Author Archives: geeta

About geeta

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I realized recently that three interviews I did last year really informed my ways of seeing. All three of these interviews were very long and congenial, and ended with us not talking about music or art at all–just life, really. And all three ended up with them offering me advice, in some way.

-Carsten Höller: This guy is one of my favorite contemporary artists, for all things surreal and psychological. He was born in Belgium and lives in Stockholm. In a previous life, he had a PhD in biology and studied arcane insect behavior until he decided to become an artist. He’s probably making more money now than he was back then. Things Carsten reminded me: You don’t throw away your past life as a scientist by choosing to be an artist. Everything you do in your life will inform everything else you do, however subtly. Art and science are not the same, but they are connected.

-David Byrne: Byrne reminded me that science is where it’s at. He spent a lot of time talking enthusiastically about the science textbooks he’d read, and crazy ideas he had about the way the brain might work. He reminded me of Eno, of course, who also spends a lot of time thinking and talking about science.

-Ryuichi Sakamoto: I interviewed Ryuichi Sakamoto in a Manhattan restaurant. He never took off his sunglasses. The interview lasted almost three hours. We talked about Berlin for a bit, and how I felt that, in the increasingly dispiriting real-estate market, New York City was increasingly becoming the province of the very rich, the very lucky, the very neurotic, or all three. He reminisced a bit about how New York was in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I had heard that halcyon story many times before. Why are you living in New York? I remember him asking. If I was your age, he said, I would be living in Berlin! New York will always be there. You can always come back. But you’re only in your 20’s once. Go make your art elsewhere, where the rent is cheap. You can always come back here later when it’s time to sell.

I haven’t been listening to much rock these days; any desire to listen to rock is entirely satiated by the occasional game of Guitar Hero. It’s the first video game I’ve been really fascinated by in about fifteen years. A game so bananas it spawned its own academic conference. I usually play on “Medium” level to avoid loud boos from my fictional graphical audience; I recently tried to play “Smoke on the Water” on Expert level with catastrophic results. I was thinking someone should come up with a video game called “Ambient Electronic Music Hero,” but I’m trying to figure out a way in which that game would not be intensely boring. “Free Jazz Hero” might be good, I was thinking.

I’ve been thinking a lot about music and technology, and trying to figure out how to merge my interests in electronic music with my longstanding interest in cognitive neuroscience. I’ve been reading and re-reading all kinds of books lately–“The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction” by Jonathan Sterne, R. Murray Schafer’s “The Soundscape”; “The Cognition of Basic Musical Structures” by David Temperley; a book I picked up in the discount pile at the MIT Press bookstore titled “The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933”; “Listening: An Introduction to the Perception of Auditory Events” by Stephen Handel; and a whole bunch more.

I originally got interested in neuroscience by studying chemistry and biology. It followed that I got interested in biochemistry, the most logical merger between bio and chem, and synaptic transmission seemed to be one of the best ways to learn about biochemistry. In the mid-1990s, studying the brain seemed really cutting-edge to me, perhaps because of the brain’s place in the popular consciousness at that time: the rise of electronica, various pop-sci and sci-fi books that were coming out, the impending Internet boom, etc. It felt like a time that was ripe with possibility. I was working long hours in an organic chemistry lab at Princeton during the summer of ’96, trying to make a deeply esoteric molecule in a tube, and I wanted to work on something more messy and biological, more real. I remember feeling excited that textbooks were still in the process of being written on a lot of the stuff in neuroscience, whereas with theoretical organic chemistry, it felt like it had all already been said.

I’ve spent so much time in my 20s figuring out what I want to do–music journalist? scientist? science lecturer? post-punk researcher? documentary filmmaker? My first paying job at MIT when I was seventeen was in brain biochemistry–trying to tease out the biochemical pathways by which melatonin seems to help people sleep. I was also taking a music composition class at the time. I didn’t draw a line then between music and the brain.

This semester, I’ve been auditing a seminar at MIT called Music Perception and Cognition. I took it because I wanted to be exposed to a lot of the current research in the field; I had been reading a lot of scientific papers on my own that I had found via the internet and various journals, but I had no idea which ones were important, and my knowledge of music cognition was, for the most part, rocky and self-taught. The class has been particularly heavy on computational models of pitch perception, which is not a forte of mine. Sometimes I feel like I understand maybe 45% of what’s going on, and sometimes it hurts my brain. But I took the class because I wanted to ‘not understand’; it’s also very useful to find out what is, as of yet, not understood.

Simon has a new anthology out, which you can get here, complete with snappy cover. I haven’t read it yet, but Blissed Out is one of my all-time top reads and I’m sure this collection will be too.

Proof positive of the science/art divide: Last week I was in DC for four days, for the annual Medicine in the Media: Reporting on Medical Research boot camp run by the National Institutes of Health. Now I’m in Boston, thinking about music; tomorrow I’ll be in New York, teaching science. The next day, I’ll be in Seattle for the EMP Pop Conference, to present a paper titled “Examining European Fandom of the American Dance-Music Mythos.” Then I’m heading to Vancouver to do a story on Mathew Jonson and the Wagon Repair crew. Then back to New York to do more science. Then back to Boston.

pick hits.

I’ve been splitting my time these days between New York and Boston. I’m teaching two undergrad classes this term at Fordham in Manhattan, and I’m auditing a grad seminar at MIT on music cognition. I spend about ten hours a week on trains and buses between Massachusetts and New York City, but I don’t mind it; it gives me time to grade papers, contemplate, and stare out at rolling landscapes through scratched glass. During chilly weekends here in Massachusetts, I spend a fair bit of time reading and thinking–thinking more slowly and deliberately than I did in New York. I’m not working on cranking out articles and reviews at a frenetic pace anymore. I’m trying to really enjoy writing about music again, and it’s a process, like anything else.

I still find myself gravitating to techno, but I find myself less interested in ingesting the very latest 12″ release, and more intrigued by half-forgotten older records played on repeat. And practicing on decks has me thinking about music in a different way. There’s the deliciously tactile aspect of handling vinyl records, of course, but it’s more than that. I like being able to instantly make connections between records with my decks and mixer, and I can express those connections far more eloquently than I ever could when I was laboriously penning record reviews. Vinyl makes me see music as a quivering, mutable mass that I can shape physically with my hands; I can alter the pitch, slowly cut the treble, stop the record with my fingers. I can open up the turntable with my hands, lift up the heavy platter, and tweak the little potentiometer on the circuitboard that controls the braking speed. I have to stand up at a desk to use my decks; it requires a little elbow grease to operate, and a little bit of dedication to the records. I don’t do this at all with mp3s. Mp3s motivate me to sit down in a comfy chair with my laptop. I don’t feel fired up to shape the mp3 into something else when I see it sitting there in an iTunes folder; the extent of my interaction with the average mp3 is to drag it into the virtual trash if I don’t like it. I’m open to the idea of using Ableton Live, but I want to get really good with the analog stuff first.

I was really sick over this past week. I spent a few hours the other day spinning records in my room as a sort of physical therapy–playing and mixing various records at incorrect speeds, noticing that Vapourspace’s “Gravitational Arch of 10” sounded like a pretty Lindstrom and Prins Thomas tune when played at 33 instead of 45, building airy layer cakes of texture by overlaying two spare ambient records on top of each other in the right places, attempting to forge strange new melodies by playing two records in complementary keys, and so on. Right now there’s no audience except me, but I’ll start playing out soon enough to massive and imaginary crowds. Anyway, onto some music.

Recent tracks I’ve been liking:

Redshape – “Alone on Mars?” [Present]

I wasn’t familiar with Redshape until the Cassy mix from last year, which uses a Redshape track to great effect. Good and deep.

Boris feat. Merzbow – “Walrus”

Japanese drone-metal band Boris plays “I am the Walrus” faithfully and without irony, and their singing is actually much better than the Beatles’, in my opinion. And the chirpy female backing vocals are great! Also, it relegates Merzbow to kooky-background-noise-generator status, and he excels in that role. The flip side appears to be a King Crimson cover (“Groon”) but who knows. The sorta limpid surrealist artwork on the 12″ EP is reminiscent of big-time ’70s prog, for sure. Good luck getting your hands on a vinyl copy unless wildly unwise eBay bidding is your bag.

LCD Soundsystem – “Someone Great”/”Get Innocuous” [DFA]

I’ve heard so many mixed things about The Sound of Silver; a common complaint I’ve heard is that it sounds dry and distant. But if I wanted heavy, dewy emotionalism I’d put on the Pantha du Prince record or something, not LCD Soundsystem. I found the lyrics for “Someone Great” to be unexpectedly touching, and the brittle emptiness of the track’s production perfectly fits the hollow, confused resignation conveyed by the lyrics. “Get Innocuous” sounds to me like Kraftwerk’s “Robots” coupled with David Bowie’s vocal timbre from Lodger–what’s not to like?

Pantha du Prince – “Saturn Strobe” [Dial]

Think Lawrence, and Closer Musik and Matias Aguayo’s solo stuff, ratcheted up even further in the lush-moodiness and eerie-ringing-bells stakes. The whole album’s a stunner.

Roxy Music – “Avalon” (Lindstrom & Prins Thomas remix)

Tracks from the past, rediscovered

BFC (Carl Craig) – “It’s a Shame” [Fragile, 1990]

The amazing thing is how poorly this track was produced–you can almost see the seams in how it’s been sewn together, and there’s some pretty obvious stitching. But that’s part of what’s beautiful about this track. It’s simultaneously very melancholy and heavy (dark, melodramatic strings), but also very spare and minimal–it’s the same string loop over and over, really, with very few flourishes, and no melodic progression to speak of. The song buildup is all in the percussion. There’s an immense amount of emotional logic to where the bass drum drops in and out–so much told with so few words–and an immense amount of emotional weight in simple but utterly devastating drum fills, deployed at exactly the right moments.

Neuromancer – “Pennywise” [Symphony Sound, 1992]
Tantra – The Double Album [Importe, 1980]
Found the original pressing on near-pristine vinyl at a record shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts–beardo-disco at its finest.
La D

Sad news: Tonic, my absolute favorite venue for years on the Lower East Side for jazz, experimental electronic music, and minimal techno, is shutting its doors for good next week. The Subtonic cellar was practically my living room for about three years, and it’s very hard to see it go. Read the full goodbye letter here.

to montreal.

The Mutek lineup this year is shaping up to be pretty amazing, with live sets by Rhythm & Sound, the Wighnomy Brothers, Cobblestone Jazz, Pantha du Prince, My My, and many other acts after my own heart. I’ll be there.

I’m working on my budding prowess on the decks (I got a pair of Technics 1200s a few months ago, which is another reason I’d been so slack about updating this site–I’ve gotten really into practicing beatmatching, if you can believe it!)