Decay

Phil Ford

Back in the spring came a revolutionary moment in American culture whose full significance was not quite grasped at the time, although the event itself was widely seen and much commented-upon. I refer, of course, to Blake Lewis’s performance of Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” on American Idol:

What Lewis did was to break the fourth wall of audio vérité, something no other AI contestant had ever done. He performed his own purpose — freshening up an old favorite — by miming the gestures of someone taking an old LP off the shelf, blowing off the dust, and cuing up the turntable. And (this is the important bit) he then imitated the hiss of a needle in a well-worn groove. The gesture of incorporating audio decay into one’s own performance makes audible the passage of years: with this gesture, a song that lives in the eternal present of AOR radio is stripped of its appearance of living outside time. Lewis’s performance insisted (gently) that the song lives in history (i.e., old song made new, etc.), and did so by representing it as something with a material existence subject to the ravages of time. Songs are embodied in objects (LPs, cassette tapes, eight-tracks, 45s) that decay, and the decay becomes part of the our hearing of the song: we hear it as the sign of passing time, of history. In truth, Blake wasn’t doing anything that hiphop artists hadn’t done for decades, but, as I said at the time, this marked the moment that hiphop, and certain of its underlying aesthetic elements, penetrated the widest possible sphere of American pop-cultural consciousness.

What hiphop does is to make unignorable rock music’s rejection of what Theodore Gracyk, in his excellent philosophical study Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetic of Rock, calls realism:

Needing a label for the position that performances always have ontological priority, let us call it recording realism. It is related to an established position concerning photography and cinema: the parent theme is that any mechanical recording is essentially the documentation of some independent reality. Although not himself a realist, William Moylan summarizes its basic aesthetic: “The recording medium is often called upon to be transparent. In these contexts, it is the function of the recording to capture the sound as accurately as possible, to capture the live performance without distortion.” Ideally, recording is invisible and the audience should ignore contributions of the recording process.*

Or, one might add, the materiality of recordings. When you do pay attention to the contributions of the recording process, or to the “thinginess” or records, you see them as things in themselves and not simply auditory snapshots of some other, independent reality. They are things with a history, things in time, things that decay. Records are made out of records; records are about other records. Hiphop simply raises this notion to an overt and generally avowed aesthetic principle. (As Gracyk demonstrates, in rock it is overt but generally disavowed.)

Last week I read a paper for the IU musicology department that draws on some of these notions by looking at some very decayed sound recordings and thinking about how their decay is part of their presence. One of our graduate students, Amanda Sewell, told me about a film called Decasia: The State of Decay that does the same thing. Decasia is a wordless art film that sets very old and decayed silent film footage to the music of can-banger Michael Gordon. The film’s website has two clips:

Clip 1
Clip 2

When the decay of an expressive object becomes its primary expression, what do we feel? Nostalgia, longing, melancholy, regret, desire, foreboding, fear?

*Theodore Gracyk, Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetic of Rock (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 39.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to Decay

  1. Galen says:

    This idea is interestingly at the opposite end of the spectrum from a paper my friend Alex Reed wrote a few years ago on applause and the hyperreal in recordings. If I remember correctly (and it’s been a few years since I read it), his argument had to do with the idea that many “live” recordings are basically studio recordings whose first take is done on a live stage — they’re often multitracked, and mistakes are redubbed and fixed, and sometimes sections of different performances are spliced together, etc. The applause in the recording signifies to the audience that this is a “live” and thus “real” performance, and the fact that studio engineering can make it a perfect performance makes it “hyperreal.” So in the case you’re describing, the “performance” is designed to emphasize the existence of the technology, and in the “live” album the technology is employed to emphasize the “performance”-ness. And _both_ end up being performances of authenticity — emphasizing the technology says “I’m putting all my semiotic cards on the table” and emphasizing the “liveness” says “this is the real thing, not an imitation.”
    Alex delivered his paper at a conference (of recording engineers, I think) in Britain, but I don’t think it’s been published.
    One might even argue that in the case of a “live” album, or a bootleg, the primary value of that recording over an explicitly “in-studio” recording is that it possesses various kinds of acoustic degradation — applause obscuring musical material, poor recording quality, mistakes in the performance, lead-singer chatter to the audience, etc. — and thus “the decay of [the] expressive object becomes its primary expression,” as you put it. The “live” recording is important because it offers a believable epistemology: the studio album can never quite escape its physicality, because as much as it tries to manifest a sort of Platonic ideal of the piece we can’t believe it–it remains an artifact which, for all it’s acoustic perfection, is known to be an artificial construct. The “live” album is also merely an artifact, but an artifact which plausibly purports to document an “actual,” “authentic” event.

  2. ben wolfson says:

    There is a fair amount of music that incorporates tape hiss or static, though only two come to mind right now: John Zorn & Yamatsuka Eye (as Mystic Fugu Orchestra)’s album Zohar, and Istvan Marta’s “Doom. A Sigh”. Though the latter may just have that aspect because it uses field recordings—the decay as such might not be important.
    (Just found some guy’s description of Zohar, here: http://www.scottmaykrantz.com/zorn07.html
    “””
    You’re supposed to pretend that this a copy of an old, scratchy 78rpm disc of authentic klezmer music. But Zorn turned the scratches up so high, you can hardly hear anything else. Under a lot of repetitive crackling, you hear him play the harmonium while Yamatsuka Eye groans and sings.
    This is one of the least essential albums Zorn has ever made, but it’s also kind of funny. He’s poking fun at the sacred roots of klezmer. Just so you know he doesn’t take the Radical Jewish Culture thing too seriously, he’s satirized it.
    “””
    I kind of like the album. It’s got a nicely creepy vibe. Plus, I enjoy the static thing; a little static can vastly improve some music.)
    One of the tracks on Matmos’ Civil War album featured a guitar solo that was created by first recording it live, then putting it on a CD, then scratching the CD to hell, and then reading that back as best they could—though it’s not as if you could have figured that out by listening to it.

  3. Josh Mock says:

    In 50 years, are we going to get nostalgic about mp3 compression artifacts and stutter from scratched CDs?

  4. Josh Mock says:

    In 50 years, are we going to get nostalgic about mp3 compression artifacts and stutter from scratched CDs?

  5. Michael says:

    “The decay of an expressive object” is inevitably brought about by human action, so when that becomes “its primary expression” I don’t feel any of the above, at the end of the day. I consider it another window into soul, this artist’s soul, in particular. And I wonder what all the fuss is about, what with us worrying about the decay of expressive objects . . . what about the decay of *more human concerns?
    In this, I think, Decasia has done its job (for me, at least).
    * – yes, I know, isn’t us worrying about the decay of expressive objects something of a human concern in the first place?

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