Thomas Bey William Bailey - Starting with the guerrilla media tactics of Industrial music in the late 1970s, the author charts an ongoing trend in electronic music: an increasing amount of sonic quality, recorded output and international contact, accomplished with a decreasing amount of tools, personnel, and capital investmen
Thomas Bey William Bailey, Micro-bionic: Radical Electronic Music and Sound Art in the 21st Century, Creation Books, 2009.
Micro Bionic is an exciting survey of electronic music and sound art from cultural critic and mixed-media artist Thomas Bey William Bailey, composed 2006-2008 and first published in late 2009 in both hardcover and paperback editions. A superior, revised edition is now available as a digital download, and the 2nd edition of the paperback is now set for release on Belsona Books on December 20 2012. This new edition includes all of the original supplements refused by the publishers of the first edition, including a full index, bibliography, additional notes / commentary and an updated discography.
As the title suggests, the unifying theme of the book is that of musicians and sound artists taking bold leaps forward in spite of (or sometimes because of) their financial, technological, and social restrictions. Some symptoms of this condition include the gigantic discography amassed by the one-man project Merzbow, the drama of silence enacted by onkyo and New Berlin Minimalism, the annihilating noise transmitted from the humble laptop computers of Russell Haswell and Peter Rehberg and much more besides. Although the journey begins in the Industrial 1980s, in order to trace how the innovations of that period have gained greater currency in the present, it surveys a wide array of artists breaking ground in the 21st century with radical attitudes and techniques. A healthy amount of global travel and concentrated listening have combined to make this a sophisticated yet accessible document, unafraid to explore both the transgressive extremes of this culture and the more deftly concealed interstices thereof.
Part historical document, part survival manual for the marginalized electronic musician, part sociological investigation, Micro Bionic is a number of different things, and as such will likely generate a variety of reactions from inspiration to offense. Numerous exclusive interviews with leading lights of the field were also conducted for this book: William Bennett (Whitehouse), Peter Christopherson (r.i.p., Throbbing Gristle / Coil), Peter Rehberg, John Duncan, Francisco López, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Bob Ostertag, Zbigniew Karkowski and many others weigh in with a diversity of thoughts and opinions that underscore the incredible diversity to be found within new electronic music itself.
"It is continually surprising how detailed it is, knowledgeable I mean [...] with your book, it's a whole curriculum that it inspires." - David Schafer
silence is sexy: the other 'extreme' music
Ami Yoshida at 'Amplify', 2002- photo © Yuko Zama
“Burn flutes and lutes, and plug Blind Kuang’s ears, and then they’ll really be able to hear again.”
- Chuang Tzu
“..the lid fell like a feather falling on a mound of feathers…”
- Samuel DeLany, Cage of Brass
In the summer of 2004, I found myself collaborating on a radio program with sound artist John Wanzel at Chicago’s WLUW (on the University of Loyola campus.) I recall a discussion we had at the time about radio broadcasting laws, and how it was technically illegal to broadcast a small amount of silence, or dead air, during normal operating hours- less than 20 seconds, if I recall. This bothered me, since, by that time, I had amassed a good number of sound recordings in which pieces contained stretches of silence longer than the FCC-allotted maximum amount. Would the intentional silences on these CD recordings really constitute ‘dead air’? I figured that it would be difficult to make a case to an FCC agent if complaints werein fact lodged to the station, saying that the programmers were being negligent and were continually, mischievously dropping the volume levels down to zero. It seemed like it would be futile, and a little comical, to try and explain the difference between long, deliberate silences used as an aesthetic element within sound works, and the long silences which resulted from a programmer’s personal failings- i.e. fumbling to cue up the correct tracks, or falling asleep on the job. To someone in charge of upholding broadcast standards and practices, what would be the difference between inaction on the behalf of a pre-recorded artist, or inaction on behalf of a live disc jockey? The more I thought about such things, the less I was able to come up with an answer that would satisfy someone unfamiliar with the phenomenon of extremely quiet music. At the same time, I realized how much antipathy there was, in our modern society at large, towards moments of quiet- as if it the quiet individual were counter-productive, aloof, nihilistic, incompetent, or some nasty cocktail of all this and more. If silence could be viewed as a compositional element, then placing limitations on its use spoke to some more insidious agenda that itself would involve a bit of 'silencing' (for example, silencing of deep reflective thought.) Getting people to view it as a compositional element, though, is no less of a challenge today than it was when John Cage’s landmark piece 4’33” dared to break the non-sound barrier (with the caveat, of course, that this piece revealed the impossibility of 'pure' silence in the minds of the living.) In a way, it is more difficult since the number of sonic distractions in metropolitan and suburban life have become manifold in the 50+ years since Cage’s breakthrough.
One thing is certain, contemporary appreciation of silence is truly subjective, and those who do not appreciate it tend to absolutely, unequivocally abhor its presence, viewing it as an aggressive weapon or interrogative device when used in interpersonal or social situations. Tales abound of negotiations during the 1980s between Western business executives and their Japanese counterparts, the latter of which craftily used Ma (literally ‘interval’, meant here as an extended period of conversational silence) to fatigue their comparatively loquacious business partners. The latter, unfamiliar with anything but instantaneous response, would then be pressured into accepting proposals less beneficial to them, if this technique was deployed skillfully enough. More close to home, I recall a handful of instances in which, during moments of protracted silence during telephone conversations, the speaker on the other end would become audibly uncomfortable and would begin dishing out intimate details about other people within our immediate social circle. All it took, in some cases, was a pause of less than 10 seconds to spur on the disclosure of confidential, ‘off-the-record’ information relating to mutual friends’ romantic lives, financial track records, and embarrassing quirks obscured from public sight. This was never actively sought out- yet I found this information was disclosed with disturbing regularity in situations where I was, owing to work-weariness or just brain-dead incoherence, unable to hold up my end of a conversation, yet was not allowed to hang up for reasons of communication etiquette. It was surprising, to say the least, how a raw fear of apparently blank audio space could drive certain individuals to desperation, and to fill this sonic void with whatever was immediately at their disposal. This phenomenon became much more evident to me when, a few years down the road, the explosion in the popularity of mobile phones annihilated moments of private contemplation or internalized dialogue while roaming in public.
It also goes without saying that there are a substantial number of situations in which some, any, external noise serves to soothe and comfort: when being jolted awake from sinister and portentous nightmares, it is a relief to have some utterly banal sound pierce the darkness that we lie in, and to jar us out of the hypnagogic terror that would convince us we are alone with the phantasms of our minds. Why, though, do we approach brightly illuminated and decently populated spaces with the same primal fear of silence as we do excursions into isolated, cavernous darkness? When the AIDS awareness group ACT UP chose “silence = death” as their rallying cry in 1987, “silence” referred to the mute indifference of communications media and the political class to the existence of a rapidly spreading, mortal disease- yet, twenty years later, this same rallying cry seems to apply to consumer culture’s attitude towards all forms of silence. It is equated with all social evils from un-productivity to insolence; a void only willfully inhabited by the anti-human.
II. Silence in the Digital Age
From the 1990s up to the present, there has been an unexpected, curiosity-provoking influx of electronically aided sound artists who make regular use of quiet as a compositional tool. Like much of the other music discussed in this book, pockets of such expression arose with such simultaneity that drafting up a linear chronology of actions would be difficult, if not pointless. The culture seeded by these musicians is, refreshingly, free of egotistical attempts to elbow one’s way to the front of the ‘public acceptance’ line- and therefore no one is really brazen enough to claim they were “the first” to innovate or revolutionize any aspect of this music. Such claims would be met with skepticism and would be viewed as bad form within a culture that de-emphasizes the need for celebrity. Besides, for every musician that we know of through recorded evidence, there may be another who came to the same conclusions years before, and yet was content to keep such discoveries private.
Silence has been used just as much in scenarios of seduction as in occasions where one intended to alienate, to repel, or to make others cower before a display of dominant intellect or spiritual awareness.The name of this music changes depending on where the form arises: in the metropolitan regions of Tokyo and Osaka it is referred to as onkyo [meaning loosely “sound reverberation”], in Western Europe it has been christened by the journalistic community with the label of New Berlin Minimalism. Others, like Steven Roden, have tried to draw attention to its tendency towards subtlety and near-imperceptibility by referring to it as ‘lower case sound’, going as far as to refuse the use of capital letters on the appropriately sparse artwork accompanying his recordings. I myself would (for lack of anything more universally acceptable) use the term ‘digital-age silence’. Unimaginative as it may be, it refers to a characteristic I find unique about this music: its genesis followed the rise of the CD as the dominant format for music storage, as well as all the formats like MiniDisc, MP3, and FLAC [Free Lossless Audio Codec] that followed on its heels. In any of these formats, the introduction of silence or near-silence into the recording can be sharply distinguished from doing the same on a cassette or a vinyl LP: the amount of ‘system noise’, or the sound being generated by the sound playback equipment itself, is infinitesimally small on a digital format. No form of interference or system noise, like tape hiss or vinyl crackle, is readily detectable, in many cases you would have to place your ear next to the playback device simply to be reminded that moving parts are at work, to hear the restless whirring of the disc or the liquid squelching sound of the laser navigating its way through the tiny indentations on its playable surface.
The makers of this music are spread all over the geographical space of the planet, and even the preponderance of Japanese musicians in the roster does not presuppose Japan as the epicenter of such activity (even though Western media bias occasionally points to it as such, lazily equating ‘exotic’ Japanese culture with ‘exotic’ new music.) The means of making the music are similarly ‘all over the map’: a wide variety of voicing and tonal color is to be found underneath whatever umbrella term we use for this music. Some use the feedback from audio and video devices as the prima materia from which to compose, some use electronically manipulated vocals (the idiosyncratic and occasionally frightening output of Ami Yoshida is a standout in this regard), some use output devices devoid of any conventionally ‘playable’ transducer (Toshimaru Nakamura’s no-input mixer and Taku Sugimoto’s manipulation of amplifier hiss), others play a form of computer-based acousmatic music that sounds like the scattering of sonic dust particles.
Flourishes of conceptual humor often surface to combat the misperceptions of po-faced seriousness within this culture. Before the coming of the digital age, there was a rich history of “anti-records” containing little or no sound on them, but acting as comical enlighteners in other regards: it’s hard to stifle a laugh when being confronted with, say, The Haters’ silent 7” vinyl platter entitled Complete This Record By Scratching It, Before You Listen To It On Your Stereo, or another Haters contribution to participatory art, the Wind Licked Dirt LP. The latter features no grooves at all on the record, but does compensate for this shortcoming by including a bag of dirt in the packaging, which the lucky owner can then use to create their very own Haters’ ‘performance’, rubbing the dirt across the vinyl . Seeing as how contemporary Haters performances involved the band members watching mud dry and staring at blank TV screens, this activity may provide a decent substitute for their live appearances, for those whose hometowns are not included on the Haters’ tour schedule. Another “anti”-album more relevant to the present era is the Argentinian band Reynols’ Blank Tapes: a compact disc release assembled solely from the noise produced by, yes, unused cassette tapes. One proud owner of Blank Tapes sees it as a multi-purpose object, at once a ‘joke,’ an honestly intriguing listen, and also
“…a subtle attack on the medium of excess, the CD. How many albums need to be trimmed of their fat because the artist felt compelled to fill every millimetre of silver? Now, we're moving into the age of the Deluxe Edition! Not this one, sir. This is a wonderful tribute to the many minutes of negative space that haven't yet been violated by forgettable b-sides and studio flotsam.” 1When it comes to instrumentation, the incorporation of silence into the music can be accomplished in a number of ways, as well: it could either done through literal inaction, such as not touching a hand to an instrument, or through an action which is borderline imperceptible, like playing constant electronic signals at such high frequencies that they teeter on the threshold of audibility and eventually vanish in the upper atmosphere…only to re-appear later in phantom form through the effects of mild tinnitus; a belated ‘encore’. An artist like the Syndey-born guitarist and electronics manipulator Oren Ambarchi – also organizer of Australia’s “What is Music” festival, host to many of this book’s surveyed artists - reverses the polarity of this trend by using bass and sub-bass tones which can be felt but not always heard. Trente Oiseaux label boss Bernhard Günter shapes electro-acoustic sound clusters of satisfying variance, then mixes the results down so low that ferreting them out becomes more of a personal quest on the behalf of the listener than a mere receipt of audio information. Günter’s more intriguing creations could also be an audio herald of nano-technology to come- the sound of impossibly tiny machines at work, as they float through the bloodstream.
To further complicate matters, some artists operating within this silence-enhanced realm will refer to their music as ‘improvisation’, while others consider it a form of ‘composition’. Such partitions can be dismantled very easily, though. Taku Sugimoto, whose work since the dawn of the new millennium has relied more and more on intensified emptiness, suggests that it can be seen as both: “[music] means neither ‘theme and variations’…nor ‘chained and dancing’…listen to the sound as it is…there is almost no distinction between improvisation and composition…to accept all the space.” 2
II. Returning to the World
Toshimaru Nakamura- photo © Yuko Zama
Silence has been used just as much in scenarios of seduction as in occasions where one intended to alienate, to repel, or to make others cower before a display of dominant intellect or spiritual awareness. Although Hollywood films, with their habit of cueing up swells of lush romantic music to heighten cinematic representations of love-making, have increased the appetite for having a musical backdrop to these moments of intimacy, silence still wields an incredible power as a seducer and consequently as an amplifier of emotions. Its ability to create an illusion of time’s cessation makes for some of the most intoxicating, intimate moments in the romantic ritual, as does its ability to yank certain bodily processes (e.g. the beating of the heart, and the rhythm of exhalation and inhalation) to the forefront of consciousness. Such things are normally taken for granted or buried beneath the incoming tide of daily distractions. Even the titles of pop songs –see “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder),” "Enjoy The Silence" and “Hush”, for starters- seem to acknowledge the fact that silence carries as much of an erotic force with it as do poetic wordplay and gushing verbal confessions. You could always propose maudlin, introspective titles like Simon & Garfunkel’s classic “The Sounds of Silence,” written in the wake of America’s grief over the Kennedy assassination, to rain on this particular parade- but even a song such as this confirms the role of silence in deeply stirring, communal experiences, rather than its role as a denier of such experiences.
Interestingly, silence does not end with the music produced by these artists: a certain silence is also evident in the artists’ self-promotion (or lack thereof), and in the advanced degree of self-restraint or inaction that accompanies CD releases, concerts, and other supplemental activities. Secondary literature and biographical information becomes an unessential adjunct to the act of recording and performing, especially when there is no stated goal beyond merely transmitting sound and observing as it assumes its place in the daily flux of energy and sensation. Photographs of artists are rarely used in promotional materials (when such materials even exist at all.) Magazine features on the artists and interviews with the artists, when they appear, tend to ignore quirky anecdotes and gossip, going straight for the jugular: the ideas driving the music. There is a greater-than-average desire to not see the performer as the ‘center’ of the music, as Steve Roden illustrates with these comments:
“The whole thing is not about me as the artist, as the focus. It’s about making these things that don’t necessarily point back to me as being more important than the work. The art and sound culture right now is so much about the artist, the persona of the artist. I talked to someone recently who said he wanted to be ‘the first superstar of noise’, without thinking that Kenny G is the first superstar of jazz! I mean, it’s not a good place to be!” 3With such limited attempts at promotion and outward projection of personae, music of this genre survives mainly thanks to a famished niche audience willing to discover it on their own, and to make old-fashioned, unadorned word of mouth or Internet bulletin board notification act as a highly effective means of information dispersal. This situation is encouraged by some artists, such as the Tokyo duo Astro Twin (Ami Yoshida and Utah Kawasaki) who humbly and humorously describe their music as “…boring sounds / un-evolving sounds / unproductive sounds / lazy sounds / garbage-like sounds,”4 adding the caveat “each sound is junk, but some may be important. They are for you to seek. We want you to find them…that is Astro Twin’s request.”5 When they are found, the surprises are plentiful, and present plenty of challenges to those who expect relatively “quieter” music to be a serene shortcut into easy narcosis: Ami Yoshida’s vocal repertoire is a pastiche of drawn-out wheezes, glottal aberrations, focused bird-of-prey shrieks, reptilian slurps and occasional sung notes, all of which are then combined with smooth washes of electronic tone (her other partners in electronic sound have included Christoff Kurzman, Günter Müller and Sachiko M.) for devastating effect. With many of these sonic elements regularly employed within the same short audio piece, the unique ‘push-pull’ effect of the music –a continuous alternating between erotic attraction and outright alienation- is achieved with a greater degree of success than in most other creative genres.
The more well known record labels dealing with digital age silence and the musical micro-gesture, like Bernhard Günter’s Trente Oiseaux, rely on a simple design template that is applied to all of their releases: in the case of this label, each new release up until a point in the early 2000’s featured no more than the artist’s name and title on a textured paper background (the color of which changed with each successive release.) The CD Warzsawa Restaurant by Francisco López (who relies on a similarly reduced graphic design template for his own releases), bears only minor dissimilarities when placed alongside Marc Behrens’ Advanced Environmental Control or Hervé Castellani’s Flamme. The end effect of this common design scheme effectively mirrors the aesthetics of the sound contained within. In a desperate panic to find some ‘hidden’ substance within this sparse packaging, the listener’s tactile sense is engaged by the coarse paper of the CD booklets. As is the case with the music, the lack of a familiar framing device, and the refusal on the artists’ behalf to lead the listener by the nose into a world where all is explained, uncovers those perceptible facts which were ‘always there’. This extends to how a listener perceives the compact disc itself: in such a context, the bold spectra of color dancing about on the reflective surface of the aluminum-coated polycarbonate plastic disc become all the more vibrant, and even the transparent center hole by the larger ring of clear plastic seems to take on greater significance. These mundane little items become as close as they will get to being perceived as living organisms, rebelling against their status as mere objects. This brings us to the other half of the Chuang Tzu quote which opened this chapter: destroy decorations, mix the Five Colors, paste Li Chu’s eyes shut, and in All-Under-Heaven, they’ll begin to see the light again. My careless play with Taoist ideals here may upset some readers who wonder how a state-of-the-art, technological form of expression can mesh with this largely organic way of life, but closer inspection reveals that the use of digital-age expressive tools is not an automatic disqualification from such a lifestyle. On this subject, I can only defer to Taoist and Zen scholar Alan Watts, who reminds us that
“…the Taoist attitude is not opposed to technology per se. Indeed, the Chuang Tzu writings are full of references to crafts and skills perfected by this very principle of ‘going with the grain.’ The point is therefore that technology is only destructive in the hands of people who do not realize that they are one and the same process as the universe. Our over-specialization in conscious attention and linear thinking has led to neglect, or ignorance, of the basic principles and rhythms of this process, of which the foremost is polarity.” 6Watts goes on to relate the concept of electricity itself - without which very little of the music mentioned herein could be reproduced - to the Tao, noting that neither force can be explained on their own; both are fundamentals only comprehensible in terms of the phenomena which manifest them.
The concept of ‘emptiness’ in Taoism also takes on a special meaning far from a concept of ‘the void’ as purgatory or hell. Quite the contrary: Chuang Tzu refers to the “Tao of Heaven” as “empty and formless,” a sentiment Fritjof Capra expands upon in his book The Tao of Physics: “[Lao Tzu] often compares the Tao to a hollow valley, or to a vessel which is forever empty and thus has the potential of containing an infinity of things.”7 Put this way, we can see “emptiness” not as a terminus point, but as a starting point: we can see silence not as a capitulation on the behalf of the artist, but as an invitation to go beyond sound itself and to experience all available aspects of the phenomenal world. “Empty audio space” has the potential to severely irritate those who expect sound to “explain” something, but for those who go beyond this, the apparent absurdity of making “music” from nothingness takes on the same role as a Zen riddle: illustrating that nature is a unitary phenomenon, a deeply intertwined organism in which every part contains every other part within itself.
this is an excerpt; full chapter is available in Micro Bionic: Radical Electronic Music And Sound Art In The 21st Century (revised and expanded second edition.)
1 User “Namakemono,” review of Blank Tapes by Reynols, June 16, 2008. Available online at http://www.discogs.com/release/325745.
2 Taku Sugimoto, liner notes, Off Site Composed Music Series In 2001. A Bruit Secret, Paris, 2002.
3 Steve Roden quoted in “Case Sensitive” by Christoph Cox, The Wire, # 229 March 2003, p. 30.
4 Astro Twin quoted at http://www.japanimprov.com/astrotwin/profile.html
6 Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way p. 21. Pantheon Books, New York, 1975.
7 Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, p. 212. Shambala, Boston, 1991.
vox stimuli: john duncan's unrestrained explorations
John Duncan, 'Kick' performance
Duncan's prior interaction with the particularly vast, American strains of fear, violence and sexual anxiety was soon to come to a close, as an invite to Japan initiated a number of shifts in the locus of the artist’s activity. As suggested in the previous dialogue with [magazine editor Takashi Asai], Duncan’s relocation to Japan was fraught with revelatory experiences and, as is often the case, numerous misunderstandings as well. A man by the name of Takuya Sakaguchi was the initial contact for Duncan in Japan, a biologist studying, as Duncan recalls, “higher nervous energy, which is how the Japanese title translates …the connections between the locus sirius neuron and the visual cortex.”1 This research was carried out with the eventual goal of increasing human memory through the growth of brain cells. Sakaguchi’s day job, with its emphasis on fostering some form of biological growth, conveniently merged into his interest in self-produced sound art. After first hearing Duncan on the 1979 Organic LP released through AQM, Sakaguchi began a letter-writing campaign that would provide the germ for Duncan’s eventual arrival in Japan in 1982- a timely turn of events, since the fallout from Blind Date had made further Stateside developments increasinglydifficult.
The expatriate artist’s local influence would expand significantly throughout the 1980s- this is evidenced by a number of collaborative concerts or record releasing efforts with groups like Hijokaidan, Toshiji Mikawa (also of Incapacitants), Chie Mukai and O’Nancy In French. All of these individuals were, and still are, firmly planted in the underground, but –if high online auction prices of their original recordings are anything to go by- are now venerated as the brave, lonely souls whose diligence made broader developments in visceral expression possible. Like Sakaguchi, most of these individuals were tied to day jobs apparently dreary in comparison with their anarchic, colorful musical output. Toshiji Mikawa remains, as of this writing, a section chief in a Tokyo bank, while other members of Hijokaidan were described by Duncan as
“…a housewife, a secretary and an office worker…Hijokaidan is known for their performances, where one of the women who does vocals will also do actions like pissing on stage, or shitting on stage, and the rest of the members will sort of move around on the stage after this…[or] in this…and play homemade electronics, and in the process destroy these homemade electronics. And, as I said before, when I introduce Hijokaidan, people who are not familiar with their gigs when they first see them are rather skeptical that these people are office workers that they’re looking at on the stage. But then when they start playing, they shut up, and listen, and, well…change their minds, I hope.” 1During the 1980s, not many Japanese artists would equal this propensity for aggressive showmanship, which simultaneously showered audiences in humor and terror. However, Duncan would respond in kind with performances of his own- performance pieces like Move Forward (1984) featured about 20 minutes of massive, tangible sound output in the darkened, concrete-walled ‘Plan B’ space in Tokyo, accompanied with film collage –of war atrocities, S+M ritual etc.- being projected onto a paper screen that essentially covered the entire visual space of the forward-facing audience (the projection screen stretched from ceiling to floor and from the left wall to the right.) In an unmistakably climactic moment, this screen would be set ablaze by Duncan at the end of the film portion, its fire-consumed remnants then sprayed into the audience with a fire extinguisher. Like the earlier Secret Film, here was another piece that ended in immolation, continuing Duncan’s interest in the elemental- the final destruction of the projection surface, after being used for such an overload of provocative imagery, could on one hand suggest a return to a tabula rasa in sorts, an ‘unlearning’ or transcending of aggressive impulses. Then again, blasting the audience with the remnants of the projection surface could be seen as another none-too-subtle hint that some residue of these primal destructive urges would always be with them, flying back into their faces when least expected.
Actions like the above, which featured a level of un-compromise at least on par with the actions Duncan carried out in the U.S., need to be put in some sort of geographical and historical framework. If they do not seem particularly jarring to jaded veterans of 21st century information overload and post-‘9/11’ nihilism, we must remember that the mid-1980s were an unparalleled period of economic prosperity for Japan. The era of the endama –powerful yen, or yen appreciation- was about to begin, and according to one retrospective article on Japan’s 80s prosperity,
“Japan’s per capita income hit $17,500 a year- second highest in the world. Land values soared. A square foot of Tokyo real estate sold for the equivalent of $2,000; a simple wood frame home for 1.5 million dollars. Japan’s Economic Planning Agency calculated that the market value of the nation itself, a California-sized archipelago, was four times greater than that of the U.S.”2Just like the rise of Beat poetry in 1950s America, oppositional aesthetics in such a culture of easy convenience and economic dominance (Japan was also the world’s #1 creditor nation at the time) would have seemed ridiculous to the rank-and-file ‘salaryman’ or ‘OL [office lady]’. This is to say nothing of their elders, who, even if they found this culture rampantly materialistic, found it vastly preferable to the privation and horror of the war years. Defenders of Japan’s mainstream culture could even argue that its market power was what allowed any contrarian activities in the first place: since everything else was so readily provided for her citizens, the existence of some fringe elements displaying a kind of Nippon Aktionismus proved, by exception, the rule that the dominant culture was robust and healthy. If nothing else, it was a situation whereby increased levels of disposable income allowed for a greater investment in cultural curiosity. A good deal of young Japanese from the time lived rent-free with family members (as a sizable number still do today), and consumption of cultural materials became a choice way to spend surplus cash: copious amounts of books, magazines, and comics were needed for daily train rides, while large numbers of LPs and cassettes were necessary to enhance cramped home life and to keep current with one’s peer group, who more often than not kept meticulous and status-defining checklists of “must have” media. The ability to consume more media in a smaller amount of time arguably stoked an interest in more ‘exotic’ flavors of culture, and so the door was open to artists like Hijokaidan, Merzbow, and John Duncan- if one’s tracking instincts were sharp enough.
But increased spending power and unprecedented diversity in consumer choices was only one side of the story, and at any rate, simple availability of radical culture and media did not equal broad-based acceptance of its content. At best, the ongoing saga of groups like Hijokaidan was carried out in tiny capsule reviews at the rear pages of magazines like Fool’s Mate and Rock Magazine, who would cover the noizu-kei [noise movement] phenomenon less in the 1990s and 2000s than in the 1980s, even as concert performance and releasing activity in that corner of the underground multiplied exponentially. Having a safe existence as a contributor to a massively affluent society was not enough to satisfy all people all the time: this often brought with it intense levels of fatigue (as evidenced from the epidemic of slumbering businessmen on home-bound subway trains), and unsustainable levels of hyper-competition frequently terminating in karoshi or 'death from overwork'. There was also the accelerated alienation from the forces of nature, an appreciation of which was so vital to earlier manifestations of Japanese culture. Meanwhile, Japan’s status of relative cultural isolation and insularity, even during its economic miracle, made the various escape routes into other cultures – such as learning second languages - more difficult than usual, and too time-consuming to commit to while already spending one’s days at the office and nights at the karaoke bar in moments of compulsory camaraderie. While it was actually cheaper in the 1980s to spend one’s slim allotment of vacation time abroad in Australia than within Japan proper, long-term involvements in other nations were not as common, which often made the appearance in Japan of a figure like John Zorn or John Duncan a welcome ‘fly in the ointment’ catalyst for new cultural developments.
One notable feature common to most of Japan’s ‘outsider culture’ denizens was their visual similarity to members of the Japanese mainstream: plenty of neat, short haircuts, and indistinct, conservative fashions were to be found among the genuine radicals and deviants. This was in part a necessity for social survival; something that allowed people to slip into their underground activities without having to explain themselves to suspicious co-workers. This was also just another rejection of the prevailing materialism, which had spawned countless visually-oriented culture tribes: rigidly defined cliques of brightly plumed yet harmless youth whose status as living street-corner sculpture was their main cultural contribution. Such cliques would insist that professional musicians must be marked by special coordinated outfits, handed down by the editors of the premiere Tokyo style guides. But groups like Hijokaidan were the ambassadors of a new anti-professionalism, not “musicians” as the general populace in Japan would have understood the word- as such, there was no set uniform for makers of underground Gesamtkunstwerk, performance art or other impossible-to-categorize forms of unmediated expressiveness.
Pockets of resistance –or at least pockets of people who acknowledged and attempted to examine their own ‘outsider’ status- sprung up not only in the culture of free noise and Industrial music, but also in the ‘alternative’ comics scene rotating around weekly magazines like Garo and the willfully crude (but not inarticulate) comic artist / essayist Takeshi Nemoto. Direct collaboration between the two scenes seems to have been rare, but both persistently attempted to confront base instincts with the intent of reaching higher eloquence and awareness beyond the glossy but insubstantial artifice of consumer lifestyles. Nemoto’s description of his comics as “propagating like the graffiti you find on a toilet stall” was interesting, especially considering men’s toilet stalls were the precise ‘exhibition space’ of Duncan’s 1985 collection of A1-size collage posters. Like the alternately discomforting and arousing materials used for Move Forward, Duncan’s collages of war imagery and exaggerated pornography were not what anyone had expected to greet them in an immaculately well-tended Japanese public restroom, where grooming rituals and maintenance of professional appearance were carried out in proximity to the less noble acts of urination and defecation. The posters were placed in Tokyo’s epicenters of fashion (Shibuya), finance (Hibiya), government (KokkaiGijidomae), and entertainment (Shinjunku)- with this strategic placement, Duncan’s simple act hinted that, if the present technological and materialistic utopia was not built on primal lusts and aggressive impulses, these things were certainly not absent from it.
Actions like the above were not as common as Duncan’s musical performances, which were done both solo and in collaboration. Takuya Sakaguchi claims that “the number of shows that John did during that short stay in Japan were not small”,3 and whatever this exact number may have been, doing just a monthly concert would have been an ambitious undertaking without the proper connections: ‘pay to play’ policies in Japanese clubs have traditionally priced regular performance schedules outside the range of all but the most dedicated musicians, often forcing the usage of alternate spaces like record shops and cafes.
A ‘no bullshit’, ‘get down to business’ attitude was not confined to the Japanese underground musicians’ unadorned physical appearance during live performances, but it was also manifested in their choice of sound creation devices, themselves a world away from the dazzling new array of electronic instruments being churned out in Yamaha and Roland workshops. Incapacitants and Hijokaidan had their short-lived, homemade “black box” electronics, while O’Nancy In French created and manipulated feedback from amplified oil barrels. For Duncan, shortwave radio was the instrument of choice: a highly portable tool which resisted an user’s manipulative movements as much as it accepted them. It was also capable of an extensive dynamic range of sound, for those who were willing to hear the musical qualities and rhythmic structures arising from a panoply of hums, crackles, static blasts, and plaintive coded signals. Although he had already been using shortwave during his with the Los Angeles Free Music Society, its use really ‘came into its own’ (in the author's humble opinion) during the Japan years.
The shortwave radio was an interesting choice merely for its historical resonance: in the same way that the tiny cell structure of underground music rendered the support of giant media conglomerates unnecessary in order to participate in the shaping of culture, Guglielmo Marconi’s brainchild made it unnecessary to have the princely sums of money necessary for longwave transmitters and giant antennae. In its way, it opened the communicative floodgates much like the Internet would, some 70 years in advance. The difficulty of censoring shortwave broadcasts and monitoring listeners’ access to these broadcasts also gives it some distinct advantages over the latter medium. Duncan claims that, during his stay in Japan, he was staying awake until almost sunrise drinking coffee and making shortwave compositions, fascinated by the fact that
…it’s always different, shortwave is never the same twice when you turn it on from night to night, you don’t hear the same things ever. And I’m not talking about the regular stations, I’m talking about the events between the stations- that was where shortwave really got interesting- it was always unique, always different, and the human voice is [also] like that.4Even though Duncan adopted shortwave for such aleatory qualities, it has uncannily adapted itself to his personality and his own artistic intentions: the results that he achieves with the shortwave radio cannot be easily compared to, say, the work of AMM’s Keith Rowe with the same device. Rowe’s subtle and almost cautious approach to this tool parallels the aesthetic he developed with tabletop guitar, while Duncan uses the instrument in a way that, like much of his other work, rewards concentrated, high-volume listening of the recorded results. Rowe also became a recognized ‘virtuoso’ of shortwave by his ability to maximize the serendipitous power of the instrument (suddenly finding broadcast voices which seemed to comment on AMM’s improvisations as they were happening.) Duncan was, as he has stated above, more concerned with the interstices: in his hands the shortwave radio was not so much a medium for transmitting human communications as it was for transmitting the sound of atmospheric disturbances and galactic forces greater than what normally fell into our immediate field of comprehension. The sound artist / composer Michael Prime, who performs using a ‘bioactivity translator’ (a device which amplifies the fluctuating voltage potentials or bioelectric signals inherent in all natural life) has written simply, but eloquently, on the larger implications of harnessing shortwave transmissions as an expressive tool:
Shortwave signals interpenetrate our bodies at all times, and provide a vast musical resource. The signals may originate from cosmic sources, such as the sun, pulsars, and quasars, or from human sources. However, they are all modified and inter-modulated by the earth’s own nervous system, the magnetic particles that surround the planet like layers of onion. These layers expand and contract under the influence of weather systems […] to produce complex patterns of manipulation.5More fascinating than any of this, though, is the way in which these forces have combined to produce signature sonic elements whose source is largely taken for granted. Prime continues:
Many of the characteristic effects of electronic music (such as ring modulation, filtering, phase-shifting and electronic drone textures) were first heard in the interaction of radio broadcasts with the earth’s magnetic layers. Perhaps Gaia was the first composer of electronic music. 6Such sentiments have inspired a whole micro-movement within the music detailed in this book, populated by artists like Swiss ‘cracked electronics’ duo Voice Crack and the exacting Bay Area sound artist Scott Arford, whose hyper-real compositions tend to straddle the ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ divide. It also has to be admitted that, as far as instruments go, the shortwave is an incredibly versatile producer of sound textures for the price- like most sound generators that are incapable of producing melodic music, it relies on variation in other audible phenomena: the thickness in the distortion of its signal, the velocity of its crackling and chirping noises, and the randomness in the attenuation of otherwise constant electrical hum. The shortwave functions both as a tool for personal enlightenment and amusement, as well as being a metaphor for the challenges we face in making meaningful communication, beset on all sides by countless forms of natural and human interference: at least this is the feeling one gets when listening to Duncan’s shortwave-based pieces like Riot and Trinity; dense and occasionally opaque manifestations of elemental sound.
Radio would become a productive tool in Duncan’s hands in more ways than one, though, as he also set out to make pirate broadcasts of events that would likely never make it onto commercial Japanese radio (and, to this day, still haven’t.) His pirate radio program Radio Code was the kind of thing which, given its superior ability to investigate and document street-level reality when compared to the mass media, calls into question the concept of “amateurism”. Although Radio Code was broadcast using no more than a Sony Walkman, a transmitter with a 7km range, and a stereo microphone with earphones taped to it (this allowed for music to be played from the Walkman while “talking over” it as a typical radio DJ might), the sheer eclecticism of the sonic art it presented was well beyond the scope of other media outlets in the area. A radical fusion of preciously unheard music, social commentary and fairly innocent playfulness was employed: highlights included on-location broadcasts of O’Nancy In French and Chie Mukai’s band Che Shizu, an audio portrait of an attempted suicide (recorded live from her home after hospitalization), and an episode of the show given over to some enthusiastic high-schoolers. The title of a Hafler Trio cassette culled from a broadcast on Radio Code -Hotondo Kiki Torenai [something you haven’t heard before]- accurately summed up the refreshing nature of the technically simple yet journalistically sophisticated approach.
Infiltrating the world of radio, holding deafening live sound performances, serving as a core member in an expanding circle of dissatisfied urban primitives: these accomplishments could have been enough on their own, but Duncan did not limit himself even to these things, branching out into film and television production as well. His John See series of erotic / pornographic films may be some of the only films from the era (1986-1987) to involve a non-Japanese director at the helm. Duncan became involved in this medium with the assistance of Nobuyuki Nakagawa, a protégé of the avant-garde filmmaker Shuji Terayama. Needless to say, the results were an unorthodox style based on collaged images (similar to the kind previously used in Move Forward) rather than the awkward, tacked-on varieties of ‘acting’ and ‘narrative’ that most porn films attempted. The John See soundtracks, likewise, were a world removed from the silly synthesizer percolations and ersatz funk typically scored for mild pornographic fare. Looped orgasmic noises, treated with electronics, gave the impression of being adrift and weightless in some limbo of carnal desire (see the piece Breath Choir Mix), while other soundtrack segments heightened erotic tension through ambient rumble and vaguely familiar, low-pitched rustlings and murmurings (Inka, Aida Yuki Passion.) Duncan’s experiences within this corner of Japanese society featured human interactions significantly different than the ones portrayed in modern-day cautionary fables: rather than descending into a slimy netherworld of the type scripted into Hollywood docu-dramas, which would have been populated by Yakuza bosses, drug-addicted runaways and emotionally stunted nymphomaniacs, Duncan’s colleagues on the filming set were reportedly very pleasant, and diversified in their reasons for working in adult films [for the sake of not repeating myself, readers should refer to the ‘Pornoise’ section of the chapter on Merzbow for further details on these encounters.]
Meanwhile, Duncan’s pirate TVC 1 station - broadcast on the frequency of the state-operated NHK after their ‘signing off’ time - was a small victory for guerrilla media in an environment which increasingly accorded advertising as much importance as regular ‘entertainment’ programming. TVC 1 also functioned as a sort of companion piece to Radio Code. Fans of the media hijacking made so popular by the ‘cyberpunk’ genre (not least because Tokyo was the staging ground for the seminal writing in that genre) would find Duncan’s actions positively romantic: a lone insurrectionary broadcasting from Tokyo rooftops with equipment that could fit securely into a single briefcase (antenna, transmitter and all), melting into the dakrness of night and slinking into the nearest subway train before his location could be triangulated by the authorities. Yet, for all this cool anti-hero romanticism, TVC 1 was less concerned with any kind of “fucking up the system” as it was with merely filling the gaps in what people were able to perceive through local broadcast media: to wit, the station never interfered with any official NHK programming, and as such could project itself as an alluring alternative rather than as a disturbance made for its own sake. The intent was to be an additive rather than subtractive form of communication- and among the additions made to Japanese culture were things which likely had never been seen in the whole of modern Asia, e.g. footage of Aktionist artist Rudolf Schwarzkogler. Shaky production values merely contributed to the images’ sense of otherness, as did the broadcasting of material whose originators had probably intended for it to remain private: careless play with a videocamera by a couple enjoying themselves after sex, or an ‘accidental’ set of artful visuals filmed by an electrical engineer in a small apartment.
beyond the valley of the 'falsch'...
Peter Rehberg in Vienna
One of the more impressive and consistent organizations involved in the shaping of early 21st century digital music was Austria’s Mego label (now re-branded as Editions Mego, with much of the former label’s catalog available to be purchased online.) Other splinter groups doubtless arose around the same time (thanks to the technological advancements listed [earlier in this chapter]), and therefore giving Mego pride of place here may raise the hackles of some- but if they did not merely kickstart this scene, their collective aesthetic sensibility, more than the sum of its parts, has been instrumental in drawing attention towards the peculiar methods and maneuvers of a larger constellation of electronic artists.
The Mego label was originally an offshoot of the Austrian techno label Mainframe, the brainchild of Ramon Bauer and Andreas Peiper. The Mainframe label, while not reaching the same dizzy heights of un-compromise that came to define Mego, did deviate from the standard techno / rave template in some colorful ways. The label’s flagship act Ilsa Gold, for one, was known for fish-out-of-water experiments like combining distortion-fueled ‘hardcore’ techno elements with the sampled (and decidedly unfashionable) sounds of German-language folk relics like Karel Gott, or perhaps with the plaintive wailing of some ‘alternative’ coffeehouse rock leftover from the early 1990s. The pounding aggressiveness of Ilsa Gold’s more anthemic numbers, combined with a sampling method that placed exuberant irreverence at center stage, would also be a harbinger of things to come.
The nucleus of the Mego label, as it is known today, would eventually be formed when Peter ‘Pita’ Rehberg joined forces with Bauer and Peiper upon the dissolution of Mainframe. Rehberg, the most visibly active of the original trio today, keeps the archive of older Mego releases in print under the newer Editions Mego label (which, in spite of the name change, does not differ significantly in content or approach from its predecessor.) Rehberg transferred from London to Vienna in the late ‘80s, a musical omnivore previously busying himself with numerous rock-oriented groups, DJing, and fanzine writing- also taking time out from the scene for an extended visit to Minneapolis at the dawn of the 1990s (he now operates most frequently in Vienna, London and Paris.) Having previously subsisted on an eclectic musical diet of post-punk, industrial noise and the dub offerings from the On-U Sound label, Rehberg was somewhat skeptical of the new ‘electronic dance music revolution’ spreading through warehouse raves and a deluge of white-label vinyl releases- that is to say, it appeared to him as just another development in electronic music, rather than the clean wiping of the slate that - in their usual hysteric tones - culture observers and scene-makers were making it out to be.
Still, the ‘electronic dance music revolution’ provided some of the necessary cover for Mego to engage in its more intense and unmoored sonic experiments: with a thriving local techno scene to draw upon (proximity to hubs like Munich also helped in this respect), and the credibility that came from playing an intimate role in that scene’s growth, some deviation from the norm was permitted them. Simultaneously, the nascent Mego label had support from the more hazily defined post-Industrial and noise subculture in Vienna; local alliances with organizations like the Syntactic label (known for its collectible 7” single releases of the genre’s leaders) gave the Mego team a rare opportunity to ‘play both sides of the field’, as it were- local connections even helped to secure gigs at unlikely venues like the hip youth hangout Chelsea (whose website boasts of it being “simply the best of indie, pop, and beats”) , where Rehberg recalls blowing out the house speakers in a live collaboration with noise stalwart Zbigniew Karkowski. The up-front, blasting energy of such performances was, to say the least, unexpected in environments where electronic music had previously taken on a “support role,” a function much like that of mood lighting. Electronic dance music, in all its endless variations, had previously added color and exotic flourishes to the ongoing Continental European social drama, plugging the awkward silences that occurred in between flirting with strangers, or perhaps seeking out local varieties of pharmaceutical recreation. Now, here was an electronic music which manifested itself in unbelievably loud sheets of sound as techno did, yet forced passive bystanders not to divert their attention elsewhere (unless they just chose to flee from the performance venue altogther.) Reviewer Mark Harwood, reviewing Rehberg & Bauer’s performances at the “What Is Music?” festival in Australia, accurately describes both poles of audience reaction when suddenly being sucked into this whirling vortex of disorientation:
“Pita thrilled the Melbourne crowd (one male witness reported to have shed tears, while other folk moved about in what can loosely be described as ‘dancing’) and diced the Sydney audience, shredding one of his tracks by cutting out every few seconds. At a safe distance, you could see numerous people exit, fingers firmly in ears.”1Andrew McKenzie of The Hafler Trio - who was not directly allied with Mego, but whose work maps a similar psychic terrain - also summarizes the performer-audience disconnect that could come about when listeners are forced to decode an incoming rush of mutated sound signals, often in the form of genuinely painful frequencies or tonalities, without any form of ‘visual aid’ to assist them:
“Focusing on output requires attention, practice, and a degree of consciousness. None of these come for free, and none of these can be assumed to be existing qualities of an audience. The best that can be done is to attempt to attract those qualities by means of developing them in oneself. What follows from that is feedback on the state of things as they are, not as we might like them to be.”2If the effect of this sound was jarring within a venue that, at least, normally showcased loud music, then hearing it broadcast from more unorthodox locations took things to a whole other level of bewilderment. One such unorthodox location was the Riesenrad [Ferris wheel] at the Prater amusement park in Vienna, which movie buffs will recognize as the site of a now-infamous Orson Welles monologue in The Third Man. Originally built to commemorate the golden jubilee of Franz Josef I in 1897, it was one of the first Ferris wheels ever built, and became a universally recognized landmark of the city. So, what better place to stage the defiantly outré sound of the local Mego-affiliated computer music group Farmers Manual than in one of the city’s most beloved tourist attractions! In the summer of 1997, Farmers Manual prepared a novel live set that would last the duration of one ferris wheel ride (about 15 minutes), conflating sentimentality and nationalistic pride with ‘the shock of the new’ and with the decidedly more alien- such high-concept performances (albeit ‘high-concept’ infused with playful mischievousness) may not have approached the spectacular overkill of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s composition for a quartet of helicopters, but they did speak to the elasticity of this new music: its lack of lyrical dictation, its tendency to not be pinned into place by an incessant backbeat, and its use of portable electronic devices for both recording and playback meant that it could be performed in all variety of public places while generating the same polarized reactions of curiosity and hostility. In a nod to the clandestine punk rock concerts staged on riverboats during the period when certain Central European countries were Soviet satellites, Farmers Manual and several others have taken this approach to the waters on the ‘Mego Love Boat.’ The tongue-in-cheek whimsy of such actions extended even to the formation of a Mego go-kart racing team; with Mego catalog number 052 being assigned to a 2-stroke racing vehicle.
Farmers’ Manual in particular have been fanatical about documenting the live aspect of this music- one web archive features gigabytes worth of live material from themselves and allied Mego acts, while their RLA DVD catalogs every surviving live recording made of the group from 1995-2002. It is a brutally effective comment on just how much the music subculture has changed since the days of, say, The Grateful Dead: where once fans devoted years of their lives to tracking down and swapping bootlegged, “no-two-are-alike” cassettes of live performances by the torch-bearers of the psychedelic flame, now fans of such a computer music 'jam band' could have their every single performance delivered for a comparatively meager investment: only the cost of a commercial DVD, or the time it would require to download all the shows from the Net (available here, for the curious.)
All innovations in live performance aside, Mego is a label mostly judged on the merit of its recorded output. Mego’s initial foray into the world of conceptual music, and away from techno as we now know it, was the Fridge Trax collaborative effort between Peter Rehberg and General Magic,itself an alias for the Bauer / Peiper creative duo. The latter duo is also responsible for the mind-bending 1997 computerized song cycle Rechenkönig, a surprisingly cohesive collection of shimmering audio debris. This particular album epitomizes the ‘Mego style’s’ emphasis on the primacy of the abstract sound assemblage rather than linear narrative, yet with the same good-natured irreverence that informed the earlier Mainframe releases (note the familiar cloying patter of Barney the purple dinosaur on the album’s opening track.) In a description that reminds us Farmers Manual’s mischievous appropriation of the Riesenrad, reviewer Alois Bitterdorf states that
“…much of this sounds like the amusement park rides were left to run, and run around, on their own a little too long, and in the meantime some of them have gotten into the medicine cabinet again, oh no, heavens! 3In many ways Rechenkönig is a culmination of the work begun earlier on Fridge Trax, itselfan intriguing study in the sampling and manipulation of household appliances’ hidden sound world. The album ranks with Frieder Butzmann’s mid-80s curio Waschsalon Berlin (a recording of the unique, churning rhythmic activity of Berlin laundromats) as a slickly listenable attempt at humanizing the apparently inert and voiceless. At once an alluring piece of and a possible joke directed at those who complain of electronic music’s “frigidity”, Fridge Trax capably threw down the gauntlet, which would be picked up in turn by the lush, unsettlingly natural computer compositions of guitarist and laptop manipulator Christian Fennesz, and by a whole supporting cast of other wild brains, whose work will be reviewed here soon enough.
Meanwhile, the problem of presenting this music live was partially solved as the ‘bar modern’ Rhiz opened for business beneath the overhead train tracks of the city’s U6 U-Bahn line. Specializing in presentation of ‘new media,’ and partially immune to noise complaints by virtue of being situated along a major traffic thoroughfare, Rhiz became the default venue for much of the Mego label’s live presentation. The rumble of the overhead trains and chatter of passerby (who are free to peer in at the live proceedings, thanks to floor-to-ceiling glass windows on either side of the venue) occasionally intrude upon the more contemplative moments of live performances, but all in all the venue has done a fine job of allowing this music to be itself. However, support from other quarters – namely, the Austrian arts funding organizations- has been somewhat more tepid, As Peter Rehberg recalls:
“I’m one of the few Austrian / Viennese labels that doesn’t get any support or funding from the funding bodies here, whatever they call themselves…which, on one hand, is a bit of a bummer because it’s all got to be financed by myself, but on the other hand it gives you the independence to act on your own- you don’t have to be obliged to be nice to anyone [laughs]. And I kind of like that kind of independence. It would be nice to get funding, but they obviously don’t recognize my label as a worthy cause. It’s a bit of a joke because every other scratchy label here gets funded, but I don’t care, because I actually sell records- so I can get the money back.”4Acquiescing a little, though, Rehberg also admits that he is
“…not anti-funding, as places like the Rhiz couldn't exist with out. Although I do get annoyed with labels getting money for a release, and the they package it in the cheapest way possible..... ah, don't get me started..”5II. Endless Summer, Get Out: A Tale of Two Sound Cards
It is tempting, in retrospect, to see Mego’s progress as eventually coalescing around the prolific efforts of Peter Rehberg and Christian Fennesz. Consequently, it is also tempting for some to pit these two against each other in an adversarial struggle between aesthetic polarities: one reviewer, in a scathing review of Pita’s 2004 release Get Off, even likens the two to being the “Lennon and McCartney of electronica”, implying a stylistic divergence between Rehberg’s caustic, unfeeling experimentalism and Fennesz’ aspirations towards melodic pop and pastoral simplicity. This “rivalry” exists more in the minds of such reviewers than it does in reality, though, as can be surmised by the number of live collaborations between the two, and by other shared traits: neither claim exclusive allegiance to the Mego label, and both are capable, when necessary, of making occasional breaks from their ‘signature’ style.
Although Christian Fennesz’ contributions to this music are well deserving of their landmark status (his Endless Summer tops both the sales charts and critics’ lists for the Mego label), it is Peter Rehberg’s work which has most caught this author’s attention. Fennesz’ most noted works, with their blissful and asynchronous clouds of sound, are rife with references to idealistic worlds come and gone (see the sunny, utopian Beach Boys quotations of theaforementioned album), and as such it is difficult to divorce them from being either a critique of, or tribute to, past music. Stripped of the nostalgic aspect, or really of any human quality whatsoever, Rehberg’s solo work as Pita has no easily identifiable cultural precedent with which to connect it, and thus makes sentimentality nearly impossible- yet, in spite of this, some Pita works are striking in the emotional depths that they can plumb while maintaining their uncanny post-human edge (Pita compositions in particular are mostly based on patches and virtual instrumentation localized within the computer, with a minimum of sampled or environmental sounds.) The 1999 release Get Out is one of the first and best examples of this approach: an unforgivingly stark and jolting montage of sonic atmospheres which, crossing the threshold into near-total unfamiliarity, serves as a perfect fugue for the death of the previous millennium. Without even track titles to base it in the world of consensus reality, it is a demanding listening experience for all but those who would intentionally seek it out, and one so highly subjective that even this author’s assessment of it should not be understood as definitive.
Perhaps the linchpin moment of Get Out (and consequentially, one of the more canonical moments of computer music of the past decade) proceeds as follows: a ghostly inaudible murmur of filtered melody on the 2nd untitled track, seductive by way of its elusiveness and obscured by steely pinpricks of clipped, high-register sound, becomes resurrected on the 3rd track as a backwards orchestral loop of uncertain origin (playing the LP release of Get Out backwards helps somewhat, though the sourced music will still not be familiar to most.) The listener is lured into a false sense of calm contentedness, perhaps expecting that this track will play out as a balmy piece of oceanic ambience. This is clearly not the case, as the orchestration is abruptly overtaken by an exceptionally harsh form of digital decimation. For those who survive this unexpected ambush, the rewards are great, as the distortion causes all kinds of harmonics and auditory hallucinations to emerge from the simple looped phrase- which, at this point, is so laden with overdrive effects that you can no longer tell easily if the original sound source is being looped, or if gradual modifications are being made to the time axis. The track’s technique of ‘constant crescendo’ seems borrowed from earlier forms of techno dance music, but, transposed to different instrumentation, could just as easily be a blast of white light from Swans, one of Rehberg’s many influences in the post-industrial landscape of the 80s. A mish-mash of genre leaders like Merzbow and Terry Riley would be another way to describe this, although this scathing 11-minute opus seems less concerned with paying homage than with spawning new mutations of itself.
The remainder of the Get Out album plays out as a less epic, but still absorbing, set of viscera-tickling noise episodes and alluring disturbances, the kinds of things that are referred to as a ‘mindfuck’ in music fanzine parlance: maybe a lowbrow summation of a very complex compositional style, but an apt one nonetheless. After wandering through a sonic terrain so twisting and non-linear that it would put a smile on the face of even a hippie mystic like Friedrich Hundertwasser, we come at last to another lengthy track looping a single gliding bass tone alongside the restless rhythmic sputtering of a Geiger counter (a comparison which has been made perhaps too many times now when attempting to describe Mego-variety music, but, again, an apt one.) The un-emotive artlessness of this send-off is exquisite, and reminds us of how far society has ‘progressed’ since Industrial music first began to make its critique of mass media’s indoctrination methods. It conjures images of blank sedation under brand-name soporifics, or of row upon row of modern, uniform office cubicles cooled by the pallid glow of computer screens, only the alternation in the rate of the screens’ flickering offering any hope of differentiation from one cubicle to the next. The sci-fi promise heralded by Throbbing Gristle’s 1980 track ‘IBM’ –that of the computer’s ‘voice’ dictating coded orders to spellbound and pliant humans- has been fulfilled here in a most unequivocal way.
And while this new form of computer music could have satisfactorily ended with the disembodied pastiche that was Get Out, it was really just getting started, and was growing too rhizomatically to accurately chart its progress in linear terms of “who did what when”: to see Peter Rehberg, Farmers Manual’s occasional spokesman Matthias Gmachl, or any other individual affiliate of Mego and its companion labels as an ideological “center” or key “signifier” would be erroneous. An international ‘scene’ was nevertheless born, which culture scribes - with their penchant for easily-digested, monosyllabic tags like ‘punk’ and ‘grunge’ - were quick to pounce on and designate as “glitch”. Musical taxonomy still refers to this music as such, perhaps giving too much credit to the generative computer music of Oval [Markus Popp] as the scene leader within this milieu, and also assuming that accidental composition is the only means utilized in making this music. More important than the actual ‘glitching’ process was the music’s philosophical ambiguity, and particularly its refusal as a ‘movement’ to uniformly romanticize or condemn virtual culture, a refreshing departure in an age of insubstantial or dangerous proclamations and territorial claims.
Starting with the guerrilla media tactics of Industrial music in the late 1970s, the author charts an ongoing trend in electronic music: an increasing amount of sonic quality, recorded output and international contact, accomplished with a decreasing amount of tools, personnel, and capital investment. From the use of laptop computers to create massive avalanches of noise, to the establishment of micro-nations populated largely by sound artists, 21st century sound culture is expanding in its scope and popularity even as it shrinks in other respects. Numerous exclusive interviews with leading lights of the field were also conducted for this book: William Bennett (Whitehouse), Peter Christopherson (Throbbing Gristle / Coil), Peter Rehberg (Mego), John Duncan, Francisco López, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Bob Ostertag and many others weigh in with a diversity of thoughts and opinions that underscores the incredible diversity to be found within new electronic music itself.
First published by Creation Books in 2009
Publisher Belsona Books
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TBWB WRITINGSHere is an archive of pieces, both published and unpublished, that reflect upon my particular set of interests and obsessions. Navigate to the section of your choice, or merely scroll down if you want to take the "scenic" view:
recent web writings
columns originally published in "HiS Voice" + "A2", Prague
columns in Spanish
columns in Czech
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website exclusives & book excerpts
other artists interview me
recently on the weB
"The Danmaku Game as a New Optical Art"> unveiling the common sensory impressions between Optical art, structural film, and video game overload (part one of two) NEW!
review of Swans' 2012 U.S. tour > Thomas emerges from his bunker to see one of his favorite bands perform! NEW!
"A Deep And Tenebrous Unity: Surveying The Synesthetic Impulse, From The 19th Century To The Present"> At the Lithuanian "Radikaliai" web journal
"Welcome To 2084: The Age Of Overload Aesthetics"> At the Lithuanian "Radikaliai" web journal
"Our Presence Together In Chaos": John Cage vs. Glenn Branca, revisited> article written for the centenary year of John Cage, hosted at SONM website, Spain (.pdf)
"State Of The Union"> paper written for SONM (Murcia, Spain) on synesthesia in the arts
"Horror Vacuui And Holy Innocence"> what does "outsider art" really mean?
"I Wasn't There: The Joys Of Immaterial Art"> a brief history of the 'art of the invisible'
TBWB columns archived at Vague Terrain, Canada> various examinations of art, war, technology
"Something In The Air: Post-Industrial Ambience + The Control Society"> hosted at Rhizome.org
"Mister Modularity: Vittore Baroni And The 'Network As Artwork'"> also hosted at Rhizome.org
"Low Key-Sounds In The Low Countries"> Dutch cassette culture and homemade music
"Loving Indolence, Hating Peace"> The Strange State of 21st Century Black Metal
"Other Convergences"> older piece on synesthesia in electronic music
"Singing Doctors and Friendly Time Bombs"> appreciation of Japanese record stores(back to top)
selected entries from 2006-present.
"Kalimba Soundclash"> ancient to the future? New musical innovations from Lukas Ligeti, Konono No. 1, etc.
"Futurism As Entartete Kunst"> the sound too intense even for dictators?
"Requiem For A Parasite"> the U.S. recession and the music industry
"How Gray Was My Mauer"> Berlin aesthetics, 20 years after the fall of the Wall
"Feed My Ego"> column on psychotherapy in popular music culture
"Bellona Calling"> essay on the sonic aspects of Samuel DeLany's Dhalgren
"Más allá del valle del Falsch (Mego y amigos...)"> apareció en la revista "Oro Molido", Agosto 2010
"Komu vlastně patři hluk?"> Hluk coby tvůrčí činnost versus vojensko-vědecký komplex (.html)
"Nakrm mé ego"> Péče o psýchu rock'n'rollových rebelů (.html)
"Rekviem za parasita"> Stav hudebního průmyslu v USA (.html)
Micro Bionic book excerpts
Unofficial Release book excerpts