Caveat lector: this is a long’n, dear reader, as we begin to unpack the reality sandwich and lay the groundwork for our digital decalogue
That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives at worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited, that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul.Aldous Huxley, Heaven and Hell (1956)
There are some who say we’ve been screwed ever since Gutenburg invented the printing press. Others, like Socrates, go further and blame the written word itself. Some even go so far as to label Western Civilization itself Faustian, for its technological fascinations and its devil-may-care, “can do, must do” attitude. And although we have begun, relatively recently, to see the beginnings of a new mindset in things like the appropriate tech and organic gardening movements of the seventies, those are only the seeds of what comes after. For now, we’ve still got an apocalypse to get through.
As any disaster capitalist can tell you, every crisis is also an opportunity. This month, we’re looking at our increasingly irrelevant calendars and lamenting the Damien Geter African-American Requiem we recently didn’t get to go hear performed by Resonance Ensemble at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Beautiful Downtown Portland. We’re still smarting from March’s interrupted Caroline Shaw residency, and last month we were supposed to be at The North Warehouse for the premiere of Darrell Grant’s 3A-commissioned Sanctuaries.
Last weekend, we were supposed to be hanging out with 45th Parallel Universe and two of our favorite living composers: Andy Akiho and Gabriella Smith, whose work was on the bill for what would have been another wonderful Old Church concert. And just this past Monday we would have been back at TOC for Fear No Music’s “Haters Gonna Hate” concert, listening to Michael Roberts and Amelia Lukas play the big bad scary music of Morton Feldman and Edgard Varèse.
The good news is that we’ll still get to hear those concerts eventually, one way or another. Geter’s Requiem is already rescheduled for next January, Sanctuaries is on for next April, and we feel confident that, generally speaking, It’ll All Work Out Somehow. The other good news is the Mother of Invention’s recent children, one of whom we talked about last week. The musicians of the 45|| Portland Social Distancing Ensemble and their cyborg pal Kevin have been performing up a storm lately, from Terry Riley’s inherently interactive In C to last week’s Glass/Crumb stream to this Friday’s Schubachs concert to May 29th’s “cross-country flute-fest” featuring Martha Long (phoning it in from Portland) and Tim Hagen (phoning it in from Wisconsin).
The question now is: are we ever going back? We’re moving in two directions right now, with the drive towards greater digital connection and mediation offsetting the parallel drive towards physical distancing and isolation. These each have their flip-sides, with the hollow unrealities of online loneliness driving our craving for the warm realness of physical human community. How we navigate these streams will determine our future.
Consider Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir, early adopters of the 21st century internet’s internationalizing and equalizing powers. If we come round to January 2021 and the world has changed so completely that Geter’s Requiem (and all the rest) still can’t go forward as planned, then something like Whitacre’s model may have to suffice. At that point we might as well hand over the Schnitz to homeless rights advocates or real estate sharks and plug our minds into the latest Delos theme park, Classicalworld.
Meanwhile, in Meatspace Portland, Avery Waite and Kenji Bunch are having a grand time playing music with themselves using the brave new Acapella app. Sure, this sort of self-overdubbing has been all the rage ever since Jacob Collier, and it’s certainly not the first time we’ve heard musicians take duets with themselves (ahem, Terry Riley–and we can’t wait for the oscarbait Sherman Brothers biopic starring Oscar Isaac as Robert and Richard). What we’re saying is that this stuff is currently our primary means of experiencing our friends’ and neighbors’ music, listening to musicians we’re used to seeing on local stages, and staying in touch with composers we miss standing around the Old Church water cooler with while talking about politics and Pulitzer-winner Kevin Puts.
That’s part of what has us watching videos of local symphony musicians goofing around instead of, say, watching Leonard Bernstein videos for the rest of our lives. We’re holding virtual space for each other until it’s safe to gather in physical spaces again–or until they finally unveil a real Digital Heaven where we can safely gather forever after, amen.
What’s it all mean?
How do we balance this relentless flood of digitization? We can’t stop it, obviously, and we can’t really resist either. All we can do is ride the tiger and do our best to stay connected on a human level.
Area composer Bonnie Miksch–director of PSU’s School of Music + Theater when she’s not singing with software or composing for Pyxis Quartet–recently wrote something that touches on these matters. We asked Miksch if we could reprint it; with her blessing, here it is:
Music is something that we feel. At an elemental level it is vibration. If we are open to music we are listening to, we can feel it in our bodies and our hearts. It is an embodied experience.
Music is an ephemeral experience. It requires our presence in the moment. It is not really meant to be captured. It creates nothing lasting in the world. We can be grateful for the experience and at the same time accept that the experience is over. We cannot precisely say how it changes us. But we are grateful.
I compose music because I am a conjurer. Because I want to bring into being something I am hearing and feeling, and because I want to go deep, to discover what I am not yet hearing and feeling. As a composer I want to be open to the universe of sounds and in that field of possibility, to find some shiny thing, some resonance to explore.Bonnie Miksch, May 2020
The conclusion I’m reaching is that the secret is in the overlap. What do the best of physical reality and the best of digital reality have in common? The infinitude of sharing. Culture is created by networked individuals living and sharing their personal realities–and it has always been thus, since before we were even human. Music is one of the sweetest and oldest of shared human experiences, and its transcendence lends it a resilience that carries it through experiences mediated by campfire singalongs, oral traditions, odes and epics, folk songs and madrigals, recorded albums and archived shows, churches and concert halls, youtube selfies and livestreams, et cetera ad infinitum.
During this bizarre and stressful time, we’re not only listening to Bach, we’re listening to Bach together, and we’re talking about listening to Bach, and we’re playing Bach for ourselves, and for each other, and for the future. We’re doing it online right now, and we’ll keep doing that either until we ascend to the cloud or until the internet goes away altogether. In a thousand years when we’re all back in caves, we’ll still be singing this stuff to each other, elegant memories of a more civilized age.
Right about here is where you should bookmark this page, stand up and stretch, put on another pot of coffee, and go for a walk.
Forward the Foundation
All of this has the present author thinking, not for the first time, about doomed local band Menomena. For a hot minute, circa 2004-10, these guys hovered just on the edge of becoming Portland’s Radiohead–but then, perhaps inevitably, they slowly collapsed, leaving behind nothing but five excellent albums, a few tasty singles, a slew of quirky videos and youtube concert footage, various side projects and splinter bands, and the bittersweet memories of more hopeful days.
When Menomena released their darling first album I Am the Fun Blame Monster! in 2003, everyone couldn’t stop talking about the band’s fourth member: an in-house looping program called Deeler that enabled the trio to collectively remix their compositional improvisations in real time (sound familiar?) It could have been a mere gimmick, and there we would have left it, but these guys turned out to be pretty good songwriters.
So I bought the album, with its ridiculously endearing handmade 80-page animated flipbook, and followed them thereafter. Before too long the band’s cybernetic-collaborative compositional scaffolding process had them scaling up as songwriters and working musicians, touring relentlessly and doing ever more daring stuff like assembling a choir, providing live music for an especially memorable Monster Squad dance show at TBA 2004, and working with local graphic novel superstar Craig Thompson.
Seeing them perform at their peak was a miracle, a three-ring circus, a one-man band in triptych, juggling guitars and drums, keyboards and laptops, plus glockenspiel, bari sax, and one of those sweet Geddy Lee Moog Taurus foot pedal rigs. And all three sang backup, all the time, turning the ambitious trio into a surreal sextet. But by the end they were composing by email.
It was all a Pretty Big Deal in 2003, both the multi-player live remix technology and the creative heights to which it pushed its users. If it all seems pretty quaint now, that’s exactly my point. It’s easy to call bands like Menomena “ahead of their time,” because that’s a tautology–if they hadn’t been ahead of their time, well, we might still be listening to them but we certainly wouldn’t be talking about them. No, the deal here is that they are still just barely ahead of their time–a time which is now at an end.
Thanks to Whitacre, Acapella, Kevin, et alia, you don’t even need to be in the same room as your bandmates. What, you always wanted to get your high school band back together? But you never could, because everybody moved to different towns and got jobs and all the other formerly valid excuses? Guess what: none of that matters any more. Or you might think of it the other way around, and start asking yourself who you really want to make music with.
This has, of course, been increasingly the case ever since the advent of sufficiently advanced overdubbing and communication technologies. Frank Zappa did it relentlessly throughout his career, mashing up recordings from different times and places, slapping a bass track from 1979 over a drum solo from 1975, then slathering his guitar solos over the whole thing willy-nilly in 1981 before finally releasing the result (with, no doubt, some risque non sequitur title) in 1990. He called this cut-n-paste process “xenochrony,” meaning “strange times,” which seems especially appropriate.
Because the issue we face in 2020 is that for the last (pick a number) decades, this technologically-driven mediation and expansion of our creative and social realities has been growing ever more sophisticated in its rush to overtake our old, mere fleshly existence. The flesh–by which I mean the physical, live, embodied experience of music as a social phenomenon–has been nobly resilient all these years. It’s still the last place you can get a good sandwich (take out only, and stay back six feet). But the digital sandwiches are always getting more delicious, more nutritious, more appetizing–and as our musical diets continue to shift, we’re going to have some unusual decisions to make.
We’ll start talking about those decisions next week, when we commence our decalogue and investigate the first of Douglas Rushkoff’s Ten Commands for a Digital Age: Time (Do Not Be Always On). In the meantime, have a seat on the Portland Couch for a “local” music event you can enjoy now, later, whenever.
“There Are Many Copies, And They Have A Plan”
For some reason, every city has a few Ween tribute bands, like the fraternal orders you see listed on signs at the edge of small towns. Most successful bands end up with a tribute band or two, and plenty of popular acts have been known to use such bands as proving grounds for potential replacements (should any member of the Main Act pass away or prove otherwise unreliable). Sometimes bands turn into their own tribute act, as happened in 2008 when the original members of Phish formed a Phish tribute band and called it Phish.
It’s no secret that Gene and Dean Ween are the True Zappa Heirs, so it’s not really surprising that they’ve done a better job handling audience and legacy issues than Dweezil and Ahmet have (that hologram though). The Ween boys reportedly love their participatory fanbase, a gloriously nerdy lot who lavish the same devotion on the duo’s deep catalogue that “normal” music nerds like the present author reserve for Bach and Elfman.
This Thursday (tonight!), Portland’s resident Ween acolytes Poopship Destroyer bring their twisted take on Ween rarities to the next PDX Couch Tour show. This is another of Mother Necessity’s Inventions, a virtual venue with nightly concerts featuring local bands. Localization efforts like this are part of how we prevent the big bad internet from dissolving the idea of “local” altogether.
And so we’d like to let PDXCT have the last word this week (from their website):
Live music will not die, but it certainly must change, for how long we don’t know. Until things return to the way they were, we can retain a little bit of the old familiar music and community here. Watch it on your big screen. Turn up the volume. We’ve taken local live streaming to the next level. Tune in nightly to the Portland music scene from the comfort of your living room couch.PDX Couch Tour, March 2020
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