Paranoid Critical

I haven’t said much about theme parks recently, even though that’s where all the pain is taking place. It seems time for a Pain Bulletin. A really long one, sorry.

(Well actually I should briefly mention some pain not to do with study. A few days ago I had the left half of my thyroid removed, because it was something out of Lovecraft. Be blessed you know nothing of its dark and terrible nature, it is consigned to the flames of hell etc. They cut across my throat to get it out so I am sitting here looking like a Halloween mask. The days of vocals on stage are done, but that was always part of the plan.)

I am determined to make an major artwork based on research. It tells a story in virtual architecture – and architecture in itself is complex battleground. This story extends over centuries, it includes white supremacy, colonialism, surrealism, religion, the psych, notions of progress, pornography, midgets and freaks, kings and presidents… it is like swallowing a grand piano to play it.

Eiffeltorni, Pariisin maailmannäyttely 1889

Paris 1889. A game of my tower is bigger than your tower.

I first understood an Orphic view of the fairground – that it is a combination and opposition of light and dark, yin and yang, Jekyll and Hyde. To attempt a purely ‘light’ version as did Disney, is an act of denial. He banned roller coasters and grog from his land – and they slid back into the vacuum the moment his personal power waned. It is better to employ the dark as a painter does, accentuating the light.

The makers of the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition learned this the hard way when the ‘dark’ settled around the perimeter of their bright white city – in the Midway Plaisance. They lost control of the booze and sex shows and – learning that it’s better to piss out of the tent – they incorporated it inside as THE MIDWAY. A world fair now has two hemispheres – the WHITE CITY and the MIDWAY.

On reaching this Orphic view I read architect Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York. At one point he introduces a mock battle between Salvador Dali and Le Corbusier for NYC and the 1939 fair – the baked bean versus the cube – the same fight designed into every World Fairground. In this he explains Dali’s paranoid critical method. Once I understood this process I realised it is necessary to my own work.

Dali, 1939 fair

Currently I am finding infinite resonance and connection between every aspect of my source material. All evidence is interpreted as support for my idée fixe. For example it is possible to see the fairground as the two sides of the human brain, bridged by a corpus callosum – that bridge is right there in the 1939 map. The relationships become tenuous when looked at critically – but that’s for later, when the design has to collapse into an actual production.

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NYC 1939 Fair map.

The designers have placed bridges and a portal between these hemispheres

Colonialism and other isms.

A great deal has been written about the racism and colonialism expressed in world fairs. (For example here’s a very useful source regarding fairground Orientalism.) Other people have covered this far better than I can, plus there’s debate that I’m not equipped to settle. For example the common claim that the centre of each fair was the White Anglo-Saxon exhibit, with increasingly ‘inferior races’ spread out towards the edges – one critic has pointed out that just looking at the maps you can see that Austrians must have been held inferior to Hottentots if that were the case and there are more complex economic reasons for the layout than simplistic racial theories.

I’ve been worried about portraying the reality of a 20th century fairground – midgets, belly dancers, American Indians etc. that are going to ‘trigger’ somebody somewhere who can’t see the difference between what was and what should be. Bluntly – my Midway cannot and will not have a Little Miracle or Coon Town even though these were real. They were supposed to present a scale of civilization – which I also need to present, but without the hurtful pseudoscience or the notion of superiority.

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Instead I will hold that some mental formations are more primal / fundamental, and portray these as architecture. Rather than arraying people and cultures along my map, I can set the ‘civilized’ Jekyll against the ‘primal’ Hyde, with the constant refrain of their interdependence. For Freud, there was the contest between id and superego, for Jung there were the archetypes, then there are the spiritualists and surrealists and many other symbols I can use without hurting anyone. My exposition will be an interior landscape that informs the exterior civilization.

Sort of. It’s not exactly clear how this will work. On one side the WHITE CITY, tall, hard edged, streamline style, progressive. On the other side of the bridge, the MIDWAY, soft and fleshy, primal and filled with ancient emotions. But who will be in this landscape? What goals? What challenges? There’s a long way to go.

worlds-fair-1939-opening-day-nypl-51939_20

 

The Death of the Man Cave. Is music hardware really better than software?

For some years I’ve been collecting and writing about electronic music hardware – good, not so good, and utter garbage. I’ve had fun popping a few bubbles while handing out praise where it was really due. But I’ve arrived at a larger goal than just sniping at the low hanging piffle. I finally feel empowered – I’ve used up considerable money and time crawling around the floor and behind racks, sourcing SCSI cables and voltage adapters, and wondering why the fuck this MIDI signal went the wrong way. I have seen for myself. I am one of you.

So, in this year 2019, is music hardware really better than software?

Better? We need to set some rules. Firstly, we are talking about musical instruments being used for music. Slavishly copying a sound plucked from some antique recording is not music. Matching the shape of a waveform on an oscilloscope is not music. These are feats for athletic carnivals or synthtopia.com

Implicit in music is a listener, and that something humane is being communicated – awe, hope, fear, something worth listening. What does the sound of the device offer for others? You may be pleased by the feel of the knobs, or the type of wood at the cheeks of the thing, but what does this do for a listener? Maybe the wood inspires you to delicate adjustments, but it’s not a violin.

The way your machine looks, how pretty the lights, the styling of it – that has no bearing on its purpose. It may as well be a Dyson vacuum cleaner or an Apple phone. Sure, it’s well designed, by that’s not specific in any way to synthesis.

Some hardware running software to sound like hardware

Some hardware running software to sound like hardware

We need to verify what we mean by ‘hardware’ and ‘software’, because quite a lot of ‘hardware’ is a hybrid. A Moog model D is all hardware. A Blofeld is software in a box. But the Arturia Origin is software that runs only on a very particular microchip – when the chips are gone, the machine is extinct. Same is allegedly true for the Access Virus. Is this hardware? Because no specific hardware – no sound.

I am tempted to judge that only the resulting sound matters, but I have to concede that a dedicated controller might make reaching that sound more likely.

I’d also like to say that synthesis was once a futuristic thing, a desire to hear new sounds, make new music, go places that hadn’t been heard before. That idea started to die with Tomita and is now truly dead when you’re trying to emulate some noise from 40 years ago. Synthesis, as a mainstream activity, has become terribly OLD FASHIONED.

The Answer.

OK, so let’s start by my telling you I’m selling the majority of my hardware, such is the faith I have in my answer.

A mangle

A mangle

The time spent racking, un-racking, cabling around the back of things, assembling A frames etc. is like the days when people would run clothing through a mangle before hanging it on a clothesline. You can definitely run into problems with virtual studios. I have. But generally, when I visit other people’s hardware studios the damn things are NEVER FINISHED – a great excuse for why no music is being produced. In my case I’m now trying to reduce the hardware down to a single, stable, mobile rack. When one is carefully limiting the amount of hardware (like cholesterol) so that you can actually create something – that’sthe whole story right there. Are you a musician, or are you building a model railroad?

Fundamental point: the sound of hardware is often not that interesting. I’ve just sold a venerable (and very heavy) old Roland keyboard for some good profit. The reason being that if you divided the sound by the amount the damn thing weighed, you’d have no change left over for coffee. Any half decent virtual analogue could make that noise – especially Roland’s own. Do a blind test. Can anyone really hear the difference in a piece of music? You are a musician, aren’t you?

(Some hardware is interesting. For example, I’ll keep my UltraProteus because of the weird thought process behind its operation, the SY77 because of its particular timbre and the Super Jupiter because it has a deeply exotic stomach-ache. But I’ve sold the Yamaha FS1r because as crazy as it is, the sounds it makes aren’t that great. And that’s what matters.)

I’d like to jump to the last point, the most important point. Synthesis shouldn’t be nostalgia, it should be futuristic, progressive. Why did we even start this thing? Because we wanted more than the instrumentation that we once had. But now we’re cowards emulating old safe things. I say fuck recreating the Blade Runner soundtrack when we’re in the year the story was supposed to take place. Synthesis can now pull a sound apart, make a wavetable, or an additive snapshot, change every aspect of it, build entirely new sounds from audio atoms – and people are still talking about ladder filters?

If for example you spend enough time with additive synthesis in Alchemy you will find a world of experimentation. Or take a recording and hack away at it with spectral editing – that’s what I did with my records Donut and Aversion. It’s synthesis, but it’s not hiding in the last century. I can now say what I mean by ‘better’ – I mean true to the goals that synthesis is all about.

Or is synthesis really like steam punk – doomed to be a paleofuture?