The stuff I like, as translated into a pet theory about aesthetics

Look, I don't know much more about aesthetics then I've learned from a couple of year's worth of musicology. I'm vaguely familiar with what the ancient greeks, the Sturm und Drang people, Kant, Schopenhauer, some musicologists and Adorno had to say on the subject. Some of it is rather well grounded in the personal philosophy of the people concerned, sure, but a lot of it seems to be a bit arbitrarily made up to fit the tastes of the people involved. Especially when it comes to ranking The Arts and what's better and worse.

Me, I've not sided with anyone based on the fact that I like different things. I couldn't think of a single theory that would fit all my favourites reasonably. (I assume this is how all the above started out as well.) But then a couple of months ago I think I figured out a decent guiding principle, which obviously is just a silly quirk which would be ridiculous to build a proper epistemology on, but it works for me.

See, I've figures out I like arts that are immersive, and dislike arts where the structure and purported source of impact is immediately and transparently obvious. The stuff I like most tends to be the stuff that makes you feel like you're inside the work and which hits you instinctively, emotionally and deeply.

At the top level would be stuff like music (of course!), architecture (in which you're very literally immersed), street art and to some extent stuff like film (where you tend to be shut off from everything not going on on the screen, augmented by turning down the house lights).

Below that would be things where you're in an artificially separated, partially alienated space away from the art. Theatre and dance with its clear physical separation (which I would argue doesn't happen in film, not least because of the sonic dimension). Computer games with their synthetic interfaces and obvious rules. Traditional art in the gallery. Poetry, with its extreme impact that's very second-degree, emotional impact that requires abstract thinking first.

At the very bottom I'd place prose literature, which I've never been particularly fond of. With this setup, I can finally explain why. It's ultimately abstracted and alienated away from the audience, being merely symbols on a page. And unlike poetry (but like computer games), prose relies on extremely transparent tropes to work - you can always recognise the wily writer behind the text, clearly pulling the strings. (Or if you're a structuralist or post-structuralist, the culturally conditioned narrative pieces falling into natural place.)

This set up tends to be a bit complicated by the fact that bits of it coincide nicely with theories of the sublime, and that I tend to quite like to pick the magic of individual pieces of art to bits, and like it more when I've done so. But still, it's a good theory for me because it really does work for all the stuff I'm fond of. Does anyone who's better versed in aesthetics than me know of a philosopher who's got similar ideas going on?


Eurovision Dubplate Lost

I'm not sure how many Eurovision dubplates there are. But if I'd been fast enough yesterday, I would have swiped one of them. Let it be another Youtube/Archiving lesson.

Topaz Sound was a surprise entry in this year's Swedish Eurovision pre-selection, especially considering they got Red Fox in to do the toasting. Okay, so the song was a fifties-inspired number that sounded like a mediocre blend of Shaggy's Oh Carolina cover, and Lou Bega's Mambo No. 5 cover, and I can't post a link to you because they advanced to an elimination round and SVT guards its copyright claims like a hawk. (*coughpiratebaycough*) But it's still fun to have a reggae/reggaeton group entering...

And their promotion was really fun. Yesterday they posted a dubplate (recorded in 2003) of Eurovision song contest winner Carola doing a special of her 1983 3rd place finisher. It was duly reposted on a bunch of Eurovision blogs and got a good laugh from everyone. Today, though, it was gone when I went to download it. I'm guessing Carola or her lawyers got to it before I did.

It's a pity. I love the idea of mainstream artists doing dubplates for sound systems, as a kind of reverse colonialism, even if most of the sounds are European. Apparently it's not nearly as rare as I thought, according to a little googling, so I'm going to fill up the rest of this post with first-world-made dubplates. Fun!

Kenny Rogers & Pharoahe Monch

Gogol Bordello


Whitney Houston


Tallava Meets Dub Uptown

Now this is a fascinating affinity. I've been looking at a lot more tallava material since my last post, and got a bit more information on its origins via this interesting blog, but I was expecting the usual connections to hip-hop, house, disco and reggaeton. Instead, I keep finding tallava track after tallava track with a huge sonic connection to dub.

At first I thought it was just a shared affinity for the echo chamber and a similar tempo but nope, there's plenty of dub phrasing and rhythmic orientation going on here.

One of these is at an atrocious bitrate and one is mostly just regular tallava with plenty of echo overlaid, but taken together they form an interesting pattern. I wonder what's compelled the Kosovars to pick up this particular historical genre?

Bekim Kumanova - Moj Mekatare (live)

Kadria - Tallava Taksim Pa Benzin (Mediafire)

Bajrami dhe Luli - 17 Shkurt (Mediafire)


What's with the Pirate Movement's attachment to the Counterculture?

Quick reflection. The Pirate Bay trial, which has been called the internet piracy trial of the decade, has just started here in Stockholm. In response, the site and its allies have started a site where they ridicule the trial, posting funny internet videos and live-blogging the inept prosecution. On one allied blog the trial is simultaneously being reimagined as absurdist theatre.

It's at times, I grant, interesting, powerful and funny. But it totally reeks of the counterculture of the sixties, to the extent that you have to wonder whether nothing interesting has happened in the intervening years. The terminology of "spectacle" for the supposed show-trial, the détournement of the plays and films and the frequent mention of the Neue Sloweniche Kunst is taken straight out of the Situationist International handbook. The anti-copyright community used to talk about sampling and diversity, but now they've coalesced into this utopian movement and totally gone back to ideology.

I kind of wonder what to make of it all. At one level you kinda have to hope it's a deliberate send-up of the traditional "new left", before we started caring about post-colonial perspectives, feminism and identity issues, but I'm afraid at least part of it is serious. I'm fairly sure the whole thing is being orchestrated by Rasmus Fleicher, who quite frankly is the only one of the pirate lot with serious academic depth. I quite like his thinking on a lot of issues, and his blog is well worth reading (though alas in Swedish), but he's certainly the type that would ignore newer developments in the left. Academically entrenched. Very orientated towards western thought and history. Pro-Israeli. Likes IDM and electronica.

It's all a bit of a shame because the anti-copyright movement has the potential to be a key part in the struggle against oppression. Today we should be acknowledging the history of free re-use in riddims and cultural exchanges and their potential power, working for the free expression and representation of all oppressed groups, letting kids (not academics!) run free on Youtube. Instead we're stuck with an overwhelmingly white-male-led movement which increasigly creeps towards '68. It's a bit disconcerting.

I would still vote for them in the EP elections, mind, if it wasn't for the worthier FI.


What a Tallava!

Geez, I've not checked up on the Albanian/Kosovar/Kosovar diaspora music scene for ages and it's suddenly involved into this awesome hip-hop-remixing thing. I'll be acquiring material off some sharing sites but the Youtube stuff is very promising indeed, some of the best and most fresh Balkan material I've heard for ages.

That horrible girlfriend-battering fiend - Gimme That (DJ Suat Tallava Remix)

Fat Joe - Make It Rain (DJ Buligang Tallava Remix)

This shit is hot. Fun that they put Tallava drums on American pop instead of the other way around.

What would music sound like without the market?

Well, similar in a dictatorship, I guess. But what would music sound like if capitalism was suddenly wrenched free from today's western society? What would people listen to? (I'm beginning to feel like Professor What If here.)

The market is the classic way to measure popularity in music. In a lot of (bad) books on the history of popular music, music that's sold well is considered more important than music that's sold badly, the idea being that music that sells well is what people actually listen to. But is that really the case, even if we discount the file-sharing part of the audience? How would you go about determining what music is actually popular? And even if we could, how would we discount the effects of capitalism from the results?

A statistical survey sounds like a good starting bet, if someone was willing to pay to conduct one (companies are, of course, only interested in the market). Interestingly, Sweden pretty much has a standing one that's been going on since 1962: the survey that's the basis of public radio chart show Svensktoppen. (Are we a country of bureaucrats or what?) It's conducted pretty much like a proper statistical survey with randomly selected respondents conforming to the demographics of the whole population, who then get to vote on their favourite music of the moment. It's hampered a bit by having been restricted since 1974 to only include music by Swedish songwriters and by some silly selection rules, but it still produces interesting results, quite different from the official sales chart.

Inevitably it's much more static (with one song right now that's been on the list for 241 weeks straight, and another for 75), and the average voter is older and more rural. The mixture is also, perhaps surprisingly, much more eclectic, with everything from awful post-grunge to nashville-recorded country. The genre that dominates the sales chart, normal commercial pop, barely makes an appearance. A radically different picture of popularity appears, where adult contemporary music and dansband are suddenly king... Correct picture? Incorrect? Well, someone who's into experimental economics (which is the only branch of that discipline I respect, for its results if not its interpretations) would probably tell you about the lack of any motivation on the respondents' part messing up the results. Another factor which means the market is hardly erased is the continuing presence of marketing, where a lot of radio plays (for instance) can easily warp the reception.

Perhaps to some extent both problems are solved in another public broadcasting arena: the national selection for the Eurovision song contest. I've expressed my love for this pseudo-experimental arena before. The semi-finals for this have just started, and already a lot of established stars and songwriters are being knocked out for having weak track material or voices. Voting costs money, and with over a third of the population watching and a tenth voting the significance is probably not totally off. It's a sort-of democratic selection with the market only marginally involved - and the results produced are generally pretty decent.

Yet another reason to love Eurovision so much. Come the revolution, if it's fair, this is what we'll all be listening to. :)


Can I go to this event?

Honestly. I love me some Persian-diaspora tunes, and the event below looks absolutely massive with six DJs and two performers, from all over the European end of the Persian diaspora.

But I'm not Persian, and the event is clearly directed at Persians. I don't know anyone who'd be willing to fork out the nearly twenty euros to come with me. I'm not a researcher, nor a journalist in this capacity. Can I really go alone without appearing to be a complete tit? There's no chance in hell I'd fit in.

I'm beginning to see the hipsters' problem.


Chile: As If Reggaeton Never Happened

Google Reader recently put me onto this shadeypiratey blog which recently has posted a helluva lot of Chilean dancehall, like these two (seemingly legit) mixtapes. As a genre the idea of a non-Jamaican dancehall is hardly surprising - you've got similar genres all over Africa, for example, and as usual it blends seamlessly into hip-hop. But in Latin America these days you'd think that sort of thing would involve an engagement with reggaeton, which after all is derived from the same source and started out as a similar Spanish-language version of dancehall.

Instead, these Chileans skip it entirely. Interestingly, they seem perfectly aware of and revere the roots in reggae en español, but their music forms an entirely separate strand which shuns any innovations made by the Puerto Ricans. In the mixtape above the list of countries in the liner notes actively doesn't include Puerto Rico, and at the same time shouts out to "de rest that knows the truth about spanish Reggae."

It's a wilfully perverse parallel universe. The Chileans have gone for the kind of hard-man gangsta image you hardly see in reggaeton these days, and the dancing aspect is wilfully downplayed. Equally much, they seem to play up the reggae influences as much as possible, resulting in this kind of rather wonderful hybrid:

Which is basically one-drop reggae except with a hip-hop beat instead, and some sort of rapping on top. Funnily enough it has the kind of gun-cocking sound effects you used to see in reggaeton... Or alternatively, there's basically hip-hop with a bit of one-drop feel and dancehall-style toasting:

Or the smoothed-out hybrid of all three that ORD presents.

In any case it's interesting, especially in the light of the nasty anti-reggaeton movement. I've not read up on it as much as I should, but I'm guessing a crucial factor here is gender: dancehall here is "male music", reggaeton, as it has been transcultured to the chileans, is "female". Doing a search for "chile reggaeton" produces material that is R&B-ish, poppy, club-oriented or a bit hokey, none of the hardboiled stuff. In any case, it seems to be a tough battle for revision. If we go by search numbers alone reggaeton still easily wins out...


Forget history! An argument for letting dead traditions lie

I've been taking a course in ethnology to pad out my musicology Master's. The other day we were at the ethnographic museum in Stockholm, a horrid relic of colonialism, and the director of the museum gave a little speech about how his museum had saved artefacts from Congo the knowledge of which otherwise would have been lost. Now, the people of Congo were able to reclaim their lost heritage.

I baulked at this. I'm fairly sure I was the only one in the room to do so, but I thought it was a damned presumptuous statement to make. So at Q&A time, I asked the director: "How can something of which no trace remains in Congo be considered Congolese heritage? Who are they inheriting from?". I got a shrug-off answer, but I think the question is relevant: is it the task of European academics to teach Africans what their culture really is?

The last horn comb maker in Stockholm, Albert Wilhelm Holm, died in 1942. A traditional skill that had been practised in Stockholm for hundreds of years was now known only through descriptions. At the same ethnology course, now on a visit to Skansen, the guide asked whether it was a good idea to try to revive the craft, to train someone in the intricate horn-carving skills necessary. Everyone thought so, again except me. I feel like a traitor and a loser for not wanting our cultural history to be continued and preserved.

Except it's not my cultural history at all, just like the Congolese artifacts don't belong to me. My ancestors were never horn comb makers, and even if they would have been I'm now in a completely different social stratum from them. So who am I to say what today's working class should or shouldn't preserve?

Every grouping has things it remembers collectively and things it choses to forget, archives and anarchives if you will. The conspicuous gaps of the latter are an important part of what forms a culture, as any French post-structuralist would tell you. Are we rich, educated academic elites supposed to go around filling them in, based on our own values? Aren't we ignoring the wishes and culture of the working class Swedes and the Congolese if we do?

Yes, yes. I realise there are plenty of reasons for taking the opposite view to the one stated above. In the case of Congo, the obvious objection is that the loss of knowledge is a direct result of the horrendous European-led genocide there, and that we're helping setting things right. But posing an argument like this is a useful reminder, at least to me, that as an academic my vision of the world isn't always going to be the most interesting or relevant one, and that my universal access to knowledge is an illusion and a potentially harmful one at that.


RIP Sune Jonsson

I'm usually quite sceptical of documentary photographers but I've always loved the work of Sune Jonsson (1930-2009). Of all the potential excuses for a middle-class person documenting the life of a subaltern Jonsson hit an unusually well-rounded jackpot: He came from the village life he was depicting. He lived and worked with the people involved during shoots. He had a clear ideological agenda supporting his subjects. He was preserving a way of life on camera that was fast disappearing. He was a trained ethnologist working for a museum. He famously always insisting on thorough written explanation texts for all his pictures. And he posed people simply and straightforwardly, looking into the camera.

Not to mention, of course, that his work is brilliant - capturing an image of poverty, pride and remnants of pre-modernity in the most remote areas of northern Sweden. There's a surprising tenderness to a lot of shots, a tacit approach to nature and agriculture. And then there are the interiors, that dominate a lot of his shots and speak as much as the people. It's perhaps an irony that this poverty-stricken rural landscape should have such beautiful places indoors, poverty achieving the same scaling-down, preservation and simplification as the most skilled of designers!

Or perhaps it's an aesthetification? The woman in the picture below posed underneath the telephone station that is her labour space, yet with the long-outmoded machine taking up the space with its antiquarian curiosity and bricolage composition. The subjective eye of the photographer, seeking beauty, has posed her there. Photography is a wiley business, and even a master like Jonsson can't escape its burning ethical questions.