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The music of our lives mid-2020 

click to enlarge We can learn a lot from the way James Leyland Kirby processes old recordings. - MATT WILKINSON
  • Matt Wilkinson
  • We can learn a lot from the way James Leyland Kirby processes old recordings.

We’ve now made it halfway through 2020, and if I may be permitted to make another staggering understatement, it’s been weird and eerie. Not only in the “odd” and “unnerving” sense, but also in the more critical definitions. The “weird” implies there’s something that doesn’t belong, a presence where there might usually be an absence. And “eerie” invokes the inverse, an absence where there’s usually a presence. We’re now standing together at a point, however tenuous, where live music is slowly returning to some physical venues in limited capacities, but social media is still widely populated with opportunities to view livestreamed performances, now comfortably nestled amidst the usual digital simulacra we’ve gradually learned to accept.

At least in my own sphere, musicians and music fans have proved resilient and often proactive in their slightly redefined roles, where the act of making music has had to shape itself around a pandemic and new inflammations of the systemic violence against minorities. Even if art could exist in a vacuum, I firmly believe it would be immoral for it to do so.

All that said, in taking a breath and examining the “musical year,” I wouldn’t be surprised if people were starting to feel restless in this atmosphere. Both a pandemic and authoritarian violence are experienced as shocks to the system — tears in the fabric of the realities we fashion for ourselves. The experience of music, which mostly takes place online, even before we started feeling the effects of COVID-19, is largely one of curation. We find music that resonates with us, we consume it and download it, we read about it, and one could say this action, or perhaps “fixation,” shapes the way we perceive our little corner of the world. It’s been repeatedly asserted that humans respond better to narratives than raw data, and I don’t believe that’s inherently negative. Hearing about your friends and neighbors then being beaten, shot, or succumbing to the effects of a virus — both physically and monetarily — is a rude awakening. A reminder of a larger narrative.

Given that it’s difficult to predict the future and that the emergence of completely new ideas is rare, it’s not surprising that a good deal of the music we encounter doesn’t possess a coherent vision for the future, and much of the media we’re exposed to, whether knowingly or unknowingly, reifies extant power structures and mores. How, then, might we consider music in these uncertain times? What can we learn from this uncanny mid-year moment?

Over the course of the quarantine, my own listening habits have gravitated toward ambient and retro-futurist electronic music. Conor Bourgal’s recent forays into ambient music, such as “A Portable Embrace” and “Does the One You Long for Long for You?” offer an excellent locally flavored entry into that mood, as does Prefab Soul’s EP Outside Dreamland, which we explored in last week’s column. Along with its soothing aesthetic qualities, ambient music has always had its share of “eeriness” — look no further than Brian Eno’s 1984 LP On Land for an alien, aural take on the coastal landscape, suggesting a spectral presence beyond the static.
The compositional approaches of William Basinski and James Leyland Kirby offer even deeper approaches to ambient music, repurposing and recontextualizing archaic recordings for bold artistic statements. Basinski’s acclaimed series of albums, The Disintegration Loops, features a series of archival recordings by the composer that literally deteriorated as he attempted to transfer them from tape to digital, while Kirby’s sonic treatments of 1930s ballroom jazz records are manipulated to express melancholic, prewar nostalgia and the gradual erosion of memory. Kirby’s intent is evident in his titles, namely, Sadly, the Future is No Longer What It Was.

On one hand, the relevance of this music to our times is a bit frightening, like the weird, aberrant loops one encounters in speculative time travel fiction. Without a clear vision of the future, what can music really accomplish but closing us into a cultural loop, endlessly recycling memories of the past and cyclically rehashing influences? In my mind, it’s a short jump from Basinski’s decaying loops to placeholder livestream shows, where viewers receive something of the hollow memory of live performance through a digital substitution. Inevitably, its original vitality is only expressed in diminishing returns as it competes with an endless barrage of information (which is often deeply alarming and usually forgotten, without any satisfactory conclusion, before the next topic emerges).

On the other hand, the music of Basinski and Kirby does offer a clue forward through its praxis. The careful re-examination of the past with a clarity of purpose does reveal implicit, hidden details from which we can learn and grow, and the whole notion of musical presentation and curation as the building of its own small “reality” does have the power to build empathy, facilitate new understanding, and allow future musicians and listeners to begin synthesizing their own new concepts. It’s a long road, and the work never ends, but ultimately it’s necessary. I hope you all stay safe and healthy as the year continues to unfold.

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