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MP3 Discussion Group: Black to Comm’s ‘Alphabet 1968′

Every week or so, the MP3 Discussion Group gets together online to talk about a recent release. The latest object of our collective, occasionally obsessive, close listening is Alphabet 1968, released on the Type Records label, and recorded by Black to Comm, aka Marc Richter. The album’s 10 tracks range from epic drones to compact minimalism, with all manner of lo-fi field recordings mixed in. Type Records generously streams all its releases in their entirety on its website, and Alphabet 1968 is no exception. Below is the full album, available via the SoundCloud service:

Participating with me in this week’s MP3 Discussion Group are:

Alan Lockett: “I write music reviews and commentary on ambient/drone, the more adventurous end of techno/house, post-dub, and IDM. Based in Bristol, epicentre of the Dub-zone in the Wild West of England, I can mainly be read on igloomag.com and furthernoise.org.”

Joshua Maremont: “I record as Thermal and pursue my musical and other obsessions in San Francisco.”

Julian Lewis: “I write much of Lend Me Your Ears, a UK/Spain-based MP3 blog that appreciates less obvious music.”

Lauren Giniger: “I’m an occasional rock-centric music writer who enjoys the opportunity to flex a little mental muscle deconstructing ambient works.”

The conversation will play out in this post’s comments section.

A little note on MP3 Discussion Group format: This is by no means a closed conversation, so do feel free to join in. The initial posts by participants were all written before they had an opportunity to see each other’s take on the album in question, but after that it’s intended to play out in real time.

More on the album at its label’s website, typerecords.com, and on Richter at blacktocomm.org.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Tags: , / Comments: 26 ]

26 Comments

  1. Julian Lewis
    [ Posted December 1, 2009, at 1:18 pm ]

    Not as extreme as his very intense ‘Collaboration’ with Datashock on Ikuisuus last year (http://www.discogs.com/Datashock-Black-To-Comm-Collaboration/release/1432662) nor as wilful & sprawling as his ‘F*ck Krautrock’ mix for Type (http://typerecords.com/typecasts/15), ‘Alphabet 1968’ might be seen as some kind of acquiescence or dumbing-down. It isn’t, I don’t think – though its pleasures are clearly gentler than theirs.

    Compare the tone-setting openers with the mounting claustrophobia of the Datashock piece. Where it is all metallic inwardness from the first (& very, very affecting), ‘Jonathan’ & the immense ‘Forst’ mostly glow & twinkle. Clinking bells, crackles, shimmering washes & eventually even muted fanfares underscore their nearly bucolic warmth (driven by the first’s simple, resonant piano, the second’s enveloping Frippiness).

    Not sure that anyone needs ‘speed drone’ unveiling as a new genre. But that’s ‘Alphabet’s territory, pretty well – after those two longer tracks, only one of the subsequent eight even makes it past five minutes. Instead we get a swift succession of briskly satisfying, highly detailed, gem-like vignettes that are careful not to outstay any welcome.

    Only the powerful five-plus ‘Houdini Rites’, with its hammering clangs & muttered intoning, & following ‘Void’ really take the tonal palette darker. Of the others, the beguiling, layered ‘Musik fuer Alle’ particularly stays with me. It & ‘Trapez’ (all phased, faux-naif xylophones…) feel like a pair that Leaf-y Colleen might have been very glad to unveil.

    ‘Music for Films’ re-scored by Mountains? Mountains’ ‘Choral’ with the acoustic guitars taken away (though not its acoustics, since one of ‘Alphabet’s qualities is its creaking physicality)? Neither, probably, but denseness/concentration, texture & mood are the connection – & certainly the important qualities here.

    Finally, applause for Type. The label’s huge care over its releases, so obvious in the quality of their sound & artwork, is complemented by its exemplary use of Soundcloud streams – every album, in full, online. That’s confidence in your music – to set it before the world this boldly & unapologetically, with the message that if you want to own it that’s fine: but it’ll be here anyway.

  2. Lauren Giniger
    [ Posted December 1, 2009, at 1:18 pm ]

    Let me just say off the bat how very much I like “Alphabet 1968.” There is something accessible and warm about the record, which belies the many months of careful composition that must have gone into producing such an obviously complex document. “Alphabet” succeeds for me because despite the noise, and the hiss, and the obscured instruments, and the unmistakable fact of Marc Richter’s avant-experimentalism, it is so well-crafted and so immediately likable, and holds out promise to reward a long listen over time (play guess that instrument).

    My favorite tracks so far are track 2, “Forst”, which nods toward Basic Channel with a muffled yet lovely beat, and which carries the warmth found in Basic Channel’s techno. “Hotel Freund,” track 10, is an enticing piece of ambient psychedelia — dreamy, with a muffled theremin popping up in the background. Check out the video to this piece — looped stampedes of outsized rabbits — it’s both charming but weird enough that it encompasses perfectly a distorted psychedelic dream state.

    I don’t know if Richter succeeded in creating a genre referencing song album (but I hope to by the end of this week). However, Black To Comm (Richter) does as described in the text that accompanies the album stream: he composes found sound, sampled bits, and degraded tape hisses, and knits them together with warm crescendoes of instrumental drone.

  3. Marc Weidenbaum
    [ Posted December 1, 2009, at 1:18 pm ]

    Black to Comm’s Alphabet 1968 has made me reconsider my concern about samey albums, albums that dig too heavily into a single sound and risk coming off as unintentionally repetitive.

    The tracks I like most on this record are tracks I’d like to hear Richter do album-length takes on. Each track on the Alphabet presents a self-contained sonic approach, from the pause-tape vocal edits and Scanner-like audio bed of “Jonathan,” to the childlike minimalist percission of “Trapez,” to mashed-up classical tropes of “Musik für Alle.”

    Richter isn’t giving us small teasing bits to leave us savoring. This is an album, a collection of pieces that are as much a collection of loosely related works as the individual pieces are themselves thoughtfully, thoroughly put-together efforts. I’m still sussing out the various themes that tie the thing together — a certain nostalgia, emphasis on keyboards and found sounds, percussion-as-melody. Looking forward to digging in further.

  4. Joshua Maremont
    [ Posted December 1, 2009, at 1:18 pm ]

    Black To Comm has in the past been familiar to me in name only, as the creator of limited-run vinyls and the curator behind the enigmatic Dekorder label, itself responsible for one of the most memorable installments in the quickly proliferating Machinefabriek arsenal. But the taste of Marc Richter, for Black To Comm is he, is clear enough from his output of his label, on which The Hafler Trio, Stephan Mathieu, and Hematic Sunsets (aka Asmus Tietchens) have appeared, along with a bit of the new avant-metal and a solid helping of Finnish forest freakouts. With its suggestively Golgothic sleeve art (oddly the whistling sequence from “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” has been stuck in my head this evening) and its antique type, I found myself expecting Alphabet 1968 to revel in the spiritual darkness of Xela’s own recent records on his Type label, yet this album opens – and I should add closes, for in its own way it forms a loop – in much the style of A Thirsty Fish-era Hafler Trio, with location sounds and voices chopped apart until swept into the larger drone. But if this is a drone record, and it may at times be fair to call it one, there is nothing here of the minimalist or the meditative; rather, this is a maximalist record on which all manner of noises are looped and piled, blurred and swirled, with Forst here being perhaps the most striking example of this tendency, the whole thing grounded with a thump right out of a Gas record but reaching the clouds with icing whipped up from an Astral Social Club recipe. On speakers this track is gorgeous, but between the headphones it is revelatory, and what may seem on the surface a shoegazing fringe-shake in the laptop glow resolves into electric and acoustic guitars, horns, voices, crackles, bells, violin, all held in levitational suspension until the final fade. It is difficult to conjure another drone record with this richness, variety, and depth, although Nurse With Wound’s four-man performance here in SF a few years ago, beautifully memorialized on May The Fleas Of A Thousand Camels Infest Your Armpits, comes to mind, as do the old Kluster and Taj Mahal Travellers records. Yet after Forst we find the sort of music box loops in Trapez as we might have heard on Bill Nelson’s early 1980s ambient records, while Musik Fur Alle sounds like the chance meeting of Steve Reich and The Wicker Man on a shortwave radio playing gamelan music from another planet. Throughout this journey there are tunes and even, almost, songs, as in Traum GmbH, reminding that this is not simply a gorgeous splatter of sounds or a succession of tracks but a careful story told in disciplined pieces, never losing sight of the cookie crumbs through the occasionally dark woods, for night does fall somewhat menacingly by the time the clatter of Houdini Rites resolves into the growling scraping Void. At the far edge of that Void, however, is Hotel Freund, which despite its opening dissonance sooths with its almost too beautiful loops (used here, I find, very differently than on the trilogy of albums we last discussed, although I am interested to hear what others think of this) and exits to the same found voices with which the album began. Without wasting a second of Alphabet 1968’s short running time, Black To Comm has presented a highly focused yet genuinely psychedelic album of the sort one rarely hears, requiring undistracted and repeated listening to reveal its pleasures. I will certainly scramble to get my hands on this project’s next release on Digitalis, even as I ponder its connection to the MC5 song whence comes its name.

  5. Alan Lockett
    [ Posted December 1, 2009, at 1:18 pm ]

    I must admit that Black To Comm was a new artist to me when this album came to my attention through one of our best loved (or at least most indulgently tolerated – though possibly least believed in) sources, namely the slavering boomkat review. Anyway, I can’t recall if Alphabet 1968 was ‘mighty,’ ‘killer,’ ‘essential,’ or ‘crushing,’ but whichever it was, it piqued my curiosity to hear what it sounded like.

    It’s an odd array that ranges around various informing sub-genres – drone, techno, modern classical, freak-forest-folk, Exotica – but the album still manages to sound coherent. Apparently his previous work was more premised on long-form drone structures, and in fact I’ve since managed to grab a listen to ‘Charlemagne and Pippin’ on Digitalis, which is indeed one single slow slide of 38 minutes down an increasingly rugged and rocky scree slope involving what sounds like live instruments, while this one is a pretty concise ‘song’-like formation of 10 tracks in 45 minutes, deploying a load of loops harvested from ancient vinyl and 78s, as well as something called ‘kitchen gamelan.’ I think the coherence-despite-diversity I mentioned above might be down to the fact that it’s all processed through the same methodology (or organising sensibility?) of densely stacked layering, even if the sources themselves may be disparate (cf. Philip Jeck’s use of old vinyl involves lots of dfferent types on vinyl but they’re spun in such a way as to sound of similar cloth).

    In terms of specific tracks, for the moment I’m less taken by the more noise-inclined stuff like ‘Void’ or the cacophanous ‘Houdini Rites’ as the ambiguously elegiac grainy lo-fi orchestralism of ‘Hotel Friend’ or the eerie kick-drum+dissonant horns+string glissandi of ‘Forst’ (hello, Wolfgang). But I’m still listening, and (stopping?) making sense.

  6. [ Posted December 1, 2009, at 1:55 pm ]

    Have seen the video for “Hotel Freund” Lauren mentioned too. Here’s the link:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYt4fp3TYQg

    Very strange – somehow consonant with the piece, one feels.

  7. [ Posted December 2, 2009, at 2:02 pm ]

    Ironic, perhaps, after our Tu M’ discussion of what constitutes the right length for drones (whatever feels right, clearly) to be wondering whether this ‘speed’ version is sometimes too short… But I share Marc’s feeling that longer explorations of some tracks would be great to hear.

    Not that they aren’t composed & satisfying at current length. But I’d relish an extended ‘Houdini Rites’ , for example – you can imagine its cacophony (as Alan rightly has it) starting to echo across & in on itself & taking on new shapes over more time.

    The ‘Amateur/Traum GmbH’ micro-sequence is the most obvious candidate. But despite being the longest piece, what everyone seems to hear as the Gaseous ‘Forst’ (though to me, it’s rather sharper & more metallic, less enveloping…) could certainly stretch out further too (how about a 15-minute Voigt remix/revision?!).

    Must also cite a typically smart & insightful review of the album by mapsadaisical, an exceptional guide to this territory: http://mapsadaisical.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/black-to-comm-alphabet-1968-type/

    I’m still fretting over how to take the album’s title. One possible way is suggested by maps’ lovely, cunning point that “Richter’s alphabet takes him through Ambient, Beats, Classical, Drone, Exotica, Field recordings and beyond”.

    Joshua, thanks for the Hafler Trio tip – will have to chase them/it down…

  8. [ Posted December 2, 2009, at 2:17 pm ]

    Alan, here’s that inevitably breathless – but also impressively engaged & supportive, of course – Boomkat review (“For us, without question, one of the standout drone/death-ambient albums of the year – full of haunted loops, half-remembered lullabies and layered embers of sound – a must!”): http://www.boomkat.com/item.cfm?id=232914

    Besides the Boomers’ “ripples of hushed excitement in this office”, two other reviews worth checking out are Brainwashed’s (“may very well be Black to Comm’s best album so far, but I would not be at all surprised to see it followed by an even better one”) & The Line of Best Fit’s (“”): http://brainwashed.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=7931&Itemid=64 & http://www.thelineofbestfit.com/2009/11/black-to-comm-%E2%80%93-alphabet-1968/

    (A raft of others here: http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=167988772&blogId=519911539)

    One important point coming out of these: ‘Alphabet’ isn’t Richter’s work alone. Jonna Karanka & Renate Nikolaus also feature, as Richter confirms (though all I’ve seen confirmed is that Karanka plays some piano & contributes her voice at some point…).

  9. [ Posted December 2, 2009, at 3:43 pm ]

    The video for Hotel Freund is wonderfully baffling, reminding me that we are quite far down the rabbit hole with Alphabet 1968, whether we end up taking tea with Donnie Darko or sharing more than a few drinks with Harvey. But the static nature of the images – this could be looped all day in a gallery installation (do show me to it, please) – brings out the strength of this closing track in contrast. If Forst is the early, season-stealing gasp-inducer of this album, Hotel Freund is its textbook, for in this carefully structured triptych there is unease in the opening disonnance, comfort in the dusty central loops, and finally a melting back into the sonic environment out of which the album seems then to have been conjured. Although I do sympathize with the desire of others here to hear more of these tracks – and yes, I could do with a Forst of more Schulzean proportions – this last one shows just how careful Richter has been with his trimmings and arrangements. In the spirit of a Holger Czukay or Teo Macero or Tim Friese-Greene, one wonders whether the unedited, untamed versions of these pieces would have the same power.

  10. Paul McEnery
    [ Posted December 2, 2009, at 3:43 pm ]

    For the most part, this is such a delicately-achieved collection that I hesitate to criticize it; but still: it’s all a bit 70s, isn’t it.

    What I’m getting from this is “10 approaches to inhabiting a chord”. This one we’ll give a bit of Tangerine Dream sequencing and a smooshy Klaus Schulze wave to finish it; this one we’ll describe a single koto scale that everybody knows; here we’ll go the Branca/MBV route and pull out some twinkly overtones; etc.

    But what leads to serious problems is the introduction of real instrument samples — presumably played rather than sampled per se — of tinkly bells, out of tune ropey piano — which make me think of that glorious Mouse on Mars song with the found trombone on it. The samples themselves are no doubt supposed to be ragged, so there’s a bit of symbolism being brought in there, but damned if I can tell what it is, any more than I can tell what the environmental recordings were supposed to be doing in the intro; or the pots and pans gamelan — the disruption of rhythm in order to create a timeless chord out of what might otherwise be a linear sequence — fine, I could get behind that, but it was grittier when Xenakis did it.

    Let’s scrape that out a bit (especially as we’re back in that most hackneyed of territory by the end, the bloody Satie cover). Sure, you can make a silk purse out of the least promising material, but if you insist on leaving the smell of cured pork around, it ain’t going to sell on the market stall. Those sonic objects are supposed to stand as some kind of reminder of the ding an sich — they aren’t transformed, merely juxtaposed — which gives us back our own ding an sich as subjects sitting in these ten rooms.

    All of which makes me think that what we’re getting here is a host of half-digested techniques being applied to retreat to an old-school humanistic agenda. Relying on swells, repetition, and implicit arpeggios might drive a Central American premier out of his embassy hideyhole, but it doesn’t break down the walls of ego to get us to the sublime.

  11. [ Posted December 2, 2009, at 3:49 pm ]

    Julian, re: the title mystery, I just idly googled ‘Alphabet’ and ‘1968’ and I came up with:

    ‘David Lynch’s second (short) movie is called “Alphabet” and dates back to 1968.’ (http://www.angelfire.com/id/BlackLodge/alphabet.html)(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062653/)

    Coincidence perhaps, but an intriguing serendipity.

    Cheers for the boomer spot – only ‘a must!’? Positively reined in for them.

  12. [ Posted December 3, 2009, at 9:56 am ]

    A nicely articulated but savagely reductionist hatchet job from Paul up there. Possibly a bit harsh?

  13. [ Posted December 3, 2009, at 1:13 pm ]

    Paul, it is a fine thing to find you here. I wonder, however, how 1970s this really is. For as happy as I am to hear Sky/Brain/Ohr-worship on offer in more recent records (including those, as you suggest, of a Sonig hue), I hear less of it here; nowhere can a diploma from the turn-it-on-and-let-it-bleep school be seen framed on the wall, nor are there any deprogramming documents in the filing cabinets to betray now slumbering sympathies, jammy or smoky, with one or the other of the hippy rock communes, and the step-sequencing of the Berlin school are being used, if at all, as doorstops (or circuitbent beyond human comprehension by those troubling gigantic rabbits). But I do here something with its roots in the late 1960s and 1970s: the impulse toward live sprawl disciplined by blade in the editing room. If any leather trousers and mustaches are to be seen through that glass, they are on Holger Czukay as he works over his tapes with Rene Tinner. I would even venture that there is something of Can’s ethnographic forgeries in that quote within the last track, for if Satie is indeed booked into Hotel Freund, I see him in a taxidermist’s room, perhaps still in need of some finishing touches, to be employed as a very different sort of furniture than had been intended. As concerns Boomfeline logorrhea, I must admit to feeling some of my own “ripples of hushed excitement” about this record.

  14. [ Posted December 3, 2009, at 2:17 pm ]

    I’m not so sure about the 1970s reference of Paul’s, though there is something distinctly non-modern about this, and that may provide an overall 1970s feel — or, more to the point, a pre-mid-’80s feel. Specifically, there is an analog lushness to the music.

    It’s not the lushness of a Nelson Riddle orchestral production, nor is it the lushness of a My Bloody Valentine pop dirge. It’s just the lushness of a musician who doesn’t feel like the naked digital tabula rasa of post-compact-disc recording needs the be the foundation of his music. When I listen through Alphabet 1968, I never hit bottom.

    Look, I love my Timbaland productions, and my Scanner soundscapes, and my Cliff Martinez scores. But in each of those, more often than not (well, always with Timbaland), there’s a shiny blankness at the base of it all, where all the digits are 0s, not 1s. With Alphabet 1968, no matter how deep I listen, there’s something another layer down.

  15. Paul McEnery
    [ Posted December 3, 2009, at 3:20 pm ]

    As far as the 70s goes, I hear a lot less Can and a lot more Pink Floyd. Except that the Floyd went all the way into the bourgeois mainstream, with the real world samples integrated into an overall message.

    OTOH, there’s the late 70s early 80s Hafler Trio — I’m thinking of the cassette with NWW — where the samples are the whole of the music.

    To my way of thinking, Alphabet 1968 straddles the two of these thoughts uneasily. I sense that it wants a kind of concept album cohesion — this is very definitely a suite with a direction, however much the internal eight tracks are modular rather than an arc of development — but doesn’t really marshall an argument, because each of the pieces is essentially static, as if one’s eye were investigating a monochromatic canvas for the faint variations that bring the painting to life.

    Now, as a kind of Queneau Exercises in Style, that’s fine in itself; but even then, there’s stuff here that bothers me. Comparing to NWW/HT again, with their tape piece, the key feature of the ambient noise is that we’re absent from it, and it’s absent from us. Even the microphone itself seems barely in the room, receding into its own nothingness. Where here, the samples walk into the room declaring their essential presence. And that gives us the opposite effect of Queneau (or anything NWW or HT related); both of those are liberating as we find the essential constructs fall apart into technique; but here, I find technique reasserting the essential.

    Perhaps I’m reading too much into the title here, but it seems to me that, as an alphabet of styles, this fails because of the re-presentation of elements that never truly yield themselves up as processes, but cling to their particularity. For that matter, the styles themselves represent themselves. Pastiche is interesting when the juxtaposition casts a new light on either the material or the style — but this feels a bit more White Stripes to me, where the content is dictated by the desire to re-present the style.

    And again, one might be overreaching with the title but, just as the alphabet itself is more late 70s and 80s than 68, “1968” is itself a potent signifier of precisely the destruction of objects in their essential presence. And there we find the two poles of Aus Den Sieben Tagen (with its absolute self-emptying) and Sgt. Pepper (weak, bourgeois, clinging to the self, using material that reveals itself as not very good in the first place, so also clinging frantically to the little that the composers had managed to understand).

  16. Lauren Giniger
    [ Posted December 3, 2009, at 10:29 pm ]

    Hello again and sorry for being out yesterday, but I’m back. I must admit that this conversation is getting almost intimidatingly dense. Sorry to be bourgeois, but what about the simple pleasure inherent in listening? From that perspective surely “Alphabet 1968″ is a success.

    Type’s webpage states his intention to create a genre referencing album. Perhaps all he did was represent a pastiche of style. Perhaps there is some nostalgia infused throughout Alphabet, be it for a ’70s mustache or a family autobahn roadtrip to the Black Forest soundtracked by Can.

    Yet given this record’s apparent ability to unpack itself both aurally, and in this discussion format, we must have at hand a document that is more than the sum of its parts.

  17. [ Posted December 4, 2009, at 1:29 am ]

    Yes, following Lauren, I can’t help feeling – for all the amusement value of the knockabout semiotics peddled above – that our object of discussion has been hi-jacked, bound and gagged, and bundled into a harshly-lit room to be poked and prodded and stretched with Critical/Cultural Theory devices. It almost makes me want to implore: ‘why can’t a sound just be a sound?’

  18. Paul McEnery
    [ Posted December 4, 2009, at 1:46 pm ]

    Because once you’ve made a work of art out of it, a sound isn’t just a sound anymore?

    Plus, it always seems to me that the issue with appraisal is first to figure out what sort of a something something is, and then to see whether it’s a good version of that something.

    Even then, if we want to say that we want music to simply be decorative, then that already gives the game away, and we’re already in the territory of middle class background music, which is almost always marked by the triumph of taste over risk-taking.

    Which is fine, if that’s what you like; but when we’re appraising a work, I’m going to be comfy marking down anything that’s just middle class background music (as opposed to, say, the working class background music of club classics, which we might also mark down if it doesn’t transcend its place in the world).

    Although for me, your middle class thingie is usually going to be less interesting, because its goal is to reassure rather than challenge; and that’s exactly what I feel with Alphabet 1968 (which, like I say, is a title that has a whiff of dangerous rigor about it that it fails to live up to).

    The other thing is that I felt that, regardless of the sensuous pleasure of parts of the record, I’d exhausted the ideas in the record the first time I paid real attention to it. Again, I found it straddling the uncomfortable space between listening music and ambient, and not really living up to either mode.

    A bit like Dead Cities by Future Sound, then.

  19. [ Posted December 4, 2009, at 3:47 pm ]

    Yes, Alan, you have something there, and we have, after all, a project here named after an MC5 song, whose punked-out blues rock can be witnessed here -

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwV5Sqlhlgc

    • and later here -

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMITpOaKQHc

    • with nary an oversized rabbit (but plenty of tight pants and kick drums) to be found on stage. Not that Richter is up to punk any more than he and his merry band of players are taking their Karlheinz straight, without at least a Czukay-Schmidt or a Hutter-Schneider chaser (and I think a grain or more of salt), but I cannot help thinking that he is having some fun with us, as I certainly am with his lovely little record. I remain convinced, as was Jimmy Stewart, that the only thing to do when the big rabbit appears is to have a few drinks with him.
  20. [ Posted December 4, 2009, at 6:29 pm ]

    (Mostly a reply to Alan and Lauren.) It’s inevitable that talking about music gets dense — especially in the case of abstract music.

    There’s a gap between the specificity, the meaning, of words (even mine at my most overly poetic and associative) and the unformed sounds (even at their most rhythmically succinct).

    For me, writing about the abstraction is an expression of its beauty. And when it falls short, when it isn’t beautiful, it’s an expression of frustration with contrivance, or disappointment about lack of follow-through.

    Don’t hesitate to focus on what is pleasurable. To discuss it here is to share those impressions in writing.

  21. [ Posted December 4, 2009, at 10:27 pm ]

    I suppose I’d like to say (to Mark) that I have no problem with density of abstraction in talking about music, and if you’ve read my writing anywhere you’ll be aware of that. My last post was directed more at another tendency (and this relates to Paul’s posts) to apply a ideological-political agenda to criticism, as evidenced by his wielding of the apparatus of Cultural Theory and echoes of Theodor Adorno’s critique of ‘distracted listening’, further underlined by talk of ‘middle class’ and ‘working class’ types or uses of music, which I personally didn’t find either necessary or sufficient in responding to such works. Hence my (semi-humorous) appeal to let the music be ‘un-semiotic’, and represent nothing but its own sound.

    Of course, I realise that it’s impossible for a text to remain ‘innocent,’ that any art work is ripe for investing with meaning by this or that reader. I guess I’d want to say that Paul’s comments are just that, though – a reading, and as such represent an opinion (and, from reading around the writings relating to this album, it’s not even remotely a consensual one at that). To criticise this piece of music for being merely ‘middle class’ background music for people to distract themselves with, for being insufficiently rigorous or risk-taking, may be tenable from a certain ideological position, but if such a position were to be consistently applied, it would write off a whole swathe of the kind of contemporary electronic music presented on disquiet (esp. in the Ambient genre – a soft target for its ambiguous disengagement, from the vantage point of Paul’s Class War) and other like-minded sites as works for the idle pleasure-seeking listener to soundtrack his/her decadent middle class lives.

    In re: ambient, I know it’s only middle class background music, but I like it…

  22. [ Posted December 5, 2009, at 1:57 am ]

    To finish at the end seems fair enough since ‘Alphabet’ is such a shaped, deliberate set of pieces, as several of us have noted. Joshua is surely right to highlight how ‘Hotel Freund’ – another candidate for lengthening that is probably best enjoyed as originally presented – works to close & resolve the album’s sequences (long to short & sweet to sour, for example).

    Soothing “with its almost too beautiful loops” (what Alan nicely characterises as its “ambiguously elegiac grainy lo-fi orchestralism” & Lauren as “an enticing piece of ambient psychedelia — dreamy, with a muffled theremin popping up in the background”) & exiting to “the same found voices with which the album began”.

    Maybe its chimes are a bit glib, too much of a shorthand for the sublime. I’d certainly be tempted to do without them (& guess this is the sort of thing both Joshua & Paul were caveating) – or substitute an element of harder-won, more Xenakisian beauty.

    But to these ears the mood is well judged nonetheless – melancholy more than mournful, somewhat cinematic both through the obvious resonances of the strings & the sense of summing-up & fading out: a ‘real’ end to this picture-show…

  23. [ Posted December 5, 2009, at 9:32 am ]

    Alan, thanks for the clarification — I’d entirely misread your comment to be more broadly intended — which had confused me, in light, totally, of what I’ve read by you in the past.

  24. Paul McEnery
    [ Posted December 6, 2009, at 3:16 am ]

    Alan –

    Poppycock. There’s no ideological agenda here. Although, in any case, it seems to me you’ve misunderstood the use of the word “ideological”. A class analysis of aesthetics is COUNTER-ideological, insofar as it brings to light the underlying ideologies and class value systems of the means of production and presentation.

    One might also point out that such a misunderstanding isn’t exactly unusual, betraying as it does certain class interests. One also notes in passing the idea that consensus is better than objective analysis, and that name-calling against an analysis is better than actually engaging with it and dealing with the material. Psy no attention to the man behind the curtain! You don’t get a lot more middle-class than that.

    But in any case, who’s saying that all middle class music is bad? It’s just that there are particular weaknesses in bourgeois art, in that it tends towards the tasteful, and tastefulness is the enemy of beauty; and for that matter, a consistent repurposing of ideas into something dumber, less spicy, and easier to swallow.

    And in the case of Alphabet 1968, the music is a classic example of bad middle class music that fails to be either listening music OR background because it’s reaching for the empty aesthetic of taste; and aping other people’s work which it hasn’t bothered to fully understand either in the way the elements interact materially or in the social meaning of its means of production.

    Whether it’s the White Stripes or this record, we’re looking at best at children playing dress up in Mummy and Daddy’s clothes. But of course the alienation of the style from its cultural context, simply to make something pretty but meaningless, is the essence of the bourgeois aesthetic. I’m all for recontextualization, but if the juxtaposition doesn’t wind up having something to say (as, say, John Oswald does) then it’s just wallpaper, as empty a piece of genre hackery as a fill-in issue of The Amazing Spiderman.

    Fairly obviously, there’s plenty of ambient music that does manage to transcend the wallpaper genre. Right at the moment, I’m listening to Fennesz’s Venice, which is a GOOD example of middle class music (you don’t get much more bourgeois than a David Sylvian appearance). And there, each of the pieces is rigourously inventive instead of just nicking other people’s ideas and doing nothing very much new with them. The material, and the instrumentation, are developed from what they actually are in themselves; not just lazily and ham-fistedly jammed together because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

    The bottom line is that Alphabet 1968 is a three star album; on the one hand there’s the interesting idea of trying to create these 10 different soundspaces by looking at the way particular historical styles might inflect a single chord (or perhaps, rather, deconstruct a single note into its constituent parts), but on the other hand, its a curate’s egg of undigested source material that doesn’t feel it’s way through the way that each of these styles has its own internal processes and meanings beyond just cutting and pasting them into place.

    So it’s a good idea for a project that’s for the most part undercut in its execution by a lazy lack of imagination and an unwillingness to engage with the internal processes of the source material.

    My motto: if you can’t do something new with the source material that makes it better, better leave it alone.

  25. [ Posted December 6, 2009, at 9:09 am ]

    Quiet music such as Black to Comm’s is sublime — not in the aesthetic-approval sense (“Oh, how sublime”) but in the critical sense.

    The best quiet music has an inherent tension built on sublimation, on patience, and on a meditative state.

    Those matters of introspection may appear all surface but, as the cliche goes, they run deep.

    Three stars or four, Alphabet 1968 reflects a level of attention to compositional detail that I, at least, have found rewarding on repeated listenings.

  26. [ Posted December 7, 2009, at 10:23 am ]

    Paul, I’m prepared to go along with you on the considerable value of maintaining the currency of the somewhat outmoded term ‘Poppycock’, but on little else you say. Since this thread is now moribund, there’s little sense in pursuing a debate about e.g. contending definitions of concepts such as ‘ideology’ (BTW, nice use of a subtle ad hominem there, by commenting in passing that I have ‘misunderstood,’ which neatly suggests that you are the one with the Greater Understanding in these matters) or subjective aesthetic judgments smuggled in as objective ones (another nice trick). And I’m afraid, at this point, I simply can’t be arsed having it out with you about all this, especially this ‘class’ business you seem so keen on continuing to hawk around like an embarrassing elderly relative. So I’m going to be superficial, and offer something glib here like: ‘let’s agree to differ.’ Though this may well be annoying to you, it will at least serve to draw a line under my part in this exchange.

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