Sunday, May 21, 2017

Johnny Marr – ‘Set the Boy Free’

Through music, the people who follow you have something of you in their life, and in some ways they’re like you, even if they think they’re just a fan. (p. 357)
As a teen with a classical guitar, and some fairly tortuous lessons behind me, I made the transition to playing songs through Johnny Marr’s example. I had the sheet music books of The Smiths and Meat is Murder, and, laid out as they were for piano with guitar chords above, they contained enough clues to attempt reconstructions of the wonders he was up to, just beneath the surface (it was always a disappointment when the piano part followed the vocal melody). Ludicrously, I spent hours grappling with ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ without realising that a capo would have rendered it possible to play. As it was, my fingers contorted into C-shape bar chords that were impossible to move between smoothly. I could play the guitar and bass parts to ‘Rusholme Ruffians’ and ‘Well I Wonder’ simultaneously, after a fashion. The spindly ‘Suffer Little Children’ was another favourite (just the guitar part for that one). It was a great way to learn, and of course I didn’t realise how unusual Marr’s guitar parts were – just as the rest of The Smiths seem not to have done when they tried to replace him in 1987 (you might as well have replaced Morrissey). He offers a few insights into how he arrived at them:
instead of focusing solely on what the guitars were doing I would try to play what I was hearing on the whole record, giving me an accidental ‘one-man band’ approach. (p. 30)
I was finding inspiration in all sorts of music, but mostly I was listening to girl groups. I wondered if the approach on those records could be applied to a guitar band, and I worked on eradicating any traces of traditional rock guitar that might be in my songwriting, while trying to maintain my own sound. (p. 127)
He’s also just the right age for T-Rextacy, which explains the music to ‘Panic’:
In 1972, not long after I bought ‘Jeepster’, T.Rex released the single ‘Metal Guru’, a record I thought was so beautiful, it sounded like it came from another world, yet was strangely familiar to me. I watched him perform it on Top of the Pops, and was so ecstatic after seeing it that I got on my bike and rode off down the roads until I got lost, then had to find my way home when I came back to my senses. (p. 28)
Isn’t that lovely? It’s echoed in later passages when he would run ten miles or so before each show he played with The Cribs, and it links to the book’s title, which amounts to a defence of his career choices. The section dealing with The Smiths’ split places the blame not on any individual, but on the pressure of not having proper management. There is also the decidedly odd session just after Strangeways, Here We Come was finished, which produced ‘Work is a Four Letter Word’ and ‘I Keep Mine Hidden’, in which Marr was made to feel like a session musician in his own band. Towards the end of the book, he says that The Smiths couldn’t have lasted any longer, because of the personalities involved. Those personalities didn’t have to take him for granted though. Compared to Morrissey’s account, which ‘mostly consists of side swipes at Geoff Travis and the hippies at Rough Trade’ as I thought after reading Autobiography, Marr’s is much less partisan and paranoid. Even when the pressure leads him into crazy behaviour like trying to steal the master tapes of The Queen is Dead or driving like a manic when he can’t even drive at all because he’s never learnt to, he just comes out and says it. His book has none of the literary ambition of Autobiography… but this is just stating the obvious. Morrissey wrote a self-absorbed Morrissey book, and Marr wrote a book absorbed in everything but the self: in guitars, the studio, bands, celebrities he has played with. Read both of them and you get the picture.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Damon Krukowski – ‘The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World’

Analog refers to a continuous stream of information, whereas digital is discontinuous. (p. 9)
One of the lectures on the computing course I did in 2003/4 opened with a statement to the effect that everything digital is also analogue, and everything analogue is also digital. The first part is true because a signal containing digital information will itself be physical, and therefore bound to have variations, but within thresholds which allow it to be recognised as a series of discrete values (i.e. as 0 or 1). I can’t remember exactly why the second part was said to be true, but I suppose that any parsing of information involves categorising it, ending up with a discrete value. Speech is broken down into syllables as it is spoken and built back up into sentences as it is heard. Music is built back up into notes, chords, rhythms, words – and noise. Damon Krukowski’s book is an argument in favour of leaving the building-back-up to the brain, rather than outsourcing it to the microprocessor and the corporations in charge of the algorithms which determine what we see and hear. He thinks we need the noise, even if we choose to discard most of it.

It’s not just about the argument, though, and the book is often best at its most tangential. Looking for a passage on the difference between analogue and digital recording just now, I found relevant sections in two or three chapters, in amongst discussions of pianolas, copyright, listening to sports radio along to TV coverage, mistakes and even studio directions you can hear if you listen closely enough to Pet Sounds, quadrophonic sound, the loudness wars, Can getting their analogue studio to play itself, and the accumulation of so much music in iTunes that it becomes impossible to listen carefully enough (‘thick listening’ (p. 119)). This is the closest I found:
In the digital audio workstation, where you are at any moment in the recording is precisely determined by the timescale, but when any given sound occurs is not. All times are equally available to it. Compare this to an analog recording on tape: the tape itself has no absolute time value, but any moment on that length of tape is fixed in relation to all the moments it is not. (p. 188)
That is, unless you splice the tape, which is discussed in relation to John Cage’s dense ‘Williams Mix’, which is in turn compared to The Beatles’ ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’:
rather than compressing […] time by cutting it up as Cage had, the Beatles layered over and over the same length of tape, until it was so thick with time that listening to it reminded people of an acid trip. (p. 116)
There is much discussion of plus and minus points of stereo – minus, because it takes music away from shared space and into headphones, effectively de-socialising it. This incident crops up repeatedly:
I saw a woman fall from her bicycle in the middle of the street. ‘What happened?’ I asked as I helped her up – the one car nearby had hardly come close. She took her headphones off and said, ‘I was totally self-absorbed. Suddenly I realised there was a car in the road. I braked and fell.’ (p. 19)
The conclusion drawn is:
She surrendered her shifting analog sense of what is signal and what is noise, replacing it with the digital stream of information on her headphones – a stream that is signal only. (p. 51)
Here, Krukowski pushes his thesis too far. It is fair enough to blame the headphones for the woman’s disorientation, but it is ridiculous to claim that it was anything to do with the music being digital. An analogue Walkman could have produced exactly the same effect. There are a few moments of imprecision like this. He mis-defines crosstalk as ‘feeding a part of one channel’s sound into the other in order to re-create the kinds of binaural clues we use to locate sounds in space’ (p. 51) (this is panning – crosstalk refers to unwanted noise leaking between channels), and proceeds to defend something which was never under attack. He says that mp3s are designed to sound worse than CDs, which would be a lousy design aspiration. And while I am nit-picking, the separation of everything into signal and noise can seem arbitrary. Social media is one of the digital innovations which works by eliminating noise, he argues, leaving just signal, and no way to orient yourself. In a certain sense this is true (you can’t hear the tone of voice in a Tweet, and its brevity maximises the potential for a binary interpretation), but on the other hand, it often seems that social media is nothing but noise.

All of which is slightly beside the point. ‘Signal’ and ‘noise’ can mean a lot of different things, but something has definitely been going on with music this millennium, and most of it has been lapped up without question, because it has involved spending less money. The New Analog puts it in all sorts of contexts, and makes a brave attempt to define what we risk losing if we don’t take off our headphones and look around.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Unpleasantness at the Airdrie Club

From The Old Wives’ Tale I turned to David Keenan’s This is Memorial Device, thinking there would be a nice parallel in terms of books written about a backwater at the beginning of one century looking back at the end of the previous one. I was expecting it to rabbit on, and to be sexually transgressive, but the bit with the fetishisation of rips in surgically enhanced breasts was so revolting I didn’t much feel like carrying on beyond page 60. If I return to it, the questions will be: can the writing engage, rather than blindside and barnstorm? Can it be funny rather than swift and shocking? Can it shut up for a minute? Can it express something other than velocity through its headlong (long, long) sentences, and can it separate out its narrative voices (which have so far varied only in one character’s fondness for parentheses)? Perhaps it can. My feeling at the moment is that it thinks, ‘I’ve got rock and roll on my side, I can say anything’, a circular righteousness in wrongness that actual rock and roll, having tunes, is in a better position to get away with. I mean, it could all collapse into hilarious farce, or work as a championing of the old underground ways of doing things pre-internet. But still, yuck.

Instead, I picked up one of S.’s Dorothy L. Sayers books, The Unpleasantness at the Belona Club, which has an interesting exchange towards the end between Lord Peter Wimsey (speaking first) and Ann Dorland, one of the suspects in the murder case, about books:

        ‘Reading is an escape to me. Is it to you?’
        ‘How do you mean?’
        ‘Well – it is to most people, I think. Servants and factory hands read about beautiful girls loved by dark, handsome men, all covered over with jewels and moving in scenes of gilded splendour. And passionate spinsters read Ethel M. Dell. And dull men in offices read detective stories. They wouldn’t, if murder and police entered into their lives.’ […]
        ‘I don’t know,’ said Ann Dorland. ‘Of course, a detective story keeps your brain occupied. Rather like chess. Do you play chess?’
        ‘No good at it. I like it – but I keep on thinking about the history of the various pieces, and the picturesqueness of the moves. I’m not a player.’
        ‘Nor am I. I wish I were.’
        ‘Yes – that would keep one’s mind off things with a vengeance. Draughts or dominos or patience would be even better. No connection with anything.’ (pp. 236-7)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Arnold Bennett – ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’

Bought from the rather wonderful Ironbridge Bookshop after a visit to Enginuity, a museum about how industrial things work. The shop has an entire wall of Penguin books sorted by colour: there’s a lot of orange, but also the dark blue-green of crime, and light blue for Pelican non-fiction. En masse, it’s a great effect. The book is set fifty miles north of Ironbridge, amongst the ‘Five Towns’, a lightly-fictionalised grouping based on six real towns which now constitute Stoke-on-Trent, and which, as observed in its opening pages, supplies the whole country with pottery, at the expense of ‘an architecture of ovens and chimneys’ and an ‘atmosphere […] as black as mud’. This, ‘that you may drink tea out of a teacup and toy with a chop on a plate’ (p. 19). It’s a grim opening, and a slightly misleading one, as the book is set mostly in a draper’s shop: retail, not industry, is its dominant milieu (hospitality plays a supporting role). The story follows two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, from when they are young, in the mid-nineteenth century, to when they are old, in the early twentieth. Constance stays at home and takes over the shop from her parents, marrying an assistant, Samuel Povey, along the way; Sophia elopes to Paris with a supplier’s representative, Gerald Scales, and lives there for thirty years, through the siege in 1870 during which she accumulates enough money (through charging high rent and meal prices) to set up her own boarding house. The smoke and the grime fade quickly from the Midlands portion of the narrative, returning only when they are seen afresh by Sophia after her long absence. In other words, the dirt is presented realistically: those who live with it all the time don’t notice it.

There are a number of things which struck me as peculiar about The Old Wives’ Tale, which I’m struggling to reconcile, and it is dimly dawning on me that this might be the point. Its tone is detached but amiable, with a particular fondness for dogs. The bulk of it reads like a nineteenth century novel, with a little more licentiousness (around Gerald and Sophia’s elopement), but still, it is startling when cars and telegrams put in an appearance near the end. More startling is the way the sisters age and decline, with strokes of varying severity, obesity and sciatica all contributing. It is a brutally realistic account in some ways, and melodramatic in others: the timing of the attacks tends to coincide with important plot events, as though they are there for emphasis. It is an account, too, of the decline of retail in Bursley:
People would not go to Hanbridge for their bread or for their groceries, but they would go for their cakes. These electric trams had simply carried to Hanbridge the cream, and much of the milk, of Bursley’s retail trade.
        […] If Mrs Crichlow had been a philosopher, if she had known that geography had always made history, she would have given up her enterprise a dozen years ago. (pp. 567-8)
The Critchlows take the draper’s shop over from Constance, allowing her to live on in the rooms above it, and the pressure of the decline in trade eventually drives Mrs Critchlow to an asylum. Contrast the decline, for example, of Greshamsbury Hall in Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, which seems terminal, but is turned around by a cash injection when Frank marries well. Of course, the beauty of that plot is that he marries for love but ends up with money too. There is no such poetic justice in The Old Wives’ Tale: both sisters marry beneath them, one disastrously, and the only resulting child (Constance’s Cyril) is a neglectful son. Sophia lives in the shadow of her invalid father’s death, for which she was partly responsible, and which put an end to her only worthwhile ambition, to become a school teacher. Both sell their businesses and are comfortably off on the proceeds, but neither knows how to live well, because when they were living their important years, acquiring their habits, every available hour was taken up by trade. Cyril, with a generous £300-a-year from his mother, knows how to live a fashionable life, but has no moral fibre. There aren’t easy answers to any of these things, they are just (as the final section of the novel is entitled) ‘What Life is’.

Even if it is all ultimately pointless, it isn’t necessarily so at the time. Sophia ran her boarding house well. Constance ran her shop well, and brought up Cyril. And, as I say, dogs. Here is Sophia’s arrival on the platform of Knype station, after thirty years’ absence, observed by Constance:
Presently she saw a singular dog. Other people also saw it. It was the colour of chocolate; it had a head and shoulders richly covered with hair that hung down in thousands of tufts like the tufts of a modern mop such as is bought in shops. This hair stopped suddenly rather less than half-way along the length of the dog’s body, the remainder of which was naked and as smooth as marble. The effect was to give the inhabitants of the Five Towns the impression that the dog had forgotten an essential part of its attire and was outraging decency. The ball of hair which had been allowed to grow on the dog’s tail, and the circles of hair which ornamented its ankles, only served to intensify the impression of indecency. A pink ribbon round its neck completed the outrage. The ribbon had absolutely the air of a decked trollop. A chain ran taut from the creature’s neck into the middle of a small crowd of persons gesticulating over trunks, and Constance traced it to a tall and distinguished woman in a coat and skirt with a rather striking hat. (p. 468)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Andrea Wulf – ‘The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science’

After all that Nazism in the last two books, I thought this might be good to read next, being about a German (actually a Prussian) hero. To Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Charles Darwin and Ernst Haekel, all of whom acknowledged their debt to him; but not to a contemporary Anglophone audience, hence Andrea Wulf’s book, an attempt to redress the balance. Wulf puts Humboldt’s obscurity in the UK and US partly down to ‘anti-German sentiment’ following the two world wars of the twentieth century. She mentions in a footnote that Haekel found himself accused of ‘providing the Nazis with the intellectual foundation for their racial programmes’ because of his ‘stem-trees’ showing a ‘progressive path from “savage” to “civilised” races’, which separated Jews from Caucasians, but placed them on an equal footing (though there is a hierarchy, with some other extant races lower down). Perhaps Humboldt was tarred with this brush, though the argument doesn’t seem to have much to do with him. His work was more to do with what we now think of as ecology (a word coined by Haekel):
Humboldt was the first to explain the fundamental functions of the forest for the ecosystem and climate: the trees’ ability to store water and to enrich the atmosphere with moisture, their protection of the soil, and their cooling effect. He also talked about the impact of trees on the climate through their release of oxygen. The effects of the human species’ intervention were already ‘incalculable’, Humboldt insisted, and could become catastrophic if they continued to disturb the world so ‘brutally’.
The Invention of Nature is quite a long way from being a typical biography. This is partly because the events of its subject’s life were so unevenly spaced (expeditions in his thirties and sixties, writing in between), and partly because it is about the ideas and the legacy as much as it is about the man. A third concern is the context of the time, which is given in some detail (there’s quite a bit about the revolutions in South America in the years after Humboldt’s visit, Napoleon, and development of the USA following the Louisiana Purchase). It’s the kind of mix which doesn’t feed very neatly into a review trying to sum it all up, but for the common reader, who doesn’t bring any great amount of context to the table (for my part, I know a little about John Muir, and have forgotten a lot about Napoleon), it’s all interesting and relevant if you don’t enquire too closely what it is supposed to be relevant to. This engaging, scattershot approach does have one drawback, which is that although the energy and achievements of Humboldt are conveyed clearly, one is left a little cold about the man himself. But perhaps that is a fair response. Darwin, meeting his hero in old age, was disappointed by his incessant chatter, and as a younger man he was, if impressive, scarcely someone you’d want to sit next to at dinner:
Others feared his sharp tongue so much that they did not want to leave a party before Humboldt departed, worried that once they had gone they would be the object of his snide comments. Some thought Humboldt was like a meteor that whizzed through the room. At dinners he held court, jumping from one subject to another. One moment he was talking about shrunken heads, one acquaintance remarked, but by the time a dinner guest, who had asked his neighbour quietly for some salt, had returned to the conversation, Humboldt was lecturing on Assyrian cuneiform script. Humboldt was electrifying, some said, his mind was sharp and his thoughts free of prejudice.
Humbolt’s life’s work was mostly based on an expedition to South America between 1799-1804, spent climbing mountains, crossing plains, observing volcanic eruptions and one enormous earthquake in the first year. For many years after his return to Europe he tried to arrange a similar trip to the Himalayas, but the East India Company wouldn’t grant him permission to go. In 1829 he travelled instead to Russia, through the Urals and (in an unauthorised 3000-mile detour) on to the Altai mountains and back along the Chinese border. While travelling he would measure incessantly, like a good scientist, and came to important conclusions about the effect of climate, and altitude, on vegetation in different areas of the world (not just vegetation – he most impressed the Russians by predicting, correctly, where they would find diamonds in their own soil). The crucial thing was the wide scope of his enquiry, which was in sympathy with (and inspired) the English Romantic poets:
Coleridge [lamented] the loss of what he called the ‘connective powers of the understanding’. They lived in an ‘epoch of division and separation’, of fragmentation and the loss of unity. The problem, he insisted, lay with philosophers and scientists such as RenĂ© Descartes or Carl Linnaeus, who had turned the understanding of nature into a narrow practice of collecting, classification or mathematical abstraction.
Humboldt did his share of collecting, as Byron noted:
Lord Byron immortalized Humboldt in Don Juan, ridiculing his cynometer, the instrument with which Humboldt had measured the blueness of the sky.
Humboldt, ‘the first of travellers,’ but not
The last, if late accounts be accurate,
Invented, by some name I have forgot,
As well as the sublime discovery’s date,
An airy instrument, with which he sought
To ascertain the atmospheric state,
By measuring ‘the intensity of blue’:
O, Lady Daphne! let me measure you!
However, classification wasn’t what he was interested in. ‘Individual phenomena were only important “in their relation to the whole”’. He wanted to show how things worked together: he ‘“read” plants as others did books – and to him they revealed a global force behind nature, the movements of civilisations as well as landmass.’ Expressing this lyrically was part of his method, branching out into artistic expression as a way of broadening his scientific perspective (Wulf recommends Views of Nature as a good place to start reading Humboldt). Beginning to understand how this global force worked led to an understanding of how plantations and monoculture disrupted it, and he was in favour, along with American president Thomas Jefferson, of subsistence farming, as a way of maintaining diversity. We know that didn’t happen. And we know that Humboldt was right.

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