Friday, February 1, 2008

Roq and rol?

...look familiar?

The pose that Iggy Pop struck for the cover of "The Idiot" is mimicked from the expressionist painter Erich Heckel's work: Roquairol. The album cover photo was taken by Andy Kent, bass player for "You am I".

Erich Heckel was a German painter and printmaker, and a founding member of the Die Brücke (translated as "The Bridge") group which existed from 1905 to 1913. Heckel and others members of Die Brücke aimed to make a "bridge" between traditional neo-romantic German painting and modern expressionist painting.

The cover pose of "The Idiot" gives us further insight into the artistic work inside.

"The Idiot" as a work of Expressionism

Expressionism is an artistic movement or classification characterized by willful distortion of reality for emotional effect. In 2oo1, Bowie said of Expressionism, "It was an artform that mirrored life not by event but by mood. And that is where I felt my work was going"

One reality that is distorted for emotional effect on "The Idiot" is ambiance. The human ear is a clever device which can discern sound origin, motion, and physical volume. If you were to clap your hands in your bedroom and then clap your hands in a gymnasium, listening carefully each time, your ears would tell you most of the basic information your eyes do. You would hear the room size, wall hardness and whether or not there was something soft and absorptive (a bed) present. Most listeners hear ambiance on a sound recording on an unconscious level. Ambiance defines the acoustic space where the musicians performed; they have to exist somewhere. Ambiance on recordings is created during tracking and / or mixing. It can be captured by the microphones in the room or added to / created with an effect. Bowie (as producer) and the engineers manipulated this facet of reality to give the listener feelings of dread, coldness, desolation and unconsciously force the listener to fathom the world in which these performers existed.

Ambiance is most noticeable on impulse sounds, like the aforementioned hand clap. Impulse sounds excite the room briefly and end quickly, leaving the listener hearing only the room's response. (The Impulse response is used to characterize "systems" other than rooms.) Drums are terrific impulse sources and offer the best way to hear the ambiance on a recording. "Nightclubbing" is the track with the most obvious example of distorted ambiance.

A second distortion of reality used within "The Idiot" is dissonance. Dissonance is present most overtly on "Mass Production" and "Funtime" and is used to make the listener feel that something is going wrong, but since the "mistakes" remained on the record, the listener wonders what kind of musician would purposely do this? Who is in control here?

The third distortion of reality present on "The Idiot" is literally distortion; the distortion on the piano instrument. Normally, you could not pass distortion off as an indicator of expressionism, but since the piano is such a foundational instrument, its sound known to all, distorting it adds to the feeling that something is not quite right.

"The Idiot" as a Bridge

Wikipedia research on Erich Heckel's Die Brücke finds the following: "Die Brücke aimed to eschew the prevalent traditional academic style and find a new mode of artistic expression, which would form a bridge (hence the name) between the past and the present. They responded both to past artists ... as well as contemporary international avant-garde movements. The group developed a common style based on vivid color, emotional tension, violent imagery, and an influence from primitivism. "

Bowie said, "When I was in Berlin, I'd find old woodblock prints from the Brücke school, in small shops, at unbelievable prices, and to buy like that was wonderful."

It seems as if "The Idiot" would be quite at home among the works of Die Brücke. Iggy's work with the Stooges can be described as primitive. Iggy's many whoops, screams and hollers, his violent stage antics and the band's musical limitations drove their knuckle-dragging sound. For any Iggy Pop / Stooges fan in 1977, "The Idiot" was a massive departure. Bowie and Iggy's vision for "The Idiot" was to bridge Iggy's primal past to the 1977 present (and future) where bands like Kraftwerk and NEU! were creating mechanical and electrical music.


Anonymous said...

Man, you're writing some great and interesting stuff.

Malena said...

This is great! Thanks for posting the painting, I had trouble remembering it.