This is Not Normal: Negativland Live

I have made it a goal to post at least something each week here, but last week I was busy with boring personal stuff that isn’t pertinent to this blog. So now we resume your regularly scheduled programming. 

I recently saw San Francisco experimental music legends (?) Negativland, who are embarking on their It’s Normal for Some Things to Come To Your Attention West Coast tour.. It was a delight to see live music in a small venue again, surrounded by people and enjoying the lights, sounds and sights, bass reverberating through your body, speakers screeching and distorting. I won’t go into their media antics and culture-jamming ethos here, there are plenty of other places to read about that. But I had a thoroughly good time, with some thoughts to add. 

Seeing them perform live gave some insights into their creative process that may not come across on their albums. While records are fixed documents, performances are spontaneous and immediate, live with audience-performer feedback. The vinyl record is etched with the means to re-create sounds in the same way as we’ve etched clay tablets or inked rice paper and papyrus for millenia. Digital technology is exactly the same, except this etching process takes place on a microscopic level (on the order of individual electrons) and requires complex machinery to read and write the information. When I’ve listened to Negativland’s albums, I thought of them as these meticulously constructed projects (because that’s how I experience it when I listen at home on headphones), but their live performances reveal new dimensions to their material. Their vast catalog of vocal samples and drum grooves overlap and interlace in complex patterns in live performance, letting the spontaneous chemical reactions between the vocal samples come forth: one one my favorites from last night were a variety of samples talking about the limits to human perception. “Don’t trust your memory, because you only remember the things you thought were important.” The improvisation in the performance gives them a quirkiness that many other artists working in the style lack. It’s hard to deny their sense of humor: they are one of the few artists who have made me laugh out loud at their music. (I won’t say what the lyrics are, but Young Thug, Lil Wayne, Lil B and MF DOOM have all made me laugh out loud before, though they all have plenty of funny lyrics.) In Negativland’s music, this rarely comes in the form of jokes, but rather as a general sense of playfulness, like Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart. There are often jokes in their music, too, and pretty funny ones: a couple that come to mind are the studio segment of Helter Stupid (“sir, I rent this studio by the hour,”) and the campfire songs from Dispepsi, especially the censored line from “Happy Hero”––I won’t spoil it for people who haven’t heard it. 

Over the night I caught some vocal samples from Helter Stupid, the “NO! NOW IT BEGINS!” from the opening, along with some others that I thought I recognized. We also learned that giraffes are the only mammals that can’t jump (makes sense, given their unusual anatomy). We even got an appearance by David “The Weatherman” Wills, with a wild performance of manipulated self-consciously awful singing and iPhone fractals, courtesy of Sue C. They ended the show by “playing their hit,” their infamous song “Christianity is Stupid” from Escape from Noise. I put that phrase in scare quotes because they didn’t really play it––about the only things from the original were the vocal samples and drum loop––and you can’t really say they ever had a hit. I guess getting a prime spot on Dr. Demento’s show could count as a hit in some circles, though I don’t even know if they’ve managed to muster that. They did get a Tiny Desk Concert, though it obviously got nowhere near as much play as some other Tiny Desks. 

I’ve long found the classification of “electronic music” extremely unhelpful, especially at this point in history. Sure you can get as granular as you like into electronic dance music (as Ishkur’s brilliant guide demonstrates), but otherwise we haven’t developed a clear vocabulary for what electronic music is and does. Ought we to at least specify what the instruments are? But that’s the thing, that these instruments have not ossified into the separate categories more traditional instruments have. For bowed string instruments, there were violins and viols of varying sizes to span as many octaves as possible, and most viols with the exception of the double bass have fallen out of favor outside of baroque orchestras. Electronic instruments are more eclectic and diverse, with each musician assembling a set-up for music creation that works for them, with no set rules for how they ought to be constructed (and this is good, since it helps us break out of old ways of thinking about sound and the creation of instruments). At its core though all electronic music setups have to start with some basic signal (whether analog or digital) that gets manipulated through various means. Simple synthesizers are fixed in this, consisting of oscillators that generate basic tones, filters, LFOs and envelope generators to shape the sound, and some output to a speaker that transforms the electrical signal into vibrations in the air. The initial signal can come from oscillators, the pickups of an electric guitar, a no-input mixer, a microphone, a turntable, a sampler or whatever else. Running this initial signal through various effects, sequencers, drum machines and digital processing creates the music, and perhaps stacking many of them on top of each other. Negativland uses the same instruments to make their music as any other electronic artist, they’ve just bent them their own way towards their own ends. One unique thing in their sound is the booper, made by the Weatherman himself. I don’t really understand how it works at the moment, though I will at some point take the time to figure it out. 

One thought I had at a Flying Lotus concert when I was about as inebriated as I was at the Negativland show was, “the future of music is here.” When we talk about some awful meaningless platitude about what the future of music is, we are inevitably constrained by what we can conceive. So how can we say that something is “the future of music,” when it is right before us? The Feelies are here, we are living there right now. This sounds needlessly pretentious, and perhaps my inebriation contributed to that feeling, but I can’t help but feel that the doors of perception truly were opened and we as a culture looked inside and found some useful stuff in there. Many got lost behind that door, but some came back with something to share for the rest of us. The 1960s are a fascinating decade in popular culture, and perhaps one of the most consequential in recent memory, since its successes and failures led to the crises and reorientations of the 1970s that define the contemporary global neoliberal order. And we cannot deny the influence that acid had on the 1960s, for good or ill, regardless of how that acid got into the counterculture (Tim Leary had some powerful friends, I’ll leave it at that). Even if LSD didn’t lead to a global revolution like some believed it would, it certainly helped some of us reframe how we saw the world, even though an acid-inspired revolution would hardly be liberatory––lest we forget that the counterculture mostly emerged after the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, and the struggle for Black Liberation among other truly radical political movements were violently foreclosed on by that point, especially after the deaths of MLK in ’68 and Fred Hampton in late ’69. This era does feel extremely important to go back to, unknotting its various complexities, loose ends, broken dreams and eventual convergence into the world we live in now, especially since there was so much great music that made its way out of that fervor.

I have many more thoughts, but I’ll leave it at this for now. If you wanna learn more about Negativland and what their whole deal is, they have a website, a lot of stuff on the Internet Archive, and forgive me for recommending TV Tropes, but there’s some good info there too. I’ve never read it, but they’ve published a book called Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 that may be worth checking out. You can hear their music on streaming services and Youtube––or you can, you know, buy it from them. It’s worth it. 

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