Fireworks

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Last summer, I got into photography. At my hometown’s annual fireworks show, I screwed around with some long exposure type shots. Some of them came out really cool. (Clicking on any photo leads you to a hi-res version of it.)

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(My personal favorite below)

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(And one more, for shits and giggles)

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Iva Toguri

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Listen up everybody. There’s a lot to think about re: America, politics, the future, but one thread I’ve been following recently concerns the story of one Iva Toguri, pictured above. Her story is pretty unbelievable, and definitely resonates (forebodes, even) with certain aspects of our current moment. (For reference, I’m heavily relying on Frederick P. Close’s biography of Iva for my own sources).

Iva Toguri was a first-generation Japanese-American who grew up in LA around the turn of the century. Her father, Jun Toguri, was a well known, industrious businessman who was integral to building up and continuing Japanese-American communities around the U.S., especially after the internment of the 1940s. Iva Toguri took this industriousness after her father, and in 1941, before war had broken out between the U.S. and Japan, Iva traveled to Japan with very few connections and little help, in an attempt to forge some kind of path for herself. Unfortunate circumstances compounded heavily, starting with the outbreak of war and the subsequent famines and rationing, which put in Iva in a precarious position as a foreigner, and an American at that. She was forced to find work wherever she could, and through various different connections she found herself working for Radio Tokyo, which at the time was broadcasting propaganda to the Pacific region extensively. Iva started as a typist, but was soon brought into the company of three POWs, Charles Cousens, Wallace Ince, and Norman Reyes, all of who had been forced to broadcast Japanese propaganda by their captors as a result of their experience in radio. Cousens saw some raw talent in Iva and her voice, and after hearing her speak positively about the American war effort, he brought her on to broadcast with the three of them, working on a news/entertainment show called The Zero Hour, the purpose of which was ostensibly propaganda, but which the four of them subtly undermined with sarcasm and subtlety that their Japanese superiors could not pick up on. Iva introduced jazz records under the pseudonym Orphan Ann, and made witty banter with the rest of the hosts.

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Simultaneous to this, as the war in the Pacific was raging on, American sailors and airmen faced an enemy that had been stereotyped by the media as sly, cunning, savage, and merciless. The bombing of Pearl Harbor unfortunately confirmed many Americans’ stereotypes of the Japanese as sneaky and calculating, stereotypes that had been fomenting in American society since the early days of Japanese immigration. These stereotypes culminated in the legendary Tokyo Rose, a supposed Japanese-American turncoat radio host that broadcast all sorts of incendiary propaganda in English, reminding GIs that their wives may be cheating on them, predicting their troops’ movements, playing jazz records to remind them of home, etc. The idea of Tokyo Rose became a mainstay of popular culture, and references to her traitorous nature can still be heard even in recent memory, like Donald Rumsfeld comparing reporters critical of the Iraq war to Tokyo Rose. Many GIs claimed to have either heard her broadcasting or knew somebody on board their ship or in their troop that had hear her, and as a result, details are spotty and a great deal of contradictory evidence begins to emerge when taking these accounts at face value. The most incredible part of all of this is that Tokyo Rose did not exist. Foreign Broadcasting Information Service (FBIS) recorded and transcribed all broadcasts throughout the Pacific theater during WWII, and the vast majority of reported broadcasts that GIs referenced did not exist. The Tokyo Rose phenomenon was a mass hallucination, a crystallization of the anxieties of the moment, made all the more real by the gaps in imagination left by radio (more on this later).

As the war was ending and the U.S. occupied Tokyo, the occupying troops and news organizations began a search for Tokyo Rose, an attempt that soon proved quite futile. Tokyo Rose did not actually exist, but Americans were rabid to find her, so they found somebody to play the part. Iva Toguri was unfortunately cast. She was a female, English-speaking radio broadcaster, she had not renounced her U.S. citizenship, and she broadcast on a show that was considered propaganda by the Japanese military, which put her in a prime position to face charges of treason by the U.S. government. Iva Toguri’s trial was incredibly lengthy, and riddled with deceit on the part of the U.S. government prosecutors. Thomas D. Wolfe was the main prosecutor: among the many underhanded things he did to reach a guilty sentence, he fabricated evidence, coerced witnesses, selected jury members based on race, and questioned key witnesses’ reliability based on their ethnicity (Norman Reyes was Philipino). What should have been a simple trial with ample evidence to exonerate Iva Toguri (the FBIS transcripts mentioned above, and three servicemen’s testimony) ended up being incredibly difficult and leading to Iva’s being sentenced to 12 years in a federal prison. The facts of the matter proved to be no match for the might of a government with powerful central authority and a need to appease cultural anxieties. Does this set off any alarm bells?

If Iva Toguri was indicted for treason on dubious pretenses as a result of widespread cultural fears and systemic racist tendencies, who is to say the same thing couldn’t happen today, given such similar conditions? We already saw such fear and anxiety crystallize in the ascension of a very orange man; that same fear could easily lead to somebody’s downfall, like Iva Toguri. It’s a scary thought, but it’s not that far removed from our current reality. Frederick P. Close points out the fact that the Tokyo Rose mass hallucination could not manifest in successive wars since radio had ceased to be the principle means of receiving information. Radio leaves gaps in the imagination, whereas TV provides more sensory input and leaves much less room for fear to seep in. Unfortunately, we are now in a post-TV era, and our principle form of receiving information is social media and the internet, which, as has been so amply demonstrated by this election, is incredibly unreliable, and very easily subject to manipulation.

American Muslims have become an object that Trump’s voters displace their fears of terrorism and the other (often violently) on to, as well as Latinos, women, LGBT, Chinese-Americans, the disabled, and others. It is not farfetched to imagine an American Muslim being put on trial for some reported act of terrorism that somehow warps its way out of a widely shared Facebook post, passes through and is dismissed by countless levels of our intelligence and justice departments, but is then nonetheless reaffirmed by our president, forcing those in the justice system to fabricate and falsify an entire case. All because of a widespread hallucination.

I’ll be keeping Iva Toguri in mind as we plod through these next four years.

Dawn of Midi

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I’m not really sure what’s happening that’s keeping these guys sort of under the radar (they even opened for Radiohead at MSG, for christ’s sake), but Dawn of Midi is probably the coolest thing I’ve heard in years. This music is so weird and adventurous in its timbre, its rhythmic approach, its mood; I just wanna throw a copy of the CD at every single person I see in the street.

Dawn of Midi is: Qasim Naqvi – Drums, Aakaash Israni – Bass, Amino Belyamani – Piano. They’ve been making music together for a while and I actually haven’t heard any of their earlier stuff, but they put out an album last year (Dysnomia) that got a lot of rave reviews, but (and maybe I’m wrong) it seems like, amongst these reviews, there were very few reactions other than shock, confusion, or hypnosis. These are certainly things I felt when I listened to this album, but there is a lot more going on here, that I’m gonna try and dig a little bit deeper into.

Dawn of Midi takes the traditional jazz trio instrumentation and flips it right on its head. I don’t think I heard a single ride cymbal, walking bass line or more than 3 chords with more than 4 notes in the piano while listening to this. As they say pretty clearly on their Bandcamp, this music to dance to, “with or without shoes”. It’s closer in its sound to electronic music, with hints of house, and even hints of some of the weirder parts of Warp records.

While using the internal mechanisms of the piano to generate different sounds is not new (John Cage), Belyamani’s use of these techniques is incredibly refreshing in this context, paired against the deeper sounds of the bass and drums. The notes Belyamani plays are often stripped down to individual harmonic partials, as he places his fingers on choice parts of the strings, at times moving the fingers of one hand around the string as he plays the keys with the other. The effect is closer to a sine-wave synth than a piano at points.

The harmonic aspect of this record is really incredible as well. While there are very few true “chords” on this album, there are interesting shifts in what the bass line is implying from song to song, and choice notes sparsely introduced in the piano part that allow each song to evolve to the next one, over relatively long time spans. There’s even really wild bitonality at times, like in the 5th song, Moon.

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Once the bass and piano are both playing their full parts, it becomes clear there is some mismatch going on. The piano seems to be in Bb minor (Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, and Gb in key signature, all of which are in its part except Ab) and the bass is in G (so G, A, and D are all natural), which gives certain combinations a strange sound. The mismatch is resolved:

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The bass’ part is now in Bb minor, though it still plays the G natural at certain points in its line. It returns to G right after this, and repeats this whole cycle again 2 more times until the transition to the next song.

 

There is also a certain type of rhythmic bitonality happening (if that even makes any sense). Dawn of Midi seems to often allow two rhythmic layers to coexist at the same time, like the end of the aforementioned Moon in which the piano’s top line very subtly switches from triplets (as shown below) to a 4/4 syncopated pattern while the bass is still in its 9/8 pattern from earlier, eventually switching to the 4/4 with the piano and drums.

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A piano line is introduced here in eighth notes, which is then reinterpreted as triplets:

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Which is then further modified to become a 4/4 pattern, while the bass and drums are still in 12/16. All the players lock into the 4/4 eventually, which leads to the next song, Ymir.

I actually got in touch with Dawn of Midi recently and spoke to them about their music; I had been getting very frustrated trying to transcribe the song Ijiraq, and asked them about how they put the album together, and what was occurring metrically. As I soon found out, Dawn of Midi wrote and recorded the album by ear, rather than sitting down and writing the patterns out. They sequenced some parts in Logic, but for the most part just learned things as they played them together. The album actually has a lot of Moroccan Berber influence. Though we, as westerners, might hear songs like Nix and Ymir as being in 3/4 or 4/4 respectively (i.e. some duple, straight eighths beat), Dawn of Midi is feeling them in something closer to 12/8, which is the traditional Berber style of playing 4/4. (I was able to find something of an example which seems to sit somewhere between triplets and 4/4, and another from the same album which has certain hits that sound similar to moments of the aforementioned Ijiraq. Another example is similar to the subtle swing of Nix and Ymir.) 12/8 in general pervades the album in this regard: all the rhythms have some of this swing, and all the patterns have some kind of subdivision by 3s, 6s, or 12s, like in Moon. Dawn of Midi even says that every song is in 12/8, though I’m still having some trouble working out how.

Considering how subtle this swing element is, certain parts of the album become almost impossible to transcribe in western notation (probably for the better), like the song Ijiraq. Ijiraq has a pattern in 5/4 superimposed over a pattern in 4/4 (12/8) for a large part of the song. Trying to fit accurately into a 4/4 bar is maddening, but I think this kind of points to the magic of the album: things are impossible to pin down perfectly, and just when you think you’re finally figuring it out, the rhythm might lock in differently than you expected, or the bass plays something in a different key, or the song transitions to another one, and you’re left sitting slack-jawed.

Like I said earlier, there is a lot going on here. I could try and take a sort of hyper-analytical approach to each song, like I started to hint at above, but that’s probably beyond the scope of this blog post. My main goal here is to give a bit more of an in depth look at what is happening internally in these songs, why they have the effects they do, and why it all works so well, both from my perspective and that of the band. I’ve been looking around at reviews for this album and I’ve come across some with sentences like this:

‘Here, rhythms are delivered, repeated and built with a fractal precision that makes for music as menacing as it is meditative.’

or

‘And when they coalesce like this it’s so rewarding in that kind of pseudo-spiritual way, like when the tempo of the windshield wipers match up with the music in your car. But they all soon disengage and the three scatter off into new orbits at new speeds and prepare to align again.’

or

‘Dysnomia’s future is one where names and categorization lose their meaning, where signifiers tear themselves apart from their signified material and unhinge the lexicon of “meaning” into a stormy, swirling mass, a galaxy threatening to collapse into its own arbitrary gravity.’

I really appreciate all these people’s enthusiasm, and to be frank, this is some solid music journalism (save maybe the last one) that would make me want to listen to this, were I not already familiar. I don’t necessarily disagree with any of them either, I just always find myself wishing that these people would give me a little more of a sense of why these things have the effect they do, rather than just giving these poetic descriptions of the effects. I guess, at the end of the day, I just wish there were a happier medium between music journalism and the academy, a topic that could be a whole post of its own.

Anyways, hope everybody gives this album a listen, and is able to appreciate it a bit more knowing some of the techniques and mechanisms at play. I’m really excited to see what they continue to come up with, and will definitely be staying tuned for whatever is next.

 

Aliens & Anorexia

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I just read a whole shit-ton of books. I’m probably gonna work my way backwards, trying to talk about each of them at least in some detail. The most recent thing I read was not Aliens & Anorexia, but I kind of wanted to start with it since it really stuck with me.

Aliens & Anorexia is Chris Kraus’ second novel in a trilogy that she wrote in the late 1990s/2000s, the first of the set being I Love Dick (probably the most well known of the trilogy) and the last being Torpor. They are all mostly autobiographical; I Love Dick and Aliens & Anorexia are explicitly so, whereas Torpor uses thinly veiled pseudonyms. These novels are seen as pivotal feminist texts, for good reason; Chris Kraus is critical not only of the patriarchal institutions around her, but also of the ways that her feminist peers have built up similar institutions that are exclusionary in their own ways.

Beyond the way Aliens & Anorexia talks about these issues, I think what makes it so compelling is Kraus’ ability to make her arguments feel personal and scholarly simultaneously. Throughout most of the book, she seems to be working through the failure of her first feature length film Gravity & Grace by exploring questions about failure, decreation, sadness, and loneliness. These arguments are resolutely grounded too: I was pretty surprised to find at the back of the book a full works cited list, giving references to every text she mentioned, even an obscure book of prints in which she first discovered Paul Thek’s work.

The flow of the book, and the way Kraus moves between topics/people/ideas is worth noting as well. She has no reservations about talking in depth about Simone Weil’s biography for 5 or so pages directly after an anecdote about she and her husband taking LSD in southern California, that itself is interspersed with anecdotes of Walter Benjamin smoking hashish in France. This style of writing can become a labyrinth if not done carefully, but Kraus counteracts this by inserting certain phrases, stories, and dialogues that continue to pop up throughout the text, like beams of light illuminating an intricate spider web from different angles until the whole thing is clear in front of you.

This is probably the first book I’ve read in quite a while in which I was actively underlining parts of the text. Here are a few of my favorite lines (some of them not even by Kraus):

“A man whose family had died under torture,” [Simone Weil] wroter later on in London, “who had himself been tortured for a long time in a concentration camp, or a 16th century Indian, the sole survivor after the total extermination of his people, such men, if they had previously believed in the mercy of God would either believe in it no longer, or else they would conceive of it quite differently. I have not been through such things. I know however that they exist, so what is the difference?

Weil was driven by a panic of altruism, an empathy so absolute she couldn’t separate the suffereing that she witnessed from her own. She wanted politics to a be a fairy tale, an attempt againsts all odds to make things right. Sometimes when the headaches hit, she looked inside. Pain marked the meeting place between her soul and body, the center of the nervous system. Always, she was terrified that she might waste her life.

Kraus refers to Simone Weil’s state as a panic of altruism throughout the book, a state in which she is incapable of seeing the difference between her own suffering and another’s (I think Kraus uses the term “radical empathy” as well). I was and still am struck by the brutal simplicity of Weil’s own expression of this panic in the first quotation; I feel like this logic has become incredibly valuable especially among many debates and issues within and about identity politics right now (e.g. sure, I’m not a black person but I can see that they have suffered a great deal collectively, so why should this not move me to action?)

Throughout the 20th century, chance has repeatedly recurred as the basis of artistic practice among groups of highly educated men … In Zurich, 1917 Hugo Ball and Tristin Tzara made nonsense poem of glossolalia … In New York during the early 1960s, John Cage and Fluxus members made random compositions out of sound and gestures … These men were crocodiles in clubchairsconductors of controlled experiments in chaos. In the interest of a greater science they were prepared to gouge out pieces of their own non-porous skin. Girls, on the other hand, are less reptilian…

I just love that phrase, “crocodiles in clubchairs”. Really captures that moment. I don’t really have much more to say on this than that.

Weeks passed before I got around to opening the box. And when I did … a pile of books: the writings of the Dadaist Hugo Ball, some books in French by Antonin Artaud. Plon’s first edition of Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, in French, La Pesanteur et la grâce. The writings of Ulrike Meinhof, including Meinhof’s screenplay translated into French as Le FoyerI bought a dictionary, started reading.

This passage just kind of bonked me on the head; I’ve sat around with random books in other languages and gotten worked up into inaction, thinking, “What’s the point? I won’t understand all the idiomatic stuff and there’s probably just a translation if I look harder.” And then Chris Kraus comes along and lays it out in all its simplicity. Just buy a dictionary, you dummy.

“Everything,” [Paul Thek] said that year, “is beautiful and ugly simultaneously. We accept our thing-ness intellectually, but the emotional acceptance of it can be a joy.”

I read an essay by Hito Steyerl at some point over the summer all about the importance of being able to choose to be an object (rather than a subject), and this line really drove home what I think she was getting at (her essays left me a bit confused at times). Paul Thek is a really interesting character, and worth exploring, if you’re interested in the precursors and concepts behind installation art. At one point, Kraus makes a brilliant argument about his conception of installation, drawing more parallels to theater than visual art, and ultimately claiming that his practice was a drama in which his objects became actors. The above quotation is more in reference to his earlier works, which were mainly sculptures of amputated limbs in a grotesquely realistic manner.

Thek, who was ambivalently homosexual, was arguing for a state of decreation, a plateau at which a person might, with all their will and consciousness, become a thing. “The chief element of value in the soul is its impersonality,” wrote Simon Weil. Among people who reject the mystical state, the only yardstick left for measuring the will-to-decreate is sadomasochism. Thek, a male acting upon wax, Swenson thought, must be sadistic… just as Weil’s detractors saw her, a female, acting on herself, as masochistic. Though neither of them really saw the world through these polarities. They were someplace else, arguing for an alien state, using subjectivity as a means of breaking out of time and space- 

A big part of the novel deals with Kraus forming a long distance S&M phone-sex relationship with a big-budget movie producer located in Africa, while she works through the pain of Gravity & Grace‘s failure in the Hamptons (Long Island). Much of this occurs later on, but the groundwork for talking about S&M is laid down early in her analysis of Simone Weil and Paul Thek, as in the above quotation. Kraus’ approach to S&M begins with the notion above (i.e. decreation to become a part of something larger than oneself); she fine-tunes this later on, pointing out the parallels to many older traditions of theater like Noh, Balinese Dance or commedia dell’arte, which all draw upon “a stock repertoire of stories, bits, and lines and gags” (some kind of S&M pun?), which when performed, decreate the self by replacing it with these stock elements and connect it to something larger. She also takes this decreation-as-subsummation argument even further later on, in describing sadness and how its self-destructive force connects her to all the sadness that ever existed in the world, or as she puts it, “a hyperspace, a second set of neural networks becoming active in the body”.

I came to think of coincidence as harmonic overtones of occurrence and twilight guideposts. (Simone Forti)

“If it was written by a human being, then it must be possible for another human being to understand it.” (Chev, one of Kraus’ friends in NZ)

Things happened but they never added up, there were countless conversations but no exchange of information, that moment when you feel your words and gestures enter someone else’s field

The fact that someone’s listening makes it possible to find words. 

As with the earlier quotation about “crocodiles in clubchairs”, I just really like all the quotations above. “Twilight guideposts” just stuck in my memory, even though I’m still not really what the speaker meant. The second one is something I think I have actually said almost word for word to somebody once, so to see that in writing was pretty weird. I love the third quotation’s explanation of conversation as being something beyond speech; a permeation through some kind of barrier… which the last quotation nicely expands on (at a completely opposite end of the book, no less).

Sometime during the second night of non-stop crying my father called and said You’d better stop, and so I did, because I’d been crazy once already in New Zealand, and I remember, crazy women hardly ever get to speak, let alone make movies. 

This line is just so devastating. I’ve been reading a lot of Anne Carson recently (will be posting about her pretty soon), and came across some music scholarship about crazy (hysterical) woman this past year while working on a paper about Monteverdi (Susan McClarySuzanne Cusick); all three writers in one way or another have forced me to question certain tropes; gave me different perspectives on these tropes ranging far and wide throughout all of history; and then Chris Kraus comes along and (again) bonks me on the head. These kinds of biting lines pop up throughout the book, and never fail to bonk.

The Tao of Dereliction: wanting to attain a state in which you may be porous: mobile, lost and penniless and constantly alert.

There is a medieval mystical tradition which defines the self as a “foul stinking lump” that must be broken down. Weil takes this one step further, as a woman living in the mid-20th century: it isn’t just the second-person self she’s seeking to destroy. She’s starting with the one she knows the best, her own. 

She want to lose herself in order to be larger than herself . A rhapsody of longing overtakes her. She wants to really see. Therefore, she’s a masochist. 

I think that a big part of why I identify so strongly with this novel lies in Kraus’ acceptance and non-dismissal of self-decreation as a legitimate stance. Kraus talks a lot about Simone Weil and her body-denial (Weil starved herself for long periods, ultimately leading to her early death), essentially making the argument that anorexia can be a rejection of the cynical culture that we typically consume alongside our food. What’s really interesting is that each person that Kraus talks about (even herself) comes to deal with the question of decreation-as-subsummation for very different reasons. Simone Weil is “tripping out on content” (another phrase I really love) and as a result of giving herself up to the panic of altruism, starves herself. Paul Thek is decreating in order to savor being an object rather than a subject. Kraus herself decreates both as a result of Crohn’s disease, which makes it very difficult to eat, as well as her own emotional reactions to Gravity & Grace‘s failure. I’ve thought in the past about the rejection of certain things like technology or sex as means of rejecting (what I perceive to be) their cynical cultures, and I’ve separately thought about the whole decreation-as-subsummation question, especially with respect to artists/authors/composers that seem to be able to decreate and give their work an authorless quality, like Morton Feldman, Steve Reich, or David Foster Wallace (the first four stories in Oblivion in particular). Kraus somehow weaves both these threads into one all-encompassing tapestry full of diverse perspectives, and the result, as I’ve already probably made clear, is incredibly compelling.

There is almost a bit too much to talk about with this book, and as I’m writing this, I think of more and more to say, but I think it’s probably just better to leave it here and recommend the hell out of Aliens & Anorexia, and really anything else she’s written.

Inaugural Post

Welcome. I don’t really know what I’m gonna put on here, but I guess we’ll just see what happens as time goes on. Maybe music reviews, my own music, poetry, who the hell knows. I’ll just keep posting in the meantime.

For this one, I’m just gonna post this photo:

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The photographer is Ray Mortenson; he did a whole project of black & white photographs of the NJ Meadowlands back in 1984. This one is Celanese Chemicals, Newark #2. I’m a huge fan of most of this guy’s work, but this one really stands out to me; it somehow becomes something more than its own content, maybe via framing, color, I’m not really sure exactly. My take: by squashing the industrial buildings in between what seems like vast stretches of sparsely dirty white ground and ever so slightly greyer sky, and keeping the horizon a bit above the center, there is a certain anxious potential energy latent in the image, like it could just snap back open at any moment into a rush of grinding gears and roaring tubes. Or maybe I’m full of shit and it’s just a cool photo. Either way, I think it’s really unique, and if you like it, check out Ray Mortenson’s other work in this series (there is a book of it called Meadowland: Photographs of New Jersey) or any of his other series (he did some work in South Bronx as well, which I haven’t really looked at too much).