July 31, 2013
by Tjeerd van Erve
(A suitably, almost inanely atmosphere pic “that could almost be ripped from a newspaper feature” courtesy of the remarkable http://weneverlookup.tumblr.
Foreword: I’m not going to talk about what device, trends, or the state of the fucking industry. I’m going to try to talk about all of us. By the way. That Roebuck in the thicket? It’s been caught.
Part The First: “Facts and Figures…”
So I’m sat on a train to Den Haag. Sitting across from me is a well-appointed Dutch girl; healthily pretty (in that weirdly homogenous way that you find here), well-scrubbed to the point of mild ostentation, well dressed in that expensive urban dress down code*, that whole scarf and leisure watch thing going on… expensive bag, (though on this last point, how the fuck would I know?) I just know that she – and all of her ilk – understands the dark arts of procuring clothes and life-enhancing accoutrements.
*(Calvin’s lasting legacy? Modesty at whatever the cost…)
At some point during the journey she unveils a fearsome amount of electrical gadgets from her hold all. In the 1950s far seeing types would doubtless (given that far sight hadn’t yet eradicated gender rôles) have said this was a mobile kitchen or at the very least a remote control for a home cleaning device. More fool they. This girl sat across from me is a 21st century cybernaut, able to summon forth any distraction with the devices at hand. Fair play to her and her well-scrubbed appearance. I wish her well, I hope she realises how lucky she is and is comfortable with it, and uses her well-being to some positive effect. I sincerely wish her well.
“And Points of View…”
What’s this got to do with music?
Well I’m coming to that. I just had to set the scene, show you the moment that got me writing. You see my cynical, intuitive side will wager the girl I mentioned has no real need not to engage with music outside of the confines of her own set limitations, no pressing need not to see music as just another stimulant to be found on her ipad or phone or laptop. Music through these mediums is often a compressed noise* with stimulus spikes. It really can’t be anything else, away from human contact, away from human activation, and even when we come to activate, our approach to music has – in the confines of this kind of technology and all the lifestyle choices made around such technologies – mutated into a sort of corresponding signal itself: just like using the colour red in fast food chains, just like the ads that turn up in your display network: in a way what we do is just another way of activating the application. And that’s what I think she does.
Just like an app. An application.* So, (moving ever towards the inevitable cul de sac in this kind of argument), I’d say that at its basest level in this new environment, we can now have music as a free stimulant; an app, (triggered by an app), used to promote other matters. The fabric, the points of contact that what made rock and roll the force it was is gone in this landscape. All the saga elements of music, its long tail, it’s invitations to dream, to fall in love, are stripped away, recast or reinvented as a stimulant, an aide memoire designed to get you to send your activation signal.
An aside to be skipped over lightly. Here’s how we define that word, application. Nicked from one of those online dictionaries.
*An app (application, I feel it’s important to spell the word out – something that is applied). I feel we’ll have to look at the definition. Some isn’t really relevant (to use another modern control word), but I think the adjective’s second definition is very interesting to ponder over.
1. The act of applying.
2. Something applied, such as a cosmetic or curative agent.
3a. The act of putting something to a special use or purpose: an application of a new method.
3b. A specific use to which something is put: the application of science to industry.
4. The capacity of being usable; relevance: Geometry has practical application in aviation and navigation.
5. Close attention; diligence: shows application to her work.
6a. A request, as for assistance, employment, or admission to a school.
6b. The form or document on which such a request is made.
7. Computer Science A computer program with a user interface.
adj. Computer Science also applications
Of or being a computer program designed for a specific task or use: applications software for a missile guidance system.
In two ways
1. The system or problem to which a computer is applied. Reference is often made to an application as being either of the computational type (arithmetic computations predominate) or of the data processing type (data handling operations predominate).
2. In the intelligence context, the direct extraction and tailoring of information from an existing foundation of intelligence and near real time reporting. It is focused on and meets specific, narrow requirements, normally on demand.
Fingers and thumbs.
Oh silly me, I am sorry. We’ve heard all of this before, and plenty of people are moaning about it in that hang wringing, useless way that quietly disgusts us all. Mea bloody culpa. And it’s the same the developed world over. And yes, yes, it’s all very boring I’m sure. And anyway…. back in the days when there were terrace houses covering them places where there are now high speed rail routes, there were record players. That’s technology innit. Tell me what’s different and stop being a Luddite…
Anyone who has set up a record player knows of that moment of contact between the machine and the record. There’s also the user’s appreciation for the machine, despite the inevitability of wiring it up wrong, despite the cursing when you put the wrong lead in the amp… it’s a magical device this record player thing, and it’s a real source of fun, using those two definite, separate elements: the player, and the record. These are brought together and give the right amplification of the power source, they make noise. Put a needle on the record…
It’s like rubbing twigs for fire, and I can appreciate that this is either a visual metaphor for something extremely exciting and life-enhancing or illustrating the “very out of date”, daddy-oh, but we have a visual metaphor that invokes a physical action that gets visible, tangible magical results. I think that’s important. There’s an element of physicality that is getting wiped from our memory banks that is going to get us into trouble one day. And this touches on sound just as much as other facets. The physicality of sound. Every fucker is very BORING and often WRONG about how vinyl sounds. Its richness, its all-enveloping warmth etc., etc. But it is physical. But forget thoughts on the sound quality for a moment, think about the actual presence of the sound. And what we’re maybe losing hold of. Recently a friend visited, a lad in his early twenties, and he was astonished at the power of listening into a record through big speakers, so attuned was he to using his iphone and headphones.
I wonder what the visual metaphor of fingers and thumbs busily kneading the touch screen of a phone says. I wonder what the visual metaphor of having things constantly plugged into your ears says. I wonder what the visual metaphor of looking at a tiny screen whilst ignoring everything about you says.
I wonder where your actual point of contact is. Where is the on switch for your music? In your head? In the device?
The activation device is now an equation, a set of commands that need nothing more than your fingers and thumbs. You will not expend sweat, and unless you are completely entangled in the ways of user interfaces, you will not admire your touchscreen to the same extent as you will admire your turntable. You will just get annoyed when it doesn’t let you do something. But why worry? You don’t really need much else here anyway, your mind giving off signals to your fingers, thumbs, and boy that girl on the train to Den Haag was brilliant in using them, ape-like in her dexterity in finding the file she was looking for, (file – now there’s another important word in this context – file says it all about this modern living, technological stuff….) but I digress.
And what’s so special about NL in all of this?
I’ll shoot the breeze. I think that the majority in Holland is very comfortable with this newish idea of music being a passive element, being a signal at the behest of a whim, a signal activated by a hand held device. Not being visible, not being something to physically engage with or to have to reckon with. When activated, music can still provide a display function (live gig) in a controlled environment*, it can still be a stimulus to soundtrack something else; but most of all now, it doesn’t need to actively interfere with other things. Like going to Hoogvliet or having a BBQ. You don’t have to turn the record off, or stop the tape, or carry your CDs & player around in a holder… it doesn’t need to be there to remind you it’s there.
I also think “Holland” is very happy with or comfortable in seeing the physicality of the act of playing records becoming a wholly upper middle class, urban thing; with the high prices for vinyl & the equipment pushing this towards a leisure activity for oldish wankers like me like to indulge in; a memory device, a way to sniff our youthful desire, a sex substitute, whilst becoming a mere aspirational procedure for those younger than us. Or a deejay thing: Holland has the best deejays in the world don’t you know? No-one will be able to derail that valuable bit of Dutch propaganda for any subversive purposes+. Anyway, vinyl is “cool”. Tapes are now “cool”. Acquiring both can be seen as a lifestyle goal. Why look further, why look beyond the word and the Grande Masque presented? Most forms of “modern” music regardless of background or style: rap, techno, gabba, glitchcore, whatever… are now more or less hidebound by twin constraints of behavioural conventions and technological straight-jacketing. I think – and I’m happy for anyone to point out any errors I make here in regards to what is actually redefining this convention – that this is the truth of the matter.
+(it’s a hunch but I wonder if visible cultural subversion – subversion emanating from music stopped round 1999 – 2000, just as technology stepped up).
And I wonder where your actual point of contact is. Where is the on switch – not only for your music, but for everything? In your head? In the device you have? I wonder if people are all that bothered about this fact in Holland. I wonder if the appreciation of the supreme physicality of music – and our physical response – is being lost, and everything feels more comfortable at one remove or through certain approved behaviour memes.
(*And an acceptable place or scenario where behaviour can go off the scale because that’s okay in this environment.)
Heb Je Tijd Voor Me Klaar, rock and roll?
“W**** F****** likes Klassieke Muziek”.
Holland loves the quiet practical and manageable way of living, the way of ordering things and classifying things that could otherwise get out of hand. Or allowing things to get out of hand in that jolly, netjes way so beloved of this country. Holland also likes an arbitrary control of space in all its aspects: look at the landscape, look at the water management, the Waddenzee, look at the lines in a Mondrian. Look at the use of space in Holland, that big silent abstract “thing” that the Dutch constantly seek to define, whether through football, industrial estates or Schiphol airport. And rock and roll has now, irrevocably fallen in line with this Scylla and Charybis of efficient comfort and abstraction.
I’m not saying it’s “evil” at all, or something to be fought: I’m saying that that’s how I view it. It’s in the soil. It’s in the rituals – the weird stuff from carnival week in the South & parts of the Bollenstreek, or voting the Top TweeDuizend in to the weird ritual of spelling competitions with the Belgians. It’s a domestic thing and rock and roll’s been tipped blindfold into this Dutch domestic “stampot” by the advance of technology, neutering its wilder impulses on the way. I think that there’s no point fighting it on this level.
I’m going to talk about music taste in Holland another article, I could go off on one here, but I will say one thing now. It is now easier than ever to accept and enjoy what rock music can do as something less than the sum of its parts. It’s certainly no longer seen as the fulcrum of attitudes or feelings that can lead to social change. It’s NOT the rallying point: certainly in Holland. To a certain extent it never was, but it’s even less of one in the Holland of now than the Holland of 30 years ago, or the Holland of 45-50 years ago. Please note, I’m not saying Dutch people don’t get or don’t enjoy music, or don’t want music to be an important part of their lives. Or that Dutch artists don’t make good music. Dat is onzin. People who know me will hopefully attest to the fact that I think that a lot of Dutch music made recently is far superior to a lot of what comes out of the UK or the US. I also write about this and I hope my opinion on this matter is clear.
But understand this: forget the idea that anything like Provo or punk or maybe even Gabba is going to happen in NL again; especially a movement like these three that take cutting edge music as one of its basic tenets, one of its wellsprings, to create something social, something physical. Forget it for now.
Worshipping Old Gods
You may have been wondering why I mentioned the roebuck quote at the beginning of this piece. Well, that’s my paean to music, my act of cultural vandalism, my clumsy appropriation. I took the idea from Robert Graves’s extraordinary and very queer book, The White Goddess.
“To find the Roebuck, you must search the Thicket. To find the Thicket you must not be misled by the Lapwing, and to approach the Thicket you must Master the Dog. The Roebuck is hidden where the Lapwing’s deceptive path originates, just as the true path through the Thicket lies just beyond the Dog.”
Robert Graves’s quest to unearth the true source of poetic inspiration through this (and through Little Gwyon’s) riddle has been welded clumsily onto my argument. I suppose I am commenting on a similar act of discovery, except advances in downloading have meant that the roebuck’s been caught and is now down the zoo, being well cared for using all the latest methods; and all mystery all interest in the journey or the quest is expunged. There’s no way for this to be reversed because there’s no environment to release the bloody animal back into. It can’t exist outside of a myth.
In the new scenario, the world of disconnected imagery, of vague stimuli, of equations, there’s nothing physical to grasp. Because where is your real point of contact? There’s no game to play, no fawns to chase, nowhere to connect, everywhere and nowhere to plug in. In this new landscape, pretty much all attempts to reignite the past by new acts of “revival” will always fuck up because they aren’t operating in the new environment. Quite rightly they will be discarded quickly, cynically, or laughed at, or overlooked in favour of something that was real, or from a time that was real. Maybe that’s why a record like MBV’s new one, say, is such an effective portal BACK TO THE PAST, and that’s why it gets so much attention rather than a band who do what MBV do just as well, take for instance. The trust in the recasting of the original myth just isn’t there.
This new fashion for vinyl and tape throws up images of priests paying libations to the dominant religion: the mutation of religions, a new sort of Graeco-Roman Egyptian mix of orthodoxies [http://tebtunis.berkeley.edu/exhibit/wclarysse]. Like 60s kids dressing up in ‘cossies from the 1890’s the act is one of cultural superiority, of appropriation. All this records and tapes revival is just another reminder of who’s the boss. Granny’s taken her trip and she is not coming back.
You see, there’s no real escape from this “now”. There will be no revivals.
And in some way that’s fine because it touches at a very deep root in Dutch thinking the idea of the display the ritual, the way that certain things can be classified through ritual, through image, through a silent appreciation and acceptance: a very old medieval idea of the order of things coming full circle in a new guise, with new words and taboos to bind us
“Going Backwards and Forwards”
Last year there was an exhibition in Utrecht’s Centraal Museum. It was about the punk movement in Holland, and I went to the opening ceremony. I knew a lot of the people involved, and it was part of the whole ULTRA, punk/post punk 1980s thing that was promoted via the VPRO throughout 2012. It was great, and a moving ceremony. The following paras are culled from what I wrote in my review… some of these points are worth bringing up, if only to contrast the DIY aspect of the punk movement with today’s scene.
“It’s also difficult to marry the museum’s attempts to engage the younger generations with various activities, (analogue Facebook, badge making, drumming along to Pretty Vacant…), whilst worthy attempts in themselves they sort of missed the point and felt like the sort of slightly lame appeals to join in some quaint retro fun without the smells and boho squalor, not to say the stimulants… “look what mum and dad did, weird eh?”… I hope it doesn’t reinforce the sort of arms-length emotional reactions that are now the norm. Frankly I’d have shocked the little bastards a little more into realising how much they are missing out / how lucky they are pissing about on Playstation.”
I mean this is the same the world over but in a country that never had a really deep rooted rock culture, it means that any scene is invariably going to be on thin ground.
“You could see the show as a sort of punk Kringloop where the old guard dropped off their battered stuff for the young and impressionable to take home and treasure. And there were quite a number of young underground bands by the opening, … all were visible and lapping up the contents. Even some metrosexual-Utrecht hipster types were seen mooching about in a state of awe at what could be done without the use of an app. But most of all it is the fact that – whatever the show’s flaws – this stuff is on show in one place and recognised as being worth showing as an alternative – or warning – to what’s happening now, culturally. And this is a good thing and a good thing that is lasting, I hope.”
But despite my optimism on seeing loads of punk sprogs play at making Rondos badges, looking round at all these well-dressed people in the street, I think, what’s the point? There’s no need for rock’s traditional bone to be picked – that sort of attitude – the restlessness – the desire to create and destroy, to get “fucked up” there’s no real need, it’s all been nipped in the bud, subsumed by an avalanche of distractions – all our dreamtimes re-coded into impulses.
If people could only see themselves, eh?
Well that’s the issue, people DO see themselves, far too much, reflected back on their PCs, in (“the traditional”) mirror, through visual auto-cues plastered round their towns, they do see themselves.
“Apps are Getting the Best of Us / Apps are Turning us Inside Out”.