Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

In the lost decades of my youth (actually, early adulthood, but to an aging fellow like me, that era now seems like youth), I began to acquire audio equipment and recordings (LPs, actually) to explore classical music as an alternative to frequent concert attendance. My budget allowed only consumer-grade equipment, but I did my best to choose wisely rather than guess and end up with flashy front-plates that distract from inferior sound (still a thing, as a visit to Best Buy demonstrates). In the decades since, I’ve indulged a modest fetish for high-end electronics that fits neither my budget nor lifestyle but nonetheless results in my simple two-channel stereo (not the surround sound set-ups many favor) of individual components providing fairly astounding sonics. When a piece exhibits problems or a connection gets interrupted, I often resort to older, inferior, back-up equipment before troubleshooting and identifying the problem. Once the correction is made, return to premium sound is an unmistakable improvement. When forced to resort to less-than-stellar components, I’m sometimes reminded of a remark a friend once made, namely, that when listening, he tries to hear the quality in the performance despite degraded reproduced sound (e.g., surface noise on the LP).

Though others may argue, I insist that popular music does not requires high fidelity to enjoy. The truth in that statement is evidenced by how multifunction devices such as phones and computers are used by most people to listen to music. Many influencers laugh and scoff at the idea that anyone would buy physical media or quality equipment anymore; everything now is streamed to their devices using services such as Spotify, Apple Music, or Amazon Prime. From my perspective, they’re fundamentally insensitive to subtle gradations of sound. Thumping volume (a good beat) is all that’s needed or understood.

However, multifunction devices do not aim at high fidelity. Moreover, clubs and outdoor festivals typically use equipment designed for sheer volume rather than quality. Loud jazz clubs might be the worst offenders, especially because intimate, acoustic performance (now mostly abandoned) set an admirable artistic standard only a few decades ago. High volume creates the illusion of high energy, but diminishing returns set in quickly as the human auditory system reacts to extreme volume by blocking as much sound as possible to protect itself from damage, or more simply, by going deaf slowly or quickly. Reports of performers whose hearing is wrecked from short- or long-term overexposure to high volume are legion. Profound hearing loss is already appearing throughout the general public the same way enthusiastic sunbathers are developing melanoma.

As a result of technological change, notions of how music is meant to sound is shifting. Furthermore, the expectation that musical experiences are to be shared by audiences of more than, say, a few people at a time is giving way to the singular, private listening environment enabled by headphones and earbuds. (Same thing happened with reading.) Differences between music heard communally in a purposed performance space (whether live or reproduced) and music reproduced in the ear (earbuds) or over the ear (headphones) canal — now portable and ubiquitous — lead to audio engineers shifting musical perspective yet again (just as they did at the onset of the radio and television eras) to accommodate listeners with distorted expectations how music should sound.

No doubt, legitimate musical experiences can be had through reproduced sound, though degraded means produce lesser approximations of natural sound and authenticity as equipment descends in price and quality or the main purpose is simply volume. Additionally, most mainstream popular musics require amplification, as opposed to traditional acoustic forms of musicmaking. Can audiences/listeners actually get beyond degradation and experience artistry and beauty? Or must we be content with facsimiles that no longer possess the intent of the performers or a robust aesthetic experience? These may well be questions for the ages for which no solid answers obtain.

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Among the many complaints that cross my path in the ongoing shitshow that American culture has become is an article titled “The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality),” authored by Jon Henschen. His authorship is a rather unexpected circumstance since he is described as a financial advisor rather than an authority on music, technology, or culture. Henschen’s article reports on (without linking to it as I do) an analysis by Joan Serrà et al., a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute. Curiously, the analysis is reported on and repackaged by quite a few news sites and blogs since its publication in 2012. For example, the YouTube video embedded below makes many of the same arguments and cites the so-called Millennial Whoop, a hook or gesture now ubiquitous in pop music that’s kinda sorta effective until one recognizes it too manifestly and it begins to sound trite, then irritating.

I won’t recount or summarize arguments except to say that neither the Henschen article nor the video discusses the underlying musical issues quite the way a trained musician would. Both are primarily quantitative rather than qualitative, equating an observed decrease in variety of timbre, loudness, and pitch/harmony as worse music (less is more worse). Lyrical (or poetical) complexity has also retreated. It’s worth noting, too, that the musical subject is narrowed to recorded pop music from 1955 to 2010. There’s obviously a lot to know about pop music, but it’s not generally the subject of serious study among academic musicians. AFAIK, no accredited music school offers degrees in pop music. Berklee College of Music probably comes the closest. (How exactly does songwriting as a major differ from composition?) That standard may be relaxing.

Do quantitative arguments demonstrate degradation of pop music? Do reduced variety, range, and experimentation make pop music the equivalent of a paint-by-the-numbers image with the self-imposed limitation that allows only unmixed primary colors? Hard to say, especially if one (like me) has a traditional education in art music and already regards pop music as a rather severe degradation of better music traditions. Reduction of the artistic palette from the richness and variety of, say, 19th-century art music proceeded through the 20th century (i.e., musical composition is now understood by the lay public to mean songs, which is just one musical genre among many) to a highly refined hit-making formula that has been proven to work remarkably well. Musical refinements also make use of new technological tools (e.g., rhythm machines, autotune, digital soundfield processing), which is another whole discussion.

Musical quality isn’t mere quantity (where more is clearly better), however, and some manage pretty well with limited resources. Still, a sameness or blandness is evident and growing within a genre that is already rather narrowly restricted to using drums, guitars, keyboards, vocals. The antidote Henschen suggests (incentivizing musical literacy and participation, especially in schools) might prove salutary, but such recommendations are ubiquitous throughout modern history. The magical combination of factors that actually catalyzes creativity, as opposed to degradation, is rather quixotic. Despite impassioned pleas not to allow quality to disappear, nothing could be more obvious than that culture drifts according to its own whims (to anthropomorphize) rather than being steered by well-meaning designs.

More to say in part 2 to follow.

A paradoxical strength/weakness of reason is its inherent disposition toward self-refutation. It’s a bold move when undertaken with genuine interest in getting things right. Typically, as evidence piles up, consensus forms that’s tantamount to proof unless some startling new counter-evidence appears. Of course, intransigent deniers exist and convincing refutations do appear periodically, but accounts of two hotly contested topics (from among many) — evolution and climate change — are well established notwithstanding counterclaims completely disproportionate in their ferocity to the evidence. For rationalists, whatever doubts remain must be addressed and accommodated even if disproof is highly unlikely.

This becomes troublesome almost immediately. So much new information is produced in the modern world that, because I am duty-bound to consider it, my head spins. I simply can’t deal with it all. Inevitably, when I think I’ve put a topic to rest and conclude I don’t have to think too much more about it, some argument-du-jour hits the shit pile and I am forced to stop and reconsider. It’s less disorienting when facts are clear, but when interpretive, I find my head all too easily spun by the latest, greatest claims of some charming, articulate speaker able to cobble together evidence lying outside of my expertise.

Take for instance Steven Pinker. He speaks in an authoritative style and has academic credentials that dispose me to trust his work. His new book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). Still, Pinker is an optimist, whereas I’m a doomer. Even though I subscribe to Enlightenment values (for better or worse, my mind is bent that way), I can’t escape a mountain of evidence that we’ve made such a mess of things that reason, science, humanism, and progress are hardly panaceas capable of saving us from ourselves. Yet Pinker argues that we’ve never had it so good and the future looks even brighter. I won’t take apart Pinker’s arguments; it’s already been done by Jeremy Lent, who concludes that Pinker’s ideas are fatally flawed. Lent has the expertise, data, and graphs to demonstrate it. Calling Pinker a charlatan would be unfair, but his appreciation of the state of the world stands in high contrast with mine. Who ya gonna believe?

Books and articles like Pinker’s appear all the time, and in their aftermath, so, too, do takedowns. That’s the marketplace of ideas battling it out, which is ideally meant to sharpen thinking, but with the current epistemological crises under way (I’ve blogged about it for years), the actual result is dividing people into factions, destabilizing established institutions, and causing no small amount of bewilderment in the public as to what and whom to believe. Some participants in the exchange of ideas take a sober, evidential approach; others lower themselves to snark and revel in character assassination without bothering to make reasoned arguments. The latter are often called a hit pieces (a special province of the legacy media, it seems), since hefty swipes and straw-man arguments tend to be commonplace. I’m a sucker for the former style but have to admit that the latter can also hit its mark. However, both tire me to the point of wanting to bury my head.

(more…)

I mentioned blurred categories in music a short while back. An interesting newsbit popped up in the New York Times recently about this topic. Seems a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz, Gerald Benjamin, spoke up against a Democratic congressional candidate for New York’s 18th district, Antonio Delgado, the latter of whom had been a rapper. Controversially, Benjamin said that rap is not real music and does not represent the values of rural New York. Naturally, the Republican incumbent got in on the act, too, with denunciations and attacks. The electoral politics angle doesn’t much interest me; I’m not in or from the district. Moreover, the racial and/or racist elements are so toxic I simply refuse to wade in. But the professorial pronouncement that rap music isn’t really music piqued my interest, especially because that argument caused the professor to be sanctioned by his university. Public apologies and disclaimers were issued all around.

Events also sparked a fairly robust commentary at Slipped Disc. The initial comment by V.Lind echoes my thinking pretty well:

Nobody is denying that hip-hop is culturally significant. As such it merits study — I have acknowledged this … The mystery is its claims to musical credibility. Whatever importance rap has is in its lyrics, its messages (which are far from universally salutory [sic]) and its general attempt to self-define certain communities — usually those with grievances, but also those prepared to develop through violence, sexism and other unlovely aspects. These are slices of life, and as such warrant some attention. Some of the grievances are well-warranted …

But music? Not. I know people who swear by this genre, and their ears are incapable of discerning anything musical in any other. If they wanted to call it poetry (which I daresay upon scrutiny would be pretty bad poetry) it would be on stronger legs. But it is a “music” by and for the unmusical, and it is draining the possibility of any other music out of society as the ears that listen to it hear the same thing, aside from the words, for years on end.

Definitely something worth studying. How the hell has this managed to become a dominant force in what is broadly referred to as the popular music world?

The last time (as memory serves) categories or genres blurred leading to outrage was when Roger Ebert proclaimed that video games are not art (and by inference that cinema is art). Most of us didn’t really care one way or the other where some entertainment slots into a category, but gamers in particular were scandalized. In short, their own ox was gored. But when it came to video games as art, there were no racial undertones, so the sometimes heated debate was at least free of that scourge. Eventually, definitions were liberalized, Ebert acknowledged the opposing opinion (I don’t think he was ever truly convinced, but I honestly can’t remember — and besides, who cares?), and it all subsided.

The impulse to mark hard, discrete boundaries between categories and keep unlike things from touching is pretty foolish to me. It’s as though we’re arguing about the mashed potatoes and peas not infecting each other on the dinner plate with their cooties. Never mind that it all ends up mixed in the digestive tract before finally reemerging as, well, you know. Motivation to keep some things out is no doubt due to prestige and cachet, where the apparent interloper threatens to change the status quo somehow, typically infecting it with undesirable and/or impure elements. We recognize this fairly readily as in-group and out-group, an adolescent game that ramps up, for instance, when girls and boys begin to differentiate in earnest at the onset of puberty. Of course, in the last decade, so-called identitarians have been quite noisome about their tribal affiliations self-proclaimed identities, many falling far, far out of the mainstream, and have demanded they be taken seriously and/or granted status as a protected class.

All this extends well beyond the initial topic of musical or artistic styles and genres. Should be obvious, though, that we can’t escape labels and categories. They’re a basic part of cognition. If they weren’t, one would have to invent them at every turn when confronting the world, judging safe/unsafe, friend/foe, edible/inedible, etc. just to name a few binary categories. Complications multiply quickly when intermediary categories are present (race is the most immediate example, where most of us are mixtures or mutts despite whatever our outer appearance may be) or categories are blurred. Must we all then rush to restore stability to our understanding of the world by hardening our mental categories?

Language acquisition in early childhood is aided by heavy doses of repetition and the memorable structure of nursery rhymes, songs, and stories that are repeated ad nauseum to eager children. Please, again! Again, again … Early in life, everything is novel, so repetition and fixity are positive attributes rather than causes for boredom. The music of one’s adolescence is also the subject of endless repetition, typically through recordings (radio and Internet play, mp3s played over headphones or earbuds, dances and dance clubs, etc.). Indeed, most of us have mental archives of songs heard over and over to the point that the standard version becomes canonical: that’s just the way the song goes. When someone covers a Beatles song, it’s recognizably the same song, yet it’s not the same and may even sound wrong somehow. (Is there any acceptable version of Love Shack besides that of the B52’s?) Variations of familiar folk tales and folk songs, or different phrasing in The Lord’s Prayer, imprinted in memory through sheer repetition, also possess discomfiting differences, sometimes being offensive enough to cause real conflict. (Not your Abrahamic deity, mine!)

Performing musicians traverse warhorses many times in rehearsal and public performance so that, after an undetermined point, how one performs a piece just becomes how it goes, admitting few alternatives. Casual joke-tellers may improvise over an outline, but as I understand it, the pros hone and craft material over time until very little is left to chance. Anyone who has listened to old comedy recordings of Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and others has probably learned the jokes (and timing and intonation) by heart — again through repetition. It’s strangely comforting to be able to go back to the very same performance again and again. Personally, I have a rather large catalogue of classical music recordings in my head. I continue to seek out new renditions, but often the first version I learned becomes the default version, the way something goes. Dislodging that version from its definitive status is nearly impossible, especially when it’s the very first recording of a work (like a Beatles song). This is also why live performance often fails in comparison with the studio recording.

So it goes with a wide variety of phenomenon: what is first established as how something goes easily becomes canonical, dogmatic, and unquestioned. For instance, the origin of the universe in the big bang is one story of creation to which many still hold, while various religious creation myths hold sway with others. News that the big bang has been dislodged from its privileged position goes over just about as well as dismissing someone’s religion. Talking someone out of a fixed belief is hardly worth the effort because some portion of one’s identity is anchored to such beliefs. Thus, to question a cherished belief is to impeach a person’s very self.

Political correctness is the doctrine that certain ideas and positions have been worked out effectively and need (or allow) no further consideration. Just subscribe and get with the program. Don’t bother doing the mental work or examining the issue oneself; things have already been decided. In science, steady evidenciary work to break down a fixed understanding is often thankless, or thanks arrives posthumously. This is the main takeaway of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: paradigms are changed as much through attrition as through rational inquiry and accumulation of evidence.

One of the unanticipated effects of the Information and Communications Age is the tsunami of information to which people have ready access. Shaping that information into a cultural narrative (not unlike a creation myth) is either passive (one accepts the frequently shifting dominant paradigm without compunction) or active (one investigates for oneself as an attribute of the examined life, which with wizened folks never really arrives at a destination, since it’s the journey that’s the point). What’s a principled rationalist to do in the face of a surfeit of alternatives available for or even demanding consideration? Indeed, with so many self-appointed authorities vying for control over cultural narratives like the editing wars on Wikipedia, how can one avoid the dizzying disorientation of gaslighting and mendacity so characteristic of the modern information environment?

Still more to come in part 4.

The movie Gladiator depicts the protagonist Maximus addressing spectators directly at gladiatorial games in the Roman Colosseum with this meme-worthy challenge: “Are you not entertained?” Setting the action in an ancient civilization renowned for its decadent final phase prior to collapse, referred to as Bread and Circuses, allows us to share vicariously in the protagonist’s righteous disgust with the public’s blood lust while shielding us from any implication of our own shame because, after all, who could possibly entertain blood sports in the modern era? Don’t answer that.

are-you-not-entertained-gladiator

But this post isn’t about our capacity for cruelty and barbarism. Rather, it’s about the public’s insatiable appetite for spectacle — both fictional and absolutely for real — served up as entertainment. Professional wrestling is fiction; boxing and mixed martial arts are reality. Audiences consuming base entertainment and, in the process, depleting performers who provide that entertainment extend well beyond combat sports, however. For instance, it’s not uncommon for pop musicians to slowly destroy themselves once pulled into the attendant celebrity lifestyle. Three examples spring to mind: Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston. Others call hiatus or retire altogether from the pressure of public performance, such as Britney Spears, Miles Davis, and Barbra Streisand.

To say that the public devours performers and discards what remains of them is no stretch, I’m afraid. Who remembers countdown clocks tracking when female actors turn 18 so that perving on them is at last okay? A further example is the young starlet who is presumably legitimized as a “serious” actor once she does nudity and/or portrays a hooker but is then forgotten in favor of the next. If one were to seek the full depth of such devouring impulses, I suggest porn is the industry to have all one’s illusions shattered. For rather modest sums, there is absolutely nothing some performers won’t do on film (these days on video at RedTube), and naturally, there’s an audience for it. Such appetites are as bottomless as they come. Are you not entertained?

Speaking of Miles Davis, I take note of his hiatus from public performance in the late 1970s before his limited return to the stage in 1986 and early death in 1991 at age 65. He had cemented a legendary career as a jazz trumpeter but in interviews (as memory serves) dismissed the notion that he was somehow a spokesperson for others, saying dryly “I’m just a trumpet player, man ….” What galled me, though, were Don Cheadle’s remarks in the liner notes of the soundtrack to the biopic Miles Ahead (admittedly a deep pull):

Robert Glasper and I are preparing to record music for the final scene of Miles Ahead — a possible guide track for a live concert that sees the return of Miles Davis after having been flushed from his sanctuary of silence and back onto the stage and into his rightful light. My producers and I are buzzing in disbelief about what our audacity and sheer will may be close to pulling off ….

What they did was record a what-might-have-been track had Miles incorporated rap or hip hop (categories blur) into his music. It’s unclear to me whether the “sanctuary of silence” was inactivity or death, but Miles was essentially forced onstage by proxy. “Flushed” is a strange word to use in this context, as one “flushes” an enemy or prey unwillingly from hiding. The decision to recast him in such “rightful light” strikes me as rather poor taste — a case of cultural appropriation worse than merely donning a Halloween costume.

This is the wave of the future, of course, now that images of dead celebrities can be invoked, say, to sell watches (e.g., Steve McQueen) and holograms of dead musicians are made into singing zombies, euphemized as “virtual performance”(e.g., Tupak Shakur). Newly developed software can now create digitized versions of people saying and doing whatever we desire of them, such as when celebrity faces are superimposed onto porn actors (called “deepfakes”). It might be difficult to argue that in doing so content creators are stealing the souls of others, as used to be believed in the early days of photography. I’m less concerned with those meeting demand than with the demand itself. Are we becoming demons, the equivalents of the succubus/incubus, devouring or destroying frivolously the objects of our enjoyment? Are you not entertained?

rant on/

As the next in an as-yet unnumbered series of Storms of the Century (I predict more than a dozen at least) is poised to strike nearly the entirety of the State of Florida, we know with confidence from prior experience, recent and not so recent, that any lessons we might take regarding how human habitation situated along or near coastlines vulnerable to extreme weather events, now occurring with increasing frequency and vehemence, will remain intransigently unlearned. Instead, we’ll begin rebuilding on the very same sites as soon as construction labor and resources can be mustered and deployed. Happened in New Orleans and New Jersey; is about to happen in Houston; and will certainly happen all across Florida — even the fragile Florida Keys. I mean, shit, we can’t do without The Magic Kingdom and other attractions in the central-Florida tourist mecca, now can we?

This predictable spin around the dance floor might look like a tragicomic circus waltz (e.g., The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze), or even out-of-tune, lopsided calliope music from the carousel, except that positioning ourselves right back in harm’s way would be better characterized as a danse macabre. I dub it the Builder’s Waltz, which could also be the Rebuilder’s Rumba, the Catastrophe Tango, the Demolition Jive … take your pick.

Obstinate refusal to apprehend reality as it slams into us is celebrated as virtue these days. Can’t lose hope even as dark forces coalesce all around us, right? Was it always so? Still, an inkling might be dawning on some addle-brained deniers that perhaps science-informed global warming and climate change news might actually be about something with real-world impact, such as dramatic reduction of oil refinery output or a lost citrus crop. So much for illusions of business as usual continuing unhindered into the foreseeable future. Instead, our future looks more like dominoes lined up to fall — like the line of hurricanes formed in the Atlantic. Good luck hunkering down and weathering once-in-a-lifetime storms that just keep coming. And rebuilding the same things in the same places, well, just let it go, man, ’cuz it’s already gone.

rant off/

My previous entry on this topic is found here. The quintessential question asked with regard to education (often levied against educators) is “Why can’t Johnnie read?” I believe we now have several answers.

Why Bother With Basics?

A resurrected method of teaching readin’ and writin’ (from the 1930s as it happens) is “freewriting.” The idea is that students who experience writer’s block should dispense with basic elements such as spelling, punctuation, grammar, organization, and style to simply get something on the page, coming back later to revise and correct. I can appreciate the thinking, namely, that students so paralyzed from an inability to produce finished work extemporaneously should focus first on vomiting blasting something onto the page. Whether those who use freewriting actually go back to edit (as I do) is unclear, but it’s not a high hurdle to begin with proper rudiments.

Why Bother Learning Math?

At Michigan State University, the algebra requirement has been dropped from its general education requirements. Considering that algebra is a basic part of most high school curricula, jettisoning algebra from the university core curriculum is astonishing. Again, it’s not a terribly high bar to clear, but for someone granted a degree from an institution of higher learning to fail to do so is remarkable. Though the rationalization offered at the link above is fairly sophisticated, it sounds more like Michigan State is just giving up asking its students to bother learning. The California State University system has adopted a similar approach. Wayne State University also dropped its math requirement and upped the ante by recommending a new diversity requirement (all the buzz with social justice warriors).

Why Bother Learning Music?

The Harvard Crimson reports changes to the music curriculum, lowering required courses for the music concentration from 13 to 10. Notably, most of the quotes in the article are from students relieved to have fewer requirements to satisfy. The sole professor quoted makes a bland, meaningless statement about flexibility. So if you want a Harvard degree with a music concentration, the bar has been lowered. But this isn’t educational limbo, where the difficulty is increased as the bar goes down; it’s a change from higher education to not-so-high-anymore education. Not learning very much about music has never been prohibition to success, BTW. Lots of successful musicians don’t even read music.

Why Bother Learning History?

According to some conservatives, U.S. history curricula, in particular this course offered by The College Board, teach what’s bad about America and undermine American exceptionalism. In 2015, the Oklahoma House Common Education Committee voted 11-4 for emergency House Bill 1380 (authored by Rep. Dan Fisher) “prohibiting the expenditure of funds on the Advanced Placement United States History course.” This naked attempt to sanitize U.S. history and substitute preferred (patriotic) narratives is hardly a new phenomenon in education.

Takeaway

So why can’t Johnnie read, write, know, understand, or think? Simply put, because we’re not bothering to teach him to read, write, know, understand, or think. Johnnie has instead become a consumer of educational services and political football. Has lowering standards ever been a solution to the struggle of getting a worthwhile education? Passing students through just to be rid of them (while collecting tuition) has only produced a mass of miseducated graduates. Similarly, does a certificate, diploma, or granted degree mean anything as a marker of achievement if students can’t be bothered to learn time-honored elements of a core curriculum? The real shocker, of course, is massaging the curriculum itself (U.S. history in this instance) to produce citizens ignorant of their own past and compliant with the jingoism of the present.

Back in undergraduate college, when just starting on my music education degree, I received an assignment where students were asked to formulate a philosophy of education. My thinking then was influenced by a curious textbook I picked up: A Philosophy of Music Education by Bennett Reimer. Of course, it was the wrong time for an undergraduate to perform this exercise, as we had neither maturity nor understanding equal to the task. However, in my naïvté, my answer was all about learning/teaching an aesthetic education — one that focused on appreciating beauty in music and the fine arts. This requires the cultivation of taste, which used to be commonplace among the educated but is now anathema. Money is the preeminent value now. Moreover, anything that smacks of cultural programming and thought control is now repudiated reflexively, though such projects are nonetheless undertaken continuously and surreptitiously through a variety of mechanisms. As a result, the typical American’s sense of what is beautiful and admirable is stunted. Further, knowledge of the historical context in which the fine arts exist is largely absent. (Children are ahistorical in this same way.) Accordingly, many Americans are coarse philistines whose tastes rarely extend beyond those acquired naturally during adolescence (including both biophilia and biophobia), thus the immense popularity of comic book movies, rock and roll music, and all manner of electronica.

When operating with a limited imagination and undeveloped ability to perceive and discern (and disapprove), one is a sitting duck for what ought to be totally unconvincing displays of empty technical prowess. Mere mechanism (spectacle) then possesses the power to transfix and amaze credulous audiences. Thus, the ear-splitting volume of amplified instruments substitutes for true emotional energy produced in exceptional live performance, ubiquitous CGI imagery (vistas and character movements, e.g., fight skills, that simply don’t exist in reality) in cinema produces wonderment, and especially, blinking lights and animated GIFs deliver the equivalent of a sugar hit (cookies, ice cream, soda) when they’re really placebos or toxins. Like hypnosis, the placebo effect is real and pronounced for those unusually susceptible to induction. Sitting ducks.

Having given the fine arts (including their historical contexts) a great deal of my academic attention and acquired an aesthetic education, my response to the video below fell well short of the blasé relativism most exhibit; I actively dislike it. (more…)

For a variety of reasons, I go to see movies in the theater only a handful of times any given year. The reasons are unimportant (and obvious) and I recognize that, by eschewing the theater, I’m giving up the crowd experience. Still, I relented recently and went to see a movie at a new AMC Dolby Cinema, which I didn’t even know exists. The first thing to appreciate was that is was a pretty big room, which used to be standard when cinema was first getting established in the 1920s but gave way sometime in the 1970s to multiplex theaters able to show more than one title at a time in little shoebox compartments with limited seating. Spaciousness was a welcome throwback. The theater also had oversized, powered, leather recliners rather than cloth, fold-down seats with shared armrests. The recliners were quite comfortable but also quite unnecessary (except for now typical Americans unable to fit their fat asses in what used to be a standard seat). These characteristics are shared with AMC Prime theaters that dress up the movie-going experience and charge accordingly. Indeed, AMC now offers several types of premium cinema, including RealD 3D, Imax, Dine-In, and BigD.

Aside I: A friend only just reported on her recent trip to the drive-in theater, a dated cinema experience that is somewhat degraded unenhanced yet retains its nostalgic charm for those of us old enough to remember as kids the shabby chic of bringing one’s own pillows, blankets, popcorn, and drinks to a double feature and sprawling out on the hood and/or roof of the car (e.g., the family station wagon). My friend actually brought her dog to the drive-in and said she remembered and sorta missed the last call on dollar hot dogs at 11 PM that used to find all the kids madly, gleefully rushing the concession stand before food ran out.

What really surprised me, however, was how the Dolby Cinema experience turned into a visual, auditory, and kinesthetic assault. True, I was watching Wonder Woman (sorry, no review), which is set in WWI and features lots of gunfire and munitions explosions in addition to the usual invincible superhero punchfest, so I suppose the point is partly to be immersed in the environment, a cinematic stab at verisimilitude. But the immediacy of all the wham-bam, rock ’em-sock ’em action made me feel more like a participant in a theater of war than a viewer. The term shell shock (a/k/a battle fatigue a/k/a combat neurosis) refers to the traumatized disorientation one experiences in moments of high stress and overwhelming sensory input; it applies here. Even the promo before the trailers and feature, offered to demonstrate the theater’s capabilities themselves, was off-putting because of unnecessary and overweening volume and impact. Unless I’m mistaken, the seats even have built-in subwoofers to rattle theatergoers from below when loud, concussive events occur, which is often because, well, filmmakers love their spectacle as much as audiences do.

Aside II: One real-life lesson to be gleaned from WWI, or the Great War as it was called before WWII, went well beyond the simplistic truism that war is hell. It was that civility (read: civilization) had failed and human progress was a chimera. Technical progress, however, had made WWI uglier in many respects than previous warfare. It was an entirely new sort of horror. Fun fact: there are numerous districts in France, known collectively as Le Zone Rouge, where no one is allowed to live because of all the unexploded ordnance (100 years later!). Wonder Woman ends up having it both ways: acknowledging the horrific nature of war on the one hand yet valorizing and romanticizing personal sacrifice and eventual victory on the other. Worse, perhaps, it establishes that there’s always another enemy in the wings (otherwise, how could there be sequels?), so keep fighting. And for the average viewer, uniformed German antagonists are easily mistakable for Nazis of the subsequent world war, a historical gloss I’m guessing no one minds … because … Nazis.

So here’s my problem with AMC’s Dolby Cinema: why settle for routine or standard theater experience when it can be amped up to the point of offense? Similarly, why be content with the tame and fleeting though reliable beauty of a sunset when one can enjoy a widescreen, hyperreal view of cinematic worlds that don’t actually exist? Why settle for the subtle, old-timey charm of the carousel (painted horses, dizzying twirling, and calliope music) when instead one can strap in and get knocked sideways by roller coasters so extreme that riders leave wobbly and crying at the end? (Never mind the risk of being stranded on the tracks for hours, injured, or even killed by a malfunction.) Or why bother attending a quaint symphonic band concert in the park or an orchestral performance in the concert hall when instead one can go to Lollapalooza and see/hear/experience six bands in the same cacophonous space grinding it out at ear-splitting volume, along with laser light shows and flash-pot explosions for the sheer sake of goosing one’s senses? Coming soon are VR goggles that trick the wearer’s nervous system into accepting they are actually in the virtual game space, often first-person shooters depicting killing bugs or aliens or criminals without compunction. Our arts and entertainments have truly gotten out of hand.

If those criticisms don’t register, consider my post more than a decade ago on the Paradox of the Sybarite and Catatonic, which argues that our senses are so overwhelmed by modern life that we’re essentially numb from overstimulation. Similarly, let me reuse this Nietzsche quote (used before here) to suggest that on an aesthetic level, we’re not being served well in display and execution of refined taste so much as being whomped over the head and dragged willingly? through ordeals:

… our ears have become increasingly intellectual. Thus we can now endure much greater volume, much greater ‘noise’, because we are much better trained than our forefathers were to listen for the reason in it. All our senses have in fact become somewhat dulled because we always inquire after the reason, what ‘it means’, and no longer for what ‘it is’ … our ear has become coarsened. Furthermore, the ugly side of the world, originally inimical to the senses, has been won over for music … Similarly, some painters have made the eye more intellectual, and have gone far beyond what was previously called a joy in form and colour. Here, too, that side of the world originally considered ugly has been conquered by artistic understanding. What is the consequence of this? The more the eye and ear are capable of thought, the more they reach that boundary line where they become asensual. Joy is transferred to the brain; the sense organs themselves become dull and weak. More and more, the symbolic replaces that which exists … the vast majority, which each year is becoming ever more incapable of understanding meaning, even in the sensual form of ugliness … is therefore learning to reach out with increasing pleasure for that which is intrinsically ugly and repulsive, that is, the basely sensual. [italics not in original]