I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Bee Mask’s Chris Madak spent the better part of the last two years constructing his new album. Now he reflects on the conceptual threads running through it.
There is a lurking strangeness in the music of Philadelphia-based composer Chris Madak, who records under the half-silly, half-terrifying moniker Bee Mask. Like sometimes tourmate Oneohtrix Point Never, Madak uses synthesizers and scraps of nostalgia to conjure a sonic world that defies the usual parameters of noise and pop. In part undeniably catchy and in part incredibly abstract, these tracks are constantly eluding their center. They are hauntingly subdued, quasi-human, and dramatic; far-out but felt. Bee Mask’s is an artificially intelligent music reminiscent of that moment in sci-fi stories when technology turns in on itself and gains a glimmer of human consciousness—think HAL 5000 or Johnny Five.
My talk with Chris—an e-mail exchange, actually—was surprising on a number of levels. To hear him wax philosophical on everything from Platonic forms to the evils of streaming video to the nature of time itself can be a disorienting experience. You want to think the guy behind a project like Bee Mask possesses a laconic minimalism across the board, but, then, that’s just not the case. After reading his responses to my questions, I was at first a little stunned. He had successfully gone in with a little scalpel and dug out the bits of the questions that seemed to him to ring false, and then filled in the empty space with his own ruminations. But then this approach is similar to the one that he takes to composition. Instead of hearing the music as ultra-minimal and restrained, I started to think of it as a reduction of sorts—a block of sound, its superfluous parts removed one by one.
Chris’s approach to this interview was unconventional as well. He responded to my questions—which became more like prompts—with an unexpected richness and enthusiasm. He talks a bit about his excellent new album, When We Were Eating Unripe Pears, out now on Spectrum Spools, and instead of offering the usual “mixtape” of YouTube videos, gives his thoughts on the shifting meaning of artistic responsibility. Feel free to read the small print.
Nick Earhart When did you start with this project? What got you into more ambient, sound collage–type music?
Chris Madak The earliest recordings used on a Bee Mask release date to 2003, the beginning of work on the first material released under the name to 2004, and the name, the earliest releases, and the earliest associated performances to late 2005. The whole business of “having an alterego” crept out of an ongoing studio practice while I wasn’t paying attention and has proven surprisingly tenacious and demanding, much to my occasional chagrin.
As for how I got into this sort of thing aesthetically speaking, I could tell a number of different stories, but really it’s difficult to point to a single “road to Damascus” moment. I had a rather complex acculturation from an early age and I think that it was ultimately easy enough to find out about cultural things and comparatively difficult to develop the necessary confidence to trust my own readings of them and prioritize the implications of those readings in my work. That second narrative is, I think, much more important.
NE I’m listening to the record now. There’s definitely an alien presence there, but it also seems like some of these tracks could have been field recordings in a rainforest or something. Is that balance of obscure, cosmic sounds and more organic, naturalistic ones something you had in mind when you were making the album? Is that what you were getting at with the cover art?
CM The cover photo was taken by a friend of mine, Mark Price. But I did choose it because of its resonance with certain ideas that informed the making of this record in particular and my understanding of what we do when we make records in general. I see the greenhouse as part of a symbolic complex concerning the relationship of human labor and natural processes, the various ways that time can inhere in objects, how we get time “into” and “out of” objects, the relationship of this reified time to the time of labor and the time of nature, and rituals and superstitions regarding the use of objects that “contain” time. The record is a paradigmatic example of this category of object and the greenhouse is in that sense a metaphor—maybe not so much for the record itself as for the studio and the conditions which make the record possible.
Please bear in mind that this is more or less directly out of my own notes and doesn’t aspire to any sort coherence, but insofar as every greenhouse is a term in the series of “constructed Edens” beginning with the various arks of flood mythology, it entails a project of suspending both varieties of postlapsarian time (??labor?? and decay). The work of its partisans is to reconcile the world of objects (??specimens??) and the world of forms (??taxonomy??) through a process of synthesis with the ultimately impossible goal of producing a stable, zero-entropy situation in which objects and forms are reconciled and cannot diverge. This necessarily entails the cessation of time, and from within the record, or indeed, from within the greenhouse we want to see time—paradoxically—as a momentary disturbance of eternity.
This Platonic distinction between forms and objects is fundamental to electronic music—even the origin stories where we talk about the conflict between the concréte and the elektronischeare in a sense parables about it. However it is not the same as the distinction between the organic and the inorganic, and the question of what we mean when we apply that distinction to sound is an interesting one as well, perhaps all the more so because it doesn’t intuitively strike me as especially applicable to Pears. Since sound is all physics and no chemistry, and since it seems oversimple to conflate organic sounds with acoustically produced sounds, do we mean to say that organic sounds are those which are evocative of the resonant properties of organic materials, or more specifically those which have some essential characteristic associated with nature, such as harmonic distribution of partials?
Then again, harmonicity is exemplified by the classical waveforms (sawtooth, triangle, square), which I think most lay listeners would consider inorganic sounds, though they’re the basis of subtractive synthesis precisely because they’re efficient starting points from which to begin approximating certain aspects of “organic” sound. So, synthesis is one historically specific part of an ongoing cultural project of approaching the organic through inorganic means, which would include theories of spontaneous generation, 18th-century automata, and a-life, to name just a few. That’s not an especially outré position; a record such as Switched on Bach works as a substantive interpretation precisely because the implied analogy between synthesizers and pipe organs is along these very lines.
To bring this back around to Pears, I use certain types of sounds which are part of the same symbolic complex as the greenhouse and which I’ve tried to approach from both sides of the form/object divide, by evoking certain of their characteristics through synthesis but also by sampling them and processing those samples in ways that take them further into the realm of abstraction and result in their sounding more “hypothetical”. One of those sonic signifiers is the bell, and not only do bells have an historical association with the marking of time, the craft of harmonic tuning of bells is also an example of imbuing “inorganic” material with “organic” qualities; another important signifier is water, which has connotations of both measurement (water clocks, or something like MONIAC in a more bonkers case) and its impossibility (Heraclitus), and which is the necessary condition of the organic as such.
NE How do you compose your tracks? Is it mostly improvisational, or do you have an idea of what you’re going to make going into the process?
CM It’s axiomatic that there’s feedback in the process and that the end result is always informed by things that could not have been known in advance; that’s one thing that we mean when we talk about “experimental” music. That said, I am always trying to have better ideas going in and to get better at realizing them; the fact that the finished work can never be seen entirely ahead of time (if it could, there would be no reason to make it) doesn’t mean that intention isn’t a legitimate aspect of craft.
As for the process of making Bee Mask pieces, “research and development” is the most important aspect; I’m constantly gathering sounds and developing concepts, both of which get sifted into groups that ultimately become the basis for tracks, records, etc. Sometimes things are grouped based on perceived affinity and sometimes for essentially the opposite reason – because I can’t intuitively see them having anything to do with each other and I know that by the time I get them all worked into something that has a quality of “finishedness” (which is even harder to do when they’re alongside other parts which seem to work effortlessly together), I’ll probably have surprised myself a bit. I’m typically very brutal about not discarding anything casually; the challenge is to use every part of the animal, so to speak.
One of the reasons I work this way is that I’m fascinated by the idea that any sort of art practice boils down to developing techniques for making arbitrary decisions seem inevitable, and I do think that certain extremes of aestheticized arbitrariness can be mistaken for improvisation when they’re actually more representative of decisions taken very deliberately within an idiosyncratic idiomatic framework. The actual improvisation involved in Bee Mask happens either as a means of generating microstructure (individual notes or textures) in source material—in which case it’s more analogous to “automatic drawing” or “oblique strategies”—or as a result of rotating pieces under development into live performance in order to get more information about what aspects of them are/aren’t working. In that case, macrostructure (bars, sections) will start out very open and become increasingly fixed over multiple performances.
NE In your statement about the record, you wrote that it “should probably be considered the proper ‘sequel’ to Canzoni dal Laboratorio del Silenzio Cosmico.” Can you talk a little about this? In what ways did that earlier record inform your aesthetic and approach for this new one?
CM For the most part, this was a simple statement of their being the same sort of release in terms of rough scale, pacing, and formal construction. The two things that I finished between Canzoni and Pears were nominally a retrospective (??Elegy for Beach Friday??) and a single (??Vaporware/Scanops??), so Pears was conceived of as sort of a return to engagement with the conventions of the LP. Of course the market tends to see form in records primarily as a function of running time, which to be fair is an important aspect of its history. With Bee Mask, however, I’ve tended to keep program lengths inside a relatively narrow range in order to draw a more pronounced line under what I think are more interesting features of phonographic form, but also because I’m conscious of constructing things that can be cut optimally for vinyl and because I find quantitative valuation of records more than a little repugnant.
Besides all that, there are in fact some specific nods back to Canzoni on Pears, involving the use of similar source material (albeit to very different ends), similar gestural tropes, etc., in similar structural places. I’m hesitant to floss that sort of thing too intensely though, because it really just amounts to “having a style” insofar as style entails manipulating the signifiers of difference and repetition for aesthetic effect.
NE There’s almost an aspect of “eavesdropping” in your music, as if the songs themselves have been going on for longer than you managed to capture to tape. In this sense, one could imagine them as different rooms, each with a different ambiance/environment. How do you think about your music in terms of time and space?
CM “Eavesdropping” isn’t necessarily the first concept I’d have reached for, but I like it; I often think of the term in relation to having the compulsion to try to hear through other peoples’ ears while knowing that this is both impossible and likely to land one in sort of twisted situations. Maybe you’re right to imply that this sort of voyeurism has a relationship with a kind of “architectural” approach? I think that “eavesdropping” and the sense of the voyeuristic are experiences that require that when we encounter the work, we feel not so much like we’re witnessing a “fact” (the condition that a lot of formalist and process-based work aspires to), but that instead that we have the sense of another agency brokering the encounter and leading us through it.
That sense of another subjective presence, in but somehow other than the work, becomes stronger when the sense of one’s attention being directed through the work crosses the threshold of the “cinematic.” I’m thinking here of the way that Tarkovsky, or Kubrick, or especially Fellini structure time in terms of progression through architectural space and the relationship of this process and the oneiric and allegorical character of the space itself to the centrality of voyeurism and unreliable narrators in each of their work. The agency that we posit in response to our feeling that we’re being “guided” is one that initiates us and also makes us complicit in something. I’m at a loss for the right archetypal characterization, but “mephistophelean” comes close to it. Maybe it’s what we get as listeners for subscribing to the fantasy that we can hear a record through the ears of the artist?
Of course, this is only one of a nearly limitless number of ways to consider the record in terms of time and space because the craft of making records is on one level largely about the manipulation of perceptual cues specific to the experience of time and space for aesthetic ends, and anyway when we’re talking about acoustic phenomena, time (??frequency??) and space (??wavelength??) are essentially two ways of describing the same thing,
NE What instruments and sound sources were you using on Unripe Pears? What kinds of gear did you use to record it?
CM In the notes for the record itself, I indicated the use of “synthesizers, sampler, percussion, guitar, tape, and computer.” I’ll concede that computer is rather opaque, but my prevailing concern is with avoiding the way that mentioning specific pieces of hardware or software tends to get reduced to endorsement, flattening the actual complexity of artists’ relationships with their tools.
I think that when it comes to discussing electronic music, conventional wisdom has it backwards and it’s the patch- or algorithm-level particulars of a composition which are conducive to deeper appreciation, as it’s really these decisions that form the identity of that piece. The decision to use for example one filter or waveshaper or compressor instead of another is “inside baseball” and is made on the basis of availability, visceral preference, and most importantly one’s experientially grounded understanding of the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of particular implementations. Except in some rare outlying cases, gear is actually pretty peripheral to understanding what makes a piece tick.
Of course I can and do stand around all day talking about the comparative merits of different highpass filters or why I don’t think waveforms with sharp corners should ever be done digitally and there is a legitimate purpose served by the hashing out of this information among artists and engineers, but the idea that this sort of thing is a matter of general interest and by implication that one’s work should be justified or marketed on this basis is utterly backwards. Anyway, equipment is mostly important to me because 95% of it is terrible and it’s a constant pain in my ass; my idea of the ideal studio is a comfortable chair and infinite presence of mind.
NE Over the five years you were making the album, do you feel like your tastes or approach changed significantly? Was it a challenge to see the thread between the 2007 stuff and the more recent recordings?
CM Five years shouldn’t be an especially long amount of time to spend on making something that will outlive you, even if only in landfills and on fried hard drives, but that’s a different question. The actual composition of the record (as distinct from the development and collection of source material) took place roughly from early 2011 through mid-2012, so for example, when I tracked the parts that would eventually become the basis of “Rain in Coffee” (Fall 2007), I didn’t have the idea of this particular record in mind; all I knew was that the sound was compelling, potentially useful, and not appropriate for anything that I was working on at the time.
The track “Unripe Pears,” on the other hand, is semi-titular because it marks the point at which I started to get the sense that I was working on this record. One of the layers in that piece came together very quickly in the studio and immediately drew parts of three older sessions into its orbit. As I was putting a rough mix together, the combination of source material suggested a very specific sort of postproduction aesthetic, so I started looking back at my accumulated odds and ends through that lens and the title, which had already been floating around for a while, sort of attached itself to the project and things proceeded from there. I think that my approach became somewhat more refined during the time that I was working on Pears, but I don’t think that it changed definitively; if it did, that would probably indicate the beginning of a new project.
Where taste is concerned, it’s only natural for one’s preoccupations to shift over time, but the relationship of personal taste to artistic production isn’t always a linear one. As precious as this might sound, I think it would be wrong to put my needs before the needs of the work. My tastes are both larger than and somewhat peripheral to—though always in negotiation with—the trajectory and internal logic of the project. Things become clearer over time as a result of one’s insight deepening through sustained engagement, but also as a result of one’s path getting progressively narrower as more and more decisions are made within the project, since each decision must in some way account for all the prior ones. What I’ve found as a result of working on one project for a long time is that every action, no matter how trivial, closes doors but very few actions open them, so when you feel a door opening, you should take it very seriously.
NE What is your live show like? How is it different from the records?
CM I’m tempted to be glib and ask how any live show is anything like a record, but I do take your meaning. One of the understood conventions of doing “music,” as opposed to “sound art” or “performance art” or whatever is that you are expected to maintain a studio practice and a performance practice and that these will have some sort of more or less consciously constructed relationship with each other. Since the locus of my practice is in the studio, I need to be particularly careful about getting something useful out of performing, or else it’s sort of analogous to being told “make all the paintings you like, but you’ll be heading down to the boardwalk to do caricatures once you need to make ends meet.”
So what’s potentially “useful” about performance? I try to think about what I need in order to bring ideas back into the studio which could only have been gotten through performance. It’s also important to me to try to deliver the same sort of thing that I like and respect from other performers when I’m in the audience. For the most part those imperatives line up pretty well; for example I don’t often revisit finished work unless I think it has some significance for the occasion or some specific relationship with the rest of the material I’m performing and I work hard to be able to keep complex pieces open-ended and subject to change at any moment. There’s often some pretty intricate sequencing involved but I don’t ever play over backing tracks as such because the bottom line for me personally is that I want to know that if I’ve played something the same way twice, it was because that was the right way to play it both times, not because I was phoning one in. So the performances are “different from” the records in that unless I’m feeling celebratory or reflective you probably won’t hear much material that’s already been released, but they’re actually not different at all as they’re a part of the process of making the records.
That’s not to say that everything’s happily aligned all the time; if I’m having an off night, the soundsystem is unresponsive, or something’s messing with my ability to read the situation, it can feel pretty grim up there and my performance will wind up being more cagey and reserved than it might have been otherwise. Right now, the number one factor that causes problems is aggressive behavior by people in the audience documenting performances; this has devolved to a completely ridiculous level over the last year or two in particular and is totally disrespectful not only to artists, but also to everyone who actually goes out to listen and not think about how it’s going to play on the internet the next day.
At one point, I was completely okay with the odd photograph for personal use or even with the culture of one-to-one tape trading as it used to exist, but once YouTube videos start showing up before you’re even out of the venue, this stuff has obviously hit an entirely different plane. It entirely shreds the social contract of the performance, which is based on my facilitating a shared experience of time and doesn’t work if I feel like I have to aim for posterity in advance; the sense of entitlement behind it is really offensive and I know that I’m not the only artist who feels like it’s much harder to relax and take risks out there as a result. This is why some of the smartest and most forward-thinking electronic music promoters I know have started to establish “no cameras” policies; it’s no coincidence that these are also the people who have put the most thought into how to maintain their reputations for doing events where artists perform at the absolute height of their potential. I’m hoping to see a lot more of this sort of thing in the near future.
NE I read that you performed at a festival celebrating the Sonic Arts Union composers. Can you talk about the influence of contemporary compositional music on your own musical output?
CM That performance was a piece commissioned by International House and the Pew Center for the festival. My relationship with the work of the SAU composers has been deeply formative and it was amazing to have the opportunity to reflect on where my work is relative to that tradition right now, as opposed to eight or nine years ago when my priorities weren’t as codified and the surface-level influence might have been more obvious. Jesse Kudler, who curated the festival, did a particularly wonderful thing in presenting the current work of Behrman, Lucier, Mumma, and Ashley, rather than trying to revisit the classics, and their performances ranged from illuminating to revelatory to actually life-changing; I’m grateful to have had the chance to hear them, let alone to be presented in the same company.
As for how I relate to the tradition of American electroacoustic music of which the SAU is a part, I think it’s easy when looking back at the 1960s and ’70s to canonize things and forget that projects like the San Francisco Tape Music Center and the ONCE Group existed on the periphery of the establishment through the ingenuity of people who were able to advocate for their work effectively across cultural boundaries, and that many artists of that generation such as Robert Ashley and Morton Subotnick have moved in and out of academia on their own terms throughout their careers.
The extent to which all the vectors of the commercial, countercultural, high-cultural, et al converge on points like the NYU Intermedia Studio, the Electric Circus, or the Music of Our Time imprint demonstrates exactly how scrambled and symbiotic these cultural categories were even then, and from my vantage point this doesn’t look fundamentally different from the contemporary situation. That’s a really crucial idea in itself, and an argument that we can and should learn much from those artists and their work. When we put things on pedestals we miss the most important lesson of history, which is that the best things that have been done by people were done by people.
NE I’m also curious your thoughts on another aspect of “high art” music. Now that the tools to make so-called “experimental” music are so readily available—and with the web there’s an unprecedented access to these types of sounds—what do you see as the role of the experimental composer in the contemporary musical landscape?
CM When I say that artists now are basically doing the same things that they were forty years ago, it isn’t to say that the role of the artist isn’t historically contingent, just that it’s not thathistorically contingent. We still have to get out of bed every day and go tilt at windmills. What changes more quickly, as you suggest, is the landscape of incentives, opportunities, and liabilities in which we work, but to what end? This can be a difficult point to get across in the current discursive climate, but I don’t think we can say with any real credibility that the web represents a decisive qualitative advance as a medium for cultural engagement over the institutions its apologists purport to “disrupt,” such as public libraries, public universities, neighborhood record shops and bookstores, local freeform radio, free weeklies, and so on. What it does represent is a decision we’ve made—or which has been made on our behalves—to take a trickle-down approach to these sorts of social projects. There’s this illusion that because the system runs on user-generated (or user-expropriated) content, it’s bottom-up, when all of these people posting, tagging, and uploading are basically uncompensated workers in a Foxconn of the mind.
Predictably, this has made a handful of people very rich and they’ve used their money to cloak the entire enterprise in Astroturf and false populism, with farces like the SOPA/PIPA blackout being a shining example, while what actually reaches the end users of culture is dazzling in its variety but ultimately either derives its value from the cannibalization of work done prior to the ascendance of this paradigm, succeeds in spite of the web rather than because of it, or else is of dubious quality. The utopian moment of the Internet is long past and the parties driving the argument that this is a new enlightenment now have conflicts of interest on a historically unprecedented scale.
On the other side of the equation, skeptics are right to some extent to be concerned about what’s being lost and about the normalization of distraction and shallow engagement, but even insightful critics tend to miss the mark, I think. The internet doesn’t “make us stupider” so much as it makes it impossible for us to avoid the consequences of how stupid we’ve been all along. More than anything else, the web is a sort of lens that amplifies and focuses the consequences of bad ideas and sloppy categorical reasoning. This is obviously a game-changer for artists, but not in the way that you seem to suggest.
Earlier, I invoked the idea of advocacy in discussing the essential continuity of the work of artists now and in the mid 20th-century, and while of course I can’t speak directly to the experience of being an artist in the ’60s and ’70s, I do have the sense that their advocacy was primarily on behalf of the legitimacy of a particular aesthetic agenda. For example, the Ford Foundation initially declined to fund the San Francisco Tape Music Center on the grounds that there was already one electronic music studio in North America, and later, when that studio (Columbia Princeton) acquired a Buchla synthesizer (the design of which was catalyzed by the efforts of the SFTMC), they initially went to absurd lengths to restrict access to the Random Voltage Source to appropriately credentialed personnel. If this all seems a bit quaint, I think that it’s because we don’t have those sorts of problems now, though the reasons that’s so are complex and maybe a bit unsavory. Still, even if it is a pyrrhic victory, advanced and/or experimental work is no longer inherently more marginal than any other sort, and to the extent that it still appears that way, it does so largely because the people making it have internalized self-marginalizing ideas and behavior.
So the terrain of advocacy now is different from what it was then, but what hasn’t changed is the need for artists to advocate for the legitimacy of their work, the dignity of their labor, and the resources necessary for them to follow the threads of their individual practices. There’s a bit in Music with Roots in the Aether where Robert Ashley is talking with David Behrman about how the future looks to them circa 1976, and they agree on this optimistic vision of progress in which the arts will gradually subsume many of the spheres of human activity then considered the domain of science. The last time I watched it, I was struck by the similarity of that proposition to the 20th-century idea that technological advances were an inherent part of a social contract that included things like progressively shorter workweeks and rising real wages. If this sounds quaint, it’s because we have very real problems now that they didn’t have then, and in light of this fact I think our role is to be lucid in distinguishing the false abundance of data miners and hoarders from the real abundance which would permit us to live and work on our own terms. Above all, I think that if we truly believe that what we do is important, we should feel that it’s worth defending.
NE As a lead-in to your Youtube mix, can you talk a bit about other types of music you are a fan of? Who are some influences that Bee Mask listeners might not expect?
CM That’s not really something I can speak to as it depends entirely on what one would expect, and I’d hate to think that people generally imagine that artists listen to things that sound superficially similar to the work they make; I have a hard time thinking of anyone serious who actually operates that way. Besides, I don’t really have the stomach for taking the victory lap of demonstrating eclectic or counterintuitive taste or proudly standing behind guilty pleasures anymore. All those rhetorical tropes bore me silly. (Though this question does make me burningly curious about what you would imagine that I listen to around the house …)
Anyway, as you may have gathered from some of the things I’ve said above, I’m not exactly a fan of YouTube. That isn’t to say that I don’t go in for the occasional cat video or whatever, but since we’re talking about music here, I want to be clear about where I stand. I won’t create a double standard by tacitly encouraging treatment of other artists that I find offensive when it’s done to me. I do send takedown notices when people upload my work (and yes, they’re coming from me and not from any label). I don’t ask uploaders nicely because I don’t have to, and anyway it’s not like they asked me. This isn’t noncommercial use and if I wanted my work making money for Google, I’d be uploading it myself. For the record, I could care less about effect on sales either way; this is a basic question of respect.
Typically when I make this point, people are quick to say, “what about ContentID?” That’s absurd because the entire model depends on their already having your work so they can set the terms, which doesn’t exactly strike me as negotiating in good faith. Of course, there’s also the fact that when you do start sending enough takedown notices that they can tell you’re serious, YouTube asks that you furnish proof of corporate affiliation and a publicly listed phone number, neither of which are required for the service of DMCA letters. Their boilerplate even concludes with a stern warning about the legal penalties for filing false DMCA notices. This could easily give an individual artist who doesn’t know the relevant laws the impression that they are not eligible to protect their work from expropriation for commercial use and even that they may be incurring liability if they don’t do everything correctly. It’s important that anyone who has received one of these emails know that the instant you tell them that you are aware that you aren’t legally required to provide the information they’ve requested, they will comply with your takedown notice. Failure to do so would void their safe harbor protection.
Considered at scale and as corporate policy, this is outrageous. The longer your work stays on YouTube, the more Google can make selling ad space against it, so there’s certainly the appearance of an incentive to delay the process and take advantage of artists’ ignorance of their legal rights. That seems to me like pretty telling behavior from a company that cynically raises the flag of civil liberties through its front groups whenever its commercial interests are at stake. So as you might imagine, I’d prefer not to do a YouTube playlist along with this interview, though I’d very much like the opportunity to put some of this information on the table; many people who use YouTube casually (including myself until a couple years ago) may not have much of a sense of what’s going on in the guts of it.
Finally, I’d actually be very curious to hear your thoughts on the effect of embedded streaming media on arts journalism. I can’t imagine that it’s a good thing to feel like your ability to hold the attention of readers has effectively been removed, and I worry personally about the way in which having the work under discussion right there in a piece of writing precludes the time between reading about a work and encountering it necessary to form a gap between expectation and reality, as well as the effort of seeking out necessary to give one a stake in the outcome. I’m inclined to believe that this is not conducive to the formation of new ideas about the work.
NE Hmm, that’s a lot to think about in one go. I guess I’ll start by saying it’s fun to imagine an artist who only listens to music or looks at work that resembles his or her own. That’s just out of sync with the times. But if someone could be so sheltered, it’d almost be a triumph of insularity and a type of tunnel vision that, I guess, precludes the aspect of seriousness you talked about. It does make me wonder though … Like, some guy who lives in his parent’s basement and only makes carbon-copy replicas of mid-career Pearl Jam album tracks or something. I’m sure if we looked deep enough we could find examples of artists who have that kind of limited scope and it informs their work in an interesting way. Maybe that is a component of what people call outsider art.
A while back I was reading about the artist James Castle, who was deaf and never learned to speak, read, or write. He made these bizarre, affecting landscape drawings out of charcoal soot that he mixed with saliva, and from what I remember he never really communicated with the art establishment. It’s a pretty extreme version of the isolated artist trope, but it resonates with people nowadays precisely because of all the information that is at our disposal, and how it’s hardly even fun anymore to make obscure references or stand behind guilty pleasures, as you say. I think his drawings sell for thousands of dollars. We see in his art the escapist fantasy of his life and necessarily limited worldview. This could be an overly simplistic example (or a misreading of Castle’s artistic legacy). But, for me, good art has that natural, self-contained quality no matter where it comes from—it’s a totality or whatever—and if an artist is drawing from a range of sources, it’s interesting to me because it gives a broader sense of the vocabulary that lead to that thing that is ultimately one of a kind. This is, of course, all in the context of my preferences, my lens, and my interests. It’s incomplete. But if I am going to bring the first part of your response full circle I will say I think you listen to Willie Nelson, King Tubby, and Fleetwood Mac, because I really like those people, and they’re pretty safe bets as far as music for casual listening is concerned. And I think it’s just cool you’re into them, because I never would have expected it, listening to Bee Mask.
As for the YouTube issue: It’s certainly troubling that artists are opted into services that don’t adequately protect their work. I like YouTube. I’ve posted stuff on there, and I enjoy watching Kids in the Hall clips and concert footage too. I like seeing what my friends from home are up to creatively. I’ve never had to deal with the YouTube authorities in the way you describe, and it sounds most unpleasant. I imagine a lot of people get away with a lot of horrendous shit because we’re all living under the false impression that the Internet is this lovey-dovey (or dystopic) free-for-all, and we don’t realize there are real corporate interests at play. It’s troubling. But then, I agree with you that the Internet has, as you say, sped up the recognition of our own stupidity. We have to live with that fact. It’s too bad that cat videos are the Trojan horse for an annihilative intellectual-property law. But I think the flipside to that recognition is a sped-up process of correction of said stupidity. The response to SOPA and PIPA seemed like start. For all its flaws, the Internet seems like a decent tool for activism. Maybe the revision of YouTube’s policies is not far off either.
I also want to comment on your questions about media. As a sometimes writer about music and art, I have to say it’s nice when people are paying attention. I honestly don’t care, though, if my thoughts are competing with a high-resolution video of chipmunks reenacting the scene from Home Alone when Kevin shoots Joe Pesci’s character with a BB gun, soundtracked to a new song by Kanye West featuring the original Broadway cast of RENT. People are free to read or pay attention to what they want. Personally I just want to feel like I’m responsible with my own media habits—I’m actually listening, I’m actually thinking, I’m in the conversation is some reasonably healthy way. It’s a give and take, and definitely a weird kind of responsibility, to produce and consume content in an age when “produce” and “consume” are stand ins for “make” or “listen to” and “content” is a stand in for “art.” But I guess it’s all a challenge. And maybe that can be useful.
Bee Mask’s new album, When We Were Eating Unripe Pears, is out now on Spectrum Spools.
Nick Earhart is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee