Archaic Timelessness: A New Age of New-Age Music

Bret Schneider

“but images of this kind the will cannot revive without doing them violence.”
– Samuel Beckett

For those finely tuned to recent music, one can easily feel a subject in the throes of a Logans Run-esque culture, worshiping at the ruse of arpeggiated synths and blissed-out fractal wallpaper.  Just because music sounds avant-garde doesn’t make it so.  In fact, the music that sounds the most avant-garde is usually the least so –kitsch clings to the styles of avant-garde art more than the avant-garde, which progressively dissociates art’s style from whatever it is that lies beneath it.  Style is criticized formally, but not dispensed with in avant-garde art, and thus defines itself through an intellectual distance.  But it has come to pass that the contemporary imitation of what should have been avant-garde music in the kitsch new age synth trend of the late 70‘s and 80‘s has become stylistic fodder associative with avant-garde experimental music today, which critiques it ironically and intellectually, but also tries to redeem it formally; it takes an avant-garde formal critique of the past in order to illuminate its kitsch.  Any tension between these poles – formalism and irony – in new experimental music is in the business of scrapping for musical autonomy which formally annihilates its subject matter but still needs it; the impoverished person who finds metal in the gutter holds it up to the sky to appreciate its glare that is so rarely seen.  But it just so happens that invaluable things are occasionally held up to the same light, in dire hope and reasonable trial and error that they too will glitter.  A movement stylistically based on the kitschiest of kitsch, such as 1980’s new age futuristic electronic music like Tangerine Dream, seems more like a self-consciously farcical stab at erecting a movement in an age where one feels anxious that there is no future, which perhaps breeds the interest in the future to begin with. It is like a slapstick parody of a movement, not dissimilar to the 3 Stooges trying to construct a modernist building, with the difference being that new age experimental music oddly succeeds, meager though its task has become.   New experimental music provides a meaningful aesthetic experience through the formal abstract exercises of the actual music, divorced from its initial conceptual content. Any listener of this music has an authentic music experience that is beyond conceptual– no matter how dubious they are, the quasi-religious descriptions of this new music attest to this, and there is real experiential content lurking behind the melancholic, sentimental ideas used to sell the experience.  Nevertheless, it becomes more and more difficult to kindle newness out of preexisting relics of culture. Consequently, one might wonder why an artist like Oneohtrix Point Never does the extra conceptual work of finding such relics in an era when music is rife with possibilities beyond trying and failing to forge a resemblance to past music through new technology and techniques; history in electronic music is a necessary crutch.  But even with all the  striving for semblance, there are more differences between new experimental music and the past than similarities. Whereas drone was originally a serious formal experiment in extended temporality and stasis, and a response to the immensity of western music history, building on both Satie’s sculpture of sound and Wagner’s sound mass, its experimental qualities today manifest through a filter of spiritualization that uses irony for earnest, even rational ends.  In order to retain material innovation in synthetic sound and technology, new experimental music are willfully bound to kitsch sound design that represents the idea of futurism, now lost. Futurism in this sense meaning a spiritual ideal.  The project of new experimental music is historical in a semi-autonomous way, but clinging to the past is not the type of free, new age future that the past imagined.  One could imagine, retrospectively, that such artists in the past hoped that synthesis would become a mainstream phenomenon and that a new age of electronic experimentation would flourish, freely following its own course, which has actually happened to such an automated extent in the idea that everyone should have their own computer music studio.  Finding failure in the new age music of yesterday is a forced critique.  But the actual fulfillment of this hope couldn’t be more repressed today, as artists ideologically disregard the cutting edge synth materials of our own time.  Today’s music can be conscious of the past, but not itself.  Whereas compositional time has been opened to infinity by mp3’s, experimental musicians write even shorter pieces than normal for cassette tape. Whereas software has advanced for synthesis, experimental musicians cling to analog gear more than ever.  The nostalgic fetishizing of gear–much like Surrealism’s mining of 19th century French utopic imaginations–is symptom of a fear of the present’s non-utopia.  New experimental music is a symptom of misunderstanding the present as the unfulfilled hopes of the past, which are imported conceptually as a crutch for the weakness of collective memory, and for which the ‘future’ is imported to gloss over.  But also, today’s new new age music, which should incite double-negative reversals of the double-positive name (old old age music) show a feature of the past that the past didn’t intend – its own self-conscious critique.

Spirituality has been a drive of music since the first breath of Dionysian ritual, and then through medieval religious chanted hymns.  But, in a modern society bent on reason and democracy that endeavors to divest itself of the fetters of religion, spirituality inevitably takes a different ‘tone’.  Nevertheless, magic, ritual, and spiritualism remain in music and the arts even through high modernism, and quantifiable math even becomes a spiritualized thing in itself. Adorno was a consistent observer and critic of the leftovers of magic as an truthful, but insufficient expression of spirit.  Music has truth in what it strives for but does not fulfill.  The frenzy of musical trends in search of sufficient expression is a reasonable enlightenment quest for musical truth, which regardless, always holds itself back. Listeners dislike past trends because they feel like they have been spiritually duped, so more trend-hating today indicates more spiritual deception, but in service of spiritual fulfillment.  Spiritual leftovers persist as expression of humans perpetually failing to overcome their primitive nature, and the scientific reason of music is counterweighted by the intact irrationality of ritualism.  Despite this opposition, however, the scientific freedom of music became a problem itself.  With the paradigmatic convergence of spiritualism and technical formalism in LaMonte Young in the 60’s (not to mention the growing importance of an artist like Arvo Pärt today) the tensions between scientific music and spiritualism finally collapse outright, hinging upon unity.  In many ways the stranglehold of reason in modernism cultivated a new niche for spiritualism, which is now a regulated aspect of commodity.  Marx had always observed the surreal, transcendental, ritualist aspect of commodities, so it is little surprise that experimental music is intensively ‘spiritualized’ today, as music is one of the top export commodities of the US.  It is not regressive for this reason, but commonplace and full of potential because of the self-criticality vested in the commodity form.  Reason and spirituality’s collapse in Lamonte Young’s music could have been a means by which we perceived each at their greatest odds, while the conceptual and non-conceptual spiritualism in new new age music could inculcate a mutual understanding, by its immersion into the globalized culture industry, which leaves it open to critique by every listener in the world.  This is why ‘regression in listening’ itself is the central problem for contemporary new new age music (like all other music), because spiritualist impulses, no matter how dubious in new music, go undetected or misconstrued as being fulfilled outright.  Those who listen to this music, like all popular music, often do so uncritically, and so spiritualism becomes familiar furniture.  Elliot Sharp’s dismissal of this new music as “escapist” or regressive misses this point, as the music is earnestly trying to be a reasonably spiritual form.  No music has ever been sufficiently spiritual in form, so there is little to regress from on the part of the maker – only the listener.

The desperate romances of Eastern mysticism in the music of John Cage and Lamonte Young were farce, as they emerged in an era where spiritualism might have been understood and overcome altogether.  The manner in which spiritualism was expressed in the 60‘s was above all insufficient. Composers went out of their way to find external spiritual elements (e.g. Eastern mysticism) and then import them as a crutch, but also to exhaust them rationally, through fetishizing them, in the logical development of aesthetic newness in the culture industry.  Contemporary experimental musicians have nothing left to take from intact spirituality (like the multiculturalism of yesterday, now exhausted), and this is a lack of spiritual identity unknown historically, meaning conditions are finally rife in ways they were not earlier. But the introduction of idealist new-age futurism into a legacy of materialist experimental music seems a naturalization of this shortcoming.  The striving for a ‘spiritual’ life expressed restrictively in aesthetic work is very realistically a natural response to the humdrum of daily life, but also catalyzed by it.  That is, the new quest for spiritualism is a symptom of bureaucratic daily life, but one that is undermined by its irrational listening.   Those who listen to the soothing sonorities in the ambience of new new age music do so in order fill a spiritual gap that has been simultaneously taken away, and articulated by capitalism.  In this sense, music listening is made regressive by external social conditions because it is catharsis, and hence, inherently uncritical.  No amount of innovation, deskilling, or historical analysis in music production can overcome the recognition of this. No new musician will ever ‘get it right’ under capitalism because listening habits tend to not change.  Because we favor cultural production over its critical reception, new musicians and art forms flourish ever-more meaninglessly.  Spiritual idealism may be the driving force behind musical trends, but it is unconsciously shaped by its listeners.  This is why album descriptions by music labels are imbued with mystical language, made more potent because this language borrows from all religions and, therefore, is a fulcrum for quasi-religion, which is then sold as the pure antidote to society’s ills.  In this sense, experimental music today has switched roles with pop music, because it promises more but delivers less.  The independent experimental music community reinforces the therapeutic value of music, which comes in doses of ambience for the sick who can’t stomach challenging tonalities or anything more aggressive than consoling sonorities.  Music becomes spiritual medicine, which its users take in carefully administered doses.  Accordingly new new age music also seems designed for the village ritual, made all the more barbaric because of advances in industry and self-deceit over the notion that musical trends fulfill spiritual needs absolutely.  The new musician heralded as sublime one day is forgotten or desublimated the next because trends change.  In this sense, the irrationality of market trends, intact because of self-deceiving spiritualism, triumphs over the non-conceptual listening experience, which it reduces to data.

Artists working in this vein, like Oneohtrix Point Never, are consciously aware of their pastiche of spiritualist electronic music aesthetics, which allows them to break through it formally.  The trashy way both spirituality and reason are expressed, via canned static-sounding music, self-help dictation, and poor implementation of technological innovation, mimic the trashy way in which electronic music has devolved from its bad-faith futurism, which could be seen also as progression.  The appropriation of New Age synthscapes straddles the gap between ironic and earnest, though somewhat didactically, which indicates how fragile the idea is. Similarly, the collapse of irony and earnestness in the video work of Ryan Trecartin demarcates a critical loss of this tension in service of ultimately recovering tensions between irony and earnestness, something still intact from the theory of a critical, rational art first articulated by Hegel.  If the collapse of rational and spiritual occurred already in the avant-garde music in the 60‘s, by the 80‘s this had become an automated kitsch phenomenon that trickled down through the lowest forms of expression in stock audio soundtracks, infomercials, and production music, which all tried to have that avant-garde sound for other, instrumental reasons than purely artistic or spiritual and consequently became the distorted oddities that commodities are; ie they had an ‘interested interest’, as opposed to a ‘disinterested interest’.  New new age music endeavors to rectify the insufficiencies of past spiritualism by incorporating and mocking its grotesquely demeaned legacy by demeaning it even more and deforming it beyond recognition – if only for ultimate exaltation by placing the representation of spirit back in the domain of aesthetics, which then goes on to obliterate it, and test it, formally.  What is apparently ironic, mystical, and absurd in new new age music is actually rational and calculated compared to pop music that is always invested with all kinds of more bizarre mysticism.  In comparison to the conceptualism of pop music, new experimental music is pure abstraction.

There is also a reason why this occurs in electronic music specifically, which has to do with the ‘new ageism’ of Futurism.  Music should have a spiritual aspect to it, all musicians know this, of contention is how to manifest this sufficiently in an age of bad reason and no faith.  The constant debunking of music’s spirituality by ‘reason’ is irrational in its repression; the critique that music shouldn’t be, or isn’t spiritual acts in opposition to its own self-interest, which might find pleasure in its object of critique but instead reasons it away.  Music’s trajectory into the quantitatively oriented culture industry makes the pursuit of spirituality rather banal though.  This is why it seems so counterintuitive and interesting that Stockhausen sought a music of the spheres with the most industrial of means: electronics. In Stockhausen’s music one finds the weird, crippled forms spiritualism takes in modernity, which is contrary to the quest for spirit, but also the critical exaltation of this bad-faith quest.  Oddly enough, today’s new music often uses gear from this era in order to invoke history, like an irrational musical raindance.  That experimental electronic music has become folk through its nostalgia for a bygone era of innovation makes it more meaningless and abstract historically, as new experimental musicians simply can’t render any past truthfully enough, or redeem its spiritualism.  Like folk music, there is a way in which avant-garde experimental music caricatures its past so as to understand it.

The most disturbing, entertaining, and critical realization is that electronics, and indeed technological advances as a whole, are still put in the service of somewhat primitive imaginations towards vaguely spiritual ends.  Electronics are tools of primitives trying not to be primitives, and it takes a peek past the veil of reified technological transfixion to realize this.  In a sufficiently spiritual world technology, as such, wouldn’t be needed at all anymore.  The idiotic and boring aspects of electronic music performances reflect this critically, laying it bare.  The philistine who is bored at an electronic music show or is bored by  drone music, because its performers ‘don’t do anything’ still expect a primitive transfixion redolent of fire-watching through technological performance.  The ‘doing-nothing‘ of electronic music performance might be considered a freedom from expression, instead of a freedom of expression.

The very persistence of technology is primitive.  As long as technology exists as such it will be used for the most primitive of ends, as its wielders use it with all their might to wriggle free from the oppression of nature, which we undoubtedly still operate under, though new new age music points the way out, ever-more obliquely.  Only the philistine uses technology to progress civilization; technology as such progresses civilization over a cliff.  Thus, the new age ‘primitivism‘ or ‘escapism‘ of new new age experimental music is not only excusable, but even desirable, because the critical eye watches objectively the human trying to be something other than nature, and, through miming such experience consciously in the music, distances us from nature in a way that can be observed critically.   New new age music is not too escapist, it is not escapist enough.


About Bret Schneider,

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