A couple of interesting blog responses to the conceptronica piece - by Xenogothic and Red Velvet Corridor.
Well, I did not anticipate that the C-word would escalate into a meme!
Nor the polarized reactions the piece would elicit.
On one side, a bunch of people seemed to believe it was a straightforward celebration of all this high-concept
music (which they found pompous and overly cerebral).
On the other side, a bunch of people seemed to take it as a takedown.
Of course, it was neither.
voicing of some doubts and misgivings towards the end, it wasn't even a judgmental piece really - far more of an analysis / investigation - an attempt to understand how a
cultural economy has emerged during the course of the past decade, and how it works.
If I’d actually wanted to take the piss
out of this scene, there is no shortage of gassy, trying-way-too-hard press releases
I could have quoted from. On the contrary, I deliberately focused on some of the best representatives of this phenomenon - the ones who have the most articulate explanation of what they're trying to do, and who've most fully realized their intentions.
Sometimes when you do a piece, or a
book, the nub of it comes to you - annoyingly - after the fact.
In this case, it's got something to do with the fact that conceptronica is neither part of mass culture nor is it an underground (in the old sense
of an autonomous opposition to the mainstream). Instead, it’s steadily becoming
a sort of subsidized vanguard.
with that necessarily. But as the conceptual
electronic musicians have adapted to their new environment, they have taken on
that world’s procedures, terms of reference, etc. (Many already have the appropriate training). The upshot is that there is a textuality and rationalized framing that didn't exist in earlier phases of electronic music (outside the academy at any rate).
For sure, there have always been intellectuals involved in techno and rave culture - people with philosophical interests, or who come from art backgrounds, or who simply have things to say.
Still, electronica in the past was predominantly non-verbal - it sonified more than it signified. It worked through freefloating affect and visceral impact. Even
when creators had intellectual preoccupations or made works that addressed a Theme (as with
Wolfgang Voigt, Jeff Mills) the actual sonic outcome tended to be open-ended. There was scope for things to be reimagined by the individual listener, or collectively
repurposed by social energies. But with conceptronica, the textual element is so imbricated with the sonics that a work’s significance is far more predetermined. In such circumstances, the listener’s role is to be the recipient of a meaning placed there by an artist. It's more of a one-way transmission.
Further, there looms the problem inherent to any kind of
art where there is a statement being made, or there is an intention to enlighten and edify. You can find yourself wondering, “Well, wouldn't I get the same effect if I just read the block of text at
the entrance to the exhibition room, or the catalog essay, or an interview with the artist - rather than looking at the pictures / installation / video art?” What is the surplus that the aesthetic "casing" of the statement / polemic / enquiry actually provides? Why is it happening in this particular form, or even in this field?
Below are some “deleted scenes” – passages that got lost during various stages
of editing, which round out the argument and the overview.
The term "conceptronica" first came to
me back in 2006 when reviewing a Matmos album.
I also used it later that same year in a
piece about hauntology. But concept-driven electronic music
wasn’t a particularly new thing even then. In the Nineties, Mille Plateaux
named itself after the book by Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari; their best-known
outfit Oval spieled with intimidating rigour about the cultural ramifications
of digital technology. Another Mille
Plateaux artist Terre Thaemlitz released a series of covers albums dedicated to
iconic synthpop artists like Kraftwerk and Gary Numan, accompanied by
queer-theory-infused polemical essays.
That kind of thing seemed to dip away a bit,
during the microhouse years. But then towards the end of 2000s / early 2010s,
you had people like Herbert mounting sonic polemics like One Pig. Amanda Brown of
Not Not Fun and LA Vampires described herself as a conceptualist interested primarily in
thematics, as opposed to a songwriter expressing emotions. Elsewhere in that same hypnagogic scene you had Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never putting out records where increasingly the framing
of a project was an indispensable element of the listening experience. Graduates
in Fine Art and Art History, Taraka Larson and Nimai Larson of Prince Rama even composed an
art movement manifesto, The Now Age – with subsections like “Architecture of
Utopia” and “The Mirrorball as Panopticon”.
Berlin, October 2015: Holly Herndon
delivers the keynote presentation at Loop, a summit for music makers convened by the audio software company Ableton. Titled
“On Process,” the talk largely involves a deep dive into the intricacies of
Herndon’s creativity, the kind that led to her highly praised album of that year Platform. But it’s prefaced with general comments that deploy the
ancient rhetorical maneuver prolepsis: anticipation and outflanking of criticism.
Herndon notes that conceptually-minded electronic musicians often get negative
responses like “stop over-analysing everything” and “you’re ruining it with
your babble.” Rather than adding value
to projects and enriching the listener’s experience, these sceptics sees
concepts as taking something away. Music, it’s felt, ought to be able to “stand
up by itself” without textual support.
Now even more feted in the wake of this year’s Proto, Herndon seems like the right person to ask about the rise of conceptronica and the suspicion it
still rouses in some quarters. “For some people, they think the
concept is compensating for a lack in the music itself,” she muses over
Skype. “But my brain, or my taste, likes to marry concept and emotion – that’s the Holy Grail.” Concepts are
generative for Herndon, “a starting point, a way of creating a sound world or
coming up with a production technique.” But she always works hard to ensure
that the concepts are sensuously wedded
to the sound, so that listeners “can hear and physically feel whatever I'm
talking about through the music itself”….
Part of it is a desire to have more
control over the reception of their work. “I think it was Douglas Rushkoff who
said, ‘program or be programmed',” says Herndon. Her own spin on that is
“analyze or be analyzed…. I can either
contextualize things myself or just put
it out there. But people are probably going to read things into it that weren't
intended. So I like to have a role in that analysis.”
When I meet PAN duo Amnesia Scanner in
a hipster café in Los Angeles, Martti Kalliala
is sporting a T-shirt for the gabba label Mokum, a mainstay of the Nineties Netherlands
scene that would evolve into hardstyle. His partner Ville Haimala’s T-shirt
bears the logo of Posh Isolation, a Copenhagen experimental imprint.
From Finland but based in Berlin, Amnesia Scanner’s music
moves somewhere between those two realms of cartoon insanity and exquisite
sound-design. The love for hardstyle is tinged with ironic distance but the duo
are genuinely awestruck by the excess and insanity of the sound and the
subculture. “There’s this hyper-designed drama and euphoria,” enthuses
Kalliala, pinpointing the disembodied voices that boom over the sound system
and exhort the sky-punching ravers like a gym trainer or motivational speaker.
“The images that this ‘voice of the festival’ paint in these monologues are so bizarre,
like the rave is a gathering of pagan warriors in this post-apocalyptic landscape,” explains Haimala.
Hardstyle’s portentous voice-overs and high-definition
bombast influenced Amnesia Scanner’s 2015 release “Angels Rig Hook”, while the
“turbo kick drums” and advanced production also fed into 2016’s AS EP
and last year’s full-length debut for PAN, Another Life. The latter
is a brilliant blend of the anthemic and
the abstract, recalling NiN-style alt-industrial crossover and current Top 40
as much as the digital maximalist glitchcraft of PAN labelmates like Errorsmith. “We
wanted to tap into the memes of pop,” says Haimala. “Our previous works were
much more unstructured. But we started to get a bit bored with the music in our
scene – it just seemed a bit lazy, just collaging a whole lot of stuff.”
Lee Gamble is just about to release the second instalment of Flush Real Pharynx, his three-part "sonic documentary". Titled Exhaust, it
centers on Mark Fisher’s concept of “semioblitz” – the barrage of signs and
symbols, corporate propaganda and subliminal psy-ops, that incessantly bombards
all of us consumer-citizens. The final installment will confront capitalism’s
wasteful residues: “all this non-degrading stuff left behind like ghosts and
phantasms. I want to smear the sounds so they’re like those plastic
conglomerates forming in the ocean, what might have once been a football or a
broom handle, but molded together into this weird sculptural gunk.”
If the sheer gigantism of conceptronic
projects sometimes recalls progressive rock, the spirit of the music feels more akin to
postpunk. There’s the art school input, the deployment of terminology from critical
theory and radical philosophy, the ultra-progressive views on race and gender,
the belief in stylistic hybridity, the embrace of cutting-edge technology,
the drive to experiment with live performance.
Alongside its political commitments,
postpunk was also a critical commentary on rock itself - where youth music had
reached in its historical development. What had started out in the Sixties, in
Lester Bangs words, as a “program for mass liberation” had become a controlled
and controlling leisure industry, siphoning young idealism and energy into a
system that safely dissipated it while
generating revenue for its owners. Setting itself in opposition to this
decadence, postpunk could not allow itself the freedom and cutting-loose of
early rock, a wildness now tamed and put into service
Alongside its audio-visual turn and
its political turn, you can also detect a vocal turn in 2010s conceptual
electronic music. Actually, this is something that has been going on almost across
the board in contemporary music, from the brightest heights of Top 40 pop to
the most obscure ghetto zones of avant-garde experiment. This new burst of
vocal strangeness has been powered by digital editing platforms,
pitch-correction technology like Auto-Tune, and “vocal design” software like
Melodyne. From the sculpted vocals and
complex architectures of harmony vocals in Top 40 pop - ranging from Top
40 pop and rap like Billie Eilish / Migos / Travis Scott,
through the mechanistic stutters of footwork and the slowed-down “screwed” vocals
of witch house and vaporwave, to experimentalists like Katie Gately, inflicting weirdness on the human voice is the
cutting edge. Literally cutting: it’s all about mutilating vocal performances
and rearranging the shards into new melodic-rhythmic patterns, processing human
breath into swirly texture-clouds or
smearing it across emotional landscapes.
Vocal estrangement is a particular interest of PAN's roster of artists. On Fake Synthetic Music, Stine Janvin
uses her voice plus echo and “spatial distribution” to, as she has said, “explore how I could
vocalise in a way that would combine architectural sound with dance floor
sequences.” Drawing oblique inspiration from the formulaic ecstasies of
chartpop and trance, she experiments with “sonic and optical illusions,
otoacoustic emissions and minimal melodic sequences”. Less the product of abstractifying technology than of unusual technique, Janvin's PAN labelmate Eartheater deploys her breathy whisper in songs that address “alternate
realities strung in the vastness of infinity, the isometrisity of time and
space, the ambiguity of words, moral surreality, the evolution of sexuality in
a digital age.”
Where Janvin and Eartheater's Alexandra Drewchin are in the spotlight of their own music, Amnesia Scanner see themselves as background
technicians standing to one side of it. Accordingly they have created Oracle as a surrogate
frontperson, or frontcreature maybe. The inspiration comes partly from the disembodied voices that boom portentously over the sound
system at hardstyle shows. “Oracle is conceptualized as a being, a
character, that is somehow part of Amnesia Scanner, but that is not fully
alive, not fully dead. Like a fixed shape or image.”