In 1985, conceptual composer and experimental DJ Christian Marclay released one of the earliest documents of glitch music, Record Without a Cover. It was an LP sold without any sleeve and with strict directions not to “store in a protective package.” Even by the time it reached record store shelves, the LP bore signs of the handling of the commercial supply chain, and the composition itself continued to change over the course of the record’s life, developing chance pops and skips as its surface wore. It involved the listener in its compositional process, even if just as a threat to shred their record player’s stylus. Marclay’s release was as much about the medium of the sound as it was about the sounds contained on the record — as Marclay put it, it was “a record about records.”
In the same way, the glitch music made by 90s pioneers such as Yasunao Tone, Pan Sonic, and Oval undertook an exploration of the fallibility of digital sound — they made CDs about CDs. Sounds of skipping CDs, glitches, clipping, distortion, quantization noise, and sound card background noise were the raw material for their often heavily cerebral compositions. Glitch was a sort of process music that endeavored to make the process of producing, retrieving, and reproducing digital information audible in the final recording. Recently, glitch musician Mark Fell recorded a series of audio documentaries for Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art entitled “Composing with Process” that explores ways of writing music that takes the composer out of the driver’s seat through the use of fixed systems, algorithms, and random operations. The documentaries present music such as Thomas Brinkmann’s pummeling minimal techno produced from Fibonnaci numbers, Iannis Xenakis’ computer music generated by computerized algorithms, and a 1912 composition by Marcel Duchamp that emerges from chance operations involving numbered balls falling through funnels.
Mark Fell’s process music, both on his own and as half of the glitch duo SND with Matt Steel, has resulted in some of the most austere and challenging electronic music of the past decade. His recent pair of releases, the albums Multistability (on Alva Noto’s Raster-Noton label) and UL8 (on Editions Mego) are quietly engrossing, made of patient, repeating sequences of clicks and tones that overlap, but not in any traditional counterpoint. Instead, each sequence retains its own distinct, unchanging shape, and bumps against the others like Tetris pieces. Both albums have the same rigorous algorithmic construction, but Multistability has a lushness and cohesion that makes it the more inviting of the two.
One happy byproduct of the process-approach to music is the discovery of novel compositional forms when the control is taken out of the musician’s hands. When the composer sets up a process that is independent of their control, new logics can arise to organize the track. In an interview with The Wire, Mark Fell talks about attempting to subvert the expected “narrative” of a piece of music — he compares it to attempting to play chess without a board. On Multistability and UL8, musical passages produced by what Fell describes as “extremely basic” pattern-generating systems are manipulated into variations and arrangements that are related to one another but do not repeat. (One of the songs he features in “Composing With Process” is the Manchester duo Autechre’s “Flutter” from 1994, which also experimented with a constantly shifting rhythm as a protest against a national anti-rave measure that prohibited any gatherings where music was played that featured a “succession of repetitive beats.”) To further complicate the simultaneous similarity and difference of the tracks, in Multistability each permutation is developed into a sister composition that takes the original process and develops it into a different direction with different sounds, leaving each unresolved.
Most tracks on Multistability are composed of shifting lances of tone shadowed by dry drum machine sounds. Standout track “10-A/ 11” is the densest and most gripping song on the album and a triumph of digital deconstruction. It streams linear circuits of classic Chicago house piano chords and synthesized handclaps into a digital Mondrian. Its companion track puts the original into a blender, speeding the sounds into chattering splittercore. “4-B” is perhaps the most tastefully composed song, with deep bass drops rounding out Fell’s characteristic tinny drum slaps and stuttering melodies.
The sounds on UL8 are, to an even greater degree than on Multistability, flat and highly-synthetic oscillations — it is music of sustained test-tones chopped into stark, inscrutable armatures that twist like a Calder mobile. This is not full music in any sense, but you feel as if you could trace the course of each of the two-dimensional waveforms through stark, empty space. Indeed, much of this music comes from Fell’s sound installations; “Vortex Studies” consists of excerpts of an art installation that synchronized a flashing blue light with variably modulated square waves. This CD is much more demanding of the listener’s attention and reasoning than Multistability, but offers its own pleasures, such as the tantalizingly tinny spazzcore of “The Occultation of 3C 273,” and the final movement to “Acids in the Style of Rian Treanor,” which has the heft and force of a much fuller song.
The stage of the digital era that made glitch music necessary has surely passed. Composer Kim Cascone declared, in “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music,” that the ubiquity of digital technology means that “[t]he medium is no longer the message; rather specific tools themselves have become the message.” CDs are retro by this point; we instead manipulate pure digital sound through a variety of programs and platforms. Glitch’s signature micro-editing of digital information is available to anyone who puts their iPod on shuffle. The ubiquity of Auto-Tune might present an example of the current direction of post-glitch experimentation. The overt misuse of that digital pitch-correcting application is a type of process music, in that it highlights its own artificiality, its status as something that was manipulated by human intervention through a digital tool. James Blake’s distorted R&B samples, the chopped-and-screwed vocal sounds of witch house, and the DIY phenomenon of “U Smile 800% Slower” all seek out this intersection of human and process-as-tool.
Mark Fell declares that ever since childhood, for him “there was something much more beautiful (and perhaps more emotionally-charged) about a sustained square-wave than any guitar solo.” Traditional beauty and emotionalism is hard to find on either album, but Fell doesn’t hold back on the mysterious final track “Death of a Loved One,” which features a stunningly lyrical glitch lament that really sounds as if it is a singing voice. This is also the only moment on either album that offers no clue as to the process of its composition. Upon repeated listens, it remains as mysterious as death, and yet it communicates just as much as the other tracks, with their exhaustively documented processes, about our relationship to the technologies through which we know ourselves.