Sunday, November 23, 2014


Missed this mordant review of Arca's Xen by Britt Brown in a recent issue of  The Wire , which chimes with some of the feelings (or not-really-feelings) in this post of mine.

Brown writes:

"The music of Arca... often feels indistinguishable from a high tech software demonstration.... every texture a labored mirage of plug-ins and processing. Pondering the click count necessary to construct one of his labyrinthine designs is enough to induce carpal tunnel syndrome...."

He further asserts that Xen is "as much a scrapbook of frequency oscillation experiments as a set of tracks meant to evoke some sort of human response....   Shorn of vocals, Xen suffers the same fate as much beloved contemporary beat music, which is a kind of dazzling monotony. Rhythms are fractured and abstracted to the point of nonexistence; glassy soft synths swoop and wander, indifferent to songcraft or notions of structural momentum. This refusal to pursue ideas to fruition is the record's shallowest quality - though it may also explain something of Arca's generational appeal. Nations of curious culture hounds skimming videos and audio waveforms in search of content worthy of their time has birthed an aesthetic of impatience, click bait, listicles, streaming previews."

Brown also offers some acerbic analysis of the aesthetic economy of out-sourced beat-making. He notes that it makes sense that Arca's "convoluted, maximalist music caught the attention of Kanye West's subcommittee of Yeezus production delegates" because "the cold blooded wisdom of Yeezus is that brilliance can be bought. A star like Kanye can approach a new album with nothing more than a vague desire to sound fresh, and simply delegate the rest.....  Electronic music is an arms race like any other... [and] Arca is as much a mercenary as a musician, padding his portfolio with exotically blasted snare drum sounds and melted circuit reverb patches in an effort to tempt new clients. Xen should keep his workflow steady."  

Brown's critique does get a rather forceful and thought-provoking rejoinder from Mike Sugarman at Ad Hoc, though....

Stop Press: Aaron Grossman from Airport Through The Trees steps "meekly into the Arca fray" with some very interesting thoughts on Xen (including taking issue with Sugarman)  plus adjacent topics such as postmodernity, architecture, and the difference between Music As Cause versus Music as Style.  


Thinking about Brown's argument, the thought did occur: when it comes down to it, isn't a lot of dance music, a lot of  electronic music, actually - on some level, to some degree -- a tech-demonstration? A run-through and showcase for what the latest gear can do?

For sure, it must also have that functional aspect of working on the dancefloor. There has to be a groove there - a sensual and kinaesthetic matrix in which the effects and new noises are embedded. But usually there is a fairly sizeable element of ostentatious deployment of  the latest tricknology and special FX.

With IDM, given that the obligation to service the deejay and the massive is diminished severely or eliminated altogether, there's much greater danger of falling into the ear-candy-for-ear-candy's sake zone...  audio fireworks....  digital pyrotechnique... 

In that respect, IDM in its purest and most uncompromised forms is simply a junior cousin to academic electronic composition. (Autechre and Curtis Roads: the only difference is that one works within the music marketplace and the other through institutions of higher learning). For the 
history of electronic composition and computer music is likewise all about making use of the latest machinery. Literally building the state of the art;  being the first to use it because you made it yourself, tinkered with the hardware and the software....  The results can get close to being barely more than audio-engineering, as opposed to Artistic Expression. (Which may explain why some electronic composers over-compensate with Lofty Themes, reconnecting what they do to the grand history of Western Civilisation, poetry and literature and philosophy... and occasionally taking it all the way back to Ancient Greece).

For examples, check out all this early computer music as curated and annotated by Alex de Nunzio on YouTube, which I've been devouring lately. If you fancy a go yourself,  I would start at the start, and work your way forward historically. Go back to de Nunzio's first uploads from 3 years ago, figures like  David Lewin, Max Mathews, Newman Guttman, John Pierce. These guys, operating in the late Fifties and early Sixties, are much more technicians than composers.

This Max Mathews piece was actually "produced as a demonstration of some of the effects which could be achieved with the computer in the early 60's"

But even later on with your James Dashows and James Tenneys, there is an element of what Brown is accusing Arca of doing...

Some incredible stuff de Nunzio has put up there for our delectation / edification, all of it interesting, but the best of it finding a wondrous balance between tech-demonstration and musical-world-building.

Emmanuel Ghent was a Bell Labs colleague of Laurie Spiegel, who also fits into this zone - what I once, long ago, dubbed "the engineer-poet."

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