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Monday, May 22, 2006

Prologue: Studio World

An excerpt from Formal Absence,
a novel-in-progress by the author of this weblog . . .

Remember: All Writing Is RewritingNo stranger
Down in limbo
Can you tango?
Takes two to
Down in limbo
You are the one
Now is the time
Let your memory beat the drum
On the street car line
Voodoo warning
Is calling
Down in limbo

--Bryan Ferry, “Limbo”

Sitting in the swivel chair in the middle of the oriental carpet, waiting for playback to begin, a spring-loaded memory of The Thief of Bagdad suddenly punches it way through through his nervousness: This is a different kind of magic carpet ride; the precise opposite of escape. The dimmed, recessed halogens around the edges of this room and those of the control booth spill slightly tarnished light down the walls. At less than full power, their pure white illumination skews yellow and then smudges into a dirty darkness. However, the task fixture above him is turned up, containing him in a cone of light that seems reflected
off a glacier.

“And ready for 'Post-Modern Pop Song,' digital transfer of the original mix, yes?” the Engineer announces, his voice omnipresent in the surround-sound speaker array. Squinting through the Arctic light and past its reflection on the window, he can see the Engineer's silhouette backlit by the wall at the rear of the control booth.

Suddenly, he badly wants a cigarette--for the first time in years. Recording studio. Engineer. Playback. It's Proust's madeleine. Making music means smoking--or at least, it did. He futilely tries to shake off the desire--like all addictions, gone simply means dormancy. 'You're still doing things I gave up years ago.'  He thinks, Lou Reed, right? True words in an even truer song.

He is beginning to readjust to the disconnectedness of Studio World, where it's always twilight, some time between the late 20th and early 21st Centuries and pretty much anywhere in the world. If you really knew your stuff, you might be able to narrow the time frame down a little by identifying the modules and MIDI boxes in the racks, but with the trend toward drop-dead minimal component design, everything looks very Johnathan Ive--whether real or faux. Which is the reason the concept of Where is useless--industrial minimalism also being in its International Phase.

But all this is academic because he doesn't know his stuff anymore--at least, not like he did. And so he leans back in the chair surrounded by the speaker array, wanting nicotine and free-floating in a cloudy pool of ten years. Say, somewhere between 1996 and 2006-ish. It occurs to him that his resurrection fantasy had always been much more specific and sharp-edged than this.

Studio World was why rockers got lost in self-indulgence. Here, the process of creation was decoupled from time and space. Which might also explain a lot about the world, since God presumably did all His conjuring under similar conditions. Ultimately, most uncommercial or unacceptable product wasn't born of drugs or writer's block. It was the seduction of 52 tracks and the lure of now-perfect sonic resolution after endless mixing . . .

Bryan had lost himself for seven years inside his half-hundred close-mic and desk-direct recordings--and then came the dithering struggle with thousands of possible distillations. The album never came out, of course. A collection of covers recorded at breakneck speed in three weeks was the period at the end of that sentence.

And Jimmy, way back in analog days, well, Jimmy actually wore out his master tape; the ferric oxide scrapping off--edges first--through endless runs over the play heads. Jimmy was looking for the Perfect Mixes. In retrospect, he'd been having a breakdown throughout the recording process; the now-legendary self-destructing master was just the punch line. The last completed song was this dub / musique concrete thing--the vocal was Jimmy, heavily reverbed, speaking a session guitarist through a blistering two-minute guitar solo note by fucking note--but the guitar had been totally eliminated and substituted with a synth playing nothing close to the commanded chords. It was disturbing in a way that even performance art shouldn't be. He never recorded again after that. For a brief period, it looked like a Syd Barret Sales Dynamic would take over: Culthood deriving from madness translating into steady back catalog sales. But no. After six months, Jimmy, improbable one-hit pop star son of a newspaper magnate, simply became the emotionally disturbed and institutionalized member of a wealthy family.

Studio World--particularly now that tech was cheap and portable--gives the artist way too much time to think in an untethered fashion. With music labels disintermediated from the manufacture of pop, the always tenuous natural balance had been upset in a way similar to the introduction of rabbits in Australia. In digital Studio World, all the natural predators were gone in the manner they had always been missing for the superstars: When you could afford to own your own computer-based studio, the pressure of burning through $150-per-hour recording sessions goes away, as does the old analog curse whereby perfectionism and fidelity are at odds with each other. No noise floor--build up as many tracks as you need; just buy more memory when you run out of room. And, certainly, no Curse of Jimmy when the master tape's not tape.

Without limitations, everything's possible--and that's the problem: Everything's possible. Well, that won't be an issue here, he thinks. I've got benchmarks built right into the sessions. All we have to do is clean-up the old stuff--make it sound better and worthy of 24- Bit Sampling line on the back of the lyrics booklet. Get in, polish, and then get out. It means some badly needed additional cash, to say nothing of the rush that comes from being Right all those years ago, when everyone else--critics, radio stations and listeners (but maybe not Jack)--had been Wrong.

After the remixing, the expected next move is the rush to get a new collection of material out and into the racks while this brief, unexpected window to an alternate future is still open. Except that it is nothing he plans to do. He smiles to himself and reflexively checks his coat pocket for the pills . . .

He presses the intercom button. “ Okay, 'Post-Modern Pop Song' is as good a place to start as any--but understand I'm also going to want to remix 'Autumn Beach,' even if it does mean fucking around with good luck.” At first, there is no response from the Engineer, and he knows why.

It's the machinations of mergers. The Engineer works for the company which years ago had bought Arcadia, his old label, and part of his back catalog. But then MetaMusic had been swallowed up  by the Global Entertainment Group, which also owned the movie studio that made Red Vector, the largest-grossing summer blockbuster of the decade. How 'Autumn Beach' came to be the love theme of Red Vector was the story of the Global Entertainment Group leveraging its carefully created economies of scale. GEG told its film division to talk to its music group--and preemptively framed that discussion around the smaller acquired catalogues, where less-known music might be passed-off as fresh at royalty rates that made bottom-line sense. So much for the romantic illusion of having a Lone Believer within the corporate ranks who remembered and championed his song . . .

The point, however, is that the Engineer also essentially represents the film division--and, indeed, all of GEG. While he, on the other hand, was asking to mess with the breakout hit song from Red Vector: 'Autumn Beach.'  “Alright--but let's lean into the other songs first, yes?” intones the omnipresent voice. “If  'Autumn Beach' is mixed again, we'll have an overall feel to fit it into.”

If. Which, of course, means that the Red Vector version of 'Autumn Beach' is planned for the remastered edition of his final album. Because the sticker on the jewel case that reads Contains the Hit Love Theme from Red Vector is very important to the label. The major reason, in fact, for the reissue of The Formal Absences of Precious Things--the chances of selling more units of the accidental hit in the same window as the Red Vector DVD release being significantly greater than lightning striking twice with regard to the other songs. Plan B: Perhaps his mix of “Autumn Beach” could be included as a bonus track. Let the politicking begin . . .

The plot of Red Vector hinges on a secret operative pulled out of retirement against his wishes. Harrison Ford lobbied hard for the role because it allowed him to play his age. The film is bookended by lengthy scenes at the waterside retreat of the retired operative. Big Sur once again stood in for the Maine coastline. It had done this so frequently, he wonders if by now residents of coastal Maine also accepted the swap for veracity. The much-younger female agent sent to convince Ford to once again do his duty, stays on at the house, of course, to brief him. And, natch, they fall in love. Over two hours later, all the action returns to the house on the cliff. The Main Baddie, whom the Ford character thinks he's killed, turns out to be--wait for it--Not Dead, and wants his revenge on the operative's
own territory.

That where his song, “Autumn Beach” comes in. Some music researcher presumably input all possible love-beach-sand-cliff-sun-water strings into the music group's search engine. Autumn, however, was not among them because the scene in the shooting script was a very standard Exterior. New England cottage by the sea. Late afternoon. It was Beach that snagged his song and then, probably, the lyric's accidentally cinematic imagery.

By shooting and cutting to an already-chosen love theme, GEG got a de facto music video amortized across two divisional budgets. And there's very little that the company loves more than moving money from one organizational pocket to another.

Once the decision was made, the director rethought the first cottage scenes as occurring in, yes, Autumn. Which also explains why the composer who wrote the soundtrack created an orchestrated instrumental of the song for use in the early moments of the cottage scenes at the end of the film: The timeline of the action clearly precluded another fall season at the end of the movie.

Surprisingly, the film ends on a very downbeat, Chinatown note. (Which accounts for the bewildering critical acclaim despite its summer movie status. In Blockbuster Land, anything less than a Totally Happy Ending is the equivalent of an art film). And this was his second instance of good fortune. Had the French director not insisted on rewriting its ending, the climax would had the Main Baddie blasted off the cottage cliff by both barrels of a shotgun. As Harrison Ford pulled his young love interest to his chest, a Guy Ritchie-esque, dizzyingly fast backtracking helicopter shot would have left them figures in a landscape. Jagged jump-cut to black. And credit scroll, with "Armageddon Out of Here," the thrash-metal song by Shrapnel that had also been used under the main car chase.

But the sensitive French director was having none of this. He was tired of only doing Euro-influenced American action films. If something didn't change and fast, he'd end up doing Transporter 3. So he rewrote the ending--the young love interest is shot by the Main Baddie before he's blasted off the cliff. Then Harrison Ford rushes to her side for a few tender words and suddenly there's not a dry eye in the house. The film ends with a slow backtracking helicopter shot, leaving the retired operative cradling the corpse of his lover as he shrinks into a dot in the midst of an existential universe. (The director, being French, insisted on calling this his Vertigo shot, but couldn't work out how to get Harrison Ford to stand up at the cliff edge and mirror the outspread arms of James Stewart on that church steeple. After all, he would have had to drop the body of his lover onto the ground.) Slow, graceful fade to black. And credit roll with--what else?--”Autumn Beach”--the full version, because now the song's about the protagonist's memories. And besides, the mood of the audience was guaranteed to be autumnal.

In this way, still-saddened audiences filed out of theaters across the country accompanied by a surround-sound remix of “Autumn Beach” he had nothing at all to do with. Which means the record-breaking crowds basically heard the song twice in the space of two-and-a-half hours. It could have been worse. Had the studio not lost its battle for the Focus Group Ending, “Autumn Beach” might have been moved six minutes into the end credits, accompanying the names of craftspeople in esoteric technical groups, and thus only heard by film groupies in nearly empty auditoriums.

For this, he had Harrison Ford to thank--as did the sensitive French director. Ford quite reasonably saw the newly minted Big Death Scene as the chance to do his first real acting in at least 190 minutes. Given the choice between emoting over his dying lover or brandishing a shotgun while snarling an Asta la vista variant, Harrison Ford cashed-in one of his Hollywood chips and got the Vertigo Ending made . . .

This is why he is sitting here now, in this swivel chair, on this oriental carpet, in this cone of glacial light, with his cane on the floor beside him. It has nothing to do with networking or savvy management or persistence or the obvious quality of the song or even the hard work (which, after all, had occurred more than 10 years ago). No, his revenge-fantasy-come-true is the direct result of the acquisition strategies of a global conglomerate, the database skills of a corporate researcher assistant, the accidental alignment of song subject with a story created by a committee of screen writers, a fortuitous choice of title, the desperate ambitions of an dead-ended action director, and the second agenda of an international film star. This is the backstory of his second chance. And why a version of “Autumn Beach” polished by someone else would most certainly bump the original to the end of the CD--or entirely off it.

“Okay, sure--let's remix the other songs first, then,” he says to the silhouette behind the window. And before releasing the intercom button: “Maybe a remastered version of ”Autumn Beach” would make a good bonus track.” Seed planted.

“Before we proceed, this is probably a good time to share some impressions with you, yes?” Sitting at the studio's sweet spot, all audio signals converge precisely at his ears. The surround-sound speaker array is so finely balanced, that--disconcertingly--the Engineer's voice is directly inside his head. “You can be thinking about them during playback.”

Impressions? He fights to keep his gaze focused on the control booth window. He wants to look up, toward the top of the glacial light cone, to see if there is any sign of the second shoe dropping. Waiting a beat to find exactly the right measured voice, he hits the intercom. “Sure--what's on your mind?” A Gauloise--unfiltered. Why not? It is his fantasy--and safe, because they stopped making them.

“I reviewed all the material during and after the transfers, and I think there's a lot more work to be done than you might think, yes?” He did not know the Engineer. Highly touted, he had been assigned to this project by the company. The Engineer comes deeply experienced in audio restoration and had produced a handful of critically acclaimed recordings in his native Britain. But that was a long time ago, and the omnipresent voice speaks with a Mid-Atlantic accent. “The final mixes seem too much of their time. I'm not referring to the material, necessarily, but the manner in which they were put together. How to say this--you know about flies trapped in amber? It's like that--where the fly and the amber are equally old, yes? Well, I guess what I'm saying is that there's ways to fix the amber, other than just buffing it.”

“What exactly do you have in mind?” he asked, annoyed with himself at how quickly he's released the intercom button and wondering if he's cut off the last word . . .

Not only had The Formal Absences of Precious Things been his last record, he had known it going in. The simple fact that he made the recoding ensured that it was the last thing he'd ever do for the last label that had showed any interest in his work. Arcadia had signed him to a three-project deal when his career had been so cold, he could have made ice tea by merely holding a steaming cup Earl Grey.

The record had been made under strange and painful circumstances that had been entirely avoidable. But once the decision was made, the fifth act played out in the only way it could have. After all, The Formal Absences of Precious Things was about Beatrice. He knew it and Jack knew it. The smart move would have been to have simply filed the songs away under Cathartic-But-Unusable, and to have done something else. Chances are, Jack would have been than fine with that. But smart most often comes with distance; after-the-fact wisdom seeming to grow in direct proportion to the additional movement along a timeline beyond the event in question.

However, by the same measure, Jack also had chosen not to blink. When he told Magnus his plans for Formal Absences, he had fully expected that to be the end of it all. But after a few moments of deep, indecipherable silence, Jack said fine; that he looked forward to it. And that was how the sessions for his final record had been greenlighted. While always a believer in giving his artists the creative room they needed, this time Magnus hadn't asked to listen to even one demo . . .

“Well, I'd like to go back and rebuild the whole thing from the multitracks, bypassing all the submixes, yes?” says the Engineer's voice inside his head. “But if we do that, I'd like to get Jack Magnus involved--both for artistic and collector credibility.”

“No.” He doesn't release the button.

“No? What do you mean? About Magnus?” The voice in his head, while questioning, remains even and unsurprised.

“I mean, he won't want to be involved.” This time he takes his finger off the intercom. End of discussion made visible, he thinks.

The gesture, however, is either lost on the Engineer or ignored. “And? Do you want him involved? I can be very persuasive when called upon, yes?” I bet you can, he thinks. The fatal charm of the English--undiminished, even when wrapped in flattened
Mid-Atlantic pronunciation.

“Look, it just seems a lot easier to bring the original mixes up to acceptable fidelity. I guess I came in expecting a restoration.” The point avoided, he is trying hard to deflect the conversation deep into the obscuring and unemotional minutia of audio technology. And no, he doesn't want Jack involved for lots of reasons, not all of them obvious. The Formal Absences of Precious Things was a snapshot of a very strange time. As such, it had an inherent integrity, even though Jack produced it. Maybe more so for that fact . . .

Jack Magnus' Arcadia label had been forged from many influences. There was a pinch of Jack's mid-life crisis in the founding, and certainly, a thirst for independence. The amalgam that formed the cornerstone of the company also contained a healthy dose of snobbism in the form of boutique music, as well as the desire to develop new talent the old-fashioned, hands-on way. But the main driver for creating Arcadia was Jack's almost unreasonable envy of Manfred Eicher over at ECM.

As a university student, Magnus had established his Alpha individuality by steering his taste left when all of his friends took the obligatory right at American jazz. Granted, this was the de rigueur college-years flirtation, but Jack had always believed in doing things right. So while his buddies were busy laying-in copies of Miles' Kind of Blue, Brubeck's Take Five and Monk's Straight No Chaser next to their dorm room stereos (had they only compared notes, they might have arranged a bulk discount on the titles), Magnus was assembling a serious collection of German and European avant garde jazz. He had decided not to collect artists, but an entire label: If it was an ECM release, he simply bought it; no hesitation and no questions asked. But this perverse, blatantly grandstanding approach ceased being a mannerism or bragging-rights gambit somewhere around the 20th title he purchased. Going forward from there, literally collecting ECM blew apart Jack's head in ways that prevented it from ever again fitting together in the same way.

And thus, years later, on the other side of a variety of positions with international music conglomerates, Jack founded Arcadia using ECM for a blueprint and the position Manfred Eicher had crafted for himself as his own job description. As the self-ordained Eicher-Guy, Magnus had complete creative control of Arcadia and personally produced all of its releases.

The label's roster was small by design; it was the kind of boutique label that took courage to launch in the days before digital distribution of music. The Very ECM strategy was to become a meta-brand--the assurance of a recording's quality, integrity and artistic innovation by right of its Arcadia logo. Other labels had earlier aspired to this company-as-promise positioning--4AD, EG Records, Charisma, Tomato, Obscure Records and Hannibal--and, not surprisingly, they had also inspired Jack to one degree or another.

However, the size of the Arcadia roster was deceptive. Within the ranks of its relatively few acts was surprising diversity. The label was home to Fran Addison, a performance artist whose accidental hit single was years ago, even though she was still making fearless art in the estimation of Magnus and the critics. He had convinced her to come to Arcadia over a series of lunches that actual was an ardent courtship, rather than merely seeming to be one: Jack loved what she did that much.

The label was also the base of operations for Tim Wilson, a cult artist who could easily have locked his approach (songs as pulp novels) on autopilot and established a small-but-solid career for himself. But instead, Wilson had completely tossed out his old style and boldly embraced a brutal, sonic cubism that seemed like R&B filtered through Dada: The startling sound of the world falling apart. He, of course, was label-less for his trouble and Jack finally found him by looking in the Los Angles white pages. Two years later, Wilson took home a Grammy for a completely uncompromised recording minimally produced by Magnus.

Jack's tastes redefined eclecticism because he operated by a single criteria: Is it good music? Which was his personal shorthand for music saying something unique in a deeply moving way. And so Arcadia was also the patron company of lovingly crafted, out-of-fashion mainstream music. Nick Saunders, British folkie gone both Electric and Panavision, had practically mapped how smart you could make songs and still have them go platinum. His mid-'Seventies trilogy of records sold millions of copies, the melodies and swirling production acting as sleight-of-hand, drawing the attention of most listeners away from lyrics that were Noel Coward-esque--had Coward been an Oxford don. After his three-record run at superstardom, Saunders continued to write more of precisely the same kind of intelligent pop, while meticulously managing not to repeat himself. But inexplicably, it was to no avail and finally no label. And that's when the Magnus email arrived.

On one hand, Arcadia was a walled garden for Jack's personal heroes--a years-later personal thank you in the form of creative sanctuary and committed support. On the other, like ECM, the label was a crucible for new, visionary talent. The initial output of the truly gifted fascinated Magnus almost as much as watching and assisting artistic visions mature. In early work, what may be missing in terms of relative depth or cohesiveness was more than made up by unbridled passion and intuitive connections that, with growing experience, never again seem as quicksilver or audacious. Thus, Jack worked as closely with new artists as he did with his heroes, while understanding the best ones would eventually need more resources than Arcadia could provide. But that was okay, because Magnus realized the only thing more important than helping artists realize their most personal visions was being an art incubator for those just finding their voices . . .

“I'd like to very honest here, yes? Can we have a candid discussion?” asks the Engineer from just behind his eyeballs. Though almost imperceptible, he can sense a shifting through the lower gears of cushioning charm beginning over there in the control room. “There's something odd about Formal Absences. I wonder if you can't hear it because you're so close to it? The songs seem to be at odds with the production; sometimes in small ways, but also in other, larger instances, yes?”

The observation shakes him. Maybe the Engineer really had been that good a producer in London--or maybe he's simply approaching the songs with fresh eyes and 10 years' distance from the material. The overall feel of the collection has niggled at him for years. It is both exactly what he intended and not really what he meant. Which, in retrospect, might have been the reason The Formal Absences of Precious Things had done so badly in terms of sales and reviews.

“In what way is it 'at odds?' Specifically?” His tone isn't defensive. For the moment, the politics of re-releasing the record have been put aside. He wasn't hearing the cautious, dry done of the company being channeled through the Engineer.

“Well, the impression I'm left with is like a double exposure in photography, yes? It's like two things occurring at once--each obscuring or confusing the other. Most of the time, a song is saying one thing while the production is implying something else. Here--listen for it in 'Post-Modern Pop Song.”

It's like Novocain at the dentist: Your lower lip is jiggled to distract you from knowing when the needle goes in. He had anticipated having enough time to brace himself. But no. Without warning, he's thrown headlong into the mind of an earlier version of himself. The Engineer's production concerns had done the jiggling. And now the sudden playback was the needle. He has not listened to Formal Absences in nine years, not even in preparation for the remastering. It is too emotionally painful, too much a souvenir of defeat and too guilt-inducing. Besides, there is no need to listen since the songs have played inside his soul from the moment they were written.

The Engineer punches “Post-Modern Pop Song” into the speaker array, and the far left and right units spring to life, creating a traditional stereo image across which is spread the deep bass-heavy boom of a minor-key reggae riff:

When you went, you took the light;

now there's only darkness inside of me.

Though I crumble out of sight,

you would never know it to look at me.

Beatrice: That dead-of-winter when she's had enough, equidistant from fall and spring, a place where the old colors have been forgotten rather than faded and the new colors are nowhere in sight, the words that permanently stain his heart with all of that day's hues: the dirty gray of the snow, the dun color of the clouds and smudgy dark of too-short days that now somehow also become endless. Only darkness is left inside  . . .

Beatrice: Months, perhaps years, gone away from living, hiding himself in the everyday, turned inward and inside-out, self-medicating and self-loathing, yearning to no avail, serving the sentence by writing sentences, journals that might someday make sense of this, messages to a future self from a a place that has no future, alternately drowning and writing himself back to the surface. Crumbling out of sight . . .

Beatrice: An autumnal afternoon, a half-remembered eternity later, with steadier hands and a limp from his residence in darkness, the cripple inside made manifest, next to a ray of sun that seemed a tractor beam for dust motes, first gathering and then illuminating them, as he is finally able to write what he has been unable to say to anyone but has always known. When you went, you took
the light
. . .

Beatrice: Now suddenly spring, but unseen behind timeless studio walls, conjuring up the undead, giving voice to the unspeakable, the framing pantomime propriety of the producer, taped confessions introduced into evidence after long-passed judgments, all tamped down in the name of art-as-commerce, uncontainable loss now strictly metered and click-tracked, so that which changed everything forever could be expressed as a momentary, disposable pop song, the desperate attempt to balance on the taut lines of craft above the abyss of his own creation. You would never know it to look
at me . . .

He is holding the sides of the swivel chair, fingers digging into the cushion, face expressionless, eyes open but seeing nothing, the song transporting him, jacked-in to another plane, a stream of time running parallel to the one the Engineer occupies. It is like night terrors, but he is awake . . .

What I feel is just too plain to be used inside a song:

I loved you the first time I saw you,

Beatrice. Met in advance of Jack. Perhaps even making possible his connection with Magnus in the first place. The managing partner of Arcadia, she ran the the daily operations of the label and attended to its ceaseless details. That is how she came to be at the Independent Music Awards dinner. But how she happened to know where Hitchcock did location shooting for The Birds was clearly a matter
of fate . . .

A complete list of excerpts from the novel-in-progress can be found here.