Melting Environments. On Sonic Arts and the Creation of Worlds
In late 2019, the renowned and discussed website Pitchfork published an article by the critic Simon Reynolds that unexpectedly gave life to an online shambles in the electronic music community.
The article concerned was a synthetic exploration of a new tendency in the world of experimental electronic music: since the end of the ‘00s, artists started to create works not only relegated to the musical medium but spread also into the most disparate territories, like visual art, fashion design, and publishing. Simon Reynolds brings together these artists under the same conceptual umbrella, calling it Conceptronica.
In the article is possible to highlight different topics, but the one that summarizes this conceptual attitude the most is related to the creation of worlds. With this term, Reynolds wants to state the same tendency that exists in the world of contemporary visual arts to create environments made of different media in a perpetual, immersive and liquid assemblage of references.
To have a concrete basis on this topic is necessary to make a short digression that can shed some light on the concept of world as an environment in the art field.
In 2014, DIS Magazine curated the exhibition Dark Velocity at the CCS Bard Gallery in New York. The event presents itself as a setting to enhance the contradictions of hyper technology and late capitalism until their extreme consequences and to “integrates all existing infrastructures into a single operational system without drawing a line between ‘man-made’ and ‘natural’ processes/materiality.” Aside from the clear Accelerationist concept at the base of the exhibition, what is notable here is the will to create an environment in which every single element is on the same plane of the others, without any kind of hierarchical positioning.
The resulting flat environment is an explicit example of world-building in artistic terms: an intertwined and collective system of concepts that works as an immersive background for the whole product.
This network of connections is driven by a series of parallelisms and meanings, that help to create a narration more than a shaped and defined project in a standard conception. This tendency is moreover enhanced in the music field, mainly due to its immaterial and chronological feature, that can cope with a story-telling medium.
The French artist migu described his last work The Disappearance of Memories released by the label Rest Now! as an attempt to “project himself through characters, giving them an identity, a voice, a story, as in the complex weave of science-fiction universes.” It is easy to relate this statement to a detailed speculative universe, that resembles in some sort of videogame design.
The environment created by migu is also enhanced by the realization of Last Page, a collaborative project with visual artist Nicholas Matthew Elstran. The description of the world created can’t be clearer:
“Set in an abandoned MMORPG where players were able to experience quasi-immortality, via neural interface time dilation.
Approaching the entropic limits of the substrate,
vast oceans of time have come and gone,
and the world is dissolving into mist.
The players have almost all left.
The last remaining ancient inhabitants
drift through the landscape visiting shrines.”
In a similar way, deconstructed club pioneers Amnesia Scanner introduce their albums and EPs with dystopian texts about sci-fi realities that could be set in a chapter from Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia or in a hypothetic and edulcorated version of Metro 2033.
What makes videogames and dystopian fiction such a thriving field for new sonic artists to base their projects is their distinctive point-of-view-feature, that allows to experience an environment in its totality – both in a conceptual way or in a spatial one.
Sonic artists are trying to realize an immersive narration that deeply draws from the tools of game design: binaural audio systems, modulated reverbs, sound automatization, samples taken directly from game libraries, the use of soundscape-like sounds, the whole in the service of a role-play-sound.
In 2017, The co-founder of NON collective Chino Amobi released his massive masterpiece Paradiso, accompanying it with the parallel project WELCOME TO PARADISO (CITY IN THE SEA), a short movie entirely rendered with the Unreal Engine 4 game engine. During an interview for Faded, he presented a list of elements which strongly influenced his work, among them Timothy Morton’s dark ecology theories, Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Delights, and the videogame company Square Enix, which is best known for the JRPG series – Japanese Role Play Game − Final Fantasy.
Chino Amobi is no stranger to the process of world-building: together with his musical activity, he manages his fashion brand Eroica and, in 2019, he published a namesake epic novel, that merge politics, history and myth.
These elements cover a wide range of possibilities in terms of resources; however, they are linked through both aesthetic and conceptual net of meanings and references. In the game language, this environment building is named lore. The term is mainly used to indicate a complex interweaving of concepts, events, characters and objects that stand as an immersive background. What distinguishes the lore from the narration is its implicit feature: the lore is often a subliminal context, that expresses its shapes through a series of non-hierarchical hints and micro-details given to the audience, rather than a defined consequence of linear explanations and objects.
The concept of lore is particularly relevant when we talk about the building of environments in the musical field. Aside from the more evident use of gaming tools and mechanics applied to the realization of sonic projects, such as the use of graphic engines or binaural audio, the lore is a peculiar device that can help the audience to decode the imaginary and aesthetic of certain artists.
In 2019, the duo 100 gecs released their critical acclaimed album 1000 gecs, followed by the remix project 1000 gecs and the Tree of Clues, presenting themselves as an astonishing mayhem of happy hardcore, metal, dubstep and trance. The work of 100 gecs is a perfect example to explore the concept of lore in experimental music due to the colossal amount of references in their music, artworks and artistic choices.
The tracks composed by the duo are a continuous reminiscence of autotuned pop voices from the ‘90s-’00s, emo deconstructed guitar riffs and hardstyle kicks, overwhelmed by a wave of distorted noise. However, what really matters in terms of environment building is the peculiar collaborations that they realized for 1000 and the Tree of Clues: from Fall Out Boy and the emo revival to Charlie XCX and its liquid deconstruction of ‘00s pop.
Moreover, their artworks and video host brand new games characters, demons, references to manga and anime, the whole merged into a weird club-like ambience. Their projects work as continuous reminders to the MySpace era, with its emo bands, early CGI cinematics in videogames, and exaggerated font types.
100 gecs result as a conceptual blender of pop culture, musical references and ‘00s imaginary, that does not necessarily need a defined explanation, due to the fact that their environment is already filled with hints, suggestions, and objects. All the abovementioned elements, even if they are not properly part of the sound sphere of the project, are fundamental in the building of a well-constructed lore.
The tendency of creating an environmental project in the sonic field is more than a mere trend. Its real value lies in the ability to change the classical conception and distinction between the sound art that belongs to art spaces and what is usually identified simply as music. The art world still looks at the performances of Alva Noto and Ryoji Ikeda, considering sonic art something that presents an incomprehensible and barely musical feature, making it even more elitist than what really could be. There is an entire community of DJs, club producers, metalheads, gabbers, that are creating a vast world of concepts and environments that draws directly from popular music and holds the awareness of the codes of contemporary art at the same time.
What I hope, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this claim, is that the awareness of sonic arts contemporary scenario in the near future will raise and spread. Indeed, this new tendency in experimental electronic music could help to blur the line between what is considered high or low art and slowly erasing a hierarchical system that doesn’t belong to our times.
Listen to the playlist to deepen the concept of sonic environment − from club-like ambiences to eerie and distorted soundscapes.