twisting my melon man'
Noise Water Meat (A History of Sound in the Arts)
£24.95, ISBN 0-262-11242-4, MIT Press
It just deliberately ignores huge developments, movements and forms of
music in favour of devising fables from his own vain contemplations. Revealed
is a man who is shall we say... a plastic jug short of a full tuppaware
set. But the omissions are no loss: there is rather, a feeling of relief
that he said nothing about - say the whole of Jazz and Blues. Anyone
with the misfortune to be set this as desired reading as part of some
dubious media course will probably find themselves going back to the introduction
to find out what the hell he is on about. His statements on his intentions
are a whisker away from satire:
"The book focuses on inscriptive practices (but is in no way restricted
to them), whereas ideas of vibration and transmission occur only intermittently
and have not been addressed directly. The book ends with a contrast between
the manner in which, with Burroughs's virus, inscription has been
sunk from the surface of bodies into each and every cell (a shift that
itself should complicate notions about writing or inscribing on bodies),
and the energetic configuration and situation of bodies and environments
found in Artaud's post-Rodez work and McClure's meat science.
Their use of energetic flows, derived from Eastern bodily practices and
elsewhere, poses a challenge to techniques and tropes of inscription that
have so strongly informed and problematized modernism and suggests that
any theorization of contemporary aurality will have to take into account
not only the changed status of inscription and the historical background
of transmission but also a figure or phenomenon, particle and wave, capable
of spatial elaboration and vica versa, which supersedes both."
So to utterly baffle the potential reader Khan has chosen to 'contrast' - read
perform the Vulcan mind meld with - Burroughs (now that Wild Bill is
safely full fathom five he feels comfortable to exhibit his tiresome interpretations
out of the range of gun fire) with Artaud (let me take you to Junkie Town!)
Just in case that accidentally produces clarity of thought he will inject
some McClure: that's Michael, not Troy. Any persistent bloodhounds
will be shaken off the trail of meaning by the contortions of some ersatz
Kundalini Yoga. He also couples all this with uncritical musings on William
Reich and - read them and weep - L. Ron Hubbard. To go to such lengths
to appear sophisticated must be a cry for help.
Unbelievably that was presented as an incentive to read this book. The
pretence is that it is some kind of new synthesis or approach to 'the'
history of sound in the avant-garde, yet if we dipped in at any point
we read a poor misunderstood re-hash of better material.
In actuality - if that is not too intrusive - the book is an out-of-focus
reinforcement dealing with ascription: the old quasi-religious academic
technique of giving the amen to something. This is performed by a mind
awash with all manner of acid-casualty-cosmic-debris which was inscribed
in his brain at some mid-eighties-post-modern-love-in at a US west coast
far-out, terminally groovey 'educational establishment.' So
on a more prosaic level - leaving aside the Goddess Shakti amongst
many other thousands of mutually exclusive terms he uses - it's
a series of various lectures (largely made up of quotes: some of which
are interesting, and padding) with his musing in between like some insipid
but foul-smelling glue. Reading his prose you get the feeling that the
verbs and adjectives are squabbling amongst themselves trying to run away
from a series of oxymorons: "As a dead Aristotle might have said."
He is a devotee of the late John Cage - who I have always thought seemed
a bit of a non-event compared to Victor Borge?!...
Much in the way people talk about architecture as frozen music he has
tried to merge...well who am I kidding I haven't got a clue what
he's trying to do. The book is impossible to read because you disagree
with every sentence. The Kundalini yoga stuff, which just cuts in at any
time like somebody selling Hare Krishna on the streets, is like Newtonian
Physics compared with his own scribbling which sound like a cross between
an encyclopedia salesman and some old showbiz whore on the chat show circuit.
To properly review this book you would have to hire a group of highly
dedicated and knowledgeable experts, get them to take years to sift through
this thoroughly and then you could come to the conclusion - which you
knew all along - that this is an institutionalised academic talking
to other institutionalised academics. And who would want to listen to
The quick way to review the book - the method adopted tonight - is
to go in through the back door: i.e. look up the index and bibliography,
weigh what he's selling, check for contentious authors - he seems
to be trying to replicate what Attali did in 'Noise' - unravel
his position on key issues; look what he recycles; look who he criticises,
look who he flatters and so on...
His general tone indicates that Douglas Khan will probably never leave
the safety of the institution and join us on the streets. The students
have left the auditorium but the professor, thumbs behind lapels, still
bellows out The Word:
"John Cage appears throughout the book and is the subject of an entire
section. He would occupy a central position within any discussion of sound
and art in this century because of the importance and influence across
the arts of his music, writings, and ideas about sound throughout his
long and prolific career. Moreover , like Artaud he connects the first
half with the second half of the century, but unlike Artaud he lived to
see the second half, almost all of it."
When it comes to other theorists and musicians who are of an independent
disposition and whose existence and creative outlook could be said to
challenge his worship of an image of Cage he has constructed for himself,
they are either wholly or partially ignored or the subject of snide or
pitifully inadequate remarks. Or all three in the case of Pierre Schaeffer
where the writing is nothing more than a mis-reading of an interview in
Re Records Magazine (vol. 2 Number 1) in 1987.
Unable to write anything of any consequence on the matter he offers selective
quotes to dismiss Schaeffer (known for his seminal work in the late 40s
with electronic recording at Radio-diffusion-Television Francaise (RTF)
in Paris, where he produced several short studies in what he called Musique
Uncomprehending of Schaeffer's artistic honesty and specific terms
of reference he prefers to throw up a puerile after-dinner anecdote - thinly
disguised self-indulgence concerning you know who:
"He returned to the notion that no music was possible outside of
conventional musical sounds: "It took me forty years to conclude
that nothing is possible outside DoReMi...In other words , I wasted my
life." In 1988 I had occasion to describe Schaeffer's lament
to John Cage over the dinner table. He quickly responded. "He should
have kept going up the scale!"
It would seem no dissent from this transparently foolish orthodoxy is
tolerated. Despite the fact that he knows nothing about what has been
going on in Europe, he has detected that Chris Cutler, the editor of Re
Records has committed a crime against the inquisition leading him to pronounce
his own aut'o-da-fé:
"After reviewing an article on the history of live electronic music,
he [Cutler] felt compelled to "resist the unquestioning inclusion
of a randomly derived aleatory and raw environmental sound in what we
understand when we use the work [sic] music." Pitted specifically
against the threat posed by Cage, he argued:
If, suddenly, all sound is "music", then by definition, there
can be no such thing as sound that is not music. The word music becomes
meaningless, or rather it means "sound". But sound already means
that. And when the word music has been long minted and nurtured to refer
to a particular activity in respect to sound - namely, its conscious
and deliberate organization within a definite aesthetic and tradition - I
can see no convincing argument at this late stage for throwing these useful
limitations into the dustbin."
That's not good enough for professor Khan:
"Cutler tries to fend off the totalization of Cagean thought, at
a time when so much Cagean thought had been benignly internalized, by
rhetorically positing music as we know it and politically marginalizing
the other through common sense. The problems with Cage's notion that
all sound is music, which do not revolve around a music/not-music distinction,
will be taken up in chapter 6."
No we are not to use common sense, we are to bow to whatever has been
benignly inserted into us - here you have his intentions in a nut shell:
we must be followers: now bend over. His chapter 6 vaunts itself as if
it laid out some grand unification theory relating to Cage's interest
in sub-atomic vibration. It maintains that if everything vibrates all
the time then everything is always emitting sound, Cutler's useful
distinction on the human level of language and terms is just not dealt
Much the same can be said of his pat descriptions of the life (read the
myth) of Burroughs: they are treatments of grotesque veneration. Burroughs'
irony remains undetected. Symbolism becomes reality in the 'analysis' - if
you can call this guff analysis:
"The Other half had become all others, they had become all, and the
theys were not necessarily biotic. Organism has shifted the rise of the
inorganic to the fall of the inorganic, all on the wings of the life and
death struggle of the virus, the internecine being of the virus, fuckin'
transitional bastard." (page 321)
The insidious elements to his ideas on Burroughs are evident with well-rehearsed
exclusions which reveal that Professor Khan is just like all The Others:
"His own work was deeply informed by a variety of scientific and
quasi-scientific theories - by an obsession with fact, as he was quick
to say. It was within this culture of fact that this notion of the virus
grew and subsequently became well known among a broad range of people,
especially the beat and beyond literati, heady punks, and other subcultured
individuals, cybertypes, and urban degenerate renegades."
You know: street scum - the people who don't count. Where exactly
did this the culture of fact lead to, could that be academia perchance?
His observations are that an essay on Burroughs' audio experiments
"broke the scholarly ice on the topic of sound and voice..."
The footnotes reveal that this is from a magazine Khan edited, published
by MIT in 1992. So pathetic a claim to fame necessitates that he has to
discredit everybody else with any knowledge of Burroughs. Bad Karma Khan.
It should be pointed out that this book, in as much as it deals with music,
succeeds in one thing: it excludes almost all of the music which almost
every potential reader has ever held with lifelong affection or gained
pleasure from. Imagine if you will a book which mentions Yoko Ono (even
her plumbing) but pretends the Beatles did not exist. And she should think
herself lucky: he states quite clearly that he is excluding women due
to "practicalities of time and resources." He is not clear at
all why the music of "Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler,
Cecil Taylor, Ornete Colman, and others and of African-American poetries
and linguistic play" are excluded, he would appear to explain this
by saying that there is "still much work to be done." Yes and
part of that is tackling meaningless exclusion.
The real reason though is to amplify a smug little coterie's, cliques
and claques which he aspires to join rather than analyse.