A Report on Sonic Contagion
Away from the eyes of most, a virtual plague spreads. Traversing air signals, DNS relay stations, submarine cables, frigid satellites, a sonic virus spreads—donning myriad timbral guises and means of encoding—taking root in hard drives across the world. Those who come across this plague are often disgusted; to them the virus’ sensory input is intolerable, and they protest against it with claims of banality, insipidity, unlistenability, cruelty. For a certain number of others, the virus takes hold: a tacit symbiosis is formed between the virus’ sonic package and the listener’s organism. The symbiote begins to reverberate, spreading the virus further, invariably crafting new masks for it in the process. The virus has one task (itself unclear as to wherefrom it received this commission): simply, to upend sensory endoxa.
The virus can be more descriptively titled “movements in contemporary experimental music.” Studying these movements is somewhat difficult. For one, it is hard to describe movements in experimental music as current. The virus is, to all appearances, completely coextensive with the movements that music has made in the past, and to christen a moment in the virus’ movement as an Event would be to fall prey to a totalitarian, nostalgic, “all-too-human” impulse. Each album discussed here contains irreducible elements of influence, and it’s hard to see how this could be otherwise. Thus, current experimental music is not a wholly different organism from the experimental musics of yore; it should rather be thought of as that organism’s current stage of life. While each artist involved in the process of sonic exploration is an important element in experimental music’s continual propulsion, none have been fundamentally groundbreaking, none are able to jump over the system they take part in. So, we have the same organism. A second difficulty arises due to the ease of speaking that genre categories bring. The reader should keep in mind the contrived nature of these categories, as they are not actually separate from other sections of music but continually influence one another; they are nothing but partial objects caught up in the tumultuous flow of all other partial objects. Wildly different strains of the virus can be channeled into and spread from the same artists: the love that iPhone field recorder Gabi Losoncy and harsh noise waller Sam McKinlay have for one another’s work1 attests to this. Third, the musical virus itself, thought of as a wholly independent entity, is a contrivance; it continually finds itself influenced by several other fields of contagion and dissemination (other artistic media, technological advances, ideological systems, non-human movements such as those of weather patterns and bacteria). These brackets are necessary for the following paper, of course. Any communication which makes no claim to systemization need not worry itself of its bracketing if it makes note of it, and as long as we keep one eye on the virus’ partiality and dependence on other viruses, we should be able to pass through analysis untrammeled.
The reader should also keep in mind the necessarily contingent set of music I have at my disposal to analyze. An incomparably larger amount of music is released every day than anyone could listen to, let alone give the requisite attention necessary for a deep understanding. My selection may be read as arbitrary in its details, but it is still absolutely representative of a fashion of music-making that, as much as it can, attempts to overturn and dissolve all received notions of what music should be. A total view of music is impossible, implying a static final state—a lump of matter reflexively describing its own corpse using a mirror of words. As far as I can tell, we have not reached an end of artistic history, and so music keeps on changing, my view maintaining its necessarily singular perspective. Following Deleuze and Guattari, “we believe only in totalities that are peripheral.”2
An analysis of music is of necessity untimely. No specific points denoting beginnings or ends can be grasped reliably. Certain sections of Brian Olewnick’s biography of Keith Rowe3 are telling. For example, while attempting to argue for the group AMM’s primacy in the field of free improvisation, he comments in footnotes on earlier formed and contemporaneous groups with very similar agendas: the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the New Music Ensemble, the Gruppo di Improvazione da Nueva Consonanza, Group Ongaku.4 Indeed, many sections of Olewnick’s book are dedicated to documenting the numerous influences that ended up coalescing in AMM’s particular sound. Thus, with my essay as well, the attentive reader will be able to pick out past movements in music which accord very well with newer movements. Such is our curse; we will continue on nonetheless.
Only certain elements of music’s mutation can be viewed from the outside at this moment (or rather, at any moment). That is, only those elements which have been pulled to extreme levels. Other elements, while potentially fecund areas for future development, hide furtively behind their more voluptuous companions. Again, analysis is necessarily an untimely task. It is only able to condense certain elements of the past into communicable categories. Its articulation of the past into the “code of everyday signs”5 will always turn out to be incommensurable with the material it falls back on or is sloughed off from. However, it is not only anisomorphic with a fleeing past; it flings us toward an incommunicable future. The musical virus is an excessive object; it constantly excretes a residue—which surprises, shocks, delights—in the form of new sounds and new sonic thoughts. In the most general terms, it seems that the flight of the sonic virus tends towards the abolishment of inside and outside. Its tropisms, varied as they may be, would like to show us the way towards a sensory realm with no determinable high and low, consciousness and unconsciousness, ground and concomitant. As Denis Hollier puts it, “The labyrinth… is not an object, not a referent. It does not have a transcendence that would permit one to explore it… Neither the category of subjectivity nor the category of objectivity can exist in this space, which, having made them unsound, nevertheless has no replacement to offer. Distance like proximity, separation like adhesion remain undecidable here. In this sense, one is never either inside or outside the labyrinth.”6 In music’s current stage, it becomes very hard to tell whether one is inside or outside the labyrinth, whether any given musical element can be placed inside or outside or declared to be higher or lower than any other element. The tactic is to disrupt molar formations, objects presumed to be complete only on the basis of cultural presuppositions.
Disruption of the Artwork-as-a-Whole
Much of current experimental music turns up its nose at the hard distinction between the world of art and the world of everyday life; it sees this distinction as one stemming from the regrettable world of complete objects, the world that posits strict insides and outsides. Much of the work in this direction has been worked through by the onkyo-kei scene, based in Tokyo. Many of the improvisers and composers in this scene began playing with very sparse and quiet sounds, and due to both this relative silence and their metropolitan surroundings, city sounds began to leak into their recordings. The cover of Toshimaru Nakamura and Tetuzi Akiyama’s Meeting at Off Site Vol. 1 proudly describes the album thus: “At the foot of Shinjuku’s skyscrapers remains a patch of old wooden houses. Off Site is a small gallery/performance space created through the modification and renovation of one of these houses… The sound in these performances is often so feeble that it welcomes into the music noises from the outside, such as the whistle of a tofu vendor and the wooden clappers of people calling ‘beware of fire’ as they walk through the neighborhood.”7 Taku Sugimoto’s Live in Australia goes further than Off Site, the album being nominally a recording of two compositions for guitar but consisting almost solely of the sounds of audience members shifting in their seats and of cars driving by outside. Space and Place by Seijiro Murayama and Soundworm uses outside sounds as a sort of instrument: in the recording, Murayama plays percussion, and Soundworm improvises by muting and unmuting channels on a mixing board leading to microphones placed around the recording area. One of these microphones has been placed outside the building the musicians are in, allowing the outside its unwitting say in the musical process.
In the English-speaking world, meanwhile, Graham Lambkin has implemented field recordings of everyday happenings in his sound collage albums, as exemplified by Community and by his collaboration with Áine O'Dwyer, Green Ways. On Green Ways, conversations over tea, walks through fields, and vague cultural ceremonies are made occasions for recording and later aesthetic appreciation. The outside, here becoming deeply involved with the inside, has proven itself to be an immensely rich object, leading to unexpected sensory pleasures.
Perhaps the most extreme representative of this trend is the field recorder Gabi Losoncy. Almost all of her works are composed of field recordings made with her iPhone which have been edited very lightly, if at all. Her quadruple album 2015 is a stunning document of the blasé hell of cosmopolitan American malls, Losoncy quietly walking around department stores and chain restaurants, sometimes briefly conversing with people. Her three-and-a-half hour Cinnabon is a recording made while Losoncy was working at a heroin rehabilitation center. For about 80 minutes of the piece, an incredibly aggravating fire alarm rings in the background—nothing in life is left off grounds for legitimate artistic contemplation in these recordings. A snug intertwining of the space inside and outside the artwork leaves no room for distancing or pretensions of categorical separation, and through this, Losoncy is able to present works which are deeply personal and moving despite being formed “merely” from the bare vibrations of mundane life. In addition, Cinabbon faithfully records pieces of conversations with patients and fellow employees, people who do not know they are contributing to an art piece. In a perhaps underhanded but delightfully unassuming way, Losoncy heavily corrodes common notions of agentive participation in art. The recordings on Cinabbon are so long that I can be quite sure Losoncy herself forgot at times that she was recording. Any notion of necessary consciousness in the movements of sonic creation is shown up to be unnecessarily idealistic through Losoncy’s recordings.
Disruption of Genres-as-Wholes
Another movement used to assimilate exteriors and interiors comes by way of questioning and melding “high” sources of sound, those granted artistic prestige, and “low” sources of sound, those thought of as base or closer to animality—resulting in the revealing of high and low art’s distinction from one another to be a mere façade. The gorenoise scene, an outcropping of ultra-compressed grindcore which takes pride in overdriven-beyond-recognition guitars and often in disgusting sounds, does this very well. Metal is generally thought of as an insipid style of music, based only in simple anger and meant to attenuate anti-social emotions through catharsis. The introduction into grindcore of noise elements belies such a view of genre as simplistic. A release such as Ruins of Bronzemaw by Cavatus and PKWST shows an astounding capacity for experimentation in even the filthiest and basest of genres. Even Faces of Gore’s side of their split with Biocyst8 shows, with its incredibly odd pacing and drum programming, a deep plasticity rumbling beneath genre categorization. Certain other artists, such as Phyllomedusa, Formicidae, Royal Jelly, and Tremoctopodidaic Insemination, show a capacity for marginalized genres to foment quite odd worldviews, all of these artists showing an extreme level of anti-humanism by focusing solely on “low,” exceptionally “stupid” animals (frogs, ants, bees, and octopi, respectively).
Other genres have just as well proven to be good breeding grounds for undercuttings of common ideas as to what music should be. Black noise rose out of black metal and tends to dissolve traditional compositions into miasmas of noise, particular notes and harmonies becoming very difficult to pick out (see Sutekh Hexen’s Ritualistic, Masokismi’s Eläminen kohti kuolemaa, and Tsalal’s self-titled EP). The kusoikore scene enacts a similar program, modifying anime music and J-pop with headsplitting breakbeats and noise (see Himeko Katagiri’s I Love You Azusa and JAPSHITFUN’s Lolicore Ruined My Life). While black noise largely needles one’s ears, kusoikore also needles one’s good conscience. The thematic content of Lolicore Ruined My Life would shock any well-bred listener with its vileness and depravity. Yet, this album shows that no areas of the world are safe from the tacitly speculative action of the sonic virus, its gripping tendrils reaching in all directions and causing the human organism to vibrate in all manner of ways which might be aesthetically pleasing.
Several other examples can be given which represent the trend of melding high and low—different artists combining noise, collage, and electroacoustic techniques with genres thought of as pulpy or with sound sources considered base. Buck Young’s Proud Trash Sound, Lower Than Frog Piss’ Thuốc Lào, BiS Kaidan’s self-titled album, Kazumoto Endo’s While You Were Out, Breakdancing Ronald Reagan’s Enabler (Long Live the Home), DJ Warlord’s 12 Wars of Christmas, Jute Gyte’s Birefringence, ju sei and Utah Kawasaki’s U as in Utah… The list could be lengthened without visible end. All of these pieces of music modify “simpler” genres to the point of near unrecognizability.
In a similar way, even samples from pornography have been used with high artistic integrity in albums such as The Gerogerigegege’s Hotel Ultra and Forbidden Colors, Black Leather Jesus, Straight Panic, and Body Stress’ Deviant. That music lives in an orb on high, that sonic tinkerers have signed a tacit contract and must keep themselves unsullied from billboards, the internet, TV screens—in short from the spectacular world in general—is nothing but latent idealist fantasy. Peter Sotos’ Buyer’s Market goes even further than the two albums mentioned above, being an hour-long collage comprised only of TV clips and interviews concerning child abuse, rape, and murder. Exploitative and sensationalist TV is turned on its head, becoming a strange aestheticization of the rankest corners of the world. No clear intention is visible in Buyer’s Market, nothing to clue the listener in on how they should feel concerning it. And yet, one cannot listen to the album without feeling profoundly out of place. The words on the album, the collaging of the clips, exceed their own articulation. A sonic propulsion animates the soul when listening to this album, a movement resonating beyond one’s control.
It should be noted that sources which are muddled do not have to be of high and low extraction. For two of low extraction: a combination of trap rap and nightcore has recently been shown to be a quite fecund field (SpaceGhostPurrp’s Miami Carol City Legend, tomoe_✧theundy1ng’s HEXX4EVER22#REALHEX, Reptilian Club Boyz’s Ohh Yeaaa Juiced Up Pop Punk Emo Swag). For two of high extraction: field recordings and free improvisation can be combined to form a wholly new product (Haco and Toshiya Tsunoda’s TramVibration, Jon Rose and Hollis Taylor’s Great Fences of Australia, Seattle Phonographers Union’s self-titled album). All styles are implicated with one another, and none can stop the interminable interplay of styles stemming from all manner of sources.
Disruption of the Artist’s-Identity-as-a-Whole
Pseudonymous music has been common for some time now, but certain artists have attained an extreme point in the crafting of stage names. Glitch artist Claudia Sheffner and gorenoise artist Bobby Maggard have each used hundreds of aliases, making it incredibly difficult for fans to collect their entire works. This practice seems to point towards a dissolving of the artist thought of as a self-identical subject. The ego disperses itself in the proliferation of pseudonyms, revealing the material behind itself as a horde of malevolent spores. In average thinking, an artist’s name acts as a sort of miniature genre classifier, the locus of an artist’s output during their life, a solid whole with an easily found beginning and end. With Sheffner and Maggard’s litany of names, we begin to see that the artist’s name—thought of as a solid category—is just as contrived as thinking of genres as solid categories—that these categories, the lumping-together of disparate pieces of music into an identical Whole, are only constructed on the basis of surface-level similarities and conceptual differences, shells or apparent exteriors which harden on the faces of bilious and fluid musical interchanges.
A similar effect occurs in the jeering act of a various artists compilation put together by only one person. The album Extreme Music from Africa, if we can believe the rumors, seems to be a solo effort by William Bennett despite listing 11 separate artists on its tracklist. Bennett finds himself free to heavily diversify his sonic palette in a heavily compressed timeframe compared to traditional levels of musical information flow. Alternatively, it is possible that 11 (or more) artists were involved in the production of Extreme Music from Africa. The album problematizes the notion that any given number of people must be involved in sonic creation. Further, as certain samples used on the album have been found online, it problematizes the notion that any given person involved in music must be aware that they are involved in said music.
We have also seen collective artistic efforts work towards the dissolution of identities in recent years. Psalmus Diuersae was an experimental Bandcamp page that several people held the login details for. Members of the page were encouraged to upload any music they wanted to and to edit others’ music as they pleased. Over the course of about two years (mostly during 2014 and 2015), dozens of very strange albums came out of this venture, such as The Fourth Bully by /f, *skating for parental disapproval* by HBrite Sweepers, they're multimedia by parallel cornholio, and Media Sapien by update. In 2017, a similar Bandcamp page, Ancient Bog Attitude, was launched. Several artists released music on this page, all of them using the pseudonym Ancient Bog Attitude. It thus became nearly impossible to pin down which particular person made each work. This project calls to mind the reams of anonymous musical compositions written in Medieval Europe’s solemn monasteries. However, new collectives such as Psalmus Diuersae and Ancient Bog Attitude are not beholden to reproducing or slowly elaborating on staid cultural formations laid down by the Church; their production becomes profligate, each artist simply spinning music from whichever cultural elements happen to interest them at a given moment. Kevin the 4th Elemental forms violin improvisation from the world of Sonic the Hedgehog fan art (Vier-Elemente-Lehre), #me forms disconcerting MIDI music from an unknowable set of influences (The POWs from Dumbledores Army (Textless) to the Dungeons). These are confusing albums; they propel one to small sections of the world which defy articulation; they baffle me, spread open the lacunae of thought before my eyes.
Disruption of the Place of Instruments
Various improvisational and classical music scenes have fully embraced the idea that the instruments chosen to play music with are arbitrary past their timbral potential. The prestige of the cello or flute have been superseded by the turntable, the hard drive, and the current of air. John Cage’s Imaginary Landscapes seem to have gone a long way towards opening things up, with its use of bare sonic frequencies, turntables, cans, buzzers, field recordings, records, and radio broadcasts. In today’s landscape, Toshimaru Nakamura will play a mixing board, Masahiko Okura a tube, Choi Joonyong a CD player, Sachiko M the test tones on an empty sampler, Takahiro Kawaguchi a collection of egg timers, Hong Chulki a turntable, Jin Sangtae a hard drive.
In our world, even the microphone becomes an instrument in myriad ways. Haco uses two to examine electronics on Stereo Bugscope 00. Toshiya Tsunoda tapes two to his head on The Temple Recording. Wiliam Bennett swings one around to produce feedback on Mummy and Daddy. To go further, the volume of air in a room becomes an instrument in the hands of today’s musicians. On And So On, Mitsuhiro Yoshimura modulates the feedback between a speaker and a pair of headphones simply by moving his body.9
Anything that can become an instrument becomes an instrument. And alongside various electrical screechings and strange acoustic reverberations, Artaud’s call for a new music rings in our ears: “The need to act directly and profoundly upon the sensibility through the organs invites research, from the point of view of sound, into qualities which present-day musical instruments do not possess and which require the revival of ancient and forgotten instruments or the invention of new ones. Research is also required, apart from music, into instruments and appliances which, based upon special combinations or new alloys of metal, can attain a new range and compass, producing sounds or noises that are unbearably piercing.”10
Disruption of Form
And not only the figures but the ground of music also must be questioned. Hideki Nakazawa’s Hideki Nakazawa Music Works Concert beautifully subverts received notions pertaining to musical form in two ways. In the concert itself, Nakazawa’s piano pieces sound more like warmup exercises than what most would consider actual compositions. In the CD, the silences between songs and the audience’s applause have been cut off from the songs proper and form their own tracks. Utah Kawasaki, Takahiro Kawaguchi, and Nick Hoffman’s Noise Without Tears plays with the model of the packaged and sold recording of a performance, being itself a recording of the players warming up for a performance rather than of the performance that followed.11 Devin DiSanto and Nick Hoffman’s Three Exercises has DiSanto and Hoffman receiving instructions on how to perform their piece as they perform it (a voice on a tape narrating what the two men are supposed to do). Taku Unami and Devin DiSanto’s ErstLive 013 plays with this idea further, a computerized voice giving nonsensical instructions (such as telling DiSanto to say which number corresponds to symbols he is presumably being shown).
It has been a long time coming, of course, but the thorough renunciation of conventional rhythm and harmony has been carried to an extreme by certain computer music artists. qebrµs’ ⋋≒ℵ≓⋌ ⋶ℵ⊖ʂ⊖µɲɖɾѦςҟ ⌊∤þɾѦɾџ ・∴・ 1, Phillip Schulze’s Cause Unfold Proceed, Gintas K’s M, and Taku Unami’s Electronics Solo all take the form of extended experiments in, quite simply, electrical timber. No presupposed form blocks off the process, and the result becomes a field of pure sound.12 It may be noted that contemporary computer music seems to carry out Deleuze and Guattari’s call for a “generalized chromaticism”13 in music. However, this route should not be thought of as the only valid one in sonic experimentation.
If we want to truly dissolve distinctions between conscious and unconscious production of experimental music, we must come to grips with the worth of naïve music which manages an unintentional experimentality. Not all credit should be given to musicians who hold a supposedly deliberate intention to experiment; musicians who seem to have failed in their intentions can be just as valuable in stripping musical opinion of its chitinous pretensions. The Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World is a classic example, the members of The Shaggs revealing to us a very new conception of what rock music can be due to their odd songwriting and poor musical ability. Farrah Abrahams’ My Teenage Dream Ended has more recently built a cult fanbase due to its incredibly shoddy production. This word “shoddy” is not meant to disparage the album. A new world of modern pop music is opened up to us through Abraham’s seeming failure, one that may never have been opened for us by someone who was deliberately trying to overturn pop conventions.
A particularly strange and unsettling piece of naïve music comes by way of Thursar’s Journey to Jotunheim, an absolutely baffling piece of music. Listening to Jotunheim, so many of one’s expectations towards music are ripped out of one’s hands. A deep confusion sets in as Thursar’s atonal basslines ramble along below disconnected bursts of synths, each layer of the music barely in time with any other layer. Jotunheim nears a sublime experience, one of utter confusion. Seemingly inadvertently, Thursar has obliterated so much of what good sense would consider to be enjoyable listening by making an album I very much enjoy despite its constant fumbling of the rules.14
Certain naïve artists, while following many conventions in their crafting of songs, blatantly transgress intellectual property laws (laws based around notions of self-identical subjects). Seemingly out of default, not wanting to pay for or make their own instrumentals, these artists use only instrumentals which have been reappropriated without compensation. Both Rebecca Bielinski’s Swag (Something We Americans Got) and Lil Bum’s Get 50 or Die Starving are excellent examples of this, both artists stealing all of their beats from more well-known artists while singing overtop using poor-quality microphones. And yet, despite their lack of both traditional musical skill and consciousness of what they are doing, both Bielinski and Lil Bum manage to create incredibly enjoyable and provoking albums. Both make one seriously question what must go into music to make it pleasurable.
Modern culture, by and large, finds small-scale aesthetic experimentation to be a waste of resources. An individual buying equipment in order to record an hour-long harsh noise wall and upload said recording online is seen to be wasting their time and money; one may sense a visceral feeling of disgust while imagining this individual spending their time sonically masturbating. It should be noted that in our world, not all of music is seen as a waste. Almost every commercial seen on TV or heard on the radio uses music as a backdrop; corporate office cafeterias and Starbucks often play trendy, upbeat music; and people will use music to pump themselves up for whatever workday is coming up for them. These musics retain a strong connection to the world of utility. The music that shunts this connection is colored with a sensation of disgust felt deep in the gut.
Simply, experimental music is often repellant because it is effected through a sumptuous expenditure—a sacrifice of labor power towards an excessive product made with no goal of commensurable return in mind, no expectations outside of the possibility that a sonic creation will upset a few, excite a few others. Not only is bodily effort sacrificed, but the presupposed notions of the ear’s use must be as well. A crude tool is taken to the ear’s membranes, creating myriad speculative uses for it. “The victim, because of the very nature of sacrifice, is also the ‘executioner’ or sacrificer, automutilation needs to be thought of as a [sonic] act, even the [sonic] act, par excellence.”15 The sacrifice of sonic laws, the effected forgetting of acculturated rules of thumb, causes new, foreign, sometimes utterly vile, rules to come into being.
Experimental music plays in a field of excess; its timbral jostlings jut out from the everyday categories through which music must be thought of and discussed. The element in a piece of music that signals its experimentality is its element of incommunicability, its origin in vicissitudes of intensity which are wholly incommensurable with ossified thoughts on music which have been laid down or passively accepted in the past.
In The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, the cynical monk-in-training Kashiwagi is able to participate in ecstatic sonic pleasure despite his hatred of common ideas of beauty, his cutting away of received notions resulting in new and beautiful creations. The narrator recounts: “And that night, indeed, this young man with his stinging tongue, who usually seemed interested in beauty only in so far as he could defile it, showed me a truly delicate aspect of his nature. He had a far, far more accurate theory about beauty than I did. He did not tell it to me in words, but with his gestures and his eyes, with the music that he played on his flute, and with that forehead of his which emerged in the moonlight.”16 And another time: “It was certainly not consolation that Kashiwagi sought in beauty. I understood that much without the slightest discussion. What he loved was that, for a short while after his breath had brought beauty into existence in the air, his own clubfeet and gloomy thinking remained there, more clearly and more vividly than before. The uselessness of beauty, the fact that the beauty which had passed through his body left no mark there whatsoever, that it changed absolutely nothing—it was this that Kashiwagi loved. If beauty could be something like this for me too, how light would my life become!”17
Perhaps we have gone ahead of ourselves in assuming that experimental music contains a worth in itself, outside of all utility—that through listening to, criticizing, spreading, and creating it, we learn something, tacitly if not always conceptually. The average listener, when presented with most of the albums talked about in this paper, would probably either dislike them or at most find them novel but not pleasurable. So why should we concern ourselves with music that most people do not find pleasurable? The question seems to be wrongly posed. We should remember Spinoza’s dictum that “we do not even know what a body can do.”18 This extends to our knowledge of how a body can be affected. We have no clue as to the breadth of possible pleasurable sensory experiences; we don’t know where art’s boundaries are—those boundaries beyond which no human can find sensory pleasure. The question is not “How many people find x pleasureable?” but “How wide is the possible breadth of sensory pleasure? How large is the set of aural forms X such that each element in the set is pleasurable to at least one person? And can we expand this set further?” The force behind this set is the idea of pure aesthetic experimentation, the pulsional agent embodying a mythical and sublimely speculative flow of aesthetics.
A literary example concerning uncommon aesthetic feelings: The Marquis de Sade’s Justine, a book which over the course of hundreds of pages happily describes acts of pedophilia; gerontophilia; coprophilia; as well as sexually-motivated torture, mutilation, and murder. This is a book that would absolutely repel the average person. And yet, the fact remains that Sade himself found it an immensely pleasurable piece of literature. The fact that he pursued publishing it despite his anticipations of heavy persecution proves that he felt it a worthwhile book.19 With Sade’s works, our conception of possible aesthetically pleasing experiences seems to have broadened significantly.
It may at first seem confusing when Lautréamont describes a boy as being as handsome as “the chance juxtaposition of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table,”20 (how could things we are so unused to calling beautiful be beautiful?) but it cannot be denied that this phrase has been seen as beautiful, if only by a certain few (e.g. Lautréamont himself, the Surrealists, Steven Stapleton21). In a simple gesture, Lautréamont has swept away any transcendent principle of beauty! Beauty has never derived from a form on high; it builds itself up from the muck and dirt of the world, from sensations in our nerves, bones, and membranes, in our intestines and their fermenting dejecta, in the simple—at times breathtaking, heartbreaking, or enraging—sensations of everyday life.
The process of coming to appreciate the products of musical experimentation is not a simple one—that is, not a mechanistic process that could be laid out step-by-step in a guidebook. The absorption process takes time and some effort, as well as a predilection for deterritorialization. A naïvety, feigned or authentic, must be produced, a marked movement towards the forgetting of artistic rules. Or a puckish crafting of ersatz rules which make a mockery of those which are institutionalized. The sonic laws are set down in the grooves of a shellac record: we must pour acetone on the record, play it on a turntable with a broken needle, throw it against the wall.
I listen to ErstLive 005. The rustlings, piercing tones, and bursts of radio noise are sometimes painful, sometimes dull. They soon begin to resonate with my body. Vibrations of membranes in the ears tethered on one end to MP3 data decoded at imperceptibly fast speeds, entering the air, on the other end to swarms of pleasure—sensual runoff, traumatically orienting me in a new direction. I decide to buy a mixing board that night.
“information is virtual needles piercing the you doll until possession occurs. then there is no longer a needle or a doll.”22
Subsequent to a period of agglomeration and absorption (a “de-culturation” meant to violently tear passively acquired sonic laws), a transformation is effected in the listener, who may now feel the need to secrete a sort of residue (an admixture of the depths of their soul with their new forays into music) in the form of criticism or even as new music. A will to power is hijacked, or hijacks—the dead matter of past musical praxis being funneled through a human medium, imbuing the former with the pure difference of the listener’s “unexchangeable depth,”23 the latter secreting new, affirmative praxis. A gun that shoots teeth is made from a Chinese lunch platter23, a litany of machines is made from obtuse wordplay.24
A note on the basic daemoniacal movement of the sonic virus: gallons of sensory data are pressed upon a listener, compressing and refracting in fleeting movements within their body…the body begins to move, past pleasures and revulsions shining forth, echoing through their movements…a subjectum is precipitated, a residuum, in the form of new music, of criticism, of simple personal thoughts. This precipitate is the I, Residuum of Incapacitants, a faux ego which need not rest in a human body (perhaps lying in a pdf, an mp3, some html), itself precipitating further corrosive flows and expansions.
A note on sonic transmigration: The infrastructure has been laid down beforehand—miles of internet cables, saturnine data farms capable of housing ungodly amounts of data, near everyone’s got a phone or computer at their disposal. Rips of older music are made, anonymous toilers culling sound files from their vinyl records and cassette tapes. Others push files made solely from computers onto the internet. The files circulate amongst themselves. Music blogs, social media sites, forums, chat servers can be filthy places, places where sonic plagues burst forth without end. These breeding grounds are helped along by exterior software. Torrenting software and private trackers allow for incredible surges of free data flow, allowing the experimental music virus a deft mobility. Streaming sites add to this process, allowing potential hosts to listen to the virus’ various strains without having to download files. Using these two methods, the virus can spread from host to host with very little impediment.
On a smaller scale: the listener searches far and wide, amasses a good deal of listening material. This material is imbibed in due time. If they have lowered their immune response (or perhaps have a natural inclination towards immune deficiency), they have become infected. The sonic material, having been imbibed, melds with their soul. Their movements have been reencoded; they begin to make music, critique music, share music, think about music. The virus acts only through vicissitudes (necessarily, due to its interaction with any listener’s “unexchangeable depth”). New strains form and spread in a diaphanous and cacophonous movement as a result of these vicissitudes. “Now, however complicit each had been with the other in the world, when they expired the couple they had formed was disunited at once: scattered to these parts by the air currents, each of the two breaths sought some semblance of a supposite that might assume his own intention. Indeed, every breath that expires, once it has become pure intention immediately forgets the motive; if a long-expired breath comes to invade it, the latter remembers what the oblivious breath had lived: each one, deprived of its own motive, becomes the motive of the other's intention: one projects itself into the future, the other into the past. Astonishing indeed!”26
Experimental music as I am describing it must be thought of as experimental in the strictest sense of the word. As much as it can, it must search for breaks and disparities in nature, inconsistencies and paralogisms in experienced sound. It must take the molar formations that form musical rules and erode them from the inside through a fortuitous action, a singular state of sonic action. "Depending on the strength of its intensity... this singular state, though anachronistic in relation to the institutional level of gregariousness, can bring about a de-actualization of gregariousness, can bring about a de-actualization of that institution itself and denounce it in turn as anachronistic. That every reality as such comes to be de-actualized in relation to the singular case, that the resulting emotion seizes the subject's behavior and forces it into action—this is an adventure that can modify the course of events."27
Musical residues form simulacra of music, or of musical thought, each parodying or cruelly mocking all predecessors and forming a distinct, angled view of the set of sensory pleasures. Yet how joyous is this mocking! Past simulacra are caught in an undertow and flow back to the surface, mingling with the new in a diaphanous interplay of sensory revelry, producing ever new splashes of foam, tossing about sediment underneath. My ideal of a total set of sensory pleasures itself becomes a simulacrum, a fantasy meant for virulently orienting the play of sonic powers. At first, it seems a pseudo-deistic principle or a moralizing law. But once it leaves my hands, it flies about, its peregrinations fomenting dissensions and collusions, the procession of simulacra making another turn.28 And even though it represents a faux totality to be built towards, a model such as this can leak out the sides and be overturned or (mis)interpreted in many ways.29
Approached from one angle, experimental musics act as “Erewhons,” alternate lands where the laws we know are inverted, or else presupposed to be false or unnecessary, or else sat alongside utterly new and foreign rules. In Erewhon, the sick are treated as criminals while the criminals are treated as though they are sick. This world is no more repressive or free than our own, but it points back to our world, enlivening a beautiful, complicating movement. The world of noise, for one musical example, eschews harmony and rhythm. Yet it contains its own rules: the sounds must be noisy. However, when noise reaches out into our ears, it vivifies us. We search ever further into the depths of possible sounds. The resident of the aesthetic Erewhon is a crazed, phantasmagorical energumen, continually charging forth into a sublime territory, performing field dressings in uncharted lands, recording flows onto hard drives and pieces of paper, spreading its curse unto unwitting hosts.
We find that on examining my speculative set detailed earlier, the limit case of Erewhon’s territory of inscription, though it forms a pseudo-totality, a monolith, it desires and calls forth an ever more variegated and differentiated spread of sounds on which humans can nourish themselves. The set’s monolothicity crumbles into vapor beneath the ever more mutated strains of music begat over time. “We are in the situation of the age of Babel. Musics are different, but they understand one another. They do not have exchanges, rather, they meet.”30
That music, and that musical thought, that partakes in tradition is that which posits transcendence—a bulleted list of rules which must be strived towards. Traditional music reacts upon the whole of musical production thus far, positing a convergence point that music must reach towards. Rockism and other elitisms head this movement. Insofar as music and musical thought partakes in experimentation, it passes these rules over in silence, a coy smile curling on its face. It acts ironically, cruelly, tragically, absurdly... “Was that the rule? Odd, because I find this perfectly pleasurable.” Or else it humorously crafts, blends, crossbreeds, forming monstrosities and mutts.
All music we encounter is an admixture of these two tendencies, tradition and experimentation. It should be obvious, however, which of these leads to destitution—a blind searching towards an always foreclosed dead end—and which leads towards a joyous dance, the proliferation of diaphanous aural sensibilities with no end in sight other than the constantly overturned present moment.
The auricular cavity must be given its desired form through the vibrations of ever-diversifying sonic experiments. It must be shown forms that the other parts of the human organism never thought could be created. The ear drums grope into the material of the world, begging and pleading for new forms, forms undreamt of and unintended. The bodies of performers and critics conspire with the demands of the ear, secreting matter into hard drives, into the ocular globes, into vibrating bones and nerves. The auricular cavity has not yet found its form. It is up to the groundless agent of the musical virus to give it one.
1. As attested by Losoncy’s introduction to McKinlay’s book THE RITA - Anatomical Charisma, Amphetamine Sulphate, 2019
2. Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem & Helen R. Lane (New York: Penguin Group, 1977), p. 42.
3. Brian Olewnick, Keith Rowe: The Room Extended (New York: powerHouse Books, 2018).
4. Ibid., pp. 70, 73-4.
5. Pierre Klossowski, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, trans. Daniel W. Smith (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 26.
6. Denis Hollier, Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille, trans. Betsy Wing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), p. 58
8. The split being titled Bradyurethrorrhoea / Filthy Reeking Decomp
9. See Choi Joonyong and Hong Chulki’s Balloon & Needle and Yan Jun’s feedback for similar experiments. When listening to experiments with space such as these, we begin to feel a dissolution of space of a deeper order than just in the performance area. We listen to the song “继续讨论厌烦” on Yan Jun and Hsia Yu’s 七首诗和一些耳鸣. We hear a machine in the background periodically turning on and off. But wait… Is this a machine outside the performance? A machine Yan is turning on himself? A piece of his feedback that only sounds like a machine? Could it even be a machine outside my house or in some other room? Is that ringing sound coming from the music or from a microscopic pinprick in my ear drum? The distance between Hsia and Yan’s performance and the context in which it is performed is dissolved. Further, the space in between the recording and the context in which I am listening is dissolved. The wind blowing outside beseeches me. Is it ever really outside my experience with music?
10. Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), p. 95.
11. See also Christopher DeLaurenti’s Favorite Intermissions: Music Before and Between Beethoven - Stravinsky - Holst, which consists of field recordings taken before, in between, and after performances of classical works. In this album, the chattering of audience members and the warming up of an orchestra is taken to be more important than the playing of compositions themselves.
12. Starting around the early 80s, the harsh noise movement went about a similarly thorough rending of rhythm and harmony (see, for some examples, The Gerogerigegege’s Senzuri Champion, Hijokaidan’s Modern, Masonna’s Masonna vs. Bananamara, Incapacitants’ Feedback of N.M.S., Merzbow’s Noisembryo) New forms of computer music have the advantage of being able to carry out this rending process without having to use noise as their tonal material. For releases that find a medium between these two styles, see KK Null’s Abiogenesis, Scld’s Feall Beul, and Junko and Mattin’s Pinknoise.
13. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 95).
14. See also Bacchia Neraida’s Εις τους δώδεκα θεούς του Ολύμπου, which, although it is “well-written,” has astoundingly poor production value. Through its popsicle stick and Elmer’s glue production, it creates a new musical world wholly worth exploring. The black metal band Moonblood’s rehearsal demos, particularly their tenth, sit in a similar place.
15. Denis Hollier, Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille, trans. Betsy Wing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), p. 80.
16. Yukio Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, trans. Ivan Morris (New York: Vintage, 1994), p. 138.
17. Ibid., 140.
18. Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, III, 2, Scholium.
19. The Marquis de Sade, Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings, ed. and trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse (New York: Grove Press, 1990), pp. 111-2.
20. Comte de Lautréamont, Maldoror and Poems, trans. Paul Knight (New York: Penguin Group, 1978), p. 217.
21. See Nurse with Wound’s Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella.
22. o(rphan)d(rift>), Cyberpositive (London: Cabinet Editions, 1995), p. 54.
23. Pierre Klossowski, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, trans. Daniel W. Smith (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 39-40.
24. David Cronenberg, eXistenZ (1999).
25. Raymond Roussel, Impressions of Africa, trans. Mark Polizzotti (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).
26. Pierre Klossowski, The Baphomet, trans. Sophie Hawkes & Stephen Sartarelli (Hygiene, CO: Eridanos Press, 1988), pp. 145-6.
27. Pierre Klossowski, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, trans. Daniel W. Smith (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 80. How is one to pursue experimentation consistently? It doesn’t seem that this is possible. I quote from Klossowski once more: "There are only the consequences of something unforseen, and because something can be calculated afterwards does not mean that it is necessary. In this case, a goal is reached only by a combination of random events." Ibid., 105.
28. Cf. Michel Leiris, Scratches, trans. Lydia Davis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) for a play of simulacra spun from sensory input which can be read allegorically in regard to musical movements. See also Pierre Klossowski’s The Baphomet, trans. Sophie Hawkes & Stephen Sartarelli (Hygiene, CO: Eridanos Press, 1988) for an allegorizing of daemoniacal movements which flit between dissolved subjects and sham-impassible deities.
29. Of note in this regard is GegenSichKollektiv’s heavily disconcerting essay “CAUTION,” which does away with the notion that music must be pleasurable at all. This aside, my set still seems to make a compelling phantasm/fantasy, a simulacral gesture which can lead to the breeding over ever more varied sounds.
30. Jean-François Lyotard, “Music and Postmodernity,” trans. David Bennett, New Formations, No. 66, Spring 2009, p. 44.