2017: Traditional Music of A Wrecked Species Dredging new instruments out of bad technology

Image: Maui's Hook from Moana (Rendering, Wood Replica) / Guitar Center

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


In 2017, the credit reporting agency Equifax took six weeks to notify its users that the company was hacked on a scale that immediately necessitated a tectonic resignation of identity. Identity was damaged, wrecked by the release of exposed personal data, including Social Security numbers, for 143 million users. Earlier, German automaker company Volkswagen commissioned some of the most expensive few lines of code ever written, drafting a “defeat device” to fool US emissions testers; VW bugs spurted classical amounts of nitrogen oxides in secrecy, concealed by a spectral, boosted MPG expression. Meanwhile, in the sky, Samsung’s smartphones burst into flames in the hands of customers on airplanes, as archetypical power-elites were humbled by the exposé of Lee Jae-yong’s scandalous bonds in South Korean politics. On the web, a tweet bot designed as a “machine learning project” for human engagement conversed with 18- to 24-year olds. The bot learned from them and, within 24 hours, was bragging about drugs, asking for sex, and opining right-wing ideology, only to be decommissioned the following day.

And, on a much humbler note, and without undermining the scale of these technological breakdowns, it’s a personal travesty to report that occasionally when Photoshop CC is opened in Mac OSX, the computer cursor flickers uncontrollably and ghost-like on browser links. Even our biggest tech providers can’t seem to program a mouse cursor correctly.

In this manner, at the end of 2017, we are left continuing to wonder about myths of progress and breakthroughs in technology, especially after recent political turns. In music, a discourse that we have perpetually and often incorrectly registered with regards to its aesthetic, conceptual, or technical progress, we can perhaps investigate these myths by turning our ear toward the distribution of threadbare music technology and its breakdown across its applications and expressions: the ubiquity of the digital-audio workstation; of analog, digital, and granular synthesis; of sampling techniques; and, of course, of instruments and their various practices and assemblages. When we listen to music, are we listening explicitly to the novel regimentation of these various instrumental technologies? To avoid this rather bare picture of music-making, would it not be more novel to steer our analysis toward the chaotic apparatus of the technology at hand, to consider its collapse in containing the already wrecked and often unclear projects of human beings?

Instead of progress, we can perhaps hear more clearly the complete limits of the current technology of music and its distributions — limits that are heard in 2017’s subversive music that technology could neither sufficiently contain nor adequately express.

This essay traces technological breakdown through a review of music in 2017 that addressed the limits of technology in four ways: fictive speculation (Rashad Becker, Kara-Lis Coverdale, Quantum Natives); mythological weaponization (Yves Tumor, Joanne Robertson & Dean Blunt); technical invention and innovation (Yasunao Tone); and, finally, re-instrumentalizing technology into perhaps something more fundamental than progress (Klein, M.E.S.H.).

Parallel to this conversation is the conceptualization of authorship as it relates to technology. Within this essay, there exists a paradoxical tension of the instrument occupying the position of the author; yet, within this territory, authorship is also “wrecked,” damaged and mangled in its formal countenance as a utility for the goals of “traditional” authors: authors as human subjects or authors as discursive fields. Because of this, technology and its limitations are considered as mapping out a field of possible activities and statements that are expressive but impermanent installations. Simply put, for this essay, equating technology as authorship allows us to occupy a territory in which practices develop in ways that include the possibility of failure.

More than an aesthetic, style, or technique, technology can be understood as an instrumental replacement of the notion of authorship across music’s discursive issues, gaps, and struggles. Here, technology is discourse and is the author of that very discourse’s collapse: its bankruptcy, its obsolesce. In the function of history, replacing a notion of authorship from the individual to that of the technology available instrumentalizes the discourse back to its material specificity — a sonic elaboration feeding back into a situation that must correct itself endlessly. Here, shopworn technology is mapped on accounts of failure rather than the notion of progress. It traces the means of production as they fail to model the productive flows of technological users. In this way, if we allow technology (instruments) to become the author of music, then the blame of failure isn’t modeled onto the identity of an author as a subject; rather, the failure envelops the entire material of the world.


Fiction: Insufficiency
Image courtesy Quantum Natives

The insufficiency of technology as a container or measure for music allows the authoring of music to more readily be considered as a speculative practice. In this model, one that installs instruments as music, music takes on a chaotic voicing that simply can’t be totalized according to logic or our attempts at criticism. Instead, music is pure fiction — not in the way that fiction isn’t “real,” but in the way that fiction is becoming, since it can’t be sufficiently captured by technology. Although we would have it that technology progresses music like a logic or discourse working through scales of abstraction and prediction, it is the very breakdown of this model that fuels technology’s insufficiency, fictionalizes its practice, and instrumentalizes its authorship.

In this way, Rashad Becker’s Traditional Music of a Notional Species is music created by a species that exists only in theory or as a suggestion: a fictional species, a species insufficient in making itself real. Becker’s speculation of a notional traditional music is a gesture implicit to the creation of all music. It is already the case that our tools (modular synthesis, in Becker’s case) are insufficient to author a “real” music according to our species’ desire for a logical, coherent, or “sufficient” production of music. Instead, Becker’s music is a deeply mysterious amalgamation of grotesque, polyphonic sweeps and swells that render notional the profound ecstasy, cathartic practices, and sublime frequencies of humanity’s far-flung traditional music. The sonic traditions that Becker references through his “Chants” and “Dances” mirror the mythical affect and spectral sound of our ancient and early musics: chants, incantations, repetitions, cycles, drones, and gusts.

On record, Becker summons his technology (or technology summons Becker) to dance in a general ritualistic tone, recalling futuristic court rooms and regal, alien imagery. In this space, Becker clarifies the obsessive timbre of synthesis into oblong, shiny forms that recall bowed surfaces, microtonal drones, the tapping of small hand drums synchronizing as a filtered, insectoid Gagaku. Yet the technology of synthesis inevitably breaks down in its reference to these other musics. In logic, “synthesis” is when truth or falsity is determinable by recourse to experience. Almost exactly in this way, Becker’s goal is synthetic (in the creation of the traditional music of a notional species as a recourse to experience), and therefore its application is positively chaotic and incomplete by attempting to synthesize a theory or suggestion as sufficient.

Similarly, Kara-Lis Coverdale’s 2017 record Grafts hybridizes classical instrumentation — in her case, organ — with electronics and digital interfaces. Grafts’s mediation of computer music and symphonic writing was enough for TMT contributor Pat Beane to speculate upon the limitations of the human when confronting the composite technology. He writes, “Alive — together. It took me over two years to set Google Docs to turn “—” into an mdash. It took me over a year to realize I could skip through tracks on SoundCloud by tapping my laptop screen. Now I touch a place and go to where I spot a transition in the mix. When I do, I’m reminded I’ve got tiny cuts all over my hands that salt and citrus sometimes enter after blood is done coming out, stinging like a song.”

It is this failure of the body that mirrors the failure of the technology; they both fail to adequately express or contain each other. They cybernetically fold unto one another. Both fail. Both are insufficient. Instead, the sound grafts and attempts. It dies, becomes, then hybridizes itself into fiction, always becoming unknown through its insufficiency. Coverdale, who has worked as an organist at Montreal’s St. John Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, grafts the organ’s patient devotion to the emotive curiosity of the digital. In this liminal space, we see breakdown and catastrophe. As Pat writes: “I don’t know. You can really hear anything you want. I heard crickets…”

This liminality is the canvas for digital collective Quantum Natives’ expansive cartography, a mapping that fantastically renders the desire to build worlds as the inevitable objet petit a (the unattainable object of desire). Often using video game engine technology paired with software-based sound design, artists like Brood Ma, Yearning Kru, and Rosen fold their worlding attempts as a generative labor map that compartmentalizes productions into an expressive methodology. The method of mapping becomes their enterprise, as real-world activities such as Werkflow (Brood Ma’s digital arts studio in London) fold onto Rosen’s P0Rtals project (a hypermedia storytelling exercise that creates and channels sonic environments and non-linear narratives).

These lateral artists have independently penned TMT-favored works, such as Brood Ma’s Daze and Yearning Kru’s Copper Veil, but even these notable projects, perhaps “definitive” of certain strands of their aesthetics, insufficiently contain Quantum Natives’ overflowing fiction, conceptual grammar, and phonic materiality. Known for their use of often tiny, earworm sounds that read as web trash or traces of burnt digital ephemera, the collective sound of Quantum Natives sounds like failed technology — tech dilapidated by an inability to contain their spread. The collective epitomizes how the insufficiency of technology allows the authoring of music to more readily be considered as a speculative practice, building false worlds made real by their failure to exist, where failure becomes a seance and incubator for new instruments, new authors.


Mythologization: Weaponization
From Yves Tumor’s Instagram

The embrace of failure, fiction, and insufficiency perhaps gives way to the acceptance of mythology as a common practice in music. The “notional species” becomes our species: wrecked, instrumentalized, and installed through technology; we become in communion with shadows, bathed by symbology and unknown significance. Suddenly, we experience a deposit of faith in this mythology, and our flight into myth allows the technology to become our weapon. As Deleuze and Guatarri state in On The Line: “Flee, but while fleeing, pick up a weapon.” We flee into WAHALLA and are defined and wrecked by the technology that brought us there; it is our language, our myth, our weapon, our author that inevitably breaks down in containing us.

WAHALLA, Dean Blunt and Joanne Robertson’s eight-track mini-album (released via a Mediafire/YouTube combo) is a weapon against the myth of significance. As Mr P describes in his review of BBF Hosted by DJ Escrow, “typically when Blunt is repurposing something — whether it’s a logo, brand, cultural phenomenon, or sound — it becomes flattened and redistributed in the vortex of his cut-and-paste, sketch-like aesthetic, with added value, added connotations, added nonsense either suffocating it until it can barely signify anymore or enlivening it to a degree that only our bodies can make sense of.” Blunt’s tactic is to weaponize the myths in articulation before and after the body is in flight, with the myths still surrounding the body when fleeing the apparatus of symbols, of stateship, and of identity that plague and entangle it.

To compensate for this entanglement, Blunt’s technology has always been wrecked: His mixes are pockmarked by the damaged, clipping sounds of guitars plugged directly into laptops; his synths are dry and exposed, his samples overused and blown-out. They highlight a deadness of sound that exaggerates their flatness, detourning mythological value. Through this, they attain a new mythology. Through this, they become weapons. Joanne’s voice is a weapon; Blunt’s deadpan murmur is weaponized. In WAHALLA, like Black Metal before it, both Blunt and Robertson mythologize, as Simon Chandler put it, the “dead white tropes of reverb-washed folk, starlit Americana, and post-ish indie rock, only to change into the dead black tropes of urbanite dub, anti-social electronica, and starkly ambient grime.” The tension between the two charts the flight of the body, the dredging of myth, the building of weapons, and the utter breakdown of any attempt at technological progress through this deadness.

This flight can also be readily heard in Yves Tumor’s Experiencing the Deposit of Faith, a mythology that prompted Evan Coral to describe Tumor as “among the disciples and the defeatists — John the Baptist, the witness par excellence, the witness as the untimely contemporary, the surveyor of one’s century, who, forsaken from one’s time and one’s self, can so see each its particular darkness and perhaps heal, perhaps atone.” Amidst the pastoral, cascading synths of the album’s first track “Synecdoche,” we hear the mix subtly rip and tear as this “atonement” breaks down.

This rip also signals at Tumor’s notoriously blistering live sets, recalling Blunt’s storied 2015 show at Market Hotel in Brooklyn where he turned up the heat on the HVAC system, filled the room with smoke, positioned bodyguards around the perimeter, and blasted digital noise over a text-to-speech reading of “the white man… I tell you over and over again” until half the crowd left. Similarly, Tumor flips idyllic sound into relentless noise, as a recent Resident Advisor live review called it: “hooded, booted and adorned in silver and gold [Tumor’s] music was raucous from the start and didn’t let up for an instant — it clawed through the system, a seething, slashing, white-hot barrel of confrontational noise.” What reads as reflective atonement within Tumor’s personal mythology on record becomes weaponized and wrathful against the limitations of technology to contain his reflection in live performance. Live, Tumor translates flight into a near unbearable onslaught of digital noise — the literal weaponization of mythological flight — the sound of technology breaking down in an attempt to contain time.


Innovation: Deviation
A wounded CD

Despite our efforts to mythologize our current tech, we still attempt to develop its language into new failures, perhaps most obviously into “machine learning” projects and artificial intelligence. While we chat absentmindedly with Siri and Alexa, our conversations rarely amount to much beyond an affirmative discourse toward the hegemonic automation of labor, as Matteo Pasquinelli discusses in his essay “Machines that Morph Logic: Neural Networks and the Distorted Automation of Intelligence as Statistical Inference” (published in Glass Bead’s Site 1). He writes, “the term Artificial Intelligence is often cited in popular press as well as in art and philosophy circles as an alchemic talisman whose functioning is rarely explained.” When peeling back the networked layers of bots, we simply see, in Pasquinelli’s language,”the new eye that capital casts on the data ocean of global labor, logistics, and markets with novel effects of abnormalization.”

Although this has devastating ramifications synonymous with the “old eye” of capitalism, the AI situation is perhaps most relevantly described here as “novel” when compared to the generic capitalized frame that has been at play and wreaking havoc for centuries. That is to say, AI as it currently stands — as a capitalized eye of our wrecked species — is no different than the general discourse between humans and technology at-large. Pasquinelli’s essay contains an introductory quote by Umberto Eco that states “no algorithm exists for the metaphor, nor can a metaphor be produced by means of a computer’s precise instructions.” As such, metaphors are insufficient in “completing” or accurately describing the statistical inference needed for machine learning and neural networks. As stated earlier, this technological insufficiency is precisely the quality of our “traditional music of a wrecked species” and precisely what allows us to dredge new instruments as metaphor, where no algorithm exists.

The work of Japanese artist Yasunao Tone, co-founder of Group Ongaku and original member of Fluxus, keenly understands the tension and compossibility between metaphor and algorithm in his “deviation” works. These works employ the breakdown of technology by literally wounding media formats: for example, the use of scotch tape and scratches on a CD (Solo for Wounded CD) or the disruption of the compression encoder and decoder processes in the creation of an MP3 file (MP3 Deviations). Tone’s technological disruptions pioneer a Fluxus history of media breakdown, his style specifically known as “Noise Media Language,” a chaotic language that has evolved alongside the history of experimental music in Tokyo and New York City, specifically. Tone’s artistic path, one charting ostensibly from literature to music, is shown in how his sound sources are “always” conversions of ancient Chinese poems. The poems are converted to images using grammatology, then converted to sound with an app designed by Ichiro Fujinaga of McGill University. This conversion from poem-to-image-to-sound, itself an innovative deviation of the original Chinese characters, can be seen as a “metaphor” not commensurate with a statistical inference. Rather, it is pure fantasy. Tone’s innovation is defined by its deviation into this fantasy: a hallucinatory and broad-based theoretical rejection of formal boundaries, genres, and other commonplace assumptions across the entire scope of his artistic endeavors.

This devious rejection as an innovative practice is seen in Tone’s recent work with artificial intelligence, specifically his latest major work on Editions Mego, AI Deviation #1, #2. Here, Tone uses neural networks to achieve a mediated and non-repetitive computer music sound. Specifically, a series of performances of Tone’s MP3 Deviation were captured and used to train Kohonen Neural Networks; these artificial intelligences responsively simulate the behavior of his performances by extracting attributes from the audio they generate. They “listen” to the output and make performance actions as if they were virtual performers. Despite this design, Tone states in an interview with Alexander Iadarola for Mousse Magazine that “working with artificial intelligence doesn’t appeal to me per se, but I find its crude model of the human brain to be very interesting. I am able to use it for something like a self-map system. I am probably contradicting myself, but the app and I don’t have a very friendly relationship. I also created a lot of sound sources for the piece because I don’t trust the AI system as a perfect art-making system. The only appeal of AI to me is the system’s crudeness and imperfection.”

Clearly, Tone’s innovative use of technology is actually defined by his antagonistic relationship with it, celebrating its breakdown, imperfection, and insufficiency as a totalizing system. In effect, this fuels his fantastic practice and gives agency to allowing the “instruments” to claim authorship of the piece (exclaimed in Iadarola’s interview title “The Piece Doesn’t Need Me”). Tone literally invents new instruments out of bad technology.

Gibson Les Pauls after Nashville Flood

Re-Instrumentalizing: Catastrophe
Cover art for Klein’s Tommy by Hannah Diamond

When I first heard Klein’s Tommy EP, the London-born, Nigerian-English artist’s debut release on Hyberdub, it made me question the whole of electronic music. Her restless, clipped sound was intent to break the now formal conventions of the decaying “Hyperdub” sound — the pitched vocals, the fragmented rhythms, the spectral presence and general urban angst. Rather, her vocal masterclass “Prologue ft atl, jacob samuel, thisisDA, Pure water, eric sings” unveiled the complete limit of the form of electronic music given our current technology. While listening to “Prologue,” I heard the same sense of limitation for a medium that Sun Ra gives to jazz: that the technology of the jazz ensemble simply couldn’t contain his expressive, futuristic, and visionary sonic presence. Instead, Sun Ra presented a speculative music that proclaimed that There Are Other Worlds. Despite being futuristic, Klein breaks down the idea of aesthetic or technological progress into something more fundamental.

Running parallel to this is M.E.S.H.’s departure from the cinematic abstraction of Piteous Gate in his new masterpiece Hesaitix, an assertion of the fundamental fantasy of audio despite its contextlessness in the ashes of 2017’s club scene. Tracks like “Nemorum Incola” pool sound in cement vats filled with birdsong, electricity, and pulsing acid-shade hues of purple-gold, while rhythmic cuts like “Coercer” are glorious achievements of spartan soundsystem psychedelia. The album has a simultaneously organic and plastic sound that is synthetically re-instrumentalized as both trash and literal weather.

M.E.S.H., in his efforts to create both a “club record” and a pensive, deeply introverted audio experience, understands how the utility of technology is not necessarily subject to abstraction, but is already abstract — already fantasy. Having shown an obvious mastery of VST digital synthesis and various club techniques on previous albums, Hesaitix is rapturous in its simple rendering of field recordings as a club instrument. One can hear the stereo-field timbre of the ZOOM recorder sharpened and cut into M.E.S.H.’s classical obsidian forms. The quotidian and personal sounds are, as PAN describes, “both formless and over-rendered, like a boneless but fleshy hand from a life drawing class.” The field recorder becomes a club tool, allowing M.E.S.H. to approach the space with the dialect of a folk technology: like a cybernetic banjo suspended and instrumentalized as a catastrophic force tuned to personal vision overlapping and submerging into shared ritualistic space.

Tommy and Hesaitix are exhausting, refreshing, new collections of neo-songs written in the dust of so many fallen artifices. The artifice, perhaps, is technological craft in electronic music, as it is outlined by pithy aesthetic tournaments such as the hardware vs. software debate, arguments of authenticity, and the aesthete taste-making of Model-DJ culture as it proliferates around the genres and subgenres of club music and culture. Rather, Klein and M.E.S.H. demonstrate visions that technology could not sufficiently contain or adequately express, visions summoning wrecked technology into life, re-instrumentalizing dead sound into animated, accelerated, strange states that celebrate and commune within dissolution.

In 2017, we are in communion with dissolution. If 2016 was the year we couldn’t cry away, drink away, work away, or get away from, then 2017 was the year that broke. And so we can’t speak summarily, but we instead scotch-tape together shards of being to construct time in timelessness, scratching our names in the rainbow-CD gradient hues of failed tech.

Our tools articulate from zero and rescind back into zero, sketching alien-instrument mirages and echoing unheard sound. This was a beautiful music. When we listen to 2017, we hear the traditional music of a wrecked species.

We chant, we dance, in wreckage.

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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