Curating The Week: John McPhee, Ben Ratliff, Charring Wood

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More structural advice from John McPhee.

“Much of McPhee’s work sits at some thrilling intersection of short story, essay, documentary, field research and epic poem…He gathers every single scrap of reporting on a given project — every interview, description, stray thought and research tidbit — and types all of it into his computer. He studies that data and comes up with organizing categories: themes, set pieces, characters and so on. Each category is assigned a code. To find the structure of a piece, McPhee makes an index card for each of his codes, sets them on a large table and arranges and rearranges the cards until the sequence seems right. Then he works back through his mass of assembled data, labeling each piece with the relevant code. On the computer, a program called ‘Structur’ arranges these scraps into organized batches, and McPhee then works sequentially, batch by batch, converting all of it into prose.

Ben Ratliff on how to better listen to music.

“The idea that hums in the background of the book is how I don’t think genre is that important anymore. Lately, I’ve come to understand that there is a difference between genre and tradition in music. I like tradition a lot—it is inherently about growth and moving through time. But genre is a static idea. Genre is for merchants and spectators; tradition is for involved listeners and musicians.”

An article on the Japanese practice of shou sugi ban or charring wood.

“Like industrial lighting or reclaimed wood, shou sugi ban has a certain rustic, homespun appeal. The yearning for this aesthetic has led, over the past decade, to a general return to treating materials in traditional ways and, more specifically, to an adoption of principles that have long been fundamental to Japanese architecture: simplicity, the use of natural materials and a sensitivity to the surrounding environment.”

On Closed and Open Musics, Or Change Versus Transformation: Toggling Between Arovane and Autechre 

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One day in 1999 I walked into (the now closed) Kim’s Music and Video in the East Village and listened to some CDs at one of their listening stations. (Remember CDs? Remember listening stations? Remember record stores?) I liked this German IDM artist Arovane (Uwe Zahn) because his music was melodic and had unusual chords. The sales clerk was somewhat enthusiastic, but pointed me towards more complex musical terrains. Yeah Arovane’s pretty good…He’s a little like a watered-down version of Autechre. I didn’t know what Autechre was so I asked the clerk and he brought me over to their section.

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The other day I was toggling between new tracks by Autechre and Arovane, musicians whose music I have spent my share of time listening to since that visit to Kim’s. Autechre recently released two tracks for the Touched Music for Macmillan Cancer Support project, while Arovane recently released a full length recording, Into My Own (which I happened upon by randomly checking whether or not he had any new music). As I listened to two Autechre and Arovane tracks one after the other, toggling between them, a difference between the musics struck me. It’s a difference that doesn’t make one “better” than the other, but nevertheless impacts how I listen to them and what I take away from that experience. This difference has to do with the musics’ perceived perceptual ambiguities and how those ambiguities are impacted by repeating elements such as beats or melodies. I would sum up this impact by describing Arovane’s music as somewhat interpretively “closed” and Autechre’s as more “open.” Let’s briefly consider two tracks to compare how they unfold.

The Arovane track “Ein Kleines Lied” opens with a lovely electronic harp-like sound plucking notes of a distinctly Avrovane-esque chord in a continuous melody stream. (He truly has beautiful chords.) At 0:36, a beat joins the track. It’s a 4/4 beat, somewhat disguised by its continuous hi hat ticking, off-center snare sound and accent placements, but still, the beat has a suggestive-of-four-on-the-floor conventionality to it. The beat is essentially accompanying the repeating melody: it doesn’t add much to our perception of it, instead it’s just one more layer of sound that frames the harp tune. (Picture the notes suspended on a grid.) Once the track has its beat we have a solid idea of where the music is going because it has already arrived at its maximal state. Now it’s just a question of how much longer it will keep itself going, how long it will keep its musical mood aloft. “Ein Kleines Lied” ends with the harp sound changed into a vibraphone, a timbral shift we register (oh cool…), but the vibes are playing the same melody stream. It’s a change, but not a transformation.

The Autechre track “JNSN CODE GL16” (Autechre enjoy using inscrutable track titles, perhaps so you have zero preconceptions about the music) opens with a buzzing, metallic, and cavernous melody-esque figure that is without any relation to acoustic timbres. This happens a lot with Autechre: the music catches you pigeon-toed by foregoing obvious connections to what you already know and you’re left off-balance. The melody-esque figure is simultaneously a echo-percussive sound too, doubling as the track’s rhythmic element. One minute into the track a kind of atmospheric pad drone joins in. The drone is beguiling: You can’t tell if it’s one or five notes. You can’t tell if it’s looping. You can’t tell if it’s forging ahead or retreating. It’s rather mesmerizing: How does Autechre do this with that?

About four minutes in, as you’re still trying to figure out the effects of the atmospheric pad drone, you notice that the buzzing metallic melody has vanished, leaving in its wake traces of itself in the form of pitched echoes bouncing around the sound field. Six minutes into the seven-and-a-half minute track, both the melody and the pad are gone, but instead of silence we hear what sounds like the attack points of the vanished melody knocking about a wonky plate-reverbed place. I’m not a sci-fi person, but I’ll admit that the end of “JNSN CODE GL16” evokes a robot discovering it has muscles, shadow-boxing in an abandoned warehouse somewhere.

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Both the Arovane and Autechre tracks pass my tests of musical beauty and repetition: I like listening to them, the impact of their sounds doesn’t diminish with my repeated listening, and I need to return to the tracks themselves to re-inhabit their affective worlds. This is all good. But Autechre take an extra step that makes a difference: they deeply incorporate musical transformations into every aspect of their track. And not only this track:  there’s very little (zero?) overt repetition happening in any of their music. Instead, each Autechre moment is a growth moment, subtly changing what you just heard into something else. While Arovane sets up a comfortable musical lushness and keeps it aloft for a few minutes (no insignificant production feat), Autechre seem less concerned with our comfort, proceeding as if their music is fractal discovery, deriving variations on a bit of musical material and making those variations the subject of their track.* How do they do it? Maybe it’s obsessively meticulous editing. Maybe it’s those algorithms they program. Maybe it’s an intuitive gift. Or maybe their music is the by-product of not wanting to take the easier route of sounding like everyone else?

So: the Arovane track defines without leaving much room for suggesting. In this way it feels interpretively closed. In contrast, the Autechre track keeps suggesting without defining. In this way it feels interpretively open. One track isn’t better than the other, but like a good relationship or a compelling piece of writing, when we perceive something as open-ended we want to come back to it again and again.

* A fractal is a geometric figure each part of which has the same characteristics of the whole.

Resonant Thoughts: Franklin Foer’s “World Without Mind”

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“The contemplative life remains freely available to us though our choices—what we read and buy, how we commit to leisure and self-improvement, the passing over of empty temptation, our preservation of the quiet spaces, and intentional striving to become the masters of our mastery.”*

– Franklin Foer, World Without Mind (2017), p. 232

(*In his book, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, the philosopher Michael Serres coined the phrase: “Our very mastery seems to escape our mastery” [pp. 171-72]).