Arca, dear Alejandro, here we stand next to the diving board, watching you cannonball and backflip and sometimes just plain old dive-- it is a spry, graceful dive-- into the deep end, getting us all positively soaked in the process. There are people, Alejandro, who do not want you getting them wet. People sunbathing next to this pool who want their magazines to stay crisp. They ask, “Why do you do this, Alejandro? Why can’t you be like MikeWillMadeIt and stick to playing Marco Polo with the popular boys? Why can’t you just keep it simple and soulful like Dev Hynes?” Arca, you are killing them, don’t you know?
At least you are killing Britt Brown, and we must assume that if The Wire has published his screed, then there are others who share his opinions. In his review of Xen, Britt Brown says your sounds are fundamentally vacuous, just meaningless experimentations, when not graced by performers with true star power, like FKA Twigs or Kanye West. Some people find boundary pushing more palatable in a pop context, just like how some men find their wives sexier wearing lingerie.
Some people have very firm ideas of the way art should be, and don’t want those ideas complicated by, say, an album of music that was not designed to be an easy listen, or even particularly legible with regards to codes of electronic music from any past other than a very recent one. You seem like the type who is much more interested in “what’s next” than in the good old days. This is a demanding ambition, admittedly, as many listeners seek comfort in the familiar. Hence we have classic rock radio stations which play the same 60 songs year after year. “What’s next” is not something listeners like that want to deal with.
One of Britt Brown’s critiques is that you’re just good with your software, implying that you are some sort of technology wiz who has yet to master the principles of music. Style over substance, flash over form-- he implies that this is your M.O. It’s a hairy critique to navigate, because of the fact that your tools are among the most cutting-edge, and that the avant-garde niche of electronic music you’re working in is indeed infatuated with fresh sounds. If those sounds grate certain ears-- perhaps ears trained for analog synthesizers and hardware drum machines-- then you have lost those listeners outright. They may think you’re just tinkering with software, little more.
Your “Refusal to pursue ideas to fruition,” Britt Brown suggests, “may also explain something of [your] generational appeal. Nations of curious culturehounds skimming video and audio waveforms in search of content has [sic] birthed an aesthetic of impatience, clickbait, listicles, streaming previews.” Sheesh. You see, Alejandro, while Britt Brown is being self-righteous, not to mention a bit ridiculous, I don’t think he is all that upset with you; he is upset with the geist (German for “spirit,” used by Hegel to describe a tradition as shaped by its participants and revisionists) of internet culture in its totality. As such, I take his words very personally. Sorry, but I need to make this about me for a second; I have a sneaking suspicion that Britt Brown is the type who would identify the primacy of my personal gripe as a symptom of millennial social media culture. I think that our generation’s propensity to skim video and audio waveforms with no sense of a limit is what makes us so creative, so informed, so brilliant in a brand new way.
I remember in the nascent days of AdHoc, Ric and Emilie would hop on Turntable.fm and DJ all sorts of sounds, from Chicago ghetto house to psych from Earth’s far corners. I would not be surprised if they downloaded these sounds from the internet. Isn’t that beautiful, to have a wide scope of human expression at your fingertips? Isn’t it beautiful to be able to share these parcels of individual experience with a community, one accessible via the simple decision to log onto Turntable.fm and for some reason choose AdHoc radio? After all, what is the likelihood that some Turntable.fm user logged on to hear some Sun Araw and was soon turned on to DJ Funk’s raunchy, high-BPM house music? Instantaneously, one’s perception of what music could be would be expanded.
On a similar note, I was recently turned on to a YouTube user called DigimonDude420. Mr. Dude420 has a Twitter feed where he posts his finest finds, but you can spend hours watching the hundreds and hundreds of videos that makeup his “Favorites” playlists on YouTube. You can watch a man drink an entire 40 of Colt 45 Double Malt while standing in a misty, shallow pond. You can watch a girl ask the public for money because her efforts at starting a cam channel on PornHub and scamming on the black market proved futile. DigimonDude420 also shares a lot of videos from this guy who shows off all of the elaborate gizmos and gadgets that are installed in his truck and refers to himself as “Fedsmoker.” The list goes on, ad infinitum.
How does DigimonDude420 do it? One can only imagine that this curious culture hound indeed skims videos. But does it not take the utmost patience, the deepest curiosity in the multi-varied iterations of the human condition, to wade through the terrifying hourly deluge of fresh uploads to YouTube to find the most bizarre, the most entertaining, the most heartbreaking ones?
Thanks to the internet, our generation understands a great scope of human existence; the lives of humans around the world are just so accessible to us today. To suggest that this culture hound lifestyle is one and the same with some widespread impatience, some generational ADHD, is to peddle close-minded fallacy. Doesn’t it take incredible patience to parse the glut of culture that’s at our fingertips and determine the small bit worth sharing with buds?
So ok, maybe Britt Brown is not attuned to our omnivorous, insatiable appetites for digital content. We can go ahead and let him off the hook for not understanding the intrinsic merit of the culture hound lifestyle. But what do we make of this simple phrase “refusal to pursue ideas to fruition”? Well, let me tell you, Alejandro, that I have been thinking about this one for a couple of weeks now, and I still cannot conceive of one circumstance in which a piece of recorded sound is not some idea pursued to fruition.
A field recording of cicadas begins with the idea, “Hey, I should record these cicadas.” A wire placed on the lapel of an informant starts with the idea, “Hey, we could record this drug deal.” A hip-hop beat often begins with, “Hey, I bet this sample would sound pretty cool looped.” Seemingly, the fruition is denied if the recording ceases-- if the field recorder runs out of juice, if the drug dealers beat the shit out of the informant and destroy the wire, if the producer spills beer on his sampler-- but isn’t the very act of hitting the record button fruition of the idea to record? On merit of making, you brought your ideas to fruition on Xen.
But Britt Brown is talking about something else, about his specific criteria for “fruition.” His criteria for your work specifically is met when your work is ceded to Kanye West or FKA Twigs or someone of the like. He wants your music to be functional, whether it is laying the groundwork for a pop song or made for dancing. But electronic music which descends from pop and dance that is purposely constructed to refuse such immediate gratification, which is meant to be listened to many times and pored over? That’s some bullshit, thinks Britt Brown.
I was talking to my roommate about Britt Brown’s review of Xen, and his response was, “So does this guy have an issue with noise music altogether?” That’s a good question that my roommate asked. My roommate was using “noise” as shorthand for any experimental music (a lot of us do), but let’s first answer the question literally asked and not the one implied. The short answer is that no, Britt Brown does not have an issue with noise music. With his label, Not Not Fun, he has released a whole mess of noise music, including some choice releases by Raccoo-oo-oon, Magick Markers, and Yellow Swans.
Alejandro, I will assume that you don’t consider your music as noise music in the strictest sense, as it doesn’t fit snugly into the grand tradition of Throbbing Gristle and Merzbow and Yellow Swans and Wolf Eyes. Also, formally, you do not make noise music. You do not sound like Skin Graft or even Container. Do you utilize noise? Sure! The left channel of the stereo mix on “Sisters”-- static noise in that ear with a beat in the right-- was riveting. You utilize many gestures like this, gestures which would fall under the umbrella of “experimental.” I’ts not hard to wonder why Britt Brown would release exper- imental music springing from a rock paradigm on his own label-- noise music, hypnagogic pop, “drone”-- yet have an issue with equally daring music that sprouts from dance and hip-hop paradigms.
Noise music in a macro sense--in the grand scheme of “what is music and what is just noise?”-- is music that refuses prescribed notions of what music is and should be. Oftentimes, ears need to be prepped for such rule-breaking, and perhaps an issue that you’re running into-- as well as Flying Lotus for that matter, who revealed this bit about himself in the same issue of The FADER that you were profiled in-- is that you are part of the true avant-garde: the front of experimenters that comes before others, making it safe for them to experiment. Erik Satie comes to mind as another figure who refused codes of Western classical music. Before he succeeded in making music safe for equally radical minds, many took him for a jester, little more.
Do you like Satie? I think Erik Satie is really cool, cooler than Fedsmoker, even. Isn’t it fascinating how one man (Satie, not Fedsmoker) changed the course of classical music so drastically? It’s impossible, I’ve found, to sit down and listen to Satie and not think of what came just before him. The latter half of the 19th century was effectively the domain of Richard Wagner, with his whole Gesamtkunstwerk (or “total work of art”) philosophy being one of the ultimate utilitarian imperatives ever articulated by a composer.
I mean, Bach composed harpsichord music for wealthy, powerful people to listen to in little chambers, but he never went as far as to say that harpsichord music attains its highest form when composed for wealthy, powerful people in chambers. Wagner, on the other hand, pretty directly stated that music achieved its highest form when it was a “total work of art,” or melded with other elements to create something greater than itself. He was an opera guy, so this entailed lyrics, costumes, sets, performance, so on. You could say that the Yeezus tour qualifies as Gesamtkunstwerk. This “total work of art” philosophy begets the conclusion that music only attains status as true art when someone with enough money decides to commission an opera or a tour for Kanye West, which will only be accessible to people with enough money to go see it. It’s one of the uglier incidences of Gesamtkunstwerk.
Erik Satie was just a guy who wrote some simple, beautiful pieces for pianos. I mean, that’s not all he did, but he is best known for his Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes. They are pretty, and meant to be valued as such. Satie’s purpose, I believe, was to lend the listener something simple and beautiful to enjoy for little more than the sake of beauty itself. It’s a modest desire when compared to Wagner’s prime operative.
Consider how radical, how important this modest desire is in the face of the geist of Western classical music, that Hegelian spirit guided by a series of masters and their versions of mastery. Moving from Bach through Mozart through Beethoven to Wagner, Western classical was focused on technical virtuosity, symphonic complexity, and a kind of psychological commandeering which was meant to emotionally broadside listeners like a proverbial artistic bus hitting a jaywalker. The West tends to value art that conveys purpose and evokes definitive reactions, which is why Oscars go to Holocaust movies.
So Erik Satie comes along and his music demands next to nothing. His notes for players include statements like, “Try your best,” and he doesn’t even draw out staves on his sheet music all that often. How you want to play his work is basically up to you, as he trusted the performer’s ability to communicate the piece’s simple beauty. Simplicity was not beautiful for Wagner. Total works of art were beautiful. What was beautiful to Satie? Space between notes, delicate chords, vibes, if you will. Satie was a viber. Wagner wasn’t much of a viber. Maybe the last real viber in the Western Classical tradition before Satie was Hildegard of Bingen, the medieval Christian mystic and plainchant composer.
Satie inspired a whole mess of vibage. Immediate disciples of his include Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Now, if we’re going to be honest here, Alejandro, I’d say you’re a lot more closely aligned to Debussy and Ravel than Satie, since the music on Xen is particularly ornate. Even the most clubby tracks on your album, like “Fish”-- what with its ice-cold industrial drum beat and hard-line temporal manipulation-- are a tad frilly by way of those delicate vocals samples. Following that immediately is the string-heavy “Wound,” which draws out the goose pimples and I’d assume tears if you were in the right state. This is definitely the stuff of late Romanticism, what with the nuanced dynamics and delicate touch, the brief compositions and channeling of emotion through texture. This is no surprise. You’re a classically trained pianist who, like so many of us who have an interest in music’s abilities to express something internal and ineffable, was attracted to the work of Romantics.
Debussy and Ravel pursued Satie’s imperative of beauty for beauty’s sake, and I believe that you do, too. Much like Satie (and later John Cage, but let’s just let that sleeping dog lie since I don’t want to go down that 2000-word rabbit hole right now), you mess around for the sake of messing around, asking the question, “Well, why does dance/pop/hip-hop/electronic music have to be that one way?” I think this is what Britt Brown is brushing up against, and why my roommate made that noise music comment. At the end of the day, noise music is all about a corruption of what music is supposed to be, a query of the very definition of music. My time with abstract music (noise and “noise”) has taught me that music is nothing more than sound, ordered and presented to some end.
Based on interviews you have given, it seems as if you see pop and hip-hop as plastic modes which can be wielded and welded to express your own emotions, including those surrounding the early psychosexual dissonance that birthed this alter ego, Xen. The only words on Xen are your track titles. The only “message” is a suggestion of emotions-- the sound of you pouring your heart out, yes, but sounds that demand little yet evoke much. Here we see the parallels to the Schumann that you studied when you were younger, in these intricate compositions meant to tease out those feelings that verbal language articulates so poorly. Xen is nearly the opposite of the pop music you produce for FKA Twigs, or the hip-hop you help Kanye with. On Xen you articulate effusively, not linguistically. The wonder is facilitated by the lack of an FKA Twigs imposing lyrical meaning and, as such, concrete meaning.
People have an issue with this basic idea since there are certain orders and presentations they have grown to like. Consider that Britt Brown releases particularly retro-leaning (if blissfully bizarre) pop music on Not Not Fun. Once again, we’re talking about his predilection for “back in the day” and not “what’s next.” The label’s most traditionally popular artists-- Peaking Lights, Maria Minerva, Ducktails-- engage fairly traditional structures and decades-old influences. Maybe for Brown, the future is a pesky distortion of what music once was. People like this create elaborate schemas to justify their evolving tastes, one which excludes certain new sounds which, for some reason, reek of everything that is wrong with culture today, what is wrong with kids these days, what is wrong with where this is all going.
Don’t worry about where this is going, Arca. Just keep pushing it forward.