Cities engross us with their ability to generate order: complex structures of communication, collaboration, exchange and exploitation. We gaze at them from above as if they were alien glyphs where we read messages, functions and omens (flashbacks from that landing in Mexico City at dusk, in the middle of a thunderstorm, we could almost see the Aztec gods peeking from behind the mountains surrounding it, at the ghost of Tenochtitlan).
As we zoom in, new layers of complexity are revealed in all their fractal glory. A neighbourhood, a building, groups of humans in transition, reflection, worship.
Brains designed to parse the field, the tribe, the immediate threat of a beast lurking in the woods are overloaded with information. We resort to heuristics and shortcuts to make sense of these cities and navigate them.
Visually: maps, itineraries and landmarks.
Sonically: songs that give us mood summaries. The drum’n’bass staccato with which we traverse a neon grid. Grimy downtown back-alleys lacerated by a punk rock blast. The construction of urban coherence in a minimal composition.
In Alex Barnett’s work, which we have now been featuring in 20JFG for several years, we found the perfect soundtrack for the inhuman beauty of urban spaces forlorn of their inhabitants, the strange and maybe perverse fact that their grids and silhouettes are much more natural to most of us than “nature” itself. We have compared this achievement to the drones of John Carpenter, after excising from them the violence and the drama.
Weld, Barnett’s new collaboration with Faith Coloccia takes things to new levels, by overlaying the regular rhythms and synthetic waves fuzzed up in the no-man’s land between design and entropy with new dimensions of time and spirituality – a “folklore for a future age” in their own words.
There are many things to fall in love with here, but if we had to choose one, it would be their tremulous melodies, melodies that a superficial assessment would correlate with a horror soundtrack. The results of our own experiments deploying this music in transit through the streets of London are inconsistent with that assessment though. The emotions they impress of us are of portentous mystery, purpose and grace.
In their crystalline beauty, we hear echoes of Kraftwerk’s Rolf and Florian, a sense of optimism about our ability to evolve out of our morbid interregnum, a hope that the alienness of these sounds represents a future polis we will one day call home.
Over the last 6 months or so, we have been involved in an interview with Tom Hirst (aka Design A Wave) in relation to “International Journey of Synthetic Emotion”, the spectacular 12’’ he released last year in Alien Jams (go and get it here).
The interview covers the philosophical and technical underpinnings of his music. It is very revelatory but instead of detracting with its information from the strange mystery of the sounds in IJSE, it intensifies them. We think this is a testament to the awesomeness of the music, and to Tom’s articulacy.
We hope you enjoy it. The interview concludes with a short mix that Tom put together for us, capturing some of the key ideas covered in our conversation.
Where does this music come from?
“Design A Wave” (initially “Designer Wave”) is a project I started in the late 90s. It’s essentially a “solo-project” but somehow I don’t regard it as “the music of Tom Hirst” (it makes me uncomfortable when people do) and others have helped me out with recording and live performance along the way. The initial name was taken from the name of one of the gangs in the Troma movie “Surf Nazis Must Die” and has since mutated (maybe I was scarred of getting sued?).
The movie’s synthy soundtrack was exemplary of both the aesthetic and technological approach that I wanted take at the time. I think if I have ever recorded a song that didn’t have a synth on then it would at least have had a drum machine on it, so there’s always an electronic element in the music. Of course, a re-imagining of historical times past and their potential futures has often been an aspect too, specifically through stylistic references and the audible residue of the equipment used. Over the years the quality of the equipment I have used has graduated from Zoom to Boss and now I’m pretty much at Roland, save for needing a replacement Juno 106 voice chip (wow, electronic muso joke).
Looking back over my time spent recording/performing music, if I was to extract anything that remained constant it would be a consideration of the potential to transform/put-in-motion the state of the listener’s mind. I’ve always felt that I’m very much not a “sound artist”. Sound for me is an itinerant and often cumbersome hurdle between a performance and any affect/effect which I may wish it to have. My current aim is not to be the architect/designer of sound objects and, perhaps more importantly, nor is it to conjure some kind of meta/transcendental pseudo-religious experience (I’d like to think I’m a punk rocker essentially, er, I mean existentially). That’s not to say I won’t have respect for or enjoy the creative endeavours of associates that might fit these withering definitions, it’s just not what I’m interested in doing.
Let’s say that there’s something called a Vortex whose complete description can at best only be alluded to by a vague notion of some alien geometry. When music is best for me is when language has been de-prioritised or switched off completely and your body feels like there’s a Vortex happening inside your skull. If there’s other people around and they’re feeling the same way and we’re all dancing then that’s nice, too. Music is best for me when you are actually unaware that you are listening – the sound itself is no longer at the forefront of your consciousness and you could just as well be sensing a crescendo of phantom tones. Music is best for me when its immediate cause of sensation is not from sound. So one way to conclude the answer to the question, in a roundabout and probably pretentious way, is to say that my hope is that this music does not come from sound.
What you say reminds me of the “Songs of Eden” fable about the origin of music and mind recounted by George Dyson in his book “Darwin Among the Machines”. According to this fable, music – sounds made by apes – eventually evolved into language as the apes realised that different sounds could be used to communicate a variety of useful messages, and started memorising, replicating and understanding them (as well as developing a conscience). Maybe the Vortex you refer to would be whatever exists in our brain before language takes over, and sound stops being pure structure or experience, and becomes a medium for something else. Either way, what makes you want to create this Vortex instead of, say, more conventional communication, or creating some sort of mood (often with a visual dimension, as seen in the ‘imaginary soundtracks’ of many other artists working with synths)?
I think in many respects a lot of the musics I make would constitute being described as ‘imaginary soundtracks’ and this concept of the Vortex doesn’t necessarily exclude that. The idea of the Vortex is more an observation of the nature of my musical “practice” (both as a performer and listener) and less a statement of intent and/or method. As my relationship with music has transformed, I’ve passed through varying and even contradictory methods, aesthetics, politics what-have-you of music but the Vortex has always remained to some extent.
My statement about the Vortex is an attempt (perhaps under the duress of my own status anxiety) to position myself with a critical understanding of what it is that I’m doing when I’m making music.
The idea about music as atavism/evolutionary throwback is a good parallel to describe my attitude: yes, the evolution of (human) music can probably be traced to a bunch of primates smashing skulls but I believe that’s not a necessity for the existence of music. It’s outlandish but it would be wholly possible that music is a symptom of an intergalactic genetic virus infected in us by some faraway mischievous alien beings. I’m of course not saying that is the absolute genealogical source of music but it’s a way to illustrate that, in my naive interpretation of evolution, it’s possible that there are multiple convergent pathways to the same end. Then the Vortex can be understood as an effect of listening to sound but not necessarily as such – perhaps another science fiction alternative would be the Vortex induced via neurological implants? In that sense, the job of exciting the Vortex becomes open to transformation and is not fixed in one method or another.
The point about language is that music does not have to be a primitive antecedent to language and that both are specific entities in our understanding of “nature”. Just as apes with bones is not a necessary precursor for music nor is music a necessary precursor for language. I believe both came about through evolution but neither are necessitated by any particular evolutionary process. The appeal of the Vortex for me is the possibility of a concrete space of human experience that is indifferent to the abstractions of language but I certainly don’t see that as a return to some lost essence of humanity.
Teenage metaphysics aside, I basically want to make music that’s going to shake some cobwebs lose in peoples minds/bodies.
The three songs in “International Journey of Synthetic Emotion’ are quite different from each other in form if not destination (erecting that alien geometry you mentioned). What process do you follow in generating them, in building that Vortex? How do these things start, branch out and take form?
It’s basically a pun but the word synthesis can be used in many ways to sum up how I make music. Synthesisers have had a hold on me for a long time. I’m basically a lot more dexterous mentally than physically and synthesisers provide me with a flexible way to to make music without having to spend all my time practising scales. They also sound great to my ears (but that probably contradicts the concept of the Vortex, oh well).
I don’t have any specific method but when I’m recording but until recently I’d generally start with either a percussion or a bass part, record that and then work out melodic and harmonic parts over the top. I might then strip away the original rhythm and bring in new parts and I’ve even quite a few times started a piece by putting in a recording by someone else which had a harmonic progression that I liked, worked out my own parts that followed the harmonic structure and then removed the original recording. So there’s generally a synthesis at work in terms of combining and constructing things.
Recently, my approach has been a lot more technical and this is part of a general movement on my part to “synthesise” my interests in maths and computer science with my music. I did a lot of research around both digital and analogue audio synthesis. I really enjoyed and learnt a lot from reading “The Theory and Technique of Electronic Music” by Miller Puckette (the creator of Max/MSP and Pure Data). It’s basically because it reads like a maths textbook, which says a lot about my taste in literature.
At the moment, I’m almost entirely using an analogue euro-rack modular synthesiser. I’ve always felt my music was not that interesting rhythmically (often I have one drum machine loop all the way through a track) so I’m specifically trying to learn how to get it to make “generative” rhythms. I’ve read a bit about that but I’m yet to find a text that wasn’t unenjoyable and tedious so I’m having fun working it out myself and that’s starting to become productive.
The track III from International Journey of Synthetic Emotion was arrived at in a particularly elaborate way. At some point I stumbled on this youtube video of a speaking piano).
Musically I didn’t really find it that interesting but I was fascinated technically and set out to find out how it worked. I ended up with a Pure Data patch that would use fourier transforms to generate midi notes from audio input. In doing so, I discovered that the patch could be put to use as a pretty complex arpeggiator and this is what is generating the notes for the “lead” synth and the “acidy” bits that occasionally come in the background in the piece. The drums were made using “euclidean” rhythm generators. At first, the track had drums all the way through and was a bit boring so I added the “house”-y chords and bassline and stripped back the drums until the end.
I liked the way there was this harmonic weirdness with the melodies and the new harmony but I’ve some how become familiar with it now and so can’t “un-understand” it. The other 2 tracks on that record were made with my modular synth which was also triggering drum machines and then me playing keys over the top, all recorded to a stereo mix-down.
Could you elaborate on the idea of synthesising your interests in maths and computer science with your music? To which elements or ideas in those disciplines do you refer? What is it about them that makes you want to integrate them into your music, and the way you create it?
My position is highly ambivalent and if anything I’d celebrate that. I actually detest a lot of music that gets made with computers but on the other hand groking technical concepts is something that I find creatively fulfilling, in the same way that interacting with music is. The contradiction between my interest in immutable mathematical concepts and messy music making came to such a point that I simply had to “go there”.
It’s hard to say how these interests actually get used in practice, the attraction for me has always been more theoretical/philosophical. The primary interests for me are fundamental epistemological and ontological questions, as in, what are mathematics and computers and what can (and can’t) they tell us about the world. In reality, it’s hard to bring that to bear in the practice of music making. It certainly helps, if you’re recording music with a computer (as I do), to have a bit of understanding about what’s technically happening. In general, my music making is much more schematised than it used to be but that’s more on account of a conditioned attitude than for the purpose of any practical application.
The live set I’ve been performing recently is performed entirely on a modular synthesiser and I’m making use of a sample and hold module and a logic gate module to generate rhythms. These are the fundamental components required to a construct a digital computer with which to make music, so I like to jokingly think of that synth almost as a “deconstructed” DAW (digital audio workstation). It’s mostly likely hare-brained and deserves a deeper contextualisation than I’m willing to give but I’m working from a minimal proposition that all that is schematic is not computational and this manner of audio synthesis provides me with a creative way of feeling my way through that idea.
The phone rings. The phone rings again. There’s no one there to pick up at the white walled, white floored, fluorescent lit Institute — all hastily cleaned blood stains and distant moans. You stay on the phone anyway, listening to the hideous dial tone. Like electronic bees phasing in and out of this world, driving the listener insane.
The beat hits, in that soft way, designed to bruise. The orderlies know all the tricks. As does Qual.
The Geometry of Wounds mainlines that nexus between Industrial and Cold Wave. A point in space where you’re not sure if they weren’t just two dimensions of the same being, ripped apart by nationality. Minor key melody that summons up the sadness of approaching nuclear catastrophe? Check. Arpeggiated synths suggesting that we’re living in an impersonal computer world? Gloriously present. And a voice, a voice deep and filled with horror.
Qual’s album Sable is out now on AVANT! Records. You can grab the LP right here.
While it not be quite the most exalted pantheon in music history – Mavis Staples, Patti Labelle and The Time are in there, sure, but so are Martika, Vanity/Apollonia 6, Bria Valente, Andre Cymone, Tevin Campbell, Carmen Electra, Mayte Garcia, Sheila E., Sheena Easton, Ingrid Chavez and Taja Savelle – the labyrinth of Prince sock projects form a pretty fascinating alternate history to the conventional Prince lore offered in the rock mags.
One where rather than being the most alien-sexy pop star of all time, Prince was some dude who wrote kinda pervy-kinda funky songs for other people.
Pre-religion Prince was obviously pretty obsessed with sex, but most pointedly seemed to be his interest in it from a women’s perspective. He adopted female personas and mapped his own hypersexualized, kinda icky but always funny ideas about rutting onto unfathomable parallel universe girl-Princes – most famously with Camille, the pitched-up-Prince who he scrapped a concept album by.
But his writing and production for actual women is often just as interesting. He possesses the ability like no other to be sappily romantic and utterly filthy within the same song, same line, even.
You get the feeling when he writes for women, though, that he isn’t attempting to sing from their perspective at all – every note and grunt and slap and orgasmic sigh of the music is indistinguishable from proper Prince, the vocal melodies and lyrics are unmistakably his, and so is the lasciviousness. No, this isn’t Prince trying to understand the female sex-psyche, this is Prince using pop music to cast himself in the image of a woman to better admire his purple self, find him all the more ravishing.
Here are two pretty cool examples, from 1987 and 1998 respectively:
Mai Mai Mai’s Petra is an instant classic of arcane ruin-porn, revelling on a melange of geology, architecture and occult history with the pervy gusto of H.P. Lovecraft or Arthur Machen.
You know the score: these collapsed structures we explore were built by creatures with mind-sets and values that are utterly alien to us, often as a tribute to gnomic deities representing base urges and the relentless march of entropy, itself manifested in the decay by which we are engulfed, and in the pounding beat and chthonic flailing of Mai Mai Mai’s flickering drone.
All the messages contained in this landscape are awful affirmations of our puniness, and of the meaningless of all our mundane efforts. We are insects crawling over the carcasses of dead gods. The only way we can hope for transcendence is by communing with the supernatural forces that might still linger in these ruins. We gaze into the void, and long for possession.
We use Paul Beauchamp’s Pondfire to balance our karma. Beauchamp created this beautiful record as a tribute to his grandfather, and as a remembrance of the farm in the Muddy Creek basin in North Carolina where he grew up. The album’s title refers to the pond by which Paul and his brother used to camp, drink beer and gaze at the stars.
We started listening to Pondfire unaware of its origin, and were immediately enthralled by the portentous simmer of its synthetic circumvolutions, its hazy harmonies spreading like the beacon of a lighthouse shining over a craggy coast where time has ground to a halt.
We thought of Laurie Spiegel’s golden silent words. We thought a poltergeist playing out at a cosmic scale, the gestalt formation of a discernible shape in the celestial tapestry, like the moment when the protagonist in an M.R. James story notices that strange visitation.
Perhaps we were gazing at the same sky as Paul and his brother did. Perhaps we were sensing, in the eeriness of this music, the ghostliness of Pondfire itself, the revenant from a place long gone, absorbed by a suburban sprawl which is the only monster in this story.
My clone awakes crying – as younger clones often do. I take it in my arms and whisper, then sing and rock the clone for an unspecified time until its fears have subdued, then gently lay it back down to sleep. This happens in repeating cycles at unspecified moments throughout the darkness.
As i clamber back into my recharging bay my co-unit reaches out to ask if our clone and myself are ok. We embrace and fall back to sleep.
I awake crying. No one is there to whisper or take me in their arms. This happens in repeating cycles at unspecified moments throughout the darkness.
I began to notice my defects once my first clone arrived. My programme had always been limited – good for some tasks and not others. My co-unit and myself had always supported each other utilizing our varied task management abilities, but suddenly nothing in my programme was good enough for my co-unit.
As my obvious defects became more apparent I became more and more of an unwanted component, deliberately avoiding tasks I knew I my co-unit would class me as failing in, till eventually I collapsed inwardly – only able to carry on a pretence of being autonomous. An older unit began to replace me in most tasks.
Reprogramming sessions led to hostility and a seemingly endless cycle of defects. A bug was identified, but inside I knew the bug was a symptom not the cause of malfunctions.
The bug gained traction as greater and greater resources were placed into fixing it. Any behaviour could now be firmly blamed on the bug – an end of level baddie that could never be defeated – the bug was indistinguishable from myself for my co-unit.
We moved to a new habitation zone, with larger demands on already collapsed faculties. I was re-deployed to a more demanding role within the capitalism to gain enough credits for the new habitation. The new role also served to make my co-unit find more defects and file them against the bug.
Perhaps inevitably my co-unit identified new defects which meant we could no longer share our recharging bay. Defects which were previously repaired were left languishing with no love or communication. Remarkably after aborted attempts, somehow a second clone arrived.
The defects my co-unit identified in my own unit now became too great for them to continue with and i was completely replaced in their support structure by an older unit my co-unit had been raised by, who had already replaced most of my basic functions once the first clone arrived.
I was relocated to a separate habitation over a year ago.
My clone awoke crying – as younger clones often do. I take it in my arms and whisper, then sing and rock my clone for an unspecified time until its fears have subdued, then gently lay it back down to sleep. This happens in repeating cycles at unspecified moments throughout the darkness.
As i clamber back into my recharging bay by co-unit reaches out to ask if the clone and myself are ok. We embrace and fall back to sleep.
I awake crying. No one is there to whisper or take me in their arms. This happens in repeating cycles at unspecified moments throughout the darkness….
The spirit of dance music stalks us, always. Like a particularly fond addiction, it waits eternally for us to succumb to its charms. And so it was with Boan’s debut LP. Arriving at the beginning of the month on Holodeck, it’s haunted our digital music aether ever since.
So much so that we found ourselves — the 20JFG gestalt — at the newly renovated AudioPatterns to see the incomparable Optimo on a Saturday night. There was dancing. We tell you this as a confession. The invisible red thread wound its way from mp3 to club floor and we were lost again, to the acid (not the acid).
And what brought this whole thing on? Boan’s epic, seductive offering atop a cyclopean temple to the gods of acid:
Not content with the acid, Boan Acid weaves in Freestyle and those amazing digital steel drums that The Knife had so much fun with. But the synths here have dominion. So much so that they’ll cut off vocals, summon kick drums, hypnotise bloggers into dancing for three and half hours straight. Their power knows no mortal’s law.
Boan Acid is taken from Boan’s Acid via Cold Wave opus Mentiras. Which you can get from Holodeck Records right here.