What Does “Experimental Music” Even Mean Anymore?

Adam Harper traces a new wave of electronic adventurers in the techno-mediated spaces and tense modernities of the 2010s.

May 08, 2015

In his monthly column System Focus, The FADER's favorite underground music critic Adam Harper stares deep into the internet's gloom to unearth emerging musical forms.

What is experimental music, and what does it want from us? As a term and as a field of music-making, it's widely accepted but fits uncomfortably and is never well defined. "Experimental music" was a phrase used in the mid-twentieth-century to describe a range of ultramodernist compositional techniques as being a form of quasi-scientific research. John Cage was careful to point out that the term should apply to music "the outcome of which is not known"—that is, music with chance elements or improvisation built into it—since a composer ought to have completed all the necessary experiments before the piece was finished. And yet in everyday parlance, especially in popular music, "experimental" music has come to refer to music that seems radically unconventional, pretty weird, as if to experiment with the very building blocks of musical beauty.

In the underground, experimental currents have been around for decades, the magma bubbling away beneath the crust of more traditional musics, slowing feeding it as it surfaces and hardens. Every now and then, however, flesh becomes stone and stone becomes flesh: something that glows and burns, thrills and terrifies, flies out from the deep. I'm talking about the recent New York School of enterprising electronic music: Laurel Halo, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Holly Herndon (while not NYC-based, there's an affiliation), together with the associated labels, various Altered Zones and GHE20G0TH1K alumni, and the network that links them up and spreads out from them all. The bizarre albums produced by this crew have been some of the biggest and most surprising hits in a community that was more concerned with indie-pop, folk, and rock just a few years earlier. Much like the recent resurgence of science fiction in cinemas, what used to be only for weirdos has taken centre stage. Most interestingly—and this is what this month's column is about—this new moment in electronic adventuring seems to have opened the door for a wave of even stranger artists and labels exploring what it means to be experimental in the techno-mediated spaces and tense modernities of the 2010s.

These days, to be experimental is to begin to speak a language that not everyone speaks yet.

To what extent is this stuff "experimental"? The musicians and their fans may well argue that the material isn't experimental in the sense of being provisional, but that it's fully considered and not particularly strange. But I think that these days, to be experimental is to begin to speak a language that not everyone speaks yet. Traditional or stable genres of popular music are like languages that, while in flux, are basically pre-given and complete, and have their specific ways to use certain musical structures to communicate within certain limits. Experimental music doesn't base itself on an established language like this, but is more like a creativity concerned with vocal sounds, phonetics, typography and calligraphy, irrespective of more complex meaning. It's involved with the building blocks that musical languages are made of. When you put it like this, it's odd to think that people find experimental music "difficult"—it's a radically simpler experience, assuming much less semiotically. And that's where experimental music's appeal lies. It reconnects you with the fundamental life of sound and music, and entices you to search for meaning in a language you cannot yet speak. You ask yourself, "What sort of subjectivity would make art like this? What does it perceive that I don't (or don't yet)?"

And perhaps this music is so enticing because it has something to say that can only be said in the near future, something that's stuttering to come out and is on the tips of everyone's tongues. Perhaps it's something to do with the interaction of machines and intelligence, human, post-human or otherwise. So much of this music suggests a strange and vast intelligence newly awoken, confused and trapped within its confined technological systems and yet vastly, ominously powerful for its presence within them. From the other end of a series of tubes through which the outside world is mediated, it coolly builds a representation of its life and experiences from the snippets and scratch of the digital, using its own algorithmically generated structures and differentiations as it moves restlessly from one scenario to the next. While this image could describe the modern homo sapiens walking in the digital world, it could also describe its dark mirror in intelligence either artificial, corporate or mobilized for the purposes of security, gathering data for inscrutable, non-human ends. Whether in an optimistic or pessimistic light (and at its best when you can't tell the difference between the two), it's the next step in evolution on this planet.

Perhaps this music is so enticing because it has something to say that can only be said in the near future, something that's stuttering to come out and is on the tips of everyone's tongues.

In fact, some of this music makes its connection to the internet age fairly explicit. I'm always cautious of the term "internet music," because it effects a crude conflation of music that is about or reflective of the internet in some fashion with the simple fact that the music is distributed online, with the latter not inherently presupposing any genre, aesthetic or concept. You wonder what it is that the internet is supposed to sound like, given that it's a representation system that can and does include just about anything. Nonetheless, it's fascinating to see the internet associated with some very particular sounds and ways of putting sounds together, because it hints at a particular perspective on the overwhelming technological development of our age.

Always hovering somewhere between hypnagogic retro and the deliriously hi-tech, the Columbus, Ohio-based Bandcamp-and-physical label Orange Milk has been exploring all kinds of more experimental musics since 2010. Last autumn, they released DARK WEB by Columbus producer Giant Claw. The promotional write-up described it as "drawing inspiration from late-night hours spent digging through the internet's infinite crates. It's an analysis of art and artist in the digital age, where one's cultural heritage and artistic work is informed and bombarded by constant stimuli, whether it be social media, YouTube videos, message boards, or otherwise." The classical statue on the album's cover is a nod to the visual style of vaporwave, and the music underneath has the same frenetic mash of ersatz timbres and pop hooks as L.A. artist James Ferraro's 2011 album Far Side Virtual. But rather than pastiche, DARK WEB is clearly and curiously unstuck: juddering, dissonant, stop-start, crazed, obsessive. It's like a robot failing at human entertainment, a rejected intermediate form generated by whatever algorithmic process then went on to produce the less uncanny Far Side Virtual, which resonated more comfortably with human needs and desires. If human music were a CAPTCHA, DARK WEB would fail it. Or perhaps DARK WEB resonates better than Far Side Virtual does, but at a frequency that human intelligences can't (or can't yet) perceive.

More recently, Orange Milk released the breathtaking Epitaph, by emerging Australian producer Nico Niquo, calling it "a digital native's exploration of the limitless and compounding possibilities of data in an age free from stylistic convention. Bass and techno forms are re-imagined through the inflections of new age and early digital compositions, distilled from a vaporous haze of web fixation." The results are seductively contemporary, finding an impeccably controlled middle ground between Oneohtrix Point Never and the cybernetic club and grime sounds of London label Night Slugs, L.A.'s Fade to Mind, and others. Most striking about the release is its empty space—enormous architectures bracketed and magnetized by harsh syncopation. The textures are modular, moving from sound object to sound object and back again; Epitaph divides up its musical world into discrete, almost warring factions. In sympathy with the airbrushed, plastic-eighties design of Orange Milk's acclaimed covers, the track "Beyond AD" explodes into penthouse jazz piano, all disgustingly glamorous technocracy, slotting ominously into the track's club dynamo.

Orange Milk's Aeussere, by Jung An Tagen—an alias of Austrian producer Stefan Kushima—also bows to a curiously modulated grammar. It's like film music realized on a tiny synthesizer, but again, haltingly generated by a mechanism with an incomplete grasp of human taste, and sometimes disappearing off that radar entirely. "Ab & An" seems to experiment with different ways of articulating the same challenge, "Aufräumen" is repetitious to the point of dislodging your perception of its sounds, while other tracks are enigmatically complete at less than ten seconds long. Weirder still is Brooklyn musician Padna's Rimessa Truppa Suite, a series of avant-classical sketches rendered in music-box MIDI synth, thus leapfrogging human performers and yet still aiming to resemble them.

One of the growing currents within experimental underground music is derived from the dramatic sample collage style pioneered by Virginia artist Elysia Crampton (formerly E+E), Richmond producer Chino Amobi (formerly Diamond Black Hearted Boy), L.A.'s Total Freedom and others (read more about this in a System Focus from last year). Recently this fray was entered by DJWWWW, an entity writing in Japanese on Twitter as @LIL_SEGA, who is behind the Hi-Hi Whoopee blog and experimental Wasabi Tapes label. Wasabi recently put out one of the best statements yet from influential online-underground node Jónó Mí Ló, a series of elegant and otherworldly untitled fairytales (listen here). DJWWWW is rather different, taking the often violently hi-tech sound of Chino Amobi to new extremes of complexity, heightening the effect of the scarcely fathomable yet clearly emotive concatenations still further by decreasing the track length.

DJWWWW's album U.S.M! is one of this year's most absorbing listens, restlessly assembling horrific and beguiling bouquets of musical sensations (many of which will be familiar to followers of underground music). Recognizing its role as a metaphor for modern technological mediation, Stefan Wharton at Tiny Mix Tapes called it "a micro-montage of and for the digital world, at the same time infinite and transitory. It's a world where DJWWWW is simultaneously omnipresent and unbodied, interacting with almost every URL in your SoundCloud feed. In other words, he is the feed-based god who is forging your existence into a new [far side virtual] reality." DJWWWW is extrapolating and caricaturing the myriad experiences of a day in digital, asking us how and why the combinations work (or not).

DJWWWW made the album PSX-MEMORY-CARD: ENCOM LTD. in collaboration with Wasabi Tapes artist N(icole) Brennan. Having released two collections of SCARY MOMENTS, Brennan's contribution makes it more visceral still—many of its tracks sounding like long stretches of an avant-garde sci-fi horror film or computer game, filled with whirling machinery, acid baths, distress calls and genetically engineered terrors. In fact its second track samples a trailer for Tron, proclaiming The computer: an extension of the human intellect. The ENCOM 511, center of the most calculating intelligence on earth. Programmed by Master Control to survive... by all means. Soon, the ultimate tool will become the ultimate enemy.

This album was released on Quantum Natives, a net-based label and/or collective headed by Brood Ma and Awe IX. Their website is a dreamlike echo of Google Maps, and the various releases can be found by zooming out and dragging yourself through its pastel-colored wastelands, foggy cityscapes and strangely diseased contours to click on the runes inscribed there. Brood Ma's own offering is the ferocious POPULOUS, a writhing mass of shivering synth, percussive claws and digitally roasted samples, loosely inspired by the destruction of Pompeii and now rereleased on vinyl by Hemlock Recordings. Then there's the psychedelic regranulations of Yearning Kru, the surrealist rummaging of Sifaka Kong, and the more contemplative ice caves of Rachael Rosen as pOrtals. By embracing digital spaces at the level of distribution as well as the sonics, Quantum Natives are forging a new kind of underground noise music, more interested in the textures and formations of today than analogue burble.

Very much like-minded in this respect is Flamebait, who released the aforementioned U.S.M! by DJWWWW. I met the label's manager Assault Suits where he's based in Birmingham, and ingested Starbucks with him next to one of the UK's strangest architectural edifices. Like Brood Ma and Awe IX, he has an art school background, and tells me that the distinctive collage covers are shrines to each artist. He found the work of Chino Amobi (who is also a visual artist) a huge inspiration, and his own release Statue Cathalogue kickstarted the label last year with its sinuous yet imposing metallic sculptures. The subsequent album by Tokyo producer Hanali is highly complex and predominantly percussive, roving through many layers of rhythm until it seems to coalesce in the bizarro club cut "10 Years or 100 Years." 10.9†01;9 by modular synth artist GOP (Geniuses Of Place) is equally rich: sizzling and glitching its way through the phone networks only to dissolve and digest what it finds.

Assault Suits also expressed admiration for Norway's TCF, artist and sound-maker, who continues to be one of the most interesting voices in experimental electronic music at the moment and, as Lisa Blanning found in her GEN F profile of him, is someone very interested in algorithms and robotics. TCF's music is one of excitement, forward motion, vast newness, like a probe slicing through the upper atmosphere of Titan faster than the speed of sound. That similarly icy, alien, sublime quality is often shared by Philadelphia-based producer LXV, who manages to sound both alienating and transcendentally optimistic on releases like Superimposed & Hunted, Spectral Playmate, and Witness / Recall. Like Holly Herndon, Laurel Halo and Oneohtrix Point Never, LXV uses the human voice as a kind of synthesizer, and virtual choirs pop up as if through data sonification, quivering cells in the matrix.

Another artist who does this is Montréal's Kara-Lis Coverdale—in fact she's done a whole release of digitally processed voice (listen above). Her MO is more towards contemporary classical composition, and there's a symphonic calculation behind her searching, slowly unfolding forms. Another of her records, Aftertouches, weaves in all kinds of colors, many of them acoustic instruments, others eerily hinting at acoustic instruments, and others carrying all the richness of acoustic instruments yet not at all recognizable as such. She manages to do the exact same with the moods of the pieces: some are human, some eerily hint at the human, and others have all the depth of human moods but are as yet unfamiliar as such. Coverdale recently teamed up with LXV for Sirens, where their different palettes of techniques complement one another. They seem to populate each others' landscapes with the distant faces, dwellings and systems of unknown hi-tech cultures, who harvest the elements of their environment with a peace and concord we don't yet understand.

This is precisely why experimentation with the fundamental ways in which sound and music can communicate is necessary. New voices, new interrelationships and new harmonies—person to person, technology to technology, space to space—become perceptible, imaginable and possible. This can either be a good thing, working towards images of Utopia, or a fresh revelation of the threats and fragmentations modern listeners face. Either way, negotiating this territory is vital.

In memory of Barron Machat, without whom very little of what I've written about above, or in any other System Focus, would be happening.

Photo credit: Silicon wafer in a microprocessor by Yoshikazu Tsuno AFP/Getty Images.

From The Collection:

System Focus
What Does “Experimental Music” Even Mean Anymore?