Narrative time and excitation in computer music, EDM, and noise

I’d like to issue some thoughts on affective economies of excitation by exploring queer readings of narrative time in computer music, EDM (Electronic dance music), and noise musical genres, looking to the title track of computer musicians Errorsmith and Mark Fell’s EP Protogravity (2015) for conceptual guidance.

Recently, Ada O’Higgins and Burke Battelle’s @goodbyevery1, a project which calls itself “a conversational process which begins as a facebook group and never ends” tweeted; “lets not come, lets keep going,” a multi-entendre’d proposition in which there’s a lot at work.

On one hand, the tweet suggests that whoever’s participating withhold climax as there could still be more pleasure to come; on the other, in the author O’Higgins’ own words conveyed to me via text message, “that if you decide youve come where youre meant to go youll be stagnant, so its ok to feel like youve never arrived at your destination and to just keep roaming.”

goodbyevery's avi

goodbyevery1’s avi: some kids roaming

A third possible interpretation of the “not come” tweet is that by withholding—or preventing, or sidetracking, or misdirecting, or parlaying—orgasm, you’re working against the instrumentalization of your libidinal and affective flows by pharmacopornographic capitalism. Paul B. Preciado defines this term in the 2013 book Testo Junkie [author's emphasis]:

the raw materials of today’s production process are excitation, erection, ejaculation, and pleasure and feelings of self-satisfaction, omnipotent control, and total destruction. The real stake of capitalism today is the pharmacopornographic control of subjectivity, whose products are serotonin, techno-blood and blood products, testosterone, antacids, cortisone, techno-sperm, antibiotics, estradiol, techno-milk, alcohol and tobacco, morphine, insulin, cocaine, living human eggs, citrate of sildenafil (Viagra), and the entire material and virtual complex participating in the production of mental and psychosomatic states of excitation, relaxation, and discharge, as well as those of omnipotence and total control.

Of course, preventing orgasm is not an action that could be likened to “going off the grid” —it’s not so easy to extricate one’s sel(ves) from the production process Preciado lays out. But what happens if the usual kinds of excitation that capitalism thrives on are held off? goodbyevery1’s proposed course of action demarcates a site where some kind of resistance to biopolitical affect control is possible. Or, at the very least, it creates the possibility of rerouting or confusing its usual machinations, perhaps freeing up time or psychic space by generating residual inefficiencies.

Via this this third interpretation, the question the tweet provokes is: how can excitation be approached tactically in a pharmacopornographic regime, with some idea of emancipation in mind? When is a good time to say, “I’ve had enough” or, “I want it another way” speaking to pleasure and self-satisfaction? This is a question about alternative modes of structuring desire that don’t fit neatly within today’s production processes, which extract affective resources from laborers by innovating new ways to monetize their emotions, thoughts, and creativity. A framework that Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal characterized as “emotional and libidinal fracking,” in her essay, “Towards a Theory of the Dick Pic (NSFW).”


Wikimedia Commons, Joshua Doubek

I’d like to explore how certain musical forms; computer music and EDM in particular, might be understood as forms in conversation with hegemonic, affective control over their listeners. What dance music fans call a “drop,” for example, can completely overwhelm the listener during its ephemeral moment. Over time, it can cause a very real kind of psychic exhaustion, too, as reaching such a high level of excitement over and over again takes a very real energetic toll. Eight hours of successive drops at an EDM festival like the international Electric Daisy Carnival just might kill you. EDM’s narrative is established by linear enticement and suspense leading towards excitation (climax), and while the sounds employed in a drop might vary widely, their dynamics, arrangements, rhythmic consistencies, and temporal frameworks typically appear without tons of variation. The prospect of a rush is laid out when bass is removed from the mix about halfway through a song, during a breakdown and a following buildup; then the bass comes back a little while later to restore the song’s wholeness by consummating the air of expectation. The process is a technology for the formulaic deployment of pleasure, where the ebbs and flows of stimulation in a huge crowd are homogenized to follow just one timeline—as prescribed by the DJ—in hypnotized ecstasy.

In other words, this scenario describes electronic and noise making machines seeking the predictable and seamless logistical organization of their components, whereby excitation is distributed throughout a crowd at synchronized intervals and in relatively normative, predetermined, and uniform doses. Music can also offer alternative models for deploying and tapping excitation as a resource, though. One example is the flood tactic employed on “Opus17aSlimeVariation#7” an interpretation of a Hanne Darboven piece by sound art duo EVOL, which I described in an essay accompanying its release:

For Lee Edelman, anxiety is a signal of “our too-near approach to what we’re driven to enjoy,” and the undoing of the subject that such enjoyment promises. In this content, desiring takes on a certain privileged position in relation to the attainment of an object of
 desire. EVOL presents the direct inverse of this value system for maximum effect: no desiring at all, in favor of immediate delivery of the desired object. EVOL tracks, though they use dance music as the host to their contagion, never have that host's dramatic build-up; their sounds only come in floods. Their work delivers pleasure in a form you simply didn’t ask for—too much at once, too much for your own good.

We can find another model in the title track of computer musicians Errorsmith and Mark Fell’s 2015 EP for PAN, called Protogravity, which we might understand as putting into play the intriguing model of “never arriving” laid out by goodbyevery1 in O’Higgins’ tweet. Built around a winding motif of modular sound, guiding the track along a non-linear dispersal of syncopated rhythmic pockets, it begins at the brink of consumed and accordingly extinguished excitation—e.g. a drop—and ends at that brink.

During the eleven-minute mean time, it takes winding and roving turns presented without the prospect of a prescribed, rational conclusion. In so doing, it never decides where it’s meant to go and accordingly avoids the stagnation such an imagined destination would surely bring. Where EVOL short circuits the normative dance music rollout of excitation by uncomfortably bursting the dams, “Protogravity” produces an anti-dead-end tactic in the sonic form of an unkempt, cyclically inconsistent, and careening volley of excitation.

We can see some resemblance between this mode of alternative chronological mapping and what theorist Jack Halberstam has described as queer time, constituted by models outside the “temporal frames of bourgeois reproduction and family, longevity, risk/ safety, and inheritance.” (2010, p.6) These models are notable for their defiance of the “inexorable narrative” of straight time, which is characterized by its normative logic of progress—“the past represents the logic for the present, and the future represents the fruition of this logic” (p.11)—and fetishization of “paradigmatic markers of life experience [such as] birth, marriage, reproduction, and death.” (P. 2)

Protogravity cover

In Fell and Errorsmith’s excursions in what we might call queer time—though we don’t know that they would use that term themselves—there is a freeing-up gesture that helps bloom aesthetic potentialities and new relational formations by stepping out of naturalized linearity, working instead with disjunctive, associative, and corkscrewing temporal rivulets of sonic detour. Crucially, we are able to measure what they accomplish against time outside the music because their turbulent pushing and pulling of time’s current runs simultaneously to a generic linear measure: a quantized, programmed drum machine running at a steady BPM.

The kind of discontinuity on display is arguably truer to the way time works in reality, attesting to literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s writing on polyphony, wherein a text featuring an irreducible multiplicity of viewpoints and perspectives—which we can analogize here to Fell and Errorsmith’s sonic gestures as voices—reflects the “multi-leveledness and contradictoriness of social reality as an objective fact.” (p. 27) Fredric Jameson makes a complimentary claim when he states that the imagination of a coherent and unified (temporally continuous) world always attempts to smooth over the real contradictions and discontinuities of reality. (The Political Unconscious).

By working inimically with straight time’s economy of excitation, as measured and distributed along those very paradigmatic markers of life experience that Halberstam describes as best facilitating our emotional and libidinal fracking, “Protogravity” elaborates alternative models of the distribution of excitation, as exemplified by the don’t-come gesture. The track’s central chunk of sound, shifting over itself, never keeping the exact same consistency or harmonic register, opens and strings together a new passageway in the mesh of time, sounding simultaneously famished, ecstatic, and hungry for more. It evokes a kind of sublime, but it’s a rant or a meditation without a subject as opposed to ecstatic, burning truth: that working toward not-yet-articulated horizons.1 It’s what I called in my EVOL piece, the wrong sublime: not defined by its revelations of transcendent, immutable truths, but instead by an enthralling encounter with vagueness.

Milan Jáhna’s Industrial

From Milan Jáhna’s “Industrial” mood board on Pinterest

Like a knot always un- and re-doing itself into a new configuration, the formal qualities of the piece are disorienting and hard to capture with language, particularly in how the different sections lack definitive segmentarity or clearly delineated beginnings and endings. “Protogravity” thus skirts the (normatively imagined) possibility of meaning-stasis required of what gets coded into dominant modes of knowledge, making it all the more challenging to “decide youve come where youre meant to go.” ~*

  1. This is directly inspired by what theorist José Esteban Muñoz’s model of a critical hermeneutics attuned to finding “blueprints and schemata of a forward-dawning futurity” (P.1) in what Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch’s calls the “not-yet-conscious.” ↩︎

Works Cited

  • Bakhtin, M. M. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1984. Print.
  • Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York UP, 2005. Print.
  • Iadarola, Alexander. “Slime Aesthetics.” Ptyx. December 23, 2015. Web.
  • Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1981. Print.
  • Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York UP, 2009. Print.
  • Preciado, Paul B. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. New York, NY: Feminist at the City U of New York, 2013. Print.
  • Rosenthal, Tracy Jeanne. "Towards a Theory of the Dick Pic (NSFW)." Rhizome. February 15, 2015. Web.

Alexander Iadarola is a music critic, poet, and musician from Los Angeles, currently living in Queens, New York.

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