SOAP OPERA SUITE / SNAKE OIL SYMPHONY
This recording (only available in LP form) can be ordered for $16 (includes postage):
Two Tape Compositions
"Found sound" or tape‑composition is an increasingly popular technique among avant‑garde composers as well as "New Wave" musicians. As a rule, however, such sound elements recorded off the radio or in the street are used primarily for their tonal or rhythmic values. Their original significance tends to be suppressed in the process, especially after the sound elements have been run through the elaborate array of technical processes available in the modern recording studio. In the two works presented here, Daniel Steven Crafts has proceeded in an almost diametrically opposed direction. While making often ingenious use of the musical qualities in the sounds and speech he takes as his raw material, he concentrates primarily on their meaning, so that each fragment of spoken or musical "discourse" is made to comment on the others, and vice versa. In doing this, moreover, he relies on only the simplest of recording techniques.
Both pieces on this album rely heavily on "found" sound. The Snake Oil Symphony includes everything from a salesman's instructional record, by way of old science‑fiction movie soundtracks, to fragments of rock music; where the Soap Opera Suite, as its name implies, consists mostly of snippets of speech from Daytime TV. But instead of flattening these elements into a typical minimalist mush, Crafts has painstakingly organized and overlaid them in a way that exploits their semantic as well as their rhythmic value‑their meaning as well as their sound.
Crafts casts a cold ear, as it were, on the banalities of the mass media, takes them apart and reorganizes them so as to ''defamiliarize" them and thereby reveal their essential content. In this he picks up the trail of the avant‑garde of the nineteen‑teens and ‑twenties‑-the Dadas, the Futurists, and other radical Modernists. Like them, Crafts is "experimental" in technique but does not limit himself to doggedly running one or two technical innovations through every possible permutation without regard for content. Again, Daniel Steven Crafts, like the early Modernists, actively engages with contemporary mass culture. But he does not simply contemplate this mass culture; instead, he sets out to subvert it. Devo once billed their music as "the sound of things falling apart." Crafts is not content to listen to "things" ("a mighty symphony of prosperity") fall apart. He wants to help them along, (with a view to making room for something better).
SNAKE OIL SYMPHONY
The first three "movements" of the Symphony establish the basic themes, along with an underlying rhythmic structure that crops up again and again throughout, as the tempo and pitch of phrases are used to create a sort of melody.
Part One presents the surface reality of society as an endless movement of buying and selling, through the use of clips from a sales instruction talk, ads and so on. Woven through this is an ironic verbal‑musical motif: "Now you can have this amazing new symphony, right in your own home," (which parodies cheap TV commercials), with piano notes underscoring the spoken pitches. The word "symphony" refers not only to a single work of art, but in the greater sense to "a mighty symphony of prosperity" (i.e. present social and cultural institutions). With the same phrase the composer is also letting the listener know that he knows his own work, too, is a commodity on the culture market.
Part Two is built around a multiple pun on the words “alien" and "alienation." "Alienation" originally meant "sale." Marx used the terms to describe the way people give up control over their own lives in working for wages to create a society that "stands over and against them as an alien and hostile power." Crafts shows capitalism up for what it really is‑-a B‑grade horror flick.
In Part Three, irony is piled on irony in a kind of "allegro of cynicism." Voices of hysterical angst and ominous, barely‑controlled fury, both provide a counterpoint to the "sales" motif and show how such “negative" emotions are now successfully merchandised along with everything else. The "symphony of prosperity" has begun to falter.
Parts Four and Five further develop and elaborate these themes. Part Four with its monster obbligato, concludes with a codetta which might be called a duet for baritone and psychobabbler. Part Five steps up the level of anxiety with a dreamlike, echoey mosaic of “emergency" sounds and paranoid whispers. But even the crisis is turned, in the absence of genuine radical opposition, into fuel for the system, driving it forward.
Part Six picks up the music and rhythmic motifs from the early segments and elaborates them through a mixture of pre‑recorded, direct‑electronic and "live" sound (chiefly solo piano). The piano part is constructed entirely from fragments of the main theme ("Now you can have..."). This is perhaps the most traditionally musical section.
Part Seven, the finale, reintroduces the main verbal themes and summarizes them, accelerating out of a 6/8 rhythm into a powerful ostinato in which a rapid repetition of the upbeat "Now you can have" is slammed into counterpoint with the staccato roar of "You cannot." Without false optimism, Crafts delineates the cracks running through the edifice of modern society, just in case a listener or two might happen along with some dynamite.
SOAP OPERA SUITE
The opening movement of the Suite, "The Essence of Melodrama," is just that. Begining with an hysterical, threatening voice, it takes the listener on a high‑speed tour through all the major themes of daytime TV serials‑martial and sexual strife, alcoholism and drugs, career problems, crime, neurosis, unwanted pregnancy, deception, disease and death.
Part Two, "The Art of Listening," starts off sounding like a conversation but quickly dissolves into a hilarious, jump‑and‑jolt firecracker string of non‑sequiturs out of which gradually emerge three interwoven themes‑sex, selling and religion. The religion of sex, the sex of selling, the selling of religion...
"Living in Fragments," the third section, is the most emphatically rhythmic section of the Suite‑-patterns of quick flashes from ads and programs seguing into a brisk "allegro for cliche and orchestra." The section ends with a series of cheerful double‑entendres revealing the current of prurient excitement that flows just beneath the surface of even the "straightest" soaps.
Listeners who have been baffled up to now can relax with Part Four, "The Conversation." Here the composer has synthesized the entire history of a typical soap‑opera relationship out of snippets of phrases from dozens of shows, assembling them into one continuous man/woman dialogue which takes us through the phases of flirtation, exploration, consummation, misunderstanding, argument, flight, incipient breakup, breakup, nostalgia, attempted reconciliation and (literally) "starting over."
If anyone believes at this point that Crafts has gone sentimental on us, the following “Brief Interlude” with its bizarre and alarming telephone conversation, should correct them.
In the fifth and concluding segment, entitled, "The Human Condition," Crafts once again recapitulates themes from the rest of the Suite while revealing his hidden critical agenda. "Work" (or rather, the idea of work, since except for the activities of doctors and nurses, work is almost never shown in soap operas) is juxtaposed to the fantasy‑life of the serials.
The composer organizes his material to show that vicarious identification and role‑playing are not limited to the soap‑opera life, as "everything that was once lived has moved away into its representation." I guarantee that after listening to this record, you'll never be able to watch TV again in quite the same way. You may also have trouble listening to yourself using the habitual phrases to talk about your feelings‑-especially "love." So much the better. As one of the rebels of May '68 put it: "The blue of the sky will remain grey as long as it is not reinvented."