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.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Denial of Depth

Depth. Unfortunately I forgot to bring a copy of Raymond Williams’s Keywords to Riga, but it must be in there. If one of the three people who will read this has a copy, look it up for me.

It’s a one-word platitude, the most efficient textual gateway to the many spatial metaphors that have allowed so much of nineteenth-century Germanic idealism to maintain its grip on the categories through which we think about art in 2008. And it played a predictably prominent role in David Hajdu’s recent review for the New Republic of a recent collaboration by Philip Glass and Leonard Cohen.

I should lay may cards on the table: I am responding to Hajdu’s analysis, not his opinions, but the work he reviews, entitled Book of Longing, impressed the hell out of me when I saw it performed at the Barbican in London this Fall. To invoke another one-word platitude, I would even say I was moved by the performance, at least in the sense that by the end of the first hour I felt possessed by an understanding I couldn’t articulate. Perhaps it was a dose of that aural sublime that musical minimalism is always so successful at invoking in performance, in which case I imagine I’m guilty of the usual critical lapse that comes over me when I listen. Perhaps it had something to do with frustrated expectations - I was sure going into the concert that the piece would be garbage. But there was something else, too; an excess; and Hajdu’s review got my hermeneutic gears turning.

I’ll quote Hajdu extensively, to give a sense of the crux of his criticism:

“The Cohen-Robinson song “A Thousand Kisses Deep” [referring to a previous song with the same lyrics] is a wafting R&B lament – hypnotic, though diminished a bit by the recording’s Euro-pop synths and cheesy programmed drums. The Glass setting of the same lyrics, “You Came to Me This Morning,” is rigid and strident when it should be lyrical; the chords jerk about awkwardly, and the melody follows, too closely, in kind. At more than ten minutes in length, the song, like much of Glass’s music, seems endless - a thousand kisses long, but skin deep.”

“…there are larger problems with this music, and they are the enduring vexations of Philip Glass’s work: its glibness, its mechanical character, its seeming arbitrariness. The music is, on the whole, frigid. It does not evoke or stir much feeling, and this is a failure close to sin in work connected to Leonard Cohen.”

“…The singers Glass employs on Book of Longing scarcely help. Glass composed the melodies to fall in the lower parts of each singer’s register, an approach sometimes used to discourage concert artists from over-singing. Yet the four here all over-sing, articulating the lyrics with a formality and a theatricality wholly inappropriate to Cohen’s casual, intimate language. The effect is comical, sadly…”

The reason I found this review so stimulating is that I agree with all of Hajdu’s characterizations, and yet find them all salutary. In his disavowal of the piece he sums up many of the reasons that, both in the immanence of listening and upon critical reflection, I find it fabulous.

For Hajdu, Glass’s composition is a betrayal. It renders intensely emotional lyrics “skin deep,” robbing them of their “feeling.” The trope here, used most frequently in criticisms of cover songs or re-adaptations of lyrics, is familiar enough, especially in responses to Glass – a square, cold-hearted intellectual robs an “artist” of the ineffable humanity of his work. Performative authenticity is reduced to flat, emotionless monotone in a misanthropic intervention that blithely ignores everything “natural” about the original.

It’s a critical trope that has kept a lot of popular music critics employed over the years. These self-appointed defenders of “soul” will reject almost any critical intervention into the “authentic” emotionality of an original, of a “true artist,” with little concern for the disingenuous spirit in which these categories might be deployed. (Culture Industry, anyone?)

I’ll try a different reading.

This piece was about the depthlessness of “depth.” It was moving because it so thoroughly negated the disingenuous emotionality – the “soul,” perhaps – that conventionally makes canned music seem “deep.” In this negation, however, it affirmed something we might not have noticed before about Leonard Cohen – namely, that his utter inability to carry a tune, and his producers’ apparent fascination with dated synthesizers and drum machines (a fascination Glass shares), lend an almost sultry apathy, or at least ambivalence, to his delivery. We hear it in the recordings of Cohen’s voice that pop up throughout the piece. The chintzy rhyming couplets, to use Cohen’s own words, “sink like rocks” in his gravelly cadence, which straddles the mythic personae of tortured poet and seasoned nihilist – Coleridge and Kafka, Otis Redding and Frank Zappa. But which way do they sink? To the depths of meaninglessness? Of Depression? Of “profundity”? Most likely the latter – the chintzy rhyming couplets sink like rocks to the depths of profundity.

In other words, Book of Longing negates itself at every turn, leaving the listener with a flatness, an excess of nothingness, a barrage of platitudes. It’s Glass at his very best, and no, I’m not reading with or against the grain here. There is no grain. Nor is there an author.

For Cohen, meanwhile, it highlights something we might not have seen before: like Bob Dylan at his most “soulful” and overwrought, his music gives us room to question the efficacy and authenticity of melodrama even as it spins it out ad nauseum. Both Cohen and Dylan are unquestionably full of shit in the must salutary way, and we are all the richer for it. Glass, meanwhile, continues to inhabit a shit-filled persona of his own, disallowing all but the most depraved and absurd of idealist readings.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Is China the new Latvia?

“…The closing in the summer of 1988 of most resort beaches in Jurmala [due to acute water pollution caused by runoff from a paper factory in Sloka], the incredible bureaucratic bungling of the construction of even minimal purification devices for Riga, and the general lack of progress in solving acute air and water contamination problems throughout the republic served as powerful testimonies that the Soviet system did not work.”

Juris Dreifelds, Latvia in Transition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

I came to Riga under the impression that the folklore revival movement was the first manifestation of Latvia’s “Third National Awakening” in the 1980s, but I have since learned that the first group to directly challenge the Soviet regime was in fact an environmental activism group, the VAK. As it turns out, by the 1980s the effects of fifty years of unchecked large-scale industrialization, coupled with an institutionalized apathy towards the human costs of so-called “progress,” had created a nearly catastrophic environmental situation around the Gulf of Riga.

The Soviet authorities provided their opponents with ample evidence of historical incompetence. But a proposed dam on the Daugava river, slated for construction in 1986, pushed the complacency of a repressed population to the breaking point. The dam, meant to produce electricity to be exported to other Soviet republics, would have utterly transformed Latvia’s geographical landscape and quite possibly caused the erosion and depletion of a huge amount of productive farmland. Further, by decreasing the flow of the river it would have exacerbated water pollution problems already posing grave health risks to populations along the river, including in densely populated Riga neighborhoods. It was a classic Soviet industrial project, replete with an exaggerated scale, a total disregard for rational planning, and a widespread ignorance among administrators to the problems involved.

It also struck a chord with a nascent upsurge in nationalistic sentiment. The subject of dozens of well-known folksongs (and perhaps thousands of lesser known Dainas) and one of the central icons of Latvian mythology, the “Mighty Daugava” was as powerful a symbol of Latvian history and identity as any. The proposed dam would forever transform this ancient national symbol, potentially decreasing its majestic expanse in Riga to a trickle.

The dam project became a rallying cry for the VAK, who staged one of the first public protests against the Soviet regime since the occupation began in 1940, and initiated a very public letter-writing campaign which, with the cooperation of a newly liberalized local media (thanks to Gorbachev’s Glasnost), publicized the potentially catastrophic effects of the dam, and its potential to dramatically transform the Latvian landscape. Soon, against all odds, a widespread popular opposition developed, and within a few months, after being forced to come to terms with the sheer fatuousness of their own project and the extent of the popular opposition to it, the authorities capitulated.

The Latvian environmental movement begs further analysis, and unfortunately it is way outside the bounds of what I came here to study. But it is also much more directly relevant to contemporary global issues than any musical topic, and so I can’t resist riffing on it a bit.

One analogy that comes to mind would have us consider Latvia’s environmentalist political vanguard in the context of that other pseudo-communist state. The one that is supposed to be different…

China, to its great fortune, has followed its own path to a reformed totalitarianism, abstaining from many of the most ludicrous and mediocre extremes of its former Soviet neighbor. But it undoubtedly shares the Soviets’ proactive disregard for the environmental and human effects of large-scale industrialization. Indeed, China is no stranger to grandiose dam projects, nor are the Chinese strangers to the health consequences of cheap growth.

And it’s not as though China lacks an environmental opposition. Some of the most outspoken critics of Chinese government projects in the past few years of moderate liberalization have claimed environmental and health impacts as a primary grievance. But little seems to be changing on a large scale.

Perhaps not for long, though. Sociologists and political theorists (Castells comes to mind) have demonstrated environmental concerns, if they are real and palpable enough, to be one of the most effective means of framing broader social issues and organizing large-scale political resistance. Latvia, it turns out, provides ample evidence for this. It was not the lack of civil liberties or a repressed nationalism that incited those first brave protesters to take action. It was, in a sense, not a threat to any of the abstractions that the Soviet system disallowed. Rather, it was a threat to everything physical about the nation – its land, its people. The broad and uncontrollable threat to concrete places and people made the threat to the national abstraction felt in a real enough way to incite political action, even at a grave risk.

Granted, I suppose none of this could or would have happened under Stalinism. But China is not Stalinist. While the internet is still firewallled and freedom of political opposition is still held tightly in check, the opening up of the economy and the ensuing social change have wrought their own kind of Glasnost. The big question, as far as I can tell from my naive vantage point, is whether political reform will continue on a painfully gradual track, whether capitalism will be built without any substantive political form, or whether somehow all this change without change will reach a breaking point.

This summer, athletes, reporters, and tourists from around the world will arrive in Beijing to glistening new multi-billion-dollar facilities, smiling faces from a well-trained, multilingual service sector, tours of spectacular development projects, and a thick brown haze permeating everything. Some athletes will struggle to breathe on international television. The Chinese government will have to own up to the equivalent of all those closed beaches in Jūrmala in the mid-80s, but on a much larger scale. They will have to answer for egregious failures to plan for the most basic well-being of cities and their populations.

Environmental disasters, whether fast and dramatic (Chernobyl) or painfully prolonged (the fifty year destruction of the Gulf of Riga), have set strong precedents for the political destabilization of repressive regimes. I cannot help but sense (despite the many obvious differences) that when heard in the context of the environmental roots of Latvia’s "third awakening," the ticking of the Chinese time bomb seems a bit louder.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

If it can be moved, it is everywhere...

One thing I have noticed again and again living and traveling abroad this year is the obsolescence of the following clichéd proto-exchange:

“Oh, you’re going to Belgium!”

“Yeah, for a few days. Mostly business but I’m hoping to do some shopping, too.”

“Well bring me back some chocolate, and make sure you eat a waffle and drink some Duvel.”

The fact is that very little exists anywhere in Europe, and almost anywhere else (at least counting the places I’ve visited recently) that can’t be gotten almost everywhere else. Want Belgian chocolate? Just go to the chocolatier at the nearest shopping mall. It turns out if you ask a Belgian what their favorite chocolate is they are likely to say “Godiva.” Want a Belgian waffle? Well, of course you don’t have to be in Brussels for that. You can get a machine at Target, find a recipe online and make your own. And as for beer, there are 99 trappist varieties on tap at one of my favorite bars in Greenwich Village, and even Riga now has its own Belgian bar (and no, I’m not talking about the ubiquitous Stella Pub).

I suppose this is not entirely new. Traditional foods and of course beers have been imported for a long time. But part of me wonders whether the idea of an ineffable particularity of place, at least in terms of the products that can be consumed (it will be hard to build a Louvre in every city, but damned if Dubai isn’t trying), has reached its breaking point. Simply put: what can you buy or eat anywhere in the world that you can’t also buy or eat somewhere in New York or London?

The easiest way to discover this is to travel somewhere and try to find good gifts to bring home. Even handmade crafts can be bought at internationally focused boutiques in the US and Europe. What’s the point of bringing back chocolate or candy when every variety can be bought at home? And no, nobody quite does cassoulet like a brasserie in Toulouse, but my favorite French place in Baltimore comes close.

If the very idea of regionality has not yet curdled, the concept of the “regional speciality” as something to be experienced only in a particular place certainly has. The spaces of consumption in Western countries are coming closer and closer to resemble the fantasyland of Epcot Center, where every commodifiable world culture is packaged into its own shopping and eating pavilion, allowing the visitor to stroll from a Tokyo fish market to a Parisian bistro in a matter of minutes. That Eiffel Tower at the chintzy Las Vegas casino-hotel might look and feel fake, but Joël Robuchon’s food most likely does not, nor does the Pouilly-Fuisse sitting in a temperature-controlled cellar beneath the Nevada desert. If it can be moved, it’s everywhere.

One wonders when the marketers will team up and create a backlash, exporting certain items but restricting others in order to extract a monopoly rent (Marxist jargon for the price premium that comes from “authenticity” and “singularity”) from their exclusive sale in the “country of origin.” At least maybe then there will be SOMETHING worth bringing home from Belgium.