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December 7, 2001

++ Escaping The 'Administered Life'

++ I'm sitting on hold, waiting for a conference call to begin, tapping absentmindedly at the keyboard as the morning coffee zips through my veins and my brain struggles to catch up to it. Sitting on hold is one of those dead interstices of modern life, like waiting for the ATM to spit out your cash, or standing in line for a BART ticket — your brain checks out while you wait for time to release you. But Raindance, the conference-call provider — is there a stupider name? — wants to take care of me. A recorded message from a woman with a voice so mellifluous it's almost smarmy reassures me that the call will begin as soon as the moderator (another great word — what is this, a presidential debate? A new Middle East peace accord?) arrives.

This is the corporate life. And the soundtrack to it, or at least Raindance's version of it, is a lovely, chiming acoustic guitar. I say that without a trace of irony — the Raindance theme music, looped over and over, is actually very pretty, tinged with a kind of rootsy Americana and imbued with a ringing, open-road optimism. I'm not sure who it is, but it could almost be David Grubbs or Bundy Brown's Directions in Music project, what with that rich, rounded sound; a little like John Fahey or Leo Kottke, but with perhaps a tad too much sweetness, drawing dangerously close to New Agers like Michael Hedges.

What I find funny is that it's so soothing — music to calm harried corporate drones. (Unfortunately, in the case of this particular corporate drone, struggling to stay awake after a late night out playing records, it's pulling me toward sleep as swiftly and ominously as the boatman on the river Lethe — but then again they probably didn't factor sleep-deprived 30-somethings who refuse to grow up into their market research.) It's an interesting clash of aesthetics and ideologies, however: if a friend cued up the track on her CD player and told me it was the new Directions in Music album, I most likely would have nodded my approval. But here the music is reduced to pure use value, a kind of sonic Paxil, a recontextualization that calls the very category of aesthetic value into question, along with our relationship to time and leisure.

Of course critics have bemoaned Muzak (and similar services), infamously engineered to maximize worker productivity and consumer spending, since its inception. And the difficult issues around context and commercialization are familiar to any fan whose favorite song has been licensed to sell a product. ("Pink Moon," anyone?) But Raindance's theme music struck a particularly strong chord, if you will, precisely because for the last two nights I was involved in a "micro-festival" focused on the recontextualization of the guitar in the digital era.

++ 6-String Object, curated by Secret Excretion's Kenric McDowell, presented two nights of "digitally processed and prepared guitar." For the most part, this involved various combinations of guitars and laptops running applications like MAX and SuperCollider. Tarentel's Jefre Cantu-Ledesma performed entirely on a laptop computer, pulverizing guitar-based sounds into a fine, sourceless dust. Chris Degiere and Christopher Willits both took similar tacks, though Degiere allowed some of his sound sources to remain less masked, drawing at times upon a palpable dub influence, while Willits combined his computing with an actual axe, feeding both electric guitar and bass into his laptop and synthesizing them in real time. McDowell sidestepped the laptop performance issue by turning his remix of Tarentel into a site-specific installation; three CDs loaded with his own digital treatments of the post-rock band's recordings were played simultaneously, allowing chance to facilitate further collisions.

++ Control R Workshop's Daron Key was the festival's only non-digital participant. (Before the show, in fact, the gruff Oaklander confessed to me that he "had no idea" that there was any confluence between guitar music and digital methodologies. If even the performers could come away from the festival having been exposed to new sounds and ideas, I'd venture to say that 6-String Object was vastly successful in its aims.) Key hunched himself over his electric guitar, sometimes cradled in his arms but often laid over his lap, and ran through three or four succinct improvisations, tapping and kneading at the strings and using an array of pedals to alter his sound. There was no mistaking his music for the laptoppers', but the very un-guitarlike sounds he managed to coax from his instrument suggested that the divide between methodologies was not so very wide. At the end of his set, he quickly folded his hands over his guitar just as an egg-timer rang out, having fully occupied the space of his own limiting system, and he smiled.

But the most dynamic performance was from Hot Licker, the duo of Chiara Giovando and Orthlorng Musork's Sue Costabile. While Costabile performed a kind of real-time animation using software, magazine photographs, colored markers and an overhead projector jerry-rigged from a webcam, Giovando performed radically deconstructed rock on laptop, turntable, and a monophonic toy guitar synthesizer. Hot Licker's performance made the most explicit references to the connotative resonance of the guitar: Giovando drew from classic hard rock and played air guitar (prompting cries of "guitar solo!" and at least one raised lighter in the crowd); her use of the toy guitar even pointed to the instrument's decades-long grip on youth culture and a (gendered) sociopolitics where little boys grow up wanting to be Eddie Van Halen. Meanwhile Costabile projected black-and-white photos of rock gods, drawing schoolgirlish hearts over their portraits. All this, and it sounded great to boot.

++ I certainly can't offer an objective picture of the festival, given that I played as well. My role was relatively simple: as DJ, my one constraint was that every record I played had to have a guitar as one of its core elements. True to the digital spirit of the festival, much of my repertoire included post-guitar glitch music from artists like Fennesz and Oren Ambarchi, but I also drew from classic guitar experimentalists like Lee Ranaldo and Glenn Branca, not to mention the fuzzbox maelstrom of My Bloody Valentine, the doomy drone of Earth, and John Cale's recently reissued Stainless Gamelan, drawn from Tony Conrad's Dream Syndicate recordings from the mid-1960s. Feeling cheeky, I even threw on one of the Stone Roses' fantastic backwards-playing pieces.

I call the requirement to stick to guitar music a constraint, but the irony is that within such a limitation I found a kind of freedom I rarely experience when I DJ. Freed from the requirement of keeping a beat moving, I could do any damn thing I wanted, and most of my concentration went toward layering dense, barely dissonant drones, using both turntables and both CD players. That's the kind of music I play for myself on rainy Sundays, locked in my room and trying hard not to annoy the downstairs neighbors. But the chance to make a racket like that for other listeners was a rare opportunity — and the rarity of the occasion only heightened the elating sense of musical freedom.

That question of freedom is what brings me back to Raindance. I don't mean to pick on the company; my beef is with corporate aesthetics and what Adorno called the administered life; I use their guitar music as an example of the way that all around us, the products of "culture" are twisted into shapes we find hard to recognize for what they are, and all the harder to evaluate for this veil of false context. 6-String Object, on the other hand, seemed to achieve a musical purity that's become increasingly rare. There was no feeling of scenesterism; none of the perfomers were terribly well-known. And yet the space drew a capacity crowd, and from what I could see, people engaged as fully as any audience can. The festival, planned by a lone individual and executed on a shoe-string budget, was a shining example of DIY culture in action. Standing in the back of the room, watching Christopher Willis on the darkened stage, his face illuminated by his laptop and a flickering constellation of tabletop candles flashing off the faces of a roomful of rapt listeners, it seemed about as far from the administered life as you can get.


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