Really loved this newsletter entry (post? Edition? What are we calling these things in this Newsletter Golden Age?) from Damon Krukowski. He’s a musician, critic, deep listener/thinker, and he tackles the thirtieth anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind from the perspective of a working musician who was on the road at the same time as Nirvana in the fall of 1991. Two things were happening simultaneously in Krukowski’s life at the time: Nirvana and alternative rock were climbing to the top of the pop charts; and jazz, classical, and “world” music were entering his life (and public consciousness) on a bigger scale. He explains how CD technology—with its uninterrupted, generous running time—and globalization worked together to put less-popular genres into stores alongside all those Nevermind copies. So for Krukowski, the “sound” of 1991 is Nirvana and Qawwali, Mozart, and improvisatory music.
I’m fascinated by these limits to defining the zeitgeist. Yes, Nirvana was immensely popular (or well on its way to becoming popular) in the fall of 1991, but other strands of music were just as alive. They’re hidden from view now for two reasons. The first I’ll call the hindsight reason: Nirvana undoubtedly influenced a whole generation of music and we can still feel the ripples, so we keep repeating the Nirvana Was Important tale to explain its colossal impact, to explain where we are today. It’s simple, it’s tidy, it helps us feel a shared history, even if you weren’t/aren’t a Nirvana fan.
The second reason is related to this simplification, and I’ll call it the blindsight reason: it’s hard—though Krukowski tries—to trace the impact all of this newfound access to jazz, classical, and world music had on the public. To the best of my knowledge, not too many Qawwali-influenced bands rose up in early ‘90s America. Teenage music fans didn’t start dressing in wigs and tights in homage to Mozart. We don’t explicitly see the impact, so we write it off as an untidy anomaly, a footnote to Nirvana’s royal reign. If Nirvana was an asteroid smashing into the Pacific Ocean, this newfound access to jazz, classical, and world music made a pebble-sized splash. You could see it in the early ‘90s, but you can only feel it now if you actually experienced it.
Yet jazz, classical, and world music were just different strands of a larger 1991 musical tapestry. I’m interested in these personalized, weirder pockets of music history because they can make an era feel much more lived and alive than just rehashing the same Nirvana Was King history. Life, in any era, is much weirder and more surprising than we can possibly imagine from our vantage point.
And it gets weirder the further you zoom in. There’s the culture you live in, then there’s your culture, the hyperspecific way you curate or are curated by different forces. You’re constantly discovering artists/genres outside of their particular zeitgeist, playing catch-up with a vast wealth of music history, and this can coincide with the dominant “sound” you live through. In 2008-2009, I discovered and got obsessed with ‘70s krautrock, so for me that sound reminds me of that era, just as much as Beyonce, Kanye, and Daft Punk do. This is why I don’t lament the supposed end of the monoculture. I think it was an artificial myth to begin with. Plus, monocultures—like monoculture farming—are probably inherently unhealthy. Give me the wilder forests of personal zeitgeist.
Krukowski also includes a 1991 documentary about improvised music in his remembrance. In the beginning of the video clip, jazz musician Douglas R. Ewart teaches a Chicago grade school class about improvisation. The lesson starts off chaotic: Ewart blows into a didgeridoo, the kids bang randomly on peanut tins and desks with drum sticks, there are a lot of confused and bored faces. Then the music starts to congeal into a rhythmic pulse. Ewart starts shouting nonsense phrases, the students respond, the pulse quickens and slows, the music moves with a life of its own. Everyone is having fun.
Ewart, in voice over: “Usually I say nothing to them. I come in and I begin playing and then they begin playing, and we experiment from there…in most subjects in school, students individually synthesize the lesson. Here, they have to work together…it doesn’t matter if they’re the A student or the D student to me.”
Compare this with your own experience of early musical education: if you went to an American public school like me, you were immediately taught what was a wrong note. You were taught compliance and competition. You were taught there is a hierarchy, between first chair and last chair, between “noise” and music.
Doesn’t music education need to start from Ewart’s position? We should teach sound first as an infinite possibility—the basic building block of music—before we teach the correct notes to play. Sound and music start with the body: how we perceive, how we listen, how we play, how we interact.
Teach noisemaking because it’s fun. Teach past the boundaries of instruments. Teach the unique personal expression of everyone, and the way those expressions can combine into something bigger. Sound is a marvelous, miraculous thing, and we shouldn’t be afraid of using all of it.
Earlier this week, I released Drift, under the name Vinespeed. This album is a souvenir of the pandemic, a way to bracket off this time: for me, this is what it felt like to live, 2020-2021. A drifting, murky experience, punctuated by both intensity and strange slowness.
These songs came about accidentally and awkwardly across the span of about six months. I struggle with knowing when to work hard and when to ease up. Drift was an escape from another recording project that I was working on, offering a place to experiment with chance, randomness, ambience, texture, and letting go. All of the songs were recorded with a guitar and some effects pedals, then later edited into shape while still trying to retain that initial naturalness.
During this time, I was inspired by the 12k roster; the texture of Pole; the expressiveness of Huerco S. and Aphex Twin; the ghostliness of dub music; and the concept of wabi-sabi. I’m still working on making peace with my perfectionistic tendencies, which really prevent me from finishing anything and always leave me second-guessing intuition. But these songs sound beautifully unfinished to me, emotional but with a “letting go” quality. I don’t want to guide anybody to the emotions in the songs. I want them to naturally arise.
Em heard the nautical sounds in the songs, which led to the titles. These are messages in bottles, sailing strange seas.
Thank you for listening.
released May 16, 2021
Art Levy: guitars, effects, recording, mixing, cover art.
Across the last decade, I’ve noticed how less and less bands have been driving music culture. Instead, solo artists have become the norm. At KUTX, the vast majority of music we receive comes from solo artists. Mike Sniper, head of Brooklyn indie label Captured Tracks, laments this fact in a recent interview with Aquarium Drunkard. For him, solo-produced music doesn’t have the same frictional, propulsive power as a rock band. “We just have Brian Wilsons now,” he says. “We don’t have Rolling Stones anymore.”
Sniper suggests that this band-less present is a function of taste and fashion and maybe people not wanting to deal with internal criticism within a band structure (i.e., the bassist telling you your songs are shit). I think that’s a lazy, “the kids are too sensitive” argument. The lack of bands is a deeper reflection of economic and cultural trends. Having a band is expensive, from practicing to recording to touring, and the costs all go up the more band members there are. Let’s start with the most basic infrastructure needed as a band: a practice space. Once upon a time, every mid-sized city in America featured all sorts of cheap practice spaces to rent or squat, from dingy warehouses in industrial parts of town to the drummer’s mom’s basement. But these days that kind of urban real estate is either nonexistent, turned into Air BnBs, or prohibitively expensive (as Ian Svenonius puts it, “there aren’t garage bands anymore because who can afford a place with a garage?”). In Austin, it was recently announced that Music Lab—a gigantic rehearsal space that I used pretty regularly with various bands during the 2010s—will now be “developed” into a Tesla showroom. This is the most Austin-in-2021 thing I’ve heard in awhile.
Does having a band even make sense to a younger generation anymore? Let’s set aside the fact that you can’t possibly have a band if you’re only able to practice in an apartment bedroom (unless it’s a really, really quiet rock band…which might be the most punk rock thing you could make right now). I just think the rigid structure of a rock band doesn’t have the same appeal. First of all, the guitar/bass/drums setup is now 70 years old! Imagine music fans in the 1970s pining for the good old days of oompah bands and turn-of-the-century vaudevillians. Also, the ubiquity of easy-to-learn technology means that a kid’s first instrument is probably not a guitar or drum kit. Music making might start through a computerized interface: a sampler, a synthesizer, or editing software. These are instruments that do not lend themselves well to a band format.
Electronic pop, rap, and R&B are much more individual-focused than rock music, and as these genres have risen in popularity, I think the band as a unit has worked against it because it is inherently inflexible. Yes, there’s a risk of solo musicians retreating into boring comfort zones because of a lack of outside input, as Sniper suggests. But as a solo musician, I think there’s a bigger opportunity and ease to collaborate with more people than in a band. In the rap world, every song can feature a different producer and guest MC. As a solo artist of any genre, you can quickly change your sound and explore further and deeper than you could in a band setting. Complaining that there aren’t enough rock bands now is like complaining there aren’t enough bebop bands now. It doesn’t make sense from a cultural perspective anymore, because the band format (and rock as a genre) isn’t the leading edge it once was.
Our individualized music-making is not as individualized as it seems at first glance, but it does broadly reflect a hyper-individualized society. Maybe the pandemic will lead to a thirst for more collective art-making, but I don’t think it will be in the form of the old band model. It will be something new and hybridized, because that’s the only direction that art inevitably heads towards.
MF DOOM died on October 31, but in true mysterious MF DOOM fashion, the news didn’t break until December 31. He always cloaked himself in a shroud: the metal mask, the consistently inconsistent release dates, the obtuse art-rap. But that shroud drew a lot of people–myself included–closer. Just the cover of Madvillainy is enough of a black hole. “DOOM barricaded behind the iron mask, eyes like arrowheads, weight of the world in his retinas,” as Jeff Weiss describes it. “The color scheme is sepulchral grey; the mask is scarred and battered, but stolidly intact.”
DOOM’s dreamworld wasn’t just looks. It was built around the very sound of words themselves. We’re trained to look only for meaning in language, but the musicality of certain words together can trascend meaning, opening up new spaces, new possibilities through rhythm and friction. It bypasses your rational brain; you can feel it before you notice it. DOOM was a master at this, cramming every nook and cranny with references to the Bible, cartoons, pop culture odds-and-ends, and literary villains, the words carefully chosen not just for what they convey, but for the sounds they’re masked in. On Madvillainy, his verses mirror Madlib’s chopped-up beats and samples. It’s a total soundworld, a comic book made for the ears, so fast and so deep you just have to let it wash over you. If you stand still, it’s already gone.
On “Rhinestone Cowboy,” he cycles through vowel sounds, savoring them and spitting them out like a sommelier:
“Hold the cold one like he hold a old gun Like he hold the microphone and stole the show for fun Or a foe for ransom, flows is handsome O’s in tandem, anthem, random tantrum Phantom of the Grand Ole Opry, ask the dumb hottie Masked, pump-shotty—somebody stop me Hardly come sloppy on a retarded hard copy After rockin’ parties he departed in a jalopy Watch the droptop papi”
DOOM turns language into another instrument, and it almost doesn’t matter what he’s saying. It’s how he says it and how it hits with the rhythm, the keening Brazilian pop sample egging him on in the background.
It makes me think of other songs and artists that are attuned to the music of language. There’s Bob Dylan, of course, unleashing the proto-rap of “Subterranean Homesick Blues:” “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine / I’m on the pavement thinkin’ ’bout the government.” It clatters downhill like a locomotive, or maybe the rhythm comes from living around noisy New York subways for so many years. The specific words are just as barbed as the twangy guitar: when you string together basement/mixing/medicine and pavement/thinking/government, you can’t help but sound spiky.
More spike, but in an unlikely place: Tame Impala’s “Elephant.” “He pulled the mirrors off his Cadillac / Cause he doesn’t like it looking like he looks back.” “Elephant” lurches like a Cadillac, and all those “k” sounds in the second line could be the sound of shattering glass, those mirrors hitting the ground.
For Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, his lyrics often start with “mumble tracks,” just singing nonsense over a rhythm and chord progression. Those mumbles work their way into language, blurring the line between dream and reality, nonsense and direct language. “Poor Places”–off an album that explores miscommunication and crossed wires, both lyrically and sonically–feels like a hallucination, and the words sound suitably ghostly: “It’s my father’s voice trailing off / Sailors sailing off in the morning / For the air-conditioned rooms at the top of the stairs.” Tweedy often points out that our brains are hardwired to find and create sense out of information. His lyrics stretch the limits of this, and part of the fun is the construction of meaning in your own mind. You finish the song, depending on how you make sense of it.
Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins is another master of senseless sense. There comes a time in every Cocteau Twins fan’s life when they look up the actual lyrics and see how relentlessly wrong they’ve been singing their songs all these years. But again, it doesn’t matter. The rounded, reverberous words on “Lorelai” are so emotionally charged by Fraser’s voice, your body knows what the song’s “about” even if your brain doesn’t.
There’s such a finality to Nick Cave’s “Push The Sky Away,” a kind of bleak, beautiful stubborness that’s his artistic wheelhouse. “I’ve got a feeling that I just can’t shake / I got a feeling that just won’t go away / You got to just keep on pushing it / Keep on pushing it / Push the sky away.” The short, simple words seem to stumble over themselves, dragging their feet but moving forward one step at a time. “Got,” “shake,” “keep,” “it,” all clipped, sudden sounds. They are birds unwilling to leave the nest without a push, but that gravity makes the song soar.
It’s Year-End List Season, and I’m bored of it. In the music world, it means highlighting your favorite albums and songs released in 2020, deciding between a hiearchical or non-hierarchical list, deciding if reissues count, making sure you are one with the zeitgeist, etc. It doesn’t actually reflect how I listen to music in a given year. I loop back and forth between new and old, between playlists and albums, between intentional and random listening. The album and song list can’t include mediums that fall between categories, like radio shows, mixes, or YouTube deep-dives. It makes more sense to reflect on my music year in a spiderwebbed format: the connections, the rabbit holes, the rediscoveries. When I look back on 2020 in five, ten, or twenty years, I want to remember the incidental, non-new music as much as what the culture was up to during the pandemic.
So here’s what I was listening to in 2020. Below you can find my two massive playlists I make during the year, one featuring my favorite 2020 music and one featuring “scraps”–the music that didn’t come out this year but it’s new to me or I heard something new in it. Thanks for reading and listening.
If I had to pick my absolute favorite album of this year, the one that when I listen to it in the future I’ll be immediately transported back into 2020’s quivering, messy clutches, it’s Balafon Sketches, by Contours. Polyrhythmic music that blends dance, electronic, and ambient, using the balafon as the guide. I love the marriage of the ancient and the futuristic on this album. See also: Asa Tone //Temporary Music (2020).
A YouTube algorithm ‘discovery.’ Edgeless, rounded ambient music, rising and falling like an ocean. My favorite thing was reading the comments on the video: a listener uses the music to grieve their dying father; others write poems; another calls it “The waiting room in Heaven.” Sometimes the internet can be a wondrous, beautiful thing.
This record moves like clouds across a sunny sky. An artist with over 600 releases across the electronic and ambient spectrum, Milieu is quietly carving out a new economic model for musicians that’s more in line with the cottage industries of the past.
More electronic music that blends ancient folk styles with futuristic technology, and Glenn-Copeland’s open-hearted reverence hits you in the gut. The documentary is a slow and steady look at his process, his experience as a Black trans man, and his willingness to engage and learn from a younger generation.
A fantastic (though limited) collection of mini-documentaries on electronic music, covering Delia Derbyshire’s early ’60s work through the dawn of sampling in the ’80s. The sheer amount of labor it took Derbyshire to create sounds is staggering, but there’s something really creative and invigorating about seeing electronic technology stretched to its very limits. That labor feels more real than a lot of easier digital technologies.
A British band that mixed live instrumentation with electronic methodology, i.e. playing instruments in these big, looping patterns. More proof that early ’90s British electronic music is one of the most infuential and fertile eras in music history.
Dubby, hissy, broken-down electronic music that sounds like the dust under your couch has come to life and it’s throwing a party. Accidents are excellent collaborators: the project got its name and texture from a Waldorf 4-Pole filter that Stefan Betke dropped onto the floor.
There’s a quiet revolution taking place in the world of pedal steel guitar. The instrument once synonymous with country tradition is now popping up in electronic and ambient clothes. This record–by one of Nashville’s premier pedal steel wizards–dresses the instrument in glittering New Age duds.
I got obsessed with J.J. Cale’s quietly innovative recording technique where it sounds like you’re sitting in the middle of the band as the tape rolls. He can make a whisper sound like a rip-roaring honky-tonk.
A Montreal producer who organizes his records around a single color. This one is green, and it’s full of music that vines, branches, and shapeshifts. A great example of using recording technology as a writing partner.
Chacon, a veteran soul singer, teams up with John Carroll Kirby, a Frank Ocean and Solange collaborator. Low-key, homespun soul music in the vein of Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On and Shuggie Otis’ Inspiration Information, but with a modern sheen.
Paul Drummond takes a careful look at one of Austin’s finest exports. He toes the line between journalistic rigor and keeping the psychedelic mythos intact. Felt great to blast the Elevators in the early days of a quaratined spring.
I love hyper-specific compilations like these, especially when they change my understanding about an era of music. The ’80s American underground has been largely dominated by hardcore in the history books, but this comp shows there was something less aggressive but no less inspiring thrumming on the fringes.
Jeff Parker, guitarist for Chicago post-rockers Tortoise, mixes traditional jazz chops with chopped-up samples and funk workouts on Suite For Max Brown (2020). It sent me down the International Anthem rabbit hole, a borderless place where jazz can mean just about anything. Rob Mazurek’s Alternate Moon Cycles (2014) is a beautiful ambient album made from sustained cornet notes–a study in breathwork in a year when breathing steady was a matter of life and death.
There were stretches of this year where all I could listen to was jazz; there were stretches in those jazz weeks where all I could listen to was Miles Davis. Kind Of Blue was a port of calm during the early days of the pandemic storm. I had time and attention to just sit and listen and marvel at what a masterpiece that album is. In A Silent Way gripped me for a few weeks too, its amoebic pulse offering the perfect atmosphere. And about halfway between those colossal works lay Miles’ sets at Chicago’s Plugged Nickel. I learned how his band during this era was so good, they were bored with being good. So drummer Tony Williams proposed they try to play “anti-music”–the opposite of what was expected of them as instrumentalists. The result is one of the strangest jazz recordings, almost like a negative image of jazz: it simmers where it should explode, it explodes where it should whisper, it falls apart and comes back together again and again.
Benny Goodman Quartet // discography
A fantastic post at 64 Quartets led me down the Benny Goodman rabbit hole, where I especially fell in love with Lionel Hampton’s colorful vibraphone and Teddy Wilson’s suave piano playing.
A quarantine, a Swiss park, a guitar, a microphone: these ingredients add up to one of the most moving instrumental albums I’ve ever heard.
I’m immensely grateful I got to continue producing KUTX guest DJ sets this year. One from pre-pandemic life: El Federico, Austin muralist/artist, delivers a DJ set in Spanish and English, reflecting on his El Paso upbringing and border life in general. Turned me on to the aching “The Town” by Los Lobos. One from pandemic life: Tim Showalter’s Shut-In Radio Hour. The Strand Of Oaks frontman and newfound Austinite pulled together an all-vinyl mix, one that captures the full emotional range of the early pandemic days.
Or rather, the lack of man-made sound during the spring. It is startling how much noise we humans make. With nowhere to go and no traffic, our neighborhood filled up with the sounds of birdsong and wind and trees. The acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempden points out that there are plenty of blind animals but there are no deaf ones. Listening is the most important sense in the animal kingdom.
Sometimes you need to break down and “invest in yourself.” The difference between my recordings pre-CB and post-CB is night and day. The Colour Box adds depth, detail, and clarity to any instrument you run through it. But I’m especially fond of the fuzzier, distorted end of the pedal. It throws in a degree of randomness to my playing that’s fun to respond to and get surprised by.
I completed 46 songs/recordings this year and captured hundreds of scraps–melodies, sketches, ideas, field recordings. It’s not about quantity…but sometimes it is nice to see the amount of work a year produces! My goal for 2021 is to cull and arrange the completed recordings into some sort of album.
I’m taking a course in permaculture design. Permaculture is a combination of “permanent culture” and “permanent agriculture,” coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, but the basic tenets were developed by indigenous societies across millennia. It starts from the assumption that nature knows what it’s doing and encourages the designer to harness that momentum to human needs. Permaculture focuses on understanding environments as systems, not parts, and designing landscapes to closely mimic nature. Instead of even crop rows with one type of vegetable—like the American ideal of a farm—permaculture aims for a wide variety of plants, all interacting with one another horizontally, vertically, and over time.
What draws me to permaculture is its emphasis on making connections, among plants and among disciplines. It can be very narrow or far-reaching, from redesigning a backyard garden to creating cities and societies that are anchored in sustainability. I realize I’ve been looking for this kind of ethos my entire life. Our society is so set on specialization and myopic thinking. Permaculture pulls the blinders off.
I’ve started applying permaculture to music and audio recording. Designing a good permaculture system is very similar to a good audio mix. Every frequency, from bass to treble, sits in a specific auditory niche, and a good mix is balanced among these frequencies. Sometimes when I’m working on my own music, I’ll hear how “it needs something really treble-y.” That treble-y sound doesn’t sound very good on its own, but when it’s combined with the other frequencies, all the sounds work together in a way that’s almost magical, or like a landscape that has exploded to life after a little rain.
*Honor thy error as a hidden intention *Use an old idea *What to increase? What to reduce? *Are there sections? Consider transitions *Try faking it! *Give the game away
Creative work can be incredibly frustrating sometimes, and logical thinking can actually be your worst enemy since it’s grounded in habit and the limits of knowledge. Oblique Strategies encourage lateral thinking and the breaking of habits. A little bit of chaos or randomness goes a long way, and the prompts’ gnomic nature—which you have to decipher for yourself—contributes to their use. They turn a frustrating situation back into a game and get you thinking in a more playful way. They get you back into the dirt like a kid.
And here are some of the more playful permaculture design principles:
*Observe. *Stack elements in both space and time *Make the least change for the greatest effect *Optimize edge
Already, I’m thinking about how to apply these principles to the world of music, and conversely, how to draw on Oblique Strategies in my garden. That’s not what they were intended for, but that “wrongness” feels like a new Oblique Strategy. It creates the perfect amount of friction that can lead to spectacular (or spectacularly weird) results.
One of the books I read recently was Kay Larson’s Buddhism-focused biography of the composer John Cage, Where The Heart Beats. John Cage used the I Ching—basically an ancient version of Oblique Strategies—to write most of his scores (and a lot of his speeches, too). According to Cage, modern music suffered too much from the egos of the composers. There was no life to their creations, just endless logic and rigidity. You could hear their hands around the necks of every note. The I Ching offered randomness and loss of control, which is an incredibly lifelike and natural feature. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, one of Cage’s dearest teachers, counseled him that “the responsibility of the artist is to imitate nature in her manner of operation.” So that’s what he set out to do, and by doing so, he explored Coomaraswamy’s ethos of interconnection, where “art is religion, religion art, not related but the same.”
“I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases,” Cage said. “Therefore my purpose is to remove purpose.” His music sounds like a natural environment: random, surprising, buzzing with the life of independent sounds bouncing off each other. His music is not “pleasing” to many because of this chaos. We’re hardwired to organize, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but that need can lead to segmentation, segregation, and destruction for the sake of order. It’s how a manicured, geometric lawn turns into a lifeless, resource-sucking space. How much of the world do we not see because of this innate organization bias? How much of life goes unnoticed?
“Recognize that you don’t know where you stand, and you will begin to watch where you put your feet,” Larson writes. “That’s when a path appears.” In permaculture, this similar humility is greatly encouraged. Watch nature and work with it, don’t try to master it. Accept the randomness it gives you. Be a permanent student. All of this makes me realize how web-like our environments, interests, thoughts, and lives are. Music is nature is creativity is life—not discrete parts, but a whole. Not related, but the same.