Stephen Emmer’s Recitement

I love it: pop culture invades the avant-garde.

OK – now I’ve got that off my chest and am sitting here listening to Stephen Emmer’s Recitement. It’s really popular music, and Emmer has boosted it up a level in the “serious” vein by coupling it with spoken word segments from a wide range of speakers: actors, authors, artists, performers, many of whom are household names (at least in this household), and some of whom are total strangers.

I noted one comment that claimed that this work represents something unique in popular music, a remark that I can’t quite credit. While sampling and spoken word are fairly normal in the realm of high culture (John Adams’ Shaker Loops comes to mind, not to mention such staples of the concert hall as Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf), I don’t know that I can come up readily with any predecessors in popular music, although I’m sitting here looking at my copy of Lou Reed’s Transformer thinking that one can hardly call Reed (one of the featured speakers in Emmer’s work) a “singer.” And now that I think on it a bit, Canadian musicians Tim Clément and Kim Deschamps have a track or two on Wolfsong Night that certainly predates Emmer’s effort, and I don’t think I’d consign their music to the realm of “classical.” Not an exact match, but the idea is there.

At any rate, questions of precedence aside, the work itself. When this one first came up for review, I said to the Editor, “This could be really interesting or really awful.” It’s actually somewhere in between. The music covers a broad range of styles and modes, not surprising given Emmer’s background – everything from jazz to pop to contemporary avant-garde art music – and the spoken-word samples can add some immediate if transitory interest, assuming one understands the languages the speakers are speaking. Some of the spoken segments are, in fact, quite evocative, even poetic, and often almost hypnotic (especially in the languages I don’t understand.). If one is not paying close attention, however, it’s like overhearing a conversation from the next booth at a cocktail lounge.

Perhaps the total effect is best summed up by the essay that accompanies the disc, which begins “Music serves to dismantle formulated states of consciousness. It is in many respects what consciousness cannot formulate.” I think that translates as something like “music takes your mind someplace else.” We all know that, just as we know that’s not always true. I am not, however, going to get into parsing those two sentences or the essay as a whole, which broaches the concept of the sublime in relation to this work. Maybe. If you’re willing to accept the transcendence of the mundane.

I’m afraid my reaction is simply that this is not something that is going to grab you and carry you off into some sort of dream, which music is perfectly capable of doing. It didn’t do that to me, however, and I’m easily grabbed. I will say, though, that it’s more interesting than not, but I suspect I’d have to be in a particular mood to be totally enthralled, and Recitement doesn’t seem to be able to provide that mood for me.

(Supertracks Records, 2007)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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