Saturday, September 15, 2007

I Eat Cannibals

From 1994

Why listen to Toto Coelo?

Toto Coelo appears to be a group of 5 girls that had two hits in Australia, “I Eat Cannibals (Part One)” (which I bought at the time) and “Dracula’s Tango (Sucker For Your Love)” in 1983. My re-acquaintance with this group occurred when last I saw a 3-person drag show in inner city Sydney with one of the performances choreographed to the second of these two songs. Moved as I was, I bought their album (Man o’ War) when I next happened to be browsing through the old vinyl in the back aisles of Gould’s Book Shop in Newtown. In writing this essay I want to focus on “I Eat Cannibals (Part One)”, though I also have the rest of the songs on that album in my ears, particularly “Dracula’s Tango (Sucker For Your Love)” and “Hey Rajah”.

In listening to Toto Coelo, I’m posed with a problem. I’m meant to read this work in a particular way, hear it in a particular way, dismiss it in a particular way. Yet I love “I Eat Cannibals (Part One)”. Rather than work backwards from this position, starting from a place that inherently has little to do with our actual listening, I want to start at a place, perhaps (for the object of this essay) to one side of (and at times between) the speakers cast up at ear level. I want to alternate between forgetting and problematising the pre-judgement that defines this sort of song as not worth the time of listening to it. And rather than coming to a point of making some sort of cheap academic justification for liking trash, I want to find out why this song can stir me (who’s been through the academic process, who knows the rules and understands the game) and make me find some sort of aesthetic, cultural and sonic resonance for it, rather than a simple sub-cultural niche for it.

There’s nothing about the music (as text, as some sort of cultural form) per se of this song that should necessarily make us be particularly interested in this song as art. It doesn’t seem to me (a musical illiterate) particularly inventive as a musical form. The melody is not striking (except as a hook), the rhythm is not in itself very complex (in context of the time, it figures in a particular way, but I may return to that later), the lyrics are scarcely “deep” (though again, they’re points in a larger mosaic which figure significantly). It’s a slightly unusual variation on the pop song form, in that it ends with a lyrical extension and variation on the verse/chorus content of the rest of the song, but this in itself is not strikingly unusual.

It’s from this point that I want to start pondering the issue of what is music these days, whether in fact we listen to music, how recording has changed our listening, and how there is, at one level, very little difference between the kind of listening involved in any (recorded) electronic music and any other recorded music. Wanting to draw a long bow, I want to show that Toto Coelo, for instance, are direct inheritors of Stockhausen’s initiatives. Not only this, but that they also contribute significantly to the playing out of recording and electronic sound art since Stockhausen, and to the critical question of where technology and music are post recorded sound.

Let’s add up the incongruities. For a start, there’s something very peculiar about this ensemble of 5 women (if we can believe it’s 5 women - I’ll discuss this below) singing the peculiarly terse extended metaphor of “I Eat Cannibals” (which in fact, as “performed” in the recorded song, gets abbreviated to “I Eat Cannibal”). (Is this in fact a metaphor? What does this line do, as realised in a pop song, when it seems to be more, or something slightly different to, a metaphor? After all, the line is not strictly analogous to an act that these girls would be referring to, though there may be some direct referentiality in it.) These 5 women, as they are represented (visually, through their own singing styles, and through the production of their voices) as being a tackily artificially suburban recreated version of some notion of the cutting edge of the New Wave (after all, their hair stylist is credited on the back of the album).

Furthermore, we don’t even know if it’s 5 women, whether it’s these 5 women (i.e. the 5 women in the video and on the album cover), where they were recorded, whether they were recorded together, whether in fact it’s only one woman multitracked and electronically treated. The women’s voices are all treated in a way that refuses to place them geographically. In fact, despite the mixing and multitracking of the voices, the very process is resisting any conventional sense of the ensemble in the work. There are some choral similarities, but no choir really sounds like this, where there are too many jumps between song styles, song modes, and sonic “locations”.

These women are also singing about things and in a particular way which is not particularly typical (though it’s more common now) for the western white woman in pop songs. Yet these desires are articulated in an exceptionally false and artificial way. There’s no “truth” pointed to in these words. There’s no referent. As the strangely twisted title metaphor conveys, the world which the lyrics points to belongs nowhere in actuality. This in itself is strangely arch and fetishistic. Pop song lyrics, sung by girlies, that not only don’t match up with girlie aspirations, and don’t match up with any sense of a “real” referent.

Already, built into the work, comes a sense of its lack of authenticity. Already the sense of the real is being eroded. What happens to the performed event in this? Is there a referent of live performance, of musical ensemble production (as opposed to recording production)?

The recording itself captures and highlights certain performative elements of the voice (certain husky tones, grunts that regularly punctuate the work). As a result, there is a privileging of vocalisations that are not normally admissible in the formal performed world of live music. In a sense, there’s an attempt to render strange, or to fetishise, something (the voice) which in a single abstracted performance has the potential (and in this case actually did and does) to become extremely familiar in all its modulations and exigencies.

Added to this is the odd location for much of the instruments and chorus in a large, cold, artificial-sounding space, which can’t be specifically oriented. At the time, this space was in fact reserved for less lighthearted and “girlie” music, such as that of Joy Division, Public Image Limited, XTC, Killing Joke, U2 and so on.

As a result, there’s no sense of the referent, rather, a sense of enjoyment of the technology itself. It’s hard to place a Band in this, or any performed event. Who is playing these strangely mechanical drums (I wouldn’t know, just from listening, and particularly in the context of the technology of the time, whether these drums were programmed, or looped, or actually played discursively across time and placed on multitrack tape accordingly)? Where do the tiger-like roars fit? What position in the “space” do the girlies fall into?

Through this sense of the artificial, it’s very hard to start making a distinction between (recorded) electronic music and any other sort of recorded music. Aside from the fact that it’s all mediated electronically, the point with this sort of production is that there’s no such thing as a real event or performance to which any of this can point. Not even the real time playing of any instrument - even the real time vocalisations - can be identified as authentic, because we can’t match them up with anything within or without the recording that could possibly ground them or date them or contextualise them as a physical event. However, we can contextualise them not only within the world of the recording, but also within the world of our own listening. Here we very much start to hear something which is not to do with the merits or otherwise of this synthetic sound over another supposedly real world sound. All of these sounds are unreal in the sense that, as we hear them, they are not physically what they appear to refer to. There is no real ensemble of women’s voices here from these speakers. But there still is a real sound, which has in it the reference to real women’s voices, but which is yet entirely different. This is an electronic sound, with its own physical properties as bestowed by components, electronic signal, physical environment of the reproducing mechanics.

In this context, then, where there is no real time position for any of the originary musical and sonic sources in our own listening, where does music end up? There of course can be no music in this environment when no instruments are making music with us at our listening time. There can be no music when vocalists are not merging their own voices with our physical environment, and when they cannot shape their voices with and as a result of their presence with us. Our concept of music as a live lively thing cannot hold under the weight of technology apparently pinning sound down to a time and a place (which of course in itself is a nonsense, if not simply for the fact that none of the things that are in the technology in terms of sound are there at the same time as each other).

We could say that this creates a “new music” of sound, and certainly in some performative or behavioural ways we could cast recorded popular music in this way. Its position in our living space, and its way of interacting with us, is very similar to the way live music interacts (albeit in different contexts), not to mention the “music of sound” best exemplified by someone like Brian Eno. Yet to look at (or more properly, to listen to) what this “new music” is in physicality with us in those situations, it’s hard to see how we can start positing a new music. There is no way we can extract any performative element from within the music, there is no performance apart from that of the electronics (which in itself is highly significant, but which I argue is not musical in the live performed sense). We can say that there is performance in the reference articulated in such music, but that performance is back in the process, it’s not with us now, and in fact never really was (except as discrete events sliced into the technology). What remains is lively, and live, but live as a technological event injected with electronics and lived-with by us listeners.
Taken from this perspective, (recorded) electronic music becomes just one of the packets placed into this technological performative event. The packet brings with it a certain set of preconditions and listening modulations, yet the listening conditions and position themselves do not significantly change. What Toto Coelo seem to do is to bring this event back into our own listening grasp. They seem to resist the notion that there is some sort of purification or purer artistic state possible through the abstracted world of electronic sounds. This world in itself is ours (as listeners) as lived with. The notion of the cutting edge, which is so strongly asserted in the music of someone such as Stockhausen, seems to be relegated to fairly overambitious rhetoric when faced with the reality that, in the end, technology takes us no further than our own listening.
©Timothy James Horton 1994

Man O'War substantially repackaged as I Eat Cannibals & Other Tasty Trax with all original and some additional tracks, available at
"I Eat Cannibals (Part 1)", "Dracula's Tango (Sucker For Your Love)", "Hey Rajah" available at iTunes Store

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