Thought: Sound Dust
Thought For The Day
Sound Dust

Imagine if a new century, a new millenium, had arrived and people had decided to reinvent music. Imagine if the usual syntax of harmony, repetition and variation, beats, basslines and song structure had been thrown out and, inspired by the sound experiments of Dadaists and Futurists like Hugo Ball and Luigi Russolo, we'd started again from scratch with a new palette of sounds and new ways of putting them together. Imagine if the guitar and the keyboard found themselves replaced by a set of sampling, randomising, routing and filtration tools known as Max/MSP.

Scuttling all over the world, cutting leaves and carrying them back to their queen, chopping up the music of the past with powerful jaws and carrying it by complicated signal routes to their heaps, see them run, the black ants in sound dust! Twenty years ago they might have been in bands with names like Cabaret Voltaire and Josef K. Now they're in laptop outfits like Discom. The music they make -- Sound Dust -- is perhaps the new jazz, or perhaps the new classical music. Or even the new indie art rock. Or perhaps, cutting itself off from all that has gone before, unafraid to alienate and to fail, it's just the new, period.

The Official Avant Garde

I'm a somewhat schizophrenic beast. The music I consume has become increasingly different from the music I make. One reason I'm so happy with my forthcoming album 'Oskar Tennis Champion' is that the risky mangling, glitching and stressing work carried out on the grain of the record's sound by my collaborator John Fashion Flesh -- pushing my smooth, occasionaly glib little packets of meaning closer to their threatened dissolution in a primal soup of electronic marginalia and errata -- has brought the record much closer to the kind of music I'm listening to.

In some ways the stuff I tend to buy is more avant garde than the stuff I tend to make. It's less likely to feature traditional song structures, lyrics, and pastiche, and more likely to focus on pure sound and experiment. In my own records I'm a poet-actor. But when I go shopping I tend to come home with records by designer-engineers.

It's probably true to say that I'm both more adventurous and more trendily conformist as a listener and consumer than I am as a creator of music. The map of my recent taste, although eclectic, is not that eccentric. It takes its cue from recent shifts in style and taste, seismic and barometric readings made in the cities I've been living in and visiting. It's music that the public sector of the culture industry has settled on as 'the official avant garde', the export culture of choice for people like the British Council and the Goethe Institut. It's well-funded and generously curated, the stuff of fashionable sound installations like Sonic Process at the Pompidou Centre and Christian Marclay's frequent showings at SF MoMA and the Whitney.

My cultural agenda is set, to some degree, by the people making CD ROMs like the INA GRM's brilliant La Musique Electroacoustique, the people erecting speakers in government-funded visual art hubs like the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the Barbican in London, or by semi-public funded radio stations: the people at BBC Radio 3's Mixing It and France Culture's Elektrophonie. I actually don't worry about the 'official' nature of the financing of this music. Electronic music, from Darmstadt, Cologne and the BBC Radiophonic workshop to SF MoMA today, has always been financed this way. But I do find the current signs of a transition to commerciality encouraging. Maybe the public is ready at last to finance musique concrete, or at least its noisier, more glamourous pop nephew.

A Map of Taste

Here's a glimpse of some of my current 'buy' categories:

Sun Papa, Nathan Michel, DAT Politics, Scratch Pet Land, Discom, Jan Jelinek, Fashion Flesh, Tarwater, Robert Lippok, dDamage, O. Lamm and all the new French and Belgian laptopists.

Processed Spoken Word
The diaries of John Cage, Neue Horspiel

Fine Art Audio
The speech manipulations of artists like Bernhard Gal and Dominique Petitgand. The ambient workshop recordings of Momoyo Toremitsu. The turntablism of Christian Marclay.

Nihon Dust
Gutevolk, Nobukazu Takemura.

Retro Japtronica
Haruomi Hosono, Miharu Koshi, Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Retro Neue Deutsche Welle
Der Plan, Die Toten Hosen, Palais Schaumburg, Holger Hiller's solo 80s career.

Outsider Music
Pierre Bastien, Moondog, Gongs, Jad Fair, Harry Partch.

Field Recordings
Scuffling voles and birdsong, please!

The influence of all these can be felt in 'Oskar', but the thing that most excites me is John Talaga's collision of Momus songs with the microscopic textural tropes characteristic of the Sound Dust movement.

A brush with dust

It's a Saturday night in Passy, by the Seine in Paris. I'm on my way to a party thrown by some Japanese friends to welcome me back to Paris. The apartment where the party's being held is right next to the Maison de la Radio. I've just got off the train and am heading for the river when I hear someone hailing me.


It's Johann, a French laptopist recording under the name of Shinsei. He tells me he's on his way to take part in a discussion on France Culture's experimental electronica show Elektrophonie.

France's cultural radio network gives a lot of attention to Sound Dust. You don't have to call it that, of course. Maybe you prefer 'laptopism' and its variants (copyright Robert Duckworth) 'Japtopism' and 'poptopism'. Neumu electronic music critic Philip Sherburne has dubbed it 'click hop', and others have called it 'post-digital music', 'glitch' or 'microsound'.

Whatever genre term we use, Sound Dust is music made on laptops. Instead of fixed rhythm patterns made with real or simulated kit drums, it tends to spin out a scratchy patina of tiny random sounds derived from digital accidents and 'failures'. (Yasunao Tone claims to be the first to explore digital errata, experimenting in the mid-80s with the skipping CD trope later popularised by Oval's Markus Popp. Analog errata has a long history, but we could single out turntablist Christian Marclay as a pioneer.)

Instead of chord sequences, Sound Dust favours humming chunks of vaguely tonal found sound, juxtaposed almost at random, and occasionally containing recognisable pieces of other types of music -- pop, jazz, vaudeville, classical -- all glimpsed through layers of subtle filtration and radical deformation. It's often made with software like Max/MSP, an object-oriented program developed in the late 80s at IRCAM which can be used to connect anything to anything else, which scrambles and deforms and filters a complex landscape of sound sources, and yet can be used in an intuitive way.

You recognise Sound Dusters by their laptops, with tape or stickers over the luminous Apple logo. Their faces illuminated by the ghostly white glow of LCD screens, they hunch over software, processing sound in real time. You're regaled by compositions which twist, squall, shriek or click, trip over or suck in on themselves. What you won't get, thank goodness, are 'grooves', 'basslines', 'riffs', predictable patterns of repetition and variation, or recognisable song structures. In Sound Dust, all that is over.

The last two shows I saw in Tokyo were by Discom and Noriko Tujiko, both signed to Viennese label Mego. And, funnily enough, the first live music I see on my arrival in Paris is also Discom and Noriko Tujiko, at a Deco label night aboard the doomed floating lighthouse boat known as the Batofar (it will close permanently in a couple of weeks, apparently to be floated up rivers to Berlin).

I'm becoming a fan of Discom the way I used to be a fan of Josef K twenty years ago. The squall of noise they make with iBooks and Max is fascinating to me the same way Paul Haig and Malcolm Ross' elastic, chaotic Fender Jaguar guitar lines were back in 1980, or the way the Kevin Shields Arkestra was ten years later. So Sound Dust is the new indie art rock, right?

The New Acoustic Guitars

Since I'm early at the party, I listen to Elektrophonie on France Culture while Akane cooks and Karin opens wine. The presenter talks about a new exhibition curated by Paul Virilio, then turns to a discussion of the fusion of two french indie labels, Clapping Music and Active Suspension. Johann is involved in both; he's designed the sleeve of 'Snow Party', the debut of O.Lamm, and Shinsei will release their double album debut on Clapping Music shortly. Many of the sound dust people are also visual dust people, using the same laptops and desktops in day jobs in graphic design and web design.

During the course of the discussion, Johann says that one of the defining characteristics of the new French laptop music is that the people who make it are as much influenced by pop as by Cage and Musique Concrete. He cites The Velvet Underground and My Bloody Valentine as influences and, responding to the presenter's statement that this new music is made 'without instruments', says 'my laptop is my instrument. It's, for me, what the acoustic guitar was to Nick Drake'.

I can't help linking this with something I've read earlier in the day, a comment made by someone called Tom Millar in an online discussion thread called 'Why does everyone hate Jim O'Rourke?' Tom says:

'That laptop techno record was fucking awful wank, proof that MAX/MSP and Cubase are the new acoustic guitars of the industrialized world.'

I don't think Tom meant that as a positive statement, somehow. But for me it's oddly reassuring. Plus ca change...

Dipping Kumi in phosphorous

'Over the past 15 years electronic music culture has drifted from being situated primarily in art culture space to that of pop culture space. Technology has accelerated the production and consumption cycles of pop culture so that most of the historical signs, rules, and syntax of electronic music have become recycled and thus severed from their historical framework.' Kim Cascone, Deleuze and Contemporary Electronic Music

I met Johann and Olivier Lamm at a party in the 13th arrondissement in August. The party was organised by Kumi Okamoto, who I first met in Japan. Kumi's musical career gives a clear trace of the straight lines running from indie pop to glitch, so let's dip her in phosphorous and watch.

Kumi, when I met her last year at a Kamakura beach party, was singing in a band called Crazy Curl. Big fans of Kahimi Karie, they'd been given their name by Mike Alway. One minute Kumi's in Tokyo making faux-60s pop, cute indie bossa music, singing over guitar, bass, drums and trumpet in French. The next she's living in Paris, dating Johann Shinsei, singing in Japanese on top of Max-type electronica. Another pretty victim carried to the heart of the ant heap, returning dusted in sound! Another ambitious, adventurous musician upping her subcultural capital by switching sides and making a cooler scene. Somebody like me, who loves to ride a learning curve and thinks that standing still is slipping backwards.

For another clear paper trail from indie-schmindie to glitchy I could cite the trajectory of my friend Douglas Benford, who first wrote to me in 1983, declaring his undying love for the solo work of Josef K singer Paul Haig, who went electronic and recorded a synth pop album with Alex Sadkin after splitting up the band and bequeathing his musicians to me. Douglas later became a good friend and regular collaborator, twice touring Japan with the Momus band, playing on 'Hippopotamomus' and 'Voyager' as well as albums for Laila France and Kahimi Karie. Once, under the names Douglas and Recipe, he released clever postmodern pop songs with vocals on them (one of them, 'How To Wear An Engine Out', was the musical template for my song 'Bishonen'). Now Douglas runs a label and a successful electronica club in London, Sprawl, and records for french label Bip Hop as Tennis. (The list of artists who've appeared at Sprawl over the last seven years reads like a Who's Who of Sound Dusters.) He's abandoned words, detailing instead attractively minimal and mildly Dadaist soundscapes with titles like 'Europe By Horseback' and 'Wooden Sweets'.

Douglas' flight from language seems a shame, because he's brilliant with words. It's also not the current tendency. Without compromising its avant structures and textures, Sound Dust is increasingly allowing itself to become a platform for the human voice. So Noriko Tujiko can sing along with Discom's abstract drones and screams, and Bjork can integrate Matmos and Opiate into her arty soundscapes. Neumu critic (and Clicks And Cuts sleevenote-writer) Philip Sherburne says somewhere in his columns that Taylor Deupree suggested to him that it could only be a matter of time before Madonna made a record with glitch elements in it. The usual accommodations and dilutions will happen -- they've already begun, with Bjork and Momus on the bandwagon -- but, thinks Taylor, that doesn't detract from the globally positive fact that, if Sound Dust is just to be pop's flavour of the week, at least it's a flavour which emphasises the grain and texture of sound itself. Perhaps it will make people listen again, applying cognition rather than just recognition to their musical experiences.

There's always been a glitch element to my music

'It is failure that guides evolution; perfection offers no incentive for improvement.' Colson Whitehead

The 'Welcome Back To Paris, Momus!' party gets underway. Emi Necozawa turns up, Toog appears, and Antonin 'Digiki' Gaultier corners me to commiserate about the 'backlash' currently happening in the Momus website guest book, where a few disgruntled fans of my early work are complaining that I'm 'hiding behind the electronic mask'. They suggest I go back to singing Jacques Brel covers with an acoustic guitar. Antonin thinks they must be Creation Records fans, sharing Alan McGee's conservative respect for people with 'real instruments' and 'real songs' -- his belief that a song sung on an acoustic guitar is 'classic, timeless, and all heart'.

But this explanation ignores the fact that Creation Records was not just the home of trad rockers like the House of Love (whose singer Guy Chadwick went solo and released a glum acoustic guitar record on Setanta to general indifference in the late 90s), but also sound innovators like My Bloody Valentine, in whose prophetic records you can hear Indie art rock literally turning into Sound Dust. The Shoegazers are still amongst us. Now they're Screengazers.

Momus is sometimes thought of as a kind of folk singer, wedded to an acoustic guitar. But the reality is quite different. There's always been a glitch element to my work. Honestly! In the 70s and early 80s I was as likely to be listening to Stockhausen and Cage as the electronic end of indie. I had a room at the top of our family house in Edinburgh which contained an old piano which I'd prepare, sticking wood and metal through the strings for that 'acoustic glitch' effect. I'd record the results on a little two-track machine, overdubbing cardboard box thuds and the muffled, electrified yelps of a broken 5 string acoustic guitar, its strings damped by Kleenex, played through a feeding back ghetto blaster. The results sounded more like Brian Eno than Nick Drake.

Probably the live events that affected me most at that time were some outdoor shows of Cage music played by David Tudor I attended in Rome in 1981. Under the Roman night sky Tudor scratched mikes up and down the strings of prepared pianos. It was otherworldly music, texturally and gesturally fascinating, full of heady glimpses of freedom and experiment. It's the 'otherworldly' that I've always been after. In Tokyo this October I remembered that Roman revelation when I saw Tomomi Adachi performing Cage songs, complete with libertarian and absurdist gestures: making banana shake for the audience, climbing out the window and in the door, entering the elevator still singing and descending to the street to strike strange postures on the sidewalk. It was the most exciting show I saw in 2002, full of dizzying artistic and social possibilities.

There is so much still to be done with song. The new emphasis in electronic music on Sound Dust is fascinating. Together they can be -- well, just wait and see.

If you want to know more about the history of Sound Dust, download 'The Aesthetics of Failure', an essay written for Computer Music Journal by Kim Cascone (Adobe Acrobat .pdf format). Kim is particularly good on the way error and failure have been the motors of this music. If you can find a copy of the summer 2002 issue of Brooklyn-based review Cabinet, there's an interesting free CD with the magazine called 'Syntax Error', an audio history of failure and error in 20th century music featuring people like Pauline Oliveros and Yasunao Tone.

There's a follow-up discussion of this essay now going on here.

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