The LP as Art Form

posted in: Essays | 0

INTRODUCTION

I consider the 12” 33rpm LP to be a distinct art form. Like a sonnet, a novel or an opera, the 12” LP has a highly specific formula that gives the work its basic structure: two sides of music about fifteen minutes in length, a 12” x 12” package with various surfaces for artwork and text, and a succinct title. It’s a simple, elegant formula. Created in the late 1940s as a continuously playing single disc replacement for an “album” of multiple 78rpm discs, the LP has since transcended its physical form to become an abstract art form revered by artists, fans and critics alike. By way of CDs and now digital playlists, LPs continue to present roughly the same amount of music as a 12” vinyl disc, with individual pieces in a specific order, a title and square artwork — all conventions concretized as the LP more than half a century ago. Not everyone still works with two sides in mind, but even that convention is seeing a revival among younger recordmakers as vinyl 12” records make an unprecedented comeback. Decade after decade, the LP’s basic formula remains intact.

Outliving its original physical form tells us that the LP has evolved into an abstract thing, an art form, a tradition, a formula for how to go about making something handed down through cultural transmission. No one needs to make an LP, and yet most recordmakers have inherited this traditional form and chose to work within it. While some have declared the death of the album (the phrase “death of the album” even has its own Wikipedia page, and many articles have been written on the topic), the abstraction of that form has hardly wavered from its salient position as a cultural expression.

And while many would argue that popular interest in the LP is fading as new generations emerge around new (and always shorter) formats (the EP, the single, the game soundtrack, the playlist, etc…), I, and many others, champion the LP as an art form worth practicing and preserving, and I suspect that this art form will continue to endure (as it already has) regardless of the comings and goings of new delivery formats. Sales may be dropping and interest may be waning, yet none of that market activity changes the fact that the LP structures, focuses and thematicizes recordings into some of the most beautiful and powerful works of art we humans have brought into being. In spite of the various forces seeming to tear it apart, it is time to recognize the LP as our field’s most intoxicating form and to uphold it for its own inherent value.

 

STUDYING AND TEACHING THE LP

Perhaps it is time to begin to think about the LP (and the career field around it) as having matured to the point where it needs to be understood, studied and taught more formally. Universities are installing music production departments, offering actual undergraduate degrees in this field for the first time (no graduate programs exist yet), but recordmaking is still a young art (around one-hundred years, the LP only around fifty) and the formalization of training in it very young. Yet the field of recordmaking has given birth to an abstracted art form that we can point to, study, describe and choose to practice. Can we imagine courses training young people how to go beyond just recording and producing music and to conceptualize, compose and assemble coherent and powerful LPs?

The notion of teaching the LP may seem antithetical to those of us who cling to the notion that great artists will emerge organically from within scenes to eventually create these wonderful works of art for us, but I would suggest that— given all the changes to the commercial support networks that made LPs possible (labels, studios, scenes, etc…) — that perhaps this art form is worth upholding through a more formalized (perhaps academic) approach. If nothing else, more formally teaching the art of the LP in no way hinders or conflicts with the “more organic” rise of an artist through commercial channels, such as they are, and might even promote greater awareness of the art form within those channels.

Concern over teaching the art of the LP raises larger questions about the value of formal art training in general. If we can’t or shouldn’t teach the LP, can or should we teach any art form? The value of art education is a too vast and complicated a topic for this essay, however, I would point to the fact that some of history’s standout, celebrated masterpiece LPs have been wrought by people who had formal fine arts training: Brian Eno, Roger Waters, Thom Yorke, Pete Townsend, Kim Gordon, David Byrne, Ray Davies, John Lennon, Chuck D., Kanye West and Keith Richards to name a few. Surely there is no coincidence that these masters of the LP art form all share a fine arts training where they learned how to formally critique work in progress, to master and extend the possibilities of tools, to study, work within, and finally break out of specific forms. They also learned how to apply philosophies from various schools of thought to an art practice, which has led to some of the most significant innovations in recordmaking. If we are going to teach recordmaking in universities, perhaps it would be wise to house these programs (or portions of them) in fine arts departments rather than relegating them to technical training programs or music performance departments. A faculty able to deliver a meaningful aesthetic education can help to bringing the LP into its maturity as an art form and the field of recordmaking in general up among its true cousins like photography, architecture, dance, theater, filmmaking and design — all of which have created many excellent schools from which graduates go on to innovate beautiful work in their fields. Why should recordmaking be any different?

Even in the absence of university-level fine arts formal training, it’s worth advancing our field in this direction nonetheless. Bringing a more intelligent and nuanced approach to recordmaking can only help our field become a more capable one that holds greater value artistically, culturally and, therefore (and in that order), commercially. The LP still stands as our most serious and important form; letting it dissolve because delivery formats have changed is to value the format factor over the art form, clearly a potentially devastating mistake for any artistic community.

 

THE EVOLUTION OF THE LP

As a way forward, I want to dig into the LP more deeply, look at its antecedents, its history, and tease out the art form from the format in order to begin a more concerted dialogue about it.

Trying to understand why the LP became such an enduring and appealing art form veers into philosophical, cultural and even bio-environmental-evolutionary theories of aesthetics — a full discussion of which is beyond the scope of this essay. However, we can look at the structure of the LP and make some cursory speculations that might help us understand the attraction of the form and why it endures.

With the 12” LP at 33rpm we arrived at a format that was able to reproduce continuous play of roughly a single movement in a symphony on each side — a stated goal of those who devised the LP. This breaking point of between ten and fifteen minutes within a larger musical work had been established hundreds of years before as symphonic movements. Why was this break point around this length, and why was the overall form also hovering around the forty minute mark? Answering these questions can help us understand the roots of the LP’s formal structure.

In the 1700s the symphonic form was taking shape as an extended version of an opera’s overture (roughly eight to ten minutes long). By the 1800s a standard symphony length was emerging at around 30 to 50 minutes with a few longer works (such as Beethoven’s 9th at around 70 minutes), and by the 20th century symphonies were headed back to around the 25 to 40 minutes range. Exceptions always exist, of course, but these rounded numbers show us the general length of the form as well as its breaking points into movements of around eight to fifteen minutes on average.

For an art form to endure for centuries implies that there is something inherently satisfying about it. How else could it sustain our interest? Like the rectangular canvas that fits and satisfies the dimensions of our field of vision, or the frequency spectrum that fits our hearing range, is the duration of the symphony and its division into movements similarly meeting the dimensions of human listening abilities and attention spans? We do know that human attention spans can hang on to a single topic or narrative for about three hours before our attention breaks down, and if we look at the operas from which the symphony sprung, they were often topping out at around three hours. College seminars, business meetings, movies, plays, concerts, and sporting events — any immersive experience that requires our attention for a stretch of time — all hover in the one-and-a-half to two hour range, with the three hour mark typically being considered quite long.

We can speculate as to why we seem to need to chunk our attention expenditures in this way, and an evolutionary perspective on this is rather interesting. If one considers that our species evolved with about three hours of (relatively) free time to kill from nightfall to sleep time, we can theorize that our long-term attention spans for cultural activity developed around this schedule. Darkness presented a time for people to come together and participate in their cultural forms like stories, music, games, etc… Many have speculated that the earliest formalized theater experiences were just larger-scale versions of small-scale oral traditions organized to accommodate the growing populations after the rise of cultivated agriculture, and those formal dramatic traditions gave rise to opera, which gave rise to the symphony, which gave rise to the LP. Making this leap from our species’ evolutionarily-determined, multi-millennia-old attention spans for cultural immersion to the post-WWII 12” vinyl LP as part of an evening’s entertainment is just a theory, and one into which we may not want to put too much stock without more investigation. However, it is interesting to consider that perhaps the LP form is a reflection of our rotating planet’s daily schedule expressing itself through our highly evolved DNA. The LP may be our long history of entertainment pressed into a disc of vinyl. If we buy this notion, even on its surface, we are flirting with the notion that there is something inherently “right” about the LP for humans. One of the central criteria by which people judge LPs is how well they hold our attention, whether they are (or seem) too short or too long or just right. A good LP fits us just so.

As for the division of the whole piece into musical chunks of eight to fifteen minutes (movements, LP sides, etc), it gets a little trickier to come up with a clear evolutionary explanation. However, almost all longer-form human art is divided into smaller chunks. Novels divide into chapters, then paragraphs, then sentences, then words, then individual syllables delivered at a certain rate. Plays divide into acts, then scenes, then lines of dialogue, then words, then syllables. Symphonies divide into movements, then sections, then musical phrases, then notes delivered at discernible tempos. LPs divide into sides, then songs/tracks, then song sections, then musical phrases, then notes delivered at a recognizable tempo. What we’re talking about in all of these art forms is how information is chunked and organized to be optimal for human consumption according to our evolved perceptual mechanisms. One way to formally describe and judge an art form is in terms of how it chunks information, and one way to describe and judge an artist is as a chunker and organizer of information (visual, sonic or otherwise). One way to understand the LP is as an organized stream of sonic information, the recordmaker as the one who organizes that information.

The point of all this is to suggest that: (a) the LP presents us with an analogous art form to the symphony and its antecedents and (b) that these forms are inherently rooted in our evolutionarily determined bio-aesthetics. This is just another way of saying that the LP is a a very human art form. This humanness goes a long way toward explaining why a beautifully rendered LP can suspend us in its spell and touch us so deeply, as well as why the form can sit so comfortably among other well established art forms that also fit humans well.

When we consider that the LP is often treated — even offhandedly discarded — as just commercial delivery format, or snappishly declared to be on its death bed, I think it’s important to start awakening those who think in terms of marketplace-profitability and up-to-the-minute-trends to the LP’s deeper historical antecedents (e.g., symphony) and modern equivalents (e.g., films) in hope that something other than concerns over marketability might sit at the forefront of decision making around the fate of this art form. To those who feel marketplaces should and will be the determining forces in shaping what we recordmakers choose to make, I have a simple answer: intentional artists.

 

INTENTIONAL ARTISTS AND THEMATIC WORK

The LP is a limited form, but it is not a limiting one; there are infinite ways to use the formula. Compare, say, the LPs Merry Christmas by Bing Crosby to Locust Abortion Technician by The Buttonhole Surfers and you get a sense of the rigidity of the LP art form: they’re both roughly the same length, broken into two sides that are then broken into individual musical pieces, both LPs were issued on 12” black vinyl, and both have robust artwork on two sides. But we also see the obvious potential for extreme variation; Merry Christmas banally celebrates a secular Christmas via predictably performed pop forms of its era while Locust Abortion Technician violently explores divorce, rape and necrophilia via deconstructed post-rock, found-art-pastiche and unbridled, genreless electronic manipulation of sound. By working within the basic limitations of the LP, both Bing Crosby and The Buttonhole Surfers were able to create timeless pieces of art that accomplish incredibly different agendas (artistic and otherwise) but which stand side-by-side as prime examples of the art form’s greatest expressions. They are both meticulously crafted, coherent and immersive LPs built around a theme.

Because these two LPs (or any two LPs) share their core structure, we can judge them along the same lines of aesthetic concern: consistency, wholeness, breadth, focus, thematics, originality, craft and so on. These aesthetic concerns go beyond specific genre considerations, beyond the musical content itself, to scrutinize how well the artist worked into and exploited the LP form itself. This is why we don’t have to personally like or even approve of an LP in order to evaluate it as a successful one (or dislike or disapprove of one in order to consider it a failure).

As we’ve seen, an LP is far more than just a collection of individual musical pieces gathered onto sides with artwork and a title attached, and LPs tend to suffer when treated as such. Making an LP requires the ability to conceptualize, envision and execute the art form itself. To do this, an artist thinks and creates on a meta-level and carries out overarching goals for the whole LP. When recordmakers are good at this meta-level work, they tend to make powerful, coherent and timeless LPs. They’re in command of their chosen art form.

When discussing the LP as an art form, people sometimes wonder if I am talking about so-called “concept albums,” those LPs that follow a specific narrative. I think this question grows out of the fact that we can find strong themes on coherent LPs, but that doesn’t mean the LP employs a narrative. Radiohead’s OK Computer centers around themes of modern-techno-alienation and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet centers around themes of black-white racial power struggles, but these aren’t narrative concept albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, The Who’s Tommy or The Fugees’ The Score. Thematic work can be highly consistent and pull all the material on an LP together into a very tight work, but that doesn’t make the LP a narrative one. A theme is an idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art.

I often hear concerns about the limitations of thematic recordmaking. When this happens, I find myself reminding artists that focusing ones work almost always makes it stronger, that working around a narrow set of concerns, ideas, methods, sounds, constructions and/or emotions — that is, working thematically — will usually bring more internal consistency and integrity to an LP.

 

FREEDOM OF FOCUS & INNER SCHEMAS

By working thematically one creates more than just a collection of musical pieces with artwork and title; one also creates the inner schema (the system, the inner logic, the framework) that holds those components together. And once one has established the basic inner schema of the LP — no matter how obscure or abstract it may be — there emerges a freedom to explore seemingly infinite creative possibilities within that schema. Over and over I have heard artists have their aha-moment in which they say, “Oooooh, now I know what the hell I’m doing on this record. Ok, let’s get to work.” This is the moment when clarity about the whole arrives. Once that point is crossed, the art making shifts from figuring-it-out to filling-it-in, and there are infinite ways to fill it in. I call this “the freedom of focus.” Without thinking on the meta-level about the whole LP to some degree, the freedom of focus almost never emerges and, in my experience, artists tend to struggle to find clear intentions and create a favorable work situation.

 

EXACTLY HOW THEMATIC?

Thematic work on an LP can reach into many aspects of the work: sonics, musical themes, instrumentation, lyrical topics or images, settings, musical motifs, and so on. Too often people assume that themes must be found in the lyrics, but we only need to look at great instrumental LPs to see that consistency and wholeness can be achieved across an album even in the absence of lyrics. Thematic work is about pulling the content of the LP together, intentionally following a limited set of interests, ideas, sounds and motifs, and working toward a coherent outcome.

Thematic work can not only reach into any aspect of the LP, but one can also vary degree of how thematic one wants any aspect to be. Will the music carry strong thematic motifs? Will the instrumentation, or the role instruments play remain consistent or vary greatly? Sonics? Lyrical images? Lyrical topics? Musical structures? Dynamics? As a recordmaker, one has total control over both what is treated thematically and how thematically to treat any of those aspects. Being clear and intentional about which aspects are thematic and about how thematic those aspects will be is to have command of the art form itself. We can think of this intentionality as moving from making a record to orchestrating an LP.

 

SURREPTITIOUS ORCHESTRATION

The word ‘orchestrate’ means “to arrange or direct the elements of (a situation) to produce a desired effect, especially surreptitiously” (New Oxford Dictionary). To be surreptitious is to be secretive because one’s behavior would not be approved of. This secretiveness within orchestration fascinates me.

Over and over I overtly orchestrate records with collaborators (plotting them out, literally, like a map) and then we hide that orchestration as deeply as we can. Recordmakers (and all kinds of artists) seem to want to burry their intentions deep into the artwork, hide them like treasures that the listener has to search for without a map. In this way the intentions of any artwork become like DNA, an invisible force that determines the very shape of all outward expressions. Striking the right balance of thematics among the various aspects of an LP can create a whole work in in which intentions remain mysterious, a work that asks questions more than it answers them, that invites the listener into an aesthetic immersion in which their own discoveries are possible (which gives them good reason to return to the work over and over). The invisibility of intentions is not the same as the absence of intentions, and many highly intentional LPs have an inner integrity that can be sensed and felt more than it can be seen, heard or overtly understood — try as we may.

I produced the instrumental album Lulls by the artist Blurry, a sonically and musically consistent album with strong themes buried in it. This project began with a title, Lulls, and an idea for what the music was to do: (1) musically represent a sequence of “lull states” and (2) offer up a musical experience that might produce a “lull state” in the listener. Compositions didn’t even exist prior to the concept for the album. Lulls was a fascinating title and theme that really interested me, and I knew we needed to make a very coherent LP with a consistent sonic world if we were to sustain the “lull state.” To create that coherence we limited the sonic pallet to four basic sounds (exactly the same drums, bass, guitar, and keyboards recorded exactly the same way throughout the album) and we mixed all tracks with just one delay and one reverb through the same console with nearly identical eq and compression settings. Musical structures on Lulls are very consistent as well: slow moving dynamic changes, similar arrangements of song sections on each track, a narrow (and slow) tempo range. We intentionally controlled and limited these aspects of the music within very narrow margins, and those qualities are all overtly on display in the music.

What isn’t overt is that every piece on this album explores a specific remembered moment and that each piece was structured and arranged according to an actual hand-drawn map of that memory. We chose not to reveal these memories in any way on the LP, even though we were highly aware of minute details of those specific memories while writing, arranging, performing, recording and mixing. In effect, we let the strong thematics in almost all aspects of the music tie the LP together while burying the topical theme so deeply that they can only be felt, sensed, but never understood or known. To help bury the topical thematics we discarded lyrics all together and we named each of the eight pieces “Lull 1, Lull 2, Lull 3…” and so on (they had previously been named after the place where the memory had occurred). The case of Lulls is interesting here because it was so carefully orchestrated, yet in its final form it is almost anti-narrative, highly expressionistic and wide open to the listeners interpretation. We orchestrated very heavily and very surreptitiously.

Working with highly organized, overt intentions and then burying them deep in the artwork is a strategy I see over and over again across mediums. An architect knows the goals of the building’s aesthetics, but those are made subtle and covert through design and use of materials. An abstract painter is exploring a certain moment or emotion, but only reveals hints of that through an obscure title. A theater maker structures a production according to a mission statement, but never makes that known to the audience. A choreographer sets out to explore a specific theme, but leaves holes in the work through highly orchestrated movement. Outside of recordmaking, this kind of surreptitious intentionality is common practice and one can enter easy dialogue about it, yet in recordmaking many bristle at the notion of talking about such things, struggle against it, even take offense at it. Our field simply hasn’t developed forums within which this kind of dialogue might emerge and evolve. (Why we haven’t is a wholly different topic worth investigation).

 

PROCESS REVERSAL

On the surface, beginning an LP with clear intentions seems like an obvious strategy, yet more often than not artists create a group of musical pieces, record them around the same time and afterwards decide on a name and artwork that will pull the components together. I’ve even thought of this ex post facto thematicizing as a kind of art criticism that one practices on their own work, an interpretation of the LP offered up after it’s done. This order of events — make it and then look for what ties it together — is a valid way to make an LP, and there is no question that many artist will discover very real threads and themes that are the product of their having worked consistently over a period of time during which their preoccupations (conscious, subconscious or both) emerged across a set of musical pieces. However, I find that people who carry forethought and intention into their work have the upper hand in creating coherent LPs that maximize the potential of the art form as a whole.

Describing an album before making it is a great reversal of many artists’ creative process, and making this reversal can be quite difficult, scary, and even painful. Taking a different approach to art making is not only creatively challenging, but also can be personally challenging because it requires breaking a set of habits. Because intentionality can be so challenging, many resist it.

 

RESISTANCE TO INTENTIONALITY

One of the common resistances I come across is fear of working too consciously on an LP. For most artists, and especially musicians, delving into the subconscious and working intuitively is the very central activity of making artwork. Approaching that work with conscious intentions and stated themes can appear to run against the aim of intuitively accessing the the creative wellsprings of the subconscious. Yet the best artists know that their work involves delving deep and far into the wilds of their subconscious while holding an artistic intention in mind. Intentional artistic work goes beyond giving shape to subconscious discoveries after they’re made; it means giving intentional direction to the discovery itself. By having some overarching schema in mind for the work at hand, the most skilled artists delve into their subconscious with a clear mission, almost as if they have a destination plugged into a psychological-GPS device that can guide them to what they need the most in order to carry out their intentions. Working with intentions doesn’t mean there wont be surprises (there always are); it means staying focused so one can discern and make use of the right surprises.

Most artists are born naturals at delving into the subconscious (it’s often why they became artists in the first place) but must be taught, or somehow learn, how to become intentional in their subconscious explorations and how to give shape to them. Practicing a formal art form such as the LP can be one of the best ways to learn how to do this. Just knowing that strong, coherent LPs carry themes that were disciplined by highly skilled artists transforms recordmaking from an intuitive and subconscious outpouring to disciplined honing of artistic exploration and expression within an artistic tradition.

The most effective artists across mediums seem to viciously discipline their expression down to nearly singular expressions at any given time. This discipline consists of highly intentional meta-work that makes their creative discoveries ring more true, more clearly, more powerfully. They aren’t betraying their expressivity by working intentionally; they’re focusing it like a laser. Examples: The best painters are almost exclusively focused on, even obsessed with, one style or idea for years at a time (see Still, Rothko, Monet, Kahlo). A poet may explore many forms and themes over the years, but in any concerted collection of poetry tends to work around a unifying theme in a very narrow style (see Yates, Dickinson, Elliot). A photographer tends to be caught up in a specific type of image making at any given time, collecting those very similar images into a hung show or published book (see Mappelthorp, Adams, Arbus). The best recordmakers are quite similar (many examples exist across genres), and the LP is an ideal format for gathering up and presenting work made at a given time as a coherent whole. The more surgically focused the laser, the more clear and coherent the artwork tends to be. Intentionality is focusing that laser.

 

SELF-INDULGENCE, AUDIENCE-INDULGENCE AND BALANCED WORKS

Sometimes the resistance to working too intentionally and too consciously toward a larger whole seems to come from disagreement around the core purpose of artistic expression. Since the emergence of the singer-songwriter tradition of the 60s, the notion that making an album is meant to be an expression of the artist’s very personal experiences and feelings has found strong currency with in the art form; we can call this self-expression. If the album is meant to be an expression of self, then we can see how editing out content for the benefit of the listener can seem to be at odds with self-expression; one is literally silencing self-discoveries for the sake of others. By bringing conscious intention to the goals of the art making, one is confronted with this inevitable, timeless question: Is the artist serving their own need to express themself, or is that expression also meant to reach across and mean something to or for someone else?

Marking art is one thing; making it public is another. Self-expressive art made public is always imbued with possible conflict between the internal experience of the artist and the experience of the audience. When art seems to serve the needs of the artist more than the audience, we often hear it described as self-indulgent. While calling any art self-indulgent is almost always a negative criticism, perhaps it’s helpful to think of it as merely descriptive, as some artists are quite consciously indulging their own experiences when they make art — that’s their intention.

On the other end of the spectrum we hear artists who make work only for the sake of their audiences as being too commercial or as having sold out. What’s being sold out is typically the “self” or something that’s not “for the audience alone.” Calling an artist a sell out is always a negative criticism, but we can understand the criticism more structurally to mean that the artist is compromising something (self-expression? genuineness?) to satisfy an audience — that’s their intention. For the sake of clarity, let’s call this audience-indulgence.

Between full-on self-indulgence and full-on audience-indulgence is a continuum across which these two impulses work together in some ratio. It’s an interesting exercise to consider the ratio between self- and audience-indulgence of any artwork, and then to consider how we think that art has achieved that ratio. And recordmakers can set intentions for how they’d like to strike that ratio in their own work. How much is the work intended to indulge the artist’s internal experience vs. the audiences, and to what extent can those two things be brought into alignment? (Some of the strongest artwork seems to satisfy both impulses simultaneously, bridging both and expressing something more universally satisfying.) Working intentionally and consciously with self-indulgence and audience-indulgence in mind is to step up onto a higher perch and become more objective about one’s work. When making an LP, this kind of objectivity can go a long way toward honing the final work into a successful one. Such objectivity should not be at odds with the creative process, but an integral part of it.

 

FULL-ON BELLY-GAZING

The most dangerous resistance to working intentionally comes when an artist makes the critical error of believing that because they are having a meaningful or satisfying experience of their art that the art itself is inherently meaningful or satisfying and, therefore, will be satisfying to others. This is a gross over-valuing of the artist’s subjective experience that validates the idea that an artist should work as unintentionally as possible and merely indulge internal experiences with no intentional honing of that exploration into an intentional self-expression. Artists who are this caught up in their own experiences almost always put up an impenetrable fortress around these experiences and see the notion of working more intentionally, consciously and objectively as an affront to their own experiences. Artists who believe that their self-expression will mean something to others are already flirting with full-on self-indulgence, but those artists who only use their own subjective experience as the litmus test of their art are almost always gazing straight into their own bellybuttons and incapable of intentionally shaping their work. Collaborating with belly-gazers is difficult enough, but trying to make a coherent and intentional LP with them is nearly impossible.

 

SELF-EXPRESSION AS ALLEGORY

This doesn’t mean that I reject the possibility that self-expression can be rendered in nuanced and empathetic ways, and I believe that personal expressions can, when artfully rendered, surgically focused and thoughtfully thematic can become powerfully allegorical. Asking an artist to consider casting their self-expression within the general principles of a formalized art form like the LP can go a long way toward pulling their heads back up for a breath of communal air that can revitalize and give breadth and focus to the overarching goals of their desire to share their personal expressions. Knowing why you’re expressing yourself is a powerful place from which to create something that can reach across to others, essentially transforming personal experience/narrative/expression into allegory that resonates with compassion and empathy.

What’s fascinating about these conversations about the overarching goals of the LP is that they draw into question whether an unedited, subjective self-expression can succeed as an external expression or whether, as I tend to believe, the disciplined, edited, goal-oriented work might actually better succeed in getting those subjective expressions of self across to the audience. Honing one’s expression is the smoke-n-mirrors involved in communication in general, and in art specifically. One of the markers of the mature and disciplined artist is not just their willingness to discipline their work, but their ability to do so. That’s the kind of mastery that can elevate a work toward allegory.

 

SELFLESS EXPRESSION

LPs are so vastly variable that it’s exciting and intimidating to consider all the possibilities in front of an artist as they set out to make an LP. Across genres, and outside genre, the LP remains as open as a blank canvas. Selfless expression, as directly opposed to self-expression, is fascinating to consider as one looks at the intentions behind any art work.

When someone is making a work of art that is not meant to express the self, but to accomplish another goal all together we veer into a vast array a undetermined possibilities. There’s direct narrative, abstraction, documentary, overt political work, exploratory vignettes, lyrical nonsense, instrumental anarchy and highly structured composition, impressionistic soundscapes and ambient dreamscapes, pulsing dance records and gentle lullabies, soundtracks and scores and explorations of all kinds available to the recordmaker (these can and will be, of course, self-expressive, if not self-expressions).

Intentionality and thematics toward a whole LP in these so-called selfless expressions gives shape and focus to the work, whether it’s an arhythmic exploration of deconstructed noise or a highly-structured narrative song cycle. Working on the meta-level toward a whole work rather than an assembly of small pieces lifts any LP up into the realm of artistic coherence and integrity too often unachieved in recordmaking.

 

PROBLEMS OF ARTICULATION

One of the greatest problems with making LPs is that they so often involve multiple collaborators. A novel, a painting, a photograph, even an architectural drawing can issue forth from one person working more or less without a need to articulate their intentions, their vision, their thematic concerns or lack thereof. But in making LPs we tend to work in groups of varying sizes, with multiple people playing different (though usually fluid) roles. In this way, making an LP more closely resembles making a film. Perhaps one person writes it, but the team of people that are going to be involved in rendering the work are all going to give direct shape to it — from the musicians to the engineers to the mixer to the producer, all will have a hand in shaping that work. There are no “non-creative” roles in the studio; everyone is contributing to the end product. And yet, so often, people struggle to articulate what it is they’re trying to achieve. We grope toward a shared vocabulary, a language, some way to express what we’re trying to accomplish. We play reference LPs for each other, we describe sounds in terms of colors, we talk about what something is meant to mean, and then we say “You know what I mean?” because obviously we haven’t articulated what we mean.

I often find teams of excellent recordmakers can appear like total amateurs without a clue as to what they’re doing. There’s getting lost along the way, and then there’s just being lost the whole way, which, sadly, is not uncommon. The problem as I see it is that we don’t have a tradition of making our LP’s mission overt, and so more effort is spent groping toward an unstated, or even unknown, something rather than people coming together around a clearly stated set of goals.

I started to grow frustrated with this state of affairs over a decade ago, and found myself blurting out to a collaborator, “How the hell do I know which way to turn the knob if I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.” It was a funny moment, thankfully, but a poignant one in which our collaboration came to a head and the artist kind of relaxed and realized that it might be good to articulate the goals (and admitted that they weren’t even fully formulated, let alone articulated).

On another project with The Cinematic Orchestra, I’ll never forget a great moment when the band and I were toiling away at work in the studio and we turned to their manager and A&R rep (a wonderfully smart, caring man who defies every stereotype for that role) to ask his opinion about what we’d just recorded and he said, “Well, it depends on the mission, doesn’t it?” He volleyed that one straight back to the baseline where we all kind of, again, relaxed and realized that we needed to center in on the intentions for the project if we were to know what to do.

I could tell you more stories, gathered up over the years of watching people making records, but the individual tales have merged into a trend I started to see in which people would grow frustratedly lost in the studio and then realize they, quite simply, just didn’t really know what they were trying to do. And the only thing that was going to sort that out was a clear articulation of what that was.

 

START WITH THE PRESS RELEASE

This is why I sometimes say: Start with the press release and work backwards from there. On the surface this seems crass, and while I sincerely question the power of the press release even as a promotional tool at this point, I do find that the press release is one of the very few statements or descriptions of and LP. We used to have liner notes and, rarely, producer’s notes, or sometimes an artist’s note in which the LP was explored a bit on paper. Today we have press releases. Starting with a press release (obviously a fictional one) forces one to state their intentions, and sometimes it forces one to discover that they may not, in fact, have any clear intentions. This doesn’t mean that someone can’t work without clear intentions, but even working without intentions can be an intentional creative decision (one that many artists make, especially at the outset of making work). Writing that press release before you begin is, if nothing else, a wonderfully revealing exercise similar to writing a mission statement. “The new LP ___title___ by ___artist___ is _____???______.”

 

QUASH THE LP

When making an LP, to what extent is one intending to make a collection of relatively un-related musical pieces versus a highly unified work? If there is a continuum between these extremes, then it can be useful to consider where on that continuum one is aiming to land. Considering this will naturally lead to intentionally choosing how to manipulate the how thematic the various components of the LP will be. How important is it to your artistic intentions that the record holds together thematically? How important is the overarching LP-ness of the work? Even if one is abandoning the notion of making a coherent LP, it’s good to know that that’s the goal, as one can likely abandon it even more recklessly. If you’re going to say “quash the LP” then shout “Quash The LP!” and tear it to pieces. It’ll make for a better (non)LP. Not having a theme can become the theme. The point is to work intentionally. By considering where one stands vis-a-vis the larger art form at hand one naturally becomes more intentional, even when choosing to intentionally abandon that form.

 

COMPETITION BETWEEN RECORDMAKERS

The LP remains in our consciousness as a-thing-to-be-measured-and-critiqued, and as such it’s fair to say that when we make an LP we are engaging in a grand competition. This competition can be a healthy one. We must measure ourselves up against what we consider to be the greats, strive to meet and outdo them, but we must not let that greatness squash our spirits, define our work or cause us to imitate too closely. We need to let the competition spur us on to do better work, to motivate us to respect the art form we’re practicing, the tradition we’re working in

I was in Iceland a couple of years ago on an artist retreat of sorts and listened to a whole LP all the way through each day while blindfolded (I highly recommend doing this). After many days of these deep listening experiences I put on Beck’s Sea Change and took it in. I knew that record so well, but I can’t say I ever really listened to the whole thing straight though, and certainly not while blindfolded. This record is a benchmark on many fronts, and the sounds (largely by Nigel Goodrich) are stunning. Later that evening I went to dinner at friend and producer/engineer Valgeir Sigurðsson’s house and I mentioned my listening to Sea Change. Not missing a beat, Valgeir said, “Oh that record just makes you want to quit.” We laughed, but then kind of nodded how true it was. This humbling aspect of the silent, internal competition we are in when we make records is a powerful motivator.

No one writes a sonnet without knowing their work now sits up against Shakespeare. No one paints an abstract expressionist piece without knowing that their work will be compared to the great abstract expressionists. No one writes an opera without knowing their work will be help up in some way against Wagner, Verdi or Mozart as well as contemporary greats. No one writes a novel without knowing they’re up against their peers as well as those who established the art form. When we make an LP we are entering into this inevitable competition, and we can embrace it as part of practicing an autonomous, not-old-yet-but-enduring-nonetheless art form.

 

LAST TRACK

How to close off this discussion has eluded me, and I’ve realized that’s because I feel and hope that this essay is really just the beginning of a much larger, and I would say endless, discussion among recordmakers about the LP. The ideas above are really just an assertion of something I think we already know, an attempt to place a few small stones in the foundation beneath a new framework within which we can explore, discuss and develop our art form. It’s my sincere hope that we can begin to formalize the LP more fully as a respected and revered art form and never make the mistake of letting this wonderfully powerful formula for how to make recordings fall prey to formats of convenience.

 

DEAD WAX INSCRIPTION

Long Live The LP

 

Author: Allen Farmelo
Original Publication: Pink Noise
Publication Date: November 14, 2014