Vague Terrain 15: .microsound


[Ant Scott / Repetitive Beats (detail) / 2008]

Ten Years of Not Being There

In the late 90s there was something lurking in the shadowy corners of electronic music: a slightly tarnished machine, covered with silver knobs and gleaming switches, nestled in a rat's nest of intricate cabling, sat blinking feverishly, stuck in an infinite loop of consume and recycle. From the looks of it electronic music was broken, churning out self-similar content at a breathtaking rate.



The promise of technology had failed us, leaving us to choose between two paths: the ivory tower of sterile academia or the seizure-inducing din of the dance club. Both paths, with a few exceptions, had become formulaic and resistant to innovation.

As a result, the musical malcontents among us began to look for ways to disrupt, subvert, and deconstruct digital audio in hopes of finding new ideas and sounds within.



Pioneers such as Yasunao Tone and Markus Popp of Oval helped forge a path by gouging, scarring and affixing small bits of tape to the surfaces of compact discs, wounding the medium, eking out the secret signals and hidden textures contained on compact discs using cutup techniques not unlike those of Burroughs and Gysin.



This 'disc bending', often typecast as 'failure', was more importantly a way of tinkering with technology below the surface. A peeling back of the shiny, hermetically sealed surface of digital audio, enabling musicians and composers to work with sound on a sub-atomic level, so to speak. If one were to examine the praxis of .microsound they would find this as a common denominator to all approaches.

This is not to say that the device of using 'accidents' or 'failure' didn't play a large role in the initial development of the .microsound aesthetic and even took some of its cues from “The Aesthetics of Failure: 'Post-Digital' Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music” (a paper I wrote for the Computer Music Journal in 2000) but what had become known as 'glitch' or 'clicks and cuts' was absorbed into the fabric of .microsound (and electronica in general) and was relegated to being a subset of ideas and techniques. Once plugins began to emulate the 'glitch effect' we saw what was once an exploratory mode of inquiry and critique quickly turn into a cliché.

As I watched this 'post-digital' aesthetic ferment due to advancements in computer technology and the Internet, I felt compelled to create a place on-line where like-minded artists could act as nodes in a network, exchanging ideas and information in hopes of resuscitating experimental electronic music.



On October 27th 1999, 5:01:33 GMT the .microsound list was born with this goal in mind.



The .microsound community, drawing from areas as discontinuous as Gilles Deleuze, Curtis Roads and the Aphex Twin, is a 'body without organs' in Deleuzian parlance; an amorphous object, a fluid changing shape as its poured into different containers.

In writing a description for the .microsound Facebook page I used some tags I had jotted down over the years: post-digital, laptop, glitch, aesthetics of failure, circuit bending, electro-acoustic, hydrophone recording, ultrasound, noise, bufferfuct, geophone, acousmatic, field recording and sound art. From this granular stream of tags I had hoped to form a vague contour, a sort of Shroud of Turin, capturing the blurred outline of .microsound.

All of which makes filling the container of an on-line arts journal with something amorphous like .microsound very difficult, like 'nailing jelly to a tree' to borrow an old saw. In order to bracket the various styles of sound art and music I used the Deleuzian concepts of 'smooth space' and 'striated space.' Striated space is where I put all the pieces that made use of gesture and beats while 'smooth space' is where I put pieces that made use of texture and internal movement. But within those two categories what constitutes a .microsound-sounding piece becomes blurred.



Yet here we are ten years later and it seems no-one can offer a stable definition of what .microsound is exactly. Journalists consistently get it wrong, outsiders get it wrong, and sometimes even some of our list members get it wrong by conflating it with 'glitch' or some other mutant strain of electronica. As of today there are no useful descriptions of tendencies in the contemporary practice of .microsound, which, in my opinion, gives testament to its success. This very success has become carved into the name itself as a prefix in the form of punctuation.

Appropriated from computer programming the '.' is used to make a file 'invisible' on a hard drive. Which in the case of .microsound just serves to further blur any visible contours, allowing it to quietly slip along a smooth surface undetected and stealth-like while the uninitiated are left scratching their heads. 


.microsound Compilations

Text & Video Contributions:

As Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, 'There is no there there.'



Here's to ten more years of not being 'there.'

Kim Cascone, San Francisco
October 2009