Electronic Music and the Uncanny


Louis Dufort’s Zenith: Creepy? Awesome? Both?

In introducing electronic music to students, there usually comes a time in the semester where one of my students asks, “Why is all this music creepy?”

I’m not sure I agree with my them about the music being creepy, but, as a specialist (of sorts), though, I’m maybe too close to the subject, and I can sympathize with my students coming to terms with these new materials.


Ok… Stockhausen may be objectively creepy

So, in general, what makes something “creepy”?

In a TIME article a few years ago, Why is Scary Music Scary? Here’s the Science, Patience Haggin suggested that music used in horror scenes of films was similar to animal distress calls, and that these sounds “trigger a biologically ingrained response by making us this our young are threatened…” The dissonant and minor chords, then, are naturally unsettling, due to their “nonlinear chaotic noise.”

MONSTER
Rar! Nonlinear!

Katy Waldman quickly responded with an article in Slate point out the TIME article’s lack of consideration for the cultural components of music. Waldman says the minor chord isn’t something that is “biologically ingrained,” noting different world cultures have difference perceptions of dissonance.

Sidestepping this nature/nurture debate, though, perhaps one of the reasons that uninitiated students think electronic music is “creepy” has to do with Freud’s uncanny, “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”

The uncanny is the distorted ordinary.


Yakusho Koji encounters his double in Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Doppelganger (2003)
A persons doppelganger is familiar, because it’s one’s self, but it’s also an impossibility, an aberration, and therefore a great example of the uncanny

There’s no shortage of uncanny images that exemplify this idea, but we have to take another step to show how audio can be uncanny. A example might be that of “hearing voices,” where a disembodied voice occurs without anyone around speaking.

That said, in the 20th-Century, audio recording makes sound portable across both space and time, allowing us to hear music performed by someone on the other side of the world, or even by someone who has died years ago. Composer R. Murray Shafer coined the term “schizophonia” to describe this separation of sound from its source:

We have split the sound from the makers of the sound. This dissociation I call schizophonia, and if I use a word close in sound to schizophrenia it is because I want very much to suggest to you the same sense of aberration and drama that this word evokes, for the developments of which we are speaking have had profound effects on our lives. -R. Murray Schafer

In recorded audio, then, all of these schizophonic sounds are uncanny, disembodied voices separated from their sound sources, like the severed body parts that Freud describes in his essay:

Dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist, feet which dance by themselves—all these have something peculiarly uncanny about them, especially when, as in the last instance, they prove able to move of themselves in addition. -Sigmund Freud

CRAWLING HAND
The Crawling Hand, from the movie of the same name

That said, we don’t perceive all recorded music as unsettling. Schafer points out: “Modern life has been ventriloquized,” and perhaps we’ve become used to the phenomenon of sound reproduced by loudspeakers, visible or not. Speakers and headphones have become the surrogate sources for these sounds and prevent us from feeling all recorded sound is uncanny.

So why is electronic concert music specifically uncanny? Perhaps this perception has to do with a phenomena that has become a cultural trope: the Uncanny Valley

A term perhaps best explained in an episode of 30 Rock (“Succession,” Season 2, Episode 13 for die-hards), which I sadly can’t link here but you can read about it in this blog post from several years ago by Mike Arnzen.

Put simply: Real things don’t bother us, fake stuff doesn’t bother us, but when fake stuff gets to close to being real, there’s a threshold where it becomes perceived as “uncanny” — the distorted ordinary.

GRAPH

a graph showing familiarity over human likeness

So, for example, we can consider vocals in music. To paraphrase the “30 Rock” scene: On the right of the valley, you have a real singer, possibly singing in the room with you, and, on the left you have things like Daft Punk or DJ Q-Bert, but in the valley, you have something like this:

[audio:http://www.simonhutchinson.com/EwhaExcerpt.mp3]

…which is the audio equivalent of this:

GEMINOID-F
Hiroshi Ishiguro‘s “Geminoid-F”

…and maybe that’s a bit creepy.

Of course there are a number of other aspects common in electronic concert music that can make it challenging for new listeners–unfamiliarity, unpredictability, extreme dynamic range, to name just a few–but maybe what gives people the creeps is electronic music’s ability (nay, duty!) to manipulate and distort sounds that we might find familiar. Or, at the very least, put these sounds into new contexts.


Edgard Varese’s Poeme Electronique

FALLINGROCK
Josh Shalek’s “Falling Rock National Park” (guest comic by Reid Psaltis)

KISS2013

For the past few days, I’ve enjoyed meeting other members of the “cult of Kyma” at the 2013 Kyma International Sound Symposium (KISS2013) in Brussels, Belgium.

The theme of the conference is interfaces (more precisely: “INTER faces”), and KISS2013 used for its symbol Belgium surrealist painter Rene Magritte’s “Les Amants” (“The Lovers”), an image of two people kissing with cloth covering their faces:

Les Amants

This painting illustrates a the role of interfaces as borders, emphasizing the separation between the two lovers (a separation which exists between all people) even in this most intimate moment.

In the realm of electronic music, we most often use the term “interface” to talk about the point of human interaction with a machine, whether through typing on a keyboard, using a mouse, or even the Graphical User Interface (GUI) of a piece of software. The KISS conference’s choice of Magritte’s painting for its symbol, though, re-examines the interface as a border, a concept that Kyma creator Carla Scaletti was also quick to point out in her keynote speech (poorly paraphrased here): without these borders, we would just all be one mass of cells flowing everywhere.

Dr. Scaletti’s image here immediately reminded me of Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyberpunk manga and animated film Akira, specifically the scene where the character Tetsuo merges with the mechanical devices around him, and becomes and uncontrollable expanding mass of organic and inorganic matter.

Akira

While Akira’s level of human-machine bordlessness is, hopefully, metaphorical (at least for the time being), it seems that we are moving toward more and more transparent interfaces in our human-computer interactions.

Several workshops and pieces involved the Microsoft Kinect (including performances by fellow UO alums Jon Bellona and Chi Wang), an interfaces that understands an impressive amount of data about a person’s body position without requiring any physical contact.

A step further, though, were two piece presented where the performers did not interface with the computer physically, but instead through EEG neural headsets. The performers took the stage, then thought in front of an audience in order to create music. The EEGs then gathered data about the performers neural impulses, which was sonified by the computer.

Of course I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what they were thinking about…

bacon

(I think all of my EEG pieces might sound the same.)

Rather than seeking to erase the human-machine border, though, it seems that these new devices are designed to allow us to interact with machines on more human terms. Typing or using a joystick, for example, are actions we have learned for the sake of interacting with computers, whereas the Kinect offers a way of interfacing with a computer using actions that might hold referential meaning beyond human-machine interaction, as evidenced in Bellona’s “spell-casting” actions in Casting, and Wang’s conducting motions in SoundMotion.

Of course, in musical performance, we should remember that performers for centuries have practiced and learned how to physically interface with these instruments in a way that is not necessarily referential to motions outside music, so the transparency of an interface doesn’t not necessarily reflect on its effectiveness (or all musicians would just play the timpani, where one can see from across the room how the performer is playing the instrument).

An interesting question might be, though: does a novel interface, one that has never been seen before and whose performance we have not yet been acculturated to, benefit from a degree of clarity between the performers actions and the sonic results?

violinStockPhoto

an image from Stock Photos of Violinists
Clearly this young woman is not acculturated to violin performance

Finally, here is one more image from Magritte, this time, the artist transgresses rather than emphasizes the interface. The title of the piece seemed rather serendipitous, “Sixteen September.”

16Sept

“We Don’t Care About Music Anyway”

Taking my first afternoon off in a while, I sat down to see what had been lurking unwatched on my Netflix queue, and I came across a documentary that I added a while ago, We Don’t Care About Music Anyway, a 2009 film about avant-garde musicians and sound artists in Tokyo:

For a better idea of what this film is about, I think this review from the Seattle Times is pretty apt.

While not all of the performances in the documentary are to my taste (a statement that I don’t think would concern the artists in the least), I really enjoyed the film, especially in how it set “noise music” in the context of issues of modernity in urban life. Speaking purely from my anecdotal experience, I’m always impressed at how clear and confident Japanese artists are about communicating their creative impetus, and it was great to hear some of the musicians speak directly about how they feel their work fits in modern Japanese society.

If you’re interested in any of the above, consider taking an hour and a nineteen minutes to enjoy the film (especially if you have unlimited Netflix streaming).

110117_wedontcare

For me, revisiting some Japanese, electronic-musical, cultural anthropology was a worthwhile break before returning to grading some Classical, German/Austrian, tonal analysis assignments.

Shin no Shin, for iPad and electronics

Here’s another contemplative work that I premiered at the Future Music Oregon Concert on November 17th, using iPad and the Kyma system.

It contrasted nicely with the Post Haste Duo’s performance of my chop-buster bioMechanics that was also on the concert (video of that performance coming soon).

Simon Hutchinson – Shin no Shin from Simon Hutchinson on Vimeo.

In his essay on Japanese Aesthetics, Donald Richie explains a three-part formula for classifying the arts, shin-gyou-sou:

“The first term, shin, indicates things formal, slow, symmetrical, imposing. The third is sou and is applied to things informal, fast asymmetrical, relaxed, the second is gyou and it describes everything in between the extremes of the two.”

These three divisions, though, can also all be subdivided in threes, such as shin no sou (the more sou end of shin), shin no gyou (medium-shin), and shin no shin (the highest level of shin).

Requiem, for Shamisen and Live Electronics

For some time now, I’ve been revising my 2010 composition, “Requiem,” and I finally had a chance last month to get into the studio to make a video recording of the new version.

Enjoy it on a system with bassy speakers:

Simon Hutchinson – Requiem from Simon Hutchinson on Vimeo.

This piece, for shamisen and live electronics, is dedicated to my friend, Kawamura Shinyu. Shinyu was the first person I met when I arrived in Japan, and it was through him that I came to study the shamisen. Sadly, Shinyu also grappled with bipolar disorder, and took his own life during one of his depressive episodes. Through this piece, I hope to celebrate his life and express my gratitude for his endless kindness, hospitality, and generosity to me.

Aaron Pergram performing “Doppelgänger” live

While we’re still working on the studio cut of this piece, here’s a video of Aaron Pergram’s live performance of “Doppelgänger” from the Future Music Oregon concert, November 19th, 2011.

Doppelganger (2011) from Simon Hutchinson on Vimeo.

When composing for soloist and electronics, I often approach pieces as concerti, with the live performer conversing with an electronic “ensemble.” Traditionally, this genre has given composers the opportunity to explore the relationship between an individual and society as well as provide discourse on the importance of both individual and social expression and contentment. The introduction of the soloist’s doppelgänger, a supernatural duplicate, turns this piece into a kind of double concerto, with the soloist faced not only with society but with the implications of the spectral double, supporting or undermining the efforts of the individual to find a place in the social world.