RETROMANIA: Pop Culture’s Addition to Its Own Past (a Review)

Retromania Simon Reynolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and much, much more!

The Pinnacle of 90s Geek Rock – They Might Be Giants Classic Albums on Vinyl!

Milestones of teenage rock nostalgia, They Might Be Giants’ early albums were beautifully random and absurd rock records which spoke directly to the freaks and geeks of the late 80s and early 90s.  Dadaist lyrics, a Dial-a-Song service, bizarre subject matter and a bit of art rock sophistication all made They Might Be Giants alt music of choice for a nerd culture in the midst of the angry grunge era.

Don't Let's Start

This weirdly wonderful and unapologetically happy music was complemented by their even stranger music videos.  “Don’t Let’s Start” and “Ana Ng” were hit videos on MTV in 1987-89.  Devoid of self-serious pretension, They Might Be Giants embraced oddity and silliness while simultaneously sneaking in moments of sombre artistic genius.  Lyrics like, “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful” were woven effortlessly into otherwise nonsensical context.

Fortunately, They Might Be Giants did not die at 27 of a drug overdose.  They did not find god and start a religious crusade.  Nor did they end up with their own reality show as no-longer-relevant 40-somethings with too much money for their own good.

TMBG 2040 World Tour

Instead, they’ve pressed on through the decades, releasing 96 albums and singles, appealing to younger and younger audiences each year.

And John and John have not forgotten the children who grew up with them (many of whom now have children of their own.)  They have begun to re-issue the earliest albums of their catalog on vinyl for these life-long fans, some of which have not previously been available in the format.

Asbestos Records, an independent record label based in Stratford, Connecticut has recently pressed Factory Showroom, John Henry, and Apollo 18 after the band issued a Facebook poll asking their fans which albums they wanted on wax.  Surely more titles are to come, like the classic self-titled “pink album” and their best-selling Flood.

Asbestos Records

My copies of the new Asbestos pressings have just arrived at my door, pictured below beside my German original press of Flood and the Bar None first pressing of the pink album.

Special thanks to the Johns for all the great musical memories!

They Might Be Giants LPs

The History of Modern Ambient Music: Part 2 – 1993-2014

The conclusion to my 2-part Ambient Milestones series is now published on YouTube!  The exciting final element to the feature arrived in the post just a few days ago and I am delighted to share it with you all.

Or click here for the HD version.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotify

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

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

1389038470.jpg.CROP.promo-mediumlarge

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

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

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

dubnobasswithmyheadman[1]

STOP. THE. PRESSES.

Dear friends, this will be a most candid and direct post.  No refinement or editing – just breaking and game-changing news.

I don’t care that I’ve just posted a video a few hours ago, and that it is “poor form” to double-up, particularly with a hastily-typed announcement.  But I consider this a music milestone.

As anyone who reads my articles knows full-well by now, I’d long-ago lost the majority of my faith in contemporary song.  Save for a few select artists I’ve followed for many decades, I invest most of my research and vinyl-purchasing energies in classic recordings of the past 50 years.

But this evening I read a piece of news that instantly motivated me to detour my behavioral form.

Thom Yorke announced today that he is releasing his new solo album via a new model of Bittorrent – one with a paygate channel for distribution.

Tomorrow's Modern Boxes

I was immediately motivated to purchase the album for several reasons:

1. The album is sold and distributed independently by the artist, demonstrating that the self-proclaimed owners of the industry are no longer necessary.

2. The digital version of the album is a mere $6.  (For six bloody dollars an album, I would instantly start paying artists directly for digital music.)

3. He offered (and I bought) a deluxe white vinyl edition of what will surely be an historic recording.

4. …which ships from the UK FOR FREE.

5. and which included an instant lossless FLAC, WAV, and lossy MP3 download of the complete album.

Sincerely – thank you, Thom for shattering my preconceptions about modern music and for proving to the industry the viability of Bittorrent.

Thom Yorke

Published in: on September 26, 2014 at 11:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The History of Modern Ambient Music: Part 1 – 1973-1993

Hello friends!  My second video is now up on The Innerspace Connection’s Youtube channel – this is the first of a 2-part series showcasing milestone recordings of modern ambient music.

Here are the highlights of albums recorded between 1973 and 1993, presented in the order of their release.

Or click here for the HD version.

Innerspace Video Introduction

Last week I put the new Nexus 7 tablet to the test and filmed my first-ever video as my official introduction to the Youtube Vinyl Community – perhaps the Web’s largest active record group with over 5200 members.   It seemed only appropriate to utilize the same clip as an introduction to my readers here at The Innerspace Connection as well.

This intro features essential recordings for listeners beginning to explore the early electronic sounds of the late 1950s to the early 1970s.

I enjoyed putting it together and I am currently preparing my next two features, so stay tuned for more!

Or view this video on in HD here.

What will be generation Z’s musical, artistic, and cultural movement/identity?

Generation Z includes children born 1995-2009 (though these dates are not universally accepted as of yet.)  With what movement in art, theater, dance, and music do they identify?  What cultural value set inspires its growth and evolution?  I am speaking of the “Belieber” generation.  (For perspective, Justin Bieber was born in 1994 and released his first album in 2010 at age 16.)

Justin BieberExhibit “A”

With my general understanding of the development of Western and world culture, I have a basic awareness the socio-musical climates which inspired the blues, big band, the birth of jazz, its many changes, the punk scene, art music, the renaissance of classical influence in progressive rock, the musical impact of the 7” single, the LP, the shift to FM radio, and the academic New Music movement in New York in the 1960s.

I understand the blurring and vanishing of the difference between so-called “high” and “low” art as the democratization of recording technology facilitated independent production and a cultural move away from the dependence on record labels and producers to record, market, and distribute one’s work in the digital age.

Why pay Universal for a studio when you've got ProTools at home?ProTools.  Bandcamp.  Social Media.
Who needs a record label?

I have fundamental knowledge of music and the arts up until and including the end of the rock era and the paradigm shift in the way listeners discover and consume music at the end of the 20th century from Napster-forward.  FM and television have plummeted in popularity and neither bares any relevance to the generation who experience music through streaming networks and social media.

The last movements I encountered directly were the  Icelandic-influenced popularization of post-rock and its inspirations lifted from neo-classical sound.  I remember the rise of the indie-rock scene as a cultural reaction to the corporatization of music at the end of the rock era and the dominance of top 40 pop.  Programs like American Idol and the interminable NOW! That’s What I Call Music! series worked to re-enforce the prevailing position of Clear Channel / Warner Music’s stranglehold on the emerging youth culture, effectively raising a generation to consume their product.

 NOW! That's What I Call Bullshit!
And so I posed the question to Quora.com – a forum of user-generated question-and-answer content.

Q: What self-identifying art and music will emerge from a generation raised on a billboard chart of manufactured acts with no concrete musical ability (in the classical sense) and in an era where arts and music funding and education are at an all-time low?

I feared that an entire culture was being bred with no concept of the centuries of great works from which they can build upon, reshape and re-purpose to serve the values and needs of their own generation.  What is next?

Symphonics
The first answer I received was not promising.  In jest, a user offered:

“Hipsters.  Banjos.  Pocket camera art.”

…he left out “selfies.”

But the next answer I received completely shattered my preconceived notion that Gen-Z-ers were nothing more than “Belieber” simpletons.  (And shame on me for oversimplifying the demographic.)

The response was offered by Quora user and future rockstar, Will Tuckwell.  Will studied Music at University of Birmingham and offered a great deal of insight into the promise of his generation.  He said:

Speaking as a musician and a member of ‘Generation Z’ (I was born in 1994), I feel optimistic about the future of the arts. I would disagree that American Idol et al have a stranglehold on youth culture. Young people have more of an opportunity than ever before to access great art of the past. (IMSLP and Naxos Music Library cover the vast majority of classical music scores and recordings, for example.) Generation Z can often instantly find a piece of music on the internet, which their parents, at their age, would have had to visit a library to access. The existence of large companies pushing generic music via mass media is not new to this generation – it has existed in one form or another since the popularisation of recorded music in the early 20th century. While their influence is not trivial, it is very easily avoidable most of the time (at least for me.)

Clear Channel

Here are some of the areas of music and art which I will be interested to see develop in the future:

  • Electronic music software. Digital Audio Workstations which are now commonplace have the ability to emulate the methods of Musique Concrete and Electroacoustic composers, as well as the mixing and production techniques which evolved in recording studios. Also, programs are being developed specifically for the needs of experimental computer musicians, such as Max/MSP, Audiomulch and Supercollider. I would be very interested to see what kind of artistic conventions a generation of creative minds can establish with these new tools.

Pure Data (showing a netpd session)Pure Data (showing a netpd session)

  • Creative pop culture references, in particular sampling. Musical quotations are nothing new, although the invention of the digital sampler (not quite from Generation Z I know, but of increased popularity and accessibility in recent years) allows an artist to quote specific ‘moments’ in order to make a cultural point – for example, a composition which samples not just a guitar note, but a particular note or section of melody which Jimi Hendrix played in his Woodstock performance of Star Spangled Banner, comes loaded with countless cultural connotations in less than a second, in a way which no other form of composition could achieve.

“Dab” from John Oswald’s notorious
Plunderphonics EP  (1988)

And the bizarre fad of Youtube Poop -

  • Increased intercultural reference in the arts in general. Our generation has it easier than ever before to instantly look up information, which allows lyricists to make increasingly sophisticated references.

“If you don’t get it, get a computer and Google it
If you find out all the reasons we the shit,
then you the shit”

Even if arts and music education funding are at an all-time low, access to the internet (and therefore culture) is widespread, development of a craft is mostly a self-led activity, and ideas and inspiration are free. I have no doubts that this generation will create vast amounts of great art.

As you can imagine, this response was entirely unexpected and has really given me hope about the future of the arts and music.

I pressed on, looking for other sources of Gen-Z and Gen-Alpha inspiration.  This lead me to an article on 21st century composers (because apparently, THAT IS A THING.)  A Wikipedia entry for 21st century classical offered a list of composers I could arrange by birth date.  At the end of the list I found a name – Alma Deutscher, who was born in 2005.

2005.

Alma Deutscher
I had to look her up.  Youtube thankfully offered a video of her appearance on Ellen from October of last year.  The eight-year-old has composed operas in her sleep, arisen and written the notation for each instrument entirely from memory.

And here is her own Quartet Movement in A Major, composed in 2012.

Suddenly the future is looking a lot brighter.

Making the Move to the Mobile Web

Today I’ve started a new project.  After working for an app development company for 8 months, hearing every day that the app market has hit critical mass, and that mobile web access has overtaken desktops as the primary means of accessing the internet, it seemed in my best interest to invest in a tablet to keep abreast of the mobile “craze.”

I’ve never paid much attention to the Play Store other than my daily use of Sindre Mehus’ wonderful Subsonic media server app.  Projects like music research, databasing, and library management just don’t lend themselves to a mobile environment, much less to an app.

But I took on the project and invested in a Nexus 7 2nd gen (2013) which appeared to have universal acclaim as the best 7″ tablet on the market at present.

329835-google-nexus-7-2013

With its quad-core Snapdragon processor and the highest resolution of any available tablet (WUXGA 1920×1200) coupled with its affordable price tag, the choice was simple.  A certified refurbished model from a licensed distributor was $160.  A package of Tech Armor screen shields and a Moko faux leather case/stand with a compact Bluetooth keyboard was only $39 more, so the entire package was $200, tax and shipping-free.

But the question remained – would this mobile device be of any use to a user like myself?

I spent the first evening customizing the tablet.  I compiled a beautiful high res album of photographs from the most renowned libraries in the world and installed Wallpaper Changer to cycle through a gallery of bibliophilia and really show off the resolution of the Nexus 7.

Screenshot_2014-08-27-18-13-04

Screenshot_2014-08-27-18-10-16

Screenshot_2014-08-27-18-09-16

Screenshot_2014-08-27-18-11-00

Next I ported my browser add-ons and settings to sync from my desktop to my mobile environment, which was surprisingly easier than I anticipated.

Then I arrived at perhaps my most empowering conclusion.  To really get the most out of the mobile interface, I needed all of my library resources to be instantly accessible.  As I had a fondness for the desktop interface of most of these services, I learned how to save deep-web links to my home screen instead of using apps.

Below is a snapshot of my fourth home screen where I’ve created shortcuts to everything from my most-traveled music subreddits to my audio reference texts which I’ve converted from PDF to reflowable ePubs and synced to my Google Books account.

Screenshot_2014-08-27-18-12-23

I was excited to explore my record catalog which I had recently ported from a static database to the cloud on Discogs.com.  The interface is clean and customizable in the tablet browser environment.  Here is the Art Rock folder of my top 300 LPs in cover-view.

Screenshot_2014-08-27-18-15-49

And the same folder in detail view.

Screenshot_2014-08-27-18-16-00

And finally, the summary view from the home folder.

Screenshot_2014-08-27-18-16-26

The site functions very well with a touch-based tablet interface, and my Subsonic media server was equally easy to use.  In addition to the high resolution display, the Nexus 7 is fitted with stereo speakers which perform well in the mobile setting.  Better still, I travel with my Sennheiser monitors wherever I go, so I am ready for anything (although I might consider a portable DAC further down the line).

Here is the Subsonic interface, viewing one artist’s folder on the Nexus 7.

Screenshot_2014-08-27-18-20-52

And a view of a primary discographic chronology folder.

Screenshot_2014-08-27-18-21-47

Or if you prefer to navigate by playlist…

Screenshot_2014-08-27-18-23-04

So it would appear that the Nexus 7 is up to the challenge of the majority of my computing tasks.  The one remaining challenge would be to draft an entire blog entry on the tablet.

Which I’ve just done.

This increased mobility will let me seize the opportunity to work on my research and blogging wherever I go.  I’m looking forward to the productivity.

I’ll leave you with an interesting thought piece.

(Begin at 6m 45s if the video fails to jump to that time.)

This is Zimerman’s Paradox. “Music is not sound.”

In this BBC interview segment, Krystian Zimerman condemns digital recording for its perfection, and claims that it strips away the emotion and character of a composition.

What do you think?

Brilliant Box Sets and Other Classics

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to explore and enjoy The Complete Liszt Piano Music box set.  After a solid week of digesting the collection I found myself hungry for more classical listening material.

The Complete Liszt Piano Music

For a first-time listener the scope of classical music is daunting.  In which century should I begin?  Other than my Baroque 100-disc set (which is overwhelming both in content and in volume) I had little experience with Early Music, Romantic, and other pre-recording-industry-era musics.

I quickly scanned the classical subreddit, read the sidebar, and perused Rateyourmusic’s classical pages.  It didn’t take long to arrive at a decision – Deutsche Grammophon offers an expansive library of  well-recorded, expertly-pressed, and reasonably-priced compositions from a variety of respected conductors and performers.

As I was not nearly equipped to make individual purchasing selections from their catalog, I opted for the archival collection.  111 Years of Deutsche Grammophon is a two-volume collection of the finest albums in their library.  Each disc is housed in a sleeve featuring the release’s original artwork.

111 Years of Deutsche Grammophon Vol 1

111 Years of Deutsche Grammophon Vol 1

111 Years of Deutsche Grammophon Vol 2
111 Years of Deutsche Grammophon Vol 2
I am currently on my 8th day of listening, taking in 8 hours of content each day.  My favorite highlight thus far is Claudio Monteverdi’s Magnificat.

And by sheer coincidence, a fellow audiophile visited from out of town this weekend and provided me with another hauntingly beautiful choral recording.  Ondine Records released a Super Audio CD of The Latvian Radio Choir performing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s  Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

Latvian Radio Choir - The Liturgy

Latvian Radio Choir - The Liturgy SACD

And the great music just kept on coming.  Friday evening, after a month of waiting my copy of the new Miles at the Fillmore, Bootleg Series Vol 3 finally arrived at my local record shop from the Netherlands.

Miles at the Fillmore Bootleg Series Vol 3 Box Set

I had previously purchased the Japan-only issued Black Beauty album – a much abbreviated version of one of Davis’ four Fillmore concerts.  At the time it was the closest I could get to an official vinyl release capturing Mile’s live sound from that era.

When this set was announced, featuring all four performances complete and uncut, and mastered and pressed by Music On Vinyl, I didn’t hesitate for a moment.  This release is the PERFECT gift for the Miles Davis fan who has everything.

Before walking out of the shop, I heard that a stack of used jazz had also come in, and I snatched up a $10 early pressing of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in superb condition.


John Coltrane - A Love Supreme 08-15-14 sm

And to finish off the week in style, I gave myself a challenge.  I decided to teach myself data visualization.  A friend recommended Gephi as a free visualization tool and I got to work building and importing a .CSV.

I chose to visually map my library’s top 550 artists by genre as a preliminary exercise in data visualization.  The result isn’t fantastic, (there is far too much information to represent in this method), but it was fun learning how to make it work.

Click to enlarge.

Innerspace Map of Our Top 550 Artists & Composers of 2014

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