Swinging Modern Sounds #56: On Song-Sharking

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Remember The American Song-Poem Anthology: Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush? It was released by Bar/None records in 2003, and represented unprecedented visibility and cultural penetration in the history of the song-poem, the practice, in earlier decades, of setting lyrics, any lyrics, to music, for money. People collected the song-poem recordings (and made anthologies of these collections) because, in general, they amounted to an awful, shocking, or highly comical mismatch of lyrics with bland musical contrivance. It was not just that the lyrics were bad, it was that someone was tasked with spending their week creating charts, and hiring a band, and dummying up some hitherto existing musical idiom (disco, let’s say, or soul, or country) into which the lyrics might fall with some apparent ease. The song-poems are generally bad. No one would want to listen to them in conventional listening circumstances. (I remember a musician of note bringing in a racist song-poem to my Brooklyn Record Club meeting once upon a time, an anti-miscegenation song-poem, set to something that sounded like the Starlight Vocal Band. It was bad, creepy, horrifying, and imponderable in the fact that it had ever come to be, that some poor musician had felt he had to create this music, in order that he might put oleo on his table.)

But song-poems are also uniquely fascinating. Their particular badness is of the kind that record collectors, for example, love to attend to: the mixture of dread earnestness and camp, the mixture of mastery and inability, the collisions of historical eras, the inexplicability of certain cultural tendencies. Irwin Chusid, the WFMU deejay, and world-class collector of musical strangeness (of Wesley Willis, e.g., of the Langley Schools Music Project recordings), and author of Songs in the Key of Z, served as a key booster of the song poem in the nineties, and helped propel the Bar/None releases into view. And Chusid’s interest is the sign that some kind of Brechtian detachment from the product’s emotional field is at work in the phenomenon. In Brechtian fashion, you can find these songs fascinating historically and conceptually, and be highly amused in a hipster sort of way, without really liking them at all.

And yet: there is something in the song-poem contract between lyricist and vendor that bespeaks a different idea of what music is. In this song-poem modality, the music is made to order, and involves a collision of ideas about who the owner of the track is, and in what relation the maker of the music stands with respect to this owner. A song-poem recording is never, according to this view, made by inspiration, or because of the waves of music impressing themselves upon the creator, or because of the need to say something in melody and rhythm. The song-poem recording is made according to the dictates of the almighty dollar, and to the specifications of the lyricist. They call this song-sharking, occasionally, which I guess means it is next door over to tendering loans with unpayable interest rates.

Now, if the stream is the preeminent contractual relation between consumer and maker of music these days, in which the consumer has diminished role in the delivery of the release, and consumption of the music, the song-sharking model in a way is more genuine than the stream. Which is a circumstance that we probably did not expect to come to pass. In song sharking, the musician is custom-making the song according to the consumer’s wishes. As corporate capital arrays itself behind the stream, there will be, naturally, a lot of counter-reactions and counternarratives of what music is and could be. There will be explosions of the local, and relationships between music maker and consumer that bypass a corporate stranglehold on the medium. Live music is one such example of this music of contemporary exile, especially americansongpoemanthologylive music in small clubs that do not require Ticketmaster. Busking would be a sub-category of live music that is interruptive of the stream. The house concert is also a fine idea along these lines. Bartering for recordings would be a reasonable approach, as would a Patron.Net sort of model, in which musicians produce works by subscription from the fans. All of these models, in a world of globalized capital, are quaint and deeply necessary. They are not the route to worldwide pop domination, they are not white guys in a bus crisscrossing the nation with a semi behind them carrying the amps. They are not a nightly Vegas spectacular with seventy-two dancers and backup singers. And that is perhaps why they are interesting approaches. How would we codify the “interesting approach” exactly? I would codify it in this way: music is interesting in the present to the degree that it brings the audience closer to the musician and to the means of production, which should be as close to produced on the spot as possible.

This is exactly what I felt upon beholding a recent example of song-sharking along these very lines. Song-sharking conducted in a live setting. I learned about the project by press release (which features a great video), which should, from my point of view, count against it, but in this case I knew the mastermind, one Grey Gersten, as the particularly sensitive and able lead guitarist in Jolie Holland’s band on the albums Pint of Blood and The Living and the Dead. Gersten has also played with John Zorn and Kyp Malone, and, as such, he has been an admired hired hand on the experimental fringe of Brooklyn and Manhattan for five or ten years. Earlier this year, Grey Gersten created an EP by an imaginary band called Eternal Lips. This EP has almost nothing to do with what he was best known for. The Eternal Lips EP is a synthetic dance pop album of the sort of English variety, circa 1986. It sounds a bit like Depeche Mode in spots, or like The Cure, circa Pornography. There’s not an acoustic guitar to be found on the entire thing. Guitar played backwards or with e-bow is heavily processed on the computer, etc. It is fair to say that when I first heard this EP, I didn’t understand it exactly; or, I understood it in a way that limited its expressive range, and this was to ignore the imaginary band piece of it, the conceptual distance implied.

The Eternal Lips EP has nothing to do with song sharking, not exactly, but it is the starting point for an Eternal Lips “Custom Melodies” project, a related work, at least in terms of personnel. The press released I received was about this exactly. The Custom Melodies project worked in the following way: for four hours a night for something like ten days, Grey Gersten would labor musically, in twenty minute increments, for individual music consumers, at a particular site, on songs specially designed via a questionnaire. That is, you, the consumer, showed up at your appointed time, filled out the questionnaire, and then, while you stood there, interacting with Grey Gersten (or, perhaps, more exactly, interacting with the band called Eternal Lips), he made a song essentially to your specifications, to your exact size, to your essence. The price was $20.

The site of the piece is incredibly important to the effect of this project. There are, today, in America, probably many hundreds of street musicians who are song sharking, in Venice, CA, maybe, or Washington Square Park, willing to go E-A-E-A on their beat up acoustics for a few minutes, warbling a melody, for the price of $1 or a cigarette. Had Grey Gersten done that, he would not have managed a conceptual victory, which he did do. Grey chose an alley in Soho (or Soho-ish, slightly below Canal, not too far from where the Knitting Factory used to be), where there is a tiny collecting institution known as the Mmuseumm, which is a tiny storefront, suitable, perhaps for ice cream cones or falafel sandwiches, but converted into a tiny curated cabinet of wonders-style space. It reminded me, in terms of its idiosyncratic ideas of scale, of Reykjavik’s Phallological Museum, though it is much much smaller. Another example of similar thinking would be Maurizio Cattelan’s Wrong Gallery. Mmuseumm is open on weekends, and is in its third season, and it is on an alley (which, on the night I was there, had no traffic at all, except a dad and a little boy passing a soccer ball around and expostulating about the World Cup).

The Eternal Lips “Custom Melodies Project” installed itself into the Mmuseumm, with a shelf and a Plexi window that made it seem a lot like an ice cream stand or one of those old liquor stores in Hell’s Kitchen where they used to slide the Night Train out in a bag after you slid the grimy ten dollar bill in, and there was Grey Gersten, whose presentation and affect definitely has a bemused Mr. Science component. I’m getting ahead of myself. When first we arrived, and I say we because I’d brought my daughter along (we came straight from the Bang on a Can marathon in the Winter Garden, downtown, where we heard Meredith Monk, and some other stuff, all of it moving), we had to stop at the card table across the alley, whereupon a Custom Melody staff member checked us in and gave us the questionnaire to fill out. My daughter, who is five, was only too happy to fill in the questionnaire, especially the part where you had to draw hair on a faceless and stylized head.

The questionnaire was both relevant to the project, in that it asked if there was any kind of music you disliked (and because we had to put down something, my daughter and I agreed that for the day we did not like klezmer, zydeco, and country, though I like some of these things some of the time), and fanciful, in that it asked if you had any recurrent nightmares, and if you have ever tortured anyone in your lifetime. Agree or disagree with the following: Strict observance of the rules is likely to prevent a good outcome. Do you ever perform life-risking activities? For what reason did you last get goosebumps. You were, toward the close of the questionnaire, asked for an imaginary band name. The five-year-old chose this band name: The Jewel Fire. I don’t know where she got this name. And she also chose the name of our song, “No One Ever Spots Me.” I asked my daughter, while we were filling out the questionnaire, if this was to be a song about her own life, and she said: “The songs don’t always have to be about you.” Which is both true and somewhat sophisticated. Most of the time, during the questionnaire phase of the Custom Melodies Project, my daughter was eating butterscotch candies that she had cadged from the Custom Melodies staff member. She seemed excited, and bored, in equal measure. Across the alley, it was possible to overhear a bit of what was taking place with the customer (a young woman) ahead of us. There was some droney stuff, and then a nicely uninflected melody that she perhaps sang herself. Sounded a bit like Cocteau Twins and a bit like The Waitresses.

And then it was our turn. We approached the bemused Mr. Science character. Up close, in addition to the eccentric and somewhat pop collections of the Mmuseumm, there was a small wonderland of contemporary musical instruments. That is, Grey Gersten was in possession of one legitimate guitar, and one somewhat plastic looking guitar that had something in common with those petrochemical saxes that Ornette Coleman favors, a pocket piano, which is one of those analogues synths that all the kids dig these days (I have one myself! Love it!), an iPad, and a small digital recorder. Oh, I think there might have been a small xylophone, too, though I may be making that part up. Gersten lobbed a few softball questions at Hazel, who allowed as how she liked it loud and fast, to which Gersten observed he had just the right drumbeat (a drum machine), a sort of fast thing of the kind to which you would do the pony.

What emerged was a sort of instantaneous guitar song, part Pavement, part Sebadoh, part Monochrome Set, of a sunny, accessible sort. I was very impressed by the fact that the very first chord progression to come out of Gersten was the final chord progression, and it was followed by a solo, an off-the-cuff guitar solo, that was unique for its melodic aspect. That is, Gersten did not just phone it in; he fashioned a great solo. There was also some rather psychedelic organ played on the pocket piano, and some drum fills, eruptions of rhythm, on the iPad.

Then we came to the vocals. It is fair to say that my history as a singer takes place under carefully controlled circumstances. I have worked hard to be a singer, but I can’t sing on the spot without sounding something like a crooner from the twenties, or like Michael Stipe on an off day. Nevertheless, Gersten, working at top speed, asked me to sing a line based on my daughter’s uncomfortable memory of getting in the tub one day when it was too hot, and Hazel was supposed to sing along, and I was awful, and Hazel was so nervous and worried that she mumbled something and had then done all she was going to do. This was a not terribly comfortable vocal to listen back to, and Grey edited it down to the absolute minimum.

custommelodiesA couple more tweaks, and then we were done, and Grey played the finished version of the song. Hazel, unfortunately, was deeply disappointed that her voice wasn’t used on the final recording, as most five-year-olds would be. She expressed this disappointment vehemently. This turns out to be an important part of the song sharking contractual moment. Whose song was this? Were we the raw material for a Custom Melodies song? Or was Grey making a song to our custom specifications? The truth, in this case, was somewhere between, in which Grey, with a minimum of interaction, was basically improvising, and we, to some extent, were attempting to influence those improvisations. Both Grey Gersten and my daughter were a little shocked at Hazel’s disappointment, but from my point of view she demonstrated the strange limitations of this form. Which means, in the end, that this particular episode of song sharking, which was a performance of the form, not the real thing, was about the human. The human relationship to music is a passionate relationship, or at least it is in the kind of music I like. On the one hand, the consumer is free to dislike the product, or to feel outraged by it, or to feel that it is incredibly moving. What is boring is when music is forgettable, when it’s just a bunch of digital noises owned by large corporations, distributed by large corporations, over a distribution vehicle that soon, it seems, will be owned by large corporations, and all of these tracks are more or less the same. The same chords come around again, all played on computer, it seems, more or less, in the same rhythms, all expressing the same two sentiments, I want you, or Where did you go? Song sharking, if it interrupts this dwindling away of the human aspect of music, the outrage and the disappointment and the joy, is a good thing indeed, and our judgment of it, from some great height, in which the pinnacle of human accomplishment is the stream, is, well, pretty hypocritical. Grey Gersten has imagined a different distribution apparatus, a direct-to-consumer distribution technique, and he even made some money on it (he sold out ten nights of Custom Melodies). My excitement about the project is about the way it caused me to see and hear music anew, and the way it caused me to feel the human part of the musical engagement, the instant of creation.

We took a taxi back to Brooklyn from the Mmuseumm, and in the taxi, my daughter said, “I guess I didn’t sing loud enough, and it’s just because I am very nervous around rock stars.” I think she said this because it was so clear that Custom Melodies was a real star turn, in the starless firmament that is the historical present. Smart, original, strange, funny, and new.

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The Rumpus: What would be the question you would most like to see in an interview with any prominent contemporary musician?

Grey Gersten: When music comes through you, and it feels beyond your control…where is it coming from? How does this inform your spiritual beliefs? How do we open ourselves up to allow as much to come through as possible?

Rumpus: Why Mmuseumm?

Gersten: There are various types of collections at Mmuseumm but I am always attracted to the mass produced objects that have been modified in a revealing way. This season there is a collection of inflatable pool toys from Saudi Arabia in their original packaging. Because they are sold in Saudi Arabi, the women on the pool toy’s packaging are covered with a black Sharpie marker. Bikini girls are obscured by hand-drawn amorphous black blobs—it’s very psychedelic!

We all have personal relationships with mass produced objects. We modify them so that they feel personal and make sense within our reality. Mass produced pop songs are apart of this phenomenon. We may be singing “I wish that I had Jessie’s girl” but we are thinking about someone in our lives. Custom Melodies offers people an opportunity to express themselves through their own custom song. Instead of modifying a mass produced cultural object (pop song) they get to create their own personal song. It made sense to put the Custom Melodies song factory amongst Mmuseumm’s collection, but hopefully it will occur in many places around the world.

Custom Melodies is not an attack or criticism of Pop Culture or Consumer Culture. Our only interest is to present another option for how people can experience, create and share music.

Rumpus: If you could come up with an imaginary band besides Eternal Lips, what would this second imaginary band be like?

Gersten: Eternal Lips is a very new project so I don’t feel confined by it in any way. The beauty of an imaginary band is it isn’t designed to represent a singular reality. There’s no scene that it grows out of, no genre it’s associated with, no singular identity that it embodies. It’s whatever you imagine it to be. And that’s endless, always changing.

If I created other imaginary bands, I’d want them to be truly anonymous. Uncredited. No one would know who/where/when it came from. I love mystery and with Internet culture and social media we’ve lost a lot mystery. I’d love to press 500 copies of a record and scatter them in random locations and never think about it again.

Rumpus: Why perform the songs live, instead of taking them by email and delivering them more remotely?

Gersten: Being able to embody different perspectives and personas is a fundamental aspect of songwriting. The songs generated by Custom Melodies are reflections of the people that participated in the project. I don’t think I could get a true sense of someone via email.

Often we aren’t aware of what is compelling about ourselves. At Custom Melodies, we designed a bureaucratic custom song form that each visitor fills out before they enter the Song Factory. The form is helpful, but meeting face to face is more revealing. Most of the songs are based on conversations I had with the visitor (prompted by information provided on the custom song form). As a musician and an artist, I’m interested in broadening the audience’s interaction with music and sound. I love records and live shows but there’s other ways for people to experience music and sound.

At Custom Melodies visitors become apart of the songwriting process. That’s a place most audiences haven’t been before. When a song is being born, it’s like having a lucid dream. Performing the song later, after that initial birth, is like trying to explain a wild dream you had to a stranger. The birth of song is a special moment and it only happens once.

Rumpus: What is the most unusual interaction that you’ve had on the project so far?

Gersten: Most visitors were incredibly open and a lot of unique work was generated. However, some people came to Custom Melodies with a very specific agenda. They completely disregarded every aspect of the experience/installation and just presented their demands (“Make a jingle for my business”). In those moments I felt like a burger boy at a fast food joint. I did not accommodate their demands.

Rumpus: For what reason have you most recently gotten goosebumps?

Gersten: There was a tribute to Ornette Coleman a few weeks ago in prospect park. Patti Smith read a poem about rain and it began raining. Four of Lou Reed’s guitars and amps howled feedback accompanied by Laurie Anderson, John Zorn, Bill Laswell, and Master Ren’s Tai Chi. Ornette Coleman appeared (unannounced) in a beautiful purple suit and he said “I want to feel alive while I’m alive.” It was an incredibly intimate and moving experience, lots of goosebumps.

Rumpus: What kinds of things do you read online? What do you particularly dislike reading about online? What are your reading habits generally?

Gersten: In general, I want to cut down on screen time. The glow can be deadening. Sometimes l read interviews on the internet with artists I admire like Neil Young, David Lynch, or Louis CK. If I’m traveling I read the New York Times on my phone and occasionally glance at bizarre tech articles in my Twitter feed about our inevitable entry into virtual reality. There’s a bunch of books I want to read, but lately it’s been hard to find time. The Master and Margarita is at the top of the list.

Rumpus: Do you believe that strict observance of rules is likely to prevent a good outcome?

Gersten: Yes, and no. It depends who is making the rules. Rules can be thought of as limitations, and I believe limitations are an important and useful part of creating. I often create and impose guidelines and limitations on my projects. At Custom Melodies, one of the rules is every song is only recorded once. There is no second take.

It’s also important to keep an open mind about whatever you are pursuing. Nothing about your process should be taken for granted. Question every aspect. Sometimes the most fundamental element needs to be discarded. Sometimes what seems like an irrational route is actually the most pragmatic solution.

Rumpus: How does this project relate to the more conventional recordings of Eternal Lips?

custommelodies2Gersten: I’ve worked mostly with experimental musicians and artists like John Zorn, Michael Hurley, and Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio. I avoided pop music for a long time because I thought it was all about consumerism but recently I realized it’s also about dreams and fantasy. Planet Pop felt very foreign to me so I made up an imaginary band to explore it. I created Eternal Lips to see what happens when an outsider plays with the language and fantasy of pop music.

I felt liberated by the idea of an imaginary band and I wanted to invite others to create their own. Not everyone is musically inclined so I created an interactive custom song factory. Eternal Lips is my fantasy of an imaginary band; Custom Melodies is an interactive Song Factory where your imaginary band is realized. During the 11-day installation, over 100 custom songs were created. The material is a reflection of the participants and that’s what makes it unique. When an outsider participates in a foreign culture something about that culture is revealed.

Rumpus: Are their kinds of interviews that you particularly dislike?

Gersten: There are good interviewers and bad interviewers. It is always the interviewee’s responsibility to make the conversation compelling. As artists we should be able to create magic under any circumstances.

I prefer unedited video, radio, or written interviews because then your words are unaltered. In articles/features, snippets of your voice get through but someone else is re-contextualizing them. It’s tough not to feel misrepresented but it’s foolish to expect the press to accurately articulate your voice. The only place your voice isn’t compromised is in your work. That’s where I invest my energy.

Rumpus: Will there be a “Custom Melodies” release of compendium of the best things produced during this project? How are you documenting it?

Gersten: The songs generated at the Custom Melodies song factory will be collectively released by New Mirage records on an interactive online database. Each of the songs will be credited to the participant’s imaginary band (not Eternal Lips). On the custom song form participants wrote about their dreams, their best advice, drew cover art…all of this will be included on the interactive online database. You won’t just be exploring songs, you’ll be exploring people. On the custom song form, we asked lots of multiple choice questions. The answers will be used to generate different mixes or playlists. For instance you can create a playlist of just people that answered “Yes” to “Have you ever been possessed?” Or create a playlist of people who said “Yes” to “Do you believe that strict observance of rules is likely to prevent a good outcome?”

I’m hoping to curate artists and musicians to set up Custom Melodies in other countries. Eventually, the interactive online database could grow into a Song Map. A constellation of stories, told through song.

Later, we may press vinyl of the best of Custom Melodies, but the interactive online database creates a better context for the work.

Rumpus: What other question ought I ask you?

Gersten: Do you have plans to produce Mingering Mike’s LP?


Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →