Computer fatigue and the rise of the human

Writer Kate Carr approached me for this article about the move away from computers for creating music. Tokafi has published it here.

In a world of endless digital possibilities, more and more artists are opting for real, physical experiences.

Computers have never been more powerful, cheaper or indeed smaller but just as musicians and sound artists could have it all in terms of power and accessibility; it seems many have become bored with the digital altogether. Perhaps most surprising about this phenomenon is the extent to which electronic musicians have spurned the digital realm. The rise and rise of tape, vinyl, vintage pedals and real instruments ranging from the banjos to acoustic guitars and ukuleles has been gathering pace within electronic music over the last few years. But what does this spell for the computer? Are we over it? Or is it just a phase?

It seems absurd that at a time when the cyborg dreams of the 1980s and 1990s have never been closer to being within our grasp, they appear ever more dated and embarrassing. But so it is. In 1997 a catalogue essay by Gerfried Stock for the prestigious Prix Ars Electronica stated “The classic western model of the individual as an autonomous inwardly oriented entity is being dropped in favour of a hybrid networked subjectivity, whereby we comprehend ourselves as dynamic interfaces in a social communications network.’’ (in Munster 2006:133). Obviously there are still digital artists focused on interrogating technology and our relationship to it, but the brave new world deliriously looked forward to 20 years ago, a world of biologically engineered cyborgs interfacing via the virtual not only never really got off the ground, but has also lost some of its salience as creatively productive idea.

In 2006 theorists like Anna Munster were wondering how we could become digital when human agency directed computational processes. She looked forward to forming new assemblages with machines which embraced the difference of both entities. In 1985 feminist theorist Donna Haraway famously looked to the rise of a cyborg entity as a means of transcending the body, rendering both gender and sex transitory and mutable. ‘’Cyborgs might consider more seriously the partial, fluid sometimes aspect of sex and sexual embodiment’’ she wrote. ‘’Gender might not be a global identity after all’’. (Haraway 2004: 38) In 1984 William Gibson introduced us to ‘cyberspace’ in Neuromancerwhich starred a washed out ‘console cowboy’ called Case and the biologically augmented Molly Millions, who boasted retractable claws, and vision-enhancing mirrored corneas.

Yet today even in sci-fi the retro is back, with cyberpunk replaced by steampunk and its celebration of outmoded technologies from fantastical steam-driven engines to coal-powered flying boats. Strangely, as technology has pervaded more aspects of our lives, it seems to have become less important to our vision of the future. The old has never seemed more new, and the new just so yesterday. Within electronic music, sound artists are embracing everything from dictaphones to old toys to create a lo-fi aesthetic. On his heralded album Monocoastal, the Portland musician Marcus Fischer played his music through one cassette player and re-recorded it via the onboard mic on another to create a distinctive lo-fi sound. UK musician David Newlyn turned to the dictaphone for his albumDeterioration.

The body too has gone from being something to be transcended to the centrepiece of new philosophical and artistic practices. In Neuromancer, Case earned his living by interfacing directly with the virtual work, literally plugging himself in. While his mind interacted with cyberspace, his body lay inert for days at a time. He forgot to eat, and even resented having to stop to go to the toilet. At one point he resorts to a catheter so he can stay hooked up for longer. Imagining the workplace culture of such a job, Gibson describes the ‘relaxed contempt for the flesh’, exhibited by the elite digital cowboys; their disdain for the ‘meat’ of the human body. When Case’s ability to plug in is taken from him by a vengeful employer who poisons him, Gibson states that he has descended into the ‘prison of the flesh’ (Gibson 1984).

In contrast to such a vision, today we seem far more likely to lament the prison of the digital. In place of the techno-heavy vision of the future which saw humans leaving behind their bodies for a virtual life, we see the rise of a new literature, philosophy and music which is firmly grounded in the everyday realities of imperfect bodies. Philosophers like Michel Serres celebrate activities as simple as stretching and rock climbing. His book The Five Senses revels in the marvels of touch and hearing. In Variations on the Body Serres writes: “Who experiments? The body. Who invents? It does. And who floats, runs, and flies, with angelic intoxication when the blessed intuition bathes it and makes it levitate? The body, yes the body again.” (2011 p151)

Embarrassed by the digital
Zachary Corsa, half of the North Carolinan experimental duo Lost Trail, which also includes his wife Denny, is a good example of a musician who far from embracing the digital appears embarrassed to admit he has to resort to computers at all. He describes the computer as ‘a necessary evil’, which he would avoid entirely if he had enough money to buy a full mixing console. ”Our recording method itself is primarily cassette. We prefer imperfections and warmth to sterility and polished freeze,” he states. Like many musicians he seems to grieve for a time when things were more difficult, stating that as much as possible he and Denny attempt to find ways to do things “the more difficult, handmade way, instead of just relying on a plugin to do it for us.”

Australian ambient musician Cameron Webb, who releases music as Seaworthy is another musician who does things the harder way in a bid to remove the digital fingerprint from his recordings. “There will always be sounds that are clearly “acoustic” or “electronic” but the qualities of those two sounds sources can subsequently be altered depending on how they’re broadcast/recorded,” he explains. “Playing digitally processed samples through a nice warm amplifier and then recording the room sound provides a much better result, as far as I’m concerned, than recording straight to hard disc.”

The ability to create perfection with the click of a mouse not only leads to bland outcomes, according to Corsa, it also infects the entire process of making music and the connection a musician is able to forge with his or her instrument. ”It doesn’t necessarily keep you at the top of your craft to be able to move something around and instantly fix a mistake,” he laments. For Corsa and others like him plug-ins, digital edits and the flawless takes they enable are a form of cheating, but instead of harming others this type of cheating takes a toll of the joy of music making itself by removing spontaneity, accidents and the importance of live improvisation from the musical process.


In search of an imperfect soul
For Taylor Deupree the journey away from the digital has been about the desire to create distinctive and personal music. Deupree began his musical career by making acid techno with Prototype 909 before moving into ambient music, where he carved out a name for himself and his label 12k by making and releasing synthetic minimal music, largely produced using computers and synthesisers. However, since 2000 the label has slowly evolved to become increasingly focused on acoustic, analog music. In turn Deupree’s own music has likewise evolved from an emphasis on synthesisers to a growing reliance on real life instruments, and mediums like tape. ”All of the hardware in my studio has a story and the older it is, the more of a story it has. That’s the beginnings of a soul.” he states. For Deupree software is soulless. In contrast to an instrument which exists physically in the world, accumulating dust and scratches over its lifetime, software exists only as zeroes and ones inside the computer. “I can’t look at a software synthesizer the same way I can look at my Jupiter 8 with its history, travels, previous owner (a family member)… the repairs, modifications and history of use.. dust, weight… you get the idea,” he says.

Deupree and Webb recently released a collaborative album Wood, Winter, Hollow which serves as an excellent example of the acoustic sensibilities of 12k today. Replete with nylon stringed guitars, bells, melodica and field recordings of wind, ice and creek beds the album takes the listener on a vivid excursion into the elements. By turns warm, and cold it is a sparse album which offers flashes of activity, like embers escaping from a fire burning down on a wintry evening. And it is album full of tiny details, a rustle, a stick cracking, a distant breeze. Unlike some of the digital music of Deupree’s younger years, this is an album in which people and the sounds they make are front and centre. In explaining the difference between digitally produced sounds, and those made with an instrument, Webb emphasises the noises made by the human body. “The other element of acoustic/analogue instrumentation is that it brings with it an element of imperfection,” he states. “Fingertips skipping along strings or knocking the wooden body of a guitar, these incidental sounds (perhaps mistakes?) bring a different aesthetic to recordings too.”

To err is human, the saying goes and it seems many musicians are consciously bringing mistakes back into their music as a way of underlining its human origins.

Moving bodies
Sound is a physical medium, it interacts directly with our bodies, and we experience it not just with our ears but with everything from our feet to our skin. Perhaps it has been our historical physical link with sound and between sound and our own movement which has slowly drawn us back out from behind the computer. As Serres writes “We hear through our skull, abdomen and thorax. We hear through our muscles, nerves and tendons. Our body-box strung tight, is covered head to toe with a tympanum.” (2009:141) Perhaps we want to make sounds with all these different parts of our bodies too?

One of the big criticisms of electronic music over the years has been the way it is performed live. In contrast to physical presence of a live band, performing electronic music has often involved been performed by men and women standing very still behind a laptops. While a guitarist flicks the strings to produce sounds, the skill and drama of performing electronic music largely occurs in the invisible space of the computer. This disconnected experience of performing live has led many electronic musicians to try and find ways to make their performances more physical and performative. Webb for example speaks of his desire to work with faders and switches rather than achieve the same outcome via software. “I have stopped, or at least tried to stop, using a computer live,” he states. “For a long time I thought using a laptop live for processing looped live samples and assembling field recording samples would make creating music easier. However, it has really been the opposite, I have rarely played a set with both guitar and computer and been happy with the results.”

Serres had a lot to say about the ways we move and connect with tools, and the blurred boundaries which result from something as simple as picking up a hammer and using it. “The hand is no longer a hand when it has taken hold of the hammer, it is the hammer itself, it is no longer a hammer, it flies transparent, between the hammer and the nail, it disappears and dissolves,” he writes (Serres in Connor 2005: 321). Perhaps ironically given the aspirations of the cyberpunk era, it has been the profoundly unsatisfying experience of connecting with a computer which has led us back to simpler, more physically present tools. While Gibson wrote feverishly about the end of the body, and an existence involving the mind roaming untethered through the digital realm, the reality was far different. The computer remained a glowing box, and we sat clumsily in front of it trying to make sense of how to work it. It is a scenario which always concerned critics of cyberpunk’s dizzy embrace of technology. In 1997 Veronica Hollinger discusses some of the anxieties provoked by the disembodied future glimpsed within many cyberpunk novels in a review of three theoretical collections of sci-fi writing. “One of our ongoing anxieties arises from our sense of the loss of the real – of authentic experience – we dread being trapped in a reality which is only ever virtual,” she writes (1997). Despite the dizzying collection of tools at our fingertips, there is something quite sweet about the fact that many electronic musicians have decided they do actually prefer the real. A real instrument, a real field recording, a live and lived experience of embodied sound making.

Sound is nothing less than life itself, Serres asserts. ‘’We live in noises and shouts, in sound waves just as much as in spaces,” he writes. By navigating our way through the physicality of this sonic world we not only find ourselves but our bodies forge a connection with all bodies which have come before us. “Humanity in shoals swims through these waters,” he writes of sound (2008:141). The closed off space of the computer offers an impoverished stage for such a voyage of self-discovery. Little wonder we have returned to the complexities, resonances, the physical strains and even failures that only an embodied experience of making and listening to sound can offer.

By Kate Carr