WITHOUT THE LOUDSPEAKER, WE WOULD NEVER HAVE CONQUERED GERMANY (Adolph Hitler)
“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us, when we listen to it; we find it fascinating.” (John Cage).
A constant low level buzzing, occasionally lapsing into a high pitched shrill. The acoustic scarification of tinnitus, the indelible mark of electronic music within my ears, ‘something to sing along to’ the sound of the post120 decibel generation.
“Prior to the invention of the phonograph no one had ever heard themselves before except through momentary echoes and reverberations.” (Rob Gawthrop).
When the body becomes sonic it hears not itself but what it can be. The body is today a prosthetic extension of the acoustic sensorium. The distanced appreciation of art used to confirm the isolation of the bourgeois subject. Today on the urban dance floor life gets sucked into the vortex of the beats.
“Percussion music is revolution. Sound and rhythm have too long been submissive to the restrictions of nineteenth-century music. Today we are fighting for their emancipation. Tomorrow, with electronic music in our ears, we will hear freedom.” (John Cage).
Society never ceases judging music. Plato protects the Republic by arming the guards against musical innovation, and Michael Howard outlaws the corrosive power of repetitive beats. What if music were to judge society? Not to pronounce it good or bad, but to ‘shift the locus of perception,’ don’t legislate, syncopate!
“Western music is the composition of order and control.” (Drew Hemment).
From formal clarity to high fidelity, the same myth of purity is heard. Schoenberg counterpoised atonality, but still within the restrictive practice of musicianship. But hidden from the intellectual meanderings of the avant-garde a different sonic sensitivity gathered force, nurtured in the secret resistance rituals of the slaves. Planet earth is shaken by the radical agenda of le funk and sucked out of its own atmosphere by the sounds of ‘black science fiction.’
“The outstanding fact of twentieth century European culture is its on-going reconciliation with black culture. The mystery may be that it took so long to discern the elements of black culture already there in latent form, and to realise that the separation between the cultures was perhaps all along not one of nature, but of force.” (James Snead).
Double agent. Alien invasion disguised as cultural exchange. The force of “black” music lies not in its (recuperable) “otherness” but in the difference of its functionality of sound and the immediacy of its affect. You peel off your skin and release the phonoterrestrial within.
“Like trying to follow a map that changes its boundaries before your eyes.” (David Toop).
Ocean of sound. David Toop tells the story of the prising open of the western musical tradition at the birth of ambient music. Two ethnographers drift asleep during an all-night encounter with Indonesian gamelan. Upon waking they are moved to a new understanding of music as an immersive environment rather than circumscribed spectacle. But what this founding moment simultaneously ignores and holds in front of your face is the fact that the westerners missed the party. They closed their ears and switched off their metabolism against the festival of sound, catching only the reverberations that hung like an afterthought in the morning air. The discipline of western art is too distanced from any celebration, too rarefied to connect with the earth flowing beneath its feet.
“Carnival is an ‘anti-body’ living within a pathological social body.” (Theodore Gracyk).
The irreverent jouissance of carnival undermines and inverts society, but always within a binary economy of oppositions that preserves the status quo. At some point however it detached itself from its stabilising function and veered off on a course of its own making. Now the ‘anti-body’ threatens a disease of its own.
“Opposition is our product.” (Conformity, the Cultural Consultants).
Sow the seeds of resistance and the profit margins will take care of themselves. An Essex based cultural consultancy firm specialising in scene creation kick start a revolution by attaching a discarded image of 60s drug culture (the smiley face) to a cultural form that otherwise would have remained locked in the black and gay ghettos of Chicago and Detroit. Acid + house. The media whiplash catapults the caustic sonic practice into the rebel imaginary and house nation is born.
“…. Like looking down the barrel of a smokin beat.” (Doctor Rogas, Conformity).
Punk makes empty statements but a practice cannot be a lie. Submerged in textures, broken down by the beats, the punters did not hear the punch line of the joke that was on them. With the history written, the souvenir stall shelves stacked and the marketing machinery in place, the subterranean bluff was called. But the virus was already loose. The captain jumped ship and the rats took the helm.
“Tomorrow, with electronic music in our ears, we will hear freedom.” (John Cage).
DIY traveller mobility meets sound system ampliphonics in a formulation that lifts ecstatic transgression to unprecedented heights. The free party funksters drop a depth charge at the beggars banquet and the sonic plumbing quakes beneath their feet. Marauding gangs of acoustically armed dropouts roam the world overindulging in everything known to art and chemistry.
“F*ck dance, lets art.” (Time Recordings).
The avant-garde tried to connect art and life. Now life turns round and kicks art in the teeth.
“No sooner do we grasp one rhythm than we lose track of it and hear another.” (John Miller Chernoff).
…and a renewed openness freeing the sonic realm for more lurches into the unknown. Just as Balearic house had brought together disparate elements into its single narcotic cocktail, so the breakbeat provided the launch pad for a multiplication of influences as genres dissolved and recombined. Echoes. The future is unravelled in the renegade laboratories of Lee Scratch Perry and Jamaican dub. Meltdown. The pop formula dissolved by reverb and remix.
“…echo-effects allow sound hallucinations to occur, they delocalise the perception apparatus, allowing forms of perception to emerge that one had previously attributed to lunatics or schizophrenics.” (Achim Szepanksi).
Echoes. Grandmaster flash and the other early deck pioneers forged a minimalist beats aesthetic by playing drum breaks back to back, and opened the doors of perception to a new world of sound by developing the vinyl arts of scratching and cutting. From there it was but a small technological slip to the expanded field of sampledelia made possible by digitalisation.
“Songs became liquid. They became vehicles for improvisation, or source materials, field recordings almost, that could be reconfigured or remixed to suit the future.” (David Toop).
Since the first time Kraftwerk left the stage and let the drum machine do its thing, repetition has been central to electronic music. Machines that failed in their representational function of simulating real instruments were used to construct a new paradigm characterised by intensive, insistent rhythms.
“Each instrument, each tool, theoretical or concrete, implies a sound field, a field of knowledge, an imaginable and explored universe. Today, a new music is on the rise, one that can neither be expressed nor understood using the old tools, a music produced elsewhere and otherwise.” (Jacques Attali).
Machines used for purposes they were not designed for, that function by breaking down. The drum-machine, which ignited the house revolution, the Roland TR-808, was bought cheap on the second hand market following its premature discontinuation because of its failure to emulate real instruments. A similar case was the Roland TB-303. Notoriously bad at what it was designed for, simulating bass-guitar lines, it was very good at making mistakes. Its programming procedures were so complex that the operators intentions would become lost and unexpected results appear out of the confusion – with the mistakes proving more interesting than what was intended. Soon the misuse became the norm, as the unique squelching sounds produced by its filters came to define a whole genre of music: acid house.
“Tomorrow, with electronic music in our ears, we will hear freedom.” (John Cage).
No longer enmeshed in the parameters set by traditional instruments and musicianship, sound was unleashed. Its decomposition intensified when the availability and creative application of digital sampling technology set the foundations for the further quantum leap of drum ‘n’ bass. Musical perception became reconfigured through the infinite expansion and decomposition of the sonic instant. Reversed, stretched, speeded up. Colours and shapes in sound dematerialise the dance floor and shape-shift the crowd.
“At the present stage of revolution, a healthy lawlessness is warranted. Experimentation must necessarily be carried on by hitting anything . . . Not only hitting, but rubbing, smashing, making sound in every possible way. In short, we must explore the materials of music. What we can’t do ourselves will be done by machines and electrical instruments which we will invent.” (John Cage).
Whilst digital culture breeds a generation of acolytes and the space race its cadets, artists on the electronic frontier turn to redundant analogue technology to get their kicks and basslines. Retrofuturism. The gleaming exteriors and shining preset sounds of the latest keyboards are rejected as audio artists turn to the technologies of the past to generate the sounds of the future. Cubase retains metaphors of discrete instruments and linear time whilst the mutant music machines of Christian Vogel and the Aphex twins and the smash and grab tactics of post-coldcut sampling keep the revolution off course.
“A freak is also a monster, a marginal. To improvise, to compose is thus related to the idea of the assumption of differences, of the rediscovery and blossoming of the body, ‘something that lets me find my own rhythm between the measures’.” (Stockhausen).
Experimental music always risks the disconnection of intellectual contemplation. A space walk gone wrong. Rothwell and the Blue Room establish once and for all that elaborate theories cannot compete with having a body on your operating table even if that body is simulated. But when the simulation becomes endemic the alienated body ceases to be the basis of freak creation, and becomes instead the foundation of a mythology that clings like a mist before the eyes. Wear your Schwa with pride. Autoproduction replaced by the endless reduplication of automatons. The new perception works on the molecular, but molar hallucinations appear round every corner. Turntable pop stars, classic discographies, interstellar idols.
“The cult of the dj is the return of the Nuremberg shuffle. Dancers no longer equal under the groove, passive fixation replacing rapture. Eyes front!” (Doctor Rogas).
Cynical repetition is the abyss beneath the tightrope. Without a spanner in the works corporate machineries produce ideal consumers for idealised consumption. The superclub is the fast-food burger emporium of today. Except that sometimes these burgers bite. The cleansing of clubland only ever partially contained the festival raging within.
“…with electronic music in our ears…” (John Cage).
We will hear freedom.
“Without the loudspeaker, we would never have conquered Germany.” (Adolph Hitler).
Sound is never neutral. The mere fact that there is noise is no longer enough. Does it fix in place or set in motion, compress or expand?
I hear, therefore I . . . . .?
“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise.” (John Cage).
At what point did sound become systemic? Ubiquitous shopping mall muzak or 24-hour-a-day party intensity? Somewhere in Tao Payoh the shop-u-like cookie dispenser and Nike warehouse rocks to the sounds of progressive house and intelligent drum’n’bass. Meanwhile spiral tribe eclipse musical education and hippie empathics at once, their rallying cry sounding through the English countryside and their sonic missiles tearing apart the polite rural retreat. ‘Make some fucking noise!’
“Architecture in general is frozen music.” (Friedrich von Schelling).
Sonic profiles, liquid skylines. The sonic city is a battleground. Pollution is never neutral. Whilst the city’s elites beep their car alarms and business class jets skim low-rent roofs, the urban dispossessed unleash their sonic weapons through those HDB suburbs and leafy kampungs that shall be forever Singapore. You have been ghetto blasted.
“The problem of redefining the acoustic community may involve the establishment of zoning regulations; but to limit it to this, as is common today, is to mistake the trajectories of the soundscape for the property lines of the landscape.” (Murray Schafer).
The culture of surveillance spreads from the street to the intimacy of zones of pleasure and release. Close circuit clubland. But at the same time sonic perception spreads from the clubs to the spaces of public design and debate, recomposing the urban environment. The cacophony is the reality of urban life. The remix is its possible future.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (Elvis Costello).
But what is it like to write musically? The virus released by dance propagates via both digital convergence and entropic club environment. Sound and light bear mutant offspring, and ecstatic rhythm impregnates the written word.
“Gonna be alot of weird dancin goin on.” (George Bush).
Sound has become unleashed. Music and audience shaken and stirred. There is no going back. Tomorrow… We will hear…