About
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This project stems from my own interest in new electronic music, in particular that which has lately been termed "Glitch Electronica." More broadly, though, I am interested in the "wrong" use of musical technology in the production of music, and the semiotics of "wrong" sounds. This project is meant to serve as a documentation of such sound production over time, and as a means to make available music that may have been written about more than it has been heard.

John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen

Before going further, a few concepts should be addressed: music, technology, and the glitch. First, whether or not the sounds contained herein constitute music is not at all the point of this project; I find the music to be much more interesting than defending it as such. Second, for the purposes of this project, "musical technology" encompasses all the tools used to create the resultant sounds. This technology may range from instruments (e.g., pianos and guitars), to record/playback hardware (e.g., CD players, phonographs, tape players, and computers) and software, to recording media (e.g., CDs, records, magnetic tape, etc.) which includes pre-recorded mass media products. Lastly, the glitch: "1. A minor mishap, malfunction, or technical problem. 2. Electron. A false or spurious electronic signal caused by a brief, unwanted surge of electric power."1, or in terms of music, "the Cut-Copy-Paste-Funk of the most unessentialist sounds ever, the clicks, the movements from one to zero made audible to and from a computermusicgeneration…" (Kösch: 2000).

My fascination with the musical appropriation of the glitch served as my point of departure, but I soon realized that, fundamentally, the aesthetic appropriation of mistakes, the unexpected, or "wrong" processes is nothing new in the arts, and especially not in music: Free Improvisation, Turntablism, and tape-based musics are all obvious examples of such practices. Of course, that is not to deny the power of such practices in a larger context: that of pop (music or culture) where formulaic processes are the key to success.

I do not think that any of the musicians represented here actively seek/sought to be successful in pop terms, but rather, to successfully execute their ideas. Their music may or may not be a reaction against pop music or pop culture, and may or may not be subversive in intent. In many cases it probably flows from the individual(s) irrespective of any grand intent. Certainly, there is no doctrine by which all of these musicians might be aligned.

Derek Bailey with his 19 string (approx.) guitar.

Instead, all of the artists represented here are united by their repurposing of musical technology in the production of new sounds. This rejection of proper (or at least time-established) use of technology is accompanied by a rejection or radical readjustment of musical traditions, which often results in the creation of new genres: Glitch Electronica, Turntablism, tape music and Musique Concrète, and Free Improvisation (especially via extended technique) are some of the more well-known genres to emerge from such experimentation.

Genre distinctions are often more useful to promoters and distributors that they are to musicians. The codification of genres is necessarily against expansion and experimentation: a common denominator of these musics. For this project, I have reluctantly grouped tracks somewhat according to genre, and I hope that those who view this project will not take these distinctions too seriously. They are of use here to demonstrate particular approaches to sound production, and are not really analogous to constructs such as pop, rock, R&B, C&W, post-rock, metal, alternative, etc. In fact, there is much cross-fertilization between the genres discussed here, if not in intent and technique, than perhaps in sonic effect. For example, much of Glitch Electronica is based on digital clicks (e.g., CD skips), digital noise, and error: effectively, the sounds of the system coming to a halt. These sounds may then be arranged, looped, repeated, processed, etc. by a variety of means. A DJ engages in a similar process when s/he places his/her hand on the record, stops its rotation, interrupts the linear groove of the track—again, bringing the system to a halt—and scratches. Similarly, in tape based music, Musique Concrète,2 and electro-acoustic music, sounds may be slowed to a crawl, sped up, reversed, distorted, etc. The cut and splice aesthetic practiced in tape based musics is spiritually akin to the "Clicks and Cuts" aesthetic of Glitch Electronica.

Manipulation of musical technology is also found in abundance in the "genre" of Free Improvisation3 and with the practice of extended technique. In this project, Free Improvisation and extended technique are unique, as the musical technology subject to manipulation is more likely to consist of traditional instruments;4 though this is not requisite, it is the focus here. Extended technique and Free Improvisation are here lumped together for convenience; one does not imply the other. However, Free Improvisation is perhaps the area in which extended technique is most widely and consistently practiced. Some examples that come to mind are Derek Bailey’s pointillism (on guitar), Evan Parker’s circular breathing (on saxophone), Keith Rowe’s (of AMM) prepared guitar, and John Coltrane’s ensembles of the late 1960s.

Jam Master Jay of Run D.M.C.

Ideologically, all of the genres represented here are very close: all involve the repurposing of various forms of musical technology. The sonic products of each genre are quite distinct (even within genres this is true). Yet another characteristic of these genres is their marginality (an obvious exception is the DJs place in hip-hop, but even hip hop is a fairly marginalized music). Simply put, they are unpopular: they are not pop and the general public does not appreciate them. The sounds are wrong.

The concept of "wrong" sound may be used to describe the music produced by the "wrong" musical processes of artists in the genres here discussed. It is interesting to consider how these sounds are coded as "wrong" and why some people find them desirable. No doubt much of it has to do with traditional concepts of music and the fact that these alternate forms of music are actually treated as such, i.e., they are recorded and distributed as records, tapes, and CDs, meant to be listened to for enjoyment, just as any other music might be. There are those who make a case for alternate forms of listening, such as "phenomenal listening," but these academic exercises are perhaps second in importance to the listener’s enjoyment.

In order to account for the perceived wrongness of sounds, I became interested in the semiotics of wrong sounds: what do these sounds signify, and perhaps more importantly, how do they signify? The answer to the first question is, in part, obvious. Glitches, for example, are sounds of error, especially in a musical context. They signal the interruption of the program and the breakdown of the system; they often lead to frustration. When we hear them coming from our stereos, we immediately get up to make sure that our record/CD/cassette player is functioning properly and that the record/CD/cassette is not damaged. These sounds also signify the interruption of a linear listening event, whether this is the lull of a 4/4 beat, or the flow of a song or of an album. Rhythmic repetition and song/album structure are all forms of narrative, the interruption of which is unsettling. It is no wonder that these sounds are not welcome in pop music. The glitch, even when looped into recognizable, danceable rhythms still seems to carry enough residual signification to prevent it from inducing pleasure in too many people.

Though less concerned with electronics, Free Improvisation and the practice of extended technique signify similarly as above. By freely dispensing with rhythm and melody as a requirement of music making activities, musicians do away with two of the traditional elements of music, as well as two forms of narrative structure. While there certainly may be a flow, and it may represent a sort of narrative, it is not one that most are used to. Further, when musicians embrace alternative techniques of sound production on traditional instruments, the listener’s expectations are again thwarted; the instruments do not sound right; the musicians do not seem to know what they are doing.

While the above may explain what these wrong sounds signify, it does not explain how they signify. This seems to be largely based on context in which the sounds are heard; this in turn is largely dependant on the type of listening in which the listener is engaged.

Christian Fennesz

Roland Barthes proposes three types of listening. The first, which Barthers calls "alert" listening, is one practiced by all beings equipped to hear. In this type of hearing, "a living being orients its hearing (the exercise of its physiological faculty of hearing) to certain indices … the wolf listens for a (possible) noise of its prey, the hare for a (possible) noise of its hunter, the child and the lover for the approaching footsteps which might be the mother’s or the beloved’s." (Barthes: 245) In this type of listening, one listens for sounds of danger or disruption within one’s environment. The way in which glitchy sounds signify disruption has already been discussed. However, this first type of listening involves expectations: one may listen for what one desires to hear. This is particularly true when one plays an album. A record/cd/cassette is played for a certain purpose, and one does so with certain expectations. The glitch subverts such expectations: it is an unwelcome surprise. To pick up Barthes’ analogy, it is like listening for the approaching footsteps of one’s lover, but being greeted by a thief. A person generally puts on an album for the purpose of enjoyment, but this enjoyment hinges on a set of expectations, for example how instruments should be played and how playback should sound. In general, the act of listening to music creates its own context; one with a set of unique indices: rhythm, melody, and timbre, which together signify "music." When one or more of these elements is removed, or altered beyond easy recognition, the product is less desireable. One who enjoys Glitch Electronica may put on a CD expecting to hear music based on the sound of damaged or skipping CDs, but for many, such sounds, even when sublimated via syncopation to a 4/4 beat, do not/cannot constitute pleasurable listening.

The second type of listening, deciphering, involves "what the ear tries to intercept are certain signs. Here, no doubt, begins the human: I listen the way I read, i.e., according to certain codes."5 (Barthes: 245). A key concept here is code. The glitch is precisely the sound of damaged code, while Free Improvisation and extended technique tend to go against various musical codes. Furthermore, they often resist structural codes, such as choruses and refrains. Thus these musics tend to resist deciphering, existing rather as inexplicable ciphers, or foreign sounds. Musique Concrète presents an interesting situation as it is based on "normal" everyday sounds. For example, the sounds of trains in Pierre Schaeffer’s Etude aux Chemins de Fer are identifiable as such. The processes to which they are subjected however, transform them into something less identifiable, more surreal, and perhaps displacing. Furthermore, collage, a staple technique of Musique Concrète, tends to skew the easy interpretations of sonic codes by its rapid and sometimes nonsensical juxtapositions. That which cannot be interpreted easily, or at all, is often shunned or feared, or at the very least, is a cause of anxiety. I suspect that this holds true for music as much as anything.

Tod Dockstader

Barthes identifies a third "entirely modern" approach to listening, which "does not aim at—or await—certain determined, classified signs: not what is said or emitted, but who speaks, who emits: such listening is supposed to develop in an inter-subjective space where ‘I am listening’ also means ‘listen to me’…" (Barthes: 246-7) This is perhaps where the potential for aesthetic enjoyment of sounds, no matter what they are, begins. It does not require "determined" or "classified" sounds, leaving the listener to engage with the sounds he or she finds enjoyable or interesting. Further, by recognizing "who speaks" or "emits" one identifies the sounds as personal expression. What exactly is expressed is perhaps less important than the fact that it is the production of another human, and I posit that this is ultimately the appeal of all music: it is a form of communication, even if the substance of the communication is nothing but sound.

 


Notes
1 Webster’s II New College Dictionary. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999: p.475.
2 Musique Concrète is a term coined by Pierre Schaeffer in the late 1940s, which refers to recorded music based on "Concrète" sound material, such as noise, and natural and musical sound, which may then be sonically modified and reconstructed as a sonic collage on tape. "Tape music" more often refers to compositions in which prerecorded tapes are used in conjunction with live performance.
3 Positing Free Improvisation as a genre is extremely difficult. As Derek Bailey writes, "[f]reely improvised music, variously called ‘total improvisation’, ‘open improvisation’, ‘free music’, or perhaps most often simply, ‘improvised music’, suffers from—and enjoys—the confused identity which its resistance to labeling indicates." Further, "[d]iversity is its most consistent characteristic. It has no stylistic or idiomatic commitment. It has no prescribed idiomatic sound." (Bailey: 83).
4 This is not always the case. One can engage in Free Improvisation with a guitar or saxophone just as easily as one can with a sampler or a laptop or a handful of rocks.
5 Interestingly, Freud regarded music as a "text to decipher." (Attali: 6)

Works Cited

Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Bailey, Derek. Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. s.l., Da Capo, 1992.

Barthes, Roland. "Listening" in The Responsibility of Forms. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985.

Kösch, Sascha. Clicks & Cuts (essay accompanying v/a compilation CD). Frankfurt: Mille Plateaux, 2000.

Suggested Reading

Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Bailey, Derek. Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. s.l., Da Capo, 1992.

Barthes, Roland. "Listening" in The Responsibility of Forms. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985.

Cage, John. Silence. Cambridge, Mass., M.I.T. Press, 1966.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge, 1979.

Manning, Peter. Electronic and Computer Music, 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Nyman, Michael. Experimental Music. New York: Schirmer Books, 1974.

Russcol, Herbert. The Liberation of Sound: An Introduction to Electronic Music. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972.

Russolo, Luigi. The Art of Noises.
(Available online at: http://www.obsolete.com/120_years/machines/futurist/art_of_noise.html.)

Schafer, R. Murray. The Tuning of the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.

Shapiro, Peter (ed.). Modulations: A History of Electronic Music. New York: Caipirinha Productions, Inc., 2000.

Sherburne, Philip. "click/" in Clicks & Cuts 2 (v/a compilation CD). Frankfurt: Mille Plateaux, 2001.
(Available online at: http://www.mille-plateaux.net/theory/download/p.sherburne.pdf.)

Toop, David. Ocean of Sound. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1995.

 


home | electronica | free improvisation and extended technique | tape music and musique concrète | turntablism