Attention Span 2012 | Michael S. Hennessey
Tascam | DR-40 Handheld 4-track Recorder
Dominic Mazzoni, Roger Dannenberg et al. | Audacity 2.0.1 | 2012
I can’t begin to estimate how many recordings I’ve digitized during the five years I’ve been working at PennSound, and over the past year I put those skills to use on a pair of personal projects: making a box set of my grandfather’s home recordings (as a Christmas present for my family and to mark the twenty-five years since his death), and preserving a shoebox full of tapes from my high school and college musical experiments. Digging out my old Fostex 4-track recorder — bought after a full summer of scrimping and saving—to remaster multitrack tapes, and listening to countless hissy demos recorded on the tape deck of a J. C. Penney stereo has made me more appreciative than ever for the incredible sound recording and editing tools that are now available to anyone for free. Audacity was already a solid, if idiosyncratic sound editor before version 2.0 was released this year, and though I’ve barely had the chance to explore all of the added features, I know it’s going to be an amazing tool for saving poor-quality poetry recordings.
By the same token, after several years of dragging a full recording rig (laptop, USB interface, microphone and stand, cables, etc.) out to local readings, I was very happy this year to upgrade to a Tascam portable recorder that fits in my pocket and can still produce studio-quality audio. It saves me a lot of time and trouble, has proven to be more reliable and glitch-free than my old setup, and it gets me from the reading to the bar in less time—what could be better than that?
Moog Music, Inc. | MF-101 Lowpass Filter, MF-102 Ring Modulator and MF-103 12-Stage Phaser
While I relished digital convenience this year, I also got serious about exploring analogue synthesis, a process that started after I picked up a Monotron, Korg’s $50 cellphone-sized analogue ribbon synth. Though it’s got an authentic oscillator and the same lowpass filter as the classic MS-20, the Monotron’s size and clunky interface make it more of a noisemaker than a real instrument. While a Moog synthesizer is way out of my price range, thanks to a generous partner and a few good deals on used gear I was able to pick up this trio of “moogerfoogers” (synth modules in the form of guitar pedals designed by Bob Moog himself in the late 1990s) and I’ve had more fun, and felt more closely connected to making music than ever before. I also tracked down a series of introductory essays on sound synthesis that Moog penned for Keyboard magazine in the late 70s, which provided this largely self-taught musician and audio technician with a wealth of startling new insights, a completely new understanding of how sound works.
Eileen Myles | Inferno (a Poet’s Novel) | OR | 2012
Eileen Myles | Cool For You | Soft Skull | 2008
What I cherish most about Eileen Myles as a poet is the absorptive quality of her work, something I first recognized reading Maxfield Parrish while wrapped up in blankets on a snowy winter day. I spent this winter happily wrapped up in Myles’ hypnotic prose, which serves as an even better vehicle for her voice, that incredibly warm and welcoming secret weapon that makes even the most difficult details of the hard-lived lives she depicts beguiling, and you grateful for the opportunity to experience them.
Brian Eno | A Year With Swollen Appendices | Faber & Faber | 1996
Finally back in print after many years of unavailability (albeit in a shoddy print-on-demand edition), Brian Eno’s diary of a very busy 1995 is fascinating for all of the reasons you’d expect (among other projects, he makes records with David Bowie and U2) along with some surprises (particularly a somewhat mundane yet fulfilling family life with his wife and two young daughters). What was most interesting to me about this nearly twenty-year-old time capsule, however, were the oblique contextual details, which reveal how drastically our world has changed (especially Eno’s use of e-mail, CD-Roms and other computer technology, which feel positively archaic) and how much it’s still the same (namely, international politics are still a hopeless mess). The book’s “swollen appendices”—containing Eno’s essays, stories, interviews, proposals and correspondence spanning several decades—elevates it from a curio to an essential collection.
Joe Brainard | The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard | Library of America | 2012
Tim Dlugos | A Fast Life: the Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos | Nightboat | 2011
Matt Wolf | I Remember—a Film About Joe Brainard | 2012
It’s been a great year to be a fan of both of these poets, whose lives and careers overlap in a surprising number of ways—both were young voice-driven poets who demonstrated a broad range of styles and forms, both espoused strong queer identities in their work, both were lost far too soon to AIDS in the early 1990s, and both saw much of their work remain woefully out of print until the release of these landmark volumes. While I’ve relished Brainard and Dlugos’ writing for a number of years and tracked down affordable used copies whenever I could, I don’t feel like I fully appreciated their talents until I was able to fully immerse myself in their collected works, where the complexities of their respective aesthetic evolutions became clear. Nonetheless, these are both books that invite you to dip in at a random point, to jump around from page to page, and while you tell yourself that you’re just going to read one or two pieces, you’re very likely to come to, as if from a dream, an hour later and still want to keep reading.
The excitement of finally getting The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard is compounded by Matt Wolf’s recent documentary short, I Remember—a Film About Joe Brainard, a haunting and gorgeous meditation that deftly intertwines both imagery (home movies and photographs, Brainard’s artwork and stock footage) and audio (recordings of Brainard reading from I Remember waltz around a contemporary interview with Ron Padgett) to create a compelling tribute to the author.
Radiohead | Riverbend Music Center, Cincinnati | 2012
In a year that’s seen the demise of some of my generation’s most important bands—R.E.M., the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth—I felt that much luckier to finally see one of my personal favorites in concert, and while their tour was ultimately overshadowed by the tragic stage collapse in Toronto that killed their drum tech, Scott Johnson, I’d rather remember a perfect cool spring night when I was able to connect with their music in exciting and intimate new ways.
Charles J. Shields | And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: a Life | Holt| 2011
I wrapped up this past academic year teaching a ten-week survey of the works of Kurt Vonnegut. While I’ve taught his work here and there (mostly Slaughterhouse-Five in a variety of classes) and have revisited a few favorites in recent years (namely Jailbird and Deadeye Dick), it had been more than a decade since I eagerly devoured his collected works over the course of a long post-college autumn, and I pitched the course to my chair less out of a great enthusiasm for the writing than in response to student interest in the class and a desire to switch things up a little. By the end of the term, I had a newfound respect for Vonnegut, both as a writer—largely in appreciation of the dense and multifaceted universe he spent fifty years creating—and as a person, mostly thanks to Charles J. Shields’ recently-released biography.
And So It Goes is an unflinching (and at times unflattering) portrait of the beloved author, showing us that he could be a terrible husband, a distant father, a curmudgeon and ultimately a victim of his own poor choices, but it also yields many new revelations concerning his talents, his writing process and inspirations. Trained as a public relations man for G.E. during his early years, the Vonnegut we know from his books and interviews always felt a little too carefully cultivated—like a persona instead of a person—but thanks to Shields, it feels as if we finally have a real sense of the man.
Dave Tompkins | How to Wreck a Nice Beach: the Vocoder from World War II to Hip Hop—the Machine Speaks | Stop Smiling | 2010
As its subtitle suggests, Dave Tompkins’s debut book takes you on a sprawling journey, tracing the history of the vocoder—a voice encoder/synthesizer that started out as a telecommunications encryption system for the military, became a vital part of musical compositions by artists as diverse as Wendy Carlos, Kraftwerk, Laurie Anderson, Afrika Bambaataa and Neil Young, and now allows us to speak to one another on our cellphones. While Tompkins’ tone occasionally gets in the way (he can be a little too glibly hip at times) he does a remarkable job of finding the humanity behind the robotic voice, honoring a diverse cast of humble technicians and often long-forgotten musicians who helped further the device’s development over many decades. Likewise, he traces the connections between disparate worlds and discourses with great ease, and the book itself is a gorgeous production brimming with photographs and diagrams. The only thing that’s missing is the music itself (which YouTube ably provides).
Elliott Smith | Grand Mal: Studio Rarities | 2006(?)–2012
It’s been nearly a decade since the tragic death of preternaturally-talented singer/songwriter Elliott Smith, and the passing of time hasn’t made the pain of that loss any more acute. While his official discography is limited to five studio albums (plus one posthumous release), Smith was a prolific and tireless writer who recorded new material and tinkered with older pieces incessantly, and like his idols the Beatles, this work was of consistently high quality—any album cut, b-side or compilation track could be every bit as brilliant as the singles. Years before his death, I was tracking down these rarities on the internet through message boards and Limewire, and like many fans I was glad to see the release of New Moon, a collection of twenty-four such tracks, in 2007. However, late last year when I discovered Grand Mal—a free fan-curated and remastered online compendium of seemingly every available unreleased recording in existence, spanning eight discs and 131 tracks—I was simply blown away. While it’s a treasure trove of amazing music, I think I love Grand Mal even more as a representation of the generous, democratic power of open culture on the web, which trumps commercial considerations, benefiting us all.