Stuff Muzak #1: A (Very) Soft Focus on Hyperrealist Music
Stuff Muzak, to put it briefly, is Decoder’s new collaborative column focused on hyperrealist music — a large umbrella covering a wide field. Though it may be boring hook, it seems fair in this situation to start relatively simply by asking: what is “hyperrealist music?” We’re eager to avoid a dogmatic approach to the subject, in any event, so we’re going to pull out the stops to avoid answering that question whenever possible. If only because that sort of whittling is less interesting than the actual works artists have used to expand their individual realities. To some extent that will dictate the format for this column, a focus on listening and fun. In the spirit of putting things on shelves and looking at them, and maybe even popping them into turntables or tape decks occasionally. If not perhaps slightly misusing or misunderstanding them, at least keeping them clean. To begin gesturing wildly at an answer though, music that is “hyperreal” might be doing several things.
In composer Noah Creshevsky’s increasingly well-circulated essay “Hyperrealism, Hyperdrama, Superperformers and Open Palette,” the answer is two fold, describing two pursuits. The first seeks to amplify the output of an instrument beyond what a human player can produce conventionally, while the second, in his words, “aims to integrate vast and diverse sonic elements to produce an expressive and versatile musical language” with a vocabulary designed as “an inclusive, limitless sonic compendium, free of ethnic and national particularity.” That second bit means, essentially, to expand the repertoire of sounds that humans have tangled up in music. Deleuze’s geology of morals rationalizes a similar idea in what Manuel DeLanda describes as a theory of non-human expressivity, which seeks to better understand the meaning of natural forms, understanding water, rock, etc, as fundamentally expressive. DeLanda argues that even post-Darwanian genetics can be understood as a process of “sedimentation.” In the contemporary cultural landscape, plunderphonics takes a similar idea to its logical extreme, following different layers of sediment through their natural striation.
This vision of an infinite, egalitarian sound library often clashes with the reality of contemporary visions of the hyperreal. Most are in fact loaded down with “ethnic and national particularity,” understandably given the media often associated with it. Such is the case with designer Keiichi Matsuda‘s recent rendering of an imagined, augmented reality, below. Like most individual treatments, this video originates in one of many transitional contexts: one end of the spectrum reaching toward the other. A recent, wide-ranging essay for AQNB Magazine — focused on “hyper-capitalism” and accelerationism — talks about some of these problems, and by extension the omissions that can accumulate in more meditative treatments of hyperrealism (in creative works but even in something like this column, though we hope to avoid too big a backlog).
In Noah Creshevsky’s writing hyperrealist music is often musique concrète, but it is pointedly non-acousmatic. Though Creshevsky might be a closet utopian, he also appears deeply pragmatic, writing as a musical futurist with a notion of economy very suited to this moment and particularly salient to what many would like pop to be: “Economy of means is important only when it is genuinely important. We need to conserve endangered species, and clean water and air. Nothing is saved when we save a note. Sometimes (often, especially in an information-rich age), less is not more; more is more. Why is it ‘a good thing’ to make a great deal based on very little? Economy of means is by no means an obvious virtue. On the contrary, the rejection of bounty is a questionable act of nonerotic flagellation. Deprivation in itself is no virtue. It’s a habit. We have been taught to value economy of means, but this lesson needs to be challenged.”
In that light, hyperrealism in music describes a transformation, and as a description encompasses a strikingly diverse range of movements — experimental producers and rappers, crafty no-wavers, zolo punks, as well as academics and conventional “composers” — generally geared toward conflating what we hear as “noise” and what we hear as “music.” Even the frequently contradictory or misapplied catchall “lo-fi” blurs Creshevsky’s categories and covers some very creative uses of atmospherics as, in essence, augmented studio spaces. That common thematic link can’t help but be a compelling foundation, now that we all work with an internet awash in browser-based tools for composition, part of our concurrent realities which exist sometimes alongside and often over-top the natural world.
Hyperrealism in music also adds emphasis to the notion that music fundamentally reflects our ways of being, hearing, and communicating. That an often indecipherable porridge of sampled, decayed, or Frankensteined audio can say something about the condition in which we all live — as well as about preserving an awareness of the glossy immersion that keeps so many of us from falling over in the wind-tunnel of a connected universe. Baltimore-based duo Matmos’ recent album, Ultimate Care II — which was “constructed entirely out of the sounds generated by a Whirlpool Ultimate Care II model washing machine” — leaps to mind (I recommend letting it leap into yours, via Thrill Jockey).
From an holistic standpoint then, pop and noise are easily connected. Particularly from an historical standpoint, the conflation could be said to balance contemporary creative values with the natural, historical inspirations for performance (sans internet). It’s hard not to see a relationship between Creshevsky’s work, for example, and older communal traditions where humans mimick nature, even a novelty like the bird calls and imitations that Canary Records proprietor Ian Nagoski documents so well with his collection Ecstatic & Wingless: Bird-Imitations on Four Continents (1910-44). Field recordings in nature or more impressionistic instances of “phonography” (à la Gruenrekorder) can become “hyperdrama,” if we agree that recording or arrangement constitutes performance and that nature is discretely made into an instrument — as John Cage did more explicitly with his amplified cactus (below). By comparison, for his recent Oscines Et Ensifera release on Pan Y Rosas Discos Chicago-based looper and experimental composer Reid Karris illustrates some of the expediency that comes from a blunt juxtaposition, uniting a jumble of birdsong with his own home-cooked orchestral mash into one substance.
To to put it all in a compact generalization, there is an enormous spectrum of compositional approaches to hyperreality, to “augmented realities” of any kind — at least as many as there are shades to the idea of “augmentation,” or reality for that matter. Most feel like alienation hacks and many have well-worn implications in a situationist universe. Though global culture is increasingly colored by visions of hyperreality, for our purposes this column’s focus will mostly linger on individual releases and working-class polarities like Orange Milk, Squiggle Dot, Hausu Mountain, or Wasabi Tapes, all conspicuous recent incubators. We’ll also probably reaffirm a lot of things that you may have already known. For example: Don Cherry was a genius. Check out his incredible album Human Music, made with electroacoustic pioneer Jon Appleton — also a longtime educator and, let’s face it, another genius.
I’ll wrap up on that note, before we pitch ourselves too far out. Future installments may look similar or expand scope as the need dictates: sometimes interviews, probably a good deal more visual work, and hopefully a few weirder formats in between. Thanks for joining us though, hopefully you enjoy some of what we’ve highlighted here.
Nick Storring & Ryan Waldron’s Talugang: Creshevsky’s “Super-Performers”
A tenet of Creshevsky’s hyperrealism is the concept of “super-performers.” In essence, by constructing compositions from snippets of acoustic or natural sound, works are created that would be impossible to be played “conventionally” by human beings. The musculoskeletal system within our bodies is just not capable of maneuvering an implement, instrument, or foreign body with the dexterity needed to realize the hyperrealist score without the aid of samplers, computers or other such foreign intervention. Typically, such works convey the aesthetic of modern composition, rather than hip hop or other DJ-centric genres, and post-processing of the samples is minimal. The acoustic nature of the base sonic material is left as untreated as possible.
With his Gardens (Scissor Tail Editions) and Endless Conjecture (Orange Milk) releases, Toronto-based composer Nick Storring captured himself playing upwards of forty or more instruments and non-instruments, arranging the resulting performances into a series of compositions that belie the fact that there is no underlying orchestra performing the musical results. The composer himself is the sole source of these sounds, which are meticulously layered and sequenced such that they obliterate the boundaries of human capability.
More recently, Ryan Waldron’s Talugung project released Folded Spring (Power Moves Library), in which tuned samples of his own playing and of pre-recorded music are arranged into aural montages evoking the spirit of musique concrete. In parallel with Storring’s output, there is a sense of disbelief at play; in this case, however, the origin of the sounds appears to be utterly extraterrestrial.
Kate Carr – It Was A Time of Laboured Metaphors (Helen Scarsdale Agency)
Though its contents correspond to real places and segues from field recorder and Flaming Pines proprietor Kate Carr’s global itinerary, her tape It Was A Time of Laboured Metaphors blurs the two categories of Creshevsky’s hyperrealist project as much as any more colorful extrusion of bedroom web-plunder — being in the phonographic vein I mentioned earlier in my introduction. For a recent ‘200 Words’ profile on The Out Door blog, Carr describes her experience of travelling between Europe, Africa, and Australia: “…this experience of living many places, and nowhere, of constantly meeting phalanxes of new people, of stumbling and drifting, connecting and disconnecting, arriving and departing was one I found incredibly disorienting and powerful. I had a constant feeling of unease, of not belonging, and I found this infused both the physical and emotional landscape of these experiences in ways which seemed both astonishingly vivid in the moment, but somehow untrustworthy. My relationships with people, with places, with landscapes were either far too much or too little, by turns profound and mundane, life changing and pointless.”
The resulting tunnel of curated experience and memory is surprisingly engaging, open but oriented — full of noise and human sounds, streets filling with cars or people, radio feedback, and a miscellany of less recognizable markers, sometimes transformed into the epicenter of swelling drones. Like an audiovisual viewfinder, with a smooth, click-less transition (unless you count car horns or other incidentals), or a personal application of Giordano Bruno’s memory mnemonics cast in sound. As critical a place as field recordings occupy in It Was A Time…, they are tangibly constituents of a much larger whole. Though the actual usage is not particularly unusual, it would be hard to say it wasn’t well realized.
Cameron & Dillon – Spend The Night (Face of Angel) & Fake Music’s “Physical Releases“
Enter the Brat romper. They’re having a sleep over.
A cloud of domestic consumer goods revolves menacing above your head.
HEingHaEE EE Muffled laughter upstairs
SQRKeeT!! Mom slipped on a Tide Detergent Pod! She’s okay
GwUMP LOVE stomping on the escalator!
CkHFRcH Fresh new pink camo boots
DRDRDRDR That Pawn Stars marathon kept you up all night
ffft fft Dad’s slippers pad to the kitchen, 6am
BuuWAHH Sammy used all 8 gigs this month
SssSCRICK! Fourth of July NOT AGAIN DAD !
GDOuWNK Mud falling off grandpas truck
You’ve come to visit Haord’s little cousins Cameron and Dillon.
You dodge a wet turquoise rubber glove.
There’s stuff everywhere, you can barely walk, it’s all murmuring, popping, hissing.
The cousins are in the center of the room psycho-kinetically launching dolls at each other.
Squealing, silent, squealing.
Things you never thought could sound are sounding.
As you attempt to escape you find there’s lip gloss under your finger nails and coating your palms and you can’t grip the doorknob tight enough to rotate it. Small hands close around your ankles and you fall to the floor, a thick prickly pear flavored steam blurs your vision, the lights are flickering, glitter once suspended in the air begins to rain down heavily and bury the matted carpet.
When you wake up you’re at a small table with the two, they are playing cribbage.
“We thought you’d never come to!” Dillon says innocently. Cameron seems to be lost in thought, staring at the ceiling.
The room is completely clean now, doused in bright light with no source, and there’s six large limestone blocks in the corner. It is silent.
Cameron snaps out of their daze, “Those are important rock records from the Chicago area originally pressed millions or more years ago that have been waiting patiently for release to the general public, that missed any volcanic chances at dissemination despite their geologic importance.”
‘Wow’ you think to yourself, ‘this whole ordeal is a little silly. What happened to real rock? Rock music journalism?’
Dillon, mouth shut, answers you telepathically, “This IS real rock. This is the pre-release holding room for Fake Music. And it’s not just an extended pun, they’ve got Adorno on their side.”
‘Adorno’, you roll your eyes.
“Really. Think about it this way, in the words of Alfred North Whitehead,” then the two, in deadpan unison, “‘If we desire a record of uninterpreted experience, we must ask a stone to record its autobiography.’”
There’s two buckets yellowish chalky-looking liquid underneath the table labeled:
FAKE MUSIC PHYSICAL RELEASE 000
16.4 lb Limestone (Joliet, IL)
FAKE MUSIC PHYSICAL RELEASE 001
3.9 lb Limestone (Sag Bridge, IL)
“Those are previously released records, dissolved in acid in the open air.” Cameron slides a flash drive across the table. “Here are some PDFs, they’ll will provide some understanding.”
You’ve been changed into a white seersucker tuxedo. You grab the memory stick, stand up, and exit as quickly as possible.
[Editors Note: Linked images above are via Tanner America (Aaron Graham and Shawn C Smith), and “Things you never thought could sound are sounding” is via Barrett White. If you’d like a copy of Cameron & Dillon’s ‘Spend the Night’ see ordering instructions via YouTube.]
Bataille Solaire – Dolby’s ON (Mansions and Millions / Orange Milk Records)
Montreal-based hyper-experimental mastermind Bataille Solaire released his bonkers Dolby’s ON cassette last summer via Mansions and Millions, and reissued last week by one of this column’s raisons d’etre: Orange Milk Records. It’s a highly polyrhythmic and hyper-intricate roller coaster (tycoon) ride through numerous abstracted, futuristic, glitch-heavy reimaginings of electronic music genres of the past two decades such as drill ‘n’ bass, IDM, techno, Baltimore club, vaporwave, and plunderphonics. Although most of the sounds are jagged as a knife and fly at your face with the playful but sharp precision of an anime House of Flying Daggers, it’s not without rhythmic consistency and a downright catchy, melodic foundation. This is particularly evident on standout tracks like “Lapino Club Mix”, which features an emotionally resonant melodic synth lead around the 7:00 mark, and “Hom dans la ville”, which rhythmically wouldn’t sound out of place in a DJ set and whose video was directed by another Montreal artist cultivating their own unique universe, Pascale Project. The flowery synth lead that marks the end of the five-track tape is elevating and a perfect send off as you fly towards the cosmos, only to swing back around like a boomerang as the sustain fades.
Novelty Toys & the Techno-naturalism of Squiggle Dot
It would be hard not to mention a label like Squiggle Dot in this context — the burgeoning digital imprint of artist and recorder Tristan Whitehill, aka Euglossine, it’s also one of the direct inspirations for this column. Compared to some of the artists we’ve talked about, even just a scroll down the Squiggle Dot Bandcamp should give the impression of an imprint that’s blunt about very little. Every album cover is full of sumptuous wavy lines and simple, cartoon renderings of calm this or that, though their pastels are relatively robust shades. Squiggle Dot is a label that epitomizes slipstream production, constantly and playfully reimagining the natural world through its catalog, here one shade and their another.
Here Whitehill offers a simple visual accompaniment for “Grēne,” from LA-based Noah Ross’ recent Gra-e EP via Squiggle Dot, looping colored patterns and a bobbing fish-tank dinosaur’s trail of air bubbles. As simple as that device and the label’s representation may be, it is undeniably charming, and for this label more or less characteristic. With Ross’ bright but pensive sonic meandering, and the repetition of both audio and video, the listener / viewer / consumer is situated in their own pleasant feedback loop: a warm, underwater theater of nostalgic and relaxing tones. As if we were jittery fish tank baubles, watching TV over the heads of our caretaker from the back of the living room. That’s the sort of odd, unabashed magic that seems very typical of Squiggle Dot.
Gra-e is available via Squiggle Dot.
Angel 1 – Rex (Beer on the Rug)
LA-based producer/synth explorer Angel 1 has kept busy the past few years with a steady stream of releases for Constellation Tatsu, Exo Tapes, Lillerne Tape Club, 1080p, and Beer on the Rug. Late last year they returned with a second release for Beer on the Rug, a relatively neglected maximalist’s map in the form of REX. It’s a lush and shimmering collection of texturally diverse walking synth explorations and mid-tempo avant-pop rooted in the same rugged, open-world Los Angeles inhabited by James Ferraro’s last album; a blooming Saints Row to Ferraro’s insular Grand Theft Auto vignettes. Angel 1 sees beauty amid the degenerative nature of this Los Angeles, mixing minor chords with flowering sound design. This is most effectively displayed on the last track, “Bottle”, which summates what precedes it with an extended intro worthy of Law & Order before dropping a sexy R&B beat and piling razor-sharp rave synth stabs overtop while Angel 1 croons about “arriving at the river”. It ends with the listener diving headfirst into “the river”, with a soupy environment engulfing an affected voice proclaiming that “there is no greater feeling”; a befitting end to a truly visceral record.