on the nearly nothing and the persistence of composition

Image: Robert Ryman, Twin, 1966, oil on canvas. Museum of Modenr Art, New York.

Work in which seemingly nothing happens is almost always more interesting than work in which a great deal happens. Actually, maybe that’s not exactly it.

Continue reading “on the nearly nothing and the persistence of composition”

on a new kind of music

Currents manages to masterfully stay on track, as perhaps the archetype of our generation’s omnivorous nature and the 21st century’s new philosophy of history; a past, present and future which exist simultaneously, here, in one gorgeous musical tapestry.

If there is anything we’ve learned about music in the 21st century’s second decade, it is the uniquely innovative power of the music obsessed.

Before I go further let me clarify. Yes, for a couple of decades now we’ve had the record store equivalents of dumpster divers blowing our collective minds, here’s looking at you DJ Shadow, you know the kind, the “DJ’s” of the 90’s and early 2000’s who collectively changed our definition of what a DJ is and can be, and, perhaps inadvertently, for better and for worse, opened the door for the 21st century’s ubiquitous character, the producer as musician. (For the better part of that duality we’re looking at Daft Punk, and, for the worse, well, that’s neither here nor there.)

But where the musically over-literate of the 90’s and early 2000’s confined their nostalgia-inducing output to the recombination and retexturalization of music we forgot we loved and the sounds of which it was composed, the nostalgia-obsessed of the more recent 21st century have taken the concept one step further, using those sounds not as material but solely as influence, to create new music that sounds wholly familiar.

Continue reading “on a new kind of music”

Ramblings on why we love minimalism so much

It seems to me it’s rather easy to say something along the lines of “transformation by reduction” when referring to the wave of minimalism that engulfed the culture in the 1970’s and forever changed our definitions of art, music, and even beauty itself. In fact I summarize minimalism’s power in those simplistic terms often.

It seems to me it’s rather easy to say something along the lines of “transformation by reduction” when referring to the wave of minimalism that engulfed the culture in the 1970’s and forever changed our definitions of art, music, and even beauty itself. In fact I summarize minimalism’s power in those simplistic terms often.

It is, however, singularly more difficult to explain what that really means, and how it is that simplicity and repetition can affect our brains and emotions in such powerful ways.

Lately I’ve been rereading what is one of my favorite treatises on modern art, a sort of modern art apologetics if you will, Pictures of Nothing, an AW Mellon Lectures volume, compiled from talks given by Kirk Varnedoe at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 2003.


It’s a defense, in a way, of modern, abstract art since the time of Pollock, and Varnedoe treads waist-deep into the incredibly difficult terrain of defending modern artists and their “pictures of nothing.” It’s a lucid, wholly unpretentious accounting of the artists and their motivations, which have come to compose our modern art history, and Varnedoe is one of those arts world people who invites people in, instead of locking them out.

But I digress.

Varnedoe’s arguments pushed me back towards the place in my head from which I initially determined I would write about art, in which I would refuse to let the traditional critical dialogues be sufficient and would instead, strive always for an analysis, or an argument, which would make the most sense, to the most people, when writing about a subject. In other words, I would eschew dense art-speak and write for more than the .005 percent of the population who can (or want to) decipher it.

The old, transformation by reduction line, in defense of highly simplistic shapes or repetitive notes in music, is a great example.

The idea, in a very general sense, is that by cutting away all excess, anything that could be construed as a distraction from the essence, an artist can create for his viewers or listeners, an environment in which they can rediscover the beauty inherent in, for example, a square, or, if we’re using the music metaphor, an F-sharp, in a way that is impossible when the note is surrounded by hundreds of others.

In the words of Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe, writing for ArtForum in 1974, artists, sculptors specifically but the same applies across medium, in this new minimal vein, (I want to say he was referring to the work of Carl André but the subject escapes me, regardless its applicable in a broader way) sought a “phenomenological reduction of the experience of sculpture to its essential condition.”

The assertion being that silence in music, or space in art, allows the mind to more easily process a visual or auditory moment.

But that doesn’t explain, really, how it is an art object or piece of music that is seemingly so simple, can affect our brain in such powerful ways.

A couple of ramblings on why I think that might be the case now follow.


Part of it is, for me, the intimate connection we feel to the music or art as the artistic representation of our time. For me, it has always seemed like the music of Phillip Glass or Steve Reich, for example, was my music. Not mine in the sense of me personally, but mine in the sense of my generation’s. Now part of that is certainly indebted to the fact that I grew up with the music. It wasn’t shocking as it may have been to those who knew life before it. The same could be said for Carl Andre’s floor pieces.

But the fact remains that a minimalistic bent in art and music, makes sense to me (us), it seems to be the art of the present. Our present. And as such, we feel a powerful connection to it. Historical forms of art, or music, are exactly that, historical, and despite the fact that many of them incontestably maintain some of the same intensity and inner energy they must have possessed when they were created, the connection we have to our music is necessarily different.

There are two ways you can take this, first of all, it could be a chicken vs. egg thing. Do we feel a connection to the music simply because it is our contemporary and it is inherent to human nature to feel connected to something you associate with certain aspects of your life, or do we feel a connection to the music for a deeper reason? For the latter, in other words, do we feel a connection to this new kind of art because the language it is speaking, is directly related to our language, our internal language or philosophy, specifically?

Of course, really, you could postulate even further, concerning whether the art’s language defined our cultural language as a whole, or whether it was influenced by cultural history. Everything is a factor of everything else and I’m not a philosopher so won’t make an attempt at answering the question. Not quite ready for that.

Suffice to say, I posit modern music/art’s appeal is directly related to its contemporaneity with us as its audience.

Varnedoe, in another possible defense, writes of the art of the minimalists, take Robert Ryman for an example, and makes the not immediately obvious observation that “you can’t hang them next to anything else.” Like I said, not immediately obvious, but allow me to explain.

Picture yourself in a room with six paintings by Picasso, or Francisco Goya and hanging in the midst of the exquisite paintings of either master, is a Robert Ryman. A white canvas which reveals nothing more than white until it is examined closer. Upon which painting does your eye rest?

Robert Ryman

Everything else is destroyed in the wake of the work of Judd, or Ryman, or the music of Glass, or Adams.

It almost seems like, for a beginner, it would be so much easier to understand the power of minimal art, if that very thing happened. If instead of walking into a room, like I recently did for Carl André’s retrospective at Dia:Beacon, and encountering work after work on the floor, one were to walk into a room full of figurative paintings and one André floor piece. The powerful statement of the work would make more sense wouldn’t it?

Of course art exhibitions aren’t designed for entry-level arts enthusiasts, but that’s a conversation for another day.

The work, in the rather uncommon context I described above, would make you stop and think. You’d ask yourself why, and, unless you’re an incurably, uncurious person, you’d wonder why it’s there, how it got to be there and what it means.

It’s involvement with you as the spectator would be “immediate” in the words of Varnedoe. In other words, you wouldn’t have to get up close and personal with the work to see what it included. It’s right there, all laid out for you. In this case, your gut reaction, of surprise, or immediacy, would be correct. In all honesty, you don’t really have to engage with it any further. You’ve already grasped its meaning.

And there-in lies its power.

I believe one of the stumbling blocks for audiences listening to a Cage piece, or examining a Judd sculpture, is the ignorance many have of the “artist’s” intention. The artists and musicians of minimalism weren’t really interested in art in the traditional sense, which makes it hard (impossible for some) to relate to their work in an artistic way. In the traditional way. They didn’t really want you to. Many artists of the period, Judd and André for example, were pretty vocal about not wanting to be a part of art. André’s “idea of art was related to some kind of abstraction, from something outside of art.”


André, Judd, Cage, Reich, they all wanted their viewers or listeners to examine the idea of experience. They saw their work as an experimental departure, which is why context, in art, is often key, much of the work on view at spaces and museums of canonical artists like Judd and André, was never intended to be seen. We value it now from an art historical standpoint as we tell the story of how an important artist becomes an important artist. But even apart from that, much of André’s work, even the completed work, was still simply an experiment.

I could go on forever. Part of the appeal for me, specifically as it concerns visual art, is the minimalist’s penchant for creating useful art, entailing a strong belief in the power of design and simplicity, to better our lives. Something I believe in wholeheartedly, and another aspect of this movement that is worth exploring in more detail. It’s easy to say good design betters lives, much harder to actually explain how/why in an empirical sense.

I’ve got to stop there though. In summation? Art of one’s time is powerful. The most powerful. And minimalism’s power lies in its simplicity, especially when confronted in the context of traditional, historical art. You can’t look at anything else. And that’s all that needs to be said.

Thoughts while listening to Gabriel Kahane’s “The Ambassador”

How much are we influenced by memory, experience and location when writing, or listening, to music?

The composer Gabriel Kahane, I believe, would say the influence is inextricable. In The Ambassador, his most recent song cycle, Kahane uses the titles of his songs to literally inform the listener of the song’s spatial and/or artistic influences, essentially telling the listener what to see or think about while listening.

For the cycle’s subject he took Los Angeles, a city which is host to a mythology constructed from our cultural portrayals of its residents and environs over the greater part of the last century. My guess is that unless you have been living in a cultural vacuum, there are a set of feelings and images the city’s name conjures, even if you’ve never visited.

Kahane, I’m sure, was quite aware of that fact, and in The Ambassador, he utilizes both film and other image sources, as well as books he’s read and his own personal history, to inspire an illustration and recreation, through music, of the intoxicating atmosphere of Los Angeles as he has experienced and remembered it. It’s beautiful, cacophonous, occasionally mathy and occasionally simple, but the power Kahane wields by telling us his subject, is what I found particularly interesting.

To what extend does music derive its meaning and effect from the realm of the visual world? And/or, do you lose or gain something in its experience by having a musician literally explain the atmosphere he would like his music to conjure?

I think it’s safe to say composers are undoubtedly influenced by various sources, both from first-hand and learned experience, when writing music. Whether you lose, or gain something in experience with the knowledge of those influences, is another question.

Listening to someone like Kahane explain his music, which is all I can do not, as of yet, having had the opportunity to see him perform it, my mind immediately wandered towards a contemplation of what the gesamtkunstwerk looks like, or could look like, in the 21st century.

It’s not a term we discuss much anymore, Wagner having co-opted the term and destroyed it with suffocating elitist idealism. I’m using it here to refer more to the idea of a perfect work, not any actual piece. It’s an abstract idea, in my mind, which could more or less assert that the visual or aural component of a piece of art is not the entirety of the work. In which, maybe, we acknowledge that all (or at least most) art, is a synthesis of various influences internal to the work’s creator and, therefore, inseparable to the result. Here’s what I mean.

I’m not referring here to an art exhibit or installation which incorporates multiple forms of media from various artists, with a vague philosophy attempting to connect everything. I’m talking one artist, who, since we value ideas over results much of the time anyways, offers the whole of his art, the real whole, to experience. Can we honestly, in a post-structuralist world, assert a work of art is complete without its influences? Just as the art visual, and even musical artists create, becomes less and less “art” in its classical definition.

In other words, the 21st century gesamtkunstwerk is less an artist utilizing various media to create various components of an experience or exhibition, but an artist whose influences which are necessarily varied, are overtly on display.

The history we’re in the process of making seems like it might be pointing us in this general direction.

Opera, the great and historical art form which does combine disparate forms of art into one work, seems to be enjoying a popular resurgence, in so much as opera ever can. And artists of all types are disrupting the boundaries between their form of art and another, creating art that is difficult to classify.

Maybe this trend towards cross-pollination acknowledges that perhaps we have failed to engage with art and music in the correct way (in so much as there is a correct way which of course there’s not, one of those wonderful contradictions we are meant to embrace). Perhaps somewhere along the way, we lost track of how to present it (art) and our perpetual need to explain or disclose artistic influences would seem to attest to our fascination, interest, need, pick your word, for a context.

What if we could experience that context at the same time as we experience the art? Maybe that’s what we’re attempting to recreate in all of our “installations” and “performances.” A real complete story, not an opera, play or film that attempts to fictitiously recreate, what each of us already has inside of us.

I’m not advocating screening shots of Austrian landscapes behind the music of Mozart. Not exactly. The presentation would be less a disparate weaving together of art forms, and more, as in the work of Kahane, the offering of clues, and the creation of an environment through which we are meant to experience an individual’s art; essentially recreating the environment he/she experienced while creating it in the first place. I’m not entirely sure what it would look like really.

We’re fully aware artists don’t create art in a vacuum, why should we have to experience it in one?

This dovetails into, as all my lines of thinking usually do, the future, and the art world’s mounting fear of losing its audiences.

It’s interesting to think about the idea of multisensory stimulation and a more comprehensive experience of art, like the music of Kahane, in the context of film, something he, unsurprisingly, cites as an influence for much of his music. Great film artistically incorporates a bit of everything; dialogue, visual and aural content, and, while we fail to bring new audiences into other art forms, film (yes, thanks in large part to its facility of distribution, but I’d posit more than that), is thriving.

Perhaps there is a key to art’s future somewhere in this rambling. Perhaps it lies in, as many artists seem to already be exploring, a better experience. Not for the sake of experience, and not because we can’t appreciate the art without it, but instead, because we’re meant to know where the art is coming from in the first place.

the music that made 2014

Top music of 2014, in this blogger’s humble opinion.

I’m an obsessive list-maker, but there are only several times in a year when it is completely acceptable to indulge the habit and the end of year round-up is just that.

I have yet to focus on any one cultural medium as obsessively as music so for now, it’s the only list I feel perfectly comfortable putting out into the world. Perhaps in 2015, thanks to new writing gigs and resolutions, I’ll have more lists to share when this time comes around again.

If it weren’t for Spotify I don’t know that my list would be as exhaustive as I believe it is. The program catalogs and stores the music I listened to for me, without me even having to ask (if only the same could be true for other media, as it is, I must rely on my rather unreliable self for my reminisces on art, film, theater and literature.)

Looking at this list I have learned some things about myself.

  • First of all, up until Spotify I was a dedicated album listener, now, as you can see, I listen to far more singles than albums, something I plan, in 2015, to rectify.
  • I err on the side of independent electronic music. That will always be true.
  • I listen to far too little classical music, in large part because I’ve confined myself to a number of blogs and magazines for new music options, none of which cover the genre. Another thing I plan to rectify in 2015.
  • Sometimes songs, Coffee by Sylvan Esso for instance, I still, to this day, would not list as one of my favorite songs. That fact notwithstanding, I wound up listening to the song far too much to deny its influence on my year, hence, its inclusion below.
  • It’s funny that you can have a favorite album and yet not be able to pick out one song as a favorite. Not sure why that would be, just an observation.
  • I’m still waiting for another album to change my life as much as Destroyer’s Kaputt. (2011). Perhaps never again.

The lists are in no particular order. Perhaps my listening habits will strike you as provincial, or boring. Perhaps I’ll inspire you to listen to a few new songs. Either way, for what it’s worth, here’s my year in music.


  1. Coffee – Sylvan Esso
  2. Capitol – TRST
  3. Faith – I Break Horses
  4. Wanderlust – Wild Beasts
  5. A Long Walk Home for Parted Lovers – Yumi Zouma
  6. Murmurs – Hundred Waters
  7. It Will Draw me Over to it Like it Always Does – Ricky Eat Acid
  8. On A Path – Owen Pallett
  9. Wye Oak – Despicable Animal
  10. Archie, Marry Me – Alvvays
  11. Shut In – Strand of Oaks
  12. Blush – Mr. Twin Sister
  13. A Glimpse – Rustie
  14. I Wanna Get Better – Bleachers
  15. Queen- Perfume Genius
  16. The Way I Feel – DOSS
  17. Do it Again – Robyn & Royksopp
  18. How Can You Really – Foxygen
  19. Champions of Red Wine – The New Pornographers
  20. Dig – Nothing
  21. Our Love – Sharon Van Etten
  22. Kong – Notwist
  23. QT – QT
  24. The War on Drugs – Under the Pressure
  25. Lykke Li – I Never Learn
  26. Todd Terje – Johnny and Mary
  27. Tuesday – I love makonnen
  28. Seasons – Future Islands
  29. Sick Beat – Kero Kero Bonito
  30. Divinity – Porter Robinson


  1. Hundred Waters – The Moon Rang Like a Bell
  2. Wye Oak – Shriek
  3. Sea When Absent – Sunny Day in Glasgow
  4. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
  5. Brill Bruisers – The New Pornographers
  6. TOPS – Picture You staring
  7. Sharon Van Etten – Taking Chances
  8. Owen Pallet – In Conflict
  9. War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
  10. Lykke Li – I Never Learn
  11. Twin Sister – Mr. Twin Sister

In which I review a concert, because I can

San Fermin is a band that reconfirms why you see live music in the first place, and makes you wonder how in the hell, you were lucky enough to be one of 60 people to watch their magic onstage.

Dallas audiences suck. It doesn’t seem to matter who takes the stage, it could be fucking Outkast, nine times out of ten at least 85% of the audience at any given show will stand emotionlessly for the entirety of the set. I don’t get it, and I don’t like it, but I’m resigned to it.

So the odds were certainly stacked against Brooklyn-based San Fermin, a relative unknown in these parts, when they took the stage at Dallas’ Club Dada on Sunday night to all of 60 people.

photo 1

First, about the band. San Fermin is really Ellis Ludwig-Leone. Ludwig-Leone, a classically trained musician, composed all the music and lyrics for San Fermin’s self-titled debut which dropped late last year.

His music is hard to categorize. The debut is a concept album of sorts, tracks alternating between experimental musical interludes, and big, boisterous anthemic ballads. It’s a conversation between a man and a woman (reminiscent a little of the Stars duo), about love, loss and being human, and before I wax poetic, I will offer that, yes, the lyrics, with their quasi-religious bent, can border on schmaltz, but, unlike Stars, they always seem to be grounded in reality, albeit a rather hyper-serious, emo reality.

Make plans and we’ll buy new things, try to fix it up Sonsick at the tee-ball games, oh, oh,” the lead female vocalist sings in one of the album’s standouts.

It’s baroque, avant pop in the vein of Sufjan Stevens, the Antlers or the Dirty Projectors, infused with that experimental, classical finesse the Dirty Projectors are famous for, but Ludwig-Leone imbues his music with more stunning, “weak knees,” moments thanks to a penchant for emotional climaxes.

The members of the band fluctuate, Allen Tate, the lead singer whose voice and vocal stylings have drawn comparisons to the National’s Matt Berninger, seems to be the mainstay. The seven-member band onstage at Dada was composed of the female lead (a part gorgeously recorded on the album by the Lucius duo), a trumpet player, guitarist, drummer, violinist/back-up vocalist, a saxophonist and Ludwig-Leone on keyboards. It’s a big band.

photo 3

So about Sunday night. Here’s the thing, no matter what you think, or didn’t think, or thought you thought, of “San Fermin,” the album, assuming you thought of it at all, when you see San Fermin the band, live on stage, it’s like getting pumped with some serious auditory electricity, a “sonic baptism” as a previous reviewer called it. Live, the serious, polished band of the album, turns into a powerhouse of indie pop and experimental jazz. They’re so obviously kids having fun, but they just happen to be kids with serious musical chops indulging in the opportunity to sing some of the most breathless indie pop of the last couple of years, and despite the very real risk of taking the rather serious pop of the album too seriously, they know how to tread the line between sober solemnity and energetic enthusiasm.

The band ran through almost all of the songs from the album, improvising a little bit, but for the most part, mimicking the recorded versions. As expected they started with album openers “Renaissance!” and “Crueler Kind,” before launching into some new songs Ludwig-Leone has written on tour.

“Bar,” with its blaring horns and an especially powerful back and forth between the two lead singers was unsurprisingly a highlight, as was the conclusion “Daedalus (what we have),” with its softly, billowing keyboard and strings which, as with everything Ludwig-Leone writes, stops just before it explodes.

So yeah, back to Dallas audiences sucking. Despite the fact that the audience for the show was composed of, like I said, I would guess about 60 people (if only I could blame that on it being a Sunday), I couldn’t tell you the last time I felt a Dallas club with that much energy.

By the time the band was wrapping up their twelve-song set, everyone in the place seemed to be dancing, throwing their fists, clapping, singing, and most of all, smiling.

The exhausting tour schedules these bands are usually in the middle of during a stop in Dallas, typically ensures that bands, if they don’t seem tired, at least don’t seem too excited about their material anymore. Understandable. But these kids could have been singing these songs for the first time for all we would have known, and instead of seeming more tired as the show went on, they seemed to suck up more and more energy as the set wore on, and it was infectious.

San Fermin is young, and they’re un-tested, and who knows what a follow-up to the epic concept album that is “San Fermin,” will look like. But the show on Sunday night at Dada was one of those shows that makes you question the sanity of your friends, and really anyone, who wasn’t there. You know those shows. A show that reconfirms why you see live music in the first place, and makes you wonder how in the hell, you were lucky enough to be one of 60 people to watch the magic onstage.

What happens when alternative culture is co-opted by the mainstream?

David Foster Wallace may have been one of the most outspoken cultural critics to point out that although at one point irony was a powerful weapon of artistic response, especially in the 60’s and 70’s when trust in establishments such as the government seemed especially misplaced, irony has since become so mainstream it is now necessary in the creation of art simply in order to achieve acceptance. To imply your cultural complicity.

Sukhdev Sandhu, another cultural critic, refers to the same in an essay on music in which he describes the trajectory of critically acceptable music. The sentimentality and ‘schmaltz’ of earlier musical periods has been replaced in the recent past with the idea that music’s value is defined more by its ‘realness’ and ‘truth.’ Scholarly writing on music today looks for neophilia, an illustration of the musician’s subcultural awareness, or, as in Wallace’s take on irony, resistance towards the mainstream. Emotion, ‘yearning,’ as Sandhu says, is rejected, critical acceptance being reserved for the alternative.

The problem?

The alternative has now become the mainstream.

We’ve reached a point in Western culture at which everything we once viewed as revolutionary or anti-establishment has become the establishment.

Sure irony was once a culture’s useful critique, a tool to “Lay waste to corruption and hypocrisy,” to respond to the vapidity of US culture. Certainly, the emergence of ‘alternative’ music in the late 20th century; the anarchic sound of the Sex Pistols or the vocalization of a marginalized subculture in early West-coast rap, served as a much needed dose of reality in a world whose popular music had for too long been dominated by the majority.

But imitating the revolutionary work of a Thomas Pynchon or a Robert Rauschenberg or recreating the sound of 2Pac or the Ramones isn’t, in and of itself, grounds for artistic acceptance. A groundbreaking new way of making art is groundbreaking in its novelty. When the work is recreated, the revolution is over, and, well, you get where I’m going.

Robert Rauschenberg - Untitled, 1963
Robert Rauschenberg – Untitled, 1963

When Mike Will Made It produces Miley Cyrus’s albums. When LA’s Hammer Museum produces a show of artists who practice institutional critique. When upper middle-class teenagers wear GG Allin t-shirts….

The ‘alternative’ has lost its definition.

David Foster Wallace:

And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It [uses] the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.

Whether its irony or some other form of cultural critique in art or music, when something becomes what is expected, we stop trying. When artists, I’ve heard the example of Richard Phillips, can create insincere art contributing nothing new to the conversation, and we are more or less asked accept it at face value ‘because it’s ironic,’ we’ve begun the gradual destruction of an intelligent culture. We’ve stopped asking questions and we’ve stopped having to explain ourselves, assuming, because we are perpetuating cultural norms, our work is self-evident and valid in its own right.


And irony (insert other culturally acceptable means of expression here) means safety.

So what’s next?

In short, the risk of failure. The risk inherent in creating art that is different and perhaps in direct contrast to what the art world has been trained to accept. Risk being labeled sentimental or ‘full of conviction.’ And perhaps the idea of good art can move past irony into sincerity into an art that can ‘open possibilities for the future’ instead of wallowing in its own nihilism and irony. After all, being right is the opposite of being original. You can’t be both.

The move in music criticism towards acceptance and the well-argued and well-defended justification of divergent musical styles once considered inauthentic, naive or simplistic, is a start. When other art forms, visual art in particular, can begin to ask the same of its critics, perhaps a new kind of artist will again grace the spotlight and the age of an absolute which requests the ironic or the rebellious before originality and authenticity can be granted, will be over.