2010: An Experimental Kind of Year
With December here and a full year in the rear-view mirror, it is not a stretch to say that 2010 was quite possibly the best year to date for the experimental music community. While it’s certain that random people, whether isolated or in groups, have been churning out weird, indefinable, experimental sounds for as long as audio recording has been possible, 2010 undeniably saw what must have been record volumes of weird, indefinable, experimental sounds circulating freely within the population at large.
It’s not that more experimental-type music was made in 2010; however, it’s just that more of it was getting heard. Even the grey lady of music blogs, Pitchfork, felt compelled to organize a new blog collective in order to focus on the divergent strands that were swelling up from the underground. Those behind these sounds were often faceless people who, despite their utilization of an endless variation of technological arrangements and recording methods, shared a common philosophical ethos that was far outside, if not in direct opposition to, anything remotely resembling the conventional musical mainstream.
Naysayers will try to argue that the intersection of two trends, the proliferation of cheap musical technology and the demise of traditional musical education (whether from cuts to music funding in our schools or short attention spans not jiving with piano practice) has lead to the sudden swell of “experimental” music.
“Experimental”, in other words is a dressed-up synonym for “sloppy”, these critics would sneer.
These critics would also argue that what we really witnessed in 2010 was a modern musical re-enactment of the barbarians at the gates. The traditional filters that have prevented the influx of obtuse, anti-social noodling, or low-quality, barbaric attic noise, or drawn out, brain-dead “soundscapes” from entering the broader musical discourse have decayed or been overwhelmed.
A recent episode of The Office parodied this situation perfectly when, following a Glee viewing party at Gabe’s apartment, the geeky, impossible-to-like host reveals that he is a bedroom producer and makes “soundscapes”, which he ridiculously describes as “one instant of a song expanded to the size of the universe!” At the end of the episode, Gabe serenades Andy with his mini-synthesizer “soundscapes” in the bathroom while the a capella singer and musical theater performer is hunched over toilet, incoherent and puking. Andy, who is stoned from ingesting a large quantity of powdered seahorse, drunkenly approves of Gabe’s New Age/trance synth sounds despite his normally cold demeanor toward the lanky rival.
Bedroom-producer caricatures aside, this Office episode accurately hints at the massive unseen army of people who, similar to Gabe, are hard at work in their homes and in their makeshift studios on musical visions that might be hard to understand for Gleeks or people who, like Andy, are schooled within and loyal to the traditional/popular forms of music. Unless they ingest large amounts of powdered seahorse that is.
An accurate depiction of 2010 in regards to experimental music, however, won’t emerge from the storylines in a sitcom. The truth is that it won’t really emerge from the best-of, year-end list below, either. The truth emerges only when you can hear the releases that didn’t make the list. The sheer amount of quality music made within the experimental ethos this past year is downright staggering.
And while more and more indie and pop music is built upon “clever” referencing of past fashion trends, music made in the experimental ethos, for the most part, seems to avoid the problem of tainting its creations with reference points that contain ever shortening expiration dates. And this has been true for some time. You will not find yourself cringing when listening to a favorite experimental album from three years ago the same way you probably will with a lot of trendy indie records from that time. Remember chillwave’s predecessor electro-clash?
Regardless, taking shots at more conventional music is not my aim here, nor is it to define experimental music, which has always been a dicey enough task even for the most ambitious within the ranks of the genre police. Instead, let’s settle on highlighting ten noteworthy releases from the world of experimental sound. So here are ten good ones that, if you have heard, you probably will agree with, and if you haven’t heard, perhaps you should hear in the interest of understanding just what went down in 2010.
David Toop has doubled as both a writer and a musician of note for some time now. With the release of his new book, Sinster Resonance: The Mediumship of the Reader, the Haunted Weather author has found an ingenious way to meld his literary prose with his musical vision in the form of a promotional vehicle for the new book. The Sinister Resonance podcast, which The Wire made available for free, presents Toop reading passages from his new book accompanied by self-designed soundscapes that magnify the utter creepiness of Toop’s hushed British accent as he probes the history of mythology and “silent art” for its veiled aural narrative.
No information is available as to what makes up the accompanying soundscape, which would function more than fine on its own as a stand-alone piece, but it seems to be a mix of disparate sounding pieces with perhaps a healthy dose of Toop’s personal treatments and own material thrown in. Regardless, the mixing is seamless and Toop’s voice is all the more hypnotic when surrounded by this disorienting and disturbing score.
While the piece is no doubt an imaginative marketing ploy to get you to buy Toop’s book, the author presents his insights and ideas from his book here in a stunning manner. Their sonic, as opposed to literary, impact dictates that the Sinister Resonance podcast must not be considered merely an accompaniment to the book published by Continuum. Instead, like the 2-CD set that was created alongside his 2004 book Haunted Weather: Music, Science, and Memory, this piece stands on its own as an experience in itself bordering the line between literature and sound art.
Does It Look Like I’m Here?
(Editions Mego; US: 8 Jun 2010; UK: 24 May 2010)
(Editions Mego; US: 22 Jun 2010; UK: 14 Jun 2010)
9 & 8
Does It Look Like I’m Here?
Oneohtrix Point Never
Indie’s under-the-table footsie game with the experimental world, which turned into a full-on, on-the-couch foot rub after Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion blew the indie world away last year, has led to the emergence of several artists who make experimental music, but are associated more with the indie world. There isn’t necessarily a distinction in quality or credibility between these sorts of experimental artists and the less buzz-based undergrounders, it’s just a matter of what circles they run in and what blogs they consistently appear on.
What does distinguish them, and perhaps explains the indie world’s reason for gravitating toward them, is that these artists tend to apply similar tactics to chillwave artists and electroclash acts before them. In other words, a fundamental ingredient to their aural aesthetic is a particular “historical” reference. Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never (who both had their albums put out by Editions Mego) are just those types of artists. Both artists begin their musical journeys from a distinct historical starting point in the timeline of experimental electronic music.
Emeralds’ Does It Look Like I’m Here? draws heavily from the minimalist tradition of Terry Riley’s In C, along with the towering structures of 1980s synthesizer music. Throw in a healthy dose of droning filter sweeps, softly shredding guitar solos that pan around in the background, and you have a potent, neo-stoner album that appeals to the more intellectual fans of Animal Collective.
Oneohtrix Point Never’s Returnal was a definitive statement for an artist with a very clear aesthetic vision who had been working at his sound for some time. After dropping Rifts, a collection of OPN’s earlier, lesser-heard and hard-to-find material, Returnal was released and served as a sort of stark exclamation point to the sound OPN’s Daniel Lopatin has been building for the past few years. By using bare-boned instrumentation that consisted of nothing more than naked analog synthesizer sounds coupled with an array of effects, Returnal conveys a deeply compelling and magical version of experimental electronic music.
Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony should call into question ever getting obsessed over finding an ultra limited vinyl, cassette, or CD-R again. After all, those are only copies. 1-Bit Symphony, on the other hand, is a not a recording for you to listen to. This release, which comes in a CD jewel case and is described as “juxtaposing the grand form of a classical symphony with the minimal nature of 1-bit circuitry,” actually “performs” its music live when turned on. How many of those 7” singles you got on Record Store Day can do that?
It can perform, instead of play, because 1-Bit Symphony is a complete electronic circuit—programmed by the artist and assembled by hand—and you can hear the circuit perform though a headphone jack mounted into the case itself. According to Perich’s website, “1-Bit Symphony utilizes on and off electrical pulses, synthesized by assembly code and routed from microchip to speaker, to manifest data as sound. The device treats electricity as a sonic medium, making an intimate connection between the materiality of hardware and the abstract logic of software.” Checking out the video below can help clarify what all that means for the non-technologically inclined.
Holding 1-Bit Symphony in your hand and hearing the incredibly complex score come to life via such a simple construction is a bit dumbfounding. Furthermore, feeling the circuits pulsating in your hand as the five movements are generated right there in front of you before they rush up into your headphones is a completely different experience from what most music listeners are used to. But Perich’s album is not included on this list simply because of its internal construction. While all that is really interesting, the music itself is unbelievable as well.
Disingenuity b/w Disingenuousness
(Pan; US: Sep 2010; UK: Sep 2010)
Keith Fullerton Whitman
Disingenuity b/w Disingenuousness
Both sides of Keith Fullerton Whitman’s Disingenuity b/w Disingenuousness are an expression of blissful electronic excess and an example of the complex technological experiments currently underway in the world of underground electronic music.
“Disingenuity” and “Disingenuousness” are both constructed from an approach that marries the sound deconstruction of with the improvisational feel of a free jazz solo done on Whitman’s Doepfer Hybrid Modular Synth. These recordings originated from a single hour-long improvisation on which Whitman used a tape of random field recordings as source material that was then run through a number of complicated electronic filtering processes. The end result is a bewildering composition comprised of minimal analog synthesizer sounds that are then panned, filtered, and modulated to such a dizzying degree that listener can’t possibly hear either of these sides the same way twice. They are just too dense, despite their minimal sound sources.
The importance of the recording, and the reason for its inclusion on this list, is that it establishes a historical link with the classics of experimental electronic music of Pierre Henry and Bernard Parmegiani, among others. Whitman has long been a modern champion of their heady, intellectual approach that utilized sound and music to bring together philosophy, science, and art. Disingenuity b/w Disingenuousness confirms that he is a composer of the same rank.