Thursday, 27 March 2014

Morton Feldman, For John Cage [Café Oto, 25.03.14]

[performed by Aisha Orazbayeva (violin) and Mark Knoop (piano)]

Disregard any first-half record players positioned to ‘play’ suspended microphone-suspended violins as any old visual, cod-performance, cod-aural gimmick, complete with the dressing of quasi pop-songs spicing up the classical world in utter dilution –ok disrupt things, but for fuck’s sake do it well, not just some tolerated hoop everyone jumps through or watches someone else jump through because someone’s told someone that someone else thinks it’s cool, and everyone politely knows better. But no one really came for that, anyway. Listening to the Feldman, then, feeling the simultaneous sense of some sort of serenity, but that isn’t the right word, really, and some sort of despair or panic; things are held, things are slow and quiet but then suddenly they speed up like a tiny breathless race only to move back to something else. The piano and violin in unison or alternation unwind a scale, a unison which is always slightly morphing, always slightly off-centre. There are about four or five moves which get repeated, transitioned between: in one of them, the violin repeatedly bows a single note over piano chords, extremely high, like a constantly-repeated whispered scream, then moves back to a more conventionally varied scheme, hands execute a dance up and down the strings, the violinist could execute a note perfectly and it will still sound fluffed, edged with harmonics, scraping away at the instrument’s romantic cantabile capacity to get inside and beyond all that. At those moments of scream, the music almost gets unbearable, though it’s not a scream in terms of harshness of pitch, more in terms of long drawn-out held-in intensity which never fully extends itself, releases itself, always moves back into a repetition or a variation of a different kind of thing. Sometimes it’s actually actively funny, an obvious tonal repetition, a scale, a unison passage, a child rehearsing and repeating the simplest things with the patience a child would never have. Transposition, the return of the same material, movement without movement. It could go on. A particular scalar move starts to recur more and more towards the end, a refrain of sorts. The piece doesn’t feature much silence or many pauses, if any, the piano sustain-pedalled almost throughout, or so it seemed, not so much as a cavernous resonant quasi-religious ex-cathedra echo chamber easily posing as mystical aura, dispensing the gravity of aesthetic beauty and wisdom, extending in time that feeling of enlarged space, but instead a structural mode of slight extension and discontinuous continuity. Mostly the two instruments play together or in close proximity / alternation, sometimes one will ‘solo’ briefly. Material is shared, the players almost seem to try and trip each other up, are made to so, in tricky synchronicity, Knoop looks up each time they need to make a dual entrance, land on the same point. Orazbayeva’s legs on the floor extend into weird shadows, simultaneously extended and huge and miniaturized into a shadow-homunculus, both infinitely extended and infinitely reduced as Feldman’s late music might be said to be. Development, progression, the concerto argument of the subject extending in or against collectives, etc, the whole romantic bourgeois-revolutionary or religious tradition or nature tone-poems or what have you, has no place here, the music is not even a dialogue so much, though there are aspects of that, instruments are in the same place and the music is a whole, written for all of them. Is it a private music? In a sense it’s so familiar and so easily recognizable as a style that anyone could do it now, or think that they could do it, but what does it yield up to us or to each listener specifically and personally, what emotion is there or do I read in, shooed away for Yoko Ono to bring her jam to town when we just wanted to sit there to recover, still in that position of enforced physical stillness, the slowing down of breathing. Feldman’s music, at this length, is easy to follow, though there are inevitably moments of slight drift, even if its similarity of materials wouldn’t enable a reconstruction of the piece absolutely chronologically or in its entirety, that kind of summary. But the reduced set-up perhaps makes it less easy to get lost in, washed over, as, say, ‘Coptic Light’, the focus is easier, though equally absorptive. This is not music of drama, or struggle, except as that is, whatever, where it has come from, been distilled from, or not; not even like those moments in, bad comparison, Helmut Lachenmann, where you get musical history through the ruins, or that sort of thing – even, say, the comfortably regressive melancholy variant of that you might find in post-minimalists or post-Romantics like Valentin Silvestrov; not even that, or not at all, the concern above all with process, extension, limitation, temporal exploration, sticking with a thing and doing it, development of attention, not to some spuriously opened framework of the aesthetic beauty of hipster’s farts, toilet door squeaks, police sirens and passing trains in the extend intervals between a barely-sounded e-bowed squeak, but to the piece itself, listening to its expanded inwardness, inwardness of expansion, a room of people giving quiet regard to the work while people outside are looking in at the windows, the spectacle of a roomful of listeners to a sound you cannot hear highlighting some sense of social absurdity, open for everyone to see. You could valourize this discourse of enclosure, safety, a carved-out space against some vulgar monster outside, but would you really want to: the music is all those terms dropped out of the magic moments hat – patience, delicacy, fragility, monotony – but it is also extremely assertive, violent even, in its following-through of intention, or steadfastly pragmatic, whatever goal is or is not in sight, if that’s really the term to use – in, for instance, its insistence on extending a territory for longer than might be thought ‘necessary’ or ‘comfortable’ and then, once that extension’s been settled in, moving on to something else again. Not boring, not sentimental or easily open but tender, not easy but absolutely there in its surface, being nothing else except what it is, you there, too, sitting quite still, not even sure what to think or what to feel.

Monday, 10 March 2014


[This pamphlet available with other orders through ©_© / Face Press, March 2014]

The poems in the anonymous pamphlet with its cover paper’s stuck-in scattered flowers like whited-out Stan Brakhage slides [viz. ‘Mothlight’] have a tensile poise between an excess which might, crudely, be schematised as the formal contrast between the extension of a line across the page (e.g. “Sleeping through a rain-soaked street in an unplayed city”) and the shorter lines surrounding and made to seem small by it (e.g. “I am possessed by the magnetic curve of star-/ light / In the east-facing bin”), and an actual excess in those shorter lines themselves, whose line-broken pile-up races all the more so: “my heart races / the duel / carriageway”, these two modes of transportation, dual or duel, hitting carriage return. In relation to this latter, consider the preponderance of roads of various kinds in some recent work: Stuart Calton’s ‘Torn Instructions for No Trebuchet’, and work by Keston Sutherland and Simon Jarvis; where (or specifically, here, and especially in the poem ‘A Smash Hit Glides To Your Lips And Over The Duel Carriageway’) the poem is mode of travel, dazzled by bright lights and songs on the radio and the faces lit up by those lights like a drab-glam parody of movie melancholia lighting, “Chaste like a Sofia Coppola film”, wanting to make this real fake beauty not be like that but not being able to help or stop itself: “Poetry should make nothing / jealous or beautiful // but can’t.” Those proliferating negatives, further complicated by the unclear relation of jealousy and beauty, would seem to imply that poetry shouldn’t make anything, a familiar claim, as statement of fact if not injunction (“poetry makes nothing happen [etc]”); but what exactly it is that poetry “can’t do” here? If it cannot do what it should, which is to make nothing, then it must make something, but perhaps what meaning spills out is that, because poetry cannot make nothing jealous or beautiful, therefore it makes everything jealous or beautiful. We might consider also whether the ‘or’ here is an equivalence for ‘and’ or if it really is ‘or’, so that the toss-up or the gamble in poetry would be either jealousy or beauty or both, and that the beauty itself would be a kind of falsity, a kind of possessive jealousy; as, wanting the night itself to be in intimate relation with oneself, “come and stay with me, night over my head”, the “smash hit” both the radio pop song and the car crash just waiting to happen.

Obviously the sea (sometimes, “the sea of error”) is also in these poems, especially the final one, ‘I Clean You All Over With My Tongue’, “slopped with a melancholia” in part in parody; and it (the sea) is not presented as some image of the longed-for ‘natural’ invested with hope, or, the gap between that degraded image and the thing itself is the subject of “envy,” where it’s not the boat but the train that’s slow, that froze, on the way to China (“The green was informed / with envy of everything natural / and trains froze on the way / to Henan”), caught in trapped-travel as illusion of movement, where the appeal can even be made to a god, of love (“help me eros”), but only for destruction, lashed out, actually cleaning the sea with one’s own tongue, taking in the bilious overspill of industry and capital’s digging as an erotics of wasting and spending (“help me cause to rust / the great warmth of the sea”); if I cannot have love, and if this is my love itself, jealous and beautiful, abjectly in wrong implication so that, in ‘What Does The Crisis Refer To’, “I am terrified by what we call love” both is and is not equal to its following line, “Climate change.” For the sea will freeze, the snow fall, marine as deposits drift down, nutritious in feeding-dependence cycle, trickle-down marine economics, snow and rain, falling, tears and lashes grazed by light landing which is catastrophe or beauty or both. “For you by such lights change nothing”, so “lie down alone in the universe,” when “not one of my thoughts will work anymore on anyone,” all absented, all lost or vacantly and mistakenly invested with love:  “Where are you now / Other than more dreams [...] To have regained my original purpose, to hold you / In flames”, Wieners here, even, in that self-destroying-renewing fire of desire, and the world itself internalized – “The world has gone to answer / in my heart” in bad reflection or introjection taken to be some emotional landscape as a pop song really “the radio songs. I love / Whatever comes on, to be okay with my limits”, pathetic pathetic fallacy where the image of love collected in time and space within the statement that “tonight the church will be full” is all wrong, alright, where ‘you’, as love object addressed or as speaker self-addressed, even become Christ, “slaving on a cross, melting a phone”, and there is no future to sacrifice to, you just are, that way, imagined so, imagining yourself and others as victims but holding on to the thought that, though “I’ve lost you […] I’ll never lose thing like you,” this addressed you already become a thing, object-memory in permanent image, bad mirror, container for these hopes but also generator of them, meanwhile or simultaneously though that ‘I’ am or have become “sick of a world / That makes nothing possible,” hearing the melancholy in the injunction merely not to stop in 24-hour party forever, Miley Cyrus lying in the world and gliding in flight to the next crash on Crisis mode forever; “What does the Crisis Refer to”, loving loneliness and a pleasurable pain, burning blossoms, flowers, scattering them all over stupidly all at sea white or blue “soup,” “blue water,” systematic evolutionary regression narrative even only as hint, going to the coastal limit not as okeanos mythic void-return world-curve possibility, lyric world love-curve, back-journey to actual collective-individual location, but smaller and emptier, where what drops off the not-God horizon you even said, wanting love, was God (“Like the time I knew God was the horizon”), will be unbearably everything and all there is. “There are poems”; this is nothing.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Some Intimacies and Objects

Lisa Jeschke in Dusie 16: “You have addressed me by means of words, which is nearly love, a bit of.” The bit might be the muzzle in the horse’s mouth, the gift horse looked upon with all its soldiers inside as love or as love disguise offered up, the imposition of such gifting; and too might be the broken object, not integrated to be split, in good and bad bits, the good breast the bad breast as present or absent, loved or hated, incorporated or lost, word sucked in as the other’s sucked in, swallowed and eaten to be part of me, my nutritious inner self, registers of privacy or intimacy as recognition of the other instead making address the mere taking over of that other in linguistic conquest, violence at the root of love, exclusion of others to focus on this one object, exclusion of this one object to focus on that focus itself, object standing in for that x lost thing now existing as “you” or as “me”, pronoun in substitution and deferral. Here are some of the words by which “you” might “address” me, from Robert Kiely’s ‘Intimacies’, in the same issue: “I want you to whisper your PIN in my ear slowly.” Intimacy here becomes parody of communist sharing as sexual sharing, as that conduct in sexual relation in which socialism must also manifest itself and be constituted: where sharing here instead is merely my access to your money as my power over you, as a come-on, as a whispered token of love, my access to all your tokens of love, the money shot, the money store. PIN is Personal Information Number: the number that therefore I am, the “bit of” me broken off to info-cash. Recall: Jeschke and Lucy Beynon’s 2012 piece 'Self-Portrait', satirizing a project for theatrical intimacy, in which Beynon’s National Insurance Number was blown up to gigantic art-display size and put up on a wall, as ‘revelation’ of self, the category of self as categorized state, as State Category, self-surveillance, a resolutely non-erotic display of intimacy. Jeschke’s ‘No’ as negativity, Levinas parody - “Love has assumed the FACE of the person one loves,” as mere greeting “Hey, good to see you!”, you become object, “I am a PIECE of FURNITURE,” that object merely filling the space, to be sat down in like the ‘commentary’ on sex-race fetishism on whose spread-eagled legs sits the wife of everyone’s favourite Russian billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich, performaing art. “We” are “part of the furniture,” taken for granted, objects constructed by craftsman whose labour’s obscured, fixed, “still at any particular”. It’s a “hotel,” with the movement through, the strait gate through which at any time the Messiah might enter only in parody, as parody Messiah, the worker bringing us our meal, room service, for us to feel them up. We are experts in taste and we have chosen you as our lover, and something dies, inside, nothing is moving, the “you” that is “leaking” as “matter” is just a corpse to show you it was once alive, you only notice it when it starts to smell, it’s history’s angel blown into the window like a pigeon and splattered on the carpet. It is all too far and seperate and broken, made to work, to be used, for “EMPLOYMENT”, the storm itself is calm, the tempest blowing the angel forward and away from the past rubble to be righted, its has become internalized as a static chair with the sun in our face and our hair, a frozen rictus grin. The conversation itself has died, la petite mort, a horrible sexy trinity, its third ghost term no transformation of the one by and into the other, no dialectic overthrow, no negative transformation and just instead this beautifully smooth corpse in the freezer, cryogenic preservation for future activation deferral and or a stalled past stall, dragging limbs over limbs in listless list, inscribed and restricted by terms as terminal no-space middle-ground, not alive but not not alive, dead inside and outside in hell getting by. It is cold, and you are centuries late.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Stuart Calton, 'The torn instructions for no trebuchet' (Barque Press, 2013)

Stuart Calton’s The torn instructions for no trebuchet has, say, five areas of concern. It requires that you read it in a succession of readings, that you read it again and again, that you live with it, really, as all the 'best' poetry does, that it might actually change your life as it desires the life it sketches, in general and in particular, to change, that you will live with this poem, that it will reveal itself to you, not from a position of teasing hiddenness, but from the work it forces and accomplishes of you and of itself, really does so. The, say, five (or maybe rather six) areas of concern are: the journey by car, around the motorway near Manchester, going and coming from where it’s unclear; the kids in the playground, who are the poet’s, but might also be the poet’s younger self; a very specific set of not-quite real or possible engagements with the inner and outer material of flesh, tongue and teeth and gums, penis and breast, melding and meshing both as very deep in oneself and as of and in another, whether, say, lover or mother; a polemical attack on Amiri Baraka’s Marxist writings as exhibiting an ultimately bureaucratised and conservative Stalinism, full of disgust for the ‘perverted’ or ‘ugly’ body, in which a fantasy of totality, full of stereotyped and cartoon figures as representations of particular forms of social evil, dispenses with the particularity of personal experience and of contradictory emotion which is not ‘bourgeois’ introspection, but the essential grounds for challenging and examining the root of social formation, and all its harm and hurt, particularly in the realm of sexual relations; mixed in with this attack, what appear to be topical comments on the SWP scandal unfolding as the book was being written, itself a major political failure in the realm of sexual relations, a collective non-acknowledgment, on the part of party leadership at least, of the absolute necessity of right conduct in the realm of these relations if the collective organisation desired for is to mean anything at all; and, finally, that with which the book ends, a desperately moving apologia for the failure of a particular love relationship to live up to the investment it was given with socialism as actually lived mode of being between specific people, and the utopian remainder within that loss of that hope as the absolutely necessary condition of being a socialist.

Psychoanalysis is crucial here, from Klein and others. As with two other books published that year, by Keston Sutherland and Andrea Brady, Calton is concerned with the formation of the subject and its relation to politics and ethics; but whereas Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P attempt would seem in part to be to inflate the subject and its love relations as if it could match the politics around it, and Brady’s Mutability focuses in specifically on the relation of mother to child in the early stages of life as a complex course of minute ethical problematics, Calton’s is perhaps less specifically tied to that personal investment, so that, though it is crucial and moving for me that those real biographical marks, that have really come from his life – the dedication to Tori, the sudden and unexpected address out to specific addressee – “Tori, I’m sorry” – the closing passage; all these both resist generalizable totality claims and insist that a vision which is something like totality, of socialism, can be found in these bits, not as essay or performance of identity but as constantly failing and falling assay, as the poem’s extended verse paragraph and irregular line lengths accumulate absolute claustrophobia and constriction, marked especially by successions of monosyllables that assume the shape of something like a tongue- or an eye-twister, the condition of absolute stress where sex is not metaphor for political cred, not thus stretched, is not romanticized life-pitch outside of daily attentive regard as the real ground of relation, love’s real work, but that it is this that it says, that the truth of the poems says, that “still forever I / hate this fucking system and I wanted our life / better to realize the true generality and make its / really-existing untruth external in our / particular.” So perhaps no one will read this book, with its lack of flash, its self-sufficient insistence on being a poem, whose argument is made in poetry, not bolstered with any interview with overt long blurb, with any of that stuff. But really, it’s fucking imperative that they should.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Amiri Baraka, 1934-2014

Baraka obit for the 'Contemporaries' site here.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Stay on It: On the Music of Julius Eastman

What is that distinguishes this piece by Julius Eastman from the similar pop-minimalism of the Philip Glass Ensemble and on to the music of an even-more watered-down populist-assimilator like Michael Torke, which its anticipates but far surmounts? That distinguishes it from those generations’ softening of the stringencies of the first generation minimalists, from their softening of that first generation's stringent asceticism -- infinity in a grain of sand, the biggest canvas from the smallest materials or a deliberate poverty, austerity of means as against romantic swoll excesses of cod- or post-romanticism? Unlike Glass and unlike Torke, Eastman’s music is not content to be aural wallpaper but to actually swell itself, in ambiguous bursting or reduction, in massed small ensemble as orchestra (Eastman’s pieces - the 'nigger series', say - are often open in terms of instrumentation, so that 18 stringed instruments would do; 4 pianos would do; the perversity of combinations and the ear for texture, bright and clean in some pieces but also capable of a thick murk building up and out of and into rhythmic insistence). #Stay On It#, the absolute fresh happiness, as it seems, of the recurring pop-py chordal figure reduced or amplified, reiterated or swelled, down to solo piano near the end, or stuttered, broken into rhythmical suspension as bars are left out for silence as emphasis or interruption, burst out of somewhere mid-way as saxophones and clarinets mesh improvisationally into moaning, wailing modes of joy that, like much of Eastman’s music, have a latent melancholy and desparation in their triumph: the strength of the damned and oppressed, up against the wall, staying on it, smart but not rich, evil and crazy guerilla nigger outcasts: the melancholy that finally trickles on its own as the piano part winds down and we are finally left with only the continuing shake of percussion as the bereft yet determinedly still present ghost of that rhythmic obsession-insistence Eastman so loves.

Eastman’s pieces focus on process, organic form, the latent content of each piece in at its beginning and evolving out like the big bang: or, in the certainly minimal, but not conventionally ‘minimalist’ 'If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich', a deliberately bull-headed slow upward scalar ascent, forcing the trumpet to ‘stay on’ high figures of a Maynard Ferguson quality, brass ensemble like the smashed remains or sketches for some film score stretched beyond latent melodrama to the point of absurdity and then back. Tubular bells ringing into the silent hollow. Scratchy twisting bending amplified violin over nightmare chattered ensemble iterations. Edge of the fucking seat in tense and tensile boredom. Bull-headed, in your face. Shattering the Glass enclosure.

Eastman’s pieces are about ensemble, co-ordination, non-privileging of individual voice, complex interlocking of parts, moving almost into chaos and even staying there for a bit, but then back: “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR”, shouting in time for the unison re-entry of addictive riff in 'Evil Nigger'. Ba-DUm, Ba-DUm, ba-Dum, as Kyle Gann says of the rhythmic figures in 'Gay Guerilla'. The pre-climactic use of Martin Luther's hymn 'A Mighty Fortress is Our Lord', in anthemic reclamation. You want to be a solider, a martyr, a gay guerilla, in subverted Lutheran hymn, that granite flow. Stay the fuck on it.

Joan d’Arc’s presence is holy because it is defiant. “Speak BOLDLY,” the climactic line of Eastman’s solo recitation-prelude to his multi-cello ‘The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc’, in which the massed hordes of speaking saints say over and over, insist that Joan stay on it, excluded but defiant. Speak Boldly. Say it, over and over again. Joan of Arc is holy AGAINST the church – “a reminder to those who think they can destroy liberators by acts of treachery, malice, and murder….[L]ike all organizations, especially governments and religious organizations, they oppress in order to perpetuate themselves” – the holiness of her presence a raggedy collective, a whole made up of parts only just staying on it, speaking off the same page, from pop, pop-classical, jazz, the singular. Here’s the dissonance which Kyle Gann sees “dissolving into transcendence”, outside the comforting trance of Glass, reflections shone blinding your eyes in coolest shade, spooks; but no transcendence as mere escape, in material returning transformed to stay here on it, to show you process not bamboozled, not spiritual-droned to ecstatic guru surrender, New York incense chamber, but bold-face fucked up.

From Anna Kisselgoff’s New York Times review of his 1986 dance collaboration with Molissa Fenley, ‘Geological Moments’ (the music for which was actually shared with Glass, and which, as the review notes, forced itself on the dancers in a way that Glass’s, eminently ignorable, did not): “[Eastman] performed as a soloist with both dissonant resonance and a strangely muted evangelical fervor.” Both taking the implicit piss out of, by contextual oddness of placing, and fully participating in and channelling that Church rigour, that church fever, that bull-headed staying on; you might say, too simply, it was a Protestant retort against some decadent un-focussed transcendence, were you to miss, whatever, the moral imperative against the kind of moral condemnation that would be turned against Eastman’s own ‘kind’ (kinds) by precisely that kind of model. Or, he makes use of both, Joan’s ecstatic shattering of roles into that different raggedy-ass but completely precise collective, out of Cage, indeterminacy, improvisation, militarized minimalism-discipline, sacred and profane, mighty fortresses whose walls might come crumbling down any second only to rise again, building the city in momentary negotiation, “majestic rising modal scale”, as someone put of the conclusion to ‘Gay Guerilla’, “Right thought, right speech, right action, right music,” as Eastman himself put it in 1981, “always making new inversions”, adjustment to justice, to a judgement not imposed from above but in ethical drive right ON.

Because also, as Andrew Hansen-Dvoracek notes in an invaluable MA dissertation on the three pieces (Evil Nigger, Crazy Nigger and Gay Guerilla) performed at the 1981 Northwestern University concert from which are taken many of the recordings on ‘Unjust Malaise’, the three CD set of Eastman’s music released on New World records, the use of Luther’s hymn is re-appropriation: as Debussy’s 'En Blanc Et Noir', which uses a similar alternation between the white and black keys of the piano, uses that hymn as an intrusion into the lush impressionistic tonality of his own language, as (crudely) German armed forces invading the French countryside, Eastman appropriates it as counter-weapon, not valourizing despoiled weakness but fighting back, ten years after Stonewall, a new militancy in reference to Afghani or PLO guerrillas, that invoked spirit; as he re-appropriates ‘nigger’ as equivalent Holy Name to the ‘99 names of Allah’ – “either I glorify them or they glorify me”; Martin Luther become a nigger faggot minimalist warrior.

This appropriation as re-arrangement, transposition, subversive playing of roles, which is always connected, to whatever greater or lesser extent, to that element of parody to Eastman’s persona that we hear or read about from reports on performances and appearances and in the music too. This is that which so dismayed John Cage: Eastman’s performance of one of Cage’s Songbook pieces (“give a lecture”) as ‘Professor Paga of La Jolla, California’, with his boyfriend and sister as his ‘assistants’, discoursing on a new sensuality of love, which managed to dismay Cage, to offend Cage, by being both too frank in its homosexuality (his boyfriend nude by the end of the piece) and too sarcastic, too much a caricature, in its satirization of the academic world to which Cage was now at least partially indebted too or reliant on for artistic capital, in its flamboyant display of a sexuality Cage had concealed form his music and which it at once seemed to question and to too-securely or solely inhabit. Or hear Eastman’s rock-solid baritone on Arthur Russell’s Dinosaur L tracks, as he swoops up through octaves to emphasize the mutant panic at the heart of the disco collective Russell so loved: “Go-o-o Ba-ANG!” Eastman’s high note at the end almost becomes a police whistle, the invasion of a safe space, fluidity rigidly funked into rhythm and surrounded by the hostility of homophobes and cops.

And yet and against that which disco might sound too smoothly like to us today, an earthiness, a dirtiness, reclaimed: “and what I mean by niggers is that thing which is fundamental, that person or thing that obtains to a basicness, a fundamentalness, and eschews that which is superficial or, what can we say, elegant”; the “great and grand” American economic system, based on the “first and great nigger, the field nigger.” The underclass in the hall of the mountain king, bashing across the entire harmonic series on four concert grands, swooping in and moving on up from below. So it’s entirely appropriate to hear him booming out “in the corn belt, corn corn” on that other Dinosaur L track ‘In the Corn Belt’, alongside guitars, muted trombones, his own organ, bouncing percussion; a jam that at once flits away into what David Toop or Simon Reynolds might call the ‘oceanic’ and that Stays On It, stripping away whatever veneers or masks it wears. As Russell puts it on ‘Go Bang’ – “I wanna see all of my friends at once": but this isn’t some hippy-dippy imagined family as false internationalism, pot-pourri soft-imperialism to provide a soft wash on the speakers of bougie flats done up in aromatic cleanliness, in their best feng-shui; it is messy entanglement hard and bright and dark and sad and strong.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013


This is music with a pose aware of its own status as pose, but one posed for an audience different to that working-class or lumpen-proletarian audience one which hip-hop might, in the past and even in some cases in the present, at least pretend to speak for and to. This is music for hipsters, the Pitchfork crowd, posing as music for the people, but which everyone knows is music for hipsters; to be listened to by trendy white kids ‘slumming’ it through their headphones, but with the requisite amount of ‘artiness’ to prevent them from feeling that they’re actually accessing a true lumpen-proletarian vision. Thus, the mix of lyrics with pretensions to the hard-edge macho-misogynistic boasting of a gangsta lienage with ‘cloud rap’ quasi-melancholy, the woozily doomy ambience of post DJ-Screw aesthetics. A$AP Rocky doesn’t rap much, compared to, say, MF Doom’s hyper-virtuosity: the words merge into the background, the track standing on its production rather than by its words (a trend perhaps initiated by the Lil B/ Clams Casino collaborations). Indeed, this is what characterizes the increasing blurring of the lines between style and content, where the emptiness of the gangsta boasts is indeed treated as empty, as almost a secondary texture to the production, dextrousness of flow more than content. Lil B is the extreme example of this, perhaps, veering wildly between the most banal of self-help positivity mantras and aggressive rape-threats to the more interesting parodies of the ideas of persona whereby Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” becomes ‘I’m Bill Clinton’, ‘I’m God’, ‘I’m Gay’, etc, all reduced to the same incompetently slurred and slow, seemingly semi-improvised quasi-rapping.

Still, I think the first song ‘Long.Live.A$AP’, which shares the name of the album, is doing something more interesting, structurally, something which both underlines and goes against the suggestions of its title, with its suggestions of royalty, the urgent non-spaced full-stop between the words breaking up the length or eternity it claims to claim, the urgency of the ASAP acronym turned into ‘get money’, as if that eternity could be accomplished by the money that accumulates the exploitations of an obscured history as its never-ending transcendental legacy for getting everything you want right now, forever. What, for example, to make of the poignancy of its high-pitched sung chorus, asserting that, “Of course, I’m living forever I’ll / Forever, I’ll live long”, with its odd rhythmic landing on the first word (‘I’ll’) of the next sentence, here included as the concluding cadence of the previous line; the grammatical weirdness whereby a verb is elided in order to allow that rhythmic extension of the “I’ll”, so that Rocky claims he’ll “forever”, in which ‘forever’ becomes a verb one could perform, even as the future-projection in the claim to be able to live forever is insistently reduced to a present tense “I’m living forever,” ending with an insistent “I’ll LIVE” that nonetheless never connects up with the “I’ll / forever” which precedes it and which it should complete, so that the futurity of living forever can never be said directly. Not only because of this grammatical weirdness, but because of the odd ethereality of the voice itself – which one might even depict as having the vague associations a kind of soul-ascended-from-the-body spectrality, particularly after Rocky, his “soul […] feel[ing] empty” challenges “the reaper [to] come get me” at the end of the first verse – or the fact that Rocky, despite his claims to invincibility and immortality, to being “on the road to riches” and “tot[ing] that 9,” equally depicts himself as running scared, somewhere between Malcolm X (perhaps via Krs-One), holding his gun in readiness at the window, and a middle-class weakling (“Strangers make me nervous, who’s that peekin’ in my window with a pistol to the curtains?”).

This is all, it seems to me, a making-fragile of the usual gangsta boasting (a boast, to live forever through one’s music or one’s poetry, that of course has existed well before hip-hop) as it appears in the verses, whose juxtaposition with this dreamy chorus is highlighted with almost clunky transitional tenacity in the production, highlighting the status of that chorus as both dream interlude before the reality of life sets back in and as that aspired to by the rest of the song, but only ever briefly reached. The notion of eternal life is here abstracted from the very material subject matter of the rapping – money, women and drugs – so that the material ‘keeping it real’ boasts of hip-hop (which have been, to varying degrees, of course a dramatic facade, a wish fulfilment fantasy, in large or in part) are given a kind of metaphysical tinge (which is, one might argue, entirely apposite given the sacralization of money and/or its gains that hip-hop capitalism has fully, though perhaps parodically and from a complex class position, embraced). As such, this is perhaps the opposite of that process Theodor Adorno believed to be traced in the music of Gustav Mahler, in which “the underworld of music is mobilized against the disappearing world of the starry heavens in order for the latter to be moved and to be a corporeal presence among humankind”; here, corporeal presences and ambitions (which might lead, indeed, to becoming a corpse, through drug addiction, gun crime, and the like, as the lyrics acknowledge) re-ascend into a set of starry heavens which are no longer believed, mystified in the here and now. The stars have already been moved down to earth, and have taken up residence, as hip-hop celebrity replacing the class solidarity that the genre had, and still does, at least in part promise, as the vague intimations of metaphysical belief that circle around Christianity and Islam in hip-hop’s mythic universe.

We might compare here Kanye West’s figure of Yeezus; West still with enough belief invested in some vaguely-theorized ‘Most High’ to take precautionary measures to defend himself against accusations of blasphemy, yet elevating material ambitions, getting, enjoying and maintaining the trappings of wealth as an almost divine goal in itself. But whereas Kanye’s Yeezus is relentlessly harsh, even in its self-pity, the ugliness of the Nina Simone sampling on ‘Blood on the Leaves’ only the most egregious example of this, A$AP’s far less skilful and interesting play with persona – as much a factor of the (multi-personed) production as of the actual rap – nonetheless haunts in its manipulative poignancy in a manner that might also indicate where hip-hop might think it’s come in 2013; or where the afore-mentioned Pitchfork-esque white hipster audience that seems to me to increasingly be shaping this kind of work, thinks it’s come. The wistful whimsicality of the ‘live forever’ chorus is not equivalent to that gesture by which, for Adorno, Mahler’s ironic undercutting of the utopian urge is precisely where he is at his most utopian; instead, it denies that very possibility, and would even seem happy with that state of denial, fetishizing that sense of melancholia and loss in order to amp up its boasts, while dressing them all up in a gauze of a simply aestheticized beauty.

Of course, that sentimentality – think UGK’s “One day you’re here, baby, the next day you’re gone,” as turned into epic vocalized sorrow on the elongated, stretched-out DJ Screw remix – is a hip-hop staple that allows the tough-guy to think himself a feeling man at heart (or, at the least, the production, the use of a jazz or a soul sample, might allow that). A$AP’s female / child-like alter-ego (note the child’s voice that comes in in the final reprise of that chorus), his dreaming high voice – whether or not it is his, treated, or a guest appearance – is thus both separated from and fused with his more ‘gangsta’ image, having it both ways, removing the dreams of ‘living forever’ which might be a call for a collective justice and redemption rather than merely the individual desire for invincibility they would more easily, obviously or even accurately seem to be, while also suggesting that they are central to the verses they surround or interrupt.

Or again, the trope of a boast which undermines itself is hardly a new one – and it’s also present on Kanye’s ‘I am a God’, however much this kind of 1950’s movie-psychologising response is anticipated and satirized within the form of the song itself, a relentless refusal of a particular kind of confessionalism, even as much of the album also falls into an ugly and self-regarding self-pity. On ‘God’, the production, rather than suggesting an ethereal other register as it does in ‘Long.Live.A$AP’, only serves to heighten the relentless crudity of the lyrics, the way they constantly put their foot in their mouth and celebrate the fact of doing just that. So that (to repeat myself), the melodrama Kanye makes of the song’s relentless self-inflation (the repeated sampled screams and the stutters in the music, placed just so as to unsettle the flow at the ‘wrong’ moment) is not so much a cutting-down, a staged vulnerability, but part of the whole performative mask which anticipates an imagined defeat or fear or hubris as, maybe, just another boast. (As well as being part of the whole persecution complex that goes with that exaggerated vanity). But to say that there’s, oh, I don’t know, some ‘real despair’ behind it all is exactly the move that the music anticipates and disallows by occasionally staging moments of apparent self-doubt (which are anyway often ‘resolved’: the singing of “ain’t no way I’m giving up. I am a God” after the final four screams).

Yet, by contrast, I can’t help feeling that there is something more to Rocky’s eeriness than either this anticipatory denial of a separate ‘true inner core’ – jarringly enacted by the high-pitched male screams which ‘punctuate’, or, more accurately, interrupt the lyrics – or a kind of evasively sentimental quasi-metaphysical gesture, hinting at the true material core, the potential collective demand behind the relentless individualized drive of its gangsta-materialisation of the spiritual and spiritualisation of the gangsta-material. This, if only for the way it’s insistently been embedded in my head now all day and all night, despite itself, despite its own anticipations or manipulations of this for indie-cred.

But perhaps I am simply wrong.