INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Pitchfork JANUARY 21, 2011 - by Tom Ewing
EVERYTHING'S GONE GREEN
I visited a bar the other day, a bankers' haunt in Central London. I didn't want to think about the prices so I thought about the decor instead. Most notably, the stainless steel pipes running above the drinking space, blocky and ugly, so in-your-face functional you half-assumed they served no actual purpose at all. In a warehouse type space this wouldn't have been so noticeable, but in an otherwise burnished gastropub setting they stood out. The bar was showing its workings, not just presenting itself stripped to the world but forcing you to take the sporadic lack of frills as a positive aesthetic choice, rather than some kind of default.
Listening to the James Blake album reminded me of that bar. It's full of exposed pipework, bare wires, spaces, and echoes. There are a lot of ways you could frame this record - an outré coffee table pick would be one, but it could also be seen as a kind of austerity soundtrack: a singer stripped down, cast into the cold, and forced to live on his nerves. The British media interest in Blake is enormous - he was the runner-up in the BBC's influential "Sound of 2011" poll, so there seems to be a will for him to stand for or mean something.
What I hear on the record, though, is process. Not specific processes Blake did or didn't use, but the way the album - like that bar - pushes to the foreground the sense of choices being made. The record's silences sometimes seem like audible hesitations, pauses for thought, like Blake is deciding in real time whether or not to repeat a line, drop in a sound, or cut one out. The most important choice made - to sing rather than stay silent - is why I don't actually like the record, but plenty of people do and more will.
Whether or not you think it succeeds, a record this minimal and considered throws a spotlight on every choice made. It makes you address the most basic question about anything in music - why is this sound here instead of not? But of course it's absurdly hard to answer, or else critics would be more accurate and interviews more enlightening than they generally are. Like most human decision-making processes, creativity is subject to huge amounts of post-facto rationalization, justifications to dress up impulse and imitation in more respectable clothes. So the passage into history of decisions - or happy accidents - depends on how good a story they make. Take Brian Eno's Eureka moment around ambient music. The accepted version, based on Eno's own tale-spinning, is that he hit upon the idea when his girlfriend gave him an LP of harp music to help him convalesce after a car accident, and he was too weak to turn up the volume on his broken stereo. But the girlfriend in question, Judy Nylon, remembers the two of them carefully adjusting the volume to make the music sync with the rainfall outside.
The Nylon version of the anecdote comes from Geeta Dayal's fine book about Eno and his 1975 masterpiece, Another Green World. Released as part of Continuum Books' 33⅓ series on classic albums, the book mostly sidesteps the finished LP to make the process the hero. Eno's use of collaboration, chance, and cybernetics to force creativity makes for a fascinating story, enlivened by the sometimes bemused but always fond recollections of participants from the '70s and after. He swings microphones from the ceiling, he scraps whole days' work on the turn of a card, and in the book's most delicious story, he makes David Bowie's sessionmen take part in a musical role-playing session, handing out character cards. "You are the morale booster of a small rag-tag terrorist operation. You must keep spirits up at all costs."
Eno himself apparently loved the book, buying copies for friends. This isn't surprising - an interest in process has been a constant of his work for four decades. What many of his recent activities - the hugely successful generative music apps for Apple devices and his involvement in the Long Now Foundation - suggest is an erasure of a fixed "end product" in favor of an immersion in process. The Clock of the Long Now - an immense artifact that ticks once a year and chimes once a century - wasn't Eno's idea but is a deliciously Enoid conceit: a man-made object designed so that no individual can experience anything like the whole thing.
In this, as in an awful lot of things, the man is at right angles to rock culture. In rock writing, process tends to be of interest only in terms of explaining the finished artifact. Depending on how useful this explanation is, it's either a demystifying move - here's how George Martin got those sounds - or it's a bit of initiatory knowledge for fans, the studio anecdote as saintly relic. Either way, the upshot is to encourage imitation rather than improvisation. From some angles this might be just fine: As Scott Miller of Game Theory starkly puts it in his new year-by-year pop history, Music: What Happened?, "the urge to do music is an admiring emulation of music one loves."
There's a lot of truth to that - even Eno started off in a band aping the Velvet Underground. But the solo works which made his reputation were the ones which began to cast secret doubt on the very idea of finished records. Dayal's book leaves you with the feeling that Another Green World is a record whose dislocated, spectral qualities are ghost-impressions of the other records its processes might have created. It's certainly not unfinished - taken as a complete artefact it's very beautiful - but it's oddly unfixed.
His relationship to rock culture might be problematic, but web culture becomes more Eno-esque by the day. The provisional quality of choices is a hot topic in a world where design and services are highly iterative. Facebook has become something close to a global constant by continually changing and tweaking its service based on the real-time user data it receives - a giant ongoing experiment in the kind of cybernetics which so fascinated Eno in the '70s. The simultaneous rise of the app as a software delivery system pushes this idea further out into consumer culture. People get used to the software they buy as iterative - subject to continuous tinkering, upgrades, and improvements. And as that becomes the norm in one area of culture, it changes expectations everywhere else. Again, it's not unfinished - you expect Facebook, or an app - to work. But it's unfixed - you don't expect it to stay the same for long.
Pop, for instance, is becoming more iterative. This week the UK wings of Sony and Universal announced a move to simultaneous release to radio and to stores, killing off the typical six-week airplaybuilding period between radio release and sale. This was presented as a way of discouraging piracy, but commentators were quick to spot that it also tightens the feedback channels between label, store, and radio, making it a lot quicker to spot a stiff and react rapidly. This kind of system has the potential to make every record unfixed, to turn albums into apps and singles into updates.
And Eno-like experimentation thrives among the armies of digital makers - hopping disciplines and projects, making a virtue of their own unfixedness. Designer Matthew Irvine Brown has just released a project going by the delightfully Eno-ish name of Music For Shuffle: an evocatively shifting piece of glitch-pop issued in fragments and designed specifically to be randomly assembled on an MP3 player. In his blog Irvine Brown explains the process - neutral chords at the beginning and end of each fragment, spaces and pops to make a feature of the gaps some players leave between his tracklets. It's a fascinating marriage of process and result and a beguiling piece of music too. So the question James Blake's album had me asking - why is this sound here instead of not? - turns out to be a red herring. Maybe the important question instead is: now it's got here, what's it doing?