Four minutes thirty three seconds of silence

Over the next few months I am re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 4 December 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

I was hoping to have a blog about Jay-Z ready on the occasion of his forty-first birthday, but, having made very little progress with Decoded so far, that has not happened. So I’m going to write on another musical topic that caught my attention a while back (and whilst a blog about Jay-Z will still be pertinent even if it lacks the touch of being posted on his birthday, this blog needs to be written before Christmas).

On Desert Island Discs a few weeks back, Ian McMillan, a South Yorkshire poet, chose John Cage’s 4’33” as one of his Desert Island Discs (along with tracks by Vaughan Williams, Andy Stewart, Doris Day, Love, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Bing Crosby and Leonard Bernstein). In fact, he chose it as the one track he would, if push came to shove, take with him, stating that it would be the one that ‘always renewed itself’. I don’t know if he’s right about that, but it is certainly the case that it is the track that is most dependent on its listening context for its meaning.

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Public Service Broadcasting: Inform, Educate, Entertain

‘[N]obody would believe there are 56 million people in Britain we see and hear so few of them [on television].’ Raymond Williams in one of his television columns for The Listener (written some time between 1968 and 1972), quoted in Charlotte Brunsdon, ‘Problems with Quality.’ Screen 31.1 (1990).

My Public Service Broadcasting learning curve has been a steep one.  I half-heard one of their songs on Radio 6 Music a couple of weeks ago, and was sufficiently intrigued to go in search of more information online.

When I discovered that not only was this band called Public Service Broadcasting, but that their new album (due out the following week) was called Inform, Educate, Entertain, my already substantial enthusiasm only increased.  That trio of verbs, for those who do not already know this, were offered by John Reith (1889-1971), the first general manager and then the first director general of the BBC, as a pithy summary of the aims of public service broadcasting.

The band’s website, publicservicebroadcasting.net, did a good job of enticing me further.  Gliding through its clean design, I was particularly interested in the ‘About’ tab, which told me that:

Public Service Broadcasting is the corduroy-clad brainchild of London-based J. Willgoose, Esq. who, along with his drumming companion, Wrigglesworth, will be touring the length and breadth of the UK in 2013 on a quest to Inform – Educate and, most importantly – Entertain.

Through their uniquely spell-binding live AV Transmissions audiences will witness the band weave samples from old public information films, archive footage and propaganda material around live drums, guitar, banjo and electronics as they teach the lessons of the past through the music of the future – beaming our past back at us through vintage TV sets and state of the art modern video projection devices.

I was interested less in the stuff about their live set-up (I don’t get out much), more in what I might expect from their album.  I was prepared to overlook the hipster-posturing of ‘corduroy-clad’ because the second paragraph was so promising.  Feeling flush with my first wage of the new tax year on its way to my bank account, I ordered the album.

It arrived towards the end of the week just gone, and, as I sometimes do with new albums, I’ve had it on repeat play since then to try to acquaint myself with it rapidly.  I’m sorry to say that the text does not quite deliver on the promise of the paratexts.

In retrospect, I should have paid slightly more attention to the information about what kinds of archival material the band favour – ie. ‘old public information films’ and ‘propaganda material’.  It is hard, when using such material, to avoid camp.  Not that the band seem to want to avoid camp.  Example 1: in the song ‘The Now Generation’, a male voice, adopting an outmoded pitching style, confidently asserts: ‘Out of the past and into your future comes this news, and the news is pleats!’  Example 2: in ‘Signal 30’, against squealing tyres and an insistent, overdriven guitar, we hear a series of lurid and/or laughable exclamations. Voice 1: ‘No drinking and driving.’ Voice 2: ‘Not even beer?’ Voice 3: ‘Not even water!’ [Tyres squeal.]  Barbara Klinger, in her book Melodrama and Meaning, described camp as a ‘hit-and-run sensibility’, and that is what we are often offered on this album: a focus upon the titillating quaintness of the fragment at the expense of the context of the whole.  Listening to the album, I was also reminded of Charlotte Brunsdon’s description of how television uses its own past in what she terms ‘“list television” compilations’:

the skill of editing archive compilation programmes like To DIY For lies in the precise intuition of how much old footage is funny, and when to cut before it becomes boring. The editing structure of these programmes depends on extremely short bursts of ‘old television’, contained and embraced by contemporary commentary, so that the viewer is never far from the enlightened and modern present. ‘Taste and time on television.’ Screen 45.2 (2004).

My sense is that, in the case of Inform, Educate, Entertain, the electronic music performs a function similar in type (albeit lesser in degree) to the ‘contemporary commentary’ Brunsdon refers to.  The comment about ‘short bursts’ is certainly germane too.

It should be noted, however, that neither television nor broadcasting are primary sources for the album, despite the title of the album and the name of the band that produced it.  Instead, films are the main named sources of samples.  The sleeve notes name four films: The First of the Few (1942), What a Life! (1948), Night Mail (1936) and The Conquest of Everest (1953).  (Looking back to the EP which preceded this album, The War Room, it is a similar story.)  The other samples, we are told, come ‘from various public domain sources, with the majority coming from the fantastic Prelinger archives’.

The sampled voices that we hear are predominantly male, and predominantly these voices speak in the clipped, received pronunciation style associated with both the BBC of the past and many of the recorded voices of the World War 2 era in general.  The most notable exception to this is probably ‘Signal 30’, where we hear voices with more of the demotic language and cadences of American culture.  Regional and other minority voices are largely absent.  This is a particular shame in light of the quotation that graces the top of the second page of the album’s sleeve notes:

I’m not going to play you records by eminent people; you’ll remember those.  But I’ve chosen a few, from the many hundreds we are making.  They deal with peak moments of intense personal experience.  And I think, together, they say something about the spirit of our own time.  Something that will still be worth saying a hundred years hence.

These words, the sleeve notes tell us, belong to ‘Marie Slocombe, founder of the BBC archive, speaking in 1942’, and we actually get to hear them spoken on one of the album’s tracks.  What a shame, then, that the album fails to deliver on this implicit promise, and does not allow us to hear any such ‘peak moments’.  (Alexis Petridis makes some interesting and useful observations about the sources the albums uses and the way it uses them in his Guardian review.)

The songs’ musical construction for the most part matches the staccato use of samples.  Most songs comprise a cycle of riffs, which are assembled sufficiently artfully, with the help of some very good driving bass which knows exactly when to ease off the throttle, that momentum and interest are consistently maintained, but which seem to me – admittedly, after only a day’s intensive listening – to lack any real complexity.  (As an aside, I think it is worth noting that the Independent’s reference to Public Service Broadcasting’s use of ‘the music of the present’ – a quote used on the band’s website – has been implicitly challenged by another of its writers.  Simon Price gets it spot on, I think, when he highlights the band’s debt to ‘electro-rock grooves reminiscent of the 1990s school (Underworld and Chemical Brothers, in particular).’  Faithless also came to my mind whilst listening.)

So, what ‘lessons of the past’ do Public Service Broadcasting teach us?  I’m afraid I felt like I walked away from my lesson somewhat empty-handed, despite the ostensibly good, sincere and deeply-felt intentions of J Willgoose Esq. (who dedicates The War Room to a relative who was killed in his 20s during World War 2).  I learned that there’s some funny campy stuff in the archives, and setting those posh voices against electronic instruments sounds pretty cool.  The paratextual material promised more, but the type of archival material chosen and the way in which it is treated make for a superficial engagement with history.  Popular music can engage with history more meaningfully than this, and it frequently does.  (Anyone who doubts this need look no further than the output of the Drive-By Truckers, in particular their album Southern Rock Opera.)

I’d like to end on a slightly more positive note, though.  One thread that runs through the album is a sense of striving in the voices we hear, of people consciously looking towards the frontier of the future with the spirit of pioneers.  This put me in mind of ‘The Omega Glory’ a wonderful chapter from Michael Chabon’s wonderful collection of essays, Manhood for Amateurs, in which the author ponders the loss of ‘our ability or our will to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so’.  I’ve just skimmed the chapter again, and if I had to pick one paragraph to stand in for the whole to make the particular point I’d want to make here, it’s this one:

If you ask my older son about the Future, he essentially thinks the world is going to end, and that’s it.  Most likely global warming, he says – floods, storms, desertification – but the possibility of viral pandemic, meteor impact, or some kind of nuclear exchange is not alien to his view of the days to come.  Maybe not tomorrow or a year from now.  The kid is more than capable of generating a full head of optimistic steam about next week, next vacation, his next birthday.  It’s only the world a hundred years on that leaves his hopes a blank.  My son seems to take the end of everything, of all human endeavour and creation, for granted.  He sees himself as living on the last page, if not in the last paragraph, of a long, strange and bewildering book.  If you had told me when I was his age that a kid of the future would feel that way – and what’s more, that he would see a certain justice in our eventual extinction, would think the world was better off without human beings – it would have been even worse than hearing that his world would offer no hydroponic megafarms, no human colonies on Mars, no personal jet packs for everyone.  That truly would have broken my heart.