A Look at Ethan Hayden’s 33 ⅓ Book on Sigur Ros’ ( )

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Ethan Hayden is a linguistics expert, composer and performer who received his Ph.D. in music at the University at Buffalo, US. I had the pleasure of attending one of his performances of his work, “…ce dangereux supplément…” in April of 2015. The work is a set of phonetic studies for voice, video, and electronics in which Hayden makes a wide range of vocal sounds, none of which are coherent expressions of any known language. After the event I blogged most enthusiastically:

“…ce dangereux supplément…” is a dynamic and engaging piece for live and recorded voices. Hayden stepped up to a podium with several sheets of what appeared to be a random spilling of pronunciation symbols and odd scribblings. They were, in fact, intricate experimental notation in the classic form of musique concrete. For the next eight minutes, he stood, wearing a headset microphone, and produced a captivating performance of furious jabberwock-speech, tongue clicks, grunts and pops. Both his energy and skill were truly mesmerizing, and for nearly ten minutes he made an incredible amount of noise without once venturing near what anyone could call a coherent sound. His performance ended with thunderous applause – surely one to be remembered.

Hayden is a fitting author to tackle Sigur Ros’ ( ) album for an edition of the popular 33 1/3 book series. The parenthetical album is sung entirely in the nonsense Hopelandic language created by the members of Sigur Ros.

So what does one write about an album with no discernible theme or statement? And how would one begin to describe the nonsense sounds of the Hopelandic language? Over the course of 150 pages, Hayden expertly addresses these questions and presents both a critical analysis of Hopelandic and a philosophical perspective on the recording itself. The book adds a fascinating critical dimension to the album and aims to help listeners approach the recording with a greater sense of understanding.

At the outset of the book, Hayden endeavors to outline the fundamental principles of language and nonsense.

From 1: Nonsense: Language and Meaning (pp13-16)

It would seem, at first, that the very idea of a nonsensical language is inherently paradoxical. One of language’s defining features is its ability to communicate meaning, to transmit specific concepts from the mind of one person to the mind of another. Since language is the medium through which meaning is communicated, surely one could not take meaning from a language and still call it language any more than one could drain the ocean of water and still call it an ocean.

But to equate language with meaning is short-sighted and problematic. Language consists of several distinct elements, which are entwined with each other to create an intricate and multifaceted structure: semantics (meaning), syntax (grammar), lexicon (words), phonetics (sounds), prosody (phrasing), and pragmatics (context). In our everyday language, the language you and I are communicating right now, these elements are interwoven and work together in an amazingly complex manner to communicate a wide variety of ideas, thoughts, and feelings. (To revise the ocean metaphor: an ocean is more than just water, it has salt, currents, tides, and a vast ecosystem full of various life-forms; an ocean made of just water wouldn’t be an ocean at all, just an oversized puddle.) But it is indeed quite possible for these elements to exist in isolation from one another, or in incomplete combinations.

Since semantics is concerned with meaning, any combination of these elements that omits or obscures semantics, can be referred to as “nonsense,” and it turns out that Hopelandic is just one of many possible varieties of such nonsensical combinations. In fact, as we will see, Hopelandic contains all of the aforementioned elements, with the singular exception of meaning. Therefore, it is only one step away from being a fully functioning and understandable language, and is still fundamentally linguistic.

And Hayden never shies from the metaphors inherent to the album.

From 1: Nonsense: Vaka

…This Melody, which is repeated several times at different pitch levels, is in fact a palindrome. The first part of the line, “yu sy no lo,” is heard and then immediately played backwards, reflecting back onto itself. Thus, it is perhaps better to transcribe the syllables as “yu sy no longer – ol on ys uy.” The first half of the phrase is a mirror image of the second half, the two together mirroring the relationship between two opposing parentheses; and thus the Melody could be seen as an introduction to ( )‘s own bilateral symmetry, acting as both a microcosm and a foreshadowing of the album’s bipartite structure.

The rest of the chapter delves deeper into the nuances of language and communication, and the rich contextual history of nonsense. Hayden touches upon onomatopoeia, Aristophanes’ satirical parody of Socratic philosophy, the Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s subversion of language and semantics with his asyntactic and echolalic parole in libertà, and Fortunato Depero’s “onomalingua.” He also visits Susan Sontag’s essay, “Against Interpretation,” Scheerbart’s 1914 work, Glasarchitektur, Hugo Ball and the Dada poets’ mystically incantatory lautgedichte, and Schwitters’ reading of Ursonate (later sampled by Brian Eno for the 1977 track, “Kurt’s Rejoinder.”) Hayden briefly examines Tolkien’s “glossopoeia” language-creation and other science fiction constructs like Dothraki, Na’vi, and Klingon.

Later segments of the chapter explore the musical xenoglossia, echolalic phonosymbolism, and phono-erotic lyrics of the French progressive rock band, Magma, Burroughs’ critique of language through glossolalia, and how Hopelandic contrasts to each of these. In closing the chapter, Hayden describes Hopelandic as, either “a quasi-echolalic xenogloss with phono-erotic tendencies or a glossolalic vocalise producing nonsense from the innermost roots of language,” and calls it “welcoming, even celebratory.” “In the end, all that we are left with is the excess of non-semanticity, the concrete material of Hopelandic itself: voice and melody.”

2: Voice outlines the critical significance of voice over other sounds of the natural world.

In the words of the Slovene psychoanalytic theorist Mladen Dolar, “What singles out the voice against the vast ocean of sounds and noises […] is its inner relationship with meaning. The voice is something which raises the expectation of meaning, the voice is an opening toward meaning.”

Another psychoanalyst – Julia Kristeva is introduced, noting the dialectical tension between voice and meaning and the opposing elements of the symbolic and the semiotic. “Nonsense,” he explains, “aims toward purely semiotic expression.” Hayden offers Carroll’s classic Jabberwocky as outlining the contours of meaning – a semantic silhouette.

After addressing the question of whether or not music can bring sense to nonsense, Hayden returns to the album and examines “Samskeyti” – the record’s one voiceless song. He describes the Sonic texture and progression as a cyclical, circular logic and how it evokes a sense of stasis: “beautiful, elegant, and ultimately uneventful.” And when visiting “Njósnavélin,” Hayden quotes Simon Reynolds’ commentary on the modus operandi of post-rock:

.“With its droneswarm guitars and tendency to melt into ambience, post-rock first erodes, then obliterates the song and the voice. By extension, it also parts with such notions as the singer as storyteller and the song as narrative, source of life-wisdom, or site of social resonance. […] A band’s journey through rock to post-rock usually involves a trajectory from narrative lyrics to stream-of-consciousness to voice-as-texture to purely instrumental music.”

Though Hayden notes that, instead of dispensing with voice, Sigur Ros “magnifies it, exploding out the residue until it becomes the essential substance of the music. The Hopelandic voice is not a mere texture; it is not simply a dash of color tinting the ambience. Instead, it is the embodiment of ( )‘s music, its very corporeality.”

3: Space opens with a quote from Pauline Oliveros who said, “Any space is as much a part of the instrument as the instrument itself.” Hayden notes that Sigur Ros initially intended for the album to be recorded in a decommissioned NATO tracking base on a mountain in Iceland, but that they found it too ice-ravaged to be usable. Instead, they opted to record at a space in the town of Mosfellsbær containing an emptied swimming pool. He explains, “The pool’s high ceilings allow for a very resonant space” contributing to the expansive sound of the record. Hayden points out that the musical properties of each song enhance this effect, such as the bowing of Jónsi’s guitar, the music’s slow tempos, and the long durations of each piece.

4: Hope

The final chapter frames the hopefulness of ( ). Hayden presents the failures, caveats and imperfections of the world’s languages, their inconsistencies, sources of miscommunication, and the quest of man to reclaim our original (or to construct a new and more perfect) language. He notes that Sigur Ros lacks the apocalyptic sensibility of their post-rock contemporaries and instead “lean more on the jubilant, celebratory, and the inspiring” and that while ( ) may be the darkest of Sigur Ros’ output, that the music remains fundamentally hopeful. Hayden takes great care not to over-interpret (and thus compromise) this work. “Perhaps the best approach,” he suggests, “is not to interpret it at all. To do so tries to bring the album into the very real it resists as a work of art; to do so would be to force it to name the Name. Perhaps gaps are most useful to us when they are empty, as there is so little in the world that is empty.”

Hayden closes with a brief but poetic and philosophical afterward, titled, “).” He highlights the importance of emptiness, and of play for play’s sake. His final words are the most potent of the entire text:

For this reason, perhaps it is better to leave gaps unfulfilled, to leave spaces uninhabited, to let the parenthetical surround an empty void. Instead of staring into a mirror and meeting the gaze of my own boring reflection, I would rather stare into the abyss, and have it stare back into me. Such would be far more terrifying and beautiful and fun. I would rather let nothingness be nothingness, let nonsense be nonsense, and let gaps be gaps.

Befittingly, just like Sigur Ros’ album, Hayden’s text serves as an important reminder in this postmodern world to stop and just enjoy the beauty of art, and of life, itself.

2016: A Music Odyssey – DISCOVERY ONE: Explorations of the Innerspace Archives

I had a nice afternoon to myself today so I got comfortable in bed with great tunes on the Hi-Fi and started revisiting my copy of Simon Reynolds’ RETROMANIA: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past.
 
I was grabbed, yet again by a chapter on collector culture, addressing vinyl fetishism, and the impact of the internet on collectability. Reynolds explored the psyche of the collector. First, how collectors identify themselves as somehow more noble than common mall zombies in that they are discerning and well-informed consumers. Their collections serve not their own interest, but act as professional research material to enrich their understanding of music history.
 
Then comes the pivotal moment when the collector realizes his/her collection may have exceeded the actual capacity they have to consume it in their limited life time. “Those potential pleasures stacked on the shelf stop representing delight and start to feel like harbingers of death,” Reynolds writes.
 
He goes on to identify the collectors’ need for constant craving, and that the one elusive missing album is always the most important, (until it is inevitably replaced with the next of holy grails).  This sort of niche activity was a fringe interest for decades, but at the turn of the millennium advancements in distribution technology made budding collectors of us all.
 
Still, a burn-out was inevitable at this rapid pace, and it came with the iPod. The chapter addressed the digital hording that takes place for so many users who discover that they can have all the world’s music for free, and the failure of such a model to satisfy the psychological anxieties previously fulfilled by the physical incarnation of collector culture.
 
The little white box, Reynolds notes, is a remarkably anti-social device. No matter how much music you pack into it, there is no personal memory attached to newly-acquired recordings. And earbuds isolate your musical experience, shutting out a world of potential participants.
 
And with no investment attached, the music is stripped of any potential significance. Hundreds of thousands of tracks might sit dormant on a player, unlistened or deleted entirely, with little to no consequence to the consumer.
 
Perhaps that very burn-out – the inconsequence of the music I compile has led me to start investing in exceptional works, like the several limited edition deluxe box sets I’ve ordered in the past month. After throwing a hundred dollars at a special collection, you’re damn right I’m going to set aside some time and actually LISTEN to the thing.
 
By the chapter’s end, I found myself back in my office taking notes on large collections I’d compiled but never explored after the initial acquisition. Given my own hording tendencies and the looming mortality such a collection bears, I made a personal resolution  this afternoon to set aside dedicated listening sessions with a checklist of works to survey in the weeks ahead.
 
It would be like “the old days” when I’d saved up $16 for a CD and played that one disc a hundred times until I knew every note by heart.
 
I’m reclaiming my music.
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Published in: on March 13, 2016 at 4:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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RETROMANIA: Pop Culture’s Addition to Its Own Past (a Review)

Retromania Simon Reynolds

Music critic Simon Reynolds is perhaps best-known for his coining of the term, “post-rock.”  He is also regarded for his incorporation of critical theory in his analysis of music.  His 2011 book, Retromania was my first encounter with his writing.

“I recently read Simon Reynolds’ Retromania and it was so spot-on as far as our current attitude to music and its history. For my money he’s one of the most intelligent music writers in the last two decades”
— DJ Food

Retromania turned out to be much more than a critical examination of popular culture’s fascination with its past.  It was a revealing study of my own approach to culture, trends, styles, and music.  And I’m certain that I wasn’t alone in this discovery.  Like most readers who made the personal decision to read 500 pages of cultural analysis by a music critic, it demonstrates the emerging and growing demographic of cultural curators.

Brian Eno noticed the rise of the curator and grasped its implications way ahead of the pack. In 1991, reviewing a book on hypertext for Artforum, he proclaimed: Curatorship is arguably the big new job of our times: it is the task of re-evaluating, filtering, digesting, and connecting together. In an age saturated with new artifacts and information, it is perhaps the curator, the connection maker, who is the new storyteller, the meta-author.’

The new century is rich with metadata and globally-accessible archives of content from all cultures and eras.  Youtube alone adds 100 hours of new video content every minute, and the emergence of music streaming services have only further-accelerated the accessibility of media, old and new alike.  This raises perhaps one of the biggest questions of our era: can culture survive in conditions of limitlessness?

Chapter 4: The Rise of the Rock Curator was the first glimpse into my own rationale as a cultural custodian.  It begins with the New Musical Express’ weekly column in the early 1980s – ”Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer.”  Several rock groups of the decade presented their music with a kind of invisible reading-and-movie-watching list attached, conveyed through literary references within their lyrics of images depicted on their album jackets.  (Sgt. Peppers is perhaps the best-known example of this execution.)

Reynolds writes that “being a Throbbing Gristle or Coil fan was like enrolling in a university course of cultural extremism, the music virtually coming with footnotes and a ‘Further Reading’ section attached.”

As the decade progressed, this curatorial baton was passed from the artists to their fan-base, who began, (whether consciously or unconsciously) to compile not just their favorite artist’s records, but the films, novels, and art which inspired their recordings.

The book goes on to explore the nature of collector-culture in the digital age and touches upon both the decisively retro action of record collecting and the inherent merits and dysfunctions associated with the activity, as well as the hoarding habits of media collection with respect to digital music.

But it was in a chapter on the 60s’ embrace of revivalism that I found the greatest revelation regarding my own bizarre fascination with music, art, and culture of the past.  Reynolds writes –

Remember the Pop Boutique store in central London with its slogan ‘Don’t follow fashion. Buy something that’s already out of date’? Just as vintage can have an undercurrent of recalcitrance towards fashion, similarly it is possible for rock nostalgia to contain dissident potential. If Time has become annexed by capitalism’s cynical cycles of product shifting, one way to resist that is to reject temporality altogether. The revivalist does this by fixating on one era and saying: ‘Here I make my stand.’ By fixing identity to the absolute and abiding supremacy of one sound and one style, the revivalist says, ‘ This is me.’

Retromania is a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read.  In a simple skimming of the book’s index, I found what was effectively a list of the contents of my own studio.  The book examines:

Pierre Henry’s Le voile d’Orphée I et II
Varese’s Poème électronique
Perrey & Kingsley’s The In Sound From Way Out!
Bell Telephone Laboratories
The BBC Radiophonic Workshop
The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center
Raymond Scott’s Manhattan Research Inc
The City of Tomorrow (1924)
Blade Runner
The Philips Prospective 21e Siècle label
The 1956 Ideal Home Exhibition
1958 World’s Fair in Brussels
Metropolis
Amazing Stories
Cold War Modern: Design 1945-1970

Disney’s Tomorrowland
Einstürzende Neubauten
The Winstons’ Amen Break
Negativland
Public Image Ltd.
The Black Dog
Stereolab
Plunderphonics
2 Many DJs
24 Hour Party People
William Basinski
Steinski
Pop Will Eat Itself
Throbbing Gristle
Eno & Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
iPod Therefore I Am

Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children
The Avalanches’ Since I Left You
fifties revivalism
The Man Who Fell to Earth
The Hauntology Exhibition at the Berkley Art Museum
The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
The KLF / Justified Ancients of Mu Mu
DJ Shadow’s monumental Endtroducing LP
The glo-fi / chillwave / hypnagogic pop scene

and much, much more!

Underworld’s 20th Anniversary LP and a State of Cultural Curation

Today it finally arrived! The 5-disc Super Deluxe 20th Anniversary Edition of Underworld’s incredible album, Dubnobasswithmyheadman.

Underworld is perhaps where I go off the deep end from fan to fringe fanatic. The first album I ever heard which wasn’t commercial pop radio – this record changed my life forever. The album packaging also marked the definitive moment when I knew I had to become a graphic designer.

To date I now have 394 of their albums and EPs in my digital library and nearly every LP, single, book, poster and print they’ve issued since 1979.

It’s collections like this that make me cautious – While I don’t buy these titles blindly, I feel somewhat of a sense of responsibility to have them all – perhaps as a part of what critic Simon Reynolds called the growing “curatorial culture” of music fans.

The snapshot below comprises the majority of the releases linked directly to Dubnobass in 1994. But emotionally it feels like I’m archiving my own life story at the crossroads where my preconceived notions of Music were shattered.

A tribute to Dubnobasswithmyheadman
I’m really at a thoughtful point in my self-appointed archival career.  I’m reading a number of books that examine the nature of post-millennium economy of music sales.  Most address the same fundamental points –

– The ease of distribution of digital files and their compact size has stripped music of its commercial value and rendered the majority of physical media useless, making music more of a utility than a property.  Most casual listeners are satisfied to sacrifice fidelity and dynamic range for the convenience of carrying thousand of albums with them while they shop, eat, and work, or to give up possession of their libraries entire in exchange for cloud-based music services.

Spotify

– Simultaneously, the inevitable gluttony of music acquisition which takes place in the digital age further diminishes the value of commercial music.

– However, vinyl sales continue to increase year after year while all other media sales plummet as music consumers discover the merit of the EXPERIENCE of actively listening and participating in their music instead of consuming it passively while performing other tasks.

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– And finally, there is an ever-growing culture of music curators who collect physical artifacts of any number of periods, artists, styles, and formats in an effort to reaffirm the value of their music.  Another benefit of the digital age is that the Web grants these “curators” access to the furthest reaches of obscure and limited-pressing musics from cultures near and far and from (most) any period in history.

I’ve found myself spending more time and energy (and money) than I ever have before building my library of “artifacts,” in part to document my own personal story via music and also out of a sense of duty to build a library of Music that Matters, so that I can share it with the world and open the minds of listeners yearning for strange and wonderful sounds.

What about you?  Are you a cultural curator?  Are we wasting our time and our money with these antiquated and out-dated treasures or does our very act of collecting them somehow justify their value?

dubnobasswithmyheadman[1]