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Subversive Qualities in Experimental Practices

Our daily lives are constantly being changed by the impact of new technology. Mechanical technology was replaced by analogue and, later, digital devices. The different functions and designs of these devices determine our way of interacting with technology — today, instead of turning a wheel, we swipe and tap on a display. This development of technology also determines ways of creating electronic music.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, there has been an interplay between technological innovations and musical movements and ideas (see Katz 2004, 3ff). Following Luigi Russolo’s 1913 Futurist manifesto, The Art of Noises, inspired by the sounds of machines and urban life in cities, many artists of avant-garde music genres enriched their sound palette with acoustic or electronic noises. In the 1970s and 1980s, punk rock groups gave noise another stage and have influenced diverse musical movements through to today. In industrial music, these impulses were combined with ideas from Dadaism, Fluxus and Performance Art. Artists and musicians felt compelled to overthrow dominant traditions and make music without having learned to play any instrument. With noise and harsh sounds, these bands created compelling examples of energetic live performances. The last few decades were characterized by the constant progress of new and “improved” electronic technologies. But a countermovement started in the late 1970s when performers began to use older technologies such as record or tape players as instruments, or to modify and personalize electronic devices. In experimental music today, musicians explore and invent new and individual instruments to unearth new sounds and to develop distinct ways of interacting with technology. Appropriation, bricolage, hardware hacking or DIY trends have spread as individual answers to mass production.

In order to explore and understand these trends, I present artists of experimental electronic music genres whose practices come from these diverse musical and technical influences but show particular similarities in their subversive approach. New technological innovations force us to adjust to new ways of communication, new devices and software, as well as to new functions of these and existing technologies. Modern technology is easily accepted in society, often without reflection or critical discussion. 1[1. See, for example, the omnipresence of new media formats, mobile and internet-based ways for communication, new upgrades of computer software and hardware; new devices are often not compatible with media or devices of even the immediately preceding generation.] The sound artists’ practices of this article subvert such conventions by presenting alternative concepts. They unveil our limited understanding of the use of technology and therefore challenge our expectations and perception. Although linked to post-digital tendencies that, for example, Kim Cascone (2000) or John Richards (2008) describe, the examples below will refer to general alternative and contrasting ways of using technology. This article gives a snapshot of where we are now, suggests where to look for subversive qualities and considers what we can learn about our current relationship with technology.

Discussion: Subversive, Shocking, Bizarre

The term “subversion” can be understood in numerous ways and is context related. Subversion is a political tool and more generally a means that undermines instead of attacking or demanding (Kastner 2012, 42). In an artistic and avant-garde discourse, subversion is related to addressing æsthetic-political programmes and overthrowing traditions in art, such as in the manifestos of Futurists, Dadaists and Surrealists (Ernst 2008, 19). As a form of critique, subversive qualities expose and question a predominant system or convey a feeling of instability. Additionally, actions can have subversive effects on a system or society without intending to do so. Philosopher Jacques Rancière defines the politics of art “as a construction of sensual landscapes and as an emergence of ways of thinking that deconstruct consent and create new possibilities at the same time” (Rancière 2012, 184). 2[2. “Genau so verstehe ich auch die Politik der Kunst, nämlich als Konstruktion sinnlicher Landschaften und als Herausbildung von Sichtweisen, die den Konsens dekonstruieren und zugleich neue Möglichkeiten und Fähigkeiten schaffen.”] There is no implied destination required. Rather, æsthetic experiences show a political effect only if the logical structures have been rescinded (Ibid.).

There are several types of subversive arguments or strategies. Humour, for example, can be used as a subversive argument. Reigning dictatorships ban parody and critical comedic actions. Rules are made to be followed, not to be questioned. With jokes or irony, systems or rules are put on another level of understanding. Weaknesses or unconscious impacts of rules and traditions can be revealed. Rules are taken to another layer that is less strict and serious which allows reflective moments.

Video 1. Turntablist Joke Lanz, aka Sudden Infant, performing at West Germany in Berlin (Germany) on 19 December 2014. Youtube video “Joke Lanz at West Germany, Berlin 2014” (26:28) posted by user “Karin Weissenbrunner” on 17 February 2015.

For example Joke Lanz, whose work will be described in more detail later, includes many humouristic elements in his improvised turntable concerts. Using sound fragments from vinyl records on turntables, he lets voices stumble by scratching the records or contrasts a powerful and deep male singer’s voice with a little voice of a child with a hiccough singing Somewhere over the Rainbow3[3. For example at the end of Joke Lanz’s album Joke Lanz | Münster Bern [Cubus Records, 2012]. See also Video 1 starting around 18:30.] Joke Lanz uses recorded voice samples to play with and parody language and communication. In some situations, the audience interprets these elements as an invitation to interact. At a solo show at Berlin’s NK Project in 2013, Joke Lanz started his performance by playing a recording of a man’s scream, followed by a break of several seconds and then repeated some more times. Soon someone in the audience imitated the scream in those seconds of silence as a response and more and more people joined by screaming back, making fun by interacting with each other and the performer. Clearly the audience understood that the musical conventions in this venue were quite different from those of a traditional concert hall. Screaming as a listener and participating acoustically during a musical performance, especially in a musical break, without a specific invitation is in many musical traditions a gesture of disrespect or displeasure at the performer’s or composer’s presented work. With his collection of samples, the many breaks and comic elements in his performance, Joke Lanz challenges expectations and plays with the perception of musical form and performance concepts.

Noise can be considered as another subversive element in music. Experimental turntablists include many forms of noises in their concerts, such as noises of malfunctions. At the beginning of the 20th century, Luigi Russolo’s Futurist manifesto The Art of Noises inspired musicians and composers to think of noises as an equal supplement in their sound palettes. Since then, noise has gained multiple meanings, as Jacques Attali lists:

Information theory uses the concept of noise (or rather metonymy) in a more general way: noise is the term for a signal that interferes with the reception of a message by a receiver, even if the interfering signal itself has a meaning for that receiver. Long before it was given this theoretical expression, noise had always been experienced as destruction, disorder, dirt, pollution, and aggression against the code-structuring messages. In all cultures, it is associated with the idea of the weapon, blasphemy, plague. … In its biological reality, noise is a source of pain. (Attali, cited in Cox and Warner 2013, 4)

However, noise and its reception vary to a great extent and the term “noise” is very vague to describe all imaginable qualities of noise. The provocative or subversive effect of noise depends on the context and the time. The context is connected to the listener’s expectations, listening habits and traditions within the musical genres. Annoying and unwelcome qualities of noises, especially at high volume, served as a powerful tool for provocation, as Stephen Mallinder, founding member of Industrial Music group Cabaret Voltaire in the 1970s, remembers:

Noise, for us a Sheffield birthright, was the most effective tool in the box. Although most at the time were unaware of many of the readings into the inherent political and social power of noise, it was clearly a language of subversion. Noise defied order and control. It was a musical taboo. Sonic belligerence. It could destabilize. This was not entertainment, but it was fun. (Mallinder 2013, xi).

Apparently, noise was a means of subversion and provocation but the perceptions and therefore the meanings of noise change constantly. Robert Worby compares feedback and distortion noises in rock music, such as those heard in a Jimi Hendrix concert, with a drug experience (Worby 2000, 150). Tolerance to any drug is built up rapidly, which is a similar case with noise (Reynolds 2013, 57). Noise seemed radical once, but no longer. As Simon Reynolds claims:

Such a satisfying idea — noise annoys — at once simple-to-grasp kernel and yet capable of inflation into the most grandiose theories of subversion. But… who is there to be annoyed, and in what ways? What is noise anyway? (Reynolds 2013, 55)

Although Reynolds refers to noise in rock music, his concerns about tolerance seem valid in general: What if there is indeed nobody annoyed by noise anymore? In recent years, noise has been pushed into more and more extreme forms, such as in Japanese noise music.

Video 2. Marcel Duchamp in an interview by Joan Bakewell, speaking about challenging established values and shocking the public (24:58–26:57). YouTube video “Marcel Duchamp 1968 BBC interview” (27:50) posted by user “dennis liu” on 1 April 2013.

Similar problems exist with shock and surprise as a means to challenge established values in art, as was used in Surrealism, for example. Marcel Duchamp, well known for provocation with his concept of the objet trouvé, was aware of this problem. In an interview from 1968, he was asked whether it is still possible to shock the public, to which he responded: “That’s over, you cannot shock the public. At least with the same means. To shock the public, we’d have to… I don’t know what.” (Bakewell 1968, 25:00ff).

The requirement for a subversive effect is a stable order that is followed by a majority (Kastner 2012, 42). If a subversive characteristic is successful and the majority accepts it, it becomes an established value. Then it is no longer shocking, provocative or bizarre because the predominant system’s boundaries have expanded.

In the last century, many traditions were overthrown. Experimental practices of today explore borders in music and art, challenging current conventions in our digital culture. As a countermovement, these artists surprise audiences with alternative practices and stand out with their creative ideas of using electronic technology. These subversive qualities let us reflect on technological developments and their impact on our daily life. The examples in the following sections will show this in more detail.

The Touch of Sound Material

What I personally miss nowadays is the organic feeling for a body and the homemade ideas and constructions. Since computer technology found its way into the nursery, many brains have been synchronized. The speed of internet has definitely improved the quantity of outputs but for sure not the quality. (Lanz 2012, 20)

In the digital age of “bodiless” audio file formats stored on computers or physical media players (e.g., MP3, WAV), or streamed online, musicians want to use sound material that is tangible, manipulable and destructible — sound that comes with a physical representation, similar to a photograph on paper. Nicolas Collins, author of the book Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking that resulted from his workshops in response to demands from many musicians and students, emphasizes:

Using the [computer] keyboard’s command X and command V, [my students] could cut and paste anything. But what the computer offered in the way of power and universality was obtained at the expense of touch. (Collins, Introduction to Handmade Electronic Music on the author’s website [Last accessed 22 February 2015])

As a consequence, sound artists look for possibilities to treat sound in a direct and intuitive manner. Vinyl records, lengths of magnetic tape or objects amplified using contact microphones meet this desire best in comparison to algorithms, digital data or software. Ideas from Pierre Schaeffer, Marcel Duchamp or Milan Knížák are commonly employed in the exploration of such materials and technologies: pre-recorded sounds from vinyl records or tape as samples get rearranged in a new musical context, vinyl discs get broken into pieces and glued back together, tapes get cut and assembled together into loops. Cutting, breaking and gluing are well known techniques for the use of such materials as paper or plastic. But because of computerisation and the dominance of digital media, these crafting qualities in sound had to be rediscovered. The results are cut-ups of found music, collaged vinyl records made up a collection of possibly unrelated sampled sounds. Additionally, contact microphones mounted on the surface of any vibrating body offer a great means to transform physical actions made on almost any object into sound; the intensity, timing and other qualities of the action can be translated into sounds that the materials are not normally expected to produce. Also sensors that detect light or pressure can accompany these tools of choice for finding ways to link electronically produced and abstract sound with concrete physical actions.

Media such as vinyl records or tapes come with certain traces in the auditive field: they do not only save and reproduce an original acoustic sound event. By recording, preparing and playing back sound, spatial and temporal information as well as distinctive distortion sounds are added, media-specific sonic elements which are usually not perceived consciously by the listener. Referring to the experience, since the 1930s, of listening to reproduced sound, Volker Straebel states:

Because of the music listener’s ability to experience sounds as a reference to the intention of acoustic emanations, the mediality of sound recording and transmission seems to have vanished from the listener’s awareness early on. (Straebel 2009, 1)

A scratch on the record, a disturbance or jump of the pick-up arm or other physical treatments, will cause audible noise which is specific to the used technology. The intended functions of reproduction media are reinterpreted for instrumental purposes. Although referring specifically to turntablism as found in hip hop music, Mark Katz interprets the use of the record player and the records for non-intended purposes as subversive; in fact, this can be seen as a general characteristic of turntablism:

On the most basic level, turntablism subverts the intended functions of the phonograph and the disc. It transforms a sound reproduction mechanism into a musical instrument and treats records — typically finished musical products — as raw material. It denies technological determinism by proving that a machine designed for passive reception may foster musical activity and promote a flourishing new class of musical amateurs. Turntablism is creation through destruction. It breaks down, isolates, reorders, and decontextualizes. … The term scratching suggests an art of vandalism; like its hip-hop cousin, graffiti writing, it can only be realized by violating its own medium. … Yet as scratching renders its source material into noise, it simultaneously transmogrifies it into a wholly new form of music.“ (Katz 2004, 132)

In experimental turntablism, the forms of destruction go even further than the familiar gesture of hip hop scratching. For example, to make “cut-ups”, several vinyl records are broken and pieces of one record are glued together with pieces of another; or the discs are treated with sandpaper to make structural scratches on the vinyl surface that evoke textural noises in the audio. By damaging or even destroying the physical medium — such as the vinyl record or the record player — the medium itself is brought into the listeners’ awareness again. In a general context, the resulting sounds of these prepared media are regarded as sounds of malfunction or failure but in the experimental music genres their meaning is changed and is therefore valuable and “musical”. Also in computer music since the 1990s, sounds of malfunction are used as musical materials; such practices are generally associated with the glitch or microsound music genre. Caleb Kelly uses the term “cracked media” to denote media that has been modified for use in sound projects — this can refer to analogue equipment such as turntables as well as digital devices like CD players.

The employment of older technologies in contemporary practice draws our focus on the materiality of the media and its intended and unintended uses. (Kelly 2009, 320–321)

The pops and crackles of the distortion or malfunction draw the attention back to the reproduction medium that is otherwise not perceived. The material becomes audible and we can listen to the raw reproduction technology, the process of mediatization.

The British musician Aleksander Kolkowski confronts old and new technological eras by transforming CDs into “LPs”. Ironically, the new becomes an old artefact. By engraving the wave forms into the CD material as into a vinyl disc, the digital compact disc loses its optical data but gains physical grooves that can be played on a record player. The process of its manipulation has transformed the CD into a sculpture, an art object, which provokes reflection on the medium itself by its visible media-specificity but with the reference to the auditive dimension. In his works, Kolkowski explores mechanical instruments and sound reproduction devices such as Stroh violins, gramophones and phonographs. He sees the comeback of physical media as a consequence of the digital age (Freeborn 2014). As music becomes increasingly “invisible”, as he says, the alternative status of vinyl as a format and the tangible qualities of the medium gain popularity. The physical characteristics of older technology allow for direct modifications, recycling of used material and, at the same time, the creation of objects and sculptures whose æsthetic is not only audible but also visible to, for example, the audience at a concert.

Hacking — Media and Technology Abuse

In experimental music the use of a musical instrument need not be limited by the boundaries erected by tradition. Experimental music exploits an instrument not simply as a means of making sounds in the accepted fashion, but as a total configuration — the difference between “playing the piano” and the “piano as sound source”. (Nyman 2013, 216)

In experimental and electronic music, artists apply this concept to music reproduction devices or bare circuits. The Cartridge Music experiments by David Tudor and John Cage starting in 1960 seem to be the historical precursors of exploring in a “live” setting the sounds produced by the electronic devices themselves. In these performances, Tudor and Cage created sounds with record players and contact microphones among other objects. They put objects such as feathers in a cartridge of a record player (instead of the tone needle), changed the amplification, used objects with attached contact microphones and created loops. All types of objects were amplified and played live on stage. With this kind of performance, John Cage wanted to make electronic music “live”, as he says. Cage continues:

There are many ways to do this. The one I here chose was to make a theatrical situation involving amplifiers and loud-speakers and live musicians. (von Massow 1995, 235)

Also Michael Nyman, referring to Cage, says:

[W]e realize that in experimental music sounds no longer have a pre-emptive priority over not-sounds. Seeing and hearing no longer need to be considered separately, or be combined into “music theatre” as an art-form separate from, say, instrumental music (as it tends to be with the avant garde). Theatre is all around us, says Cage, and it has always hung around music — if only you let your attention be “distracted” from the sounds: Cage prefers the sight of the horn player emptying out the spit from his instrument to the sounds the orchestra is making. (Nyman 2013, 217)

In experimental music, Tudor’s and Cage’s experiments formed the bedrock for bringing additional, theatrical elements into the foreground of music performances.

However, the DIY 4[4. “Do-it-yourself” (DIY) refers to artistic practices and artists that make use of homemade, or self-built instruments and objects as opposed to commercially available or mass-produced items.] and hacking cultures of experimental music today are also inspired by movements in popular music genres. With punk rock, starting in the mid 1970s, many musical conventions became loose. Loud and fast songs, rebellious lyrics and distorted chords of broken guitars set a subcultural countermovement to former rock music and mainstream values. As a youthful answer to unemployment and political conditions, anarchy and chaos were embraced. Authenticity and slogans such as “anyone can do it” banned skillful playing and followed instead a DIY spirit. In the wild and destructive performances, equipment was smashed on stage, people in the audience bounced up and down or invaded the stage (see Dale 2012).

In the late 1970s and 1980s, genres such as post-punk or industrial music followed with groups such as Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, NON, Skinny Puppy or VNV Nation. These bands aimed for provocation as well, uniting elements of experimental music and action art. Using shocking and extreme sounds or visuals, they revolted against control and mediated communication. Musicians started to use playback devices as instruments strongly inspired by the American writer William Burroughs. Brion Gysin, a friend and colleague of Burroughs, invented the cut-up technique for writing. In The Electronic Revolution from 1970, Burroughs proposed ways of transferring the cut-up method to the sound domain using tape players:

Take a recorded Wallace speech, cut in stammering coughs sneezes hiccoughs snarls pain screams fear whimperings apoplectic sputterings slobbering drooling idiot noises sex and animal sound effects and play it back in the streets subway stations parks political rallies. (Burroughs 1998, 19)

Richard H. Kirk, member of Cabaret Voltaire in the 1970s, commented in The Wire Magazine on Burroughs’ influence:

A lot of what we did, especially in the early days, was a direct application of [William Burroughs’] ideas to sound and music. … One book in particular, The Electronic Revolution, was an influence on us. … It was almost a handbook of how to use tape recorders in a crowd, to promote a sense of unease or unrest by playback of riot noises cut in with random recordings of the crowd itself. That side was always very interesting to us. (Kopf 1997, 26)

Next to the intended effects of the recorded content, the opposing relation of discarded technology to mass-produced devices and technological impacts in daily life effectively matched the intentions of the bands. Stephen Mallinder, singer of Cabaret Voltaire, describes their relationship to technology:

The shiny modernity of technology, an escape route to an idealized future, was in turn anchored in the more subversive dirt of reality. … Drop hammers, fiery furnaces, and steel forges — the clichéd sounds and sights of heavy industry were part of the sonic deal being made. (Mallinder 2013, xi).

Sound artists of later generations, such as Lucas Abela from Australia, explored these experiments and tried them anew:

In the late ’80s when I first read the Industrial Culture Handbook I read about Boyd Rice and him chopping up records and drilling holes in records. Because I couldn’t buy a NON record [Boyd Rice’s group] I repeated the experiments that I read about: chopping records in half, flipping them around, and drilling holes so they’d play off-axis. That’s the first turntable stuff that I did but it was just to emulate Boyd Rice. (Abela, in Prescott 2011)

Instead of adapting to modern devices, artists counter with the re-use of technology, experiment and invent new instruments by using old devices. As Mallinder underlined, the sights and the context of the provocative sounds are important as well. The close connection of vinyl records to commercialization and the music industry inspired Fluxus artists such as Milan Knížák or Nam June Paik, and later Christian Marclay, to reflect on this medium in musical projects. More and more artists have used the turntable as an instrument in live concerts over the last twenty years. 5[5. For more on this topic see the author’s article “Experimental Turntablism: Historical overview of experiments with record players / records — or Scratches from Second-Hand Technology” in eContact! 14.3 — Turntablism (January 2013).] Concomitantly, other electronic devices or handmade, bare electronic circuits are used as instruments and sub-genres of electronic music, such as lo tech or circuit bending, evolved on several continents as a kind of countermovement to the digital and computer-based performances (Essl 2007).

Figure 1
Figure 1. The Vinyl Terror & Horror setup: on the left, Camilla Sørensen’s setup which includes a player with multiple tone arms, and on the right, a stack of different records is played by Greta Christensen using another series of tone arms. On the top of the stack on the right is a “ghost 7-inch record”. Installation detail from the XIII Biennial of Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean held in Bari, Italy, in 2008. Image © Vinyl Terror & Horror. [Click image to enlarge]

Furthermore, in live performances, not only the sounds are in the foreground. In hacking and destroying audio media, the material and the physical effort of the modifying treatments are visible and inseparably merged with the resulting sounds. The non-conformist deformations are rough and striking, both audibly and visibly. The ideas of found objects and collages are extended through such practices as these. In comparison to the sterile designs of digital technology, these “dirty” electronics (Richards 2008) link the sounds with particular gestures and interactions with analogue and DIY equipment in the live situation for the audience:

Combinations and recombinations of patched devices create a sense of experimentation and danger in the unknown and unpredictable. The process of physically patching devices together sets up an expectation of cause and effect, with the potential to link a sound with an action or movement. (Richards 2008, 29)

For the audience in live performances, the materiality and physicality of abused media and assembled electronics contain theatrical components and connect the actions and body movements of the artists to the resulting sounds. Experimenting and improvising on stage also means that if something does not work — for example, something does not start to play or moves in the wrong direction as it should — it is visible to the audience and grabs their attention. Similar to watching players in a sports or video game, the audience can observe and follow how the performers deal with the situation. This can influence judgements on the performer’s skills and routine.

Not only is the music improvised, also many venues for concerts of these genres appear in a reused charm and ambience. As the concert places are usually small, the stage is often on the same level as the audience and the artists perform among the crowd. Many times, the venues include a bar that serves drinks and lights are dimmed. In such places, live performances of experimental music genres offer not only a more direct musical and sonic experience to the audience, but also much more individual performance venue atmospheres.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Tower sculpture by Greta Christensen with a 7-inch disc of baked vinyl record splinters during a concert at Café Oto in London on 8 March 2014. Image © Karin Weissenbrunner. [Click image to enlarge]

In the examples that follow, we will find many hacked, personalized and even bizarre instruments, which unearth alternative concepts of music creation. Experimental turntablists create sculptures out of record players. For example, Janek Schaefer constructed a triphonic turntable with three pick-up arms in order to play several sound layers with only one record player (Eastley 2007). Camilla Sørensen of the duo Vinyl Terror & Horror 6[6. For more on the duo, see the “Vinyl Terror & Horror” gallery in eContact! 14.3 — Turntablism.] uses this kind of extension of the record player as well (Fig. 1). Her musical partner, Greta Christensen, piles up several layers of records and pick-up arms in a single tower in order to play more than five records simultaneously on a single record player (Figs. 1 and 2).

Graham Dunning

Figure 3
Figure 3. Close-up of Graham Dunning’s “automatic cowbell”. A ramp on the record operates percussion mallets that strike the cowbell while the record is spinning. Image © Karin Weissenbrunner. [Click image to enlarge]
Video 3. Demonstration of Graham Dunning’s “Automatic cowbell”. YouTube video (0:36) posted by user “Graham Dunning” on 24 May 2014.
Figure 4
Figure 4. Graham Dunning adjusting the contact microphones at a concert in Power Lunches, London, 2014. Image © Karin Weissenbrunner. [Click image to enlarge]

The London-based sound artist Graham Dunning creates synched techno sounds using only the inherent repeating function of the turntable. Nails on a vinyl record surface trigger hanging contact microphones that then trigger drum synthesizer sounds. Inspired by Greta Christensen, he also piles up more layers of records on top of each other to synch all layers with the same beat. But acoustic instruments are also included in his setup. For example, a modified record with a ramp moves a percussion mallet up and down mechanically in order to cause it to repeatedly strike a cowbell at a speed determined by the rotation of the disc (Fig. 3; Video 3).

Graham Dunning’s construction itself, made of the turntable and the vinyl records, plays other instruments like an automatic machine (Fig. 4). Dunning has enhanced the original purpose of the record player — music reproduction — with the characteristics of early mechanical instruments, such as the player pianos or music boxes. 7[7. For more on his work, see the Graham Dunning Gallery in this issue of eContact!] This construction of an automated turntable resembles George Antheil’s piece from the early 20th century, the Ballet mécanique, which included instruments such as player pianos, propellers, a siren and electric bells that play automatically on stage without human performers.

Strotter Inst., a Swiss turntablist, uses the automated function of the turning table as well. He prepares sticks on the turntable surface to strike stretched rubber strings with every turn of the record player, creating a sound that is similar to plucking a string of an instrument, in order to build up rhythmical patterns.

Substrate: Martin Howse and Martin Kuentz

Figure 5
Figure 5. Substrate performance with Martin Howse and Martin Kuentz during the opening concert “Alles, was sie über Chemie wissen müssen” [“Everything You Need to Know about Chemistry”] of the 2011 Club Transmediale (CTM) in Berlin on 28 January 2011. Image © CTM. [Click image to enlarge]

More extreme examples of hacked electronics include projects by Martin Howse and Martin Kuentz. The Berlin/London-based duo, performing together for over six years now, expands the laboratory approach of experimenting in music further towards chemistry and physics sets. 8[8. For more on Martin Howse’s work, see the Substrate Gallery in this issue of eContact!] Using lasers, liquids, bare printed circuit boards, sparklers, fireworks and magnesium powder in combination with a blowtorch, they create processing and explosive noises. These elements are clearly not standard tools in electronic music and bewilder the spectator with their presence and with the amalgamation of science and technology on stage. Kuentz and Howse fuse basic elements (e.g., liquids, fire) of the natural and physical world with electronics into unheard-of sounds and noises.

Considering loud and violent noises in nature, such as thunderstorms or explosions, the artists approach these phenomena not only audio-wise but also material-wise, facilitating associations beyond the familiar. Underlining the importance of the materiality for its transformation into sound, Martin Howse describes their performances as “micro-material-theater”:

Material is both evidence and self-obscuring; a literal drama of sheer light (waves) and absolute darkness (our substrate) exacerbated by the excitation of substance and its subsequent bodily detection. The performer is cast as a volatile detective, with an audible forensics probing a tabletop micro-material-theatre. (Howse 2011)

Ryan Jordan

Video 4. Ryan Jordan performing during the Salon Bruit series at Ausland in Berlin on 29 March 2014. Vimeo video “RYAN JORDAN /// AUSLAND /// 29.03.2014” (6:24) uploaded by user “Jérémie Pujau” on 25 April 2014.

In noise concerts by the London-based sound artist Ryan Jordan, the audience might feel uncomfortable or unsettled as well. Jordan starts his performances in complete darkness, using a stroboscope light with a completely self-built amplification system of crystals (such as chalcopyrite and iron pyrite). Each flash of the stroboscope pierces the room and triggers a deep and dry “bang” through homemade solar cells; the resulting sound is similar to a heart beat. The brief flashes in the pitch-black venue provide the only chance to see and understand what is happening on stage (Video 4). The audience members cannot see the way to the exit either, which might cause them to experience claustrophobic effects. Jordan fills the space more and more with bright light flashes accompanied by loud noise bursts, gradually intensifying the atmosphere. By increasing the shutter speed of the stroboscope light and the sound volume, a rhythmic beat develops (slightly similar to techno dance beats) until the system of crystal amplifiers reacts with feedback loops, and uncontrolled noises emerge. Light-controlled synthesizer sounds boost these dynamic processes. With a single stroke of bad luck, the electric fuses of the venue could blow and end the concert.

Figure 6
Figure 6. Homemade transistors built by Ryan Jordan. Image © Karin Weissenbrunner. [Click image to enlarge]

By using flickering lights at a high speed, Jordan aims to create perceptual and visual effects that can evoke patterns in the spectator’s perception which are similar to Chladni figures. 9[9. Named after Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni, who created a method to show patterns of vibration that develop in sand or water on a plate which is made to resonate at certain frequencies.] Starting his performances with stroboscope lights in 2007, he studied these and similar hallucinatory effects, such as those created by Ian Sommerville and Brian Gysin’s “dreamachine”, more intensively over time. His ideas to use crystals for amplification are rooted in the early experiments of researcher Robert George Adams, who invented the Adams Crystal Amplifier in 1933, a precursor of the first transistor.

These examples show homemade and naked circuits, electronics that have been downgraded to their purest and most fundamental state and that work with crystals, stones or other physical and chemical elements (Fig. 6). The artists’ unusual material and instruments present a contrasting picture to the typical understanding of controlling technology and create diverse associations and references beyond electronic music.

The Body in the Performance

Besides their cacophonic sounds and provocative noises, the energetic characteristics of punk rock and industrial music performances have also influenced several generations of musicians. Sound artists combine this energy with elements of Actionism and Body Art in their performances, as the following examples will show.

Joke Lanz

The Berlin-based sound artist Joke Lanz uses the turntable as an instrument but hacks and reuses other electronic objects, such as speaking dolls, in his project Sudden Infant. 10[10. In 1988, Joke Lanz started his project Sudden Infant as a solo show. Since 2014, the project has been expanded into a band, with Christian Weber (bass) and Alexandre Babel (drums) joining Joke Lanz (electronics and vocals).] Following his urge to stretch the borders of experimental music, he mixes the expressive acts of punk rock with elements of Viennese Actionism and body art. Sudden Infant arose owing to two profound experiences that befell Lanz in his young years: his father’s suicide and his son’s birth:

I grew up with Punk music and the whole idea of it. After my father’s death, Punk became my safety net and my family at the same time. … But the original spirit of Punk died when big business arrived. Therefore it was a natural conclusion for me to search for something new, still keeping the raw and direct energy of early Punk, but with completely new æsthetics. Noise became an open source for me. Much more open than Punk ever was. Sudden Infant started with body art and performances in the early years. Music was not the most important part. And it still is a combination of all senses in an abstract and psychological way. (Lanz 2012, 12)

Figure 7
Figure 7. Joke Lanz as Sudden Infant in a performance in Solothurn (Switzerland) in 1994. Documented in his book Sudden Infant — The Noise In My Head, The actionistic music and art of Joke Lanz. Image © Joke Lanz. [Click image to enlarge]

Influenced by his earlier performances as a bass player in the punk band Jaywalker, Lanz tried to bring the energy of spontaneity into the more open fields of noise music to find new æsthetic challenges, especially concerning technology. In his performance Manipulation Diktat, for example (Fig. 7), Lanz as the agent lies naked on white linen, facing downward. He reaches out with his hands and feet to four tape players. He activates them and they repeat endless loops of the tapes. During the performance, an assistant writes the short words recorded on the tape loops with black colour all over Lanz’s body and the white linen.

In a sketch of the performance concept (Fig. 8), Joke Lanz noted:

The words mirror the expression of the apparently liveless, helpless body / human. As if somebody wants to tell the world something with his last strengths. 11[11. “Die Wörter geben den Ausdruck des Scheinbar leblosen, hilflosen Körpers / Menschen wieder.”]

Figure 8
Figure 8. Joke Lanz’s draft of his performance documented in his book Sudden Infant — The Noise In My Head, The actionistic music and art of Joke Lanz. Image © Joke Lanz. [Click image to enlarge]

The reading and writing process in connection to a machine such as the tape player, as well as the vulnerability of the naked performer, evokes associations with Franz Kafka’s In der Strafkolonie (In the Penal Colony). In Kafka’s short story a torture machine is described which writes or draws the condemned prisoner’s sentence into the flesh of his naked body using a needle. The procedure lasts for twelve hours — six hours for each side of the body. During the first six hours, the chained prisoners shall recognize their guilt. During the last six hours the prisoners die slowly. Kafka’s penal writing machine in the short story is seen as a close reference to technological devices from around 1914 to record speech, such as a dictaphone or parlograph, in the context of their impact on legal proceedings. The technical description and terminology of the writing process of the torture machine is similar to the phonograph’s engraving procedure. The sentence is directly written into the human body similar to an engraving needle which writes onto the wax cylinder (see Kittler 1990, 118ff). In Lanz’s performance, the tape players, representing a younger recording technology, transmit a similar functionality. The machine dictates instructions to the helpless human: the power has shifted from the human to the machine. The machine’s words are written on the artist’s body and become embodied, just like the sentence engraved onto the prisoner’s flesh in Kafka’s story. 12[12. In his turntable concerts, as mentioned above, Joke Lanz also lets the record players “speak” or “scream”.] Although Joke Lanz was not aware of Kafka’s short story when he created Manipulation Diktat, he tried to picture similar aspects in his ideas for the performance:

First there were only noises and sounds which were played from the tape players and accompanied or supported my actions, respectively. Suddenly there was the desire to work with voice and writing only and combine it with the naked human body. A certain helplessness in life, a constant presence of voices, commands, instructions, assignments, information, expectations and so on, and additionally the naked, vulnerable skin of the body. (Lanz 2014) 13[13. “Zuvor waren es vor allem Geräusche und Klänge die aus den Rekordern drangen und meine Aktionen begleitet respektive unterstützt haben. Plötzlich war der Drang da nur mit Stimme und Schrift zu arbeiten und den nackten menschlichen Körper dazu zu verwenden. Ein gewisses Ausgeliefertsein im Leben, ein ständiges Aufnehmen von Stimmen, Befehlen, Instruktionen, Anweisungen, Informationen, Erwartungen usw. und dazu die nackte, verletzliche Haut des Körpers.”]

Lucas Abela / Justice Yeldham

Video 5. Short documentary (in German) on Lucas Abela’s extreme performances and gathering materials. Vimeo video “Lucas Abela (Tracks) Arte TV Germany” (5:53) posted by user “Lucas Abela” on 30 December 2011. Produced by Arte TV Germany.

Elements of Body Art and vulnerability are also means that the Australian sound artist Lucas Abela unites with harsh noise and electronic instruments. He is known for his turntable projects, such as the stylus glove, or, more recently, Vinyl Rally, an interactive installation with a remote control car racing over a track of vinyls. 14[14. See Lucas Abela’s website for more on Vinyl Rally.] But when Lucas Abela performs as Justice Yeldham, there might be blood on stage. With a simple setup — a sheet of glass with contact microphones for amplification and a couple of effect pedals — he creates virtuosic noises in many variants by trumpeting and humming with his mouth pressed against the glass. Performing barefoot and smashing the glass sheet against his head into cutting shards throughout the concert, still howling and hyperventilating on the last bits of the glass, Abela appears in an ecstatic and controlled state at the same time, fearless of the glasses’ sharp edges. As he presses the transparent glass tightly against his mouth and face, he eventually cuts himself, and blood soaks around under the glass. He uses his whole body to generate sounds, so that the focus is not only on the sounds but also on his vulnerable body acting with a harmful instrument such as the cutting glass (Video 5). The artist himself seems to be in a kind of concentration or trance that is more powerful than the pain caused by the cuts on his body. It is like a ritual to him, although he does not consider himself as spiritual:

It’s not self-harm, it’s more that danger is part of the æsthetic. …It’s not “when” will he [Abela] cut himself, but “will” he cut himself. It’s not like the cutting is the whole show, or I like to think there’s more to it than that. At the same time I see it as important because I think it does raise the show into another level in a psychological way for the audience, which other musical shows maybe couldn’t. (Abela, cited in Prescott 2011)

Journalists have tried to describe their impressions of this culmination of energy in reviews of the performances: “… ecstatically…”; “The results are a wild array of cacophonous noise”; “Justice Yeldham is preparing to shock and awe.”; “… the performance entered a new realm of extreme. The squeamish (amongst us, me included!) winced.”; “It left me feeling exhilarated and slightly breathless.” (Abela 2003).

The artists Joke Lanz and Lucas Abela have created actionistic concert forms with performative and theatrical elements in which their whole bodies interact with technology, adding psychological dimensions with æsthetics of danger and vulnerability. The cold machine world of technology is suddenly part of human drama.

Conclusion: Art versus Life versus Technology

Sounds and noises are immaterial and yet connected to their source. Machines in urban lives showed new origins of sounds and inspired manifestos such as Russolo’s The Art of Noises. Russolo suggests that noise has the power to recall life itself: “Every manifestation of life is accompanied by noise” (Russolo 2013, 13).

With each new technological invention, the tension between art and life receives a new turn. In the 18th century, the creative potential of nature in art inspired composers to use bird songs, in particular, as a bridge between music and daily life. Composers such as Beethoven included nightingale, cuckoo and quail songs (second movement of the Sixth Symphony — “Pastoral”, from 1808), set in the tonal system. Watchmakers invented mechanical singing birds as precursors of music boxes. In the last century, technology was used for this bridge in Ottorino Respighi’s orchestral work Pini di Roma from 1924, for example. A nightingale’s voice was played from a phonograph record in the concert as a sample, as we would say today. Alfred Hitchcock’s bird calls in his 1963 film, The Birds, were created with the Mixtur-Trautonium, an enhanced version of the Trautonium and forerunner of synthesizers. Especially in movie soundtracks and event simulations, technology is used to blur the borders of reality. By bringing the process of mediality into awareness, confrontations of reality and art unveil and reflect on mediatization and fictionality. At the same time, sound artists add humouristic or theatrical aspects and break with musical traditions.

In electronic music, sound production processes are often hidden as a “ghost in the machine” or a black box. Sound artists of today look for tactile and physical materiality in sound to modify and recreate. Richards explains this trend of “dirty electronics” as:

[A] reaction to the vestiges of the digital world: the virtual, wireless, pseudo-modernist design, utilitarianism and seemingly endless possibilities. (Richards 2008, 26)

This is why physical media or material such as vinyl records, tapes, homemade and customized electronic constructions are so prevalent in experimental music practices. The results are collages and cracked media with many samples and references to different music genres, noises or language. Sounds of malfunction become reinterpreted. Noise offers a wide field for experiments and room for assimilations of elements of avant-gardes, popular music genres or performance art. Noise is applied as an “open source for ideas and expressions” without conventions or rules, as Joke Lanz describes (in an interview by Chris Sienko, in Lanz and Marhaug 2012, 12–20), and not only used for a provocative or subversive effect. Along with their musical language, sound artists develop individual instruments and study ways to perform with them. They hack devices and analogue electronics, manipulate circuits directly or amplify body sound waves in objects with piezo microphones and integrate new concepts and æsthetics into their live performances. The invented instruments so commonly encountered in the experimental performance milieu are the result of extensive sound research and can often be seen as an art work. In a culture that is pervaded by mass-produced consumer goods and copy-paste techniques, movements of recycling and sampling in music confront individuality and originality with issues of reproduction and copying. Handmade electronics that connect bare material with sound set a counterpoint to shiny, machine-designed technological devices, such as laptops, smartphones, etc.

Furthermore, the “live” and unique characteristics of improvised concerts seem important with technology involved in music. Visual and theatrical aspects in the performance, such as links between gestures and sounds, complement the moments of reflection on the technologies used. Improvisation and intuition add more “human” qualities and complement the perfection and repeatability that technological innovations and machines stand for.

All these tendencies balance the power relation between technology and humans and show musical forms that lead the focus to the technological impacts in Western culture. Similar to Richards’ and Cascone’s “post-digital” tendencies — “dirty electronics” and the “æsthetics of failure”, respectively —, the experimental practices described in this article contrast our digital culture. As Rancière defined the politics of art before, the artists deconstruct and subvert our conventional understanding of technology and show new possibilities in sound and art. These tendencies in experimental electronic music let us reflect on the connection of art and reality in the context of technological impacts on our lives that will always be in flux with new inventions.


Lucas Abela
Graham Dunning
Joke Lanz
Vinyl Terror & Horror
Ryan Jordan
Aleksander Kolkowski


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