Notes on the zeitgeist: More gibberish from Björk

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes

In an article that appeared in the NYTimes today, 2011 June 26, Jon Pareles, the chief popular music critic of the paper (according to Wikipedia), speaks of the transition of recorded music collections to the so-called “cloud,” that is, the creation of virtual storage of our personal recordings on Internet servers elsewhere than our physical whereabouts and accessible using computers for playback at will, and all perfectly legally. In the process, the writer reports on a forthcoming project of the Icelandic musician/celebrity, the mononymous Björk. The patronymic, for those of you who care, among the dozen or so people who have never heard of this eccentric individual, is Guðmundsdóttir. She seems to me to attract more attention than her musical exertions warrant (with bizarre makeup worn in public, the wearing of masks, and offbeat clothing, albeit a voice with a range of three octaves and the accolades of various award-granting bodies and a very much smaller number of professional musicians; I do note that she has covered far more songs of others than she, apparently, has been covered… decidedly a unique, if not an acquired, taste). Her followers tend to be fanatical, devoted, inarticulate, but passionate in their advocacy of the “genius” of her compositions and performances, and yet they are well-distributed globally, if not legion. It’s safe to grant her, if nothing else, the legitimacy of being designated avant garde (Charles Baudelaire, André Breton and, well, take your pick, dance a slow gavotte to this one wherever they find themselves at this time).

I’m not one, despite my reputation and my occasional tone, to disparage anyone and anything out of hand. I prefer to take it as it comes. Some things come, frankly, and I’d just as soon they keep on going until they’re out of sight on a far horizon. Fortunately entertainment figures, even those of undeniable cultural impact, have a manageable presence in my life, especially insofar as I take certain fundamental precautions. As much as possible my Facebook pages and profile are under lockdown, an enclave in cyberspace reserved as much as I can control it that is reserved for friends (by my definition); and as for friends who allow their enthusiasm in public to exceed their prudence, I can always exclude this or that pronouncement. I don’t watch television, and, indeed, given my cable subscription would only see about 22 stations (apparently; I haven’t checked) for the paltry sum I pay each month for the privilege. I listen to NPR, or I don’t listen to the radio, and I turn it off if what I’m hearing doesn’t interest me. Don’t get me started on local on-air presences in Boston the likes of Emily Rooney who manages to surpass her father in being irritating sometimes to a loathsome overload of that quality.

I avoid crowds, and have cut way back on phone conversations. In short I pick my friends, and control the time I spend with other people. My life is my business, and I like it that way. I’ve had some major distractions in my life of the kind that, had I the choice, I would have avoided altogether, but I didn’t have the choice… and, let’s just say I’m still recovering, and have chosen my own means and methods.

One result is I have a great deal more time to indulge in activity that has apparently become a luxury for the preponderance of the rest of the world, especially that preponderance within the locus of my ken. One activity is actually to take note of what is going on around me, to think about it, to examine its details, not only to smell the roses, but to see the bugs on the petals, and the variations in color, to perceive the inalterable cycle of their lives, and the lives of so many other living things, flora and fauna alike. I have time to ponder the excrescences of other creatures, including my fellow creatures (not just male, but female: men and women, boys and girls alike).

Another result is the ratification of some truths I had long since felt I had detected, and assured myself were worth the effort of testing their verity. In short, I actually pay attention to what people say, or write (though there is so much less and less of what is written at length that warrants the time it takes to see if it’s worth taking the time—a new corollary to Catch-22), or tweet, or text, or chirp, or grunt (listen… you’d be surprised, so much of human utterances fall into these two categories).

As for Björk, who from the distance at which I prefer to observe her, when she floats into my consciousness like the evanescent being she seems to want to project that she is (though she occupies no more and no less space, as far as I can tell, that a human of her size should; though she apparently lives and breathes and procreates—I note that she is now a mother with her partner, another professional eccentric and recognized, in some circles, as yet another avant-garde “genius,” Matt Barney), I will acknowledge her fame. I’d call it notoriety, if not infamy (not to put too fine an edge on it—but that’s only because she has elected somewhere along the line to communicate in English, as opposed to, say, exclusively in Icelandic), but then there are those who still seem to think I’m a curmudgeon, and I’d rather not encourage them.

Here is what Pareles elected to quote of what I can only infer was an exchange he elicited on the subject of her latest project, if not specifically on the subject at hand… his assignment for this Sunday’s Times:

“I’m excited to embrace a different handshake between the object and sound,” Bjork said in an e-mail. “It seems like every couple of decades this takes a somersault, and I enjoy the fresh point of view, like the honeymoon of the new format where you can really have an effect on the overall direction, and things like enjoyment, love and freedom matter again.”

She added, “I definitely wanted the songs to be a spatial experience, where you can play with lightning or a crystal or the full moon and the song changes. I would like to feel the apps are equal to the song in the same way I have always aimed for the music video to be equal to the song: the 1+1 is 3 thing. Not that it works every time, but you have to aim for it.”

Of course, I am capable of perfectly well understanding what she’s saying here. Even her sentences parse, though not as well as her more direct opining on the subject of sexual gender preference, as she is quoted, somewhat in the way of non sequitur, if not altogether incongruously, not to mention utterly gratuitously, in her entry on Wikipedia, which struggles and mainly succeeds in not being sycophantic and breathless.

However I am hard put to understand what the hell she is talking about, especially as it regards her nominal expertise… matters of music, if not more specifically song composition.

The question I am left with for her, if not more pertinently for Mr. Pareles, is whatever happened to listening to music for the ineffable pleasures it affords as a sensory and emotional experience as restricted necessarily to the sense organs with which we have been endowed? That is, our ears and the rest of the apparatus in our heads that connect these organs with the hearing centers of the brain. As long as most of us, as far as I understand it, are not endowed with the capability of synesthesia, as it’s called, and though I would never testify to an understanding of what Ms. Björk is saying here I am pretty certain she is not talking about synesthesia, either for herself or for the masses.

We’ve long since left the dock and the shore is no longer in sight of that great ship that is taking us to some foreign land where we will, I gather, hear with our finger tips rhapsodically or whimsically stroking the touch sensitive screens of personal sensory devices. No one has as yet persuaded me that a small slab composed of mainly synthetic, mostly toxic materials, comprising highly advanced technological devices which compromise, all at once and every time we use them, the higher order, if fundamental, senses of hearing and sight.

Rather than walk at a respectable and health-enhancing, if still unhurried, pace, down a country road and take in the sights nature still provides once we’ve abandoned our vehicles, and take in the sounds of our fellow creatures, never mind the wind, say, ruffling through several acres of mature grains of wheat as they rustle on their stalks in the meadow, here’s what we do. We press painful stubs of listening devices into our ears, if we are not actually trying to isolate from the booming chaos about us the sounds being reproduced, distortion-laden and truncated as to the range of tones to which the ears are susceptible with great subtlety. Simultaneously, we squint at screens that show us comical simulacra of humans cavorting or emoting in close-up—images otherwise meant to be viewed at life-size or nearly so in some projection that naturally allows us to view them selectively and without distraction.

If I understand Ms. Bjork correctly, she is thrilled to imagine that somehow the experiences we have enjoyed for several thousand years (and cultural anthropologists may somehow date our first efforts at making music even further back) no longer suffice, but require the manipulation that I am only guessing she means to imply by the use of imbecilic tropes: lightning, full moons, and crystals… the stuff of fantasy and fairy tales and wondrous, as any child will tell you, in and of themselves. And the “1+1 is 3 thing”? That only reminds me of a joke I recall from junior high school wherein simple definitions of serious disorders could be expressed arithmetically. I seem to recall that believing 1 + 1 = 3 defined psychotic.

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