Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ben Aslinger: Blogotheques and Black Cabs -- Popular Music and Urban Place

(To prepare yourself for this one take a listen to Royksopp's song Remind Me which is mentioned in the essay... although I think Only a Moment is a better example simply because it is not so diagrammatic and thus relates to Aslinger's examples of the musical/spatial experimental documentations of raw performances by contemporary bands/musicians in Vincent Moon's La Blogotheque and Hidden Fruit's Black Cab Sessions.)

Blogotheques and Black Cabs: Popular Music and Urban Place
Ben Aslinger / Bentley College
Flow TV

The music video for Röyksopp’s song “Remind Me” from their studio album Melody A.M. (2001) follows a day in the life of a woman who works in the information technology offices of a company housed in a central London skyscraper. Röyksopp, a Norwegian electronica duo, was formed in Bergen when Torbjørn Brundtland and Svein Berge reunited years after they had stopped experimenting with composing as schoolboys in the town of Tromsø. But as the plaintive lyrics of “Remind Me” indirectly indicate, music made in Norway and the artists who made it would only be heard outside Scandinavia if they got noticed by those executives, label bosses, critics and reviewers in London who wielded the most power to make music audible to a pan-European audience and to North American ears. Indeed, the reason I discovered Röyksopp’s work was because the duo is signed to Astralwerks – a label specializing in alternative rock and electronica that was purchased by Virgin and later became a part of EMI when the conglomerate purchased Virgin.

Thus, Röyksopp’s music alludes to the ways that the culture industries work to make music scenes visible and to construct music’s ties to place and travel. Röyksopp’s music, born of Bergen, found its way to my ears in Madison through the mediations of London-based music firms and a bevy of critics. Digging deeper into the animated video for “Remind Me,” however, reveals another tie between Röyksopp’s electronica and spatial understandings. In the video, we follow the various vectors of movement one woman takes through suburban and central London as the music overlays the rhythms of a workday, data visualizations of world markets, and statistics on how many Londoners walk, drive, take the bus, or catch the train to work. Remind Me links the engineered sounds and plaintive lyrics that emphasize travel, memory, and affect with various ways of mapping movements within the city and understanding the ways in which modern urban life relies on a multitude of systems and technologies – such as sewers, electricity, and communications infrastructures – that are largely taken for granted.

Röyksopp’s Remind Me highlights two issues surrounding music’s connections to place. First, musical sounds, styles, genres, and the performers who popularize them emerge in specific places, but the travel of specific sounds and performers to a national and/or international audience depends on critics, label bosses, bloggers, scholars and/or dedicated fans who work to construct and define the relationship of the music to place. Critics, musicologists and popular music historians have examined the conditions under which musical forms such as Detroit techno, Chicago house, New York garage, London grime, Seattle grunge, Memphis blues, Kansas City jazz, and Atlanta hip hop have evolved, traveled, and influenced other genres.1 While it might appear to the casual observer that networked and mobile mediations of popular music work to wrest musical performances, performers, and styles from any ties to location, experiments such as Vincent Moon’s La Blogotheque and Hidden Fruit’s Black Cab Sessions illustrate that articulations between place and music remain vital, even if site-specific listening practices have turned into the “site-unspecific” practices Max Dawson has chronicled in relation to U.S. television.2

La Blogotheque and the Black Cab Sessions feature musical performances primarily in Paris in London, offering performers a new way of promoting their records and new ways of imaging musical performance in both networked and particular places. On one level, La Blogotheque and the Black Cab Sessions challenge the traditional ways of visualizing genres such as indie rock. Music video scholar Carol Vernallis argues that videos for alternative bands emphasize interior and domestic settings associated with the middle class suburban locations that the largely white producers and listeners of such music wish to escape from. Vernallis writes, “In alternative videos, one might see a small, boxy set, built in a studio or warehouse, covered with murky green wallpaper, and decorated with shabby furniture. The run-down look of these settings underscores an interest in rawness and spontaneity and an ambivalence about such practices as writing attractive, accessible hooks. Alternative groups are typically imagined to play in low-rent spaces, like garages and small clubs, and these sites become associated with specific musical practices.”

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