The Future Wears a Mask

A problem with the future is that everyone wants to be the one to find it. Just as the music press has often prided itself on having found “the next big thing”, we all want to be the ones to have picked up on the emergent strand, that one element of the present which presents a radical break, the coming of the new. Recently, I’ve noticed some grappling with this, partly in Simon Reynolds [worth reading] piece on “Conceptronica” and some of the murmurings surrounding it and associated acts. Reynold’s piece asks “Why so much electronic music this decade felt like it belonged in a museum instead of a club”, which in itself is not an uninteresting point of inquiry, one that he does his bit to look into; yet I feel there was something missing here. Past all the careful investigation, it comes back to that tagline and the failure to really address it.

One of the artists featured in the piece was Holly Herndon, specifically regarding her latest album, PROTO, an album which from the outset dreams big, in itself no bad thing, about the potentials of AI and technology, attempting to bridge the gap between choral, folk and more traditional musics and the collective ecstasy of the rave via the means of a collective pooling of voices into a kind of personified construct. The ideas swirling around the project scream the future, they grapple with emergent technological issues that may come to effect us all, and seem to point to potential new forms of collectivity through the medium of these very technologies. The problem for me, however, starts when we pass from the script, the blurb, and into the music itself, despite having the impression it was somehow supposed to be everything I’m interested in, a cultural attempt to scout out new futures, a bridging of subjective and objective gaps via music… The thing was, however, that the music left me completely cold.. it came off like a vaguely interesting series of experiments but nothing really imprinted itself beyond some particularly beautiful/ugly passages. It was at point of contact that the ideas, the concept seemed to dissipate into what may have been an impressive technological leap but just came off like a series of vocal glitches and effects, a sound that just didn’t conjure what it said it did. There existed a fundamental disconnect here between what was supposed to be happening and what actually was.

This isn’t a universal problem with all the artists Reynolds mentions, but it is something that I find is also present precisely in the museum press releases and statements he evokes, something that continues to dog contemporary art shows everywhere and lends to this general sense of disappointment or emptiness. The false idea has long been that the main problem with such writing is simply that it is “pretentious waffle” that it is incomprehensible, that it is simply a kind of pseudo-deleuzian art-speak babble that serves to alienate viewers. This may be true, but it’s only half the story, the other being the distance that is covered between the writing, the build up or blurb, and the art itself. Countless times I have read about what a piece of art is supposed to do but been encountered immediately by its failure to actually do it. It takes the same form as a narrative dissonance where we are told what kind of character we are watching or reading about while that character fails to materialise in the story itself, and the times we may have encountered someone who tells us one thing about themselves while enacting the very opposite. It’s not that its actively or maliciously misleading, but rather that it skips the unskippable beat, that it gets ahead of itself, beats itself to the finish line, and insodoing, unmasks itself.

It perhaps shouldn’t bear mentioning, but music directly positioning itself conceptually around the future does not make it of the future any more than lasers and androids are the sum of science fiction as a genre. It is possibly the largest mistake we can make about culture to assume that its proclamations of concept, that its evocations form the whole of its content and form. In other words, music that arrives in a cloak of future imagery and technological innovations does not automatically evoke such ideas in its execution. What I find here is that the mistake is a assumed prioritising. Similarly to the Logocentrism of western philosophy attacked by Derrida, here the content of words is placed above their form and textures in a cultural context, lyrical content above the timbre of voice, speaking above writing and photography above painting.

This brings me to something brought up by both Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun, and that is the place of the cultural critic not simply as a tastemaker, expert or institution, but as an intensifier. It is through such writing that sounds and images, are libidinally heightened, that they are interpreted in some sense and amplified. It also makes me think of the way Ian Penman, specifically in the essay on Sinatra included in his recent collection but throughout his work, puts so much focus not merely on what is being sung, said or we could say even written, but how. Sinatra took a significant amount of influence in his singing from observing horn players and their inflections, pauses and emphasis, and here we begin to see a fundamental rift that often persists between music writers and musicians themselves [where the whole “dancing about architecture” canard arises]. While you will find many music writers searching for a kind of explanation, an exposition of language-born meaning to the music, indeed this has developed into a blatant overvaluing of “pure” lyrical content itself, on contact with a musician, for all their ideas and concepts it quickly becomes apparent that all this is in service to the sound itself.

In a recent piece on Debussy in London Review of Books, Nicholas Spice mentions how Adorno found distasteful Debussy’s supposed Fetishism of the materiality of sound, and the way in which Schoenberg himself mocked Adorno’s championing of him [“Was macht die Musik?” “Sie Philosophiert”].. both of these indirect interactions between musician/composer and philosopher speak something of the above disconnect, of a certain misunderstanding that the critic or theorist in their pomp might stand to make in demanding a certain conceptual rigour from the work they’re addressing. It leads to writing and analysis that for all its complexities, for all its length or reference points, often fails point blank to evoke the power of the music itself, functions at a kind of arms length from its subject, refusing to actually delve into the murky worlds of sonic texture and rhythmic communication, the cracking of the voice or the artificiality of an instrument. It is probably worth mentioning in the same breath here Susan Sontag’s call for an “Erotics” over an “Interpretation” of the arts, something that feeds into a sense that what music writing so often abandons is a sense of precisely of the materiality of its subject. For all Adorno’s disdain for the formulaic nature of pop, he missed an important element of it, and that is the effect of the sound itself.

This isn’t to evoke some kind of sublime here [something that most obviously Sontag argues against], some kind of primal spiritual presence or romanticised purity of the material, rather something of the opposite, that the writer can here function as something of an interpreter or amplifier for its effect. Some of the best sleevenotes I’ve found for instance have served just such a purpose in channelling the intensity of sound, the atmosphere of it, rather than providing a bone dry exposition of content. This is the last point at which we want to find a scientific thesis, but a plane of the poetic elaboration, of the power of masks and theatre. Rather similarly to the way in which we use clothes and makeup to construct rather than hide ourselves, it is in the resonances of the surface rather than a phantasmic pure nugget of authenticity beneath that we encounter the complexities and conceptual potency of art.

In a post about Japan’s Tin Drum, Mark Fisher asked, after Deleuze in Logic of Sense, “why, if superficiality is defined as lack of depth, is depth not defined as lack of surface?” This question still bears a good deal of consideration today, even as in response to the overload of signs and information the modern world heaps upon us we continue to find recourse to fantasies of some pure existence away from “modernity”. Here it is assumed that there lies an ideal sublime underneath the trash of the everyday, that if we scrape away the layers of makeup we find the real identity beneath. Such attempts at a kind of demystifying ambition, where we find a kind of absolute space or identity lurking beneath its surface, belies that it is precisely in this surface that an expanse of complexities and unspoken resonances emerge. It is the mask worn by the actor, the makeup and the costume, that construct the character, and is there anything gained by searching for the scaffolding beneath in the hope of an instructional document, some unadulterated truth? Indeed rather than an era of superficiality, might it be just as apt to ascribe to this current moment a priority of transparency? It’s something we’ve come to expect in all things that they remain true to themselves, real. You do you, just do your own thing… I’m just a normal bloke like you… isn’t this transparency, this injunction to bare all at all times, the constant deference to the authentic, the problem?

So rather than try to either ground or justify the music via the concept underpinning it, the kind of writing and exposition Reynolds talks about in relation to “Conceptronica” might be better served if they didn’t take as a point of assumption the music-as-thesis, art as pointing towards resolution, recourse-to-explanation of the museum piece itself. Against the backdrop of a kind of widespread disavowal of surface in favour of a supposed depth, it seems that the only way we can think of communicating complexity of ideas is via an accompaniment, by something beyond or above. The vicissitudes of futurity are that of the event, that of retrospective causality. Pointing towards a future potential in an artist due to their technological or conceptual proclivities says nothing in truth of the future, something which always lies masked. It is not in the process, in the conceptual underpinnings of a musical project that we might seek to place it in some kind of alternative canon, some kind of potential future form, but in its textural qualities and effects. If we wish to perceive the reverberations of as yet unheard futures, then it is to be found in the material of sound, the performance and surface, and the ambiguities and spectres held within this echo chamber of affects. If the future always wears a mask, then only an examination of masks, a serious approach to superficiality, will tease out its fragile strands into the light of day.

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