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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18 Jul '02 07:23:16 AM

Marcello has been posting up a storm lately. Take a minute and read.

17 Jul '02 05:55:32 AM

Tonight I've been paging through my second-year Russian textbook, and reading sentences out loud. It reminded me of something I wanted to say about Sonic Youth.

I picked the second-year book instead of the third-year book in the hope that I might remember it better, despite its being something I learned longer ago (three years ago, since I didn't study any Russian last year) - I learned it better, so it should be hidden somewhere in my head, despite my apparent inability, at the moment, to conjure up any interesting Russian sentences off the top of my head.

The ease with which I can read it is sort of surprising, despite my hope that it would be something I never really forgot. I was always better at reading than speaking (especially speaking on my own, instead of just responding to others), but I seem to know most of the words, or at least the general sense of them, and the grammar makes sense. I assume I can attribute all of this to the repetition that went into my learning it originally, which foreign language pedagogues the world over will feel vindicated by, I'm sure.

There's one thing, though: when I would read my Russian homework, even though we were supposed to make sure to try to do some of it aloud, I would usually read in an almost sub-vocal whisper, to get the feel for the words, their rising and falling contours, their shapes, how they flowed into the surrounding words, or cut off abruptly. I never wanted to do it aloud because I was either in a public place, or because I felt dumb somehow for talking when no one was around.

This seems to have had an effect. It probably had one at the time, but it feels more pronounced now. When I read Russian 'aloud' in that quiet way, I don't really feel tripped up. But when I read it in my normal voice (I should say 'normal Russian voice', because it feels, and probably is, different from the voice I speak English with - higher in some places, lower in others, in an awkward mixture of unconscious mimicry of the correct intonation contours, and deliberate attempts to force my speech to conform to what I remember of the contours), things start degrading. Somewhat frequently. I get to words that I know and can pronounce, but that I can't get out. I stumble on strange syllables. I think too much about the sounds I'm making.

Sometimes Sonic Youth's detuned guitars are cited as one of their early innovations, along with the structures of their songs, their noisiness, and other such things. To the extent that such things were innovative for what rock music or popular music, I'm reasonably happy with those claims. It annoys me, though, to see the 'innovations' held against the later Sonic Youth. As in: Sonic Youth are past it, because they've just been repeating themselves since their early records, when they were truly innovative and experimental. Sonic Youth are boring, because they've been doing the same old detuned guitar thing for years now. Et cet.

Pick up a guitar. Play around with it - listen to the way the strings are related to one another. That arrangement has, lurking somewhere in its history, the weight of centuries of western tonality behind it - the weight of a certain way of organizing sounds. Guitars are built to take some kind of advantage (maybe not a perfect advantage) of that system. If you understand that system well enough - and I don't mean through theoretical study, but even just through learning to play lots of more or less tonal music on your instrument, or through listening to lots of it - then it becomes more 'natural' in some way to play certain things on your instrument rather than others. Guitars and other stringed instruments only make this easier, I think, because their multiple strings make the harmonic relationships primary to tonality more palpable, more of either a channel, something that guides you into doing certain things, like a groove in the dirt, or an obstacle, something to fight against.

This is why detuning their guitars is, in some way, an experimental thing for Sonic Youth to have done. "Throwing away the rules" is a cliche, but one that partly gets at the value of this kind of musical choice. It also partly gets it wrong, because the rules are still there, in the background, possibly in the choices the band makes as to what to do with those strings once they're detuned, possibly in the way the new tunings still partially replicate or suggest the standard tonal relationships, or standard but less familiar ones. And in the listeners' understandings of them.

Thurston Moore's remarks in this interview about not being able to easily play old songs of theirs are telling. "But the ability is another question, because a lot of it has to do with, what the hell tuning was I playing in? And it's like, if you don't have that notated and you can pull it out of your notebook -- and I have no notebook. I don't have this stuff written down anywhere. It takes so much detective work for me to get back into a song, even from then. It becomes really problematic." Unless you have an insane level of mastery over your instrument, part of the advantage offered by its being consistently in the same tuning is that you can rely on past experience to know which ways to put your hands on it, how to move from one position to another, rather than having to learn that, as well, when you learn a new song. (Even then, it can still take some learning, as new ways of moving around are encountered.) So changing the tunings around throws away all of that. Changing the tunings around a lot, like from song to song, record to record, just multiplies the difficulties. When you learn how to play something, just like learning how to say something, the body remembers. And when you try to get it to play the thing differently, it can be like me, trying to read those Russian sentences aloud.

The allegation that Sonic Youth have been sitting on their experimental asses bothers me, then, because it treats the innovation of detuning - basically, the move away from tonality - as if it's just one thing, over and done now. The experimental choice isn't much of one if it's just made once, as a kind of stylistic affectation - "let's sound funny". What Sonic Youth have been doing, all these years, is in part working inside that vast musical space not governed (or at least suggestively aided) by the 'rules' of tonality. Or in the wider space encompassing both tonal music and non-tonal music. There are lots of ways to do that, lots of songs to write, lots of noises to make that express different and possibly new and unusual things. Doing that work, the exploration of that space, seems to me a more thoroughgoing way of being experimental. And missing that seems to me to miss something key to what Sonic Youth have been doing for twenty years.

17 Jul '02 04:14:41 AM

For a number of reasons I keep forgetting that I really like reading Michaelangelo Matos' Mix Project, much more so than the 'published' music writing of his that I catch, when I do. He stretches out there, and 'indulges' (I can only even make that swipe at the normal usage because of the depressing state of music journalism that needlessly limits critics) in some theory, some description, some personal material, some this-is-how-I-got-this-record, all the stuff that goes into being a listener and thinking about it, at whatever length he sees fit.

17 Jul '02 02:59:23 AM

I hardly have to be acquainted with the relevant history (of jazz) to be able to hear that it's running throughout Mingus Ah Um. Except that 'running thoughout' isn't enough. I probably need lots of words. The past is alluded to. Made modern. It's tangled together with what's contemporary. Hiding behind it. Blossoming out of it. It shades everything here, but never grossly - it never seems like a heavy weight Mingus is struggling to heft, or a host of nattering voices, remonstrances from the proponents of tradition. The past is also the subject of fond tribute. Clever appropriation. Mingus' mastery of it seems total, especially to me, lucky that I hardly have to be acquainted with that history to notice it, since I hardly am.

If that seems like it's a bit much, well, right now I feel like it should be.

What we've got here, I think, is one of those composers who engage with the vernacular, using something like the kind of western art music compositional techniques that are "serious" music's bitches, but it's probably still not what they ("they") want.

16 Jul '02 05:48:38 AM

Nude as the News interview with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, by way of Fluxblog.

15 Jul '02 09:10:28 PM

This afternoon's mix while washing dishes:

"Doit" makes me grin and palsy around uncontrollably more and more every time I hear it.

15 Jul '02 09:04:10 PM

Fred is back!

12 Jul '02 07:40:59 AM

Note to future self: write extended meditation on "Blame it on the Sun".

12 Jul '02 07:25:08 AM

Nice story about meeting Lester Bowie and others from Phil.