The Only Blip-Hop Record You Will Ever Need
Machines of Joy
(I Have Seen The Future, And It Is Squiggly)
By David Byrne
Gallup, New Mexico + Tokyo 2002
Blip Hop as it is represented here is a form of music created at the end of the 20th century primarily by Northern Europeans. For centuries these people have lived in a cold, damp climate where the winters are long and gray. The socialist governments take care of their needs leaving the people with many hours of free time to spend with their computers, electronic devices and binary hierarchy trees. As a result they have in recent years devised radical new programming languages and unparalleled mobile phone technology and were the first people, as early as the late 50s, to enjoy art and music made entirely by machines.
These are the first people on Earth to create and live in complete harmony with their machines. They have learned to think like machines and, reflexively, have developed machines that mimic the quirky randomness of the human mind. Other societies have chafed at such symbiotic relationships, but the Northern Europeans have turned, through years of trial and error and the process of natural selection, a seeming handicap into a virtue and a unique way of life. A life that suits them, maximizes their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses. And lessens the effects of their unfortunate geography.
The geography and climate in Northern Europe has historically necessitated the development of unusual personal mental stamina and perseverance qualities evolved no doubt in order to survive the harsh months in the isolated villages and hamlets in that region. The long and dark winters favored a people who could look inward for months at a time and not go crazy. It would also favor intense social coÂ–peration rules and sets of elaborate prescribed behaviors all designed to maintain the delicate social balance during those long difficult months. In addition, the inhabitants became accustomed to a monotonous diet and sporadic social contact. Naturally, all of this led to the evolution of a rather extreme but focused frame of mind. Order and thought became their companions and allies. To survive in these harsh lands one must live in an orderly fashion the climate does not allow for much leisure or idleness. Every moment counts, as the seasons and hours during which farming is possible are short. Grazing lands are limited, and therefore fields and pastures are well-delineated, marked out in a precise and orderly fashion. The unforgiving geography has also led to a society in which social relationships are by necessity formal and well defined. A society in which all opportunities are infrequent and not to be squandered all this leads to a society in which order, planning, sacrifice and diligence become ones closest friends. Never comfortable with their bodies due to years of wearing bulky warm clothes and infrequent social interaction, the Northern Europeans have developed elaborate rituals in order to facilitate the physical contact craved by all human beings. The football match and the disco have become the foremost among these. We will ignore the football match for the time being, that phenomenon being covered in depth and beautifully by Professor Le Duc in his paper The Bodies in The Bowl: A Study in Stadium Physicality, and will instead focus on the disco.
The disco developed in the middle part of the century. Initially a small-scale phenomenon limited to Gays, African-Americans and Socialites in the worlds capitals, it spread rapidly. From that simple seed it evolved in myriad directions each manifestation unique and separate, with various aspects of its nature exaggerated or eliminated in order to suit the needs and demands of the local inhabitants. Some music evolved in response to particular drugs and social situations and from the various economic classes involved with these clubs. Often the delineations between the various forms of music would be a means of marking social and class territory (see Handbag House and the Flavor or the Month, Neil Withers, Cambridge University Press, 1999). Early discos were small compared to the tens of thousands of participants involved in todays massive rave events, but the formative patterns of behavior were similar, even in those primitive models. We see the elaborate dress codes, the repetitive rhythms, the consumption of intoxicants and/or psychoactive drugs and the restrictive entry policies all in place years before the emergence of the famous models.
Typically, discos present dancing for the most part performed without physical contact, dancing that implies and insinuates fantastic sex later at a more private location. The promise of better things later, pleasure deferred. This is a comforting and familiar mode of social and even spiritual interaction for the Northern Europeans, and therefore this form of dance was adapted to their own needs very rapidly. Not as thoroughly as in Japan, it must be said, where the men and women danced facing away from each other during this period, but the idea is the same. It was therefore in this region that the mechanically-produced beats of Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk were created and eventually went on to gain worldwide acceptance. Other, more severe man-machine models were developed simultaneously by others.
Alongside these popular developments, the academic and intellectual communities saw the evolution of extremely conceptually-based musics. The psycho-acoustic and direction-based music of Stockhausen and others sometimes interacted with and certainly had an influence on the popular rituals and the music for dancing developed by these same cultures. This academic music took forms in which the performers and creators were both treated somewhat like machines both were given a set of written instructions (as opposed to musical notes, which, it will be acknowledged, are also a set of instructions) and were then asked to merely follow said directions. What differed between this mode and that of reading musical notation (see: Bach and the tempered scale, another process by which musical production was ordered) was that instructional-based music was not only the means by which the music would be performed, but also the way in which it was created. The parallels to computer algorithms are obvious and need not be spelled out here but this might be the first instance of creative cultural production being willingly given over to a mechanized process. A first for mankind the mechanization and industrialization of cultural production. Is this the triumph of Cartesian logic in an aspect of life not prone to such ordering? One would think so, but there are many elements of this work and of Northern European culture which imply that things are not so simple as they seem.
The sense of irony and humor of the Northern European has evolved to become something exquisite and refined. Herein lies the ghost in the machine. After many dark days and cold nights, and after many many years, the mind eventually begins to turn inward; and after such long periods of contemplation, of waiting and shivering, a person begins to differentiate between extremely subtle nuances of mental and emotional states, philosophical concepts and thought patterns. In all peoples a sense of humor presupposes a common knowledge and experience among the populace, and that developed by the Northern European is based on the common inwardly directed interior experiences, as it is one that they all share. Therefore the resulting sense of humor is subtle, frequently extremely so, and can often be overlooked or go un-noticed by the outsider. Often there appears to be no humor present at all, but this, it will be seen, is clearly not the case.
I would like to propose that much of this music and cultural production by Northern Europeans is meant to be perceived as humorous and ironic, and that their imitation of machine processes and languages even their imitation of mechanical dancing are meant not to be taken at face value.
I would further propose that the Northern Europeans are in fact laughing at themselves, their own obsessions, their psychological hang-ups and complexes at the same time as they are indulging in these obsessions. They are laughing at their own peculiarities and fixations towards order, rules and rational thought, and yet they are producing music and rituals that both emanate and encapsulate these same obsessions. The music expresses a love of order and of logic and an anxiety regarding it at the same time.
There are three aspects of this music which might support this hypothesis:
i. The attraction to non-natural sounds, obviously not produced
by natural or acoustic means.
ii. The preponderance of herky-jerky rhythms and beats. The abhorrence and avoidance of smooth ¬sensual® rhythms.
iii. The attraction to structures and effects only possible through the
use of the computer.
The use of almost exclusively non-natural sounds could be said to be an identifying feature of this music. Other electronic-based dance music styles made attempts to emulate and imitate the sounds of acoustic instruments of drums and percussion especially, often using samples of acoustic instruments as their foundation. However, in this music there is a conscious denial of anything resembling acoustic ¬natural® sounds (for obvious exceptions see below). This appears to be an aesthetic decision based on the invisible doctrine that honesty is virtuous, not only in daily behavior but also in cultural matters as well (see Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe, etc.) The honest use of materials, in this case sonic materials, the acceptance of their machine origins and of their mechanical qualities, is a hallmark of this music.
The music sonically states that there is no need anymore to disguise the artificial sources of the sounds, no need to emulate ¬real® drums or pianos. In fact, the more obvious it is that the sounds were produced by artificial means the more honest, and therefore better, the music is. More unnatural is natural, if you follow my meaning. Some workers in this field (e.g. Matmos and Skist) use acoustically-produced sounds to imitate electronically-produced sounds. This could be seen as a sonic equivalent of a philosophical conundrum. Illogical logic. Irrational rationality. These apparently twisted impulses also serve as examples of the convoluted insider sense of humor referred to above.
As stated above, this outlook and approach is not only applicable to music, it can inform all aspects of the cultural life of the Northern European. Although its influence sometimes filters in slowly, imperceptibly. The humor and slyness is always apparent if one looks closely.
The preponderance of herky-jerky rhythms is another unifying aspect of this music. Again, there seems to be a willful attraction towards rhythms that have no obvious references to African-rooted music Funk, Hip Hop, House or any of the other sensuous body rhythms. Paradoxically, that is not to say that the music does not have roots in many of these same styles. Pole, for example, uses the delays and techniques of Jamaican Dub as a foundation for their experiments. Other artists are clearly indebted to hip hop. They have strayed far from their musical parents the children are for the most part unrecognizable.
These ¬spastic® rhythms also announce an intention to admit to the musics mechanical origins. It is a true celebration of those origins and a love of what they can produce. The Northern European has come to embrace what many other cultures abhor, and in so doing has created something hilarious and wonderful. Machines that laugh, sigh and swoon.
The third aspect of this music is that it revels in effects, structures and techniques that could only be possible using the computer as a tool and instrument. Impossibly accurate rhythms, inhumanly accurate interplay of sounds and beats, sudden abrupt transitions and perfect repetitions all these effects revel in and are proud of their mechanical origins. The sounds themselves are flags and banners, heralding the aesthetic of the machine and of those machines gone slightly haywire.
Yes, as an apparent opposite to this perceived perfection, as a kind of sonic mind game, many composers find joy and pleasure in the use of the sounds of their machines malfunctioning. Pole and the Mouse On Mars contemporary Oval use the sampled sounds of stuck records and CDs while others utilize the sounds of broken electronic filters. Pole, the group, is named after a type of filter. The obvious use of the sounds of their world the world of ones, zeros, zips, pings, hisses and clicks falling apart is another example of the willfully perverse celebration of the machine and simultaneously its limitations and failings. There is humor that is inherent in this music and in its attendant rituals. This convoluted logic is in itself both a joke on obsessive rationality and an acceptance of its importance on this culture.
This music has part of its roots, but not its sound, in dance music House, Techno, Dub-Reggae, Hip Hop and Electro. But much of this music simultaneously and willfully also seems to deny the physical. It is often difficult, if not impossible, to dance to it not that it has no rhythms, it has lots of rhythm, but they are often rhythms that do not relate to the body, to the human anatomy. They are rhythms that inspire one to twitch, to oscillate and to vibrate rather than to sway and swing. It is an asexual sexuality possibly closer to the dance of single-celled organisms. To some extent the music refers to dance music as part of its roots, it is a signifier for dance music in that it used the same technology and similar sound sources, it points to it, but it itself is not that thing, not true dance music. It points at things outside itself, but prefers not to associate with those things. It is Meta Dance music. It is sometimes, significantly, referred to as ¬dance music for listening.® A contradiction in terms, which these artists may enjoy. In other words, the original source, the raison dtre of the music has been removed, and we are left with just a beautiful shell. The shape of a shell is a memory of the animal that produced it, but that animal has long since vanished.
Oh yes, did I say that the music is beautiful? It is. In its own self-defined universe it is eminently listenable and beautiful. This beauty is the seductress that draws one in to this joyous mechanical universe, makes the introductions, and invites one to linger. It is a vision of a future that is severe, squiggly, and only semi-serious.