Monday, October 25, 2010

Take care of yourselves, and each other

Q: There seems to be more and more obtrusive music and noise in public in our everyday lives. Would you say this is bad?

A: Yes, unequivocally. Our systems were not designed to withstand this onslaught every minute of our lives. We need to adopt the more advanced European standard of an alert-action sound level of 80 decibels, instead of the 85 we have now. In Sweden, I saw kindergartens with a wall of lights working as sound monitors: Green lights came on when voices were quiet and moderate, and yellow ones flashed when the noise increased. At 80 dB, red ones lit up. Visually, the children could see when they were being too noisy in the classroom. They could self-monitor.

Q: What about MP3 players?

A: The use of things such as iPods, which are forcing sound right down into the ear canal with the newer, tighter ear buds, is going to produce hearing loss and other auditory issues at far younger ages than we’ve seen in the past. This is going to be an epidemic of great proportions in our world. We also must educate ourselves and our children that making music that is too loud is not a well-thought-out activity. Children in bands or orchestras should wear ear protection in the form of musician’s plugs, which come with filters of 9, 15, or 25 decibels. We know there is a relationship between tinnitus, hyperacusis, and noise exposure, so let’s work harder to prevent those cases when we are easily able.

(From an interview with Dr. Marsha Johnson.)

A few weeks ago I had a brief, scary, and, for me, new experience with something that I now suspect could have been a bout of tinnitus. (I dunno, does tinnitus come in "bouts"?) To wit: it was a weird, faint ringing in my right ear, and it lasted for a few days. It has since disappeared, but I'm loathe to follow up with an audiologist, because, well, I'm freaked out by the possibility of bad news about my ears. Cuz I kind of need my ears to keep working.

Then again, why should I be even a little surprised if my hearing is indeed deteriorating noticeably? I shudder to think of the number of hours I have spent wearing a set of headphones (always my favorite way to experience music), or playing keyboards in a bad (read: overly-loud) bar band, or standing in front of any given IJG horn section. I have always craved total immersion in music, and considered it the price of any claim to legitimacy as a composer ("what do you mean, you've never heard of such-and-such a band?!"). But I wonder if the human ear is able to withstand the influx of sonic information that corresponds with such a desire / compulsion? Particularly in the context of a world that is already filled to the brim with sound? (When was the last time you really experienced "silence," anyway?)

I also wonder how many of us in this profession (i.e., the "music business," or its extension, the "music criticism business") truly know how good or bad our hearing actually is -- beyond the impression of authority that is the inevitable byproduct of having a point of view? Are we musical omnivores of the early twenty-first century already part of an "epidemic of great proportions," without even knowing it?

[photo credit: "Warning!" by Roger B.]

Thursday, October 14, 2010

It's all been done before

Commentary from Kiel Bryant, from a terrific essay by Michael Heilemann, on the origins of Chewbacca:

I’m dismayed by the cult of originality — it sets up impossible, false expectations which fail to grasp what art is. Innovation is good, exploration is to be encouraged — they build on what’s gone before — but more often than not it’s enjoyable to simply experience an idea well-conceived, regardless of that idea’s source or its “originality.” And in the final analysis, were Star Wars [or Raiders of the Lost Ark] ever intended to be wildly original? No, they’re pastiche — valentines to the swashbuckling genres of yore. Kids, especially millennials, make a simple and honest mistake borne out of youth: they see Star Wars before they’ve seen its inspirations and assume it came that way fully assembled, direct from Lucas’ head. They witness result, not process. Then, growing as artists or cinephiles, their awareness gradually enlarges, the supporting armature begins to show — and because the film wasn’t what they’d originally dreamt (a total creation, which is an impossibility), they decide George Lucas isn’t worth the praise they originally foisted on him. Absolutely circular, and absolutely pointless.

The idea that people could "fail to grasp what art is" -- this is one of my concerns, too. It seems vaguely unhealthy to me. In fact, it's one of the things that drove me to revise the book that is giving me grief as I ready it for consumption by a general audience. (Hence this brief period of infrequent blog posts.)

I don't know why it bothers me so much that people would fail to see art in all of its exploded, humble glory... but it does. Many artists want you to ignore the trajectories of influence behind their work, but I think these things are vitally important. Because when it comes to our own self-importance as "creators," we're all faking it, to some extent.

[Photo credit: Vinoth Chandar]

Thursday, October 07, 2010


Charles Peterson, in the film Hype, describing the Seattle music scene in the 1990s:

We were all so fucking bored out of our heads that it was get drunk, fall down, and, uh, you know, throw your body around, and all the bands that came through Seattle at that time [...] said that Seattle had the most exciting, potent scene going on in the US. They all loved to play here because everyone would just, like, go nuts, and drink themselves into a frenzy, and throw themselves onstage, and it was very flattering for these bands, you know, whereas, you go to Los Angeles or New York, and people stood there and went "hmmm... [rubbing chin] I don't know, he missed a note, there."

I was never a big fan of grunge, but do people genuinely "go nuts" over any kind of music any more? Loving music seems so... polite, these days.

[photo credit: Philo Nordlund]

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The usefulness of quiet

Sorry for the long silence... I will follow up on all unattended conversations soon, I promise.

In the meantime, speaking of silence:

I have written about Maya Deren before. Last night I finally had an opportunity to finish the anthology of her short experimental films that has been sitting in my Netflix queue for months. I do recommend it.

Most of these films were produced in the forties, if I remember correctly, and what is kind of interesting about that is that many of them are silent. Not "silent" as in "no sound was recorded with the film, but producers added it later, for a modern audience" (as is the case with most so-called "silent" cinema). These films were truly silent. Which is a hard enough feat when your film is driven by some sort of narrative, but probably harder when you're dealing with abstractions, surrealism, kinetic studies, and image for its own sake, as I think Deren was.

I can imagine the strong motivation to find a way to add sound to early film, at least to the extent that early film was an extension of theater. And I can imagine the great excitement that must have obtained when someone finally figured out a way to do it. In that context, the deliberate choice to be silent seems fairly radical. In any case, I like it because it demonstrates an important principle that I sometimes lose sight of: the fact that a tool or technique exists is not a good reason to use it.

[photo credit: fradaveccs]