Friday 12 June 2009

After the beat (still loving wonky)

All the paintings in this post are by Jean Hélion. This is ‘The Man with the Crooked Tie’, 1943.

It seems a number of people have looked at ‘Loving Wonky’, and there’s been some related discussion on forums and other blogs. Since first posting it I’ve been tweaking and adding in bits here and there. For anyone who’s still interested, I added Zomby’s ‘Strange Fruit’ and a little bit about its rhythms, a bit more about affect in Darkstar's ‘Need You’, lots of bits in the timbres section including a footnote paragraph on how Kode9 hears 8 bit (with a Quarta 330 remix of his ‘9 Samurai’ to illustrate this) and a thought about what gives ‘Kaliko’ its name (search for ‘loom’).

After considering some of the things people said and being sent a pretty good sampledelia mix made here in London, I realised I probably hadn’t said enough about the role and influence of hip hop in what is commonly held to be ‘wonky’. A lot of people see that side of the ‘wonky’ movement more than I did, being a Londoner and primarily a fan of dubstep and Hyperdub – a bias which evidently skewed my perspective more towards Zomby than Flying Lotus, J-Dilla etc, more towards the subcategory of avant dub than wonky-hop. The relationship of ‘wonky’ and its surrounding genres to the processes and requirements of mixing would have been another interesting angle, though I know little about it – thanks to Grievous Angel for that thought.
The most in-depth and divergent response came from T. G. P. B., who because of the comment s/he left, I’ll refer to as T. Her/his post brings another level of detail to my necessarily simplistic, quick-fix characterisation of ‘wonky’s’ ‘swing’/unquantisation and invokes ethnomusicologist Charles Keil’s concept of ‘participatory discrepancy’, giving me yet another reason to get round to reading Keil’s work. T’s essay is well worth a good read and T. G. P. B. is a blog I’ll be following with interest. (I’m also slightly dismayed that T managed to accurately presume that I’m male, due to my being ‘obsessively teleological’ – well, that’s, er, the way the ladies like me.)

Although ‘Loving Wonky’ had been described as ‘a musicological account’ in a few places on the web, I don’t think this is what it was, and such an account wasn’t my intention. Consequently T, possibly others, may have overestimated the musicological aspect of my article, which was first and foremost only an exercise in aesthetic criticism (I am a guilty devotee of sinfully, ecstatically florid nineteenth-century musical commentaries) and a response to critics – any resemblance to empirical/interpretative musicology was merely a by-product of the descriptive apparatus I used along the way. To me, musicology is the disciplined study of music, while criticism is a less responsibly-minded talking about music (and/or any art form). I intend Rouge’s Foam as an aesthetics/criticism blog rather than a musicology/research blog and while I was glad to sketch ‘wonky’ in greater empirical detail than is usual in the blogosphere (and I agree it would be great to see more empirical/analytical musicology online), I ultimately didn’t want to be beholden to strict empirical method as that would a) obligate me to meet forbiddingly high research standards were I to aim for a conclusion of any real substance, and b) generally preclude the just-for-kicks exploration of personal, unusual or provocatively ‘over-wrought’ aesthetic responses for the consideration of any readers (I’m a hyperactive 22-year-old charging through a ginormous aesthetic playground, and am remaining pretty much unrepentant about that). As such, ‘Loving Wonky’s’ comparisons with established Classical innovators and flights of programmatic fancy are ultimately to be taken as indulgent rhetorical flourishes rather than a serious attempt at qualified musicological statement.
By contrast, in her/his post T deliberately ventures into the sort of hermeneutic territory of (ethno)musicological theory that I’d intended to avoid, and though I’m slightly reluctant to enter into a full-on musicological debate (as I don’t have the spare reading time that would enable my input to be as accomplished as I believe it ought to be), I will note a few reactions before I slide back into the sordid world of subjective, amateur criticism I prefer to call home.

I know debate on metre and the perception of metre in non-Western musics energetically persists into the higher echelons of ethnomusicological discourse. However, basically, I couldn’t agree more that the kind of metre I discussed is a Western essence and an abstraction, and that you can’t simply describe jazz swing (or French inégales or any other sort of swing) as simple triplets or other rhythmic units, but I was keeping an anxious eye on brevity and the article’s intended audience. I would be concerned though that it’s difficult to compare the performance practices Keil explains with electronic dance music, most specifically in this instance because such a metrical essence is, importantly, built into the sequencers and softwares that electronic musicians use (T mentions shuffle settings as introducing a PD-like rhythmic structures, but there are many more, complex ways of getting ‘wonky’). This suggests that ‘wonky’s’ rhythmic wonkiness could be conceptually distinct from participatory discrepancies in musics that are performed in a more directly biological way, which as T explains are often based in practical physical considerations such as dancing and handling instruments.
T allows for this distinction: ‘But how does the idea of the Particpatory Discrepancy really relate to music which exists purely in recorded form? There are no musicians who lock in to the groove but there are, it is supposed, dancers… I have suggested that it is precisely this [unquantised] nature that speaks to the body’s propensity for movement’. Such a suggestion is a brilliant and thought-provoking stroke, but I would dispute that the connection between ‘wonky’ artists and their prospective dancers is (or could be) so direct. I don’t have the objectively-based research to back myself up, but I can’t imagine Zomby dancing, imagining dancers or acquiescing to their most physical requirements as he constructed the rhythmic architecture of ‘Strange Fruit’ etc to the extent that PD should apply for its dancers in the intentional way T proposes. Actually it was my hunch that artists like Zomby, with their partially Western avant-garde/modernist leanings, were moving away from basic dancefloor functionality and towards something a bit closer to ‘autonomous’ or ‘absolute’ music (chimeras, the both of them, but they do play a role as an aesthetic ideal and have meaning relative to other musics). Now of course PD-enabled dancing could be an influential consequence of ‘wonky’s’ rhythms, especially when it comes to the more swing-like feel of Flying Lotus’s tracks, but I’m reluctant to accept this as an ‘explanation’ of/for ‘wonky’s’ rhythms (if that’s what the implication was).

With this notion in place, T considers the aesthetics of PD (i.e. as a practically and symbolically human component in music) and applies them to the cultural agenda of the hardcore continuum. It’s not usually very easy to transfer notions of music’s socio-cultural aesthetics from one non-Western culture to another, or from a non-Western culture to a culture like the hardcore continuum, but we could for now conjecture a deep psychological basis for an understanding of PD. Furthermore, and I have to admit that I haven’t read Keil’s work on PD (whatever that was, the hyperlink was wrong), to me the Keil quotations and their application seem suggestive of the temptingly romanticising spirit that often affected ethnomusicological and anthropological study until the eighties and occasionally since, in which Other musical cultures were painted as the Utopian inverse of the West’s rigour, perhaps misguidedly. I’ll need to read more as I’m not yet persuaded that ‘the avoidance of “straight” time-keeping which so often typifies the music of oral cultures is evidence of a “cultural refusal to become civilised – fixed, printed, formalised, monumental, predictable”’ or can be easily equated with ‘an emphasis on the human aspects of music-making’. One wonders how more contemporary ethnomusicologists with a greater awareness of cultural subjectivity – Martin Stokes, John Bailey – may have characterised the cultural meaning of different attitudes to rhythmic practice in different musical traditions. While Keil’s PD concept is clearly a useful descriptive tool, his suggestions about its universal aesthetic meaning make the little, cautious postmodern ethnomusicologist sitting on my shoulder wince a bit. It bears repeating though: I haven’t yet read the studies involved here.
T uses this meaning to come to the fascinating conclusion that ‘wonky’ ‘humanises the machine… it surmounts the machine-complex and thus reasserts the primacy of the human’. I would propose that for any musical culture and particularly that of the hardcore continuum the simplistic, abstract categories of ‘human’ and ‘machine’ are ultimately so broad, relativistic and internally complex that any aesthetic perception of them or their supposed (but thoroughly problematic) dichotomous relationship is unlikely to be experienced on a practical level. The hardcore continuum alone has presented us with so many multifarious interactions between what we might choose to decide are signifiers for ‘the human aspects’ and signifiers for the ‘machine (aspects)’, each perceived and understood differently according to listener, that it’s impossible to play referee so easily because we’re getting lost in relativism and musical complexity. Now if this was aesthetic criticism, the ‘human vs machine’ conflict is a very interesting narrative angle on the music (and we could even merrily go hunting for other musics that we may agree also afford this aesthetic dimension, Nancarrow’s studies for player piano, etc), but if this is interpretative musicology, I’d worry that ‘the humanised machine’ is much too simple and one-dimensional an explanation, even if we were to limit the study to just Flying Lotus, or just rhythmic structures.

Musical signifiers for ‘human’ and ‘machine’ aspects are not so easy to distill, compare and quantify. If in Zomby’s ‘Strange Fruit’ the rhythmic ‘wonkiness’ (supposing it does indeed signify a human aspect) is (as I believe) caused by differing speeds on sample-based synthesizer, where does that situate the ‘human vs machine’ narrative? What about the fact that it’s all played on starkly electro(nic) timbres – geometrically simple waveforms that don’t occur in nature – does that complicate its ‘human’ aspects, or are we able to notionally separate the categories of timbre and rhythm in the minds of producers and listeners? If so, how can we compare them? If we are looking for something that we can confidently assert that ‘wonky’ is ‘about’ (hermeneutically speaking), I’m not convinced that the topical categories ‘human’ and ‘machine’ can be mutually coherent or localised enough to appear onstage. Ambient topics with some appropriate level of social currency – ‘cool’, ‘alienation’, ‘distress’, ‘ghetto’, ‘the modern’, ‘psychedelia’, ‘realism’, ‘menace’ – are about as broad and general as it’s possible for ‘wonky’s’ discernable signifieds to get with any convincing objectivity, I’d wager.
In the absence of a thorough Philip Tagg-style empirical study of musical topics and their meanings, I’m left with a naked guess. My naked guess would be that aesthetic interpretations of ‘wonky’ among the appropriate crowd would bypass such broad notions of ‘human’ and ‘machine’ because we’re already so deep into a tradition of electronic music written by humans (and also so far from the suggested human significance of PD in oral cultures). Kode9 has described the sound of his recent avant dub releases on Hyperdub:
I supposed what happened is the sound of the label has developed this new side, instead of a sense of doom, which persists in some of the music still, the other stuff is like after the nuclear explosion, where everything is irradiated, and slightly mutant, and glowing in weird colours, and everything is seen through this orange or green lens. So everything is glowing with this toxic colour. So there’s these really sweet melodies, but there’s something a bit toxic about them, because it’s not humans, it sounds slightly weird and alien, but not cold. It’s not got this cold futuristic thing, it’s hot, because it’s fucking glow[ing] with radioactivity. That’s the kind of vision, I’m still trying to work this out, I’m putting together this compilation, and putting together some of the old stuff and the new stuff, it’s almost like the dread stuff has got this sense of impending doom, and the other stuff is after the event happened, and everything is like the Ready Brek advert, it’s got this glow of radioactivity. I’m just trying to picture what world this music comes from. Because it’s clearly not come from this world, not in a straightforward sense anyway.
Though other readings will inevitably diverge from kode9’s unusually detailed and specific account, I don’t think that many people would dispute his reading’s validity. I’ve often boyishly imagined a War of the Worlds style alien invasion while listening to ‘Aquafre5h’, and a friend of mine strongly held that ‘wonky’ was, compellingly, ‘what it would sound like to be mad’ (she was unaware of how the Spaceape introduced Zomby in the Hyperdub showcase for Radio 1: ‘wailing and bawling outside the doors of the asylum’). Broadly speaking, all these interpretations occupy the same sort of aesthetic space, that of the exhilaratingly, psychedelically weird: it’s not a space that could be described by ‘it surmounts the machine-complex and thus reasserts the primacy of the human’ – the human aspect, even if such a thing is indeed unproblematically discernable, is hardly foregrounded. Perhaps T was more referring to Flying Lotus, but even there, one can’t really say that the category ‘machine’ of the kind that opposes the category ‘human’ is easily signified in his musical texts. Its ‘lo-fi’ nature for example: does that simply signify the ‘human’ or the ‘machine’, or rather something that would suggest various specific configurations of the two?
It was never my intention to be a musicologist blogger – if it were I would feel obliged to explore my naked guess (standing there shivering and ashamed) about what ‘wonky’ is ‘about’ through empirical research so as to earn more of a right to invoke the M word. As it is I’m content to have described what’s happening in ‘wonky’ and to have suggested some of the aesthetic buttons it could push. I discussed the subject of scientific/theoretical knowledge-seeking vs aesthetic description in my ‘Science, Analogy and Criticism’ post (here’s hoping I can soon start practicing criticism at least as much as I’ve talked about it): personally, I’d rather write interesting aesthetic criticism than potentially inadequate musicology. Please don’t believe the latter to be an opinion of T’s post! I must emphasise that I’m withholding all my judgments regarding its musicological adequacy until I’ve read Keil and other appropriate material. My warmest thanks go to T for her/his fascinating, detailed and high level response.

Finally, though part of my aim was to reveal some of the ways in which ‘wonky’ could be superficially written off as drug-addled, infantile, retrograde hipster nonsense, and despite my pre-emptive spiels concerning musicology, aesthetics vs interpretation and (empirical) description vs theory in criticism, a few people maintained that I’d over-written things more than they maybe deserved. Overall though, the fact that such a long, detailed and technical survey met with enthusiasm maybe goes to show that it’s not just the music that’s in-depth, but its appreciation too.

Monday 1 June 2009

Loving Wonky