“Modernity invented the future, but that’s all over”, wrote Nick Land in his 1995 essay. “In place of a way forward they deliver a hypermedia product, telling you it’s about Georges Battaille.” “A brand new Radiohead jigsaw is available to purchase from the W.A.S.T.E. Store”, reads a 2021 dispatch from the band’s merchandise webstore, “now that you have completely run out of things to say to each other.” Sneering cynicism nonetheless prophetic.
In a number of ways in the 20th century, new sounds ruptured: generic borders; creative communities; circulatory modes; media themselves. The searing distortion of a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo in 1969 was only conceivable, technically, through overloaded circuitry and saturated magnetic tape, a breach of media’s limits, modernity’s true excess. Capitalism always seeks to refold that excess into recaptured value. The danger of excess is necessarily in the margins’ spilling-out, or spilling-over, a vital technical assemblage incapable of managing sudden surges in signal, abrupt deviations in direction. The contained uncontainable by virtue of containment, always striving for escape. Though, the idea of a freer future was replaced in the 2010s with an ambient hopelessness, intended to stretch through and smooth over every possible rupture, and to make the most of the appearance of instability in an otherwise entirely stabilized economic environment.
The notion that cultural objects should exude aesthetic newness on par with consumer products, or more accurately with vintages, or provide commentary upon contemporary subjects as might a late-night chat show, betrays the capitalist productive model’s absurd arbitrariness. But it is not enough to say that art supersedes capitalism’s unsentimentality; rather it is wholly reliant upon it. Hence, Radiohead’s bleak brand identity just as easily adapts to climate change or pandemic-themed products. Taylor Swift in 2014 can release eight seconds of noise on iTunes and in so doing blur the boundaries between pop and noise audiences. Disguised as anthropology, the culture machine — distanced, objective — barely bats a lash.
Reality itself in the 2010s was becoming too complex, too diverse, too unmanageable, to represent with a single artist, genre, or even a cluster of them. Concurrently, the idea of something so radical as to entirely upset the dominant cultural order became less palatable in the midst of an increasingly uncertain quotidian climate. In the face of this complexity, genre ceased to be the organizing principle around which scenes and movements formed. Around this explosion of generic homogeneity came a circumscribing streaming industry seeking to enfold all of recorded music’s history, present, and future, into the cloud. Quickly, playlists replaced albums; moods replaced genres. Moods implied affective manageability — nothing to disrupt the apparent simplification of complexity. All music is hypothetically Muzak under this model, nothing so extreme that it cannot be tamed by curation. The curatorial turn is a kind of cultural compression, maximizing value by minimizing shock, the 21st century’s Big Unwanted.
We can think of compression more generally as a technical method to smooth out outliers of frequency and amplitude in order for sound to adhere to the standards of recording and broadcast media, and ultimately to protect equipment from damage and destruction. The automation of risk in the market at large is reflected in the automation of side-chain compression in musical production, the compression algorithm always anticipating sonic attack, apparently predicting the unpredictable, meanwhile obscuring its regularity, its inevitability.
The collapse of musical genre was naturally preceded with the analogous collapse of literary genre described by Fredric Jameson in his analysis, Postmodernism: “…the older genres, released like viruses from their traditional ecosystem, have now spread out and colonized reality itself, which we divide up and file away according to typological schemes which are no longer those of subject matter but for which the alternative topic of style seems somehow inadequate.” Enter technics as typological scheme; Mumford’s clock, giving structure to the unstructurable, imposing the human schema upon Heavenly order. Just as MIDI’s clock inscribed standardized time into electronic music’s initially tenuous architectures, side-chain compression removes the immediate shock of time as a variable from music’s experimental aesthetic equation.
There are two examples of compression that, I believe, transcended the order of function, and do more than simply represent some disparaged deceleration of cultural zeitgeist, to become a form of aesthetic critique of capitalism’s numbing shock-absorption impulse. The first is intentional, in the work of James Leyland Kirby, aka The Caretaker; the second is unintentional, in Colin Stetson’s 2016 reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony.
Mark Fisher in his kpunk entry entitled “Running on Empty” correctly identified Kirby’s reappropriation of obscure Ballroom and Big Band-era recordings, decrying, “We can’t hear technology anymore.” But, through no fault of his own, Fisher might have been listening for too obvious markers, for some self-evident traits that would make themselves insistently apparent. Rather, technology in The Caretaker’s recordings is obscured not least in its volumetric compression. By extremely squeezing the dynamic range of these archival recordings, Kirby thrusts the record’s surface noise above and beyond the material superficiality of the recording. Noise haunts these recordings devoid of historical context, collapsing the past and the present onto the same unbroken groove.
Conversely, the volumetric compression on Stetson’s recording is sheer function over fashion. The compression’s attack is uniform in time — it manifests ostensibly inaudibly but regularly at somewhere under 100ms — which produces a kind of repetitive breathing rhythm that comes to dominate the recording, much like negative space vies for attention in black-and-white imagery. As the sound pressure level approaches the compression’s threshold of attack, the auditory impression is akin to a speedboat skimming very quickly over choppy waters, making superficial contact only when the wave crests to meet its fleeting bottom. The technology of compression, and its aesthetic blueprint, not only evade a sense of future shock but furthermore deactivate shock’s most powerful ally: surprise. Figuratively and literally, aesthetically and technically, time itself was under attack in music over the past ten years. Technology may not have delivered new forms of culture, but technology nonetheless revealed the imperfections, the cracks, shocks — that which culture through recording (that is, through selective memory) seeks to suppress, deny, and erase. No longer any thing outside time.
As the world endures through the coronavirus crisis, cultural production is not just metaphorically in a state of perpetual suspension. And the previous decade, in retrospect, looks an awful lot like cultural preparation for a term of arrested development. This, too, works in capital’s favour, neutralizing another potentially revolutionary site, forcing meaning further into the subconscious of technical aesthetics, making it that much more difficult for the analyst to tease out any new truths. The duty of culture has ceased to be to determine and posit coordinates in response to the question, “where are we now?”, and rather to simply assert a perpetual “now, we are.” If there is no future, neither is there space nor time. “’So, it’s all over,’ you mumble weakly”, Land, that is, mumbling on our behalf: “He shrugs, emptying his glass, and refilling it.” Who is the ‘He’ here? He who creates that which we call new?