Thought For The Day

Thought For The Day
The Electroacoustics of Humanism

Glaucon: Socrates, old satyr, great sage, how's it going? I haven't seen you since Los Angeles. Been out corrupting youth, have you?

Socrates: Glaucon, greetings! As a matter of fact I've been in London, Paris and Edinburgh for a month. I flew from the Land Of The Free to the land of free medicine and had cyclo-diode laser surgery to reduce the pressure in my bad eye.

Glaucon: Was the operation a success?

Socrates: Yes, it was. The pressure reading fell from 50 millimetres of mercury to a healthy 17. I don't like Britain much, but I (heart!) the National Health Service.

Glaucon: Give any Spartan youths the eye in London, did you?

Socrates: No, but I met Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, who had a very nice young man with him, a sort of male version of my ex-wife Shazna.

Glaucon: Aren't you making a record with her soon?

Socrates: Yes, we're making the Milky record at long last.

Glaucon: What's the style this time?

Socrates: Well, I'll give you a clue. I'm sitting in the ward waiting for my eye op, and this lady from hospital radio comes up and introduces herself. 'What are you writing?' she goes. 'Oh, just an article.' 'An article?' 'Yes, for a Japanese magazine. It's a piece called 'The Electroacoustics of Humanism'. That knocks her patter out of joint a bit, but she pulls herself together and asks if I'd like to request a piece of music on the hospital evening radio show. 'Oh, you probably wouldn't have what I want to hear,' I smile. 'Try us, you'd be surprised!' 'Okay. I'd like to hear 'Telemusik' by Stockhausen. If you have that I'll eat my... hospital food!'

Glaucon: You've not gone all musique concrete on us, have you?

Socrates: Yes and no. I'd say chanson concrete is a more likely direction. I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago and came back with three really different records: two compilations of classic chanson by Georges Brassens and Georges Moustaki, and this excellent CD-ROM called La Musique Electroacoustique published by the INA with a beautifully-implemented history of musique concrete complete with clips and a fully-functioning sound studio.

Glaucon: Well, there's no reason on earth why a man can't mix a bit of cabaret with his concrete. You've got to break eggs to make an omelette.

Socrates: But you know me, Glaucon, I have an inquiring mind. I can't let contradictions lie. I have to ask myself 'How can I reconcile these apparently contradictory tastes? Is there a five cent synthesis I can make here?'

Glaucon: Ah yes, the five cent synthesis, philosophical parallel of that elusive panacea, the five cent cigar. That's what Saul Bellow's Herzog thinks America needs, isn't it?

Socrates: That's right. My synthesis is probably a lot simpler than his. On the one hand I've got abstract formalist experimentation made in radio station labs under the aegis of the avant garde. On the other, dry, intimate populist songs with a light, southern, bossa feel and lyrics with simple humanist themes.

Glaucon: Can't say I've really heard much of that humanist variete stuff myself. What's it like?

Socrates: It's like a political speech: moral, full of high-flown principles watered down from the renaissance, the enlightenment, the french revolution and the communist manifesto. Brassens looks like a Gaul in Asterix. Moustaki is Santa Claus crossed with Karl Marx. 'Thank you, you were the one who gave me a piece of bread when I was hungry,' Brassens grunts compassionately. 'My freedom, for you I have made many sacrifices', intones Moustaki unctuously, to huge applause at the Bobino arena, 1970. Brassens got famous in the 50s with a song in which justice is restored to the world when a gorilla escapes from the zoo and anally rapes a hanging judge.

Glaucon: Doesn't sound all that watered down to me... So what drew you to these guitar scratchers, and why now?

Socrates: In the postmodernist hall of mirrors which is modern Britain, where every TV show seems to be called Popsludge or Popslurry and involve model agency drones with dance routines and radio mike headsets, where a gormless sort of semi-embarrassed, compulsory irony is the new sincerity, and where Madonna's face will shortly appear on banknotes, the adult social critique practised by ancient Frenchmen with walrus moustaches is a wonderful corrective. It's just what the doctor ordered.

Glaucon: Well, I must say I have a soft spot for pop. Like Dido out of Dido and Aenaeus, or that foxy little Clytemnestra Minogue. She's hot!

Socrates: Actually it was a hot chick from Nice who originally turned me onto these old men. I first heard Brassens in London in 1983. I was staying with my euro-communist student friends, Babis and Catherine, in a student apartment in Mecklenberg Square. Catherine, a lithe honey-limbed french girl, snapped one of her Brassens tapes into the cassette deck. Although there was just the sound of this man, a guitar and bass, I didn't concentrate on what was being said at all. I remember instead being impressed by the exotic and alien electroacoustics. At a time when pop music was all reverb and Fairlights, brass stabs and flanged rototoms, here was this production that mixed a warm, untreated human voice way up front. Pierre Nicolas' bass agonised sweetly in the low frequencies while Brassens' guitar, close-miked, dry as a bone, sketched the chords in a witty, friendly, latin sort of way. You knew the french lyrics were witty and irreverent, even if you didn't translate them. This, then, was the sound of humanism. It shone like an exit sign in the palace of mirrors.

Glaucon: 'An exit sign in the palace of mirrors,' I like that. Can I use it somewhere?

Socrates: Be my guest.

Glaucon: Thanks. But how does all this fit in with your recent ruminations?

Socrates: Well, you know, Glaucon, being a bit of a philosopher I found myself, lying there in hospital, making connections between the Studio Voice essay I was writing and a couple of others I've published recently.

In my Cute Formalism essay, I asked myself whether spending time in Japan would teach me 'the great hieratic secrets of form', and, if it did, whether I would find in formalism all the comforts I've come to enjoy in narrative: plot, reference, line, satire, parody, pastiche, illustration, worldliness, comedy... I wanted to know, in other words, whether I could throw away language -- usually the vehicle of these comforts -- only to find exact corollaries for each of them in the world of form, colour, sound, shape. I was like someone who wants to move house without leaving anything behind. But maybe only snails can do that, like the green watercolour snail on the cover of my favourite record of 2001, 'Solo Soli iiii' by Scratch Pet Land.

Glaucon: Yes, I've been enjoying that, thanks for the mp3s! Jaw harps, Gameboys and African finger pianos, all cut up laptop stylee. The brothers Baudoux manage to continue -- without words -- the famous Belgian spirit of zwanze, the impish surreal zany humour you can hear in Brel.

Socrates: Yes, sensibilities can do that. Zwanze can cross from chanson to laptop glitch, and you still recognise it. Isn't that great?

Glaucon: It is kind of cool, Socrates. It suggests that formalism can do with experimental electronic textures pretty much everything that humanism did with literary lyrics and musical pastiche. They can take listeners to the same place in the end.

Socrates: That's why I call it Cute Formalism. It's not macho, abstract or meaningless any more. It has a human scale. It's reassuring, like the work of Martin Creed, who just won the Turner Prize for cutely formalist work involving Blu-Tac, neon signs, and turning the room lights on and off. It's a collision of the avant garde and people's everyday reality. A new, friendly, domestic sort of avant gardism. It's the avant garde moving back through the train with a trolley of tea and sandwiches.

Glaucon: I don't know if I'd want to eat a sandwich made by Marcel Broodhaers, Yayoi Kusama or -- especially -- Piero Manzoni.

Socrates: Hey, you know my kid brother Mark? The narrative theory expert? Well, can you believe it, he gave his inaugural lecture as head of English at APU, Cambridge this month. I went there to check it out. My heart swelled with pride, but I also felt odd, because for me he'll always be the slacker teen who needs a firm guiding hand to steer him from the Quo and Frampton to Wire and the Talking Heads. But now when we meet up I'm like a man with a back complaint having dinner with a doctor. I keep wanting to talk about irony and narrative, or find out who the hot new thinkers are. But Mark hates talking shop. He wants to discuss girlfriends, the family, his friends.

Glaucon: Sounds reasonable to me. Only schmucks walk about having philosophical dialogues all the time. Give me a break!

Socrates: Break time is at four, you get ten minutes. And, although you didn't ask, my brother says the hot new thinker is a guy called Slajov Zizek.

Glaucon: Your brother's paid to talk about that shit in the groves of academe, why should he give it away to you for free?

Socrates: Because he's my brother, meathead! To make me happy, okay? But he's frustratingly slow to answer my e mail. I guess it's because I send him lists of unanswerable questions.

Glaucon: Like?

Socrates: Like:

1. Is there a politics of texture, timbre and colour?
2. Is there a proxy for narrative in formalism?
3. Might there be an electroacoustics of humanism?

Glaucon: Holy shit, not even that idiot Silenus would be dumb enough to be lured by those questions. Not unless they were asked by a tasty boy in boxer shorts, anyway. Most academics I know would say, first of all, 'What do you mean by humanism?' Then they'd say, 'You've got your ideas structured around some neat binary oppositions: humanism / formalism, politics / texture. You've set them up as incommensurable, then you've set about trying to find ways they might be reconciled after all. You realise of course that linguistic oppositions like this are arbitrary and mutually-defining? If people use them, they have sociological interest. If you change the rules, the oppositions lose their accepted meanings, unless you can convince people to adopt your new meanings. That's unlikely, so you're probably just playing a game, giving words your own personal definitions. You can change meanings for your own autistic pleasure, but it doesn't change anything in the real world.'

Socrates: But for me, you see, those three questions weren't academic at all. They come out of my daily practice as a maker of songs.

Glaucon: I thought you were a philosopher, Socrates?

Socrates: Same thing.

Glaucon: So finding answers to these questions would change your life, inasmuch as they changed your artistic practice?

Socrates: Just so. They also arise from quite mundane observations of things in the real world. They're not about language. Question one, about the politics of colour, occurred to me sitting in a subway train in Tokyo. We'd just left Daikanyama station. I noticed that the carriages were finished in moulded green plastic. Then I glimpsed something made of pink moulded plastic flashing by on the track outside. That was my 'photographer's eye' noticing those things. The moment was gone before I could reach my digital camera, but my satisfaction at the bold colours was, I noticed, all tied up with a hatred of the textural conservatism of 1980s British subway trains with their mottled blue upholstery. Public transport in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Tokyo uses these bright, clean, optimistic colour schemes which have to be linked somehow with politics. There must be a politics of colour and texture! London's shabby seat covers are like that because Britain's public transport system has been underfunded for decades. Public transport is a guage of a nation's, or a government's, concern for civic man. It's a barometer of a society's humanism, community-mindedness, attitudes to technology, liberalism.

Glaucon: I can't stand London these days. Traffic jams, pollution, road rage, signal failure, delays, crashes, hours of your life wasted, and your only consolation is getting on your cellphone to moan about it to a friend.

Socrates: Poor civic conditions like these are no doubt related to the British lack of a constitution, the lack of a bourgeois revolution in its past, and its lack of clearly defined, positive views of citizenship and human nature. People's experiences on road and rail in Britain degrade their faith in humanity and lock them into a vicious spiral of devalorisation. How can a man with traffic jam emotions and a gridlock view of human nature have anything but brutalised tastes? What kind of music is he listening to?

Glaucon: Probably not humanist frenchmen with walrus moustaches, that's for sure. And probably not Stockhausen either. Probably two step garage, with those big bass bins that make your house quake as he passes.

Socrates: So you see Glaucon there may well be politics hidden in texture and colour. There might be narrative (politics, opinions, arguments, investment decisions) becoming visible in something as 'pure' as colour. And conversely there might be formalism in politics: the three part list of the politician's speech; the descending intonation of incontrovertible certainty that rounds off each fudged answer.

Glaucon: That seems pretty uncontroversial, Socrates. There is a politics of texture, I can buy that. And colour too, like it says in that book we were discussing recently, 'Chromophobia' by David Batchelor. He said western culture has found colour suspicious ever since Plato.

Socrates: Plato? That uppity pupil of mine? Bit of a puritan, I'm afraid.

Glaucon: Let's cut to the chase, Socrates, my tea is brewing. Did you find the five cent cigar, the five cent synthesis of your ideas about form and content?

Socrates: I found a few. The first was a bit lame. 'Man must realise,' I wrote in Studio Voice magazine, 'that he is a structure too. Perhaps, if this is true, there really can be an 'electroacoustics of humanism'.'

Glaucon: That one straddles C.P. Snow's 'two cultures' of art and science rather precariously.

Socrates: Then I found a rather pleasing quote from Cardinal Newman: 'Representations of any kind are in their own nature pleasurable, whether they are true or not.' I like that last bit -- 'whether they are true or not'. Representation is supposed to 'get things right', but its real strength lies in getting things wrong, in telling us lies about the world. This is what saves representation -- and I suppose here I'm talking about language -- from the formalist trash can: the fact that narratives might be tendentious, factitious, deliberately misleading. They might exist to lure our too-rational minds towards the delights of pure texture -- what Frank Stella meant when he said he wanted his paintings to look 'as good as the paint does in the can'. Narrative might just be a lure, a crutch like the piano Stockhausen added to 'Kontakte' to help hesitant listeners into the frightening realm of pure electronics.

Glaucon: Like all those faux police thrillers dear to the the 1960s french new wave -- Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Godard, Renais. Lynch is still doing it to this day in his films. Or like what Ford Wright said in his interview on 'Fakeways: Manhattan Folk' : 'I use just enough plot in a song to lure the listener in, to make you think there's a story here, engage that part of the brain, before I hit you with some crazy meaningless shit just for the hell of it.'

Socrates: Exactly. But you know I found a much more satisfying synthesis than that. Browsing in the Hoxton Book Depository I came across a biography of Marshall McLuhan. All I knew previously about McLuhan was that old cliche about the medium being the message. And what did that mean, anyway?

Glaucon: Well, I know that. According to McLuhan, the context around a new medium or invention (television, cars) is invisible because it's so all-encompassing; it 'saturates the whole field of attention'. We tend to focus on the car yet forget -- because it's so obvious -- that it has changed the whole landscape, all our living systems, our landscapes, our politics. We look at television but not at the empty street at night, its direct product, or the closed music hall, or the creation of virtual communities, or the synthetic creation of culture, unified or diversified. We only see these things when TV or cars are removed. McLuhan thought only artists could see them while they were there, defining the context of everything. Compared to these big systemic 'messages', the little messages contained in individual TV shows are insignificant. When McLuhan said 'the medium is the message' he meant that context trumps everything.

Socrates: Maybe McLuhan was right about artists being the only ones who really see the importance of context in communication. I came across a website about a Japanese laptop artist called Oblaat, a New York-based sound curator called Keiko Uenishi. Even the name Oblaat contains a reference to McLuhan's insight: in Japanese 'oblaat' means the colourless, tasteless, self-dissolving gel which surrounds pill capsules. You can't taste it, but it gives definition to the shape of the pill, helps you swallow it. It's a perfect symbol of making defining, invisible contexts visible.

In her interview, Keiko talks about the influence of DJ Olive: 'He and his friends make really unbelievable events. They make a huge space in a completely different way, so people coming in are shocked. They've explained that when they were in art college and saw a bunch of museums and galleries that were so powerful, the shape or container was really powerful and was overwhelming the piece itself being presented inside. You are always aware you're in a museum and you're supposed to be 'getting something out of it'. They were so tired of placing something inside of the heavy-duty container, so he and his friends decided they wanted to make a container, rather than make a piece inside...'

Glaucon: I didn't know you dug DJ Olive, Socrates!

Socrates: I don't, this is Keiko talking. But isn't that a brilliant gestalt shift? Olive's people decided to make a container, rather than the things inside the container. If messages are 'speaking' nothing but their context, why work on anything other than context itself, which is, finally, the world? The way you change a personal artwork is by making small adjustments in its constituent ingredients -- colour, shape, sound, form. That makes you a formalist. The way you change context -- the world -- is by politics. That makes you a humanist. But you can be a humanist-formalist, and change the world with texture, like an artist, or a formalist-humanist, and change art with politics, like a curator, by working on context... which is the world.

Glaucon: That's a bit confusing, but I think I grasp what you're getting at. But it sounds expensive, working on the whole world. Maybe it's the kind of thing best left to a philosopher king. Didn't you say once that artists were dangerous, and should be escorted out of the Republic?

Socrates: No, that was Plato. He's always putting words into my mouth.

Glaucon: Was it you or Plato who called artists 'mere grinders of multi-coloured drugs'?

Socrates: That was Plato, anticipating psychedelia by a couple of thousand years. But he didn't anticipate McLuhan, or Oblaat, the tasteless, self-dissolving gel of the capsule shell, which is like context: the thing that makes it possible to swallow the drug, all the better to release it into your bloodstream.

Glaucon: Right, speaking of drugs, it's time for my tea break! Later, Socrates!

Thoughts Index