Category: reflections


ImageThere is a piece in the New York Times Magazine about the economist Robert Gordon which has the potential to paradigm-shift our view of an ever improving life and endless economic growth. His main point is that the second industrial revolution was a singular historical event which will not be followed by a similar game-changer of the same scope, be it the digital revolution or robotics or any other new technology. In his view, the huge change, the second industrial revolution incited, expired slowly over the last decades leaving us with growth rates much smaller as a century ago. Though his perspective is an american, this can also apply for all other western countries. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells reports:

The forces of the second industrial revolution, he (Gordon) believes, were so powerful and so unique that they will not be repeated. The consequences of that breakthrough took a century to be fully realized, and as the internal combustion engine gave rise to the car and eventually the airplane, and electricity to radio and the telephone and then mass media, they came to rearrange social forces and transform everyday lives. Mechanized farm equipment permitted people to stay in school longer and to leave rural areas and move to cities. Electrical appliances allowed women of all social classes to leave behind housework for more fulfilling and productive jobs. Air-conditioning moved work indoors. The introduction of public sewers and sanitation reduced illness and infant mortality, improving health and extending lives. The car, mass media, and commercial aircraft led to a liberation from the narrow confines of geography and an introduction to a far broader and richer world. Education beyond high school was made accessible, in the aftermath of World War II, to the middle and working classes. These are all consequences of the second industrial revolution, and it is hard to imagine how those improvements might be extended: Women cannot be liberated from housework to join the labor force again, travel is not getting faster, cities are unlikely to get much more dense, and educational attainment has plateaued. (…) If you take this perspective, it is no wonder that the productivity gains have diminished since the early seventies. The social transformations brought by computers and the Internet cannot match any of this.

In order to keep the former pace of economic growth, the innovations will need to be far more transformative and eight times as important as before, he concludes.

Even among the most committed stagnation theorists, there is little doubt that innovation will continue—that our economy will continue to be buttressed by new ideas and products. But the great question at the center of the growth argument is how transformative those breakthroughs will be, and whether they will have the might to improve human experience as profoundly as the innovations of a century ago. One way to think about economic growth is as a product of human capital and technology: At moments like this, when human capital is not growing much (when the labor force is unlikely to grow, when it is not becoming more educated), all of the pressure rests on technology.

Unfortunately, technology these days is mainly busy disrupting markets and replacing jobs with machines and robots. Technologist Erik Brynjolfsson is quoted that Sixty-five percent of American workers occupy jobs whose basic tasks can be classified as information processing. Some, or even a large number of those jobs “were never really designed for the human mind. They were designed for robots. The existing robots just weren’t good enough to take them. At first.” Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes. Add the fact that Silicon Valley, where every wet dream of technological innovation is born, has only provided jobs for relatively few people but produced a handful of 20-something billionaires. “The new economy is turning human labor into just another computer process — and will keep wrecking jobs.” is the subtitle of a piece Andrew Leonard wrote about the old middle class turned into a new proletariat. Some self-critical notions have reached the Silicon Valley itself recently:

Like the problem of technology replacing jobs, there is no solution to technology’s feigned innocence. As nerds and underdogs, we will always believe we have the best intentions. That doesn’t negate the problem: Even though we’re not Washington D.C., we are still an industry with absurd amounts of power, attention and money. And plenty of intentional and unintentional opportunities to abuse it.

Alexis Tsotsis is refering to a New York Times article by Paul Krugman called “Sympathy for the Luddites”, that pre-shadows Robert Gordons views:

I’ve noted before that the nature of rising inequality in America changed around 2000. Until then, it was all about worker versus worker; the distribution of income between labor and capital — between wages and profits, if you like — had been stable for decades. Since then, however, labor’s share of the pie has fallen sharply. As it turns out, this is not a uniquely American phenomenon. A new report from the International Labor Organization points out that the same thing has been happening in many other countries, which is what you’d expect to see if global technological trends were turning against workers. (…) The McKinsey Global Institute recently released a report on a dozen major new technologies that it considers likely to be “disruptive,” upsetting existing market and social arrangements. Even a quick scan of the report’s list suggests that some of the victims of disruption will be workers who are currently considered highly skilled, and who invested a lot of time and money in acquiring those skills. For example, the report suggests that we’re going to be seeing a lot of “automation of knowledge work,” with software doing things that used to require college graduates. Advanced robotics could further diminish employment in manufacturing, but it could also replace some medical professionals.

Even though the effect of robotics on jobs are still disputed, it is highly unlikely that the digital revolution will spark such economic growth and the creation of new jobs on a scale the second industrial revolution did. After this, all the talk about the workers happily racing with the machines sounds very hollow.

The Implosion of Film

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You possibly heard about it: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predicted an implosion for the film industry in the upcoming years when even proven talent can’t get their movies in the theaters. According to Paul Bond, some ideas from young filmmakers

“are too fringe-y for the movies,” Spielberg said. “That’s the big danger, and there’s eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

The remarks of Spielberg and Lucas provoked mixed reactions from film critics. Most interesting was the number-crunching verdict of Laremy Legel, who predicts that big budget movies are here to stay but smaller dramas addressing an adult audience appear as financial risks:

An “implosion” is definitely coming, but it’s not going to happen because of the $250 million dollar flops, it’s going to happen because of the mid-level flops, which, in the aggregate, are much more devastating to a studio’s bottom line.

And further:

The major studio systems now have a playbook they execute each time out. Sure, they tinker around the edges, but true innovation is routinely watered down with focus groups or preferably avoided altogether. If it’s not going to play overseas, to a generally “English as a second language” crowd, then it has got to go.

This reminds me of a lament written by Mick Harris on the occasion of the release of Christopher Nolan’s mega-success “Inception” in which he states that

it has never been harder for an intelligent, moderately budgeted, original movie aimed at adults to get onto movie screens nationwide.

“Inception” was the perfect blend of smart, intelligent but nonetheless blockbusting entertainment, still it owed its existence only to the huge success of Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”, which gave the director enough bargaining power to talk the studio bosses into putting money in his “fringey” idea before he would finish the next Batman movie. “Inception” would have been never realized if Nolan would have been an aspiring young film maker with no commercial success in his vita. Instead, studio executives throw money at

an adaptation of a comic book. A reboot of an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a sequel to an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a reboot of an adaptation of a TV show. A sequel to a sequel to a reboot of an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a young-adult novel.

The pattern is similar in other cultural areas and is one of the complicated and twisted ways in which digitization influences the cultural industries: users and amateurs are empowered to enter a before closed marketplace (they win), big mainstream media concentrates even more on globally marketable and easy to sell products (they sometimes lose, but in the long run they always win), only the middle class of professional and independent artists and producers, who actually embody cultural diversity and innovation, finds itself in an environment where it is harder and harder to make a living from their art.

At this point, many would point at arthouse series like “Mad Men”, “Breaking Bad”, “Homeland” and others produced by Pay-TV channels. In the before mentioned talk, George Lucas called cable television “much more adventurous” than film nowadays. But it is crucial to understand that this “new golden age of TV” is based on a monopoly as Adam Davidson writes in his piece “Mad Men Economic Miracle” for the “New York Times”:

Secure in their quasi-monopolistic dominance, cable providers have found that they can steadily raise rates and not lose too many customers. The average cable bill has more than doubled over the past decade, and viewers currently pay nearly $90 billion a year for their service. This is more than enough to support a profitable system in which networks can afford to broadcast expensively produced shows. Everybody profits, everybody wins (even viewers).

In this system, cable-TV is some kind of black box, where viewers without subscribing to them are actually cross-funding HBO, AMC and others investing in quality series aimed at niche audiences. HBO and AMC on the other hand are able to raise their prices since the cable-providers can’t afford to lose series with a small but strong and devoted following. This black box has led to a quality war which is “built on a brilliant (and maybe evil) business model”. But this business model is slowly dying since younger generations are not willing to pay steep bills for cable-TV and will stick to online streaming. Adam Davidson finishes his analysis with a rather bleak prospect:

Competition is obviously preferable to a monopoly. Yet without the existing system, it’s hard to imagine that the quality war will rage on. Will there be enough content providers willing to gamble on expensive programs with big stars, lavish wardrobe budgets and huge overhead — only to sell episodes online for less than a dollar? If there are no oligopolistic profits, no cartel monetizing our eager anticipation, will there be as much great stuff to watch? For people, like me, addicted to not only “Breaking Bad” but also “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Killing,” “Homeland” and others, this future is scary because the answer is probably no.

The streaming service Netflix is now challenging HBO with its own quality series “House of Cards”. The company’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos boasted recently that “the goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” In a profile, GQ quotes Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings:

Within the next decade, probably the next five years, he figures, ours will be a seamless, multidevice on-demand world, a place where services like Netflix will be so fat with content that the idea of paying a $150 monthly cable bill for a bundle of unwatchable crap will seem as quaint as gathering around the Sony Trinitron with Ma and Pa on Tuesday at 8 p.m. for All in the Family.

But if Netflix is able to turn high quality story telling into a profitable business model is as questionable as their Google-like mission statement about their own entrepreneurial culture. GQ again:

Giants from Amazon to Apple TV to Hulu are throwing money at their own streaming services, driving the cost of licensing exclusive content into the ozone. Amazon and iTunes charge per episode or movie, which means they’re able to stream newer stuff. (Subscribers to Amazon’s $79-a-year Prime shipping service get free access to a growing selection of content.) Meanwhile, Netflix hasn’t been able to add subscribers at the swift pace it promised shareholders lately, a trend that could make it much harder to establish the “virtuous cycle” it’s chasing—that is, subscription fees enabling Netflix to acquire content that in turn attracts new subscribers, which will pay for more content.

There is possibly an implosion to come, but it is still unclear how it will turn out. More and more consumers want to watch movies and quality TV on the day it is released. Many want the Hollywood studios to get rid of their theatrical windows at all and  “let consumers watch movies at home for a higher price rather than trek to the cinema“. But movie theaters are not owned by the Hollywood studios and theaters could fight back if one of the studios would first start releasing their films online. Being boycotted by the movie theaters is no risk any of the major studios is willing to take. For the time being, Hollywood will continue to throw its money at the next sequel to a sequel to a reboot of an adaptation of a comic book. Until an implosion happens. 

 

Silence to top the Charts?

“It’s worth a dime to get a few minutes of silence.” said Mike McCann to the Billboard magazine in 1959. He was distressed by the impossibility to hold a conversation over the sawing of hill-billy fiddles and the beat of rock’n’roll guitars blaring from the jukebox in the campus hang-out at the University of Detroit. So he decided to press four silent records on a label and placed them in the campus jukebox. Then, for a nickel, they were able to buy three minutes of peace and quiet. Technically, in fact, there was no silence coming from the jukebox speaker but the scratching and hissing from the needle on the record surface. Though this might be covered by the chatter in the student’s hang-out, there is a strong cagean appeal to the idea, even if unintended. John Cage already had the idea of a silent piece in 1947 when he mentioned that he wanted to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence of the lenght of a usual single and sell it to Muzak Co. According to Kyle Gann’s book “No such thing as silence” Cage supposedly read about the plans of placing a silent record in jukeboxes by a studend in a New York Post article in 1952 and the author wonders whether Cage wasn’t worried to be preempted by a commercial version of his visionary concept.

If John Cage would still be living, this autumn he could be worried of not only one, but even two commercial “versions” or “interpretations” of his concept hitting the top of the charts in the UK. The Royal British Legion is selling a “2 minute of silence” mp3 on the occasion of today’s Remembrance Day (11th Nov.) in order to commemorate the sacrifices of armed forces and civilians during times of wars. The aim is to reach the top of the charts with the silent single this Saturday, the day before the official ceremonies are held in Great Britain and other parts of the Commonwealth. In an accompanying video, war veterans along with sportsmen, artists like Thom Yorke and even prime minister James Cameron are shown looking quietly into the camera, as in this excerpts:

It seems to be a clever move to connect silence with death, since this connection, the equation of death and silence, has been made several times in literature, art and human rights campaigns. But there is some unrest, and this is because the idea to push a silent piece into the charts was first conceived by Dave Hilliard after last years successful attempt to upset the XFactor’s winner subscription to christmas’ top-selling single with a Facebook mob buying Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” to the top of the charts. Encouraged by that, Hilliard started the Cage Against The Machine campaign, as he states, more or less as a joke but quickly gained traction after the Guardian and other papers wrote about it and gave the idea good chances to succeed later on at christmas. Now he is a little bit upset, as he writes in a blog post, that Liam Maguire sells the silent initiative of the Royal British Legion as his idea and probably diminishes the chances of Cage Against The Machine to score another defeat against a fabricated Cowell hit.

In the middle of this week, “2 minute silence” already entered the top 20, so even if the single won’t push Rihanna or Take That from the top of the charts, there are good chances that at the end of the year the UK might have had two silent pieces of 2 and 4:33 min., each at a top position in the charts, something John Cage would have never dreamed of. Should he be worried? In fact, there are two opposing re-contextualisations competing with each other, both using the charity aspect as a key argument. The Royal British Legion approach is serious and un-ironic to the bone: the silence of countless dead souls should scream at our ignorance and make us aware of how much we owe to the brave that risked their lives for our freedom. In case of the first and second World War, I’m absolutely with them, but with the second Irak war based on lies and false propositions, I rather would ask myself for what reasons these soldiers have been sent there in the first place. The Cage Against The Machine approach then is only ironic and has the charity aspect attached to it at a later stage to give it a somehow deeper meaning which it doesn’t have apart from the joke of having a “really” silent night with this track at christmas and another nice provocation in the direction of Simon Cowell. Or is the CATM campaign avoiding trouble with the John Cage Trust that might stage another bizarre copyright battle concerning the “rights” on the silent piece as against Mike Batt in 2002? But then, imagining the awkward comedy of a radio presenter to introduce a number-one hit single which is nothing less then 4 and a half minute of silence, is compelling. The BBC dealt with that situation in a funny way when they broadcasted an orchestral version of 4:33 at the Barbican Center live with the announcer giving a sportscaster-like explanation of what was going on at the silent performance. You can hear excerpts from this broadcast in this UbuWeb podcast about the sound of silence:

In 1959, McCann believed that “stereophonic silence will be twice as silent”, as Life magazine reported about his further plans to press stereo “silent platters”. Maybe two charts-topping silent pieces within 2 months provoke a deeper silence as well. Sometimes I think that John Cages 4:33 deserves more silence. It is probably one of the most discussed and talked-about musical or non-musical pieces ever. It is boring to hear again and again how sound artists use Cage’s silent piece as a reference point and as the only justification for a piece of work. 4:33 is 58 years old now, don’t we have some other fresh ideas we can build upon? Maybe making John Cage’s 4:33 a number-one hit is exactly what it needs to stop this endless academic discourse about the piece: many number-one hits leave a sobering effect after the audience has been polluted with a certain song. These hits suddenly fall into oblivion, as if everybody wants to forget former excesses. This silence might be something that does 4:33 better justice than the endless chatter about it.

Update on 15th Nov.: “2 minute silence” made it to number 20 of the british download charts this week (15th Nov.). James Masterton writes in his chart watch blog: “If we are being honest it reduces the buying of what is supposed to be music to little more than a personal gesture, nobody has bought this “single” based on what it sounds like in preference to others after all, and whilst it is hard to criticise something whose sole aim was to raise money for a good cause you do have to wonder just what the point was really. Was buying this really any better than putting money in a collection tin? I’m not completely sure.” At least it still leaves the possibility for the Cage Against The Machine campaign to score a silent number one hit…

Another update: here is the video with the orchestral version of Cage’s 4:33, as it was mentioned in the Ubuweb podcast…

On Trees and Sounds

The english translation of my essay “On Trees and Sounds” is now available for download on my homepage. I wrote the text for the July/August 2010 issue of the German magazine “Neue Zeitschrift for Musik”. It takes the old question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”, credited to George Berkeley, as a starting point to reflect on various ways to define the term sound. Here are the first two paragraphs:

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” This koan-like question is often quoted in texts on sound and perception, and the answer given is often a counterintuitive no. The argument is as follows: a sound is something created in our brains when our ears perceive the vibration of molecules. Consequently, a sound is nothing but a mental representation in our nervous system, while the sound waves outside our ears are simply part of a larger physical continuum of vibrations. A sound is a product of our sensory apparatus: without ears to hear, no sound.

A similar case can be made in terms of acoustic communication: the production of a sound runs through the classic stages from sound source via medium to recipient. The movement or vibration of a sound source generates sound waves in a surrounding medium such as air, water or solid objects. The sound waves spread concentrically and reach the recipient, who then translates these fluctuations in pressure and density into electrical pulses and perceives them as sounds. If any one of these stages is missing, then there can be no sound. In the absence of a recipient, as in the abovementioned forest, though it is possible to speak in physical terms of a transfer of energy from the falling tree to the surrounding medium, acoustic communication in the sense of an exchange of information does not take place: without a recipient, no transfer of information, and thus no sound.

To read or download the full text please head to my homepage. The text was translated by Nicholas Grindell.

Point of Listening

In an article for Eurozine, Les Back reflects on the importance of listening and takes writer Primo Levi, radioman Studs Terkel and literary traveller Flemming Røgilds as examples for their accurate attentiveness. He concludes that “the value of listening is to keep a bridge open in the present between the past and the future. The listener – as the society’s ear – establishes an ethical link to those who are not heard or who are ignored.” Attentive listening is here descriped as a requisite for an utopia of a better society. Some already speak of an “acoustic turn” since our culture is supposedly changing as it moves from the dominance of the sense of seeing towards the sense of hearing. This can be seen as if the pendulum swings back into direction of the ear since many philosophers are convinced that in the middle ages the sense of hearing was valued much higher than the sense of seeing. Religion priotized the ear as the organ to hear the voice of god. Luther said, the ear would be the crucial organ of a Christian.

The repeated notion of a polarity between the ear and the eye was called an “audiovisual litany” by Jonathan Sterne in his book “The Audible Past“: following this differenciation, hearing is immersive while vision is distancing, hearing is emotional while vision remains rational, hearing tends towards subjectivity while vision tends towards objectivity and so forth. He critizes the theological undertones of this audiovisual polarity. And indeed, listening is a commodity that can be facilitated in many ways. This year, David Miliband declared New Labours death and announced in the New Statesman: “New Labour isn’t new any more. What I’m interested in is next Labour. And the route to next Labour is to be listening.” But apparently listening is also a crucial ability for the salesman. When I was googling the term “point of listening” earlier this year as an acoustic equivalent concept of the films point of view, I came across this passage in “The Point of Listening is Not What You Hear, but the Listening Itself” by Charles H. Green:

“The main reason for listening to customers is to allow the customer to be heard. Really heard. As in, actually being paid attention to by another human being. This kind of listening is listening for the sake of listening. Listening to understand, period—no strings attached, no links back to your product, no refined problem statements. Because that’s what people in relationships, at their best, really do. (…) Relationships are the context for successful selling. Relationships are based on trust; they predispose us to engage in qualitatively different kinds of sales conversations. And listening—unrestricted, unbounded, listening for its own sake—is the way we develop such relationships. And therein lies the paradox. The most powerful way to sell depends on unlinking listening from selling—and instead, just listening. Listening not as a step in a sales process, and not as a search for answers to questions. Listening not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. The point of listening is not what you hear, but the act of listening itself.”

Silent listening, my blogs title, is also spotted as a new trend in communication:

“Silent Listening is an essential business skill. It’s especially important in sales. It shows people that you are fully engaged and care about what is being said and who is delivering the message. It helps us to remember people’s names and intricate details. With Silent Listening, you are also showing compassion and congeniality (Emotional Intelligence). It helps to build strong relationships.”

This is exactly the marketing lingo I hear echoing when you speak to an extremely friendly salesperson on the phone, as I did recently to order my first smart phone. The whole conversation was embellished with cordial remarks and late birthday wishes, only the problem with my contract couldn’t be solved and he promised to call back later which he never did. The feeling that this guy wore a mask of trained friendliness and attentiveness was not leaving me, this big smile painted on his face just to hide the pressure from steep sales figures imposed on him to achieve. But this attitude is not restricted to the sales area, as this quote from “The Listening Point” by Lloyd Steffen proves:

“The ability to listen depends not in the first place on any particular skill or technique, but on a fundamental respect for one’s partner in conversation. Listening is thus a moral act. (…) We are in need of a theology of listening, for a willingness to listen ultimately expresses an attitude of love.”

That the act of listening is becoming something like a religious mantra is also true for the area of sound art and contemporary music since John Cage introduced listening for the sake of listening. I have the feeling that many artists like to use the listening dogma only as an excuse for self-indulgent and hastly produced music or conceptually idle sound art. To refer to listening as a cultural technique that we have to learn, as many do when talking about reduced listening or any other form of hightened perception of music or sounds, often comes with patronizing undertones and feels like an echo of high culture elitism. Today listening is a four-letter word, an empty shell for politicians, priests, salesmen and self-help gurus. The point of listening should be one that fluctuates between times of higher alertness and times of in-attentiveness. I sometimes don’t want to listen, I want my attentiveness to rest and take a break. When I go to a concert or listen to a piece of music, I want my attentiveness to be rewarded with something more than only the experience of listening. Recently I was in a concert with partly unbearably loud passages literally hurting in my ears and wondered about the tolerance showcased by most of the hipster audience. Is it that this attentive and zen-like openness of avant-garde listeners is the new theology of listening, are they caught in the moral act of unrestricted, unbounded engagement? Or is it that if I am tolerable to any kind of sound and music, of whatever loudness, my tolerance reflects nothing else than sheer indifference?

In last weeks Guardian, Tom MacCarthy promotes his upcoming novel “C” with a fascinating reflection on writing, technology and melancholia. By quoting literary critic Laurence Rickels, he elucidates the idea that each technological device thought of as a prosthesis in Freudian terms embodies an absence or loss: “every point of contact between a body and its media extension marks the site of some secret burial”. McCarthy traces this notion back to Alexander Bell who lost a brother in his adolescence: “As a result of this, he made a pact with his remaining brother: if a second one of them should die, the survivor would try to invent a device capable of receiving transmissions from beyond the grave – if such transmissions turned out to exist. Then the second brother did die; and Alexander, of course, invented the telephone.” That the dead can be detectable in airwaves via wireless devices is still widespread today, as can be observed in the 3 CD-set “Okkulte Stimmen – Mediale Musik” with recordings of “unseen intelligences” 1905-2007. McCarthy takes James Joyce’s novel “Finnegans Wake” as a literary example of “a long radio-séance, with the hero tuning into voices of the dead via a radio set at his bedside, or, perhaps, inside his head.” As Joyce scholar Jane Lewty suggests, the “hero” might even be the radio set itself. McCarthy concludes, that the literary work can be comprehended “as a set of transmissions, filtered through subjects whom technology and the live word have ruptured, broken open, made receptive. I know which side I’m on: the more books I write, the more convinced I become that what we encounter in a novel is not selves, but networks; that what we hear in poems is (to use the language of communications technology) not signal but noise. The German poet Rilke had a word for it: Geräusch, the crackle of the universe, angels dancing in the static.”

Tom McCarthy is not only a writer but also an artist who occasionally sets up art projects connected to his ‘semi-fictitious organisation’ called the International Necronautical Society. In this video he talks about a broadcasting project for a Swedish art gallery:

More information about him can be achieved over his webpage “surplus matter“. Also worth reading is Zadie Smith’s comparison of the two novels “Netherland” by Joseph O’Neill and Tom McCarthy’s “Remainder” which is a stunning meditation on reality in a postmodern life that is a good read along with the much-hyped “inception” movie about dreamstates becoming reality.

I recently came across Peter Jukes complaint from last year about UK television drama’s creative decline  “Why Britain can’t do The Wire” and it reads like a template for the current situation in German TV. He blames the centralisation of power and a small clique of people at the public service broadcasters picking their favourite creative staff leading to a stale and mediocre output with a too narrow spectrum of tastes and approaches in drama programmes. Though many aspects of the TV industry in the US are not comparable with the situation in Britain and Germany – after all, HBO, the producer of “The Wire”, is a paid subscription niche broadcaster and has therefore more freedom to invest in cutting edge drama instead of catering for majority interests – it still remains a puzzle why the BBC and the German public service broadcasters produce so little quality in terms of genre and style in the high end range compared to their huge budgets from public funding (though I have to say that I always envied British TV for idiosyncratic programmes like “Skins” or “The Mighty Boosh”).

Now if German TV ever came close to the degree of sophistication achieved in a show like “The Wire”, Dominik Graf’s mini-series “Im Angesicht des Verbrechens”,  premiered at this years Berlinale and broadcasted this spring on German TV, will be the only competitor. The series is obsessed with detail, full of exuberant story lines that revolve around the Russian mafia, German police officers of Jewish ancestry and the human trafficking of sex workers. The 10 episodes come as a highly addictive experience – one can feel that the production of the series already brought the staff to the limits. The production company was bankrupted because of sky-rocketing costs and endless overtime caused unrest in the team. But the endresult marks some kind of turning point in German TV history with the pondering question of: will we ever have something of such quality and intensity again or will we regress after this last effort because it proved to be too expensive and too exhaustive?

The director Dominik Graf might be completely unknown to the english-speaking world since he predominantly works for German TV after some of his earlier brilliant genre feature films failed to find an audience and left him with no place in the German cinematic industry. Now he is responsible for some of the most artistically challenging and still intelligble TV productions of the last 10 or 15 years. Thanks to the magazine “sense of cinema” a first very long interview translated in English is now available with Dominik Graf. One of the key points in this interview is his year long interchange with and criticism of the so-called Berlin School of cinema which is also portraid in the same issue of the magazine in form of a written collage. Two of the Berlin School most important proponents are Christoph Hochhäusler (read this interview in the same magazine or visit his blog “parallel film” written in German) and Christian Petzold (read yet another interview by Marco Abel, this time in the magazine “cineaste“) with whom Graf had a very long email exchange about their different aesthetic approaches.

One main difference between Graf and the Berlin School directors is that Graf stresses the role the screen writer plays for him. The script and the plot are the most important parts in his film making while the Berlin School directors often speak about the image, the sheer moment of watching, being the crucial aspect of their work, often embodied by the work of cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider who shot many of the Berlin School films. It is a dichotomy that was expressed by Christoph Hochhäusler in the email exchange with Petzold and Graf as “experience versus story telling”: the Berlin School clearly favours experience over story telling, in Hochhäuslers words, the story often contaminates the image, uses it and hierarchizes it. Therefore in many films of the Berlin School dialogue is more something like a noise, what is said is not of uttermost importance. Or as the collage article in “sense of cinema” summarizes these ideas: “If one were to formulate the topmost commandment of the Berlin School, it would consist of a proscription of manipulation – of reality and of the observer. From this, everything else follows: a commitment to observation, a prohibition of intervention (which could also mean intervening against false interventions), a concept of representation which wishes to cure actors of acting, the camera of autonomy, montage of becoming authoritarian and narration of lapsing into topoi and clichés. Almost throughout, extra-diegetic music as a means of underscoring images is regarded as illegitimate: original sound. It is the world that should appear: original world. Reality is fetish, its fair representation is “beauty”.

Dominik Grafs answer to this argument would be, as expressed in the interview with “sense of cinema”: “The point is: I first have to invent reality anew for my scenes so that the film, the cinema, will once again be able to resemble a possible reality somewhat more! This is part of my debate with the Berlin School directors.” He also “accuses” the Berlin School directors of some kind of mannerism or formalism: “In my experience—whether this is in music, literature, film, or wherever—if artists foreground their desire to be an artist to such a degree that they feel like they must mark each and every decision with their own will to art, then the result always ends up being less creative. In my view, an active embrace of ‘artistic genius’ has always foreclosed more than it has opened up.” Grafs way of dealing with such questions is to stick to certain genres in which he can work as some kind of guerilla film maker underneath the radar of the main stream “while nevertheless remaining unyielding and resisting any political correctness.” Here lies the reason why Graf is nearly unknown to the international film scene while Petzold and Hochhäusler next to Angela Schanelec and other filmmakers slowly receive some recognition among cineasts. One can even track back the aesthetics of the Berlin School in “The Wire” of which the first three seasons have been photographed by German cinematographer Uta Briesewitz, who started studying film at the DFFB in 1990, just the same film school Petzold, Schanelec and most of the other directors of the Berlin School came from.

The series “Im Angesicht des Verbrechens” is – for the time being – available to watch via you tube:

The vuvuzela is the signation sound of the 2010 FIFA World Cup (as it was already at the 2009 Confed Cup and the Africa Cup 2010). For many this blowing horn is a major annoyance. There are strong arguments against it: it can cause serious damage to ears of bystanders, it drowns the acoustic dynamics of the stadion atmosphere in a constant drone of a dissonant cluster, football players have trouble communicating on the pitch and the live commentary of the sports reporters is hard to understand. There is already a free plug-in out to filter the TV’s audio signal to get rid of the vuvuzela frequencies. But demands of critics to ban the vuvuzela from the stadions have been denied by FIFA president Sepp Blatter: “I have always said that Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound. I don’t see banning the music traditions of fans in their own country. Would you want to see a ban on the fan traditions in your country?” (according to Wikipedia)

More left-wing commentators followed this line of thinking and suspected behind the vuvuzela-criticism an eurocentric and bourgeois resentment, because the sound comes, sociologically speaking, from the lower classes, from the under-privileged. It appears to be politically correct to talk in favour of the vuvuzela. But is this really true? First, a very similar plastic horn or trumpet has been used in Mexican football stadions since the 70s. Only in 2001 the South-African company Masincedane Sport started mass-producing the vuvuzela and claimed it is of African origin, which is highly disputable. Nevertheless supporters of the South-African campaign for organizing the World Cup used the vuvuzela and finally helped them getting the bid. The vuvuzela was something like a unique selling proposition for the campaign. This leads to another aspect of the problem: noise is always tied to power, writes Garret Keizer writes in his book, “The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise”. Those who make the biggest noise are usually the ones with power, literally and metaphorically. Keizers writes (mainly from an american perspective):

“Make a list of the people most likely to be affected by loud noises (though not all noise is loud), either because of their greater vulnerability to the effects of loud sound or because of their greater likelihood of being exposed to it, and you come up with a set of members whose only common features are their humanity and their lack of clout. Your list will include children (some of whom, according to the World Health Organization, “receive more noise at school than workers from an 8-hour work day at a factory”), the elderly (whose ability to discriminate spoken speech from background noise is generally less than that of younger contemporaries), the physically ill (cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, for example, are often more sensitive to noise), racial minorities (blacks in the United States are twice as likely, and Hispanics 1.5 times as likely, as whites to live in homes with noise problems), neurological minorities (certain types of sound are especially oppressive to people with autism), the poor (more likely than their affluent fellow citizens to live next to train tracks, highways, airports), laborers (whose political weakness has recently been manifested in weakened occupational safety standards), prisoners (noise, like rape, being one of the unofficial punishments of incarceration), members of the Armed Forces (roughly one in four soldiers returning from Iraq has a service-related hearing loss) — or simply a human being of any description who happens to have less sound-emitting equipment than the person living next to her (who might for his part have car speakers literally able to kill fish) and no feasible way to move.”

The New York Times wrote that “Mr. Keizer thinks it is condescending cant to assume that the poor are fundamentally noisier than the rich. And among his most interesting ideas is his linking of noise with later antisocial behavior.” “You can judge a person’s clout — his or her social and political standing — by witnessing how much racket he or she must regularly endure. Those who lack silence in their lives tend to be the politically weak, whether the poor (investment bankers don’t live near runways) or laborers or soldiers or prisoners or children. In creating noise that others must live with, we display our contempt for those weaker than ourselves. Hear us roar; eat our exhaust.” From this premise, I doubt the vuvuzela can be seen as an instrument of the politically weak as it has been suggested by some commentators. Can anyone from the townships of South Africa afford a ticket for a WM match? Or are the football fans from Europe blowing the vuvuzelas representing a lower class despite the high price for travelling to Africa to watch some football matches? I doubt so. Uppermost, the vuvuzela represents nothing else as money making tool and a win-win situation for the manufacturer: According to Wikipedia, “demand for earplugs to protect from hearing loss during the World Cup outstripped supply, with many pharmacies running out of stock. Neil van Schalkwyk, manufacturer of the plastic vuvuzela, began selling earplugs to fans.” And maybe the political correct favouring of the vuvuzela here in the west shows nothing else than an underlying guilt-complex of a white elite and eventually even a twisted form of a reversed rascist resentiment.

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