Joanna Newsom – Good Intentions Paving Company
In an article on This Recording nominating fifty songs as the best so far of 2010, Danish Aziz and Britney Heredia described recent music, in going through the fundamental creative process of taking elements from older work and combining them to produce something new, as developing by heterosis, a term used in genetics to mean selective breeding that produces a genetically superior offspring. Their assessment of the direction in which music is heading seems to revolve around the idea that surges in the amount of music being produced have not only necessarily expanded the variety of music available to us, but also that new music works very deliberately to break down boundaries of genre, to the point that “we say more now by what we don’t listen to than what we do.” All of this is based in optimism, indicated by the very definition of the word “heterosis”, which implies the superiority of the most recent generation to all of the preceding.
I chose a song for this post that I not only like a lot, but which I think is a pretty prime example of what the writers for This Recording meant by musical heterosis. Joanna Newsom is a harpist, pianist, and singer-songwriter whose work is described in Wire Magazine as having a certain sort of creative opulence, a freedom recalling that of literature of the post-romantic era, stemming from a liberty she allows herself in composing songs “from the ground up, with the knowledge that they were going to be long.” She continues, “The pacing of the ideas, the rate at which the ideas develop and unfold, it was all going to be different, because the songs were going to be long, from the first line I wrote.” Newsom also makes use of polyrhythm, common to sub-Saharan African music, certain classical music, and jazz, in her compositions.
I’ve put together a little playlist of music I think shows the way in which this particular song is a hybrid, if not a heterosis, of other types of music. Her lyrical vocal range and relaxed piano chords echo Joni Mitchell, while the nasal quaver of her voice is somewhere between Neil Young, Donovan’s chilling shiver and forward drive in the hit “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, and classic American bluegrass and country groups like the Carter Family. The rhythm has the same energetic complexity and propulsion, augmented by the almost percussive quality of her vibrato, as Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Judy Blue Eyes” or Love’s “Alone Again Or”. Other influences to listen for are Joan Baez and Dolly Parton.
The word “heterosis” has me thinking about the ways in which we define music today, and specifically about modern music journalism. It seems like quite a bold statement to claim that today’s music is actually a finer product than its parents, or at the very least a remarkably sanguine one. This suggestion is the only spot in This Recording’s article where any qualitative judgment is made: the authors are careful to make only simple observations – in noting that genres seem to be melding, for example – and their partiality to modern music is only revealed in the strict scientific definition of the word “heterosis”. This begs one to inquire: what about modern music is superior? I would divide this question into two parts, based on two things I think are suggested in the This Recording piece. First, is the melding of genres necessarily a positive thing, and asked another way, what is as a matter of course desirable about the breakdown of definitions that we ourselves put in place?
It is without question through the crossing of genre boundaries that we have chanced upon new ones (though not until aleatoric music was the process of “composition” as willing as genetics to happen upon creation). There are any number of obvious musical examples to support this point. In fact, what is invention at all if not the linking of several disconnected, but preexisting, elements to produce something new? (From the Latin invenire – to discover, we see that to invent is in fact to find; to simply happen upon and work with something already occurring in the world.) This process of course requires vision – an ability to see something in front of one in an unfamiliar context, and to imagine its potential to work differently for a desired effect. Any invention, composition, piece of writing, or work of art can arguably be broken down into smaller components that, in coming together, became newly useful or meaningful. As an additional point that really ought to be expanded upon, it seems clear as well that if creation is defined by this crossing of boundaries, it is defined in a word by transgression, and is on that level appealing to us for the reasons that transgression always is: it is a juxtaposition, a highlighting by contrast, a violation, a defiling of the sacred in the name of origination. A transgression is thrilling because it is fruitful destruction.
So, in asking ourselves why a melding of genres would necessarily be appealing – i.e., why someone might be inspired to praise (however subtly) today’s music for pulling this off so well – we could argue that, as the breakdown of boundaries proves inherent to the necessary union of elements that defines the creative process, such transgressions are attractive because they are the essence of creativity. It seems curious, therefore, that this process, though certainly commendable, would be grounds for a qualitative comparison between new and old music. To describe new music as remarkable solely on the basis of its ability to cross boundaries of genre is at least to misunderstand, if not to skew, the nature of art and its makers.
I would argue that this is the danger of the short, almost flippant articles that one often finds online today. To cite This Recording once again, this time in an insightful review of the century’s most important magazines, “Before it turned into a generic music magazine, the idea that you could write something, print something in a magazine you wrote with all the run-on sentences and ridiculous unprovable generalizations and slang words and anything else you wanted to, was not a brand new concept when Crawdaddy! perfected it, but it might as well have been.” In a world where opinion is no longer framed within the borders of a column, it seems more rare to find pieces of writing that take true responsibility for the statements they make. It is an effort to remind oneself to dissect pieces of journalism in which the weight of opinion within one single word is more massive than the contemplative bulk of the entire article.
Every day at work I sift through the Google Alerts for Soundwalk’s Gmail account, and occasionally come across something I love. I always like getting alerts from Fluid Radio because the work they feature is usually stunningly beautiful and thought-provoking. Today I found this audio sample from Yann Novak‘s composition Nightfall, which “was created at the Jentel Artist Residency outside Banner, WY in February 2010. Based upon a simple field recording of the start of a snowfall at dusk… the composition explores the shifting point between day and night in the dry and overcast winter month.” (In connection with a piece I once wrote on different ways of telling time, this composition strikes me as being one that defines timelessness, in the sense that timelessness is equally stillness and relentless movement.) “The original recording begins with the dry, empty silence of the landscape, slowly enveloped by the piling of snow upon the microphone’s windscreen.
Each copy of Nightfall is accompanied by a unique watercolor based on the cover photograph of the landscape taken at dusk through the studio window.”
I haven’t purchased the full recording yet, as it’s $40, but the clip available on Fluid Radio is a good taste of it. In discussing sound editing with the guys I work with, I’ve been told that part of the process is manipulating the recordings, usually just hours and hours of static and hertzian frequencies, into something accessible with a narrative. Though I know there is more to Nightfall than just the few minutes on Fluid Radio, even the dark grey wash of sound one hears in the clip seems narrative to me. Perhaps something about its constancy and propulsion, about the feeling of being enveloped, is the key to this. Its lush monotone excludes both everything and nothing – it surrounds like a blanket and like a dark forest, both comfortingly and eerily. The feeling it gives is perhaps that of a freezing person falling asleep in the snow: of simultaneous risk and consolation, and most of all, of timelessness.
Love – Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale
If you know anything about me you won’t be surprised to learn that one of my favorite books of all time is The Phantom Tollbooth. I love puns and wordplay, dogs, odd modes of transportation concealed within large boxes in one’s living room, doing things you might get in trouble for during the period after school before your parents get home, etc. One scene that has always stood out in my memory is the one in the word market where Milo and Tock paw through piles of words, long and short, rare and common, blustery and modest. Because the words are represented as actual objects with weight and value, the scene highlighted for me the sensuality of language: the heavy and light words, the ones that sparkle with the regality of rare usage, the tireless blue-collar “ifs”, “ands”, and “buts” (laboring long hours and worked overtime behind semicolons, bearing the weight of a too-heavy second clause and probably not even paid time-and-a-half)…. This feeling that words have real body to them has never left me and today I notice it in the way that I am almost physically moved by the dually clean and sumptuous effect of a word that exposes the true meaning of a thing; a word that mercilessly and motheringly cuts to the center of an idea or a feeling and envelops its fluttering heart in swaths of muscular accuracy.
My father described this as the “inevitable ache of precision.” I notice an ambiguity in this statement: is the ache the result of the search for accuracy and the painful desire for truth, or of the feeling one gets when one has shed a light on something that for a long time lay peacefully in darkness; the sense of guilt in destroying something beautiful? It seems to me that at the heart of this ambiguity lies something deeply curious and elegant about mankind: the contradiction of our constant search for the perfect and our abhorrence of the final – one and the same, even linguistically speaking.
In the book I am reading right now, Arthur O. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being, I just ran across a section in the chapter “Genesis of the Idea” about two historical modes of human thinking. The first of these stresses the impossibility of finding anything true or real in man’s natural life and thus fits into a category Lovejoy titles “otherworldiness”. The other of these modes, which he calls “this-worldliness”, stems from a declaration of the value of worldly life (of the “sufficient worth of the general conditions of existence”) inherent to an “antipathy to satisfaction and finality” common to the Romantic period and identifying “the chief value of existence with process and struggle in time.” Our aversion to conclusion, to the departure of things we love and cling to, is as deeply seated as our longing for truth and perfection, as our search for something purer and distant from ourselves. I think this paradox is stunning because of the way that it reveals the pulling of our souls in two different directions. Nothing is more touching than the way in which humans have tried to at once nest in this world we inhabit, to find beauty in it, to love it for its pains and its losses and its moments of fulfillment, while at the same time feeling our eyes constantly pulled to a distant horizon; to something our hearts press hard against our cage of ribs to be closer to but at the same time fear because of the oneness of perfection and death. In literature we witness authors looking out along this course and following it as far as they dare: in Moby Dick, Ahab pursues his goal of punishing the White Whale, of bringing justice and thus drawing a complete and perfect circle, ending necessarily in death, but Melville spares us from the weight of excruciating perfection by allowing the whale to escape, thus leaving the scales unbalanced and us with a sense of the “sufficient worth of the general conditions of existence” that we are subject to as a race. In Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, the Ramsay children’s unsatisfied desire to go to the lighthouse represents the mercy of the imperfect: of a life not yet complete, of a hopeful dissatisfaction and the gift of a time-bound vigorousness present only in mortal souls and bodies. Their longing for something out of their reach attests to the Romantic sensibility of “the chief value of existence with process and struggle in time” and in this way the lighthouse acts not as the sacred and unattainable goal but instead as the mercy that gives worth to human experience.
In seeking to do anything perfectly, or more accurately, or more deeply – in trying to find “some final, fixed, immutable, intrinsic, perfectly satisfying good” – we are inflicting upon ourselves a pain that as members of mankind is unavoidable: the pain of seeking to close the divide between the human and the divine, between the imperfect and the perfect, in a way that would in itself destroy the essential value at the heart of our humanity: process and struggle in that most mortal of things, time.
Upper: Full grain brown waxhide leather.
Lining: Heavy, 100% cotton duck with leather facings at eyestays, back, and top.
Outsole: Oil-resistant Neoprene with with interior-tempered steel shank from heel to ball for maximum support.
More menswear love. Yesterday I went shopping for my boo and had the best of times in a little store called French Trotters on Rue Vieille du Temple, which carries among other brands Acne, Rocky Mountain Featherbed, and Our Legacy. While I was there I ran across not only the spectacular limited-edition Quoddy boots they carried last season, made specially for the brand by request of the manager of the Parisian French Trotters boutique, but also the above Indy Boots by American shoemaker Alden.
The company is based in New England, something I think the French find sort of mythical and charming, and this boot, the 405, was named the Indy after Harrison Ford wore them in the Indiana Jones movies. Whether or not that’s particularly appealing they’re stunning, with that lovely heaviness boots have when you hold them in the palm of your hand and try to hold balance with them as they seem to shift their weight back and forth from heel to ball. I think they’d look great with most things from this collection and almost anything at all on Nerd Boyfriend, my other obsession.
New mix. Inspired by several nights I’ve lain awake thinking of things I’m excited for, how hot it is, how loud mosquitos are, and about leaving yet another place I’ve spent time in and grown to love, for another that I love equally.
1. Millie Jackson – Hurts So Good
2. Matt Shadatek – Funny Cats
3. Male Bonding – Can’t Dream
4. Patsy Cline – Lovesick Blues
5. Wavves – Post Acid
6. Sean Kingston ft. Nicki Minaj – Letting Go (Dutty Love)
7. Los Rakas – Abrazame (Uproot Andy Mix)
8. Keepaway – Yellow Wings
9. Beach Fossils – Vacation
10. Active Child – She Was A Vision
11. SALEM – OhK
12. Foals – Spanish Sahara (Deadboy Remix)
I’m doing a sort of massive overhaul of my clothing lately (today), trying to get rid of the piles of things I bought when I was younger that I liked for their quirks and replace them with soft, good quality, cozy things in a smaller color range that all go with each other. (Also: can’t afford/don’t have physical strength to get all my crap home.) You might think this sounds like a mind-numbingly boring wardrobe, but it’s how the French live and also how they look so effortlessly put together all the time. They pile on layers of clothing – scarves, blazers with rolled sleeves, boyfriend sweaters (probably belonging to their Actual boyfriends, since it’s so unfashionable to be single here) – in agreeably similar gradients, all falling in soft layers or nicely juxtaposed against the occasional angled shoulder or heel.
So yesterday I picked up a pair of supersoft suede shoes in a good neutral heather green color with little string laces, and then looked up the brand online. Turns out it’s kind of a cult thing: according to Cool Hunting, “Originally designed for performers in Italy’s piazzas, the family-run label Anniel Sport has been producing extremely pliant ballet and gymnastics shoes in streamlined silhouettes since 1976. The rubber-soled shoes gained popularity in Japan, setting off the idea of using them as streetwear and spawning even more styles and colors. Today, the collection consists of shoes and handbags in saturated jewel tones and buttery-soft Italian leather.”
So basically, I love them, and will wear them all the time, when I’m not wearing the suede version of these. Love any shoes that seem like the kind Philippe Petit might design if he made a line for young bright-eyed tightrope-walker-hopefuls.
So even though I know I’ll make a beeline for the store as soon as I pull my hundreds of bags off the luggage thing at the airport in NYC, I’m going to go ahead and say now while I’m safely in Paris that I think Opening Ceremony tries too hard. Describing itself as “a multifaceted environment comprised of retail spaces, showroom, and gallery that establishes a new international creative forum in downtown Manhattan,” it kind of makes me want to pull a rug out from under a platform-Mary-Jane-sporting Chloe Sevigny and roll her up in it, even if it did tie the room together. Getting Sofia Coppola to direct a short film, starring Jason Schwartzman and Kirsten Dunst decked out in your clothing and imitating Nouvelle Vague movies seems a little trop – like someone wrote down a list of Hip Things in his Moleskine and is checking them off with one of those clothes-slide-off-the-naked-woman-while-you-write pens. (Worse, I think the Opening Ceremony short may have inspired the uber-annoying version done by Steven Alan to promote their summer collection. So many rolling eyes.)
Furthermore, as much as I buy into it late at night sitting in my room on the internet, I also think it’s kind of bullshit for stores to have blogs. Case in point Brooklyn Industries, which is lame anyway, but which gets lamer when they suggest that we all read their blog and find out about Gwen, the manager of their Williamsburg store, whose inspirations are apparently Neil Young, Hunter S. Thompson and Ken Kesey, and who is currently drinking acai juice. Opening Ceremony’s blog is like a big ad disguised as street fashion and art news. It’s like the fashion marketing equivalent of the Ovaltine scene in A Christmas Story. I think the whole thing is at once gaudy and condescending – let’s just understand each other, you put clothes on the racks, I’ll spend money I shouldn’t on them, and we’ll both go home happy. Please, people at OC and other stores for the Young and Hip, don’t feel a pressure to occupy every stratum of my life. When I want a blog on art and fashion I’ll go here or here. When I want to see a movie I’ll just go here, it’s fine. When I want to look at impossibly goodlooking people wearing terrific clothes and probably being photographed just outside my window, I’ll go here or here. For music, these people are holding it down.
And just to prove how over it I am, I’ll still tell anyone that will listen about that time I met Chloe Sevigny in the bathroom at Film Forum.