In Part One we considered the definition and purpose of a Manifesto, and reviewed some of our inspirations from the early 20th century.
Now let’s fast-forward to Los Angeles in the present day. While we do not aspire to the fine prose of Marinetti or Breton, nor are we necessarily trying to promote any sort of movement or revolution, there are some things that have been on our minds: these are the sorts of things we discuss passionately while quaffing pints at our local, or while barreling down the interstate on a cross-country road trip – opinions, intentions, motives, objectives – that might be worth documenting … in no particular order …
The Art of Fixing A Shadow
Let’s go back to drawing class. As we’ve discussed, when rendering three-dimensional objects (in a subtractive color space) the form of a subject is described visually by its shadows. Therefore when rendering a curved surface, the shadows are gradients; the very center of the shadow, the darkest point has been called the “core dark” …. the “core dark” is therefore the most essential aspect of creating an image, of making something real …
… this ties into what is described as “the art of fixing a shadow.” William Henry Fox Talbot (who in 1839 invented the negative-positive process of photography) coined this phrase, and he was referring to the idea that darkness is what provides shape and dimension in a drawing; dark is the negative space that provides meaning in an environment filled with light. Therefore it could be argued that the “core dark” is the most meaningful place in this negative space, the most essential component of artistic expression.
There are musical analogies to this idea as well, e.g., the concept that rhythm is defined less by the beats than by the spaces between the beats (Gombrich refers to this in The Sense of Order, if memory serves) …
What is a “band?”
Imagine a group of people – artists, musicians – with common interests and objectives, who are out to create something – to create an experience for an audience. What do they call themselves?
It can be tricky, as a lot of terms that once meant something don’t really mean anything anymore. Consider the term”rock band”: at one point in time (say, the ’50s and early ’60s or so) this meant something fairly specific: drum kit, guitar, bass, vocals. Sometime around the ’80s the definition expanded to include something that could be completely driven by synthesizers and drum machines. Today a guy with a laptop can be considered a “band.” So does “rock band” really mean anything? How about the term “DJ” – pretty ubiquitous, but, again, what does it really mean? A turntablist, or someone pressing play on Traktor with auto beat matching (or, hell, iTunes)? At one point in time the phrase “live DJ” would have been considered an oxymoron, but now it’s commonplace. We could also mention “record label” – as in, “getting signed to a label.” Do “record labels” really exist anymore, at least the way they used to? Can’t pretty much anybody these days produce a track or two, push them to a streaming service, and call themselves a “record label” … ?
Using words that don’t mean anything is a waste of everybody’s time.
But how, then, do we describe ourselves? How do we define what we are? Yeah, we’re a rock band. We play rock and roll shows. But that’s just part of it. We are also something that combines the definitions of performance art collective, AV performance, experimental electronics and cinema, and more. And we still create physical artifacts.
This combination seems perfectly natural, considering our backgrounds and the age in which we live. The concept of “rock band” is over a half-century old … can we not move on? Is it not more interesting to see an act that may manifest itself in more than one way … that can change and adapt from, say, one venue to another?
It would be perhaps desirable to be able to say “we’re uncategorizable.” But that’s not very practical, and a bit pretentious besides. And the general public likes to name things. People like labels, ’cause it makes things easier to understand.
This represents a challenge.
Of course this dilemma is actually nothing new; it’s not a challenge that others haven’t faced. There have been many acts that defy traditional categorizations; groups from whom you expect more than one thing: e.g, Laibach and NSK, Neubauten, Emergency Broadcast Network, to name a few, and then there are polymath individuals like Eno and Byrne. How would you label these people? Perhaps it’s better not to …
Collective Dynamics and Synergy
In any case, individuals, with individual characteristics, can be more powerful together, more compelling when combined, aligned … OK, fine … but how to make it work, in a modern context … ?
… in a traditional rock band, it was simple: each member had a role (e.g., drums, or bass) and everyone was necessary. We tend to work among polymaths: for the most part we’re all musicians, visual artists, producers, and so on … we could (and do) work as solo artists, in multiple contexts … but there are advantages to working as a collective …
Indulge a very geeky analogy: consider the Avengers, or the Justice League – all of these heroes can and did work by themselves – but when brought together under the umbrella of the Marvel and DC universes, respectively, there are some new and interesting possibilities …
… whatever the format, it’s important – indeed, essential – to all be aligned in terms of direction. Especially important for multiple media: if you’re doing a music set with visuals but you don’t even know the VJ, how can you know the show is going to be coherent?
Consider an example of how this can go wrong: a number of years ago Peter was doing visuals at a festival in Boston along with a few other video artists. Sonic Youth came on, and one of the video artists (not Peter) who didn’t have any communication beforehand with the band did a visual mix using some footage (in this case, of the Twin Towers in NYC) that not only didn’t work thematically but seriously pissed off the band …
Technology is of great importance. It’s an essential part of being human.
We feel (like the Futurists) that if we’re not pushing the envelope, at least a little, in the creative process we’re not really doing our job. And one obvious way to do this is exploiting new technologies …
This includes creating one’s own tools. A lot easier for artists and musicians these days ’cause a lot of it is software …
But it’s not just the tools, of course. Our lives are infused with technology. And all art, music and stories have their origins in from the experiences of our lives. The Futurists understood this:
“Living art draws its life from the surrounding environment. Our forebears drew their artistic inspiration from a religious atmosphere which fed their souls; in the same way we must breathe in the tangible miracles of contemporary life— … [the] network of speedy communications which envelops the earth …” – Marinetti, Manifesto of the Futurist Painters 1910
Still sounds pretty current, doesn’t it?
An important aspect of current technology is the unprecedented ability to work in multiple media (e.g., audio and video) simultaneously, and in real time …
Call it what you want – Multimedia, AV performance, DJ/VJ set, hyper-synaesthetic transmedia – the tools are readily available these days …
The Futurists would have killed (most likely in a literal sense, knowing them) for the tools, the power, the resources we have today … we’re fortunate to live in an age with such possibilities and we feel compelled to use them!
What does “live” mean?
You go to a “concert.” Grab a drink that might set you back $20.
Up on the stage is a dude hunched over a laptop – maybe he’s heads-down in Ableton, or maybe he’s checking his email? Who knows? Maybe he’s taking pictures of the packed house and uploading to Instagram? You can’t tell by watching him. It might sound great, but what’s actually going on?
Or maybe there’s a “band” that consists of a guy on a microphone and his buddy with a keyboard (is it even plugged in?) or some drum pads playing to backing tracks.
Do you feel satisfied?
Let’s consider some definitions, here: when you take a song, remove the vocals, and then get up on stage with a mic and sing over the track, this is not a “live show.” There’s a word for this, and the word is “karaoke.” Why not call it what it is? To see a marquee outside your local club that says “TONIGHT: (insert name of headliner here) LIVE KARAOKE SET” would be pretty refreshingly accurate, wouldn’t it?
The Producer’s Fader, on stage
You’ve probably heard stories from recording studios involving the Producer’s Fader (or Knob) – the control on a mixing console that’s secretly configured by the engineer to do nothing but allow someone to feel like they’re tweaking a mega-mix. Then when you’re the engineer mixing a track and it already sounds great but the producer feels the need to say “a little more of this, or that” you just move this fader or knob which does absolutely nothing but allows the producer to say “yeah, that’s exactly what I want.” …
Have you ever seen a DJ on stage intently tweaking knobs with dramatic gestures and wondered, “are those Producer’s Knobs he’s got up there … ?”
The Drum Machine Dialectic
“I got nothin’ against hip hop, but there’s a party in my town and no beat box” declared a seminal LA band, back in the ’80s.
Of course, a vocal and a DJ or drum machine is an accepted, legitimate format for a certain kind of show … but, just as a thought experiment, ask yourself what would you rather see on stage: a vocalist and a drum machine, or Gil Scott Heron doing The Revolution Will Not Be Televised with his full live band?
But we’re electronic musicians, you say. We like synthetic sounds and computer-driven beats (not to mention 808 and 909 drum sounds). Yes, indeed, we do. Does that mean we can’t do a legitimate live show? Well, of course we can. The computer can be a member of the band (especially when it’s running Ableton), just as Roland was a “member” of Big Black. But it shouldn’t be the entire band, at least if you intend to call yourself a “band.” And it shouldn’t be driving the whole show, locking everyone to playback: humans should be in control, and should be able change things up as necessary – like, “hey, let’s make this intro 32 bars instead of 16” or “let’s change up the percussion arrangement in the bridge this time” if we want to … otherwise it ain’t really Live …
After all this thesis and antithesis discussion, it might be worth pointing out that to draw a clear distinction between “organic” or “natural” rhythms and machine-driven beats is to ignore the history of contemporary music (e.g., rock, funk, and most other dance music), as Peter Shapiro observes:
“Dance musics like rock’n’roll and funk are almost always discussed in terms of their ‘primitive’ and ‘natural’ characteristics; but this ignores the machine-like qualities of the element that purportedly embodies this naturalism: the rhythm …
Modern popular music was born at the dawn of the 20th century in Congo Square, New Orleans, where marching brass bands … would congregate … One reason for the popularity of the marching band sounds was that a large number of decommissioned soldiers ended up in the city after the Civil War and the Spanish-American Wars, making brass instruments readily available – a fact which served as a constant reminder that the marching band was originally developed as the motor force of the military’s killing machine, disciplining and regimenting the troops with metronome beats.
Elsewhere … the rhythm of life in most of America was created by the railroad, and pre-war blues and Country records were often little more than imitations of the locomotive using jugs and guitars …”
… so the “synthesis” has actually been around for a long time …
(to be continued …)