Monday, June 9, 2008

My First Baltic Publication

Baltic Times Film Review: Sex and the City

Thursday, June 5, 2008


My most sincere apologies to SIA "Latvijas Balzams" for my unintentional appropriation of their smooth and satisfying vodka brand. My only consolation is that this blog is also triple-filtered for your enjoyment.

There will be legitimate content soon, I promise. Till then, enjoy the weather.

UPDATE: The image formerly occupying the beginning of this post has been removed by its owner. They knew my lawsuit was airtight and they caved. How about that for rule of Law in Eastern Europe? George Soros should knight me.

Monday, April 7, 2008

"Approximate list of foreign music groups and artists whose repertoires contain ideologically harmful compositions"

January, 1985 Directive from the Ukrainian KOMSOMOL, as cited in Alexei Yurchak, Everything was Forever, Until it Was No More. New York: Princeton, 2006, p215.

(Group Name: Type of Propaganda)
1. Sex Pistols: punk, violence
2. B-52s: punk, violence
3. Madness: punk, violence
4. Clash: punk, violence
5. Stranglers: punk, violence
6. Kiss: neofascism, punk, violence
7. Crocus: violence, cult of strong personality
8. Styx: violence, vandalism
9. Iron Maiden: violence, religious obscuritanism
10: Judas Priest: anticommunism, racism
11. AC/DC: neofascism, violence
12. Sparks: neofascism, racism
13. Black Sabbath: violence, religious obscuritanism
14. Alice Cooper: violence, vandalism
15. Nazareth: violence, religious mysticism
16: Scorpions: violence
17. Gengis Khan: anticommunism, nationalism
18. UFO: violence
19. Pink Floyd (1983): distorstion of Soviet foreign policy ("Soviet agression in Afghanistan")***
20. Talking Heads: myth of the Soviet military threat
21. Perron: eroticism
22. Bohannon: eroticism
23. Originals: sex
24. Donna Summer: eroticism
25. Tina Turner: sex
26. Junior English: sex
27. Canned Heat: homosexuality
28. Munich Machine: eroticism
29. Ramones: punk
30. Van Halen: anti-soviet propaganda
31. Julio Iglesias: neofascism
32. Yazoo: punk, violence
33. Depeche Mode: punk, violence
34. Village People: violence
35. Ten CC: neofascism
36. Stooges: violence
37. Boys: punk, violence
38. Blondie: punk, violence

***NB: The list refers specifically to the song "Get Your Filthy Hands off My Desert" from The Final Cut, which includes the lyric "Brezhnev took Afghanistan" in the midst of a laundry list of Western imperial conquests of the early 1980s. Other albums, such as The Dark Side of the Moon, and The Wall were reviewed favorably in the Soviet monthly Krugozor, and described as 'perfectly antibourgeois.' (Yurchak, 217-17)

Sunday, April 6, 2008

рок на костиах / rock on bones

I'm in the middle of a bomb new book: Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More, by Alexei Yurchak, about the peculiar cultural and linguistic situation of the "last soviet generation." Reading it and some of the sources it cites has changed a number of my preconceptions (yes, apparently they still taught that American cold-war propaganda history in the 1990s) about the latter years of the USSR.

Anyway there is a chapter on the "Imaginary West," in which Yurchak explains one of the most important clandestine technologies of its time: the copying of LP records onto used x-ray plates. It was invented by engineering students at Leningrad University, with the full support of a government zealous for any kind of technological innovation, and became the principal means by which western music was spread across the USSR (one could call it an "underground," except, as Yurchak emphasizes again and again in this book, just about everyone was in this "underground," even though the vast majority of them did not harbor a great deal of oppositional resentment towards the state).

Apparently x-ray plates were used mainly because they were the most widely available plastic medium thick enough for the process, which involved a do-it-yourself rigging up of two turntables. For anyone interested in theories of media or technological reproducibility there is a field day to be had in the many ironies and implications of this process - not just the fact of the re-inscription of the x-rays themselves, but also the immense cultural significance of this goofy invention. There's a good description on a medical devices blog (which I read daily, of course...).

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

"protest the contamination of our cultures" [?!?]

Resolution on the Use of Music in Physical or Psychological Torture
"Whereas, we, the Board of Directors of the American Musicological Society, join the chorus of protest and dissent against the use of physical and psychological torture, finding such torture incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons; and

Whereas, we, as scholars and musicians who devote our lives to sustaining musical cultures throughout the world, protest the contamination of our cultures by the misappropriation of music as a weapon of psychological torture;

Now, therefore, we condemn the use of music as a weapon of torture, and we call upon members of the American Musicological Society to exercise their rights and petition their political representatives to ban this use.

Approved 15 March 2008
Board of Directors, American Musicological Society"

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, in a dust storm

folk, völk, and tauta

The below was posted at the bottom of the recent New York Times review of The Singing Revolution, a documentary film about the anti-soviet protest movements in Estonia in the 1980s.

Correction: December 29, 2007

A brief film review in Weekend on Dec. 14 about “The Singing Revolution,” a documentary about Estonia’s struggle to end Soviet occupation, misidentified the site of the Estonian song festival. It is in Tallinn, the capital — not Tartu, where some festivals were held in the 19th century. The review also referred incorrectly to the songs performed at the festival that are shown in the film. They were written by composers; they are not folk songs.

What interests me is the way "folk songs" are defined - they cannot be "written by composers."

Obviously every song must come from somewhere, and many (if not all) "folk songs" were indeed composed at one point, in many cases by an individual. And no, contrary to what we in our self-conscious modernity might want to think, the idea of the individual author was not foreign to rural pagan communities in 700 A.D., although of course one must imagine that authorship didn't mean what it does today. Regardless, the reporter is clearly not trying to make any kind of categorical argument in his assertion of genre distinctions, but the problem of defining a folk song is so integral to the study of music in this region that it is hard to let it rest.

The distinction being made is, in fact, blurrier than one might think. The songs referred to in the film are not original popular or classical compositions. They are arrangements and adaptations of previously existing "folk" material, transcribed or recorded by ethnomusicologists in the Estonian countryside in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The degree of self-conscious originality in the arrangement or the adaptation varies, but usually the aim is more to get the "authentic" material into a format conducive to trained choirs, and often to harmonize it in a way that enhances its appeal as spectacle.

So while on the one hand the imagined rootedness of the melodic, rhythmic, structural and, perhaps most importantly, textual material in the folk tradition is important, no one is bending over backwards to preserve its authenticity. A pre-modern, rural, improvisatory aural tradition is being adapted to a modern, urban, literate tradition. The implication of a connection between the contemporary mass spectacle and the idealized rural past is enough to satisfy the ideological needs of the völkish nationalist.

And yet many people refer to this choral repertoire as "folk songs." Are they incorrect in doing so?

Well, for one thing, there's an ambiguity between the English and the Latvian. The best kind of ambiguity.

First there is the problem of our word "folk" - it doesn't really mean völk, the German word which acquired its current semantic currency at the behest of Herder. In English, the "folk" tends to imply that imaginary group of people (living or dead? who knows...) out in the countryside somewhere - it's always somebody else, never "us". In Germany, on the other hand, völk means something like "people," in the sense in which we might say "the Latvian people." Thus it refers to a group with a common history, and in the Herderian sense, a common, pre-modern folk history: an ethnie or, for the few remaining Herderians out there, a nation.

Völk, thanks to the group of german-trained intellectuals who thought up half the Latvian language in the 19th century, translates directly to the Latvian Tauta.

So Tautas Dziesma, or "folk song" implies something slightly different in Latvian than it does in English. It is not "theirs" but "ours." But the confusion doesn't end there. There is the issue, once again nauseatingly germanic, of how to use the genitive, and as a result there are two DIFFERENT expressions: Tautas Dziesma (two words) and Tautasdziesma (one word).

The two-word version is used to refer to all those choral arrangements which, according to the New York Times correction, are not folk songs. It is also sometimes used to characterize newly composed songs which acquire so much cultural currency that they gain a common, "tautas" status. Several songs by the Latvian Schlager composers Raimonds Pauls, Zigmars Liepiņš, and Jānis Lūsēns have this status. Most of them earned it during the "singing revolution" period, when they stood for much more than their often benign lyrics implied.

Likewise, the term "tautas dziesma" doesn't require much discernment in terms of the provenance of "older" songs (i.e. those which come closer to being "folk songs" in the English sense). Many of the most popular songs of the Song Festival Repertoire (the repertoire represented by the film) are no more than two hundred years old, and have urban origins. Moreover, some have argued that Pūt Vējiņi, a "tautas dziesma" often referred to as Latvian's second national anthem, was actually composed by a professional musician in the early nineteenth century. But this isn't a concern for many people, because "tautas dziesma" has more to do with an acquired status - a popular cultural currency - than it does with authenticity or provenance. Indeed, the sense of "ownership" that is often cited as an essential component of the national song repertoire ("these songs belong to us, and no one else," as a conductor here put it) is linked not to the origins of the songs, many of which have German melodies, but to their function and the manner in which they are perceived. In this sense the "tautas dziesma" occupies the category of phenomenal, in contrast to the New York Times' noumenally defined "folk song."

Meanwhile, "tautasdziesma" is a more or less direct translation of "folk song," and moreover it probably emerged in order to create a distinct category for this Western notion of a noumenally defined repertory. It is the tautasdziesmas, then, that the ethnomusicologists continue to run around the countryside collecting, and that the die-hard folklorists and "ethnographically informed" ensembles claim to be performing. The millions of daina verses archived by Krisjans Barons in the early twentieth century also fall into this category.

The two different terms encompass two distinct conceptions of authenticity - one phenomenal, the other noumenal. In this sense, their parallel existence is really f-ing interesting. But I have to go for a run now or my entire body will atrophy into tautas lard, so I will leave all further analysis up to the imaginations of the aforementioned three people reading this.