without "electronics."

(Although to complicate things I think the Greek guy fiddled with some knobs.)

The presence of trombone makes it hard to separate from the Dempster record, even though when I focus in I can tell that a number of the drones (oh and I guess there's didgeridoo too) are from Oliveros' accordion.

10 Dec '01 10:02:22 PM

I don't know why, but the old February 2000 page was missing from the archives. It is no longer missing.

10 Dec '01 09:54:08 PM

Stolen from an email to Mark, about the Mouse on Mars album Iaora Tahiti:

I bought it at least a couple of months ago, I just haven't gotten too comfy with it yet. I think it has something to do with the music; it sounds better to me environmentally as opposed to on headphones, but most of the time I have is headphone time.

It also seems very trebly. This may be linked to why I like it better in rooms.

Also I think that even though I like music that for whatever reason or in whatever way lacks structure, I probably prefer that I know that music well before I can listen to it on headphones and also get anything else like reading (which is what I am doing the majority of the time when my headphones are on) done. For instance, now the last Labradford album works fine on headphones but earlier on I didn't like to hear it that way. The same thing probably happens for free jazz and such - and so also Iaora Tahiti. It just seems to me right now to have so many big long "go-nowhere" (I mean, they go somewhere but that somewhere doesn't always seem to be very related to where they started; or they keep going the same place over and over again like a hamster on a wheel, ha) tracks.

10 Dec '01 05:27:59 AM

So far I've been suspicious of the new Spiritualized album, Let It Come Down. I've been dealing with that suspicion by listening to it under specific conditions. I'm not even forcing myself to only listen under these conditions - it just seems to have happened that I only feel like listening then: when I'm taking a nap, when I wake up on a weekend and decide to get back in bed, and when I'm drunk. On Saturday, I happened to encounter the album in all three of these states. I have to say, I like it. But I'm not sure what that means. At quite a few points on the album, I can find things to dislike. I like it despite those things. In that respect I don't think the album is much different from many others - though it may be different in that the things that I dislike about it carry more weight, or should, because of the things themselves. But what's more, as I mentioned previously, I only seem ready to hear the album at specific times. This too is not that different from other music I listen to, in that I only want to hear it occasionally. But this too seems as if I want to hear it only occasionally for different, more heavily weighted reasons.

I'm being vague about this just in case you're like Tom and this kind of thing entices you into having another listen.

10 Dec '01 05:02:06 AM

"the sense of keeping up..." It's weird, how this song shifts back and forth for me. The first time, it was like that ton of bricks. And plenty of other times, like one night walking home through snow. But sometimes everything fits more into place - it's less surprising, there's more of a sense that everything is fitting together "normally". I've had this happen to me with other drum-and-bass. I wonder if it's not just due to some tendency I have to hear music as "normal", to make it fit together in ways that are more natural. For instance, I have to pay more careful attention to Giant Steps to make sure that I remember what's so remarkable about it, instead of just hearing it as good music. I think there's something to the idea of the critic (and by extension listener) keeping the work alive.

When I'm not moving the drum beats and bass line sound more frantic, but Travis's vocals sound more paced. When I'm moving (including moving on a bus, even though I'm technically sitting still), it sounds like his vocals are trying to catch up, and the other parts have it easier.