Nick

Yasunao Tone
Solo For Wounded CD
1997

(sample & buy here)

Solo for Wounded CD is an example of a work from the “Glitch Music” movement and was created by Japanese artist Yasuano Tone. Incorporating elements of music and sound art, music of this movement commonly features mangled or crunched noises symptomatic of technological malfunction.

Techniques used by Yasuano Tone in this work and others to evoke “usually marginalized digital detritus”[1] include de-controlling the playback function on CD players, forcing them to emit random selections of a recorded work, as opposed to the sequence of noises originally intended by the composer. Also, along with contemporaries like Oval, Yasunao Tone scarified compact discs – here with razors – before replaying their sounds.

The actual sound of Solo for Wounded CD could be described as unpredictable, abrasive and even unlistenable for any extended period of time. It is unclear whether occasional “melodic” combinations of sounds and chords are intentional or accidental, and traditional notions of meter, musical structure and chord progression appear to have little application.

Historical and Artistic Context

In his famous essay “The Art of Noise“, Russolo contrasted traditional music concerned with purity and sweetness of sound with a modern day desire to search out “the most complex successions of dissonant chords”, paving the way for what he called “musical noise”[2]. Along with advocating the enlarging of restrictive timbres found in traditional instruments through the infinite variety of noise[3], Russolo along with contemporaries including Mondrian were interested in incorporating unpredictability and uncertainty into their works, controlling them.

That the techniques used by Glitch musicians like Yasunao Tone should be seen as “instruments” may be difficult to envisage considering the abrasive, rhythmic incoherence of their works. However Pinch & Bijsterveld note that throughout history, the introduction of any new instrument or technique has “often incited debates as to their legitimacy and place within musical culture”, adding that these new technologies are important in calling into question what makes “good music”[4].

In “The Aesthetics of Failure”, Cascone suggest that Glitch music’s “post-digital” aesthetic was a natural progression considering that humans now worked in environments filled with the sounds of digital technology, where the whirring of computer fans, the sounds of documents being printed and the “sonification” of user interfaces were inescapable[5]. Against a backdrop of avante-garde experimentation associated with elektronische musik and musique concrete, the incorporation of these sounds into musical compositions begins to make perfect sense[6]. But it was not only the noises of functionality that were interesting to Glitch composers: it was the sounds of technology’s “failure” – malfunctions, distortions, system crashes, clipping, aliasing – that represented greater sonic opportunity. These sounds, traditionally suppressed, could with the aid of modern technology be honed in on, amplified, arranged and repeated to make them the focus of a composers work[7].

The combinations of sounds found in Glitch music represent a “valorization of what previously would have been seen as … a by-product, bearing an external relation to the work”[8]. It seemed to be the polar opposite of the “modernist celebration of technological achievement”[9], and Glitch music was thus associated with post-modern weariness, whether an accurate understanding of the composer’s intentions or not.

The emergence of Glitch music echoed parallel developments in the areas of net art, visual art, video and graphic design. Visual artists, in particular, have created forced errors and concentrated on naturally occurring ones to create an aesthetic visual style that is analogous to that of Glitch music.

It is worth noting that other observers have attributed the emergence of Glitch to a reaction against popular forms of electronic music. Thompson, for example, suggests that Glitch was a reaction against the commercially successful House and Techno genres[10]. This, he suggests, went hand in hand with the embracing of sonic errors as an “implicit jibe at the digital triumphalism spouted by corporate marketing managers who make it their job to hawk supposedly flawless digital audio to a ravenous consumer public”[11]. Whether Yasunao’s work was deliberate provocation or simple appreciation of a new variety of sonic possibilities, it undoubtedly called into question the application of technology to everyday life.

Key Features

Glitch features sounds emitted by the ‘misuse’ of equipment and technologies. Along with artists like Yasunao Tone’s scratched CDs, other artists have experimented with overloading modern technology to the point of error and malfunctions, deliberately converting files between formats to cause loss of audio fidelity, and with sonorising data by converting text files into audio. Glitch music commonly features sounds such as background hum, CDs skipping, audio distortion, bit rate reduction caused by format conversion, hardware noise, computer bugs and more[12]. This might be seen as a shift from a “foreground of musical notes to a background of incidental sound”[13].

More modern glitch music has been characterized by the use of digital audio production software to distort noises and sequence them in patterns that are sometimes more reminiscent of traditional rhythms and meter. It has often had a “minimalist” feel, through many works (including Solo for Wounded CD) demonstrating an “atomic” use of sound[14].

Within this context, Yasunao’s music is notable in that as well as being an original member of the Fluxus Movement, whose “anti-art” sentiment might be observed in elements of Glitch Music, he was one of the first composers to use these techniques intentionally, and his are some of the most famous works of the genre.

Influence and Significance

In an era of technological innovation, the drawing of attention to the glitches and malfunctions “reminds us that our control of technology is an illusion”, reinforcing the fallibility of such technologies which are “only be as perfect, precise and efficient as the humans who build them”[15]. Furthermore, the modification of existing recordings, for example CDs with razors, re-inscribes them with new layers of meaning.

“Foregrounding” is a term given to Glitch’s self-referential exposition of the flaws frequently seen in digital audio processes[16].  Some see this as symptomatic of a longing for an “analogue aesthetic” in light of exhaustion with “endless webs of mediatic allusion, media saturation and a kind of abyssal irony”[17]. Thurston Moore, of the band Sonic Youth, observed that this Glitch music echoed the characteristics of analogue music players where by a listener would experience the imperfections of vinyl, bringing “comfort and mystery”[18]. It might even be argued that Glitch “humanizes” machines and technologies, which I argue assists in human understanding and acceptance of these new technologies.

Traditional artistic cycles are uniquely altered by Glitch music: works represent an entire “cultural feedback loop of the internet” since artists use the internet to find their tools, create works reflecting those ideas, then upload them back to the internet where they are interrogated[19].

Impacts on Contemporary Work and Reactions

Becoming more popular throughout the 1990s, a number of Glitch musicians have reached a level of mainstream success, including Aphex Twin. Furthermore, Glitch elements have become de rigueur in mainstream, chart topping pop from artists like Janet Jackson, Madonna, Bjork, Radiohead and Owl City.  The work of seminal Glitch artist, Oval, has even been used in recent advertisements for the clothing brand Armani.

This is surely evidence that “it is failure that guides evolution” since “perfection offers no incentive for improvement”[20]. But it could also be argued that this evolutionary trajectory has begun to subvert Glitch’s original aims. Whether one perceives mainstream success negatively or not (many critics vehemently do), this evolution does represent the threat of becoming an “orthodoxy”[21]. This “seep into the mainstream”[22], critics argue, puts Glitch’s satirical and critical spirit in danger of disappearing, particularly when it’s techniques are beginning to be perceived as as formulaic as the genres it rebelled against[23].

Sociological problems have also been observed with Glitch. Thompson notes that access to Glitch and it’s critical writings and etymologies are generally restricted to white males, causing a “narrowness of critical edge” that has led it to an “aesthetic impasse”[24]. It’s protagonists largely consist of a “culturally privileged faction of…young educated technophiles”[25]. It is worth questioning whether Yasunao access to technology and education suggests that he fits cultural privilege profile that Glitch musicans are accused of suffering from.

For these reasons critics have stressed the need for this genre to urgently reinvent itself or risk stunted evolution, or reversion to a “fetishizing of the technology that created it”[26]. With the regular incorporation of sounds that echo Yasunao’s early works regularly heard in mainstream pop, these observations do not seem farfetched.

References

Andrews, Ian, Post-digital Aesthetics and the return to Modernism, MAP-uts lecture, 2000. URL: http://ian-andrews.org/texts/postdig.html, 15 April 2011.

Bijsterveld, Karin and Trevor J. Pinch. “‘Should One Applaud?’: Breaches and Boundaries in the Reception of New Technology in Music.” Technology and Culture. Ed. 44.3, pg 536-559. 2003

Cascone, Kim, The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music, Computer Music Journal 24:4 Winter 2000 (MIT Press)

Collis, Adam, “Sounds of the system: the emancipation of noise in the music of Carsten Nicolai”, Organised Sound, 13(1): 31-39. 2008. Cambridge University Press.

Prior, Nick, “Putting a Glitch in the Field: Bourdieu, Actor Network Theory and Contemporary Music”, Cultural Sociology, 2: 3, 2008: pp 301–319.

Russolo, Luigi, “The Art of Noises”, from Cox, C. & Warner, D. (eds), 2004, Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, Continuum, London.

Thomson, Phil, “Atoms and errors: towards a history and aesthetics of microsound”, Organised Sound, 9(2): 207-218. 2004. Cambridge University Press.

Footnotes


[1] Thomson, Phil, “Atoms and errors: towards a history and aesthetics of microsound”, Organised Sound, 9(2): 207-218. 2004. Cambridge University Press.

[2] Russolo, Luigi, “The Art of Noises”, from Cox, C. & Warner, D. (eds), 2004, Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, Continuum, London, P11.

[3] Bijsterveld, Karin and Trevor J. Pinch. “‘Should One Applaud?’: Breaches and Boundaries in the Reception of New Technology in Music.” Technology and Culture. Ed. 44.3, 2003, p544.

[4] Bijsterveld & Pinch (2003) p537

[5] Cascone, Kim, The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music, Computer Music Journal 24:4 Winter 2000 (MIT Press)

[6] Prior (2008) p305.

[7] Cascone (2000)

[8] Andrews, Ian, Post-digital Aesthetics and the return to Modernism, MAP-uts lecture, 2000. URL: http://ian-andrews.org/texts/postdig.html, 15 April 2011.

[9]Prior, Nick, “Putting a Glitch in the Field: Bourdieu, Actor Network Theory and Contemporary Music”, Cultural Sociology, 2: 3, 2008, p305.

[10] Thomson (2004) p208

[11] Thomson (2004) p211

[12] “Glitch Music” – Wikipedia

[13] Cascone (2000)

[14] Cascone (2000)

[15] Cascone (2000)

[16] Andrews (2000)

[17] Andrews (2000)

[18] Collis, Adam, “Sounds of the system: the emancipation of noise in the music of Carsten Nicolai”, Organised Sound, 13(1): 31-39. 2008. Cambridge University Press, p32.

[19] Cascone (2000).

[20] Cascone (2000).

[21] Prior (2008) p307

[22] Prior (2008) p307

[23] Thomson (2004) p214.

[24] Thomson (2004) p214

[25] Prior (2008) p309

[26] Collis (2008)

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Comments
  1. lizlacerda says:

    Very interesting debate, Nick. Music/noise/technological sounds!!! What they are, what art is after all… You were able to reach different aspects of traditional and modern (or would it be post-modern :-)?) cycles. Loved your reference to the vinyl (we almost forget they have ever existed) as well as the analysis on the ‘misuse’ of equipments and technologies. I better open up my mind!!!

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