Posts Tagged ‘polemic’

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.



why boulder sucks. (part 1)

June 7, 2009

“People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty.” – Chief Niwot

quick disclaimer before I get started: this list doesn’t purport to be exhaustive.

I mentally stumbled upon the best way to sum up my issue with Boulder quite recently. A few weeks back, I flew to NYC and spent a week there. On the way back toward my parents’ apartment from the grocery store I caught sight of a newsstand as I was passing by it (from a Boulder perspective, the very idea of a newsstand seems so anachronistic). There were probably newspapers in languages I couldn’t even recognize; we’re talking at least 25-30 different foreign-language newspapers. I mean, I can think of the names of at least two daily NYC newspapers in Spanish just off the top of my head, and I haven’t lived there much in the last six years (and those are just the ones I’ve noticed people reading on the subway). It finally dawned on me while I was in the city a couple weeks ago that 95%+ of the population of Boulder comes from one of two countries, both of which are in North America (and I’m not making that up. That’s actually fairly accurate)!

Some people, no doubt (though probably not those in my blog’s primary audience – thank you, good friends, for reading), would probably respond to this with incredulity: is the lack of diversity really the biggest thing wrong with Boulder?

Well, actually, yes. At least, it’s the most fundamental thing wrong with it, underlying most of the other issues. Boulder is actually sort of a gigantic self-contradiction in many ways. I think it probably has one of the strongest recycling programs in the country, and indeed, the culture here is at times almost neurotically oriented toward issues of environmental sustainability (not that that’s necessarily so bad in and of itself); and yet the same people fiercely advocating for every disposable cup, fork and knife to be made out of compostable corn product seems to love driving those oh-so-sustainable Jeeps and Range Rovers all over town.

It isn’t just that there’s so much wealth on display in Boulder (though the degree to which that is true is fairly shocking). It’s also striking that the Boulder “culture,” such as it is – and I will admit, Boulder does have some culture – seems to be geared toward encouraging maximally self-indulgent wallowing in all that money. Worse, the unrepentantly hedonistic consumer culture is inextricably intertwined with concerns that seem much more benevolent, as in the recycling example mentioned earlier. So for example, the city of Boulder (or maybe it’s the county), protects natural areas outlying the city and other suburban growth areas by allocating them as Open Space and Mountain Parks and restricting development on those areas. Yet it is precisely the abundance of natural vistas that attracts the hordes of wealthy white Californians looking for a nice place to build their McMansions and raise their kids (to turn a phrase I might, at the risk of offending some, term this phenomenon “white blight”). Sadly, most of these folks are probably so busy trying to make the capitalism work that they have little if any time to actually enjoy the natural beauty that probably attracted them to Boulder in the first place (because almost none of them came from here).

These are the people who spend their time fretting over their overpriced lattes while talking into a Bluetooth headset, checking stock quotes or sending e-mail on their mobile devices, and likely nearly inflicting death or serious injury while doing it because all the while they are driving, disregarding that whole “stay in the lane” idea or worse, cluelessly trying to navigate their Audi through a rotary (either the simplicity of how to drive through a rotary is lost on many members of the Boulder upper class, or else they simply think the traffic laws don’t apply if the car cost more than $40K).

Some of you might think I’m being harsh: “Come on, Akiva – you can’t blame people for having enough money for being able to afford nice cars or nice houses. It’s not exactly their fault. If you had a trust-fund, would you want to be judged for it?”

I probably am being a bit harsh, and I’m certainly being judgmental. But look, things don’t happen in a vacuum. I’m not necessarily faulting Boulder’s trust-fund class for being in the top tax-bracket, but I am alleging that the effects of its demographic make-up have a terrible impact on the quality of life in this city / town / whatever-it-is (for the rest of us, that is). Firstly, the racial divide that accompanies the economic disparity is too painfully obvious to be ignored. I would like to compare the homeownership rate of the white vs. Mexican populations of the city of Boulder. I’ll do some research, and get back to you i part 2.

When it comes to culture, Boulder is really hurting. This town has no gay bar (as telling a marker of the quality of urban life as I can think of). It has no night life to speak of (no offense to those that are actually trying). It has one movie theater (I mean theaters that play movies every day), and it’s a pre-fab Cinemark joint. There are good bookstores, but not one independently owned record shop. It’s got an excellent state university (although, according to a recent column I read by Stanley Fish of the Times, only a tiny portion of CU’s funding is actually from public sources – I think around 5%, and at any rate, certainly less than 10%. Look it up if you don’t believe me) and a (in my experience, at least) very good small, private Buddhist-inspired university in Naropa. It’s also got a lot of bicycles.

All of this brings me in the direction of perhaps one of Boulder’s most prominent characteristics which I’ve hardly even touched on. But I have to cut this short, because I’m getting tired, so until part 2, feel free to weigh in with your own point of view. Probably one of the first topics that comes to mind for many people as soon as Boulder is mentioned will be the starting topic of part 2: NEW AGE SPIRITUALITY. boy oh boy…