drøne – Reversing Into the Future (2016)
There’s a lot of paradox in Experimental Music – not the least of which is the name itself. We rarely stop and ask after the implied experiment, or the risk (and adventure) inferred by such a name. Since its emergence during the first part of the twentieth century, the idiom has evolved, expanded, and sometimes drifted toward a dangerous equilibrium which satisfies expectation before ambition. In the case of the later, part of the responsibility should be held by its audience. We should ask more of ourselves as listeners, and use more specific terms. In its current use, “Experimental Music” blankets vast territories of sound and intervention falling outside of the standard of applied definitions – Rock, Jazz, Folk, etc. It’s often semantically inaccurate, and does a disservice to many of its participants. The field is as diverse as it is hyper-nuanced. Because so many of us find its proximity and implied meaning as enticing as what we hear there, it becomes hard to initiate a critical discourse toward understanding what we experience; for example – what is it, if it pushes us, but not itself? Just because it sounds like something, does not mean it’s that thing.
My interest in sound and music is largely centered around a need to learn and be challenged. I like to be be lost – literally and figuratively. I want to follow musicians into unfamiliar realms, be displaced by them, and grow through their efforts. The more I explore and understand, the harder this is to find. Inevitably you learn and develop as you go. Over the years the increasing rarity of adventure has been furthered by a series of converging factors. Recently “Experimental Music” has been garnering greater attention. Widely attended media outlets, in a bit to bolster questionable credibility and draw new audiences, have cherry-picked artists from the ranks to profile. There’s an easy argument for placing more adventurous musicians in a context that normally covers Kanye, but it is also worth inquiring after why it’s being done, who’s benefiting, and what the implications are. The more attention anything gets, the less control we have, and the more risk for co-option and corruption. It’s also worth noting that many of the artists gaining the greatest attention (in these cases) are the most palatable to a wider audience, and often the least adventurous. Predictability is a major functionary of popular culture. It skews understanding, suppresses criticality, and shifts the scales. After years struggling underground and suffering neglect, presented with new possibilities for success and attention, the music (and how it is contextualized) has begun to change – particularly in the field of Electroacoustics. This realm of Experimental Music developed during the Post-War period, as means to displace the normal expectations and behavior of sound and composition – using purely electronic or organic sounds, which were processed, filtered, or restructured through electronic intervention. For roughly half a century it remained one of the most challenging, ambitious, and underappreciated fields of sonic investigation. This has changed in the last ten to fifteen years. It began shift in the late 90’s and early 2000’s with exciting developments in computer technology. The emergence of powerful portable units, as well as refined programs for synthesis, processing, and recording, opened endless possibilities in the field, and democracy of access. They also introduced a Trojan Horse. Because everyone had the same tools, and those tools could yield pleasing results with relative ease (versus tape splicing, or modular synthesis) many musicians became easily satisfied, and began drifting together toward stasis. Though the last few years has returned many artists to analog technologies (particularly modular synthesizers), which has helped loosen the degree of control and anticipation an artist has, as well as opening the variables of structure and tonal pallet (all of which encourages the “experimental”), there’s still a long way to go. Our critical standards have been lowered, and as we encounter it now, it seems like shoving a few notes or wave forms through Pro-Tools or Logic, drenching them in reverb and delay plugins, and adding a bit of arbitrary texture, is all it takes to prove an experiment. I take issue with this. Much of the field of contemporary Electroacoustics (and fuck there’s a lot of it!) makes the cheesiest 80’s New Age look ambitious – presenting few challenges to its listeners, and operating as little more than aural wallpaper for the pseudo-intellectuals who propel it into the spotlight.
Despite continuing to listen to Electroacoustic music from the 50’s through the 90’s, I’ve developed an unfortunate allergy to much of what has emerged in recent years. I expect more. It seems ridiculous that music made half a century ago stretches further into unfamiliar territory, and feels more revolutionary, than much of what was made yesterday.
A few weeks back Mike Harding from Touch sent me his new record collaborating with Mark Van Hoen under the moniker drøne. I’ve held Touch close to my heart for decades, but had somehow missed that Mike made music. I was intrigued. I became aware of Van Hoen a few years ago when Editions Mego began issuing his efforts, but didn’t know much beyond the fact that he works with modular synthesizers. Reversing Into the Future begins with what sounds like a filthy tape loop of distant timpani drum. My attention was immediately captured – particularly because they allow it to stand on its own for a full three minutes before it’s slowly overtaken by a modulating sine tone. As the work began to build and take form, an uneasiness started to form in my ear. Despite the distorted dissonance of the sound, it appeared I was entering a well-trodden territory of electroacoustic ambience. It took another five minutes before my attention began to perk. A shrill pulsing tone (underlain by a low rumble) began to take center stage, pushing at the ambience, vying for attention. These are the kind of sounds that we try to ignore, and which Experimental Music helps us hear, contextualize, and appreciate – thus reshaping our relationship to sound and the world around us. They are precisely the sort that Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète and Groupe de Recherches Musicales drew our attention to. Their emergence in Reversing Into the Future foreshadows the evolution of the whole. After another five minutes, two confronting sequences of tones fall in unexpectedly – colliding and skidding off of each other in shifting time signatures – like the squeaks of shoes against a well polished floor. Each with its own internal clock, but together randomized. It’s here, toward the end of the first side, that I began to understand the character of what I was hearing. The collisions of these sounds where out of the hands of their creators. When composing, there would be no way to fully predict or control the result. Rather than the paths wandered by so much of contemporary Electroacoustic Music, I was hearing the result of an adventure, and risk.
As my ears opened, rewards poured across the second side, which resists ambience and presents a stark skeletal composition built from (what seem to be) captured radio transitions, static, hums, distorted tones, and disjointed meandering synthesizer melodies. It’s dislocating. Rather offering a pleasing acoustic bubble with which the listener might surround their daydreams, it forces a focus on its elements and their relationships – on structure, associations, and composition. Wonderfully, it avoids the need to build toward crescendo, presenting a slowly evolving landscape which we are challenged to explore and take for what it is before it disappears.
As the days and weeks began to pass, I found myself returning to Reversing Into the Future again and again. Not only did it present a challenging space for me to explore, but it posed questions about my relationship to contemporary electroacoustics, Experimental music, and their evolving interaction with culture as a whole. As I looked at the structure of the work, I began to see it as a metaphor. Its title snapped into focus. It does what it suggests – proposing a path into the future by reversing time. It begins in a sonic territory familiar to the contemporary field – enveloping processed washes of ambient sound, but as it progresses it sheds them, slowly moving through the propositions of generations past, ending with the discarded sounds of technology and industry that GRMC & GRM pointed us toward more than half a century ago – sounds which increasingly make up our reality, but we still try not to hear. Though the album is a fantastic listen, its ideas are equally rewarding. As I’m attempting to do with words, it lays a challenge to field, asking us to assess the nature of our sonic reality, of the possibilities of experiment, and where we might go when the past looks more like the future than the present day. The album is out on the 16th of April as a Record Store Day release by the wonderful Pomperipossa Records. Fortunately you don’t have to wait in the lines, and can order it from them direct. I highly recommend picking it up, delving into its challenging world, and exploring all the questions it might pose. It does everything I hope a record might. Not only does if feel that the creators embarked on an unknown adventure, but they take us along – forcing us to grow, learn, be lost, and enter unfamiliar realms which hold the keys to what we already know. Have a listen below and get it fast.