Computerized Counterpoint

A sample of the music I'm referring to can be found here. You could even download it and listen to it while reading this post, if you like.

I believe I have Tweeted several times, while in unconditional throes of synthesized ecstasy, my overwhelming enthusiasm for David Borden.

"Synthesized" refers to synthesizers, by the way, and not the org-chem creation of ecstasy, as in the drug. My ecstasy resulted from the electrical pulse modulation noise.

And synthesizers refers to the archaic instrument of the future, not to a SF-induced category of as-yet-nonexistent drugs, which enable your body to meld across time-space by implanting tachyons directly into your time-cortex, via nanomachine pump. After proper mutation only, of course.

I just want to make sure we're all on the same page here.

David Borden is one of a school of musicians playing experimental compositions from the 70s into the 80s and beyond, playing with large amounts of choreographed repetition, and such techniques as counterpoint. By counterpoint, I mean the not-necessarily new technique (Bach was the original popularizer) of playing different sequences of notes that would not be harmonic on their own, but when synchronized together, they still form a musical effect.

By experimental, I mean his records are really hard to find, and are often collected by people into other experimental artists, like John Cage, Robert Reich, Philip Glass, and so on.

But the synthesizer! Oh the synthesizer!

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about the synth that gives Borden's music such a rare dynamism. The synth has such a varied history. It ushered in the era of "electronic" music, sounds created not from any physical vibration of strings or soundboxes, but instead vibrations in the circuit--transistor induced oscillations, resistor-sculpted sine-waves riding the harsh green light of early monitors, modulated intensities of pulse energy, pulled from its light-speed stream to flow through paper-covered magnets, condensing the background hum of the radiative universe into sounds our antiquated bodies were able to perceive.

But synth has also represented the height of cheese in music, taking the rebellion of the Moog and fitting it to the reactionary keyboard sound of pre-programmed melodies, for pre-programmed people. It became the cheap copy of music, showing up in the back of TV shows, elevators, and cheap lounges, where the digital revolution hadn't yet reached to free music from its expensive arbiters, and the cheap reproduction of brass, drums, and strings would do well enough, though slowly driving us mad through its insidious appropriation of the quiet corners in life--the silence of a waiting room, the pauses in waiting on phone lines, and the places within buildings where radio waves could not penetrate and the Internet/mobile universe had yet to explore. Porn films, muzak, and discount discos. Synth became synonymous with cheap noise, a lack of quality and a papering-over akin to bulk-purchase paint.

But listening to David Borden, this collection of faded wax begins to break down. I can feel the excitement of the future once again. The sound of the wall being broken down by new technology. The wonder and the mystery, the fear and the danger, of sounds coming from a mere jumble of wires.

Listening to "The Continuing Story of Counter-Point", I feel this enthusiastic fear of the future. Between the counterpoint notes lies the wonder of the computer age as it was originally felt--in the mystery of the molded plastic box sitting on the desktop, the strangely mechanical and yet knuckle-popping eroticism of a 5 1/4" diskette being inserted into its drive, and in the shadowy mystique of green graphics splayed across the black mirror of a CRT screen. In those interior circuit boards, entire metropolises might very well exist, their uncanny future of dystopic speed a vision of our own, understood in fantasies of digital ghosts and disembodied electronic doppelgangers, dreams of viruses not even microns in length because their existence was in the ideal reality of information, and of sentience so new as needing to be taught to speak. A potential deux ex machina to the human race, simultaneously the prime mover of the next; these are the haunting specters not of old crimes, but of potentially apocalyptic dreams. The only thing worse than the memory of past misdeeds is the oracular-telephony--Oedipus' new technological prototype--the uncanny digital-prolapse in knowledge of the unavoidable fate of the future's cataclysmic desires.

SF felt this wonder mightily, and imbued their creations with its aesthetic of future trauma in the language of the present tense. In David Borden's oscillating score I hear the insinuated anxiety of flying above Blade Runner's Los Angeles, the diving rhythm more than compensating for the lack of visual flames, and the steady drone of Vangelis' own synth compositions radiating from the environment. In this world the advertisements are the only visible feature in the sky, and the synth warms us to the concept of new diseases, the synthetic frailty of life we are currently in the process of inventing.

I can feel it also mirroring the excitement and tremor of coming events, like in the opening subway ride of The Warriors. Barry De Vorzon's synth in this sequence is the teenage push, the libidinal id overly prevalent in these futures, because regardless of whether or not we are aging rapidly or finding eternal life, the world is constantly new to us, an uncomfortable ocean of emotional triggers we will never learn how to respond to properly, because the hormonal imbalances brought on in the desiring-milleau of the future can never resolve themselves to a millenial cosmos forever on the first-day of its unfolding. The guitar riffs may be the same, but they'll be heard looking out of the front of a high-speed subway car, looking down into the darkness of the tunnel ahead. In this future, everything will always be violently different.

Even in the misunderstandings of the technology we find the same aesthetic. Take Tron, Disney's paradigm of anthropomorphism. The humanity of computing components aside, this world is painted in glowing luminosity on its edges, but its planes are composed of the dark void. Power is rampant, though it takes the storybook guise of the evil sorcerer of old. In this current-future we live above entertainment arcades, working on designing what plays out below, even entering this circuit system ourselves. But whether the ligature of the circuit actually is the highway it resembles, we are still in the system--and isn't this the source of our anxiety, and the basis of our charge of thaumaturgy? Computers are the demons we so welcomingly invite into our homes. Journey may grab the title tunes in the soundtrack, but Wendy Carlos' synth score is the main-stream nightmare, Disney-fied.

The paranoia finds its climax in Terminator. Nothing more than a B-grade stalker/shooter on its face, we are forced into the depths of speculative fiction to think about the cyber-time'd cyborg sex roles between human and machine. Anxious, murderous death represses the orgasmic little death in this film, as red-eyed, mindless pursuit replaces our truly dangerous desires of fusion with machines. The dance club is called, "Tech-Noir", and the fashion-stagnant crowd dances to the synth beat in a despicable love of newness and consumer technology, while meanwhile the machinery underneath the flesh stalks its female victim, naturally attempting to forestall the the future fecundity of its womb. This might be the caricature, and the tag-line bringing them into the theater. But when you watch the chase scenes, seeing bullets traded between these species from the windows of the now archaically-huge detroit dinosaurs, flying under one present's Los Angeles circuit board of highway structures, molded in history's undestructibly cheap concrete that will one day form merely the rubble, like a beach of our smashed skulls, the synth takes on the aspect of pure fear, pumping from the speakers like adrenaline into our blood stream, emoting the danger and darkness of 80s LA with thermonuclear blast punctuated by a laser's harsh glare.

This is an synth-aesthetic that is now dead to us. When we view these representations of the future, they seem retroactively passe, trapped within a time-period of hairstyles, pop music, cars, and obsolete technology.

But maybe this technological-consciousness is not obsolete, but simply changed. Our technology now serves a different role, prompting us to explore nowness, rather than the future. Our technology is developed and designed to blend in, and to form a seamless element of our consumer environments. The aesthetic replaces function in many instances, rather than stemming from the function, or its future-potential function. We no longer look at disk drives as a remarkable fusion of the mechanical with the ideal. Now we design our flash drives to look like other things. We don't hunch in front of work stations, cramping our bodies around the square physicalities of glass-enclosed electron guns, relying upon our imagination to translate text into space. Everything is ergonomic, designed with clean lines and recessed flat screens, fitting in the pocket as easily as a neoprene bladder, becoming flat and light, meant to blend in with its surroundings rather than be the component center of attention. The electromagnetic consciousness has been reduced to nothing. Now we expect our machines to survive drops to the floor, and being dunked in a latte. There were days when we purged our workspaces of all electromagnetic interference, from too-large electric motors, to tiny refrigerator magnets and toys. We were conscious of fields, and their effect upon the data. Magnet data extended its importance into a presence, a scientific element of the environment, and storage material was treated with a necessary respect. Now this is outsourced to server farms, almost never touched by human hands--to the "cloud", the ancient coupling of existence without weight, bespoken of the Olympic firmament, rather than the world we inhabit. It isn't humans that have been isolated, enslaved, and reduced to their usefulness like slaves. We have enslaved the computer, and destroyed its humanity.

We have removed its life-blood, we have reduced its sense of speed. They grow faster all the time, but now in invisible ways, beyond the scope of our keeping pace with them. The speed must be measured to be understood, rather than felt through the clicking of servos and circuit diagrams. The chase is over, and the war is won. The power of information conjured from thin electricity is now about as mystical as running water, a din covered over in the background, which we can turn up our headphones to avoid. The clicking of the hard drive was the sound of a heart beating, but now a good machine is a quiet machine. Synth no longer stands out, imbuing sound with a bursting fullness of modulated frequency, but forms the back beat, made ambient by the continuing presence of fashion and character, that everpresent reality of commodified music, technology's intrusion into this field no more than a passing fad of notice, easily outsourced to samples and re-instrumented hooks.

Computers do not stand in counterpoint to humanity any longer. This surfacing current has been smoothed over, pushed back into the desiring-flow of culture, resurfaced only reshaped and appropriated, as a bit of kitch, or a example of the pace of history: a beginning point for the graph of Moore's Law. The alien quality of the digital was once its allure, but now it is a measure by which it can be placed into dead history.

Luckily, counterpoint itself seems to be a technique never fading in the human sense of aesthetics. The rebounding, echoing repetition of contrasting patterns is hardwired, we might say. The one to our zero, perhaps. Or maybe the zero to our one. It is no time at all to wait for its next instance, when the accelerating rythym swings back the other way, bathing us once again in that uncanny green glow of the free-radical of time.

Until then, we still have David Borden's music, if you can find it.

No comments: