2016: A Musicology Of Exhaustion

Image: NYC subway wall & burning trash miniature (source: All The Small Things Miniatures)

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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
Screencap from Frank Ocean’s Endless visual album

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.


Desubjectivation, Reactivation

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,
The divertimento;
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,
Dismissed, absolved
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.

“Mozart, 1935”
– Wallace Stevens

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