A new aesthetic
"Electronic music since 1980 has splintered into a dizzying assortment of genres and subgenres, communities and subcultures. Given the ideological differences among academic, popular, and avant-garde electronic musicians, is it possible to derive an aesthetic theory that accounts for this variety? And is there even a place for aesthetics in twenty-first-century culture? This book explores genres ranging from techno to electroacoustic music, from glitch to drone music, and from dub to drones, and maintains that culturally and historically informed aesthetic theory is not only possible but indispensable for understanding electronic music.
The abilities of electronic music to use preexisting sounds and to create new sounds are widely known. This book proceeds from this starting point to consider how electronic music changes the way we listen not only to music, but to sound itself. The common trait in recent experimental electronic music is a concern with whether sound, in itself, bears meaning. The use of previously undesirable materials like noise, field recordings, and extremely quiet sounds has contributed to electronic music's destruction of the "musical frame", the conventions that used to set apart music from the outside world. In the void created by the disappearance of the musical frame, different philosophies for listening have emerged. Some electronic music genres insist upon the inscrutability and abstraction of sound. Others maintain that sound functions as a sign pointing to concepts or places beyond the work. But all share an approach towards listening that departs fundamentally from the expectations that have governed music listening in the West for the previous five centuries."
Demers, Joanna (2010-07-01). Listening through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (p. 5). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
From substances to events
How strange is the real world?
So much depends on what is meant by the real world. Western modernity once thought of the real world as consisting of self-contained objects which are impermeable to outside influence except through collision. Some still think of atoms and molecules, of people and God, as self-contained substances with existence and identity that precede their relations with other such substances. They bump into one another but are not really parts of one another.
Influenced by the philosopher Whitehead, process philosophers propose that things were never real in this way in the first place. Always, they say, the really real things of the world have been events not substances, relational happenings not inert bits of matter. The universe consists of quivering moments, like musical notes.
Is this strange? It is strange to those who think of reality in terms of inert substances. One value of electronic music is that it makes this way of thinking strange. It estranges the strange for the sake of a new familiarity.
Eerie Sounds and Dark Ambiences
Nondogmatic listening takes us into multiple worlds of experience, including worlds that are invisible to the naked eye but palpable to the acoustic and visual imagination. Some of these world are macabre or eerie. In safe settings their eeriness a momentary touches of transcendence: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. After all, aspects of the holy are eerie, too. Of course, holy or otherwise, eerie sounds have their referents in life, because some aspects of the fleshy world are eerie, too. Eerie sounds and dark ambiences take us into the emotions -- the subjective forms -- that accompany our encounters with the strange. These subjective worlds are part of the ecology of life: they are among the many that "become one" in a given moment of experience. One value of electronic music is that it can take us unto them in a safe way, so that we come to feel them and understand them without being thrown into physical circumstances that are their objective correlates. We can make peace with fear, enjoying its intensity but not suffering its pain. One scholar, Dr. Bill Tsutsui, calls it the joy of being afraid. See Why We Need Monsters.
Eco-Acoustics: Hearing all Sounds as Music
Eco-acoustics is a name for a way of listening to the sounds of life in a grateful or attentive way. These sounds come from people, other animals, wind and rain, spirits and ancestors, molecules and atoms, events and machines Wherever there is sound there is a quivering energy that emerges from our universe with its multiple dimensions, some visible and most invisible. The sounds we hear can be delightful, frightening, interesting, boring, ugly, beautiful, chaotic, or orderly. At a deep level they are all music, in the sense that they can be heard and taken into the continuous splicing of life, as undertaken and undergone by individual human beings and groups of human beings. We approach life eco-acoustically, not simply when we listen to particular songs that have beginnings and ends, but when we listen to the sounds of life itself -- happy and sad, pleasant and terrifying – in a way that seeks to splice them into momentary gestalts that are satisfying if not also meaning-giving. There are no strict rules to the listening; there is just the listening itself.
"Aesthetic listening resembles the way many listeners hear popular and some non-Western musics. In listening aesthetically as opposed to musically, we may choose to attend to development, or else we may pay only intermittent attention to sound while also attending to other sensory phenomena. Aesthetic listening also acknowledges that nonmusical sounds, the sounds of the outside world, can have aesthetic interest and that we can listen to them for more than simply their informational value. That aesthetic listening has arisen in electronic music is nothing short of revolutionary. Electronic music in its three metagenres pits itself as a high-art form yet, unlike previous forms of Western art music, does not demand attention to form or development. The experience that electronic music affords reflects more accurately the ways in which humans actually do hear the world and is thus less dogmatic about how we should hear it."
Demers, Joanna (2010-07-01). Listening through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (p. 16). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
The spliced and splicing self
All human selves are spliced selves. They -- we -- are an activity of gathering many influences and realities from our past into new wholes in the present. Whitehead calls it creative concrescence. We might also call it splicing.
We undertake this activity by dissecting aspects of the past, previously integrated into predecessor wholes, and splicing these aspects into a new whole. The dissecting process is part of concrescence, too.
When the new whole emerges, a new self emerges, slightly different from the earlier self, and this new self is itself composed of the many elements of the past. It is a spliced self.
We might imagine that we, the splicers, are unified agents who are somehow different from the splicing and dicing or from the wholes that emerge from it. But for Whitehead we are not different. We are the activity.
Additionally, electronic collages, such as "There is no There There" by The Books can remind us that the quiverings of energy, which the philosopher Whitehead calls occasions of experience, are not simply located in one region of the universe as opposed to others, but are also present in, and entangled with, all the others, such that the universe is itself a vast web of entanglement, a web of inter-being. A sense of entanglement can begin, among other ways, with an appreciation of entangled sounds.
What is electronic music, anyway?
"Electronic music is any type of music that makes primary, if not exclusive, use of electronic instruments or equipment. It encompasses electroacoustic music, which often enlists acoustic instruments along with electronics, as well as purely electronically produced sounds."
Demers, Joanna (2010-07-01). Listening through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (p. 5). Oxford University Press. Kindle Editio
Mixing a life
A new way of listening is emerging and perhaps a new way of seeing. We are invited to see the universe as quivering energy and to see ourselves as splicing our lives into existence, moment by moment, by mixing our past experiences and our present circumstances into new wholes. We may do this reverentially or callously, compassionately or greedily, but we will do it one way or another. It's very interesting and very Whiteheadian. And, who knows, in combination with prayer and service, with good ideas and good practices, it might even help us draw closer to the becoming the kinds of people we probably already want to be: wise, compassionate, and creative, who help add some small degree of peace and justice to the world. Process philosophers call them fat souls.
A quivering sort of energy
"We can hear both meaning and syntax simultaneously. And the experience of hearing in both ways at the same time lends electronic music a quivering sort of energy, because we will never be able to pin down its meanings decisively. This is the danger in electronic music but also its strength. We can never fully relegate it to the world of the concert hall, exhibition space, or museum, because it is already too enmeshed in the real world."
Demers, Joanna (2010-07-01). Listening through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (pp. 16-18). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
The fallacy of simple location
Whitehead proposes that the really real "entities" in our universe are momentary pulsations of energy which, in biological life, we call experiences. He believes that each of these pulsations of energy is unique but also present in every other pulsation. No entity is located "here" as opposed to "there." Every entity is both "here" and "there" by virtue of its influence. If we imagine "there" as a location in space that is isolated from other things and radically different from "here" where we are, then there is no "there" there. There is only the "here" which is "there," too; and the "there" which is "here," too. Each moment includes all other moments. If we fall into the trap of thinking otherwise, we fall into what he calls the fallacy of simple location.
The laptop as musical instrument
"Holly Herndon renders 1s and 0s in ways that feel as personal and internal as heartbeats, and makes her laptop's sounds fit as comfortably as a second skin. That intimacy amid electronics is amply captured on her debut album, Movement.
Educated at Mills College — and in Berlin clubs, where she worked as a DJ for five years — Herndon lands somewhere between "academic" computer music for the mind and techno-driven beats for the body. But Movement erases the line between the classroom and the club. For her, the laptop is an instrument of performance, not something to hide under a table. She processes her own voice live to create alien sounds, as in the goosebump-good "Breathe," while pressing a human fingertip against the digital tissue in ways that feel both welcoming and unnerving...As Herndon continues her doctoral study in electronic music at Stanford University — and expands her late-night repertoire — expect the circuitry to expand."
- Lars Gotrich, Review of "Movement" by Holly Herndon for NPR, November 4, 2012
From Eco-Acoustics to Eco-Ethics
Eco-ethics is counter-cultural but not dogmatic. It cuts against the cultural idea that humans and humans alone deserve respect and care, and that everything else is mere backdrop for the human adventure. Eco-ethics takes as its goal the creation of communities that are good for human beings and good for the rest of the earth, animals and plants included. It is not a set of rules but rather a disposition and quality of character. It seeks to live with respect and care for the entire community of life, human beings very much included. If there is wisdom in this idea, then the value of electronic music and any other kind of music lies, not simply in what it sounds like, but in what we do with it and who it helps us become. When the music functions in a person’s life to help him or her become more open-minded and open-hearted, when it functions to help him or her become what a fat soul, then the music is taking its place within the larger ecology of life in a constructive way. Eco-acoustics has become eco-ethics. Eco-ethics begins, but does not end, with a recognition that the whole of life is worth listening to.
This is why electronic music is so important. It opens up an infinite number of possibilities for musical color, for timbre, and in so doing can help us fall in love with life anew, many sounds at a time. This falling in love is obstructed by images of the self as self-contained and impermeable. It is enriched when we realize that we ourselves are made of the sounds, so many of which come from other places but are spliced into our lives. In eco-ethics, we love our neighbors as ourselves. Our neighbors include the whole of it: other people, animals, plants, mountains, hills, rivers, stars, and laptops.
If we learn to listen nondogmatically, perhaps we can become free to hear each and every voice as playing a kind of music that deserves respect and care. And even if we cannot hear the voices in this generous way, perhaps we can trust that somewhere, somehow, there is Something that hears the sounds of the universe in just this way: a deep nondogmatic Listening. When we dance to music, we are dancing in the presence of this Something or, perhaps better, this Someone, who, too, is always mixing, but never with dogmatic frames, only with love. Some call it grace.
A new way of listening
"The customs governing how we listen to electronic music do not demand the same sort of continuous discipline as concert-hall attendance, with listeners sitting in silence and attending to a piece from start to finish. Listening to electronic music is intermittent and interrupted; listeners may leave a venue and then return (or not), press pause on their iPods but restart several hours later, or transfer their attention from the repetitive beats of the dance floor to a conversation they are overhearing at the bar of the club. All of these activities constitute listening that is aware of the aesthetic value of sounds, not strictly as conveyors of meaning but not strictly as musical utterance either."
Demers, Joanna (2010-07-01). Listening through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (pp. 16-18). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Beyond the binary of natural and unnatural
There is a tendency among the ecologically-minded to use machines and to fear them. Process philosophers often speak as if the primary virtue of a process philosophy is its rejection of the machine as a metaphor for the universe and its affirmation of the organism as a metaphor for the universe. We can well imagine an older generation of process philosophers who prefer 'natural' instruments such as the piano and guitar to "unnatural" instruments such as the laptop computer. But for Whitehead there is nothing unnatural about the laptop or more natural about the guitar. The binary between "natural' and "unnatural" is a false one. The products of creativity -- machines, for example -- are part of the wider quivering of energy, no less than the acts of creating those products and the people who create them.
Romancing the strange
"These sounds are strange in the real world, and they also succeed in making the real world strange."
Making the world strange can be -- can be -- an important step in moving from a republic of data to a republic of stories. It can de-familiarize the human so that we reclaim the human, not as a self-centered egotist for whom personal preferences are the measure of all things, but as a creative participant in a wider quivering of energy, often called the universe, which includes machines as well as living beings, and at the heart of which is a great compassion. Electronic music, in the hands of musicians such as Holly Herndon, can help us romance the strange.