KEEP SONG TITLING WEIRD
Sigillum S Keiji Haino
A call for more sewing machines, umbrellas, and dissecting tables
by Thomas Bey William Bailey
"Two Miniskirted Scorpions Digitally Mating On A Platform." "Ravishing Fury In Glass Puke." "Mouthwatering God Corporation." "Keeping High On Spreadsheet Blood." And, last but not least, "Peripheral Bruise Overdubs Stalk Background Hullabaloo Into A Removed Limb." Whether you find these cyber-psychedelic mantras to be proof of innovative genius or of some deep-seated and intractable psychosis, they remain some of the more evocative song titles in the recent history of leftfield music. All are taken from the catalog of Italian post-industrial/surrealistic music project Sigillum S, and, yes, there are plenty more where these came from. Though you have to go looking for it, this kind of unfiltered mental secretion isn't absent from the fringes of modern creative life, even in an age where one-word exclamations of intent are the preferred method of delivery. The old Surrealist war cry - the call to bring about a "chance meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table" - still resounds in certain quarters of music, even as the impulse behind this riddle seems to have completely atrophied elsewhere.
It may seem odd coming from someone who regularly extols the virtues of information reduction in the arts, but I've always had a soft spot for lengthy, convoluted titles of artworks, songs, etc. I've regularly enlightened and/or annoyed friends and collaborators by forwarding them the titles listed above, or maybe some choice selections from the back catalog of Keiji Haino (the shamanic Tokyo troubador who brings us such impenetrable redoubts of spiraling verbiage as "Ask a So-Called Sage Who Speaks Only Plausible Excuses the Meaning of the Volition 'Further’" or "The Reassembling Place of Dispersed Holy Murderous Thought").
Incidentally, one of my proposed art projects from years ago was to make either a book or an audio album that would invert expectations by making the chapter titles lengthier and more "artful" than the miniscule kernels of content the titles referred to. This mercifully ended up in the "someone else will do this better" pile, and at least one record I can point to - the "6" album by psycho-acoustic interventionist Dave Phillips - was defined simultaneously by long anticipatory periods of silent/faint audio data, and by titles that, as damning diagnoses of the human condition, can be realized as stand-alone artistic statements (I can only laugh mordantly at the possibility that some college radio DJ might have to backannounce a track like "Empires Of Scientific Capability That Manipulate The Phenomena Of Nature Into Enormous Manifestations Of Humankind’s Own Dreams Of Power, Wealth And Control").
From what I can remember of my mindset at the time, I was undergoing a kind of fatigue with what I perceived as the limitations of one-word titles as they were then being used: the rise of "alternative" culture in the 1990’s especially seemed to shepherd musical minds into a blind alley where titles were just vague signposts of attitude rather than triggers to the imagination or enhancers of the work at hand. Somewhere around this time, one-word titling schemes began to give certain mega-stars types an undeserved status as sophisticated and nuanced commentators, maybe tapping into a mass psychology that already associated this titling scheme with designer fragrances (e.g. Obsession, Eternity, Contradiction) and their ability to distill complex emotions or impressions into magic potions whose power was activated with a single word. This stratagem definitely did pay off in the case of records like Pearl Jam's Ten, with its almost exclusive reliance on single-word epithets for songs - and with a multi-platinum success story of that magnitude, dozens of less remarkable examples were sure to follow. It was certainly enough to send one running for the comfort of something less apparently self-conscious (Funkadelic LP titles like Standing on the Verge of Getting it On or Electric Spanking of War Babies usually signified a good musical antidote to all that).
Current social circumstances meanwhile prove that this trend has never died, and is ready to sink its roots even deeper into the fertile soil of popular culture: as one recent Billboard column points out, "the impact of social media, from how songs are marketed to the simpler manner in which people communicate online, has greatly influenced the craft of songwriting - and naming." Good news, I guess, if you still believe that hashtag-driven memes are remotely radical, but not much consolation for those who those who think the purpose of artistic creativity is something more than just maximizing communicative efficiency.
This tendency towards greater compression has been abetted by the so-called "rise of the creative class" prior to the bursting of the tech jobs bubble, a phenomenon which held out an enticing promise of actual respectable jobs for the artistically minded. Those who wanted a piece of this pie seemed content to merge the role of the artist with more strategic and analytical job descriptions, and I'd submit that this increased hope of parlaying aesthetic sensibility into a day job has greatly strengthened the idea of art as a utilitarian enterprise. As such, nobody wants to be seen as a hyper-sensitive, expiring Romantic poet on their LinkedIn profile, or to have the Human Resources director's Google search land upon their DMT-inspired transmissions received from the gods of a parallel universe. Short, sharp titles for creative works are thus more desirable because they offer a kind of "win-win" situation: they can serve the dual purpose of generating mystique a la a designer fragrance, and showcasing a talent for "doing more with less" to prospective and current employers. In a socio-economic environment where this kind of compromise is desirable, titles loaded with implausible or bizarrely humorous situations have gradually become the plaything of those who know they have been permanently exiled to society's margins. Put simply, people who hope to remain marketable do not - as the band Happy Flowers notably did - make their valuable first impressions with verbiage like "If This Gun Were Real, (I Could Shoot You And Sleep In The Big Bed With Mommy").
Before I go any further, let me just clarify that I have no intention of pitting brevity against psychedelic exegesis in some winner-take-all battle of titling schemes. Alternative rock alsorans don't have a monopoly on monosyllabic titles, and such titles hardly detract from the potency and singularity of, say, the Stooges' Funhouse album or Swans' most punishing work (Filth, Cop, Greed). There are plentiful works that use brilliantly worded titles as a cover for artistic mediocrity, and there are heaps of breathtaking artworks out there - in all available media - that don't take spend a lot of thought or effort on introducing themselves. I see nothing inherently wrong with tacking on titles as an afterthought, or identifying pieces with non-descriptive sequential numbering systems, or just letting the works speak for themselves without being given a name (these last couple of strategies being particular popular in the sound art/psycho-acoustic spheres). At the same time, though, it seems like there is a growing neglect of cultural artifacts that take up the challenge of being evocative while ditching comprehensibility and clarity. To right the balance, there still needs to be a time and place for crafting titles that - as per Umberto Eco - "muddle[s] the reader's ideas…not regimenting them."
The quest for the "...sewing machine and an umbrella" juxtaposition mentioned at the outset has been one means of achieving this, and was part and parcel of a greater fusion sought out by radical artists from the early 20th century onwards. The Surrealists based an entire movement on the premise that the resolution of dream and reality would usher in the dawn of a new "absolute reality" (although they had virtually no musical representatives in their own time, and Nurse with Wound would attempt to single-handedly rectify this oversight decades later). Such an "absolute reality" would be one superior to anything else on tap in a world whose "rational" beliefs had only culminated in the furnace of the Great War: Surrealist chief André Bréton's early inclinations towards unfiltered automatism came while recording the dreams and free associations of patients at a military psychiatric center at Saint-Dizier. The early work of the French Surrealists borrowed the anti-rational, antihumanist activity of the previously allied Dada movement and re-purposed it for more utopian, revolutionary ends: this meant a period where manifestoes and the written word took precedence over visual art, and naturally a heavy emphasis upon poetically deranged texts with titles to match.
When artwork titles - Surrealist or otherwise - really begin to cross into the realms of the bizarre or barely plausible, they have plenty in common with hypnagogic states, i.e. those 'bridge' periods between wakefulness and sleep, which are generally caused by different regions of the brain "falling asleep" at different rates. It isn't uncommon for individuals who experience periods of hypnagogia to report hearing riddle-like snippets of speech, particularly "pompous nonsense often characterized by non-intellectual wit", e.g. "buy stocks in the fixed stars... it is remarkably stable" or "a leading clerk is a great thing in my profession, as well as a Sabine footertootro."1 The most famous exponents of Surrealism all seem to have realized the potential for such subconscious soundbites (to say nothing of visual hallucinations also encountered during hypnagogic states) to fade in unprecedented new realities. Max Ernst, for one, claimed to have developed his frottage technique during a hypnagogic state. Not to be outdone, the Catalan dandy Salvador Dali also tried to induce hypnagogic states as a means to creative revelation: he went as far as to devise a technique in which a metal spoon suspended over a metal plate would come crashing down on it just as his dreams were expected to 'kick in,' reportedly jarring him into a kind of sleep paralysis that would make hypnagogic sensations more memorable.
Related Surrealist experiments with "sleeping fits" and "hypnotic slumbers" occasionally took nasty, dangerous turns, owing to some participants' lack of preparation for the verbal outpourings that they produced when their means of self-censorship were shut off and pure psychic automatism took command.2 These techniques were never fully repudiated, and did end up producing some glimmering examples of what Bréton refered to as "convulsive beauty." These flirtations with real mental breakdown, no doubt, give ammunition to the critics of artists who come up with strange surrealistic titles and turns of phrase, and who will go to unhealthy and obsessive extremes merely to differentiate themselves from anything too conventional. It also doesn't help matters that Bréton apparently saw random violence as coming from the same place as his other automatist exercises: he debated in his magazine Littérapture about which types of murders could be considered properly "Surrealist," and infamously proclaimed in the Surrealist Manifesto that "the simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd."
Bréton, of course, never acted on his recommendation to other would-be Surrealists, and at any rate the raw material for creative description can be found without getting as intensely and violently involved as Bréton would have demanded. As soon as you realize that creativity can issue from various "pre-logical" states of consciousness, and you acknowledge the fact that accidents and unintended actions play as much a role in creative evolution as our best laid plans, the possibilities for new expression come quicker than you can keep up with them. I myself filled a notebook with prospective song or poem titles that originated from English-as-a-second-language learners' attempts at conversation, rife as they were with intriguing, unintentional examples of time-warping ("I have met the delivery man since tomorrow") or cryptozoology ("there is much pajama whales in Osaka's aquarium"). Nor do you even have to look further than children, and their knack for making colorful neologisms when they encounter some new thing or phenomenon that they don't yet have the ability to describe in mutually comprehensible terms.
I essentially agree with R.J. Hallman that unpredictability is an indispensable aspect of creativity, given that it "produces qualities which never existed before, and which could never have been predicted on the basis of prior configurations of events."3 Put simply, the creative process is one of making surprising combinations of elements and associations, which requires ditching one's fears of ambiguity or of playing with contradictions and inconsistencies. Many sectors of the ill-defined "creative class," it seems, are paid to meet expectations rather than to defy them, and this makes their professional classification something of a misnomer. The marketing guru who comes up with a new Twitter hashtag for a vodka ad campaign is, in effect, looking to make a potent description for an already-existing product (and I don't deny that this requires some perceptive talent), or to "put it in perspective"/bring its finer qualities into focus. Verbal description in these cases becomes a translation or an interpretation of known qualities. Real creative description, though, means unearthing new qualities, providing the keys to a world yet to be born, and allowing for the possibility of completely new perspectives. This doesn't have to be accomplished with titles - but they are as good a place as any to start.
1. Andreas Mavromantis, Hypnagogia:The Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep, p. 34. Thyrsos Press, London, 2010.
2. See, for example, the episode described in André Bréton, Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism, pp. 69---70. Trans. Mark Pollizotti. Marlowe & Company, New York, 1993.
3. R.J. Hallman quoted in Mavromantis (2010), p. 2015.
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