by carl wilson

"Electricity Made Music Louder and More Often"


Today's Overtones column in The Globe and Mail covers some ground I've trod on Zoilus before and some new territory: "Phonograph effects," technological nostalgia, CBC's shit-hot The Wire radio series, video-game cover bands, Congo's Konono No. 1, and why it was once thought scandalous to listen to records at breakfast. With special shoutouts to Alex Ross and Brian Joseph Davis. [... Read it?... ]

Pining for that old familiar, synthesized four-minute remix

Saturday, July 9, 2005
The Globe and Mail

The sound whirls and wavers, with the thock of skins and wood, the ping and buzz of tin, and shouts of joy at once easygoing and madly driven. It's Konono No. 1, a Congolese ensemble who've made one of the year's most alluring recordings, Congotronics.

Its story goes back 25 years, to when war and scarcity drove masses of people out of the bush on the Angolan border, and into the capital, Kinshasa, including musicians who discovered their traditional songs couldn't be heard in the urban din. So they turned mechanization against itself, dismantling car parts for magnets and batteries, wiring their metal-rod thumb pianos to colonial Belgian loudspeakers, singing into megaphones, blowing whistles and beating hubcaps. The rest is glorious, street-party noise, sounding like nothing, but hinting at everything from reggae to ambient techno.

Had it come out sooner, Congotronics would have been great fodder for the eight-part CBC Radio Two series The Wire: The Impact of Electricity On Music, hosted by Jowi Taylor. Neglected on-air this winter, the series rebroadcasts this summer on Sunday afternoons. It's superior radio.

On subjects such as microphones, tape recording, electric guitars, synthesizers and the Internet, The Wire not only interviews giants such as Bob Moog, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Les Paul; it also splices, loops and enhances the content so that it's matched with form. Each show ends with a remix of itself, by a guest electronic artist -- the sort of conceptual move the CBC's Dull It Up committees usually squelch.

The Wire is one of many current attempts to reassess 20th-century musical technology just as it's being killed off. Capturing Sound by American musicologist Mark Katz is a book focused on "phonograph effects" -- how recording reshaped listening, performance and composition.

Phonograph effects may help explain why 20th-century violinists adopted constant vibrato (it registers better on recording equipment, and suggests a more physical presence); how jazz styles evolved (long solos became prominent with the long-playing record in the 1940s); or where Philip Glass/Steve Reich-style minimalism came from (tape-loop experiments were translated into written compositions).

Alex Ross, writing about Katz's and related books in The New Yorker, comments on the theory that recording helped codify and homogenize classical-music performance standards: "Records cannot be entirely to blame . . . otherwise, similar patterns would surface in popular music, which, whatever its problems, has never lacked for spontaneity."

Perhaps, but where classical music still seems sore over the switch, pop is wholly a child of recording, from its three-to-four-minute song formula (a holdover from the playing time of 78s) to its neurotic drive for novelty, a cyclic reaction to hearing hits replayed one time too many. (As composer John Oswald says on The Wire, "Electricity made music louder and more often.")

Now, when we're nostalgic for a more "organic" or "real" music, it's usually about a previous stage of technical artificiality. For some, it's electric guitars; I've been known to get soppy over the passing of the cassette tape. Meanwhile, many twentysomethings are reviving the theme music of old Nintendo and Sega video games with live cover bands with names like Game Over, the Ice Climbers, the Advantage, MegaDriver and Select Start. In technology capitals such as Japan and California, orchestras have played video-game music.

The original game-console sound is emulated in a newish genre known as 8-bit, after the memory capacity of 1980s computer processors. When Beck, known for omnivorously regurgitating subcultures, had an 8-bit remix done of his recent song Hell Yes, a sharp Internet music writer named Mike Barthel joked that Beck was "finally" appropriating Barthel's own culture, and took mock umbrage: "... You didn't grow up with this, man! You're not down! That's not what 8-bit's about."

By Katz's criteria, MP3s are quite unlike records -- disembodied, intangible, even disposable. But no doubt soon, people will be saying, "Remember MP3s? That's when file-sharing really had a funky, organic feel."

Recorded music has always used every studio illusion to try to sound both live and perfect -- as likely as being at once naked and dapperly dressed. Soon audiences began to expect live shows to sound like recordings. And so, especially on stadium scale, many concerts came to include secret prerecorded parts (remember Ashlee Simpson?) . . . which might be bootlegged, uploaded, downloaded and, by some in the audience, remixed again.

Toronto writer-artist Brian Joseph Davis recently layered together every song on greatest-hits albums by the likes of Whitney Houston, Metallica and the Carpenters, compiling them into one monster track per artist. He then put them on a limited-edition (and kind of illegal) CD called Greatest Hit.

That this is now a non-musician's idea of fun helps refute what early critics of recording, such as U.S. composer John Philip Sousa, feared -- that it would destroy amateur, participatory music.

True, there are fewer singalongs led by Ma and Pa nowadays. Yet it's also become commonplace to hear there's "too much music" being made as people, inspired by the records they love, produce their own cheap CDs, MP3s and mash-ups. So has music become too slick and professional, or too accessible and unschooled?

I can hardly imagine a society in which you could listen to music only in groups, at the theatre or in parlours. Katz says it once was considered louche for a man to listen to his gramophone by himself, or in the morning -- like pouring Scotch on your breakfast cereal. And symphonies had to be broken down into four-minute chunks and flipped over and over again.

A future generation may find it equally unfathomable that music ever came in formats limited to a measly hour, which you bought at shops and had to stow on shelves. Like, why bother?

Whenever you dig down to find the roots, the soil from which a cultural practice has grown, what you find is only more layers of culture, and all the tools embedded in them, as any archaeologist might tell you. So -- unless I'm just brainwashed by my robot masters -- creativity has proven pretty resilient against technology. It erodes in some ways, expands in others. The trick is to recognize the new permutations.

From a distance, the Congo sound of Konono No. 1 seems like a folkway brilliantly adapting and thriving in adverse circumstances. And yet, I bet their parents think they're nuts.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, July 09 at 3:42 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)



afroelectroacoustico...looks like dub wasn't the only african electronic music...dacks let me in on this blunt a while ago and buuurn it does...joe's pub in nov.!?!...somebody bring 'em up heere, please!!....and if rainer wiens ever releases his kalimba duet re-search with thom gossage you'll have another reason to ascend...peace..nilan

Posted by nilan on July 14, 2005 6:41 PM



I can't believe how fantastic Konono no.1 is!!!
Where can i purchase this album in TO.
Don't miss them at joe's pub in NYC on nov. 16

Posted by Susan Armstrong on July 12, 2005 10:46 AM




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