Monday, May 28, 2012

Chapter 2: TOTAL RECALL: Music and Memory in the Time of YouTube


on the relative inaccessibility -- out of reachness - of the pop past when i was growing up

Along with records being out of print and deleted by record companies, other factors include: radio, as I recall, would drop only the occasional golden oldie amidst playlists almost completely dedicated to current releases, while there were just one or two nostalgia oriented radio shows (replaying a vintage chart run-down from the Sixties, maybe, or pre-rock era music like jazz and swing).  Same with TV and repeats. In both radio and TV, you were subject to the decisions of those in charge of the programming. 

More generally, in terms of cultural knowledge, there was a vast murk of non-information, which could be enlightened only by looking in books (of which there weren't that many on rock and pop) or making a visit to a library that kept back issues of periodicals (a major undertaking, not feasible for most people)

When it came to live music, rock had simply not been in existence long enough for there to be reunions and nostalgia tours; when gig guides featured bands from the Sixties, it would be the original band still slogging away, increasingly knackered, promoting twilight-of-career albums


the onset of atemporality/the increased presence of the popcult past in the present

Crucial milestones in this process would include the arrival of video player/recorders on the consumer market in the late Seventies;  the emergence of oldies-oriented radio (with  categories like 80s Hits recently joining the hardy perennial Classic Rock), oldies-oriented music video television (such as VH1-Classic), and "TV Gold" oriented "repeats" channels; and the compact disc driven reissue boom,  with major labels first hastily and shoddily dumping their back catalogue onto silver disc,   then starting more deluxe reissue programs with repackagings and box sets; the arrival of satellite radio with its genre and era oriented niche channels. 

The first video recorders hit the consumer market around 1975, but they only became widespread around the end of the Seventies and start of the Eighties (which explains why so much of the nostalgia material on YouTube is late Seventies onwards, [(although that said it is amazing how many people found a way to tape compilations of their favourite TV commercials from the early Seventies or chunks of Sixties and Seventies children's TV). This enabled people to build their own private archive of television series and movies taped off the TV, but also led to the emergence of the video rental stores with a large repertory of  older films. 

Largely oriented around current hits to begin with, MTV gradually worked in "oldies" into its mix in a way that created a kind of ahistorical eternal now in which the past and the present. In time MTV would also spin off the sister channels VH1 (oriented towards older performers and music that appealed to an over-30s demographic) and then VH1 Classic.  As its name suggested, VH1 CLASSIC is all about old music, along iwth an endless output of music documentaries, from the popular Behind the Music series to shows that look at the making of iconic albums, along with nostalgia seasons (Metal Month), biopics about music legends, classic rock movies, and of course the hugely successful "I Love the [Decade]" programmes.  See also That Metal Show, largely about 70s and 80s metal legends and demi-legends.

The endlessly repeated Behind The Music docs worked as visual Muzak, steeping the viewer in an ambient broth of received ideas, rock-myth archetypes, and stock syndromes; you could start watching an episode at any point and find your place easily because they all had the same narrative arc (obscurity>>fame>>drugs /bad management>>disintegration>>obscurity>>reconciliation and return) and you could stop watching at any point because you knew that in a moment of slackness you'll find yourself half-watching the same episode again. As such VH1 Classic was true to the original idea of MTV as radio-for-your-eyes, a stream of imagery that you could have on in the background or watch semi-attentively while doing something else like read a magazine. Essentially VH1 Classic, as its name suggests, was the classic rock station counterpart to MTV's Top 40 / Modern Rock station and VH1's AOR station.

Then Behind the Music came back a few years ago as Behind the Music Remastered -- basically the original programme with some update material tacked on at the end.


presence of the past pt 2: problems

Technology allows us access to the image of the past with an unprecedented degree of vividness, but paradoxically the effect is to de-realize the historical past, make it seem weaker and more tenuous. This is because the sheer abundance and profusion of images and video,  and their saturated repletion, tends to denarrativise; the imagery becomes flat, an inscrutable surface.  The maxim has been inverted: a picture is no longer worth a thousand words, it's the other way around now, a thousand images cannot impart a sense of history as effectively as a written account, a well-researched article or book.   Likewise it is the textual elements of a documentary--the voice over narration, the talking heads's testimonials and insights--that justify its claim to be history rather than merely eye-candy entertainment.

 YouTube being in the business of fragmenting larger culture-units into smaller ones, yet also increasing access to diversity of culture

Lucas Hilderbrand, author of Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright, interviewed by Chicagoist

"VHS was hugely important to me growing up, because I'm from a small town in the Midwest but was passionate about cinema. Without home video, I couldn't have discovered or seen a lot of the work that influenced me--classics, foreign films, and independents that wouldn't have played in a theater or that I couldn't have seen repeatedly and gotten to know intimately. ....

"Access, of course, is in itself good for culture. My concern is that access often comes without context and that things are viewed in fragmented or distracted ways. I teach film studies, and every time I find that one of my students has watched a feature film in 9-minute installments on YouTube, I cringe a little. YouTube is very useful to access material that wouldn't circulate anywhere else and for circulating grassroots media. But it isn't the same as seeing something in a theater or even attentively watching a film uninterrupted on DVD. And of course I'm parroting the same anxieties film purists had about VHS! Sometimes I feel that the historical specificity or textual richness of some work is lost through online sharing--so my feeling about this kind of access is ambivalent: enthusiastic about the potential, reserved about the actuality. "


The CD-R as the interim between the labor-intensive and fully cathected cassette mixtape and the dematerialised, literally worth-less yousendit / shared playlist / cloudmixtape.

Perhaps one day CD-Rs will have the nostalgia-inducing aura of the mixtape and the prerecorded cassette, but I somehow doubt it. Some people did try to personalize their CD-Rs with artwork or collages, but it seemed a forlorn gesture, going against the tide. One thing I noticed about the CD-R was that, because they were so quick and easy to pull together as a compilation, and because the blank media was cheap, it encouraged a kind of excessive generosity: well-intended, obviously, but to the recipient it could actually feel like an imposition, a form of obligation to listen and pressure on your precious time. Obviously, it's really nice when someone burns you 10 albums; on the other hand, there's a disproportion between the amount of time spent on the gift (as little as 20 minutes, if you're burning from a computer) and the ten hours it would take to actual listen to all of that music even just once. A cassette mixtape took longer--by a factor of up to two times, depending on how much care was taken with selection and sequencing--to make than it did to listen to, and the effort that went into making the gift earned your listening time. The potlatch tendencies that emerged with the CD-R burn was like warning tremors of the uncontrollable and ruinous "gift economy" of file-sharing.

I can't be the only person who has stacks and stacks of these unloveable things stowed away in closets: generally too thin for you to read their spines and thus irritating to sort through, yet just about worth hanging onto because a copy done from CD has much superior audio quality to an MP3. The CD-R was a transitional phase between the era when music still occupied physical space as a thing you kept and stored or made and gave away, and the ongoing age of music as dematerialised data lurking inside your hard drive or portable playback devices, music as bundles of pure code that whizz back and forth across the internet


I would say that it is one of my favourite sites--but the truth is that I always seem to be too busy to sit there and watch/listen all the way through to the chunks of treasure stashed up at UbuWeb. So the relationship is one of admiration rather than consummated pleasure; a sort of future subjunctive enjoyment perhaps (I would really dig this, if I had the time to dig into it

The Long Tail and "information/culture/music/_____ wants to be free"

One of Chris Anderson's Long Tail dictums is that retailers should cut their prices in half and then lower them still further. But no price is lower than "free" and there is in fact an invisible and literally unaccountable (in a fiscal sense) Long Tail: that vast region of consumption that doesn't pay any price at all: the illegal traffic in downloaded music, films, games, etc. This is a massive haemorrhaging not just of revenue but of attention, and as I suggested earlier, it seems highly likely that the greater proportion of this lost listening/viewing time is going to the past: old records, old movies. It is impossible to quantify, of course, and a further complication is that when music costs nothing, people will acquire vastly larger amounts of it than they did when they had to pay for it. They just won't necessarily have the time to listen to it, or listen to it in any real depth. 

Anderson deploys an aqueous metaphor when talking about information: it's inherently driven to free itself from ownership and price, "in the same way that life wants to spread and water wants to run downhill.”  He explicitly cites YouTube as an example of freedom in practice, arguing that it's essential we adjust our worldview from a “scarcity” mind-set to one attuned to “abundance”. Webspace is infinitely capacious; “Nobody is deciding whether a video is good enough to justify the scarce channel space it takes, because there is no scarce channel space.”  But the majority of the content on YouTube isn't really free; its production was paid for by someone else, in the past.  YouTube is postbroadcasting because it is a manifestation of postproduction culture: dependent on the repositories of creativity and labour-time made during early times.  

MP3s, data compression, and the removal of "redundant" sonic information 

Some of this was so-called "simultaneous" frequencies (sounds drowned out by louder sounds that effectively mask them). Another sort of allegedly redundant sonic information was the so-called "temporal masking": "two sounds very close together in time (less than about five milliseconds apart, depending on the material)", writes Sterne, where one of the sounds is "significantly louder than the other", meaning that listeners only heard the louder of the two. A final category of discardable data related to the spatialisation of sound: Fraunhofer's model of human listening showed that stereo only really function in the mid-range, and that "very low or very high sounds" were "close to impossible for people to locate". In order to save space, Fraunhofer's MP3 encoder does the top and bottom of the frequency range in mono. And, adds Sterne, because "most human adults cannot hear above 16khz, some MP3 encoders also throw out all the data from 16–20khz to save even more space."



the informatization of culture

the compression of culture in store-able/share-able packages has a curious effect, which is that it informationalizes culture.  it makes music something that you can process faster, handle more conveniently,, that is portable and fittable-into-schedules or alongside other activities; this turns it into something you can check out and check off, to keep up with the things you need to keep up with.  You don't get the full sonic experience with MP3s or streams, via your computer or iPod or smartphone, but you get the outlines: enough of the defining contours of the band or song to be able to comment on, to fit it into the scheme of knowledge, the map of where music is and has been.

Likewise, it's very convenient to watch a movie on your iPad; you're not getting the full sensory experience by a long shot that you would in a modern cinema (the retinal intensities and engulfing immediacy of widescreen, the Dolby surroundsound, etc). But you do get the informational necessities: the plotline, the dialogue, the characters, some sense of how it looks if severely reduced. Again, experiential-sensory aspects are traded off in favour of convenience/schedule-abilty. The informationalization of culture, again.

 c.f. the anti-MP3/downloading-mania complaints of guitarist Ben Chasny, who makes psychedelic folk music under the name Six Organs of Admittance. He argued in a Pitchfork interview that "we are becoming addicted to information. You only need to look at those people who have hard drives filled with songs that they have never even listened to. They are not even collecting music. They are collecting information." Echoing (probably unwittingly) Adorno, he complained that as "the speed at which we are able to acquire music increases, there is no way to contemplate and really think about things unless one makes a conscious effort NOT to take everything in…]  The more people become addicted to information and the faster they can obtain that information, the less they will be able to contemplate that information, and it is the contemplation of the information which makes it art."


"continuous partial attention"

which could also be termed "divided attention", i.e. the opposite of giving something or someone your undivided attention. Either it's split between two activities (time split horizontally down the middle between two different but parallel activities). Or it gets something worse than Linda Stone's  "continuous partial attention", namely "discontinuous partial attention"--time that is repeatedly interrupted by cut-aways, freeze-frames, and zooms in and out of close-up.  Fredric Jameson talks of "psychic fragmentation" as the malaise that in the age of postmodernism has replaced the alienation of the early 20th Century.

"Brittle flow" and  "psychic fragmentation" are closely related to the derogatory concept of "distraction" as used by both Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno as refer to a mode of response to art they consider inferior and opposed to contemplative immersion. By distraction, they don't mean in the sense of diversion or frivolity (an escape from seriousness) but rather a fragmented attention that's easily distracted. Contemplation may or may not occur in a state of bodily stillness, but it is actually the opposite of passive, because when you are meditatively focused on the music you are attending to its structure, development through time, and formal purity. Contemplation is the mode of consciousness appropriate to art; distraction is the mode of consumption instilled by product (the output of the "culture industry"), a dull-eyed, bovine mastication. 

Adorno's critiques of jazz (even taking into consideration that he probably meant "pop" or "light music" rather than the sound of New Orleans per se) have been righteously critiqued by cultural studies professors, and there's no doubt he'd have a similarly limited understanding of disco and rave music dance music (being a fuddy-duddy, he regard dancing as passive not active, because it was a form of rhythmic obedience). Still his anatomy of fragmented listening still has applications to how music is experienced in the internet era. Viz, "Deconcentrated listening makes the perception of a whole impossible. All that is realized is what the spotlight falls on--striking melodic intervals, unsettling modulations, intentional or unintentional mistakes, or whatever condenses itself into a formula by an especially intimate merging of melody and text."

What Adorno's describing here seems to prophesy what you could call "byte listening" or "the loop ear", when peak points and "good bits" in an earlier composition are decontextualised and then put on repeat. Loop-based music like hip hop and the more populist forms of electronic dance seem particularly suited to listening on computers while engaged in other activities: they are almost purposely designed for a kind of twin level listening, when you shift in and out of not-paying-attention and entranced focus (when a loop grabs your ear, or at transition points in the track or mix). Music when you can stop paying attention for periods and not have missed anything much is the ideal soundtrack to the "continuous partial attention"/brittle flow era.

The critic Mark Fisher captures the stark difference between  boredom then and boredom now: the latter is "a thin fascination ... a dissolute impulse to flick and click that is boring even as it weakly grips us."

of course, a pure state of sustained concentrated listening is quite hard to achieve. Drugs help, part of their appeal for listening to music is not so much that they make music sound better but they make you able to focus on one thing, or make the music so overwhelming that all other distractions can't reach you. But in normal, sober listening, even in the best of circumstances (seclusion) and with the best will in the world (mono-focus), there will be momentary distractions. That is quite different from how most of us listening to most of our music, which is expressly as one of several things going on. To re-quote the saying of the Roman slave Publilius Syrus -  quoted at the start of Walter Kirn's celebrated essay on multitasking -- "To do two things at once is to do neither." Art really deserves our undivided attention. Equally, it deserves our uninterrupted attention. 

C.f. Seneca's "to be everywhere is to be nowhere", which is applicable to the internet's dislocation effect on space/place, as Syrus's maxim is in terms of its effects on time

attention restoration therapy

aka ART, is a theory/therapy based on the idea that people are able to concentrate better after spending time in nature, or even in gazing at nature scenes second-hand. Natural environments are full of "soft fascinations", which engage the person's attention without effort, strain or fatigue: clouds in the sky, tree leaves rustled by the breeze, water flowing over a rock-strewn brook, and so forth.  The theory was coined in the 1980s by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in a book titled The Experience of Nature.  


The Man Who Fell To Earth/the alien Newton's 12 TV sets at once

There's an even earlier model of the fragmented future self in 20th Century literature: Jorge Luis Borges's 1949 short story The Aleph. With his obsessions with libraries and labyrinths, Borges is often seen as a kind of prophet of the internet; things like search engines, sound clouds, and Google Earth definitely have a Borgesian whiff about them. The Aleph, a fable about a kind of portal that confers upon the witness a god-like omnipresence and omniscience, could be taken as a portent of things like YouTube and Wikipedia. 

The story is set up with an epigraph from Hamlet: "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a King of infinite space." The main character, apart from the narrator, is Carlos Argentino, an insufferably pompous and pedantic poet whose epic work-in-progress, entitled The Earth, is an attempt "to versify the entire planet", from a gasworks north of Veracruz to a Turkish bath in Brighton.  

Early in the story Carlos Argentino talks about modern man in terms that anticipate point to the realization of Aleph-like powers through technological innovations. "I picture [modern man] in his study, as though in the watchtower of a great city, surrounded by telephones, telegraphs, phonographs, the latest in radio-telephone and motion-picture and magic-lantern equipment, and glossaries and calendars and timetables and bulletins…" Argentino observes that for a person so well endowed with telemetric powers, travelling was unnecessary: "This twentieth century of ours had upended the fable of Muhammad and the mountain--mountains nowadays did in fact come to the modern Muhammad."

Argentino can only write the epic world-straddling poem in his own house,  because down in the cellar there's an Aleph: "one of the points in space that contain all points…. the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist." Argentino stumbled on this wonder, which takes the form of a "small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness", as a child. He allows the narrator to see it, and he describe it thus:

 " At first I thought it was spinning; then I realized that the movement was an illusion produced by the dizzying spectacles inside it…. In that unbounded moment, I saw millions of delightful and horrible acts; none amazed me so much as the fact that all occupied the same point, without superimposition and without transparency. What my eyes saw was simultaneous; what I shall write is successive, because language is successive". 

Although only a few centimeters across, " universal space was contained inside it."

Borges anticipated the shrinkage to nothing of geographical distance, but did not--at least here, in this particular story--imagine the elimination of historical distance,  all the past smushed into NOW. 

But it is a powerfully prophetic glimpse of the horror of the internet -- not cyberspace, an expanse across which we journey, but as a non-space, the roiling density of absolute proximity, where everything that is and ever was is separated by only a few clicks or search-engine instructions.

Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma


Dan Lopatin's 2009 manifesto for "ecstastic regression"

synthemas and notes 1 by Skulltheft aka Dan Lopatin (at The Sixth Ear tumblr, August 24 2009)

 "If our generation can be defined artistically in a single way it is that of the collector-archivist. We are naturally disposed towards nostalgia, and deep freeze cultural informatics is our greatest cybernetic feat"

Lopatin takes issue with the obsession with originality and innovation ("as if the only type of worthwhile experience is the glory of a fresh kill") and questions the notion of linear progress ("one unyielding progressive laser shot towards an impossible future"). And he offers a Bourriad-redolent defence of retromania and remake/remodel aesthetics: "disabling the past doesn’t make striving for the future any easier. Signature styles emerge from mimesis and vice versa

the manifesto in full can be found here

And he's got a point hasn't he? Concepts like "derivative" and "parasitic" belong to a linear, unidirectional concept of time; just as ideas of appropriation and tourism relate to a pre-Internet concept of the world where the faraway stays far away and stuff is actually owned by specific artists and populations


"Fifth World Music"

"Fifth World Music" is a term coined by British blogger kek-w to describe a breed of ethnic music influenced indie bands (at that point mostly hailing from Brooklyn, e.g. Gang Gang Dance). It's a play on the concept of "Fourth World Music" formulated by  composer and trumpet-player Jon Hassell in the early Eighties: the notion of a new cosmopolitan hybrid sound that mingled ancient and modern, ethnic ritual music and hi-tech Western pop. Paralleling the theory was convincing practice in the form of Hassell's wondrous albums Possible Musics,  Dream Theory In Malaya, and Aka/Darbari/Java: Magic Realism, which meshed together chants and percussion patterns inspired by or sampled from tribal fielding recordings with studio treatments and ambient atmospheres.  Adding further substance to the Fourth World vision were such Eighties fellow-travelers as Talking Heads,  Holger Czukay,  Japan, Jah Wobble, and Ryuichi Sakomoto (who coined his own Fourth World-like term, "neo-geo").

Fifth World Music is an Internet-era update and expansion of Fourth World Music.  You could think of the Fifth World as a place, albeit a virtual one: the postgeographical and post-historical zone of the world-wide-web.  
 Oneohtrix Point Never. Returnal features textural tints that explicitly echo the hyper-visual sounds of Hassell's Eighties music, while Lopatin describes the album as an attempt to "make a world music record, but make it hyper-real, refracted through not really being in touch with the world.   Everything I know about the world is seen through Nova documentary specials, Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic. So I'm painting these pictures, not of the actual world, but of us watching that world."


 post-Internet transgeographical/transhistorical hybridism

Balam Acab on Internet scavenging in FACT

Q: Do you make your own field recordings?

A: No, though I might consider it some day. I find them by searching all around the internet.

Q: Are the vocals your own?

A: No. More internet scavenging.”

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