A Journal Of The Dark Arts
In 2001, the Montreal anarcho-classical-neo-punk collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor released their fourth proper LP, Yanqui U.X.O., with a striking, spider-webbed diagram adorning the back sleeve. The diagram showed virtually every major media conglomerate in the world having ties to arms manufacturers and weapon dealers. It was a rude and harsh awakening.
But not exactly a surprise. Radiohead had been recently espousing the virtues of Naomi Klein’s No Logo as having been key texts in the making of the paranoid, insular worlds of Kid A and Amnesiac. It was everywhere we turned, everywhere we looked, all while the new world was being born. Simultaneously, while all this anti-corporate sentiment was flourishing and spreading, so too was information technology. In many ways, the accelerated information made the conversation possible in the first place.
It’s something we’ve all been keenly aware of, in the 21st Century – or those of us that think anyway – that while the Internet and mobile technology has changed the world in pretty much every conceivable way, even opening doorways and avenues towards fairness, equality, and a respectable life for everybody on Earth seems within our grasp, we all know that every step of the process is being controlled, manipulated, and capitalized upon.
It’s a confusing conundrum that lies in the cavernous, technological heart of Despairer – a striking new album from San Francisco artist Marc Kate.
In a recent interview with the website The Formant, Kate launches out of the gate with a condemnation of Skype, via which the conversation was taking place. Or, if not a rebuke, at least an awareness of its compromised nature. “It’s owned by Skype and there’s unbelievable valuation and capital behind this conversation you and I are having. It’s free but it has a cost – a hidden cost that we are all pushing down the line. It’s a lie we all participate in.”
This idea of who really profits off of music is also central to today’s musical conversation, with everybody from Taylor Swift to Neil Young weighing in with opinions on the streaming wars. Many artists are criticizing streaming services, like Trent Reznor blasting YouTube, claiming they were an empire “built on free, stolen content.”
It’s a problem that’s laid out in exquisite detail, particularly as it pertains to creative types, in the recent book Culture Crash by Scott Timberg. The book details the derailing of the American middle class, and the simultaneous/subsequent gutting of the creative industry in the 2000s for a variety of reasons, many/most of them having to deal with the advent of the Internet. The trouble, as Timberg sees it, is if artist’s can make a living, or any money at all for that matter, pursuing their avocations. This would result, in Timberg’s opinion, in only “kids with trust funds” and “amateurs” being able to make music.
The subtle flaws in the beast, the weaknesses of the machine that can be exploited, are something Kate has reason to be all too acutely aware of, living in the former heart of the California Dream, San Francisco. San Fran traded in its freak-nik bellbottoms many a decade ago for the towering sinister evil boss sky scrapers of Silicon Valley. Insane rent and cost-of-living has driven out all but the most ardent of San Francisco’s ardent mutant culture, which helped to give birth to The Grateful Dead, The San Francisco Tape Music Center, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick and many more. It has a history of progressive, sci-fi electronics being used in controversial, counter-cultural ways.
Despairer has been described as “power ambient”, which is fair, but Kate prefers the phrase “ambient materialism”. So far, much of what’s been written on Despairer has focused on the doom ‘n gloom of the title and liner notes, the awareness of the Original Sin of participating in the technological age. It’s a sin we all bear and have to deal with, in our own way, as are the pressures of keeping up with the machine, which are many, and varied.
Yes, there is a certain sense of despair, living and working in 2016. We have all these tools and means at our disposal, yet it seems every which way is blocked. It seems for every step towards being a decent, egalitarian species is met with 50 yards of mindless carnage and brutality, all while our all-seeing, ever-connected eyes take it all in.
Kate took these matters into concern, in the way Despairer is presented to the world, opting for the indie Bandcamp and limited edition cassette route that many are finding to be more in-line with their ethics. Musically, however, Kate draws more inspiration from his film school background and the immediacy of making electronic music in real-time, with equipment he’s familiar and has a connection with.
So much has been made of the conceptualization and aesthetics of this record, that i feel like a very real and subtle sub-layer is being missed, in the music itself; in this idea of “power ambiance” or the background rushing to the forefront.
Despairer is ambient music, have no doubt about it. It’s largely comprised of synth tones and drones and morphed and mutated electric guitar textures. As ambient music, it bears an allegiance to Brian Eno‘s Ambient Records, which gave the genre its current name, but Kate’s music is a little too frayed-at-the-edges, a little too worn, a little too emotional and ragged to be polite muzak for the Virtual Plaza. It’s degraded enough to run asunder of William Basinski or Leyland Kirby/Caretaker territory, but it’s a little too infinite, a little too loopy for that.
That’s kind of one of the interesting things about Marc Kate’s music is that, in a way, at times, it almost runs into Vaporwave territory, then suddenly submerging into icy ’70s sci-fi electronics – all weightless, shimmering synths and draconian organs, shifting in unexpected places. At times, like during moments of album opener “All Of The Books We Burned” or the excellently titled “We Miss Octavia Butler”, it almost sounds like listening to expansive empty airshafts, so hollow and empty are they – akin to a special FX record. At others, the skies part and a beautiful musicality manifests, all powerful emotive chord sequences on expansive burning organs.
Despairer is ambient in that it has no beats, it is beat-less, other than the pulsing, crackling waves of pure sine and sawtooth waves. It is this electrical, arcing pulse where Despairer reveals its true colours, gives up its secrets.
This kind of ambient/drone music is inherently linked to electricity. You’re just not going to find this level of sustain in nature, apart from VERY LARGE and VERY PERMANENT natural fixtures, like sitting and listening to the wind groaning through the Grand Canyon, for instance.
To me, personally, ambient music’s other association (and I’m sure it’s different for everybody) is with non-human spaces and processes. Therefore, electronic music gives us access to creativity that isn’t necessarily anthropocentric. Someone could create a piece of music about a day in the life of the Pacific Ocean, or the epic rise and fall of an African ant colony in Africa, all of which could be augmented from cleverly sourced data and let fly.
My thinking, my theory, is that years of listening in this manner is causing an awakening, of sorts, in people – opening us up to, if not the infinite, then the much-bigger-than-ourselves.
While I was pondering what to call this article, and the nature of Original Sin, I looked up the phrase “complicit listening”, which had a catchy ring to it.
The chaos demons and genius loci spoke clearly, however, with the first result in the search bar being a book titled Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing The Continuum Of Sound by Salome Voegelin, which revealed this startlingly prescient passage, which I will quote at length.
“Listening as the aesthetic movement or centering, decentering and recetering is a social performance, performing the material of sound against givens of truth, reference and representation, and undressing the material of its givens to reveal organs without a body, without prejudicial shape, gender, race, or creed, who clothes rather than who flesh was used to label them before.”
“This is not a relative proposition but one based and situated in the concrete materiality of sound and the concrete action of listening. In those concrete actions, the “other”-the noncanonical, the feminine, the ethnic, the migratory, and as yet unnamed others-gain access into discourse through their possibilities. Not anything goes, this is not an aesthetic relativity either but an openness and heterogeneity that comes from the strength of concrete sound, unrestrained by expectations and preconditions I can reach this alterantive slice of another sound making only in my complicit listening,when I recenter myself unto the work s into a current actuality, to appreciate what it is and how it participates in thee actuality of the art world without what that should be.” Voegeli, Sonic Possible Worlds pg. 84 – italics mine.
Here, in this odd coincidence, an answer begins to reveal itself.
The answer is to pause. And peer. And be responsible for one’s self in this moment. Culture can either go to hell or we can burst free into the Diamond Age – what’s it going to be?
The one thing I find most encouraging is people seem to have laid the “Why bother making music at all?” garrote down for a moment, having all agreed that music is important. We need it, we want it, we need people to keep making it. We still have to go to shows, and go to bars, and go to raves and clubs, even while the wheels of capitalism spin ever-faster and try and prevent us. We stop. And pause. And try and do the right thing – which includes supporting the art and music that we love, in any/every way possible.
All hope is not yet lost. The battle is still underway.
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Tune into every Sunday night/Monday morning for Morningstar: The Light In The Darkness @ Freeform Portland! Exploring the dark side of techno, hip-hop, shoegaze, metal, psych, folk, and soundtrack. You can listen to the archives online at mixcloud.com/for3stpunk.