Friday, April 26, 2024

EEAH Series Retrospective (ft. Heronbone)

The following correspondence about my blog series Esoteric Experiences at Home (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14) was conducted with Luke Davis, poet and author of an influential 2000s grime blog.

Generally when people think of a blog they think of a place where you jot down an idea or an impression and move on. What you've written has moved along at a much slower pace. What was the ongoing impetus behind this project?

It stemmed out of conversations we had on Dissensus, and the books that influenced those conversations, mainly Energy Flash and More Brilliant Than the Sun. I found that thinking about this stuff made music more exciting and vivid. It made me realize what qualities I most valued and responded to in music. But by the time I wrote the first half of this series, it felt like the conversations had died down, had run out of momentum. Rather than abandoning all the interesting tangents they'd generated, it seemed like there was an opportunity to sort of step back and take stock of where my brain had ended up. A chance to go, ok, maybe they’ve obvious, or maybe they’re nonsense, but here are the thoughts I’ve found useful. This is the stuff I don’t want to forget. And that process involved trying to structure them and put them in context: that of a relationship with music which was and mostly still is entirely internet-mediated.

I didn’t get around to writing the second half, the part about audio animation, until now. Why? Well, obviously the main reason is laziness. I'm not nearly as good at writing as I am at wasting time. What probably rekindled the project was an increasing frustration with the split nature of the discourse around music I was interested in. On the one hand there's stuff about “cinema for the ear” but it's mostly an enclave of academics writing papers about a narrow subset of compositions in the musique concrète tradition. There's often this rhetorical frame of it being a fundamentally different artform than other electronic music. But for me the initial pull of this way of hearing came from other stuff. The first music I heard as cinema for the ear was probably Selected Ambient Works 85-92, or maybe the opening minutes of Future Days. Or, as another example, I always found it eerie how Suicide's "Rocket USA" evoked a very specific scene in my mind's eye: the perspective of driving down a highway at night, maybe along Manhattan, sort of crossfaded with moving through a long, dilapidated apartment hallway. But it hit me at some point that two sound characters you hear in the song are quite relevant to that storyworld: the drum machine, with its motorik propulsion, and this omnipresent droning synth that sounds a bit like the hum of fluorescent lights.

In Energy Flash and More Brilliant than the Sun and Neon Screams, as well as certain Dissensus threads, there are moments where this discourse emerges around music to which it's ostensibly irrelevant. Obviously there is an awareness of some of the more academic stuff. Eshun in particular quotes people like Stockhausen, Michel Chion, and R. Murray Schafer in his book, even describing Public Enemy's music as "acousmatic" for example. There aren't many references to this world in Blissblogger's writing from the same period, but it's become a substantial part of his blog repository since then. Woebot, with his writing about "physics" in jungle also fits into this. Even Barty was subjected to some cinema for the ear against his will. But all this wasn't quite part of the older conversation. So I've thought for a while that there could still be more to discover by putting all this stuff on the same listening plane, as you so easily can when you’re discovering it through the internet. So I tried to organize some thoughts from that angle and get a bit past where threads like “Phenomenology of Electroacoustic” trailed off in the past. 

Strictly adhering to the pronouncements made in this series isn't the point. But I’ve seen how even artists themselves can seem to intuit these lessons and then forget them, losing some of their powers without noticing. To some extent I can accept this forgetting as an inevitable part of life, the cost of movement and change. But maybe chronicling your intuitions and revelations at a particular point in your life, not letting them get lost immediately in the rearranging of the sand dunes, is a good idea. It’ll benefit you later, or maybe someone else who you’ll never meet or know about. This project is a retrospective, in a way, but it’s driven by a desperate urge to build a more lasting base from which to explore deeper and farther. A desire to advance.

I think it’s an important effort, because music does map experience. I’ve tried to explain this to Edmund* but he refuses to believe that music works in this way. He says that once a sound appears in a tune, it’s just a note and nothing else. How would you defend your theorizing to Edmund?

I have a lot of respect for the lens of absolute music. Super important, intelligent figures like Pierre Schaeffer and John Cage arrived at doctrines of listening which, roughly speaking, take that stance. But I think the most interesting artists influenced by them, from Maryanne Amacher to Francois Bayle, studied their approaches really intently and managed to combine the insights they’d gained from that with a respect for music's ability to evoke extra-sonic qualities. For me it's at this point of convergence that listening gets especially exciting.

Sometimes people who favor the absolute music lens will actively object to the view that music is evocative. In my experience, there are two main ways people tend to say this. The first is, you’re weighing the music down with all this extra baggage, you're letting irrelevant concerns block your view of what's really there. Stop overthinking it and just listen. The other is, oh, if music was about other things that would just make it less unique, less special. 

With responses like this I begin to wonder if something’s getting lost in translation. Like maybe I'm not properly getting what should be happening across. To me it seems instinctive to hear sound and have it trigger your imagination as to what might’ve made it. When our ancestors were hunting in a forest and heard a growl from behind some bushes they didn’t go, oh, nice tessitura in that sound object, nice diminished triad (although that may have registered on some level too). They probably went, oh fuck, there's a monster. So it's not some kind of aberration to hear the strange sounds of electronic music in this way. If anything it’s absolute music that's a recent development. 

At its core I think Music, capital "M" Music versus music, to use Pierre Schaeffer’s distinction, is basically magic speech. But audio animation is just taking that interpersonal process and combining it with what McLuhan called acoustic space, this outward, predator-sensing, oriented listening. So it's about taking advantage of inbuilt psychological abilities rather than applying some cut and dry intellectual process. To quote Rob Brown talking about Autechre’s artistic output:

there can be resemblances of these real sounds, but not really a pursuit to 'model' stuff. the grey area between familiarity and not, is more interesting , more unsettling, wakes you up. . . to me this acts like a cognitive glue in music. a binding agent. same with speech patterns and all that.
If someone read all this stuff about audio animation and concluded that it was instructing them to treat music as some kind of rote matching game of pinning sounds to known, nameable sources, I’d be horrified. No, the descriptions I come up with are just fumbling attempts to describe very visceral reactions. These are the vision-making tools, the basic orientations that allow the dream to come to life.

I agree with what you’re saying. When I listened to Bernard Parmesan in 2018 for instance drugs really opened my ears to the physicality of the sound. But I have to admit that in what you’ve written, the constant foregrounding of what you call “diegesis” makes me a bit antsy. This is an important way of mapping the experience definitely but it’s not the only level of play. I think there are other questions worth asking. For instance how does music convey a sense of personal identity or style, a way of carrying oneself in the world. Electro comes up in what you've written, and I do have certain memories of it from when I was very young. What struck me then wasn't the science fiction aspect, which I came to appreciate later, it was seeing kids breakdancing in the tube stations and the indifference of the commuters stepping around them. I sensed that they were openly defying an oppressive grey reality that London was mired in at the time. Later you got an even more potent energy with 2step then grime, it was mysterious but we all knew this music was the heartbeat of the city. For people who’ve grown up on the internet, this dynamic doesn’t exist, never has. This is what music being canceled means. There are still people making electro but it’s embarrassing and pointless. When you take this very real cultural and historical urgency out of the equation, what you’re left with is going through the motions, cosplaying as music. 

Hopefully it's obvious that this series is not some kind of polemic against music operating in the way you're describing. I'm very very very in favor of that. All three of the books I mentioned earlier are foremost about that, about chronicling a new force taking shape right in font of you. But you're right, that's not been my experience with music. If that sort of direct social contact is the only valid way to understand the medium, then I have no business talking about it. And maybe I don't. But I don't think that premise is true. Rouge's Foam has an incisive line about this issue. His position is as follows:

Music has always been a complex, highly ritualised social game steeped in centuries of convention, which cannot interact with, modify or reject the external world through anything as direct as art's visual iconicity. Music is certainly not the 'equivalent' of art, and one shouldn't expect it to be - it's a socio-cultural game, not an object.
What I find so interesting about this assertion is that, for me, music always has been an object. I’ve always made the mistake of treating music like I would a book or a film or a painting. Something to be poured over on your own. And so it always seems strange to me when people draw these double standards where if an author writes something dense and experimental it’s cool and venerable but if a musician does this it’s wank, it’s only for nerds. But he’s absolutely right, it’s my view that’s weird, not theirs. 

At the same time, though... if you’re willing to concede that even though oral storytelling is great, a book can contain an electric charge—I don't think another possibility should be too difficult to accept. I think it’s already resulted in great stuff. Sometimes. Even if it’s a misunderstanding of how music "should" work, it’s one that can have interesting consequences.  

You're probably right that there is a double standard in how we assess music compared to books and visual art. But I'm not sure that we can reason our way out of these biases. One difficulty for this vision is that music that takes direct influence from fictional worlds tends to be nerdy in a repellent way. A lot of internet music is like that. It ties in with Barty’s notion of bladerunner jungle as well. Once jungle starts aiming to be science fiction it becomes flat and lifeless. Its vital essence drained.

Ironically I like jungle that isn't "bladerunner jungle" for a lot of the same reasons I like the movie Bladerunner. Both give you futures where weathered remnants of past cultures stubbornly persist amongst the new and cold and inhuman. Broken ancient icons next to holograms... you can get a comparable feeling from something like the "I'm on my waaaaaaaaay" fragment in DJ Ron's "Canaan Land"—and DJ Ron is Kool FM jungle. The point being that it's possible, at least in other media, to create a kind of imaginary lived-in density, and instill all sorts of complex emotions from that. But yes, I agree that all this ultimately depends on results. "As long as the music's good."

Do you have any predictions about the future of music? Are music as diegesis and audio animation useful tools for what’s next?  

I have absolutely no idea. I don't even know what’s going on right now. The thing about creative mode is that it’s atemporal. Current music gets no precedence over old music in terms of visibility and accessibility. Which is the biggest obstacle for getting something new going. 

But the contention that the best music is evocative, and the lens of music as diegesis, seem very applicable to a lot of what’s been going on with internet music for over decade, the orienting around multimedia aesthetic “cores” and “waves” rather than real life scenes. Internet jungle posits it as the soundtrack to y2k virtual worlds, pairing it with video games instead of dancehall singers. You also get these releases that are hoaxes, generative ambient pieces supposedly made by some mythical computer programmer from Alabama before he mysteriously vanished in 1991. The Underground Resistance model of the release as in Eshun’s words “an object from the world it posits” feels quite relevant to the current musical landscape. It seems to me that music as diegesis is, if anything, on the rise.

Audio animation is trickier to predict. The difficulty is that a lot of the initial modernist audio animators were inspired by the sounds of the world around them. In particular, by the new sounds of modern war. Luigi Russolo said that the “strangest and most powerful noises are gathered together” there. For people like Stockhausen and Xenakis the soundscapes of WWII likewise registered on an aesthetic level. Most producers of weird electronic music in 2024 have never even thought about going outside, let alone heard any sounds that didn’t come from their computer. Vektroid, I imagine, lives with nothing but a bed and a computer in some kind of Mary’s Room-esque sensory deprivation chamber deep inside a lab.

Obviously that's a glib way of putting it, but I do think it’s fair to say that a lot of people, certainly the people exploring music in the same way I am, spend a lot of their lives in what you might call dematerialized acoustic space. So the question is, how does this affect audio animation? Will this impoverish the canon or lend it new inspiration? I can think of a few strategies for creating a distinctly internet era audio animation.

One would be to draw on the unique sonic properties of these conditions. For example, I remember being quite struck during quarantine by some of the weird feedback effects you’d get on video calls with a lot of people. For a while my extended family got in the habit of having big Zoom gatherings every few weeks, and there would always be moments of auditory chaos. There could be people in one channel talking amongst themselves while people in two different channels were talking to each other, someone in the background of another unmuted channel using a blender, and so on. This mess of distorted sound that made the idea of new technology being frictionless and characterless seem absurd. Francois Bayle apparently premiered a new work recently called Zoom! that has something to do with "overlapping spaces". So some people noticed these weird soundscapes. Although music by a nonagenarian is unlikely to set any major trends.

Another source of new audio animation could be what Kieran Press-Blissblogger termed shitpost modernism. Memes at their best are the closest thing we have to an avant garde. A few years ago I put together a sort of meme megamix that's now actually regarded as quite seminal, called Pathways of Vernacular Morphology: A Retrospective of Independent Acousmatic Composition 2012-2019 that highlighted a few exemplary works of shitpost modernism.

Another source of inspiration could be video games. The soundworld of a video game might seem to pale in comparison to the real world, but I think there’s something here. Well, there's already influence, going back decades to stuff like Power Pill, but I'm talking about something deeper.  For a while Vektroid was tagging her releases with the game descriptor "bullet hell"—so there's room for more of that sort of inspiration. Video games have been the most exciting form of visual animation for several decades, and are the central artform of our time. You can build an imaginary reality from the atomic level up, like you can in audio animation.

Obviously you'd hope that machine learning is leading to mind-blowing stuff. Lee Gamble’s Models and Debit’s The Long Count felt exciting to me. The memes people come out with can be especially mind-bending. It does seem like there is a historically unique chance to siphon the power of the archive into something new.

* Through extensive combing of old newspapers and Usenet threads, my research team was able to determine that the “Edmund” Luke refers to here is in fact Woops, the underworld explorer and universal sandwich purchaser referenced several times in the preceding text. Incidentally, last September I went up against Woops in an arm wrestling match, and for anyone wondering, yes, the match was incredibly high-level. Levan Saginashvili is lucky he wasn't in Greenwich that night.

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