Despite being on DFA, despite having a logo that looks like some kind of pseudo-Eg-Banger rip-off, and despite having a name that makes them sound like a bedroom house music project from Sweden, Free Energy is, in fact, heartbreakingly melodic, toe-tapping, Southern-and-glam-inflected rock for stoners in fact and theory. Fans of Big Star, T-Rex, and getting drunk in rusted-out pickup trucks should get very excited.
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Whether poised behind his laptop or seated at the grand piano, Jóhann Jóhannsson maintained a stoic and unfathomable expression most of this evening. Though the Icelandic musician was set to make his US debut in the fall of 2008, that show was unfortunately cancelled. But this summer he started a short American jaunt with two performances at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City as part of the Wordless Music Series. In his minimal style, he builds recurring themes from traditional orchestral instruments and electronic elements. His last two albums—IBM 1401, A User’s Manual and Fordlandia—are two parts in a planned trilogy of conceptual albums with technological and corporate American themes.
Accompanying Jóhannsson was the New York based American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) who opened the evening with a performance of Gavin Bryars’ piece, “String Quartet No 1 (“Between the National and the Bristol”)”. After a short break to rearrange the stage, ACME returned on strings, backing Jóhannsson at his laptop, devices, and piano along with Matthias Hemstock fiddling away with electronics and percussion.
The show began with three songs from the newer Fordlandia: “Fordlandia”, which welcomes and guides the listener along before bursting open over a vast glacial panorama, “Melodia (i)”, and the ever-persistent “The Rocket Builder”. Projections of early footage of automobiles and highway construction shone along the walls.
Jóhannsson and ACME also took songs from earlier works, like his debut Englabörn including “Jói & Karen” and “Sálfræðingur”. These songs evoked cinematic images of hurriedly traversing dark alleys observant of peril, as the strings kept the melody and tempo verging on panic before unexpectedly it cuts to black. The sinister aura leaves an uneasy feeling lingering afterwards.
Other pieces were excerpts from past compositions, “Corpus Camera” and “Viktoria og Georg”, and two parts from IBM, “Part I Processing Unit” and “Part V The Sky’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black” whose forlorn, processed titular vocal vanishes as it switches to sweeping operatic singing and strings that descend to a more hopeful place.
The sole encore was “Odi et Amo”, a short piece that continued the evening’s somber mood (rarely interrupted aside from waitresses bringing out beer or milk and cookies). And though the stark white lighting rarely varied, only shifting into red and blue tones near the end, the projections remained monochromatic, changing from archival film footage to Icelandic landscapes to abstract scribbles. But finally as the applause came, ACME took their bows and Jóhannsson broke his stoney façade, smiled and bowed.
Matt Yglesias makes a point about cultural display in response to this James Wolcott essay, which explores the ways in which it is threatened by technology. Wolcott believes that rather than show our personality through the culture we consume, we’ll indulge instead an ethical poseurdom—“I suspect that once this downturn plateaus and shrinks in the rearview mirror, we’ll just stock up on other possessions, which will be arrayed and arranged to show off not our personal aesthetics or expensive whims but our ethics—our progressive virtues.” (Like I was arguing yesterday, consuming conservation.)
But Yglesias is obviously right that cultural display is not simply going to disappear.
I note that one thing a lot of people, myself included, sometimes do is use the Adium feature that automatically sets your IM chat status to the title and artist of the song currently playing on your iTunes. One way to think about that is as a substitute for the old game of visually displaying the physical records or CDs you own in your house. It’s a way to turn your music consumption into something quasi-public. Perhaps reading books in groups and writing blogs about what you’re reading will be the new way to share your cultural consumption with the world.
As much as I joyously do the last thing he mentions—blog about what I read and listen to, try to solve what interested me about it in public—I can’t imagine doing the other, that is, deliberately show off what I’m listening to with no analytical value added by me, as though to advertise the degree to which I am reliant on the symbolic power of the cultural product to define myself. I wonder if my distinguishing between those two sorts of behavior is a generational difference, a residue from having been a music listener in a pre-digital time. Perhaps I’m too old to appreciate how “showing off” has now become “sharing.” If I made an effort to let people know what I was listening to, I would only be able to see what I was doing as trying to score points, trying to beat out whoever was paying attention by one-upping them with something cooler than what they were listening to. Maybe that kind of competition is a contemporary potlatch, but to me it just seems weird. It seems to supplant the pleasures of me in my apartment listening to the music, which should theoretically be enough, with a different and more uncertain pleasure of showing others up—I mean, sharing with them my superlative tastes. But pop culture consumption ultimately has little to do with sensual qualities and more to do with signaling, with participating in a zeitgeist, with nailing down one’s social identity for a particular moment in time. Wolcott suggests that new media forms are undermining that signaling function—but it’s instead forcing us to think of consumption display differently. It seems more likely that technology will make an even larger part of our consumption into signaling (‘sharing”) rather than extracting whatever utility is in the work itself.
It would be a delightful consequence as far as I am concerned if the changes in media-consumption technology end up requiring us to have to add something from ourselves—our reaction, our interpretation, our pleasure, something—before we can carry out a signaling gesture with some piece of culture. You can’t just carry a copy of The Rainbow around on the subway and have people think you are in touch with the elemental, passionate human soul as captured by D.H. Lawrence. You would not be able to wear a book like it’s a T-shirt and get away with it. In other words, it would be great if everyone came to understand “sharing” as adding something significant and interesting to the public conversation about the things we are doing (though “doing” typically means “consuming”), instead of merely preening. With all tthe information readily available to us, it’s easier than ever to make that attempt.
But unfortunately, I think we are far more likely to see add-ons to the new media forms, along the lines of Adium, to allow for pure signaling displays that require no input from the one making the display. It’s part of the imperative to share, of which Facebook and Twitter are the current cultural harbingers. I don’t believe our culture would allow for a technological development that makes being a poseur harder rather than more convenient. Poseurdom is too seductive and useful an opportunity; it lets us deploy cultural capital without risk. I can carry around The Rainbow without losing points for having no clue what the hell Lawrence is talking about 95 percent of the time.
The State of Jones
by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer
Hardcover, 416 pages, $27.50
Released: 23 June 2009 (US)
“The State of Jones is a true story about the South during the Civil War—the real South. Not the South that has been mythologized in novels and movies, but an authentic, hardscrabble place where poor men were forced to fight a rich man’s war for slavery and cotton. In Jones County, Mississippi, a farmer named Newton Knight led his neighbors, white and black alike, in an insurrection against the Confederacy at the height of the Civil War. Knight’s life story mirrors the little-known story of class struggle in the South—and it shatters the image of the Confederacy as a unified front against the Union.”—Doubleday
The State of Jones
Chapter One [PDF]