Introspection and Electronic Music

by Bret Schneider



The socially well-adjusted electronic music reconstruction today has served the purpose of highlighting a counter-tendency: an introspective turn in experimental electronic music. New artists like Koenraad Ecker and new works by William Basinski, for instance, are regarded as capturing an interiority lacking in the constructivist, technical, and highly visible tendencies of other recent electronic music. Although this sensibility has some aesthetic precedent in the psychological framework of musique concrète, ‘90s ambient music, or the introspective (but repressed) aspects of, e.g., the 12k label, it differs in many respects, most importantly that it uses the new tools of a hyper-productive electronic music industry to undermine itself. Its hermeticism can’t help but shield itself from the listening trends that inevitably fostered it. In previous generations, introspective music was still a social or shared experience, something that was worked out in electronic music labs, or expressed in artists like Morton Feldman only because he was surrounded by a highly constructivist music culture. The claims now imply something altogether distinct from the culture of electronic music in which samples, techniques, and tools were shared. New festivals and social listening situations are certainly still a context for introspective music, but the philosophical claims of interiority or introspection in the music exceed and undermine their shared listening experience. This is to say that interiority is the result of a highly developed socialized music experience and not an innate state of being waiting to be captured. Society as it is expressed in a highly public music world tends towards its own disintegration into atomized individuals. Tools and techniques are only shared as means for the unconscious ends of hermetic listening experience.

No sooner has there been a renaissance in electronic music than it has been undermined by its own alienated tendencies that attempt to dismantle claims to immediacy piece by piece. The terms of conversation and motives that gave it form to begin with are quickly discarded as irrelevant—not through discourse, but through artworks that can’t help but challenge the sales pitches inflicted on them by those who want to make music useful for life. Electronic music already went through a thorough ‘appolonian’ phase in the early ‘00s, when it once again became aware of its mid-century origins in hermetic laboratories. Interiority is not anything other than a reflection on the social state of music itself. That is, the ‘subject’ of introspective or hermetic music is the medium of music itself, and the historical tendencies once required of it to learn itself into existence. Like an eskimo parsing out direction in an expanse of white, electronic music artists cultivated an ear for minute aesthetic differences that is actually something all its own, and differs from the mid-century electronic music avant-garde composers because such composers depended on some historical telos in the mid-century that doesn’t exist today. (This is why, for example, Tim Hecker has titles like “Hatred of Music I.”) Whereas musicians and critics wax about the contemplative sides of such and such individual artist, attributing to them psychological motifs, such projects reflect to a greater degree the marginalized project of music production as it is transfused into separate and isolated music projects, and a music listening that becomes increasingly analytic. While Basinski's music is 'melancholic', it has only been able to express that melancholy because electronic music passes through a renaissance in the 90s, and by the early 00s had become an overdeveloped and routinized affair by constructivist labels like Raster Noton that could afford to take a chance on contemplative music. Music itself has become a private affair, only to be experienced in the isolated confines of the listener’s mind. Public listening is increasingly eclipsed by private listening in headphones, at home, and so forth. Introspection and isolation emerge in the same moment, and under the umbrella of public listening. 

This situation—consciously or not—attempts to create a new listener based on the modern melancholic or saturnine character. When one reflects on the meaning of such introspection in new music, thoughts inevitably turn upon who is to experience such music, and by what means. Introspective music then points beyond itself by drawing attention to the individual, a category that philosophy and critical theory has long been concerned with—not as a sociological reality, but a category that remains unfulfilled because the bourgeois society that invented it persists in crisis. What makes this turn in music interesting is that the individual is not considered obliterated or in ruins, but rather is something inchoate, not yet formed. The dispersed fragments of something like Koenraad Ecker’s Sleepwalkers In A Cold Circus is not the type of critique of social ruins as is often projected onto the drone works of, e.g., Tim Hecker. Rather, by being impulsive and apperceptive in construction, it begins its work at the foundling steps of playful consciousness. Likewise, but from a different angle, The Disintegration Loops and Basinski's works in general are not works about decay so much as they are examples of composition ex nihilo, where the work proceeds from nothing but a bare impulse with no artificially grafted external stuff. Those bare impulses simply resonate in the somber emptiness of the concept of the individual.

Regarding the music, there is nothing inherently introspective about it. What this might mean is enigmatic, and is projected onto the music. Music is now expected to fulfill some need for introspection, an incomplete notion itself. And so the music mimics what it thinks might be introspective, synthesizing different ideas of such into the process. This is maybe why so many experimental music pieces are also incomplete, non-finitos. In being incomplete, they mimic the radical emptiness of the individual. Historically, artworks that were introspective emerged at the beginning of modernity, alongside the tendency to analyze life instead of live it, but also with the accumulation of public life that permitted space for asociality. The prototype of introspection remains Dürer’s Melancholia, or Saint Jerome in His Studt, with a saturnine character surrounded by modern tools—compasses, clocks, geometric objects—that are insufficient for the new unhappy consciousness that is highly mediated. Disenchantment and the individual developed at the same time, and all artworks today that claim to be introspective are also highly disenchanted. Whereas contemporary experimental music is assumed to embrace ‘new technology,’ it is also paralyzed by the alienation and disenchantment that always results from such technology. Like poetry in the 19th century that perceived language as a great betrayer of expression instead of a means of expression, ‘technology’ in music, and the techniques bound up in it, is both poison and antidote. Every experimental electronic musician feels betrayed by the means through which they must express their disenchantment with those means. Like Dürer’s melancholic subject, electronic musicians remain isolated in their studios buried in the stuff of inadequate tools. No new technology has done or will do better; it will only deepen the fundamental disenchantment that casts a spell over all modern artists. Only within a new electronic music industry that is hyper-productive regarding modular synthesizers and other advanced tools could such a radically alienated music form in its underbelly that cares so little about those tools. The artist Wanda Group, for instance, seemingly creates his musings in generic audio software. 

The other prototype of disenchanted introspection is Dante’s The Divine Comedy, not so much in the story arc itself, but the solemn way of writing. Erich Auerbach observed how when measured against ideals of eternity, Dante’s language took on a solemn tone. Something similar happens in the solemnity of introspective electronic music. The solemn emptiness of reverb for instance is enough to incite associations with introspection, because what is known of the individual is the poverty of the individual. The image is that of a solitary figure testing out all of its tools within the barren inchoateness of social production. No sooner is a new tool tried than complex pathologies form around it. This is why new experimental music sounds so uncomposed, it seems the result of someone tinkering away in a workshop, not to make anything in particular but to test the tools themselves. An electronic music ‘composition’ might be likened to a piece of scrap wood that has had different processes subject to it. Experimental music is less of a conscious composition that exemplifies mastery of material than it is tinkering with tools that are hardly understood. It is only in the process of understanding that the music becomes interesting, which is why experimental music that has a predetermined goal in mind about what it wants to say about society and sets about making a masterpiece is ultimately more boring than the minor lab tests of new music. That is, music is the result of a process, not in the usual sense of a composer setting up chance algorithms and so forth, but rather a type of individual play that implements handy forms of skepticism. The modular, really apperceptive sound of a lot of experimental music, for instance Robert Hampson, Asmus Tietchens, or Koenraad Ecker, is related to this play, not unlike a child picking up a toy, playing with it for a bit, then exchanging it for another, and so on.

What is picked up is always already discarded—objects of historical nature that have proven time and again to be both insufficient but compelling. They seem to be ahead of us, but also not good enough by our own standards, which is why experimental music is a reevaluation in practice of standards. Picking up discarded material innovations is the yearning to wear the clothes of dead kings. But were the avant-gardists really kings? The drum machine was built to satisfy the musical imagination of atonal composer Henry Cowell (who later abandoned it). When a drum machine is now picked up, it is like rediscovering a tool from the most recent neolithic revolution (the Bourgeois Revolution), one that continually stays incomplete and therefore mysterious. The "cold fire" (an apt term used in the description of Ecker's Sleepwalkers) of electronic music aims to reconnect with a modern, bourgeois-primitive impulse, and the aesthetic experience of primeval engineering discovery. Listening turns towards the ‘mavericks’ who are wholly absorbed in the construction of complex systems and thickets of audio. Images of studios with expansive (and expensive) modular systems abound, the artist an abstract blight in a sonic landscape of their own making. In this way electronic music producers bear the torch of enlightenment discovery, like the 18th century paintings of everyday people scientifically making soap bubbles. Introspective electronic music production proposes the idea that production can be endlessly fascinating, the possibilities and permutations endless. To witness someone try and fail to exhaust this is what is compelling about the music, and what makes it sound so alien. 

The most compelling underlying sensibility of electronic music was always its endorsement of alienation, a theme which is now discarded in lieu of nature in various guises. The open use of tools of alienation was the practice that made this music cutting edge, despite the kitsch unity of form that early electronic composers sought. Acceptance of alienation was more common a century ago. By the ‘00s glitch generation, the computer was identified as a tool of bureaucracy and so a tool to be exposed; it was a tool that had coincided with the historical development of music technique itself. Abstract ideals of eternal or timeless music were radically irrelevant, and artists used the tools of bureaucracy against itself, not unlike the way modernist poets observed that language had become a tool of rationalization and not something liberating, but a tool that could reflect on itself and undo itself in the process. Avant-garde music was about emptying, and there is paradoxically something about the so-called eternal or infinite music of modular synth musicians that is likewise empty, or a process of emptying. The more work musicians put into their increasingly complex systems, the emptier they sound. The infinitely developing music works in the opposite direction, and the listener gets the impression that such music exists specifically to archive the very last sounds producible on Earth. It has the impression of a demonic system that repeats and reproduces itself ad infinitum, but is actually closed: an infinitely closed system. 



Detail of Albrecht Dürer's Saint Jerome in His Study (1514)