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E-music in the academy

November 9, 2007

The November issue of PMLA (in long, Publications of the Modern Languages Association), contains a splendid article by Arielle Saiber, a professor of Italian literature at Bowdoin College, called “The Polyvalent Discourse of Electronic Music”. The essay is part of a number of pieces in the November about complicated questions of genre, and Saiber’s main theme is the attempt by electronic music, in all of its forms and sub-genres, to assert or disguise its own identity. In the interests of summary, synthesis, and conversation, here’s the ghost of the essay as I understand it, with some very scattered responses.
The main value of Saiber’s piece (and this is a strength, not a weakness) is that it’s one of those essays that, perhaps unintentionally, enacts the very problem it’s trying to describe. The problem being, trying to determine whether “electronic music” means anything at all, beyond a rhizomic complex of musical tendencies (and is electricity an aesthetic decision or a practical means?)–to this “ballooning megagenre inflated by and exploded into subgenres, sub-subgenres, metagenres, and juxtagenres” Saiber gives the umbrella term “e-music”. For the record(s), I’ll quote a footnote: “acid jazz, aggrotech, ambient, basic channel, bitpop, blip hop, breakbeat, chill-out, clicks + cuts, cut-up, dark, digital hardcore, downtempo, drill ‘n’ bass, drone, drum ‘n’ bass, dub, electrolounge, electronica, electropop, experimental, field recordings, folktronica, found sounds, freestyle, funk, futurefunk, gabba, garage, goa, hardcore, hip-hop, house, IDM, illbient …” and so on. Naturally, then, any attempt to generalise about the character of these musics trips itself up in contradiction. And I use the word “naturally” advisedly, and as naturally as the word “rhizomic”, which I also used, and which Saiber also uses.
There it is, then — the closest that Saiber comes to defining e-music is by deciding what it isn’t, by which I mean acoustic, organic. But the growth of all these subgenres is best understood by analogy with the natural world — here’s my earlier thoughts on electronics and insects, for example. And while we’re talking about analogues, I’m not sure that Saiber has correctly estimated the degree to which digital means and methods have made analogue electronics redundant. Yes, the digital world is vast and growing, but I can think of plenty of analogue or hybrid uses of sound. (Or maybe it’s just me?) Perhaps in a way the artist is supposed to tame the digital world, to make it behave itself, to talk it out of acting imperialistically and eating up every other sound source.
Show and sound: Here’s the theremin-playing composer Pamelia Kurstin, whose record Thinking Out Loud I’ve been listening to all week. And I’m just thinking out loud now, too — and as I’m typing this I’m listening to work by the lovely sound sculptor Sawako.
But I’m just generalising, and I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that my generalisations are any truer than Arielle Saiber’s. I’m just adding to an eco-system of comment.
Elsewhere, Saiber makes sage comments about electroquotation, but this copyright-redefining tendency seems to fit into her wider thinking about electronic (and by this she really means digital) erasure of original musical personality. She points to the likes of Ø, o.blaat, aem as artists who affect a “disappearing act”:

Do these maneuvers reveal a selfless artist shunning fame? Are they moves to granularize and digitize the self, transcending the limits of the flesh and becoming, as the music theorist Christoph Cox has noted, a Deleuzian body without organs, a posthuman human? … Are we witnessing a pandemic of the disappearing author, what Marshall McLuhan might call the “performance of self-elimination”?

The trouble with this is that I don’t think the digitized post-human is necessarily a self-eliminating entity. Maybe this says more about my own egotism, but I’d presumed digital media to be means to constructing personality, not erasing it. That’s what I’m doing here, after all.

In sections subtitled “Even Faster” and “Even Smaller”, Saiber addresses what she sees as the increasing speeds and decreasing sizes of sounds made possible in digital music. The former idea depends entirely on which examples you pick, of course; the latter is more interesting. Of course, smallness needn’t be specifically digital, and Saiber wisely goes back to gosfathers like Xenakis, then Rafael Toral, in tracing the division of sound into microsound (and then grain, grainlet, wavelet, sonal atom, and so on), before arriving at today’s “lowercase sounds” by Steve Roden and Akira Rabelais. Lowercase sound, she writes, “aims on the one hand to amplify the details of everyday life that you normally don’t pay attention to, and on the other to create a music that has a gentle, handmade aesthetic.” Let’s allow those last three words to hang —
— the observation that’s begging to be made here is that what Saiber is really describing is just a new folk art — and one that (unlike large parts of the digital world) attempts to complement the everyday, rather than colonize it.
So hats off to Saiber for an incredibly detailed and savvy survey, but the obvious conclusion is that you can’t comprehensively define electronic music. It’s either too big, or too small. But given the chance to valorize just one quality (or one possibility) of e-music, it’s this: the return to something handmade and home-made, the potential created for digitally connected cottage-industries, spinning textures out on sound looms.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 10, 2007 5:11 pm

    Oh, I went to see Pamelia last week. I did not know that you were a fan Ross. She was very good by the way. Interesting article, although somewhat misguided. Did she actually speak to any electronic musicians or was her essay based upon supposition and speculation? Electronic music is now far more authentic than the inauthentic arena of rock. The soul of electronica is infused by the same cerebral and aesthetic sensibilities that rock uses, but the amorphous nature and intertextural palette makes one think and conceptualise in a more polyphonic frame of mind. As a spoken word artist that utilises electronic sound and texture, I think in terms of an atmosphere that will enable me to write the word upon the canvass with expediency. Also, her idea of analogue seems rather ill conceived, or maybe it was just me? Keith

  2. November 10, 2007 5:13 pm

    acid jazz – fi =)

  3. November 12, 2007 6:38 pm

    Actually, it was probably just ME. I don’t think the article was at all misguided. If it seems so, then that’s probably more to do with my inadequacy as a summariser / synthesizer of the ideas. I realise now that my response is probably more useful for what it says about me, rather than about the original piece. Arielle Saiber’s piece covers an awful lot of ground, so of course I’ve had to be selective in the passages I quote.
    Your point about electronic music and “authenticity” — I see how that’s probably more true of your music, than it is of mine, Keith! Being a dreadful amateur myself, I freely admit to using electronics because they seem to excuse me from having to answer questions about authenticity and so on — questions that I’m not best-positioned to answer, in truth.

  4. john permalink
    November 12, 2007 7:09 pm

    You’re makin’ it up.

  5. November 12, 2007 10:47 pm

    I am. Aren’t you?

  6. November 15, 2007 2:17 pm

    Hello Ross. After reading your response, I think that the terms amateur and professional tend to implode upon impact of one another, after all, one man’s (or woman’s) amateurism may be another’s aesthetic weapon of choice. As for myself, I am authentically inauthentic dependant on the contextual free association that I am trying to describe or define at that time, the ambience of the interior projected across the exterior in order to momentarily connect with an audience, who in reality, I would otherwise be dismissive off. That is as they say, the paradox. I apologise, I have been reading too much post-structural theory this week. Keith

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