Zeno Izen is a fellow blogger, whose writing at his Hollow Tree Experimental Music Report has inspired me on more than one occasion to get off my ass and provide for you, my reader! Back in March, we decided to interview each other– and while Zeno has been slaving away over his half of the writing, I’ve taken my cue from Andy Warhol, and simply present it as a huge block of unedited text.
Carry on for the full interview, and some random photos I have taken over the past few years…
DaveX: Without fail, every experimental music enthusiast I’ve met has had an interesting story about how they came to enjoy the less-taken musical path. What was your way “into” experimental music?
Zeno Izen: The shortest, simplest answer is that my family moved around a lot while I was growing up. By the time I was in high school, I felt that my ‘identity’ was pretty much that of an outsider. So, I chose to listen to music that seemed to glamorize this outsiderness. For me, that meant the Sex Pistols, the Clash and then later Public Image Ltd.
I was also beginning to mess around with psychedelic drugs- LSD and dextromethorphan, mostly. The drug use didn’t turn out so well, I ought to say. But it did direct me toward listening to the Butthole Surfers, and from there I just couldn’t find anything weird enough.At the same time, I was also starting to make my own music. The bands I was in in high school generally poo-pooed all of my stranger ideas. So I started collecting tape decks and low-tech instruments and playing around with those, trying to make the sounds that I wanted to hear. My home-recording experiments influenced my record collection, and my record collection influenced my experiments. It wasn’t long before ordinary music became simply uninteresting to me.
DaveX: Upon re-examination, I find that my early listening experience over the years has been filled with experimentation, odd listening choices, and unique records; though I would not have realized it at the time. In re-considering your own listening background, do you find anything similar? If so, what?
Izen: I suppose the real choice is in what you decide to listen to a second, third and fiftieth time. You never really know what you’re getting when you slap something on the turntable for the first time. That is, unless you read a lot of record reviews and listen to radio shows and podcasts, etc.
We all have our favorite sources for recommendations, and that is what primarily determines what we listen to. It’s not enough for a piece of music to exist. In one way or another, it must be marketed if it is to be heard.
So, to answer your question, I would say that the greatest sparks for me have come in the way of radio shows, magazines and other similar things. Having friends with good taste also helps. And to pervert your question to my own ends, I would say that it is important for people to expose themselves to new things and to take risks. If contemporary popular music is mostly bad (and it is), it’s not simply because of the RIAA. The fact that people use music to reinforce their prejudices and to drown out foreign stimulations also plays a serious role in the degradation of our culture.
Case in point: jam bands. Do people really enjoy Phish and Widespread Panic, or do they just like the party that goes on at the foot of the stage? Or what about individuals who ‘listen’ to hip hop or heavy metal loud enough for everyone else in the neighborhood to hear it as well. Are those people really getting entertainment value from the music, or are they just using the music as a social signifier?
I think that experimental music makers and fans alike tend to have a deeper relationship with music, stemming from their openness to new things. When it comes to music, what i unfamiliar need not be a threat. But, a lot of people have very rigid identities and can’t stand to be challenged by even such a simple thing as a novel arrangement of sound.
DaveX: Between netlabels, music blogs, CDRs, and all manner of filesharing; listeners are being confronted with many of the same issues of “curatorship” that have traditionally been the sole domain of DJs and labels– managing large collections, archiving recordings for future use, making decisions about downloads or listening based on bandwidth/hard-drive-space, and simply selecting from massive amounts of available material to peruse. What are your thoughts on the new position of “listener-as-curator”? Do you think that this change makes the difference between listeners and DJs/labels moot, or does it also push the role of DJs/labels into another position?
Izen: I think the glut of product will ultimately expand the role of the DJ as taste-maker and publicity broker. In fact, this has already happened. Once upon a time, it seemed that everyone was in a band. Nowadays, it seems that everyone is a club DJ.
The role of the radio DJ will change according to how the radio spectrum is divided by the FCC or local equivalent. In the long run, those individuals who are able to help people find what they want will acheive prominence.
That’s a matter of economics really. What’s interesting to me is how DJs other such authorities will be able to influence taste. Giving people what they want is easy enough, but it takes a certain kind of magic to make people want what you give them.
There is reading material out there that addresses these issues pretty well. And I think if anyone wants to take the time to read that material, they might be able to synthesize some interesting ideas out of it all. I would recommend “the Critic as Artist” and “the Decay of Lying” by Oscar Wilde, coupled with the ideas of internet critic Andrew Keen. Add a dash of Marshal McLuhan and some of Greg Egan’s science fiction work, and I think a person can get a clear picture of where our culture might be headed, and how important it is for intelligent individuals to step up and say in no uncertain terms “this is good” and “this is bad.”
Now, in terms of labels, we have an interesting situation. We’re at the point where anyone can start a label, but it isn’t happening at the same rate as the band and DJ explosions. I don’t know why this is. Maybe it’s because labels don’t really have an enviable amount of leverage in the music market.
One thing that’s for sure is that it takes some money to put out records. (I use the word ‘records’, because it’s related to the word ‘recording’ and seems to me to cover all bases.) And in today’s climate, releasing recorded music has carries no profit incentive. I really think that anyone who considers their self to be a true fan of good music, and has a couple thousand extra dollars, owes it to the world to approach a band or musician that they like and to help them put out a record. Profits be damned.
Factory Records, of course, is an excellent model for this point of view. The story of Factory Records is told very well in the film 24-Hour Party People. And the movie is also fun to watch.
DaveX: As with many “fringe” interests, experimental music fosters a high level of participation among enthusiasts. On your blog, you offer readers a significant amount of information, ostensibly encouraging them to also curate (or sift) information in much the same way as you surely must to prepare these pages. Is there a role for the simple observer in the experimental music community? How did you migrate from observer to participant (as an author)? Do you anticipate making recordings of your own in the future? With many artists’ insistence on listeners “continuing” their work via speaker placement, listening habit, volume, interpretation, can it be said that the distinction between observer and participant is false?
Izen: Well, distinctions are generally both true and false at the same time. Distinctions should only exist for convenience’s sake. They should never become mandated divisions. Words are our tools. Oftentimes we let words get the best of us, which can cause problems.
The thing with experimental music, though, is that it’s supposed to be at least superficially related to the scientific method: observe, hypothesize, predict, test, repeat. I don’t think it’s possible to listen to this kind of music without getting involved in the process. Just the same as if you read a popular science book, you’re going to start thinking about the concepts in the book and perhaps even talking about them with people you know.
The same goes for experimental music. How does someone get interested in microtonal music, or chance-based music without wanting to think and talk about it? The music effects the intellect as much as the ear drums. I think that’s a large part of the point. So, no, I don’t think there’s a role for the simple observer in experimental music. Not that simple observers are not allowed, just that they will always either become participants or move on to other things.
Regarding music of my own, I’ve been making music off and on for a couple decades now, but have recently put it aside in order to concentrate on some other things. Right now I’m working on putting releasing on CDr some music that I made while living in New Orleans,
and maybe transferring some of my older stuff from cassette tape to digital. There’s so much good music out there right now, I feel like it’s more efficient to devote my time to promoting that music rather than competing with it.
DaveX: We’ve both written extensively on firesharing, and it is hardly a secret that we each participate in the experimental filesharing community to some extent. In what manner do you consider filesharing activities? Can it be considered an act of civil disobedience, leading by example, etc?
Izen: Plainly stated, the record industry is corrupt beyond salvation. I’m reminded of a scene from the Sopranos. Some odd mafia racket results in asbestos-coated refuse being dumped out in the marshes of New Jersey. A light wind blows across the piles, lifting the asbestos into the atmosphere and carrying it into populated areas.
The record industry is exactly like this. They are concerned only with raking in gobs of money. They don’t give the slimmest damn that they music they release into our culture carries poisonous messages to our impressionable youth. (I think 50 Cent is a genius, but “Get Rich or Die Trying”? Totally irresponsible.)
Oddly, if the American entertainment industry could get their shit together for one second, they could win this war on terror thing for us. It was the lust for blue jeans and Cadillacs that brought down the Soviet Union. Why can’t we apply the same tactics to woo kids in the Middle East away from becoming suicide bombers? Because the entertainment industry has no imagination, that’s why.
American popular culture is powerfully seductive stuff, and it could result in miracles if consciously applied. But big business has hijacked our culture. So screw ’em. The situation is such that Henry Thoreau’s ideas are far less relevant that Jean-Paul Marat’s.
DaveX: I have a few conflicting thoughts– on one hand, I believe that a free market of ideas will correct itself in such a manner that the best ideas will rise to the top. However, I don’t think that even Adam Smith could have realized how MANY ideas (i.e. recordings) would present themselves online. In many ways, it is simply too many to deal with effectively, which leads me back to the need for gatekeepers such as labels– which in some ways, art and listeners have been moving away from. What are your thoughts on this situation?
Izen: I’m completely positive that there is no correlation between the quality of music and its success in the marketplace. The problem is that a lot of people have poor taste. That’s why it’s important for people in positions to do so make the effort to raise standards in whatever way they can.
We’re definitely in a transitional phase right now, where the old methods for sorting through what’s available are falling away, and newer, better ways have yet to be perfected. Perhaps algorithmic systems like Pandora will eventually become good enough to become the dominant systems for helping us make decisions, but I seriously doubt it. It’s more likely that a human-based system will emerge for sorting through the massive amount of product out there. It might be supplemented by artificial intelligence systems and search algorithms, too.
All sorts of things are possible and there are far too many unknowns. It’s just too soon to tell. On the optimistic side, it’s probably anyone’s game right now. A handful of sharp people with a definite goal in mind could easily step in and completely change everything. It’s just a matter of will.
The important thing, though, is for smart people to apply themselves correctly. People with brains, taste and wisdom need to take a look at the larger picture, decide where they think things ought to go, and start steering the ship as much as they can. This is as true with music as it is with anything else. And music is far more important than people realize. Music gets under people’s skin and effects the way they interpret reality. The messages in music are subtle, which means they can often sneak unchallenged into our collective thinking.
Need more sharp thinking about experimental music? Be sure to visit Zeno’s blog, Hollow Tree Experimental Music Report. Cheers!