21 2 / 2012
Chris Cornell is a musical genius. Yes, I was raised on the heavier music of the post-punk pre-Nirvana-breakthrough wave, and therefore have a preference for these tones, but what Chris Cornell has accomplished as a “Futurist” is extraordinary.
If you listen to Chris’s first popular band, Soundgarden, you might fight it off as “heavy metal.” If you listen carefully you realize the band is practicing the art of dissonance. Practicing, or at least being able to identify, dissonance is the anchor to being a Futurist. Each Soundgarden (and his solo stuff, and his time with Audioslave) record, performance, and song is an exercise of dissonance. He is weaving into the mainstream-songbook the external forces of marginalized sounds. Nearly of all of his songs, the structures, the chords, the vocal ranges, are built on dissonant chords that find moments of serene resolution, and then break back apart into dissonance.
There are many historical examples of weaving dissonance into the mainstream. Specifically related to Chris, is one that has been replicated since the birth of “print-making” and is now found in Instagram. Let’s use punk-rock bass playing as the pivot point.
Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols didn’t know how to play the bass. It didn’t matter. The band had a strong drummer and guitar player; both “professional” studio musicians. They were the forces of resolve… weaving Sid’s dissonance into the mainstream. This allowed Sid, and Johnny Rotten, to be the “punks” they are now famous for being. If you listen to Sid’s playing you realize that he can’t play, but what he did bring to the band is the historical print-making technique of, “over-biting,” or “foul-biting.”
Way back when, when people realized they could duplicate things, they relied on the printing press to be their duplication machine. They eagerly attempted to make things perfect. The key problem of early print techniques is it required the use of acids to burn the texts or images into the metal printing plates. When all went well, the ink would remain within the cracks, scratches, and acid-made lines in the plates. These plates were then used to press the ink into paper. But acid is volatile, and it would leak, run, and escape the lines the printmaker carefully laid. Somewhere along the way, dissonant printmakers found a beauty in the overrun of acid. They created techniques to make it happen on purpose. They were our culture’s early punk-rockers.
This overrun is called over-biting or foul-biting. It added a genuine quality to the prints; it added an unseen force, a “filter” to their images that was out of their control, but still exciting, and even beautiful to the eye. If you should browse through Instagram, you are made acutely aware that this dissonance trend is in full force. Thousands, if not millions, of images are struck with an over-bite layer to give them that “old school” quality. It’s as old as people making prints, any type of prints. And it is an obvious example of the weaving in of dissonance into the mainstream, or potentially the other way around. This specific “print” wave took around two hundred years to crest.
Back to music…Sid Vicious was the over-bitten plate. Chris Cornell is Instagram.
Through Chris’s songwriting and performance, he continues this over-bite tradition and elevates it to a genius level. Through following Chris’s career, as an exercise of dissonance, you could predict Instagram. The western culture is becoming more and more dissonant as the voices of difference become available on social networks. This effect is illustrated within the adoption of filters on Instagram.
Even so, dissonance works both ways. And if we look to Chris Cornell as the trailblazer of the dissonant wave, it seems the next step is to take the popular, resolutive sounds of our day and to weave them backwards into the force of dissonance. This is an unwinding, a drawing out of the dissonance from the popular and putting it back into the wave of change. Like a tornado pulling up the hot ground-air from the plains to power its might, the next wave will be a powerful change, a shift to the marginalized, a shift away from a one hegemonic force and into the facets of a multi-force web of cultures, people, and voices.
Case in point: Chris is currently on tour. On the news of Whitney Houston’s death, Chris learned one of her songs, overnight, but wove it through his dissonance filter. The outcome is still her song, some of his song, but ultimately a genius moment where a futurist listened deeply to his surroundings, found the resolutive force, and pulled it back into the roots of dissonance.
Chris Cornell, live, San Francisco, 2/16/12, “I will always love you”
Super, freaking, genius.
31 1 / 2012
Jeff Mangum has created a unique catalog of songs that resonate with a troupe of wilting-flower intellectual Americans. He keeps his songs scarce, instilling the pre-digital value of songwriters in the eras without recording devices. Bottled-up and pickled in the cold shed he cracks the jar open on seldom occasion. Each time the vinegar grows ever dim, the sweetness fades, the brine stings less. I’m not sure if Jeff likes these songs anymore, but he seems to know there’s a proud-hearted audience that is decreasingly half-desperate for them.
These earnest sons and daughters with crisp-cuff jeans above their pale ale workshoes are crafting their lives upon grass-fed hopefulness. These kid-faced mid-life professionals secretly loathe the ironies of middle-class rewards, but hang the vinyl above their beds. Finding solace in the soft-faced muppets, they pray with all their secular might for a truth found within the cracked guitar tonks of Mangum’s photomatic broken-youth parables. They hope their live viewing of his near-pantomime performance will free them from the irritation of their destabilized generation.
In Jeff they see an available ideal, the soft hero. They find their salve through an album and a half of decade old songs, sung by a man quiet enough to allow intrigue in his bio. Maybe if they sing along, especially when he asks, they’ll scrape the genius from his air. In an era where the value of nearly everything is churningly reinvented, the decay of these songs is painfully obvious. Two years ago the audience would be standing, singing at the top of their lungs. At this event, we all sat in theatre chairs and half-sung self-consciously. Next time we’ll put him in a glass case and kiss the surface.
The songs are good. I wish Jeff the best, but wish even more that he’d write new songs. Still, more importantly, the songs he sang last Thursday night are songs that dance upon the string theory within our cells. They mingle with neutrinos that are older than stars and gape at our bones from amidst the eldest vibrations. My grandkids will like these songs. Eons ago there were apes who would find magic in these songs.
Over the piles of time, songs have formed-up within cultures, combined like chemistry, and followed the math of notes and time. Uniform audiences warmly gawk at the modest majesty of a lonesome figure. Sitting, surrounded by sound-making tools that only they can play in a special way.
Like the slow salt-loaded waves on the moonless sea, these songs have seen their crest. They’ll soon be stacked within the basement boxes of polaroid portraits, cheap plastic school trophies, and mom’s love letters to a man who wasn’t her husband.