Where to Put the Canadian Politics?

It is no doubt a privilege of world domination that I can come to Canada as an American citizen and actually enjoy Canadian antiAmericanism in those odd instances when it pops up. Probably because I hate most of the same things that Canadians do, starting with the right wing politics and the religious sanctimony. Plus, there’s the fact that I don’t feel in any way threatened by it (hence the privilege of world domination). I don’t know if there is such a thing as anti-Canadianism, but I’d be interested to know how it felt to Canadians if it did indeed exist. Anyway, I’ve become a fan of Carolyn Parrish and was sorry to see her booted from the liberals on Thursday. I wrote a bit about it at Bad Subjects (I’m still trying to figure out what goes there and what goes here). But mostly I’ll be sorry to see her in the news less, as she seems to simply state the truth. Yes, Virginia, people who support missile defense as a viable military option are idiots.

Scattered Thoughts on Sound Art

Last night, with our friends Jenny and Josef (sorry if I misspelled that) we ventured out to dinner at L’Etranger and then to “Noises From the Dark IV”, an event put on by Studio 303, where we met David and Bronwen. Bronwen, it turns out, had my friend Greg Dimitriadis as an external examiner for her thesis. It is indeed a small world.

The event was indeed held in a pitched-black room . I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. The show was a series of short pieces over an hour. Several interesting things happened:

1. I was surprised at how spatial the show was. Most of the pieces used stereo and/or moved around the space depending on whether they were electronic or “live” or both. Without sight, the spatiality of the sound was even more enhanced. this made me get all Rudolf Arnheim with myself (he argues that radio’s aesthetic power comes from the subtraction of sight from sensory experience).

2. The best piece was the last one, which involved a cello and a very weird choir (they get extra points for singing those low chords I’d only ever heard sung by Tibetan monks). It had dynamics, style, playfulness and subtlety. A few of the others were clever, interesting or striking — one sounded like the narrative of a stomach’s desire, another used doors slamming to create a sort of industrial vibe.

3. But there was a surprising amount of stuff that sounded like a neurotic tuning a radio or just sort of random noises. Despite the fact that the room was stone dark and the audience was extremely quiet, many of the electronic pieces were quite loud. Their use of dynamics was extremely limited. and I’m always shocked that given the capabilities of digital audio technologies, artists do so little with them. I know what the technology can do, and I know what the principles are. I am continually surprised by how un-creative electroacoustic sound art is. Most of it is not nearly as conceptual as it thinks it is (as one of my students put it last week “is it still experimental if you’ve been trying the same experiment for 50 years?”) and it’s gear-headed to boot. While claiming to challenge the audience these kinds of pieces offer no significant challenge; they also avoid any kind of emotional dimension. this kind of sound art is, in a word, anaesthetic instead of aesthetic.

4. This didn’t affect my enjoyment as much as it sounds like, since I accept that in performance art situations, you get spectacular successes and spectacular failures and not much inbetween. Which is better, in my opinion, than dressing up and hitting the opera or a polished play, where you’ll get “good” to “great” but less often fantastic or terrible. Plus, we had a wonderfully social dinner before and drink after (though we had to try several bars before we could find one with an available table and where we could all hear one another).

5. I cannot overstate how cool it was to sit in the dark and listen. I would like to do that more often. Though if the room wasn’t quite as hot that would be okay.

I was discussing the third point with my sound studies class on Weds, and learned a few things, including that there’s an important essay on the conceptual in art that I need to go read to better understand the culture of sound artists. I need to think about it more. But it seems like there is really something missing in the academic and art-critical accounts of sound art — what it is and what it’s supposed to do.

Natural History of Royalty + Audio Geekdom

Okay, not really. Two separate topics.

Since I’ve moved to Canada, I’ve become much more aware of royalty and how stupid it is. Joe Lockard forwarded the badeditors this Guardian cartoon, which contains actual words, in context, from Prince Charles. The upsetting thing is that it was front page news in yesterday’s Globe and Mail.

In other news, last ight was my second History and Philosophy of Science lecture, this time it was Allan Bewell on the roots of Darwin’s evolutionary thought in colonial movements of people, plants and animals. My favorite quote, which I cannot accurately reproduce, involves regular house cats “growing unusually large and fierce and roaming the rocky hillsides.” I have been trying to get my cats to grow fierce and roam rocky hillsides all morning but all they want is love and food.

As is the custom, the talk was followed by drinks and dinner, where I learned yet another interesting food fact (the last such dinner was the vegetarian haggis experience). Although Bewell is one of a growing number of people who argue contra Foucault that Natural History is the beginning of modern science, and not a radical break with it, it differs in at least one important way. Natural Historians were known to often eat the animals they studied, which means that you’d get these elaborate descriptions of the animal and its habitat and then what it tastes like (cooked, presumably). Obviously, this paradigm cannot be imported into the history of technology, but it does raise questions about the epistemology of taste. And whether it would be possible to concoct and serve a tofu-marsupial.

In other news, two nights ago I scored a good deal on a used UAD-1 card, which recording people know comes with some wonderful sounding plugins that are based on very sophisticated models of the behaviors of analog devices. I am intellectually interested in this whole modelling thing, but of course the first thing I did was throw a bunch of the plugs on different tracks. I have not yet had much time to play with it, but on a quick listen to some of the plugs (especially the Pultec EQ), I can tell you that it will be all over the lo-boy album that I will commence mixing upon the semester’s end. It’s some of the best sounding digital processing I’ve heard.

Is the sound scholar who listens to the object of his study and takes pleasure in it analogous to the naturalist who eats the animals he discovers? Tune in at 11 to find out.

Bad Blog

Bad Subjects’ new blog is up and running, except that Geoff Sauer (our webmastermind — webmaster doesn’t really explain his involvement) switched to a BBS engine so that we can respond to each other and be more interactive. The result? It looks exactly like a BBS, but populated by Bad Subjects editors.

Here’s the text of my last post there, since it belongs here, too:

“I really want to write an op-ed, but I don’t know what to say. It is utterly horrific and the grossest, most public display of state violence by the U.S. that I can recall in my lifetime. The hubris behind the level of explicit brutality is really something. And for all the talk of “learning from Vietnam,” U.S. military strategists have apparently forgotten that razing a village or city doesn’t make the resistance go away or the locals love you more. I mean, do they really think that after all this murder they’re going to have popular support in Iraq, or that they’ll be able to get out with a puppet government in place any sooner?

That is all I have to say.”

Chicago Redux

Hoo boy, you travel, you get busy, you catch up. It’s a real elaborate process.

NCA and Chicago were a blast in that we got to see lots of old friends, including a couple friends who no longer live on the continent. I presented one paper and served as a respondent on three panels, and I attended no others. I’m sure they were good, but these big conferences are always more about meeting people for coffee, meals and drinks than they are going to panels. The format encourages the attitude: 10 minutes to give a paper, and most people don’t practice before they perform (I practice my presentations, not my responses), which means that the presentations are a bit of a mess. The book award came with a plaque which looks surprisingly good. Once I figure out how to hang it on my wall in the office, I will. Will says I’m “going McGill” on him, but hey, it’s my first academic prize. It was weird to be at NCA and not be at Pitt. A couple Pitt grads asked me where the “McGill party”(1) was going to be and I had to inform them that Carrie and I were the only two McGill professors who even knew NCA existed.

I’ve been to Chicago a million times, so I didn’t worry much about seeing the city. We were stuck down in the loop on Michigan Avenue, which is pretty touristy, but I did get out to see some friends AND to see this very cool exhibit. The first room was most of the standard free speech stuff, but the second room got into areas of labor, race and sex radicallsm that I wasn’t previously aware of. I totally want to visit the Dil Pickle Club now. Anyway, I recommend visiting the exhibit if you’re in Chicago between now and when it closes. Extra bonus: we got the tour from one of the curators, my old GEO comrade and good friend Toby Higbie — who is also the author of a cool book on hobos (yes, the Toby who now has twins). I will say only this: the man was remarkably awake.

As an aside, they had a record from the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band. They have some interesting cred as predecessors of Riot Grrrl and other challenges to male domination in rock music. In fact, it’s the earliest explicitly feminist challenge to male “rockism” (as they now call it) that I know of. Unfortunately, their music, is well . . . how shall I put this? They were not quite as good as some of the feminist musicians who followed them. MP3s are available on their site, so you can judge for yourself. Maybe I just caught a weak song. . . .

To be fair, nonfeminist men also make bad music. For instance, this track.

(1) It is standard practice at NCA for departments to throw parties, either in suites or in convention rooms. Some of these parties have free food and free alcohol, other’s don’t. (Departments with jobs encourage candidates to come to their parties to meet faculty and students, though sometimes the faculty are drinking and the enounter is loud, crowded and awkward for the candidate.) Usually, large packs of friends move from one party to the next in search of free food and alcohol. In the past, I’ve usually gone. This time, we had so many people to see that we bailed on the parties. Plus, Pitt was interviewing people for my old job (though the job description is now a rhetoric position), so it seemed like a good idea to steer clear and let them interact with their candidates with me out of the way.