Styles: surreal glitch, chance music, process
Others: Hecker, Autechre, Alva Noto, Holly Herndon
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a piece of music more disturbing than 2011’s How Wheeling Feels When The Ground Walks Away. Created by James Hoff and originally performed live as an immense 8-channel mix, it is an “aural landscape” of around 18 minutes of real-life audio from historic riots, ranging from “a John Cage concert in Italy to a Dead Prez concert at Evergreen State College, and in the streets during political unrest in India, China, and Greece,” according to a gallery description for the show. All the sound sources are from real riots and real protests where violent situations of some sort occurred, often with the implication of mass destruction of property. It has the real sounds of breaking things and burning things, and the real bludgeoning of people — and there are a lot of screaming women. To top it off, Hoff manipulates it so it thumps and quivers rhythmically, as if pumped into the ears of someone in a frantic run or as if listening to it while trying to escape a riot.
How Wheeling Feels might’ve been “indulgent” to some, but it intriguingly forced the listener to confront its candid approach to mortality, with its veracity lending it a grave intensity and extreme viscerality that asked us to reconcile (violent) voyeurism with artistic appreciation. Blaster explores similar ideas because its source material is genuinely twisted by the contents of the “Blaster” virus, a computer worm that infected Microsoft operating systems in 2003, which here corrupts and distorts audio files into callous, unpredictable patterns. While the album still thrives on the voyeuristic appeal of irreversible destruction, it eschews the bombast and easy press of “riot noise” for a different kind of physicality.
Blaster is the first work from Hoff to be released on PAN since 2011, and it finds him working with notions of virality to express a brutal attack in his music. This manifests as a series of small song experiments all sourced from a finite sample set, a 15-minute raw body of electronic drum loops twisted into metallic glitch shapes. Split evenly between process and proof of concept, Blaster is both album and methodological tool intended for others to sample from, offering itself as a figurative petri dish to be used as fodder for future work under the guise that it seeks anyone willing to “spread the virus.” Blaster uses this virus concept to great ends while also exploring ideas of corruption and body horror in a slyly anthropomorphic way, bolstering its uncanny facade.
But it’s also a conflation of two languages: the loose, musical, legible rhythms of the human, and the precisely destructive script of the automatic. Hoff incorporates this theme both visually and aurally: Blaster’s album art seems designed to be as assaulting as possible, a mean swath of bright discordant purple that decays to a sickly poisonous green. A visual moiré of violent contrast lashed with JPEG artifaction, the image is a synesthete’s worst nightmare, a representation of digital artifact suggesting both nausea and toxicity. Foregrounding the sickening glow of Blaster’s gradient are textual elements, chiefly of which is Hoff’s own name assembled roughly into the shape of a body or perhaps a coffin.
We know what these symbols represent, because we understand what a “James Hoff” is and what a coffin (or a body) looks like. We know that two “f”s at the bottom might well mean two feet. Those make sense because they are written in our code, a language of signs and symbols with a multitude of possible meanings. What we don’t (well, most of us don’t) know is what the code behind Hoff’s name means. It is machine code, and while some of it is written in English, it can only be interpreted in one way — as a script, one made only to destroy. It lacks the agency of organic language and the continuity of a complete system. It acts upon the body-analog, a soft, malleable thing, with the vicious rigors of digital damage.
Through the mixing of these languages, fluid rhythms run against glitch’s indiscriminate fracturing, where the visceral qualities of the music are realized. Like Autechre at their most deliberate or Holly Herndon at her most post-humanist, Blaster is glitch music struck with a faint imprint of sentience. Drum beats trace the imperfect contours of dance, and signals are made to mimic the textures of speech. Above all, Blaster imitates the distressing shrillness of pain; from the trepanating whirr of the opening few seconds to the staccato yelp at its sudden end, Blaster is a record of convulsing agony. It moans and screams to rival anything on Wheeling.
“ASTERBL” puts this uncanny effect to masterful use, placing a burbling bass loop under a piercing shriek of a refrain, a resounding harmonic pair reminiscent of Laurel Halo’s “Carcass”. Blaster incurvates like a bouncing marionette on “STERBLA” and trots like a trained animal on “LASTERB” with the eerie comical lilt of calliope. On “SCRATCH,” the 15-minute source file, we can hear all its injuries laid bare, a listing of all the digital anguishes imposed on its source material, one by one. It serves not only to demonstrate the virus’ capacity for screwing things up, but also to exposes the distance between processing and rearrangement for the “BLASTER” tracks, making them sound in retrospect like cruel exercises in control, rote demonstrations of reassembly, obedient responses of an enslaved brain.
In the press sheet for Blaster Hoff lauds the virus for its fastidious pursuit of a host body — he adds that it “needs” a host, preferably a popular one, even though a virus, whether it be organic or digital, cannot need, try, or will to do anything — and the rhythms of dance music are a fitting scapegoat for infection. They are ostensibly organic, a body of sounds representing fluidity and complexity, music and language, human creation. But they are corrupted, dissected. Blaster emerges, a typographic coil, a human concept twisted into an inhuman shape.