And the Nature-like:

A Response to the Computer-Fatigued

Birmingham, in the middle of England, is the second city I’ve lived in that proudly claims to have more canals than Venice (the first being Amsterdam). These waterways were essential to the rise of one of the world’s first industrial powerhouses, its networks of small independent foundries and workshops linked by man-made channels. Nowadays the waters’ only cargo are tourists and local pleasure-seekers, the gentle steady pace of the narrowboats a welcome relief from the city’s endless traffic jams.

I like to walk or cycle along the canals, their smooth waters and tree-lined banks instilling the same sense of calm and quiet I experience when walking through fields or forests. I also enjoy the way in which they seem to point in a specific direction, plotting a steady course as the landscape changes slowly or abruptly alongside them. Of course, the thing about canals is that they aren’t ‘real’: while they present the appearance of naturalness, they are shaped and maintained by human technology and artifice. In Kate Carr’s recent article for Tokafi entitled “Computer Fatigue and the Rise of the Human”, it is the computer that is unreal, its illusoriness prompting its rejection by artists in favour of acoustic instruments, analogue electronics, and “an embodied experience of making and listening to [non-computerised] sound”.

What is it about computers — and, I have suggested, about canals — that fails the reality test? When Carr implies that computers aren’t real, I don’t think she means the same thing as when people say that Father Christmas or UFOs aren’t real. Clearly, the computer I’m typing at right now must exist in some real sense, just as, were I to go and jump in the nearest canal, I would get really wet. In fact, Carr doesn’t really explain what she means by ‘real’: sometimes it seems to be about the preference of individual artists for one type of interface or set of sonic characteristics over another; at others it seems to rest on her own preference for an organic utopia over a cybernetic one. But perhaps the charge of failing to be real — the suspicion of perpetuating some kind of falsehood, a moral as well as functional deficiency — has as its target the appearances things present of being things they are not: string orchestras, reverb chambers, and analogue mixing desks in the case of computers, naturally-occurring rivers in the case of canals. These appearances are what aestheticians call semblance. The line of commentators who have taken a dim view of semblance over this or that aspect of untruth or deception stretches back at least as far as Plato. By dividing instruments into two categories, the real and the fake, and then announcing the superiority of one category over the other, does Carr commit to joining them?

One could query the extent to which such categories are based on actual intrinsic qualities of the instruments in question and to what extent they are arbitrary, but to do so would be missing the point. Despite initial impressions, Carr’s essay is not a debate over categories or hierarchies of being (“my instrument’s more real than yours”). Rather, it is an exploration of what music making practices (and, by extension, the music that results) have to teach us about what it means to be human. The author identifies work, imperfection, and embodiment as three essential human qualities, and indicts computer-based music production for its suppression of these qualities. Here, right at the heart of her argument, we find semblance: music should reflect our nature as human beings, should be made in our image. From this perspective, the use of the term ‘real’ in reference to instruments or techniques is regrettably misleading. For Carr the question is not whether to mimic or not to mimic, but on what level that mimicry occurs: why get distracted with copying the sound of a vintage guitar amp in software when music has the power to mirror the human soul?

Click image for slide show

Is Carr right to look for the reflected face of the human in recent post-ambient and electroacoustic music? My own feeling is that this cannot be the end of the story. This music seems to me to be characterised as much by the desire to escape oneself and one’s humanity as to affirm it, and the escape routes generally point in the same direction: towards nature. Think of the role of chance in Marcus Fischer’s music; the use of winter field recordings and brittle, icy timbres in Taylor Deupree and Seaworthy’s recent collaborative album “Wood, Winter, Hollow”; or the references to specific birds in the ‘Birds of a Feather’ series curated by Carr for her label Flaming Pines. There is undoubtedly an attempt to capture human emotions in each of these recordings, otherwise they would boil down to something like unedited field recordings or completely random sequences. Yet at the same time, there is a turning towards something that is not oneself, a specific thing that is not even human but that has a name, can be pointed to: the US Pacific coastline in the case of Fischer; ice, frost, and the frozen winter landscape in the case of Deupree and Seaworthy; and the birds in the ‘Birds of a Feather’ series.

The complex mediation of ‘natural’ and composed elements in this music suggests that it is not simply a case of dissolving oneself in an infinite natural other, nor indeed of seeing in every natural thing a reflection of oneself. Carr herself implicitly acknowledges this mediation when she brings field recordings and tonal guitar composition together to great effect on her recent album “Landing Lights”. So whose reflected voice do we hear when we put our ear to the musical mirror — humanity’s, or nature’s? And if this is a reflection, then where is the source? Behind us? Or within us? Or somewhere between?

Walking along a Birmingham canal, I perceive a number of discrete elements: the greeny-grey coolness of the water; the worn hardness of stone walls and brick bridges; the chug of the narrowboats and the ripples they leave in their wake; the flapping of ducks and geese. Some of these elements are natural, and some of them are not. They are integrated into a whole that performs the semblance of the natural, a nature-like whole. I experience a strange sense of dislocation in time and space, as if I had passed over a threshold into a different, hardly recognisable world. The deeper the integration, the more I forget the post-industrial city, through the centre of which the canal cuts a vein; I forget that the foundries now lie silent, that the grimy black walls are power-sprayed annually, that the trees are pruned and the fish imported. I’m no longer sure where I am. The roar of a furnace or the surging of waves could be the rumble of a train through Egbaston Tunnel; I could be listening to a piece of music by a post-ambient or electroacoustic composer. A breeze blows across the water, and I shiver.

A response to Kate Carr (2013), ‘Computer Fatigue and the Rise of the Human’.

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