Listen, The Snow Is Falling

snow, michael

Point your browser on over to the Eigenradio site and check out some of the oddest -- yet most true to life -- holiday music you're likely to hear before 2004 calls it a day.

A condensed version of the Eigenradio conceptual shtick, or, at the very least, the Eigenradio concept expressed a plaid-sports-coat-clad, wink-and-a-nod humbug:

All those stations, playing all that music, all the time... Who has enough time in the day to listen to them all? Eigenradio plays only the most important frequencies, only the beats with the highest entropy. If you took a bunch of music and asked it, "Music, what are you, really?" you'd hear Eigenradio singing back at you. Eigenradio makes its optimal music by analyzing in real time dozens of radio stations at once. When our bank of computers has heard enough music, it will go to work on making more just like it. What you hear on Eigenradio is the best of New Music, distilled and de-correlated. One song on Eigneradio is worth at least twenty songs on old radio. This season, as a present to friends worldwide, our system listened to as much Christmas music as it could handle. When it was done it synthesized these sixteen new timeless classics.

The results are, surprising, not nearly as cut-up-y as I anticipated. There are certainly tracks here, such as "Blanket And Frosty Holler" that sound simply like signals being diced and shuffled one into one another. As if someone -- and someone obviously not afflicted with carpel tunnel syndrome -- were frobnicating the controls on their Grundig in obsessive-compulsive spasms: locked in some loop of zooming through the same frequencies, over and over again. Ah, but only if the violence and duration of those spasms could be plotted according to a computable algorithm. (Truth be told, I'm not sure what algorithms are at work in the Eigenradio project; I have seen references elsewhere on the web to Transverb and FFT [Fast Fourier Transformations], but no one other than Brian Whitman, it seems, has anything definitive on the how.) A Singular Christmas is not the sound of raw data, of individual bits that would be mellifluous or crackly all on their own. A Singular Christmas is the result of statistical analysis. This is raw data that has been automatically sublimated.

And we all know what perverse amusements sublimation is capable of. Forget choppiness and think about samples -- social science and not beat science samples -- bleeding into one another as digits are rounded up and rounded down. Brass ensembles and choirs merge and gently blurt "fa's" and "la's" against the din. Just as the radiant spines of snowflakes melt into one another before freezing into the thick whiteness of frost. "Holy Night", were it not so abbreviated, would be downright eerie, defined by a sort of anti-tranquility in the manner of P.i.L.'s "Radio 4" (Metal Box / Second Edition). Handbell glitches, icicles jingling in the wind, or bouzoukis? Whatever; in "Cherry Misfortune" they pluck out freely over the solstice hush that hangs over Miles' In A Silent Way. The animal cries in "Bright Reindeer Cap" don't echo over a desolate winter landscape, but synthesized-speech-like tonalities taken from the earlier "Mountain Noel", tonalities themselves reminiscent of the sounds of the mainframe you can hear on an old, old Nonesuch LP, Computer Music (H-71245). (Barry Vercoe has a piece on that record, and Mr. Whitman is currently a student of Vercoe's at MIT). Some pieces are abrasive, such as "Summer's Farmer Gray", while others to-and-fro with as much madcap as the concourse of any American shopping mall on Black Friday ("Grand Hotel Pout Twice"). There are also references to musical tradition, as the set's last two tracks, "City Sidewalk Steadfast Clime" and "Radiant Bells" (church organ, hmmm, where's that been?) incorporate Pendereckian and Fennesz-like textures, respectively.

But this is all associative window dressing. Because, and naturally, after multiple listenings, it becomes very apparent just how persistent those oh-so familiar Christmas songs and their evocations, insinuations and counsel are. A Singular Christmas may be in part about the core of dissonance in every limp, blandly heterogeneous mass. "Ha, ha, the joke is on you, consumers. The sum of all those popular sounds you invest in or at least tolerate is a sound you would normally classify as disturbing, would flee from." However, the Eigneradio method, rhetorical as it is, strikes me as being most apropos to holiday unease. I cannot think of one person I know, and not everyone I know is nearly as much a crank as I am, who enjoys Christmas music as it is generally defined. Employing very unscientific techniques, I performed my own survey, and was given these descriptions of this seasonal variety of environmental sound (in the States, Christmas music is truly ubiquitous):

  • "annoying"
  • "a nuisance"
  • "so worn out; I mean, I might be more charitable if maybe there were new Christmas songs"
  • "depressing as Hell"
  • "completely meretricious"
  • "creepy"

"Christmas music, why are you, really?" I think A Singular Christmas provides one kind of answer. Cheer at any other time of the year would be healthy, not to mention downright generous; at Christmas time, cheer is mostly anesthetic. See, many, many of us so approach each Christmas not with the expectations that new and happy memories are soon to be made, but rather with a faint wish that things will be slightly less awful than usual. A mean or median of misery would be a relief. And the closer one comes to December 25th, the more desperate this hope becomes, and the more one fades into denial, trying to live through it all while remaining as disconnected from all its significance as possible. One way to accomplish such withdrawal is to open oneself to a non-cleansing inundation. And so there follows a temporary, strangely willed obliteration of personal knowledge. The actual occasions in which these songs were heard, or themselves sung through, the reasons for celebrations past, flashbacks to faces and voices and places where one congregated -- these don't quite disappear or become identical, but sit gathering dust, unclaimed, items once lusted after but which are now only tokens of old and stinging disappointment. Yet, predictable as the holidays are, even this process must be renewed, and so every experience of its rigors (and it certainly possesses its rigors) has is somehow novel. A Singular Christmas, which is new only insofar as no one has attacked this problem quite from this angle before, is not a window looking out on Stevens' "nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is" so much as a mirror turned back on those who would endure that chill, all the while harboring a secret hope that its bite will kill them once and for all. "So much for your precious moments", this music seems to be saying, "taken in bulk, they are an indecipherable blot. Unless you can select from them what is only tedious without discarding what in them is merely palliative."

Or, as one of our greatest ironists, Ken Nordine, once said: "It's lovely to look at love when you're average."

~ Joe Milazzo

Posted by joe on December 17, 2004 5:01 PM

Great piece, Joe. I really like that music, btw.

Posted by: walto at December 17, 2004 9:19 PM

what do you think of andy roony?

i love your tv static anim, very neat.

Posted by: scc at November 20, 2005 7:54 PM

what do you think of andy rooney?

i love your tv static anim, very neat.

Posted by: scc at November 20, 2005 7:54 PM

Well let me tell you about my comments...... I think that it is really ridiculous to have things saying "listen to music" bblah blah blah. well i want to know why you stupid people who have no since don't let some people listen to music!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! DUH! Thanks for you taking time out of your so called work and reading my comments!

Posted by: hailie at December 11, 2005 2:02 PM

Dear Hailie

Try not to get so vexed - high blood pressure can prove fatal. In this case it's been fatal to your sentence construction.

Best wishes

Colonel Panic

Posted by: Colonel Panic at December 12, 2005 1:46 AM

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