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The most striking topic in this interview, for my money: “silence is an integral part of the music that I make” (27:00-30:00). The notion of “inhabited silence” can be taken further, I think, to a “dwelling within silence.” What this might mean, when the sound of music is heard as continuous with silence? Or when you can maintain the idea of the silence that precedes sound as you are listening? Can we talk about different shades of lack of amplitude? Is this just a fatuous distinction we can fool ourselves into feeling, or does the description of this phenomenological extreme actually tell us something about the way we aestheticize listening?
Frasier is a staple of retro pop-culture among the extremely online comedians I follow on twitter. I’m not saying that’s why I’ve started watching it (I’ve only ever seen a few scattered episodes in syndication), but the convoluted in-jokes drifting across the flat, weightless space of the twits remind me of the things I like about the show: the corny puns whose self-consciousness gives us permission to laugh along, the clever writing that walks a fine line between empathy and annoyance at prissiness of the Brothers Crane, and the tactfully entertaining way it addresses serious emotions. The fact that a cultural product with the earnest optimism of Frasier (which spun off from Cheers after Ted Dansen left) entering a new afterlife as a cultural touchstone for performatively jaded 30-something Millenials is just a little bonus irony.
Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) has a weekly Seattle radio show, in which he provides a “talking cure” to callers looking for the help of an on-air psychiatrist. This premise holds constant comedic potential for upstaging and juxtaposition between heard and seen action. His radio personality has his own catchphrase: “I’m listening.” Almost as formulaic as the recitation of the station ID and FCC obscenity guidelines responsible for many of the comic scenarios throughout the series, “I’m listening” sets guidelines for the audience’s expectations, casting a spell and laying out rules of behavior, like all good psychiatry radio show catchphrases. The forthright baring of the (fictional) device, of course, sustains the actual spell of the TV show’s story, distracting the busy left brain to keep it from disenchanting the actual boundaries of the production. This meta commentary, a TV show about a radio show, puts Frasier in the same category as the other NBC sitcoms about media workplaces, NewsRadio and 30 Rock. Frasier’s Season 3 Episode 3 is a gentle, redemptive meditation on mortality and validation; and it narrates a quintessentially modern approach to death, how media technology, piecemeal but deep, refracts and reconfigures our humanity.
The first 45 seconds of the episode gives us a good sense of the intersensory comedy I just mentioned. Opening shot is in the KACL studio, where Frasier and his producer, Rosalinda Doyle, are at the final call of another successful show, relaxed and in the zone of work even as they wrap up their day. Roz is making herself a peanut butter sandwich, and introduces the final caller before switching off her mic and taking a big bite. But the caller has been dropped! Uh oh! Better turn back to the producer, who screens potential on-air guests. But the foibles continue! Roz has gone and gotten her mouth stuck together with peanut butter, and can’t pronounce name of the next guest. She tries to unstick her mouth by drinking some milk, but eventually goes for a homophonic pantomime.
The sonic intimacy of radio is a big part of the comic juxtaposition with frantic physical activity, and like many sitcom premises, proper “appearances” kept up on the radio are only maintained by the tenacity and creativity of Our Heroes with the Milk Moustaches.
The call-in guest wants to fantasize about having sex with Frasier (naturally), and Roz the producer volunteers to describe his physical appearance—reminding us of her frank enjoyment of and comfort with sex, a personality trait that earns her some reactionary barbs from the Harvard grad Frasier. Going straight from physical comedy to raunchy transgression (Roz and Frasier are way too comfortable with each other for anything beyond a platonic relationship…except maybe late in the series? I’m only following the Matt LeBlanc rule; no spoilers!), we get the A story (the primary plot) of a death in Frasier’s family: a hated aunt from whom the show could easily hang 20 minutes worth of pedestrian woman-bashing.† Hiding the brutality of death behind a rough and mean-spirited character who we’ve never met in life, the show gives Frasier’s dad Marty a B story prompted by the aunt’s death, where he reflects on aspirations lost and goals given up. He revisits an old hobby of writing out Frank Sinatra-style songs and, with the help of his sons, composes and sends off his favorite one for the consideration of the big man himself.
Back in the main narrative, the different characters’ intentional and unintentional attempts to show respect for someone for whom there exists only mutual contempt results in some predictable ash-spreading physical humor, and one character inadvertently catches cold which gives her the appearance of crying at the funeral. Counterbalancing the slapstick levity of Niles Crane unable to open the crematory urn (from Frasier’s eulogy: “She touched all of us. She touches us still…”), Marty reveals he got a rejection from Sinatra. The big payoff comes when the church choir at the funeral has been rehearsed on Marty’s song, putting the abstract rejection from Sinatra in perspective and turning his delightfully silly lyrics (“She’s such a groovy lady! She makes my heart go Hidey-Hadey!”) into the validation he really needed all along.
All of the above plot summary only to say, the show handles a family death in the gentlest way possible—no one will miss the aunt, even though they knew her well enough that they can still hold up their half of antagonistic, sarcastic conversations with her. How do we handle the dumb fact of death, which existed in this episode before the first moment on film, and which is so much simpler, stupider, and bigger than all the entertaining, ugly, striving, confusing humanity which is all we have to compare it to? Now, the opening shot becomes much more than a throwaway joke. The show sees death coming, and wants to ease us into it. The first inappropriate sexual overture is actively entertained by Roz, and she maintains the joke into the next beat when Frasier asks her if she was sincere and she takes the play at lust way over the top. The fake passion is an assiduous reminder of the deeper permanence and continuity of their companionship, and reassures us of the impossibility of true rupture.
And in a funny way, Roz’s sandwich does this better than she could ever communicate in words. We all want comfort and physical contact, especially when there’s something scary or unknown coming down the pike; especially when it’s something we can’t escape. The peanut butter and milk sensory experience is close, rich, calming, and for many Americans recalls a time in childhood when they were taken care of. We all want someone to make us a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk. Throughout the show, the stick-to-your-ribs Roz instinctively and constantly riffs on sex: right after teasing Frasier with a histrionic description on-air, she affects sexual attraction to see how credulous he might be about his own potency, rehearsing her own silence as she pits his vanity against his Cambridge-sized ego. The jokes are about sex, but when Roz actually puts her money where her mouth is, it’s the more basic need that she fulfills. Or, at least, the need that more directly affects her voice and thus her aural vitality. In the very first second of action we see her taking care of herself while she works; she is self-sufficient, sealed off from the sexual atmosphere that the repressed Frasier breathes. After she inadvertently mutes herself, the threat of “dead air” induces a flurry of physical and mental activity. Sound is the only evidence of life over the radio; as privileged viewers of an ostensibly invisible space, we the audience get to exist in a sense beyond the grave. By circumventing the audio-only space of the radio medium, we can see an invisible, inaudible moment.
Death, suggests the cultural theorist Georges Bataille, is related to a notion of dissolution, the opposite of the self-contained, stable personality with which we go about our usual lives. Likewise, eroticism is a psychological phenomenon that is pointed outwards, exceeding the typical boundaries of individual ego—not for nothing is the transcendence one feels at the height of a hallucinogenic trip termed “ego-death.” Eroticism plays heavily in the sitcom genre in general, as a potent and concise source of anima for the broadest possible audience. Bataille believed that eroticism, in “assenting to life up to the point of death,” demonstrates that we humans are deeply aware that we are discontinuous and death-bound individuals. Our need for continuity is sublimated in a psychological drive toward reproduction, and because the situation of our sexual reproduction only allows for discontinuity, we seek to go beyond death, beyond our own bodies and beyond ourselves. In frantically fighting through the sticky, stuck physicality of peanut butter, Roz enacts the same double movement of Bataille’s eroticism: Her vitality requires her death. Or, her “death,” that is silence, requires her physical liveliness. Life, vivacious good humor, human connection, in the space of a few seconds, supersedes the agitation brought on by the pressure of the radio studio and returns us to the fiction of the show.ª
Looking a little closer; there is actually a fairly small frame in which any movement or action is actually taking place.‡ We have an over-the-shoulder shot of Roz’s mime, the camera placed at Frasier’s eyeline, camera intercutting with a reverse medium close-up of Frasier alone at his desk. The audience is with Frasier for this moment. Roz pantomimes a bodily lean, her face shifting to a blank stare of charades-like concentration as she falls. But the blank face reveals the thing we are being urged not to notice—the blank sound channel, Roz’s becalmed voice. She gets Frasier to say “-leen,” but she is also falling. Until we guess correctly and she bounces back into our field of vision, she might have just kept falling, away from us and towards a more permanent silence. Frasier laughs as we laugh, rocking back with delight. Symmetrically opposite her rightward fall, Frasier hops back and to the left, towards us. Our relief at her recovery is also a release into the out-of-frame non-space of death for Frasier. The joke’s sudden reorganization of semantic space breaks on the audience with a flash of revelation; delivered synchretically,˚ it dazzles and distracts us from the sleight of hand that lets us hear death (silence) just as it brings laughter–noise–life back into view. Oblivion emerges and, with the same movement, recedes.
And then, the show can begin.
† which, let’s be honest, is really mom-bashing.
ª In a longer version of this essay, I write more explicitly about the reciprocal relationship between the Aunt Crane’s visual absence (and corporeal near-absence, excepting
only the transgressed taboo of her cremated ashes) and Roz’s visual presence coupled with her aural absence. Whereas the dead aunt has the power of speech over Niles–he talks back to her urn, remember–Roz has only the power of gesture in communicating with Frasier.
‡ Our ocular field of sense is suprisingly small–plenty of research on the capacity of vision indicates we can only focus and detect color on a very narrow range within what we think we see.
˚ “Synchresis” is a term coined by the film and sound theorist Michel Chion, which describes the effect of a simultaneous sound and image on screen. Chion thinks that similar events in the two different senses results in us hearing the sound as though it was coming from that visual event. The effect works to heighten realism when dealing with foley sound, but it also can be used to surreal effect if the sound is not close enough to what we would expect from the image. In this case, the delivery of the live audience’s laughter heightens the experience of Roz’s mimed death, followed by our own dissolution standing in as Fraiser’s frame is removed from direct view.
…on the Sonic Circulations blog, this news item from the Consortium for the History of Technology, Science and Medicine caught my attention. The exhibit of 19th century patents seems to be drawing its popularity from the same obsession with invention and teleological thinking that propels Gilded Age captains of industry like Andrew Carnegie, or Morgan, or even industrialists with a slightly different approach to the contemporaneous American culture of mechanization like my guy Oberlin Smith, Edison, etc. This kind of museum exhibit is popular with Chinese populations, so that seems relevant to an intercultural history and maybe even aesthetics of technology, that we can understand by drawing on Simondon’s ideas on human-machine “codage” (“coupling”) and the human coordination of open machines.
I just listened to a (rebroadcast) This American Life story about a car dealership on Long Island, trying to make a monthly quota set by their car manufacturer. The show plays like a human interest story, with a profile of the most prolific salesman on the lot (“I usually hit 30 cars in a month, 30 plus. But here’s the real crazy ideal:” he writes down the number 40, “I mean, that number is big, that’s a big number.” Remind us of anyone?), the Peruvian guy who reads Sun Tzu and takes notes from Hannibal’s battlefield tactics in the Punic Wars, the manager. But the perversity of chronicling a struggle to meet sales goals without considering the actual impact of the car manufacturing business is practically surreal.
The crystallizing moment is the big seller, who is engaging and has a big personality. He describes a sale that is down to the wire (the episode is utterly rife with Glengarry Glenn Ross allusions, both by the subjects and the producers), when he finally piles on enough pressure and sweeteners to get the guy to put down a deposit. It’s sheer adrenaline fueling the work this guy is doing in society. But of course it’s a short-lived high, and he needs another hit an hour later.
This is all by way of saying, maybe it’s wrong that unthinking or non-thinking is an alternative to our conviction of human transcendence, after Timothy Morton’s ideas on OOO and the environment and coexistence in the recent Guardian piece. That is, if we’re just looking at ways of relinquishing the things that make us (problematically) human, we’re not paying attention to the possibility that one doesn’t have to have a mindset of transcendent exceptionalism to cause damage.
The adrenaline pushing new car sales every month at a dealership on Long Island certainly isn’t thoughtful.
In an edited compendium published in 2007, Lissa Roberts, Peter Dear, and Simon Shaffer argued that Mindful Hand as it relates to magnetism scientific experiments in the 19th century: ways of creating knowledge that are embodied rather than minded:
Cunning [localized or tacit knowledge] might be involved in the recalcitrance of local circumstances and materials; but how could it ever show value of and provide values for universal laws? This has informed the sense that rationalist standardization and cunning intelligence cannot easily be combined in the sciences. Yet they can be combined… (xx)
While perhaps still of interest in the field of musicology, the kernel of this idea is at least as old as Kuhn’s articulation of scientific revolutions. The simple assertion that American industry used experimental discovery to capitalistic ends, and that apparently straightforward applications of scientific principles were in fact guided and shaped by contingency and tacit knowledge, is not especially interesting, and certainly not generative outside of academic musicology. What is interesting is the relationship between late 19th century industrial standardization, which seemed to thoroughly rationalize humanity’s relationship with the physical world, and, in the face of that rationalization,the persistent mystification of parts of that relationship, specifically sonic elements whose objecthood was somewhat more difficult to nail down. In spending so much time on the century before the actual advent of magnetic recording, my work these days attempts to historicize the acousmatic inflection of music’s orientation to magnetic tape by incorporating the earlier American reactions to the electrification and industrialization of culture, and also, necessarily, the arts.
In the decades preceding the development of sound recording technology, attempts to build up a physical, objectifiable manifestation of electric and spiritual energy by individuals like John Murray Spear, Andrew Jackson Davis, and others demonstrate that electromagnetism’s apparent ethereality gave it a passing resemblance to other experiences of immateriality, including religious experience. Davis’ and Spear’s imputations of spiritual force to electricity, and magnetism especially, effaces the knowability of aesthetic as well as religious experiences. Grappling with the immaterial does indeed also entail grappling with material phenomena, whether the immaterial is mysterious magnetic and electrical properties of rare earth elements, the influence of spirituality on individuals’ actions in mundane as well as narrative-driven experiences of the American project, or musical and broadly sonic experience of and through technology. But it is the interface between the material and the immaterial, a space where concepts and phenomena are perhaps touchable but not graspable, where both musical experience and the discursive construction of cultural identity reside.
One fearsome question hangs in the air: whether basic assertions of the necessity of tacit knowledge and “cunning” in Roberts et al’s [ancient Greek] sense will be accepted by musicologists who find little if anything in common between their chosen (rarefied) field of study on one hand, and the murky, unstable mechanisms by which applied engineers negotiate value, fact, and productivity on the other. Because of the cultural capital that has accrued to fine art institutions, both in terms of genre (e.g. the symphony, the string quartet, the collegiate a capella ensemble) and literal, legal entities (The Metropolitan Opera), the kinds of labor that are devoted to their function have been heavily codified and hierarchized; one result of composers ostensibly residing on top of that particular pyramid is that their intellectual labor has a great deal of assumed value, whereas the work of (unionized) stage crews, musicians, or ushers suffer from the comparison. This high-low divide in work is heavily charged with valences with contemporary cultural production, consumption and critique.
Here’s to us all continuing to possess the clarity of mind to make those connections.
Found a new blog just now, and while it’s a fair critique that I’m procrastinating on dissertation writing for the day, it’s a nice reminder of and connection to my time in China last year:
[insert close reading of kinesthetic stimulus response, action and reaction]
in making sense of the coming political reality, and staying awake to shifting ideas of race and racism:
“…by the age of six I had laid out some of my fundamental principles and psychology that remain with me today, and have shaped my perspective as a journalist.
- First, I came to believe that humans lived in “reality zones” with quite different rules about identity, fairness and achievement. Inside each of these zones was an internally consistent reality, but as one crossed barriers of geography, class, culture, religion and race, the rules changed entirely.
- Second, that whiteness, which was inconsequential to my early childhood, was of the paramount importance to understand.
- Third, that I was able to cross these worlds and remain self-aware of how I was being perceived; and that usually it was not in my best interest to reveal that I understood how others were viewing me, because it made others uncomfortable. If I made people aware that I was observing their construct as intently as they were observing me, that made them observe their own construct in new and discomfiting ways. So I remained friendly and engaged on the outside (and inside) while keeping the more piercing aspects of my cultural studies to myself.
- Fourth, and most importantly, coming from the above: that whiteness could be observed, even in fearful times, if one got close enough and stayed relatively silent.”