In my own reflections of the direction of innovation in music in the last two years, no one has been a stronger inspiration guidance than the extraordinary Oxford musicologist and music critic Adam Harper. The insightful analyses of groundbreaking developments as well as his personal engagement with the artists that create them recalls the way in which musicologist Wayne Marshall, Harvard lecturer and a close friend of Munchi’s, used to be at the same time a social hub and the academic foundation under the early global bass scene. Wayne was among the first to discern and articulate the common spirit in local interpretations of Jamaican soundsystem cuture, hiphop or dance music and their corresponding youth cultures from marginalised urban neighbourhoods across the world (“global ghetto tech”). In a similar way, Harper early on recognised in the myriad of variations of “post-internet” music and corresponding aesthetics a profound common reaction to indie culture’s obsession with authenticity and organic romanticism – just while the latter was becoming the new mainstream.
Our intellectual focuses have occasionally intersected, such as in the System Focus writeups on the Lisbon based IRL-URL underground or the one on Durban’s gqom. Last month, I had a chat with Harper at the Rewire festival in The Hague, where he interviewed experimental footwork producer Jlin about machines, the human soul and the fascination with cybernetic sounds in today’s wave of club music. I was most curious how he, as an academic and as a person, got involved in this intriguing area where music, technology and society intersect.
AH: My background is in musicology, with some contemporary music mixed in. Like a lot of people my age (29) I came up through a mix of modernist classical music and 90s / 00s electronica. I became interested in music, technology and society because of the need to move musicology into the field of recordings rather than scores etc. I discovered that the aesthetics of recorded music can be very complex, all bound up with different kinds of ideas about the negative effect of technology on ‘art’ and music. This is parter of a larger and really important discussion about what it means to be human.
GB: Isn’t it isolated working such a tradition-minded environment as Oxford? I can imagine it creates a separation between you as an academic observer and the communities and scenes you write about?
AH: Much of the more specialist music-making and -listening here (the kind of underground electronic music I like) tends to get sucked into nearby London, leaving a lot of the more usual UK mixture of folk, indie etc, which has a strong basis in Oxford’s considerable bohemian demographic. The students aren’t really a permanent presence here – they spend half their year away from the University – so even though many of them are getting interested in stranger, more modern things like PC Music it doesn’t really take root in a live scene.
There is a degree of the separation you mention, but it is closing. The major difference between academia and criticism for me is the degree of drinking the discourse on music’s kool aid. I think a good academic has a sense of the bigger, more relative picture, maintains a good degree of critical and theoretical qualification on what they write about – they shouldn’t just be fans that can use jargon. The researcher should have a foot in both camps at least as a starting principle, and then see what forms of knowledge from which camp are most useful. But you can’t avoid becoming part of what you study.
GB: How does that work for you personally?
AH: I try and keep the worlds rather separate. As a critic, I can (and I should) be more wild about my opinions and my language; as an academic, I should be rigorous. I’ve occasionally gotten into odd situations where as an academic I’d feel the need to quote myself as a critic, with that distance given towards the latter. But it would be rather absurd, and it draws attention to the problems of dividing my brain like that…
And in many ways though it’s about professional pragmatics. There are many universities that would hire a slightly boffiny music critic like me as an academic, but they’re far from the majority. For all the enthusiasm there appears to be for blurring these boundaries and bringing in fresh ideas from non-academic discourse, the fact that an academic’s work increasingly needs to be peer-reviewed and subsequently submitted to (in the UK) the Research Excellence Framework in order to be taken seriously remains a major factor and hurdle. No matter how hip you are as an academic, no matter how many gigs you go to or microgenres you’re up on, a blogpost is not going to fly in the REF, and so, ultimately, it’s not going to fly on the job application.
GB: Talking about blogposts, they used to be a principal mediator between artist and listener. If you compare blogs today to other types of media such as the webmagazine, Youtube channels, a forum like Reddit and especially the increasing importance of social media, what do these changes mean for the mediating role of the music writer?
AH: The music writer has become (or should have become) much less of a reviewer and much more of a curator and critic. They needn’t simply evaluate or describe the music on offer, in fact that would be a bit of a waste of time in a world of streaming. Now they can hunt for interesting music that isn’t relatively known yet, and put it in some sort of context for listeners, reflect on aesthetics and provide a commentary.
A lot of people say that opinions don’t matter so much now that anyone can voice them online. That’s a simplistic view of the Internet I think. Eventually, in certain ways, certain voices rise above the online chatter, whatever type of platform they’re on, perhaps.
GB: What are your predictions for the future?
AH: Difficult to say. While their importance might have been reduced, I don’t think the various kinds of musical experts are going to die out any time soon. The future is likely to be busy, and even if they’re able and welcome to, I don’t think many music fans will be able or inclined to spend huge amounts of time finding and thinking about music themselves.
Eventually, in certain ways, certain voices rise above the online chatter
GB: One of your main topics is the contemporary URL punk-like movements. Yet at the same time we seem to be right in the transition phase of the rapid ‘canonisation’ of the post-internet underground in art and music, where Tumblr and Soundcloud artists are lifted into the museums for contemporary art & modern experimental music.
How do you see the relation between culture that is ‘high profile’ and culture that is marginalised? Do you think the ‘punk’ element is disappearing or undergoing a fundamental change lately?
The current generation of innovators, like the artists connected to NON WORLDWIDE, seem to consciously situate their music in the grey area between the electronic underground on the one hand and high art/‘avant-garde classical’ music on the other.
AH: Even in the supposedly ‘flattened’ world of the Internet, there is still something of height difference (even if it’s only an imaginary construction) between ‘mainstream’ culture and ‘alternative / indie / underground’ culture, a gap that is emphasised in aesthetics, practice, ideology and social role. Quite how coherent the non-mainstream communities are in this respect is an open question. But one of the paradoxes of the non-mainstream communities is that they’re often somehow both marginalised and an elite high art thing (which, though heavy on cultural and sometimes actual capital, is still pretty much at the margins, socially). Part of the value of this art / music is that it is (supposed to be) frowned upon by a majority, or an industry, or a technocracy. And in time, this marginalised, frowned upon art / music comes to be canonised. The people who mediate that shift are normally people from slightly bohemian majorities who it would not be wrong to call ‘gentrifiers.’ Look at 70s British punk – in its time a scandal, now a good old British institution. Is it any wonder that its contemporary equivalents sound nothing like it?
GB: Sampling and recontextualisation of sounds and aesthetics are key elements of the punk attitude you describe. Yet, this attitude is also fiercely criticised (frequently by artists themselves) when it is the privileged side that grabs elements from the marginalised side in terms of race, class or sexual identity. Think for example about vaporwave’s orientalism or PC Music’s use of ‘femininity’ as a gimmick.
What are your thoughts about the significance of identity and power in the cybernetic present and future, with its initial expectations of free information and fluid identity?
AH: Yeah – neither a non-mainstream political stance (implicit or explicit) nor an embrace of technological modernity (often in a vaguely anarchistic atmosphere) guarantees a clean bill of ethics. Sampling and recontextualisation are punk in one way, inasmuch as it’s accessible and easy to make and release music with them. But large numbers of people are still unaware of the problems with using someone else’s ethnicity or gender as part of the exoticism and Othering that underground music is so often entranced by. In the examples you describe, the implication is that East Asians are a weirdly hi-tech and/or corporatised people, a frightening mirror into which Westerners can look, or that women and their bodies are somehow more the victims of a superficial modern technoculture.
What matters is not where something is from, but the stories about where it’s from
GB: Simultaneously with the ‘post-internet underground’ and its fluid aesthetics, there was the ‘global bass blogosphere’ that brought sounds of locally based underground youth cultures from many different parts of the world into online circulation. Today, post-internet inspired club music ubiquitously incorporates sounds like baile funk, tresillo or gqom, whereas new youth movements anywhere in the world rarely develop the kind of distinct, geographically based profile any more such as you saw in the past.
How do you see the future role of geographical or physical environments for the development of music, especially now the breakthrough Virtual Reality has the potential to erase physicality even more thoroughly than the web did?
AH: The digitised world (crudely put, the internet, and maybe virtual reality too) can ‘erase’ geography and physicality to some extent, sure, making it easier for distant parts of the world to communicate and influence one another. This, of course, is not new to the internet. Records did the same a century ago. The internet is just faster and broader. But URL doesn’t erase relative novelty and ethnicity (aspects which geography used to contribute, which used to seem virtually synonymous with geography) as being of great aesthetic importance – far from it. Sounds are now more easily unmoored from their actual physical locations and cultural contexts, but authenticity was always ultimately a lie anyway (again, URL just makes it more obvious). What matters is not where something is from, but the stories about where it’s from and how that becomes aesthetics.
GB: If you were a DJ and wanted to make a mixtape to take your listeners on an journey through the essential developments that you have described in your articles, which are the tracks that would most definitely end up in there?
AH: I kind of already have one: though it was very early in relation to my turn to writing about hi-tech and/or online music, I made a mix called ‘The Blue Liquid Mix,’ weaving together lots of stuff that was both hi-tech and from the online underground. It starts with a track called ‘Dreamb0y’ by I AM WATER, which had a huge impact on me. It finally made me convinced that online underground music could not only be technically proficient AND really inventive, but that it could beat the more traditional underground too. Lots of the artists on that mix I would still recommend today. I’d also chuck in some stuff from NON, Her Records, Yen Tech, White Colours, Contact Lens, Activia Benz, Graham Kartna, and more.
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