Lost in the Clouds

Today I’m wandering around SoundCloud, checking out the electronic music. Here and there I stumble over a piece that’s not so bad that it makes my skin crawl, but they’re few and far between.

The composers (using the term very loosely) of these tracks seem to be almost entirely devoid of intelligence and imagination. But that’s not the worst of it. Their music lacks passion, emotion, drama. It’s dead.

In what follows, I’m going to avoid giving specific composers’ names. I’m not out to slam anybody in particular for their deficiencies. My critique is, rather, of an entire school of music-making; and by implication, I suppose, of the culture that fosters it.

Right now I’m listening to a soundscape recorded recently by an American. It’s more than an hour long. The first ten minutes, which is all I’ve heard and all I’m ever likely to hear, consists entirely of long sustained tones, vaguely stringlike or brassy in character. The tones swell slowly and die away slowly. A mostly diatonic scale in 12-note equal temperament is being used, but I can detect nothing in the way of a chord progression. The succession of tones seems almost random. Sometimes the texture is thicker, sometimes it’s thinner, but there’s never any rhythm and never any voice movement. Each long note is self-contained, with no apparent reference to anything else in the texture. I wouldn’t object to hearing 30 seconds of this sort of texture as an introduction to a piece. As a free-standing piece, however, one that leads nowhere, it’s about as animated and provocative as a dead raccoon lying in the middle of the street.

Another composer, also American, has uploaded a computer-generated piece, similar in shape (to the extent that a pillow can be said to have a shape) to the one described above, but consisting of a gradually thickening texture of microtonally pitched tones that beat against one another. The point of the piece, I think, is that the beats between not-quite-unisons gradually change over the course of ten or twelve minutes. Once the listener has got the idea (which takes a minute or so, because the texture unfolds in such a very gradual way), any further application of analytical intelligence would be superfluous. Of emotion there is not the faintest trace.

This same individual offers us a blessedly shorter track in which a synthesized piano plays an unending stream of eighth-notes. The notes are placed with metronomic precision at a constant tempo, and all have the same attack velocity. At first I thought I was hearing a chord progression, but it soon became apparent that the harmonic motion was somewhat random. The references to standard-practice progressions seem to have been more or less accidental. The piece is at a constant dynamic level and, for the most part, of a constant textural density from one end to the other. (There is a lessening of the density for a while in the middle, at a point where a melodic figure that Chopin might have plinked out at the age of five edges into view, repeats a couple of times, and then dies of exhaustion.) Emotion? None. Intelligence? None. Imagination? None. Beauty? None.

A Canadian offers us a 1-1/2 minute piece consisting entirely of a sort of bubbling, percolating texture — short tones with varying envelopes playing one at a time (no chords) in a rapid and uneven rhythm. The tones are processed by a pleasant reverb. The pitches appear to have been selected at random, so there isn’t even a hint of harmonic intelligence. The density of the texture does not vary during the piece, and no other sonic elements are introduced. I’d be inclined to call the piece a sketch, except that, in the context of hour-long pieces by other composers that exhibit just as little variety or color, it’s a good guess that the composer of this little etude has no intention of expanding it into a more dynamic or emotionally meaningful piece.

Earlier I listened to an hour-long soundscape by an Italian that was constructed (quite painstakingly) out of field recordings made on streetcorners in a city. The result was just as unfulfilling as you might expect, given the source material.

From Germany we have a composer uploading short and frantic noise pieces. The first one is built of layers of machine noise: Tearing sounds, liquid bleeps and gurgles, buzzing, and a dynamo starting and stopping, all of it jumbled together in a thick and incoherent stew. The second piece is even thicker, and has a minor triad hovering motionlessly within it. The third starts out with some nice electronic bell tones, but then the layers of noise pile on. No harmony, no melody, staggering rhythms but no meter — if you put this music on the stereo, your dog would slink out of the room with its tail between its legs. And your dog would be right.

Over on the other side of the aisle we have the dance techno wannabe’s, who exhibit just as little intelligence or emotion while pounding us with a relentless kick drum in 4/4.

I wonder: Has any of these alleged musicians ever mastered a conventional instrument? Played live in a small or large ensemble in front of a paying audience? Studied harmony theory, or listened to the symphonic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries? It seems doubtful. What we’re hearing here is, I would judge, mostly the creation of people who have been allowed or even encouraged to believe that ignorance is admirable, that expertise is irrelevant or suspect, and that all opinions about music are equally subjective, and therefore equally valid. They may sincerely believe that all that matters is originality or innovation.

There is such a thing as thought. There is such a thing as emotion. There is such a thing as structure. There is such a thing as being trained in a discipline. There is such a thing as wanting to communicate in some way with listeners.

It seems rather unlikely that any of these composers will ever understand any of that. But I’d prefer to be optimistic. Someday, they might learn.

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