I had the pleasure of catching the wonderful Dror Feiler's "Agitatorium" at Betalevel last night. It was a smorgasbord of noise and political activism that, in its attempt to relate sonic disobedience to civil disobedience, name checked Jacques Lacan as much as it indicted global politics. Feiler is an Isreali-born Swedish citizen who is a lifer in the cause for social equity and has been using sound to do it for longer than I've been alive. RESPECT. Not all of the theoretical lines he drew througout the talk connected in a satisfying ending, but that didn't seem to matter. What did was the challenge he offered to his audience to work; not just for the arts and culture, but for the ways in which they and we are implicated in reproducing or breaking the status quo. I left with a lot to mull over and the feeling that I need to more intentionally connect to what's going on around me, that complaining never changed anything, and that if you're pissed off, you need to do something about it. Thanks for that timely reminder, Dror.
In the next coming months I'll be presenting at three conferences, and have been invited to comment on a paper at a fourth. Starting at this February's Society for Ethnomusicology, Southern California and Hawaii Chapter's spring conference, I'll be presenting a paper entitled "In, but not of the (commercial) music world: A consideration of Los Angeles' Dog Star Orchestra experimental music festival."
ABSTRACT: A once-a-year festival of experimental music in Los Angeles, the Dog Star Orchestra realized its twelfth year of programming in the summer of 2016. Eighteen performances spanning two weeks in June featured new works by young, local composers, as well as more canonic pieces from the experimental tradition. In this paper, I portray this festival as a microcosm of the DIY experimental music community in Los Angeles; one that is concerned with maintaining and growing the extant scene for seemingly commercially-autonomous experimental music, but that cannot escape the realities of potentially deleterious power structures that influence Los Angeles’ cultural landscape.
Though ostensibly engaging with the city at large, the ten venues at which performances took place this year reflect timely issues of gentrification as well as questions of socioeconomic privilege regarding arts education and access. Operating between institutional spaces and independent, guerilla spaces, the Dog Star Orchestra festival manifests the challenge of keeping non-commercial, challenging musical practices alive in a disintegrated and socioeconomically stratified city. This paper offers a brief ethnographic report of the works, performers, venues, and attendants associated with the festival, but also considers the festival in context of the history of Los Angeles experimentalism. Furthermore, I show how this insular musical community, and subsequently the Dog Star Orchestra festival itself—which works to occasion musical experiences outside the power structures of commercial, mainstream cultural production—is ineluctably implicated therein.
In my first trip to Atlanta, Georgia in years, I'll be presenting a paper entitled "The construction of (sonic) space: Improvisation, Perception, and Meaning" at Georgia State University's Improvising Brain III: Cultural Variation and Analytical Approaches.
ABSTRACT: The concept of musical improvisation maintains a complicated identity. On one hand it is understood as completely free and autonomous; an art of unfolding sound structures ex nihilo. On the other hand, those sounds and practices have histories and exist in sonic spaces shot through with social significances that access memory and imagination. This paper borrows from research in embodied cognition, mirror neuron systems, and spatial theory to mediate this apparent paradox by thinking of experiences of musical improvisation in embodied, spatial terms. I show how research has found sound to be a modality of perception often mapped onto other modalities; e.g., space, time, and motion. Accordingly, our experiences of harmony and melody borrow from other domains of experience as we conflate spatiality, temporality, and goal-seeking metaphors to make sense of our perception of sounds we call music. Further research suggests that when we hear music, even without seeing it performed, we may have a virtual experience of our own bodies performing; the motion of limbs, position of bodies, movement through space. Hence, in a virtual, but neurologically real sense, music can indeed move us. Finally, I offer a way to consider the construction of meaning in sonic spaces via theories about the construction of meaning in physical space borrowed from spatial theory. By developing Ed Soja’s idea of the trialectics of space (spatiality, historicality, and sociality), I cast musical improvisation as a means for listeners and performers to heuristically experience virtual sonic spaces that, over time, become infused with social, cultural, and subjective meanings.
At the Echo Journal's Music and Action conference held at UCLA this April, I'll be presenting a paper entitled, "Old and New Dreams: Reflecting on the Music of Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Kamasi Washington."
ABSTRACT: Brainfeeder records has had a big two years. Since 2008, the independent label founded by electronic music producer Flying Lotus (Steven Ellison) has grown to boast an impressive roster of producers, hip hop artists, and instrumentalists. Spurred by the huge 2016 success of Los Angeles native Kendrick Lamar’s hip hop album To Pimp A Butterfly—which prominently featured fellow African American Angelenos and Brainfeeder artists Thundercat (Stephen Bruner) and Kamasi Washington—more listeners are becoming aware of a revival of Los Angeles artists thinking outside the mainstream of commercial music production.
While stylistically different, the works of Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Kamasi Washington are related by a sophisticated reflexivity that ties together ostensibly opposite positions of serious music that demands critical engagement, and escapist party music. In this paper I investigate the relationship of the above-mentioned Brainfeeder artists and their musics to preceding African American popular musics in Los Angeles. In particular, I look to the mid-twentieth century’s Central Avenue scene, Ornette Coleman’s advent of free jazz, and Horace Tapscott’s slightly later founding of community-oriented experimental ensembles, the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra and the UGMAA.
I explore the changing relationship of musical cultural production to issues of distraction and entertainment as well as politics and oppression. To that end, I am interested in exploring how these musics have historically functioned as a kind of escapism, a preservation or utopic protension of identity, and a platform for cultural criticism. I find that while perhaps not immediately visible, there are direct lines of relationship to be found between the Afrofuturism, experimentalism, and virtuosity of these three Brainfeeder artists and their musical forebearers. By considering these connections, we can see how they navigate contemporary issues while capitalizing on music’s ability to entertain, but also to challenge and initiate change.
Finally, also in April, I will be commenting on a paper at the American Society for Aesthetics' annual Pacific Division meeting in Asilomar, CA. Gonna be a busy season. Stay in touch!
I'm looking forward to presenting at Johns Hopins University (yes, about music and philosophical hermeneutics) as part of the "The Making of the Humanities V" conference. If you're in Baltimore (October 5-6 in particular), look me up; first round is on me.
new sounds with Ted Byrnes0:00
I recently had the pleasure of making some music with prolific Los Angeles drummer (and all around solid dude) Ted Byrnes. This is an iPhone documentation of some "Hi there, nice to meet you" improvisational music making in a Pasadena shed. Ted's a beast; looking forward to more music to be made in the near future.