cartwheels into your heart

Sunday, August 24, 2003

There’s something liberating about the list format Matos uses in "100 Things." In a more conventional form, his non-sequiturs would seem either rambling or disjointed. But with the list, a statement like #88 (“I use Right Guard Sport stick. It’s about the only thing that works.) can exist in its own space, without the pressure to cohere. You can take your time with each discrete thought, or let a few of them build into a rhythm. I think this is the idea behind David Markson’s similarly fragmented books, but the high-culture references and overly philosophical bent of This is Not a Novel left me cold.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

(If both Dylan and Reich demand fuller attention than I’m otherwise used to, the difference is that Dylan wants to be interpreted, understood, and Reich wants to be experienced, attuned to. In general, I’m more attracted to the latter way of listening.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

One of the things that interests me about music is how it can be experienced in a remarkable number of ways. You can dance to it at a club; you can space out in your bedroom with headphones; or you can sing along in a car, with the windows rolled down. You can listen to a whole album straight through; you can play your favorite song over and over; or you can set your radio on scan and hear only fragments. You can even create new contexts through mixtapes. Whereas a medium like film seems to hold the darkened movie theater as its ideal mode of viewing, it’s hard to argue that any mode of music-listening is universally preferable. Different kinds of music and situations support different listening styles.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the variability of “attention” in listening experiences. Ninety-five percent of the time I listen to music, I’m also doing something else: cooking or showering, perhaps, but also more intellectually focused activities like reading or editing textbooks at work. And so I tend to value music that doesn’t require my full attention to have an impact. You might consider this a sacrifice, except it’s actually something that music is uniquely equipped to do: to affect you on a subconscious level, so that you wake up humming a song you can’t place. And above all, this music still has the full ability to function as mood; it is still suggestive.

Recalling Brian Eno’s story of how he was inspired to create “ambient music,” I like music that I can play at low volume, in the corner of the room, and still be affected by. Hearing Air’s “La Femme D’Argent” anywhere could make me feel slinky and chic (or as my friend Kelsey says, “like I’m in a seventies porn film”). The hushed vocals and delicately plucked guitars of Kings of Convenience are equally transporting, no matter how I hear them: I’m lying in a meadow, or curled up in a cabin at dusk. And this, perhaps, is why I still haven’t warmed up to Bob Dylan: with the key to the songs residing so strongly in the lyrics and narrative, his music doesn’t work in ambient situations. All I hear is standard blues chord progressions; all it suggests is folk festivals and sixties protest documentaries. I’m obviously not used to listening in the way that Dylan seems to demand -- that is, more intently -- but I’m not quite ready to change my habits for him, either.

And yet there is one record I own that summons my attention in a way others don’t. The opening movement of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians -- those four minutes of pulsating chords -- always makes me want to sit still and just listen. By the time the marimbas hit, I’m locked into the rhythm. I close my eyes; my mind floats; I make up words for each repetitive phrase (“Cigarette wouldn’t talk to you / cigarette wouldn’t talk to you / cigarette wouldn’t talk to you / cigarette” or “But it’s really good for me / but it’s really good for me”). Or I imagine things: a city in winter, a window crying with rain, wind striking the back of a neck. When I listen to it now, as I’m writing this, it even feels like a betrayal: it’s too special, too serious to just throw on the stereo, lights on, phone ringing.

Saturday, August 09, 2003

Since I was sixteen, I’ve been interested in poetry that uses language in ways that defy conventional, objective meaning. During dull moments at my first job, in an insurance office, I’d surreptitiously scribble nonsense phrases that came to mind -- “schizou gangster taps,” for instance -- and then string them together into loose poems. These first poems were mostly word detritus, but I liked the way some of the words sounded next to each other, and I turned the best examples into song lyrics. Over the next year, the associative wordplay I encountered on Soul Coughing’s Ruby Vroom and Beck’s Odelay seemed to validate my surrealist techniques: I loved how lines like “mouthwash jukebox gasoline” and “full-tilt chromosome cowboy” didn’t seem to mean anything: their enjoyment depended exclusively on their aesthetic properties.

As I continued to write, I grew interested in the visual dimension of language as well, and assembled stanzas with a preponderance of certain letters, using the alphabet as a palette. When I was able to keep the poems focused and concise, they seemed to take on moods and colors. Which then seemed to be the point: writing not for understanding but for experiencing; writing as abstract art.

All of which is to say, for those who have wondered: “Seaworthy Southeast Thesaurus” is one of those “meaningless” phrases. In this case, the words didn’t come to me outright, but appeared one after the other in an anagram dictionary I own (AEHORSTWY, AEHOSSTTU, AEHRSSTUU). I wanted to build a poem around all the words on that page but had some trouble connecting that phrase to “summarize mannequin pneumonia.” So I was stuck with a title. In any event, there’s something about its lack of literalness that I think I like for a weblog that’s been mostly about music, a fundamentally (though not strictly) non-representational form.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Wondering last night, as I looked through the sixteen new records I’ve heard this year(1), whether I’ll ever be overwhelmed by a record at first listen like I was with Dots and Loops. Even Interpol last year, which by year’s end seemed so solidly my number one, took a little while to grow on me.(2)

But in the fall of 1997, I put on the new Stereolab album in my dorm room, lights dim, and everything clicked into place. The sing-song melodies I liked on Emperor Tomato Ketchup were still around, but in place of that album’s detached motorik beat and funk affectations, there were sweetly shuffling jazz rhythms and warm beds of sad electronic sounds. It felt like a blanket. Or like it was all underwater, the bass deep and prowling the ocean floor, the beats gurgling, the strings like light shimmering in(3). I was mesmerized.

It’s curious to hear from Stereolab fans who consider Dots and Loops the band’s first misstep, a weightless lounge record that doesn’t hold up to the krautrock-inspired energy of their earlier material. Not to say Stereolab doesn’t sometimes falter in this way: I could certainly criticize Sound-Dust, the band’s most recent album, for sounding anemic in parts. But although I liked the minimalism of the acclaimed Transient Random Noise-Bursts(4), which I’d bought that summer, Dots and Loops perfected the band in my ears: perfected music period, I sometimes thought.

And so I waited for buses in St. Louis, wearing my new corduroy coat, singing fragments of songs caught in my head in the cold air. I grumbled I couldn’t go to the show (with Mouse on Mars) and was jealous of the shiny concert tee that Summer brought back. I lit up when the album was played at Blake’s Diner and for the first time counted the time signatures of each track, thrilling at the variations. I played the drum-and-bassish “Parsec” at a party in my suite, disappointed that people dancing couldn’t move to the 5/4. When Rachel at Blake’s asked what it was, I stammered, “Only, like, my favorite album of all time.”

Josh thinks what makes Dots and Loops unique, even compared to its successors, is that it uses beats in a way that’s more akin to hip-hop or electronic/dance styles than to rock or orchestral pop -- a matter, basically, of how rhythms are integrated into the overall sound.(5) This maybe explains why it works better as ambience than other Stereolab records: it has a continuous hypnotic feel that surrounds you nicely while reading or making tea. The instruments, as Josh points out, don’t always call attention to themselves as horns or synths or whatever: they’re “deployed as sounds.”(6) And yet, unlike many strictly electronic artists, the band is still writing catchy, complex songs. This, for me, was the winning combination.

What I’m wondering, I guess, is whether I’ve gotten to a point where I’ve heard enough music so that I’m no longer struck like that. Like I’ve found the answer. I remember thinking in high school that a really great music would mix jazz with rock in a way that didn’t sound like Blood, Sweat and Tears or Steely Dan. When I eventually discovered Chicago post-rock, I loved it. But these days, what haven’t I already heard, in some form at least?

(1) An unusually high amount for me in August, though I’ve only actually bought seven.

(2) I think I’m naturally suspicious of low male vocals. The first time I saw the Aluminum Group, while working for Minty Fresh, John’s voice actually reminded me of the Barenaked Ladies; I hadn’t yet noticed its campiness.

(3) I like music that drags me under the surface somehow: DJ Shadow’s “Mashin' on the Motorway” interrupts a perfectly good head-nodding record (The Private Press) with a nervous vocal track accented with chaotic car horns. Let’s take it back down, man.

(4) Especially “Jenny Ondioline,” which I used to listen to while shaving -- the opening 40 seconds of distortion I spent lathering my face, and by the time the drums kicked in, my razor was ready to go.

(5) Since it’s the only Stereolab album that Andi Toma (of Mouse on Mars) has co-produced, it’s tempting to credit him with this feel -- and yet I just looked at the liner notes and he only actually worked on three tracks (and not necessarily the ones you’d expect).

(6) Currently listening to “The Flower Called Nowhere,” and I realize that I’ve always heard the main rhythmic instrument as a harpsichord, but it’s not all that prominent, and who knows, it could be a high-pitched, ringing acoustic guitar.