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Verisimilimusic: Synthesis of the Real

Posted by , February 3rd, 2013
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[All the songs within this post can be downloaded in this zip file.]

 

All musical sound carries with it a development of sensations that are already familiar and exhausted, and which predispose the listener to boredom in spite of the efforts of all the innovatory musicians.
Luigi Russolo (The Art of Noises, 1913)

 

Only 24 hours in a day
Only 12 notes a man can play

Beastie Boys (“Shadrach”, 1989)

 

At the beginning of the 20th century The Futurists, a group of artists from the Italian avant-garde, launched an “insolent challenge to the stars,” aligning themselves with the spirit of youth. The musicians of the movement lead an audacious revolt, realizing the noise of the Industrial Age had drowned out Beethoven’s Eroica, and watching as the sound of old masters was hung around the necks of music students like an ideological noose, renounced the past in an attempt to forge a future free of “the absurd swindle that is called well-made music.” In 1910, Francesco Balilla Pratella offered his Manifesto of Futurist Musicians, attacking music academies and conservatories as snares that intended to render impotent any artistic insight, perpetuate traditionalism and combat any effort to widen the musical field. Pratella declared inexorable war on everything that repeats, prolongs or exalts the past at the expense of the future. Calling on the recklessness of youth, Pratella hoped to steer future generations away from convention because he believed schools prostituted the glories of the past and were used as “insidious arms of offense against budding talent” that limited study to a “useless form of acrobatics floundering in the perpetual last throes of a behindhand culture that is already dead.” Futurism displayed an ever-growing hostility towards the exhumation of old works that prevented revolutionary innovation.

Following in Pratella’s footsteps, Luigi Russolo offered his own Futurist manifesto, The Art of Noises, outlining a way to liberate music from the confines of religious reverence, pleasantry and grace, and instead, supplant the comfortable melodies of the orchestra with the noise of trams, steam engines, foundries and printing presses. Russolo believed that substituting noise for sound would enrich the imagination of the listener, challenging him to experience new unexpected sensual pleasure. Rather than considering a symphony as music and the roar of industry as noise, Russolo created new instruments that intoned noise, allowing musicians a limitless range of new sounds that strove to incorporate the noise of everyday life rather than attempt to drown it out. The abrupt shock of a car backfire or a hammer fall, once synthesized into the Futurist paradigm, could lose its footing as an intrusion, and instead, become a crescendo in a new assemblage of sounds. The potential of transforming noise into art obviously went beyond the novelty of a printing press acting as a rhythmic device or steam pipe replacing the brass section of an orchestra. For if the province of music could include rather than exclude the noises of the day, and if the natural harmony and rhythm of those noises could be synthesized into a new musical language, it could aestheticize aspects of the everyday, transforming banalities into agencies of transcendence and distractions into ecstatic relays. The revolutionary aspect of the movement wasn’t in creating a proto-industrial band out of factory machinery; Futurist music was revolutionary in its call for the proletarianization of sound.

 

The liberation of individual musical sensibility from all imitation or influence of the past, feeling and singing with the spirit open to the future, drawing inspiration and aesthetics from nature, through all the human and extra-human phenomena present in it.
Francesco Balilla Pratella (Manifesto of Futurist Musicians, 1910)

 

We want the airwaves
We want the airwaves
We want the airwaves, baby
If rock is gonna stay alive
The Ramones (“We Want the Airwaves”, 1981)

 

intoners

 

In their annihilation of the old masters, the Futurists displayed precognition of the “schools” that would follow them. Electronic, punk, industrial and sample-based music all include aspects of Futurism. Just as those who came after them created their own instruments, Luigi Russolo created intonarumori, or “noise intoners.” These acoustic noise generators were parallelepiped wooden boxes with a conical speaker and crank, operating as a basic proto-synthesizer. Borrowing design elements from the loudspeaker, drum and the phonograph, Russolo designed the intoners to offer a range of pitch and amplitude, which were classified according to noise family and register (e.g., roars, whistling, murmurs, beating, shouts, screeching, creaking, etc.). The first concert of Futurist music in April 1914 caused a riot, which is evidence of a strong opening salvo in the Futurist’s inexorable war on past traditions. Unfortunately, further Futurist conflicts went unrealized as concerts around Europe were cancelled during the outbreak of World War I, and many of Russolo’s intoners were destroyed or lost.

There are a number of musicians who were directly influenced by the Futurists, most notably Varèse, Stravinsky and Antheil, but corollary is clear in those who may have been unaware of Russolo and Pratella, but who approached music with a re-creative point of view that is comparably Futurist. Likewise, the methodologies employed in music are progenies of Futurism. While the individuals and their techniques may all be different, they all share in the Futurist desire to explore new realms.

 

The variety of noises is infinite. If today, when we have perhaps a thousand different machines, we can distinguish a thousand different noises, tomorrow, as new machines multiply, we will be able to distinguish ten, twenty, or thirty thousand different noises, not merely in a simply imitative way, but to combine them according to our imagination.
Luigi Russolo (The Art of Noises, 1913)

 

Bring the noise!
Public Enemy, 1987

 

Russolo’s intonarumori and two examples of  industrial music that similarly intoned noise:
»» Luigi Russolo — “Intonarumori: Ronzatore (buzzer)” (1914)
»» Einsturzende Neubauten — “Abstieg & Zerfall” (1981)
»» Throbbing Gristle — “Hamburger Lady” (1981)


 

 

The earliest innovations in electronic music were made by engineers who, sharing in the vanguard impulse of Futurism, didn’t stop in a desire to create new instruments but created an entirely new form of music. In the 1940s, Pierre Schaeffer developed musique concrète, a practice of abstracting recordings (concrete sounds) into a musical form. This was a complete departure from the traditional practice of notating ideas and having those notations performed by musicians armed with instruments. Schaeffer’s process disregarded notations, musicians and instruments. Like the Futurists before him, Schaeffer intoned the noise around him, but instead of creating an acoustic instrument to mimic noise, he manipulated electronic recordings.

Pierre Schaeffer was neither the first, nor was he alone, in the development of electronic music. There are a number of early electronic instruments—Clavecin électrique, Theremin, Telharmonium, Ondes Martenot—dating back to the mid 1700s, but it wasn’t until the advent of synthesis that the metaphysics of music, the notion of what music is, took on plasticity.

 

»» Pierre Schaeffer — “Masquerage” (1948)

 

The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth–it is the truth which conceals that there is none.
The simulacrum is true.

Jean Baudrillard (Simulacra and Simulation, 1981)

 

Your persona’s drama, that you acquired in high school in actin’ class
Your whole aura is plexiglass

O.C. (“Time’s Up”, 1994)

 

To think about synthesis today, is, largely, to think about synthesizers, which is due to the fact that audio synthesis has itself been synthesized. In other words, most people think of the sound that comes from a synthesizer as synthesis itself. To appreciate the significance of where sound can come from today, we should remember a time when synthesis was a process of building a sound from scratch and not just, as we know it today, a matter of turning the device on. There was a time when there was no device; there was only a process, a way of bringing sound into being, creating a platform from which sound slowly materialized.

Early forms of synthesis involved building: using an oscillator to generate a waveform (sine, square, sawtooth), controlling the frequency of the generated waveform (variable pitch v. fixed pitch), controlling the amplitude (volume), and creating any filters that may shape the tone. Once a single sound was created, it could be recorded onto magnetic tape (saved) and either looped, spliced or played in conjunction with another created sound. The process of creating sound was revelatory, but laborious.

 

»» John Pfeiffer — “Orders” (Electronomusic, 1968)
[Pfeiffer was an engineer for RCA Records, responsible for producing many of the labels classical recordings. In addition to working on other’s records, Pfeiffer recorded an LP of his own audio experiments. The record featured an orchestra of sound produced by instruments that he built: Inharmonic Side-Band, Contraformer, Parametric Blocks, Metric Transperformer, Alphormer, Duotonic Transform, and Ordered Simpliformer.]

 

 

 

 

Many of the early commercial releases of electronic music were offered, thematically, as astrological or science fiction works: Forbidden Planet, Apocalypse, Fantasy in Space, Silver Apples of the Moon, Le Voyage, etc. And the record labels were right to liken the new sound of electronic music to aliens visiting earth, because the music shared very few auditory commonalities with anything heard prior. To make matters more petri dish-ish, electronic music was presented like a scientific dissertation. And rightfully so, as most of the electronic musicians were audio engineers who looked more like lab researchers than members of the avant-garde; just as most of the equipment was available only to audio professionals, academics or researchers. Those early recordings sound studious, methodic and analytical precisely because the people making the recordings were studiously analyzing the methods of synthesis and presenting their findings as such.

 

»» Henry Jacobs — “Sonata for Loudspeaker” (1957)


 

 

In the 1960s companies began making commercial synthesizers. The earlier modular synthesizers, such as the Moog, were difficult to transport or tour with, as the size, weight, set-up time and erratic operation caused by temperature fluctuation made the units impractical. But as the devices became more accessible to musicians, there was a widespread appearance of synthesizers in popular music. No longer relegated to the inquisitive scientist, electronic instrumentation turned up in works by artists such as Herbie Hancock, Genesis, The Doors and many others. Synthesizers, whether integrated into popular music or presented alone on novelty albums such as Switched on Bach, were still obviously not “real” sounding, and were not mistaken for traditional acoustic or electric instruments.

 

I almost think that in the new great music, machines will also be necessary and will be assigned a share in it. Perhaps industry, too, will bring forth her share in the artistic ascent.
Ferruccio Busoni (Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music, 1907)

 

A police car and a screaming siren
A pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete
A baby wailing and stray dog howling
The screech of brakes and lamp light blinking
That’s entertainment…

The Jam (“That’s Entertainment”, 1981)

 

Synthesized music slowly outgrew a position of novelty during the ’60s, from being used as a spooky backdrop to being functionally integrated into musical repertoires. Stevie Wonder was a big promoter of synthesizers and used a large variety in his music. Pink Floyd made synthesizers a part of their milieu, convincingly blending the new sounds with traditional electric guitars. Kraftwerk embodied synthesis both in sound and persona. And it was this widespread use that made it possible for the synthesizer to become available to the household consumer.

As newcomers took the synthesizers, a new set of needs developed. No longer the domain of the electronic engineer versed in the operation and design of sound, the process of audio synthesis proved inaccessible to the novice, and so, manufacturers developed pre-programmed sounds that required no creation. Banks of sounds were stored in the synthesizer allowing players to toggle from one sound to another, on top of the former function that allowed creating sounds from scratch. This either/or ability afforded the luxury of experimentation as well as standard, reliable sounds at the touch of a button. Today, every synthesizer includes a “preset” bank of sounds created by the manufacturer as well as a “user” bank — empty placeholders for new sounds created by the user. This is precisely where metaphysics emerge.

 

Although it is characteristic of noise to recall us brutally to real life, the art of noise must not limit itself to imitative reproduction.
Luigi Russolo (The Art of Noises, 1913)

 

Now I close my eyes
And I wonder why
I don’t despise
Now all I can do
Is love what was once
So alive and new

Billy Idol (“Eyes Without a Face”, 1984)

 

In The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes established that the author was a modern figure that emerged from the Middle Ages with empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation. In our age of capitalist positivism the single attributable voice behind a creation has found ultimate prestige, has been supremely epitomized, in the personification of the author. Much of how we understand a creation comes from what we understand of the creator—his life, his passions, his tastes—and our criticism of that work is a criticism of him. It’s easy to think of a written work, to borrow a line from Barthes, as a “tissue of quotations” drawn from innumerable sources, developed through culture, an anterior multiplicity that eventually becomes a cohesive original whole.

If we think of music the same way, as a tissue of quotations, and the music made from someone is the product of their learning, their interests, their surroundings, then surely the disjointed intrusion of “preset” sounds seems significant, if only as a source completely dislocated from the creator’s life, passion and taste. The implications seem insignificant on an individual level, as a composer is free, and should feel free, to use any instrument at his disposal, and a synthesizer is as likely a candidate as a guitar or piano. However, if we consider the implications of manufactured “preset” sounds in toto, it’s worth raising an eyebrow.

It behooves a company to be dominant in its respective field, to saturate the market, making its product the product to own. A high volume of sales is a sign of healthy business. In the case of a synthesizer, saturating a market with a product containing preexisting sounds means that the manufacturer has a share, as a kind of de facto collaborator, in whatever compositions result from its device.

Of course other instruments besides the synthesizer have consequential impact on sound (“she plays a Rickenbacker“, “he’s got that Marshall sound”, “it’s a Leslie speaker”), and the design and implementation of the manufacturer is, to some degree, entangled in the resulting composition. Where the ontological scale begins to tip is in the shift from sound that operates as sound, and sound that imitates other sound.

 

 

Those who talk about originality the most are the ones who most object to deviation, and in a few years it may be the other way around. Some day everybody will think just what they want to think, and then everybody will probably be thinking alike; that seems like what is happening.
Andy Warhol (interview with Art News, 1963)

 

I was beat, incomplete
I’d been had, I was sad and blue
But you made me feel
Yeah, you made me feel
Shiny and new

Madonna (“Like a Virgin”, 1984)

 

In his 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility, Walter Benjamin describes how reproduction makes the act of creation ubiquitous, thereby rendering indistinguishable the specific time and place of a work of art, changing not only its context, but also its “aura.” As an example, Benjamin differentiates between a painter, who renders and environment onto the pictorial plane by hand, and a photographer, who using the eye in favor of the hand, renders the environment in an instant. Since the eye can render faster than the hand, the process of creation was significantly accelerated. With the technological advancements of today, creation usurps process, moments of rendering are infinitesimal, and, in the case of Barthes’ theory of the death of the author, there remain very few traces of the creator in that which is instantaneously created.

Reproduction acts as imitation, standing in for creation. Andy Warhol’s art was revolutionary by virtue of its ontology. In elevating a reproduction to the status of an original, the “fake” nature of the work critiqued authenticity, asking, “What does it mean to be real?”

 

 

 

That same critical examination of being is embedded in the synthesizer. Once the device shifted from offering the ability to create sound to an already existing sound, a mimetic process stood in for a creative one. Synthesis took on a Warholian fake-as-real existence.

 

You’ve got to roll with the punches to get to what’s real
Van Halen (“Jump”, 1983)
[The first preset on Oberheim OB-XA synthesizer, “A1″, was the sound used for Van Halen’s #1 hit single, “Jump”]

 

 

 

In capitalist societies profit comes from production, and the worth generated by goods and services is correlative to the efficiency of the exchange process. The means of production, then, are most beneficial to the system when they are streamlined. It makes sense then that mass production, industrialization and repeatability function well in the capitalist system. It’s also logical that such efficiencies would extend beyond markets, or create markets where none existed before, as capitalism thrives on growth, which explains turning everything from education and prison to DNA and medicine into private property.

Capitalist logic is at work in music as well. Not just in the obvious way, such as manufacturers trying to control the market, buying out competitors and mass-producing their goods, but in more subtle ways, such as how we think of creating music. As the recording industry became a Leviathan in the sea of sound, the process by which recordings were made began to change. In a studio, one of the most laborious processes is recording the drums. A drum kit has several pieces, each piece makes a sound, there are dramatic differences in frequency and volume of each piece and, depending on how many microphones are used, the synchronicity of multiple sound waves must be in phase or the sound will be incoherent. Not to mention the physicality of a drum kit. More than any other instrument, a drum kit is really played, with swinging arms and stomping feet. It’s a tight arrangement that encircles the player, and trying to discreetly place microphones to optimally capture sound can be tricky. Setting up an arrangement of microphones on a drum kit can take an entire day. Microphones are often thwacked by an errant drumstick or damaged by powerful bursts of air. The amount of time, the cost of damaged microphones and the unreliability of the resultant sounds all weigh on the means of production. A capitalist answer to such a situation would be to industrialize the drummer.

The Linn Drum, while not distinguished as the first drum machine, nevertheless set itself apart by becoming ubiquitous in music. As a machine it had the ability to do what it’s human counterpart could not. The Linn Drum was consistent in tempo, volume, dynamics, and required very little set-up time. Further, the device used digital samples of real drums in an effort to sound natural.

The advantage offered by the Linn Drum on the record industry’s means of production is quantifiable by its use value. There were countless songs released in the 1980s featuring the device. It proved better than a drummer, and so there was a paradigm shift, machines replaced humans in the cycle of production, and drummers, scared of losing their jobs, quickly became “programmers” instead of performers. Metaphysics gets its hooks in at this point, as the likes of Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson and ABBA all adopt machinery in place of humanity, significantly altering what Walter Benjamin would call the “aura” of sound. Interestingly, as the Top 40 was inundated with the Linn Drum, and as hit after hit was built from the same identical “real” sounding rhythmic foundation, an existential anxiety developed, however unconscious, in the language of popular music.

 

 

 

 

The historic causality in art’s will-to-form, or what art historian Alois Riegl termed Kunstwollen, is embedded with the world in which art exists. Human volition shapes man’s relationship to the world, and we witness the mechanic will of the Linn Drum forming in the ’80s pop hits it took part in creating:

 

Now the day has come
Soon he will be released
Glory hallelujah!
We’re building the perfect beast

Don Henley (“Building the Perfect Beast”, 1984)

 

I hear it all the time
But they never let you know
On the TV and the radio

Falco (“Der Kommissar”, 1982)

 

If they say why, why?
Tell them that it’s human nature

Michael Jackson (“Human Nature”, 1983)

 

I’m not a woman
I’m not a man
I am something that you’ll never understand

Prince (“I Would Die 4 U”, 1984)

 

The drum machine colonized part of the musical landscape, both in sound and idea. The titles of the songs that employed the Linn Drum—”Take On Me”, “Maneater”, “Don’t You Want Me”, “Danger Zone”, “You’re the Voice”, “Borderline”—share in the historic causality.

The capitalist solution to the bottleneck in production, replacing the drummer with a machine, solved the problem of time and money, but introduced a series of new problems. Specifically, the Benjaminian “aura” of the music of the ’80s was noticeably transformed. The drum machine gives the perfect drum performance: consistent tempo, flawless execution, balanced dynamics, and, as a result, the perfectly authentic performance makes it sound completely inauthentic, devoid of a human “aura.”

 

 

 

 

Musicians must substitute for the limited variety of tones possessed by orchestral instruments today the infinite variety of tones of noises, reproduced with appropriate mechanisms.
Luigi Russolo (The Art of Noises, 1913)

 

 Ahhh, this stuff is really fresh!
Fab Five Freddy (“Change the Beat”, 1982)

 

As the era of Synth Pop blended with the era of hip-hop, the looping function of the digital sampler replaced the preset sound banks of the synthesizer. Looking back at the larger cultural developments that coincided with the sampler, we find Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, a theory of the hyperreal. Just as an operation manual provides instruction on how to use a sampler, Baudrillard’s treatise provides instruction on how to think of the sampler. [And, by way of a footnote in historic causality, when Linn Electronics went out of business, Roger Linn—inventor of the Linn Drum—went to work for the Akai Company, the pioneer of the digital sampler.]

Baudrillard describes the hyperreal as an allegory of death, reinforced by its own destruction, no longer an object of representation, but a fetish of a lost object. The hyperreal exists where the difference between the real and imaginary is effaced. “The unreal is no longer that of dream or of fantasy, of a beyond or within,” but a hallucinatory resemblance of the real with itself. Today, it is reality itself that is contaminated by its simulacrum.

A sampler operates in the domain of verisimilitude, or, to flip the Baudrillardian postulate of the simulacrum: the substitution of “fake” sound is never that which conceals the “real” sound — it is the “real” sound which conceals that there is nothing real. “Fake” sound is real.

 

 

 

 

Imitation always involves selecting something from the continuum of experience, thus giving boundaries to what really has no beginning or end. Mimêsis involves a framing of reality that announces that what is contained within the frame is not simply real. Thus the more “real” the imitation the more fraudulent it becomes.
Michael Davis (The Poetry of Philosophy: On Aristotle’s Poetics)

 

She looks like the real thing
She tastes like the real thing
My fake plastic love

Radiohead (“Fake Plastic Trees”, 1995)

 

Photography “freed the hands” of the graphic artists in the same way that synthetic music has “freed the ears” of musicians. The mimetic function of electronic music has enabled auditory stand-ins to do the work formerly required of their human counterpart. Just as the Linn Drum replaced drummers, the digital sampler replaced musicians.

Ours is a time of “verisimilimusic,” where meta-sound functions as sound. As it is reproduced, verisimilimusic becomes not only that which can be reproduced, but that which is always-already reproduced. Never extinguished or totally absorbed in one another, verisimilimusic and actual music overflow into one another at the level of simulation. An example of how this affects music:

»» The Charmels – “As Long as I’ve Got You” (1967)
»» Wu-Tang Clan – “C.R.E.A.M.” (1993)
»» El Michels Affair — “C.R.E.A.M. instrumental” (2005)

The leitmotif of the Wu-Tang Clan’s song is a sample taken from The Charmels. This we can call the first order simulation: a song that samples another song. The initial creation (Charmels), and the secondary creation (Wu-Tang), which colonizes the first, resulting in two “original” creations. Next, the El Michels Affair, a funk revival band, perform an instrumental versions of the Wu classic, which is essentially an imitation of the initial creation (Charmels) in the arrangement of the secondary creation (Wu-Tang), rendering a third “original” creation, and, a second order simulation.

The El Michels song is hyperreal, as it functions beyond representation in the realm of simulation, swirling in its own en abîme, like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, following his enemy into the hall of mirrors only to find himself surrounded by reflections.

 


 

 

But this does not mean that sound and meta-sound are in some sense extinguished through total absorption in one another. Hyperrealism is their mutual fulfillment, a reciprocal overflowing, which functions within the realm of simulation. Returning to Baudrillard, “Like the distancing effect within a dream, which tells one that one is dreaming, but only in behalf of the censor, in order that we continue dreaming, hyperrealism is an integral part of coded reality, which it perpetuates without modifying.” To look at the hyperreal inversely, today, reality itself is hyperrealistic.

 

We’ll always be together
However far it seems
We’ll always be together
Together in electric dreams

Giorgio Moroder (“Together in Electric Dreams”, 1984)

 

We’ve got no future
We’ve got no past

Pet Shop Boys (“West End Girls”, 1984)

 

 

John Lennon was onto something, though a perpetual simulation of that which represents what once was real probably wasn’t what he had in mind when he sang, “imagine no possessions.” But in our digital age of simulation, where possession itself is superfluous, we are being forced to imagine no possessions. The digital paradigm has allowed the intangible to simulate the tangible, making it possible to listen to an album without touching it, without seeing it, without it being. And isn’t that incorporeality a perfect realization of the essence of music? The beauty of music is its ability to express ideas that can only be expressed through sound. I am old, from a generation of vinyl-loving Luddites, but I concede that the untouchability of digital music makes a perfect analog (excuse the pun) for the spectral beauty of conveying ideas unhampered by a tether to the terrestrial plane.

Of course, making digital ghosts of your music collection wreaks havoc on capitalism, evidenced by the language that addresses ownership. Today, a “pirate” is someone who listens to music they don’t own. The action hasn’t changed: we still listen to music. The problem, of course, is the digital paradigm lends itself to the idea of simulation, replication, plasticity of being, making possession both intangible and irrelevant. Ownership is fluid, and just as the Walkman made music portable, digitalization made music immaterial. We’re living in the uncomfortable age—the teenage years—of technology transcending the capitalist system. Our economy functions by way of ownership of goods, with profit generating from production of such goods. The glaring fault in referring to someone listening to a digital song as a “pirate” is in the difference in the means and modes of production. A physical piece of music (an LP, CD or cassette) involves material, a factory, the transport and storage of the product, and, of course, the labor involved. With the non-physical, a single mouse-click entails all of the previous physical forces, without the material, without the factory, without the labor. The physical world has been outsourced in the digital music paradigm. Everything is simulation. And to most people, that isn’t worth much, however valuable it is.

While everyone was largely in agreement that the cost of a compact disc was too high, the idea that it should cost something was agreeable. It was forged from material, through labor, into a product, resulting in profit that was then returned to the forces of production. The difference between that and anyone clicking “copy” is glaring. It’s a huge difference. Just as there was fear that people would stop attending the symphony when sheet music was printed, just as there was fear that recorded music would replace live music, just as there was fear that blank cassettes would kill the record industry, there is fear that digital reproduction is quashing the rights of possession—making pirates of everyone. The question that causes discomfort in our culture today goes beyond the idea of what an intangible object is worth, the bigger question lies in the evolution of the idea of ownership. In a time when we’re being asked to renounce our privacy, so goes with it the property of what is private.

The answer isn’t simple, and our age demands thought if we are to reconcile simulation and the irrelevance of originality with the capitalist notion of private property, but clinging to the past has historically proven to be injurious, and, what’s more, is usually the province of the despotic.

 

 

 

 

A musical example of arguing simulated ownership presents itself in the beef between the Beatnuts and Jennifer Lopez:

»» Barrabás — “Hi-Jack” (1974)
»» Enoch Light — “Hi-Jack” (1975)
»» Beatnuts — “Watch Out Now” (1999)
»» Jennifer Lopez — “Jenny From the Block” (2002)

With their 1999 song “Watch Out Now,” the Beatnuts sampled a disco song, “Hijack” from Enoch Light’s 1975 LP, The Disco Disque, which was a cover of the song “Hi-Jack,” originally written and recorded by the Spanish band Barrabás in 1974. In its manifestation as a Beatnuts composition, “Hijack” was already three generations old. Then, Jennifer Lopez, in a 2002 effort to solidify her hood-born credibility, combined a sample from “Watch Out Now” with the 1987 classic rap anthem “South Bronx,” by Boogie Down Productions, in her “Jenny From the Block.” It’s arguable whether Lopez convinced anyone of her street credibility, but what’s certain is the fact that she angered the Beatnuts by biting “Watch Out Now,” who fired back at her with a diss track, “Confused Rappers.”

 

Can’t forget to stay real
To me it’s like breathing

Jennifer Lopez

 

See, you sorta like a bird
And you like to repeat

The Beatnuts

 

Both Lopez and the Beatnuts behave like analog privateers in a digital world of simulated reproduction, clinging to outmoded ideas of ownership. From its foundation, “Watch Out Now” was a mimetic function, a former reality reabsorbed into a simulated hyperreality. The antecedent of “Watch Out Now” was “Hijack,” and when the Beatnuts heard their simulation re-simulated by Jennifer Lopez, they entered into the Droste effect, a hall of mirrors, an endless loop.

 

Freeze! Nobody move
And this here sounds like nobody’s groove
Original, straight from the studio
I ain’t trying to sound like the next estúpido

The Beatnuts

 

I’m real, I thought I told you
Jennifer Lopez

 

What would possess you to use
My records, like I’m here for you to abuse

The Beatnuts

 

Nothin’ phony with us
Jennifer Lopez

 

It’s an Aristotelian clusterfuck of mimesis. The Beatnuts act as Bruce Lee, chasing their enemy, Jennifer Lopez, into the hall of mirrors, which is the capitalist idea of private property, and once inside, they are surrounded by a Barthesian tissue of quotations and a Benjaminian mechanical reproducibility, which makes everything ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless and free.

 

 

 

 

The human condition is analogous to the digital sampler. The sampler allows taking a snapshot of audio and rendering it as an endless loop, a repetitive re-telling of the past, inviting new interpretations of past truths — making the solid fluid again. The human condition is a struggle to evolve, a constant movement, an unabated desire for change, amidst the same recurring fundamental questions of being. A constant un-gluing and re-gluing of reality; testing the ontological hold on perception, scanning the horizon of beliefs for the next wave in awakening that will shudder our hold on what is real. The whole process acts as a mise en abîme, a scene within a scene, constantly recurring.

 

Because you’re empty and I’m empty
And you can never quarantine the past

Pavement (“Gold Soundz”, 1994)

 

We can act like we come from out of this world
Leave the real one far behind

Men Without Hats (“The Safety Dance”, 1983)

 

At the end of 1857, in Notebook IV of The Grundrisse, Marx drew a similar analogy with regard to how crises form in capitalism. Using a Hegelian dialectical treatment of the nature of limits on growth and expansion, Marx shows how limits are more ideal than real through annihilation of space by time.

 

For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a mean of production. In accord with this tendency, capital drives beyond national barriers, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old way of life. It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production. But from the fact that capital posits every such limit as a barrier and hence gets ideally beyond it, it does not by any means follow that it has really overcome it, and since every such barrier contradicts its character, its production moves in contradictions which are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited.
Karl Marx (The Grundrisse, 1858)

 

Our cultural development — as the result of capitalism, or, as the cause of capitalism — behaves much the same way with respect to limits. That is to say, we cannot abide limits, we must turn them into barriers which we can circumvent or transcend. This is clear in music: the acoustic guitar was a barrier overcome by the electric guitar, which in turn was a barrier set ablaze by Jimi Hendrix, while today the real, actual physical guitar is superfluous, as its sounds can be simulated or sampled digitally. The same is true of the limits revealed by the Futurist prospect: the Futurists sought to transcend the barrier of the orchestra by intoning noise, which resulted in a widened spectrum of available sound sources; That variety of sound sources later became a barrier to the idea of a sound source, which was overcome by synthesis, or, the open-ended creation of sound rather than generated sound; finally, the all-inclusive synthetic starting point, ironically, became its own barrier that was circumvented with the sampler’s ability to reconstitute the real into the simulated hyperreal.

 

The liberation of individual musical sensibility from all imitation or influence of the past, feeling and singing with the spirit open to the future, drawing inspiration and aesthetics from nature, through all the human and extra-human phenomena present in it.
Francesco Balilla Pratella (Manifesto of Futurist Musicians, 1910)

 

Yo, just give thanks it’s the new shit
For y’all to ever try to sleep on this is stupid

The Roots (“Act Fore”, 1999)

 

The fact that music, like the culture it comes from, cannot abide limits means that the process of music will constantly transcend by imagining the limit as a barrier, and, as Marx warned, never actually overcome the limits. Put another way, desire is most satisfied by unsatisfied desire. Every obstacle to desire generates a desire for an obstacle. The feedback loop.

The pursuit to shrug convention, to find new sounds, to overcome barriers, to change and adapt, can be seen on one hand, as an ouroboric cycle, endlessly frustrated, and on the other hand, as an immanent impulse that strives for purity. However, purity itself can exist as contradiction constantly overcome and constantly posited, which is often where we find the line blurred between the real and the imagined.

Think of how advertising slowly transformed the view of beautiful women by way of presenting an image of a beautiful woman. Growing out of this ideal image of beauty, photographs of actual women were then metamorphosed, first through airbrushing and later through Photoshop; the ideal was simulated. Today, actual women are simulating the ideal by surgically reconstructing themselves, making themselves an imitation of something that was never real to begin with. In record numbers, people are getting plastic surgery, following Bruce Lee, the Beatnuts and Jennifer Lopez into the hall of mirrors…

Commercial jingle for Lightworks Cosmetics written by electronic music pioneer Raymond Scott, along with the re-simulation of “Lightworks” by hip-hop pioneer J Dilla:

»» Raymond Scott — “Lightworks” (1967)
»» J Dilla — “Lightworks” (2006)

 

I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know

Velvet Underground (“I’ll Be Your Mirror”, 1967)

 

Don’t know how to take it, don’t know where to go
My resistance running low
And every day the hold is getting tighter and it troubles me so
I’m nobody’s fool and yet it’s clear to me
I don’t have a strategy

ABBA (“Under Attack”, 1981)

 

Because music exists in the meta-reality of imitation, reproduction, and the Barthesian “tissue of quotations,” the resulting distanciation flummoxes our bearing on what is real and what is imaginary. It’s within these coordinates that a song like Selena Gomez’s “Love You Like a Love Song” is grounded. No longer in the realm of actuality, the Gomez song binds itself to reality not with anything actual, but with that which stands-in for actual, a simulation. Rather than a limitation of physical distance, as in the example of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” the distance that Gomez has to conquer is metaphysical, and by expressing her love, in turn, through an expression of love, she dwells in the domain of the unreal, the age from which her song arose. The “love song” she references is a reflection of love, making her song a reflection of a reflection.

 

 

 

We will be forever in debt to the Futurists for making a critical crack in the façade of the idea of what is “well-made” music. By intoning noise the Futurists prepared the world for new ways of thinking about music, new forms of music, and a wider field of musicians. Everyone from Schönberg to the Bomb Squad is visible in the viewfinder of the Futurist forecast. Where the foresight of the Futurists fell short, however, was in their complete dismissal of the past. It reveals a nascent fascistic tendency to think the past can simply be exterminated and a new, past-less future can be born. The Futurists likely could have imagined the synthesizer as something to grow out of intoned noise, but the idea of a new machine primarily reconstituting what once was, a kind of past intoner, was outside their ideological wheelhouse.

Examining the volition of a culture — the will-to-form of creativity forged in the developments of the era — provides a much more detailed picture of that culture. Thus, the Industrial Revolution begat the Futurists, who consequently thought the past was dead as they were witness to man being replaced by machine. The age of the drum machine was nestled between the Space Age and the Digital Revolution, a time marked by the disillusionment of the Cold War, dubiousness regarding the promises of a Jetsons-esque future, and the early signs of consumer fatigue in a never-ending cycle of planned obsolescence. Looking at culture in this broad view, seeing the embedded historic causality and how that shapes mankind’s relationship to the world, we can examine today’s culture with a critical appreciation not only of what’s at work in forming thought, but, what the idea of the future looks like through such a formation of thought.

Just as surely as we are living in what Roland Barthes predicted as author-less times, we are living in times where technology has outpaced our belief systems. Considering that the establishment of the author emerged with rationalism, which also saw the emergence of capitalism, it would stand to reason that technology today has overrun the constraints of our economic system. The Digital Revolution has returned us, in many ways, to an era of the commons. The ironic short-circuit of such a broad view is that capitalism has all but replaced communism throughout the world, while at the same time, the volition of the author-less age is, essentially, communistic. That is to say, we are practicing a digital form of communism within a system of capitalism.

 

There’s a new game
We like to play you see
A game with added reality

Depeche Mode (“Master and Servant”, 1984)

 

Tell me how do I feel
Tell me now, how do I feel

New Order (“Blue Monday”, 1983)

 

Just as the Futurists couldn’t foresee the sampler making bricolage of the past, the architects of the digital paradigm couldn’t envision a wide scale usage of the technology that turns everything into a commodity while, at the same time, turning every commodity into free source material. It’s a digital feedback loop. Just as the camera freed the hand of the painter, and the synthesizer freed the ear of the musician, digitalization freed the creator from the process of creation. Pink Floyd, dude, “welcome to the machine.”

The pop charts are dominated by songs that act more like commodities than songs, while those exploring new ideas are plagued with the baggage of limitation, often resulting in “new” music that sounds reminiscent of the old, if not an imitation. The deadlock is that while we have the ability to reach far beyond what we know, we’re limited by a belief system, or a mode of production, or a constellation of being, that has no way of comprehending the environment in which it operates. Though our practice contains the intimation of a new era, our way of thinking is bound by old beliefs. Marx already provided us with the proposition to resolve this: “Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es” (“they do not know it, but they are doing it”). It was in Capital that Marx offered this classical concept of ideology as a false consciousness, misrecognition of social reality which is already a part of reality itself. It’s this constitutive naïveté that creates the feedback, generates a blind spot in our view of the future, and keeps us in the Droste-like loop of repetition.

What I propose is not an answer, but instead, a shift in view, an inversion: to approach the author-less times with a refusal of fixed meaning, a refusal to discover, a refusal to think of ourselves as discoverers. The problem with trying to discover something new is the continued result of discovering something old, because to discover is to locate a limit, to determine an endpoint from which to return to the beginning. As a “new” logical procedure, as illogical as it may seem, we should invert discovery, and instead focus on the receiver, the listener. The listener is the space on which all the elements of creation are addressed. The multiplicities of a sound find unity not in the origin but in the destination. The destination cannot be personal because it is without the history, passion and taste of the creator, but the notion of the creator was born of the notion of private property, which in our new ever-social world is invalid. It seems counter-intuitive to think of music as something other than a stream that flows from a creative source to its recipients, but that is exactly what’s required of us. This new way of thinking harkens back to the Futurist’s revolutionary proletarianization of sound. Appropriating the directional flow is the equivalent of the workers taking control of the means of production. In this new system, free of the fixed idea of authorship, allowing a multiplicity of being, a horizontal field of view that perceives the “tissue of quotations” as part of the whole comes into focus, and the proletarianization of sound makes plural what has thus far been singular, allowing all things to be simultaneous.

My proposal is not something new, nor is it an answer. We are already practicing a new paradigm — art in the time of author-less commons. All I propose is that we start to believe that that is what we are practicing. Our worldview has been framed in the epoch of private property. It would be extremely shortsighted to construct a framework to free us from this, because it is precisely the idea of framework that limits freedom.

 

Burned all my notebooks, what good are notebooks?
They won’t help me survive
My chest is aching, burns like a furnace
The burning keeps me alive

Transmit the message, to the receiver
Hope for an answer some day
Talking Heads (“Life During Wartime”, 1979)

 

Identify yourself with the infinite and wander freely in the unfathomable
Zhuangzi (4th century BCE)

 

 

 

 

 

………………

CONSEQUENTIAL DATA

Looking back at the Future: In 2009 Luciano Chessa reconstructed Russolo’s noise intoners for a centennial celebration of Futurist Music. A video of the evening of intonarumori performances at Town Hall in New York City can be seen here: “Music for 16 Futurist Noise Intoners

The past is back: For several years now, modular synthesizer enthusiasts in Portland, Oregon have been meeting to share and build sounds. A kind of pioneering-the-past avant-garde movement.

The past is “back in a big way”: The 2013 National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show, where industry professionals unveil all the “new” gear of the year, had a multitude of new modular synthesizers on display.

The past foretelling the future: I went to a local electronics store yesterday looking for an iPod dock for my wife, and right next to the newfangled iPod accessories found a cache of mini-modular synth kits, complete with patch cables and carrying cases.

Finally: Here’s this “Buchla Beat” I can’t get enough of.

 

 

 

The Howl

Posted by , October 20th, 2010
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Early this year, I got two records: Ducktails’ Landscapes and Matrix Metals’ self-titled. The two-thirds of the Ducktails record that I like consists of rinky, wistful throb supporting session-clean guitar that emotes from behind miles of mask; it sounds a lot like a play-along record, like something very important has recently been excised from it. The Matrix Metals record is far more canned and intense; it’s all just atomic fragments of what sounds like incidental music from a thousand instructional videos and offshore-bankrolled cop shows, slap-chopped into madness-inducing, pullulating near-unlistenability, then hastily looped to infinity only seconds after being taped off of someone’s tv, still wriggling. Both records are on the same Brooklyn-based boutique label, and both have cover graphics that look like they were xeroxed from Trapper Keepers, and both seem to be mining different veins of a similar kind of media-aware 1980s nostalgia: Ducktails expelling its anonymous and sentimental soundtrack in that last gasp before teen movies started using radio songs, and Matrix Metals’ compulsive channel-change supersaturating the synapses in clip-art mimcry of what we back in those pre-internet days mistook for “overload.” And while the records’ packaging and attitudes thus hint at a certain 1980s, I can hear in their very sound an echo of a different 1980s, of a more personal 1980s, of something I’ve always thought of as The Howl.

 

 

 

Deep in the teeth of my initial high-school obsession with Public Enemy and the attendant poring-over of liner notes, I was caught by the nickname of one of their producers, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler. A few years later I found out that he’d been tagged “Vietnam” because of an olive-drab army surplus coat he used to always wear, but when I first saw the name I barely gave it a second thought, mostly because I thought it couldn’t have been more perfect or more clear: The music sounded dirty and chaotic and lethal and jungly and inescapable—of course dude’s nickname is “Vietnam”; I mean, what else would it be? Similarly, though I’ve since come to understand that references to the music of “The Big 80s” usually mean big names and big record companies doing big spending in pursuit of a big sound and big videos and big spectacle (if you’re feeling ironic and/or work for VH1, you’ll also want to include something here about “…and big hair!”), but for a long time I assumed that it referred to The Howl, a sonic characteristic that seemed to me to reside in the upper air of a lot of the popular music back then. I heard it concretely in sounds like the drone that surged steadily through Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” flickering between being a real synthesizer and being a fake voice, and I felt it in abstract in things like the ether that worries and paces Phil Collins’s “In The Air Tonight,” and from which even Those Drums cannot fully deliver the song. The Howl was a particular kind of spaciousness that didn’t feel full so much as it felt cavernous; not the huge blank sterility that it’s always been branded, but something more windswept and turbulent; nothing as simple as the deadening effect of studio gloss, but something complex: a haunting–alienating and vast, vast. When I first started hearing about “The Big 80s,” I thought, “Boy, they got that right.”

 

 

it’s you and me now

 

 

 

All that notwithstanding, when I first started perceiving this Howl, this specific kind of space, it wasn’t at all dramatic or any cause for real reflection. I was just hitting double digits in the mid-80s, and thanks to independent comic books and behind-the-times public libraries, I was already a fan of retro-future science fiction (you know the stuff: loners with fedoras and rayguns, zipping through pristine cityfuls of towering geometry in their hovering Studebakers, high above a sleek and general citizenry), and thus expected that the capital-f Future would be somewhat devoid and empty, and not unpleasantly so.

Here at home we’ll play in the city
Powered by the sun
Perfect weather for a streamlined world
There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

– Donald Fagen, “I.G.Y.”

 

 

 

this route could be trouble

 

 

This Gernsbackian scenario seemed to be the endpoint of what I at first thought I was hearing in The Howl, and I was cool with it. I’m not gonna pretend that the music embodying it was always my favorite shit back then, but I’d definitely listen to something like “The Boys Of Summer” and think: yes, that stylish vacancy and that cleanliness and that low level of cultural detail (minimal, but vivid and carefully chosen: Cadillacs, Wayfarers, etc.–or, actually, no “etc.”), all of it propelled by this faint but distinctly modern feeling of anticipation, of rush…yes, this is the sound of what’s in store. It made sense. Again, it wasn’t always my favorite music, but I felt like it was presenting a very polished and adult future, one that didn’t seem like a bad thing to look forward to at all. Whenever it and I met, we would just step right into one another, both having finally arrived.

 

 

I’d like to say that I only paid ten cents for this, but that horrible handstyle is actually there to remind me that this side won’t play through without a dime on the headshell. As for the dj markings, I can offer no explanation.

 

 

In the years immediately following, I began to hear it differently. Probably due to some cocktail of both becoming a more careful listener and the pervasive curdling effect of flowering teen anxiety, the promise implicit in these sonics began to look like something else. While I had initially been drawn in by the music’s cool professionalism as an analogue for that clean, engineered future, the more I listened, the more I began to think that the space constructed in this music was something more lonesome. The limitations of the technology started coming into view: All these synthesizer textures and subtle studio washes felt like clear attempts to affect something like what brushed drums do in jazz–eliminate the dead spaces, fill up the room, and keep some kind of moving current under everything—but they couldn’t yet approximate those imperceptible swells and diminuendos that mark human work, so what was instead created was this creeping, disembodied pulse that seemed to go on forever, and which gave the lie to the alluring immediacy that the songs were insisting upon. The songs were hundred-story-tall feats of engineering that required whole hangars of auditory space to assemble; but they were only meant to show off the height that they could attain—masking the surrounding depths was a necessity, lest the perceptual process of the listener possibly tangle and darken with effort. The kind of records that were able to shake this—Sade, George Michael, “Planet Rock”–succeeded not by puffing to fill more space in a misguided attempt to balloon closer to the listener, but rather by stripping down and flattening the space around them; by ignoring dimensionality, these songs seemed to come much closer to occupying all their possibility. They sound plummy and total. In contrast, the music that I’m talking about here made the killing flaw of believing that the alienating expanses could somehow be camouflaged by, that any limit could be established by perpetual keyboard underthrob, massed chiffons of synthetic angel breath, or any other digital atmospheric whose very reason was its limitlessness, its ability to define a void.

In this flaw is the genesis of The Howl. All of these happenings within the music, when viewed from the outside (which has always been my only vantage point), had an increasingly isolating effect on me. What I heard were these very frontal, appealing songs that nonetheless sounded like they had bad fathoms stretching out behind them. As a teenager, I considered it my prerogative not to think too much about the latter, but I found myself nagged by the weird turbulence that seemed to blow through the whole of these songs in a way that I could neither ignore nor understand. This was not the populist, cosmopolitan tabula rasa that was so tantalizing in that Donald Fagen song, so comforting in its stylish surfaces and lack of secrecy. This was more like a Cy Twombly text painting, recognizable as writing, but cropped into illegibility; there is a clear frequency there, but one that you are nonetheless somehow unable to receive, an inability made all the more frustrating and shaming by the very recognizability of the subject. That’s how it felt to me, to on one level recognize this radio music as reflexive birthright, absolute lingua franca, but to also sense deep in its fiber this eternal current stretching far beyond my vision, ungraspable to me but essential, I was sure, to everything. Whatever was going on up front in these songs, there was always a missed train leaving out the back.

 

 

for friend

 

 

“…Because I know exactly when film noir began,” Thomson said weirdly. And he went on to recount, for a class of students born in the early 1980s, the impact of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963.

But that, he said, “was not where film noir began.” We were all of us in the seminar room beginning to wonder what in the world Thomson was getting at, but we were also nervous. “Film noir,” he said, “began in the basement of a Dallas police station, two days later,” when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald—when, to make history into genre, a nightclub owner shot and killed the man arrested for the crime.

But wait, everyone thought—and the question would have been asked out loud if Thomson had not been moving so fast—film noir goes back to the early 1940s; how could it begin in 1963?

–and it was then,” Thomson said of that moment in the police station, “that all the paranoia and fear that film noir had been prophesying for twenty years, the sense that our lives are not our own, that forces we cannot name are ruling our lives and our destinies—it was then that everything that film noir had prophesied in America exploded into real life.”

The assassination of President Kennedy, and then the removal of that event from the realm of what could be known to the realm of mystery, to a realm where one felt what could not be known as a rebuke and an oppression…

— Greil Marcus, The Shape Of Things To Come

Along with The Howl, I was also at the time conscious of another sonic element, one which I never thought of as having a name but which I will here refer to as The Chant. Like The Howl, The Chant was primarily a post-Fairlight phenomenon, but one that aspired to an earthier, more organic sound. It’s in the open-mouthed “ee-yo-oh”s of The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” the ersatz bamboo-flute trill that opens Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” and on and on. The Chant always seemed like it was trying to tap into the kind of low-grade globalism that was stirring back then. It was meant to evoke distance, yes, but a benign variety: the distance between you the first-world listener and the rest of your multi-hued fellow travelers on the Big Blue Marble, a distance that can be closed—and so easily, too, can’t you see?–right here in this very song, perhaps via strategic employment of unobtrusive hand-drumming. One world, man–one world. This was a soft distance, the distance in The Chant, the distance between Here and There, and just to register it was to start to ameliorate it; there are all these cool and exotic things and peoples that you’ve never been exposed to, but that’s okay, because now that you’ve been exposed to this scrubbed sliver of the Other, the awakening can begin. Seen?

 

 

One World (Not Three)

 

 

But The Howl embodied something far more difficult: the distance here at home. Whenever I heard The Chant in some song or another, though I might have felt a small reflective twinge of “Wow, maybe there really is all this stuff out there in The One World that I’m just completely missing,” those pangs never stuck for long, because whatever I was missing was obviously some exotic stuff that wasn’t really for me anyway. But when I’d hear The Howl in a song, I felt like I was missing something that I should by all counts recognize; this was resolutely American-style pop music, my native idiom, but some part of it was still eluding me, and in this I “felt what could not be known as a rebuke and an oppression.” It was one thing to hear Ladysmith Black Mambazo radiating out of some Paul Simon song and to think for a minute about my remove from sunny, faraway lands that I would possibly never see; it was something else altogether, something far more unnerving and displacing, to listen to Bruce Hornsby And The Range’s “The Way It Is,” to understand it as being a song just as corny and frontal as I knew myself to be, and yet to recognize at its periphery an ongoing dark hum—the barely audible synthesizer druling in the background, yes, but also something woven between the lacunae within it and around it—a faint but ceaseless buzz of unknowability. There seemed to me to be no place at all in this dopey bummer of a song by Bruce Fucking Hornsby for any streak of mystery, but still, there it was—I was sure I heard it; and the fact that I heard it, the fact that I couldn’t ignore it, and the fact that I couldn’t get my mind around what exactly I was hearing, all this combined to make me feel as though I was being cast out of something. That in my inability to make sense of this one part of the ongoing conversation, I was being denied access to the full landscape of my own speech; and that in recognizing that some consistent mechanism was at work through it all, I was being denied even the romance of the void.

 

 

a thousand miles away

 

 

I think my conception of the particular isolation effected by The Howl has a lot to do with being a midwesterner. I spent an important middle sixteen years in the South, but I spent the first nine and the last eleven in the midwest, and to paraphrase the old saying about Catholics, I know that I will behave and misbehave as a midwesterner long after I have stopped residing as a midwesterner. To be a midwesterner is to be an inhabitant of limits and consequences. There is maybe a certain heightened connection to the natural world (maybe), and possibly better overall perspective, but it’s bollixed up in pervading awareness of your (and your neighborhood’s and your town’s and your state’s) relative inconsequence to history and to news. (Note: This might be a good time to point out that I’m talking here about my own decades-old midwest; folks below a certain age are just gonna have to take my word that before the internet collapsed everything this kind of regionalism and these kinds of borders used to exist and used to kinda make a difference.) And what’s more/worse, the temperate quality of the seasons extends deep into the regional soul, tending to blunt your sense of the dramatic and make too much gothic fixation on what you might like to think of as the extremities of your own surroundings feel ridiculous. Much of what happens here happens not where we are taught that Big Things happen, not within buzzy little warrens of import and cool, but instead within open locations of blatancy and blank function. It was all about sifting things out of the empty, staying open to any shred of freak shit that you might be able to fold into your own history, that second set of books you were keeping to someday supplant the utterly unusable history that you came into (“Birthplace Of That Famous Guy Who Left As Soon As He Could!”).

 

 

round at both ends

 

 

That’s why Miami Vice was a really big deal to me: because on the one hand it was other-planetarily exotic and cool and art-directed to within an inch of its life, but on the other hand, it felt fully familiar, essentially midwestern. It was total Howl TV. Long periods of nothing much at all, occasionally punctuated by these small, intense episodes that echoed in my adolescent-head eternity and that I struggled in vain to connect. There’d be some long, elliptical conversation on some long, boring porch or in some big, dumb breezeway, or on some long drive through nowhere and to nowhere, and then there’d be a funeral with a goat in the coffin, or a few seconds of Willie Nelson packing a backgammon case full of drugs, or a scene in a hangarlike warehouse with three purple mannequins hung ritualistically by link-chain collars, a guy in a suit comes along and kisses the mons of one of them, then shoots all three to splinters with a machine gun. It was electrifying because I was a sheltered kid with a nose for the prurient, but it was terrifying because I saw these mindbending things adrift in this sea of empty space, dead time, and meaningless talk—a sea that ultimately washed them over and under and carried on. That these horrific things could happen in the first place was far less scary to me than the fact that they could happen and not be a big deal. Just back to the car. Back to the porch for more talk. The legs of Icarus thrashing in the water are nothing compared to the man focused on his own plow, his bent neck’s nape looking just like his brown horse’s ass. Know what I mean? I couldn’t let myself believe that the boring shit would win, and I was sure that these eruptions were too outlandish to not all somehow form some kind of constellation, and at moments I felt like I had the key almost in hand. But I was young, and the expanses were vast, and a week was a long time back then, and The Howl yawned, and between this episode and the next, the drift would have sucked everything through my fingers.

 

 

I gots to plead the fifth

 

 

Like the kind of desperate bricolage that it took to try and make sense of the interesting parts of Miami Vice, the gymnastics of heart and mind that it took to connect the disruptions in midwestern texture was an intensely energizing effort. Because maybe one of your friends lucked into a handed-down issue of some zine that mentioned a tape that you could special-order from Record Bar and whose liner notes mentioned some book that you could special-order from B. Dalton and which opened with a epigraph that revealed itself to be the source of the cryptic title that was written on an otherwise unmarked cassette dub that someone’s brother in college had left in someone’s car and that you’d been too afraid to ask about because you didn’t want to seem like the kind of square that wouldn’t know what was the name of the tape and what was the name of the band which you didn’t know but now you sort of knew and it all let you feel as though you were, piece by piece, cracking the code to the world of cool that had been at some point long ago cleft at its equator and divided evenly and exclusively between New York and LA. It’s the kind of brief, beautiful bloom that can only occur in a place and time where you have so little larger external context for anything cool that you are forced to rely solely on inner context, to believe that every cool thing you know about must therefore necessarily be related somehow. But it was also nerve-wracking, because the shadow of reason grows, and even as you’re carried along on the exhilaration of finally maybe getting everything to make sense, finally managing to frankenstein everything you like into what you’re sure this time must correspond to an existing and accepted aesthetic, there’s this slowly worming doubt: these things, these things that you’ve been pivoting on, that you’ve used to make the case for (and to) yourself—maybe they’re the wrong things. Even if you’re secure in how your mind has connected all of them to each other, in the pre-internet, no-cable, flyover-country absence of any accessible validating system, the great (if suppressed) unknown is how they connect to everything else that might be out there. That twelve-inch that you blind-bought because you recognized that one name from the j-card, and which you thought sounded great and really tied in with that book that she lent you and subsequently became your, like, map for that whole summer? What if that very twelve-inch is known—by Those Who Know—to be the group’s total sell-out move, the single blight on their catalog? Are you unwittingly going out like those hayseeds from Russia or wherever who stepped off the boat with an idea of America formed entirely by Billy Joel or “Rappin’ Duke” or Charles In Charge or something similarly irrelevant? If it turns out, after all and everything, that you have placed your faith incorrectly, can your center still hold?

 

 

“Hey, do you guys have anything by Scratch A47?”

 

 

For me, that is the test that lies coiled at the center of The Howl, unanswerable. I’ve thought a lot about this particular body of music and about whether I’m asking too little, seeing it as pop music that is mine by right and should thus give up its lone sapphire—its workings—so easily and gratefully, or asking too much, focusing on insignificancies and scrabbling for connection and continuity where there is none. I’ve felt bad for being unable to resolve the pop music that I can hear with the void that I can sense within it, and I’ve felt bad even for feeling bad, because whatever once seemed to be at stake is now either a kind of future that I no longer believe will come or a kind of coherence that I no longer believe matters. And if that’s so—if I’ve been asking too much or too little, if I can now neither complete the circuit nor convince myself that its completion would the key to anything—then where does that leave me and all my years? I’ve been so long chasing these flickers across the widening gyres, and still I remain this version of Penelope at her loom: the essentially under-informed midwesterner operating on obscure pieces of information, seeking unifying profundity in Miami Vice, mooning over the caged quality of the attempted high-lonesome at the end of “I’m On Fire,” panning through it all for nuggets that will shore up my bridge to nowhere. If The Howl was once my sense of whatever was closing me out, it’s become clear that it is instead whatever has closed me in. I don’t worry about my 80s like I used to, but they do retain for me that slight salt of unfinished days, and in hearing records like Ducktails and Matrix Metals and recognizing in them an insistence upon the resonance and the load-bearing capabilities of these gathered echoes, I can feel a connection once again just beyond my grasp.

Space is doubt; I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me. I have to conquer it.

– Georges Perec

But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough

and you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above

if you want to ride on down

down in through this tunnel of love

– Bruce Springsteen

CONSEQUENTIAL DATA

– There’s a car around my neighborhood with a bumper sticker that says “HOWL If You Love City Lights Book Store.” There’s another car with “I’d Rather Be Reading Bukowski,” and still another with “I’d Rather Be Reading Jane Austen.” The situation is deplorable, really. I’ve recently seen a car with a Foetus Interruptus sticker, but it feels like too little, too late.

– The only show that comes close to Miami Vice in terms of sheer Howl TV is Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks comes in second, though, for what I feel is an over-reliance on establishing shots of trees.

– One Friday night in middle school, my friend Brent came by with his pastel-accented slimline boombox and we walked around our neighborhood in the dark, blasting “In The Air Tonight” on repeat and affecting a ridiculous Run-DMC-informed strut. We were kinda goofing, but it also felt like we were trying to ward off something.

– At the markets in Charleston, South Carolina, there are these Gullah weavers who are regionally renowned for the intricate baskets they make from sweetgrass and for their sometimes impenetrable dialect. I now know that the Sunset Grill in Don Henley’s song of the same name is in Hollywood, but I was living in South Carolina when that song was all on the radio, and always assumed that the line about how “the basket people walk around and mumble” meant that it was a song about Charleston.

– My man Jonny said one time that the genre-defining toodling that opens “Sledgehammer” was actually sampled from an Alpha Blondy record. Can anyone confirm?

– In high school, I noticed that the negative space between the facing Es in the Sleep Chamber logo kinda-sorta formed the cross from the Psychic TV logo. I was sure that this meant that they were in fact secretly the same band.

– A few years ago, in the course of spectating Sheer Magic’s unsurpassable monthly funk night here in Chicago, my man Rob and I were discussing what it is that makes midwestern soul and funk so potent. We went back and forth about a lot of things, but he ultimately came up with what I think is the right answer: “It has something to do with the seasons.”

The Rich Will Never Be On Our Side

Posted by , September 9th, 2010
Category: Reasoning Tags:   RSS | Comments | Trackback from your site
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For Chilean folk singer Victor Jara the cost of non-conformity was his life. On September 16, 1973, he was killed. Despite 4 days of torture and having army officers mockingly ask him to play guitar after breaking his arms, Jara, forever on the side of the people, instead sang “Venceremos” (We Shall Triumph), the campaign song of the Popular Unity coalition. He was shot and killed, his body was dumped in the outskirts of Santiago.

Jara was a poet and songwriter, an activist and outspoken supporter of the Marxist president Salvador Allende. The Popular Unity coalition (Unidad Popular), the party backing Allende, sought equality for the people of Chile in an effort to bring her out of third world conditions. Thanks to documents produced from a Freedom of Information Act request, longstanding suspicions are confirmed that the United States government was complicit in the damage done to Chile in resistance to president Allende’s aim for cultural equality.

Much effort has gone into convincing Americans of the evils inherent in Marxism, socialism, communism and any leader who espouses such philosophies. Interestingly, if we actually look at Allende’s economic, social and political initiations, Marxism reveals itself much more humane than capitalism, which is exactly why there’s so much propaganda against Marxism in America.

Allende was a doctor, and as evidenced from his earliest work in politics as the Minister of Health, he was concerned most for the health and well-being of everyone in Chile. Allende spearheaded many reforms, including the creation of maternity care programs, increased pensions for widows, free lunch programs for poor children, safety laws to protect factory workers, and legislation that brought medical attention to three million Chileans. This was the face of Allende’s Marxist socialism platform, or as he often referred to it, “social democracy.” The Popular Unity program benefited all Chileans. The only people to whom it was detrimental were the handful of elite, super wealthy businessmen of Chile and the United States corporations who had interests in Chile’s main resource, copper.

Chile leads every other country in the world in its production of copper, and there were two main transnational corporations exploiting that production, International Telephone & Telegraph (ITT) and Kennecott Copper Corporation.

An American army lieutenant founded ITT, and as corporations do, ITT acquired other corporations around the world. These included not only communication companies but also electronics and aircraft manufacturers. ITT built and sold fighter planes, radios and radars for the Nazis. In fact, ITT won a $27 million settlement for damage from Allied forces to one of its aircraft manufacturing plants in Germany.

As soon as Allende showed strength in Chile, ITT began a campaign to overthrow the Popular Unity coalition. Through newspapers and telephone companies owned by the corporation, ITT began a smear campaign against Allende. There was also money funneled through the U.S. government, specifically the CIA, to prepare a military overthrow of Allende.  A year before Allende was killed an American reporter disclosed a memo from Dita Beard, an ITT lobbyist, showing collusion between ITT, the Justice Department and the White House. ITT funded the Republican National Convention in return for a favorable settlement in an antitrust suit against ITT. Even before Allende was killed, ITT proved itself to be terribly inhumane: supporting the Nazis, involvement in Watergate, and the assassination of Chilean people. While ITT was terrible in its humanity, they were very successful as a corporation. The tenets of corporate business put profit over everything else. Stockholders demand action that serves the corporation regardless of “outside interests.” If the life and welfare of people fall within the scope of outside interests, that’s not the concern of the corporation. As proven in recent history, a corporation, now recognized as a legal person, is afforded more rights than a natural person, especially in areas of bankruptcy and mass tort litigation.

«« It follows a pattern if you dig what I mean »»


[As an aside — and in an effort to keep some tenuous link to all things record-related, I should mention that ITT has the distinguished honor of being detested in song by more than one artist. Gil Scott-Heron brilliantly tied all the politics of time together in his, “H2O-Gate Blues.” Fela Kuti, Nigeria’s king of afrobeat took on ITT directly, criticizing them for devastating Africa in exploitation of her natural resources.]

Sadly, Salvador Allende’s overthrow was not the first, nor the bloodiest, in the American effort to “democratize” the world. There is a certain doublespeak engaged by politicians, businessmen and news outlets. It’s a well-established, thinly-veiled technique that most people are cynically immune to. Using trillions of “defense” dollars to help “liberate” countries and allow them to “participate” in world democracy, while our transnational corporations gain access to business opportunities within their borders. This economic imperialism — whether it be copper in Chile, oil in the Niger delta, lithium in Afghanistan, minerals for electronics from the Congo, United Fruit’s banana republic in Honduras and Guatemala, blood diamonds in Liberia — covers the world and intensifies the imbalance between the rich and poor, those with access to technology and those left in the dark, and the healthy and the hungry. The doublespeak of democracy conceals itself in the idea of the American dream. The inalienable rights — that is, those entitlements in our absolute possession, unable to be taken from us — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that all men are created equal, are purported to be available to everyone while a system of exploitation works against those rights. Those who can claw their way out of the system of exploitation are often championed, in a “rags to riches” style, as examples of the American dream coming true. In reality, though, those who overcome the exploitation are a rare few. For as long as a system that allows one class to exploit another exists, there will be a majority who toil to serve a select few. It was the idea of an actual democracy — of the people, for the people, by the people — that Allende worked toward.

On the first anniversary of his presidency, Allende said, “Democracy and freedom are incompatible with unemployment and lack of housing, the lack of culture, illiteracy and sickness. How is democracy strengthened? By creating more jobs, giving better wages, building more homes, providing the people with more culture, education and better health.” These words could be from any democratic president, as the rhetoric sounds the same. The only difference is that Allende acted on his statements. Worker wages were raised, rents were frozen, free milk was provided for children, hospitals were ordered to treat all who sought medical attention, and small businesses were given tax breaks. Allende began a massive agrarian reform and asked workers to participate in an economy that they now had a stake in. As a result, unemployment plummeted to less than 4 percent, production rose, and more citizens than ever before (especially the youth) engaged in the political process.

Through all the reform Allende was plagued with imperialist insolence at the hands of the White House. Funneling millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars into preparing covert operatives out of the embassy in Santiago for a coup, creating an “invisible” economic blockade against Chile’s industrial plants and natural resources, cutting all humanitarian aid, as well as funding extreme fascist groups. White House-appointed CIA gunmen assassinated the army chief of staff, René Schneider and naval Captain Arturo Araya. Allende supporters within the Chilean military were tortured, resulting in many resignations, including the commander-in-chief of the army, General Carlos Prats. These crimes, coupled with legislation limiting Allende from making military appointments, allowed the White House-chosen General Augusto Pinochet to become commander-in-chief of the Army.

Despite all of this, Allende went before the United Nations General Assembly and spoke truth to power, advocating humanity over murder, democracy over the exploitation of transnational corporations, peace over war profiteering, and health and education for all:

We are aware of the fact that, when we denounce the financial and economic blockade applied against us, it is somewhat difficult for world opinion, and even for some of our fellow citizens, to understand what we mean. This aggression is not overt and has not been openly declared to the world; on the contrary, it is an oblique, underhand, indirect form of aggression, although this does not make it any less damaging to Chile. We are having to face forces that operate in the half-light, that fight with powerful weapons, but fly no identifying flags and are entrenched in the most varied centers of influence…

 

What I have just described to the assembly amounts to a perversion of the fundamental nature of international agencies, the utilization of which as tools of the policies of individual member states is legally and morally unacceptable no matter how powerful such states may be. Such misuse represents the exertion of pressure on an economically weak country, the infliction of punishment on a whole nation for its decision to recover its own basic resources, and a premeditated form of intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. In a word, it is what we call imperialist insolence…

Unable to stop him any other way, the White House orchestrated a coup d’état through General Pinochet. On September 11, 1973, Allende was murdered in the presidential palace. Pinochet was declared president by military junta and immediately totalitarian tactics reigned supreme in Chile.

The press was censored. Students, priests, political activists and women who wore slacks were arrested. Fascists groups burned books in the street that they deemed “subversive.” Under martial law, congress was suspended; all labor organizations, independent judiciary and free press were outlawed. When jails overflowed in Santiago, suspected criminals were herded into sports stadiums and tortured, if not shot on sight. The water of the Mapocho River was reported to turn reddish-brown as bodies, legs and arms floated in the water. Over 200,000 Chileans fled the country seeking exile. Thousands who chose to stay were “disappeared,” most being tortured and killed, buried in mass graves or dumped from helicopter into the Pacific Ocean.

Most of the governments around the world refused to recognize Pinochet’s military dictatorship or broke off diplomatic relations in protest. The U.S., however, immediately recognized Pinochet as Chile’s president and rushed in economic aid. Even the 2006 New York Times obituary of Pinochet mentions that he “led the country into an era of robust economic growth.” It fails to mention the decade of extreme poverty, fear and unemployment under Pinochet prior to the era of growth. And, the “robust economic growth” was based on Milton Friedman’s “free market” philosophy that privatized all state enterprises, including social security, cut worker wages, restricted labor unions, sharply increased unemployment and, according to a 1994 World Bank report, left 40 percent of Chileans living on three-fourths of daily calories required to subsist. Through re-strengthening of NAFTA, the WTO and other trade organizations, Chile’s copper resources are back in the hands of transnational corporations. Pinochet inherited his economic plan for Chile from a group of economists, studying under Milton Friedman, who opposed Allende and secretly prepared a stratagem for Chile that would be advantageous to American interests. This new economic policy, El Ladrillo (“the brick”), set forth “reforms” by way of deregulation and privatization. The copper industry remained nationalized under Pinochet, but through legislation and consolidation all outside corporate interests were allowed, once again, controlling interest.

In February of 1971, Allende presciently said:

Ever since my youth I have fought to bury prejudice and obsolete political frameworks for all time. Destiny has willed that I should head this democratic revolution in Chile, this struggle in which the word democracy has a much broader significance than when it is indiscriminately used to conceal essentially anti-democratic and reactionary political attitudes… our government’s action against the monopolies which have plundered the Chilean economy and our attempts to recover the basic natural resources of the country for the Chilean people will affect certain North American private interests. However, we are sure that these interests cannot be identified with the greatest historical purposes of the North American people… whose progressive traditions I respect.

President Allende’s five guiding principles for democracy (from his 1971 message to congress), legality, development of institutions, political freedom, nonviolence, and areas of social ownership, in comparison to General Pinochet’s 1974 declaration, “all government opponents will be crushed and made to disappear” — and which form of government the United States chose to support, tells a terribly sad story of the state of our collective American dream. At the end of Pinochet’s reign, investigators found he had stolen $28 million from Chile. A long legal battle to charge him with genocide ended unsuccessfully when doctors deemed him unfit, though media outlets claim he was “embarrassed” by constant reports of his crimes before he died. The trend of absolving ourselves of guilt by sacrificing villains after they have become harmless continues, and it leaves the criminals of capital largely at liberty to perpetuate the systems the villains helped create.

The propaganda of misinformation in the U.S. survives, as the transnational corporations that own the media outlets and lobby influence over the government see that their agenda sets the tone for how events of the world are discussed — agendas that place profit and expansion and markets above human consideration. It’s no surprise then, that when the San José mine collapsed on August 5, 2010, the “story” in all the newspapers focused on spectacle and sensation; where the family members of the trapped miners were camping, keeping vigil; how to break the bad news to the trapped miners that it would take several months to get them out; the psychological effect of being trapped underground; how NASA had been called in to help, and what kind of state-of-the-art equipment they were using. The part of the story that saw very little coverage was the unsafe history of the mine; how other miners had previously died as the result of similar collapses; the mine has been shut down after the family of a miner who died in 2007 sued the owners; the mine had been fined over 40 times for breach of safety regulations. Empresa Minera San Esteban, the company who owns the mine, taking a page from the Enron book of business, plans to declare bankruptcy to protect its investments from legal actions taken by the trapped miners or their families.

Copper contributes to most of our daily activities because of its use in printed circuit boards, integrated circuits, wiring as well as hundreds of other applications, such as refrigeration, air conditioning and musical instruments. For those of us that use computers, the Internet, listen to- and play music, copper makes these activities possible. This digital age allows us to enrich our lives and have access to cultures that were the stuff of adventurers just a generation ago. Travel has been made easier; cell phone technology allows us to talk to just about anyone, anywhere; we carry small battery-powered devices for communication, entertainment and business; we can eat as if at a world’s fair every day of the week. All of that is possible because of copper in Chile, oil in the Niger delta, lithium in Afghanistan, minerals for electronics from the Congo, United Fruit’s banana republic in Honduras and Guatemala. The transnational corporations who exploit these natural resources, as well as the corporations who turn the resources into consumer goods, will advertise about the happy possibilities their products provide, but we as consumers know on whose backs those products were brought into existence?

As people around the world are trapped in mines, raped for minerals, poisoned by their employers and suffer at the hands of corporations we have to acknowledge what being the human element that runs capitalism and democracy means to the world. The promise of the American dream is that anyone can strike it rich; while the reality is that one percent of the population control the purse strings while the rest of us work in service of that one percent.

Allende knew this when he addressed the United Nations Third Conference on Trade and Development in Santiago, April 13, 1972:

The basic mission of this third session is the replacement of an outdated and unjust economic and trade order by an equitable one based on a new concept of man and human dignity, and to promote the reformulation of an international division of labor which the less advanced countries can no longer tolerate, inasmuch as it obstructs their progress while it favors only the affluent nations… The human being should be the object and the goal of all development policies and of all desirable forms of international cooperation. This is a concept which must be borne in mind in every discussion, in every decision, in every policy measure which aims at fostering progress whether at the national or multinational level… We want to lay the foundations for a new society which will offer its members social equality, welfare, freedom and dignity.

The New Chilean Song Movement (“La Nueva Canción Chilena”) was the embodiment, in sound, of all that Allende hoped for Chile. It’s no wonder that after the coup, one of the first orders of business for Pinochet’s military forces was to destroy Discoteca del Cantar Popular (the radical record company that released many of the new song artists), destroying not only the office and studio, but also the master recordings themselves. Today, the new songs survive from old LPs that made it out of Chile.

Stu Cohen, in cooperation with Rounder Records, released Chile Vencera! An Anthology of Chilean New Song, 1962 — 1973, and the royalties were donated to the Chile Defense Committee. The album is a compilation of new song artists culled from records that weren’t destroyed by the military junta. All the musicians on the album were directly affected by the junta. Victor Jara, as mentioned at the beginning, was murdered by the military, Angel Parra was sent to prison, Isabel Parra and Patricio Castillo managed to escape Chile and seek exile, Quilapayun and Inti Illimani happened to be on tour in Europe during the coup and remained in exile.

Bob Dylan has often been championed as the “voice of a generation,” a title even he takes issue with. Dylan’s ability to write that which seem so real in the mind of the listener is remarkable, and he deserves the praise he so often gets for his songwriting. But as a revolutionary or leader of the counter-culture, can we expect revolutionary innovation from someone whose profession it is to monopolize under established social conditions? It should be obvious that such revolutionary innovations come only from people who have received universal hostility and persecution from the status quo. For the people of Chile — the miners, agrarians, peasants, the proletariat — Victor Jara and the other artists of the Nueva Canción were exactly such, revolutionaries! Here is a small selection from the Chile Vencera! album:

“Al Centro De Injusticia” — Isabel Parra

 

This song is a particularly fine example of pre-Allende social commentary. It attacks what is in terms of what should be. It is directed against the Eduardo Frei government, the upper classes, and the profiteering foreign business.

(Link to the lyrics in Spanish)

Chile is limited in the north by Peru
And by Cape Horn in the south
In the east there rises the cordillera
While in the west the coast
In the middle, the verdant valleys
Where people multiply
Each family has many kids
Who live poorly
Of course, some live comfortably
But covered with the blood of the slaughtered
In front of the most arrogant
Agriculture poses its questions
We buy potatoes from many nations
Though they originated in the south of Chile
In front of the tricolored flag
Mining is very difficult
The miner produces good money
But it goes into foreigners’ pockets
Booming industries where several ladies
Work for a few pennies
And they have to do it, because
Their husbands’ pay is not enough for a month
To escape the anguish of this pain
In the starry night I shut my voice
The homeland is beautiful Mr. Tourist
But they don’t show you the slums
While they spent millions in a moment
People die in astonishing numbers
Too much money in the the public parks
While there is great misery in the hospitals
In the middle the of Alameda de las Delicias

Chile stands at the center of injustice

“Vamos Mujer” — Quilapayún

“Let’s go Woman” is drawn from another cantata (Cantata Santa Maria de Iquique, 1969), possibly the single most famous record released in Chile by the New Song Movement. Written by Luis Advis, one of Chile’s foremost classical composers, the cantata attests to the degree to which the movement was having an effect on areas beyond folk music.

The cantata tells the story of a massacre of miners and their families that occurred in the north of Chile in 1907. The miners and the families had gone to Iquique, a large northern port to protest the conditions in the nitrate mines. Their peaceful protest was met with bullets and several thousand were killed. The massacre was the single most important event in the development in the militant workers’ movement in Chile. The rhythms and melodies come from the traditional folklore of the north. The narrator is Hector Duvachelle.

(Link to the lyrics in Spanish)

[Narration]
The workers had accumulated many wrongs
Much poverty and many injustices
Finally, they could no longer stand it, and the words
Had to demand that which they were owed

At the end of 1907
The strike in San Lorenzo was stirring
And the cry which exploded in the desert
Was heard at once by all

From one mine to the other, like blasts
They heard protests of the workers
From one mine to the other, the owners
With their scornful, indifferent faces

What could the owners care of the rebellion
Of the dispossessed, of the outcasts
Soon they will return, repent
Brought by hunger, their heads lowered

What happens then, if no one listens
Each brothers asked the other
What we ask for is just and it’s so little
Must we lose hope?

So, with love and with suffering
Their wills were united
In only one place would they understand
They had to go down to the big port

[Sung]
Let’s go woman, we are leaving
For the city
All will be different
There can be no doubt
There can be no doubt, have faith
Soon you will see
That in Iquique
They’ll understand

Take my poncho woman
It will cover you
Take the little one in your arms
He will not cry
He will not cry, have faith
Soon he will smile
You will sing him a song
And then he will sleep

What is it that’s happening? Tell me
Don’t be silent any longer

It’s just a long road
You must travel
Over the hills
Let’s go woman
Let’s go woman, have faith
We must arrive
In the city we will be able
To see the whole ocean

They say that Iquique is big
Like a Salar [a huge nitrate mining area]
With many beautiful houses
That you will like
That you will like, have faith
As there is a God
There in the port
All will be better

What is it that’s happening? Tell me
Don’t be silent any longer

Let’s go woman, we are leaving
For the city
All will be different
There can be no doubt
There can be no doubt, have faith
Soon you will see
That in Iquique
They’ll understand

“La Democracia” — Angel Parra

Many of Angel’s songs are written with biting satire. “La Democracia” is no exception. The tone is set in the first few lines and it never lets up. The expression, “let the dogs bark” in the last verse is from a 16th century Spanish play.

(Link to the lyrics in Spanish)

How beautiful is democracy in this lovely country
How pretty are the slums that they build
This permits poor and rich alike
To have the same right when called to the polls
I am a democrat, a technocrat, a plutocrat and a hypocrite

I like democracy because it lets you observe
The fantastic progress of those who have the freedom
To exploit a few and increase their capital
Besides, our rights, and I say it happily
Permit that blacks and whites admire the monuments
I am a democrat, a technocrat, a plutocrat and a hypocrite

And without problems of class or religious creed
We can see how the “cute ones” land on the moon
And in the reserved or common seats
See how Colo-Colo [a soccer team] wins
I like democracy winter and summer
The cops practice shooting at young libertarians
I am a democrat, a technocrat, a plutocrat and a hypocrite

Of course, some starving, wretched ones
Would like to change because they are envious
Let me say to the people, let the dogs bark [so not worry]
I like democracy, I say it with dignity
If you hear sabre rattlings, it is mere chance
I am a democrat, a technocrat, a plutocrat and a hypocrite

“Las Casitas Barrio Alto” — Victor Jara

This song is an example of the international borrowing that went on during the period of folk revivals in many countries. In the U.S., Pete Seeger frequently performed “Guantanamera.” In Chile, Seeger’s recording of Malvina Reynold’s song, “Little Boxes,” became popular, and “Las Casitas Barrio Alto” is Victor Jara’s version changed to fit the Chilean reality.
[Dopesmokers take note, this is the Weeds theme song.]

(Link to the lyrics in Spanish)

The little houses of the rich suburb
With fences and gardens
A beautiful car entrance
Waiting for a Peugeot
They are pink, green, white and light blue
The little houses of the rich suburb
Made with Elmer’s Glue

And the people of the little houses
They smile and visit each other
They go together to the supermarket
And they all have TVs

There are dentists, merchants, landowners and pushers
Lawyers and pensioners and they all wear polyester

They play bridge, have martinis
And the children are all blond
And with other blonds
They go together to the fancy school

And then the spoiled daddy’s boy
Goes off to college
Where he becomes concerned
With social problems
He smokes in his Austin Mini
He plays with bombs and politics
He kills generals
[referring to the assassination of René Schneider]
And is a seditious gangster

“El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido” — Quilapayún

“El Pueblo Unido” is one of the great, optimistic peoples’ fighting songs produced by the New Song movement. It is sung here in concert by Quilapayún, appearing at the First International Festival of Popular Peoples’ Song in Santiago. The recording was made in 1973, the year of the coup.

(Link to the lyrics in Spanish)

[Shouted]
The people united shall never be defeated
The people united shall never be defeated
The people united shall never be defeated

[Sung]
Stand up to sing, we know we’re going to win
Flags of unity are moving forward
And you will march at my side
And you will see your song and your banner grow
The red light of dawn
Announces the life to come

Stand up to fight, the people shall win
There is a better life coming
To conquer our happiness
In a clamor a thousand fighting voices
Will rise and sing a song of freedom

With determination the homeland will win

And now, the people that rise to fight
With a giant’s voice crying, “Forward!”
The people united shall never be defeated
The people united shall never be defeated

The homeland is forging its unity
From north to south they will mobilize
From the burning mineral salt mines
To the southern forests, they will go united in battle and work

They will cover the homeland
Their march announces the future

Stand up to sing, the people shall win
Imposing truth from millions within

The fiery steel battalions
Their hands bring justice and reason
Woman, with fire and courage
You are already here, together with the workers

And now the people stand to fight
With a giant’s voice, they shout, “Forward!”
The people united shall never be defeated
The people united shall never be defeated
The people united shall never be defeated
The people united shall never be defeated


If you’re interested in a distinctly Chilean view of Allende, Pinochet and the coup, Patricio Guzmán has made a number of documentaries on the subject. First, The Battle of Chile, a three-part, four-and-a-half hour documentary that spends most of its time in the streets. From 1972 through 1979, five people made the film using one camera with film supplied by French artist Chris Marker. Of course, the military junta banned the film. Before it was banned, it was secretly stored in the Swedish Embassy in Santiago and the raw footage had to be smuggled out of Chile to be edited in Cuba and released in France through Marker. The cinematographer, Jorge Müller Silva, was “disappeared” by the Pinochet. In 2004 Guzmán released Salvador Allende, a documentary about the personal impact Allende and the Popular Unity had on Guzmán’s life. The film spends time with Chileans in a post-Pinochet reflection on a dream that was cut short. It’s particularly hard to watch folks reflect, often for the first time publicly, on what it meant to be part of Allende’s democratic revolution; a worker who states one of his biggest regrets was not positioning himself with others in front of the presidential palace when the military was bombing Allende, who was locked inside; a family, who had buried a photo album of Popular Unity-related events during the Pinochet dictatorship, unearth the memories and express their regret.

Two correlative points worth mentioning at the close. First, Salvador Allende’s life, as well as his dream for a social democracy, were cut short by White House-financed forces on September 11, 1973. Most people outside America refer to this day as “the forgotten 9/11.” The captains of industry, the principals of American capitalism, want us to associate Marxism or Socialism with terrorism. It’s shameful that the first 9/11 the White House was involved in, one that sought to eradicate Marxism, birthed a dictatorship that lasted for decades, killed thousands, and became the embodiment of terror for those living under its conditions.

Second, decades past, with Allende, Pinochet and many of the people who lived through the coup long since passed, the historic artifacts of the time — the Nueva Canción movement and Guzmán’s documentaries — survive through technologies that all rely on Chile’s greatest export, copper. Victor Jara’s music, Patricio Guzmán’s films, and all the ideas contained therein survived through technology, their work slowly countering the efforts of transnational corporations who pay to make history malleable. If you’re reading this, it owes in no small part to copper.

Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail.
Salvador Allende, September 11, 1973