Resonant Thoughts: Merve Emre’s “Has Academia Ruined Literary Criticism?” (2023)

“Establishing a formal method of critical inquiry was in part an attempt to put literary studies on a par with the sciences, which were the chief models for the development of the professions in the university. Close reading branched out into many methods of reading—rhetorical reading for the deconstructionists, symptomatic reading for the Marxists, reparative reading for the queer theorists—culminating in what has been called the ‘method wars.’ […] Discussions of how a novel or a poem worked were less valuable than whatever historical or political occurrences it manifested. The aims of criticism and of scholarship diverged.” 

“The final phase of criticism’s arc began with the rise of a figure that Roger Kimball memorably described as the ‘tenured radical,’ and which we might think of as the Scholar-Activist. For her, the proper task of criticism was to participate in social transformations occurring outside the university. The battle against exploitation, she claimed, could be waged by writing about racism, sexism, homophobia, and colonialism, using an increasingly refined language of historical context, identity, and power. Literary artifacts (poems, novels, and other playthings of the élite) could be replaced as objects of study by pop-culture ones (Taylor Swift, selfies, and other playthings of the masses). By 2004, it was possible for Edward Said to lament that there were only two paths available to the critic in an era of intense specialization. He could ‘either become a technocratic deconstructionist, discourse analyst, new historicist, and so on, or retreat into a nostalgic celebration of some past state of glory associated with what is sentimentally evoked as humanism.’”

– Merve Emre, “Has Academia Ruined Literary Criticism?”

Resonant Thoughts: Arvo Pärt On Bell Sound

“If a single bell is struck, and we contemplate the nature of its sound– the Klang at impact, the spread of sound after this initial gesture, and then the lingering cloud of resonance–what we hear takes us to the heart of tintinnabuli. A finely wrought bell makes one of the most mysterious and creative sounds; a sound that certainly ‘rings out’ and reaches towards us, yet at the same time pulls us in towards it, so that soon we realize that we are on the inside of it, that its inside and outside are in fact one and the same.”

Arvo Pärt 

Many Lines From A Single Gesture

It’s easy to fret over the direction a new track might take. We wonder, Have I begun in a potent place or painted myself into a corner before I’ve gotten going? But a direction can be figured out as you move along the production process. What’s most important, initially, is your gesture.

I’ve thought about gesture in production ever since I read what the composer Arvo Pärt once said about it: “I have always to find this nucleus first from which the work will eventually emerge…The compositional task is to find the appropriate system for the gesture.” For Pärt, a gesture is the nucleus or central core from which a piece grows.

Building on this, I think about gesture in spatial terms—as the movements of my hands around a keyboard. A musical gesture is a way of playing across time—in other words, it’s a performance. Which notes happen when is important, of course, but what matters most is how the gesture as a whole feels. How does it move or stay still using change or repetition? Does it keep my attention? When we become immersed in a gesture’s performance, it often happens that a musical something that is simple and relatively un-technical can nevertheless feel compelling—as if the component parts have become a more expansive whole. The most important thing about a gesture then, is that it enacts some kind of performance with a capacity to compel.

As for finding the appropriate system for the gesture, we need to ask: How can this gesture become a finished piece? As I have discussed elsewhere, recursive techniques of folding the gesture upon itself is one way to develop new parts. For instance, a gesture can be duplicated, played at different speeds, sampled and resampled from, amplified or processed, inverted or reversed, used to trigger other sounds, played along with, and so on. These techniques are simple yet endlessly generative, especially when combined. For example, resampling your gesture, playing it at half speed, and then processing it could create additional lines whose strangeness might inspire you to reevaluate where to take the music next. 

Such techniques for generating lines are powerful, yet they aren’t a substitute for your original gesture–that nucleus you composed or improvised or otherwise discovered. Techniques can help you build, but on their own don’t enact a performance over time. You need to start with something that makes you feel.  

Curating The Week: Interconnected Production, Creative Algorithms, Collaborative Art

An article on interconnected production.

“The approach that several people work on a project is essential for me. In terms of authorship, there isn’t a singular ‘great creator’ but many people who play around with it.”

An essay on creative algorithms.

“I felt violated. The way I draw is the complex culmination of my education, the comics I devoured as a child and the many small choices that make up the sum of my life. The details are often more personal than people realize — the striped shirt my character wears, for instance, is a direct nod to the protagonist of ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’ my favorite newspaper comic. Even when a person copies me, the many variations and nuances in things like line weight make exact reproductions difficult. Humans cannot help bringing their own humanity into art. Art is deeply personal, and A.I. had just erased the humanity from it by reducing my life’s work to an algorithm.”

An essay on collaborative art.

“The paintings begin life in Photoshop. Wiley sends initial shots of models to a graphic designer, along with decorative motifs and detailed instructions for creating a backdrop. After the mockup earns his approval, assistants trace it onto the canvas, then begin their painstaking work on the fashion, the flora, and the filigree. Individuals focus on particular works, but also serve as floating detail specialists. The bird painter was brought on for her knowledge of Japanese landscape painting; the clothing expert, who has worked at the studio for seventeen years, doubles as a quality-control inspector, insuring that every Wiley looks like a Wiley. The process has become intuitive, she told me: ‘I’m his hand, almost like a human printer.'”

Making Music Is Phenomenology

“I was thinking, yes, but in shifting shapes and rhythms and dimly colored vectors, thinking with my senses, feeling my way toward insights and understandings that had more the form of feelings blooming in my belly than of statements being spoken within my skull.”

David Abram, Becoming Animal (2011), p. 112

Making music is phenomenology—accessing a terrain of texture, cognitive dimensionality, and kinesthetic play through the experience of sound. Whether striking a marimba or mouse-clicking on a computer, each time I generate sounds the sounds make things happen in me too: my mind moves far and wide, feeling and associating, conjuring and remembering, as if trying to connect the chords, melodies, timbres, and rhythms to people, places, affects, and times. In this way, making music is being in two places at once: an activity of both concentration and freewheel mind-body wandering.

Because music connects the sonic with one’s lived experience, composing/producing it requires a balance between design and affect, structure and mystery, number and energy, proportion and enchantment. At any moment, one can fall back on cold calculation or indulgent noodling. No one likes music that is technical for technique’s sake (nerd music), or is overly me-focused (mawkish music). The task of the composer is, simply and ideally, to design a space in which sounds can be organized for beauty.

Recently I’ve been using a software sequencer to compose a series of pieces. The software’s interface is, thankfully, simple to understand after a few minutes of clicking around: there’s three percussion sound generators, a sampling track, and a step sequencer by which all of the sounds are triggered. The sequencer is the engine: select a sound source, shape a waveform, and click on one of the 16 steps to create a musical event that comes to life once every time cycle. (The 16-beat cycle can be reduced all the way to a single step too.) Click to activate a few more steps and suddenly a rhythmic pattern emerges. Select another sound and click a few different steps to create a second, contrasting rhythm. As you play with the parameters of the sounds—re-pitching them, filtering them, changing their waveforms—soon the three rhythms are interlocking in a hypnotic space of beats.

Figure 1. Image of audio waveform in sampler

But the deep fun begins when you load an audio file into the sampler (Figure 1). I use one of my own tracks (why not?), wondering whether there’s something in there that could sound interesting. The sequencer’s small sample window is just large enough to display the jagged peaks of the file’s waveform, compressing three minutes of sound into two inches of an abstracted skyline. I click on the first step of the sequencer and listen to a bit of the sample it triggers—it’s just a sliver of sound, barely long enough to hear. I extend its decay and sustain so that more of the sample plays each time around. But the most important control in the sampler is “Sample Location” which allows one to scroll through the audio file, from beginning to end. Each tiny movement of the Location control is like casting a fish hook into sonic depths. I let the percussion parts cycle around as I listen to different sample locations. Where is the “best” one and will I recognize it when I hear it? (Have I already heard it?)

There are dozens of options that could sound good, that could work, but I decide that I needn’t explore them all. As soon as I find a sound that is enchanting enough—the “best” sound is often the most enchanting or captivating sound—I’ll stop casting the hook. This connects back to the idea that making music is a phenomenology of one’s own experience through sound: the point of composing is to try making music that generates a feeling we can’t encounter otherwise. Our interaction with the sounds has to generate what the art anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong called “an affective presence” with an infinitely renewable power to generate affect. I scroll around the sample, listening for a presence.

At every moment of working, the composer/producer as phenomenologist is assessing how the sounds in a track are making themselves felt. Whether there’s three sounds or twenty, whether the sounds are acoustic, synthetic, or somewhere in between, each has its unique presence. A sound can be mellow or strident, clinical or plaintive, distant or near, razor clear or obfuscated, and the repeated production task (that is perhaps so obvious as to be often unremarked upon) is to find the right sound for the context and the right context for the sound. I scroll through different sample locations but the sounds seem too energized, too bright. I pitch down the audio file by six semitones (after trying it twelve semitones lower, which sounded muddy). Now the samples relax and sound more mysterious. In fact, I no longer recognize the piece I had sampled from. Maybe in this lower register I’ll hear something that sounds right?

In these pieces composed using the step sequencer, sequencing itself is a constraint to work against, to spur workflows that I would not have otherwise tried. (I tend to work linearly.) Since the sequencer cycles around and repetition in both the percussion and sample parts is inevitable, I listen for that location at which the sample will benefit, rather than suffer from, repetition. How can I configure the sample so that it sounds interesting each time around? I play with settings: changing the attack so the sample fades in before sustaining and releasing, filtering it, and adding reverb so its tail hovers over the time cycle. The sample moment I’ve committed to is sounding better. Sometimes making small tweaks is enough to get a sample sounding inevitable and natural, like an enchanting presence.

I wrote a book about electronic music production. If this looks of interest to you or someone you know, I would appreciate you checking it out.

Resonant Thoughts: Hua Hsu’s “Stay True: A Memoir” (2022)

“Music no longer modeled a better world.”

“She was asking, what is history? Do you see yourself in it? Where did you find your models for being in the world? How did you learn about love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice? She was looking for turning points. Maybe a feeling, an attitude toward life, a fondness for certain timbres of laughter, the angle of your head as you listened—all the imperceptible qualities that were passed on through lineage. The shape and size of dreams.”

“’God Only Knows’ suggested the possibility of yearnings beyond love. I couldn’t locate these feelings in the song itself. Was it in the lyrics, these sad lines about drifting apart and rediscovering one’s purpose? Was it in that magical vibration of voices intermingling, the fact that Carl [Wilson] conjured sensations Brian [Wilson] could write but never channel for himself? Maybe it wasn’t in the song so much as in the repeated listenings, these memories stacking on top of one another.”