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October 2005

Online Survey: Music and the Internet

Ian Pascal Volz, of the University of Frankfurt, has contacted me to ask if I would help publicise a research survey he's conducting into the impact on the demand for music of online-distribution. He writes:

The University of Frankfurt and the Conservatory of Weimar have created a survey to find out more about consumers' attitudes and needs concerning downloading and information services on the internet. Participants are asked to evaluate different downloading services and to state their habits concerning music downloads (via Peer-to-Peer, Websites, etc.) and music reception in general. The results will be used to describe the impact the internet has on promoting music. A special focus is put on promoting possibilities for young and not yet established musicians.

In order to support this research project we need you to participate in this survey. The link to the survey is: www.music-and-the-internet.com.

All participants can win 20 free songs at iTunes Music Store!

The survey is only for research purposes and is in no way connected to the music industry or any other industry. All responses are strictly confidential and used anonymously by the researcher.

Ian Pascal Volz, of Frankfurt (ivolz@wiwi.uni-frankfurt.de)


The leaving of Liverpool

We had much less time in Liverpool yesterday than we'd hoped for: beware, traveller — the M5 and M6 have so many roadworks … I lost count, the journey up taking almost twice as long as it should have done.

So, a rushed job when it came to the Albert Docks and a bit of the centre, but enough to make me appreciate what a mighty city this has been … and how vibrant it is today, with all its possibilities and problems: European City of Culture, 2008, yet Liverpool University (where one of our sons is studying) lies cheek-by-jowl with some of the worst inner city areas I've seen in the UK.

Down in the Docks, the Tate is very fine. We had enough time to take in the New Realism room in the DLA Piper Series: International Modern Art. I liked the early Chapman brothers' piece, Disasters of War, which I'd heard a lot about and not seen before, the Grayson Perry pots, Germaine Richier's Storm Man and Hurricane Woman, the Giacometti portraits (of his brother, Diego) … I want to come back to Liverpool many more times, see much more of the city, get round all of the Tate and see the Walker and Lever galleries.

When we got back home, there was Tom Coates' posting to read: On the BBC Annotatable Audio project ... — 'a demonstration of a functional working interface for the annotation of audio that's designed to allow the collective creation of useful metadata and wikipedia-like content around radio programmes or speeches or podcasts or pieces of music'. Euan Semple comments: 'After 21 years working in broadcasting I reckon this is one of the coolest things to happen for a very, very long time. The ramifications of this will go very deep indeed'.

All the more fitting that our journey back took in some good to outstanding radio on Radio 4. I'd pick out here:

  • Antony Beevor and Gillian Slovo discussing the significance of novelist and war reporter Vasily Grossman with Francine Stock (Great Lives). A towering figure — to protect his second wife and her children, whom he'd adopted, he dared even to misquote Stalin in a letter to the head of the NKVD — his masterpiece, Life and Fate, was published after his death. I'm ashamed to say I've never read it, but it's now on my list for the Xmas break.


  • David Cannadine exploring the way the UK we know today differs so much from that of those whose lives were rooted primarily in the first half of the twentieth century (A Point of View): if you're in your mid-40s to mid-60s, you didn't know a world dominated by two World Wars and the greatest economic slump the modern world has ever experienced; instead, the social disruption of the Butler Education Act, plus the immense amount of money poured into education, created a country where, for all its faults, "those in charge" today do not have to be the product of inherited or privately financed privilege — he cited (as examples) grammar school boys Melvyn Bragg (In Our Time), Andrew Turnbull (former Cabinet Secretary) and Mervyn King (Governor of the Bank of England). These short programmes are his for the next 13 weeks and he seems to be setting out to look at the role Universities play in our society and how they are to be funded.

Apple of your Eye

Tomorrow's Private Eye. There are two iPods in our family, and they've both given a lot of trouble. My students have similar tales. Is this unusual experience?

Robert points to this Apple front page:

I have to say, to me this seems at the very least cheesy, but probably in poor taste.

No axe to grind here — I'm sorely tempted to buy a Mac PowerBook before long. But how come the problems with iPods don't make more waves? And I can't believe I'm alone in finding this kind of advertising … shallow (because tastelessly parasitic — what's owning a Mac got to do with fighting racial segregation)? (One of those leaving comments on Robert's posting asks what the reaction would be if Microsoft had used the Rosa Parks image: 'Where do you want to go today?'.)


Ted Nelson

Dear World:

The tekkies have hijacked literature– with the best intentions, of course!-) – but now the humanists have to get it back. INDIRECT DOCUMENTS AT LAST!  Now for a Humanist Computer Agenda

Hearing Ted Nelson at Open Tech '05 back in July wasn't quite the experience I was hoping for. When it comes to criticising computing-as-we-know-it, he was pushing at many an open door, but his sweeping criticisms were so inseparable from the weighty emphasis he placed on his life and the rejection of his vision that that vision itself came a poor second to his sense of being dis-regarded, misunderstood, under-appreciated …

Matt Webb, who (I think) brought Ted Nelson to Open Tech, heard him speak at HyperText03 and has some excellent notes from that talk. From which, this:

broken promises of personal computing:

* easy record-keeping
* nothing lost
* simplify life
* easy programming

broken promises of hypertext:

* permanent availability
* deep connections
* profuse link overlays
* frictionless reuse (with copyright management, transquotation)

My notes from Open Tech '05 are peppered with comments in the same vein: 'Macs and Windows-based machines mimic paper-based life'; 'unexamined conventions in computing' abound, whereas the real issue is 'the representation of human thought'; 'computers haven't made life simpler for anyone'; the 'clipboard is an invisible, one-item buffer that destroys information about origins'; 'today's computer world is based on techies' misunderstandings of human thought and life'; 'WYSIWYG was designed backward from the office end-product, the printout' …

Against this, Xanadu, ZigZag, Transcopyright, TransQuoter, Transliterature. My notes again, this time peppered with stuff that was wildly suggestive and imaginative (Richard MacManus: 'If this is "simple", then it's a definition of "simple" from a parallel universe'): 'free-form tissues of flying islands, bridges and tunnels, arbitrary coupling amongst structures'; 'multitrack markup and links'; 'instead of hierarchical directories (folders), intersecting lists'; 'instead of files as big lumps, clusters of smaller, connected parts'; 'applitudes (not applications) — zones of function, deeply cross-connectible'; 'editing between documents, with content origins of all quotations and pieces optionally visible'; 'coupleable side-ladders for access'; 'step-by-step, deep Undo'; 'WYSIWYNC: what you see is what you never could' …

I was reminded of all this when reading Richard MacManus' post of yesterday, written after he had stumbled across Transliterature:

… today I came across the latest project of a man who wants to tear down Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web and replace it with his own vision. It used to be known as Xanadu, but has since morphed into Transliterature, A Humanist Design. I am of course referring to Ted Nelson, who invented the term "hypertext" in 1965 and is generally regarded as a computing pioneer.

Ted Nelson recently wrote an essay about "Indirect Documents", which got Slashdotted today. In the essay Nelson outlines why (in his opinion) the Xanadu project failed and he explains his new vision for Transliterature. He takes a number of potshots at Tim Berners-Lee's WWW on the way, e.g.:

"Why don't I like the web? I hate its flapping and screeching and emphasis on appearance; its paper-simulation rectangles of Valuable Real Estate, artificially created by the NCSA browser, now hired out to advertisers; its hierarchies exposed and imposed; its untyped one-way links only from inside the document. (The one-way links hidden under text were a regrettable simplification of hypertext which I assented to in '68 on the HES project. But that's another story.) Only trivial links are possible; there is nothing to support careful annotation and study; and, of course, there is no transclusion."

From the Transliterature site:

"Transliterature" is our name for a proposed new universal genre intended to unify electronic documents and media, erasing format boundaries and easing the copyright problem. It is an extremely simple design, intended to correct many things that are wrong with today's computer world and liberate our use of media. It should make possible a new crossover medium-- transpathic documents-- allowing you to step from content in one document to the same content in another document (which could be a movie, or radio show, or new media construction).  This should bring new insights, new forms of anthology, and new forms of copyright and media commerce (see Transcopyright.org).

Ted Nelson is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. (I want to find out more about the Institute and see if we can't benefit from its closeness to us, at the very least by getting along to talks there.) The well-known, highly critical piece on Ted Nelson by Gary Wolf (Wired) can be found here and Nelson has a riposte ('Errors in "The Curse of Xanadu"') here. There's a brief but atmospheric mention here by Kevin Kelly (Wired again) of a meeting with Ted Nelson in 1984. Some photos I took of Ted Nelson and his presentation at Open Tech can be found via this link.


Labyrinths and Internet

Fascinating, and frustrating, posting at things magazine: I'm not sure why the advent of 'global communications technology' is seen as leading to the demise of reliquaries, and I certainly don't date the going of the 'divine on the defensive' to about a 100 years ago — that's being going on since at least the sixteenth century. As Cornelius Ernst (see here, paras 6 & 7; Tim's address), my favourite twentieth century theologian, puts it: 'I cannot think of a single clerical philosopher of real distinction since the Middle Ages (and whether it is appropriate to speak of any medieval thinker as a 'philosopher' is of course problematic)'.

But I was interested by this (thanks to Matt Webb for drawing my attention to it):

The internet feels like a giant reliquary at times. … The web is also like being stuck in a giant uncatalogued library, with every dusty shelf offering up hidden treasures; you just have to hunt for them. Our mental picture is a combination of the Gormenghastian, before the great fire, and the octagonal library in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. The latter was apparently inspired by the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, a brutalist construction by Mathers and Haldenby, in collaboration with Warner Burns Toan & Lunde. The library does have a medieval aspect , a fortress of knowledge (according to the Wikipedia, one of its nicknames is 'Fort Book'. It's also the subject of the widespread 'sinking library' urban legend).

Eco's fictional medieval library was strongly influenced by
Jorge Luis Borges, in particular the Argentinian's Library of Babel, an unfolding, labyrinthine, almost infinite space, that apparently contained all knowledge:

'When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope.'

… Perhaps the internet is also best understood as a dual system (and not just the DOS vs Mac hierarchy that Eco playfully compared to religion back in 1994). We suggest that rather than just a cabinet of curiosities (the traditional wunderkammer remains a popular web metaphor), the internet is in fact a combination of reliquary and labyrinth, both a maze of one's own making and a receptacle for wonder, a place where getting lost is a self-conscious act, portals act as balls of twine, to be unwound or ignored at your peril.

The internet as 'a receptacle for wonder': I linked last year to something Matt Jones posted about awe and wonder and the net. The image of the net as labyrinthine library containing all knowledge makes me think of Dante's great image in the Paradiso (Canto XXXIII; Borges' fantastical library of course recalls this, in deliberately distorted form), when he looks into the heart of the eternal light and 'Within its depths I saw ingathered, bound by love in one volume, the scattered leaves of all the universe' ('Nel suo profondo vidi che s' interna, / legato con amore in un volume, / ciò che per l'universo si squaderna', Temple Classics translation).

'Reliquary' I am less sure about. I think it more useful at this point to do more work on the net-as-memory (individual +) and on what light might be (unexpectedly) shed upon this by studies such as Penelope Reed Doob's The Idea of the Labyrinth — which dedicates some pages to the relationship between labyrinth imagery and medieval understanding of memory and memory practices (on which, I recall, there's Mary Carruthers' book, The Book of Memory, amongst much else). Gabriel Josipovici years ago drew attention to the labyrinth as 'the favourite image of modern literature', 'the mazes of Kafka, Proust, Beckett, Borges and Robbe-Grillet' (The World and the Book). It takes me further than I meant to go in this post, but I can't resist quoting this from Gabriel's book:

In place of Dante's ordered journey we find ourselves involved with heroes who wander without map or compass along paths which are endless for the simple reason that we would not recognise the end even if we came to it. … there is no emergence for the heroes of modern fiction from the labyrinths of reflecting mirrors and demonic analogy. At the end they are no nearer the exit than they were at the beginning. All they have done is move through all the arteries of the labyrinth. Yet this, if they but knew it, is both the exit and the answer. … the writing was the travelling.
Unlike Dante, we have no vantage point from which to 'look back, standing on solid ground, over the winding uphill way, with its little figures of men and women dotted about at various stages of their own ascent' (The World and the Book). The internet, without end, is our own faithfully reflecting mirror, or demonic analogy.

Canter on Web 2.0

Matt Gertner:

… we should be wary of writing Web 2.0 off as vacuous before it has a realistic chance of achieving its potential, particularly since this is likely to take several years. … Web 2.0 may be a messy term, and it’s undeniably over- (and frequently mis-) used. But it’s still a useful way of encapsulating a real and important trend.

I'm all in favour of educated scepticism, but some reservations seem to fly in the face of what end-users are experiencing (and then to bring down the fundamentalist shutters on any further discussion). As usual, Richard MacManus has some sound reflections on the wave of anti-hype. (Incidentally, through his site I came across Michael Casey's LibraryCrunch and a posting there about libraries and Web 2.0 — something to which all schools and universities need to give a lot of thought.)

I've been reading Marc Canter's Breaking the Web Wide Open!: 'The online world is evolving into a new open web (sometimes called the Web 2.0), which is all about being personalized and customized for each user. Not only open source software, but open standards are becoming an essential component'.

Open standards mean sharing, empowering, and community support. Someone floats a new idea (or meme) and the community runs with it – with each person making their own contributions to the standard – evolving it without a moment's hesitation about "giving away their intellectual property." … The combination of Open APIs, standardized schemas for handling meta-data, and an industry which agrees on these standards are breaking the web wide open right now. So what new open standards should the web incumbents—and you—be watching? Keep an eye on the following developments:

Identity
Attention
Open Media
Microcontent Publishing
Open Social Networks
Tags
Pinging
Routing
Open Communications
Device Management and Control

… Today's incumbents will have to adapt to the new openness of the Web 2.0. If they stick to their proprietary standards, code, and content, they'll become the new walled gardens—places users visit briefly to retrieve data and content from enclosed data silos, but not where users "live." The incumbents' revenue models will have to change. Instead of "owning" their users, users will know they own themselves, and will expect a return on their valuable identity and attention. Instead of being locked into incompatible media formats, users will expect easy access to digital content across many platforms.


Guy Blakeslee: influences, friends … and more (much more)

kultureflash for 6 July carried a small, pithy notice about the then-upcoming summertime gig by Entrance that I went to and wrote about here. That short notice and a brief conversation with Guy Blakeslee after the gig led me to discover a raft of new music over the summer.

When we heard him in Bristol, Guy sang a powerful, unaccompanied cover piece, 'No More, My Lord'. He'd heard it first on the Goodbye, Babylon collection — an anthology of Gospel and 'American roots music' that, he told me, has had a big impact on singers. Subsequently, I listened to that collection and now, for me, it sits alongside the Alan Lomax collections, Prison Songs — from where the eponymous Goodbye, Babylon is taken. (I came across the two Lomax CDs following a recommendation by Tom Waits.) This term, I am teaching again Morrison's Beloved and there's material on Goodbye, Babylon which will be as valuable a teaching resource as the material I already use from The Black Book that Morrison edited in 1974 ('a landmark scrapbook of hidden history', Guardian).

Simultaneously, I have been taking on board a lot of new ideas about the Blues and the development of music in the last century. I really wish I knew more about this, though. Something of the voice on the track 'Jesus is getting us ready for the great day', from Goodbye, Babylon, reminds me of Jagger's carefully fabricated transatlantic voice in 'Prodigal Son', Beggars Banquet, 1968. There are numerous other cross-references to be made: eg, 'You've Got to Move' — Goodbye, Babylon, CD 3, track 9, Emma Daniels and Mother Sally Jones — was covered by a number of artists before the Stones recorded it in 1971. (Some day soon I must read Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful and, for slightly different reasons, Evan Eisenberg's The Recording Angel. Neither book is going to throw light on the artists I'm talking about here, but both are clearly important — about music traditions in the last century and how the recording industry has shaped and influenced taste.)

There are further interviews with Guy Blakeslee at In Music We Trust and Sponic, and there's a review of Wandering Stranger in Stylus. The other big discovery of the early summer was Devendra Banhart (interviewed here by soundgenerator). I'm off the Astoria to hear him next month. My friend, Joe, tells me that DB is a mesmeric singer/performer.

To do now: listen to a lot more of Skip James, a key influence on Guy Blakeslee; find out much more about John Fahey and Revenant Records, and the Soledad Brothers (I somehow stumbled over these in the summer, too) …  I have more to post soon about DB, Vashti Bunyan, Animal Collective, Antony …  And, since the mansion is endlessly capacious, I must lay my hands on as much as I can find of Cat Power (on Matador Records) — thanks, Gabby, for the additional shove to get on and do this. And thanks to Jamie McKendrick and Archie (F) for telling me to listen to more Leadbelly (another Lomax link). Now, if it weren't for the day job …


A History of Violence

Tom Stall/Joey Cusack (Viggo Mortensen)

What a fine and powerful film. Instead of 'everything is permitted', Cronenberg gives us 'everything is visible and apparent' (Shaviro — see below).

Many in the audience I saw it with late last night left disappointed: if they were expecting a straightforward Western/thriller for the 21st century, then, yes, they'd every right to feel their hopes had been dashed, but Cronenberg takes our genre expectations, and much more besides, and plays upon these to create something far-reaching. In his review (Guardian), J G Ballard wrote how, 'The characters in Cronenberg's films behave as if they are inhabiting their minds and bodies for the first time at the moment we observe them, fumbling with the controls like drivers in a strange vehicle'. And Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader said:

There's hardly a shot, setting, character, line of dialogue, or piece of action in A History of Violence that can't be seen as some sort of cliché. Its fantasies about how American small towns are paradise and big cities are hell are genre standbys that Cronenberg milks at every turn. But none of this plays like cliché; Cronenberg is such an uncommon master of tone that we're in a state of denial about our familiarity with the material -- a kind of willed innocence that resembles Tom Stall's own disavowals.

Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris)

We're made to stand back, to stand outside the roles into which we, and the films we watch, slip so effortlessly and to read everything that happens as strange and disturbing. Even the ending, so tantalisingly conventional in its expectations, remains with us as more than merely unsettling. Steven Shaviro:

As Tom, Mortensen is simply too blank to “identify” with; as Joey, he doesn’t display any of the self-congratulatory feeling that even Clint Eastwood (wonderfully minimal in expression as he is) does ultimately allow himself when he is in vengeful mode. … the greatness of Mortensen’s acting, in particular, lies in the way he switches from one to the other of his two ‘characters’ or personalities, so that ultimately he seems to be trapped in a no-man’s-land between them. He’s a man without qualities, which is why both of his personas seem unpsychological. The conventional way to tell this story would be to make one of the personas more basic, more in depth, revealing the other persona to be just a mask; but this is precisely what Cronenberg refuses to do.

Shaviro is particularly good in analysing the two sex scenes and, like him, I found them nearly equally unsettling (a word you can't easily avoid using again and again about this film) — and yet they are, nominally, so different:

The first involves playacting, as Edie drags Mortensen-as-Tom off to a secret tryst in the course of which she dresses as a cheerleader, and they pretend to be making out while their (whose? hers, I think) parents are sleeping in the next room. The second is when Mortensen-as-Joey drags Edie down the stairs and brutally fucks her in what is at least a near-rape (she ultimately seems to consent, though it’s clear that she continues to feel loathing as much as desire). What unites these two opposed scenes is that they both seem similarly distanced and performative, except that there is no sense of any realer or truer self behind the mask of the performance. The first scene is a parody of what adolescence is supposed to be like; the second is a parody of what maturity or adulthood all too often turns out to be like. This is why I felt a bit queasy during the first scene, and found it almost as disturbing as the second one. Both scenes suggest a kind of void, and a failure of contact: the two people never really come together. (Is this what Lacan meant by declaring that “there is no sexual relation”?). It’s not a void that one can feel anguished about, however; for the selfhood, or sense of “thrownness” at least, that would allow one to feel anguish is precisely what is missing, what has been replaced by a void.

Tom Stall/Joey Cusack (Viggo Mortensen) & Edie Stall (Maria Bello)

Ontological alienation, indeed! So much to be said, but here's Shaviro again (such a good posting) — first on the role of Tom's son, Jack, and then on the Moebius strip quality of the movie:

Jack Stall (Ashton Holmes) — left

… this movie really is a “history,” in the sense that it tracks the emergence of violence, and the different forms it takes at different times and in different circumstances. Violence is generated — almost as a autonomic effect — out of tiny rifts in the social fabric, or in the fabric of social myth (I mean, in the myth of noir as much as in the myth of wholesome “we take care of our own” Americana). This is why we get the story of Jack (Ashton Holmes), Tom’s teenage son, who erupts with violence [in response to bullying — above] in a parallel way to his father: as if what came back out of the past in the father’s case were generated as it were spontaneously, out of his very need to struggle, as an adolescent, with the (entirely stereotypical) problems of autonomy from the father and coming to terms with normative formations of masculinity.

The common interpretive tendency in cases like this is to see the ‘dark’ side as the deep, hidden underside of the ‘bright’ side, the depths beneath the seemingly cheerful surface. But in A History of Violence, everything is what it seems. Both sides, both identities, are surfaces; both are ’superficial’; and they blend into one other almost without our noticing. The small town, with its overly ostentatious friendliness, is a vision of the good life; but brother Richie’s enormous mansion, furnished with a nouveau-riche vulgarity that almost recalls Donald Trump’s penthouse, is also a vision of the good life. In their odd vacancy, they are both quintessentially American (this could be, as Cronenberg has hinted, an allegory of America’s current cultural divide: blue states and red states, which actually are more continuous with one another than anyone on either side recognizes… this is something, perhaps, that only a Canadian could see, as it is invisible both to us Americans, who are too caught up in it, and to people from outside North America, who are too far away).

Ballard's review is a must, too: eg,

The title, A History of Violence, is the key to the film, and should be read not as a tale or story of violence, but as it might appear in a social worker's case notes: "This family has a history of violence." The family, of course, is the human family, a primate species with an unbelievable appetite for cruelty and violence. If its behaviour in the 20th century is any guide, the human race inhabits a huge sink estate ravaged by unending feuds and civil wars, a no-go area abandoned by the authorities, though no one can remember who they are, or even if they exist. …

What is so interesting about the film is the speed with which the wife accepts that her husband, for all his courage, is part of the criminals' violent world, in spirit, if not in actual fact. A dark pit has opened in the floor of the living room, and she can see the appetite for cruelty and murder that underpins the foundations of her domestic life. Her husband's loving embraces hide brutal reflexes honed by aeons of archaic violence. This is a nightmare replay of The Desperate Hours, where escaping convicts seize a middle-class family in their sedate suburban home - but with the difference that the family must accept that their previous picture of their docile lives was a complete illusion. Now they know the truth and realise who they really are. Their family has a history of violence.

There's a flat-footed review in the Observer and a semi-compromised one in the Guardian. k-punk has a characteristically stimulating piece.


Friendship — a creative thing

I felt and feel, tho' left alone,
His being working in my own,
The footsteps of his life in mine;

Tennyson, writing about his friend, Arthur Hallam (In Memoriam, LXXXV). Quoted by Lyndall Gordon in her Guardian piece today, where she writes about 'a flair for friendship as a form of creativity', the biographer's life … and her school friend, Flora Gevint:

A more formless life is hard to imagine. And yet, as I remember the passion with which Flora urged her friends to be and do, I wonder if there are forms of action like friendship which leave no record but are as creative in their way as more public forms of creativity. … articulate as Flora was, and fearless in her truth to experience, she could not transmute life into art. Her skill was to shape people, not works; and this, I now see, was the pattern of her life - possibly, the pattern of many unwritten lives that are attuned to what Middlemarch calls "the roar from the other side of silence".