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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


Is Rock Dead?

Essay and Public Exchange

by Rhys Chatham


    I'm a composer/musician who was born and raised in lower Manhattan. I remember during the seventiesand eighties that every few years there was an emphasis on a different kind of music. There was always a big rock scene in New York just as there was always a big jazz scene. There was always a healthy scene of contemporary music coming out of a classical tradition, too. While it's true that all this music was going on at the same time, there usually seemed to be a different focus every few years on one particular genre of music (as opposed to another).

    For example, at the start of the seventies there was a tremendous period of excitement on the jazz scene with a different concert happening almost every night over at Sam River's basement studio on Bond Street. A few years later, there was a focus on contemporary music coming out of a classical tradition with Philip Glass playing every week to select audiences at his rehearsal loft in Soho, culminating with the final version of Music in 12 Parts and Einstein on the Beach. Then the punk thing happened. Everyone had been bored to death with rock up to that point, having been saturated with it by the end of the sixties. It had become so, well, technical! But when Patti Smith started playing in a band, a lot of people living in downtown Manhattan figured if Patti could do it, maybe they could do it, too. There was an incredible amount of good energy in that area at the end of the seventies and start of the eighties, which started to fizzle out (the focal point of energy) by the time groups like Sonic Youth and Swans were just starting to peak 'round about 1983, which was also about the time when the AKAI S-900 sampler was first marketed and radio station WBLS starting playing a lot of rap over the air. Rap and the promise of the sampler made for a new musical focus. It was an exciting time.

    So the question I'm asking is where's the energy now? While people in all genres of music are continuing to do great work (I'm really not attacking anyone here, promise!), it seems that the most interesting new forms to recently evolve have been coming out of dance music (of all things!), at least as far as new formal permutations occurring within a given musical context is concerned. I was exhilarated when I first heard the "house" music from Detroit in 1988. My friend Vivian Dick (the filmmaker) played it for me. I was really into rap at the time, and when Vivian played this house music at a New Year's Eve party I was having at my place in Paris, I asked her to turn it off. I didn't like the sound sources, which seemed to consist of unbelievably cheap electronics and drum machines, it just sounded too primitive to my ears. Vivian told me to shut up and give it a chance, which I did and I ended up liking it. A lot. After that I was back in New York and tried to get this house music from the record stores, but by hat time the people in the rap world (which by then had become big business and big money) had appropriated the term "house", so all I could find was rap music "disguised" as house. I didn't like it as much as the Detroit stuff.

    What I liked about "real" house music was that it was instrumental music with no bloody voice going over the top of it all the time the way rap does. I've always been an instrumental composer myself (as opposed to writing songs), so naturally I was intrigued by the voiceless Detroit house music.

    Anyway, after the rap people hijacked the term "house", I think the energy might have shifted over to Europe (the UK, Belgium, Germany, and even France!). I've been living in Paris for the past few years. We have these two great radio stations here called Radio FG and Radio Nova. All I know is that at the start of the nineties, I started hearing this amazing instrumental electronic music over the airwaves which eventually turned into the genres called techno, ambient music, jungle, drum & bass and more! It seems that the large majority of people who make this music are in their late teens to mid-twenties. It's so touching what I'm hearing on the radio, they're pouring their hearts out, it's the most exciting music I've heard in years. The prediction made by Pierre Boulez in the 1950s that the future would see the masses making and appreciating advanced forms of electronic music has now been fulfilled (although perhaps not in quite the way he expected... roll over, Monsieur Boulez!)

    So does this mean that Rock is dead and techno (and its many sub-genres) rules?

    Nah. Rock isn't dead, it just grew up. Now it knows how classical music feels!

    Rhys Chatham
    Paris, France
    February 1, 1997


Response (to Chatham) by Jeff Harrington

February 2

    Rock was never truly alive. It was music for and by adolescents, and it therefore never truly had any life experience in it! Sure, it had hormones, beats, ecstasy, but it was never alive. More like a stillborn thrill. Only something that has really come close to death is alive. Some Doors songs, maybe come close, a bit of Hendrix, some triphouse, maybe... a little, but it is not alive unless it is as sophisticated and as varied as life itself. That is, it covers not just the genitals and the heart, but the deepest emotions we all experience, (although most of us have no art to relate to in this sense that can talk about these deepest experiences because we're stuck with pop music and Star Wars).

    Life is not something small like pop music. It can't be symbolized nor contained by something as mundane, as small-minded, something spawned purely by dreams of groupies and drug trips and cash money. Sometimes it comes close but that ain't nothin'. That's just a good day in the studio. Not a lifetime spent perfecting art which can come close to the deepest aspects of humanity.

    Chatham: I'm a composer/musician who was born and raised in lower Manhattan.

    We know who you art... Mr. Art Rock.. ;-) I've got a few of your records! You're one of the guys responsible for todays flood of rock-inspired new music....

    Chatham: It's so touching what I'm hearing on the radio, they're pouring their hearts out, it's the most exciting music I've heard in years. The prediction made by Pierre Boulez in the 1950s that the future would see the masses making and appreciating advanced forms of electronic music has now been fulfilled (although perhaps not in quite the way he expected... roll over, Monsieur Boulez!)

    You exaggerate its importance. Sure, it'll all be sentimental nostalgia in 20 years and listened to a little, but again, it's not sophisticated enough in its emotional range to be - anything. It's a cheap rush and I love the stuff. Listen to it all day sometimes at work, but it's ear candy.

    I don't believe that classical music, though, has a god damn chance until it can provide the same rush that great techno or a blazing Hendrix solo can. Who's going to listen to it? The sophisticate? She died 20 years ago in a car crash on I90. Classical music has to evolve into something exciting and timely or its just dead. Ultimately, it'll be one or two composers who make the bridge the rest of the wannabe composers of the next century use. You, at least have participated in the (ahem) bridge-building process! Don't go and pretend that the bricks of the bridge are important. Forget that. It's the humanity that'll travel across it that's important.

    The only art that is ever imortant is the art that has it all... all the sadness, all the trippy rushes, all the anger and fear. Rock/pop/techno don't got squat in that department. Just one sentiment after another. But hey, we're all getting so fuckin' intimidated by our cool friends that we think that the crap they listen to is art! Ha.... we know better. We're just so god damn hungry for something new and exciting we'll buy it for now and feel like a flake next year. We can do better! If you have to, just act like you know, bob your head... but don't buy it in any deep sense.

    Chatham: So does this mean that Rock is dead and techno (and its many sub-genres) rules?
Nah. Rock isn't dead, it just grew up. Now it knows how classical music feels!

    Nah... I still get a little rush listening to some White Zombie from time to time... but it's just ear candy, inspiration - just today's peasant song to rip off.

    jeff@parnasse.com
    My Music
    My Worlds


Response (to Harrington) by Rhys Chatham

February 2

    My understanding of Jeff Harrington's thought-provoking response to the article I posted recently (Is Rock Dead?) is that rock isn't dead because it was never alive in the first place!

    Jeff goes on to make hierarchical distinctions between rock, techno, pop and music coming out of a classical tradition...he is basically saying that rock/pop/techno don't reach the lofty heights of music coming out of a classical tradition, saying (forgive the out-of-context quote, Jeff): "The only art that is ever important is the art that has it all... all the sadness, all the trippy rushes, all the anger and fear. Rock/pop/techno don't got squat in that department. You exaggerate its importance. Sure, it'll all been sentimental nostalgia in 20 years and listened to a little, but again, it's not sophisticated enough in its emotional range to be -- anything."

    But on the other hand, Jeff says that, "I don't believe that classical music, though, has a god damn chance until it can provide the same rush that great techno or a blazing Hendrix solo can. Who's going to listen to it?"

    I couldn't agree more!

    I don't like to make hierarchical value judgments on the different genres of music, though. I think amazing work has been done in all fields. I don't know about you, Jeff, but songs or albums like Batchain Puller - Captain Beefheart; The Idiot - Iggy Pop; I'm Gonna Put a Spell on You - Screamin' Jay Hawkins - Marque Moon - Television; certain Sonic Youth songs... I kinda feel that some of them reach those heights that you were talking about. Also, you don't mention jazz... how about Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Carla Bley, Chet Baker, etc etc? I'll betcha a lot of tunes from that field will hold their own for a long time to come as well, being, as they are (to use your words) "as sophisticated and as varied as life itself. That is, it covers not just the genitals and the heart, but the deepest emotions we all experience".

    I must say that I have to agree to a large extent with your statement about techno music: "You exaggerate its (techno and its sub-genre) importance. Sure, it'll all be sentimental nostalgia in 20 years and listened to a little, but again, it's not sophisticated enough in its emotional range to be -- anything. It's a cheap rush and I love the stuff. Listen to it all day sometimes at work, but it's ear candy."

    I lot of it really is like ear candy! But isn't what you're talking about more the difference between truly transcending music within a given musical genre or context rather than the context itself? What I mean is that, there is a lot of bad music out there in all fields. Ha! That's surely something we can all agree on!

    I've heard so much bad contemporary music coming out of a classical context, it bores me to tears...same thing with music coming out of rock, jazz, pop, and electronica...but one has to admit that there's music that's way bloody good in all the genres, even in techno, Jeff! Ya just gotta look for it.

    Harrington: Classical music has to evolve into something exciting and timely or its just dead. Ultimately, it'll be one or two composers who make the bridge the rest of the wannabe composers of the next century use.

    There was an interesting article in The Wire Magazine by Ben Watson of an Iannis Xenakis' biography that just came out. Of all that generation, I find Xenakis to be one of the most open-minded. I like a lot of his music, I became a fan after I heard Occident-Orient. Anyway, here's the quote from the Wire: "Post-war classical composition is a fraught business enthralled to the retrospective elevation of Bach, Beethoven, to the heights of 'genius' mystification. Modern composers tend to be individualistic, competitive and megalomaniac [hey, sounds like me!!!] Ironically, Xenakis lack of interest in alternative methods of realizing music (free improvisation, which he calls 'a fashion, like jazz', studio multi-tracking, jazz collectivity, pop intervention) fixes 19th century methods as absolute..."

    This ties in with what Jeff was saying. I know most of these guys personally (contemporary classical composers) and they're all running around thinking they're going to be the next Bach or something... I guess that's OK, except that when composers of other genres (rock, jazz, etc) hang out with them, you really get the feeling they're looking down their noses at you. It's kinda creepy.

    But I drift...

    My original question had more to do with energy focus rather than emotive and intellectual hierarchy between the various musical genres. As I said earlier, I'm amazed by all the new stuff happening within ambient, jungle, techno, new electronica, drum and bass, etc and was saying the most interesting music being made today is happening within its borders, but maybe I'm wrong. I received an e-mail from Andrew Russ, who said (in part) in response to the "Is Rock Dead" article:

    "But then i realized there are many such scenes that sort of operate in parallel and don't get heard of because they don't even care about radio airplay. There's a hardcore punk community in eastern Pennsylvania that I know about because i sometimes see their fanzines and flyers. I think that a lot of these people are also into ska, though I haven't heard any of this stuff.

    "Even stranger, on cable there's a christian punk rock video show. There are still death metal heads out there, there are people into Hearts of Space, etc. etc. And the people in each scene are probably thinking that that is where 'the' creative activity is going on. And that area may well be creative, it at least has the interest of the people in them..."

    Which I guess says it all...


Response (to Chatham) by Manu

February 2

    Is rock dead? Corporate rock is -- it died with Kurt Cobain. That's why the industry is so scared: all the hype and the sap doesn't sell anymore. People won't pay to hear the wheel re-invented again. The fat cats with their cigars are worried: how are they going to finance their huge suburban mansions and placate their plastic spouses who don't care about them?

    There is new and vital rock music being made, though. New York's own Versus, on the Teenbeat and Caroline labels are taking the traditional rock format and stretching its harmonic world into new areas. The Pitchblende Quartet (Cargo/Fistpuppet), Polvo (Touch and Go and Merge) and Shellac (Touch and Go) are just a few other bands producing new and vital sounds for an actively engaged audience.

    Gastr del Sol, from Chicago, is another interesting band. They write music that strips rock to its essentials, with angular voice and guitar accompaniments, pushing the blues tradition forward. Other songs of theirs explore the electronic realm.

    There is also great music being created in the blend of rock and techno styles. Third Eye Foundation, a British band, does great stuff with massive, Branca-escue guitar noise accompanied by breakbeat jungle-style drums. Tortoise, from Chicago, is another band that combines acoustic and electronic instruments with great results. The first song, Djed, from their Millions Now Living Will Never Die album (Thrill Jockey) is a great example of this. Tortoise also enlisted well known artists in techno, such as Luke Vibert and Springheel Jack, to remix songs from that album.

    This is just a small collection of what I personally find interesting in contemporary rock. There's a lot more out there. So rock is not dead. Its principal weapon -- the guitar -- has been popular in many cultures through the ages. It won't die- kind of like the cockroach.

    Techno itself is fascinating as a style and structure of music and as a social phenomenon. For me personally, jungle and dub are new worlds of possibility. It's also non-corporate right now, for the most part. The music is being made for the sake of sharing it with others, for nothing else. It parallels early hip-hop in this way. JDL, of the Cold Crush Brothers, an early hip-hop crew, said, "See, we came from the origin of hip-hop, when it wasn't a money thing. It wasn't a political structure that the record company builds around hip-hop. It wasn't about getting paid and all that. It was about something you loved. It was something we did from the heart. So, therefore, if you doin' something you love, you gonna do it to the best of your ability."

    The techno style today brings together people in collaborative efforts who are normally set apart socially: blacks, whites, asians, urban, suburban, male, female. It provides a common working ground. It is incredibly positive in this way and accomplishes what previous generations never could. The danger is that the looming and inevitable commodification of this music and scene will rob of all of this.

    Just as composers in the seventies and eighties wrote a lot of great music that straddled the lines of rock and classical, I think that composers today are going to incorporate techno, hip-hop and its instruments (mainly the turntable) into serious music. Jim O' Rourke and others have already started this.

    The issue of rock in serious music bugs me today. A lot of people in my generation (college students) are writing music that takes elements from rock. This is great. I do it too. But too many people refuse to meet rock on its own grounds. They look at it through a post-war academic filter, which leaves very little of actual substance behind. Or they call themselves post-modern and use rock as kitsch. I think too many of these composers are merely participating in the latest compositional fad. Too many of them aren't actively involved with creating and auditing rock music.

    This problem comes from the corporate structure. The rock of many people in my generation was gleaned from shopping malls and train terminals. To these people, rock is truly dead. And it sounds that way in their music. A lot of stuff I've heard from Bang on a Can has this problem. Don't get me wrong, I love some of the Bang on a Can affiliated music but a lot of it feels like an ironic post-modern exploration into a foreign culture. These composers are guilty of crass appropriation. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix do not define rock for me. But even for those who do, they cannot analyze it by the terms of post-war music theory. It doesn't belong in that tradition.

    Techno, in its present, non-corporate state, offers a venue for composers who truly care about it to express themselves in the concert hall as well as on the dance floor. I look for to hearing and participating in this music. As for the hyped up corporate rock and crossover classical, I think it is truly dead, and will never be revived.

    Of course, there is another issue entirely. When I say dead, I mean dead to me, failing to show me a new look at things. But with the advent of recorded music, all music survives forever. I listened to a Perotin CD a few weeks ago that knocked me out. It was definitely new and fresh to me. As Miles Davis said, "The tradition is preserved in records." So rock will never really be dead, as long as it is recorded. One needs only to see the neo-hippies walking around college campuses to understand that. I don't understand why these people believe what they do, but I understand what enables them to do it.

smv0386@oberlin.edu


Response (to Manu) by Robert Caponi

February 3

    Manu:Techno itself is fascinating as a style and structure of music and as a social phenomenon. For me personally, jungle and dub are new worlds of possibility. It's also non-corporate right now, for the most part.

    Maybe I'm just not hearing the right stuff, but this whole jungle thing, in my opinion, is really trumped up. I'm even hearing people reevaluating pop musics past in terms of its eventual fruition as jungle music. I'm not getting too excited because I've already learned that there's no genre of music whose defining characteristics include consistent quality. These guys have it all over, say, ca. 1988 Skinny Puppy in terms of hipness, but I'd be suprised if a single one of them creates stuff as complex and pretty so many techno-generations later. I've also come to believe that the technologies for manipulating pure sound will ever fully be exploited in pop music, nor will pure sound ever be considered substantial musical material in its own right (Japanese noise music is evidently quite popular, but still not quite what I have in mind.) I think I prefer more mainstream dance music, myself. And even at that, John Cougar Melencamp has more soul than the whole lot of them :)

    Manu: Just as composers in the seventies and eighties wrote a lot of great music that straddled the lines of rock and classical, I think that composers today are going to incorporate techno, hip-hop and its instruments (mainly the turntable) into serious music. Jim O' Rourke and others have already started this.

    For me, at least, the jury's still out on the import of techno, although I will admit it's alot more exciting now as compared to the rather staid models used six or seven years ago (clever sample... abrasive dotted rhythm synth riff... sample repeated... bass drum... sample again... clicky noises, breakbeats, audience applause, synth riff again, etc. etc. etc.) However, hip-hop and rap are certainly cultural gifts not to be taken lightly... in my opinion, they will prove to be the most influential to have come from the USA in the last 25 years. There will be many ingenuine "post-moderny" attempts to mediate between art music and street culture, but there are people out there with a genuine knowledge and appreciation of the medium's most exciting qualities who will be able to distill them into their art of any idiom.

    Some people would be wont to tell you rap has a history extending over continents and several hundred years, but it seems to me, in spirit at least, more like something in its infancy than its maturity. It rings alot of the same bells alot of more rustic forms of expression do. Who knows where it will end up? One thing that insures rap won't burn itself out is its extreme conservativeness; innovations spread quickly but come far, far apart. So much time is spent giving tips of the hat to past masters and rehashing classic lines (come on, how many times must "you go on and on and you don't stop" be paid homage?) That the words tend more to describe the music itself more than a story and that heartfelt expressions of genuine emotion usually end up sounding kinda embarassing in the medium consitute yet another challenge; all mood must be condensed into terse, well-rounded phrases and disconcerting juxtapositions (eg that "Hail Mary" song they've been playing the hell out of on r&b radio that continually comes down to the "la--da da da--da da da-da-da" chorus amidst the de rigeur tales of gangsta life; blew me away the first time I heard it.)

    That's it -- it's a whole other aesthetic. You certainly don't listen to it the same way you listen to more information-density based music, but you still have to listen; at least in order to get over the initial hurdle of appreciating a music whose values are very different from most everything else we hear. I feel the percieved "aesthetic anarchy" of the use of the turntable as an instrument unfortunately eclipses a technical appreciation of rap skills in the minds of people with a passing familiarity of the mediums. They appreciate it philosophically but, in the long run, can't appreciate it as music. But I agree with the poster that the aesthetic possibilities of the turntable are fair game. Why, sparing use of the "mute" button has already given pop music a whole new lease on white space.

    I am fully aware that alot of people who listen to hiphop listen to very little else but hiphop (and I can understand why; the shit's hypnotizing in its consistency. It's the only thing I can use as "wallpaper music" for precisely that reason.) As well, I think it's important not to ignore or justify that which is tacky and dumb in these mediums. Yeah, I'm only a geeky white suburban kid; but I'm sure the kids on even the meanest streets of North Kakkalak recognize can LA gangsta posturing for being precisely that :) I guess my feeling is more intuitive than anything else that there's just something there in rap and hip-hop in terms of cultural worth that isn't in other pop musics. The most enduring and genuine crossovers will be the least self-concious, however, so it all has to start with inspiration and not contrivance. If your music tells of how all things are assimilated in your world, the assimilation need not be obvious nor need the 'world' take primacy over you.

    Amazing how I can rant on about topics only marginally related to composition. Perhaps part of the reason here is because I'm still looking for direction in music. Major identity issues.

http://www.infi.net/~tagutcow/
tagutcow@nr.infi.net


Response (to Chatham) by Pondman

February 4

    Rock is or was "pop" to a generation (or some identified same-aged group) of people. Whenever someone asks "Is Rock dead" or dying, they are generally responding to something of a generational (demographic) shift than a death (getting sick of) of a type of music. (Rap not included.)

    The rock that you consider "Rock", is still rock to those who made it popular at one time. Because the industry seems to define popular music by what is listened to by a certain segment of the listening public (now MTV crowd), a static description of this music cannot be had, nor is not that important to the industry. New (wave) or "alternative" will become Rock, and the one generation's Rock becomes "classic" if it's lucky.

    What we're seeing now I think is a demographic shift from a focus on the (tastes of) one generation (X or whatever) to another generation (whatever the Baby Boomers will call their kids). This shift is a cultural "turning" (word taking from recent book) that is not unsubstantial or inconsequental. The natural individualism, cynicism, what have you, of one generation (X) will be replaced with another driving theme(s) for the next generation. And that will deliver us a new "Rock" (unless its just too wimpy to carry the name).

    I neglected to factor in musical means (instruments, techniques, etc.). These developments are also important (at least have been); but still secondary, as the generational thing dictates their use.

    I happen to think the next rock will be a "twang thang". "The next Johnny Paycheck". You heard it here first.

pondman@erols.com


Response (to Manu) by Jeff Fried

February 4

    I think what the corporadoes who produce, market, and distribute rock are afraid of is that new technologies such as digital recording and the internet are taking away their exclusive access to the mechanisms of production, marketing, and distribution. That's why so many of the big entertainment companies are scrambling to make deals with the likes of Intel and Microsoft. They think that once Groves and Gates control the infrastructure of the medium, they'll once more control the content.

    As for the hype, its now being hawked by the big internet providers like AOL and Microsoft on-line in the hopes of luring the public to access the internet only through them.

    Hopefully the vitality of the new forms of popular music and the independents distributing it will prevent my grim scenario in the first two paragraphs from becoming a reality.

jefff@dgii.com


Response (to Fried) by Manu

February 4

    I agree with your analysis of corporate music's fears and I share your hope for the future, though I feel that something even more grim will actually happen.

    I'm not so sure if there's anything that we can call an "underground" anymore because of the breakthroughs in communication. Anyone anywhere with the right equipment can access information about new music, so the music is no longer passed around among friends in a small geographic area. Someone in Montana can access a small English jungle label's current catalog of recordings. Because the entire market is available to the average consumer now, I don't think the major record companies have much of a point, nor will they generate enough capital to sustain themselves, unless they merely distribute recordings by smaller bands.

    I'm no lover of the music industry but from their viewpoint, this is the best thing to do. They already have an intricate retail network set up. Without having to concentrate on finding the next big thing or surrounding it with hype, they can meet the demands of consumers- to provide a full selection in your average mall music store, like Sam Greedy. Then, the stores can actually live up to their false advertising (Greedy's got it). Of course, this means that all the prices are going to get jacked up...

    Coming back to my first point, I think that the music world in general has split into many small scenes; the mainstream calls itself "alternative" -- that's Newspeak if I ever heard it. There's historical performance, post-rock, industrial, etc. These scenes co-exist together and there's a lot of interesting cross-fertilization going on between them. New music is just another scene; there are no more superstars. No one on American soil swears an oath of fealty to Michael Jackson, "King of Pop", these days. This is why the music industry can't even save itself by selling itself to Bill Gates.

    As far as the King of Pop goes, he certainly still makes big bucks outside of America. Perhaps this is where the music industry is headed: joining ranks with Disney, Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Nike in the new version of global imperialism.