The Bandcamp avant-garde (is that a thing?) calls nearly everything about digital music into question except Bandcamp. The online spaces that have nursed precarious relationships with the industry and legal institutions in order to allow artists the freedom to stream and/or sell their records are frequently taken as the ideological negative space against which works are to be perceived. And why not? Without platforms like Bandcamp, we might not have a lot of great music in the first place, and more importantly, critics wouldn’t be able to debate the terms of compartmentalization with regards to the existence of a “Bandcamp avant garde.” Still, so-called great art should assume the tone of an interruption and of a displacement from even the most innocuous of prior ground. The jury is still out on the greatness of this new work from the anonymous(?) figure behind /F, Susan Balmar, and several other projects, but the attitude is certainly there.
As with many such digital releases, ƒ sj J¶JF : Pq~; ???/a/a/ J#(. . a a9 is a multimedia experience, rich with subtext. The album art depicts small computer hardware placed inside a cassette case on top of a flour tortilla, an assemblage suggesting at once technical obscurity, mystery of origin, and presentation for judgment or consumption. The “description” field gives little in the way of faithful release information, but instead serves as a poetic accompaniment to the sound itself, neither of them being any more or less strange and difficult than the other. Just as ƒ sj J¶JF : Pq~; ???/a/a/ J#(. . a a9 stutters along with a fleeting beauty lifted from the past and an incompleteness of formulation, the attached description reads like arbitrarily copied fragments of several internet spam messages. Incomplete words and tag-like keywords are held against excerpts of advertisements and reviews of music software, seeming to collapse the levels at which computer music is created and heard, and welcoming the disastrous consequence.
The music itself reminds me of some other underground computer music (see “others”) with the glitchy schizophrenia of its several voices, the high-frequency whine of its sine waves, and the existential ambiguity of its latching on to brief melodies and traditional forms. The longest track, “(cs)_0(t),” is also the most self-similar and straightforward song, accommodating a house beat for several minutes. Still, this doesn’t count as an indulgence of the listener’s comfort, as is made evident by the track’s utter collapse into darkness around the six-minute mark. I almost wish that the album would take greater advantage of some of these resonant moments, but I also recognize that my disappointment is important to the fulfillment of a purpose. I’m reminded of early remarks about musique concrète and the necessity of juxtaposing dissonant elements in order to achieve the effect of the literal displacement of the listener, as the sound object is perceived as being in several places at once.
As is the case with all associated projects, /F refuses to stop at anonymity — complete obscurity, lack of identifiable structure, formal “nonsense,” and ungooglability are key. ƒ sj J¶JF : Pq~; ???/a/a/ J#(. . a a9 interrupts the very moment of its genesis in a cyber underground dictated by capital and techno-optimism by scrambling the language of its medium and returning it, like a computer operator spitting out an error message. /F is a person, but for the time being, I like to think that it’s some digital spectre, programmed to revel in search engines’ inability to locate it and critics’ inability to place it in a coherent tag cloud. Communicative, indexical language is probably the wrong instrument to use in discussion of /F, but I take comfort in knowing that this review will eventually be really, really hard to find.