Other Music show, 8-28-11

On 8-28, Malcom, Bart, and Scott played:

Gardens & Villa – Black Hills – Gardens & Villa
Gardens & Villa – Orange Blossoms – Gardens & Villa
Little Dragon – Looking Glass – Machine Dreams
Tortoise – Benway – Standards
Luigi Inc. – Witch Hunt – Fear Not
The Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quintet – Fat Bearded Lady Walks the Tightrope – Saxhouse
The Flaming Lips – Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Laurie Anderson – Transitory Life – Homeland
Laurie Anderson – My Right Eye – Homeland
The Church – Lustre – Priest = Aura
Luis Borda – El Pasayo – Hecho
Ping Pong Champion - Sweet Snacks - Submit to the Chip
Quattro Formaggio - Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra - Strings And Things (Ubiquity Soul Sessions Vol.3)
Ogodô, Ano 2000 - Javelin + Tom Zé - Red Hot + Rio 2 
Word To Confuse - Frankenixon - Amorphous
The Night It Rained Glass on Union Street - Alec K. Redfearn & the Eyesores - The Quiet Room
Surrealistic Alphabet - Blast - Puristsirup
On The Wings Of Haoma - Secret Chiefs 3 - Book Of Horizons 
Funk II - Akaten (赤天) -  Akaten II (赤天Ⅱ)
Mystery Oasis - Milk Cult - project m-13
Kick On The Floods - Irmin Schmidt & Kumo - Axolotl Eyes
Dancing Against Time - Moon Wiring Club - A Spare Tabby At The Cat's Wedding


Technology and Humanity: what is "natural?"

This is the first of a few essays on the relationship between evolving technology and music.  I've been thinking and writing about some of these ideas for well over a decade now, and thought it might be nice to get some ideas flowing on here.  This one focuses on pro-technology perspectives, and the next will explore a few potentially negative implications...

As my interest in music includes many genres and approaches, I sometimes found myself at odds with folks whose practices/interests aren't so inclusive.  This frequently takes the form of a disagreement over some variety of line beyond which, the other person suggests, music making becomes "impure," "artificial," "unnatural," or some such variation.  Usually these lines are drawn at some particular point of new technology being used to create music.  While I'm still a relatively young fellow, technology has advanced at a rapid gait in the course of my life, and I've heard quite a number of proposals for drawing lines representing good/bad relationships between technology and humanity in music: using effects pedals is bad, using extended-range instruments, using new kinds of techniques, amplifying various acoustic instruments, using turntables or DJ approaches, using samples/samplers, drum machines, loops, using computers for recording or live performance, and so on.  I feel increasingly distant over time from concerns over any of these kinds of boundaries.  Instead I see my time in music laying inside a great continuum of technological innovation and its inevitable acceptance into what we collectively celebrate as the human element in art.

My experiences with music and music technology both came into focus as a young lad learning to play the guitar.  Let's take a journey into the sometimes arcane world of guitar nerdery and see how it can inform the broader set of relationships between technology and humanity:

I got into guitar at the very end of the 80s, a period in which it seemed that all kinds of new technologies were welcomed into the art of guitar playing with open arms.  It was the era of whammy bars, effects processors, custom mods of guitars to make them shred-tastically easy to play, the marketing of 7-string guitars and 5-string basses, unique pickup combinations and switches, etc.  And the music being made with these devices seemed to take full advantage of the guitar's potential as a melodic instrument.  Guitar solos were featured in most pop songs.

When the grunge scene took over the airwaves in the 90s, it brought both an aesthetic change among most young guitar players as well as a regression in guitar's relationship with technology.  As guitar solos disappeared form popular music, guitarists discussed their quest for the perfect tone with the intensity reserved before for the quest for fast sleek guitars or wild & crazy solos.

I was learning about guitar esoterica mostly from guitar magazines in the '89-'94 range, and I picked up my initial value system toward the instrument with an 80s vibe--the guitar mags were slow to drop their coverage of the latest and greatest in hyperguitar, and often featured headlines like "Shred Is Dead--Not!"  Cheesy to be sure, but it left an impression, and it pushed me toward other attendant characteristics of that scene like practicing a lot and knowing how to read music.  Those habits helped me get into music school where my musical mind expanded a thousandfold.

Shred isn't dead at my house.  7 strings, thin neck,
high output pickups, locking vibrato, thin strings,
and low action keep my creative options open.

The guitar mags too eventually caught up with the grunge approach, where emphasis was ostensibly on songwriting, but in effect guitar took a less melodic and mostly supportive role in that music.  And as a supportive device, the mysteries of Tone were investigated with fervor.  Tone in this context was essentially about the sound of a guitar interacting with an amplifier.  The guitars used in the service of Tone tended to be older designs, with heavy woods, thick necks, substantial-but-awkward neck joints, heavy strings, and low-output pickups. And the amps tended toward older designs using vacuum tubes instead of transistors for both preamp and power stages.  Effects were minimal if used at all: pedals can absorb sound too, you see, even when they're turned off, and they add more cable length between the guitar and amp as well, robbing more precious Tone.

I wanted to get "cool" sounds out of my guitar, but I was immediately skeptical of the new quest for Tone.  And I still am, for two almost opposite reasons.  The first was that it all felt creatively limiting: here I was, standing with my newly-acquired multieffects processors, practicing my brains out, ready and willing to make virtually any crazy sound come out of a guitar, and people only want to hear a plain guitar into an amp?  I felt all dressed up with no place to go.

From the nearly-opposite perspective, who actually gets to hear Perfect Tone?  Let's go back to 1995 and consider the likely journey that the sound of your guitar-into-an-amp is going to take: you will record it onto tape, which might add some warm-sounding compression along with some noise.  Other instruments will be recorded and mixed together, altering one another's sounds in the final mix of your songs.  Fans will buy the recording, almost certainly on CD at that time, and listen to it.  And where will they listen?  Probably either on a stock car stereo with tiny speakers, or maybe one modified with huge subwoofers and amps to make bass frequencies comically louder than everything else in the music.  Or if they're taking it home to listen, everyone seemed to have those Aiwa 3-CD changer bookshelf stereo systems courtesy of Wal-Mart, on which the idea of EQ was a "bass boost" button that offered 3 levels of unmusical low-frequency fuzzy wool.  Or you played a live show, where a low-end Shure microphone was propped in front of one speaker on your cabinet and run through a PA system so that everything could be reproduced at 120dB+ for your audience, screamingly loud and often run through more compressors to bring overall volumes up while killing most dynamic nuances.

So much for Tone.  And the principle still applies.  The live amplification scenario remains essentially the same, and the recorded situation has become even worse, where you can assume your recording will be converted to low bitrate mp3s and heard on tiny computer speakers or earbuds.  For practical purposes, the only person that ever hears a guitarist's Tone as (s)he's crafted it to sound standing in front of the amplifier is the guitarist him/herself.  From my perspective, those sounds go through so many more layers of mediation before listeners experience them that I can't justify devoting much energy to their supposed perfection.

Let's relate this whole situation back to relationships of technology and humanity: what is "natural," or even one's degree of concern about the matter, comes down to priorities.  In my case, I may gravitate toward certain genres, sounds, or approaches, but I also like to keep my options open.  Wide open.  I find some aspects of the quest-for-tone interesting and useful in specific musical moments, but generally it's too limiting for me, especially contrasted with interests in melodic and sound sculpturing possibilities possible through a broader embrace of technological enhancements for the guitar.

This raises the larger issue of what we choose to call "technology," and how that definition changes over time.  Generally people seem to view pieces of equipment produced at or before the time they get involved in a particular activity as "normal," while items created or refined after that point get viewed as "technology."  Relating this to the evolution of guitar technology, things like modeling effects and making instruments from materials like aluminum and carbon fiber are among the newest technological innovations for use with electric guitars.  Just before that, other kinds of multieffects processors were new technology, along with refinements to designs of electric guitars like locking whammy bars and high output pickups.  Before that, solidbody guitar designs, made initially to reject feedback at high volumes, and stompbox effects to make a new world of interesting sounds, were the high tech of their day.  Electric guitars themselves, and designing the first pickups and electronic controls were the height of technological innovation before that, preceded by steel-string acoustic guitar designs that could project higher volumes than previous nylon string designs, and before those were instruments like the lute which added the technology of frets to early instruments like the oud.  And the oud itself is a sophisticated, carefully designed device.

So technology as a concept is a moving target, essentially different for everyone.  What I'd like to see is for people to adopt a more open attitude that is able to look forward and backward in time, recognizing technology as more of a process than any discrete object made along the way.  Today, technology-as-a-process includes both new physical instruments and a wide world of "virtual" instruments made possible through computers.  And the "_____ is so unnatural" discussions nowadays tend to circle around virtual instruments.  Even if you don't personally want or need to embrace new technology to make your own music, the same kinds of conditions continue to apply along the same continuum of evolving technology, and devoting time to criticizing art forms for the technology they might employ remains just as unproductive. It's my hope that we can mostly focus on issues of conceptual and emotional expression in music and other forms of art without becoming fixated on our own biases toward technology.  And toward that goal, I hope that we can choose appropriate tools, new or old, that help us best realize our ideas.

Or in the words of Frank Zappa,
shut up and play your guitar.


Books on music: the Source Anthology

I wasn't planning for so many book reviews in a row, but last week I learned that there is a newly-published anthology of Source: Music of the Avant-Garde, which was a short-lived publication in the late 60s/early 70s that has reached legendary status among New Music devotees.  I got my copy in the mail yesterday, and since I'm already intimately familiar with the original print run, I'm compelled to provide an online review that mentions an important detail left out of all of the other online mentions of this new book.

The new atop the old.

Let's start with the positive: if you're a fan of avant-garde music from the 60s to the present, a music student, a music librarian, or a composer yourself, this book is beyond essential.  You should find a copy immediately and read it cover to cover at first opportunity.  This anthology presents interviews, profiles, discussions, images, and examples of graphic notation and text scores representing the wide range of new music efforts from the 60s and 70s.  Most of this material is unavailable anywhere else, and all of it is truly potent work that has lost no relevance in its 35+ years of hiding in rare book collections.  If anything, these resources emerge from the shadows of obscurity as essentially contemporary work.  It's remarkable how fresh this stuff remains.  Present-day efforts in minimalism, electroacoustic music, free improvisation, process composition, brutal prog, avant-garde concert music and the like seem at times to be practically regressive compared to the stuff one finds in Source.  It's as though the materials in the original periodicals were internalized and used among the small number of people who came into contact with the tiny original print run, while for others they've become a tragic secret of almost mythological importance to those who care about these kinds of music.  Or as Douglas Kahn puts it in the anthology's preface, issues of Source "have moved from limited circulation to even more limited circulation, all the while becoming increasingly relevant to contemporary activities, in musical and artistic practice and in historical study by students, teachers and scholars of the period."

But let us address that detail I have yet to see in other reviews or promotional material for the book, because I think it's extremely important: this anthology doesn't reprint the scores.  While I think the anthology remains critically important as a document of at least some Source content, this deeply undermines the value of this project in my opinion.  The introduction explains that this was an economic decision: the original publications were essentially handmade, large-format affairs that would be prohibitively expensive to reproduce given the anticipated demand.  Douglas Kahn states the case in the preface like this: "It made no sense to replace one collector's item with another."

Personally, I find this terribly disappointing.  While I can sympathize with the effort/money concerns that would surely make full or almost-full reprints very expensive, I think there is a market for more comprehensive reissues.  More importantly, I believe there is a great need for the scores.  Looking through original issues of the publication, it's clear that publishing scores was the focal point of the whole project, and interviews/discussions and other material were intended as supplementary to the scores themselves.  And Source explicitly declared its priority on scores, too.  Consider the opening lines of its inaugural issue, ironically reprinted in the scoreless anthology:

"Next to actual performance--recorded or live--the score remains to date the most reliable means of circulating and evaluating new music.  Source, a chronicle of the most recent and often the most controversial scores, serves as a medium of communication for the composer, the performer, and the student of the avant garde.  A magazine that is free from the inherent restrictions of foundations and universities (however enlightened), uncommitted to the inevitable factional interests of societies and composers' groups, can probe and be provocative--our first issue contains five new scores. "

At the time of its publication, very little of the music covered by Source was being recorded--in fact some of it doesn't lend itself to full representation through recording--and little was being picked up for print publication, either.  To read the scores, or have them available to try yourself or with a group of your friends, was perhaps the most important thing facilitated by its circulation.  Decades later, few of the pieces in its pages were ever subsequently recorded or published outside of their appearance in Source.  Without including them in this new anthology, those pieces remain lost in the rarity of the original issues.

Some pieces are represented with a few example pages in the anthology, but in a sense I find this practice even more irritating than simply excluding them altogether.  Keep in mind that most of these scores used unorthodox notational systems, from totally abstract sorts of representational/graphic scores to more personal modifications of relatively-traditional notation.  Most also included opening pages explaining their specialized notational systems.  In the anthology, scores that are represented feature a page of the how-to-play information and a page or two of the music itself.  And they're reprinted in a very, very small format in which it's frequently difficult to make out actual notes or details.

For students of this music, I can see how reprinting the instructional pages of the scores might help explain the "how" aspects of playing the music.  But without the full scores, it's impossible to experience the music by either fully reading it or attempting to play it, which would answer what I consider to be much more fundamental musical questions related to "why."  In fact, there is potential for actually blurring the distinctions of "why" in this music by printing only a few example pages of it: the focus shifts from the music itself to the superficial aspects of its unique presentation on paper.  Both then and now, the kinds of music represented in Source had to battle a reputation as crazy, random nonsense, weirdness for its own sake.  Where the original publications helped to clarify those impressions by sharing the scores in full, running only a couple of the most visually provocative sample pages for those in the anthology only serves to reinforce the stereotypes of novelty and technical/extramusical obsession this music needs to transcend.  There is much to say and emote through this music, but I'm afraid that point isn't easily made by talking around the music instead of letting it represent itself.

Again, I truly appreciate the effort that did go into the anthology, and I don't mean to be harsh, but it's a very significant problem in my opinion.  What can be done?  There are some truly unusual elements painstakingly added into the original publications that couldn't be reproduced (I'll put some pictures below).  But the majority of each issue could be reproduced in original format/size with color where appropriate.  Perhaps they could be reissued as individual volumes like the originals over time.  What would each issue have to cost as a mostly complete reproduction--$100?  $150?  It would be expensive, but I don't agree that such a price would be "replacing one collector's item for another."  It would be making them uncompromisingly available again to a much wider audience who would absolutely get value for their high dollar commitment.  Practically speaking, it would make them available to college/university libraries all over the world again, and those are places that already pay hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars for books or journal subscriptions when those materials are important for students.  I can't help but notice using WorldCat that very few libraries, academic or otherwise, have Source.  Imagine how many more students would be exposed to Source if all of those places had the opportunity to order a set.  Many non-academic folks in the U.S. would potentially have access to reprinted volumes, too, as land grant university libraries are open to the public.

For what it's worth, if the materials still exist for the unpublished 12th volume of Source, I'd be elated to see that published by itself, too.

It's also worth mentioning here that three issues of Source contained 10'' records of music from the publication.  These have been lovingly reissued as a 3 CD set by Pogus.  This set is an excellent supplement to either a purchase of the new anthology or a browse through any original issues of Source. You can also listen on UbuWeb, which is itself easily the best avant-garde art reference on the internet.

The editorial team of Source also produced a few radio programs for KPFA in the late 60s, a couple of which can be found here and here via archive.org.

Here are a few photos of Source materials:

Some notational innovations via
Barney Childs' "Jack's New Bag."

Brilliant inner-score page flips put a new spin on the repetition
common to many classical forms in Stanley Lunetta's "Piano Music."

One needs a slide projector to view this "score-map" from Jocy de Oliveira
in full detail, part of the multimedia "Probabilistic Theater I."

My favorite photo of Harry Partch at the bottom center:
Father of Captain Beefheart, Granddad to Tom Waits?

A page from my favorite score in the run of Source, "Blues and Screamer"
by David Reck.  Something about the approach to notation in this chart
continues to influence my approach to music on paper.  Efficient, clear,
and emotive/visually evocative all at once.

The graphic scores reproduced in color for the original run are amazing.
This one is from "A Piano: Piece" by Daniel Lentz.

The brown square for Jon Hassell's "Map2" is both an instrument and part
of its own score.  It's 3 layers of pre-recorded magnetic tape.  Add a playback
head/amp, follow the directions, and you're playing the most interactively
demanding recording you'll probably ever see.

I know I just complained above about the anthology including scores
just for their visual interest.  Forgive me, and blame Joel Gutsche for his
beautiful "Overture to the Iceberg Sonata."


Books on music: implications of recording

Recordings have always been my medium of choice for experiencing music: a little rough math tells me that I've heard roughly one new (at least to me) album every single day for the last 20 years.  When you grow up in a small Midwestern town and become obsessed with music, recordings are largely your only option for musical experiences--not many folks stopped even remotely close to my hometown on tours.  Lack of population density affected my own musical efforts as well.  In my early days of wanting to start bands, I never found enough like-minded musicians to start proper bands.  Instead, I wrote music myself, and recorded it either alone or with two or three friends.  Though we found the means to perform a few times, most of our efforts were purely recordings, which my dear friend Stu & I would often drive around and listen to in his car for hours on end.

In college and beyond, I've had many more opportunities to play music with others, and I've had the chance to see lots of my favorite composers/bands perform in the flesh.  But old habits die hard, or never die, probably, and I still prefer experiencing music through recordings.  I can listen repeatedly, create my own conditions for listening, make quick references to other recordings, no long lines, etc etc etc.

As a person who grew up in a world of recordings, I never thought much of the cultural or philosophical implications of recordings versus other forms of sharing music, from live performance to "amateur" home performances, sheet music, player pianos, and so on.  Intellectually, I was aware of some of the cultural implications, but I didn't "feel" them myself and didn't care to give the issue much thought.  I imagine this is how the youngest generation today will feel about how the internet is integrated into our society.  I'm just old enough to have lived a touch of grown-up time on both sides of that line, and I think I've given that issue more thought simply because I've personally experienced the positives and negatives on both sides.

I remember reading David Byrne's mini-review of Capturing Sound a few years ago, and I remember finding the notion that post-recording-era classical performances became a lot more vibrato oriented kind of interesting.  But the rest of the book sounded kind of obvious, and I never checked it out.  For some reason, though, I've read two books on the general topic of recordings lately, and noticed that there are another dozen or so on the market.  Here's a little mini-review of the two I read, along with some of my own brief thoughts on the matter(s).

Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner is a fairly large and comprehensive tome that seems to cover most of the same issues Byrne mentions from the earlier Capturing Sound by Mark Katz.  And honestly, I wouldn't recommend it.  Read Byrne's blog post linked above, and I think he gets into enough depth about the issues involved to satisfy most folks' need for information in this area.  You'll find discussion of acoustic versus electric recording, analog versus digital, the implications of various media formats for the marketplace (different cylinder and record speeds holding different durations of sound, etc), sampling, the implications of early multitrack recording, the implications of non-linear digital recording and editing, and so on.  Maybe this stuff would be interesting to somebody who hasn't used a lot of these devices firsthand, but the philosophical implications show up at a very practical level when you're problem-solving during a recording session yourself.

Even for people who haven't used recording devices and might find these issues new and interesting, I'd still have reservations recommending this book, because I found what I'd consider to be too many factual errors for a book of this size and scope.  I don't want to turn this into a detailed scholarly critique of the book, but here's a few things off the top of my head that I'm pretty sure are inaccurate in this book:

--p. 64 Stokowski and sticking a mic in the bell of a french horn: I doubt Stokowski specifically ever did this.  He may have been manipulating his mixes, but the horn is by design a distant-sounding instrument whose bell points away from the audience.  It's a bad analogy, in my opinion.  Mentioning literally any other instrument except the horn would have made the point without heading into sketchy unmusical territory.

--p. 106 the idea that there is no physical contact between a recording head and the tape: I've used many tape-based devices in my life, and I still work with recording/duplicating cassettes on a daily basis, and I can guarantee you that there is plenty of physical contact between recording heads and tape.

--pp. 134-135 lots of mentions of the creation of the 33 1/3 RPM format for records: in all of this talk, I couldn't help but notice that there was no mention of the actual origin of the 33 1/3 format.  RCA may have marketed the Vitaphone in 1931, but the American Foundation for the Blind and the Braille Institute of America had been working on the 33 1/3 format in the late 20s.  Coincidentally, Columbia finally started successfully marketing LPs of that speed in the mid 40s, and in the late 60s talking book records had gone all the way down to 8 1/3 RPM for maximum data on each record.

--p. 151 Sun Studios slap-back echo: Having heard a lot of those Sun records, I can't imagine that they were splitting a signal between consoles to get that sound.  It's just tape echo, which DOES require tape in the 2nd machine contrary to what this passage details.

--p. 238 phase rotation: I don't think phase rotation is used to "smooth out" the signal.  My understanding is that radio stations were simply using it to make things louder.  Phase rotation is used on television commercials for the same reason, and that's why it often seems that the sound on a TV gets louder during commercial breaks.  But on recordings that are already compressed/limited to the max, the phase rotation just makes things get quieter via "inversion" as he later details on p. 283.

--p. 297 Reason: To my way of thinking, Reason isn't really a true DAW.  It's a softsynth/sequencer that isn't able to track "real" instruments by itself.  Some of the definitions in this section get a little sketchy, but to my mind the ability to sample tiny passages of real audio doesn't make a device into a true DAW that can act as a normal recording device in addition to various nonlinear editing possibilities.

--p. 330ish DAWs: This information is generally good and interesting, but I noticed the lack of coverage of the many small workstation DAWs that were marketed to the home recording community in the late 90s and early 00s.  Most of the old analog recording device manufacturers made these things as the evolutionary step between cassette multitracks and computers, and some still do: Fostex, Tascam, Roland, Yamaha, Kawai, and so on.  It might not have been a long period in recording history, but I know a LOT of records that started life on devices like the Yamaha AW4416 or the Roland VS2480.

--p. 344 Synclavier: Mike Thorne is not "the first--and only--musician to buy the Synclavier I." Frank Zappa purchased and made extensive use of the Synclavier I throughout the 80s, using it in both his "pop" and "serious" compositions including his final magnum opus, "Civilization Phaze III."

All minor quibbles, perhaps, but a few of them like the slapback echo (mis)information make me pretty skeptical that this book was thoroughly researched and/or edited.  To mention something positive, I do like the writing style.  Milner makes the timeline of "recorded history" read like a series of fun challenges.  It's not a dry, technical book.  And maybe some of those debatable technical points could be forgiven in light of that.

I had no technical issues whatsoever with Evan Eisenberg's The Recording Angel, and I would happily recommend this book.  Originally published in 1987, it's primarily about the various philosophical and social implications of consuming recorded music.  It's not media-specific, and it's written at the end of the vinyl era--CDs are barely mentioned.  The focus is on people listening to records, collecting them, building elaborate hi-fi systems, etc, and how these folks relate to recordings.  It's also worth noting that there is a heavy emphasis on classical recordings--jazz is mentioned infrequently, and pop music is hardly mentioned at all.  If you're looking for someone to analyze your obsessions over Phil Collins records, this won't be the place to look (but trust me, it's the hair).  That limitation aside, though, this book is a collection of great conversations among music (and recording) lovers, all of whom have insightful things to say about music-as-object through recordings.  The last few chapters of the book expand the scope to more general philosophical issues related to the connections between humanity and music, recorded or otherwise.  At times it's dense, but I found every bit of the density to be worth reading.

A few observations of my own about recordings and our culture:

I suppose it's understandable that this issue doesn't come up directly in books about recordings, but I think it's useful to look at the history of the player piano and how it developed around roughly the same time as commercial recordings.  One of my favorite novelists, William Gaddis, was at times consumed with documenting how the player piano's rise and fall heralded the beginning of the age of mechanical reproduction, the beginning of information coding (the punched piano rolls match the way early computers worked), and a sort of end of the artist as the focal point of art, replaced by either physical consumables of art works or programmatic dissemination of art via radio and later technologies.  You can look into his ideas yourself either via his final novel(la) Agape Agape, or through several essays related to the matter in his Rush for Second Place.

Concerning both the player piano and making recordings, many of my favorite composers/musicians are folks who found ways to use aspects of evolving technology to make entirely new kinds of music that wouldn't have been possible before.  Conlon Nancarrow's player piano music is absolutely stunning and couldn't exist without the player piano.  And I wouldn't know where to begin counting the many people whose musical ideas grew along with evolving recording technologies.  A few of them were mentioned in these books, like Les Paul's "sound on sound" approach and various early "phonography" works made of multitrack-based compositions assembled in recording studios.  And sampling-based music is everywhere now, in almost every idiom of popular music and also in classical/academic music.  As I mentioned above, growing up in a world already full of recordings, many of which already took advantage of these possibilities, makes some of these implications fairly obvious, the epiphanies of the past becoming the presuppositions of today.

When I read about the effects of recording on society, either in these books or through other essays or online discussions, I've noticed that folks tend to focus on the perceived negative aspects.  There is much more to it, though. The "isolation aspect" of these new-ish technologies waxes and wanes.  CD sales are plunging as the x/y gen folks begin to age out of the music-artifact buying, and the millenials "appropriate" the music they want online for free. 

Are some isolated with their iPods? Perhaps at times. But another part of the equation is that "the kids" and some of us older folks are listening to more music than previous generations by volume, a more diverse selection of music in terms of variety, have begun to usurp the entertainment industries' marketing attempts toward them by simply communicating directly with one another about things they find and like, and seem to be attending live performance events at every opportunity. As music-artifact sales plummet, concert attendance seems to be going in the opposite direction (or at least I remember reading a lot to that effect just before our recent recession took hold). 

Maybe the kids don't understand what's going on viscerally, but I have a suspicion: as their forms of communication become more heavily mediated, they are on some level biologically compelled to split the difference, making up for the isolation of the media at hand by taking the chance to see the artists they've discovered in person (which is, of course, the least-mediated way to consume art). Ditto for live theatre, meetups, flash mobs, etc. 16 to 30-year-olds are back in the streets. Forgive them the ear buds.

You can use technology to improve your life or to hinder it. The choice is mostly your own. I have an iPod full of longer-form music that I listen to on my lunches as I walk around a downtown area. It's an important part of my day, and it leaves my evenings open to compose and perform, instead of feeling as though I'm disconnected from the musical world around me and need to take time out for more listening.  But sometimes I go though phases where I stop using it, or I don't listen to many recordings at all, and that's okay in its time, too.

Standardized media formats don't necessarily lead to standardized consumption.  The youngest generations are intuitively more media-literate than older generations, and they often see through marketing hype and find and share things they want much more smoothly amongst themselves in person or through social media interactions. The unique change that seems to be most dominant in the millenials is that they don't consider intellectual property to be so fiercely an independently-owned asset as generations before. They share the work of others freely, which may irritate some artists, but consider too that they modify/edit/mashup/build upon and innovate, too, with great fluidity.  The implications of this are beyond wildest dreams for the arts: Lautréamont/Ducasse may one day get their wish in "poetry should be made by all." If art can be consumed by all more or less equally, poetry might indeed follow. I find this exhilarating!


Host your own Surrealist Game Parties

I used to host these frequently, but I've fallen out of the habit.  Perhaps talking about the idea will rekindle my own parties and inspire yours, dear readers...

When most folks think of Surrealism, people like Salvador Dali or maybe Andre Breton probably come to mind.  But there is so much more to enjoy from the Surrealist movement as a creative force, a cultural force, a sociopolitial voice, an integration of art and psychology, and my favorite: Surrealist games.

Why Play Surrealist Games?

Historically, the surrealist games were a set of text and visual art-based ideas that could be played among groups of artists.  They emphasized collaboration/social interaction along with ways of tapping into the subconscious mind to inspire new or unexpected directions in creativity.  Some of the games were variations on children's games like Consequences, and later, some of them morphed back into children's activities like MadLibs.  So why play these games with a group of adults today?

1. They're fun.
Here's a perfect opportunity to let your guard down and just have some fun.  The results of surrealist games are often hilarious.  You're in good company, hopefully surrounded by friends new and old.  Enjoy the party.  It just also happens to be good for the mind and soothing to the soul.

2. They stimulate the subconscious.
There is no "right" way to play surrealist games, but the original players and many since have suggested trying to write or draw, etc, very quickly and without thinking to the greatest extent possible.  Just let the ideas flow through you.  The surrealists referred to this notion as Automatic Writing or Automatic Drawing.  Not only does this keep the party moving, but the process brings your subconscious mind to the surface.  You can learn a lot about yourself and your friends by exposing the subconscious: things you find there are often stranger, more fantastic, more potent.  You suddenly realize how much we "civilize" ourselves into more subtle, ostensibly refined ways of thinking.

3. They stimulate creativity.
No matter how you play, one thing is certain: these games are a powerful tool for stimulating creativity.  How you decide to use the results is up to you, and of course it depends on what you get.  Even the surrealists used the results of these games in different ways.  Sometimes you get a great starting point for a larger work.  Sometimes you find a finished or nearly-finished short work.  And sometimes just the act of playing the games inspires you to try something completely new and different.  Even if you're not collaborating, I know folks who have played "solitaire" versions of the games in search of the unexpected.  Just keep an open mind and enjoy both your time with the games as well as any useful results or feelings of inspiration.

4. They create synergy.
I'm always amazed at how on-target the results of these seemingly random games can be.  I think the games often function as a catalyst for reaching really synergistic, group-mind/collective unconscious spaces that are difficult or impossible to achieve any other way.  It's hard to say if it's synchronicity in a Jungian sense, or simply human nature to look for patterns emerging in chaos, but regardless of the source, the results can be incredible.

5. They foster friendships.
If you invite some people you don't know very well to your surrealist game gathering, or old friends bring new friends along, this is a great way to quickly establish friendships.  The games themselves give everyone something to focus on collectively.  There can be a lot of humor in the results great for ice-breaking moments.  And the games themselves nurture an environment that can transcend the usual barriers of social graces, lowering the need for societal "manners" temporarily, which often speeds up the whole "getting to know you" process.

What you need to host your own surrealist game party:

Click this link to download a zip file of materials to host your own surrealist game party.  Once unzipped, this file contains a number of word documents.  Print them out so that each game can appear on its own page.  There is an itinerary to help divide the games by media, too.

The games in this batch fall into three categories: literary, visual, and musical.  To set up a party, I prepare three different "stations" in which participants can work on each of these sets of games, moving between stations as they wish.  You may even find a fourth station useful where games requiring scissors and tape or glue can happen, like the cut-up, fold-in, collage/montage ideas.  Sort the papers describing each game into appropriate stations for participants to read.  They're written to (hopefully) be easy to read and understand quickly, but you may need to help explain things to people on occasion during the party, so make sure you're familiar with everything, too.

You'll also need to have some office supply materials on hand.  Read through each of the games to see what kinds of materials you'll need to play them.  Generally, the literary and visual games just require blank paper and pencils/pens to get started.  You might want to branch into colored pencils, markers, or crayons in your visual game station for more interesting possibilities.  If you choose to do the musical variation on the "exquisite corpse," you'll need some blank staff paper, too.  You can buy it or print it out using a link like this onto regular printer paper.  If you do the cutup stuff or collage/montage art, you'll want to have a supply of old magazines and books on hand, along with scissors and tape or glue (and I'd suggest tape over glue if you're worried about party fouls).  I keep some magazines handy for that purpose, and I buy a pile of books on random, differing topics for cheap from a thrift store, or grab some books from those "free" piles you often find in front of used book stores after-hours.

Since music is my primary area of creativity, I've made musical variations of the games which might require more equipment.  Mine are designed around people manipulating a cassette 4-track, or a software-based sequencer/synth, etc, and playing instruments or singing.  If you're interested in those ideas but don't have the gear, ask your musical friends to help out, or get creative and adopt the ideas to work with what you have.  Also, props to Brandon Vaccaro for some--most, really--of the hand signals on the "Game Theory 101" page, which were developed and used during our undergrad music studies in a variety of musical contexts.  The idea of using those during one of these parties is to create some hand signal-guided improvisations among your group, which you could record or just do for the fun or it.  Musical skills or equipment not necessarily required--try working with people singing or clapping regardless of skill levels.  They aren't fully used in a "game theory" sense this way, but it's a good starting point to get some sounds in the air.

Additional resources

If you get into these games and want to try more at future parties, you're in luck.  There are dozens more.  This batch came together as a group after some trial and error with a wider range of the traditional Surrealist games.  While I picked a set that seemed to work best in my groups, you may have different/better results with others.  And of course once you start playing them, ideas for variations of the games, or moving them into different media formats, will probably come to you.  I haven't done anything with film, theater, or dance variations, for example, but I can imagine some great possibilities.

I only know of one source that attempts to collect a relatively wide range of these games in one place, and that is A Book of Surrealist Games.  This small-but-essential volume will introduce you to a large number of the "original" games, and it also includes a number of small works produced using them.  There is a small list of games toward the back of the book that aren't explored more deeply for various reasons, but you'll find enough information on them to start further research as desired.

There is a recent volume from University of Nebraska Press that I would highly recommend, too. The Exquisite Corpse: Chance and Collaboration in Surrealism's Parlor Game is a collection of essays that explore the impact of the Exquisite Corpse game on art and culture from a wide variety of perspectives.  This won't add to your game repertoire per se, but it highlights the surprising breadth and depth of influence these games have had from "low" to "high" art in the last century.

For some online resources, check here for an online version of the literary exquisite corpse, and the drawing version is here.

The Burroughs/Gysin cut-up and fold-in methods are very much related to Surrealist Games (and Gysin was himself briefly affiliated with the Surrealists proper).  This link features a fantastic list of online word games related to those concepts.  Of course, there is even a pre-Surrealist antecedent to cut-ups via Tristan Tzara and the Dada movement, although he's a little more sarcastic and anti-art about the notion:

How to make a Dadaist Poem
(method of Tristan Tzara)

To make a Dadaist poem:
  • Take a newspaper.
  • Take a pair of scissors.
  • Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
  • Cut out the article.
  • Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
  • Shake it gently.
  • Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
  • Copy conscientiously.
  • The poem will be like you.
  • And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
        -Tristan Tzara

For some more music-related games, Trevor Wishart has written 2 small books of group music-making ideas called Sounds Fun and Sounds Fun 2.  You can download the first volume from his site.

One of the best things about playing these games in a party setting is watching how they evolve within a group of people over the course of a few parties.  And they place very minimal demands on participants: you don't have to be a dedicated artist to participate, you can spike the punch or not, people of almost any age can join in, etc.  You can be productive, flexible, and have fun all at the same time.  Have fun with this stuff!

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