4 Great Records from 2016

Here is my greatly belated list of 2016 records. In no particular order, these are a few musical highlights from an otherwise bleak year.

  1. Babyfather – BBF Hosted by DJ Escrow Hip-hop, harsh noise, and an overarching sense of unease compose the first full-length release from Dean Blunt’s new collective Babyfather. It’s a perfect compliment to 2016. Check it out for apocolypse vibes.
  2. Amnesia Scanner – ASAfter a series of scattershot, but truly innovative mixtapes, the Berlin-based duo Amnesia Scanner released their first proper EP. It takes the aesthetics of trap, electronica, and dubstep, puts them through a meat grinder, and rebuilds them into an unrecognizable Frankenstein’s monster of cultural detritus. Essential listening.
  3. Dedekind Cut – $uccessor (ded 004) Operating between the realms of ambient and progresive sound, Dedekind Cut’s LP gets the best of both. Using smooth pads, synthetic strings, and digital choirs, this record fuses a number of popular electronic tropes and integrates them into a more calm context, while still maintaining a mysterious and sometimes disorienting air.
  4. James Ferraro – Human Story 3A definite personal highlight of the year, Human Story 3 saw James Ferraro taking a sharp turn from the cryptic, heavily referential patterns of his previous albums. Instead, he has created eleven meticulously crafted modern classical compositions, calling to mind everyone from Steve Reich to Stravinsky. The mix of genuine optimism and the more covert uncanniness of its depiction of a techno-utopia make for a unique, pensive listening experience. Disclaimer: there are many robot voices.
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On Authorship

Digital automation has revolutionized music production. As the market and procedural structures have shifted, so too has the relationship between artist and art.

Increasingly, and to the benefit of music as a whole, the accessibility of computers and digital audio interfaces has significantly democratized the production and consumption of music. We see more and more the institutional constraints of old-guard music production dismantled in lieu of independent outlets on websites like Soundcloud or Bandcamp. No longer is an artist held in creative limbo until a major record label executive chances upon their work, an extremely unlikely event in and of itself. In the post-internet world, an artist can garner a significant following by recording locally and simply posting their work on a well-trafficked platform. And though the institutionalized model of production does provide benefits to a small, highly concentrated group of artists, their status is often more dependent on their willingness to conform to the restraints imposed by those institutions than on the merits of their art. The new model, the model in which art is distributed directly to easily accessible platforms, allows an artist to bypass these restraints, and see the efficacy of their work determined in real time through listener/viewer support. The model also gives some assurance that an artist’s work will not fail due to niche appeal, as there are a growing number of niche audiences engaged in vibrant online communities that share an intense affection for their particular interest. Furthermore, the increased access to unconventional work offered by the internet ensures greater propagation of those works, necessarily involving more people in specific subcultural communities.

However, despite the great advantages that come with democratized distribution, there remain notable detriments in its construction. Those detriments definitely do not, however, include a mournful nostalgia for the supposed “specialness” (a synonym for “produced by a select few”) of music under the institutional system, an argument which often has more to do with aesthetic preferences than uniqueness. In fact, contrary to this viewpoint, the accessibility of distribution has resulted in remarkable innovations, specifically within the field of electronic music. Many musicians that I have covered exemplify this.

Unfortunately, the detriments still largely pertain to electronic music. The technical sophistication of production software presents a troubling dilemma: how responsible is the artist for their work if its production is deeply dependent on complex algorithms for which the artist is not responsible? If one should choose, one can construct a multi-instrumental work entirely out of preset material, never once engaging with a single facet of music theory. This ease of production threatens to dismantle the intrinsic relationship between the artist and the art. Contrarily, one could argue that music has always had a fractured relationship to its creator, as it is necessarily mediated through exterior instruments (excluding purely vocal performances). How could one argue that the pianist must necessarily deny authorship of their work by virtue of its debt to the piano? This argument, however, fails to consider the value of composition in the musical tradition. The pianist has authored the piece by virtue of their composing it, just as the classical composer is responsible for their composition. In the case of algorithmically precomposed music though, authorship is much more difficult to delegate. Perhaps the programmer is the author in this instance, or perhaps there is none at all.

This all begs the question, what are the responsibilities of electronic musicians in the age of automated composition? To begin answering this question, it must first be acknowledged that composition remains the central indicator of authorship for any given piece, and that performative considerations need not be taken into account in its delegation. Secondarily, it must be noted that any composition is inexorably linked to the cultural codes and symbols in which it exists. This presents a dilemma. Music is never created in a vacuum, therefore influence is inescapable. Furthermore, the consumption and transmutation of external symbols which informs all composition is itself a form of coding, a process of distilling references to conform to an aesthetic framework. The distinction between this form of coding and the type employed by an external force lies in their ownership. No matter the degree to which an artist’s compositional form is beholden to external components, the artist has coded all of the stimuli internally, necessarily indicating their ownership of the code. One degree removed from direct authorship perhaps, the artist owns the code that authors their work, a crucial point when answering the question of responsibility. If we consider this to be true, it must then also be true that the submission of external coding as the totalizing basis for a composition exonerates the artist from any authorship. There are, of course, degrees to which the implementation of borrowed material degrades an artist’s authorship in any given piece, so repurposing external material does not denote thievery in itself necessarily. It is the process of manipulation, be it in content or context, of external material that counteracts this degradation, and can therefore consolidate true authorship in the framework of sampled musical components. Though the specific point at which an artist creates a composition remains unclear, both the maximization of personal interaction, and the conscious effort to innovate in a composition are imperative in building a closer relationship between the artist and the art. On the side of the consumer, it may be useful to devalue the vapid pieces that briefly make us sympathize with those reactionaries who bemoan the loss of music’s “specialness.”

The Visceral Humanity of Entrañas

Arca – Entrañas

Arca’s new mixtape, a precursor to his upcoming self-titled album on Warp Records, challenges the conventional norms of electronic production and emerges as his most visceral work to date.

The music of Venezuelan-born artist Arca occupies a peculiar space in electronic production, a space that is as conceptually bewildering as it is emotionally evocative. As such, its peculiarity might be best understood by briefly highlighting some norms and practices established for the production of electronic music.

As early as 1970, the lion’s share of popular electronic pioneers, from Kraftwerk to Alexander Robotnik, made explicit the artificiality of their synthesized compositions in both structure and content. Not only did their music make ample references to robots and automation, but it also mirrored the procedural qualities of machine operation in its cyclical, repetitive structure and rigid conformity. Rarely can one find a swung rhythm or improvisational tangent in early popular electronic music. There are, of course, notable exceptions to a strictly formal adherence to the mechanical, such as the minimal synthesizer music of Hans-Joachim Roedelius, but even these improvised pieces bear a significant resemblance to the aforementioned traits, specifically in their use of repetition. The same compromised distinctions apply to most electronic-heavy krautrock as well. It is clear even (if not especially) now that mechanicality in electronic music has been historically laid as the foundation for experimentation and advancement in the field, with popular EDM exhibiting almost identical structural components to those of early popular artists, albeit tempered with extended crescendos and extreme dynamic contrast.

The works of electronic duo Autechre, specifically during the mid-nineties with their seminal album Tri repetae, attempt to build on these conventions through technical complexity and tonal specificity that resemble some aspects on the academic end of electronic sound production. The result of Autechre’s mid-nineties experimentation is an accelerated iteration of the emotional distance evoked by Kraftwerk’s engagement with the robotic. The percussion hits in varied succession, each oscillating wave more cold and calculating than the last. Melodies become alien in their sheer acoustic impossibility. As an approach to complexity, emotional distance appears initially as self-assuring. Of course increasing the precision of an electronic composition would only strengthen those robotic traits that prevent the listener from relating to the music in any tangible way. However, it is this assumption that fails to account for the emotionally dense, wholly human experience of listening to Arca’s work.

Like Autechre, Arca is extremely proficient in constructing meticulous digital soundscapes, yet where they differ is in the application of technical specificity. Unlike Autechre, Arca eschews the conventional preconception that precision necessarily entails rigidity. His arrangements are fractured and disparate, cutting in synthetic tones and melodies at unconventional intervals which constantly morph and mutate into something that, on the cusp of approaching some semblance of a stable progression, is sent soaring in an entirely new direction.

This method is exemplified most prominently in his self-released mixtape Entrañas, an eclectic collection of sampled material, original composition, and vocal performance. The piece begins with soft, breathy synthesizers weaving in and out of the stark atmosphere, panning indeterminately between the left and right channels. Even here the placement of each synthetic tone is stilted, suggesting a form constantly undercut by unconventional temporal markers. A great swell overtakes the breathy synths, transitioning to a bewildering arrangement of downpitched baby whines, dark ambient noise, a kick and an ever-ascending siren. Eventually, as the siren and whines reach peak urgency, this soundscape gives way to an industrial gun-shot beat, itself undulating amorphously along the frequency range. Occasional samples interrupt for mere milliseconds before being engulfed and reintegrated into the relentless sonic chaos. The environment softens for a moment, then reaches cacophony, at which point the listener is greeted with a jerking, unevenly swung beat that somehow still remains, in strictly technical parlance, heavy as fuck, complete with whip samples and a stilted lead.

What is most remarkable about this mixtape is the degree to which its pieces mutate and seamlessly blend into one another, consistently shifting in dynamics, frequency, and any other modulating metric Arca has mastered. The inability to cling to the familiar comfort of musical linearity in Entrañas is what, perhaps unexpectedly, makes it such an emotionally immersive work. Unshackled from the conventional trappings of cyclical, mechanical structuring, a moment of sound is never identically reproduced on the record. Each minute sound is a unique, fleeting phenomenon similar to those of organic processes, where each footstep on the leafy ground produces its own irreproducible crunch, existing only in that very moment. It is with that same impermanence that Entrañas excels in evoking such powerful emotional resonance through its warped landscapes. The melancholic swell of a synth pad is heightened to a mournful dirge when paired with Arca’s stunning vocals, particularly on the final track Sin Rumbo. Heretofore untrodden ground for Arca’s mixtapes, his addition of clear, melodic singing adds further grounding to the organic atmosphere he’s crafted.

Samples from Total Freedom, Cocteau Twins, and even works of film are peppered throughout, offering a sound as diverse in sourcing as it is in content. At around 5 minutes and 30 seconds, a voice proclaims reservedly: “Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shorts and boots, because it’s okay to be a boy, but for a girl to look like a boy is degrading, because you think being a girl is degrading.” Taken from the film Cement Garden, (and subsequently repurposed by Madonna) the quote takes on a new urgency surrounded by the eerie, dissonant feedback that Arca provides. Stripped of its origin and recontextualized, the quote is weaponized. Eventually the feedback is joined by heavily distorted percussion and a sample from Beatrix by Cocteau Twins, evocatively juxtaposing in the understatedness of the quotation and the unrelenting power of the atmosphere. Embedded in this juxtaposition lies the implication that, inherent in a tacit acceptance of unjust social conventions is an active, oppressive violence that cannot be delegated to passivity.

With the great diversity of style and form present on Entrañas, it is hard to imagine tiring of its mutations. Elements of industrial stand alongside those of hip-hop and electronica, but to ascribe genre specificity to this sprawling epic would be to do it a great disservice. The organizing principle is its disorganization, the form its formlessness. It is made real by simulating the very chaos so central to corporeal reality, the very intangible amorphousness that composes our innards.

James Ferraro: The New Age Tapes Years

With hundreds of hours of recorded music under about 50 different names, James Ferraro can be hard to pin down.

With a catalog as prolific as James Ferraro’s, spanning dozens of musical works spread across a number of aliases, it’s hard to imagine it being cohesive. In some respects, it isn’t. From the glistening drones of the cult-inspired Heaven’s Gate to the snot-nosed freak-pop of Night Dolls with Hairspray, ascribing a thematic core to Ferraro’s music might seem counter-intuitive, yet throughout his expansive discography there remain central constructive similarities that denote the artist’s unmistakable brand. Coincidentally, “brand” may be a useful word to begin considering these similarities. However disparate his genre sourcing, Ferraro’s work is consistent in its warped use of commercial musical tropes that offers an absurdist reflection of modern life. This week, I will be concentrating on his earlier, lofi releases on his New Age Tapes record label that highlight Ferraro’s penchant for repurposing commercial pop culture.

  1. Clear

A 40 minute sprawl of analog (sounding?) synthesizers, the sonic landscape found on Clear is about as blissful as one can find in Ferraro’s catalog. The unending waves of hypnotic melody ebb and flow, muffled under the warm tape hiss of a tape recorder. Though clearly influenced by New Age music, the piece works to transcend such a crude genre classification by using an indeterminate progression typically reserved for ambient or noise music. By eschewing the structural norms of New Age music, Clear pervert’s the genre’s conceits, drawing attention to the particularities of each sound and laying bare the true alien nature of previously familiar aesthetics. This effect is amplified over time in the piece as its layering intensifies, each instrument losing its integrity under the lofi crackle that threatens to engulf the soundscape. Guitars, drums, and choirs eventually weave through the disorienting composition, yet rather than comforting the listener, the instruments only heighten the uncanny environment by repeating measures vaguely resembling commercial jingles. Clear refers to the state of nirvana in Scientology, a fitting title for a piece that evokes transcendence through artifice.

  1. Edward Flex Presents: Do You Believe in Hawaii?

Roid-raged grunts, seagull calls, and the familiar New Age synths found on Clear are all given equal representation in Do You Believe in Hawaii?, a jacked-up 80s fever dream of equal parts testosterone and flamboyance. Commercial guitar riffs and pitch-shifted beefcakes chug and grunt respectively, populating the sound-world with plasticity and artifice. Recorded on tape, the analog hum of this piece, in conjunction with its various references to 80s pop tropes, suggests an appeal to nostalgia, but not in any familiar way. The aesthetics in Do You Believe in Hawaii? heighten the past not by idealization, but by mutation. Under Ferraro’s lens, bodybuilders become grotesque monsters, the essential product of modern consumer culture’s obsession with the achievement of a transhuman ideal. By connecting the image of the bodybuilder with the low-art, consumerist excess of the 80s, Ferraro highlights consumer culture’s pervasive effect on bodies, portraying masculine “perfection” as a deformity rather than an aspiration.

Towards an Art for the Contemporary

There has been much deliberation as of late on the manner in which art should respond to its contextual imperatives. These conditions include, but are not limited to, matters of distribution, manufacture, socio-economic matrixes, technological communications, and their intermingling relationships that impact every facet of the present art world.

In the view of art theorist Suhail Malik, in order for art to contend with its essential contextual conditions it must “exit from contemporary art.” He supports this notion through first defining the logic of contemporary art, and then arguing that the preponderance of its essential axioms are in conflict with those of a formally defined art. However, to begin this discussion, the axioms of contemporary art must be clearly defined. To do so, he discusses the incompatibility between contemporary art’s appeal to universality by its claim to any art created in the “now” (the contemporary), and its inherent characteristics and specificities that form a “soft identity” removed from the former construction. “If contemporary art can be characterized,” he argues, “it is more at the level of a form of proposal, or a moment of address.” Contemporary art seeks to address the question of the conditions of contemporaneity as a unifying interrogation, but shares no “common answer.” It is, for Malik, a “meta-genre of non-identification,” or indeterminacy, that mistakenly conflates the lack of unity of the present with a responsibility for art to respond to these conditions by negating determinability. Despite the non-unifying totality of the present, each element of the contemporary can be scaled and defined and as such, a formal logic can be applied without defying some sacred code to which art is beholden. In fact, to Malik, a responsibility of art to commit to indeterminacy is in itself a repudiation of its defining characteristics because art, as a constructed concept, cannot faithfully devote itself to its negation, a lack of identification. In this way, contemporary art is also poorly suited for contending with the contemporary, for “it confuses the determinability question of what is presented with the absence of identity of the present.” In other words, there are determinable elements which define contemporaneity, and each element collectively constructs its non-unification.

The tenants of non-classification to which contemporary art adheres act as causal agents for the tendency of many artists to reject the institutional realities in which their art necessarily exists. What emerges from this is a committed escapism from the contemporary, causing disengagement from the contextual realities engrained within an individual piece, or a collection of pieces. However much an artist seeks to evade these imperatives, contemporary conditions of a piece’s distribution and consumption remain inexorable from the content. This is not to say that contemporary art rejects context as a generality, for there are myriad examples of artists adapting their pieces to be more suited for an art gallery space. In the video works of Ryan Trecartin for instance, scenes tend to appear as overwhelmingly erratic, hypersensory depictions that shirk the subtleties of traditional narrative. This method is highly adaptive for the gallery environment, as it contends with the viewing patterns of passers-by in an exhibition who might enter in the middle of the video, or stay for a few minutes and then move on. By keeping a consistent aesthetic coherency throughout the duration of the video, those viewers can leave with a more holistic sense of the piece’s essence without necessarily observing its entirety from beginning to end. In this way the artist is successful in conveying their message clearly given the immediate spatial and temporal contexts of the piece.

But what of the conditions of institutional contexts? Surely the corporate structures that dictate artistic distribution would be fertile ground for exploration in those very pieces. Though immersively engaging with corporatism is still fairly untrodden ground in the contemporary art world, some artists have succeeded in committing to these realities within their own work. A notable exemplar of this engagement is artist Tabor Robak, and his multi-screen video installations that combine the visual aesthetics of modern videogames, advertisements and social networking platforms. In conjunction with this aesthetic amalgam is a veneer of extreme gloss and visual excess in Robak’s work: blinding lens flare, 1080p displays of obsessively detailed 3d models, menus and notifications appearing and transitioning, all at a dizzyingly accelerated frame rate. The effects of this persistent use of superficiality are varied, but occur simultaneously in the viewer, producing an uneasy emotional ambiguity.

In Robak’s single-screen video 20XX, a shining, futuristic cityscape is rendered in high definition, with sleek lighting and hyperrealistic raindrops sliding across the simulated camera which at once act as agents for visual distortion and as transitional devices to trigger the subsequent scene. The world in this piece is visually stunning, depicting an idyllic, urban utopia containing countless skyscrapers drenched in a neon glow, fireworks bursting into the saturated sky, and a wide swath of visual effects that indicate the digital complexity of the virtual environment. However, it is with this immediate evocation of elation that the piece supplants extreme anxiety: the city is too clear, too pristine. The superficial effects of the environment are as delighting as they are monstrous, at once a symbol of digital accelerationism and a beacon for the vacuousness of modern consumer culture. The piece is alien, yet familiar, for the symbols contain identifiable techno-utopian aesthetics, yet deny their integrity by over-accentuating these heretofore attractive elements while diminishing others (narrative, pathos), resulting in a hyperreal environment that stresses the uneasiness of existing technology’s role in both consumer culture and utopian ideals. To add to the unease, throughout the piece, video game brand names increase frequency over time, appearing as billboards littered across the cityscape. By specifically referencing video game companies in the piece, Robak highlights the virtuality of contemporaneity as it pertains to consumerism. Video games offer virtual modes of existence which can immerse a player completely, yet there also exists a manipulative component in which developers succumb to superficial means of engagement in order to appeal to a wider audience for economic purposes. Perhaps the emotional conflict produced in Robak’s work can best be summed up by the artist himself: “There’s this shiny exterior, and there’s this sad little nugget.”

Endless avenues are available for artists to interact with systemic conditions, but to disengage is tantamount to neglecting contemporaneity. Indeterminacy as the unifying artistic mode only permits those concepts in which a consensus of non-identification has been established. By directly immersing art in the aesthetic or procedural values of these systems, perhaps the dialogue on the norms and practices of the art world can be shifted towards a rejection of the consensus, towards an art truly fit for the contemporary.