Posts Tagged ‘commentary’

obscure beauty from the black sun

August 9, 2009

That title probably made this post sound more interesting than it will actually be.

I’m listening to a song off an E.P. I’ve long wanted to listen to but never had until last week: Black Sun Empire‘s Smoke E.P. on DSCI4.

The track that inspired this blog post was the title track, Smoke. Those who aren’t drum & bass heads might listen and wonder what the big deal was about, whereas drum & bass heads might contemptuously respond simply by asserting that the track is “old” (yeah…so?).

This track is a classic example of the style of tech-step pioneered by DSCI4. It doesn’t necessarily transgress the sort of general boundaries of that style, but I think it does exemplify the style almost perfectly. I love how Black Sun Empire can sit their drums perfectly in the mix; they don’t rely on ultra-compressed, distorted kick and huge snare to carry the entire dynamics of the track, but rather the breaks feel restrained. Instead of feeling cliche, as in many drum and bass tracks, the breaks occupy just enough space to provide structure and flow to what’s happening – and what is happening always involves some melodic intelligence and transition.

After thinking about it, though, I think what most impresses me about Black Sun Empire – and this track in general – is the way they integrate all the elements together in the mixdown. That careful precision of the mixing – to me – is as much an element of style as the aesthetic defined by their choice of samples, especially that definitive sounding stab…and it is this sense of controlled precision (at odds with the sort of menacing ambience so often evoked by the synths / samples they select) that more than anything else at that time evokes techno. (The sharpness of their drum samples and the uber-compressed cymbals that punctuate them have become a much more familiar trope by now, but I think this is something that Black Sun Empire really innovated in many ways).

And plus, this track does something else I love. Listen for the change in the second break right before the bassline comes back in…

This probably sounds overly technical, nerdy, and slightly irrelevant – all of which it is. But the feeling I had that prompted me to write this blog isn’t.

While I have been guilty of it as well (and so I’ll avoid polemicizing overly much), I think there is a widespread conceit (no doubt a proper direction for deconstructive critique) in our culture as I understand it, at least, that holds art – and especially music – to be something that offers an almost mystically transcendent experience…and this is especially evident to me in the way musicians are idealized, as though gifted with some prophetic or visionary insight somehow inexplicably lacking in the rest of us (from John Lennon to Bob Marley to Jim Morrison to 2Pac – not to mention Michael Jackson, there seems to be a cult of personality associated with music almost unparalled by anything else I can think of).

But great music isn’t achieved only through some intangible wellspring of creativity (and I would dispute those who idealize either this supposed “quality” or the process by which it is thought to produce the tangible product we ultimately enjoy so greatly). There is also the (much-reviled) technical knowledge – and experimentation, and innovation and yes, discipline that plays a role. When electronic music is stigmatized or marginalized, I wonder about the extent to which an aesthetic is at play that fetishizes the inexplicability of human processes of expression – and ultimately, I would argue, the human “creator” as well – as privileged agent of creativity. When what is heard is not solely or primarily the result of vibrations produced in a tactile, physical manner by human hands, feet, or breath, but mediated instead by systems of circuitry, software (and furthermore is often comprised of auditory objects already recorded), and sequencing – it would seem that for some, the media produced can no longer unreservedly be regarded as “music.”

And yet, to denigrate electronic music (usually out of ignorance – and perhaps also out of fear?) is to kill the messenger.

Now how the hell did I get on this tangent?

There’s something about the mechanization of rhythm in this Black Sun Empire track on an obscure EP released by DSCI4 in 2002 that is just lovely – and, I think, a precursor of things to come. Now, if you haven’t already, go click the link and listen to it at least once through.

DSCI4

What’s happening in Iran?

June 15, 2009

I want to weigh in briefly on this topic, since I am by no means what a newspaper like the New York Times would call “an expert in the field” (in fact, most of my information on the subject pretty much comes directly from the reporting of the New York Times). But I feel strongly that something is underway of massive significance in Iran – particularly Tehran and other large urban centers – that resists the hasty attempts at marginalization already offered within 24 hours of the election by some right-wing commentators and mainstream U.S. media outlets.

For example, one op-ed piece published by the New York Times (by Elliot Abrams, a “deputy national security advisor in the George W. Bush administration”) contrasted the recent elections in Lebanon with those in Iran, suggested that the former, while not to be idealized, were fair (in effect, “legitimate” elections), while effectively dismissing the latter as meaningless: “a contrivance for settling certain policy disputes and personal rivalries within the ruling elite.” He rightly points out that Iran’s highest political office – that of the supreme leader, currently held by Ayatollah Khamanei, is not subject to elections. Yet Abrams’ viewpoint unjustifiably disregards the reality of the democratic process, the significance of that practice for Iranian individuals, and the power of the sentiment now being expressed by millions of Iranians, who feel cheated; in effect, the only sphere of public discourse in which personal choice is absolutely foundational has been exposed as a sham. Abrams is correct in his assessment of this fact, but wrong (or rather misguided) in his conclusions.

Democratic discourse, by its very nature, undermines the stasis of political structures and the mechanisms through which ruling bodies express and manifest authority. In short, it is correct to state that Iranians are not being bestowed with the choice to determine who should rule in the office of president, but it might be wrong to write off democracy in Iran quite as readily. Democracy, after all, literally means “rule by the people” – and the people in Iran are letting their voices be heard, despite the elaborate mechanisms of control, repression, and silence being put in place to stop them.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini, has now called for an investigation of the election by the Council of Guardians. One could interpret this as a tactical move calculated to gain time, to restore order. But the fact that the most powerful man in Iran is on the defensive should offer food for thought. Many Iranians are raising their voices in protest, despite the violence, repression, and reprisals with which they are being targeted, and many of those voices are being heard around the world.

Despite the very different society in which I live, I identify with the anger, the outrage, and the aspirations that I sense are being expressed now in Iran. What many of these voices are calling for is justice and freedom: freedom from the repression and retaliation with which they are faced when they voice dissent, and justice: that elections be real elections, that democracy be real democracy. These sentiments are not far removed from the sentiments that I think almost any human being might face after the horrible reality of a system that holds the freedom and humanity of individuals in contempt is unmasked. Indeed, shouldn’t those of us who have lived for the past ten years in the United States have a familiar feeling about all this? I’d challenge Elliot Abrams – and anyone else who think their point of view is well-informed and insightful enough that it is deserving of publication – not to be quite so hasty. In my view, one should hesitate a bit longer before dismissing the case of Iran and its questionable democracy…at least long enough to consider closely the evidence for election fraud in the 2000 and 2004 elections in the U.S..

In any case, this blog wasn’t intended as political analysis, but just a personal comment on something that is unfolding. Those of you who identify with the left in some sense will probably be far more likely to agree with me that what is unfolding now in Tehran and other Iranian cities – while it is very unlikely to lead to the dethroning of Ahmadinejad next week or next month – is nothing less than history in the making; it is almost certainly the beginning of a new-found respect emerging for the individual and for dissent within Iranian discourse, and it is extremely likely to permanently shift the fault lines of Iranian politics. The social media technologies being employed in the struggle are pointing out the degree to which communication between individuals inevitably evade the grasp of autocratic modes of control, and the increasingly decentralized form such (political) communication is taking, via the Internet, is proof positive of the changing ground of politics in the contemporary era.

And of course, all of this is definitely making the ruling elite in Iran very ill at ease.

And it is one more chapter in the history of individuals standing up to the impersonal mechanisms of power and raising their voices in dissent, even in the face of violence and death.

How ironic that the same Americans who spoke so loudly about spreading democracy around the world can now be silent? Is it possible they don’t recognize democracy when they see it?