Introduction: American Sublime
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.
– Wallace Stevens