Neuro-Transmit Me These Empty Sounds: An Interview with Janne Vanhanen

Articles

“Neuro-Transmit Me These Empty Sounds”
Chicks on Speed

An Interview with Janne Vanhanen

Jeremy Turner

Regarding the Obstacles of Narrative, Representation and History:

CTHEORY: My first question deals with an excerpt from your essay, “The Art of Stalking -1 ” (1999)

In it, you say:

By playing with time contemporary music disrupts the order that the modern wants to establish: evolution as a succession of events, each new event overcoming the predecessor. This arborescent model of evolution has been replaced by a rhizomatic one: mutations occur, voices from the past come to haunt us, they are even actively welcomed by contemporary music whose producers don’t want to overcome the past but use it gladly as a material resource. The entire history of recorded music is available for re-experiencing and — most crucially — for manipulation, juxtaposition, contradiction.

I agree with you that the modern canon (when applied to no specific medium) was basically about evolutionary justifications for developing aesthetic trends through a linear sequence of events determined (supposedly) by the ‘objective’ gravity of classical art-history and that in our ‘Post-Modern’ age, we have replaced the objective model of evolution with the subjective interpretation of recombinant histories in the form of Deleuzian machines (for lack of a better description).

However, within the specific realm of audio production, sound sculpture or more classically, “Music Composition”, would you agree that the reverse is true? That the music of the present and the immediate future will once again embrace an ‘objective’ meta-historical standard and reduce any hyper-subjective preoccupations with the (inter)personal narrative?

In other words, “Music” is traditionally perceived in the Classical Western canon as a logical and programmatic sequence of linear events that are often subjectified by the classical composer in the form of a narrative. Such narratives are then propelled by the technical vocabulary of harmonic gravity from Dominant to Tonic cadences (for example: Schenkerian Analysis) and illustrated through the ornamentation of dynamic counterpoint.

In contrast, the new millennium has given rise to what has been called the “Glitch” and “Microsound” scene. This current aesthetic incarnation, has recently jettisoned all programmatic linearity and intersubjective dependence on other musical events in order to focus on the molecular construction of a non-linear sound object. So, with the exception of the DJDance culture where rhythm has become the intermediary bridge between the two spatio-temporal extremes, would you also agree that focusing on timbre rather than harmony, melody, and rhythm might eventually revive an interest in the conceptual auspices of the objective over the subjective?

JANNE VANHANEN: This is a very tough question, requiring insight into contemporary audio art that I perhaps lack. Would the surge of interest in textural qualities of sound (“microsound”) signal a return to the objective? As you lay it out, the Classical Western canon upholds a model of “objective” evolution through a succession of subjective narratives, which are mediated through various musico-technical forms. Paradoxically, by abandoning the “objective” evolutionary model of a modernist canon, we could (re)discover an objective sound world, “not the songbird but the sound molecule” as Deleuze & Guattari wrote. Would microsound mean a new empiricism in sound? At least I would be delighted to be done away with the concepts of subject and expression in the field of music.

What implied by the fact that microsound as a genre is essentially tied up with the technology that produces it, the sound of its technology? I hear contemporary experimental audio as continually holding the middle ground between reterritorializing into the technology (i.e. churning out just another MAX patch) and deterritorializing the technology that produces it (major breaking points in machinic music: the scratch and the glitch). Despite the very likely scenario you outlined in your question — non-linear sound objects jettisoning the inter-subjective dependence on outside references, becoming Minimalist art objects — there’s a tendency in machine music to regress into minor variations of pre-set parameters. I think this would be the kind of inter-subjectivity you are talking about.

Psycho-Acoustic Considerations…

CTHEORY: In addition to analyzing musical forms through their linear and programmatic properties, what is your impression on the research and development of audio forms through the discipline of psycho-acoustics?

JANNE VANHANEN: I turn to DJ-based music in my answer… Maybe because the rave/club -setting has been a busy research area in psycho-acoustics: DJ music being in some part an attempt to induce and engineer various mental and physical states in the dancer. There are certain very idiosyncratic sounds (stingy 303 acid squelch, sticky Mentasm synth drone, rubbery Dread sub-bass…) producing very distinct experiences. Maybe this “research” is more vague in more academic areas of music, since the receiving situation is left undefined, you don’t necessarily have the immersive environment of a dancer experiencing the music at loud volume.

CTHEORY: Could you elaborate more on the difference and/or relationship between material and programmatic content?

JANNE VANHANEN: The relation between material and programmatic content has been an uneasy one in music, hasn’t it? Think of musique concrete as a soundtrack to a movie: trains going by, whistles whistling, dogs barking, all in sync with the soundtrack. What could be more horrible! I’m not a musicologist enough to answer this really further, of course there’s a deeper level to the relation, but I’d say tentatively that the concept of acousmatic sound tends not to match with programmatic content. But then again, I really enjoy “dance music”.

The Degrees and Limits of Temporality in Techno…

CTHEORY: In past writings, you also make reference to the non-temporal nature of Electronic Dance music as existing in the constant and perpetual state of “now”. Is it possible that this just may be one subjective interpretation and that another impression may suggest that unlike an endless flowing stream or standing wave drone, techno music merely suggests the illusion of presentness and that the direction of Dance music still carries a forward momentum towards a linear resolution? I am reminded of many movements from the “Music in 12 Parts” suite composed by Philip Glass in 1974. As a direct precursor to Techno/Dance music, I think this analogy is valid. The success of “Music in 12 Parts” is that, depending on your subjective angle, one can view (I am using the word “view” from visual culture to make parallels with your example of Jungle DJs composing in “4D space”) the work as constantly addressing the present OR driving a long and hypnotic journey towards eventual resolution. The glacial and cyclical modulation through 12 consecutive tonalities (mocking his Serialist academic training) seems to suggest that his music is an optimistic means to an end or at least striving for an end rather than and end it itself. Would this interpretation also apply to Electronic Dance music and if so, would the ghosts that you describe reside in a spatio-temporal limbo? A 4D purgatory?

JANNE VANHANEN: Surely there’s a complex interplay between constant presentness and “forward” (why not backward?) momentum in music that thematizes its own repetition. I’m thinking of house and techno, Glass and Reich and Ryoji Ikeda, but also the heavy funk of James Brown and P-Funk continuum and all kinds of motorik rock. Machinery that moves, changes gears, but essentially stays the same, retains the same machinic assemblage, if you will.

I would like to make a very vague and general distinction between linear and non-linear repetitive musics. Linear music would indeed reside in a limbo or purgatory, gliding towards a resolution through modulations or at least suggesting such drive in its structure. Non-linear music would strive to build up a “plateau of intensity” (paradise or hell?) by repetition that doesn’t strive towards a resolution or climax. A good example to mention would be minimal techno in a DJ-set, loop-aesthetics, with strobe lights cutting time into successive cinematic flashes of present moment. To paraphrase Godard: truth (i.e. presence/present) 140 beats per minute…

CTHEORY: I am pleased you admitted that you are making somewhat vague references here. When I think of even meters played in consecutive order at any BPM, I think of the physical act of walking, driving or dancing. Even though one can walk, dance and drive as if they are in the constant moment, there always seems to be an eventual end-point in functional life. At least on some level, we are making a journey from Point A to Point B. In your example here, does not the act of flashing one light after another suggest and reinforce a bipedal linearity such as walking or even marching? I am not referring at all to the kind of (trance-)endental effects one can experience from the flicker of a strobe light which may or may not be something entirely different from the experience of actually witnessing the present.

JANNE VANHANEN: Of course we are talking about different interpretations of the “changing same” with you focusing on the change and myself on the sameness. Let me clarify my idea. You mention the metaphoric link between even musical meter and motoric action, which has a goal in some sense. However, when I encounter what I called non-linear music, on the dance-floor or at home, I’m struck by how my listening experience is mainly non-anticipatory. Repetition lays out a constant succession of present moments or “events”, which is to say that I experience (mainly) the texture of sound without recall or expectation of development.

So instead of walking (a Romantic pastoral stroll, loaded with meaning) I propose the image of driving on a featureless autobahn: there is momentum but not a sense of it. A mixture: events, in some way “timeless”, presented in pulsed time.

On The Metaphysics of Presence…

CTHEORY: You have chosen to take a quote from Simon Reynolds where he speculates that the “uncanny adjacence” of “recording auras” and “different acoustic spaces” could be called the “deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence”. From this, you go on to say:

Any recording is a whole in itself, all its characteristics are immanent to itself, without an essential relation to an outerior or higher symbolic order.

Or earlier …

This referentiality has been used succesfully by some conceptual sonic artists, but in a more subtle use sampling can be a conjurer’s instrument, calling together a séance of spirits, yet leaving their identities vague, ghostlike; creating a track that sounds human and inhuman at the same time. Digital psychedelia = sampladelia.

In the context of the plural (” … séance of ghosts … “), I can see where deconstructing the metaphysics of presence would apply but what about the metaphysical properties of a single sound object? As in Minimalist sculpture, a specific object is not meant to refer to anything other than itself. So metaphorically, would such an object possess as single ghost that would only refer to itself than to a host of ghosts? Sculptors like Donald Judd and Robert Morris II had attempted to raise the hierarchy of their sculpture to the status of a specific object embodied with immanent and transcendental presence … A singular presence. In the medium of “Audio”, does such a specific object ideally embody a reconstruction or reconstitution of the metaphysics of presence rather than the deconstruction of it?

JANNE VANHANEN: “Neuro-transmit me these empty sounds” — Chicks On Speed: “Panasonic Rip-off”.

The above caption is from a track built on an existing Pan(a)sonic piece. The Chix are probably referring to the “empty” quality of the sounds Pan(a)sonic music consists of: sine waves, test tones, crackles & claps arranged in a strict rhythmic grid. Your question made me think of the possibility of empty sounds, especially as I’ve recently been listening to German composer Ekkehard Ehlers’ “…plays Robert Johnson” and “…plays Albert Ayler” where he tackles the question of reference in digital music. The pieces don’t “play” their referents in the sense of having samples of their recorded work included, but try to refer to them on a more abstract level.

Ehlers states in The Wire (issue 212) that “‘Reference’ is a basic structure in digital music” and it seems he tries to subvert this referentiality. Can non-referential, “empty” sounds be produced in the context of referring machines (turntables, samplers, computers)? Of course this technology makes the concept of acousmatic music possible in the first place, “neuro-transmitting” sounds to listeners without the gesturality of a performer or awareness of the sound source.

My theoretical interest in phonography stems from this interplay of essentially referential media making possible the acousmatic presence of sound (or R. Murray Schaefer’s “schizophonia”). I’m not sure whether absolutely Minimalist sound object — in the sense of a “pure” object referring only to itself, like Judd or Andre sculptures — is an attainable goal at all. We cannot seek “escape” from referentiality — there’s bound to be semiotic leakage even in the most singular presence. And then there’s the question of the difference between the “simple” presence of a white square painting by Robert Ryman and a sound work unfolding processually in acoustic time-space, but I can only refer to this question at this point.

CTHEORY: Fair enough, assuming that Minimalist objects in any medium can no longer refer only to themselves, then do you see the value in having audio try to closely reference — provide an approximated metaphor for or leak out semiotic references — to historical Minimalism? Is it a sane pursuit to bother pouring through old Greenbergian texts, statements by Judd or the writings of Andre or Morris? For example, one of Andre’s greatest historical achievements was rooted in a sculptural dialectic. He was considered the first to liberate the base as a specific object from the programmatic readings of narrative sculpture. This is similar to Rodin’s gradual departure of the figure from the pedestal and base, and Brancusci’s elevation of the pedestal as a figural element. I would say that the attempt to determine what a base, pedestal or figure is in music could result in a worthwhile investigation into new aesthetic forms. Or alternatively, it might simply result in a cheap imitation of sculptural discourse. The real question is: Does audio have a right to approximate the properties unique to specific media?

JANNE VANHANEN: Yes, I see much value in audio-references to Minimalism. Especially, if we are trying to detach ourselves from an evolutionary modernist stance, we shouldn’t consider certain compositional strategies as having been made redundant by others. And one has to remember that the form of such musical work is not necessarily “minimal” if we take Minimalism as an attempt to create a self-referencing work. I’m intrigued by your remark about the attempt to determine the “base” of music. I think — and this is mentioned by Kim Cascone in his CMJ article — that much of the present microsound movement has tried to present the “background” of music or phonography, but what would be the base or the pedestal? That’s an exciting question!

The Degrees and Limits of Immersion…

CTHEORY: You and many other scholars have observed in recent times that the buzzword, concept and paradigm of “immersion” dominated the zeitgeist of the late 20th century. Hype around the potential for fully immersive VR (Virtual Reality) worlds peaked around 1993 at least in Canada. Now that we have entered the 21st century, are we on the verge of a paradigm shift towards principles of “extroversion”? Some speculative technologies seem to suggest the possibility that what we now take for granted as immersive environments may eventually become externalized into our material world. You mention that:

… This kind of flux and mutability of digital media makes it into an immersive environment, rather like sound.

Or …

How to think of sound itself when the epistemological focus of our thinking and our concepts is located in a seeing subject? With its temporality and immersiveness, sound seems to avoid clarity, categorization and objectivity. Light and sight reveal objects, sound is the result of processes, of something happening – and of mistakes: there can’t be glitches without processes. The whole notion of glitch is tied up to an ‘auditive’ thoughtform, which approaches the world as a multiplicity of processes rather than a pre-set field of objects.

This analogy is appropriate presupposing that immersion is an inherent prerequisite of sonic experience. If Digital Media inflates, thereby floating away from its attributed flatness and assumed some quantitative material depth, will the ontology of sound follow suit and truly become sound sculpture? If so, what can we do to restore or invent faith in the ontology of sound objects? Would that mean that we would have to redefine its epistemological relationship to the seeing subject? Would the physical embodiment of sound become clear and concise? Result oriented rather than process oriented?

JANNE VANHANEN: I think immersiveness is an inherent feature in sonic experience, at least in visually-based Western tradition, where sound stands as vague, processual element, its presence (waves and frequencies) more “problematic” than Newtonian material objects. Digital media’s externalizing effect is an intriguing question: will the “flatness” of digital media inflate and lead to a notion of sound as an object or will it result in an object regarded as a process (like sound)? I’d like a middle path of those alternatives, maybe attaining a shift in the epistemological notion of seeing subject towards processual one. Current sound-forgery/alchemy/metallurgy, blurring the distinction between the object and the processual, is a decisive, if minor, step towards that direction.

Objective Sell-Out?

CTHEORY: Following this chain of thinking, would this put the sound object at further risk of being fetishized and commodified? Would this be Adorno’s worst nightmare?

JANNE VANHANEN: We can already see the objectual part of digital audio, the packaging, being deliciously fetishized by inventive graphic designers everywhere. An anonymous slab of vinyl, 12″ white label is the opposite pole of this dialectic (though is itself loaded with uncomfortable notions of “realness” or “originality”). This is why I (and maybe Adorno would too?) feel more comfortable with DJ-culture: records are regarded as tools rather than ends-in-themselves, defusing the aura of the original, which resides even in mass-produced items.

Janne Vanhanen is a Finnish scholar of aesthetics from the University of Helsinki, interested in the junctures of contemporary philosophy, technology and art, especially in music and phonography. His writings have appeared in Taide (“Art”) magazine, on various websites and he gave the presentation “Loving the Ghost In The Machine: The Aesthetics Of Interruption” recently at the Refrains conference in Vancouver, Canada. His low-tech photocopy graphic designs have appeared on posters and limited-edition recordings and he can sometimes be seen and heard DJ’ing in various low-key occasions.

Jeremy Turner is instructing a new course on the “History of Digital Audio” at Vancouver Community College in Vancouver, Canada. Turner is also a composer and inter-disciplinary artist. He is the co-founder of an international artist collective, 536 (www.fivethreesix.com). He is currently composing site-specific lieder to be performed by avatars in 3D OnLive environments.