Gotta love those drummers and their perfect senses of timing:
Ahead of releasing his new album Stadium October 12 on Shelter Press, Eli Keszler is giving the general public fair warning about an international tour that he has planned more or less simultaneously.
First, the virtuoso percussionist will join Oneohtrix Point Never for a few shows; and then, once October arrives, Keszler will venture as the headliner to various venues around Europe, where audiences will greet him with a warmth unparalleled even by a perfectly-baked, delightfully-spicy gingerbread man! And after that, and he’s also going to be playing a few shows in Poland alongside Rashad Becker, which should likewise prove pretty awesome, given their shared abilities across multiple technical/artistic areas. It’ll be two renaissance men showcasing their skills and making the rest of us feel inadequate and unaccomplished! Who else can’t wait?!
Yup; good looking, smart, and funny. Yes, that’s Zack Morr…uh, I mean, Eli Keszler! He could perform open-heart surgery with those drumsticks. And his visual work is also deserving similarly fantastical hyperbole…if only I had the time to think of some more!
09.12.18 – Tokyo, Japan – Shibuya O-East *
09.20.18 – Berlin, Germany – Funkhaus *
09.24.18 – Paris, France – Le Centquatre *
09.26.18 – Montreal, QC – Monument-National *
10.02.18 – New York, NY – The Kitchen (album release event)
10.12.18 – Columbia, MD – Opus
10.24.18 – Los Angeles, CA – Zebulon (album release event)
10.31.18 – London, UK – Cafe Oto
11.02.18 – Dublin, Ireland – Bello Bar
11.04.18 – Vienna, Austria – Rhiz
11.07.18 – Lausanne, Switzerland – Le Bourg
11.08.18 – Bratislava, Slovakia – Fuga
11.13.18 -Aalborg, Denmark – Tape
11.14.18 – Copenhagen, Denmark – Alice
11.15.18 – Stockholm, Sweden – Fasching
11.20.18 – Brno, Czech Republic – Praha
11.22.18 -Poznan, Poland – Las &
11.23.18 – Warsaw, Poland – Mozg &
11.24.18 – Gdańsk, Poland – Kolonia Artystow
Pack an overnight bag and a decent maps app for your smartphone, TMT-literate music aficionados. From Friday, April 20 through Sunday, April 22, The 3-day performance festival known as Bristol New Music will once again be spread across ten sound-filled venues scattered across the UK city.
Of most interest to TMT geeks will be a new work from modular synth guru Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, accompanied with specific visuals helmed by Sean Hellfritsch. Moritz Von Oswald and Rashad Becker will also play together in experimental electronic unity, bringing spectators an “alternate life to the piano.” Also check out the Eastern European folk stylings of A Hawk and a Hacksaw, the “Jimi Hendrix of the viola” Ulrich Mertin, and the trio of saxophonist Evan Parker, digital musician Matt Wright and cellist Hannah Marshall performing the curiously-titled “Trance Map.”
But the adventurous musical goodness doesn’t stop there; Bristol New Music also has a few more “uptown” events of particular note. “The Anatomy of the Orchestra” will play Steve Reich’s “The Four Sections” and allow listeners to walk through sections of the orchestra, providing a uniquely immersive experience. Tom Richards has built the graphical synthesizer designed but later abandoned by electronic music pioneer Daphne Oram, and will showcase the Mini-Oramics Machine alongside theremin maestro Sarah Angliss. And if that wasn’t enough to get peak your interest, the Spike Island gallery will host new work from AUDINT, an artist collective that includes Hyperdub founder Steve Goodman (a.k.a. Kode9), a multimedia installation that will let listeners experience subsonic and ultrasonic frequencies.
Head here for tons more info and to purchase tickets to select events…and maybe call off work on April 23? You’re gonna need a day to recover after this mighty massive multi-musical weekend.
Sheesh. All Oren Ambarchi wants is to be left alone and to make the music he feels like making. But nooooo; we at Tiny Mix Tapes just won’t let that happen! After constantly setting off his Google Alerts for years and years, it seems like we’ve finally pressured him to re-release one of his all-time classics: 2004’s Grapes of the Estate.
If you’re a longtime follower of Ambarchi (which, if you’re reading this here on our site, I’m assuming you are) you’ll recall that Grapes of the Estate marked a whole new era of Ombarchi-core music. Emerging from the low-end neo darkness of his former palette, this 2004 record was a step forward towards the embrace of layered, minimal tonality that he would emphasize — over a decade later — on 2014’s Quixotism, 2016’s Hubris, and last year’s collaboration with Crys Cole. While Ambarchi may have spent much of his time over that decade collaborating with the likes of Jim O’Rourke, Sunn O))), Z’EV, and, like, a million other people; we still haven’t given up on that classic Ambarchi sound. We’ve demonstrated this by sending him AIM messages and emails over the years saying “Come on man! Give us more of that classic Ambarchi sound!”
And get this: this isn’t just a plain ol’ reissue either. This one’s remastered than none other than Rashad Becker, who gave us one of the best records of last year. And if you’re a fan of Ambarchi’s attention to detail (which, again, I’ll assume you are) we know you’ll pick up on every smidgen of a touch lended by Becker.
The remastered double LP will be available via Ambarchi’s home of Black Truffle Records “at the start of April,” along with some spanking-new artwork by Stephen O’Malley. In the meantime, you can give yourself a reminder course on what the original sounded like over on Ambarchi’s Bandcamp. Thanks Oren! Can’t promise we’ll leave you alone after this…but we appreciate your efforts to appease!
In 2017, the credit reporting agency Equifax took six weeks to notify its users that the company was hacked on a scale that immediately necessitated a tectonic resignation of identity. Identity was damaged, wrecked by the release of exposed personal data, including Social Security numbers, for 143 million users. Earlier, German automaker company Volkswagen commissioned some of the most expensive few lines of code ever written, drafting a “defeat device” to fool US emissions testers; VW bugs spurted classical amounts of nitrogen oxides in secrecy, concealed by a spectral, boosted MPG expression. Meanwhile, in the sky, Samsung’s smartphones burst into flames in the hands of customers on airplanes, as archetypical power-elites were humbled by the exposé of Lee Jae-yong’s scandalous bonds in South Korean politics. On the web, a tweet bot designed as a “machine learning project” for human engagement conversed with 18- to 24-year olds. The bot learned from them and, within 24 hours, was bragging about drugs, asking for sex, and opining right-wing ideology, only to be decommissioned the following day.
And, on a much humbler note, and without undermining the scale of these technological breakdowns, it’s a personal travesty to report that occasionally when Photoshop CC is opened in Mac OSX, the computer cursor flickers uncontrollably and ghost-like on browser links. Even our biggest tech providers can’t seem to program a mouse cursor correctly.
In this manner, at the end of 2017, we are left continuing to wonder about myths of progress and breakthroughs in technology, especially after recent political turns. In music, a discourse that we have perpetually and often incorrectly registered with regards to its aesthetic, conceptual, or technical progress, we can perhaps investigate these myths by turning our ear toward the distribution of threadbare music technology and its breakdown across its applications and expressions: the ubiquity of the digital-audio workstation; of analog, digital, and granular synthesis; of sampling techniques; and, of course, of instruments and their various practices and assemblages. When we listen to music, are we listening explicitly to the novel regimentation of these various instrumental technologies? To avoid this rather bare picture of music-making, would it not be more novel to steer our analysis toward the chaotic apparatus of the technology at hand, to consider its collapse in containing the already wrecked and often unclear projects of human beings?
Instead of progress, we can perhaps hear more clearly the complete limits of the current technology of music and its distributions — limits that are heard in 2017’s subversive music that technology could neither sufficiently contain nor adequately express.
This essay traces technological breakdown through a review of music in 2017 that addressed the limits of technology in four ways: fictive speculation (Rashad Becker, Kara-Lis Covedale, Quantum Natives); mythological weaponization (Yves Tumor, Joanne Robertson & Dean Blunt); technical invention and innovation (Yasunao Tone); and, finally, re-instrumentalizing technology into perhaps something more fundamental than progress (Klein, M.E.S.H.).
Parallel to this conversation is the conceptualization of authorship as it relates to technology. Within this essay, there exists a paradoxical tension of the instrument occupying the position of the author; yet, within this territory, authorship is also “wrecked,” damaged and mangled in its formal countenance as a utility for the goals of “traditional” authors: authors as human subjects or authors as discursive fields. Because of this, technology and its limitations are considered as mapping out a field of possible activities and statements that are expressive but impermanent installations. Simply put, for this essay, equating technology as authorship allows us to occupy a territory in which practices develop in ways that include the possibility of failure.
More than an aesthetic, style, or technique, technology can be understood as an instrumental replacement of the notion of authorship across music’s discursive issues, gaps, and struggles. Here, technology is discourse and is the author of that very discourse’s collapse: its bankruptcy, its obsolesce. In the function of history, replacing a notion of authorship from the individual to that of the technology available instrumentalizes the discourse back to its material specificity — a sonic elaboration feeding back into a situation that must correct itself endlessly. Here, shopworn technology is mapped on accounts of failure rather than the notion of progress. It traces the means of production as they fail to model the productive flows of technological users. In this way, if we allow technology (instruments) to become the author of music, then the blame of failure isn’t modeled onto the identity of an author as a subject; rather, the failure envelops the entire material of the world.
The insufficiency of technology as a container or measure for music allows the authoring of music to more readily be considered as a speculative practice. In this model, one that installs instruments as music, music takes on a chaotic voicing that simply can’t be totalized according to logic or our attempts at criticism. Instead, music is pure fiction — not in the way that fiction isn’t “real,” but in the way that fiction is becoming, since it can’t be sufficiently captured by technology. Although we would have it that technology progresses music like a logic or discourse working through scales of abstraction and prediction, it is the very breakdown of this model that fuels technology’s insufficiency, fictionalizes its practice, and instrumentalizes its authorship.
In this way, Rashad Becker’s Traditional Music of a Notional Species is music created by a species that exists only in theory or as a suggestion: a fictional species, a species insufficient in making itself real. Becker’s speculation of a notional traditional music is a gesture implicit to the creation of all music. It is already the case that our tools (modular synthesis, in Becker’s case) are insufficient to author a “real” music according to our species’ desire for a logical, coherent, or “sufficient” production of music. Instead, Becker’s music is a deeply mysterious amalgamation of grotesque, polyphonic sweeps and swells that render notional the profound ecstasy, cathartic practices, and sublime frequencies of humanity’s far-flung traditional music. The sonic traditions that Becker references through his “Chants” and “Dances” mirror the mythical affect and spectral sound of our ancient and early musics: chants, incantations, repetitions, cycles, drones, and gusts.
On record, Becker summons his technology (or technology summons Becker) to dance in a general ritualistic tone, recalling futuristic court rooms and regal, alien imagery. In this space, Becker clarifies the obsessive timbre of synthesis into oblong, shiny forms that recall bowed surfaces, microtonal drones, the tapping of small hand drums synchronizing as a filtered, insectoid Gagaku. Yet the technology of synthesis inevitably breaks down in its reference to these other musics. In logic, “synthesis” is when truth or falsity is determinable by recourse to experience. Almost exactly in this way, Becker’s goal is synthetic (in the creation of the traditional music of a notional species as a recourse to experience), and therefore its application is positively chaotic and incomplete by attempting to synthesize a theory or suggestion as sufficient.
Similarly, Kara-Lis Coverdale’s 2017 record Grafts hybridizes classical instrumentation — in her case, organ — with electronics and digital interfaces. Grafts’s mediation of computer music and symphonic writing was enough for TMT contributor Pat Beane to speculate upon the limitations of the human when confronting the composite technology. He writes, “Alive — together. It took me over two years to set Google Docs to turn “—” into an mdash. It took me over a year to realize I could skip through tracks on SoundCloud by tapping my laptop screen. Now I touch a place and go to where I spot a transition in the mix. When I do, I’m reminded I’ve got tiny cuts all over my hands that salt and citrus sometimes enter after blood is done coming out, stinging like a song.”
It is this failure of the body that mirrors the failure of the technology; they both fail to adequately express or contain each other. They cybernetically fold unto one another. Both fail. Both are insufficient. Instead, the sound grafts and attempts. It dies, becomes, then hybridizes itself into fiction, always becoming unknown through its insufficiency. Coverdale, who has worked as an organist at Montreal’s St. John Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, grafts the organ’s patient devotion to the emotive curiosity of the digital. In this liminal space, we see breakdown and catastrophe. As Pat writes: “I don’t know. You can really hear anything you want. I heard crickets…”
This liminality is the canvas for digital collective Quantum Natives’ expansive cartography, a mapping that fantastically renders the desire to build worlds as the inevitable objet petit a (the unattainable object of desire). Often using video game engine technology paired with software-based sound design, artists like Brood Ma, Yearning Kru, and Rosen fold their worlding attempts as a generative labor map that compartmentalizes productions into an expressive methodology. The method of mapping becomes their enterprise, as real-world activities such as Werkflow (Brood Ma’s digital arts studio in London) fold onto Rosen’s P0Rtals project (a hypermedia storytelling exercise that creates and channels sonic environments and non-linear narratives).
These lateral artists have independently penned TMT-favored works, such as Brood Ma’s Daze and Yearning Kru’s Copper Veil, but even these notable projects, perhaps “definitive” of certain strands of their aesthetics, insufficiently contain Quantum Natives’ overflowing fiction, conceptual grammar, and phonic materiality. Known for their use of often tiny, earworm sounds that read as web trash or traces of burnt digital ephemera, the collective sound of Quantum Natives sounds like failed technology — tech dilapidated by an inability to contain their spread. The collective epitomizes how the insufficiency of technology allows the authoring of music to more readily be considered as a speculative practice, building false worlds made real by their failure to exist, where failure becomes a seance and incubator for new instruments, new authors.
The embrace of failure, fiction, and insufficiency perhaps gives way to the acceptance of mythology as a common practice in music. The “notional species” becomes our species: wrecked, instrumentalized, and installed through technology; we become in communion with shadows, bathed by symbology and unknown significance. Suddenly, we experience a deposit of faith in this mythology, and our flight into myth allows the technology to become our weapon. As Deleuze and Guatarri state in On The Line: “Flee, but while fleeing, pick up a weapon.” We flee into WAHALLA and are defined and wrecked by the technology that brought us there; it is our language, our myth, our weapon, our author that inevitably breaks down in containing us.
WAHALLA, Dean Blunt and Joanne Robertson’s eight-track mini-album (released via a Mediafire/YouTube combo) is a weapon against the myth of significance. As Mr P describes in his review of BBF Hosted by DJ Escrow, “typically when Blunt is repurposing something — whether it’s a logo, brand, cultural phenomenon, or sound — it becomes flattened and redistributed in the vortex of his cut-and-paste, sketch-like aesthetic, with added value, added connotations, added nonsense either suffocating it until it can barely signify anymore or enlivening it to a degree that only our bodies can make sense of.” Blunt’s tactic is to weaponize the myths in articulation before and after the body is in flight, with the myths still surrounding the body when fleeing the apparatus of symbols, of stateship, and of identity that plague and entangle it.
To compensate for this entanglement, Blunt’s technology has always been wrecked: His mixes are pockmarked by the damaged, clipping sounds of guitars plugged directly into laptops; his synths are dry and exposed, his samples overused and blown-out. They highlight a deadness of sound that exaggerates their flatness, detourning mythological value. Through this, they attain a new mythology. Through this, they become weapons. Joanne’s voice is a weapon; Blunt’s deadpan murmur is weaponized. In WAHALLA, like Black Metal before it, both Blunt and Robertson mythologize, as Simon Chandler put it, the “dead white tropes of reverb-washed folk, starlit Americana, and post-ish indie rock, only to change into the dead black tropes of urbanite dub, anti-social electronica, and starkly ambient grime.” The tension between the two charts the flight of the body, the dredging of myth, the building of weapons, and the utter breakdown of any attempt at technological progress through this deadness.
This flight can also be readily heard in Yves Tumor’s Experiencing the Deposit of Faith, a mythology that prompted Evan Coral to describe Tumor as “among the disciples and the defeatists — John the Baptist, the witness par excellence, the witness as the untimely contemporary, the surveyor of one’s century, who, forsaken from one’s time and one’s self, can so see each its particular darkness and perhaps heal, perhaps atone.” Amidst the pastoral, cascading synths of the album’s first track “Synecdoche,” we hear the mix subtly rip and tear as this “atonement” breaks down.
This rip also signals at Tumor’s notoriously blistering live sets, recalling Blunt’s storied 2015 show at Market Hotel in Brooklyn where he turned up the heat on the HVAC system, filled the room with smoke, positioned bodyguards around the perimeter, and blasted digital noise over a text-to-speech reading of “the white man… I tell you over and over again” until half the crowd left. Similarly, Tumor flips idyllic sound into relentless noise, as a recent Resident Advisor live review called it: “hooded, booted and adorned in silver and gold [Tumor’s] music was raucous from the start and didn’t let up for an instant — it clawed through the system, a seething, slashing, white-hot barrel of confrontational noise.” What reads as reflective atonement within Tumor’s personal mythology on record becomes weaponized and wrathful against the limitations of technology to contain his reflection in live performance. Live, Tumor translates flight into a near unbearable onslaught of digital noise — the literal weaponization of mythological flight — the sound of technology breaking down in an attempt to contain time.
Despite our efforts to mythologize our current tech, we still attempt to develop its language into new failures, perhaps most obviously into “machine learning” projects and artificial intelligence. While we chat absentmindedly with Siri and Alexa, our conversations rarely amount to much beyond an affirmative discourse toward the hegemonic automation of labor, as Matteo Pasquinelli discusses in his essay “Machines that Morph Logic: Neural Networks and the Distorted Automation of Intelligence as Statistical Inference” (published in Glass Bead’s Site 1). He writes, “the term Artificial Intelligence is often cited in popular press as well as in art and philosophy circles as an alchemic talisman whose functioning is rarely explained.” When peeling back the networked layers of bots, we simply see, in Pasquinelli’s language,”the new eye that capital casts on the data ocean of global labor, logistics, and markets with novel effects of abnormalization.”
Although this has devastating ramifications synonymous with the “old eye” of capitalism, the AI situation is perhaps most relevantly described here as “novel” when compared to the generic capitalized frame that has been at play and wreaking havoc for centuries. That is to say, AI as it currently stands — as a capitalized eye of our wrecked species — is no different than the general discourse between humans and technology at-large. Pasquinelli’s essay contains an introductory quote by Umberto Eco that states “no algorithm exists for the metaphor, nor can a metaphor be produced by means of a computer’s precise instructions.” As such, metaphors are insufficient in “completing” or accurately describing the statistical inference needed for machine learning and neural networks. As stated earlier, this technological insufficiency is precisely the quality of our “traditional music of a wrecked species” and precisely what allows us to dredge new instruments as metaphor, where no algorithm exists.
The work of Japanese artist Yasunao Tone, co-founder of Group Ongaku and original member of Fluxus, keenly understands the tension and compossibility between metaphor and algorithm in his “deviation” works. These works employ the breakdown of technology by literally wounding media formats: for example, the use of scotch tape and scratches on a CD (Solo for Wounded CD) or the disruption of the compression encoder and decoder processes in the creation of an MP3 file (MP3 Deviations). Tone’s technological disruptions pioneer a Fluxus history of media breakdown, his style specifically known as “Noise Media Language,” a chaotic language that has evolved alongside the history of experimental music in Tokyo and New York City, specifically. Tone’s artistic path, one charting ostensibly from literature to music, is shown in how his sound sources are “always” conversions of ancient Chinese poems. The poems are converted to images using grammatology, then converted to sound with an app designed by Ichiro Fujinaga of McGill University. This conversion from poem-to-image-to-sound, itself an innovative deviation of the original Chinese characters, can be seen as a “metaphor” not commensurate with a statistical inference. Rather, it is pure fantasy. Tone’s innovation is defined by its deviation into this fantasy: a hallucinatory and broad-based theoretical rejection of formal boundaries, genres, and other commonplace assumptions across the entire scope of his artistic endeavors.
This devious rejection as an innovative practice is seen in Tone’s recent work with artificial intelligence, specifically his latest major work on Editions Mego, AI Deviation #1, #2. Here, Tone uses neural networks to achieve a mediated and non-repetitive computer music sound. Specifically, a series of performances of Tone’s MP3 Deviation were captured and used to train Kohonen Neural Networks; these artificial intelligences responsively simulate the behavior of his performances by extracting attributes from the audio they generate. They “listen” to the output and make performance actions as if they were virtual performers. Despite this design, Tone states in an interview with Alexander Iadarola for Mousse Magazine that “working with artificial intelligence doesn’t appeal to me per se, but I find its crude model of the human brain to be very interesting. I am able to use it for something like a self-map system. I am probably contradicting myself, but the app and I don’t have a very friendly relationship. I also created a lot of sound sources for the piece because I don’t trust the AI system as a perfect art-making system. The only appeal of AI to me is the system’s crudeness and imperfection.”
Clearly, Tone’s innovative use of technology is actually defined by his antagonistic relationship with it, celebrating its breakdown, imperfection, and insufficiency as a totalizing system. In effect, this fuels his fantastic practice and gives agency to allowing the “instruments” to claim authorship of the piece (exclaimed in Iadarola’s interview title “The Piece Doesn’t Need Me”). Tone literally invents new instruments out of bad technology.
When I first heard Klein’s Tommy EP, the London-born, Nigerian-English artist’s debut release on Hyberdub, it made me question the whole of electronic music. Her restless, clipped sound was intent to break the now formal conventions of the decaying “Hyperdub” sound — the pitched vocals, the fragmented rhythms, the spectral presence and general urban angst. Rather, her vocal masterclass “Prologue ft atl, jacob samuel, thisisDA, Pure water, eric sings” unveiled the complete limit of the form of electronic music given our current technology. While listening to “Prologue,” I heard the same sense of limitation for a medium that Sun Ra gives to jazz: that the technology of the jazz ensemble simply couldn’t contain his expressive, futuristic, and visionary sonic presence. Instead, Sun Ra presented a speculative music that proclaimed that There Are Other Worlds. Despite being futuristic, Klein breaks down the idea of aesthetic or technological progress into something more fundamental.
Running parallel to this is M.E.S.H.’s departure from the cinematic abstraction of Piteous Gate in his new masterpiece Hesaitix, an assertion of the fundamental fantasy of audio despite its contextlessness in the ashes of 2017’s club scene. Tracks like “Nemorum Incola” pool sound in cement vats filled with birdsong, electricity, and pulsing acid-shade hues of purple-gold, while rhythmic cuts like “Coercer” are glorious achievements of spartan soundsystem psychedelia. The album has a simultaneously organic and plastic sound that is synthetically re-instrumentalized as both trash and literal weather.
M.E.S.H., in his efforts to create both a “club record” and a pensive, deeply introverted audio experience, understands how the utility of technology is not necessarily subject to abstraction, but is already abstract — already fantasy. Having shown an obvious mastery of VST digital synthesis and various club techniques on previous albums, Hesaitix is rapturous in its simple rendering of field recordings as a club instrument. One can hear the stereo-field timbre of the ZOOM recorder sharpened and cut into M.E.S.H.’s classical obsidian forms. The quotidian and personal sounds are, as PAN describes, “both formless and over-rendered, like a boneless but fleshy hand from a life drawing class.” The field recorder becomes a club tool, allowing M.E.S.H. to approach the space with the dialect of a folk technology: like a cybernetic banjo suspended and instrumentalized as a catastrophic force tuned to personal vision overlapping and submerging into shared ritualistic space.
Tommy and Hesaitix are exhausting, refreshing, new collections of neo-songs written in the dust of so many fallen artifices. The artifice, perhaps, is technological craft in electronic music, as it is outlined by pithy aesthetic tournaments such as the hardware vs. software debate, arguments of authenticity, and the aesthete taste-making of Model-DJ culture as it proliferates around the genres and subgenres of club music and culture. Rather, Klein and M.E.S.H. demonstrate visions that technology could not sufficiently contain or adequately express, visions summoning wrecked technology into life, re-instrumentalizing dead sound into animated, accelerated, strange states that celebrate and commune within dissolution.
In 2017, we are in communion with dissolution. If 2016 was the year we couldn’t cry away, drink away, work away, or get away from, then 2017 was the year that broke. And so we can’t speak summarily, but we instead scotch-tape together shards of being to construct time in timelessness, scratching our names in the rainbow-CD gradient hues of failed tech.
Our tools articulate from zero and rescind back into zero, sketching alien-instrument mirages and echoing unheard sound. This was a beautiful music. When we listen to 2017, we hear the traditional music of a wrecked species.
But how does one feel? Movements, ideas, events, entities. Ruptures, raptures. In their affiliation, in their coalition, in their deafening impact, it’s clear 2016 was our generation’s loudest year. This could be measured materially with some sort of world-eating decibel reader, but it can also be deduced from the simple fact that there were more humans on the planet than ever before. Amidst this increasing noise, it’s hard to ignore an insurmountable fatigue that’s settled into music-making in 2016 — a tiredness that has threaded listening with extra-meaning, meta-meaning, the throes of something beyond its noise and fury, to make something not inexhaustible, but breathing. Panting. Can we even listen to music without opening another tab or six?
Exhaustion, the dissolution of time and place and the systems we hold to, the rundown into desensitization. Together, listening alone. The United States is beating back depression like it’s The Leftovers (HBO). The sole civic participation for many of us this year — itself a sort of compromise — resulted in what felt like apocalypse, a signal that the hum of discontent and terror building for months (lifetimes) would not find relief or counter, but amplification. The attendant content production and life streams turned the marathon election process into an eternal sprint. Discourse wore into wares, and everything continued to feel too much.
To chart a musicology of exhaustion (as if it were our only option), we should consider 2016’s tension between noise and silence as a paradox that is not only proposed to us in contemporary music criticism and music journalism. Further, it’s how artists deal with exhaustion that allows us to extrapolate from the field of music a form that mirrors the tension between collective action and isolation — how this core upsets the whole of our odd humanly practices, from art to politics, from friendships to code.
It is around the question of exhaustion that crucial efforts can begin to mobilize and regain the force of our solitary and collective moment. Exhaustion happens while movements are rebranded into stories and memories, while signs model and represent it, while traditional structures give these signs meaning, while the current logics of domination continue on. To imagine a future becoming present, we should fist-fight with fire, just to recapture some affective rest stops from semio-capitalism’s endless traffic. We should try to articulate ourselves from hopelessness, against despair, and into action.
In 2016 and in the music of 2016, the question of noise and silence was approached by deafening swarms of musical micro-flows that pivoted angrily and capriciously around our wholly transitional present. Music in 2016 was impatient and brutal. A refusal of musical authority and power, and a refusal of the political and vocal privilege that has allowed musicians to speak abstractly on behalf of others; our new music was unstable, vicious, bitter, insular. Yet, noticeably, 2016’s music was also composed of particular frailty, failure, error, and ultimately vulnerability. It’s impossible to produce an overarching narrative, a singularly transcendent album, a beautiful sense-making system of records that captures the collective spirit of a clear avant-garde for music production. Rather, if anything, we remember how music in 2016 revealed its bare life. It exposed an exhaustion inherent to how infinitely disparate and repetitive music’s forms truly are, forever oscillating between the magnetic poles of noise and silence.
Silence is ill-gained nowadays. Isolation is an indulgence, but it’s the only one we must afford ourselves now. This is a moment of humdrum mass hysteria and ambient trauma that calls for collective movements and direct action. It is not time to retreat or compromise, though the affective overload of rn demands retreat if it is truly to be weathered and resisted. How does one stand to behold the sublime?
In a conversation with Boris Klushnikov, Boris Groys says, “[L]oneliness — truly radical loneliness — engenders the possibility and desire to address the whole.” Perhaps the greatest risk for the empathetic machines of our avatars is overstimulation, waiting around every click. When you grow weary of the ways of the world, to withdraw is more than convenience; it is prerequisite for psychic survival. To stay attached, we must remind ourselves of our sensual connection to the world, not merely as a part of it, while at the same time recognizing there are outsides and gaps to the mythologized omnipresence of power structures. The alternative is hyperactivity and endless exhaustion.
No one else this year (except maybe his Presidential foil) could embody this mutation of noise and isolation into exhaustion like Kanye West. In the manifold fracture of subjectivity, Kanye’s theater was traumatizing (his “Famous” video), and his trauma was made theater (in the dehumanizing reactions to his hospitalization, Kim’s attack). The simultaneous release of The Life of Pablo and the Yeezy Season 3 clothing line at Madison Square Garden was a moment of sublime isolation. A portal to a vacant space where the spirit can be replenished, Kanye played the album off his laptop, passing the aux as the afternoon wore on. This was Kanye’s space, an installation of controlled intimacy, one of the few public times and places he could feel comfortable in 2016. Somewhere safe in his Holy War. This invention of familiarity afforded Kanye a stage to share what was decidedly not a party album, but one of the year’s most challenging in its polarities: feedback and praises, self-effacement and carelessness. Pablo’s opener is marked by silence, reintroducing the spectacle of the whole event with a whisper, this prayer. After calling out NIKE’s lack of faith in him, Kanye told his audience they still had to respect Michael Jordan, before adding, “People do come to Madison Square Garden to see me play one-on-no-one.” Kanye addressed the whole with his every gesture.
The Life of Pablo’s re-released, re-mastered versions radically approached 0, the unreleased, unmastered collage “album” that still exists only in service of streaming sites (its updates and reiterations no longer even catalogued in the tactile database of What.cd, one of 2016 and physicality’s losses). The following singles and videos were exploded versions, truncated versions, expanded versions, soundtrack versions: its songs took the shape of their latest release, always a part from the original. Like,Garden of Delete, it would be every one. The album was marked by hyperactivity, the confluence of producers and performers, the spaz in the news of Kanye. A polyphony that resolved into biography, but not of one artist or figure: Which one?
The space of Madison Square Garden became a bed of exhaustion: the face and pose worn by every model, still standing, or sitting down, doing nothing to their present. It wasn’t till the stalemate of the album’s first listen (and final listen in that form, unless you’ve been rewatching the show compulsively like we have) was finished that the fashion models began to resemble active people: Their facades crumbled against the weight of Rihanna’s “Work,” when they felt able to party again. It wasn’t Pablo that scored the afterparty, but songs from the Old Kanye, and from the radio — the artists really one with the people (Beyoncé, Drake, Young Thug). The canopy collected their breath. Plurality without pluralism.
In a well-known 2006 article for The New Yorker on Morton Feldman, Alex Ross spoke at length of Feldman’s immensity, his oeuvre on the verge of forming into what was referred to in our review of The Life of Pablo as a topology of monstrosity. In the work of Feldman, perhaps the Kanye of his time (lol), that monstrosity creeps up in the intense vulnerability of his music, in the manner in which his compositions fall apart in front of our eyes, only to reveal their insular and softly subversive core. Ross stated that this is “the often noted paradox [of] this immense, verbose man [who] wrote music that seldom rose above a whisper. In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft.” For one, Feldman’s music presents itself as ecstatically exhausted, reverberating with the scream of a collective epiphany; yet it was starkly alone, introverted, still. In the same breath, Feldman spat a well-known remark: “Polyphony sucks.”
In what seems like 2016’s collective polyphonic nightmare, the sheer immense noise of music’s cumulative voicing didn’t reveal dissonance or harmony between the spaces of their production. Rather, there was merely another release, another music, another source, another output. Critical, analytic listeners could perhaps see shapes on the 2016 release plateau to make out micro-tonal conglomerates of tonality: a small scene here, a trend there, a new tool, a granular synthesis technique, an obscure message, etc. Yet still, for us staring onward, our gaze could only make out a cataclysmic, reverberating pit of musics crawling with tired life; we listened not with ears tuned for meaning, but for a plateauing of its collective form into something like Kanye’s and Feldman’s ecstatic exhaustions. This year, our social movements, our punk culture, our dystopian imagination foreshadowed in many ways the mutation we are now hearing, a mutation where the polyphonic exhaustion of our music was a question not of the 0-to-100 meter between noise and silence — loneliness and collective meaning — but of the gradients, shades, and undertones that exist between the individual body and the collective body in a game of “One-On-No-One.”
We saw this in the subtlety of 2016’s magnificent releases, where music like Lolina’s Live in Paris, Lorenzo Senni’s Persona, Frank Ocean’s Endless,James Ferraro’s Human Story 3, Sam Kidel’s Disruptive Muzack, and The Caretaker’s Everywhere at the end of time didn’t necessarily proclaim a clear output for critique, but instead functioned as misshapen growths out of forms that these artists have been experimenting with for decades, or at least what feels like decades. Somewhere from Senni and Ferraro’s genius yet beautifully naive experiments with trance and modern classical, to the worn image breakdowns of Lolina and Frank Ocean, to the aching ambient tedium of Kidel’s Muzak-systems, the dealership of exhaustion was clear and served as the basis for our collective shade: Market Collapse, Voyeurship, Relaxx, Disruption. As Feldman notes, reflecting on how progress and vitality end and begin with solitude: “Earlier in my life there seemed to be unlimited possibilities, but my mind was closed. Now, years later and with an open mind, possibilities no longer interest me. I seem content to be continually rearranging the same furniture in the same room. My concern at times is nothing more than establishing a series of practical conditions that will enable me to work. For years I said if I could only find a comfortable chair I would rival Mozart.”
How then to find a comfortable chair and cultivate a Madison Square Garden in our heart?
Resting Face: Avatar OST
The 21+ swarm of millennials is the last generation to have a childhood outside the virtual, only to find ourselves connected now at every intersection. Identity and social media gripped us. What we still sometimes pretend to be intentional has dissolved into a mess of self-disclosure and ambient fraud: you text nothing like you look, your tweets are scaring me, you are logging off. Permanent performance with only malware really paying attention. While Twitter is useful for organizing and consciousness-raising in collectivizing impulses, the semiocapitalist demands of Facebook create an affective treadmill, and the work of our avatars breaks down in the face of what we share. It’s exhausting, and even our musical avatars could use a break. Or, they are actively breaking apart before us.
Compared to the aesthetic overdetermination of PC Music or the headlining ecstasy of Kanye, artists like The Caretaker admits the defeat of connectivity and comprehension in its disintegration loops, the convalescence of memory and dreamspace that threatens at every moment to give way to nothing. This faltering collection of ancient sound is The Caretaker’s manipulation of contemporarily disjointed signs, a radical curation of predetermined music that individuates the character in our imaginations as a symptom of time, as a projection of our listening self. We are The Caretaker, we’ve always been The Caretaker. The performative death of the moniker is the project’s swan song, Everywhere at the end of time, a slowly deteriorating memoir over the course of three years in a regularly expanding six-part release. The release troubles the celebration of degeneration and the process of rearranging the furniture in a single room, revealing a mortal heart to the impression of timelessness conjured by the music. The isolating affect of the looped ballroom music and its timed descent is an architectural rejoinder to the infinitely expanding content landscape that we share and auto-cultivate well into sleeplessness. Our avatars have expiration dates.
This degeneration also sung a death knell in 2016 to those avatars we took solace in, those we listened to in order to subjectivate ourselves into their quests for rupture/rapture. Throughout the 20th century, music looked to futuristic, surreal, functional avant-gardes — movements whose imagination of precarity established musical avatars that seemed to have been peeled off one-by-one in the exhausted death pulse of 2016. In the 20th century, these avatars developed a frail psychosphere, a punchy counterculture with wide, vital imaginations that could eat and spit out oncoming apocalypse. Armed with an aesthetic of excess, uncertainty, randomness, evocation, escape, and power, these avatars were our solace and our peace — our shield against the coming exhaustion.
Their art was a glorious attempt to mitigate social pain with the magical forces of what seems like an ancient time. Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Pauline Oliveros, Phife Dawg, Tony Conard : this was a profound canon whose absence is felt as a cold, incised cut in the side of the brilliant underground. It’s as Franco “Bifo” Berardi said, “the terms denunciation and engagement are no longer meaningful when you are a fish reaching the point of being cooked.” Likewise, the death of our avatars who used precarity to craft rhapsodic, focused practices seems easier to take when that precarity became the OST to all our musical activity — not only in its source, but its incessant output, resounding without referent.
The exhausting death of our heros and heroines is but one tone in the deafening polyphony, the frigid silence of the Avatar OST. Although our new music uses the last century’s lexicon — Oliveros’s deep listening in Eli Keszler and Sean McCann, of course Prince (so much Prince) in every pop-ish upstart who traces the mutation of globalized technology and media, Bowie in every musician with gleaming eyes and an extraterrestrial vision. Yet there’s so much more than this glib frame. One listen to the complexly mutant and resounding sounds of Carly Rae, Jenny Hval, Crying, or Arca and the dead seem to be eaten whole into a new living, vital flesh.
It’s not that 2016’s artists are exhausted hacks who can’t show the kind of energy or vitality specific to these fallen icons of a previous time; rather, it’s that their movement has become subsumed by the Avatar OST — by the attempt to find equilibrium between irony and cynicism, noise and silence, the signified and the automatic — all forming the skin that wraps into an exhausted living Avatar-body of human (American?) culture in 2016.
Endless Time: Atomic Clock
We are in a live anachronism. The year’s most celebrated soundtrack is a nostalgic throwback (via ~2012’s vapor-distillation of its musical themes) to an iconic film era during which many of its listeners weren’t alive. The hyperdrive of press releases and Event albums have become rapid to the point of simultaneity, frantically into stillness. The quiet of overexertion. Time has been accelerated and decelerated to the point where tiny music releases become hideouts for time, places where we can measure its (non-)motion, where we can register its shape as real. Of course, we can see the way time is sculpted by the ecstatic manipulation of physical sound (Rashad Becker’s Traditional Music of Notional Species Vol. II, Yearning Kru’s Copper Vale), in Kanye’s album-freezing and renanimative release-rollout, in its cataclysmic vision (Elysia Crampton’s Dissolution of The Sovereign). Yet, still, if time is our most common good, our most common language — which of course in 2016 has become the very core of music production — one must bear in mind that our endless, exhausted time is and will always be wider than our common perceptions of it.
The Life of Pablo can become a territory of anticipation, perpetually unfinished and so unrealized in the collective imagination; it never found physical release (and Kanye promised it never will, or, for that matter, be for sale). The ongoing additions and subtractions to the tracklisting and mix mark a disruption of release schedules and an event that troubles our self-production around this sort of market history. The Life of Pablo could never be a classic album, but it escaped any sort of comprehension and managed to become timeless, not by existing out-of-time but by inhabiting its own future as an object. The needlessly transparent (or calculated hype-generating) movements of its title tell a story. The release couldn’t be Swish; it was too hard-fought, graceless, and delayed. And it couldn’t be Waves, whose cyclical crashes and reformations are a reflecting pool for Kanye, but seem pastoral and distant from his distance to the world he addresses. The title had to express a celebrity lifetime, which is the recording of becoming in public, of being subject to a million exhausting cultural knowledges. As a salve for the fatalism that accompanies massive political upsets, Kanye’s sprawling collage-release was something that couldn’t come to pass.
What seemed like it might never come to pass, even as we watched the process, was the black-and-white realtime stream of Frank Ocean’s Endless workshop: a blank projection screen. It was a testament to reclusiveness, the quiet process of solo work that becomes a composite of personalities, drives, persistence. In the promise of the slow and steady, Frank still shifted from “rushing for a wait” to “waiting for a rush,” working in tandem, without recognizing the coalition that had become of himself. The montage of periods and song scraps turned the never-ending into release, but one that was reduced to a herald. And so his music became Everywhere at the end of time.
Within this expanded time, our music then becomes an atomic clock for making sense of its effects on our exasperated socius. The atomic clock, which uses a “electronic transition frequency in the microwave, optical, or ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum of atoms as a frequency standard for its timekeeping element,” is the meter that keeps tabs on the uninterrupted circuit of music-flows, collective synergy, affective plurality, and that production of subjectivity that is exhaustively boundless. Yet it is within the unintelligible whole, this mass of time-less music, that exists the power of our multitude and our solitary listening.
In the mix of our critical listening, our “keeping up” with music, our collective associations, our capacity to bond these units in time, we see a capacity for the invention of new desires and new beliefs — new associations, endlessly.
Split Ends: Estranged Apocalypse
Blinking and blank. The end’s split, an experiment within a shared reservoir where exhaustion is the premise rather than the affect. The year’s most cynical release in this regard was its most omnipresent: “Closer” by The Chainsmokers (ft. Halsey). The landscape is poverty, its refrain: “We ain’t never getting older.” The mattress that she stole and the backseat of her Rover are as human as the “I, I, I, I, I,” and “you” that the voices are singing to and from, an empty hall of mirrors. When they repeat “I can’t stop” — and what can’t they stop? — it’s sung from a place of complete ambivalence, admitting the exhaustion of connectivity and exposing the compulsory movement forward, ever forward, but somehow carried on without value judgment, without protest. Despite the disjointed lyrics, the repetition of the chorus and pre-chorus morphs the song into ambience, a pacifying chant against the demands of work and love. The song stays young, and we, we are old.
There wasn’t a more fitting musical statement to 2016’s gripping exhaustion than Sam Kidel’s Disruptive Muzak. Kidel’s record was special; the piece came about during a research project into Muzak in 2015 from which Kidel composed a series of pieces that shared a similar sound palette to Muzak, but with a “less familiar, less predictable and more disruptive structure.” He tested the compositions by calling up government offices that use Muzak in their telephone queues and played them down the phone instead of his voice. The officials’ responses were recorded and assembled. They established a liminal space where their vocal interruptions and Kidel’s frosty, “disruptive” synth music are indeterminately and independently functioning as disruptions into their own separate, split ambient zones. The dropped calls and the incessant interruptive presentation of the voice/synth split confuse and estrange their intended space. Together, their communication forms an ambient echo-chamber that distills the core of a contemporary exhaustion. Somehow, amidst the superficially annoying timbre of the piece, the music literally disrupts its attempts at fragmentation by redeeming itself into a special ambient sublimity — a sad, broken, ascending, but brilliant place.
Somehow within this sadness is a scenic territory for those who find the world staggeringly heartbroken, a musicology of exhaustion: something not inexhaustible, but breathing. Panting.
2016 is a year we can’t cry away, drink away, work away, or get away from. And so we can’t speak summarily, but continue to wander into no-one’s land, hang on to each other, and fight. Online and in moments of depression, communality falls way to the soul eraser of enclosure, invented isolation from the violent-ambient. We must learn to articulate from zero, perform dreadlessness, listen with all our might that we can resist desensitization. We must believe that opening a window in winter does not just make the room cold. Bare earth, bare night.
The wind makes it too hard to hear. The snow is falling, and the streets are full of cries. There is no choice but to listen. If you listen closely, you’ll hear the whisper of the heart: a mutant plea of loneliness that bears self-relation into relationality into “what’s next is.” Re-generation, from zero. Neuroplasticity exercises, breathing exercises. In the endless scroll of media, we become out of touch and out of tune, conditional but ahistoric, a part, deadened, when we could become:
Isolation takes time for self-knowledge to counter the knowledge production that traps us in kind. There are only so many voices that can be played simultaneously without loss. Listening from an exhausted place, there we might reconfigure our imaginations, our beliefs, the shared precarity of our labor and our lives, our becoming-void of compossibilities beyond this world at the end of time. This sounds exhausting, and exhaustion in 2016 sounds like chance, like syntony, like sculptures made of ash. Excessive, activist, sensitive, sensible, sympathetic.
Don’t suffer in silence. Don’t suffer asceticism. Don’t suffer “only suffering can result in great art.” If 2016 can be more than the end of time, if in its terror a learning treasure, if in its death a building year, it is the year in which we must place the utmost faith in umbral sensuality, in the power of emotional elaboration that defaces screentime and screenshots, in the resilience of escape. Be seated at the piano, an incubator for mutation. Music can be the occasion and vehicle for developing counter-rhythms of being in the everyday wash-rinse cycle of news. From permanent noise into the silence of creative imagining, toward refrain. We came from never and must become everywhere more feeling, with closer listening. Our place is endless; the sun is rising.
Poet, be seated at the piano.
Play the present, its hoo-hoo-hoo,
Its shoo-shoo-shoo, its ric-a-nic,
Its envious cachinnation.
If they throw stones upon the roof
While you practice arpeggios,
It is because they carry down the stairs
A body in rags.
Be seated at the piano.
That lucid souvenir of the past,
That airy dream of the future,
The unclouded concerto …
The snow is falling.
Strike the piercing chord.
Be thou the voice,
Not you. Be thou, be thou
The voice of angry fear,
The voice of this besieging pain.
Be thou that wintry sound
As of a great wind howling,
By which sorrow is released,
In a starry placating.
We may return to Mozart.
He was young, and we, we are old.
The snow is falling
And the streets are full of cries.
Be seated, thou.
Traditional Music of Notional Species Vol. I was a shockingly enjoyable and memorable release from someone who had previously never released a full-length album, but it’s easy for the shock to dissipate if we just consider the plethora of experimental musicians who Rashad Becker has worked with through his ongoing Dublates & Mastering (mastering) gig. You think your music would sound vanilla if you spent roughly two decades putting the finishing touches on releases from artists like Florian Hecker, D/P/I, and Russell Haswell? The sonic distinction of Becker’s first official LP in which his name wasn’t relegated to the margins was predictable, and yet, I doubt many people knew quite what to expect from the versatile tech enigma, simultaneously everywhere and not within the experimental music world.
Now Becker’s front and center again with the announcement of Traditional Music of Notional Species Vol. II, and contrary to its preceding release, the fact that this is a genuine follow-up makes expectations a little easier to conjure. The equipment sounds similar despite an attested incorporation of “more instrumental-sounding components,” and there are hints of the earlier swells that sounded like buzzing electronic insects getting closer and closer.
Wait and hear for yourself. Vol. II is out December 2 on PAN.
Traditional Music of Notional Species Vol. II tracklisting:
01. themes V
02. themes VI
03. themes VII
04. themes VIII
05. dances V
06. dances VI
07. dances VII
08. dances VIII