The Polyvalent

Arielle Saiber

Discourse of Electronic Music

Long a fan of experimental music, electronic music, and sound art, Arielle Saiber (a professor of medieval and Renaissance Italian literature at Bowdoin College in Maine, USA), wrote an essay in 2007 on “emusic” and genre theory for an audience of literary critics.  The piece, “The Polyvalent Discourse of Electronic Music” was published in the US’s largest academic journal for literary criticism: the PMLA (Publication of the Modern Language Association).  In it, she explores the many facets of categorization and naming of musical genres and subgenres, and contemplates how such conceptual nomenclature in the music industry will continue in a world that revels in “Ever Befores,” “Ever Fasters,” “Ever Mores,” and “Ever Afters.” The essay also invites literary scholars to look at genre-ing in electronic music and see if it might serve future discussions in literary criticism…

Might electronic music – a major force behind changes in acoustic Technology, Copyright law, human-machine inter-face, artistic production, marketing and consumption practices, and global connectivity – help us think about the dizzying proliferation of today’s written forms and how we talk about them? It can certainly offer new models and a rich vocabulary for speaking about such things as labeling, canon, and the relationship between author and audience. As “text” continues to bloat, shrink, scatter, and blur, thanks in part to the same digital tools used by contemporary emusic, perhaps looking at how this sound swarm is dealing with its identity will be useful to those who read, write, and write about literature. The essay that follows invites literary scholars to “listen awry” to a wildly polyvalent, indeterminate musical complex that simultaneously lobbies for, rejects, and eludes categorization.

Somewhere between a voice over and an under the breath murmur resides the cloud that is electronic music. (Is it a wave, or is it a particle?) It is not merely that electronic music has defied a simple definition but that it has enjoyed many definitions. If you look for electronic music in a music store, in what section is it filed? Classical? Jazz? Dance? New Age? Rock? Experimental? Yes. Some of it sounds like a whirl of clicks, scratches, and synthetic drones and some like popping toasters or photocopy machines, some of it you want to move to, some you want to sleep to, some of it is so loud and abrasive you fear tinnitus, and some of it is so quiet you need to strain to hear it at all.

One definition of electronic music is any electronically amplified or recorded music. As such, it is everything but the most intimate of live, technologically unmediated performances. A more restrictive definition is sound that has been manipulated by analog or digital means. But that applies to anything that is recorded and played back. Few agree about what electronic music is—about what characterizes it as electronic and what makes it music.

Generally speaking, the emusic of the last decade is music created and performed by digital means (although some analog techniques are till used). These means include myriad instruments or tools as diverse as the computer, the synthesizer, field recording devices, the laser koto of Miya Masaoka, and so on. Emusic also encompasses electroacoustic music, which fuses digitally created sounds with ones made by acoustic instruments and the human voice. Yet even within these easily identifiable parameters, emusic evades genre and generalization. It hovers around the edges of things, distending and traversing boundaries, alighting nowhere. It could be considered a ballooning megagenre inflated by and exploded into subgenres, sub  subgenres, metagenres, and juxtagenres not only by formally trained musicians but also by technicians, bedroom DJs, artists, writers, journalists, and the music industry alike.

Contemporary emusic is continually being born and dying, being labeled and relabeled, and shedding its skin. It is a rapidly morphing and proliferating scene. While it joins the ranks of the pioneering music revolutions of earlier decades (new classical, jazz, rock, punk, rap, etc.), it does so in an ethereal way, a “spectral” way,2 without the cult of the hero star, without identifying itself as part of a style or mode. And while it also continues the legacy of experimentation elaborated by early and mid twentieth century academic electronic musicians (exploring sound’s grammar, sound sources, the relations between sounds, spatial and directional perception of the listener, ritual and performance spaces, etc.), it has evolved, or perhaps devolved, into its own species, including innumerable popular audience, for profit outfits and work produced by artists without formal compositional training. Much of this music, even if commercial or reminiscent of earlier experimentalism, is fierce in its quest to be like nothing ever before—to be at times ever faster, at times ever smaller, and at times without an ever after. As we shall see, by virtue of emusic’s omnipresence, velocity, and perpetual splintering, it is on its way to dissolving from a retronym into, simply, music.

Ever Before

When has a music ever been quite so paradoxical: global and isolationist, ardently seeking listener participation and aggressively challenging it, label coining and label rejecting, exalting the synthetic and claiming to produce the realest of real sounds?

Electronic music may have commenced in the United States with Thomas Edison’s phonograph in 1877 or Thaddeus Cahill’s teleharmonium in 1897. Or perhaps it started in 1914 in Italy with Luigi Russolo’s intonarumori (“noise machines”), or in Russia with the theremin, or in France with Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrete. Or perhaps with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s objective to create sounds that had yet to be imagined. By the fifties and sixties, there were institutes such as the Columbia Princeton Computer Music Center, in New York, and Musica Elettronica Viva, in Rome; there were Iannis Xenakis’s stochastic mathematical compositions and the pioneering synthesizer work of Robert Moog and Milton Babbitt. By the seventies, Brian Eno’s ambient sound in England and Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening label in California were born; and, with the invention of affordable equipment such as the MiniMoog and the Roland 808 drum machine, electronic sounds were beginning to be used in Jamaican dub, in German digital hardcore, and in discos around the world. By the eighties and early nineties, electronic music found its stride in such forms as Detroit techno, Chicago acid house, New York hip hop, Dutch gabba, London jungle, Norwegian minimalism, Japanese industrial noise, Miami freestyle, and American folktronica.3 Groups such as the Electronic Music Foundation were established, and electronic music festivals like Sonar in Barcelona, Ars Electronica in Linz, Mutek in Montreal, and Liquid Architecture in Australia emerged; raves, online emusic zines, and email discussion lists proliferated; graduate programs in digital arts were born throughout North America and Europe.

In this global explosion is a remarkable kind of isolationism. On the coattails of the live performance shunning Glenn Gould, the e musician often chooses not to give concerts. The emusician can perform compositions in which hundreds of instruments are “played” simultaneously. No band necessary. No recording studio necessary. No leaving the house or interacting with audience necessary.

There are contemporary emusicians like Francisco Lopez, who does not want to communicate directly with his listeners but instead has them experience the hyperreality of the sounds (rather than the sounds’ sources or meanings); or Ryoji Ikeda, who uses frequencies so high and so low (over 20 kHz and under 20 Hz) as to be inaudible (or painful) to the human ear; or Elio Martusciello, who uses infra and ultrasounds to experiment with “the machine’s point of listening,” not ours. There are some musicians whose recordings contain no liner notes and others for whom the liner notes are the music. Some, like Mitchell Akiyama, restructure live performances in a studio to effect a “moment of creation that never happened.”4 Others, not unlike twentieth century avant garde artists, ask the listener to destroy their albums after listening to them (e.g., Merbow). Still others create music out of disintegrating tapes (e.g., Basinski). In a Staalplaat compilation entitled Yokomono 02: 55 Lock Grooves, for example, there are fifty five tape loops of digital silence, which generate more and more sound as the tape being looped deteriorates.

And then there are groups like Arpanet— whose members have never been interviewed or appeared live—in which the musicians’ identities do not seem to matter. In some cases, musicians choose a negating name such as Ø (Mika Vainio) or a generic name such as aem (“another electronic musician”) or try to become invisible performers (Keiko Uenishi of o.blaat); in others, musicians take on multiple identities simultaneously (see Uwe Schmidt, aka Senor Coconut, Atom Heart, tom, Dots, Flextone, Midisport, Lassigue Bendthaus, DOS Tracks, Flanger, Datacide, Ongaku, Geeez ’N’ Gosh, etc.). The formula “formerly known as X” is not in play here (pace Prince) although the paralipsis of “hidden wiring” may be (Young).

One could easily construe these disappearing acts as marketing strategies aimed at piquing curiosity. But commercialization and profit have little to do with the work of many of these artists. Do these maneuvers reveal a selfless artist shunning fame? Are they moves to granularize and digitize the self, transcending the limits of the flesh and becoming, as the music theorist Christoph Cox has noted, a Deleuzian body without organs, a posthuman human? Are they attempts to communicate in new ways—prosthetic ways that use technology to say more, often through saying less? Are we witnessing a pandemic of the disappearing author, what Marshall McLuhan might call the “performance of self elimination”? Is there an evergreater proliferation of simulacra and a growing dissolution of the romantic ideal of genius and originality? Or does this lack of a rock star hero—and even of music that gets stuck in your head—ultimately bring listeners back to a sense of communal experience by allowing them to be equally lost and immersed in music that has no focal point.

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