When someone possesses an awareness of international cultures, or when someone is fluent in styles and aesthetics of great diversity, we say that they are "cosmopolitan." These days it is no longer necessary to travel the world in order to have seen it; it is enough to have watched Nova on Public Television. And to have heard the sounds of the tree world, one needs only to have listened to the PVC Music and Rhythm compilation of 1982.
A better way to be able to understand the sounds and visions of the world is to have personal familiarity with those who shape them. In 1984, two of the best American independent music magazines -those which demonstrated the greatest awareness and fluency in the international language of music- were the now completed OP and a San Francisco 'upstart' named Unsound. Unsound (a frequent source of reference for A/a) is the brainchild of William
Davenport. who is'in turn the heart and mind of Problemist. More a musical collective than a fixed group, Problemist has released several cassettes and appeared on several compilation tapes around the world; however until now vinyl has been beyond their reach. To the 'rescue' has come Jean-Pierre Turmel, Monsieur Sordide Sentimentale himself, who with an LP rerelease by Savage Republic and planned ones by Psyclones, appears to have veered into a pure California-phase (he's released work by native Californians Monte Cazazza and Tuxedomoon,but both had left America at the time). As with Savage Republic, the Problemist LP 9 Times Sanity contains a large and glossy booklet with text by Turmel; this will be discussed later.
Returning to the idea of being cosmopolitan, Davenport's and Problemist's background in independent music is as wide as it is knowledgeable, and this rubs off on the music. One can detect in Problemist affinities with punk, European noise, and 'seventies art-rock -credentials such as these are not to be sneered at, especially given their handling by Problemist. The diversity of 9 Times Sanity material is such that no two tracks sound alike. or even use the same musical approach.
This means that the first piece, '"Next to Nothing," -which features primarily bass. tribal-sounding percussion, tape, and voice- sounds nothing like "Over came," which follows it.This second track is a Branca-esque wall of overlayed and largely unshifting guitar patterns. Sound manipulations point these guitars forwards, backwards, through echo delay, and into each other, while the unsettling background of Davenport's anguished vocal slowly layers and rises to the fore. "The hand is slapping..." Like a controlled piece of thrash rock, "Slapping" features the standard guitar, bass. drums, and voice of the rock idiom; however the instrumental parts, and likewise the mix, are so fragmented as to deny the music of cohesiveness. Then "White" puts forward its hallucinatory vision ("Everything is white...all white," Davenport declares). Substituting a heavily-reverbed drum machine for real percussion. Closing Side One, "Hammers Falling" treats Davenport's disturbed vocal in such a way as to give itthe effect of dropping off into some bottomless pit. What these hammers are is uncertain, uncertainty is a major theme throughout this record. One Interpretation is offered about the hammers. However; as far back as in "Next to Nothing," a taped voice had instructed: "I want you to hold the hammer and the sickle" (collectively the international symbol of Communism). This phrase reappears in "Hammers Falling," by which time it has become a joke on itself. A nice touch.
But then, in Problemist it may be considered unlikely that an effect would be employed without specific reason. That isto say, Davenport's method of composition seems at least as introverted -as self-involved- as is the steadfastly neurotic style of Gerechtigkeits Liga, which was discussed earlier by this publication. There are practical reasons for such a compositional style (even in a fully improvisational form), most notably the ability to present the psychological self through music. In commercial music, and particularly in the "Adult Contemporary" format, love and love-relationships are common themes. However, as Sharon Gannon of Audio Leter points out In her text Freedom is a Bio-Kinetic SkiH, "Love has no body...no body hat love." In other words, there Is something that love is,that we presume it to be (already an abstract, love,Isbeing illogically concretized -the flaw of reasoning is Inherent right here); however, it is not possessive. We assume that to love is to possess, to own. as expressed by the phrase "We belong to each other." Romantic, yes. but hardly physical fact. Love is notthe passivity of ownership, but active being-re-active being."Love is will," says Gannon. Here is the admission that love is a personal strength, a grounding inthe real (or real-ization).What commercial-music love leaves out is an attention to the personal. A neurotic psychology. kept under control by the strengthened will, motivates an inward discipline, a call to rise above the murk, and the acceptance of personal responsibility. Davenport, and the other musicians who perform in Problemist (David Lawrence-percussion; Christopher Rankin-bass; Ron MacLeod-percusslon; and guest Mark Hosler of Negativland, a group which is an enigma in itself) tune their instruments to the frequency of their own wills, strike a chord, and probe the external/mirror of the internal. Plunging into their own minds, they attempt to exorcize the waste and fecal matter introduced by enculturation."We are tired of being frightened," declares Davenport in"Hammers Falling." With this proclamation the hammer becomes the weapon of revolt -one not falling, but being raised high. This is the kind of care in compositional construction that is reflected throughout the work of Problemist.
Side Two begins with the deranged, funk drumming of "Military Science." Davenport, with a voice like a cross between Arto Lindsay and Robert Plant, exclaims "You've got to fight for your acceptance. This isa military science." With a bizarre background of almost nonexistent bass and guitar looped around into God knows what, the theme of personal revolt is here continued. Now. every man is not Victim but Army -Davenport achieves this through his metaphor. In the science of military aggression is contained not the vapid violence of rioting but the tactical "strategy" (for he uses this word) required for gaining and/ or maintaining control. This control is not over material possessions (land,flesh,tools) but over the self.
Now excersizing the will is compared to doing battle -and self-control equals Victory. In helping us to arouse the spirit of our own wills, Problemist employs an incredibly subtle didacticism: the lessons here are not for the weak of mind, for they will never pick up the clues.Analysis is necessary -the kind that turns metaphor back into an awareness of physical disorder . Proposing new metaphors (the "hammer" and the "military science"), Problemist shatters those old ones which have so permeated our culture as to become unrecognizeab le as the metaphors -the lmage representations- that they are.Davenport continues to attack images and stereotypes in "Love Has Resigned," which brings this article back to the argument asserted earlier.What is love that It can "resign?" Love in this instance is obviously being personified; objectif ied; stereotyped. Stereotypes operate on insidious frequencies of "either I or": Black OR White; Rich OR Poor.Davenport adds to this the list "Criminal OR Lawyer," two characters who by design meddle with law and Internal serenity. Both are as concerned with disturbing this as they are with exploiting it. But. remln s Davenport, "This is not the ideal." The character separations; the specializations and categorizations Into which we freely type ourselves, bring about the kind of sterilized thinking with which we consider other people, and objectify other people -thus the possessive feelings that accompany our concept of love. Says Davenport, love Is that which we should also be aware of,for "It Isa waste ottlme." Healso utters herethe most Indicative phrase of the entire album:"How can the frail respond?" The frail cannot respond, for the same reasons that those weak of mind and will cannot Interpret this record.
Next is"Platform," which with its bouncy bass and shaky voice is like something
right out of David Thomas and the Pedestrians. Tht' platform is the jumping point
-the placeof no return.Jump off, or ascend It and set up your political platform,but the spotlight Is Irreversibly ON. No turning back is possible from the platform. Importantly,the song talksaboutthe inability to make decisions, and a backing tape of a murmuring audience confirms the horror of this public exposure. You are ON the platform. This is followed by "Needle," which with its mix of guitar ,treated vo1ce,and bass sounds somewhat like the Lydia Lunch tracks which were released last year as In Umbo. "Don't do anything foolish! Don't even dream of it!" warns "Cold Knife Science," The Side Two closer. Finally the declaration to watch yourself -to watch out Davenport discloses the fears that come in the night ("Cold night science"). Deliberately leaving listeners with a touch of cold-steel paranoia,he clearly implies thatthose who fall asleep stay asleep forever .Digging into your psyche is one thing -anyone can undergo self-analysis as if it were ajoke- but Problemist reminds us of the dangers of being asleep.that is, psychically.Alertness must be maintained if the strength of the will Is not to weaken. Again, this message is related cleverly through metaphor -obviously the physical body must have sleep! But those whose minds have been dulled through years of disuse will not understand this.
Jean-Pierre Turmel picks up this thread in the beginning of his booklet essay, with his "WARNING: The Fundamental Illegitimacy of Accusations of Textual Obscurantism" (which is typical, Frech-l ellectual humor for "People who Call Me Elitist are Assholes"). Says Turmel, "As a (provincial) conclusion, rather than questioning oneself about textual illegibility it would be more judicious to inquire into the incapacity of certain people to read certain writings...often an enlightening capacity of a refusal to understand an awkward message." What Problemist's 9 Times Sanity has been all about is what happens when "the message" is not so much read as ident/fied(which is the first step). However aside from this, and aside from the convenient Malcolm Duff translation of"Matiere a Problema" -the main essay title- as "Problematic Matter," Turmel's booklet has nothing to do with what the record and band are trying to accomplish at all! Whatever the hell Turmel thought he was doing, his essay avoids Problemist's issues so entirely that he never
mentions the group at alt. in so doing he has deprived the band's audience of what could have been a valuable and depthful interpretation of their work. Turmel as a 'thinker' has now drawn so far inward, it appears, that he bas to fight off an imagined enemy of attackers before he even clears his throat. So the precious insights he has given us in the past Into such musicians as Joy Division, Psychic TV, Savage Republic, and Ludus are denied us with Problemist.
In fact, so defensive has he apparently become that even Problemist could not be given a description of"Problematic Matter!" A/a magazine learned from Davenport before the release of 9 Times Sanity that Turmel repeatedly evaded his queries as to the essay's nature. Even for Turmel, this is taking snobbery a step too far. It is not however that he is a snob -he is a very shy writer who is simply much too paranoid about his own -and admittedly adventurous- thinking. "Problematic Matter" happens to be a very well written, speculative essay about the figurative imagery of spouting (or spurting) water. With graceful descriptions of majestic fountains and Inventive photography of open water pipes, Turmel ties water and human will in a
way that proves that it Is unnecessary for him to insult and name-call-which is his real purpose In the opening "WARNING!" But with thQ deliberately-limited editions and selective selling of Sordide Sentimentale products, how many detractors could he possibly have to fend off? Facetious or not, he doesn't have to get nasty... Water, says Turmel, is the very first Symbol; primal in its essence, unmatched in Its urgency. Although he could have related the following statementto Problemist's exploration of the psyche, he does not -apparently the value of such a connection did not interest him:
"The jet [of water) is like a desperate attempt of the liquid to conquer its own form, or more exactly, to exteriorize that which sleeps in it, which waits...This demonstrates that water spurting up is far from only being the vital, joyous symbol of the emergence of life... Being also the illustration of an eternal failure, it induces in us, unconsciously, the idea of despair, subjacent to the proper exultation of life, already reintroducing (at the very moment of birth) the idea of death. It would have to be able to stop time at the summit of its trajectory...Deep-freezing denatures water in an awkward way, making it lose its original symbolism. It would have to freeze without changing states. Imagination and autosuggestion can certainly help us to 'see' this 'miracle'...
One of the reasons that Turmel gets so defensive may be that he knows he is an imperfect thinker.
What is perhaps more distressing Is that a record with the depth of 9 Times Sanity cannot see release without the a tempermental French benefactor (whom we should nevertheless be thankful for). Turmel's "promise" to release work by Psyclones is still very much up in the air. There still exists an overpowering bias against American product (from music to automobiles); probably more than anything else the chief reason for this is the sheer size of this country, which makes it that much more difficult for any human achievement to be noticed. Things are slowly beginning to change, however, as techr. ology makes it easier to "do ityourself;" this Is borne out by albums like Hunting Lodge's Nomad Souls. Even independent artists, however, must treat their work and output with the profes sionalism of an Industry, although perhaps with a better handle on the aspect of pure, materialistic greed.But there 11hope for American artists; this is the point. We can now begin to Isolate solutions to the problem.
Problemist is a problem-shooter: it will be interesting to follow the path of their investigative eye.
From Problem to Problemist: 9 X Sanity,
by Carl Howard, Artitude, #5