Friday, September 25, 2015

Digital Technology, the Outtake and Process

It could be argued that the 3 albums that Bob Dylan released between 1965-6 - "Bringing it all back home", "Highway 61 Revisited" and the double "Blonde on Blonde" - is the high water mark of popular music. One track at least, "Like a Rolling Stone", has been named the best song of all time on at least one occasion. When Walter Benjamin wrote his essay "Art in the age of  mechanical reproduction" he foresaw a time when the uniqueness of a live performance would be replaced by a unit of the factory age, the same image or recording repeated ad infinitum. That "capturing" of a moment changes how we view it. Their is a historifying ever-present in the current work. Yet, we have always tried to capture the artistic creation, whether through aristocrats commissioning frescos, hand-painted Wedgewood, or the printing press, the lithograph....

Digital reproduction makes replication ever easier of course, which brings us to the copyright laws which artists rely on, but which are increasingly battlegrounds around "value." This very week the news that a judge in the US has declared the "copyright" invalid in the ancient "Happy Birthday to Me", has potentially got rid of millions of revenue for its "owner". (They rarely went after kids parties, but would frequently charge for its use in films.) The recently enacted "Cliff Richard law" - which extended "mechanical copyright" (the recording, rather than the writing of the song) had some interesting side effects - the main one being a "use it or lose it" clause. For copyright on unpublished works can essentially be lost. Why would this matter? Except it does - because for every recording of that unique experience, there are others which didn't make the cut. Even in 1965, there were times when producers would splice tape together or otherwise change the origin of the original. The vaults of major record companies are surely like "banks" holding unknown treasures in climate controlled environs, as ferrous tape slowly but surely degrades, fifty, sixty, seventy years after it was stored there.... use it, or genuinely lose it.

For the record collector, the music fan, it is not enough that Dylan recorded the equivalent of 4 albums of sublime quality in a couple of years, for whatever "magic" was in the air then has long dissipated, only occasionally resurfacing with Dylan himself, or with rock and roll in general. The vinyl LP was joined by the CD and then the download as we choose more convenient ways of listening. The end result of this is that Dylan's celebrated (and inaccurately named, given its legal status!) "Bootleg Series" reaches volume 12, with what can only be described as the motherlode. For these 3 LPs will be celebrated with a double CD of outtakes (fair enough), a 6 CD comprehensive round up (it surely deserves such treatment) and,  almost unbelievable, an 18 CD box set costing several hundred dollars in a worldwide limited edition of 5000 copies. Creating an enviable collectible at the same time as protecting the copyright of every scrap from these recordings seems the aim. Though expensive, the 6 CD version seems the most interesting. For one disc is given over to "Like a Rolling Stone" - 20 run throughs - most of them recorded after the take that eventually got used. Here we see a masterpiece being made. The story of it is quite legendary anyway. Mike Bloomfield a guitarist of rare talent coming in after Dylan decided to move on from his usual backing band, the Band, and Al Kooper a session musician who accidentally played the iconic organ piece on the recording. For lovers of music this CD alone will be a fascinating window into creative process. For although its true that we are in the age of replication, there was a time, say, 1965, when what is being captured on tape is as near to the "moment" as if we'd had a tape on Beethoven or Wagner's works being given a first performance. For the studio as a machine in its own right is yet to be completed - perhaps a couple of years later that will change - but for now, the band set up and play, and we'll get to hear the song as it changes.

Its not the first or only time that a record has received such comprehensive treatment. There was a "Pet Sounds" anthology years ago - the Velvet Underground's four seminal albums have now been issued over 25 or so CDs with live tracks and other recordings. The idea of the "outtake" as being a valid work in its own right is inevitable in an age of reissues, of wanting, not to hear the iconic "original" but the "original original" - the demo, or the run through or the early version with the different lyrics. What do we learn from this? Literature - or at least is modernist brand - has being doing this for a few years - with facsimile copies of "The Wasteland" and others. For scholars, but also for interested others, it seems necessary somehow to look into process, to somehow understand the alchemy that creates a great work. I personally feel there is a difference between music and writing in this sense. It seems that "versioning" is almost always valid in music, that bands play their songs and sometimes move them on from the recorded version or are sometimes stuck with them; that the song that was "released" is freighted with other meanings (commercial potential, length for radio or album etc. etc.) or that once the multitrack had arrived on the scene, it becomes necessary to have different versions within the same version (think of those classic album series with the faders turned down, or reissues of "Let it Be - naked") rather than different takes of the same song. With music I can imagine (and have) gone back to an earlier version of a song I've written and been fascinated by the genesis of it - though more often than not, there's a single recording, with other bits overdubbed, and anything that didn't work has long been erased. With poems and stories I am generally aiming for the end version and the decisions I make along the way are, though not irreversible, sometimes appear to be. The reason is that the end version transforms any previous versions. Its probably true of music as well, but for some reason we can cope with different versions of the same song, whereas the same poem or same story needs inevitably to lead to its finished and final version. They are, I'm sure, exceptions, but its early, and I can't think of them.

In our interest in the genesis of great music we are betraying our interest in it as not merely consumers, though the imperative to release these impressive expensive boxsets is an expensive and commercial one. For we want, more than anything to be there in the studio where Al Kooper sits behind the organ, or at the concert in Manchester where Dylan is called "Judas" and responds with a blistering performance. The convenience and quality of the definitive version gives us so much, but it doesn't allow us to be there - it doesn't see us as a witness to magic. Even in my own music, going back through thirty years of outtakes can take me back to the room where it was recorded, to the person I once was, in the way that looking at old typescripts doesn't. Indeed, the thing we repeat is the anecdote when the magic happened, memories strained across time. Within the confines of a studio that has seen a previous thousand sessions and will host a thousand more, what is the alchemy of process that creates the greatest song of all time? We want to go back there - and touch, taste, feel it.

I suspect this is also time to update Benjamin, for we are now making Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction, and the moment when a group of people get together in an expensive studio and the engineer diligently marks the takes is long gone. Each performance now will more than likely be one instrument on its own, which will be "printed" in the digital audio workstation, Cubase, or Protools or Ableton. The vocal lines will be "comped" - edited - from one part of the song to another as if they are a sample themselves - and everything from the moment it enters the chain or recording from the air, will be converted to zeroes and ones enabling each aspect of the voice or instrument to be changed. What the future box set will give us will be a series of mixdowns, hardly distinguishable from each other. And if the "mastertapes" are available in fifty years time, they will be digital files that will somehow have to be reconstructed with some software emulation. Dylan's "The Cutting Edge" may well be the high water mark of our fascination with the magic.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Six of the Best

I was thinking I'm overdue a blog post and then had forgotten that today was the announcement of the Booker Prize shortlist. As I mused over the longlist, its followed the pattern, to the letter, of a third British and Irish, a third American, a third Commonwealth - which I suspect will become the default over the next few years. This can enhance the prize, even if it doesn't do much for British letters. I think the presence of Marilynne Robinson and Anne Tyler on the longlist gives the prize gravitas, even as we have to admit that the world of literature has changed - and the days of "big name" or even "midlist" writers may be over. Only Tom McCarthy - with his fourth novel - is a previous shortlisted writer, and he is very much a millennial writer - yet he's my own generation, so in his mid forties, whose "Remainder" only got published in 2005, and then by a tiny art press. We're perhaps in the age of one off books rather than of emblematic writers - perhaps thats a good thing - like in music, we are in an age of plenty, yet without any obvious giants. Maybe, thats always been the way, and perhaps the Booker is more about "The Life of Pi" and "The God of All Small Things" than it is about Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan.

Anyway, it looks a strong list... though I'm aware I've only read one of last years, so I'm in no hurry to plough through this year's.

Locally there's plenty of literature coming up - with Manchester Literature Festival just round the corner, (it starts on 12th October, and more on that nearer the time) but there other events taking place here, there and everywhere. A rare treat at Verbose in Fallowfield in a fortnight - when the tutors from the Manchester School of New Writing get a chance to put their best foot forward.
This Saturday I hope I can convince a few folks along to Manchester's newest lit scene hangout Chapter 1 Books for reading by my friend and fellow Salt Modern Voice, J.T. Welsch alongside Australian poet Michael Farrell.

Next week there are 2 great events at Anthony Burgess foundation - firstly a reissue of Burgess's Shakespeare book is celebrated next Thursday, then on 25th, two more writer friends, both alumni of University of Manchester (before it was the School of New Writing), Emma Jane Unsworth and Lee Rourke, talking about their different takes on writing about Manchester. I'm away for this unfortunately, but you don't have to be!

All good - and maybe it will help me get my literature hat back on. I've felt a little (a lot?) unliterary the last two or three weeks - hardly writing or reading a work. These creative troughs are part of the game I guess, but it seems ages since I wrote anything (though I finished three stories at the end of August!)

Though its a bit (a lot?) of a lottery, still time to save up your pennies, and get your entries into the Manchester Writing Competition - closing date for both fiction and poetry is a week on Friday. Now where's that idea I had....