Against the Epic?

I had a lovely breakfast with a (at the time) PhD candidate on the day of her successful dissertation defense. Describing her life in Montana, she told me that so many people in the college town where she lived were “epic.” That seemed like a particularly apt word for folks who lived in state known for its mountains and big sky. 

Later that morning, I put in Earl Sweatshirt’s new EP, Feet of Clay. The entire EP runs to just over 15 minutes. It mostly consists of Sweatshirt’s characteristic stream of rhymes lyrics over a looped sample and beat. There are few breaks and no choruses. The entire EP is mercifully devoid of pretense and, despite it’s Biblical title, grandeur. It’s the opposite of the epic. 

Mami Wata, shawty blew the fish out
Piscean just like my father, still got bones to pick out
For now let’s salt the rims and pour a drink out

Taking nothing from the sincerity of the EP’s lyrics. Like his previous album Some Rap Songs, which stretches over the luxurious 24 minute mark, Sweatshirt reflects on the loss of his father, his own coming of age, and the challenges of success.

I put my fears in a box like a prayer that you won’t read
Spirited Away the whole thing
Peerin’ away, I won’t leave
See you starin’ into old beefs

This circumscribed scope sets it apart from so much of the recent output in the hip hop scene. Sweatshirt’s biblical allusion does not appear to symbolize some kind of monumental conversion that might warrant an entire album as in Kanye West’s contemporary Jesus is KingFeet of Clay’s lyrics are compelling:

Depending how I play my cards
The wind whispered to me, “Ain’t it hard?”
I wait to be the light shimmering from a star
Cognitive dissonance shattered and the necessary venom restored
As if it matters if you think it matters anymore

But they are not going to be taught in private college art history classes. They don’t explicitly challenge patrimony, racism, or capitalism. At 15 minutes, Sweatshirt’s EP doesn’t push you to consider existential themes along the lines of Kamasi Washington’s 3-hours masterpiece Heaven and Earth. It’s not a concept album, a statement, or a gimmick. To circle back: it’s not epic.

This semester, in a small graduate seminar, we concluded the semester by reading John Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History: a rough journey (2014), Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto (2014), and numerous texts that refer to Daniel Lord Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain (2009), Manuel De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History (2011), or various other works that seek to narrative history on a monumental scale. These works are exciting, to be sure, and their scope and scale are intoxicating particularly to those of us who often spend our lives worrying about the distribution of broken ceramic sherds or history at the level of the decade or century. Moreover, their willingness to engage in big issues from climate change, to race, capitalism, colonialism, and violence, presses us to understand the immense scale of various oppressive regimes and systems. 

At the same time, these works are strangle distant from our daily experiences. It is possible, of course, to understand how choices we make contribute to deep history and patterns of injustice, inequality, and pain, but epic scale of these processes often can lead to a compromised sense of agency. On the one hand, maybe this is the goal. By revealing the vastness of our problems, we distribute the responsibility from our own shoulders as denizens of the 21st century and, instead, share the burden with our past. Our inability to escape our present allows us to live in a tragic moment. 

On the other hand, revealing how past decisions have shaped the present tempts us to be more deliberate while still reminding us that whatever our choices will inevitably have negative consequences for those who will invariably see the world in ways much different from our own.

Earl Sweatshirt’s EP, on the other hand, offers us 15 minutes of the explicitly non-epic. Seemingly scaled to the human attention span, it offers relief in the realm of the momentary and the personal. This doesn’t mean that it’s not deep, that it’s not meaningful, and that it’s not significant. In fact, Sweatshirt’s lyrics are on point, the production is tight, and the EP is rich with wordplay, sincerity, and history. By casting aside epic pretensions for even just for 15 minutes, it reminds us that the contemporary world, circumscribed by our own horizons, does exist even if it’s not all there is to the world.

 

Afterword: The entire concept of the EP in the digital age is great. There’s no reason for the EP to exist today, of course. It originally referred to a kind of vinyl pressing that was shorter than the LP and usually spun at 45 rpm and were 7-inches rather than 33-1/3 for 10-inch LPs. This conscious reference to an analogue past complements the every-day scope of Feet of Clay and strips from it some of the monumental hype that an LP requires. 

Refined and Revised: A Response to Andrew Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory for Epoiesen (part 2)

This weekend, I worked on refining and revising my response to Andrew Reinhard’s piece, Assemblage Theory, on Epoiesen. The response is a bit long so I’m breaking it into two pieces. Below is part 2. Check out part 1 here.

My response is also a bit complex (and a bit like a cat attacking a sofa), but by playing with these ideas, I’m hoping it’ll help me refine my thinking for an article that is due at the end of the month. Last Spring, I gave a paper at the annual IEMA Conference at the University of Buffalo. The paper was titled “Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics” (plus this coda) and it marks my first effort to create an academic argument what I’m trying to do with The Digital Press

 

You can read It’s a bit rough around the edges, but as always, I’m more than open to any criticism or feedback! 

~

Reinhard is aware that his assemblage is hyperreal and makes the samples of a track available for us to play along with him and to create our own music from a common pool of sonic artifacts. It is worth noting that in archaeology, this kind of generosity remains relatively rare. Historically, archaeologists were loath to release key elements of archaeological assemblages often preserved in excavation notebooks which often remain the personal property of the scholar. More recently, archaeologists have acknowledged that their deep experience in the landscape, with particular methods, and across the social relationships that shape fieldwork formed as vital a part of the archaeological assemblage as the carefully documented ceramic sherds and stratigraphic relationships. These limits, of course, shape Reinhard’s willingness to share as well. He is not only adept at manipulating the tracks in Audacity, but also has a workflow, a distinct set of gear, and experience as a musician to guide his encounter with these songs. Recognizing this, I was at first, inclined to critique that Reinhard for only releasing the artifacts from one song and to note that it neatly paralleled the tendency among archaeologists to feint toward transparency and openness in analysis while holding back certain key elements of the interpretative process. This was uncharitable, though, because by offering one song from Assemblage Theory, he pushes us from thinking about the artifacts present in the songs and toward thinking about the broader assemblage of artifacts that served to mediate our encounter with his music. Our own efforts to manipulate the provided tracks primarily demonstrate the impossibility of recreating Reinhard’s songs.

Even the more passive encounter of just listening to Reinhard’s album is fraught with a certain element of uncertainty. When I first read Reinhard’s piece, I clicked through to Spotify and dutifully clicked on the first track. The website played the first 30 seconds of the song and then went to the next song on the album. I didn’t think much of it because I wasn’t really that concerned with the length of the songs. After two or three tracks, however, I discovered that because I don’t have a Spotify account, I could only hear the first 30 second of each song. That was a bummer, and apparently this also influenced the first responder to this article’s listening to the tracks.

I then emailed Reinhard and he let me know that the album was also available on on Tidal. I then played it on my MacBook Pro and though it sounded interesting enough to cue it up on the stereo that lives in my main room. Through my much larger and more sophisticated stereo the sound seemed a bit muddled: the big bass in a few songs (like “Trappist”) seemed smear across the other sounds on the track, and the lack of dynamic range made the entire entire album just feel too loud and heavy. To be clear, the system that I was using to play the album was not optimized for loud music. I was streaming the album over an Auralic Mini music streamer that outputs to a Schiit Bifrost DAC from which it then runs through a pair of Audioquest RCA cables into a 60 watt vacuum-tube Audio Research Corporation amplifier that drives a pair of Zu Omen Defs speakers. The Omen Defs are paper-cone, full-range-driver speakers that I’ve paired with a two super quick, 400 watt Zu Undertone subwoofers. This system loves dynamic music: small ensemble jazz, carefully recorded rock music, and acoustic stuff. When I play loud, boomy music especially through the streamer, the bass makes the entire scene a bit sloppy for some reason.

The next day, I also played it over my little office system which consists of two powered Yamaha studio monitors and a thumpy little subwoofer that sits under my desk. It sounded tighter and every bit as loud as on my home system, but not as big and more precisely rendered. This little system encouraged me to look deeply into the mix as one might expect from studio monitors.

Finally, I returned home and played the version of the album that Reinhard sent to me as .wav files through my Sony music player (a HAP-Z1ES) and from there into my ARC amplifier and into my big speakers. For some reason this cleared up most of the boomy-ness. It was still loud, but it felt a bit more carefully wrought and exact. This version of the album preserved more of the digital character of the music despite it running through vacuum-tube amplifier and paper cone speakers. At the same time, it communicated a sense of scale. 800 watts of subwoofer and four paper-cone woofers ensured that I felt the music.

All of this is to point out that this sculpted assemblage of samples also consists of a complex series of technologies, services, and environments that mediate our encounter with all parts of the assemblage from their transmission to the relationship between the various component parts. The more that I listened to his album (and right now, I’m listening to it on my MacBook Pro, through an Audioquest Dragonfly Red DAC, a ALO Rx MC3-B+ headphone amplifier and a pair of Audeze LCD-2C headphones), the more I wondered how close what I was hearing was to what Reinhard created. My various listening environments created plenty of room to quibble about how the assemblage actually works.

~

What remains clear in all of my encounters with Reinhard’s assemblage, however, is how companies have succeeded at monetizing various elements in this assemblage. Sometimes this is overt, such as when we have to sign up to listen to a particular music service which then records our listening habits, compensates (barely) musicians, serves up advertising. At present, we only have access to this music through a series of music services that monetize Reinhard’s efforts and whose future is far from certain. The formats through which this music is distributed—whether in the uncompressed format of a .wav file or through such compressed formats as FLAC, ALAC, or MP3—may prove as ephemeral as 8-track tapes, DATs, or mini discs, or as persistent as LPs. Archiving these tracks so that both Reinhard’s and this article makes sense in the future is not as simple as saving the music files to a repository, but must also extend to preserving the various subsidiary formats and even devices through which these songs could be heard. As Raiford Guin’s has shown with video games, digital artifacts are more than just the source code, but involves the experience of the arcade or the home gaming system, the haptics of the controllers, the look of the CRT monitor or television, and even the art on the game cartridge or cabinet.

Reinhard is away of the commercial concerns associated with the dissemination, use, and reuse of audio and their place within the longer history of music making. The samples that Reinhard used in his songs were all free and open access, apparently, and this, presumably, was an economic and political decision, but also an artistic one. Thirty years ago, however, the landscape of sampling and the assemblages available to recombine look much different. Hanif Abdurraqib, in his recent meditation on the oeuvre of Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, reflected on the change in hiphop in the mid-1990s when record labels discovered they could require permission and payment for samples used in songs. By 2001, the use of expensive samples becomes a point of pride for some rappers and embarrassment for others. Jay-Z, famously attacked Nas by claiming that he did not even own the right to his own songs so when Jay-Z sampled them, Nas did not make any money (this point was later disputed by Nas and his representatives):

So yeah, I sampled your voice, you was usin’ it wrong
You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song
And you ain’t get a coin, nigga, you was gettin’ fucked then
I know who I paid, God “Serchlite publishin’”

In this context, Reinhard’s use of free samples explicitly detached himself from one of the commercial aspects of the music making process. At the same time, he did not release his entire assemblage of samples explicitly and, curiously, there is no equivalent of the ceramic catalogue, or concordance where he credited the original sources of his samples. Moreover, he distributed his music via commercial services that even at the free tier require registration as a way to monetize plays and listeners, and his tracks are not available for free download. We can imagine, then, that maybe Reinhard is getting “coin,” but his sources are, in Jay-Z’s words, “gettin’ fucked.” In the 21st-century, moreover, it is clear that as listeners, we are, like his samples, also a resource to be monetized.

This is not meant to be a criticism of Reinhard’s place in the media ecosystem or his right as an artist to benefit however modestly from his work, but to demonstrate how the flow of objects through various media create relationships and value. Recent attention to media in the production of archaeological knowledge (Gartski 2018; Morgan and Wright 2018) and in its presentation and reception (Perry 2018; 2019) has revealed the complexity of the relational systems that shape how sites, artifacts, and encounters create opportunities for ethical actions and shared knowledge. The easy fluidity of digital space perhaps emphasizes or even exaggerates the instability of the kinds of 21st-century assemblages accessed through Assemblage Theory. The interplay of the physical and virtual continuously destabilize how our experiences of digital worlds produce meaning. In this way, Assemblage Theory is a valuable companion to Reinhard’s longterm project of archaeogaming (Reinhard 2017). It also reminds us that the relationships that constitute knowledge—even in the dusty corridors of Ivory Tower archaeology—are always being monetized through access, citation, reading, and remembering.

~

Reinhard starts his discussion of assemblages with Manuel Delanda’s Assemblage Theory. By the time I had finished listening to Assemblage Theory for the third or fourth time, I was more drawn to considering his work in light of Delanda’s earlier text, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. In this book, Delanda expanded and developed the notion of machinic phyla from Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus. Deleuze and Guattari emphasizes that assemblages form not merely through conscious decisions or even discursive rules (like narratives or the pop song), but also through affordances of the objects themselves. These scholars were particular intrigued by the notion of flow and the ways in which the movement of material, manufactured objects, and individuals mediated by their materiality produced value within the capitalist system in ways that appeared to be nearly autonomous. Michael Roller has adapted this notion archaeological assemblage as evidence for the emergence of mechinic consumerism in the 20th century (Roller 2019). This is a kind of consumerism that is as much a product of producers and production as the manufactured objects. Roller reminds us that the assemblages that reproduce the experiences of 20th- and 21st-century consumer culture are fraught with contradictions and map onto our experiences as both producers and consumers. The tolerance for these contradictions both within assemblage and within our lived experience reflects the growing willingness to accept “the intervention of corporations in their lives” (18) and an opportunity (if not obligation) for archaeologists to untangle the complexities of 21st-century assemblages and unpacks “the plurality of forces that produce the present world” (19). It is worth noting that despite Roller’s radical and activist rhetoric, his article appears in the journal Historical Archaeology which is published by the commercial publishing conglomerate Springer Nature who monetized access to his radical arguments.

An archaeological investigation of Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory goes beyond the playful parataxis of distinct samples and sounds and reveals traces left behind by the technological, political, economic, intellectual, and social flows that establish value and define culture in our contemporary world. Haggis has argued that the assemblages of ceramic objects and sculpture excavated from a Hellenistic pit at Vergina or a Late Archaic well in Athens (Haggis 2018) constitute a context for considering archaeological questions that arise at the intersection of methods and the functional, chronological, and typological relationship between objects, space, and place. Isolating these objects from their archaeological context through their display in a museum or appearance in a catalogue, for example, transforms (and some would argue even impoverishes) the potential value of these objects to speak to the widest range of questions about past practices that from the basis for larger statements on past culture. By locating Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory in a series of different context, we open it up to speak most broadly to questions at of pressing concern in contemporary society.

I hope my response has shown, how our encounter with this album traces a number of elements of 21st century economic and social life. First and foremost, the album celebrates the potential of art gleaned from the surplus sounds scattered about the internet. The growing fascination with modern spolia (Meier 2012), the surplus of material and meaning that surrounds contemporary life (Akasegawa 2009), and the economic and creative activity of scavengers (Ferrell 2006) speaks to a society increasingly defined by the reciprocal acts of production and consumption.

Reinhard’s trap-inspired EDM relentlessly encourages us to connect our movements to his music through a tempo encoded in an invisible “click track” and to embody the precise pulses of our digitally mediated world. In some, indistinct ways, this prepares us for the hyperreal loudness of Assemblage Theory. The vividness and immediacy of the album seems to anticipate its seamless distribution through commodified, ubiquitous, and increasingly invasive services. The same connections that both allowed Reinhard to harvest found sounds and us to enjoy his creative work creates value for capitalistic concerns who profit from the flow of data throughout our connected world. At my house, Assemblage Theory was further mediated through an arcane and expensive set of stereo equipment. In my most optimistic moments, I pretend that the carefully arrangement of components in my stereo system creates a unique sound through which I can assert some individuality. In reality, I am probably the same as a club kid whose body sways to a hidden click track while pretending that the latest styles make me distinct enough to stand out and recognizable enough to be part of a crowd.

Refined and Revised: A Response to Andrew Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory for Epoiesen (part 1)

This weekend, I worked on refining and revising my response to Andrew Reinhard’s piece, Assemblage Theory, on Epoiesen. The response is a bit long so I’m breaking it into two pieces.

It’s also a bit complex, but by playing with these ideas, I’m hoping it’ll help me refine my thinking for an article that is due at the end of the month. Last Spring, I gave a paper at the annual IEMA Conference at the University of Buffalo. The paper was titled “Collaborative Digital Publishing in Archaeology: Data, Workflows, and Books in the Age of Logistics” (plus this coda) and it marks my first effort to create an academic argument what I’m trying to do with The Digital Press

It’s a bit rough around the edges, but as always, I’m more than open to any criticism or feedback!

 

 

Responding to Andrew Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory is difficult on a number of levels. The greatest challenge, for me, is recognizing in Reinhard’s work a response to the recent attention to the assemblage in archaeological thinking (see the various contributors to 2017 special issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Harrison 2011; Martin 2013; Fowler 2013; Haggis 2018). This work is remarkably diverse and theoretically informed. Much of taps into the vital current of thought concerning the limits of material agency both in the past and in our own work as researchers. At its most exciting, critical engagements with the concept of assemblages, relational ontologies, and scientific practices (especially in the hands of thinkers like Karen Barad (2007)) offer new ways for understanding the “social life of things” (Appadurai 1988), “stuff” (Miller 2009), and “vibrant matter” (Bennett 2010). Bruno Latour has explored how in its broadest definition, the concept of the assemblage can inform how we think about our world in the fits of the Anthropocene (Latour 2017). This is heady and important stuff.

At the same time, I was drawn to Reinhard’s album and article because of my interest in music. In the past, I’ve thought about how music can inform archaeological thinking (Caraher 2019; Caraher, Kourelis, and Reinhard 2014). I also just really like music. In fact, as I write these words I’m listening to Ornette Coleman’s “Monk and the Nun” which was originally recorded in 1959 during the same session as his iconic The Shape of Jazz to Come. “Monk and the Nun” did not appear on that album, and resurfaced only on some compilations released in the 1970s. This afternoon, however, I was listening to it on Ornette Coleman’s box set of recordings from his year on the Atlantic label (1959-1961) called Beauty is a Rare Thing and released in 1993. The tracks on this box set are arranged in the order that they were recorded rather than in the order that the tracks would appear on any of Coleman’s Atlantic albums. This means that they only they loosely follow the organization of the albums and do not follow the order of the tracks as they were originally released. Coleman’s well-known track “Lonely Woman” is track 5 on the first disc of Beauty is a Rare Thing and comes immediately before “Monk and the Nun.” It originally appeared as the string first track on his The Shape of Jazz to Come. To my mind, this is important: the bass line, then drums, and finally, those magically awkward, melancholic, and deeply engaging lines from Coleman and his long-time collaborator Don Cherry introduce their new approach to jazz featured on this album and definitive for Coleman’s long career.

While the box set offers an exhaustive survey of Coleman’s work during his most exciting and productive period. It is markedly different from the assemblage offered by the six albums released over this same period (The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959), Change of the Century (1960), This Is Our Music (1961), Free Jazz (1961), Ornette! (1962), and Ornette on Tenor (1962)). The different order of the tracks alone give the 1993 box set a different vibe and the faithfulness to the order of recording provides new opportunities for insights into the development of the songs and albums that world make Coleman famous. Reading Reinhard’s reminded me to think about albums as assemblages, and to think (and eventually write) about music.

Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory is a remarkable experiment in thinking and performing an assemblage. Sculpted from found sounds on the internet, Reinhard’s album—and the article that introduced it on Epoiesen—makes visible the work of a musician, archaeologist, and individual in bringing order to the fragmented realities that surround us. The seamlessness of Reinhard’s beats does not intend to represent or reproduce the cacophonic and discordant character of the original group of samples. Instead, he seeks to resolve their differences through the cutting away and carefully arranging the sounds into recognizable songs. Reinhard makes one group of his found sounds available for us to understand his process, and this is a generous way to make clear the methods that Reinhard used, in general, to produce order from the chaos of even his opportunistic assemblages. Reinhard’s work reinforces a point made by Rodney Harrison (2011): assemblages are “assembled” rather than discovered and while the act of finding sounds on the internet playfully mimics the modern serendipity of excavation, it does nothing to detract from the obvious work of assembly that is crucial to Reinhard’s piece. We can safely assume that he discarded and rejected sounds that were not suitable for his project making the act of finding even less about revealing something that existed and more about creating something that was necessary.

The goal of my response is explore the nuances of Reinhard’s Assemblage Theory as he created it and as I have encountered it and to trace the limits of his assemblage beyond the bounds of the album into the sinews of our culture. In this way, I want to emphasize an Assemblage Theory as a point of entry into a wider meditation on the ways in which assemblages provide a medium for the critical engagement of our contemporary world. In this way, Reinhard’s project reflects his (and my own) longstanding interest in the use of archaeological methods and metaphors as a way of excavating and constructing critical perspectives on the contemporary world.

(I’m now listening to The Comet is Coming’s Complete Studio Recordins 2015CE-2017CE. The tracks on this album, through some accident of markup lost their metadata and even their original order, when I uploaded this album to my Roon music software library.)

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Reinhard is an archaeologist and like so much archaeology, the smoothness of his final production serves as much to obfuscate the original character of his assemblage of samples as the methods and practices that brought them into seemingly meaningful relationships. His description of this process evoked for me Elizabeth Freeman’s interpretation of Frankenstein in her book Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010). In a short digression, Freeman considers Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a model for understanding the role that time played in the processes used to create verisimilitude in media. She argues that in creating his creature, Victor Frankenstein’s aspired to assemble a being whose seamlessness manifests the experience of reality in the present. His creature, however, was characterized by its seams and sutures that combined the assemblage of scavenged parts necessary to bring it to life. The visible seams demonstrated that it was impossible to eliminate the abrupt and affective character of its pastness that is intrinsic to awkward and profoundly human assemblages. In effect, the seams made Frankenstein’s creature authentic and, ironically, alive. Our modern efforts to create a smooth and seamlessness experience from found things, at best, mimics our experiences of the present, but more likely anticipates a perfectible utopian future that disregards our own encounter with the past. The discipline of archaeology with its debt to modernity (Thomas 2006) consistently attempts to create seamlessness from the disparate fragments assembled from past experiences. This echos the modern promise of seamless integration in the internet of things, of augmented and virtual reality, and in various transhuman fantasies of technologically enhanced humans.

Reinhard’s selective remixing of his samples to produce a smoothly contoured present ensured created a juxtaposition that both located the samples in the past but also created their pastness. The dissonant, discontinuous, and found character of the samples defined them as something other than the contemporary experience. This distancing made the act of re-assembly possible and, indeed, necessary even through we realize that the digital samples at the core of Reinhard’s songs are from an archaeological strata that could also be contemporary with the songs themselves. As Smith has noted in her response to this album (2018), Reinhard’s effort to assert and demonstrate the disparate parts of these songs while simultaneously obscuring how these parts fit together to create a sonically consistent whole is a key role in locating Reinhard’s creative power in the present. The tension between an asserted pastness and recognizable present is a common feature of our diverse, digital, post-industrial and modern world in that we often seek to eliminate the jarring disjunctions between parts of the assemblage that remind us of the past’s messy abruptness. The tragic and all-too-human character of Victor Frankenstein’s monster made it the deeply sympathetic victim of the modernity’s distain for the incongruity and flawed character of the past and the false hope for a seamless and perfected future.

~

To his credit, Reinhard, like Victor Frankenstein, is honest about how he created his assemblage. He arranged his found sounds according to the structure of traditional pop songs and accentuated the sounds that evoked contemporary guitar rock, beats drawn from trap, house, and EDM, as well as other sonic conventions. These various structures are part of this assemblage as well, and it is probably safe to assume that these structures allowed Reinhard prefigure his album in the sounds on the internet. Hayden White, for example, famously argued that a series of tropes and forms of employment shaped the way that historians produced narratives, explained causality, and produced assemblages of evidence. Neville Morley’s response to Reinhard’s piece reminded us that pop sensibilities are only one potential way to emplot this assemblage. As long as pop music has existed, there have been those who have sought to challenge the self-evident character of its structure.

(I just put on the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime which was famously recorded and mixed for $1100 (Azzerad 2001, 82). Despite the effort to make this into a concept album, it still retains the band’s anti-commercial, rambling style of the band which was the very antithesis of pop music.)

Despite Morley’s critique, which Reinhard invited by making his original assemblage available for examination, Reinhard’s arrangement still models our own approach to archaeological knowledge making. Narratives of all sorts prefigure the assemblages that we encounter in archaeology. These narratives and processes constitute parts of these assemblages the same way that a traditional pop melody or familiar sound on the web prefigured the songs possible at Reinhard’s deft hands. Different hands introduce different elements to the assemblage and Reinhard’s generosity with his samples has resulted in at least one new encounter with some of the same basic elements.

There are other elements present in Reinhard’s assemblage that offer more insights into the process that produced the final album. Two struck me as immediately visible.

First, the album has the unmistakable character of contemporary music making in its unfailing and precise rhythmic structure. Generally, a “click track” imparts this structure on a song. The click track is a tool that allows a musician to precisely synchronize sounds in various recordings. The click track is eliminated during the production process, but the regularity of the beat that it imparts persists. Damon Krukowski, the former Galaxie 500 drummer, has recently observed that the “click track” regularizes the interplay between musicians in recordings. Prior to the use of click tracks and in live performances, musicians would listen to one another and adjust their tempos in minute ways that allow a song to hold together. Musicians also would be influenced by live audiences to accelerate or slow their tempo in response to the crowd, the moment, and the shared experience of the performance. Thus the audience and performers responded to one another and the listener’s response to a performer would follow the performers responses to one another in the process of music making.

I’m now listening to Cannonball Adderley’s album Something Else (1958) and as I bob my head in time to their version of the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves“ waiting for the entry of Miles Davis’s muted trumpet, I’m literally moving in sync with the musicians as they listened to each other. I’m locked into the interplay between Art Blakey’s drums, Sam Jones’s bass line, and Hank Jones’s sparse piano. These are real musicians whose subtle cues and gestures I attempt to imagine as I listen deeply into this classic album. Reinhard’s album is a different affair, but it would be an odd effort to seek human interaction in the mechanical regularity of the click. Krukowski has suggested that lack of intimacy in contemporary recorded pop music comes from the standard use of the click track which has eliminated the subtle variations that may be undetectable on a conscious level, but nevertheless draw us into the experience of music as a human art. Whether one agrees with the argument of a former dummer is less significant than the more obvious observation that when we move our body in time with Reinhard’s thumping beats, we are not sharing in the generative interplay of the musicians who recorded the song, but falling in sync with precise beats of a machine.

The other artifact of Reinhard’s assemblage that captured my attention was the driving beat of trap music. Over the last decade, the rhythms of trap have become essentially synonymous with hiphop. Trap is usually associated with the beats that emerged in the South, and particularly Atlanta, in the 1990s and by the early 21st century these beats became increasingly common in the EDM. Essential to the style of trap is the sound of the Roland TR-808 drum machine which became so closely associated with this style of music that hiphop duo Outkast recognized it by name in their 2003 hit “The Way You Move” which connects the 808s distinctive cymbal and bass that is characteristic of trap.

So click-it or ticket, let’s see your seat belt fastened
Trunk rattlin’, like two midgets in the back seat wrestlin’
Speaker box vibrate the tag
Make it sound like aluminum cans in a bag
But I know y’all wanted that 808
Can you feel that be-A-S-S, bass

Outkast here is making fun of the 808-produced trap so typical in early-21st-century Atlanta hiphop by describing how it sounds played through a car stereo with its powerful subwoofer rattling the license plate and the poorly attached plastic trim. The reference to it sounding like “aluminum cans in a bag” is not simply an innocent simile but a playful suggestion that the sound of thumping base evokes the image of the urban scavenger with his assemblage of recyclable cans in plastic trash bag. In the hands of Outkast, the ubiquitous sound of trap and the Roland TR-808 slyly evokes the lower class near-suburbs of Atlanta and the “dirty” neighborhoods which made this sound famous. This superficial reading of trap does not do the complexities of this genre justice (see for example, McCarthy 2018; Kaluža and Študent 2018), but since Reinhard’s album is not so much trap as trap-inspired EDM, the relationship between his beats and the assemblage of trap driven hiphop is probably distant enough for us to abandon it at this point in my review.

The more proximate context for trap inspired EDM is, of course, is the club. As I have already noted in my discussion of the “click track” in contemporary electronic music, the use of trap beats in the club creates a bodily response not just to the beats, but to the automated processes which order the beats into a systematic tempo. The club is also a place of consumption and display where music is not only consumed, but individuals produce distinctive assemblages to manufacture both group and individual identities. EDM is social music designed to be played in public places and a constituent part of the assemblages that define club culture identity (Classically explored by D. Hebdige 1979; more recently Jackson 2004; Wilson 2006).

The intersection of style, music, and the movements of bodies in the club locates Reinhard’s album amid a larger assemblage of manufactured experiences that define identities within consumer culture. A particularly intriguing aspect of our experience with Assemblage Theory is the loudness of the album. Loudness in this context does not refer to the volume of the tracks which the user can control, but the relationship between the quietest and loudest passages on any track. The compressed dynamic range of the tracks on Assemblage Theory is a sonic artifact of the late-20th and early-21st century. Reinhard’s album has a dynamic range of around 6 db, which is consistent with the 5 db present on Migos platinum-certified album CULTURE and slightly less dynamic than Daft Punk’s 8 db range on Random Access Memories. To put this in perspective Orbital’s highly regarded second album (often called “The Brown Album”) released in 1993 had a dynamic range of 13 db. Tribe Called Quest’s iconic Low End Theory from 1991 had a range of 12 db. The recent increase in loudness has its roots both in the desire or record labels to have songs that stand out on the radio, but it also ensures that tracks sound hyperreal when played through highly amplified sound systems at dance clubs. The flattening of dynamic range ensures that all frequencies and passages are equally audible above the throbbing bodies of a dance club. On home systems, particularly low efficiency speakers and headphones, this loudness creates an impression of fidelity that has little in common with the sound of live instruments. In many ways, the loudness of EDM contributes to hyperreality of the genre (and increasingly of all pop music) that has no or few referents in performed music. Our encounter, then, with loudness, the regimented experience of the click track, and the seamless integration of the found sounds in the assemblage offers an experience of the real with only the barest of relationships with our lived experiences. To use Baudrillard’s language, the structuring of this assemblage offers a simulacrum that lacks a clear point of reference (Baudrillard 1994).

(Part 2 tomorrow!)

Music Monday

If you spend any time on the archaeology Twitter (or the field with archaeologists), you soon come to realize that music is key part of what archaeologists do. Some of this is because so much of archaeology is routine and anything we can do to distract ourself from the tedium is welcome. Sometimes, it is because archaeologists spend way too much time in close company of other adults and a little music through headphones gives us a bit of private space. Sometimes, it’s the opposite of that: we often find ourselves talking about music because it gives us a social break from bickering about this or that issue with a database or some kind of intractable archaeological problem.

Usually on this blog, I comment on the music that I’m enjoying on my Friday Quick Hits and Varia. Since I spend far less time surfing the web during the summer and don’t run my quick hits and varia, I thought I might post some of my new summertime music for folks looking to enjoy some music as the new academic year looms!

 I’ve been particularly enjoying Shabaka Hutchings various projects that have come to define – in some ways – the resurgent London jazz scene. The Comet is Coming is some pretty entertaining space jazz. His Sons of Kemet has produced brilliant Afro-Caribbean inflected music for almost a decade.  Shabaka and the Ancestors is another of his projects and Wisdom of the Elders is really enjoyable.

Along similar lines, I find Yazz Ahmed (who for reasons I simply cannot fathom lacks a Wikipedia page, but this article might offer a hint!) Her album La Saboteuse has been a revelation. 

The recent revival in various kinds of spiritual and space jazz (if you haven’t checked out the newly reissued version of Don Cherry’s Don Cherry (also known as Brown Rice), and this kind of music is your jam, you should definitely give it a listen) has inspired me to think a bit more about big bands. This winter, I really enjoyed the 1960s big band sounds of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. I listened to Charles Mingus’s Let My Children Hear Music this summer for the first time in years, and I loved it far more than I remembered. There’s been some buzz surrounding the re-release of some of the side cut by Horace Tapscott’s Pan-Afrikan People’s Orchestra in the 1970s and The Call and Live at U.I.C.C. are definitely worth a listen. 

For my pop music fix, I’ve liked Vampire Weekend’s newest album, Father of the Bride. It shares a kind of refined mediocrity with recent released from U2, the National, LCD Soundsystem, and a number of other bands who are still trying to do what they do, but also making tiny moves that show they still have something new to say (but not really inclined to say it very loudly). I’ve also liked Kishi Bashi’s Omoiyari.

I’ve also enjoyed John the Martyr’s self-titled first album and the bittersweet covers of tracks from Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight titled Tiny Changes: A Celebration of Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight. Daughter’s cover of “Poke” and Josh Ritter’s cover of “Old Old Fashioned” are particular favorites.  Finally, check out David Berman’s newest project, Purple Mountains. I really like the lyrics which remind me of the best songs from Silver Jews, but with better arrangements.  

I Let My Tape Rock ’til My Tape Popped: Music and Media in the 21st Century

A couple weeks ago my friend David Haeselin posted a nice review of Deerhunter’s Double Dream of Spring on the North Dakota Quarterly page. I’ve been wanting to write a response, and this is my first draft. 

The most curious thing about the Deerhunter album is that it was only released on cassette tape. 

Cassette tapes have always fascinated me (and some of this, I’ll have to admit, is simple nostalgia). They anticipated in so many ways the release of compact discs, but carried with them some of the same limitations of vinyl records. First, the were portable and ideally suited to mobile playback in such iconic devices as the Sony Walkman and in cars. Second, like vinyl LPs, they were relatively fragile and deteriorated over multiple plays (and were susceptible to oxidation over time). Third, compared the the compact disc it was possible for a tape to sound really good with suitably expensive playback gear and high quality tapes, in most cases, tapes sounded pretty bad and, in this way, they reflected the character of vinyl records, which could and can sound divine, mostly didn’t because most records were cut poorly and played back on mediocre equipment. (The final iteration of Dolby noise cancelation for tapes “Dolby S” was apparently almost CD quality). Finally, cassette tapes could be dubbed either completely or into mix tapes initiating an entire culture of dubbed, bootlegged, and pirated content that continued into the CD era and has structured, in many ways, our engagement with online digital music. 

Compared the vinyl records and tapes, compact discs represented an amazing leap forward in sound quality and durability and offered enhanced portability. Deerhunter’s release of a cassette tape reflects the negotiation of a number different affordances and different historical attitudes. On the one hand, cassettes offered a convenient portable medium for distributing their new EP and people who wanted to listen to the music would, at first, be limited to a small group of individuals who had access to working cassette players. The physicality of the tape itself stood as a immediate barrier to the circulation of the music and a badge of exclusivity. On the other hand, Deerhunter knew that copies of the EP would soon enter the digital realm and circulate widely on forums and Reddits and other places where Deerhunter fans congregated. This would, of course, reinforce, in the short term, access to a community of Deerhunter fans. In this way, a tape like this parallels the circulation of bootleg recordings prior to the internet which found their audiences in fan magazines, pre-concert festivities, and word of mouth.

About a month after Deerhunter released Double Dream of Spring, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released their first album as The Carters, Everything is Love. The single from the album was titled “Apeshit.” Like Deerhunter, the single was released in an exclusive way, but rather than on nostalgia-inducing cassette, on the streaming music service Tidal of which Beyoncé and Jay-Z are part-owner and which has a significant number of African American subscribers compared to other streaming services. The single itself likewise defies convention in its lyrics and title which would limit its radio play. (The old relationship between the single and the radio seems to be almost completely over thanks, in part, to the challenging lyrics and popularity of hiphop music.) The lyrics themselves celebrate this flaunting of convention with Beyoncé demanding “pay me in equity” which would certainly resonate with Tidal listeners aware that the service is owned at least partly by artists, many of whom are African American. The iconic music video for “Apeshit”, also premiered on Tidal and its setting in the Louvre emphasizes how the reception of art is as mediated by class and race. Unlike the ephemerality of the cassette tape, “Apeshit” stakes its claim to museum quality permanence.    

At the same time, Tidal has its limits. Kanye West released his album The Life of Pablo exclusively on Tidal in 2016 which famously led to wide spread pirating of the album as fans attempted to get access to the album without paying the service’s fees. West’s departure from the Tidal ownership group has sometimes been attributed to the mishandling of The Life of Pablo launch (and that Tidal owned him money), but its hard to separate that album with its changing list of songs, versions, and order from the streaming medium. Moreover, it seems unlikely that the album would have been pirated less had it been released as a conventional download. 

Without this little essay devolving to yet another case study of how the “medium is the message,” Deerhunter, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Kanye West demonstrate how the current moment in the music industry sees the medium as far more than simply a passive method for disseminating creative works but as the co-creator of the art itself. This isn’t new, of course, as artists have long recognized the relationship between their music and album covers, the color of vinyl, music videos, and even the ironic reminder by Tom Petty “Hello, CD listeners, we’ve come to the point of his album where those listening on cassette or records will have to stand up or sit down and turn over the record or tape.” I do suspect, however, that, today, that the intersection of technological and music has an explicit relationship with a growing awareness of the significance of fan communities, inequality within the music industry, as well as issues of race and social class.  

Celebrating Wesley College’s Corwin Hall

I’m on the road today delivering boxes of North Dakota Quarterlys to the Magic City, but I figured folks might enjoy a video from yesterday’s send off for Corwin Hall. Here’s a blog post on that.

We’ll release a far higher fidelity recording of the music next month, but for now, here’s a Facebook video.

 

Hearing the Past in Byzantium and North Dakota

It was a happy coincidence that I read Sharon Gerstel and co.’s recent article in Hesperia on the acoustics of two well-known churches in Thessaloniki on the same week that I’ve arranged for a little concert in Corwin Hall at the University of North Dakota as part of my Wesley College Documentation Project.

I’ve been lucky enough to chat a bit with Amy Papalexandrou about ideas very similar to those Gerstel and her crew sought to document at the Acheiropoietos church and Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki. The goal of the project was to determine whether the architecture of these buildings functioned to promote (or more likely co-create) certain soundscapes in these buildings throughout their long histories. The evidence is suggestive, if a largely inconclusive. The buildings themselves have changed since the Byzantine period and their acoustic character is likely significantly different than it was in the past. Painted plaster wall instead of marble revetting, the removal of parapet screens between columns, and the absence of fabric wall coverings, rugs, and other damping in the buildings promoted different conditions that transformed the sound of these churches. As significantly, human bodies absorb sound and large congregations on feast days, for example, would have transformed the signature of the building as well. 

None of this is to diminish the significance of the acoustic research into these spaces. After all, most architectural and art historians can look beyond later modifications of these spaces to understand and “see” the original structures and their visual impacts. My own work, for example, considered the role that the columnar screens between the aisles and the central nave played on the visual experience of a processional liturgy. The impact of sound on both the experience and the shape of the liturgy in long-lived buildings would have almost certainly been as significant as the visual experience of the Christian rite. 

Later today, we’ll be recording the acoustic properties of the turn-of-the-century Wesley College recital room in Corwin Hall on the campus of the University of North Dakota. Rather than trying for a kind of rigorously empirical recording that seeks in frequency response and other quantitative measures to document the sonic signature of a room, we are attempting to capture the essence of the space through performance. We are fortunate to have a willing collaborator in Mike Wittgraf, from UND’s music department, who is an accomplished musician as well as a specialist in electronically mediated music that takes advantage of multiple speakers, microphones, and other acoustic devices to create new sounds.

We’re doing this with the full understanding that this room has been modified in rather significant ways. The most significant modifications occurred in the late 1970s where the north wall of the room was moved forward some 8 feet and drop ceilings were installed around the edge of the room to hide ductwork. The windows have been partly filled in with more efficient aluminum windows and the room lacks damping drapery or other window treatments that almost certainly would have featured in the original building.  

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All the same, the room clearly possess some of its former acoustic properties. The high vaulted ceiling, for example, creates what Mike Wittgraf called a distinctive “ring” to the room. Performing in the space today, however, will tell part of the story of the building’s history. While we don’t have original recordings from the space (at least that we know of), our recording in the building will offer a perspective from which a savvy ear or just a curious mind might imagine what the room sounded like in its original configuration just as an experience or imaginative eye can see through various renovations to the space and visualize its original form.

Finally, I’d like to imagine that this is part of an archaeology of care. Corwin Hall is scheduled for demolition this spring and the space surely witness more than its share of nervous and exuberant performances over its first 50 years of life as a recital hall (from 1909 to 1965 or so). Wesley College originally served as the music department for UND and Mike Wittgraf’s parting concert – featuring Wesleyan hymns appropriate for a funeral – serves as fitting send off for the room and the building.

Tune in to my Facebook page at around noon today to catch a broadcast of the concert. We’ll also release the various recordings with some explanation in the future.  

On being Prolific

For some reason this week, I got to thinking about people who are prolific. I think it was probably triggered by the release of Ty Segall’s double album, Freedom’s Goblin, or maybe the recent release of King Gizzard and Lizard Wizard’s fifth album in a year. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been immersing myself in the wonderful catalogue of Sun Ra who was remarkably prolific over his long career.

Needless to say, I’m not terribly prolific as a writer or as a publisher, but I’ve admired for some time now scholars like media theorist Henry Jenkins who described himself “as prolific as hell.” And my interest in Philip K. Dick is, partly, owing to his prolific output. He published 44 novels and over 120 short stories in a 30 year career.

I still get a bit uptight about prolific artists, writers, and musicians. I started to wonder whether people could produce something meaningful when all they’re doing is producing. There is no doubt that prolific production causes confusion; Sun Ra’s discography is baffling and wildly variable. At the same time, I came to understand artists like Ty Segall as releasing albums as a way to perform for an audience. (And to be clear, this my reading of his catalogue, not necessarily anything that he has said). In some ways, his most recent album is another iteration in his trajectory as a musician with all its variability and dissonance.

Like jazz musicians who frequently release multiple iterations of the same song, I tend to imagine prolific musicians embracing the performativity of their craft. This isn’t to say that Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debbie isn’t a better album than the complete(ish) recordings of those sessions released as Sunday at the Village Vanguard, but to argue that, for music, at least, the performance of multiple versions of the songs each with their own character diminishes the value of any one performance?  

With writing, this all seems a bit less straightforward. I’ve recently been thinking about writing a third paper on “Slow Archaeology” which has a chance to be published. Part of me worries that playing the same song again in different ways will dilute my original idea (such as they are) or confuse someone looking for an essential version of my thinking. Maybe, like this blog, writing another version of my slow archaeology paper will move my thinking, but necessarily toward some more perfect version of the idea. I don’t think that one slow archaeology paper will necessarily supersede the other.

Perhaps being prolific is a way to embrace the iterative character of life, writing, and thinking. We can avoid thinking of being prolific as a way to achieve terminal expertise through some version of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, but instead consider being prolific in the same way that jazz musicians were prolific or pulp fiction writers were prolific. Practicing in public celebrates the variability of our craft, its unevenness, and the interplay and transformation of ideas over time. It mitigates against the idea that the publication is the last word on a topic or offers something perfected.

At the same time, being prolific allowed musicians and writers to monetize their outputs in an efficient way. The threat of a poor recording or publication diminishing the value of other works offered a bit of a brake on being prolific, I suppose. I recognize, of course, that the ability to profit from a single work isn’t the same for academic writers, but maybe there persists the idea that a bad article or mediocre publications run the risk of offsetting the impact of a good work. Maybe the risk of an “uneven catalogue” could have a significance for a scholar’s career inasmuch as the impact of our work is a measure that contributes to how effectively we gain promotion, win grants, and other monetary aspects of our careers.

I don’t really know how to balance these risks and benefits well or to understand whether we should aspire to be prolific, but I really like immersing myself in Sun Ra’s catalogue.

[As an aside, I’ve recently applied Gladwell’s rule to my to dogs who are awake and active for approximately 6 hours each day. If they follow Gladwell’s rule, it will take them about 5 years to be really good at being a dog. This seems to actually hold true. Argie, who is almost 2, is very good at being Argie, but at being a dog, he seems a bit confused still. Milo on the other hand, who is almost 5, is really good at being a dog. He’s a dog’s dog.]

More Punk Rock (with an interview)

I used to do this more often (and I probably should do it more), but today, I’m going to send you over to the North Dakota Quarterly page where I have a long interview with Brian James Schill about his recently published book This Year’s Work in the Punk Bookshelf, Or, Lusty Scripts (2017). It’s a good book and was just reviewed by the LARB in an article about a few new books on literature and pop music, and Brian was a really good sport about talking with me over a string of emails. 

It was pretty hard to do an interview without constantly blurting out “YEAH, you think you’re SO COOL? Well, I know some OBSCURE BANDS TOO, man! And, like, I also produced a book about PUNK ROCK MUSIC. So, you’re not THAT cool. I mean, pretty cool, but only because you’re LIKE ME, not because you’re book. I did my book in 2014, and MOST PEOPLE only like the earlier stuff.” 

I think I more or less managed avoid to say those exact words, but I think the sense of that is still there in the background. What can you do, right?  

It’s an epic interview with a bunch of music and a really cool playlist at the end and some fun links to music throughout. 

So go and check it out.

Blogging

My brain is fried. I didn’t blog yesterday. I don’t know if I can blog today. I’ve written 1,356 posts on this blog and another 859 posts here. I think you’ll find something to read.

Here’s a YouTube of Big Joe Williams singing a song called “President Roosevelt.”