This CD contains specific waveform data that performs a data-read test for optical drives. The last track will cause some CD players to experience playback errors, with no damage to equipment.
—Warning sticker attached to the inside of Dataplex
I have listened to a great deal of electronic music throughout the years, but never before have I encountered a CD that promised to play havoc with my stereo system. That should give you some idea as to the nature of Ryoji Ikeda’s compositions. In the world of electronic music, almost any sound imaginable can be regarded as raw materials for the conscientious programmer—Ikeda has gone one step further than most and devoted the entirety of this new disc to the sounds made by computers when they’re malfunctioning. The skipping CD, the staticky modem and the blown speaker cone are all represented here, the sounds of raw technology separated from their contexts and grafted onto musical structures.
The results are never less than bracing. The closest comparison that springs to mind is latter-day Autechre—the kind of frigid, completely ascetic sound sculpture that seems to have been constructed in totally airless environment. Instead of a modern studio, one imagines the tracks on Dataplex having been constructed inside an industrial cleanroom of the same type that manufactures microprocessors and semiconductors. However, whereas even Autechre occasionally allow glimpses of the humanity beneath their harsh aesthetic, usually in the form of playful melodies or microscopically dense samples, Ikeda has pulled every conceivable remnant of human interaction from these tracks, and the result is striking.
The album follows a fairly simple pattern: sounds are introduced in seemingly random units: high-frequency white noise and low-frequency stabs, beeps and static like the kind you hear when you accidentally dial a modem number. And then, slowly, over the course of the album, these random bleeps and skips form themselves into patterns. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the patterns reveal themselves to the listener. Computers conduct business at the speed of electrical impulses, after all; the early static and seemingly random clusters of noise that compose the first part of the album are probably highly organized at a level undistinguishable to the human ear, much like a dog whistle.
But when the sounds finally cohere into something more amenable to human enjoyment, the album achieves a stunning degree of technical virtuosity. Those who find the mathematical patterning of the aforementioned Autechre and Venetian Snares irresistible will find Dataplex almost inexpressibly profound in its ability to wring meaning out of the most seemingly austere sounds. Every few tracks, a pattern emerges from the chaos to present a new variation of the introduced themes, but every succeeding pattern additionally builds on the patterns that have preceded them. By the time the album has wound its way through almost an hour, the final tracks achieve a singularly profound complexity. An lo—are those actual triads appearing out from the haze of the digital stew? From whence are these melodic figures appearing? When just a whiff of humanity is reintroduced through recognizable musical form, the sensation is uniquely pleasurable.
After eighteen tracks of steadily increasing complexity and developing thematic rigor, the nineteenth track (“data:matrix”) presents the project’s most coherent statement. Over the course of the entire CD, patterns are established through their relationship to the preceding randomness. Order emerges out of seeming chaos, and the results, rather than the bloodless formalism that one might expect, are surprisingly vivid. The pieces add up to something greater than the sum of their parts, and hearing the otherwise disparate, disorderly strands of modern noise pollution cohere into grand order is a unique pleasure. By the time the last track, “data:adaplex” rolls around—with the infamous playback errors—everything is once again falling apart in the most remarkable fashion. The computer is rebooting.
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