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The Sadness of Techno

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When I’m at work I like to listen to techno on Pandora. It’s not that I like techno. I don’t collect it or talk about it or get excited about it really. Techno does not turn me on or make me feel the artist’s emotional moods, like rock often does. Nor does it even relax me and put me in a good mood, like jazz does. But techno does have one property that I like – it’s good background music for computer programming. My flickering screen merges with the drum and bass and sort of downloads my brain effortlessly through web sites, google search boxes, terminal windows, multiple desktops, lines of code and even odd unix commands. I feel nothing. I am reminded of nothing. I just move and work faster in a flurry of beats and flashing and circulating windows and HTML layouts.
I feel nothing. Or do I? As I sat absentmindedly listening to Pandora today, it occurred to me that techno is very sad. Oh, it’s not intentionally sad like Lou Reed’s 1973 “The Kids” –

They’re taking her children away
because they said she was not a good mother
They’re taking her children away
because of the things she did in the streets
In the alleys and bars, no she couldn’t be beat
that miserable rotten slut couldn’t turn, anyone away

Now that’s sad, complete with children crying at the end. But it’s very literal.

And it’s not even sad like the early synthesizer songs, which sound sad to me because they are from a distant time when everything seemed hopeful and new and synth music seemed the key to a strange and perfect world.

Techno’s nostalgia is vaguer and more uncanny. It’s not the feeling of losing touch with one era, but with the entire history of human culture. All those tiny little beats and half-tunes and soulful but disembodied female voices work together to remind me of the entire history of pop music, fading slowly and collectively into the horizon. All those songs that remind you of getting laid or dancing in a club, or driving in your car, or getting stoned (or something else), or discovering some great new sound like punk or funk or rap that you think will set you apart from everyone at school and make you truly bad-ass. All those songs are leveled and reduced to one note each, millions of little bits-and-bytes in a futuristic digital map that pulls you in and then slips effortlessly and digitally just out of your reach. You can’t get a grip on it anymore, and that produces a strange longing for me at least.

The connection with recognizable songs is getting further and further out of reach too. In the 80’s when house and techno first came about, samples were longer and recognizable. The female vocalist sang whole songs, like “Gypsy Woman” with choruses and so forth. Or at least they sang whole sentences:

“I don’ want/a place to stay/get your booty on the floor tonight/make my day”.

Over time the samples became smaller. Now all you might hear is “make my make my make my” or even less…”ma-ma-ma” – but you’d still recognize the original song, or maybe you’d just recognize that it was once a song! The vocals are the saddest part of techno for me. The little barely audible bits still contain all the joy and pleasure – and therefore all the sad nostalgia – of the original disco divas who sang them but whose voices now seem to be on the verge of disappearing into the electronic sea surrounding them.

Techno is like being in a space craft and moving slowly away from earth. Like the continents, the samples become smaller and smaller and more unrecognizable. Finally you are left inside an almost entirely computerized environment looking back sadly at a distant impression of the human world that once surrounded you.

Of course the feeling of moving away from human music, or moving away from earth, does not need to be sad. It could be bright and hopeful, a fearless new post-human future on the horizon. Perhaps with time it will feel more brave and fearless. Then I will be standing bravely at the precipice of this spacecraft, moving toward my space destiny. But for now, I just feel too attached to the memories of all those sampled songs that are being left abandoned like empty buildings on the side of the freeway.


Written by nattie

March 6, 2008 at 3:28 am

Posted in editorial

where the crowds aren’t

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Today I got into the car, expecting to head up the Turnpike about 14 miles to the Jersey City Promenade and the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Boat Tour. Then, at the last minute, I reconsidered, got Camilla out of the car, put her in the stroller and instead took a walk across the Raritan River to New Brunswick. Instead of being out amongst the cars, distracted, glancing at billboards, and ending up in yet another crowded tourist setting, I walked around an old American city with lots of streets, sidewalks, trees and storefronts, and few parking lots.

New Brunswick is a town of 25,000, which boasts the old Rutgers Campus, Johnson and Johnson headquarters, a train station with trains to NYC, a downtown restaurant/shopping district, theatres, and lots of neat old dilapidated and unremodeled houses. The population doubles during the week, with students and JJ workers. On weekend days when the workers are away, New Brunswick is only the train station on the way to New York. There are no views of the Manhattan skyline and the museums aren’t very big. On weekends you see the locals – many of which are Oaxacan Mexicans.

But today I ended up in there. I noticed a particularly dark old brick house with a high pitched roof and white trim. I also noticed that the Moscow Symphony Orchestra will soon be playing at the NJ State Theatre, and I found a Oaxacan Taqueria that I mean to try some time. Other times I have visited the Mason-Gross Art Center (Rutgers art department) for exhibitions. In New Brunswick one can only wander, think one’s thoughts, and look for interesting buildings and side streets, but there are plenty of those.

There are other forgotten cities around here. Last week my husband’s green card interview brought us to Newark. There, parking the car in some back all-day lot, I was struck by very beautiful view of the backs of the buildings, complete with old fire escapes and vines growing up between the windows. It was breathtaking. Broad St. in Newark has some really glorious architecture, many turn of the century stone buildings, currently covered and obscured by cheap awnings and signs. They also have a new light rail, which is a nice way to see the architecture. The Philadelphia central train station is beautiful too, and feels just like one is in Copenhagen. Another abandoned New Brunswick site I love is Jersey Avenue, with its warehouses. I dream of starting an art exhibition space there someday.

Old train stations, student art shows, high-rises, hidden courtyards, warehouses and fire escapes. There is a completely seperate, and much more interesting world that exists away from the world of commodities. It’s the world one see while walking, from the window of the train, or in the older cities where there isn’t enough parking for Target or Wal-Mart to move in, and is therefore only home to small cafes and little odd shops where nothing you need can be found. I want to see more of this world, but for that I have to discipline myself, be patient and remember to visit these places and not just get sucked up in the New Jersey whirlwind of easy strip-mall shopping and weekend trips to Manhattan.

Written by nattie

November 5, 2006 at 10:07 pm

Posted in editorial

Tenement Reality and Tenement Chic

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I have seen two tenements in the past two weeks, which is more than I usually see. There was a huge difference between the two, which, as usual, I will try to interpret from my typical bourgeois Marxist perspective. First, last week, we took a trip to the Tenement Museum in New York. This is the site of a formerly low-income apartment building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where, for $15, you could take a 45 minute tour. Once inside, if you are lucky enough to have come without children (the Tenement Museum is extremely delicate and stroller-unfriendly. The walls may not be touched, for example), you find yourself in a decrepit, rotting building with layers of peeling paint and wallpaper, and the former inhabitants’ belongings, which resemble bad shabby-chic antiques. You stand in 3 rooms and hear about the poor worker-immigrant families who lived there.

It is sad to hear the squalid stories, but mostly it is interesting, and dare I say, cozy. Cozy? Yes. The Tenement Museum is a place where you can have a cozy intellectual and historical experience of poverty. You are in standing in the site of human misery, but are 100 years removed from it. There is no danger of being thrown into a vat of hot oil, or riding a dangerous elevator, or freezing or anything. In fact, apartments in the identical “tenement” next door are going for $4 million dollars, and there are “gourmet yarn” and handmade craft shops down the street, for upscale garment workers, presumably. It is so cozy, in fact, that they are planning a pub for the basement of the Tenement Museum, where rich New Yorkers can go and drink microbrew and soak up the tenement atmosphere at their leisure.

I saw the other “tenement” tonight when I went to look at a used futon couch that I am considering buying. This tenement was a modern-day version, the “Blueberry Court” apartments in Edison, NJ. Blueberry Court apartments are one of the most lackluster residences I have ever seen. It is joined to other complexes of crowded, ugly apartments with perversely inappropriate names like “Edison Manor”, etc. Here the streets were badly lit. There were no green spaces, just large parking lots. Many apartments were crammed together and materials looked cheap – wood panels and composite siding. I saw mainly Indian families walking in groups, some with strollers and little children, dodging the heavy traffic despite the dark sidewalks.

Large old cities like New York, London share a similar design concept which was looked down upon at one time, but which is now extremely valuable and desirable – urban density. Someone designed these cities with some thought. Though I’ve seen Jakob Riis photos of flimsey wooden shacks, most builders managed to scrape enough together to build many apartment buildings of brick or stone. But even putting aside the cost of building materials (which were probably skimped on back then too), the older tenement neighborhoods featured something that seems to have been lost – planning and public transportation. Someone thought out the need for walking streets and planned for parks and green spaces. The greatest luxury of older urban areas was of course public transportation, the subways and buses which linked neighborhoods and cities and seems to have become permanently unaffordable for today’s American cities. Shame.

On the other hand, places like “Blueberry Court” or “Edison Manor” can be described as “sprawl”. Streets are windy and impossible to find one’s way around. Buildings are flimsy and look as if they were the result of contractor graft. Huge parking lots stretch endlessly. The car is the only way to get around, because nobody wants to walk through an endless parking lot. Sprawl is the symbol of the energy-greedy, myopic world we live in – no planning, no green space, no foot traffic, no human contact.

We hate sprawl. But they hated tenements and cites 100 years ago, and now we think it’s great. So, in 100 years, our sprawl ought to look pretty good. The scary thing to ask is, compared to what?

Written by nattie

September 7, 2006 at 4:17 am

Posted in editorial

the lesser best of

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Through no (or little) fault of my own, two new CD’s have recently entered my collection:

  • The Very Best of the Eagles (this got into my house due to circumstances beyond my control. Alas I cannot get rid of it
  • The Very Best of Talk Talk (this I asked for so it was my fault)

Anyway, the funny thing about both of these CD’s is that they are called “The Very Best of…(such and such).” This seems like a goofy naming scheme. I mean, “The Best of” is clear. It lets you know that this is the artist’s best material. But, “The Very Best of”???. Is that, like, opposed to “The Not-So-Best Of” or just “The Best Of”. Should the two former titles be cheaper?

My guess is that record labels think “The Best of” just sounds stodgy, like a Paul Anka or Peggy Lee album, and therefore not befitting of hipsters like Talk Talk or (shudder) Don Henley.

To me, “The Very Best of” sounds like a bread commercial: “We use the freshest butter, eggs, flour, and lard, the very best of the farm to make the very best bread…” yada yada yada. It sounds like food marketing. It sounds corny.

As Peggy Lee said on her 4-disc “Best of” collection, Is That All There Is? No, probably not. Because now that people can pick and choose the ….er….best songs from ITunes or their friends, why in the world should anyone buy a regular back-catalog album again? Why should anyone have anything but a collection? In short, kids today have no time but “The Best” from rock stars of the past.

This in itself is a shame, as it takes a lot of music out of context. The music fan depends on the record company to put together a collection of “hits” for him, instead of hearing the music in the order the artist intended, the order of the original album. Also, as with much entertainment consumption today, it’s too targeted. The rest of the text (or record) disappears and all that is experienced is “the best” song or the desired information. Well, the other lesser songs may have been good too. The listener will never know.

But still, we must accept “The best” just as we must accept searching for information instead of reading a whole book to find it. It’s all we have time for! But at least record collections could have better names. How about –

  • Ten Songs By
  • or just

  • Enough Songs to Not Look Like a Total Ignoramus

Written by nattie

August 26, 2006 at 3:02 am

Posted in editorial

look at mother nature on the run

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Well, I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships flying
In the yellow haze of the sun
There were children crying and colors flying
All around the chosen ones
All in a dream, all in a dream
The loading had begun
Flyin’ mother nature’s silver seed
To a new home in the sun
Flyin’ mother nature’s silver seed
To a new home in the sun

After the Gold Rush, Neil Young.

If mother nature was on the run in the 1970’s, she is long gone by now. That’s quite clear given the pollution all around us, the heat that seems to increase every year, and the frequency of disasters. OK. I haven’t seen An Inconvenient Truth yet. I’ve only seen the trailer. Yet, that was enough to horrify me and make me feel sick to be in this world where we’re spending so much money every day on The Ever Present War, which will never end, never improve things, and can never truly even be explained. Why are we fighting this war? Because one man, George Bush, felt a mysterious need to. And to fight this war, he needs lots and lots of money, which I must pay. God, it’s really really depressing. I am paying lots of money to fund a war I don’t agree with, never wanted, and the man who started it cares nothing about the issues I care about.

Why, as Gore states, have recent summers been so hot? Why are hurricanes reaching all-time intensities? Bush doesn’t want to address those questions. In fact, he never even mentions Hurricane Katrina anymore. It’s as if “9/11” is the only disaster that ever occured, the only thing Americans ought to remember and feel. Why can’t we just leave Iraq, Iran, Israel, Palestine, and all of those nations to thier own devices and consider what is happening to us at home, and start setting a better example for the world?

Americans are not taking care of our country. We are making stupid decisions which we can afford not to make, in order to live outdated lifestyles which aren’t even all that comfortable. We should not be sitting in long lines of cars driving out to suburban mini-mansions. We should live in small, easy to clean condos in densely developed areas with good train and bus systems. Has anyone ever tried living in a place that had good transit? It’s a luxury. The biggest SUV with the best AC could never compare being whisked around on a train while reading or enjoying the scenery. And we should not be drinking from disposible water bottles. We should either drink the tap water, or use sink filter and refill bottles. Shame on you Poland Spring drinkers! Those stupid bottles litter the sides of the road. They are an eyesore. Water is a natural resource. Why do we need to add plastic? There are many other things we need to change. Perhaps I will start compiling a weekly list. Bike trails would be a quick addition.

Anyway, I’m feeling politically depressed today, especially thinking about the war and all the SUV’s. I wish I could climb onto a silver spaceship and travel to a “new home in the sun” with all the sensible people, or travel into the computer and live permanently in cyberspace, but I guess I’m stuck here for the ride.


Written by nattie

June 17, 2006 at 4:10 am

Posted in editorial

On Tony Smith

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I posted that mainly because I myself enjoy the experience of driving on the Turnpike, past the futuristic concrete refineries and smokestacks. It is dramatic, a monument to the fossil-fuel era. Perhaps someday the Turnpike will be a ruin. It is also reality, which is always beautiful. I’d rather be there than some brand-new home development which tries to give the impression it is out in the country.

Written by nattie

June 9, 2006 at 1:33 am

Posted in editorial

Tony Smith’s turnpike

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Now that I live in New Jersey (exit 9), I am reminded of some art essays I read in college. In 1966, modernist sculptor Tony Smith described a ride on the then-unfinished turnpike for an ArtForum interview in 1966:

“I view art as something vast. I think highway systems fall down because they are not art. Art today is the art of postage stamps. […] I think of art in a public context and not in terms of mobility of works of art. Art is just there[…].
When I was teaching at Cooper Union in the first year or two of the fifties, someone told me how I could get on the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. I took three students and drove from somewhere in the Meadows to New Brunswick. It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, linke railings, or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the towers, fumes and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn’t know what it was, but it’s effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.

The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art. Most painting looks pretty pictorial after that. There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it. Later I discovered some abandoned airstrips in Europe – abandoned works, Surrealist landscapes, something that had nothing to do with any function, created worlds without tradition. Artificial landscape without cultural precedent began to dawn on me. There is a drill ground in Nuremberg, large enough to accomodate two million men. The entire field is enclosed with high embankements and towers. The concrete approach is three sixteen-inch steps, one above the other, stretching for a mile or so[…]

Written by nattie

June 5, 2006 at 4:15 am

Posted in editorial