Vacation Time!
By Beppe Colli
June 20, 2010

Time to go on vacation, at last!, summer vacations having never been for us as indispensable as they are right now.

I have no problem admitting that, during the last couple of years, things have been pretty hard and rough, here at Clouds and Clocks, due to a long series of strange circumstances (some of them being quite funny - provided one watches them from a safe distance, that is, or after the fact). Last year, I decided to write about some of them (my personal #1, of course, being the apartment over my head undergoing extensive - and very noisy - renovation work, for months), even though I usually think that when it comes to editorial work "private" and "public" spheres should always be kept separate. Why did I decide to act differently? Because, since Clouds and Clocks does not rely on any monetary earnings in order to survive, and since I've always considered the role of "megaphone" to be highly inappropriate for publications of any kind, I wanted to make it clear that it was "troubles" that were the only source of this "reduced activity", not tiredness, or doubts about the role of this webzine; or at least, no tiredness or doubts in any larger quantity than what's typical for this kind of endeavor.

As it's to be expected in moments like this, one's expectations for one's holidays go hand-in-hand with thinking about the past. Here I have to say that all sides that to me look quite unpleasant and dark I see more as symptoms of a general, international state of affairs than as symptoms of troubles that are indigenous to this webzine. For instance, a certain "aridity of feeling" that makes people see things as placed inside a "predatory" framework (should readers find the term a bit on the exaggerated side, we could agree on the expression "soft predatory" framework), the actual reasons for doing any meaningful cultural work never coming into question. Walking absent-mindedly, people just pick the fruits of one's labour - provided, that is, they find them interesting - in a way that's quite reminiscent of the prevailing consumer behaviour, where the fact of things being offered for free receives its true meaning from the dimension of commercial advertising.

Meanwhile, very bad news come from the US front. Canceled concerts, concert tickets being offered on sale with heavy discounts (such as 50% and up), tickets being given away for free in order to disguise those empty arena seats, dates and tours about to be rescheduled (or indefinitely postponed). Only September will give us the full picture, also the real cause for the present state of affairs, be it the effect of an "economic crisis" (as it's recently been reported by the Wall Street Journal), or of a different, and not entirely "monetary", kind of ennui. But when the list of names one hears being mentioned include artists such as Christina Aguileira, Lady Gaga, Sting, The Eagles (and The Dixie Chicks), Lilith Festival, and even a live institution such as the group Phish, things start looking very strange indeed. It goes without saying that when it comes to "indie" groups or artists, traveling by bus, and playing on tiny stages, is the norm.

I've always considered the somewhat rosy scenery of falling sales of recorded music going hand-in-hand with high sales of concert tickets and t-shirts as something quite dubious, exceptions to the rule being of course entirely (temporarily) possible. But can this kind of unpredictability be a precondition for any kind of serious, "industrial" activity? I really don't think so. One could believe this to be only true of an album which needs a large investment in order to come out "right"; but the same is true of any album featuring "just" piano and vocals, since the piano has to be properly tuned and maintained, the same being true of mics, preamplifiers, the mixer, and the studio. And it's also true that in a "meager framework" there's no point for any musician to "superbly master" an instrument, what we usually call "good enough" will instead appear as the "perfectly rational" choice.

Whatever the reason (I have a few on my mind), I really believe that the great majority of things being released today are of a very poor quality. I'd like to stress the fact that, due to a peculiar mix of circumstances, I can listen to practically any new album that gets to be reviewed by any "most read" magazine (whatever that means) with ease. Sure, here one could say that my opinion in entirely "subjective". On the other hand, it's entirely possible that one's ignorance - or inadequate understanding (listening to does not equal comprehension) - of what came before fully explains those faulty judgments one so often reads. It's the same "faulty competence" one had, back in the day, at the age of seventeen. But in those days people of such a mediocre understanding did not work for magazines!

After listening to another mediocre album currently being hailed as "an undisputed masterpiece" it happens that one thinks that listening to an old record would be a much better use of one's time. "But can one listen to the same old stuff one already knows so well?", some say. Here it's time to make an important distinction of a "pragmatic" nature. Those who, under present conditions, publish a music magazine or run a music shop have to pretend they live in the "year zero", i.e., all new release have no real background; in fact, the expression is "best record(s) of the year", not "best record(s) of the year, compared to the best record(s) in the whole history of rock music".

But let's enter the "pragmatic" dimension, where one has an afternoon at one's disposal to do what one most pleases: is really one's choice only limited to the "undisputed masterpiece" of the moment, and an old record? This is the actual palette at my disposal today. Reading that dialogue about gardens and gardening between Claudio Abbado and Renzo Piano. Reading (for the second time) La veduta corta, the fine book by Padoa-Schioppa on the US economic crisis. Watching (for the second time) Wendy & Lucy. Watching the new DVD-V version of 200 Motels by Frank Zappa. Doing a Web search for material about Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA (winners of this year's Pritzker Prize). Reading (for the second time) Conditio Humana by Ulrich Beck. Having a look at the new issue of The Economist. Reading (for the second time) Il lavoro non è una merce - Contro la flessibilità by Luciano Gallino (also his other book, Con i soldi degli altri). All those "objects" are the fuits of a very strict process of selection whose "pragmatic" score based on past performances makes it a lot more reliable when compared to the faulty "filter" which suggested that I listen to another "undisputed masterpiece".

I was recently asked a difficult question. After a long, detailed discussion about the pros and cons of original vinyl versions, CD re-releases, new vinyl re-releases, and so on, this is what I was asked: "But let's suppose a young guy, not at all au-courant about this stuff, comes inside the shop. What should he do? What should he buy"? A very complex topic indeed, which reminded me of a different question asked, about twenty years ago.

The magazine in question being US monthly Keyboard, the person asked being Jim Aikin (maybe Dominic Milano?). The question asked: "Everybody tells me that I have to 'stay current', but nobody ever explains what 'staying current' means". After a few suggestions of a practical nature, the answer went (I'm quoting from memory): "'staying current' means knowing what 'staying current' means".

Should I explain this to a "boy" who knows nothing about that stuff (I'm assuming we are not talking about listening to music in the car, or in the shower), choosing the album After The Gold Rush by Neil Young as our example, here are the (true, as at the moment of this writing) alternatives at our disposal:

a) Current CD version, €9.90
b) Original UK Reprise vinyl album release from 1971, second pressing, N-M, £16
c) 2009 vinyl re-release, 140 gr. €24
d) 2009 vinyl re-release, 180 gr. €34

But what does it all mean? Here's what was suggested in a Web conversation, the topic at hand being differences in "general" between old CD editions and remastered CD editions:

a) It's case-by-case
b) You have to proceed on a case-by-case basis
c) Once I thought case-by-case (...), but now I know what sound I like and where to find it, for CD re-releases this being true about 10%, which makes them the exception to the rule, and not case-by-case
d) Case by case; when it comes to the Beatles (...), the mono box from 2009 sounded OK, but it does not have the magic an original, well-manufactured, well-kept vinyl album has

Which means, one has to listen very carefully to many different editions of "the same thing" many, many times. It's easy!

So, as it was easy to predict, we are inside the "hedonistic" framework once again. In a nutshell, subjects have chosen those activities that pertain to the body and the way it's perceived (hence, the ever-growing diffusion of cosmetic surgery, the fading of any clear-cut barriers between make-up and "small surgical practices" such as botox fillings and the like, the growing number of things that are "added" to the body, such as (hair) extensions, the fact of considering many parts of the body as being similar to clothes, to be eventually discarded), and those which are easily considered in a "summational" way (for instance, the concept of travel being made equal to taking one body from one place to another) as their main priorities. The obvious corollary is to own as many "personal gadgets" as possible, in their most up-to-date version, which work as "extensions" for one's body, also as means of "interconnection".

On the contrary, such qualities as literacy, being able to concentrate for long stretches of time, being able to get complex logical links, abstract reasoning, long attention spans, are in retreat, as it's apparent when people have more and more trouble even when being asked to verbally describe a movie they've just seen.

Looking backwards, it's easy to see that it was the degree of concentration on the part of many fans of "classic" rock (also, of course, their great love for music) that made it easy for them to overcome the obvious technical limitations of those primitive devices (also some faulty pressings) at their disposal, while today this use of one's time would appear as akin to being in prison, and extremely bizarre. One only has to ask, to see that sweating at the gym and jogging under the sun on whatever straight street the city has to offer are perceived as being "zero fatigue" activities.

© Beppe Colli 2010 | June 20, 2010