Commentaries - March 2008
At Stanford University in the fall of 2007, Greg Niemeyer taught a lecture course on the history of computing. Stanford is the most aggressive member of a consortium of American universities contributing digital audio (and some video) recordings to an “academic” space reserved by Apple through the easy interface with its media servers, ITunes; the educational project is called “ITunesU.” Niemeyer has taught courses on digital art in public spaces, computer animation, and one called “The Illusion of Life” (on CG animation and web development using Flash). He has self-consciously formulated techniques for instruction; his lectures are full of charming, defamiliarizing analogies between computing and life lived everyday in Real Time. That fall he lectured on open source, the potential of the web, and “The History and Invention of Computers.” Here is how the latter lecture began:
Can you hear me now? We’re all clear? So before we were trying to untangle our cables here, and that worked out all right, so now we have the microphone ready in case you do have questions, so it’s all open. And, we were talking about how nice it would be if the microphones were wireless, then you wouldn’t have the need to untangle them. But the problem is, if you have wireless connections everywhere they have other ways of tangling up that are far more complex, and then you can’t look at the tangled mess and untangle it with your bodies. So there we have a problem of serious abstraction. Today we will talk about the conditions that give rise to the invention — sorry — of computers in the past 100 years or so — 200 years — actually we’re going to go way back to see where the origins of abstractions lie and [pause] we’re going to have several talks about — [5 second pause, fiddles with computer] — the origins of computers, the conditions the needed to be in place for the computer to work … and it doesn’t always work [fiddles with computer], as in this case right here [pause, silence, fiddles with computer] … and we’ll know more about how complex the system really is … [pause, silence, fiddles with computer, inaudible talk with assistant] ... um, [to assistant], this one is still starting up here, very funny. Huh? [inaudible remark by teaching assistant] I think it’s nonsense, nonsense here. So do we get a picture? [to class] Okay, just ignore that image that says “Starting Mac OS” there for some reason, and we’ll see if we can get what we need to get. [20 seconds of silence] Wow! This thing is really confused. [30 more seconds of silence] Can we find anything? [20 more seconds of silence] So weird. A minute ago it was fine. [10 seconds of silence] Hope it works! [5 seconds of silence] Oh this doesn’t look good at all. [5 seconds of silence] So I made this beautiful application for you guys [pause] and [pause] it’s not working so well. Let’s try it on your computer … What’s going on? Guess what? One computer doesn’t start up and the other doesn’t want to connect. Well, the topic of today is abstraction. And this is important because you can’t do anything with the computer unless you have a symbolic system in place. Language is a classic symbolic system …
On that day, at least, this was a course about new media but its mode did not at all participate; as a form it might have occurred somewhere in the middle of the history of the development of the computer, rather than at its current endpoint — which is to say, there was nothing new here. As the lecturer struggled to use a computer in narrating its history, he made almost nothing of the juxtaposition and yet that was what every student was thinking about — in fact, I would guess, could not help from working through.The necessary multi-tasking, of which, one easily imagines, Niemeyer normally excels, did not penetrate the form of the lecture; the narrative goal was straight, history was teaching. No adaptation was made to perform the failure of the history of computers; it was simply presented after some delay, diagrams and symbols hand drawn on a blackboard (Stanford lecture halls still have blackboards), and a PowerPoint presentation, enabled by Flash, was reverse-engineered back into handwriting, with the effect being, so far as I (a later listener) could tell, no difference at all. Nonetheless, “[t]he topic of today is abstraction,” a lesson oblivious to the unabstract failures all around.
In response to PT #4, Tim Carmody writes: "Ginsberg's recordings of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience plays a larger role in pop music history than you might expect. Robert Christgau of the Village Voice gave the album an A- when it appeared in 1970 (close company with The Beatles' Let It Be, Joni Mitchell's Ladies of the Canyon, and James Brown's Superbad). And you can hear shades of Ginsberg's distinctive vocal warble in his friends' and admirers' recordings: Patti Smith, David Byrne of Talking Heads, Tom Verlaine of Television, and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. And Songs of Innocence and Experience got a fresh look in 2004, when Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Josephine Foster and other musicians associated with what came to be called 'freak folk' in San Francisco cited the voice and music on Ginsberg's record as an influence." [Above at left: Devendra Banhart.]
Mike Hennessey responds to PoemTalk #4 - our show about Ginsberg singing Blake. "The Blake songs [as AG sung them] were like perfect little pop ditties — radio-ready, catchy and always surprising." And: "it seems appropriate that Ginsberg would provide direct link to one of his greatest influences by re-imagining Blake’s work in a contemporary setting."
Here is more.
I look forward to each new PoemTalk for the sharp insights of its panelists..., but this is the first episode that covers both a poet and a poem with which I’m intimately familiar...
For me, the most salient aspect of the program was hearing Charles Bernstein discuss the great sway that Ginsberg’s Songs of Innocence and Experience album had over him as a Harvard undergrad — in part because I had a similar experience during my college years. Somehow, I’d managed to come across a 50%-off coupon to Borders and scurried out to the local strip mall as quickly as possible to purchase a (suddenly affordable) copy of Ginsberg’s 4-disc box set, Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems and Songs, 1949-1993, which I then listened to intensely over the next few years. I remember being stranded in Cleveland over the summer of 1999, during which time my discman and sleeve of cds were one of the few defenses I had against monotony and a quickly-dissolving romantic relationship — and one of my favorite things to listen to was disc 3 of the Ginsberg collection, which was largely comprised of selections from the Blake album.
Why the Blake tracks in particular? First, while I was well-acquainted with Ginsberg’s major poems (in fact, by this point, the spine was nearly broken on my big red Ginsberg collected from little slips of paper marking my favorite poems), they tend to run long, and it requires a considerable amount of attention to absorb, say, a thirty-minute recording of “Howl,” let alone the hour-plus rendition of “Kaddish,” especially when doing data entry or photocopying medical records (so much for quality control). The Blake songs, on the other hand, were like perfect little pop ditties — radio-ready, catchy and always surprising. This is largely due to the impressive roster of musicians, including well-known jazz figures Don Cherry (who plays a half-dozen instruments including harpsichord and wooden flute), Bob Dorough (best known as the musical director for Schoolhouse Rock) and Elvin Jones (John Coltrane’s scattershot drummer), who manage to create a fantastic amalgam of free-jazz, funereal drone, folk and Bach to accompany the songs. While some of Ginsberg’s later musical experiments fall flat (the calypsos, blues songs and pop-punk numbers occupying disc 4 of the box set), these songs are timeless and ever-engaging.