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I’ve been relatively absent in this space lately, partially because of the year we’ve all just had (and are continuing to have)–and partially because during this year, one of the main things keeping me tethered to any sense of purpose or fulfillment has been the lucky fact that I get to write a book.

As I’ve been writing, I’ve sometimes taken some time to post on this blog about issues specifically concerning improvisation. As we go, I’ll continue to update this page with anything related to the book project.

In the meantime, Contingent Encounters is now officially “forthcoming.” I.e., this past Tuesday I submitted the full manuscript to the folks at the University of Michigan Press. It will still be a long road before it’s out in the world, but I’m very excited to finally be able to share this work in a complete way. It’s been a while since I’ve discussed the book in this space, so I’m going to take a minute here to re-introduce it. If you know me and are sick of hearing about it, skip on.

Contingent Encounters: Improvisation in Music and Everyday Life is an interdisciplinary exploration of the concept of improvisation that compares how it appears between musical and quotidian spaces. The primary thesis is that, contrary to the ways in which this term gets deployed most commonly (in advertising, corporate consulting, but also as it turns out, in lots of scholarship), improvisation should not be considered a special kind of activity or a potentially transformative creative and relational practice; rather, it can be more productively understood as a contingent encounter between subjects, objects, and environments. That is: no matter where we look, from highly specialized improvised artforms to highly routine, normal experience, improvisation emerges necessarily as an embodied accompaniment to contingency in multiple senses. Following this, improvisation–considered just as often exploitative or routine as it is magical or epiphanic–cannot be understood as necessarily or per-se special. Emphatically ordinary, improvisation is simply the mode through which we live.

The secondary claim of the book is that taking this idea seriously challenges many of the aesthetic and political implications of how improvisation has been most commonly approached, a challenge that I suggest is necessary in order to avoid some of the epistemological and political problems that are still constantly raised by thinking this notoriously vague term.

Bluntly interdisciplinary, this book is organized into two sections: Contingent Music, and Contingent Life. In the music section, I analyze three case studies from Eric Dolphy, Mr. K, and Ingrid Laubrock/Kris Davis. In the everyday life section, I examine walking, baking, listening, working, and perceiving through a theoretical and phenomenological lens. I hope that this book should therefore be of interest to anyone working in jazz studies, musicology, sociology, and everyday life studies, as well as American studies and cultural studies folks for its emphasis on questions of entanglement, subjectivity, and identity. Its main theoretical interlocutors are: Sara Ahmed, Vijay Iyer, George E. Lewis, Fred Moten, Michel de Certeau, and Jacques Rancière.

I’ll be continuing to update this site with any material on improvisation, and I’ll be posting updates about the book itself here. I may also post excerpts or teasers, but for now if you want to hear more, you can register for this public talk I’m giving in November.

BIG FEELINGS (AGAIN)

Lately, all of my energy has been going into finishing my book. But last year around this time, I was also working on an idea called “Big Feelings”, which is an attempt to think about a particular strain, orientation, or tendency that I hear in indie rock after the 2000s period. I was working on this idea for the IASPM conference, which then got postponed due to covid. All to say: the conference is now finally coming up, and I’ve been really glad to get to work a little bit on this idea again.

Big Feelings is an attempt to name a certain approach to sound (melody, harmony, timbre), lyrical content, history, and gender performance that come together in indie rock after 2000 to produce a feminist affect in lieu of tackling politics directly. Although every band performs Big Feelings in different ways, I nevertheless hear an identifiable set of characteristics in the music, which are both broad enough to include lots of different kinds of bands, and narrow enough to identify specifically what they’re doing that’s so interesting.

For instance, as I’ve written here before, a big part of this has to do with the use of chord extensions that you don’t here in rock genres that have been traditionally coded masculine, particularly punk and punk adjacent genres. The usefully-named “power chord” has two notes. Big Feelings bands tend to avoid power chords in favor of chords with either lots of notes, and/or the inclusion extended harmonies (“extended” because they come from “above” the 3 notes of a triad, so that even if the chord is voiced with only a few notes, those notes come from a kind of “beyond”–the 7th, 9th, 11th, or 13th scale degrees and their variations). Big Feelings bands saturate their harmonies with extra chord tones, creating a lush and overmuch emotionality in sound–and it is this emphasis on feeling, emotion, and affect that (in part) makes this music political.

I’m not going to detail all of the characteristics here that I identify as a part of this umbrella term; I’ll do that in a future post where I also link the short presentation I’m giving at the IASPM conference. For now I’ll just say that for me, Big Feelings emerged as a concept to try to trace what happened to feminism in indie rock specifically after the riot grrrl movement. I’m really interested in this question because most critical attention to feminism and/in popular music usually moves away from rock around 1995, when The Spice Girls laid the groundwork for what scholars today refer to as postfeminist, popular feminist, or neoliberal feminist cultures. (These are specific but interrelated terms; see James 2020 for a comprehensive overview). So for me, Big Feelings is one of many possible answers to that question, an answer that aims to say something about rock specifically and not pop generally.

How funny, then, to read Laura Snapes’ excellent article in The Guardian last month, titled “Big feelings and nowhere to go: how gen z revived the power ballad”, in which she traces the emergence of vulnerability and emotional honesty in some of today’s most popular songs. This is definitely not unrelated to what I’m talking about, because emotional honesty as an organizing principle (or more accurately, total aesthetic framework) is, as Barry Shank writes, the “founding illusio” of indie rock. What this might indicate is that indie rock is having something of an effect on the broader pop landscape at the moment, helped along perhaps by lynchpin figures like Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers, who either straddle both worlds or else are so big as to encompass them.

In my thinking, Big Feelings is a sort of comprehensive aesthetic that nevertheless has a large spread. At the core of the concept might be a number of bands who embody all of the different aspects that I identify with this aesthetic. But on the periphery, some bands might participate in only one or two of those elements. Because my development of this term is specific, that’s how I see many of the pop artists that Snapes writes about–they are definitely sharing in something of the social dynamic that informs an increased emphasis on feeling, emotionality, and vulnerability in our contemporary moment, even if not all of them participate equally in this post-riot grrrl, indie rock sound that I’m listening to in bands like Snail Mail and Soccer Mommy. There are no hard edges on this concept, but tendencies that get passed around, affects that meld together, and traces that are left in sound for the rest of us to try to sort out.

MY YEAR-END 10 (+)

I do enjoy the ritual of looking back over the year’s best listening. Of the year-end list categories (of which I basically know two: the representative, comprehensive selection vs the reflection of personal listening habits)– this is definitely the latter. As a music scholar, I sometimes have really weird or unbalanced listening habits. For what it’s worth, these are the albums from 2020 that have been speaking to me.


Run the Jewels' RTJ4 Takes Aim at Systemic Oppression amid National  Uprising | Review | Consequence of Sound10. Run the Jewels, RTJ4
It’s aggressive, sharply political, inventively produced hip hop in a classic mold. I have been late to Run the Jewels, but I’m glad I came in on this album, which is really coherent and sharp. What I want is for Killer Mike and Soccer Mommy to headline a Bernie Sanders campaign rally concert together, or a compilation. 
9. Susan Alcorn Quintet, Pedernal
For me, this album is all about timbre, about the ways that Alcorn’s pedal steel, Mary Halvorson’s singular guitar, and Mark Feldman’s violin intermingle in space. A great album for the sounds alone.
Bigger Smaller Nows | Chord Four8. Chord Four, Bigger Smaller Nows
Friends of mine, the thing that I’ve always loved about this band is its collective voice: utterly unique, this sound emerges from a synthesis that is greater than the sum of its parts, and which comes together through the indispensable roles that each player contributes to the arrangements. No matter what is happening, from free improvisations to understated, elegant voice-leading, every moment of this album is built through thoughtful, musical support. An album that is as fun to listen to as it is smart.
color theory | Soccer Mommy | soccer mommy7. Soccer Mommy, Color Theory
I’ve been thinking about Soccer Mommy and other feminist/queer/non-binary indie bands for a couple of years now. I’m almost ready to try to say something about why I find this music so compelling, but not here and not now. What I am ready to say here is that Sophie Allison crafts some of the strongest melodies in the game, and when combined with the 90s-inflected timbres you hear on Color Theory, she has the key to my musical heart. “circle the drain” if you need to feel depressed or an articulation of your isolation; “lucy” if you want to hear them build something; “bloodstream” if you need a place to start. 
Dirty Projectors - 5 EPs - LPx2+ – Rough Trade6. Dirty Projectors, 5 EPS
After the actually not overrated Bitte Orca, I lost this band for a long time. The experiments they employed with digital instruments and sampling felt forced, and not easily fitted to the idiosyncrasies of the project. Plus I was distantly aware of personnel changes, and other factors that  seemed to prevent the band from to meeting the promise of what they started. On this sprawling album, I hear a paradoxical coherence for the first time since, an effortless blend of paired-down, Jobim-inspired guitar songs (“Holy Mackerel”), elaborate string orchestrations (“There I Said It”), and weird electronic sounds (“Bird’s Eye”, “Empty Vessel”, “Inner World”). For all that’s terribly interesting here, it’s also catchy, strong songwriting. Honestly, an album this long feels exactly right.
Album review: Circles by Mac Miller | The Reflector5. Mac Miller, Circles
I wrote about this album here, so I won’t repeat myself. I think you are obligated to give it a chance, not only because of Miller’s tragedy, but also because there’s no other album that bears on 2020 quite the that this one does. The first four tracks are my favorite.
Perfume Genius: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately Album Review | Pitchfork4. Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Play the first sixty seconds of the first track and you’ll hear the full ambition of the album contained like a seed. Audacious in scope, capacious in sound, and tenderly orchestrated throughout. A statement.
3. Gregory Uhlmann, Neighborhood Watch
Greg plays guitar for Perfume Genius, and is a friend of mine. I can’t say enough about his music, whether this album, or the previous one, or his work with Fell Runner, or Typical Sisters. Start with “Coupon”, watch the video, and read the lyrics, how they move from innocuous everyday life to the biggest questions that people face, to specific intimate memories via the poetic leap, easy and therefore deeply moving. Not one song has more consistently made me misty this year, and for 2020, that’s something.
Phoebe Bridgers: Punisher Album Review | Pitchfork2. Pheobe Bridgers, Punisher
One of those albums I touch so cautiously, because you can’t halfway engage it. Heavy on your chest. A devastating, fully-formed vision of everyday pain. If repeated listening wears away some of the magic of those first, bewildered hearings, I will be dipping my toe in here cautiously, as slowly as possible. “Kyoto” feels like it was written just for me. “I Know The End” captures something of the magic that Sufjan Stevens performed on Illinois, where heartbreak sounds anthemic. Like Fetch the Bolt Cutters, it’s one of the year’s best by any measure.
Fiona Apple: Fetch the Bolt Cutters Album Review | Pitchfork1. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
If this album isn’t on your year-end list, you’re doing it wrong. Apple has been a singular, wildly compelling musician since her debut, and every other album of hers has been in my permanent “classic” category. Extraordinary Machine is basically perfect, for example, but for very different reasons than Fetch the Bolt Cutters is (and it is too). Much has been written about this timely, home-recorded masterpiece, which re-defines rawness and intimacy and emotional honesty for the next decade. I also (sort of) wrote about this album earlier in the year, and I’m afraid the things I was thinking and feeling at the time are still with me, just as urgently.

Other things I’ve loved over the year (but which are not necessarily from 2020):

  • A.D. Carson, I Used to Love to Dream
  • Doja Cat, Hot Pink
  • Taylor Swift, folklore
  • Fazerdaze, Morningside
  • Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated Side B
  • Land of Talk, Indistinct Conversations
  • Beach Bunny, Honeymoon
  • beabadoobee, Fake it Flowers
  • Larry Ochs/Nels Cline/Gerald Cleaver, What Is to Be Done

Finally, remember that spotify is convenient and basically awful. Use bandcamp, buy albums when you can. Be well.

CONSPIRACIES AND IDENTITIES

In Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant develops their titular concept as a relationship  or attachment to something that is non-trivially detrimental to the subject experiencing that attachment, at the same time that participating in it provides a tether to a sense of identity, belonging, or managing that nothing else available can. For months, the back of my head has been trying–not to understand or figure out–but to at least articulate what seems to be happening with the well-documented phenomenon of conspiracy theories (e.g. QAnon) and the interconnected proliferation of disinformation, from brute ideological propaganda (e.g. Fox News) to memes shared on Facebook. I don’t think that cruel optimism on its own accounts for this proliferation, but it goes a long way towards helping to understand one of the key functions of misinformation, which has little to do with convincing anyone per-se about the validity of their claims.


With cruel optimism, there is a certain non- or extra-rational feeling that gets attached to the object of optimism. This attachment is not (purely) ideological, but affective: it seems to resonate with some aspect of the subject’s identity, desire, or mood in a way that can’t always be logically deduced. In this sense, cruel optimism seems to resonate with Ernesto Laclau’s understanding of political articulations, where social forces get linked to up to political positions not because they belong together, but because of contingent, thoroughly not-necessary historical conjunctures.

There is no necessary connection, for example, between (on the one hand) a conspiracy theory that posits the existence of a child sex trafficking (among other things) and (on the other hand) Republican political ideology, policy, or political action. There is, instead, a certain articulation, read here as attachment or linking, that connects the one to the other through an affective resonance. While that resonance is difficult to parse, we can quickly point to the ways in which the grievance, fear, and anger raised by mainstream Republican political discourse resonates with and is amplified by the sense of simultaneous persecution (the world is run by people other than “us”) and self-righteousness (these people are clearly evil) produced and facilitated by the fantasies that QAnon conjures.

This is why the content of QAnon’s claims doesn’t much matter; it’s not about truth or falsity, but the consolidation of a certain (angry, toxic) social group. Misinformation can sometimes function as a floating signifier in this way, in the way where the content is irrelevant (hence, often inconsistent); what matters is that it gets attached to a certain group community in an identifiable way so as to say, if you identify with this group, these are the ideas that belong to you, even if only for a short time.


The battle then is not about which ideas will be accepted as valid and which will be dismissed as “fake news”; rather, the battle becomes about which groups attached to those ideas get to decide what counts as common sense. If, as Stuart Hall insisted, hegemony is the site of a constant struggle, one gets the sense from both Fox News producers and consumers that they increasingly understand this, that they understand media’s role in upholding or contesting hegemonic discursive formations (which is to say affective/practical formations), and that the outlandish return to, doubling down on, and embrace of misinformation is a purposeful effort to wrest some sort of control over that narrative, however extreme it needs to be to jerk attention away from an alternative, neoliberal, increasingly mainstream consensus which at last nominally embraces concepts–such as diversity and globalization (offshoring, sure, but also immigration)–that are perceived as threatening to a white supremacist “way of life.” This process, it seems, is suffused with desperation, out of a kind of sense that a world is at stake, because it is.

Of course, in addition to functioning as an affective tether to a certain, destructive way of life, misinformation also undermines democratic institutions, and amplifies neo-fascism.


References

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press.

Hall, Stuart. 2019. Essential Essays Volume 1, edited by David Morley. Duke University Press.

Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe. 1985. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Verso.

RANCIÈRE AND AFFECT

One of the main ways I try to think about the political implications of improvisations is through Rancière. I won’t go into all of it here, but part of what this involves is linking up Rancière’s political thought with affect theory. I do this not only because Rancière’s politics make sense with the kind of ambivalent and contingent project that I am trying to develop, but also because his central concept, the partage du sensible has “sensible” right in the name–that is, not just visible or audible, but perceptible as a whole. Although Rancière himself does not speak in terms of affect, his description of the distribution of the sensible opens up ways of thinking affectively–that is, we experience power (the police), order, sense (as in “common-sense”), and our place within it phenomenologically, as mediated by the body. Affect, which is all about the force of bodies on other bodies, might be how we perceive both the police, and any opportunity for politics as well.
As I resume digging into this research, I am delighted to find that I am not the only one who has argued for thinking the distribution of the sensible through affect; Brigitte Bargetz’ excellent essay “The Distribution of Emotions: Affective Politics of Emancipation” lays out recent debates in feminist/affect theory, as well as arguments that have been made about thinking Rancière through affect. Subsequently, she develops the “distribution of emotions” in order to “shed light on a queer feminist theory of affective politics” (590). Using Rancière’s notion that politics is not separate from (but emerges within) the police, Bargetz argues that thinking the partage du sensible in terms of emotions 1) overcomes an “unsatisfactory and problematic opposition within queer feminist debates, which frame affective politics either in terms of reparation or paranoia”; 2) “marks the concept of subjectivation as a matter of emotions and thus links to queer feminist debates about the subject of feminist politics”; and 3) “builds upon the idea of equality among people rather than promoting an emancipatory politics of affect that relies on truth claims” (591-592).
Bargetz develops these ideas by turning to queer feminist scholars. Like me, she finds Ahmed (among others) useful for describing how
affect and sensation serve as starting points for describing the political in affective terms and for interrogating, for instance, how capitalism, sexism, and/or racism are inscribed in the affective bodily practices of the everyday, or how affects become a site of community formation. Viewed through such a lens, the world does not appear to be divided only into those who speak and those who make noise. Rather, the distribution of the sensible also marks a distinction between those whose feelings constitute the existing distribution of the sensible and those whose feelings are excluded (589).
On this view, both sound and emotionality are different haptic means by which the distribution of the sensible is established and perpetuated. As I try to think through the improvisation of politics, Rancière’s work is critical in setting up how we perceive and navigate contextual situations. As a self-aware and reflexive navigation of contingency–in short, as a conscious pursuit of the unknown within the known–improvisation requires a bodily perception of the distribution of the sensible and the contingency on which it rests.
Cited
Bargetz, Brigitte. 2015. “The Distribution of Emotions:Affective Politics of Emancipation”. Hypatia vol. 30, no. 3 (summer): 580-596.

ESSAY AND CONFERENCE

About a month ago, I had another essay published on BLARB. Since then, the world has changed again, and the moment I was writing about feels distant. Still, I’m really happy with how it came out, and thanks again to those of you who have read and shared.

In other news, tomorrow I’ll be presenting a paper at this online conference on autoethnography and music. I was very much looking forward to being in Glasgow, but it will nevertheless be a really welcome opportunity to think and talk with others during this time of isolation.

My paper is a version of arguments that I’ve presented at various points in the past. I’m essentially making the case that the study of improvisation, which is fraught by a series of persistent tropes (above all, the freedom trope), can be moved forward productively by in effect replacing all of these tropes with one: contingency. The rationale here is that only contingency guards against falsely universalizing assumptions/narratives about improvisation, such as the persistent conflation of improvisation with notions of freedom, democracy, horizontality, etc–a conflation which, as I’ve repeatedly argued, doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. On the other hand, if contingency and improvisation become synonymous, then every improvisation simply depends, and must be rigorously re-investigated in each case.

If I can make this case moderately convincingly, the question then is: what does this have to do with autoethnography? My answer to that has to do with method, and the ways in which scholars approach the study of improvisation. Approaching improvisation in the way outlined above means that you can’t assume anything about improvisation at all, ever, even if you just came to some convincing conclusions about a particular case, and even if you’re talking about another example from (let’s say) the same artist (because, again, contingency requires re-assessing how the context might have changed, whether that has to do with the musical approach, environment, time period, or whatever).

So, every time you go to study an instance of improvisation, you’re again asking, ‘in this case, what is improvisation doing, what does it mean, how does it function, and on what factors does it depend?’ Since scholars cannot possibly account for everything that goes into a given improvisation (subjects, objects, environments, histories, emotions, affects, political structures, recent experiences, and so on), the listening encounter between the scholar and the music becomes of central importance. The scholar chooses what factors to focus on, and that choice has consequences for how we understand the improvisation in question.

What do I hear when I listen to this music? What stands out to me as relevant? Where do I want to focus my study, and why? By practicing an autoethnography of listening, the improvisation scholar can more responsibly disclose the factors of a given improvisation that are of interest, what investments they may have in the research, and what effects those investments might have on the work being done. Autoethnography in this case becomes a way of narrating and accounting for the interaction between the scholar and the music in order to factor that interaction as one that partially structures our understanding of the improvisation we are studying. The improvisation itself–ephemeral, hopelessly mediated–is partially inaccessable. So what we’re accessing as readers is partially dependent on, partially a result of how the researcher handles and presents that example. Autoethnography is another way of helping to guard against assumptions about improvisation through disclosure, while redirecting attention to the mediated and irreducible encounters that present themselves as an improvisation.

TUESDAY TUNES: SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY?

The bass drum alone is worth the price of admission. That tubby, flabby bonk, produced through a tightly tuned and what I’m assuming is a quite thin drumhead, sounds simultaneously ludicrous and the purest expression of the spirit that animates The Bad Plus. Combined with the metal snare drum, also stunningly resonant, the sound of the band feels as though it has reached, with this fourth album, the heart of what they aspired to do when they began, although they wouldn’t have known it.
I don’t have the words quite to explain what I mean by this. From the first album through, TBP synthesized their music out of a variety of ostensibly opposed musical sensibilities: the avant garde and the popular, the swinging and the rocking, the hilarious and the earnest, the free-wheeling and the delicately arranged, the fun and the devastating. Something about these paradoxical forces is present in the sound of Dave King’s bass drum alone: bombastic and powerful, but also cartoonish, graceful at times, and always landing in the place you didn’t know you wanted it to. The first sound on the album is that one drum, and for good reason.
Are you not convinced? Listen to the intro of “Rhinoceros is My Profession” and tell me that bass drum isn’t animating the entire band. Or else, what about scooting up to 4:30 in “Let Our Garden Grow” and waiting until 5:00 when those two–precisely two– beautiful punches punctuate a momentary and miraculous silence, the eye of the storm that constitutes the unbound collective improvisation in the middle of this track. Did you hear how they flew in that space like they knew it was coming? A clairvoyant bass drum, the sound of deep knowing. While you’re here, why not stick around until the end of this track? There is a drum solo there, and, though briefly, you can hear the whole kit in its full eccentricity, always threatening to clip in the mix.
If I had to guess, I’d say that I learned 34% of what I know as a musician by listening to Dave King play the drums. But of course, what makes him so magical is also the context that he’s responding to, or rather, that he is helping to create. You hear things on a Bad Plus record that you just don’t hear elsewhere. For this reason, they captivated me when I was in high school (thanks, Tom), and to this day, I’m not sure I know any other albums as well as the first three of theirs that I got ahold of.
Have you ever heard a tune like “Knows the Difference”, where the piano and bass seem to move through the song together, but magically so, because there is no tempo, at least not from the drums, which seem off in their own universe, paying no attention to the music that’s happening? But of course, King is paying attention, and magically the music hits together at certain key moments, entirely inexplicably. It’s pure chemistry and experience that gets the band there, nothing more. The song is out of time and chaotic, but it anchors itself every so often, just often enough to ground your ears in a pulse. And then out of nowhere, nowhere at all, two snare hits clue everyone into a beautiful groove. Just like that, after five full minutes of chaos, an irregular but absolutely compelling riff takes hold. The song as it was completely disappears from view, and something new takes over.
Have you ever heard, for that matter, a tune like “Lost of Love”, which repeats its own form indefinitely, where nothing happens on paper but where the emotional affect swells until it’s unbearable? Sure, it modulates upwards over time. But that alone can’t account for the force of this song, this song where nothing and everything happens over 10 whole minutes. This one you can’t skip around. You have to listen from beginning to end, and you won’t get it until you do. The commitment that it takes on their part must be matched by commitment of your own. That’s the only way it works!
No. No you haven’t, is the answer. You haven’t heard a tune like that or anything approaching it. This album is the sound of a singularity. Out of time and in time at once. The silliest and the most compelling sound you never imagined.
It is especially interesting to revisit this album now, after the release of Never Stop II and Activate Infinity, both of which maintain a quite different energy from the rest of the band’s discography, and not just because they have a new pianist. Orrin Evans certainly puts a new spin on TBP’s trademark sound, but there’s also the fact of the band’s response to the music that Evans is contributing. Part of how the band is adjusting has to do with the way that they’re recording, which in the two most recent albums, produces a much more contained fire, a sort of delicate, compressed energy that crackles low in the mix. The bass drum in question here is gone, because the entire project has changed. The bombast you hear on Suspicious Activity? was dependent on that time, that place, those players; it expresses a context as much as anything.
If you’ve come with me this far, you know you’re going to listen to “Forces”, too. You’ll listen when you know you’re alone, when no one is going to tap you on the shoulder or text you for at least ten minutes. You get six or so for the song, and an extra four for what comes after. Before too long, I bet you’ll be back.

BIG FEELINGS, QUEER PHENOMENOLOGY, AND THE OPHELIAS

I’m giving a lecture on The Ophelias next week for an entire hour. I am really excited about this, not only because I will be able to try out some new ideas for the first time in public, but also because I’ll get to talk about many of my favorite things: feminist rock, music history, Rancière, Ahmed, and affect.
My basic aim is to start thinking seriously about feminist indie rock that is not the riot grrrl movement–that is, indie rock that a) doesn’t sound like punk, b) doesn’t have an explicit politics, and c) nevertheless produces political affects through their sounds. My working hypothesis at this point is that this type of music can be thought of through a large umbrella concept I call “Big Feelings”. This is a term that aims to describe how lyrical content centering the feelings of women and girls comes together with a certain sound to create feminist affect in the absence of an overt feminist position. I am still in the process of researching what this “certain sound” is, and when/how it appears in feminist rock. But at this point, it has a lot to do (in my mind) with chord extensions.
In the early 1990s, Susan McClary famously argued that classical music contains a sexual politics in its formal qualities insofar as it a) narratively constructs a conflict that is staged and eventually overcome; and b) insofar as this conflict is gendered. Building on her analyses of opera characters and the music that helps to construct their narratives, McClary shows how chromaticism and minor-key movements are coded feminine and are presented as challenges that both male protagonists and (coded male) tonic key centers must overcome. In middle movements, where  “madwomen”, “hysterics”, or sexually deviant female characters present conflict in the narrative, the eventual triumph of the male character is musically signaled by the return and re-assertion of tonic major, read as sanity, moral clarity, masculine rationality, and so on.1 As Anne Carson writes, this dynamic stretches to the Greeks, and has to do with the way that (gendered) sound factors into the notion of sophrosyne, a certain model of virtue and sound-mindedness that translated differently for men and women.2
I see something of a similar dynamic happening in feminist indie rock. Of course, it is not expressed in the same way as in classical music, and it does not mean exactly the same things. One of the central premises of all my work (e.g. 20182020) is that music is fundamentally relational, interdependent, and contingent. Therefore, this framework of thinking gendered sounds can’t be uniformly applied to all genres, but must shift into each respective social context, changing in the process. In the context of indie rock, that means two things: 1) feminist excess will be achieved through different musical means, means that conform to the inside/outside conventions of the rock genre; and 2) each band that participates in or produces this feminine excess will do so in different ways.
My theory is that feminine excess, centered around emotionality, expresses itself in many ways, but that one of the important commonalities (in rock music) is the chord extensions that intrude on or break through the relatively diatonic sonic space of masculine rock. This excessive sonic emotionality is not only coded feminine, but is overtly expressed as such, given that it is premised from the very beginning as coming from a woman’s voice and is not necessarily subject to the same types of compositional control that feminine excess was in classical music (because, in short, this  “excessive” emotionality is appropriated and polemically deployed by feminist groups). The type of feminine excess that I call “Big Feelings” is also not the same kind of excess that riot grrrl bands produced, which had more to do with co-opting explicitly masculine sounds from punk and post-punk. The sound of Big Feelings is something different.3
I think that The Ophelias are one of the bands that produces such a feminist affect. How they do so, however, is extremely distinct. As I will address in my talk, their music produces, in my view, a sophisticated musical version of Ahmed’s “queer phenomenology” where our bodies are directed differently in (social/musical) space. That point starts to bring this post into new territory, and so I’ll leave it here for now.

1 If this sounds like a stretch to you, consider “The 1970 edition of the Harvard Dictionary of Music, for instance, [which] includes the following entry:
Masculine, feminine cadence.  A cadence or ending is called ‘masculine’ if the final chord of a phrase or section occurs on the strong beat and ‘feminine’ if it is postponed to fall on a weak beat. The masculine ending must be considered the normal one, while the feminine is preferred in more romantic styles (in McClary 1991, 9).
Later, McClary elaborates: “Similarly, chromaticism, which enriches tonal music but which must finally be resolved to the triad for the sake of closure, takes on the cultural cast of ‘femininity.’ The ‘feminine’ never gets the last word within this context: in the world of traditional narrative, there are no feminine endings” (16).
2 “Female sophrosyne is coextensive with female obedience to male direction and rarely means more than chastity. When it does mean more, the allusion is often to sound. A husband exhorting his wife or concubine to sophrosyne is likely to mean ‘Be quiet!’” (Carson 1995, 126).
3 Other bands I hear in this “different” vein include Land of Talk, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, Japanese Breakfast, Fazerdaze, Van Dale, Alvvays, Yuck, Girlpool, Broken Social Scene and more. One interesting challenge is to think about why this affect seems to emerge from 2010 on, and on what historical developments it is predicated (including riot grrrl, grunge, shoegaze, post-punk, etc).
Works Cited
Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.
Carson, Ann. 1995. Glass, Irony, and God. New Directions Paperback.
McClary, Susan. 1991. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

TUESDAY TUNES: CIRCLES

Circles is breathtaking.
 
Mac Miller’s posthumous release is a concise and devastating statement that both encapsulates his musical vision and attests to developments cut short. As everyone who has commented on this album agrees, it is all but impossible not to read into Circles, to hear Miller sing “There’s a whole lot more for me waiting on the other side” and not wonder if or how he felt that some darkness was catching up to him. But such haunting meditations alone are not what makes the album so compelling; each individual song and the album as a whole are incredibly well-built from beginning to end. It is a moving statement with a coherent identity, mood, and sound.banner-art

This coherence has a lot to do with the
weird and lovely collaboration between Miller and Jon Brion. You can hear Brion’s signature touches in the percussion tracks1 (the vibraphone that rings out at the end of “Circles”, the marimba that you hear bouncing along in “Good News”) but also in the structure of the songs themselves: the chord progression in “Good News” loops indefinitely, never resolving, and the last chord in the sequence (the second half of the fourth bar) is a diminished chord that feels particularly Bion-esque to me. It’s the kind of “song-writer’s” harmonic movement that one might expect more in jazz or folk music, and which feels all the more magical in this context (I feel the same way about “That’s On Me”). More than magical, it’s also smart–the cyclicality invoked in the album’s lyrics is often built into the songs themselves through structures that repeat and have no clear point of tension or release. 
 
I have not been listening to Miller for a long time, nor do I know the ins and outs of his career. I was turned on to Swimming when I saw his Tiny Desk Concert and was struck by what a great band he had. I didn’t get his approach at first, but I kept listening to the background music. Eventually, Miller himself got to me. His phrasing, timing and delivery are not about being sloppy or mumbling so much as they are laying back on the beat, intentionally playing with time, displacement, and rhythm. This approach also makes its way into his singing, which repeats phrases (or moves in new directions) at unexpected times. This is especially true on Circles, where repetition is stitched into everything.
 
This whole ambitious project is laid out in the opening track, a repetitive introspection that spends most of its time bouncing between two chords. The landscape is clear: it’s just a subtle atmosphere for Miller to riff over, mostly bass and a few resonant notes from a vibraphone. In this understated space, with no drums at all, Miller feels at the top of his game, wise and reflective. The first line is right away brutal: “Well/This is what it look like/right before you fall.” The last line on Circles (“Once a day, I try, but I can’t find a single word”) is similarly affective because that word he’s looking for gets cut off–the album stops suddenly, totally unresolved, leaving the listener missing something. And yet, if you’ve got it set on a loop, the break perfectly sets up the beginning of the album. Before you’ve noticed, you’re listening again.
 
 
 

BRIEF UPDATE AND TUESDAY TUNES

  1. I wrote about postmodernism, neoliberalism, and jazz in a recent review for BLARB. You can read it here.
  2. I really enjoyed working on that review, and have decided to keep up doing them on this blog. I’ll post short reviews here periodically, starting next Tuesday.1
  3. This spring, I’ll be presenting early research on feminist indie rock at three talks: Pop Culture Association (Philly), IASPM-US (Ann Arbor), and the Penny Lecture Series at Miami. The latter is taking place March 2, from 6-8 in 001 Upham Hall.

1 I have stolen the phrase “Tuesday Tunes” from Hannah Segrave.