You will be asked to let the deer in the city and they will walk on your cement and broken glass, and their gentle child-like feet will bleed. - David Wikar
Music is in crisis… We all say it, but many still miss the scope and depth of the problem. Conservatives blame excessive downloads, which encroach on intellectual property and are tantamount to theft. Nominal revenues are down, and therefore the incentive to produce anything of quality is down. Progressives fault the profit motive, which encourages excess, marketability, spectacle, and sex appeal over talent. Reviewers bemoan the sheer numbers: too many artists struggling to be heard over the din. Too many untalented hacks cluttering the landscape, and for that matter, too much genuine talent. Excessive output, even from those we want to hear, and innumerable bloggers set on making celebrities out of the rest. Musicians credit all of these factors, as well as an excess of nonmusical chores that are falling back on their shoulders and crowding out their time for creation. Little things, like production, mastering, management, booking, financing. And marketing.
But others are starting to step back for the wider view, noting that the common word among all of these factors is “excess,” and wondering if the age itself is not to blame, concluding that the problem will only worsen from here, short of us finding a way to repair the current epoch. Which is not likely.
Leyland Kirby (V/Vm, The Caretaker) stated it brilliantly in a recent article he wrote for The Wire Magazine. “To maintain interest, we’re told, we have to give people more and more. The paradox here is that, although interest in music has never been as high, finding an audience and connecting with it has never been harder. Other questions arise. Most net-savvy people out there will have downloaded entire careers in an hour or two…. Is easy access to an artist’s work slowly blunting our desire or ability to connect with it?”
It is unlikely that the answer is no. For anyone who owns a computer, music reproduction and distribution cost effectively nothing. Music composition requires about $500 in various software programs and an idea or two. Gallons of ink have been spent writing about Paul’s Extreme Sound Stretch – and certainly not all of the press has been favorable – but let’s be frank. It’s a free download, it requires no training at all, and it can transform three minutes of pop garbage into twenty minutes of delicious ambient abstraction. If nothing else, it is just one more example of the ease of music composition and delivery, which provide scarcity-free supply in the face of scarcely-changing demand.
It is impossible for listeners to determine the value of music this way. Whence the current musical crisis. Anything without value is by definition meaningless.
As of mid-April, and using iTunes as the only measure, I’ve listened to 610 different songs in 2012 alone, for a total of “1.6 days” of listening. Factor in multiple listens, skipped tracks, live performances, and sources other than iTunes, it is safe to estimate that I have spent half of my waking time listening to music this year. Almost all of it free, and most of which I could not identify only by listening. I listen while working, while driving, many people listen while eating, or sleeping. How do we determine the value of music for which we never pay, cannot name without glancing at an iPod, and will often never hear again? Only one answer is certain: by mid-April of 2013 I will have heard more than 610 tracks. The crisis is worsening.
We should stop blaming Napster right here, or Clear Channel, depending upon your ideological views. This is a result of the age. It is no accident that musicians are turning back to tape, and that buyers are turning to vinyl and tape. (It is the same reason that Fluid Radio, an online music outlet, is introducing this physical edition. Think of it as anti-digitalization.) Yes, MP3s make terrible gifts. Their delivery alone absolutely precludes music-giving any more: gift card? USB drive? Attach them to an email? But there has to be more. Some have suggested charity for the songwriters. Perhaps. Kirby’s article refers to the internet as, “a vast online mausoleum for every recording ever released.” None of us refer to those brief album subdivisions as “songs” anymore, until we tire of the word “track” and are forced to. We refer to them as “cuts,” even “files.” When PR agents bundle music together with one-sheets and photographs, they refer to them as “assets.”
The social media age is not without its advantages. Listeners connect personally with the artists, now, via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and the like. This is novel, and in most ways it beats throwing panties at the guitarist from third row center. But that brings us to another truth we’re just now starting to mutter: Facebook really is pretty awful. No man, no woman deserves an unfiltered feed into the subconscious of any other man or woman. And no one deserves to offer it up. Yet here we are, dialing in with our insights on the minutiae of political events, with those “What my friends think I do” e-posters, and with our every trip to the health club.
The deer are in the city…
The metaphor comes from David Wikar, whom we know only from a single work in the prose and poetry collection In the Realms of the Unreal: “Insane Writings.” Written by asylum patients, and edited by John G. H. Oakes in 1993, the book was not intended to map the overriding compositional ethic of ambient electronic and modern compositions in the year 2012. But listening to some of the rising talents in the field – Black Swan, Craig Tattersall, Matthew Collings, Kreng – it fits. This article began with a much different premise, but after culling through existing interviews with Kirby and Michal Jacaszek, and conducting new ones with the artists listed above, a much different thesis came into view. The tendency toward noisy, anxious, muted, and looped musical movements is both a symptom and salve of this era, which is exactly that: noisy, anxious, muted and looped. Like Black Swan wrote in an April interview for this article, “Sanity is a bit overrated these days anyway, no?”
Think of the artists as prescribing snake venom for snakebite antidote, and it all starts making perfect sense.
The idea began with a few, minute impressions: Lights Will Call On You by Maps and Diagrams felt like a cable run directly to Tim Martin’s id. I took the following notes: “If neurologists could download the sounds of the synapses to a handful of brief, representative MP3 files, what would they sound like? ….The loops and echoes of remembered sounds, vocals, and songs, and the way those compete with the macro-lens immediacy of real noises around us.”
Not even half-way through Glimmer – another highly psychological album – it is right to conclude that Michal Jacaszek’s inner volume is set to 11. So we asked him. He replied: “My head is full of musical ideas…. I’m also extremely busy with things connected to everyday life: family – three kids! – earning money, house and car maintenance, et cetera. “
He concluded, “But also in deeper areas there is a realm of quietness and silence. It is not emptiness, rather a delicate slow melody going on.” We should have followed-up: Like with the music of The Caretaker?
While on the subject of Leyland Kirby, he truly drove the point home in an October 2011 interview with The Quietus. Many of his albums are famously themed around the failure of memory and our anxiety regarding amnesia, but when Gibb asked him about these themes he said: “We are always sold the idea of capture and recollection via the internet…. Store your life, manage your memories, share your experiences, to the point that [there are] people out there who feel under so much pressure to do this that they don’t actually live at all.” So we are all Samuel Beckett’s failed writer Krapp, living briefly, recording painstakingly, living a bit more, recording quite a bit more. This is an interesting point to make for an artist who samples from, for example, Franz Schubert 78rpms, loops the sample obsessively, and nurses the vinyl’s natural static into a thick, predominant overcoat. But again, as should be coming into view, the sound is both the reason for flight and the escape itself.
Obsession: this came up both directly and indirectly in our discussion with the anonymous composer Black Swan. Perhaps best known for The Quiet Divide, his current release Black Swan III: Aeterna ought to cement his place as a major experimental composer. Moments of heavily oscillating silence swap seats with violent storms of tape noise, and with original orchestral, even choral compositions stretched into timelessness. He claims to have issued other ambient releases under his assumed name, but without any further validation than that, we can only assume it is the side project that will earn him his name. So to speak.
Clarifying some previous remarks about New York City, he writes: “There’s just too many people and way too much happening all at once, it becomes an uncomfortable sensory overload. I’m extremely sensitive to energy and tend to be a low-key guy. I like my space and I like nature’s purity- two things I cannot find in New York…. A definite mysophobe, emetophobe, and while embracing OCD – I think my views can hold some validity.”
Space? We can understand. But nature’s purity? From the artist responsible for Black Swan In 8 Movements? Again, mind the argument: dark ambient is both the setting and the sedative.
His recording process is astonishingly fast. The debut album required “Two weeks, if that. I tend to block myself from my surroundings and crawl into some sort of a hole on a regular basis, which isn’t always a good thing. It feels good, but it isn’t necessarily good, mentally. In these situations, it was a musical hole. Creating all forms of art is an awesome thing, but like anything else, it can consume you and ultimately control you if you don’t control it. 8 Movements had been worked on constantly, barely with a break to do anything else…. I tend to dive right into things and forget to come back up for air.”
One of his most delicious contradictions is that of the only confirmed sample: “Angel Eyes,” by Frank Sinatra, which he disguised in plain sight on The Quiet Divide, in a track called “Angel Eyes.” He writes: “I was digging through [my father’s tape] collection and found an old Memorex cassette from the late 70’s, with its clunky plastic flip-out case, and it contained this amazing tape noise that I immediately fell in love with and went on to use in The Quiet Divide. Buried into it was this live Sinatra recording of “Angel Eyes.” It’s actually a very lovey-dovey sort of song, but had a hint of sadness to it, which I really wanted to bring out to life… I’m not in any way a fan of Sinatra, and never was. I can’t stand the guy actually, let alone his music. Being the pure-bred Italian that I am, I should probably feel ashamed in some way and will probably get the wooden spoon slapped right across my ass, should my grandmother ever find and read this.”
In time he concludes: “I just love the idea of forgetting everything there is to hold on to, things that make us happy or sad, and escaping from the now, musically. However it resonates with whoever is listening is really what it’s about and all that matters.”
Daniel Crossley arranged the second interview, featuring our second tape practitioner Craig Tattersall, of The Boats. Now a trio with Andrew Hargreaves and Danny Norbury, The Boats is a consistently top-artist ensemble for Fluid Radio. Brendan Moore referred to the opening five minutes of Ballads of the Research Department – a segment of music he described as a “career retrospective” – as “grainy tape loop work, precocious folktronic elements, dub, modern classical and drone.” Certainly a promising start.
Tattersall records as The Archivist and The Humble Bee, two disarmingly wise pseudonyms that summon the twin endeavors of preservation and pollination. The categorization of knowledge and the nourishment of a world. As a touching aside, this recalls a comment that Leyland Kirby made in the Quietus interview, regarding his album An Empty Bliss Beyond This World: “One guy got in touch with me and said it was really beautiful to him, because he’d lost his mother to Alzheimer’s, and now his father’s got it as well. It’s always very humbling when you hear responses like that.” Given recent developments with music treatment for memory loss, the Caretaker pseudonym comes fully into view. Medical curation as well as cultural curation.
We asked Tattersall to explain his preference for tape. What he describes is, in short, a reaction against digitalization, against the forces of excess named in Kirby’s article for The Wire: “You see, tape is very physical. You have to handle it, cut it, stick it together. You can twist it, scratch it, fold it, crease it, freeze it, et cetera. And to me as an artist this is very appealing…. That the manipulations actually tend to produce sounds that very much appeal to me is pure luck, but then I think chance and luck are the reward for experimentation and questioning….. There are many failures in these processes, but you start again and work through them and you find glimmers of dust in them, beautiful dust.” It bears mention that Kreng will make a similar point in the last interview: “A lot of times it’s not only the sound itself but also the way it has deteriorated. I just love the crackle of vinyl, the saturated distortion of analogue tape, the hiss of wax-cylinders, the aging process of the artifact itself is equally important as the sounds themselves. They add a second layer of emotionality to the sounds. The medium is part of the instrument.”
Tattersall continues: “I have been dragged into the digital age, checked out hard disc recording, samplers, and on to computers and software/virtual instruments. And to be honest I longed for buttons and cables, I longed to ask the question again, What happens if I plug this lead into that socket? The computer lost that for me so I feel it was only a matter of time that I got back to hands on recording, and of course as a natural hoarder and lover of old things I didn’t get rid of my old gear, I stored it, so I still had my old cassette 4-track. I dug it out, and started working with it again.”
Tattersall claims to leave the band’s press secretary functions to Hargreave: “I am quite and reserved … things like interviews in a more formal way are quite odd for me.” But as to the epoch which drives excess over all other considerations, he is outspoken and unequivocal: “There are things I want to rant about in terms of quality being lost over speed, and mystery being lost over overload of information. Facebook and Twitter is killing all of this.”
“Digital downloads are killing the art in music.”
He writes: “I am reluctant to say a [specific] song is shit, but I am keen to say production is shit and formalised for modern music. I think that the music industry mill, that puts artists though a recording studio is something I can say is shit. This process sees sounds coming out the same, and the artist is not getting to put their whole artistic efforts into the thing.”
“I think also it is interesting to note about immediacy. That things are now at the fingertip or a mouse click away, I don’t think this is healthy at all from a quality point of view, artistically and technically.”
You may have noticed Tattersall’s rather singular observation above, regarding tape: “Work through them and you find glimmers of dust in them, beautiful dust.”
Suspend judgment of the premise for a moment, that ambient music tends in this direction because noise is the solution for noise, anxiety the cure for anxiety, and loops for loops. It is not so difficult of a premise anyway: mothers buy noise machines for their infants, to soothe them to sleep. Even non-musicians speak of hearing music in, say, the oscillations of laundry machines, manufacturing equipment, and construction machinery. Intentionally or otherwise, guitars often give way to earsplitting feedback, and for years no vocalist’s arsenal was complete with a megaphone. By all means, noise as a stand-alone instrument is nothing new.
But that answers only half of the question. The other half would read something like this: “Dust? Beautiful dust?” Or more clearly put: why does the listener enjoy it? As Kreng wrote of Scorn, Throbbing Gristle, Kevin Martin, John Zorn, as well as his own music: “The sound of slowness, the impact of sub-bass, repetitiveness, these are not things that scare me. On the contrary: they give me a kind of soothing comfort. And I am convinced that I am not alone in this…. People can find consolation in the dark,”
Again, why? Intuitively, pop music should be enough. Adele should suffice. American Idol, The Voice, The X-Factor, more than plenty. Like Cypress Hill reminds us, music is a fun job, but it’s still a job. Skilled labor, to be more precise, and its captains of industry have become very good at this. A great deal of time and study goes into offering a product that will compete well. Every Tuesday iTunes and the other retail outlets flood the music-buying market with dozens of new marquee releases, albeit a more expensive solution with decidedly less material than the independent/netlabel scene has to offer. I might listen to music for only one-quarter of my waking time, or put up with a bit more repetition. But there is something else that drives us here, a deeper fatigue than the financial kind. There is a specific reason that audiophiles tend toward jazz, orchestral, or noise, or combinations of those. There is a reason that you are reading Fluid Radio instead of Spin.
The answer lies in neurochemistry.
By now it is pretty common knowledge that dopamine is released into the striatum during certain musical passages. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for reward-learning, released similarly during eating and loveplay. But researchers at McGill University have narrowed down the mechanics of our physiological response: the chills, goosebumps, and heightened breathing, even the elevated heart rate and body temperature which coincide with good listening. There is nothing more mystical or opaque to it than that, no spiritual communion between performer and audience that only synesthetes, young children and animals can see. Only the flood of amino acids across a synaptic gap. A measurable flood, one that we can put numbers to.
But what constitutes “good listening?” In short, anticipation. And complexity. Valerie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist responsible for the McGill study, concludes that you, the listener, are “following these tunes and anticipating what’s going to come next and whether it’s going to confirm or surprise you, and all of these little cognitive nuances are what’s giving you this amazing pleasure. The reinforcement or reward happens almost entirely because of dopamine.” (Astonishingly, a heroin user experiences the same anticipation of confirmation the moment before injecting: a dopamine fix before the fix.)
We’ve all experienced the moment when a piece of music seemed to lose its gloss, when revisiting the song failed to pay off anymore. When we had memorized the patterns and there was no more reward to be found. Sometimes putting the song away helps – which is to say that unmemorizing its patterns helps – but the best thing to do is to just start looking for a different song.
The same can be said of musical styles. Few adults listen to kids’ music anymore, and it is not unheard of to abandon in your 30s your favorite musical genres of the 20s. Hence our affinity for the noisy, the orchestral, the jazzy, the complicated. For those of us who listen to music as much as we sleep, the loops conceal other patterns, and the muted tones intensify our search. The noise embeds it all, and cures the work as if with salt. (Noise is often associated with snow, or sand, but we submit that another white, granular, crystalline substance is a more deserving avatar.) Here is probably our best example of static and patterns: Netlabel celebrity Wolfsuele has recorded possibly the most convoluted dance rhythm ever, a harrowing, four-minute, noise-only beast titled “Bastards!!!” (Punctuation faithful to the original. Available, not surprisingly, as a free download.) Like Matthew Collings wrote of his Convex Mancave project: “I often feel that there’s nothing more expressive than raw, raging, directionless noise.”
Collings is certainly a study. The face behind the Sketches for Albinos mask and a score of other divergent works – ranging from laptop manipulations of guitar feedback, to cinematic string arrangements, then to grainy, abstract piano journals – he is that rare breed of interview: generous with his time, and impervious in his intellectual defense. His Days Of Being Wild and Kind album is simply beautiful, fitting well alongside Aeterna and Ballads in respect to its compositional mores, but narrower in focus. Not heartbreaking. Touching.
Collings wields his laptop proudly, but on the subject of the digitalization of information, he turns the lens on his fellow musicians: “I actually like it when artists disappear and then have news that they’ve actually done something interesting, rather than just that they’ve bought some new gear, via Twitter. I guess a lot of people like that approach as they feel like they can somehow be part of an artist’s life, if the artist allows that… It is also nice not to be able to find a million tracks by one artist, or find all the info on them. I think these days we actually need less choice and less information rather than more. Less is more.”
On recording Days Of Being Wild and Kind, he insists that “nothing is really ‘sampled’. There are a few drums which come from records, but everything else is recordings of my life, my friends, places, parties, instruments I played, or simply other pieces of my own music which I recycled into oblivion. Everything comes from me and every second has a meaning in one way or another. I found it very inspiring when I read Aphex Twin say ‘the only person I sample is myself.’ ”
He continues “In fact almost every sound in any track I can tell you what it is, where it was recorded and what it makes me remember… All of the Sketches for Albinos material is like that. Which makes it a very emotional ride for me listening to it, which is also what I aimed for at the time, but that also makes it very hard for me to listen to it now. It is very confronting.”
“Confronting.” Interesting word choice, considering.
Black Swan himself wrote of Kreng, “he’s possibly one of the greatest recording artists around.” Composer for Belgian theater company Abattoir Fermé, Kreng compiled his stage scores for the 2009 L’autopsie phénoménale de Dieu, which Pitchfork described as “a malevolent wisp of low drones, eerie, high whines, and disquieting found-sound samples.” The 2011 release Grimoire was assembled from new material, but certainly no less menacing than its predecessor, which Headphone Commute called “a chilling score for the fever in your brain.”
Whence the ill moods? Kreng wrote that the experimental sounds of his youth represented “incomprehensible music to me, so I kept listening until I could find a way in. It was only later that I realized that there was one thing that all these records had in common: the harrowing, terrifying darkness. I never consciously choose to go down this path but I’ve been walking on it for 25 years. There’s no way back. Working with Abattoir has only pushed me further down this road. I’m afraid that every molecule of my creative being is engrained with this.”
Nothing to do with the decline of memory, the erosion of culture or identity, the inversion of our value systems? Not even an unkind word about social media? “I have a Facebook page under my birth-name and I just don’t feel like putting all my free time in spreading the word. The audience is out there. I’m open for anything, but if they want to connect with me it’s their job, not mine.”
On the singularity in music, he hastens to add: “the recorded output of Kreng is not generating any money at all (apart from a couple of concerts here and there).” And yes, he has read the Wire article: “I felt very relieved after reading that Leyland Kirby column in The Wire, especially the fact that he erased all his music. I’ve always felt that the whole wireless culture is a nice way of obtaining material but it also creates a complete detachment with the material. Most artists are uploading way too much stuff. Getting your music out there should not be taken lightly. It’s a pretty serious matter. You’re stating: this is who I am, this is my sound, this is what I stand for, this is The Work.”
From one device owner to another
So, what to do? Cultural epochs don’t come around very often, and, for that reason, they’re devilishly hard to get rid of. As Black Swan reminds us, “We live in a world of iPhone-bearing sheep, and it’s become clear that mass media, marketing and promotion has become their oxygen.” The deer are already here; no time or reason to clean up the paths. I do not exclude myself in this, and more to the point, I felt like some of his more scathing points could have been directed at me specifically, or certainly at writers like me. On occasion I realize I am ignoring my children – who are otherwise speaking to me directly, eager for my attention – for another inane and stylish round of Angry Birds. I have watched musical collaborations fall apart: artists I enjoy, but whom I have never sent a penny of revenue. I have savaged albums in online reviews, because I wasn’t the one who should have been writing the review in the first place.
But on the other side of the debate, this digital era – this era of innumerable excess – is producing some pretty stellar music, reaching exactly the people it needs to be. Venom and antidote.
Action items? Few. And none of them will change much, if anything. Volunteer as a subject for neurochemical research, if indeed a university is putting on trials close to you. Or campaign for one. Bring your own music (they’ll ask you to, anyway). The noisier, the more confounding, the more looping and scarier the music, the better.
None of us can afford to buy all of the music we hear, and no one is asking us to, nor ever has. But watch for signs of true distress. If a tour bus breaks down, or a musician suffers a robbery, or is constantly railing about unlicensed downloads, buy an album on Bandcamp and pay an inflated price. Even if you already own a copy. Brag about it on the artist’s Tumblr page and encourage other fans to do the same.
Create derivative works and share them with the musicians. Joseph Sannicandro mentions that listening to In 8 Movements is well worth the time and effort (keyword search for the non-tekkies: Audacity 1.3). A YouTube channel operated by The Pancake Repairman features hundreds of ambient tracks set to old, grainy, public domain footage. The artists unanimously seem to love this.
Beyond that, keep searching for patterns and payoff. For “cognitive nuances.” Let us all know when something turns up.
Quickly following up Aeterna, Black Swan released Heaven in May. In spite of their proximate names and release dates, these are not companion pieces. Heaven partially abandons Swan’s trademark blanket of noise and distant orchestration, opting instead for a fuller, more choral sound.
The Boats released Ballads of the Darkroom in June. Brendan Moore — reviewing the album for Fluid Radio — wrote “it takes all of 8 seconds and that first atomic drop of tape hiss to realise we are in Boats land.”
In July, Matthew Collings released a collaborative EP with Dag Rosenqvist, titled Wonderland. Nathan Thomas concluded it is “every bit the technicolour fairytale adventure one would expect from the title.”
Kreng has just released a three-hour box set of previously unreleased material, most of which was written for the stage. The collection is titled Works for Abbatoir Fermé: 2007-2011. Advisory: this one is going to leave a mark.