War? What War?

Read this, from the BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-60600487

Synopsis: Ukrainians often have family in Russia. Some on the Ukrainian side have been calling home while hiding from bombs, and the family side in Russia does not believe them and tells them they are being overly alarmist and paranoid. They doubt the first-hand experience of their families because the Russian media they are exposed to (mainly TV, internet, Russian version of Facebook called VKontakte, etc.) has convinced them that the Russians are helping Ukrainians, not bombing them. The Russians in the family ignore or explain away evidence that their media contradicts, including the first-hand testimony of their kin.

The people on the Russian sides of these families are not evil or cruel. But their ability to judge rationally has been destroyed by the uncritical way they consume media. I can say this confidently because I know many people in Russia who get the same media and who manage to avoid being sucked in to the lies. It is possible to stay vigilant, even in Russia, even now. These Russian families, though, are more likely to believe a monopolistic media narrative than the first-hand testimony of their Ukrainian loved ones. Artillery shells are falling on their own family’s apartment complex in Ukraine, but they are incapable of believing it.

Functional Music in the Laboratory State

My mental tram system has three lines: music, cultural organizing, and science/philosophy. There’s usually at least one train on each line at any time. To compare now with a random year, in 2001 I was in bands with some friends (line 1), ran a pirate radio station out of my bedroom (line 2), and taught high school chemistry (line 3). In 2022 I make a lot of new Emperor X material (line 1), help run Donau115 (line 2), and study philosophy at Leibniz Universität Hannover (line 3).

I rarely talk to music world people about line 3 stuff, or academic world people about anything other than academic stuff. I do it in that it can’t help but drip into my lyrics, but I want see if anything changes by making some explicit effort to connect these three lines and turning my brain from a partial junction

into an all-way full junction in which thoughts can route arbitrarily-associatively.

I’ll start this week by describing each day one of four papers I’m working on. None of them are going to blow minds, but I’m a baby philosopher and still getting used to the writing conventions and methods. My main hope is that typing out what I’m working on in a public way might start conversations that point me in new directions I wouldn’t explore otherwise.

Paper 1, Winter Semester, 2021/2022:

Functional Music in the Laboratory State

Shiv Visvanathan « Tata Litlive! 2017

Shiv Visvanathan (pictured above) coined the idea of the laboratory state (Visvanathan, 1987), the notion that “…the modern state exists more and more as a big machine guaranteeing the production and reproduction of science. In fact it is the grammar of science that provides for the everyday fascism of modernity-as-technocracy.” His is not a Luddite “science is bad” argument, far from it. But he insists that we face with clear eyes the destructive science-flavored feedback loops that the union of science and vested interests (including both states and corporations) can cause. Examples he cites include the introduction of industrial farming in India resulting in lower crop yields for many regions, medically useless pseudo-experiments performed by Nazi scientists in concentration camps, and atomic weapons research programs. Wrong, and sometimes even evil, ideas can hide behind the fig leaf of science.

The laboratory state is a theoretical lens through which we can view large-scale scientific projects. My paper will focus that lens on functional music — colloquially, muzak. There is a long history (see Jones and Schumacher, 1992) of state- or industry-sponsored scientific research conducted on living, often non-consenting subjects to determine the effects of music on many parameters from docility of heavily stereotyped asylum residents (Pichot, 1949) to workplace productivity under “stimulus progression” (see Kerr, 1943 and its chilling opposite, Perham and Sykora, 2012) to consumer behavior (see Milliman, 1982 or Gustafsson, 2012 for starters) to endocrine response (Thoma et al., 2013). The currently-fashionable iteration of this involves artificial intelligence playlist curation (Eriksson, 2020), so despite the anachronistic association attached to muzak like that heard in retail outlets in the 1990s, the behaviorist science that underlies it is still very much en vogue.

Visvanathan highlights the tendency of seemingly-innocent science to act as an agent of violent suppression. My paper will examine the extent to which this can be said to hold true for the psychoacoustic research that underlies muzak.

Non-Euclidean Lakes Melting Through Interstellar Space

The cover of Western Teleport depicts a collission between two neon schematics of the 405/110 interchange in Los Angeles, officially named the Pregerson Interchange a. I was obsessed with it the time, and I wanted this monumental public works project reflected in the album art. The semi-abstract result is an image of neon exit ramps threading into one another in impossible-looking knots.

I wrote to Dieter Brehm (IG) to help me realize something similar for the album art for The Lakes of Zones B and C. The result is a collaborative effort, with most of the skilled labor performed by Dieter. Here’s what I said to him in April 2020:

“The cover art is kind of a companion piece to Western Teleport. Whereas that one was an overlay and manipulation of two interwoven Pregerson interchanges…this one will do something similar with contour maps of the depth findings of two Berlin lakes, one called Tegeler See and the other called Schlachtensee…What works well about the Western Teleport cover image is that it looked recognizable at small sizes, or from a distance. It is simple, but also detailed if someone wanted to look closely — and this is a good resonance with good pop music which has the same qualities, the simplicity on first glance but great detail once listened to for long enough. That combination of cleanliness, of very illustrated/firm lines without any gradients, colours with thin black outlines, governed cartoon-like objects, etc., with very messy, alive, bursting subject matter. Does that make sense?”

It doesn’t, but Dieter got it and asked to see more info about Tegeler See and Schlachtensee. I sent him the following.

// // //

From Umweltbundesamt (2011), there are some low-detail but nicely-rendered contour maps of the two lakes in question. This is also nice because it gives you an English description of the lake system of Berlin, and hints at why I find it so interesting.

Source: https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/sites/default/files/medien/461/publikationen/4144.pdf

p. 25: map of the Berlin-Brandenburg region’s lake system
p. 26: “vital stats” comparison of Tegeler See and Schlachtensee
p. 35: contour map of Tegeler See
p. 38: contour map of Schlachtensee
p. 54: cyanobacteria levels in mud cores (a nice-looking chart, particularly the bottom half with the differently-sized black dots; you will find other examples of this kind of chart throughout, too)

// // //

For even deeper (ha) context, though this document is unfortunately only available in German as far as I know, this is an atlas of Berlin lakes. It includes not just Tegeler See and Schlachtensee bathymetric contours but also every damn lake there is in Zones A, B, and C, so feel free to scroll around and immerse yourself in the lake-ness. All data and images courtesy of the public Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung (2002).

Source: https://www.berlin.de/senuvk/umwelt/wasser/wasserrecht/pdf/wasseratlas.pdf

p. 22: a more detailed, but very badly-rendered, contour map of Tegeler See
p. 70: a more detailed, but very badly-rendered, contour map of Schlachtensee
p. everywhere: lots of stuff, scroll around!

// // //

One quick addition, from Ladwig et al. (2018)

Fig. 1: bathymetric data for Tegeler See
Fig. 4: it’s just pretty 🙂

// // //

A few weeks later he sent me this, and we were rolling.

(c) 2020 Dieter Brehm

Good art is often multi-interpretable. Few humans can look at an abstract/random or raw-data image and avoid trying to discern a pattern or tell a story. The images that fascinate me suggest instant possible interpretation but also allow for other interpretations. Experimental psychologists refer to this as image stability or figure ambiguity (Chambers and Reisberg, 1985) and a lot of famous image-games fit this as well.

(Source: Chambers and Reisberg, 1985; More: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambiguous_image)

When viewing the depth finding-inspired lake images, I had one stable interpretation immediately. I saw Dieter’s rendering of the bathyspheric data and wrote this.

“Here’s the ‘story,’ both abstract and concrete. Suspend everything you know about physics and just visualise this. I’m trying to explain the image you created above, sort of retcon it into our universe…Once upon a time, two lakes float in interstellar space. They are liquid, warm, teeming with life, but not spherical as such a lake would be in our universe. They are flat on top like Earth lakes are — like, if you froze a lake, then teleported it into interstellar space and constrained it to hold shape as it would under the influence of [Earth’s near-field planar-approximate] gravity and its lake bed…so they hold shape but behave as a drifting liquid otherwise. Let’s say that semi-magical process happens to Tegeler See and Schlachtensee. They drift around the void for eons, each a sustainable ecosystem. They meet. What we’re seeing is how they would interact if they met, according to the strange physics and biology of this imagined universe. The interaction is gravity-like, and rational, but follows different rules than Newtonian physics (or any physics we know of). They meet skew — not exactly orthogonal, just a bit mis-aligned, exactly as you have drawn above….No surrealism, no hidden faces…like a topology, like a map of these two lakes that a passing starship makes on its scanner screens for analysis…like if an Urban Sketchers person were onboard the Enterprise drawing, but with our lakes instead of a black hole [on the viewscreen.]…non-Euclidean lakes floating in space.”

That’s where this image comes from. You’ll start seeing it, and various re-colored permutations of it, from me over the next few months.

The New Clarity

I’m naming a new music/lyric style category in my mind, and I’m calling it The New Clarity, and you’re welcome to borrow it if you find it useful too. This is in response both to the ongoing mixing process for The Lakes of Zones B and C and me listening to Big Thief for the first time a few hours ago, specifically the track “Simulation Swarm.” (Listening to that track before reading this text will make a lot of what follows more comprehensible. I don’t know if the rest of Big Thief’s work fits in with what I write below but having done a quick scan and seen some live videos I think it might.)

This style has two vectors: lyric and audio.

In audio: gone are all the decadent trappings of slack, the weighty baggage of shoegaze, the preoccupation with damage and distortion and overwhelming the senses. Those things have been replaced by what we hear in “Simulation Swarm”: each instrument is clearly audible, fundamental tones are loudest and overtones are harmonic rather than dissonant, mid-heavy mayo like reverb and delay are used sparingly if at all, percussive elements have fast attack and decay, vocals are clear, room sound is a detail, not centered, performances are studied and rehearsed, tight where appropriate and deliberately loose where appropriate.

In lyrics: gone are all the decadent trappings of slack/post-slack/re-slack indie silliness, the weighty dramatic self-serious baggage of neo-goth, the uncritical glorification of solipsistic narcissism. Those things have been replaced by what we hear in “Simulation Swarm”: each word exists for a purpose, each word could be no other, each word the absolute minimum needed for maximal impact. The words give rise to a clear new emotion, lend form to the chaos of the world as it changes, imply a utopia without preaching, and form concrete but bewildering images which leave the listener with a lot of work to do in projecting multi-interpretative inner cinema that matches.

In both, the artists in Big Thief have freed themselves from the invisible tyranny in place since the emergence of industrial counterculture which requires artists to transgress first and create only as an afterthought to rebellion. The New Clarity tells us with its form to rebel by creating, to start with the building and not waste energy kicking at the old forms as they crumble into themselves, made obsolete not by our railing-against but by our moving-beyond.

All of the above are things I have always longed to do with music and hearing it happen in my headphones when I listened to Big Thief was thrilling, but I think it’s happening in other places too. If I find other examples I will post them here. If I read this in a few days and think I’m wrong I’ll clarify further.

Edit: Phoebe Bridgers, “Garden Song,” has the same properties. Total New Clarity track.

The First Post in Years

My music release pace slowed down and I stopped writing text entirely for a few years. I have been trying to figure out why. I think I have a few answers in the form of four mini-crises.

Mini-Crisis 1: What Even Is Writing/Art/Music Dude

I stopped posting text and releasing music because I have been confused about what form my output should take. The word blog always put me off; too cute, not serious enough. The word memoir always put me off; arrogant, delusional. I stopped even thinking about writing as such, and just exported thoughts into .TXT files and saved them into a catch-all folder on my desktop without any specific intention.

Similarly, I had a hard time finishing the feverish bouts of song-trances recorded into a voice memo app or 4-track cassettes or .RPP session files. The ideas kept coming, but for a few years I had a harder time completing them. This was fine for awhile, but the pile of material eventually hits an overwhelming critical mass. “Okay, I have 400,000 words and about 8 hours of songs, and most of it’s probably bad but 5-10% of it is probably great, ughhhhhhhhh who carrrrrres….” A few months ago I snapped out of it and felt an urge to hack through it, but for many years it was a massive lodestone that pushed me away with an overwhelming repellent psychological force. Progress in any creative project requires that the force exerted by the urge-to-hack-through drive must exceed the force exerted by the ugh-who-cares repellent lodestone, and that took a lot longer in the late 2010s and early 2020s for me than it did previously. I wondered why. Perhaps Mini-Crises 2-4 can explain further.

Mini-Crisis 2: Social Media Brain Injury

Secondly, I stopped writing in deliberate long form because the tweet and the FB post seduced me and absorbed my energy, not only through their unassuming, accessible form but also by flooding me with immediate positive feedback. It was easy and it felt good to get a few dozen likes a couple times a week. (That this was deliberate social engineering that I and all of us fall victim to is a topic for another post.) It also provided the illusion that I was participating in democratic discourse. I ignored the fact that I never persuaded anyone in a reply thread, nor had anyone ever persuaded me. “They’ll remember what I said some day,” I said to comfort myself. But even I forgot what I’d written a few hours later.

For the past few years most non-private statements I made in text form, some of them at first quite long and heartfelt and composed lovingly for hours like this post, were later boiled down to fit inside 280 characters, or threaded (1/87), or twisted to fit into whatever the character limit is for those stupid neon backgrounds with B I G T E X T, and in all cases I gave rights to my statement over to monopolistic data hoarding orgs whose aesthetic and ethos I despise.

These habits formed a pattern of thought that led me to conclusions like this: “What do I have to say that’s any more interesting or relevant than what everyone else is saying? We’re all just posting cringe into the abyss. Writing is stupid.” And writing is the closest exercise we have to bulk export of thought itself, so it’s not a long jump from there to “Thinking is stupid.” I never believed that consciously, and never quite stopped trying to think or communicate clearly, but I certainly started to doubt whether thinking or communicating clearly had any point. The nihilism of that despair-circle got to me. I gradually stopped writing in arcs that required more than two minutes of attention from a reader.

Mini-Crisis 3: But Shutting Up Is Also Good Sometimes Actually

Third — and rightly! — I became more aware of being a middle-aged petit bourgeois white guy from comfy suburban Florida living in comfy cooltropolis Berlin. At least in my social circles, I’ve seen over the past few years the beginning of a long-needed signal boosting of the voices and music of people who usually don’t get listened to enough. Black and brown people, women, queer people, indigenous people, people fighting the metastasizing remnants of patriarchal colonialism, etc. all deserve more attention than they receive. It made sense to me to pause for a bit and focus on listening. I still talked to people, both in person and online, and I never lost the habit of saying what I thought. I also continued to put out some music occasionally. But for a time it seemed appropriate to keep the noise down and focus on what others were saying, especially others whose voices sometimes get drowned out by people like me.

Put another way: I didn’t have anything to say that I found more legitimately interesting than what a lot of other people were saying. And though I now again feel the urge to make more public-facing text and music of my own, I aim to keep my signal boosting/shutting up skills sharper than they were in the past.

But alone that’s no reason for any artist to go as silent as I went for several years. One more long, calm crisis combined with the above three and kept me more incognito than usual.

Mini-Crisis 4: Thousands of Euros and Hundreds of Subversive PDFs

All of the above coincided with a return to teaching for the first time in a few years, starting in late 2017. I took a freelance but often nearly full-time position at a university to solve the problems described in “€30,000“, a sum that at the time of this post I longer owe to anyone, thanks largely to the extra money I earned there. My work as an educator acted as a reservoir for thoughts that were stuck in creative limbo due to Mini-Crises 1 through 3. The ecstatic yelling that previously found voice in my text posts and in my songs was for a time diverted into my lecture slides, which were weird minimalist PDFs that served as link repositories, conversational hand grenades, and (I hoped) skill-transfer aides.

The institution I served was a B.A. degree-granting pop music/audio engineering academy, a European equivalent of Berklee College of Music or Full Sail. Despite the good intentions of most of those who work at these kinds of institutions, for-profit hybrid business/arts education usually underperform against community colleges (Dening et al., 2013) and siphon student money and public resources to private investment funds (Ahlburg, 2019). I never let myself forget that I was, for a few years, working in an organization with whose ethos I could never align. I was not alone in feeling this way; I heard similar concerns from people at all levels of the organization. I had three things in common with many of my fellow idealistic artist colleagues: a determination to deliver quality education to students, a mistrust of private for-profit music colleges in general, and economic precarity that forced us to choose between poverty and seeking ancillary employment at an institution whose function is to convert the artistic energy of students into an exploitable commodity.

I did my best to encourage rigor and curiosity in the students. Inspired by other teachers, I did my best to make my classes Temporary Autonomous Zones (Bey, 1985) in the belly of the beast. Drawing on my distant physics background and my experience as an audio engineer and venue owner, I said yes and poured my soul into any class the academy threw at me (fundamentals of acoustics, composition for video, mixing/mastering, management, research methods, writing workshops, etc. etc. etc.) I re-learned what I was teaching and provided many alternative texts alongside the diluted received ideas in the university course guide. I emphasized critical thinking, respectfully highlighted and buttressed weak points in the existing curriculum, and encouraged skepticism of exploitative culture industry norms. I tried to convince every student that they deserved the power and the autonomy to build their own, better, more beautiful systems. I will never know if I got through to anyone — no teacher ever does. But after four years and €30,000 of debt paid off, I felt very tired, very proud of my work, and very justified in resigning.

// // // // //

Those four mini-crises superimposed into a state in which I needed to shut up for a bit. It’s perfectly sensible for anyone to go cave diving for awhile as long as they come out of the cave with something new. I’m not sure what that is for me, but I know I have learned more in the past four years than I have in my entire life previously about music, about philosophy, about psychology, about economics, about writing, about history, about learning itself, about the (non-)purpose(lessness) of art and music and text, about all that and more.

This ongoing series of text/audio/video posts and corresponding citations will showcase me bashing out some of what I learned and, hopefully, forging it into new text and music. I invite anyone who is interested to kick ideas around with me in the Comms room.

This series is beginning now because I am about to unleash an arsenal of new music. As I mention above, I have been creating steadily during this period, sometimes feverishly, but holding fire, not finalizing it or releasing it until I could weld it together into forms that made sense. That welding work is happening now with the help of some friends. The next few months will see the release of a ton of new Emperor X tracks and other collaborative music. Plague willing, I also might tour again in late 2022.






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