Saturday, July 17, 2004

'Scuse me while I kiss this guy [Hendrix; THE AMBIENT CENTURY]

Finally watched an A&E "Biography" episode on Jimi Hendrix I taped a while back. The most noteworthy aspect of the show was the narration, which was so deliberately curt that it bordered on avant-garde poetry--basically a series of simple declarative sentences strung together and delivered by the narrator in this weirdly detached tone. Not sure I learned much, but there was some footage I hadn't seen before.

I've never been a huge Hendrix fan, but in retrospect this seems to have something to do with a guy I went to high school with who emulated Jimi and was really obnoxious during a school talent show. It's taken me 25 years to get that image out of my head, and maybe now I can start to appreciate the real guy's actual accomplishments, which are pretty remarkable.

Watching the A&E show made me pick up one of the books I found in a bargain bin in San Francisco--Mark Prendergast's The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Trance—The Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age--and look up what the author had to say about Hendrix. (Sadly, there was nothing on the guy from my high school.) Prendergast's premise is pretty clear from its title and subtitle; over the course of 482 pages he constructs a dictionary-style musical history of the 20th century which looks at avant-garde classical, jazz, rock, and dance music more or less equally, paying attention less to song composition than to production technique and overall sound. Some of the individual entries about people you've heard of are a little basic, but it's packed with all these folks who are completely new to me (Jorg Mager, father of German electronic music and inventor of the Partiturophon, anyone?), as well as intriguing juxtapositions of artists. (Where else would you find Donna Summer, Leopold Stokowski, Morton Subotnick, Yma Sumac, Surrealism, and Sun Ra sharing a column of the index?) I don't know anybody else who has attempted such a thing before, and I have a feeling I'll be logging many an hour reading this thing.

Characteristically, Prendergast's section on Hendrix talks more about his work with engineers Eddie Kramer and Gary Kellgren than about his fellow bandmates. Here's a snippet on the album Are You Experienced: "Hendrix seized on tape manipulation as a way forward in sound--a backing track would be reversed and a lead guitar solo inserted so that when the track was played in the normal direction the guitar would have a much more impactful entry, with rapid decay." And so on.

What I find fascinating about this general approach is that it provides a way to think about music--regardless of genre or social standing--as organized sound. And one of the common threads running through my various interests of the last several years--Brazilian pop, electronic/ambient stuff, and the Beach Boys, to name the most obvious ones--is the huge role that production plays in each of them. (Sadly, while there's plenty on the latter two subjects in the book, there's barely anything on Brazil here beyond a brief mention of Arto Lindsay's albums.)

I know very little about the technology of record production, but I've always been intrigued by it; I remember starting to notice Richard Perry's name on several of the albums I liked in the 1970s (most of which I'd probably find unlistenable or at least unremarkable today). Very few producers are household names: Phil Spector for sure, then who? Mutt Lange, but probably because of his famous wife. For years I've predicted that sooner or later somebody will advance the premise that the producers, not the recording artists, are the true auteurs of pop music-- just as film afficianadoes privilege directors over movie stars. Hasn't happened yet, but mark my words, son: The day will come.

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