There’s only so much I can really say about the music industry. I’m not by any means a guru on the subject. Most of the limited notoriety I’ve so far earned as a commentator stems more from the partisan rage I can’t help but convey. I certainly don’t have any great depth of experience or insight into the act of getting soundwaves to move through the air in a way that, more or less, corresponds with the melodies and rhythms a given musician hears within their own minds. I don’t think anyone does. You’ll notice that I’m back to using the personal pronoun ‘I’ (to which I have a certain childish devotion) and that this blogpost is written in the voice of me (Sean, the label manager of BlancoMusic) rather than as some detached, bodiless opinion doggedly hoping that narrative anonymity might somehow fool the reader into accepting its opinionated guesses as being somehow authoritative. Writing about music has its tricks and its tropes, the same as any form of critical appraisal. What I’m doing right now: bringing you into a conspiratorial embrace by the use of semi-rarified vocabulary and register in a first-person, self-conscious narrative – is the undergraduate approach to a dilemma that faces anyone who chooses to write publicly about music.
The issue is not whether a writer can describe a piece of music to a reader. The truth of that is established. It’s impossible. Even if you and I were to sit in front of the same speakers and listen to the same piece of music, even if we were to go to great lengths to assure that the soundwaves you heard were identical to the ones I experienced, it wouldn’t make any difference. The little drums inside your ears are different to the little drums inside mine. As for the interpretative mechanisms that follow the physical inputs, those are a world of their own. The very keyboard rill which evokes an aching longing for a half-remembered joy sometime in my childhood could just as well remind you of the time you spilled hot spaghetti hoops onto your lap when you were ten. It’s all subjective, and can only ever be. So instead, the writer tries to establish a type of authority, something to convince you that our opinion matters. Ideally, that authority would be built up over time, with credibility enforced by a track record of writing interesting opinions about pieces of music that, even if you didn’t fully agree with them, were at the very least valid or worthy of respect. But as a blogger, relatively new to your acquaintance, that accumulated authority is something that I can’t hope to depend on. There are shortcuts. Being snide and hypercritical of musicians deemed too mainstream is one of those shortcuts. Being catty and arch works well too, just the way that bitching about a colleague tends to forge superficially pleasing relationships in the workplace. Dropping lots of references to music on the periphery of our knowledge is a good start. That’s a staple of the music-blogger’s approach – when the blogger feels the focus should be more on the blog than the music. Ten there’s the schoolyard music-bore’s method – dropping references to increasingly obscure acts from the past, as if littering the text with the names of 1980s Polish speedmetal bands guarantees a developed sense of critical appreciation in the writer. Knowing asides mentioning Cabaret Voltaire in a review of a synthpop act tend to work well, for other genres there is always the chin-strokey fallback if Zappa or Can. When all else fails, mention Nick Drake.
Doing it again, aren’t I? Getting into a froth about the posturing that typifies this industry. What else can we do though? All we want, any of us, is that you listen to our music. Whether you like it or whether you don’t is for another day, another string of therapy sessions. Last week I wrote about the industry, the marketing mechanisms, the rise of the South Korean music market (published the day before that country came under fire from it’s northern neighbour – horrible timing on my part). That piece was an effort to appear a little professional, detached, authoritative. Many thanks to Stuart Dredge of MusicAlly.com for picking the post up and running it as their opinion piece for the fortnight. This week though, I’m back to being me. A bit emotional, a bit susceptible to fits of ire and a bit too sensitive to moments of musical art that strike me as interesting. Can we establish, or at least indulge in the fantasy that I am a critical voice worthy of your indulgence for the next thousand words or so? I certainly don’t have a long history of music writing that you can refer to, nor do I write for a publication you already admire. I do have an option at this point, but it is not one I’m willing to exercise. Scorn, doled out at a well-picked target (something at the lower end of the public perception, building momentum, but without a sufficiently visible history of penury and graft), is a shortcut to the affections of the reader. A sneering propensity to damn with faint praise. A jaded cynicism about everything I hear, as if the trials of having to listen to a constantly growing pile of free CDs were somehow as laborious and drudging as clocking in for another eight hours of packing tomatoes into crates or manning a call centre cubicle. I don’t want to do that, or even pretend that I feel that way. One of the few jewels of the music industry as I have experienced it so far, one of the all-time joys which pisses on all of the challenges and disappointments and frustrations, is that I get to hear chunks of new music as it gets sent to me on the SoundCloud dropbox, or via the postie, or best of all, as it gets composed and recorded. So, instead of dwelling on the negatives or using cynicism as a vehicle to enlist the sympathy of the reader, for a change, I’m going to write about a song that really interests me.
Vivo en Penumbra translates as ‘I live in the shadows’. It’s a nine-minute saga. When Maria (the singer and songwriter) penned it, she had a whole story to tell – a whole scenario involving claustrophobia, agorophobia, self-imposed alienation, failed rebirth, atavism and longing. It’s a lot to get across in nine minutes, and it’s not at all comfortable listening. Should it be? Music is not always designed to soothe. At its worst, music is a superficial product, churned out on an industrial basis as a saleable by-product of a marketing drive. Recent changes in technology have shifted the emphasis off music as the primary by-product of that branding process – relegating it somewhere behind box-sets, figurines, fragrances, dancemats and iPhone apps, so it doesn’t even have the dubious privilege of being the focal point of a manufactured popstar’s market value. Let’s not name names, you can all think of someone. That’s music at it’s worst – not because the music is bad, sometimes it’s not – but because it is strictured by the parameters enforced upon it by other aspects of the marketing process. Popstars cannot be out of character for a moment, even the most avant-garde of them have to display a consistency in their ‘experimentation’ that tallies with the brand image they maintain. So, remember the bit about establishing credibility in the first part of this post? Well, here’s my only really useful claim to credibility. I can definitively say that Mil i Maria are in no way constricted by any aspects of the branding phenomenon. As the manager of their label, I have to admit that I do sometimes wish they would conform a bit to the branding process. From the point of view of marketing the act, it would be a whole lot easier if Maria would choose a look (psychobilly rockchick would work) and build a stage persona around that. The best branding happens when an act merely take a genuine piece of their defining spirit, and just exaggerate it a bit. Creating something completely alien and artificial has no value, because it it too difficult to sustain. An exaggerated stage persona works though, for the consumer and the act. It allows the members of the act to differentiate between the aspect of themselves that replies to interviewers’ questions from the aspect of themselves that buys milk at the cornershop. Nevertheless, the point I am trying to make, is that there is no restriction on Mil i Maria’s music from the point of view of branding or marketing. Musically, there is quality-control, production, arrangement, feedback. Of course there is that, but as a collaborative process, not as an imposition. You can’t coerce her, many have tried.
So, then. In Vivo en Penumbra you have the unsullied expression of a songwriter/performer who is free to record the song she hears in her head, without the restrictions of market, audience, branding. That may not sound like much, but it’s getting rarer by the minute.
The song opens with an opressive ticking – perhaps a clock, perhaps a heartbeat. The protagonist sings what would translate as ‘I live in shadow /I don’t recommend it / My house is small and I walk around it sideways – so that the mirror won’t watch me’.
There’s an autobiographical element to the song, it continues to describe a protagonist who spends the day in an untidy flat, filling notebooks full of short, aborted lines, tearing them up. Standard. But the repetition of the guitar line, and that invasive ticking hint at something more malevolent. With a songwriting flair that is unusual in a debut album, the song takes a twist at this point. The phone rings, our protagonist answers, is invited to a meeting, accepts. And on leaving the house, chaos, agorophobia, panic, fear:
ah, que miedo, alguien me punta con un dedo. Ah, que miedo!
Scared! Someone pokes me with a finger, Scared!
Outside it is bright, it’s crowded, it’s terrifying. But on encountering a busker playing flamenco, the scene calms. Something timeless and comforting in the guitarist’s music soothes the narrator. For a moment, everything is fine. What makes the song really interesting though is that, despite the breakthrough, despite the atavistic calm that descends on the song with the flamenco phrase, there is no happy ending. The song ends where it began, back in the small untidy house, terrified of the outside world and loathing of the oppressive regime it denotes.
I’ll stop here. I’m not a music critic, nor am I unbiased. I love the song and I want you to love it too.
Hear it at http://blancomusic.com/vivoenpenumbra