A Week in the Musical Life of Michael Heumann
(first published at Stylus Magazine in 2003)
Tuesday, 18.50 PST
I'm listening to William Basinski's The River, the best album of 2003. It's a two disc, 90-minute work consisting solely of a Muzak orchestral loop, shortwave static, and delay effects. It's beautiful, haunting, and absolutely original; it's the first ambient album I've ever been able to hum.
I loved the disc from the first moment I listened to it, but I was never able to understand why I loved it until my wife and I drove on Interstate 10 from my home in Southern California to Phoenix, Arizona (a job interview--don't ask). Most people think of the desert as a wasteland--a nothing. I've lived in deserts most of my life, so I know this is not true. The desert is alive, yet that life is usually too small to notice with a sweeping glance. A sweeping glance is all most people give to the desert between Los Angeles and Phoenix. I-10 is a major stretch of road for truck drivers and people heading to the Colorado River (or "The River," as my students call it).
Hence, we were never alone--it was never just the sand and us. But that's all right; this is a four-lane road, so if others were going slower than I was (which was most of the time), I just passed them by. But that's not the point. The point is that we--or, rather, I, as my wife usually tunes my music out (for her, music begins and ends with Depeche Mode)--spent several hours in the California/Arizona desert listening to William Basinski's music. And I was amazed--this was road music, and I don't mean that in the abstract, "it's cool to listen to while on the road" way. I mean that literally. This is music that seems to emerge from the heat and tar of the highways, from the worn down tires, and (especially) from the blurred-vision of drivers who have too many miles to go before they can fall asleep.
I remember exactly when this hit me. We were just passing the George S. Patton Memorial Museum in Chiriaco Summit, California (30 minutes east of Indio). It's the hottest place in the universe (this was April, and I believe the temperature was about 359º Fahrenheit), and it's where thousands of army troops (commanded by Patton) trained before going off to fight in World War II. I remember thinking about the heat and the isolation of this pit in the desert (there's absolutely nothing here but a freeway, the museum, sand, and rocks), and I started to wonder how anyone could tolerate combat training here in the middle of summer. And I wondered, too, how many died while training here; were they the lucky ones, who didn't have to die in the bloody battles in Europe and the Pacific? And I thought about this road, Interstate 10. Was it built for these soldiers? Am I riding on a remnant of World War II? If so, what would the world I inhabit have been like if World War II hadn't occurred? Would freeways be as big and as plentiful in California if there had been no war? California, after all, was really just Hollywood, San Francisco, and the San Joaquin farming belt before soldiers and big businesses that make money off soldiers (airplane companies, especially) came out west at the start of the war.
I kept thinking about these things and other things (like why lizards always looked pissed off and whether the "Wilson" in Ronald Wilson Reagan's name was a tribute to Woodrow Wilson), and I barely noticed that I was driving. Then, of course, I noticed that I had barely noticed that I was driving, and I immediately started to really notice I was driving. I shook my head, checked the speedometer (I was doing about 95 mph, I think), looked behind me and in front of me (all clear), looked at my wife sleeping (her head pressed against the window), and then I looked down at my iPod--and it hit me: I was listening to William Basinski's The River. It was almost halfway over.
Why hadn't I noticed this? I asked myself. This is a beautiful album. I missed out on half of it. Should I back it up? No, that would be silly--you can't restart a 90-minute work at the midway point. And then I realized: I had been listening, but the music had blended effortlessly into the roar of the car as it screamed along the road, the roar of the air conditioning as it splashed into my arms, face, and legs, and the assorted bumps, shutters, and reverberations that cars make as they move along. The music was part of these noises, and yet it was more than this. It gave these noises an acoustic pillow, muffling their irritation and allowing my brain (and, perhaps, my wife's, as she was sleeping) to quit worrying about the road and the cars in front of me and behind me, and concentrate on things that really matter--like why I was here, why others had been here before me, and why lizards look pissed off.
You see, The River is the ultimate ambient album: a work that blends into the confines of everyday life and transforms those confines into something unique, special, magical--without even letting you know it's happening. It's a beautiful work, and as I listen to it tonight (waiting for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart --the very best television show in the universe--to begin), I am struck by how effortless the music is to listen to. It lulls you in and wraps its skin around you. Before you know it, you're someone else.
Wednesday, 21.37 PST
I'm listening to Stereolab's ABC Music, their Peel Sessions disc. I always assumed that the appeal of the Peel sessions was the combination of a live performances and a studio setting, so that each track can capture the spontaneity of live music while retaining the audio integrity that only a studio space can provide. Oh, plus there's no audience applause at the end of each song. That's always annoying in a live album, isn't it? I especially hate those live albums where the entire first track is the announcer announcing the band, the audience applauding wildly, and the lead singer yelling "G'devnin!" or something equally inane. I suppose the idea of tracks like that is to reproduce (as close as possible) the actual concert experience itself. But I find the trick annoying--a cheap gimmick.
The best live recordings don't focus on recreating the event that is a live performance; rather, they focus on the music itself. That's what matters, after all. Or, at least, that's what is supposed to matter. That's a myth popularized by rock critics from the 70s who built their definition of rock music around the aura of the stage show, the magical presence of artists at their peak performing music that changes lives. By contrast, these same critics saw albums as constructions that approximate the excitement and energy of live shows but rarely actually reach those lofty heights (those albums that do are forever worshipped in the pantheon of pop culture). Most albums fail to get to this level, and the reason is (or often is sited as) "edge." Certain artists create songs in a studio, but these recordings fail for some reason to capture the edge that can be felt when the group plays the track live.
Now, this theory is bullshit through and through. A smarter rock critic (was it Simon Reynolds?) explained that the difference between "rock music" and other forms of music was its dependence upon the recording medium. Rock music was created through studio technology--from the echo chamber effect of Sun Studios to the four-track magic of Sgt. Pepper to the sample-based universe that is hip hop. (In this theory, "rock music" is defined as all music that is recording-centered, so hip hop and rap and electronic music all fit in this big tent. Hence, blues or classical or jazz musics aren't rock music because they are largely performance-based, not recording-based.) So, rock music would not really exist if not for these recording technologies. To me, that explains why so many live albums fundamentally suck--they are founded upon a lie: that the only true rock music is live music.
This theory also explains (at least, to me) why I normally find concerts disappointing. I've been to many concerts over the years--Springsteen, Bob Dylan (w/ Petty), The Replacements (two days after the Gulf War started), Richard Thompson (on several occasions), Nine Inch Nails (opening act: Marilyn Manson), Hole (their first LA concert after Cobain's death--I met Keanu Reeves afterwards), REM (second row), Firehose, Sonic Youth (several times), Lou Reed, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel (several times), Atari Teenage Riot, Autechre (worst concert ever--horrible opening acts, a 4-hour wait, and the music sucked), Tricky, Duran Duran and the Violent Femmes and Echo and the Bunnymen and Interpol and Hot Hot Heat (this year--my wife made me go), Depeche Mode (about 10 times--my wife, as I said before, worships them), and a bunch more that I can't remember right off hand. Some of those concerts were pretty cool--The 'Mats and the Richard Thompson shows in particular--but the pleasure I received from those shows had a lot more to do with the excitement of being in the crowd, seeing the artists live, and screaming and having fun with a bunch of people who share your taste in music. Rarely (if ever) has the music itself been as memorable.
Frankly, I think this is because I learned to love rock music at home, sitting next to my stereo, leafing through liner notes or magazines. These recordings were (to throw some Walter Benjamin into this analysis) my commercialized fetish objects. Concerts? As much as I enjoyed some of them, they always felt uncomfortable. My music's a private thing--it's something I listen to alone, generally with headphones. Sharing my music with a crowd was never satisfying, and it often left a bitter taste, as though I'd suddenly joined a cult or something.
And so I've learned to trust the recordings. But what of live recordings like this Stereolab album I'm still listening to? Well, some live recordings are outstanding--provided the technology used to record the show is up to par (which it often isn't) and provided the crowd noise doesn't get in the way of the tunes (which it usually does). Actually, one of ways live albums succeed is when they can capture some spontaneous events that simply couldn't be planned out beforehand. That's why so many of the great jazz albums are live, and that's why ALL comedy albums are recorded live (save Firesign Theater, though that's only marginally comedy). Regardless of my own weird possessive, fetishistic need to hide in a corner with my favorite music, I can admit that there's something fundamentally appealing about seeing and hearing great artists perform live. For now, though, I'll stick with this Stereolab album; it's pretty damn good. Plus, there's no applause!
Thursday, 22.24 PST
What did I listen to today? Well, here's a list (in no apparent order):
• British Sea Power, The Decline of British Sea Power (I got it because I heard lots of good things about the band and I'm trying to compile my "best of 2003" list, so I wanted to hear some of the works that other people praised. It's not going to be high on my list, though--it's pretty good, but they remind me too much of a louder and less coherent Psychedelic Furs)[Oh, and memo to teenagers everywhere. Guys: give up the baggy pants; they're old and make you look retarded. Girls: hitch up your jeans; female ass cracks look just as stupid as male ass cracks.]
• Belle and Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress (a mediocre album, just like most of their stuff except for If You're Feeling Sinister, which is a wonderful album through and through; I've noticed that since Sinister, the band focuses really hard to create two or three really good songs per album and then throws in a bunch of filler to round off the package. Okay, it's probably not "filler" when they create it; it just ends up as filler when I listen. Damn semantics)
• t.A.T.u., "All the Things She Said" (yes, I own the single, though not the album--thank you iTunes! And, yes, they violate my cardinal spelling rule--but that can be forgiven, in this case, as they're Russian and the initials mean something in Russian, so, well, whatever. The key is that they're hot Russian teenagers who pretend to be both lesbians and in love with each other. Plus they like to make out on stage and pose for pictures in tiny skirts and undies. Think about it--they're Russian! 10 years ago, they (or their parents) were in line buying bread. Isn't capitalism wonderful? It's like George W.'s best and worst nightmare all rolled up into a thong. God bless them!)
• King Tubby, "Dubbin' of the Ten Thousand" (this is the greatest reggae/dub song ever made, but no one's heard of it because it's on an obscure album called The Sounds of Channel One. The smoothest, coolest groove ever put down in Jamaica. It's absolutely amazing. You can get a copy of the song at emusic.com. If I ever write a movie script--doubtful, but still--I'd use this song in the opening credits. Heck, I think Spielberg should have used it in Schindler's List or, at least, Minority Report).Finally, I listened to my own music. Yes, I create music. However, I refuse to call myself a musician (that would be an insult to real musicians). I'm a writer and a teacher who has a computer and enough money to afford to buy Cubase and Reaktor and Live and a bunch of other software programs that I use to create whatever the hell strikes my fancy. Right now, I'm in the process of creating music out of field recordings I made at Joshua Tree National Park (east of my home in Redlands) and recordings I made of myself playing the duduk, the flute-like instrument that is the centerpiece of nearly all Armenian music (and which can be heard in the soundtracks to Scorsese's great film The Last Temptation of Christ and Egoyan's shitty film Ararat). The duduk produces a rich, warm, soulful sound that captivated me the first time I heard it and stuck with me so long that I decided that I HAD to find a way to create the sound myself. I'm just practicing the instrument; I'm nowhere near to being able to play it live or anything. But I can play a few notes and improvise a few little tunes, and I've recorded some of these experiments. Then I've chopped them up, processed them (along with the field recordings) through Reaktor, and sequenced it all through Cubase and Live, and the results are...well, they're interesting. You would definitely have a hard time discerning exactly which sound originally came from a duduk and which came from the desert; I've just manipulated the sounds so much that they've become something entirely different--something unique (I hope). One of my songs, "Mothuk," is pretty funky. Check it out.
• Pole, 45/45 and Pole (I like 45/45 more than the full length, if only because I find rapping annoying when I'm trying to listen to music. Now, I like hip hop, but rappers today just bore me. Am I getting old? Well, yes, but... Oh, screw it. Just call me old.)
• Sounds of North American Frogs (This is a field recording of frog sounds originally released by Smithsonian decades ago but recently re-released. It's a wonderful work that contains two things: lots of frog sounds, of course, and a narrator who explains each frog and its sounds before we hear it. At first, the narrator seems to get in the way. However, the more you listen to the album, the less you notice the narrator. He becomes part of the natural world of frogs. Eventually, I'll wander around listening to frog sounds in some swamp, and I'll wonder why I can't hear the narrator.)
• Sigur Rós, ( ) (This is the best album ever created in Iceland--and, yes, that includes all the wonderful stuff Bjork has produced over the years. There's a reason I feel this way. I actually lived in Iceland for a few months in 1984. I was an exchange student in Akureyri, which is a town in the north of the island, at the mouth of a fjord. It's a beautiful country filled with intelligent, tolerant people who love nothing more than to get drunk, fish, and make music or love. ( ) reminds me of my final days in Iceland. It was the end of August, and that meant summer was coming to an end. Summer is a magical time for the Icelanders. The sun is out all day and night, people can actually strip down and soak up the rays. Icelanders love to work, to be out in the open getting sweaty, so summers are glorious, happy work fests. There's just a sense of joy in the summer, as if the entire country was made up of 10 year old kids celebrating the end of a school year. But August rolls around, some darkness begins to settle onto the skies, and all at once the country wakes up and realizes that the party is coming to an end. To me, ( ) perfectly captures that moment when the bliss of warmth and friendliness and long, sunny nights is about to disappear, and the frozen darkness of winter is gearing up to overwhelm your entire life for another six months. It's a sad, contemplative time, and ( ) is a sad, contemplative album. But it's also the most Icelandic album I've ever heard--and I love it for just that reason.)
• Stereolab, ABC Music (yep, I'm still listening to that one. It's still a lot of fun.)
Friday, 21.01 PST
Do you have any idea how fundamentally strange radio is? I'm not talking about the programs or odd conversations going on in the ether (though there are some odd things out there--there's a religious station that broadcasts on shortwave all over the world that makes the 700 Club look like Democrats). I'm talking about radio itself. In theory, radio waves should not be able to travel farther than a 30 KM (19 miles) in any direction; the curvature of the Earth is supposed to prevent this. However, because of the Earth's ionosphere (which, according to Britannica.com, "is an approximately 300-kilometre-thick layer starting about 100 kilometres above the Earth's surface in which the atmosphere is partially ionized by ultraviolet light from the Sun, giving rise to enough electrons and ions to affect radio waves"), radio waves can bounce up and down, over and over again, for incredibly large distances, depending upon the wave's width (or frequency).
We like to think of radio signals as mechanical operations--someone transmits, and someone receives. But the real startling thing the earliest radio scientists discovered when first experimenting with radio was that radio--the waves themselves--were natural phenomena. Of course, scientists like Newton had theorized the concept of light and sound waves several hundred years earlier. However, there's a big difference between a theory about waves and actually hearing these waves suddenly crackle out of a box. Imagine living in 1900 or so and suddenly hearing (via radio) and seeing (via motion pictures, also developed at this time) proof demonstrating that all light and sound--everything we know--is merely a series of complex signals, signals whose true, "whole" forms have been bouncing around invisibly since the beginning of time. Then add to this other startling facts to emerge during this period: that the universe was billions, not thousands, of years old; that all life on Earth, including human life, evolved from organic pond scum; that the earliest language wasn't Hebrew but something far older; that the Easter Bunny is actually a drag queen. No wonder the period from 1900 to World War I would create the Theory of Relativity, Cubism, psychoanalysis, stream of consciousness, and the New York Yankees! It was a crazy time. And then World War I started, followed by the Bolsheviks, the Spanish Civil War, Nazis, WW II, Hiroshima, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the Women's movement, Reagan, and on and on. Talk about a insane, surreal century. Can it all be traced back to radio? No, but you can't deny that radio's mere presence called a lot of fundamental truths about the nature of reality into question, thereby paving the way for people to create their own realities (some of which weren't so nice).
So, what does this have to do with my day in music? Simple: The Conet Project, Basinski's The River, and Stephan P. McGreevy's Electric Enigma: The VLF Recordings. All of these works hold prominent places in my iTunes (call it my record collection, if you must), and all are created out of radio signals. These works reaffirm the fact that, even today, radio holds a particularly powerful psychic place in our minds and our hearts.
I've already spoken of Baskinski's work, so I'll just add this: the work was recorded in 1983 using Muzak loops he'd recorded off shortwave radio. He took those loops, slowed them down, and mixed them live through a reel-to-reel tape machine, adding shortwave static to flesh out the sound. Of all the things this work accomplishes, perhaps the most significant is that it makes radio static seem like the natural occurrence it actually is. The title, The River, is not coincidental. Not only does the music float along like a river, but also the nuanced waves and sparkles of noise actually imitate the ebbs and flows of a river as it merges with an ocean.
Stephan P. McGreevy is just this guy who became fascinated with VLF (very low frequency) radio signals. These are natural signals, created by lightning storms, the Aurora Borealis, and the Earth's own magnetic field (magnetosphere). They are "very low" because they occur at the lowest radio frequencies--from 0.1 to 10 kHz (that means the waves oscillate from 100 to 10,000 cycles per second). By contrast, a normal AM station's signal is between 535 and 1,700 kHz and FM signals are between 88 and 108 megahertz (mHz). The VLF frequencies are usually too low to be heard, since everyday electrical currents usually drown them out. However, if you go to a remote area with a specially designed receiver (McGreevy built one himself, and he sells them on his web site), you can pick up these sounds. If you don't want to bother (that's me), you can just listen to his album, which features examples of the many different varieties of "natural radio" (as McGreevy and other enthusiasts have termed the sounds). You'll hear "whistlers" that sound like, well, whistles. If I didn't know better, I'd assume these sounds came from owls or other birds jabbering to their buddies. But no: these are what lightning strikes sound like as radio signals (as opposed to acoustic waves). You'll also hear chirps, rumbles, scratches, and more pops than you'll ever get from a breakfast cereal.
This is music that proves wave theory once and for all: that all we know is composed of electromagnetic waves. What's amazing about McGreevy's album, however, is that it's an utterly fascinating and entertaining listening experience. At first, I thought hearing whistles and pops and the like was strange but pretty cool. Then, just as I was about to get a bit bored by the (seeming) repetition, I noticed that each whistle was different: some long and twittery, others short and morose. I also noticed that the individual granules of "pops" seemed to have their own delay effects built right into them. They echoed! Who would have thought electromagnetic radiation would echo? From that point on, the more I listened, the more I appreciated this invisible (and, for the most part, inaudible) world. This is music that proves how fundamentally strange and fascinating the universe is.
And then there was The Conet Project, which...
Saturday, 21.52 PST
...is certainly a hell of a lot weirder than McGreevy's or Basinski's albums. But that's not a knock on those discs: The Conet Project is weirder than just about everything (even California politics). If you don't know about it, here's a rundown.
The Conet Project is a 4-CD collection put out by Irdial Records in 1997. It is composed entirely of shortwave numbers station messages that were recorded by amateur (read: obsessed) radio listeners over a long period of time (from the 50s to the 90s). The key here is, of course, the words "numbers stations." What are they? Well, the liner notes to this collection define numbers stations as "radio broadcasts that appear in the Shortwave bands twenty-four hours a day, on many different frequencies. They are used to transmit short text messages. There are three different types of broadcast: voices reading groups of numbers or phonetic letters, Morse transmissions sending groups of numbers or letters, and noise stations, transmitting several different types of noise."
But what are these messages? What's their purpose? It's never been proven, but the most likely--no, make that the ONLY--theory is espionage. A variety of different spy networks sends out these numbers station transmissions (which are coded, by the way--hence the numbers and letters in the voice messages), and spies in the field listen in, transcribe, and decode (or decrypt, if you want to be technical). Why would spy networks--with the vast resources of governments and militaries--bother sending messages through something so public as shortwave? Well, there are two good reasons for this. The first is obvious: shortwave is public, so that means no spy can be accused of being a spy simply by listening to the radio. Shortwave messages are a built-in cover for any spy. But a message transmitted over public airwaves can, obviously, be overheard and transcribed by anyone--including the spy's enemies. Ah, but that's where reason #2 comes in: the numbers stations use what are called a "one-time pads" to encrypt messages. These messages are unbreakable if you do not have the key. The key, the one-time pad, is in the possession of the sender and the receiver of the message, no one else. The sender encrypts every word in the message using the pad, and the receiver decrypts the cipher using the same pad. It's more complicated than that (read Simon Singh's The Code Book if you want to understand how the encryption and decryption actually works), but please trust me when I say that these messages are perfectly safe from being decrypted, provided the key is not lost or stolen or confiscated by the local police.
That leads to the next obvious question: which governments are involved? Well, many theories have been put forward about this. In fact, there are several organizations that monitor, record and share the information they learn about numbers stations. These groups (including one called Enigma) have determined that just about every single spy network in the world uses numbers stations. That includes the CIA, the former KGB (now going by another name--I forget what it is), Israel's Mossad, Al-Quaeda and other Arabic spy and terrorist groups (of course, there really is no difference between spy and terrorist groups, and if you think there are, then you also probably believe GW Bush actually won the 2000 election), and other instiutions in Germany, Britain, Cuba, China, Taiwan, the Balkans, and many more. Most of these groups are well represented on The Conet Project, though the more recent ones (Al-Quaeda in particular) are a bit too new for this 1997 release. I'm sure they'll show up on any future collections.
So that's some of the background, but let me get back to my initial thoughts on shortwave radio and "natural sound." You can obviously respect the fact that this collection of spy messages is a fascinating idea and even an important historical document. However, you might be surprised by how entertaining this disc is to listen to. It's is downright entrancing, and it is entrancing for exactly the same reasons McGreevy's and Basinkski's works are entrancing: because it is an aesthetic examination of radio itself. McGreevy's work examines the very "natural" quality of radio waves, proving that the Earth itself creates beautiful music (there are even recordings of the radio emissions from other planets and stars, if you're interested in learning more about this). Similarly, Basinski's work was created out of the residue of radio, and it's beautiful not only because Basinski is a wonderful artist but also because he recognizes in radio static the natural, beautiful, forces of the universe at work.
The Conet Project, however, is a great work of art not because it manages to find something beautiful in the messages transmitted to spies but because its very nature is fundamentally surreal. The first track, "Swedish Rhapsody," starts with a children's tune. You think this might be some campy throwback album. But then the tune ends, only to start up again--and again after than. Then, after we've been numbed by this children's tune, a voice appears and reads a series of numbers. Then the tune reappears; then the voice repeats the numbers. Then it ends! It makes no sense. It's insane. What the hell is the point of this? Well, we know these transmissions were intended for spies, so it's possible that the message transmitted on that day was to instruct a certain spy to perform a certain act: to kill, to pick up a message, to visit a certain place, to follow someone, to stay put. It's impossible to know for sure what the message might be, so we can only guess; that's the mystery. But the children's music: my god! What is the point of introducing instructions to (possibly) kill someone with a children's tune? Well, there's a logical reason, but as a listening experience, it's just insane. It's crazy. It's...surreal.
We use that word "surrealism" a lot, but most people don't really understand the term. The Surrealist movement was begun in Switzerland and France after World War I and before Nazism. It was a reaction against the horrors of the war and of modern life. It was an admission that the world (and its people) had grown insane, and part of this insanity had to do with the fact that people had grown so accustomed to the horrors and noise of modern life that they had become incapable of actually thinking about and responding to these horrors. Hence, the Surrealists (like Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, and Luis Bunuel) went about shocking people by presenting images and sounds that startled, offended, confused, or otherwise forced audiences to question not only what was happening in the work but to then transfer that questioning into their own lives (to rethink the insanity of their own lives). Surrealism was, in short, a political movement, a movement designed to wake people up to the horrors of modern life, to stop people from being so set in their ways that they would simply sit back and let horrible things happen to people.
Of course, Surrealism failed entirely. Hitler showed up, and few people bothered to stop him until millions had died. Then there was Stalin, Pol Pot, and so on and so on (including Henry Kissinger--fascist bastard). And even though the ideas that helped foster Surrealism remain with us, they have been easily co-opted by Madison Avenue and K Street and MTV as yet another marketing tool. Hence, we use the word "surreal" to describe anything that is slightly weird. The impact of the word has been nullified by, and the result is more placidity than ever.
So, how does The Conet Project fit into this whole surrealism thing? Well, this album, too, has been co-opted for use in such films as Vanilla Sky and for such albums as Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot . But I would suggest that CP holds true to the spirit of Surrealism, in so much as the people responsible for this work, first and foremost, wanted to spread the word--to shock people--about numbers stations: that governments all over the world are basically waging wars right out in the open for all to hear, provided anyone cares to listen. Sadly, it also holds true to the reality of the original Surrealist movement, as this album enjoyed a few months in the limelight, with reviews and articles and "fluff" pieces on various TV shows, before fading into the larger soup of popular culture.
But The Conet Project is still out here, and it's still relevant, if you choose to listen and to contemplate the very nature of these signals. In fact, after 9/11, the work might be more relevant than ever, as I think it exposes the true nature of both terrorist groups and the "official" terrorist groups sponsored by the US, Russia, Israel, and other nations. Listen to The Conet Project and hear the Cold War being waged; then get a shortwave radio and listen to the terrorist war being waged. There's very little difference between the two, just as there's very little difference between Bush and Bin Laden. Now that's surreal!
Sunday, 22.52 PST
I'm listening to Afghanistan Untouched, a work recorded by an ethnomusicologist in the 1960s but only recently released. It's stunning, and I'll get to it in a bit, but first, some personal background (yes, I do this a lot, don't I? Sorry about that).
Back in 1993, I went to the Womad festival, which is supposed to be a festival for world music. There are Womad festivals all over Europe and other places, but this was the first time the festival had made it to the United States. The Los Angeles edition was held at Cal State Dominguez Hills, next door to the Velodrome (where they held cycling events at the 1984 Olympics; I didn't go to those games, by the way, because I was in Iceland that year. When I was in Iceland, there was only one television station, and they showed TV from 5 PM to about 11 PM. That's it. Oh, and there was no television on Thursdays; that was the day you went outside and hung out with your neighbors. As I said, it's a wonderful country). Dominguez Hills, by the way, is currently the home of the best soccer-specific stadium in the United States, the Home Depot Center.
The concert was sponsored by Peter Gabriel and his Real World Records, the label that (basically) made world music what it is today (interpret that how you will). Now, remember, this was a world music festival--the music was supposed to be from, well, world artists--you know, Youssou N'Dour, Bela Flek, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and stuff like that. The headliner? Well, it was Peter Gabriel. Now, I can forgive this one, as Gabriel sponsored the show, and, if not for him, they might never have brought Womad to the States at all. But the other headliners (sub-liners?) were Ziggy Marley (that works--okay), Crowded House (New Zealand is in the world, right?), the Stereo MC's (that one was just silly), and the guys who made that Cops song "Bad Boys" (well, it has a reggae beat, so it's world, right?). There were a few other acts there of similarly dubious world music credibility. Oh, and there was a second stage with...actual world artists, people who played traditional instruments, performing various types of non-Western music. Yes, the world music festival shuttled the world music to the side so it could concentrate on being a slightly more PC version of Lollapalooza.
Well, I guess I didn't expect anything else, and I don't remember being too annoyed at the time. I went with my future brother in law, and he seemed to enjoy it (until we tried to leave the parking lot afterwards). But, as a first introduction for many of the concertgoers to the wonderful music of the world, it pretty much sucked. I've heard that they still hold Womad shows in the US, and they are more in line with the ones in Europe--world artists for the most part. So Womad learned its lesson.
What is my point? Well, before the Womad show, I'd heard a great deal of world music, due in part to my spending two years within driving distance of Berkeley and its amazing record stores (which are still there--go to Telegraph Ave. and check out Amoeba Records and Rasputin Records; I found a copy of Fennesz's Live in Melbourne when I was in Amoeba back in May. I don't think even Forced Exposure has heard of that one!). I got into African music and Indonesian music and reggae then, and those were key parts of my late teenage musical education (along with Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Stax/Volt, and on and on). I ate it all up. Still, the music I listened to wasn't really that much different from the pop music that was on the radio back then. That's the thing about African music: American music is based so heavily on African rhythms that listening to African music is like listening to prototypes of soul and jazz music. That's great, and it was the reason Paul Simon went to South Africa to record Graceland, but I knew then that there were lots of other musics out there, some that had no connection whatsoever to the West's notions of proper musical structure. I wanted to hear those things.
Well, I didn't really hear them at Womad, though they were there at the second stage (I was with someone else, and he liked the pop bands--plus I wasn't really sure what I was hearing on those stages, so I didn't pay close enough attention). In fact, it took me another 10 years before I really heard and appreciated traditional music from around the world, including interesting fiddle music from Scandinavia, Pigmy music from Africa, wonderful Balinese temple music (Ambient music in a nutshell), and Algerian Rai music (yes, that one's pop music, but since it's pop music for the Arab world and because Rai singers are actually killed for singing by religious Nazis, I give it special status), the bamboo flute music of China and Japan, the droning sounds of Laplanders, and the eerie sounds of Peruvian rainforests.
However, the music I've connected with the most is the music of Central Asia and the Caucuses. This includes music from Afghanistan, Mongolia, the former Soviet Muslim republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, and the former Soviet Christian republic of Armenia. I was drawn to this part of the world for a number of reasons, but perhaps the biggest reason was simply that this part of the world didn't exist when I was growing up. Well, true, it DID exist--as part of the Soviet Union. And because it was part of the Soviet Union, these areas simply were inaccessible. People were forbidden to go there without special permission from the Kremlin. And the Kremlin didn't give permission. There were reasons for this secrecy: Kazakhstan was the place where the Soviets tested nuclear weapons and was the site of their space launches (and returns), and Kyrgyzstan was right next to China, so there were thousands of troops there (doing god knows what). The other areas? Well, they were Muslim, and they were the last parts of the Soviet Union (and, before that, the Russian Empire) to be conquered, so there was still a large animosity between the locals and the Russians. So the best plan was to simply lock the area up, keep the "natives" quiet, and try to get rid of their damn religion.
Well the religion thing didn't work, and part of the reason was the music. Central Asian music is usually suffused with religious undertones, and during the Soviet era, when mosques were (for the most part) banned and religious teaching stunted, the music (played at weddings and at other official celebrations) was the lynchpin that kept the culture and the faith alive. Now, I'm not a big fan of fanatical religion (or any religion, really), but Central Asia is largely populated with the more moderate Sunni Muslims, rather than the more militant Shia (who usually don't like music anyways). So the music, though religious in tone, was connected more with the culture than with any set religious doctrines. Well, over the past few years, I've tried to learn everything I can about this region of the world and its music. The best book I've come across is Theodore Levin's The Hundred Thousand Fools of God. I'd highly recommend it, as it also contains a wonderful collection of field recordings Levin took while living in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
What does the music sound like? Well, it varies from place to place and from style to style. The music on Afghanistan Untouched is performed largely by amateurs: men who sit around and discuss religious and other matters and then perform music together. The instrumentation is usually simple: a single stringed instrument, a single drum, and even a few spoons thrown in. That's it. It's the simplicity of the music that first drew me to this world, but it's a deceptive simplicity. Usually the music played on this album is hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. Hence, there are rules, patterns, and structures that only people within the culture could really appreciate and which I, as a western (hell, pagan) outsider, can only begin to understand. Every single note, every single breath, and ever single pattern has a history to it, and performing these songs is a way to connect directly back to the cultural history of this place. It's fascinating work, but it's the kind of music you have to dwell on to truly appreciate. I'm only beginning to understand its beauty and power.
Levin's disc, recorded largely in more cosmopolitan Uzbekistan, presents some fascinating solo work by great artists, both professional and amateur. Much of the work comes from the Maquam tradition, which dates back to Central Asia's royal past, when Emirs in places like Samarkand and Bukhara paid musicians to play intricate music to delight the court. The music is very formal and very stylized, and it sounds unlike anything in Western music. The music is so complex that some artists spend their lives learning (and perfecting) just a handful of songs. This music is largely supported today by the government, though, as Levin's book points out, this support is starting to erode, and the musicians who maintain this music are starting to struggle in the face of free market capitalism. Translation: the kids are into rock music, so they don't want to hear the old stuff. That's a shame, but it's hardly surprising. Heck, look at my Womad concert; look at Real World Records itself, which tries to make traditional music western by throwing in synthesizers and cool beats. The whole world is becoming London and Los Angeles. It's a shame, yes, but the only thing I can do to counter it is to listen to the wonderful music, tell others about it, and hope that it doesn't go away.
Monday, 22.50 PST
Of course, world beat music of the Real Worlds and Luka Bop variety has it's place; heck, it's often incredibly rich and exciting music. One example: Susana Baca's "Valentin" from her album Eco de Sombras (David Byrne plays guitar on the album). Baca is a wonderful artist from Peru that I first heard on LinkTV (formerly WorldLink TV), the satellite-only channel in the United States that shows documentaries, news reports, films, and (best of all) music videos from all over the world. The channel is basically a left wing version of Fox News. Unlike Fox, however, LinkTV doesn't lie too much or serve as the voice for any particular ideology (plus, it has music videos!). Like good leftists, the people in charge of LinkTV set out to show a world dripping with complexity. There's no single issue that isn't so simple that LinkTV can't complicate it. That's a good thing, of course. The world IS complex, and there are never simple answers to major issues.
LinkTV is probably the only television channel in the United States that examines the terrorism war and the war in Iraq from the Arab perspective. Their daily program Mosaic presents distilled news broadcasts from a dozen different news organizations throughout the Middle East--including Israel, by the way. The network is also the only place where you'll see documentaries (from BBC, CBC, and independent journalists) critiquing US foreign and domestic policy. They showed a documentary recently that examined Israel's secret nuclear weapons program. Why is it secret? Well, it isn't; Israel's had the bomb for decades, but they've never actually admitted it to the rest of the world (even though everyone knows about it). In fact, Israel has been so adamant about hiding its weapons program that they've actually put Israelis in jail for simply mentioning it. The BBC documentary examining this controversy was aired on LinkTV because every other American network--ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, and even Nickeoldeon (I'm guessing)--rejected it for fear that the Israelis and their supporters in American would be pissed about the bad press. Pathetic.
That's not the only story LinkTV has aired because no one else would air it. Scott Ritter, the former head of the UN weapons inspection team in Iraq (who somehow managed to put up with Saddam Hussein's government for years and only quit because he was sick of dealing with the US government--what do you make of that?) put together a documentary detailing his experiences as a weapons inspector in Iraq. It aired a few months before the Iraq war, and it's biggest claim--one repeated over and over by not only Ritter himself but many others--was that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Ritter's claim was voiced loud and clear on LinkTV and on the Guardian and The Nation web sites, but few other places bothered to mention it, and none of the US networks want to have anything to do with Ritter's documentary--even now that he's been proven correct!
Of course, if LinkTV were a regular cable channel, more people would be able to see and learn about things like this. But LinkTV is only available for subscribers of DirecTV and the Dish Network. Even if you are a subscriber, you have to know where it is among the 1,000 channels the satellite monkeys offer (DirecTV: channel 375; Dish: channel 9410). And even if you know where the channel is, you have to know when to tune in to these documentaries. One problem there is that the program schedule for the network isn't listed in DirecTV's Guide (I have no explanation for this). But even if you know when the programs air, you then have to WANT to see them. That's the real problem. People don't want to learn the details about the lies told by the Bush administration regarding their bogus claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction; people don't want to hear about the complicated historical relationship between Jews and Palestinians or between Turks, Iraqis, and Kurds; people don't want to hear about complicated analyses of attempts to fight globalization. People don't want to hear about these things because these things are complicated and they require thought, and people don't want to think when watching TV.
So that's where music comes in. Yes, music can make you think, but you don't have to think in order to enjoy music. One of the centerpieces of LinkTV's schedule has always been music videos from artists all over the world. These are videos Americans simply can't see anywhere else, but they are fun videos and fun songs, each one different from the last. You'll can see Finnish fiddle player Annbjorg Lien; you can see the King of Rai, Algeria's Khaled (great tunes from this guy); you can see Uzbekistan's Sevara Nazarakhan (LinkTV's current poster girl); you can see the Django Reinhardt-esque bop of Paris Combo; you can see Greece's Kristi Stassinopoulou; you can see Bela Flek, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Youssou N'Dour, and on and on. This music was created all over the world, often within musical cultures radically different from our own, but it's music that American audiences can easily understand, in part because the music they choose is generally part of the "world beat" fusion of western song structure with traditional instrumentation and expression, and in part because the videos are just plain fun. They have an energy and passion and, importantly, a sense of joy that I just find lacking in so many of the shitty videos on MTV (where everyone is either straining to look cool or straining to look competent).
Now, as I said earlier, I'm not always a fan of this westernization of traditional music--I like the real thing--but some of the music has caught my eye. Unfortunately, a lot of the music used to be really hard to find. Not any more: enter LinkTV's Online Music Store, which opened this month and which sells (for 99 cents each) the same songs (and more) heard and seen on the network. I don't like all the songs, but I like a few, and I've bought a few, including the Baca I mentioned earlier, a few Paris Combo tracks, and a bunch of Finnish music (weird, wild stuff--sort of acoustic Pan Sonics with vocals). I encourage you to check the site out, especially if you don't have access to LinkTV (they have streaming videos available at the store, too).
However, if you do have access to LinkTV, then check out their music video blocks and stick around for the real news.
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