2015: The Neofuturist Aesthetic Technology and counterfuture in the electronic avant-garde

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We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

“Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.”
– F.T. Marinetti, “The Futurist Manifesto”

“And in addition, there was no way out. The interlocking between the defective instrument and the defective subject produced another perfect Chinese finger-trap. Caught in his own maze, like Daedalus, who built the labyrinth for King Minos of Crete and then fell into it and couldn’t get out. Pre­sumably Daedalus is still there, and so are we… There is no route out of the maze. The maze shifts as you move through it, because it is alive.”
– Philip K. Dick, VALIS

Introduction: Computer World

Where are we going? In the endless rush to predict the future, it’s easy to forget that we are shaping it. But regardless of the actual path the world is following, we tend to associate the future with electronic music. Since the technology became available, the futures we saw all seemed to require electronic soundtracks. Our aliens, our robots, our hoverboards all sound like synthesizers. Early electronic acts like Kraftwerk directly confronted the relationship between their music and technology, ultimately suggesting that they had fused with the very machines they used to synthesize their vision of the future.

In 2015’s musical landscape, a stream of music seemed to flow from the future, utilizing digital technologies like granular synthesis, processor-intensive DAW plugins, and musical programming languages such as MaxMSP to construct new images of the future through the lens of the present. This year, Arca’s bracing Mutant and Lotic’s intense Agitations shocked us with violent evocations of trauma, while Oneohtrix Point Never’s Garden of Delete and Holly Herndon’s Platform coolly critiqued our immersion in the techno-capitalist landscape. NON Records emerged with a series of sonic assaults on globalist power structures, and M.E.S.H. and Amnesia Scanner released works of deeply-realized sci-fi otherness.

In the endless rush to predict the future, it’s easy to forget that we are shaping it.

In their manipulation of digital synthesis, each of these works (and a number of others, from this year and beyond) suggested a new reading of human relationships with technology and a new approach to the possibilities available to our species. Extrapolating from these works yields a set of techniques and values that, taken together, mark the arrival of a new conceptualization of futurist music. This neofuturist aesthetic, in its manipulation of time, space, and the subject against a backdrop of technological innovation and domination, posits new approaches to the future contrary to those of past avant-gardes and current technocratic and transhumanist philosophies. Against the status quo of progress and alienation, these artists explore new worlds and, in the process, begin to reorient and transform the shape of this one.

Back to the Future: Futurism Past and Present
Art by Italian Futurist Fortunato Depero

The link between electronic music and what is known as futurism has existed since the inception of the term and outlived the avant-garde movement that invented it. In music, futurism begins perhaps with Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo’s pioneering manifesto “The Art of Noises,” seminal for its influence on 20th-century composition, its position in the roots of electronic music, and its genesis of the idea that noise can be music (an idea that John Cage would push past the Futurists’ slim ideological boundaries). Russolo called for a fusion of the dissonant tonalities of the late-romantic and early-modernist composers with the immense variety of timbres that issued from the machines of industry and war.

But the Futurists were not interested in mere mimesis of machine sounds: “We want to attune and regulate this tremendous variety of noises harmonically and rhythmically. […] Although it is characteristic of noise to recall us brutally to real life, the art of noise must not limit itself to imitative reproduction. It will achieve its most emotive power in the acoustic enjoyment, in its own right, that the artist’s inspiration will extract from combined noises.” Keep in mind, however, that the Futurists’ fascist tendencies, explicit misogyny, and program of glorifying war and technology constitute a basis for that enjoyment; see “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” by F. T. Marinetti: “We will glorify war — the world’s only hygiene — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.” Although the Futurists wanted to free art from the shackles of academia and the museum, their anticipated future aligned all too well with Mussolini’s vision of strength, masculinity, and centralized authority.

Since then, another sense of futurism has developed. Futurism might now apply to all that is anticipatory and forward-looking in art, philosophy, technology, and other disciplines. Many groups can lay claim on this basic methodology: New Age spiritualists, conspiracy theorists, and, most prominently, transhumanist technocrats and singularity Kool-Aid drinkers, who believe that the exponential growth of technology will result in a magnificent transcendence of human limitations (including even mortality, for some), which will eventually culminate in the rise of hyper-advanced artificial intelligence, triggering a new, post-human stage in history. Although the New Age has obvious, direct ties to music, it’s important to note that the transhumanists have links too; much ado surrounded the tech industry’s attendance and capital-based privilege at this year’s Burning Man, where EDM reigns over a vast pseudo-TAZ. It’s not surprising that the tech industry looks to EDM for its soundtrack; they expect a slow-burning but exponential acceleration toward the all-encompassing bass-drop of the singularity, when artificial intelligence will outpace human technology and explode in the birth of a godlike supersentience. Along the way, lots of money will accumulate in the pockets of those who best promote that acceleration.

The neofuturist aesthetic critiques the futures that these movements offer while preserving its own anticipatory orientation. Neither utopian nor fully dystopian, works in this mode project a complex future contrary to the Futurist and transhumanist ideal, where the human subject places itself in tension with technological progress, seeking liberation in the spaces between the cracks of the monolith of capitalism. The neofuturist aesthetic is not a unified artistic movement; some artists working within this mode collaborate while others work in total independence. The futures that each artist offers differ, sometimes greatly. However, they all make use of a pool of technologies, techniques, and values that, when combined, fuse the structures of technocratic futurism with their antitheses. Beyond mere critique or cynicism, this synthesis allows these artists to posit a counterfuture of resistance, and beyond it a faint glimmer on the horizon: hope.

The Explosive Event: Temporal Rupture and the State of Emergency
ISIS target hit by drone strike

Perhaps the most dominant element in Futurism’s aesthetic program is its apotheosis of speed. Speed represented the acceleration of human potential and the violent desire for progress. That desire is also present in the transhumanists, who see technical progress as an inevitable, exponential continuity building toward the realization of the technological utopia. Neofuturism attacks these myths of temporal development and introduces structures that deepen the complexity of their temporal arrangements. By representing acceleration and then arresting it, by inserting ruptures and breaks into seemingly ideal continuities, by inducing an explosive and explicit state of emergency counter to the suspended and indefinite emergency of the hegemonic structure, the neofuturist aesthetic disrupts the aesthetic paradigms of its predecessors and posits a new organizing temporal motif for its program: the event.

Music moves. It must. Electronic music often moves along a fixed path set by the sequencer, the autocratic clock that organizes all of its notes. This phenomenon is perhaps most important in club music, where synchronized rhythms define the motions of bodies in space. But even the earliest examples of dance music include brief disruptions in that flow, just enough to play with the audience’s expectations or to set up an inevitable return of the beat. The bass-drop in EDM is but one example of this mode; subtler methods, as employed in works like Container’s excellent LP from this year, feature brief cutouts and skips that create anticipation in their sudden arrest of the track’s motion — but the motion forward typically continues shortly afterwards. By contrast, the neofuturist works from this year exhibit a sense of motion and arrest that is often built directly into the rhythmic structure of the track. Moments of arrest receive a sonic weight that is equal to that of the motion forward. In this way, stillness checks the acceleration of speed, complicating the symbol of forward progress with images of crisis.

This effect might be most apparent in the opening phrases of M.E.S.H.’s 2015 release Piteous Gate. Plodding stabs of bass walk forward, broken by immense silences. Their lurching pace evokes the character of a lumbering space-hulk, prevented from moving faster due to its massiveness, slowed in its speed by the sheer immensity of the space it attempts to traverse. By employing silence (and the software that echoes into it), “Piteous Gate” defines the musical space as a cold and void expanse, ready to receive any motion and dissipate all energy. Silence is vast, much more vast than the technical apparatus that claims hegemony. The silence of nature, much derided by the Italian Futurists, is an empty, violent sea, and all endeavors to cross over into it, however swiftly the marches run, are completed only at its behest. M.E.S.H. focuses this technique on “Methy Imbiß,” which features accelerating bursts of drum patterns ending in abrupt stoppage. These drums feature an almost acoustic quality, as if struck by human hands unable to sustain the exponential increases in speed forced upon the tempo. They fall silent before they continue, resting before laboring again at the accelerating machine. Here, the arresting element is not the vastness of space, but the sputtering of the technical apparatus itself. Although technology may serve some liberating function, it also exhausts its operators. The future it offers requires obedience to its organizing directive: efficiency at any cost.

The neofuturist aesthetic disrupts the aesthetic paradigms of its predecessors and posits a new organizing temporal motif for its program: the event.

The neofuturist aesthetic’s motif of the event relies on interruption. Silence slices the wall of sound into fragments, revealing each moment of sounding as a choice, each of which can operate independently in the runtime of the track, shifting the weight of signifying from the forward progress of the song to the individual moment that is occurring. Motion still continues, inexorably forward, as all time is bound, but any particular event in the continuum now receives its own specific mass. This is nowhere more apparent than in the title track of Arca’s Mutant (though “Sinner” and other tracks from the album feature similar structures). Similarly to “Piteous Gate,” sound-masses explode between abrupt silences, but here, any given arrival of sound yields its own variety of elements: shredded vocal samples, huge bass vibrations, rising tones sputtering out into nothing, delaying drum hits, bell tones — any category outlined in Russolo’s “Art of Noises” is available at Arca’s touch. The track’s structure reorganizes itself around each mass, undermining any projection of simple continuity. Throughout the neofuturist aesthetic, this reorganization takes precedence over the mere development of an initial idea or theme.

Umberto Boccioni’s bronze sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913

In other futurisms, continuity has been a crucial aspect of the structure of their given works. Umberto Boccioni’s Futurist sculpture of a man running extends motion through time into physical space, revealing “unique forms of continuity” in its beautiful calculus of speed. Many forms of club music would simply cease to function without continuity — DJs strive to ensure that the rare break in continuity only heralds its return. Further, continuity is tied directly to the technological/industrial project in itself, as any stoppage in the continuous function of a machine, any disruption of the workflow, or any radical break in a typical structure can be costly. Neofuturism’s rupturing of continuity complicates its structure, revealing that forward motion through time can result not only in mere progress but also in a series of intricate and novel events that guide the future along unexpected courses.

Often, these events can cause breaks in continuity so drastic that they lack all resemblance to previous movements within the same track. On Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Freaky Eyes,” the first half of the track begins with swirling, tense ambience, out of which an organ melody arises, eventually accelerating as an alien vocal synth enters. The combined scene builds to a seemingly impossible velocity, signaling an oncoming climax — it then disappears into a single tone. In its place, just as suddenly, appears a brand new melody, a rock chorus. Lopatin gives us just a few moments to absorb the shift, then shifts drastically again, feeding the straightforward, sugary rock melody into a granular synthesis engine, tearing it to shreds until it too disappears, giving way to a descending synth line.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

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