Monday, May 31, 2010

X Marks the Axiom

I begin with a haiku:

Frances, O Frances
Picked a Xenakis record
She makes me think, think!

My brain has been doing some serious cartwheels. Iannis Xenakis comes off so smart you wonder if his head was always hurting from all the math in there. I'll get the obligatory narrative out of the way right now: he's a polymath superhero, educated as an architect (coolest fact: according to this biography, his thesis was on "Reinforced Concrete") and mathematician before he started publishing music. One can point to actual buildings in the world that he designed or at least helped to design, mostly as a student of the 20th Century's premier architectural superstar, Le Corbusier.

Though as a young man I'm sure he was dead serious about how cool it would be to make tons of ripply, flowing, frozen masses of buildings to get all the math out of his head, it was ultimately through music that he would realize his greatest success. For one thing, architect superstars are few and far between: there's only so much room and time and resources in the world for new buildings, so the profession allows no more than a couple of outsized personalities per generation. However, I guess the main reason is that music as a medium is much more fluid: it lacks physical substance, so you have to make fewer concessions in its realization, and once you do get it out into the world, no one has to live in it. Of course there are still limitations, concessions to the desires of your audience or the availability of people to play it, but no medium is perfect.

Enough about the guy, you can read about him all over the place if you want to. I'm here to talk about the record, which Frances selected for me while in a particularly cerebral mood, it seems. What we have here is three pieces: Metastasis (for 61 individually scored instruments - you can't play it with 58 or 60 or 63!), Pithoprakta (for 46 strings, 2 trombones, 1 xylophone and 1 wood block), and Eonta (actually the title is four bizarre runes - doubly schooling Led Zeppelin, having been created nine years before the Zofo album and being actual 2400-year-old writing [from Cyprus!]; it's for piano, 2 trumpets and 3 trombones). We also have a wonderful insert: a gloriously, gleefully brain-scrambling essay by the composer called "The Way of Research and Questioning: Formalization and Axiomatization of Music", in which he argues that science is the child of music but that it's fallen far behind (or as he puts it: "Musical thinking has been, and is, far behind thinking in physics and mathematics, which are avant-gardes cut off from a philosophy that has been thus castrated."), and that it's time for composers to pick up the ball and once again reinstate music as the director of physics and mathematics. How? Why through Stochastic Music, which is to say music based on probabilities, which allows for, you guessed it, formalization and axiomatization.

Yes. Yes it does.

(Apparently it also allows for big blonks and bbwwwwwaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrgghghghhgs; huge masses undulating, gliding and soaring and punctuated by little pinpricks of other sound; clouds of tiny stabs and hits that glob around like a flock of birds.)

The soul is a fallen god. Only ek-stasis (going outside oneself) can reveal its true nature. It is necessary to escape from the Wheel of Birth (reincarnations) by means of purificartions (katharmoi) and sacraments (orghia), the instruments of ekstasis. Katharmoi are performed by means of music and medicine.

About sixty years ago there was a powerful movement in Western art music, probably not coincidentally accompanying the shrinking of the world through improved transportation and communication. Music had to be re-thought, because tonality and the preceding three centuries of European music were exposed as just one teeny-tiny little system in a vast ocean of possibilities. Xenakis's focus was to generalize out from that system in an attempt to start to reveal the same music of the spheres that Pythagoras envisioned and that gave birth to the disciplines of mathematics and physics. He proposes two fundamental aspects of music:

Two natures must be distinguished: "in time" and "out of time"... The logical relations or operations applied to classes of sounds, intervals, or musical notes, etc., are... "out of time"... Serial order is "in time", as is a traditional melody. Any music, in its "out of time" nature, can be liberated instantaneously, frozen. Its nature "in time" is the relation of "out of time" nature with time. As sounding reality, there is no pure "out of time" music; there is pure "in time" music, i.e. rhythm in the pure state.

It took me while to get a handle on that, but I think I got it. As I read it, "in time" is the music itself, and "out of time" is the stuff that determines and describes the music: or as we call it in the digital music indutry, metadata. (Of course the concept of metadata that we throw around doesn't include a lot of the stuff that I think Xenakis means: I think he's getting at the idea of a "score" or program or a formalized system and language that determines the generation of music, and trying to create a vocabulary for an abstraction of that idea, whereas metadata is more about describing the elements of a work, usually a recording, that's already been generated. Still and all, it's an interesting congruence to look at: since he wrote those words almost a half-century ago, popular and to some degree art music in the West continued its evolution into an extreme focus on recorded performance, form-as-music and performance-as-music; my miles of LPs are a testimony to this evolution and to my generation's preoccupation [and that of the two that preceded it] with metadata: obsessive description, categorization and examination of music in its frozen state, the product and particular form, rather than the living essence. In the recommendation technology industry [my bread and butter these last ten years], metadata becomes the score, an ever more granular set of data points that you can feed into a computer until it completely understands and can reproduce the essence of Kind of Blue and differerentiate it from In a Silent Way, Water Babies and Tutu.) Seen this way, music in performance is "in time", and the set of rules, circumstances, assumptions, systems, traditions and other midwives that occasioned its creation are the constancies "out of time"; the tempered scale and other tools of European music in the classical tradition, brilliant though they are, are but one particular and limited system among an infinitude of "out of time"s. Given the woeful inadequacy of this system to account for the immediacy and importance to large numbers of people of, say, the Ramones or the Boredoms (or to use an example closer to the time in which Xenakis was writing, the Beatles), it seems that Xenakis was right in 1963 - classical music needed to either produce some straight-up Wall of Sound, with a guy jumping on a contrabass and eating the strings, or die and be buried under mountains of "acid rock" and "rhythm and blues" and other similarly newfangled monstrosities.

He then goes on to make his argument in the language of formal logic, and while I have no ability whatsoever to stay on the train once that happens, it does tickle me to read stuff like the following:

This second definition leads to a Theory of Screening which, with the help of congruences modulo z, constructs particular structures, such as the major and minor scales, etc. A screen r is defined by the set of x's that are congruent to r modulo z (r and z being given relative whole numbers)...

(For those who can't get enough of this, he wrote a book full of it, Musiques formelles, and this particular argument is taken from the book.)

Happily, I can get back on the train here:

The job of the next few generations is to carry forward the integration of music into this field, virtually untapped... In these directions they will have to be aided by computers and servo-mechanisms. I think that having shown the group structure of the tempered chromatic scale in the broad sense, the use of numerical machines no longer stands in need of justification. It is not a mystery. If there is a mystery, it is in the mental structures of music and not in the computers, which are only tools, extensions of the hand and the slide rule.

And here we are. Since Xenakis wrote this maddeningly dense but impassioned manifesto, we've indeed seen music drive the development of computers and servo-mechanisms - though perhaps not in the directions he envisioned:

  • Electronic amplification! It started out as just a way to let the people in the back row hear better but then we got the Velvet Underground and heavy metal and from there it wasn't long until "noise" got to be a genre and people like Masonna and Boyd Rice playing with sound art and fascist imagery to make whatever kind of statement they wanted to make and then comes Trent Reznor and noise gets into the mainstream as one more color in the sonic palette.

  • Rhythm! The Silver Apples, then Kraftwerk, then Detroit techno, house music and finally David Guetta.

  • Sampling! The vast cultural mashup. First breaks and beats in the Bronx, then the Bomb Squad, then Girl Talk. Using the emotional and cultural resonances of previously recorded music as building blocks for new music.

  • File sharing! The application of search engine technology to liberate the flow of recordings frozen in the glacier of commerce. The subsequent meltdown of the commercial system and the liberation of the material of music from "out of time" (recorded product) to "in time" (performers make their money from performing rather than selling product).

  • Also, robots playing instruments. I keep hearing about this these days. It's so funny. I saw a band called "Robot Rock Band" in Buffalo about seven years ago that was all robots playing spontaneously composed rock music (with spontaneously generated titles, a nice touch), and then I just recently heard about this other group on NPR and if you look on youtube you can find these guys who are hilarious.

All of these formalize music and have evolved their own systems of formalization and axiomatization. Yet the mystery that Xenakis suggested remains: what are the mental structures behind music? That hese developments are undeniably commercial, physical, and emotional in nature hints at a truth that Xenakis and the theorists in his club weren't ready to admit: for music to gain traction and move forward and to push the development of scientific thought (ok, these are technological rather than purely scientific developments. It's the best we can do so far; music has yet to push the limits of n-dimensional space or describe quantum phenomena inside a black hole, though it's not like Jimi Hendrix didn't try), it needs to be popular. Being awesomely smart isn't quite enough.

He might not have wanted to say it, but Xenakis felt it. His music is noisy, cerebral and totally weird - but it rules! He's got a sense of drama and a rock-star appeal that other similarly intellectual dudes from the same circle - Luciano Berio, say, or Morton Feldman - can't really touch. For one thing, he's super-hardcore: badly wounded and left for dead as a member of a unit in a Greek resistance force during the Second World War, he lost an eye and remained facially scarred for life; also, he spent time in jail for being a Communist. Compelling narrative aside, though, the rockin' tunes are what keep the crowds cheering, and here the X-man delivers the goods as well. Metastasis, presented on this album in a recording by Maurice Le Roux (to whom the piece is dedicated) conducting the National Radio Orchestra of France, is as heavy a jam as Boris or Sunn O))) ever conceived, careening, screeching, popping and lurching all over the place in its stated attempt to prove "that the human orchestra could outclass, in new sonorities and finesse, the new electronic means that had set out to eliminate it." The same conductor leads the same orchestra in Pithoprakta, where they do all that funny stuff like smacking their instruments and whatnot that usually bugs me but when the riffage rocks this hard, I'm not gonna complain. By "riffage" I of course mean "dense pointilistic clouds of sound", and by rocks, I mean "totally fucking rocks". Eonta, whose title apparently means "Beings" and is most accurately written, as I mentioned above, in ancient freaking runic script from an island where people were probably wearing bear heads and dancing around while they invented a writing system, brings the funk with an insane part for piano calculated by a computer (in 1963, when computers were the size of Central Park) and played by Yuji Takahashi, the great interpreter of insane piano parts written by brainy composers, and mind-obliterating brass glassandi that swoop, dive and blast for almost twenty minutes, played by the unimaginatively named Paris Instrumental Ensemble for Contemporary Music directed by Konstantin Simonovic.

It's still a hard sell though. I'm actually stretching it a bit with the rock comparisons. Stoner rock kinda gets it, because those dudes are on a long trip to find ultimate heaviness, which means they have to push the envelope of acceptability - but they're mostly still living under the tyranny of the beat, the legacy of rock transmitted through the ancestral mind and felt in the fundament. Xenakis wasn't too into rhythm. This record is in the Vanguard Records "Cardinal Series", an imprint that the label - which had started as a classical label in 1950 but had later gotten famous for spearheading the folk movement by signing people like Joan Baez and Buffy St. Marie in the early 60s - initiated to release high-quality classical music at an attractive low price. Which is to say, they were flush with Country Joe and the Fish cash, so they took a hit on getting some deeper tracks on the shelves because they loved them. Interestingly, Xenakis is a freaky standout among the mostly pretty straight composers who have records listed on the inner sleeve - Telemann and Bach; Beethoven, Liszt, and Grieg; Purcell and Handel. Mahler and Satie are about as out as it gets except for Mr. X - could it be that something about this crazy music appealed to the totally sober Vanguard guys?

He's not what you'd call a household name, maybe, but Xenakis hangs in there. Modern art music's most eloquent cheerleader, and my generation's most popular and passionate pundit in the realm of the non-pop, Alex Ross, recently devoted a week of his New Yorker column and blog to Xenakis(ok, so it's not O - but not bad for a guy who couldn't make an argument without resorting to congruences modulo z), and noted in a more recent post a number of Xenakis events taking place around NYC this summer. Clearly, the music-heads are on board, and the music brings enough to the table for the casual listeners to continue showing interest. But is it true to his mission? I think so. Music fails when it makes you put in more than you take out - it's like a joke that you have to explain. There's a wide gulf between music you need to think about and music you can just feel, and Xenakis scares you by making you think you have to think, but then when you hear his music, you forget what you were thinking about and tune in to the music of the spheres.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sex Attack

Dude: Hey baby, what's your name?

Lady: Who me?

Dude: I'd sure like to get to know you!

Lady: For what? So you can waste my time?
Huh. No way, Jose. All talk and no play?
Nice try, but I need a reeeeal guy!

Sex attack! I've got a sex attack! x2
Sex attack! Sex attack! Ooh! x2

I need someone, someone real hot
I need somebody, uh who won't stop
This real cool dude, I answered his plea
Thought he might satisfy me
He started out, uh real fast
Uh breathin' heavily, he could not last
I was ready, but he let me down
Another dude, another clown

Sex attack! I've got a sex attack! x2
Sex attack! Sex attack! Ooh! x2

I am on a long long search
Trying to quench my sexual thirst
Big or small, fast or slow
You know I'm always ready to go
Somebody please come along
And try this body all night long
I keep trying, cause I've got this jones
This sex attack won't leave me alone

Sex attack! I've got a sex attack! x2
Sex attack! Sex attack! Ooh! x2

(Come on and try me babe)

I'm hot, I'm burnin' up - sex attack! Sex attack! x4
I've got a sex attack - I've got a sex attack! x4
Sex attack! Sex attack! Ooh! x2
Sex attack! I've got a sex attack!

It's a poem. It needs music. What do you think? I was thinking maybe a funky, uptempo number. How about the delivery? Breathy, with lots of groans and grunts. Yes, that would work. That's exactly the feeling I'm going for with this.

I have no idea where I got "Sex Attack" by Wandra (I've had it at least ten years, and I would guess that I skimmed it from the bazillion 12"s in my own record store – though I could as easily have found it in a dollar bin in any of the dozens of other places I shopped at in the 90s), but I can certainly tell you why I got it: that one word, "SEX". Obviously! I'm all about the outrage. Like what was I thinking – “Wow a song with SEX in the title! I wonder if they sing about SEX in there? Oh man it's gonna be totally off the wall!" But anyhow, I don't have any memory of the first time I listened to it. For years, it's sat in the Ws of my LPs, and every time I pass by it I'm like, oh yeah it's that song, and the hook runs through my head: "Sex attack, I've got a sex attack” – but there's no memory of a time in my life where I engaged in a long, intense dialogue with it, the way I did with, say, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, or The Wall. I have a comfortable relationship with this record, one of ownership and vague familiarity. It's always there, waiting for the next time I play it, filling in the cracks, background noise in a total environment, doing its tiny part to inform the aesthetic dialogue I carry on with the world at large that is my record collection.

But I mean, is that really how this record was meant to work – an ego-boosting novelty ensuring record-collecting prowess? Is this a proper fate for the fruit of Wandra's labor? I want to do right by people, man.

Ok, well, why did they make it? One path to creation – presumably, the artistically pure path – is to start with a need to get your message out, and music the medium. The message of "Sex Attack": Hey baby, I'm totally sex-crazed! There's no way you can give me what I need!


Ok, I'm guessing this record didn't come out of a burning desire to get that point across. The other path to creation is seeing a need, and being skillful enough to create something that meets that need. The market-driven approach. Searching the internet for various combinations of terms associated with this record yielded me the following information:

  • There was a disco group in the early 80s called Pure Energy, consisting of Raymond Hudson, Curtis Hudson, and Lisa Stevens. It's a good bet that they are the three pictured on this cover , which appears to be from a 7". The three of them wrote and produced "Sex Attack".
  • Pure Energy were total NYC music-biz pros, managing an artist stable as "The Hudson Organization", writing, arranging and producing records for other artists like Wandra.
  • Curtis and Lisa wrote that Madonna song "Holiday", and they recorded the version that became the single. "Sex Attack" actually sounds a little like "Holiday", in the melody, in a now-that-you-mention-it kind of way. It's also got a similar direct lyrical approach to a focused, artistically-rendered idea – albeit a somewhat darker one.

"Sex Attack" is strictly THO-pro (THO = The Hudson Organization. Keep up, already!). It's from the early 80s, years after the Death of Disco in the mainstream, during the time it went underground into the clubs of New York and got leaner, meaner and awesomer, gestating Electro, Madonna and House. It's no dancefloor anthem, but it's got spare hooks and a serious groove, guaranteed to keep the party pumping. I'd guess, then, that the message is secondary to the market: this production was made to meet a demand from nymphomaniacal, sweaty young folks for funky grooves to keep their bodies moving.

Wait so they're just totally prostitute now? Where'd the love go? Writing off "Sex Attack" as a project for hire and thereby denying it artistic credibility doesn't pass the common sense test – one listen to the thing and it's clear that they had fun making it. There's joy in the grooves, despite the dismally sexist premise, and the music - tight and muscular, not sloppy at all, slick, sure, tuneful – has heart and soul. It's the sound of dudes at the top of their game, cranking out quality. How come they didn't get famous? There's a hint in the Wikipedia entry for "Holiday":

It was [John "Jellybean"] Benitez who discovered a new song written by Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens of the pop group Pure Energy.[3] The song, titled "Holiday", had been turned down by Phyllis Hyman and Mary Wilson, formerly of The Supremes.[4] After the vocals were added by Madonna, Benitez spent four days and tried to enhance the commercial appeal of the track before the April 1983 deadline.[2][4] Just before it was completed, Madonna and Benitez took the tape over to their friend Fred Zarr's apartment in Brooklyn.[4] Zarr added a piano solo in the intermediate section of the track.[3]"

(The citations refer to Madonna books by Rikky Rooksby, Mary Cross and Andrew Morton.)

So they were, perhaps, too focused on the cranking, and not enough on the popping. Too much quantity and not enough quality. Fine for the club circuit where Madonna came up – but without the spark to get out themselves. But hey, let's give them credit! Maybe they were comfortable and even happy there. They were making it work with the production company, and maybe they didn't aspire to push it further. Is this mid-level aspiration wrong? Our culture seems to frown on it, but who knows – maybe they totally inhabited it. Maybe the clubs were there for them, and the big-time producers were too apt to stab them in the back. Maybe when they played live they did the 20-minute go-go jam on "Sex Attack" with interpretive dance and multple conga breakdowns. Maybe calling themselves "Pure Energy" meant that they didn't want pop concessions like piano solos to get in the way of their pure, laser-sharp dancefloor groove-bringers with single-minded lyrics. Maybe they aspired to be the background noise, the funky fun beats, the club-land workhorses, and maybe they sold that song to Madonna cause it was a good deal at the time, and maybe they didn't get famous cause they stayed true to their mission.

I guess that makes it ok for me to feel cool for having the single – it did its job for THO and now it's the province of the archivists and the historians. Maybe it's happy to get the attention, as long as my verbosity doesn't kill it. It really is a nice record – for one thing, the pretty translucent smoky vinyl gives it a gem-like appearance – sadly, though, this is a signal to anyone who's in the business that it's COLLECTIBLE! BETTER JACK UP THE PRICE! Search the internet for it and you'll find lots of people trying to sell it but no evidence that anyone's actually interested in the thing – except for this guy who dropped it into his mix, and who actually appears to feel the Spirit of the Funk Disco. He's truer to Wandra than I'm being right now – you can't move your ass to a blog post. Well maybe you can to this blog post, but that's only cause I'm telling you you have to. Ass! Move it! Now! Thanks, Wandra – and thanks, Frances, for picking me such a nice deep cut, and teaching me that even if you sell your stuff you're not necessarily selling your soul, and knowing what you want to do is the key to true success.