It Was a Bug, Dave: The Dawn of Glitchwerks

By Kenneth Goldsmith
© 1999 New York Press

The latest Macintosh ad features the return of HAL, the robot from 2001. As the camera slowly zooms into HAL's red button, we hear him explaining to Dave the astronaut that "It was a bug Dave... only the Macintosh was designed to function perfectly." Although HAL was referring to the Y2K problem, most composers of a new genre of experimental music called "glitchwerks" would disagree--technology never functions perfectly. As a matter of fact, they use their Macintoshes to create music that embraces the sounds of technology fucking up--the sounds of computers crashing or CDs glitching. It's a music that embraces the death rattle that a computer makes when a virus overtakes it; it's the sound of tin foil in the microwave.

The basic musical unit in glitchwerks is the CD glitch. While seen as an intolerable annoyance to the rest of us, these composers have seized upon it as a new sound source by which to build their compositions. With its insistent repetition, it neatly references this century's earlier avant-garde movements like minimalism, and because it's technologically based, glitchwerks perfectly dovetails with the formalist concerns of electronic music. But don't expect clever electroncia or gentle ambient music. There's really very little "music" (in the traditional sense of the word) to this stuff. And although glitchwerks shares much of the same machinery that goes into making techno music and drum 'n bass, the similarities end there. Those sorts of musics tend to agree with HAL: they're designed to keep a beat and function perfectly without a hitch. Glitchwerks, on the other hand, is created on computers with patches specially written so that the computer will crash--while the tape is rolling. The result reflects the process by which it is made: it's often viscously abrasive, naval-gazingly self-referential, and thickly opaque. It's nearly impossible to try to make it though a single cut on these discs, never mind an entire CD.

Because there's been such an abundance of this material released over the past year or two, I became curious as to what value, if any, there was behind it. So for the past six months, I've immersed myself in glitchwerks, often spending up to eight hours a day (I've been listening at work with headphones) trying to make sense of this emerging genre. Like most forms of music that have challenged my notion of what music is, I soon became accustomed to--dare I say fond of--glitchwerk's digital vocabulary of spiky barbs and blistering sheets of white noise. I also, after weeding through dozens of discs, discovered a couple of artists that were actually creating works of lasting value. Japan's Ryoji Ikeda and the Austrian group known as Farmers Manual, are doing some truly stunning work by shaping mountains of raw digital information into compositions rife with narrative and form. For sheer ballsiness, a group of California teenagers who call themselves Disc (their glyph-like name is simply the compact disc logo), are creating radical compositions in a plunderphonic vein; they sample pop CDs and simply let them glitch endlessly. Taking a more synthetic (melding historical and current concerns) tack is New York's Michael Schumacher, who combines digital scrappage with quiet electric guitar and faint vocals to create richly meditative tapestries of sound. Unfortunately, these examples are few and far between because, as is generally the case with new technologies, most artists are simply exploring what sounds the computer is capable of when it's programmed to go apeshit. As a result, there've been scads of discs released recently that make for worthless listening experiences; most seem to be little more than musicians flexing their muscles, trying to establish the parameters of a vocabulary. In hindsight, it took an awful lot of aimless experimentation before the vision of a Stockhausen or a Pierre Henry emerged to give shape to the then-new forms of electronic music or music concrete.

What separates glitchwerks from earlier forms of electronic music in this century is the willingness to investigate the darker side of technological error. While the 20th century was busy claiming every sort of noise as music, most of it tended to stress new sounds that old instruments could make when played unconventionally (just intonation, 12 tone music, serialism, etc.). Likewise, most electronic music stressed what the machines could do, instead of what they weren't supposed to do. Oddly enough, one of the first overt musical nods toward mechanical error as a source of inspiration was in 1956, when the guitarist for the Johnny Burnette Trio, Paul Burlison, accidentally knocked an amplifier tube loose. Burlison thought it sounded great and began altering his amp each time he went to use it. In the early 60s, James Tenney started experimenting with skipping records and came up with the seminal "Collage No. 1 (Blue Suede)," which granted permission to generations of experimental plunderphonists and vinyl manglers.

The direct precedents for glitchwerks are vinyl manipulators like Grandmaster Flash and Christian Marclay; now that it has found it's way into every pop song, it's easy to forget that the sound of vinyl scratching was once considered irritating, if not downright radical (I wonder how long it's going to be before CD glitches find their way into pop music as decorative rhythmic elements). Christian Marclay, in particular, has built a career on questioning the conventions of pre-recorded music. When he saw the advent of the CD coming, he created an artwork which questioned the new medium's ability to be easily manipulated. Poetically, he snaked miles of magnetic recording tape into sealed bottles, implying that the music industry was literally canning the public's access to altering pre-recorded music. When CDs did become commonplace, people instantly wondered how to mess with them. For a while, CD players came with pitch controls, which made it easy to warp the sound of a CD; the little used shuffle button was another mild industry concession.

One of the first people to start manipulating CDs was a 65 year-old Fluxus veteran, Yasunao Tone, who began gumming up the bottom of discs in the late 80s with scotch tape and slicing thin lines with a razor blade into it. He found it to be a perfect way to make the CD skip unpredictably. His Solo for Wounded CD released a few years ago on Tzadik is a marvelously glitching remix of an experimental disc he had released a few years earlier. When performing live, Tone will often gum up the bottoms of CDs he burned of previous live shows, creating a digital hall of mirrors. And in an inevitable move, Tone has recently been altering CDs as a part of a duet with Christian Marclay on turntables. Today's digital manglers have been doing everything from smearing Vaseline all over the bottom of a CD to simply giving the stereo a whack while a disc is playing in order to make it skip.

It's hard to know who's behind many of the glitchwerk groups; they tend to operate in anonymity, rarely listing tracks or crediting authorship. Most of the packages are plastered with experimental typography and random numbers; on several discs, I had to search all over to find the artist's or group's name, not to mention the label that put it out. There are a few key labels releasing this stuff, notably the Austrian Mego label, the London-based Touch, and Rastermusic from Germany. Mego and its artists started as part of Austria's dance scene but has, in the past few years, shifted its focus toward experimentation. Touch, who have been testing musical boundaries for two decades, have released the most impressive works such as the mentioned Farmers Manual and Ikeda discs. Germany's Rastermusic has also been active, issuing their trademark spermy-white slabs of vinyl and CDs housed in nothing but clear plastic. The packaging of glitchwerks tends to be as innovative and experimental as the music. A variety of unconventional materials are used from anti-static paper to transparent materials to lots of empty white space. Because the genre is so new, many musicians are using the packaging to publish manifestos (in tiny type) on a variety of agendas from mechanistic bodies to cyberspace, that they see their music relating to.

It's hard to know what to do with this stuff. It makes for some seriously difficult listening, even by the most rigorous avant-garde standards; there's no hooks to grab on to and because it's studio-produced, it doesn't make for a great live show (at last summer's Farmers Manual show at P.S. 1, a couple of guys pushed buttons on Powerbooks, creating music at either ear-splitting volumes or barely audible digital whispers). Because the music itself is very formal, it poses as a poster child for McLuhan's medium as message and, not surprisingly, works best as a soundtrack when surfing the web (make sure you're equipped with a T1, a 450mz machine and every plug-in known to mankind). For an optimal glitchwerks experience, visit the Farmers Manual website (http://web.fm/), preferably with a glitchwerks disc playing. The site is a perfect visual translation of what happens in the music. Layers unfold upon layers, links are hard to find, text and image merge into a digital tangle. While there's no overt logic to the site, there's a definite point of view and subsequent beauty that defines a very specific of-the-moment aesthetic.

Like the internet itself, with the technology evolving hourly, the entire genre of glitchwerks seems like a giant work in progress, making it very hard to pin down. What follows below is my attempt to make some sense of it all. It's a rundown of eleven CDs I've come across that, in some primary way, strike me as being representative of glitchwerks.

 

Beautyon the ultimate mediterranean savage (Irdial)

If you're looking for the purest manifestation of glitchwerks, Beautyon is it. It's a virtual catalog of the new digital sounds. Unfortunately, it might not be anything more than that. Other artists could make entire albums out of the variety of experiments featured here and chances are that they will--the entire digital vocabulary is represented here from almost inaudible skittering glitches to squishy repetitious patterns that sound like electrified running water. There are soft, outer space swishes and echoey static pops; sinuous digital snakes rub up against what sounds like the purr of car engines. This disc is a glitchwerks reference book: somebody had to do it.

M. Behrens Final Ballet (Rastermusic)

Quiet fluttering fields of digital skips and blips—it's subtle and quiet stuff. There's no sense of narrative, development or progression. At the top end, a barely audible high pitched wail that only a dog could hear, screeches throughout most of the disc. Steady digital ticking, interrupted by the occasional skip of a CD, keeps some vague semblance of a beat. You won't find any melody, songs or sampling here—just pure digital opacity.

Disc Disc (Vinyl Communications)

Disc's discs are made up of nothing but CDs glitching. But it's not just random glitching—these California teenagers have terrific ears and happen to pick the sweet spots on whatever disc they're sampling. Nothing is off limits: they hatchet everything from dance music to pop. And it's the pop that works best—they brilliantly shred Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" so that the song's title becomes the key to this version's deconstruction. It's easiest to think of what they do as an update to Stockhausen's Hymnen (where various national anthems were speeded up or slowed down until they were no longer recognizable). Mind-boggling repetitions create patterns and fields of music that you've never heard before.

Farmers Manual Explorers_We (Or)

Explorers_We is the Sgt. Pepper of glitchwerks; it's a totally considered statement, which holds together from start to finish. It's the first glitchwerk masterpiece. The more you listen to it, the better it gets. There's a strong sense of narrative here-- 60 tracks, each one minute long, begin almost silently, but by five minutes into the disc, small machine-like whirs appear, building up into sensous overtones. About 20 minutes in, speeded-up vocal samples join, wrapped in warm analog musique-concrete whooshes. The middle section sounds completely psychedelic, directly referencing George Martin's 60s studio experiments. Digital clicks fuse with sampled voices to form fantastic polyrhythms which take their cue from African drumming (a tip of the hat to Steve Reich's Drumming and "It's Gonna Rain"). The disc finishes out by using a series of self-reflexive one second media clips from game shows, applause, commercials.

Fennesz Hotel Parallel (Mego)

Fennesz makes some very listenable post-Seefeel music, cleverly merging scrappy digital material with soft, Satie-like piano pieces. Occasional beats and melodies are spiked with sharp little barbs which are digital equivalent of glass shattering. For good measure, Fennesz throws in dashes of chunky analog LP crackle. Perhaps the most rock-based of the discs here.

Fuckhead The Male Comedy (Mego)

Fuckhead are the bad boys of the Glitchwerks crowd. Chaotic, ever-changing and purposely unfocused, Death Metal song structures dissolve into digital washes. There are no holds barred: this disc is packed with soundbites of people screaming and speeded-up voices. It's juvenile stuff, sounding like 80s industrial music run through a computerized shredder. Beats abound, but they never really add up to anything—they're another just feature of this restless landscape.

Ryoji Ikeda (Touch)

Along with Farmers Manual, Ikeda stands out as someone who's actually been able to transform scads of digital ephemera into a coherent and mature statement. Spoken word cut-ups are interspersed with blasts of white digital noise, clicks and pops. Ikeda uses lots of warm analogue source material: droney hums of amplifiers, bad speaker connections, shimmering fields of television static and ticking clocks chime in sync with quiet organs. Although it sounds like it was randomly pasted together, a close listen reveals this disc to be tightly composed. Amidst the chaos are some quieter, extended moments—heartbeats blend with the sounds of a short-wave radio playing classical music. Gorgeous.

Ivan Pavlov/COH, Enter Tinnitus (Rastermusic)

Pavlov is a digital Terry Riley, using long loopy rhythms and glitching pulses to form sensous trance-like patterns. Unlike most glitchwerks, the repeated skipping patterns make for meditative--even pleasant--listening. Pavolv also has a sense of humor: it sounds like he's been slicing up the wonderful Teletubbies soundtrack, throwing sampled baby's gurgles into the mix. The result is akin to Bruce Haack's twisted digital kid's record Hush Hush Little Robot.

Pomassl Trail Error (Laton)

This disc sounds like a sputtering tail pipe of a car alternating with the close-miked sound of a zipper opening and closing. Cheap, repetitive synths that sound like they're out of a grade-B sci fi flick are spiked with jagged-edged glitches. Eventually, these become longer in duration, finally gently falling across the soundcape like crackling digital snowflakes. Pomassl's work sounds best on a good pair of headphones, where certain sections are so aural-active, your head feels like it's going to explode.

Radian (Rhiz)

Think of Radian as the Portishead of the digital movement--this stuff might actually make it onto the CD player at trendy bars or at your next dinner party. While it's not quite retro, they create a sort of digital jazz mood by in using older analog technology. Radian cleverly references the early experimental British rock band This Heat, melding tape loops with trance-like drums. It's hard stuff to stop listening to, which it makes it unique in this genre. Radian might be a good place to start investigating the glitchwerks as a stream of steady beats structure much of the potential chaos that is otherwise found in abundance elsewhere on this page.

Michael Schumacher Room Piece (SFB)

Schumacher is the Morton Feldman of the glitchwerks. Like Feldman, he requests that you keep the volume low while listening to his disc. And it's a nice idea, because it's really quiet stuff. One 71 minute track of electronic drones are occasionally punctuated by small "events." An underlying hum which sounds like a couple of hundred cicadas pulsating on a hot summer day, carries the disc for its duration. Half way through, a quiet voice enters the mix, making for some soft and organic listening. By the time its over, gentle atonal guitars snuggle up against the layers of hushed electronics. Schumacher stands out from the crowd by humanizing this icy genre, unleashing its potential into sheer digital beauty.

 

Because all of these discs are on small labels, they're difficult to find.

Most can be ordered through Dutch East India, 45 w. 34th St., Suite 1001, NY NY 10001,info@dutch-east.com.

Schumacher's disc is available through Forced Exposure:www.forcedexposure.com.

Disc's discs can be found at www.vinylcomm.com

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