Giant Claw Soft Channel

[Orange Milk; 2017]

Styles: chiaroscurotronica
Others: Charles Ives, John Oswald, James Ferraro, Sean McCann, Oneohtrix Point Never

“Rather amazingly, people are still saying things like ‘this sounds like the internet.’”
– Nick James Scavo

That Giant Claw unmistakably does sound like the internet and that chamber-residing analogues like Sean McCann (usually, rhetorically) do not exposes a dichotomy at play in how we collectively imagine and critically enforce what “post-internet” music essentially sounds like or looks like. In a sphere of interest increasingly shaped by digitization, saying something “sounds like the internet” narrows our critical vocabulary, focuses our gaze on certain familiar fixtures in rooms that may be hiding masterworks of elephantine architecture in plain sight, and allows for a kind of velvet rope policing that admits certain aesthetics into our Museum of Internet while appropriating liminal aesthetics into smaller World Exhibitions or back into obscurity. Characterizing a generation of music based on its preferred and accessible building materials (R&B and pop samples, clips of recognizable software noises, and MIDI instruments à la James Ferraro and Holly Herndon) and linear spacial acquisition narratives (hyper-local hangouts into ostensibly utopian digital planes) obscures a rich and global history of interpolation, emergence, and techno-liberation. By employing this term “post-internet” as a valid qualifier for music that is not only made possible by the internet but also somehow sounds like its coursing invisibility, critics are missing what makes individual works interesting and potentially liberating as they move through time, uniquely interacting with structures critics so often use to define them. Soft Channel, in its rigor and variegation, resists simple temporal and stylistic classifications, stretching through its complexities tired ways of thinking about how the internet interacts with daily life.

Soft Channel follows 2015’s Deep Thoughts and 2014’s DARK WEB and expands upon their themes of authorship, authenticity, information overload, interruption, and cultural determinism while also compositionally blurring lines between curatorial values that we associate with “post-internet” composition and classical values of dynamism and sentimentality. Crucially, Soft Channel’s contrasts between pop culture referents (I think I heard Adele in “Soft Channel 001” somewhere?) and all those fluttering orchestral swells that punctuate them illuminate more about how we interact with collision than it does this particular convergence itself. Much how late-19th-century American composer Charles Ives combined popular American music and church hymns with experimental music techniques, Keith Rankin (an ex-TMT contributor) is continuing a rich tradition of combining pop standards with “art music;” it just so happens that his memetic referents are reproduced here through digital means.

While this context is certainly somewhat unique in a larger scheme of instrumental music — like how an oil painting of this piece with a dimly-lit laptop in its frame would stand out in a gallery of landscapes, portraits, and decorative still lives — what’s remarkable here is Soft Channel’s sporadic composition, rich texture, and stark contrasts. This is chiaroscurotronica, high-contrast experimental electronic art, an updated, sonic extension of Joseph Wright of Derby’s high-contrast paintings exploring an Enlightenment-era Europe torn between religion’s mystical appeal and science’s bold promises. If Soft Channel is bound by temporal context, it’s that its subject is 21st-century anxiety over our own socially-constructed sense of dissonance between alchemical solutions and calculated innovations.

However, critically foregrounding this anxiety’s supposed cause — namely, increased computation — eclipses what individual works like Soft Channel illuminate about how we deal with information overload as it impacts our daily functions. If my experience with Giant Claw’s music, especially Soft Channel, clarifies anything about how consumers can make sense of this trend of fast-accumulating data smog, it’s that we can (and naturally often do) offset it by recontextualizing ostensibly disparate referents so that they fit together in a way that affirms humanity’s proclivity for embracing both logic and sentiment. Soft Channel diffuses this darkening cloud of information by disrupting it through juxtaposition of classical composition with software-generated indeterminacy and aestheticizing its resultant patterns.

But this shorthand of marking certain modes of expression “post-internet” has implications for critical shortsightedness. Reducing info-chaos as a theme into a recognizable stylistic category instead of studying each expression’s particularities privileges listening strategies that rely heavily on stereotype over details that, in any one case, could obfuscate, subvert, affirm, problematize, or completely misalign with our first impressions. Like all structural frameworks, this grouping of certain works together based on how or when they are compiled makes us focus on what’s replicated or shared between these works, not what is distinctive about how each interacts with its environment through time. For example, Soft Channel feels profoundly different than its MIDI-heavy predecessor, Deep Thoughts. Simon Chandler, in his review of Deep Thoughts, calls it “some kind of musical isolation tank,” offering, “its synthetic removal of almost every point of reference dispossesses the listener of pretty much every point of departure for her thoughts.” Its appeal, then, is in its lack of familiar referents, facilitating a free association of deep thoughts on our part as listeners and as critics. In contrast, Soft Channel is brimming with cultural referents dispersed through fragmented voice, not unlike ADR’s R&B- and choral-inspired Throat.

“Soft Channel 003” is Soft Channel in microcosm; it starts with an undulation of static that culminates in a short burst of voice and strings, promptly interrupted by a period of silence. This pattern of sound-bursts (both acoustic and electronic) that are abruptly cut-off by periods of silence continues throughout, each fragmented phrase stripped of resolution. “Soft Channel 004” is less interruptive, yet arguably even tenser, as thunderous strings comprise most of its bulk. Both tracks are unsettling for profoundly different reasons: “003” because of its perpetual lack of resolve, “004” because of its oppressive orchestral cadenzas. Both, incidentally, are built on samples, which is far from a new practice. In his 1985 essay “Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as Compositional Prerogative,” John Oswald asks, “Can the sounding materials that inspire composition be sometimes considered compositions themselves? Is the piano the musical creation of Bartolommeo Cristofori (1655-1731) or merely the vehicle engineered by him for Ludwig Van and others to manoeuver (sic) through their musical territory?” As merely a “post-internet” work, Soft Channel is an extension of Oswald’s groundbreaking (and crucial) Plunderphonics and Plexure records, yet as a cohesive work with its own inspirations and themes (soft as an abbreviation for both software and softness), its effect is much more profound than its function as an ear-stretching tool or as simply an example of a compositional prerogative fulfilled.

Through a structuralist lens, works that cosmetically seem preoccupied with information proliferation in a digital world (and thus purportedly share a common interest in digital naturalization) lose dimension. What is even more problematic, however, is that “post-internet” as a category often excludes individuals and communities of artists that its prescribers imagine lack meaningful access, when in reality, these same individuals and communities are either participating in ways that are still seen as fringe (or “folk”) or cut out of this conversation entirely. Undoubtedly, the internet has had profound effects on how information is processed and disseminated, but there remains inequity between who this innovation actually impacts positively and whose art is perceived as demonstrating its pervasiveness. Piratón Records’s essential new compilation No hay más fruta que la nuestra 2, for example, comprises records from female hip-hop, electronic, and lo-fi artists from Central and South America and is crucially missed in contemporary discussions of “post-internet” work, despite that its political aim is against male-dominated curation and its distribution is solely digital. Even though Giant Claw has consistently been laden with this tag, Soft Channel’s diverse referents and compositions work against narrow distinctions that denote certain kinds of expressions as digitally native and others as digitally developing. By drawing from a wide palette of sounds, Rankin profanes classical music and elevates electronic music without cheapening Soft Channel’s themes through quirky postmodern means. “Soft Channel 006,” which ushers in an end suite of sorts, is moving because of Rankin’s direction; it begins with a plucked cello phrase that recalls Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G before a cavalcade of synthesized noises join in counterpoint, complicating its composition without interrupting it. Following its increasingly-jumbled yet spirited progression suggests that another theme of Soft Channel is how changing technology impacts our search for meaning in new noises. Closers “Soft Channel 007” and “Soft Channel 008,” a seamless collage of breaths, arias, echoes, melismatic trails, and skipping-CD sounds foregrounds a struggle between climax and malfunction, burying vaporwave’s exposed wires in the debris of human perseverance.

Ultimately, Soft Channel is Rankin’s most ambitious work; its compositional complexity actively challenges our structuralist labels, its intentional use of juxtaposition focuses attention on its themes of working through and with new information, and its variety of antecedents and compositional strategies challenges how certain categories exclude and further marginalize expressions and works from a productive and equitable conversation. Rather amazingly (though not surprisingly), Rankin has succeeded at pushing us past his limits as a composer and musician, challenging how we can make sense of noise in Replica’s silicon wake. Soft Channel brings us out of the DARK WEB, solidifies our wandering Deep Thoughts, and softens our resolve, even as its own breath is left suspended in mid-air, between lung and screen, where it retains its purest form.

Eureka!

Some releases are so incredible we just can’t help but exclaim EUREKA! While many of our picks here defy categorization and explore the constructed boundaries between ‘music’ and ‘noise,’ others complement, continue, or rupture traditions that provide new forms and ways of listening. Not all of our favorites will be listed here, but we think each EUREKA! album is worthy of careful consideration. This section is a work-in-progress, so expect its definition to be in perpetual flux.

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