The digital revolution is over.
— Nicholas Negroponte (1998)
Over the past decade, the Internet has helped
spawn a new movement in digital music. It is not academically based,
and for the most part the composers involved are self-taught. Music
journalists occupy themselves inventing names for it, and some have
already taken root: glitch, microwave, DSP, sinecore,
and microscopic music. These names evolved through a collection
of deconstructive audio and visual techniques that allow artists
to work beneath the previously impenetrable veil of digital media.
The Negroponte epi-graph above inspired me to refer to this emergent
genre as "post-digital" because the revolutionary period
of the digital information age has surely passed. The tendrils of
digital technology have in some way touched everyone. With electronic
commerce now a natural part of the business fabric of the Western
world and Hollywood cranking out digital fluff by the gigabyte,
the medium of digital technology holds less fascination for composers
in and of itself. In this article, I will emphasize that the medium
is no longer the message; rather, specific tools themselves have
become the message.
The Internet was originally created to accelerate
the exchange of ideas and development of research between academic
centers, so it is perhaps no surprise that it is responsible for
helping give birth to new trends in computer music outside the confines
of academic think tanks. A non-academic composer can search the
Internet for tutorials and papers on any given aspect of computer
music to obtain a good, basic understanding of it. University
computer music centers breed developers whose tools are shuttled
around the Internet andused to develop new music outside the university.
Unfortunately, cultural exchange between non-academic
artists and research centers has been lacking. The post-digital
music that Max, SMS, AudioSculpt, PD, and other such tools make
pos-sible rarely makes it back to the ivory towers, yet these non-academic
composers anxiously await new tools to make their way onto a multitude
of Web sites.
Even in the commercial software industry, the
marketing departments of most audio software companies have not
yet fully grasped the post-digital aesthetic; as a result, the more
unusual tools emanate from developers who use their academic training
to respond to personal creative needs. This article is an attempt
to provide feedback to both academic and commercial music software
developers by showing how current DSP tools are being used by post-digital
composers, affecting both the form and content of contemporary "non-aca-demic"
The Aesthetics of Failure
It is failure that guides evolution;
perfection offers no incentive
— Colson Whitehead (1999)
The "post-digital" aesthetic was
developed in part as a result of the immersive experience of working
in environments suffused with digital technology: computer fans
whirring, laser printers churning out documents, the sonification
of user-interfaces, and the muffled noise of hard drives. But more
specifically, it is from the "failure" of digital technology
that this new work has emerged: glitches, bugs, application errors,
system crashes, clipping, aliasing, distortion, quantization noise,
and even the noise floor of computer sound cards are the raw materials
composers seek to incorporate into their music.
While technological failure is often controlled
and suppressed—its effects buried beneath the threshold of perception—most
audio tools can zoom in on the errors, allowing composers to make
them the focus of their work. Indeed, "failure" has become
a prominent aesthetic in many of the arts in the late 20th century,
reminding us that our control of technology is an illusion, and
revealing digital tools to be only as perfect, precise, and efficient
as the humans who build them. New techniques are often discovered
by accident or by the failure of an intended technique or experiment.
I would only observe that in most high-
profile gigs, failure tends to be far more
interesting to the audience than success.
— David Zicarelli (1999)
There are many types of digital audio "failure."
Sometimes, it results in horrible noise, while other times it can
produce wondrous tapestries of sound. (To more adventurous ears,
these are quite often the same.) When the German sound experimenters
known as Oval started creating music in the early 1990s by painting
small images on the underside of CDs to make them skip, they were
using an aspect of "failure" in their work that revealed
a subtextual layer embedded in the compact disc.
Oval’s investigation of "failure"
is not new. Much work had previously been done in this area such
as the optical soundtrack work of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Oskar Fischinger,
as well as the vinyl record manipulations of John Cage and Christian
Marclay, to name a few. What is new is that ideas now travel at
the speed of light and can spawn entire musical genres in a relatively
short period of time.
Back to the Future
Poets, painters, and composers sometimes walk
a fine line between madness and genius, and throughout the ages
they have used "devices" such as absinthe, narcotics,
or mystical states to help make the jump from merely expanding their
perceptual boundaries to hoisting themselves into territories beyond
these boundaries. This trend to seek out and explore new territories
led to much experimentation in the arts in the early part of the
When artists of the early 20th century turned
their senses to the world created by industrial progress, they were
forced to focus on the new and changing landscape of what was considered
I now note that ordinarily I am concerned
with, focus my attention upon, things or
"objects," the words on the page. But I now
note that these are always situated within
what begins to appear to me as a widening
field which ordinarily is a background from
which the "object" or thing stands out. I now
find by a purposeful act of attention that I
may turn to the field as field, and in the case
of vision I soon also discern that the field has
a kind of boundary or limit, a horizon. This
horizon always tends to "escape" me when I
try to get at it; it "withdraws" always on the
extreme fringe of the visual field. It retains a
certain essentially enigmatic character.
— Don Idhe (1976)
Concepts such as "detritus," "by-product,"
and "background" (or "horizon") are important
to consider when examining how the current post-digital movement
started. When visual artists first shifted their focus from foreground
to background (for instance, from portraiture to landscape painting),
it helped to expand their perceptual boundaries, enabling them to
capture the background’s enigmatic character.
The basic composition of "background"
is comprised of data we filter out to focus on our immediate surroundings.
The data hidden in our perceptual "blind spot" contains
worlds waiting to 14 be explored, if we choose to shift our focus
there. Today’s digital technology enables artists to explore new
territories for content by capturing and examining the area beyond
the boundary of "normal" functions and uses of software.
Although the lineage of post-digital music
is complex, there are two important and well-known precursors that
helped frame its emergence: the Italian Futurist movement at the
beginning of the 20th century, and John Cage’s composition 4'33"
Futurism was an attempt to reinvent life as
it was being reshaped by new technologies. The Italian Futurist
painter Luigi Russolo was so inspired by a 1913 orchestral performance
of a composition by Balilla Pratella that he wrote a manifesto,
The Art of Noises, in the form of a letter to Pratella. His
manifesto and subsequent experiments with intonarumori (noise
intoners), which imitated urban industrial sounds, transmitted a
viral message to future generations, resulting in Russolo’s current
status as the "grandfather" of contemporary "post-digital"
music. The Futurists considered industrial life a source of beauty,
and for them it provided an ongoing symphony. Car engines, machines,
factories, telephones, and electricity had been in existence for
only a short time, and the resulting din was a rich palette for
the Futurists to use in their sound experiments.
The variety of noises is infinite. If today,
when we have perhaps a thousand different
machines, we can distinguish a thousand
different noises, tomorrow, as new machines
multiply, we will be able to distinguish ten,
twenty, or thirty thousand different noises,
not merely in a simply imitative way, but to
combine them according to our imagination.
— Luigi Russolo (1913)
This was probably the first time in history
that sound artists shifted their focus from the foreground of musical
notes to the background of incidental sound. Russolo and Ugo Piatti—who
together constructed the noise intoners—gave them descriptive names
such as "exploders," "roarers," "croakers,"
"thunderers," "bursters," "cracklers,"
"buzzers," and "scrapers." Although the intonarumori
themselves never found their way into much of the music in the
Futurists’ time, they did manage to inspire composers like Stravinsky
and Ravel to incorporate some of these types of sounds into their
A few decades after the Futurists brought
incidental noise to the foreground, John Cage would give permission
to all composers to use any sound in composing music. At the 1952
debut of Cage’s 4'33", David Tudor opened the piano
keyboard lid and sat for the duration indicated in the title, implicitly
inviting the audience to listen to background sounds, only closing
and reopening the lid to demarcate three movements. The idea for
4'33" was outlined in a lecture given by Cage at Vassar
College in 1948, entitled "A Composer’s Confessions."
The following year, Cage saw the white paintings of Robert Rauschenberg,
and he saw in this an opportunity to keep pace with painting and
push the stifled boundaries of modern music. Rauschenberg’s white
paintings combined chance, non-intention, and "minimalism"
in one broad stroke, where the paintings revealed the "changing
play of light and shadow and the presence of dust" (Kahn 1999).
Rauschenberg’s white paintings were a powerful catalyst that helped
inspire Cage to remove all constraints on what was considered music.
Every environment could be experienced in a completely new way—as
Of equal importance to Cage’s "silent
piece" was his realization that there is, in fact, no such
thing as "silence"—that, as human beings, our sensory
perceptions occur against the background noise of our biological
systems. His experience in an anechoic chamber at Harvard University
prior to composing 4'33" shattered the belief that silence
was obtainable and revealed that the state of "nothing"
was a condition filled with everything we filtered out. From then
on, Cage strove to incorporate this revelation into subsequent works
by paying attention not only to sound objects, but also to their
Snap, Crackle, Glitch
Fast-forwarding from the 1950s to the present,
we skip over most of the electronic music of the 20th century, much
of which has not, in my opinion, focused on expanding the ideas
first explored by the Futurists and Cage. An emergent genre that
consciously builds on these ideas is that which I have termed "post-digital,"
but it shares many names, as noted in the introduction, and I will
refer to it from here on out as glitch.
The glitch genre arrived on the back of the electronica movement,
an umbrella term for alternative, largely dance-based electronic
music (including house, techno, electro,
drum’n’bass, ambient) that has come into vogue in the
past five years. Most of the work in this area is released on labels
peripherally associated with the dance music market, and is therefore
removed from the contexts of academic consideration and acceptability
that it might otherwise earn. Still, in spite of this odd pairing
of fashion and art music, the composers of glitch often draw their
inspiration from the masters of 20th century music who they feel
best describe its lineage.
A Brief History of Glitch
At some point in the early 1990s, techno music
settled into a predictable, formulaic genre serving a more or less
aesthetically homogeneous market of DJs and dance music aficionados.
Concomitant with this development was the rise of a periphery of
DJs and producers eager to expand the music’s tendrils into new
areas. One can visualize techno as a large postmodern appropriation
machine, assimilating cultural references, tweaking them, and then
representing them as tongue-in-cheek jokes. DJs, fueled with samples
from thrift store purchases of obscure vinyl, managed to mix any
source imaginable into sets played for more adventurous dance floors.
Always trying to outdo one another, it was only a matter of time
until DJs unearthed the history of electronic music in their archeological
thrift store digs. Once the door was opened to exploring the history
of electronic music, invoking its more notable composers came into
vogue. A handful of DJs and composers of electronica were suddenly
familiar with the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Morton Subotnick,
and John Cage, and their influence helped spawn the glitch movement.
A pair of Finnish producers called Pan Sonic—then
known as Panasonic, before a team of corporate lawyers encouraged
them to change their name—led one of the first forays into experimentation
in electronica. Mika Vainio, head architect of the Pan Sonic sound,
used handmade sine wave oscillators and a collection of inexpensive
effect pedals and synthesizers to create a highly synthetic, minimal,
"hard-edged" sound. Their first CD, titled Vakio,
was released in the summer of 1993, and was a sonic shockwave compared
to the more blissful strains of ambient-techno becoming popular
at that time. The Pan Sonic sound conjured stark, florescent, industrial
landscapes; test-tones were pounded into submission until they squirted
out low, throbbing drones and high-pitched stabs of sine waves.
The record label Vainio founded, Sähkö Records, released material
by a growing catalog of artists, most of it in the same synthetic,
stripped-down, minimal vein.
As discussed earlier, the German project Oval
was experimenting with CD-skipping techniques and helped to create
a new tendril of glitch—one of slow-moving slabs of dense, flitting
textures. Another German group, which called itself Mouse on Mars,
injected this glitch aesthetic into a more danceable framework,
resulting in gritty low-fidelity rhythmic layers warping in and
out of one another.
From the mid-1990s forward, the glitch aesthetic
appeared in various sub-genres, including drum‘n’bass, drill’n’bass,
and trip-hop. Artists such as Aphex Twin, LTJ Bukem, Omni Trio,
Wagon Christ, and Goldie were experimenting with all sorts of manipulation
in the digital domain. Time-stretching vocals and reducing drum
loops to eight bits or less were some of the first techniques used
in creating artifacts and exposing them as timbral content. The
more experimental side of electronica was still growing and slowly
establishing a vocabulary.
By the late 1990s, the glitch movement was
keeping pace with the release of new features in music software,
and the movement began congealing into a rudimentary form. A roster
of artists was developing. Japanese producer Ryoji Ikeda was one
of the first artists other than Mika Vainio to gain exposure for
his stark, "bleepy" soundscapes. In contrast to Vainio,
Ikeda brought a serene quality of spirituality to glitch music.
His first CD, entitled +/–, was one of the first glitch releases
to break new ground in the delicate use of high frequencies and
short sounds that stab at listeners’ ears, often leaving the audience
with a feeling of tinnitus.
Another artist who helped bridge the gap between
delicate and damaging was Carsten Nicolai (who records and performs
under the name Noto). Nicolai is also a co-founder of Noton/Rastermusic,
a German label group that specializes in innovative digital music.
In a similar fashion, Peter Rehberg, Christian Fennesz, and the
sound/Net art project Farmers Manual are tightly associated with
the Mego label located in Vienna. Rehberg has the distinction of
having received one of only two honorary Ars Electronica awards
in Digital Music for his contribution to electronic music. Over
the past few years, the glitch movement has grown to encompass dozens
of artists who are defining new vocabularies in digital media. Artists
such as immedia, Taylor Deupree, Nobukazu Takemura, Neina, Richard
Chartier, Pimmon, *0, Autopoieses, and T:un[k], to name just a few,
constitute the second wave of sound hackers exploring the glitch
There are many artists who have not been mentioned
here who contribute to pushing the boundaries of this movement.
It is beyond the scope of this article to go deeply into the evolution
of glitch music, but I have included a discography at the end of
this article that will offer good starting points for the casual
Computers have become the primary tools for
creating and performing electronic music, while the Internet has
become a logical new distribution medium. For the first time in
history, creative output and the means of its distribution have
been inextricably linked. Our current sonic backgrounds have dramatically
changed since 4'33" was first performed—and thus the
means for navigating our surroundings as well. In response to the
radical alteration of our hearing by the tools and technologies
developed in academic computer music centers—and a distribution
medium capable of shuttling tools, ideas, and music between like-minded
composers and engineers—the resultant glitch movement can be seen
as a natural progression in electronic music. In this new music,
the tools themselves have become the instruments, and the resulting
sound is born of their use in ways unintended by their designers.
Commonly referred to as sound "mangling" or "crunching,"
composers are now able to view music on a microscopic level. Curtis
Roads coined the term microsound for all variants of granular
and atomic methods of sound synthesis, and tools capable of operating
at this microscopic level are able to achieve these effects. Because
the tools used in this style of music embody advanced concepts of
digital signal processing, their usage by glitch artists tends to
be based on experimentation rather than empirical investigation.
In this fashion, unintended usage has become the second permission
granted. It has been said that one does not need advanced training
to use digital signal processing programs—just "mess around"
until you obtain the desired result. Sometimes, not knowing the
theoretical operation of a tool can result in more interesting results
by "thinking outside of the box." As Bob Ostertag notes,
"It appears that the more technology is thrown at the problem,
the more boring the results" (1998).
"I looked at my paper," said
I saw that the music, all the music, was already
there." He conceived of a procedure which
would enable him to derive the details of his
music from the little glitches and
imperfections which can be seen on sheets of
paper. It had symbolic as well as practical
value; it made the unwanted features of the
paper its most significant ones—there is not
even a visual silence.
— David Revill (1999)
New Music From New Tools
Tools now aid composers in the deconstruction
of digital files: exploring the sonic possibilities of a Photoshop
file that displays an image of a flower, trawling word processing
documents in search of coherent bytes of sound, using noise-reduction
software to analyze and process audio in ways that the software
designer never intended. Any selection of algorithms can be interfaced
to pass data back and forth, mapping effortlessly from one dimension
into another. In this way, all data can become fodder for sonic
Composers of glitch music have gained their
technical knowledge through self-study, countless hours deciphering
software manuals, and probing Internet newsgroups for needed information.
They have used the Internet both as a tool for learning and as a
method of distributing their work. Composers now need to know about
file types, sample rates, and bit resolution to optimize their work
for the Internet. The artist completes a cultural feedback loop
in the circuit of the Internet: artists download tools and information,
develop ideas based on that information, create work reflecting
those ideas with the appropriate tools, and then upload that work
to a World Wide Web site where other artists can explore the ideas
embedded in the work.
The technical requirements for being a musician
in the information age may be more rigorous than ever before, but—compared
to the depth of university computer music studies—it is still rather
light. Most of the tools being used today have a layer of abstraction
that enables artists to explore without demanding excessive technical
knowledge. Tools like Reaktor, Max/MSP, MetaSynth, Audiomulch, Crusher-X,
and Soundhack are pressed into action, more often than not with
little care or regard for the technical details of DSP theory, and
more as an aesthetic wandering through the sounds that these modern
tools can create.
The medium is no longer the message in glitch
music: the tool has become the message. The technique of exposing
the minutiae of DSP errors and artifacts for their own sonic value
has helped further blur the boundaries of what is to be considered
music, but it has also forced us to also to examine our preconceptions
of failure and detritus more carefully.
Electronica DJs typically view individual tracks
as pieces that can be layered and mixed freely. This modular approach
to creating new work from pre-existing materials forms the basis
of electronic music composers’ use of samples. Glitch, however,
takes a more deconstructionist approach in that the tendency is
to reduce work to a minimum amount of information. Many glitch pieces
reflect a stripped-down, anechoic, atomic use of sound, and they
typically last from one to three minutes.
But it seems this approach affects the listening
habits of electronica aficionados. I had the experience of hearing
a popular sample CD playing in a clothing boutique. The "atomic"
parts, or samples, used in composing electronica from small modular
pieces had become the whole. This is a clear indication that contemporary
computer music has become fragmented, it is composed of stratified
layers that intermingle and defer meaning until the listener takes
an active role in the production of meaning.
If glitch music is to advance past its initial
stage of blind experimentation, new tools must be built with an
educational bent in mind. That is, a tool should possess multiple
layers of abstraction that allow novices to work at a simple level,
stripping away those layers as they gain mastery. In order to help
better understand current trends in electronic music, the researchers
in academic centers must keep abreast of these trends. Certainly,
many of their college students are familiar with the music and can
suggest pieces for listening. The compact discs given in this article’s
reference list form a good starting point. More information can
be obtained by reading some of the many electronic mailing lists
dedicated to electronica, such as the microsound, idm, and wire
lists. In this way, the gap can be bridged, and new ideas can flow
more openly between commercial and academic sectors.
We therefore invite young musicians of
talent to conduct a sustained observation of
all noises, in order to understand the various
rhythms of which they are composed, their
principal and secondary tones. By comparing
the various tones of noises with those of
sounds, they will be convinced of the extent
to which the former exceeds the latter. This
will afford not only an understanding, but
also a taste and passion for noises.
— Luigi Russolo (1913)
Cage, J. 1952. 4’33". Published
c. 1960. New York: Henmar Press.
Idhe, D. 1976. Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology
of Sound. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.
Kahn, D. 1999. Noise, Water, Meat.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Negroponte, N. 1998. "Beyond Digital."
Ostertag, B. 1998. "Why Computer Music
Sucks." Available online at http://www.l-m-c.org.uk/texts/ostertag.html.
Revill, D. 1992. The Roaring Silence. John
Cage: A Life. New York: Arcade Publishing.
Russolo, L. 1987. The Art of Noises.
New York: Pendragon Press. (Originally published in 1913.)
Whitehead, C. 1999. The Intuitionist. New
York: Anchor Books.
Christian Fennesz. 1999. +475637–165108. London:
Farmers Manual. 1999. No Backup. Vienna:
Kim Cascone. 1999. cathodeFlower. Frankfurt:
Mille Plateaux/Ritornell RIT06.
Mika Vainio. 1997. Onko. London: Touch
Mouse On Mars. 1995. Vulvaland. London:
Too Pure 36.
Neina. 1999. Formed Verse. Frankfurt:
Mille Plateaux MPCD72.
Nosei Sakata and Richard Chartier. 1999.
*0/rc. Brook-lyn: 12K 12K.1006.
Noto. 1998. Kerne. Bad Honnef: Plate
Oval. 1994. Systemische. Frankfurt:
Mille Plateaux MPCD9.
Pimmon. 1999. Waves and Particles. Tokyo:
Pita. 1999. Seven Tons for Free. Osaka:
Digital Narcis MEGO009.
Ryoji Ikeda. 1996. +/–. London: Touch
Various Artists. 1999. Microscopic Sound.
New York: Caipirinha Music CAI2021-2.
Various Artists. 2000. blueCubism.
Osaka: Digital Narcis DNCD007.
Various Artists. 2000. Clicks and Cuts.
Frankfurt: Mille Plateaux MPCD079.
748 Edgemar Ave.
Pacifica, CA 94044, USA
Computer Music Journal, 24:4,pp.
12-18, Winter 2000
(c) 2000 Massachusetts Institute of Technology