Near the end of 2020, a bunch of musicians populating a chatroom, including myself, each submitted ten minutes’ worth of our work to another musician, Chimeratio, who generously compiled it all into a set totaling nearly ten hours.¹ The work didn’t need to be new; just what we thought might best represent our abilities/style(s), and/or perhaps what we were especially pleased with. The set premiered in late January. I compiled the four videos into a playlist, although you can also access them individually: here (1), here (2), here (3), and here (4). If you care to, and are on a computer, you can also view the accompanying chatlog and read people’s responses from when they were listening to the live broadcast.
The compulsion for this project was sparked by excited discussions over and usage of the term “digital fusion”, most helpfully propagated by Aivi Tran, designating a computer-based body of work that for years lacked the rooftop of a commonly agreed upon genre-name. While describing my music has never been a big concern, even if it’s usually felt impossible (what, for example, is this? I dunno!), I’ve appreciated how the spread and application of this term has brought together people who may have felt isolated.²
As “digital fusion” gained designative traction, I witnessed the activity in the aforementioned chatroom explode over the course of a few days. Before, a day’s discussion might’ve been a few dozen messages; now, there were dozens of messages every half-minute. This had positive and negative ramifications, the negative being that conversations often proceeded at a pace of rapidity which precluded concentrated thought. Eventually, I bowed out because the rapidity exceeded my threshold for meaningful interaction; but I was glad that significant invigoration was going on.
I wanted to share this music also because it intersects with thoughts and talks I’ve been having stemming from the question, “What is ‘radical music’ in 2021?” This was stimulated by a 2014 talk given by the writer Mark Fisher, wherein he contends that, were we to play prominent “cutting edge” music from now to people twenty years ago, very nearly none of it would be aesthetically shocking, bizarre, or revelatory (think of playing house music to an audience in the early 1960s!). Fisher also observes a trend of returning to music which once was seen as the future — as if, deprived of a shared prograde vision, imaginations turn hazily retrograde; ergo, genres such as synthwave or albums like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.
It isn’t my goal here to argue about the “end of history.” Fisher’s time-travel hypothetical, however, rings loud and true to me. Visible musical radicalism has, for at least a decade, been strictly extra-musical, in the sense of songs like “This is America” or “WAP”, where one’s response is primarily to the spectacle of the music video, the performer’s identistic markers, and/or the manner in which the lyrics intersect with (mostly US-centric) ideological hotspots. Musically, there is really nothing radical here. Any vociferous condemnations or defenses of a song like “WAP” deal in moralizing reactions to semantics or imagery: how progressive or regressive is the political aspect? how propelled or repelled are we by the word “pussy”?
It would be a mistake, and simply wrong, to assert that the only music one can enjoy escapes the parameters outlined above; and my inability to coherently categorize some of my own music hardly raises that portion to the status of radicality. But the question here pertains to what is being made, and I think that if we’re going to seriously consider the nature of truly radical music today, we do need to question if such a quality can prominently exist when our hyper-fast consumerist cycle seems to forbid not just sustained, lifelong relationships to artwork but also the local, unhurried nourishment of creative gestation. Now, in my opinion, there are good, even great, examples of radical music still being made in deep Internet-burrows, and for evidence of that I would offer some of the material contained in the linked playlists. Moreover, I’d say that this quality can exist in part because these little artistic communities are so buried.
Let me share a quote that another person shared with me recently:
For culture to shift, you need pockets of isolated humanity. Since all pockets of humanity (outside of the perpetually isolated indigenous people in remote wilderness) are connected in instantaneous fashion, independent ideas aren’t allowed to ferment on their own. When you cook a meal, you have to bring ingredients together that have had time to grow, ferment, or decompose separately. A cucumber starts out as a seed, then you mix it with the soil, water and sunlight. You can’t bring the seed, soil, water and sunlight to the kitchen from the get-go. When you throw those things in to the mixture without letting them mature, the flavor cannot stand out on its own. Same thing with art and fashion. A kid in Russia can come up with a new way to dance, gets filmed on a phone, it goes viral quickly but gets lost in the morass of all of the other multitudinous forms of dance. Sure it spread far and wide, but it gets forgotten in a week. In the past, his new art form would have been confined locally, nurtured, honed, then spread geographically, creating a distinct new cultural idiosyncrasy with a strong support base. By the time it was big enough to be presented globally, it was already a cultural phenomenon locally. This isn’t possible anymore. We’re consuming too many unripened fruits.
The main impression I have here is that radical music today will, and must be, folk music. Our common idea of folkiness might be the scrappy singer strumming a guitar, but my interpretive reference rather has to do with the idea of a music being written, first of all, for one’s self, and then shared with a small-scale community, which in turn helps the artist grow at their own pace. This transcends a dependence upon image, the primacy of acoustic instrumentation, or the signaling of sincerity versus insincerity. It is a return to the valuation of outsider art, so rare nowadays. As someone who I was recently in dialogue with wrote, “Where can you find new genuine folk music? Pretty much just with your friends, imo. Even then, the global world is so influential and seeps into any crack it can find. I think vaporwave was radical and folk for a while. Grant Forbes made that music way before the world knew about it.”
Sometimes, a lot of fuss is made over what’s seen as “gatekeeping” within certain communities. It can be, depending on the context, justifiable to question and critique this behavior. At other times, the effort of maintaining a level of exclusivity, of retaining an idiosyncratic shapeliness to the communal organism, can be a legitimate attempt to protect the personal, interpersonal, and cultural aspects from the flattening effect of monoculture. Hypothetically, I welcome the Castlevania TV series and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate having introduced new and younger demographics to Castlevania. In actuality, stuff like “wholesome sad gay himbo Alucard”, image macros, and neurotic “stan” fanfiction being what’s now first associated with the series makes me want to put as much distance as possible between my interests and those latecoming impositions.
The group-terminology David Chapman uses in his essay “Geeks, MOPs, and Sociopaths in Subculture Evolution” is kind of cringey, but some of the cultural/behavioral patterns he lays out are relevant to the topic. Give it a look. If we cross his belief that “[subcultures] are no longer the primary drivers of cultural development” with our contemporary consume-and-dispose customs, we’re left with the predicament of it’s even worth attempting to bring radical/outsider art beyond its rhizomatic habitat. This is troubling, because it would mean that artistic radicality no longer might not only refuse to but cannot encompass cultural upheaval. It would be like if dance music were invented and — instead of progressively permeating nightlife, stimulating countercultural trends, and ultimately being adapted as the basis for pop music globally — only were listened to via headphones by a few thousand people on their own, stimulated a group meeting once a year or two, and never affected music beyond a niche-within-a-niche. That’s a very sad picture to me.
¹ Chimeratio has also maintained an excellent blog on here dedicated to looking at videogame music written in irregular time signatures, far preceding higher-profile examinations like 8-bit Music Theory’s video on the same topic.
² For myself, creative isolation has had its uses, because it has led me down routes that are highly personalized. The isolation can be dispiriting too. Although a lot of my music is videogame-music-adjacent, almost none of it uses “authentic” technology, such as PSG synthesizers or FM synthesis; and the identification of those sounds is fairly important for recognition.