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.”
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.