‘When digital technology is no longer novel, when zeroes and ones become ubiquitous in everyday life, what happens to the way people write music?’
This was the question posed at Digital is Dead, a 3-day event in Oxford about ‘post-digital music practice’. At the final concert of the festival, I witnessed three disparate examples of such music-making, all intriguing (and appropriately imperfect) in their own rights.
The term ‘post-digital’ is perhaps most closely identified with artist and academic Melvin L Alexenberg, who defines it as ‘of or pertaining to art forms that address the humanization of digital technologies…’ The prefix ‘post’ does not imply that digital technologies have been rendered obsolete, nor is it part of a tautology (as in the meaningless word ‘post-apocalyptic’) used to describe merely ‘digital’ music. All three artists tonight -headliner Oval, and support acts Simon Scott and Ex-Easter Island Head – attempted to use or evoke digital technologies to ‘humanizing’ ends, to varying degrees and with varying degrees of success.
The first act, Simon Scott (once the drummer in shoegaze band Slowdive), performed from his recent Below Sea Level album. This project combines field recordings taken from the Fens in East Anglia with improvised electric guitar, and occasional theremin and amplified voice. Scott’s press release promised a meeting point between the ‘recognizable’ and the ‘undistinguishable’, the ‘natural’ and the ‘synthetic’. Scott delivered this, but some of the music felt safer and more sanitized than his erudite writings on this strange landscape had prepared me for. When Discreet Music-esque hydrophones plink-plonked beneath the slide guitars of so many recent Werner Herzog soundtracks, I got a sense of the place, but did not feel like I was exploring it in a meaningful way. When dissonance entered the fray – particularly when an enormous (accidental) cable buzz shocked the audience to attention –my experience was heightened significantly. The rougher timbres of the voice and theremin seemed to represent better the wild places of The Fens and capture the ‘devastating history of this environment’ Scott was trying to evoke. These moments were fleeting and I felt too much time was given to beautifying the environment through meandering pastoralism. Still, Scott seems thoughtful, is a modest and engaging speaker/writer, and a captivating performer.
Where some over-familiar elements prevented me from wholly enjoying Simon Scott’s performance, Ex-Easter Island Head seemed to have no recognizable ideas of their own. Their influences were plainly audible and visible. Playing guitars mounted on keyboard stands with mallets was a gimmick borrowed from Boredoms, and their go-to sextuple-metered rhythms were straight from Steve Reich’s Drumming (who in turn had appropriated from Ewe musicians in Ghana). Unlike Boredoms, the performance failed to reach any visceral heights and unlike Reich, the cross-rhythms failed to develop beyond the level of any school-level musician who has worked out how to play ‘3 against 2’. Not even these simple patterns were especially well executed, and the lack of rhythmic invention was compounded when the grooves were made explicit by the introduction of a lazy 4/4 kick drum – turning minimalist pastiche into a kind of acoustic techno that utterly paled in comparison to Boxed In or the Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble, for example. Ex-Easter Island Head are eager to display how hip their music taste is, but their actual musicianship is questionable. It is unclear how they fit the ‘post-digital’ brief, and they aren’t good enough for their confused identity (are they a percussion ensemble, a guitar group, or a post-rock band?) to be a point of interest.
Exactly mirroring Ex-Easter Island Head, Markus Popp aka Oval displayed boundless innovation and thoroughly questionable taste, and was all the more enjoyable for it. He worked obsessively with a highly limited palette of sounds – mainly struck piano strings, and big acoustic drums – which were quite gauche and unappealing in their own right, but became interesting through Popp’s dexterous manipulation. He is an eccentric performer, hunched over his laptop and pulling faces that correspond with each sonic gesture made. Each short piece followed the same formula more or less – prepared piano motifs were stated, manipulated, and then obscured by sub-bass and static, as loose drum patterns wove in and out. A solitary instance of electronic ‘glitch’ drums seemed an unusual concession to an audience drawn no doubt in part to this event by Oval’s lingering ‘fame’ from the heady days of ‘Intelligent Dance Music’. By this time, the concert was running extremely behind schedule, and Popp gave little apparent consideration to an increasingly fatigued audience. Signs of frustration were evident and some audience members walked out, but their feelings would be better directed at the previous performers: Oval played good music for too long, Ex-Easter Island Head had wasted our time.
There were three unique, personal responses to ever-changing technologies on display, but part of me can’t help thinking that if ‘post-digital’ music is a real thing – and, if the music performed at this event was indeed ‘post-digital’ – that it seems a quite backward-looking, retromaniacal phenomenon. The three acts seemed like archetypal ‘ambient’, ‘minimalist’, and ‘IDM’ acts respectively, with only small signifiers that differentiated their music from pre-existing, pre-digital, or digital music in these genres (all of which now have long, storied histories of their own). For a festival with such a provocative name, I wanted the closing night of Digital is Dead to be a little more radical and provide that bit more provocation.
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words Thom Hosken