Thursday, June 7, 2018

Pierre Schaeffer

Each fall, I teach a freshman seminar at The College of New Jersey titled, "Music and the Natural World." TCNJ's freshman seminars are each a semester long, and designed to expose students to interesting research and scholarly pursuits across disciplines. Topics range widely and include lots of topics that might spark the interest of recent high school grads, while giving them an entry to scholarship.

The course is a gas and I'm looking forward this fall. We read essays and articles in philosophy, musicology, physics and biology, ancient history … And we listen to a wide range of music, most of it outside the Western classical canon.

One figure we talk about each semester is Pierre Schaeffer and his work in musique concrète. So I was delighted to find this online article posted on the Vinyl Factory site that has an annotated listening guide, with complete works, as well as a good overview of his early career. The line between Schaeffer's work and sampling and hip-hop seems plain and straight to me, but my students have a harder time seeing it. Having this explanation in hand may help.

Plus there's a lot of stuff here I hadn't heard before. Spending part of my afternoon listening to the creepy and beautiful 1953 opera Orphée 53.

A separate work by Schaeffer colleague Pierre Henry, written the same year and on the same subject, Le Voile de Orphée II, features the first recorded use of the phonogene, shown above. A precursor of the simpler Mellotron, it featured multiple tape heads and a one-octave keyboard controller that could create a wide range of effects using prerecorded tape. The phonogene is mentioned in the Vinyl Factory article as one of the technological innovations created by Schaeffer and Henry in their time at the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète.


Saturday, January 20, 2018

Coming to terms with ‘Blackstar’

Blackstar (2016) was David Bowie’s last album, released just two days before he died after years of struggling with heart attacks and a cancer diagnosis. For a long time, listening to it was simply too painful. I would listen, but I wouldn’t hear, exactly – I couldn’t turn on my usual listening skills.

A friend told me once how weeks after a serious car crash, he went to the lot where his now totaled car was. Turned the key and the battery still activated – the cassette that had been playing when he crashed was still on, the same spot, and the whole, horrifying memory of accident came back to him with the sound of the music.

My experience with Blackstar was like that. Overwhelming. Too real.

Two years on, and I am listening again, attentively – and I get it. What was confusing to me then through that veil of grief is clear now.

Of course, the album is almost exclusively about the experience of mortality, taking the mature recognition of death and personal suffering that we heard in The Next Day (2013) a step further. Where it gets thorny is in the depth of that personal experience and the pastiche of symbols that he uses. Not content to just say “it hurts to leave,” Bowie carves this incredibly rigorous and painful illustration of solipsistic isolation around the final, terminal, individual human experience and the way we recognize it in others through the invention of rituals. It's me that suffers in the only way I can, it seems to say, just like everybody else

The song “Blackstar” that leads off the album and its accompanying video show us the entire argument. As the “blackstar,” the dying artist is recognized, but unknowable, a blip against the background of dark-space existence. The image was used by one of Bowie's heroes, Elvis Presley, in the exact same way, as a reference to the individual experience of death.

After a vignette of a death ritual in the opening verse (“In the villa of Ormen / stands a solitary candle”), a few lines tie the personal to the universal, merely by emphasizing that he is simply one in an endless chain – “something happened on the day he died / his spirit rose a meter then stepped aside / another took his place and bravely cried, ‘I’m the Blackstar’.”

In the central section of the 10-minute song’s three-part structure, he is the voice of a trickster God who tells us that his purpose is unfathomable, “I can’t answer why / Just go with me / I’m-a take you home / Take your passport and shoes / your sedatives too / you’re a flash in the pan /  I’m the great I am!”

In the video, he is also a prophet for this isolationist religion, standing alone holding up the bible with a black star on the cover, symbolizing his own isolated experience; or standing at the doorway to a passage where dancers shake in rituals of individual suffering and death – involved in their own experiences. The jewel-encrusted skull that becomes the centerpiece of a new ritual shows how the deaths of other travelers are miracles that speak to us across the gulf that isolates us from one another.  (The space suit by the way it is a reference to son Duncan Bowie’s film, “Moon” – such a dad move). The choreography borrows from butoh, the Japanese post-war style of modern dance that trades in suffering, fragility, infirmity.

The song’s free jazz allusions back this up: free jazz is a kind of ultimate individual expression, yet performed together to make a whole sound both predictable and unpredictable, knowable and unknowable. It is the solipsistic experience recognized through ritual as a collective phenomenon. The A-B-a structure itself represents transformation, with the final third (a) a repetition of the opening (A), but inflected by elements of the second third (B).

And there you have it. The rest of the album follows suit, with “Lazarus,” a meditation on his unique life and his legacy-as-a-resonance-as-after-life, the dark murder theme of “Sue,” the self-saturated and vainglorious teenage decadence of “Girl Loves Me” (with lyrics in Nadsat, the made-up slang dialect of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange), the timeless and darkly threatening, teasingly obscene nonsense of “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” (based on a 17th century play of the same name about incest), the dirty nostalgia and regret of “Dollar Days” (“don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you / I’m trying to / I’m dying to”). And of course, the more or less self-explanatory cryptograph “I Can’t Give Everything Away” (it's not just won’t – he really can’t).

In the dance of death we are individuals, chained in isolation, but linked together. I should be so lucky if my someday shuffle off this mortal coil could possess half the value, the truth, the grace of this example – it would be worth its weight in gold stardust.


Januay 20, 2018