December 25, 2009

Vic Chesnutt, 1964-2009

I just learned that Vic Chesnutt died today, aged 45: a suicide.

In the last few years, I got to know his music well, and I thought him the finest songwriter alive. He was the only musician in whom I still took an ongoing, non-nostalgic interest. I saw him play at the Great American Music Hall less than a month ago: extraordinary, impassioned, a born artist, the real thing.

In the most obvious way, his death is perfectly believable. Chesnutt was a paraplegic and had been in a wheelchair since he was eighteen. By his own account he had made four previous suicide attempts. His injuries had caused painful and costly medical complications, and, report has it, he could not pay for them.

In another, more self-centered way, I find it unbelievable. During this year I had need to cling to Chesnutt's music: especially to his second album, West of Rome. Every other music reminded me of something else; not West of Rome. (His finest other albums include Is the Actor Happy? [1995] and About to Choke [1996], as well as his collection of home demos and experiments Left to His Own Devices [2000], which is predictably patchy but really pretty great all the way through.)

Chesnutt had every reason to be unhappy, and was unhappy; I envied him, though. His soul was articulate. The practice of his craft presented so whole a personality. He wasn't completely without worldly recognition. The band he was currently touring with was a supergroup made up of members of well known indie groups. I could name-drop them but I won't, because I think in a few years Chesnutt's name will be the one to drop.

His show at the Great American Music Hall, November 30, was one of the most moving events I ever experienced. Chesnutt, his lower body being immobile, had the most mobile head in the world. In the extremes of passion to which his music forced him, his head seemed to arch upward, his eyes rolling. He seemed to try to lift himself out of the chair purely by the use of his skull. I reflected that I wouldn't be able to let myself sing like that: I'd be afraid of rupturing a blood vessel. Sometimes, what with the wheelchair, the stage lights and this transfiguring howl, he seemed about to become a Francis Bacon painting.

His voice -- whether going for leather-lunged power or intimate confidences -- was a great, great instrument. It was from the deep South (none of your Texan drawls): out of Georgia and Florida, with so much soul. The soul of a white boy who has been transfixed by John Lydon's vocals on Metal Box, but who can also say "I just want to be Aaron Neville." Aaron Neville has soul in abundance but did he ever sacrifice his cool the way Chesnutt did? And was he as funny? "A funny pilgrim," Vic called himself, "a saucy Chaucer / A sorry chapter mislaid." The voice was clear, lilting, conversational, unaffected (though not everybody responds to the way he finds in ordinary words whole strings of previously unknown syllables).

Chesnutt's onstage presence was curmudgeonly and fun, and inspiringly proud. Because he was in San Francisco he gave "props" to Frank Norris. "Mmm? Frank Norris? McTeague?" he queried the unresponsive room. "This is San Francisco so I bet everyone here has read that." At another juncture he thanked the audience for "not throwing things at us." An obnoxious female voice hooted: "Oh, we'll get to that later, Vic!" He stared at her, appalled.

That night at the Music Hall, Chesnutt was havering over what to play, making the audience fidget, when suddenly he said: "We're gonna do something from my second album." My heart soared: throughout the whole show he'd done no early material, and now he was going to play something from my totem album! I clapped -- I had expected a volley of applause from the whole room. But there were only two of us clapping. 

"Yep," sighed Chesnutt, "about two people bought that record."

I wanted to tell him about West of Rome, about his own album, to tell him everything -- but this one second of hand-clapping was, and now will remain, my total contribution to the recognition Vic Chesnutt deserved. By now he had launched into "Sponge," in a powerful arrangement totally unlike the record. "I'll soon be silent," he sang, "you'll soon hear nothing / 'Cause the world, world, world it is a sponge."

All night, while singing, he kept reaching up to his head to adjust his knitted woollen cap. The cap didn't need adjusting; it was just something he compulsively did. The mannerism was distracting at first -- then fascinating; and finally endearing. Now it is fixed in my mind for good, as a reminder that artists work from compulsion, from impulse -- and other words that have "pulse" for their root.

The last song he did that night was "Flirted With You All My Life," from his new album. I hadn't heard it before. It is uptempo, commencing with infectious drum taps. At first you think he's singing to a lover or a romantic fixation; then in the chorus he names her:

Oh Death

Really I'm not ready.

He was saying it was just a flirtation; I thought he meant it. Now I'll have to let Vic Chesnutt go, go on his own terms. He sang on West of Rome:

. . . I respect a man who goes to where he wants to be

Even if he wants to be dead.
I wish that hadn't been what he wanted. If we must part, please, can't it be on another of his great songs of farewell --

And I ain't got time for the niceties,
Or rather I was never ever fond of the niceties!

I'll see you around

Christmas Day, 2009

P.S. 1/12/10: At this site you can make a donation to Vic Chesnutt's family, and read a moving tribute by Kristin Hersh.

December 16, 2009

Parerga and Paralipomena

I have been catching up on my ultrasonics this morning and met with this abstract, helpfully prefixed to an article on "Vibration of Post-Buckled Homogeneous Circular Plates":

The dynamic behavior of an axisymmetric post-buckled circular plate with initial in-plane compression loading is investigated. The static von Karman plate equations are solved numerically for clamped boundary conditions. The static solution is presented for a range of transverse and in-plane loads. Lumped element modeling is used to calculate the mass and compliance of the plate from results of the static solution. The resonant frequency, sensitivity, and maximum linear transverse pressure are calculated for a variety of in-plane loads. These solutions can be used to predict the post-buckled behavior of micromachined plates.

Heaven knows it sounds right. But alas, here as elsewhere, gorgeous diction conceals faulty reasoning.

We have grown so accustomed to solving clamped boundary conditions numerically that it can be difficult to remember that the static von Karman equations are only approximately conformable to in-plane compression loading.

Now, if it were possible to calculate the compliance of the plate using nothing more than lumped element modeling, I'm sure we would all be as happy as kings.

But there is no getting around the fact that linear pressure predicts post-buckled behavior if, and only if, the range of vibration of the transverse loads exceeds their resonant frequency under un-clamped conditions -- and that, frankly, is so rare that I don't believe I have ever once seen it happen.

The sad thing is that this blunder deprives us of the pleasure we so keenly anticipated from the article itself.

October 5, 2009

Parerga and Paralipomena

In today's Daily Californian, page 1, we learn that

"Dr. Jane Goodall, despite having worked with chimpanzees in Tanzania for much of her life, still speaks with a soft British accent."

This is local color, very nice, but why "still"? Is a soft British accent matter for surprise in an Englishwoman resident for a long time in a former British colony where the official language is English? I can't fathom what sort of accent the journalist was expecting Dr. Goodall to sport. Can it be that, "having worked with chimpanzees in Tanzania for much of her life," she is expected to speak with -- a soft chimpanzee accent?

On the back page we have, naturally, Cal's big loss to USC this weekend. My interest in sports is limited entirely to a morbid fascination with post-game interviews, and my attention was captured by quarterback Kevin Riley's explanation of what went wrong:

"It's just something you've got to do to win games is put the ball in the end zone, and we're not doing that right now."

Surely this is banal even by the standards of sports chat?

September 12, 2009

What They've Done To Your Song: Textual Editing and Recorded Music

Who "edits" popular music? I don't mean the preparation of musical scores, but the editing that happens to the popular music we hear, whenever that music is reissued, on compact disc or as a digital file; editing that is done by the commercial entities that have the legal right to issue those recordings. And I also don't mean what an artist or a recording engineer might mean by "editing" -- that is, "shortening" the recording.

I am suggesting a parallel between critically editing classic literature and the reissuing of music that originally appeared in a different format. This kind of editing is typically done silently and is under-theorized; while the editing of literary texts is at least sometimes done "transparently" and has a large and contentious body of theorizing behind it. Recordings are not exactly texts (whatever texts are!); but I think the remastering and reissuing of recordings is editing, in the literary-critical sense: all the semi-authorial and post-authorial processing to which texts are subjected in the name of restoration, renovation, or adaptation.

And this seems important because since the CD established itself, it's been increasingly apparent that the canon of popular music of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, which to many of us feels roughly "contemporary" and access to which is experienced as "direct," is now and will henceforth be "classical," its text mediated and changed in the process of keeping it available to changing technologies and tastes.

The differences between the treatment of literary texts and the treatment of rock music will be sufficiently apparent. But they have this in common: as the field of record reissuing continues, it is potentially riven by the same polarization between intentionality and historicism, between the pursuit of the original and the insistence on historical contingency, that has marked recent textual criticism.

I am not a recording engineer. I come to this material from a love of music, coupled with a professional engagement with textual criticism of the literary variety. But it occurs to me that my academic specialization in textual scholarship may itself have stemmed from my much earlier interest in sound recordings: the process of their production, and the search for the best -sounding or most authoritative version of a given record. Certainly my trip to Rather Ripped Records in Berkeley seeking an imported UK copy of A Hard Day's Night precedes by almost thirty years my struggles with the text of Mark Twain's autobiography.

Not everyone cares about the textual history of A Hard Day's Night, and so let me say that the main reason I want to consider phonographic textuality in the light of literary editing is to stimulate editorial discourse generally. There are other ways to arrive at decisions than by recourse to abstract principles. One other way is to explore analogies. If you are trying to decide what to do about the historic changes to the text of a poem, you may want to consider what you'd want done in the case of a song. So I hope my reflections will be of use to those with no interest in the Beatles or Shakespeare -- even to those who did not (as I did) get their first experience of King Lear from the final moments of "I Am The Walrus."

First we should get our bearings among some of the basic concepts and practices of modern sound recording. The process of copying original elements onto something that can be repeatedly copied (a "master" recording) is called mastering, or re-mastering, and the engineer who does it, a remastering engineer. Here, I'll confine myself to the example of a typical studio recording made in the period from 1950 to 1980, the age of recording on magnetic tape and issuing on vinyl LP.

Obviously, an engineer does not play an LP and capture its sound on a CD. Like a literary editor, the engineer will want to base his replication on the earliest surviving elements, the elements nearest the artist's originating performance. In this case, these will be magnetic tapes. So the process critics call "recension" begins, if the company is so inclined and if the engineer can be bothered. The best remastering engineers, like Steve Hoffman, who works out of his own studio in Los Angeles, will search exhaustively for the first-generation tapes, those that are not dubs of any earlier tape. Steve has even cancelled mastering projects when the master tapes are not made available to him, but this practice is far from widespread. Few engineers pursue the original elements with such vigor; Steve has often been sent the wrong tapes by major record companies, whose archives departments are disinclined to slog among badly marked and uncatalogued reels of tape. Then, too, record companies destroy original master tapes -- have been destroying them for decades, by neglect and by design. And again, original master tapes get seized and held privately in legal wrangles. Recension, then -- the locating of the extant early materials and the investigation of the interrelationships between them -- is the first step.

I need briefly to distinguish between the multi-track tapes and the master tapes. Popular music from about 1960 onward was typically recorded on machines which record "feeds" from multiple microphones onto contiguous strips of a single tape. So there is, on the multi-track tape, a certain indecidability: not everything on the multi-track tape necessarily gets used in the finalized recording. The multi-track tape of "A Day In The Life" has, at the outset of one of its four tracks, a clanging tack-piano that sounds, in combination with the gentle guitar strumming, simply awful. The Beatles and their producer, George Martin, decided not to make use of this sound, and "mixed it out" (kept the volume down on this track) when mixing the four-track to stereo. But it is still there on the multi-track: part of the genetic material, but not part of "the song."

Then, too, on the multi-track tape, the volume of the separate tracks, relative to each other, is not fixed. In the Beatles' video Anthology we see George Martin manipulating the "Day In The Life" multi-track. Sliding the knobs of the console, he brings up the volume of John Lennon's vocal, then fades the other three tracks down so that all we hear is John's haunted vocal track.

The point is this: these multi-tracks are the elements closest to the original sound event, but they are unfinished, or rather unfinalized: they have not received the attention of the producer and artists and engineers that is itself part of the collaborative authoring process. The final stereo mix tape, what I'm calling "the original master," is the end product decided upon by, in variable proportions, the artist, the producer, and/or the engineers. This finalized tape has only two tracks, a left and a right; it is a mixed stereo tape in which the relations between the instruments have been fixed. This is a "master tape."

In selecting a copy-text, will it be hard to choose between the multi-tracks and the final stereo master? This is a contentious area and one that is gaining importance under commercial pressure. The multi-track tapes are nearest to the original sound event. But to work from the multi-tracks is, to a great degree, to make music rather than reproduce it. The engineer can and inevitably will recombine the tracks in ways that are different to what had been chosen the first time around. He can have whole instruments or vocals drop out, or add or subtract reverberation. He can distribute the instruments and voices around the stereo spectrum in new ways.

The "authenticity" of such re-processings is at least open to question. The Beach Boys' finest album, Pet Sounds, was mixed for mono only when it was released in 1966. (Brian Wilson, who has hearing in only one ear, was understandably disinterested in stereo.) Since 1996, engineers have returned to the multi-tracks on at least three different occasions to produce a stereo version of Pet Sounds.

The sound gains hugely in depth and clarity, but the new mixes can disturb. In the first place, not all the multi-track tapes have survived. Some vocal parts could not be located, and alternate takes had to be used; with the result that in "Wouldn't It Be Nice" a very exposed solo vocal is taken by a different Beach Boy from the one who has been taking it for the last thirty years. The effect is jarring, not simply because it is unfamiliar, but because it raises the ontological question of what, exactly, constitutes Pet Sounds. It reminds us that the performance as we hear it on the record never existed as an acoustical event.

That, of course, is the fact and always has been. Non-authorial and post-authorial intervention is not only part of transmitting these texts, it was part of the original process that created them. The producer's task ends with the making of a master tape; that tape was copied and the copies sent to LP pressing plants around the world, where mastering engineers would tweak the master in preparing it as the prototype for their LP. These engineers, each in his own territory, had a surprisingly free hand in shaping the sound the album would take. The Australian pressing may end up sounding very different to the Dutch pressing; and historically, this is all expected and legitimate.

It is a kind of text production in which no one has ever supposed that authorial intent was final. So perhaps it should not appall that Pet Sounds was then remixed again from the multi-tracks, this time for surround sound. Now, we have the Beach Boys' voices coming from three separate speakers, bass from one, guitars from north-east and south-west, maraccas a few feet behind you, with the balance of the channels changing whenever you move your head. It raises anxieties about what, exactly, the "sound picture" is supposed to represent. The set-up of a band in a rehearsal room? The aural spread one would hear from the front row of a stadium? The tenth row? Or something not at all representational, a sound picture responsive only to desire -- but whose? Granted that the music must continue to make the leap to each new technology, aren't we talking about something rather more than reproducing, or transferring?

Glenn Gould taught that recording music is an act of creation, not of mimesis, and that the recording engineer (and indeed the tape machine) are performers; Gould considered it reactionary for the record to mimic a putative originary sonic event. But for this listener, the loss in historicity tends to outweigh gains in sonic clarity and dynamic range.

In another track from Pet Sounds, "Here Today," there is an instrumental break, in the background of which (in the original mono edition) you can hear an extended, muffled studio conversation. It is Brian and one of his brothers, talking in a relaxed, Californian way, apparently about cameras. Now, everyone agrees that the presence of this dialogue is unintentional, and when the stereo remix was made it was removed. I suppose that in doing so, the remastering engineer acted in accordance with normal textual-editing procedure.

When editors of literature find words in a text that are (as it were) "not part of the work itself," for example where a stage direction has crept into the dialogue of a play, or a marginal note has crept into the text of Homer, we take it out. But the loss of this little muffled dialogue, which has always been part of Pet Sounds as sanctioned by decades of existence, has a status that I don't think is covered by any analogous concept from literary editing. No theory in the world will convince me that this dialogue, whether "substantive" or "accidental," is "not really part of" Pet Sounds.

On the other hand, there are aspects of the "original tapes" that may be considered to have outlived their purpose. Some devices were used to overcome technological constraints that no longer exist. The amount of dynamic range -- or variation between loud and quiet passages - on LP was strictly limited. Quiet passages would be overwhelmed by surface noise, and loud passages could make the needle jump out of the groove. Dynamic limitation was applied to LP master tapes to avoid this. In digital format, there is no practical reason to perpetuate this limited dynamic range. The sound will be fuller and more open. But it will sound less like it did -- or rather, it will sound less like it did to you; more like it did to the artists in the recording studio. The "historical artifact" itself varies from person to person; as a concept, it is no more stable than "the author's intention."

Fans of the new-made stereo or surround-sound version of an album are often quick to say that the new version is not a "replacement" for the original format; that it forms an interesting side-light, a variant version; these listeners have hit upon, or are showing the influence of, the currents of postmodern thought that have brought us the two-text Lear, the three-text Hamlet, and any number of Wordsworth's Preludes.

I consider this relaxed attitude toward the multiplication of texts naive. With regard to a poem or play that is out of copyright, we can certainly say "the more editions the merrier" and rejoice to see a thousand flowers bloom. But the recordings we're talking about are in copyright, and so are controlled by large corporations who make a lot of money from their distribution. The new edition tends to replace the old. Very occasionally a company will keep two versions of an album in print.

In 2002, the owners of the Rolling Stones' back catalogue re-released all their sixties albums in both their UK and US configurations, which differ widely. The US configurations of the Beatles' records were also released, as something of a special edition. The Beatles remasters released a few days ago (2009) are offered in stereo and mono sets. This approach will win favor with die-hard fans, but given the state of the music industry and of illegal file sharing, whether it will commend itself to the board room remains to be seen. And now that music reproduction seems to be merging with computer gaming: well, that marks the boundaries of thought, for this writer, and the subject is best left to those who can stand to contemplate it.

By and large, commercial reasons will probably keep the digital era from wallowing in the Version Mania that has affected the editing of texts; but there have been some intriguing exceptions. In 2004 the first album by Bob Marley and the Wailers, Catch A Fire (1973), was given the deluxe reissue treatment. It had been recorded originally in Jamaica by Jamaican musicians and engineers. The tracks laid down there were sent to London, where they were augmented with overdubs by professional British session musicians and British engineers.

The general effect of the overdubs, it has been argued, was to take the idiomatic Jamaican "feel" and impose a veneer of white rock-music styling. The overdubs were meant to ease this unfamiliar Jamaican music onto the turntables of mainstream rock listeners, and they probably did help. Are they, now, undo-able? Have the overdubs served their purpose? May they be discarded now, like Rimsky-Korsakov's alterations to Mussorgsky's scores, now that they have done their embassy? The deluxe edition of Catch A Fire is a two-disc set: the first embodied the album as we are used to it, the second gave, for the first time anywhere, the "Jamaican" version without overdubs. It has been eagerly received, being construed as more authentic, more Third World, more "black" -- and as closer to the author's intention.

Is it? What was Bob Marley's intention? He has only been dead for twenty-three years, but even his recorded utterances don't settle this question, and never could. The Jamaican tapes certainly represent the album as he and the band wrote it and recorded it. In that sense, the Jamaican version represents Bob Marley's intentions. But another of his intentions was to get the album released -- and the overdubs have the band's and his consent. So, as the editors of the 1986 Oxford Shakespeare decided to accept theatrical changes to the plays that, they felt, had implicit authorial permission, we might decide the record company's changes to Catch A Fire carried the authorial, quasi-authorial, or multi-authorial imprimatur. Textual criticism has never dealt satisfactorily with the idea that getting the work into the public sphere can be, itself, an authorial intention.

It is significant that the Jamaican Catch A Fire was proffered not in place of the standard issue, but alongside it, as an alternative. Historically, as the 40-minute LP has been reissued as a CD with (potentially) twice as much playing time, record companies have padded out the disc with various recordings somehow associated with the original albums -- alternate takes, contemporaneous single releases, mono versions, and so forth. ("Album turds," I sometimes unkindly call them.) Like the alternate Catch A Fire, these tracks have a new and elusive status. They may be previously unreleased or hard to find; but they are troubling too, because new listeners coming to the music for the first time can't be expected to recognize where the album proper ends and the bonus tracks begin.

Then, too, the original album was consciously shaped with regard to where Side One starts and ends, and where Side Two starts and ends; on the CD there is no side one and side two. This doesn't bother those of us who internalized the album's structure in the LP era; but to future generations, this key structuring principle is completely effaced by the newer format. A CD transfer of a two- or four-sided album turns it into a linear undifferentiated sequence, presenting the content without the form it had been designed to subserve -- a great loss.

You might think that the ideal circumstance would be that the artist should oversee the reprocessing of his or her own back catalogue. But, even where the artist is alive and available, bis or her retrospective decisions about these historic recordings may seem so perverse that they drive us into a radically historicist posture. For the mode in which the artist experiences the work is very different from everyone else's: for the songwriter, tbe song tends not to become an artifact of a specific time and place, but rather to remain as it were a field of potentiality.

Several years ago Steve Hoffman was working with Ray Charles on preparing reissues of Ray's classic recordings of the fifties and sixties. Ray Charles was disposed to re-record his vocals on some of these songs, including "What'd I Say" -- a song over thirty years old at the time. He felt he could now "do it better." Steve, properly horrified, managed to dissuade Ray Charles from recording new vocals, and I think he deserves our gratitude. If that sounds harsh, it is probably no harsher than insisting that modern editions of literature deform the work's historical aspect. As for the intention of the author, this example reminds us that the question almost always has to be rephrased as: "the intention of the author when?".

If the artist does have legitimate control over the product to begin with, there is always a point at which the artist relinquishes it. But where is that point? In the fifties, the artists were not consulted about the form the musical product was to take; they performed almost entirely at the direction of managers and producers. The Beatles changed that, steadily wresting power from EMI, "The World's Greatest Recording Organization," and bringing the industry standard in their wake. But even for the Beatles there was a point at which the artist relinquished control over the recording process - telling the production team to put echo on it, mix it, because they themselves were off.

Clearly there is a cutoff point, but where is it? John Lennon, a couple of years after the Beatles recorded his composition "Tomorrow Never Knows," told an interviewer he wished he had pursued his first intention to include the sound of "thousands of monks chanting." When "Tomorrow Never Knows" is next issued, could this constitute a mandate to go back and add the monks?

Clearly not; but at what point does the author's intention cease to govern the makeup of a recording? In 1999 Sony re-released Bob Dylan's 1978 album Street Legal. This is a record which everyone always agreed sounded awful, and for the re-issue it was remixed from the multi-tracks. The sound was now clearer and the mix more "contemporary" (i.e., more contemporary with 1999), but the new edition is distinctly disappointing to those of us who have written about the murkiness of the sound of Street Legal and how it relates to the music and lyrics. It had seemed like significant murk, like the murk of Exile On Main Street. It will be few listeners in the future who will have access to the experience I was (in 1993) writing about, because of the changes made to the work's texture. But I suppose nothing is happening to Street Legal that hasn't happened to the Sistine Chapel; and I suppose I have to accept that as I grow older I am more a part of the Dylan's context than I am of his audience.

The most vexing question here is the question of to whom any of this would matter. It must be the very rare recording engineer who confers with textual scholars; and certainly it must be the rarest of textual scholars who gets the chance to remaster a classic rock recording. As I mentioned, these recordings are still privately owned and access to them naturally strictly controlled. In consequence, you have a much better chance to re-edit Homer than to edit the Beatles, the Clash, or Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

But music recordings are texts, and important ones, and whether we can affect their transmission directly shouldn't preclude our informing ourselves about their textual history. Just as a music consumer I have been enlightened and shocked on many occasions by taking an interest in what has happened to these signals on their way from the microphone to my ears.

As a textual scholar, it may seem that I take a strong historicist position about recordings, and I do regard the character they had on their public issuing as somewhat privileged, and to be altered only for good reason. But I do think there are sometimes good reasons. I am leery of formulating them, because it is best to take these things on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps there is a dialectic between, on the one hand, truthfulness to the recording in its historical moment; and (on the other) the recording as it sounds best. And since literary editing has now for a while been usefully oscillating between these poles, any comparison may be welcome.