Monday, September 16, 2013

cassette nostalgia and lost purity

An interesting, and interestingly self-contradictory, "meditation on the merits of the cassette tape," by Nick Sylvester, originally posted at Pitchfork on the eve of Cassette Day.

Although Nick vows not to bang on about the lost tactile tangibility of the format, or its analogue-smudgy "warmth",  he does nonetheless assert that "there’s no format more human than the cassette. No format wears our stain better. I have not encountered a technology for recorded music whose physics are better suited for fostering the kind of deep and personal relationships people can have to music, and with each other through music. This sounds like nostalgia... but I don’t think it is. I’m talking about new music, on cassettes, in 2013. No audio format keeps me more focused on listening to the thing itself, without the distraction of having a web browser right in front of me, without the baggage of an ersatz music news cycle, the context upon context, the games of the industry. Music released on cassettes doesn’t feel desperate or needy or Possibly Important. It tends not to be concerned about The Conversation. It resists other people’s meaning. That’s what I like about the cassette. It whittles down our interactions with music to something bare and essential: Two people, sometimes more, trying to feel slightly less alone."

So it's the idea of a format that, while stained with our individual humanity, is uncontaminated by the Larger Discourse About  Music (including, but not limited to, the game of hip). A longing for a pure form of listening and direct, unmediated response to music.  Unmediated not just by the Music Media, but by the distorting prism of one's own self-reflexivity and self-consciousness.

This becomes even more clear when Nick reflects on his career in music reviewing (which started in 2002) and how that rapidly led to disenchantment.

"In hindsight, I underestimated how much the simple act of writing about music would rewire my brain and alter my relationship with it. I listened differently than before. The euphemism was “I was listening smartly.” But all that meant was I listened for good sentences. I read music like a text, but wasn’t exactly hearing it anymore. Deliberately misunderstanding something often made the writing better, and I did that a lot too. I abstracted music into ideas about music. Slowly the latter became more important to me than the music itself. I also became an incorrigible asshole, but that’s for a different piece. I never hated music, and I only loved writing about it. But I came to resent how I was listening."

I can't really remember a time when I didn't "listen for good sentences". Perhaps as a child listening to pop on the radio or my parents's classical records like Holst's The Planets or Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. But certainly long before I started writing professionally I was writing about it in my head, through being such an avid reader of the music press. And I do doubt that this "pure state" of response to music, even if it once existed, can be recovered. Sooner or later, some kind of rudimentary ideas about What Music Is, What Music Is For, "good music versus bad music" enters into one's consciousness and intervenes between one's ears and the sound-waves.  You acquire some sort of system of judgement and an apparatus for placing things.  And the only way to turn that mechanism off, once it's lodged in there, is through extreme states of intoxication. 

Certainly even in my most casual, leisure-time, non-reflective states of musical enjoyment, sentences - good, bad, or indifferent - seem to  form themselves whether I want them to or not, regardless of whether I'm trying to form them. And they don't interfere with my pleasure, they are inseparable from it. A lot of the content of these blogs (well, mainly Hardly Baked) since we moved to LA comes from sentences sparked by songs, old and new, heard randomly and without purpose or agenda on the car radio. I don't experience this stream of involuntary thoughts and partially-formed language as a deformation of response;  it feels much more like an enhancement.

Sylvester's issues with self-consciousness got worse when he started making music, playing in a band that started to get somewhere.

".... I felt anxious pretty much all the time. Everything seemed to matter, down to the shoes we wore on stage. I became intimately aware of all the ugly industry machinations.... If music had once been a writing exercise, now it was a hunger game, with strategies that changed by the hour and a never-ending supply of supposedly make-or-break moments that might–might–one day land us a mid-afternoon slot at some gobots music festival. The entire setup of the music industry-- from the gross amount of power publicists had, to the convenient myth that musicians need to tour tour tour, next level next level next level-- seemed to benefit everyone except the people making the music. I only saw the wires now. I felt myself becoming cynical."

He posits making music for cassette release and listening to music on tapes as an escape from ideology into immediacy, freeing music from both ambition and the ever-more entangled web of discourse.

"Cassettes are my detox. A way for me to sidestep everything about music that isn’t music. To get back to the very basic propositions of why I make and listen to music in the first place."

The very inconsequentiality of limited edition cassette releases is liberating:

"I tell my friends I’ll record their music and we’ll put it out on cassette, and it changes the entire energy of the session. There’s less pressure. It’s less of an event than a vinyl release. It’s “just” a cassette... There’s a feeling of impunity. It’s not going to cost anyone too much money. Everybody goes for broke."

This all sounds quite, well, ideological, to me. The acts of listening to music and making music framed in very particular ways. And this becomes fairly blatant by the end:

"... I like to think that people who adore cassettes are at least partly like me: Enormous fans of new music, overwhelmed by the speed and context and game of it all. People who want a community, not a social network. People who want the music, not the meaning. Cassette people, I like to think, want romance and fantasy. A person in a room, making music, putting it in cassette-shaped bottles for no other reason than these cassette-shaped bottles tend to find the people who need their music the most. Total romance and fantasy, all of this, I admit it. But music could use more of both."

Nick doesn't really want music in some putative state of purity, stripped off all the extraneous meanings and projections. (If you did want that, you could find perhaps most easily with the mp3s and streams and so forth of digitized net-circulated music, where sounds can be totally decontextualised and virtually authorless).  Nick actually wants music enwrapped in "romance and fantasy." The supplement of discourse, far from being superfluous and damaging, is actually a vital enchancement. Theory as the spice of pop life.

And the long, interesting, interestingly self-contradictory piece he's written is the proof of that. Because music has moved him to form sentences. A whole bunch of sentences.

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