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.”

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

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.


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:


…which is the audio equivalent of this:

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

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


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.


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…


(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?


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.”


“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).


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

Beautiful Mishearings – Guest Post

I’ve just gotten back from a hugely enriching week of supporting several amazing people in creating an opportunity for high-school and junior-high-school students of tsunami-stricken areas of Japan.

Check back here later this month for more details about that experience, but, in the meantime, I’d like to share the first of hopefully many guest posts by Katherine Hollander, librettist for my upcoming opera, “A Lawn in the Sky.” She’s kindly offered to share her thoughts about her experiences in this creative project, and, in the first of these posts, below, she writes about how the working title of the opera came about:


Beautiful Mishearings: How This Opera Got its (Working) Title

In the mid-eighties, so the story goes, the young playwright Tony Kushner was visiting an installation honoring the work of the great choreographer, Agnes de Mille. A video recording of de Mille was playing; she was describing a dance piece she had created, and Kushner heard her say the name of the piece was “A Bright Room Called Day.” But that wasn’t the name of the piece. The name of the piece was “A Bridegroom Called Death.”

Somewhere in that mishearing was a particular magical slippage, a conflation and resonance. Kushner took the name “A Bright Room Called Day” and gave it to a play he was working on—a funny, poignant, sometimes ghoulish little tale about myopic but good-hearted dissidents in the early years of the Third Reich. (I say “little” with real affection for the work, and because Kushner’s other plays are so enormous and overflowing that “Bright Room” feels as intricate and manageable and miniature as a dollhouse by comparison.) Within the cozy and intimate artificiality of the title (which mirrors feel of the apartment in which the play unfolds) stalks the darker image of de Mille’s fatal bridegroom—and death and the devil do, in fact, haunt the play. I always admired the nesting dolls of meaning contained in the title and illuminated by the anecdote.

I can’t claim to do much at the level of this very great playwright, except, perhaps—as all of us do—to mishear. And the story about Kushner taught me to seize on these mishearings and use them for all they’re worth.

A few years ago, when I was living in Madison, Wisconsin (far from my beloved New England), my friend the singer-songwriter Rose Polenzani came and played a show at the coffee house and performance space Mother Fool’s. I’d always loved Rose’s music, and I found her stage presence profoundly compelling. After she had performed a few songs I knew, she began a moody, raw, but delicate tune that had me almost immediately near tears. It seemed to speak so much to the feeling of being askew, out of joint, choosing to be in one place, longing to be in another. The song gathered speed and force and began to circle around a refrain that conjured a strange and beautiful image: “A lawn in the sky,” I thought I heard Rose singing, “a lawn in the sky.” That lawn in the sky—isolated, lonely, and magical; safe, misanthropic and monkish; damaging and therapeutic all at once—seemed to be both where I wanted to be and where I already was.


Of course, Rose wasn’t singing “A lawn in the sky.” But the image stayed with me, and finally, quite a few years later, when Rose released an album that included this masterful song, and I learned its real name: “The Lawn and The Sky.” The central image in Rose’s song is a swing; the speaker seesaws between seeing the grass below and the heavens above. The song still gives me goosebumps—but the image of a lawn in the sky, it turned out, was my own, and mine to keep.

By this point, Simon and I had been working on our opera for some time. The lyrics I really needed to provide were for our protagonist, the straggler soldier who has finally realized that his belief that he is still at war is utterly false. I wanted to find a way for him to express the enormous let-down this realization represents; I also wanted to show him looking at the life he has lived—not from his usual view inside it, but from his new position of being outside it. It occurred to me that the image of the lawn in the sky was the way in.
A lawn in the sky is an impossibility. There is something diminutive and playful about it; it belongs to childhood. But it isn’t real. It’s a game that is over. As our hero sings, “But the lawn was an island. The sky/was the sea. The stars were far/ distant from me.” After I realized the centrality of the image, the words for the aria “A Lawn in the Sky” came to me quite quickly, in a kind of half-overwhelming trance. I knew right away that, for me, “A Lawn in the Sky” was the heart of the opera.

Months later, Simon wrote to me to say that he wanted to move the aria to a more privileged position, to make it more important to the piece as a whole. I agreed. Before we knew it, the aria had given its name to the opera.

I think Rose’s raw, eloquent swinging—her “The Lawn and The Sky”—haunts my “A Lawn in the Sky” in something akin to the way de Mille’s bridegroom haunts Kushner’s bright room. My own feelings of self-imposed exile are there, too, faintly. Another set of nesting dolls, not as magical or powerful as Kushner’s, to be sure, but there nonetheless.

I’m learning that an opera itself can be a lawn in the sky—an artificial, magical, impossible space where we witness hauntings and unfoldings that might resonate with our own. And that might, perhaps, even result in a few new beautiful mishearings.