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September 14, 2001

++ On The Internet, What Does 'On-Topic' Mean?

The publishing schedule for "Needle Drops" means that I typically write the columns on Tuesday, to allow time for copy-editing and fact-checking before Friday morning's posting. To say that this week's Tuesday was unusual is beside the point: readers all over the world will by now have heard reports and seen images from the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, the attack on the Pentagon, the downed plane in Pennsylvania, and all the assorted aftershocks of politics, tragedy, human spirit and resilience.

I came home Tuesday night — having spent the day with a close friend, engulfed in the media frenzy and trying to come to terms with the magnitude of the event — knowing that I had to write a column. Not only did I feel that a weekly wrap-up of new electronic music releases would be beside the point, I simply couldn't muster the energy to do it, and after some notes and scratchings, I slept. The next day's Webnoize newsletter, a daily chronicle of digital entertainment news, echoed my own feelings: "Nothing in the digital entertainment industry matters today."

This is a column about "sampling the electronic music scene." But does that scene begin with the needle drop and end in the runout groove? It didn't this week. Last week I reported, in brief, on the state of New York's electronic music scene. This week it is radically changed. Two weeks ago I attended Turntables on the Hudson, just off Chelsea Pier; this week Chelsea Pier was reportedly turned into a triage center and later, a makeshift morgue.

CMJ's New Music Marathon, one of New York's main institutions for independent music, was to begin this week; it has been postponed until October 10–13, as CMJ Chairman Robert K. Haber announced Wednesday morning on the organization's Web site. The repercussions of Tuesday's events were felt nationwide. As some promoters' emails arrived reporting of cancelled performances and tours — such as Schematic's showcase at Limelight and DJ Vadim's and Sarah Jones' mini-tour of the Eastern seaboard — others were announcing benefit events, such as a long-planned night of old-school breakbeat and jungle in San Francisco that was retrofitted into a benefit for the Red Cross.

Other emails announced political action, as with Oakland's "Solidarity Gathering" Wednesday night. This event was hastily but widely promoted within the Bay Area's hip-hop and dance music communities as an event "to give leaders from communities of color an opportunity to speak out in support of the Arab community, while condemning the attacks and mourning the dead." Still others announced "business as usual," or at least a grim semblance of it. As a member of Brooklyn's Record Camp crew put it, "We're all trapped at home, in front of TVs and probably getting a bit stir crazy. All of the events that I was looking forward to going to have now been cancelled. We're still doing Record Camp, to get out of the house and see our friends and have a good time cuz we need one right now."

++ Email has been my lifeline the last three days. Not just exchanges with friends and family, but exchanges with virtual acquaintances and reports from virtual strangers. I'm something of a mailing list junkie; I belong to eight, maybe more, different mailing lists — six about electronic music, two focused on media and culture, one a community of writers and music industry people.

It was the latter mailing list that provided the first reports from New York, as its membership is primarily concentrated there, and that was where the first-hand accounts started rolling in. The list is in many ways a real community, so the show of support and concern was not a surprise. Beyond the admissions of fear and bewilderment and the messages of support from afar, the list led to action. Some list members announced that their apartments were open to those who needed a safe space in which to rest or be with friends. One group arranged through the list to meet at St. Vincent's Hospital to give blood, and when this proved unfeasible, they returned to the list to relay the information and discuss alternatives.

As a community of writers, it also provided some lessons in restraint in times of crisis. As the networks reported rumor after rumor, often without attribution, many of them were relayed over the list; a friend and fellow journalist rightly scolded me for passing on word of a bomb scare at Stuyvesant High School without citing the source of the information. It was a useful lesson in the repercussions of rumormongering, and a reminder that the media — which so easily spin out of control in a crisis — ought to serve their community and reflect its constituents. It's a lesson we all should bear in mind over the coming days and weeks as we turn to television, radio, print and Internet journalism for news and commentary.

++ What surprised me most were the music lists. They're often fractious exchanges, marked more by widespread bickering than any particular aesthetic philosophy or allegiance to genre. They were transformed, every one, into actual communities as the day unfolded. First came, from within the U.S., the messages of support and concern to members in the East; from overseas, similar sentiments arrived for all Americans. A sense of solidarity prevailed, beyond partisanship, beyond politics, beyond nationalism.

I witnessed a spontaneous conversion of "mailing lists" into actual communities. No one questioned the "topicality" of the posts — and this from lists often quick to slam someone for discussing music even marginally outside the definition of a given genre. Not everyone was happy about this; one person posted: "I am touched by all of the warm, touching, human sentiment expressed by list-members soon after the incident occurred. Not that anyone should care, but I am unsubbing from this list. This is by far the most Off-topic list I have ever been a member of." But the discussion went on: an impromptu roll-call of New York subscribers, a first-hand account from near the Pentagon, grief and compassion mixed with some soul-searching about American policies, how they might have gotten us here, and where they might lead us still.

The conversion, unfortunately, was short-lived. Even as I write this, many of these lists have devolved into partisan squabbling, reactionary flag-waving, anti-American scapegoating, and enough wrong-headed takes on "critical theory" to make even Baudrillard wonder what he hath wrought. But for a brief moment there, maybe as long as was necessary, the Internet transcended geography and brought people together in one space, and even as those spaces begin crumbling into rhetorical rubble, some shred of that sense of community remains.

++ It occurred to me at some point Tuesday, as I watched the umpteenth replay of one of the many videos showing the second plane disappearing into the tower, or of the tower collapsing — the fireball, the collapse, the fireball, the collapse, over and over in finite variations endlessly replayed — that I have at least temporarily lost my taste for repetitive music.

The logic of the loop, inscribing the event in a haphazard but inevitable trajectory, is a staple of the contemporary media. The Reagan assassination attempt, the Challenger disaster, a white Bronco speeding along LA freeways — all these have become stripped of meaning, have become hyper-real. We accept those image-facts because they have become history, part of our collective archive; but Tuesday's images fell into their indexed slots in that archive almost as soon as they were created.

Given the symbolic power of the twin towers, and their rapid destruction, the endless looping amounted to nothing less than an instant nostalgia in the making, a spooky de-realization. We kept watching, over and over, an event only hours old, which sped further from us with every viewing. The media use the loop as a tactic to package reality, to force possible meanings into a set and predetermined form. And much as I love the looped minimalism of all kinds of house and techno, suddenly I had no desire to listen to music that replicated a logic I found questionable.

In the absence of meaning, the logic of repetition began to feel like a crutch, or a defense, against grappling with the still-more-difficult issues now facing the country. I promised that soon I would listen — because I have listened to less music these past few days than at any point I can remember in recent years — to Ekkehard Ehlers' "Plays Albert Ayler" (Staubgold 2001). It's a fantastic piece, written for cello and then digitally post-processed, in which there is no boom-tick, no regular playback and reracking — just a long, fluid line of ebb and flow, interruption and rerouting, an embodiment of energy and strangeness, sad and complex and profoundly beautiful.

Even the non-mechanical repetition was getting to me. The first-hand stories that I had found so compelling, so moving, so real, began to wear me down. I could no longer tell them apart. I read them in the Wall Street Journal, in the Village Voice, in the New York Times. I read them as they rolled in from friends and acquaintances. They began to bleed together, and while I understood the need to tell them, I was reaching my limit, and long after having turned off the TV, I was feeling the need to log off, to withdraw from information entirely.

But perhaps the logic of repetition is not so easily escaped — especially here, in a story so deeply inscribed with it: twin towers, twin attacks, twin collapses. A building bombed for the second time in less than a decade. The mirroring between New York and D.C. The interior ironies beating with a strange and subtle pulse: the son on a hijacked plane phoning his mother, a flight attendant, on the ground.

I sat on my stoop tonight, drinking a beer and reading today's Times, when I ran into my neighbors from next door. The husband works for an investment bank. We chatted in the way that acquaintances share distant grief, careful not to be maudlin, not to overreact. And then he surprised me. "Unfortunately, we're from New York," he said, unprovoked, and I knew what was coming. He paused: "I know a lot of people that didn't make it out of the building."

When they had walked on, I thought about how these things touch us, the seeming unlikelihood that I would have any connection to one of the victims. And how suddenly, distantly, I did. The ripples just keep moving out from the center, regular and in perfect succession. I think we would all be wise to mind, in the coming weeks and months, this eerie, awful logic of repetition.


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