Saturday, 7 October 2017

Subsongs by subsong: Off Off On

In which I write about the songs on the subsongs album, in order, song by subsong.

'Off Off On' is one of two songs on the album which harks back to Super 8 films I made in the 1990s in Australia. The other song is 'Periscopic', which I will come to eventually. 'Off Off On' takes its title and refrain from a film of the same title I made in 1992, embedded above for reference. The main text of the lyric, however, comes from another film made in 1995, 'Difficult Beauty'. 

The phrase "off off on", came from an Aboriginal man I saw on a bus in Melbourne. He was sitting on the back seat flicking the side of his face and repeating the words "off" and "on", over and over. He was clearly disturbed by something which I couldn't see, or probably know, but this performance of his disturbance seemed significant of something to me. It's impossible to think of the disturbance of the individual without thinking of it against the background of societal, cultural, and political contexts, and in the case of indigenous Australians the context is all too clear: a couple of centuries of abuse of indigenous people at the hands of colonialism. Whether this is being directly played out in the mental health and behaviour of any one individual must remain a moot point, and not to dismiss or diminish the distress of the individual, but to shift emphasis from the neoliberal tendency to individuate, is to acknowledge the culpability of the historical colonial context. The film's voice-over text placed this man's words alongside lines appropriated in part from Paul Virilio's Aesthetics of Disappearance, a dromological analysis of what it feels like to live in the society of speed. In the case of the film, this involves a retreat to a kind of hermetic claustrophobic perceptual state.

The text from 'Difficult Beauty', in retrospect, seems quite compatible with the idea of the mental state of the individual being determined by society. Part of the soundtrack was a text which I'd given to three people to record themselves performing; it is this text which forms the basis for the lyric, the extract below illustrates its original form, the instructions to the performers was simply to perform it as they saw fit.

that     with    with
with    how     how
what   what   with
when  .           why     what   .           .
where .           with    with
with    that     why
how     this      with
with    and     this
what   with    and
with    that     that
why     what   with
with    with    this
this      this      what
and     and     when

that     that     with
It would be easy, and perhaps accurate, to describe it as a text playing with words attempting, but failing, to describe a situation, text as symptomatic if you like. Returning to this text twenty-one years later, it seemed to me that socio-political conditions have accelerated to a point where the performance of inarticulate absurdity could become a perversely reasonable response to the world: the text still resonates. I fine-tuned its shape, added words like 'chaos' and 'form', 'truth' and 'justice', notions that seem to have become even more pressing and precarious. I also played with the alliteration of 'w' words like 'warp', 'woof', 'weft', and 'weave'. All of this performed in deadpan expressionless speech. The weaving wayward baselines were added late on in its recording.

This was one of the earliest songs written for the album and it went through a number of iterations and instrumentations, at the end of this post is a link to an alternative version performed accompanied only by 12 string electric guitar.

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