The ephemeral and varied character of subversion in musical creation makes it a challenging, complex concept to clearly define and illustrate. In this issue it is approached and reflected upon via a range of experimental practices with turntables, tapes and other devices, fringe genres, sound sculptures, and alternative models of music distribution.
Originally, this issue was conceived as a “B-side” to an earlier issue on Turntablism (eContact! 14.3, January 2013). However, we wanted to illuminate the subversive qualities of experimental turntablism in more detail, as these qualities have a very contemporary appeal. By broadening the topic to experimental practices in general, we could be more open to other works and projects. As opposed to focussing on the subversive effect as a quality or “label” in experimental practices, we have preferred to spotlight artists, works and projects whose creative qualities have been advanced through having used subversion as an engine.
Subversion, from a broader socio-political perspective involves the overthrowing of traditions and the creation of space for emerging and opposing tendencies. In contrast to rebellion and revolution, a subversive approach to change is often more subtle and can even happen unconsciously. In cultural and artistic contexts, the changes can be brought into effect by questioning the status quo or by adulterating the rules. Subversion in creative practices is ephemeral and dedicated to the contemporary, the “avant”. Further discussion on subversion in art, and in which experimental practices we can find it at the moment, can be found in my contribution to this issue, “Subversive Qualities in Experimental Practices.” These observations are accompanied by many examples of artists and their projects. Experimental turntablism, DIY electronics and other acts using electronics in quite unusual ways create new and powerful relationships between humanity, corporeality and technology. Many of the artists I refer to have also presented their works in artist galleries featured in this issue, or in eContact! 14.3 — Turntablism.
In “The Musical Underground and the Popular and Classical Overground” by Stephen Graham, we get a glimpse into his book Mapping the Underground, in which he bundles musical groups under the terms “fringe” and “underground”. He attempts to “map” these intermingled practices through a search for new terms in those blurred territories between high and low art, pop music and art. It is important to stress that it is in fact the “in-between state” of these numerous scenes that makes them so vivid and powerful. Each of these bands subverts their own genre, which reminds us that music genres are in fact post factum categories used to denote the music that came into being long before it came to be labelled and classified. In this brief overview, Graham gives us an idea of where the various experimental practices are nested and where they extend to.
Although 30 years have passed since John Oswald first wrote “Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative,” his thoughts on sampling are still very relevant today. Sampling empowers listeners to create their own mixes. Addressing authorship and copyright laws in music, Oswald uncovers a number of loopholes for legal sampling.
An interesting and risky distribution model developed by Gary Schultz is described in “Negative Money: Care of Editions”: users are paid for downloading the music featured on the label’s website. The limited number of the downloads, as well as their payout, are directly related to the sales of the same music on vinyl records. Instead of a play-off between physical and digital media, the label proposes a co-existence of the nostalgic and high-quality physical medium, the vinyl record, and the virtual and digital medium of music files. This alternative concept builds on the current-day increase of vinyl record sales. At the same time, it accepts that digital audio files and streams are presently the most prevalent medium for listening to music.
In critical statements and opinions about subversion, the artists often name what subversion actually became: a “label”. Today, labelling an artwork as subversive is used as a superficial value to market creative work as “avant-garde”, “new” and “progressive”. In “Copyriot,” turntablist Dieter Kovačič aka dieb13, who normally improvised solo and with other musicians, also has experience playing turntable in an orchestra. He reflects on the pressure of constantly being expected to produce something new and on the impact such demands have had on his personal work.
In “A Personal Approach to Subversion,” Antony Maubert addresses subversion as a “label” as well and describes the tension experienced by the artist who is already “established” yet is still expected to “sub-vertere”, to “overthrow from below”. His eagerness to advance new debates and to openly address taboos is demonstrated through examples of his compositions, which respond, in some cases, to political situations in France.
Jon Panther, who also performs under the name Audiotopsy, mediates voice and silence in his work for transmission over radio frequencies. He considers his work to be very close to the visual arts, applying assemblage and montage methods that are described in “Scherzophobia: Toward a postmusic.” Inspired by Aldous Huxley and guerrilla artist strategies used by Banksy, Panther aims to blur the distinctions between the ambiance and the work, resulting in “a participatory, immersive auditory event.”
The controversy around subversion in art is tackled in a more critical manner by jef chippewa in “Épater la bourgeoisie… whatever. On the obsolescence of subversion.” Discussing the life cycle of musical trends from decay to renewal, he points out that subversion is dependent on contextual factors such as social milieu and venue. But the problem actually starts with the impossibility of designating a single contemporary tradition that is prevalent enough to be used as a norm against which all else can be measured. Particularly in art, the boundaries of the norms of practice and their understanding are no longer definitive, making it much more difficult to subvert something. There are many layers and many stages to the concept, and as chippewa mentions, the concert hall society considers very different things to be subversive than the underground scenes.
Subversive and Experimental Practices
I would like to emphasize turntablist JD Zazie’s artistic contribution to this issue, “Instant Cut.” Her text collage is like a remix of pieces published in this issue and in eContact! 14.3 — Turntablism. At the same time, her rearrangements of text material of the existing articles, using cut-up methods, mirror the experimental practices that these issues explore, including blurring the lines of authorship. Just as a turntablist selects and arranges record samples, she tested sentences or phrases for their sonic qualities in order to compose “sound poetry” from these text samples. JD Zazie uses the creative potential of the close relationship between audio and visual. When we read her collage, we don’t hear anything but we imagine sounds, in contrast to turntable concerts, where we can hear the different samples and references of music or noises but can only imagine their visual sources.
Sound artist and turntablist Graham Dunning presents a work that is an homage to Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio, member of the Situationist International. The Situationist group was inclined to detournément and subversion, even trying to subvert the art market by revaluing paintings from the flea market. Pinot-Gallizio created paintings on a roll of canvas with machines. Dunning takes this political critique of the art sector and transposes it to the audio world by creating “music by the metre.” Pinot-Gallizio’s “Industrial Painting” inspired Dunning to create his “mechanical techno” set-up. With this set-up of turntables — and its unusual, sculptural look — he creates a type of dance music typically produced with digital means with mechanical and “old” technologies. In his duo with saxophone player Colin Webster, Dunning is more focused on using the turntable itself as sound material rather than the vinyl records. In his live concerts, I found it most striking to see Dunning scratching and treating the records’ and turntable’s surfaces with dentistry tools.
The works of Martin Howse and Timo Kahlen address our technically dominated daily lives. Martin Howse has developed a live coding project that “grounds” digital algorithms and sounds. His infinite ideas for modification let him combine any kind of device with any kind of material. He builds biotopes of technology that interact with composting in forests and graveyards — a mystical and ritualistic aura surrounds these alchemic electronic experiments. Howse uses all sorts of materials and technology for the translation of artistic concepts and for their symbolic value. These might, for example, be modified turntable playback heads, or lasers and magnesium powder. Timo Kahlen combines sculpture and sound to explore such issues as discomfort, glitch and noise. His conceptual and sculptural works extend the spectrum of experimental practices of this issue and highlight the close relationship that can exist between the visual arts and audio media or handmade electronics, such as prepared and modified vinyl records.
My Interview with turntablist Joke Lanz gives a detailed and broad idea of his experimental practices, his influences and artistic concepts. Lanz explains that vinyl records are vivid creatures for him, which makes his approach so direct and intimate. His description of playing in an orchestra suggests that even in the “establishment” the turntable is slowly being recognized as an instrument. There is an increasing number of contemporary composers who have made a place for the turntable in works for chamber ensemble and even the orchestra. The increase in the turntable’s presence in festivals, notably TITO — The International Turntable Orchestra, also suggests a move in this direction.
Many of the composers who studied at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center during the 1960s and 1970s gained additional hands-on knowledge and skills while working as a studio assistant. These skills would later prove to be extremely valuable, obviously for the young composers themselves but also to the developing international electronic music scene, as many of them went on to teach in and even found important studios, schools and other institutions around the world. Spanish composer Andrés Lewin-Richter explains in conversation with Bob Gluck how, during his studies at Columbia-Princeton in the mid-60s, he was responsible for “doing the dirty jobs” while in charge of electroacoustic music concerts in several halls, and later returned to Spain to found the Barcelona Electronic Music Studio as well as the Phonos Studio (now known as Phonos Foundation). In the early 1970s, Romanian-American composer Gheorghe Costinescu also studied at Columbia-Princeton, researching the similarities between the mechanical functioning of the synthesizers housed in the famous studio and the human vocal tract. These experiences would have great impact on his future creative work. Costinescu remained in New York and taught until his retirement at the Lehman College of The City University of New York, where he founded an electronic music studio. Over a dozen such interviews done by Bob Gluck from 2002–2006 have been published in eContact! over the past two years, and the CEC is very happy to be able to offer these valuable documents a home and make them accessible to all interested in the early history of electronic music.
This edition shows a diverse range of topics on subversion that go beyond political statements, but their currency and meaning might change through time. The question about whether or not something is subversive can perhaps not be fully answered here, but we hope to have provided some new perspectives to reflect on the ephemerality of the concept of subversion and to have exposed its presence at work within the realm of some experimental musical practices.
12 March 2015