Archive for December, 2007

To make good on the “other worldy delights” part of this blog’s subtitle, I thought the following might be of interest:

I was watching Shadow of the Vampire recently (2000, dir. E. Elias Merhige, incl. John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe), and was struck by how important sound is in its impact. The film, for those who haven’t seen it, depicts wierdness during the filming of F. Mornau’s 20s-era silent classic, Nosferatu, staring Max Schreck (in Shadow, the conceit is that Schreck’s character, the vampire Count Orloff, played by Dafoe, is actually a vampire). I found the film as a whole somewhat less than compelling–specifically, my interest wandered towards the end, because there wasn’t much of a narrative arc–but I thought it had a number of absolutely stunning moments, ones that rank among my favorites of late. In particular, I was held by the opening credits, a brief travel scene in which the cast and crew relocate to Slovakia by train, and the climactic rape/murder of Orloff’s final victim, the actress Greta.

All three scenes are notable for their sonic identities. The credits are long–excessively, excruciatingly long–and visually static, showing a series of art deco (or is it nouveau?) sets, panning and zooming slowly. Aside from the names, which seem somehow beside the point, the impact of this is largely accomplished through music. In fact, I’d say it would be as satisfying to “watch” the credits with closed eyes.

The other two bits, the train scene and the climax, are notable not for music, but for the way sound and noise are handled. The train scene is beautiful–and again, excessive, I think–and something about showing the train without its sound is profoundly affecting. Mornau has a little soliloquy on the impact of film (which I thought was itself fairly compelling–“our music will linger and finally overwhelm…we are scientists doing experiments in memory”), and it is highlighted by being cast into the void. It is not simply that there isn’t other sound, but that there is the explicit absence of sound that should be there. The climax, by contrast, is highlighted by the abundance of noise.

Both of these seem like fairly typical cinematic techniques, if ones that are handled skillfully by Merhige. The reason they seem worth noting here is that they put me onto thinking about music and film. A quick glance at various musicology journals and conference programs suggests that we have become, as a discipline, fully invested in film music as a topic (largely, I think, because the film scholars have not really dealt with music); but it’s my impression that we have not really written about music as part of the larger category of sound in film. Our investment in music, per se, as a thing apart (and our position as specialists) may be to blame. It seems to me that an approach along the lines taken by Albin Zak with regard to rock recordings would be ideal: not only is music interesting and noise, but the sound of voices, the ways they are recorded, and so on, the sonic profiles of movies must be extremely important.

And then again, I could be wrong. Perhaps there are film music articles out there by musicologists that do deal with sound as an integral thing in film? I am open to standing corrected.


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Sex pistols covered in ideological fuzziness and smelling a little, well, “rotten” (groan). What happened?

Firstly, now it’s a crime to throw bottles at a Sex Pistols concert. If you are unruly at a show, Jonny Rotten might “throw you out FUCKER!” If you want them to play, “BEHAVE!” You don’t throw bottles at them, you throw them at “shit bands,” “If you’re not gonna’ POLICE yourselves, then FUCK OFF!

Secondly, Rotten looks like a cross between Kid from Kid ‘n’ Play, a refrigerator (thick, yes, but not in the Gracyk-ian sense), and a package of fruit flavored Life Savers®. This band misses McLaren and Westwood. The other band members are decked out in leather jackets (probably taken out of the safe-lock tupperware they have been stored in since 1977).

Thirdly, they’re basically playing a medley of their greatest hits…FROM 1976! This is at a concert in 1996. No new material at all.

In short, they’ve become museum pieces. Commodified representations of themselves 30 years ago – drained of all of their ideological juices – providing the satisfaction of a voyeuristic peek at punk ideology – pickled and mounted, without the threat of bursting from its containment. O well, I guess the same thing happened to Pierre Boulez. You can’t blame them you know, who wants to be in a retirement home having applesauce flung at them by a bunch of tossers who haven’t figured out that the 70’s were a show in the first place. Ah, diddums.

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Last month, wading through mountains of song, trying to make a compilation for a dear friend’s Thanksgiving party, I accidentally happened across Helena Noguera and Federico Pellegrini’s recording Bang! Dillinger Girl and Babyface Nelson [only this free on the web]. It is, undoubtedly one of the oddest and most compelling pop recordings I’ve heard in some time. It is pop, unabashedly, trashily, Euro-ly, pop. But it is also, at moments, intense, cutting edge, avant garde. The opening cut, “Stop,” opens with a single chord arpeggiated on a classical guitar, and then the two singers intone the verse–“Spent some time in the desert/Just a week or two”–with only a punctuating woman’s moan for accompanyment. The voices are just far enough apart, in time, range, intonation, to rub and grip, very much like Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson on “Alexandra Leaving”. When they get to the chorus–“Everything started with a drop of rain”–the little explosion of harmony, the brightness of Helena’s voice rising, it is nearly too much to listen to. Later songs on the album tease, joke, play. Some are in French, some in English, some in dark, genreless pop, others are music hall tunes or Western soundtrack pieces.

Helena is a model and singer whose previous work was reminiscent of Bebel Gilberto or Carla Bruni, and Federico is a guitarist who has worked in various French bands for some years–notably The Little Rabbits and French Cowboy. I am not as taken with any of their previous work as I am with this. Some collaborations are just right.

The album sends me into a reverie, makes me wonder about Paris in ways I haven’t since I was in high school and started reading Camus because it impressed a certain kind of girl. I imagine: American culture, which for years I have read as overwhelming in its imperialist power, is slowly dying on the vine, and if I were to go into a record store in Paris I would not just see the same things I see in every store in America. There are treasure troves of daunting, beautiful pop music just over the horizon. It’s not just that other places have their own pop music–I know that well enough, from Dangdut to Cantopop, from Soukous to Filmi music–but that France, which I have not thought much of in years, is newly appealing.

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Karaoke, Ridiculous and Sublime

I find it a little hard to explain why I love karaoke, but I do. More, by far, of my favorite memories from nights out listening to music come from karaoke than from any other kind of performance. The girl who wanted to be a country star out practicing at Kirin, the guy with the GIANT Viet Namese accent singing the 8-minute version of “I’m Sailing Away,” the KJ with the Turgenyev-esque tale of woe at Ridgeway’s, and most recently, the woman taking a header off the stage while singing “I Wanna Be Sedated” at Cowboy Monkey–and still finishing the song.

Recently I was at a party, trying to put into words what it is that I find compelling about it, and was thrown back to a fairly basic statement: it makes me love people. Makes me love the singers and the people listening, and by extension, humanity writ large. Karaoke is like church to me, I suppose. But that’s not much of an answer–that is, it doesn’t really explain why I feel that way. I have thought more on it, and I’ve come to this: I love karaoke, at least as it is practiced in the U.S., because it presents life’s rich pageant, the Ridiculous and the Sublime. It is a place for laughing at ourselves, and being moved by the intensity of feeling we can bring to experiences; a place for suprisingly beautiful renditions of songs, and for truly awful ones. It makes the mass-marketed commodity into a thing we take hold of and force to serve our needs, personal and communal. It can also be tragic, of course, but that, too, is moving, if only because it points us to our own tragedies, big and small.

Some friends of mine have a “Live Karaoke Band,” which I’m fairly certain is the most interesting thing to do in Champaign-Urbana, where I live, and which is in some ways even more appealing than regular karaoke. I think watching the guys in the band (mid-30s, moderately successful local rock musicians) work with the singers (some good, but mostly what you’d expect), cueing them, directing them to the right pitch, helping them have the experience of interacting in a musical context, is pretty awesome. It seems like an obvious concept, but I haven’t seen it elsewhere–makes me wonder how common it is.

One final thought: I don’t particularly like the Japanese-style karaoke. Singing in a private room with a small group of one’s friends sounds like it would make for a better time–no waiting to sing, no suffering through strangers’ mangled renditions–but for me it loses everything I go to karaoke for.

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I was recently asked to give a talk about music and affect/emotion for a critical theory group here at the University of Illinois, and I took the opportunity to riff a little about a thing that I had noticed a bit back, but can’t really think of a way to make enough out of to write a full paper on.

It’s this: there are things in Morrissey’s songwriting that seem to present melancholy in ways that I think would be intelligible to 18th century German audiences/musicians in the know about their own affect theory. Check out the Smiths’ song “This Charming Man,” for instance, and Georg Philippe Telemann’s recorder concerto in C-Maj, third movement, Adagio (sorry, no free online version to link to). The Telemann is paradigmatic melancholy–it’s an adagio, in minor, makes extensive use of dissonance, especially appogiaturas, is composed principally of small intervals and lots of slurred articulations. “This Charming Man” is different in a number of ways (not least that the guitar, bass, and drum accompaniment is NOT melancholy–it’s peppy, reminiscent to me of bright Afro-pop from the time); but if you listen just to Morrissey’s vocal line, it’s really similar to the Telemann–it’s minor-mode-inflected, uses mostly small intervals, some slurred, and makes clear use of dissonant suspensions, particualrly “sigh” figures. And moreover, it’s paradigmatic Morrissey. Loads of his melodies sound really similar to this one. (Incidentally, I’m not sure I’d say that the lyrics are melancholy, though there’s a case to be made, probably). The big difference as I see it is that Telemann was composing within a tradition in which the representation of emotion in music was understood to be explicitly conventional, and Morrissey has composed within a tradition in which convention (though used) is mystified.

I’m wavering about what to make of this. It seems hard to imagine that Morrissey was aware of 18th c. German affect theory at the time he wrote songs for the Smiths; and in any case it seems so unlikely that he would have wanted to emulate that approach, if only because of its explicitly conventional orientation. So far my impression is that on the one hand, both are really writing within one mega-tradition–Tonal music in Modern Europe; and on the other hand, there are some things about the aspects of both pieces that sound melancholy that are iconic of the somatic experience of melancholy (i.e., “sigh” figures are somehow synaesthetically LIKE sighing). This second bit points in directions relating to music cognition that I really am unqualified to write about right now, but that I can’t wait to start reading up on.

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Professor Steve Van Zandt!

While checking the most important daily news in the MSNBC entertainment section I found this charming article about Steve Van Zandt’s new endeavor. This must be a new hobby since the end of the Sopranos. I would be very interested in the details of this course.http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22070405/ Looks like Rock studies are getting some attention? 

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