Pascal Bussy, Kraftwerk: Man, Machine, and Music

093408193It comes as a shock to me that what is the most prominent popular book on one of the by this point unarguably most important musical groups of our time is one of the most poorly edited books I’ve read in years. I read the first edition, grabbed off the library stacks. Maybe subsequent editions are improved, but I’m shocked, shocked.

It has been some time since I’ve read a book of popular music journalism, and I have to say that the standard critique, that rock journalism is shallow and mercenary, seem to apply. To be certain, I loved reading the book, but while Bussy hinted at a breadth of understanding when he first name-checked Gilbert & George, his cultural context seems narrow when they’re name-checked for the tenth or so time.

Bussy posits a very tidy trajectory in the band’s development from openness to closed-ness. They began as part of a krautrock scene, one improvising group among many. Socially, part of a scene, they were open. Musically, improvisers, they were open. Gradually, Bussy tells us they applied greater and greater structure to their music, while at the same time, developing the Kraftwerk mensch-maschine aesthetic, the group withdrew socially to its Kling Klang studio and autonomous daily routine.

This is one way to explain a band that put out a record a year for most of a decade, then two in the next, then one album of remixes at the start of the following. Bussy makes it sound, in his telling, more than a little dysfunctional on a social level and almost sinister. He–Bussy–gives the impression of being a stereotypical techno scenester, though I have no idea if he actually is. He doesn’t seem to understand that “scenes” are not universally appealing. There are non-dysfunctional reasons for not participating in scenes.

What is clear is that Kraftwerk, as time passed, both worked through their musical idea thoroughly–by Computer World–and developed a daily routine that suited Ralf Hutter and Florian Scheider, if not Bartos and Flur as much over the long-term. They slept, drank coffee, biked, made music, and danced. They could certainly have put out a record a year, but Electric Cafe, an inferior work by any measure, demonstrated, I have to hypothesize, the futility of that kind of work, unless the only goal is to make a lot of money.

I don’t think that retreating from a scene is at all the same as retreating from the world, as Bussy seems to paint it. In fact, I’d argue it’s precisely the contrary. Kraftwerk seem reclusive only if one takes the perspective of the journalist denied an interview.

Bussy suggests that improvisation declined in Kraftwerk’s working methods as time passed. It certainly is true that they moved from wholly-improvised to generally structured music over the course of their work. To that extent Bussy is right, but it misses a key point to Kraftwerk’s project.

In discussing The Mix, Bussy cites one of the members whose name escapes me at the moment, having returned the book to the library. That project, which more or less formed the basis of their performance work to this day, consisted of digitizing their earlier work to preserve the sounds, and then reprogramming the songs as sequenced events. The effort, though, was not in order to make the entire thing automatic, reproducing exact performances every time, but to facilitate improvisation. Many more specific sequenced patterns exist on Kraftwerk’s computers than actually get used in any particular performance. The members, it was noted, choose which patterns to play as the performance continues. I would also note, having seen them twice, that pedals and knobs also affect timbre, reverb, and other effects. The actual sound one hears in the audience is entirely dependent on the choices of the musicians in the moment of the performance.

At some level, the story that Bussy missed is the story of Kraftwerk’s accommodation to the sequencer. Their basic project has always been to develop some kind of symbiosis, for lack of a better word, between man and machine in the moment of performance. The sequencer, programmed ahead of time in an act of composition rather than performance, upsets this symbiosis. If electronic music is programmed rather than played, the machines win in the moment of performance. This explains the long wait between Electric Cafe and Tour de France Soundtracks. With a Moog, a musician plays notes. Kraftwerk opted, to integrate the sequencer into a performance environment in which the musician plays not notes but sequences. That’s a huge task in terms of man hours, but it squares the circle.

Amiri Baraka, Black Music

Ornette Coleman

The Alpha and the Omega.  Still playing, too.

I had just read Ben Ratliff’s new book on John Coltrane, and become very, very upset.  Needing a helping hand, I next read LeRoi Jones‘–Amiri Baraka’s–Black Music.

Baraka is less concerned with market demographics than with actually saying something valuable that helps people understand the music in question.  That music, in Black Music, is New York jazz of the late 1950’s and, primarily, the 1960’s.  The latest piece in the book is dated 1967.  In any event, more than anything Baraka focuses on the New Thing, so-called, or “free jazz” once Ornette Coleman put out the album of the same name.

Baraka to be sure is not afraid to take a clear, adversarial stance in what was at the time a very brutal conflict within jazz and jazz criticism over the new music, and while I tend to be much more open to the best of the hard-boppers (and less than the best, too, I’ll say), and while I’ll look at that below, he defends music and musicians worth defending.

Jazz is, Baraka argues not quite explicitly (as my memory serves) but very clearly, a way of being, being free, now.  As circumstances change, so changes jazz.  In hindsight I wonder–surely he has written about it and if anyone knows the citation I’d appreciate it–what he thinks about jazz after Coltrane, not only fusion but the whole Marsalis conundrum as well.  I can surmise the broad strokes but it’s the details I’m after.

He clarifies his project in the first piece, “Jazz and the White Critic“:

In jazz criticism, no reliance on European tradition or theory will help and all.  Negro music, like the Negro himself, is strictly an American phenomenon, and we have got to set up standards of judgement and aesthetic excellence that depend on our native knowledge and understanding of the underlying philosophies and local cultural references that produced blues and jazz in order to produce valid critical writing or commentary about it. (20)

That about sums up my own feelings about how one ought to approach art, or anything else for that matter.  Understanding begins from local conditions and builds out, not from arbitrarily grafting foreign conceptual frameworks onto whatever happens to be the object of one’s inquiry.  Or of one’s conquest: look at the clusterf*** that has been and continues to be the Americas when European social and economic formations were grafted onto these continents after the soon-to-be syphilitic Columbus showed up.

Baraka consistently, whether dealing with true giants like Coltrane, Monk, Coleman, or Cecil Taylor, or lesser-known figures as in an absolutely wonderful piece on the drummer, Denis Charles, one of, to me, the highlights of the book, contextualizes the artists as they exist in their actual contexts, geographically, socially, economically, and culturally.  This is a beautiful, beautiful because it contains truth, stretch of prose:

He [Denis Charles] seems not to be certain, or maybe it’s just the stackup of dreary tenements and beatout folks makes any “success story” seem very very shaky.  And even when Dennis [sic] is working, he knows it’s a very brief shot, and that soon he will be sitting back up on 118th Street without even anything to play on.

But when you see and hear him play, there is no doubt in your mind.  This young man can really smoke…(90)

The liberal white critic would have only written that first paragraph.  The conservative white critic would have written about the Philharmonic and bemoaned the lack of support for “the arts,” despite having heard a publicly-funded, corporate-sponsored performance the night before.  Baraka, however, correctly contextualizes Charles, and by proxy both the New Thing and jazz generally.  Yes, it’s a tough row to hoe, above all because of the hateful context of North America, but doing so is the practice of free existence.

I said I’d touch on this earlier: Baraka has little patience for musicians he feels are stuck in the past, i.e., in formula.  Jazz is, for him, freedom in the present.  I concede the point, and it’s certainly true that we get more from Coltrane than from Cannonball Adderly, toward whom he’s fairly uncharitable.  I am not the biggest fan, either, but I will say that a) a man needs to work and Cannonball worked, and b) there’s a whole lot of hard-bop or more R&B-influenced jazz from the ’60’s that, while not precisely pointing the way forward, or more importantly being truly of the moment, is fantastic and a genuine representation of who the people were who made the music.  Witness “The Sidewinder.”  It’s the genuineness that gets me, that, and Billy Higgins.

Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop

Despite frequent editorials to the contrary, hip-hop is not dead, nor is it dying.  Hip-hop is as dead as jazz is: that is to say, there’s still great music being made, even if mainstream media ignores said music.  It’s also true that I won’t hold my breath for the next Bird, Monk, Ornette, or Trane to lay down a style-wide marker for before and after artist x, and just the same I am not expecting a new Chuck D or Rakim to make everyone in hip-hop pay attention and re-evaluate.  Hip-hop is either commercialized or underground, the former pernicious, the latter often as great as the Greats but rarely known outside of a tiny group of fans and, one has to think, not making a great living at it.

My wife borrowed this book from the library and then, half-way through or something, bought it.  Jeff Chang‘s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop was indeed worth the money, I discover, particularly when one buys a used copy.  It’s subtitled “a History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” rather than of hip-hop, and this it is, all for the better.

Chang excels at context, which to me is both the mark of a clear thinker and, completely related to this, the most important consideration in understanding anything in its social aspect.  Indeed the book, as much as documenting hip-hop itself documents the broadening context of the movement (of which I am prone to follow in its musical form, rap) which to my read can almost entirely explain hip-hop’s changing form and content.

The book begins in the 1970’s Bronx and Jamaica–the island nation, not Jamaica, Queens–and clearly documents that hip-hop’s originators were people totally abandoned by their governments and societies.  Particularly of value for the reader in the United States is the material on the Bronx, simply because public discussion of poverty in the United States has not really happened for some long time, certainly since Johnson’s Presidency.  As an aside, there is much talk under Obama and a real measure of action to shore up the beleaguered middle classes of which I am a part, all well and good, but totally ignoring the growing number of people this country has all but left for dead.  Chang documents how thoroughly the Bronx was targeted–not hyperbole–for destruction.  Urban planners, police chiefs, and the racist swine Daniel Moynihan are correctly fingered for the crime.

I was one of the white kids who got really turned on to hip-hop when Public Enemy put out It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.  I was a freshman in college when it came out, and I bought it that summer.  It’s hard for me to overstate how important Public Enemy was and continues to be for me.  I had grown up a massive Beatles fan, and had always wanted to know the feeling I’d read about, when Sgt. Pepper’s came out, when everybody was listening to it and talking about it, and when it seemed to lay down one of those cultural markers, like those of Bird and Ornette, of before and after.  It Takes a Nation was precisely that.  I had long discussions about it and, particularly the “Fight the Power” 12″ (which was the greatest single record I could remember being released) with my friends Greg and Ross.  I took Chuck’s advice and listened to Farrakhan, and like Chuck I took what was valuable and discarded that which was not.  I was a good white kid with good intentions before PE, but Chuck D put me on a better road than that.

I say this because I came to the book with opinions and expectations about N.W.A. in particular and “gangsta rap” in general.  I appreciated Chang’s depiction of the controversy Straight Outta Compton engendered, not so much in the mainstream media but within hip-hop itself.  I participated in these discussions, very much on the fringe of a tiny group, in college.  I wasn’t really one of the hip-hop crowd, but was close with some people who were (as problematic as that sounds) and I was indeed obsessed with Public Enemy.  That said, I remember feeling that N.W.A. was a betrayal, and voicing this to a friend who was himself from Compton and truly one of the hip-hop crowd.  I leveled all the appropriate criticisms, and my friend, while agreeing with all of my substantive points, said, “yes, but it’s real,” meaning simply that Ice Cube depicted things that were part of his world, though by no means things he was close to personally involved with.

Chang more or less takes the line my friend took, and that’s fair enough.  In recent years I will admit that my thoughts on “gangsta rap” have taken on a conspiratorial tone.  I think it was after reading Mike Davis’ City of Quartz years ago–don’t blame Davis for my errors–and digesting how thoroughly the various powers that were and continue to be in L.A. used gang violence as a pretext to implement genuinely genocidal policy in working-class black and brown neighborhoods, I over-conflated the beginnings of “gansta rap” with those policies.  Chang clearly demonstrates how thoroughly grass-roots N.W.A. were in their beginnings, and indeed I found myself having some sympathy for them and Eazy-E in particular as people who had dreams of doing something big but who were, because of where they were from, total underdogs.  Compton–and Chang makes this point explicitly–and South Central L.A. in general were left for dead in the 1980’s just like the Bronx was 10 years before.

What Chang misses in this, the only part of the book that I had any real prior knowledge about, or rather what he leaves out, is a contextual critique of “gangsta rap.”  I remember being furious at Rolling Stone’s one-star review of Public Enemy’s Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, in which the idiot reviewer (significantly, I can’t find a link to the review online) called PE out of touch, because things had moved forward–not my opinion–with “gangsta rap.”  I did not have the language for a critique at the time, but in hindsight I do, and I wish Chang had pursued this line: we know that the big market for hyper-violent rap is white.  N.W.A. may have themselves, at least to begin with, been truly D.I.Y., but we have to put ourselves in the shoes of white media execs and ambitious white journalists with no personal stake in the future of positive hip-hop.  It doesn’t take an idiot to know that you will have an easier time selling a black musician who confirms white racist stereotypes to white people than you will a black musician who confounds them.  That is the contextual story of “gangsta rap,” and Chang doesn’t really pursue it.

That said, great read, and as far as I can tell indispensable if one wishes to understand the last quarter of the 20th century in the United States.

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Jon Krakauer: “Into the Wild”

I was predisposed after a few pages to be unsympathetic to the protagonist, Chris McCandless. McCandless, for those who have neither read the book nor seen the film, was a well-off surburban white kid who went to good schools (Emory, no less, for college), who decided that society sucked and took off rambling on his own, eventually going to Alaska with few provisions, where he met his end.

The read was interesting, not so much for the subject matter–the most interesting parts of the book dealt with the people McCandless met on his way rather than any of the ostensibly primary figures–but my reaction to it. I started off with a great antipathy toward McCandless. As I read, that antipathy diminished noticeably, replaced by an increasingly intense antipathy toward the author, Krakauer. Never had this experience with a book before.

It’s probably not good to speak ill of the dead, but I need to begin with McCandless for my critique to make any sense. Interestingly, fairly early on in the book Krakauer, who had first wrote about McCandless in a piece for Outside magazine, details negative reactions to the subject of that piece. Fairly uniformly, they come from Alaskans who feel McCandless was nuts, stupid, or disrespectful at some level of the “wild” he went into, underestimating the difficulty of living more or less off the land in rural Alaska. None of these critiques is without merit at some level, particularly, I’d think the third.

McCandless thought that modern consumer capitalist (my words, not his) society is bunk, and he was right. He seems to have had some awareness–as far as I can tell from what Krakauer includes an intellectual awareness but awareness nonetheless–of racism, and intellectually, this is at Emory, he put himself on the right side of that discussion. The problem is that well-off, well-educated white people who think that the system is bunk have no right–read that, no right whatsoever–to do anything but get their asses right inside the system and try to help the people whom the system is screwing most egregiously. McCandless’ case is compounded that he was from a Washington, DC suburb and his father worked for NASA. McCandless very likely could have mobilized a lot of personal connections to get involved on the inside.

Krakauer suggests, based on some of McCandless’ last diary entries, that he had decided that his rambling days were through. It’s entirely possible, then, that he would have returned to the lower 48 and gotten down to the real work of trying to fix things. That said, it is a typically but no less unacceptably white (and upper/upper-middle class white) reaction to injustice to take off from discomfort and feel oneself free. That is to say, the typically white response (not exclusively white by any means) is a selfish one. Anyone studying race critically will tell you that while our racial system is obviously unequal, the privilege it doles out to whites is not freedom. White people think that they can be free by running away. We can’t, and that more than anything was McCandless’ mistake, aside from up and dying of it.

The villain of the story, however, is not McCandless, but Krakauer. His metier, part outdoor/part travel narrative journalist, is ripe for willful ignorance about all kinds of social relationships. Without doubt, his trade could be done well: I know a travel writer, but he thinks critically about his own position vis-a-vis his destinations and more importantly the people who live in those destinations. Going far away is, like everything else human, a social relationship. Krakauer has no clue about this. I knew this when I read the following lines, worth quoting:

McCandless may have been tempted by the succor offered by women, but it paled beside the prospect of rough congress with nature, with the cosmos itself (66).

Those are the words of a lonely, lonely man. Which “women,” Krakauer? This is a man who can’t distinguish woman from woman. His choice of words in this case is way, way too revealing, not so much for the words themselves, but because he reserves archaic language for the points at which sex comes up. You don’t in his book, get “succor” from a well-earned beer after a hike or something, or get together with the gang for some “congress.” Why the change in tone, Krakauer? Uncomfortable? Jackass. There is, indeed, a pattern in the book. It gets better (i.e., worse) on 156:

The hint of what was concealed in those shadows terrified me, but I caught sight of something in the glimpse, some forbidden and elemental riddle that was no less compelling than the sweet, hidden petals of a woman’s sex.

I honestly don’t know who to despise more: Krakauer or the editor who let that sentence get through. Regardless, these are not the words of a man who gets laid with any consistency, or at all. Women’s bodies–and this underlies the whole book–are in Krakauer’s mental universe, foreign. Just like the “wild,” so-called.

This is the thing. Getting out of a city is well and good, very good as a matter of fact, because as a species we did not develop to live with concrete and cars. Smarter people than me–or, at least, people with more time on their hands to cover it at length–have, however, amply documented the patriarchal tendencies of certain (large) swaths of the get back to nature movement, in addition to the white supremacist/colonialist tendencies, in the United States (my country and therefore my problem), all the way back to Muir, whatever else you will say about the man. You may be pleased that Teddy Roosevelt set up the park system, but you’d be wrong to imagine that his motives were pure, because they weren’t.

To Krakauer, “the wild” is away, somewhere to where one goes. It’s mysterious, forbidding, and other, just like a woman’s body (in his obviously screwed-up psyche). The problem is, any of these places that well-off white people drive their 4WD Subaru station wagons to for some communing with nature are, to some peoples, home.

“The wild” isn’t wild. It’s a system like any other, and as historians have demonstrated–as if this needed any proving if you paid attention to indigenous people–human beings peopled the entire globe by not later than 1000 years ago, and that’s a very, very late date. Some peoples lived more densely on the land than others. When Europeans from a relatively densely populated society come to places that are more sparsely populated, they see “empty space.” Ask the people to whom that land belongs (or vice versa, one might more properly say), and they’ll tell you that the land is not empty, not other, and certainly not wild. There are specific ways in any environment that human beings can survive without carrying their food or using rifle. To Krakauer, though, the land is everything minus the people. Very simply, this is to totally misunderstand everything one needs to understand.

A last gripe: Krakauer explains McCandless partially through the use of a long, autobiographical sketch. This is when I knew he was even more selfish than McCandless, by a longshot.