Beyond abstraction

[This thread is about artistic process, intention, compositional and performative stance… rather than the later process of making the sound… but this still seemed to me the best place for it - but it is about the process of our artistic endeavours.]

This idea has begun to be much more present in my thinking about my music: How can I make a music - an electronic and non-lyric music - that expresses my witness to 21st century civilization?


Some years ago, I attended an interview with Fatima Al Qadiri talking about her music, and expanding the subjects of electronic music. At one point in the interview, she says:

There’s a kind of thing in the music industry, especially with electronic music, that it needs to be abstract. It can’t have a story or narrative because that would ruin it somehow or make it pretentious… I feel like that’s completely alien to me, because I feel that music is a storytelling activity. And I come from an oral, storytelling culture, you know? And I definitely feel there’s a resistance to stories in electronic music…

(the interview is on YT: https://youtu.be/FSLQYEgAxtM - quote is from 11:07)

In that interview, Fatima Al Qadiri’s talks about her album, Brute (2016) which is just this: music that is both emotional, a story, an expression, and (mostly) just electronic sound.


My early work in electronic music was indeed taken with abstract form and its joys… But now I have more emotions and thoughts to express in music… and feel a bit like I’m learning my way all over again.

Wondering if there are others walking in this direction…

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Been struggling with this for years. I think stories are extremely important and I’d really like for my music to tell a story.

Easier said than done!

I’m thinking right now of a memory of a sunrise after a night in a yurt in a Rockies blizzard, driving home through the winding mountain roads listening to an ancient cassette of Jon Anderson’s Ilias of Sunhillow, head full of visions from the activities of the prior night. As I listened to not just the lyrics but also the harmonic progressions, my imagination could not help but spin off a thousand narratives…

Lyrics can help but in a way they might at times be overly direct, limiting in their choice of words. I’m thinking of the classical music I grew up with, the Nutcracker Suite comes to mind, you can’t help but imagine the story (and the dance) as you listen, even if it’s just coming through a pair of headphones and there is no ballet in sight.

I’m remembering a New Year’s Eve before the turn of the century (95? 96? Getting lost in the fog…) when our tribal bellydance troupe made its first and last performance, to an audience of dozens of friends. We started the evening with a tale of a wandering magician in the desert, spoken, and then slowly replaced by my clarinet, the drums joined in, and then the first of the dancers, who danced with a sword. The mesmerized crowd wasn’t even mad that we played till 12:30 before we noticed we missed the moment. We were too far gone to care…

Sometimes stories are made of words. But there is also the music…

And i have to agree that I hear fewer stories in more recent music. Sometimes I worry that our imagination has atrophied. Perhaps the horrors of post-modernity have made us meek in the face of our disappointment. Afraid to dream for fear of the nightmare.

I had a lot of nightmares as a small child. A series of ear infections perhaps not always treated in the healthiest manner with codeine, a helluva drug at any age, let alone as a toddler. I learned how to shout down the demons and turn the nightmare into a dream. It took years. Sometimes I forget that I know how to do that. It takes practice like anything else.

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I have a hypothesis about the development of the tendency toward abstraction in electronic music. My hypothesis is that many get into electronic music from a more technical standpoint. That is to say they develop an interest in the sounds and the instruments before they have a purpose. They explore, find sounds they enjoy and learn the skills of production. That is to say they approach electronic music as a craft. It becomes the exercising of a set of skills which, through practise and some aesthetic sense, become more and more accomplished and complete. So what is lacking? I think the lacking is in intent: the focus is on process and not message. The music is engineered and not felt.

In contrast the stereotypical image of the troubled artist has a very different journey. Their journey in music is to find an outlet for their feelings; A way to share what they think. They develop a musical sensibility to become their voice. In this regard they start with a story but have to learn the skills to share it. In many ways this is the opposite story of the typical electronic musician. Similarly those starting at either end of the spectrum might never reach the other side. The aspiring artist who can barely strum a few chords to carry their lyrics, or the hugely proficient electronic musician with all the skill but nothing to say.

I believe the first step to move beyond whatever box you feel you are stuck in, is to understand its boundaries; to realise where and how you want to grow. If growth looks like reflecting your experience in your music, then reflect away. Easier said than done, but I think art is most compelling when it’s most personal. Personally I feel like I’m only just finding my musical voice meaning I can barely articulate. Even so I’m looking for the things I want to say; the aspects that don’t intersect with poly meters, modes and micro tonality. Moreover I’m trying to find a way to employ the things I know in service of a message, rather than for their own sake. I’m many regards I feel I can do this better in words than music; one idea I’ve had is to write a series of poems then write music to each, but again: I’m probably going down another route of process over passion. For now, as long as I enjoy: it’s enough for me.

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A very thought-provoking thread :grinning: :+1:… i feel i can’t help but walk in this direction(nothing else is authentic to my personality and style like following my intuition along an emotional narrative… i can’t say i ever write to a specific ‘story’ persay, that seems too confining, but the emotional-narrative i follow while writing usually ends up creating a very specific and graphic music-video in my head when listening back everytime after the track is done).

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I’m often reminded of the great philosopher Darth Vader, who said

Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed.

as I look at my desk and think of the clever tricks I could pull off with the stuff on it. If that’s all I do, I rarely if ever publish the results (for me, noodling is almost always devoid of emotions, and very much like throwing clay at a wall to see what sticks, at least at the start of a session), as I feel that there’s no value in them. I find a big similarity with photography - I loathe “snaps” regardless of how technically good they are, because they don’t build from anything and don’t go anywhere, it’s just this single image which most of the time has nothing to say other than “look at what I can do”; there’s no thread to follow.

The releases I have done so far were the result of stories I had to tell, and I don’t think just because there’s no lyrics they can’t tell those stories (having said that, liner notes and track names go a long way in setting the stage, imo). I’ve started working on my first full release, and before any solid music has been written down, I have a few pages of notes about places, memories, feelings, sequencing (the story arc, if you will), and… keys. They might be a crutch or I might just be boring, but keys work wonders for me. After pottering around the piano, I can think about how to make the sounds I hear in my head and how to get the textures I want to go with them. But I always tune my noise :slight_smile:

My absolute favourite albums in recent memory nearly always push me to tears: Vinuela and Rosenberg’s Borderless, Blankfor.ms’ Music for tape and piano, and Lela Amparo’s Dark Sky City. That’s the sort of music I hope to be able to make one day.

Edit: From last month, Duelling Ants’ Random Gestures: I don’t “get” a story from it, but I hear it as a celebration of many joyful things, and it’s filled to the brim with little surprises you discover with repeat listens, it leaves me giddy. That’s what I want to do.

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This may be tangential but the topic does make me think about the dialectic in electronic music between the human and the machine as producers of sound. There is a strong tradition in electronic music of trying to efface traces of the human and human authorship. The most obvious example being quantised sequencer driven music. Kraftwerk even used vocoders to ‘machinify’ the human voice. A lot of modular synthesis seems to be about introducing elements outside of complete human control.
At the other extreme you have prog rockers soloing on synthesisers, which is also a kind of electronic music, but coming from a rock tradition derived from non-electronic instruments and performance techniques.
Some of the most interesting music flirts with this distinction between human and mechanised, imo. Such as J Dilla making a repetitive ‘non-human’ loop out of unquantised beats and a sample from a soul track played by studio musicians. Or the scratching of a record to reveal its origins as mechanically reproduced sound.
For me, making music, I am often forced to confront the choice of whether something clearly played by a human is appropriate for a track. Whether to foreground performance. More often than not the answer is no, which is maybe why my guitars are getting a bit dusty these days.

In relation to your point, perhaps this hybrid of the machine and the human is most appropriate to our contemporary experience. It’s not always clear who or what is the agent, or how the agents influence each other.

I think ‘machine music’ can still be emotional. Or at least transcendent. But it is an interesting question to ask what stories it might be able to tell. Of course a fundamental quality of it is structure, and it has narratives in that way. But for me those are appealing because of their abstractness and their direct untranslated effects on me - I don’t have to make sense of them through the conventions of human emotions. Hence my mention of transcendence.

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The comparison to prog rock is interesting. I wouldn’t say I think of that genre when I think electronic music because the electronics aren’t their purpose. Similarly modern pop may be produced entirely on electronic instruments (in an out of the box) and we never call it electronic. I suspect this where the distinction lies: if our music is music first and foremost and electronic simply as a tool then it tends to get a different label. When it gets the label electronic music it is because the electronic aspects motivate or dominate.

I suspect the level we need to attack this of thinking about genre and contemporary genres to what we create. In particular, I think about of the backdrop against which classical music existed. It was often instrumental (or uses the voice as an instrument more than a message) and typically requires a large group of skilled musicians to perform. It could therefore only be experienced in a special context. By comparison the every day music would be folk; music played at home informally and primarily vocal in nature. The classical music replaced the specific vocal message and approachable melody and rhythm with a more complex structure and layering that wasn’t attainable elsewhere. It conveyed emotion or message in a more universal manner. To me this is the hallmark of art: a work created to make the consumer feel.

So what is the backdrop we work against now? When I think of instrumental music I picture a few things. One is instrumental versions of songs that might otherwise have lyrics. This might be more along the lines of “Muzak” which is designed to fade into the background, or a context in which it showcases musicians such as jazz (in the sense of a traditional jazz band/group playing standards, or a lounge/cocktail player). We might place the concept of an instrumental solo in another piece of music alongside the jazz style (much like a synth in prog rock). We can think about the likes of music concrete and other experimental genres which are often very process driven and may or may not be electronic in nature; the point of the genre name is to convey the expectation of “what really matters” about the music to the listener.

So back to instrumental electronic music. In using that label I think we are inviting an expectation that the electronics are the most important element. In a sense this pigeon hole is a place for music like we’ve been discussing: where process, technique, instrumentation and the like take the fore. So how do we move beyond this? I think we need to shift our focus.

When a classical composer works they tend to think in melody, harmony, rhythm and structure. They compose and elaborate from the simplest riffs and figures into a complete piece. They arrange these elements then orchestrate then add the details until it becomes a completed piece. Their approach is technical, but driven from a core idea out into a piece. I imagine a lot of electronic musicians start with a sound. They out the instruments at the centre and build out from there. An instrument doesn’t have a message, it just has a sound which we sometimes end up working around.

This is not to say a classical composition style leads to “composing from the heart”. It can equally lead to composition that is built intellectually: music that is “engineered to make you feel”. That still meets my definition of art, but isn’t necessarily personal in the sense I’d aspire to make it. In a sense this is the route I go down often. For me the disconnect comes in the way I think. I think far more abstractly and intellectually than I do visually and emotionally. A case in point is talking about a poem to a musician friend. When I read it I thought about structure, meter, imagery and the intent of the author: I experienced it analytically. In contrast their experience was being brought back to a different time and place, and the feelings that came with it. Their experience was probably what an artist would intend: it evoked an emotional response. In a way I think my experience of art informs my approach. Perhaps this means an abstract but specific and directed approach is a better expression of me than a shared story? Perhaps I can do more with another approach?

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One of the things I love about the Nutcracker Suite is the way orchestration is used to reinforce character and plot. (While engaging in some embarrassingly inaccurate western caricatures of non-western music, but that is somewhat beside my point at the moment.)

Given the near infinite control over timbre afforded to us with electronic music, I would think we could employ this tactic to great effect.

I’m less interested in genre expectations (I’m all already so left field as to have an audience I can count on my fingers) than I am in authentic self expression. Perhaps demotivating in the sense of having difficulty connecting with an audience (I won’t be launching my next tour anytime soon) but also totally freeing in the sense of not being bound by historical or cultural expectations. But those expectations still operate on a subconscious level. I feel some obligation to recognize them and consciously overcome them.

I feel this is also in the spirit of the original post. Yes, there are tropes we’ve come to expect from “electronic music”. What if we disposed of such limitations?

Prog and classical music have been presented as other sets of landmarks we could navigate by, and I’m down for that. But I also wonder about other cultures. What non-western music has a strong narrative center, that we could draw inspiration from?

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“Program Music” comes to mind: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Program_music

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Yes, I absolutely agree. We need a better language to talk stylistically about what we do, and why, rather than technologically.

It makes sense that it started with technology, since that was the driving force of change and differentiation … but now it feels like a silly label since my music has as much in common with The Orb or Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith as it does with Mahler in many ways, other than some overlap in instrument choice.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about @mzero’s original question, both about my music and my art. I have a few thoughts… one is that I think it’s almost impossible to make art that is not, in some way, a response to current conditions. It may or may not be consciously or intentionally a response, but it is just by the fact that it emerges from the current moment. The only exception might be really intense pastiche, where it belongs to a past moment … but even that is hard to do without imbuing something of the present into it.

There are also a number of strategies for thinking about what it means to make art in response to a time… there are didactic strategies (i.e. how can I understand what is happening and reflect that in my art in a readable way), aesthetic strategies (i.e. what aesthetics embody my feelings/response to the current state), affective strategies (i.e. how does this made me feel and how can I communicate/express those feelings) …

Even abstraction isn’t devoid of these things, in music and in art. “Good” abstraction is an aesthetic response to a state-of-the-world, and in an art-historical sense was initially a reaction to the class status of representational painting … then abstract expressionism was largely a response to the failure of enlightenment rationality seen in the Holocaust, and a new type of sublime in response …

In music you can also trace these lines, a lot of them similar in theory and philosophy. For example, Cage’s move to aleatoric and abstraction in music was a response to fascism which he saw embodied in the traditional composer-performer dialectic.

I haven’t really done this, but we could probably look at the major art-music (and pop-music) paradigms of the last 20 years and see similar types of things happening. Maybe I’ll do some research and writing on this…

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FYI there is some related discussion in the “The Joys of Talentlessness” thread.

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I think the politics around abstraction are very interesting and worth exploring—not just for the sake of it, but because the personal is political and it is impossible to separate our existence or our artistic practices from their politics so it does us no good to not pay attention to it.

@emenel 's mention of abstract expressionism is interesting because that movement also exists in the context of the Cold War, and while I am not one to believe the CIA “invented” the movement, their interest in it is relevant. There is an aspect of glorified individualism and implied “American exceptionalism” in the work, and the stark difference with socialist realism is not without cause. An embrace of modernity, even an ambivalent one, presents a number of problems—of course socialist realism is also an embrace of modernity—and art that is philosophically rooted in Modernity, as a lot of “electronic music” is, stakes a specific type of claim on its socio-political-historical position. This becomes not simply a capitalist/anti-capitalist dilemma but a dilemma between the Enlightenment understanding of history as progressive (and thus the existence of some notion of Modernity) and some alternative way of thinking about the human story.

In this broader project of Modern Art there is also cultural-colonial globalization at work, and you have Western European artists such as Picasso drawing from West African art, and you have California Architects drawing from Japanese design, etc (there are many examples). These things get decontextualized, dehistoricized, and become symbols of modernism because of the lack of story around them. The narrative is destroyed in the project of modernity. The cyborg does not have a family tree.

On the other hand, we have the rise in popularity of vocal-led music in the 1940s due to the musicians strike in the US. This is not to say instrumental music isn’t narrative of course it can be, but if we consider lyrics an aid in building narrative this certainly has some sort of effect on how we conceive of narratives in music. If the dominant pop culture music now is employing lyrics to express itself it must impact the cultural touchstones and collective understandings of meaning in instrumental music that presumably composers were in dialogue with.

So we have “modernity” as an ideology destroying narrative by portraying it as antiquated or regressive on the one hand, and we have the nationalism of the war effort glorifying vocal and lyric music and perhaps coopting its narrative power for cultural influence—not that popular music themes are dictated from the top down, but what we consume is influencing culture and there is some feedback loop of what people in power think would be popular based on faulty—classist, racist, etc—assumptions and then building on that as those things become cultural touchstones for generations.

Irish traditional music, the folk music I’m most familiar with, has both a lyrical sung tradition and an instrumental tradition, but both are very rooted in a social interaction—which I think might be a defining feature of what we consider “folk music”. It is music that you play with your family or friends, in a social group, and in that sense there are stories that go with everything. There are stories in lyrics of course, which can be morality tales, or history lessons, or jokes set to music, or any number of different types of stories. But there are also stories to the jigs and reels—these are not only emotionally expressive and often have names that imply some sort of story or journey such as “Blarney Pilgrim” or “Haste to the Wedding” but they also carry with them the stories of repeated playing with friends and family. The story is also in the communal sharing of the songs, it is a cultural narrative. This applies to other genres of music as well, I find the emotional impact on me of live music is very different because of the social context of other people I’m with and the presence of musicians. The stories are much more visceral than if I’m alone in my room listening to music I have no cultural context or relationship to.

This is perhaps a long way around the horse to say that music is a socio-political act that does not exist outside of its cultural context. Music that attempts to erase its context or to be overly “abstracted” is engaging in a meta-narrative about modernity that is politically motivated. (I put abstracted in quotes because I don’t mean abstract in the formal sense of ‘this painting isn’t of a thing I recognize’, but abstracted in the sense of decontextualized). If we move beyond this way of thinking about “modern art” (as we are doing here) we can intentionally tell the stories we want instead of inadvertently reflecting the grand narratives that are the simply the norms we’re exposed to. This intentionality is not easy though, it seems to take a lot of work. It is a project (for me) of learning how to experience the world as an artist—not of attaining objectivity, but of noticing the ways lines or shapes interact on a persons face or the layers of information in the sound of a trickling stream. Perhaps its about paying attention and noticing detail, since that seems to be what I’m describing, but it feels like there’s something more to it too… I am fascinated by artists who can create such immediate and impactful work but have no capacity to speak about their own work in a nuanced way—they don’t need to have the exact language of understanding what they’re dealing with because they are bearing witness to the world and paying attention and that is reflected in the work.

PS Fatima Al Qadiri’s score to Atlantique/Atlantics is great, good movie too :slight_smile:

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Absolutely. I don’t think it was a CIA conspiracy, but there was a lot of government led cultural propaganda at the time, as well as the general post-war climate in the 1950’s that contributes to a zeitgeist of individualism and capitalism. There’s a great book about design in the 1950’s, focusing on the Eames, the covers this in amazing detail. It’s called " Happiness by Design: Modernism and Media in the Eames Era" by Justus Nieland.

Another interesting book, through less critical of the ideology, is called “The Democratic Surround” by Fred Turner. He talks a lot about music and ideology in the period of post-war modernism. He’s more sympathetic (or even supportive) of the ideology at play, but his history and analysis is really worth a read.

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While I can’t speak to this topic as expertly as @renegog did in their full post, I can provide a personal perspective, and the quote above really gets to the gist of how I previously have engaged—and am now more actively and consciously engaging—with @mzero’s original question. That is, I embrace my artistic acts and output as inherently political and intrinsically linked to my personal place within culture as well as the broader cultural context in which they’ll float.

With that in mind, I also accept that further context can, and perhaps should, be provided for any given piece of music or body of work. That context may come in the form of album artwork, liner notes, composition titles, videos, performances, and whatever else. In fact, I’ve often thought music to be poorly suited to stand completely on its own, especially if it has narrative or messaging intent, and perhaps it never really has stood on its own. Of course, one could hear a piece of music without the aforementioned context and still appreciate, enjoy and interpret it for its affective and aesthetic values—and possibly glean notions of the intended narrative—but the piece is not whole without accounting for that context and (coming full circle) the cultural conditions in which it is presented.

I can’t say I’m successful at pulling off a strategy that full expresses witness to our times, but to put it simply, I think I employ some form of the aesthetic and affective strategies that @emenel mentioned and then wholeheartedly embrace the utility of naming conventions, artwork, etc., to impart more meaning/message/story to the work that I present.

Also, artworks are not separate from their creators, and thus the stated politics/beliefs/mission of those creators carries weight for the messaging of the works.

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This thread has given me a lot of food for thought.

When I make music, regardless of whether I have a particular theme in mind or a notion or feeling I want to express, I get something started and then follow what I think of as “the riverbed” – a sort of natural path to follow in a maybe-Taoist way.

And what creates the riverbed? The instruments obeying their laws of physics/math/logic, the conventions of music I have absorbed… and I don’t really know what else and honestly, I don’t tend to examine it too closely. I do know it’s sort of iterative, feedback process – I’m assembling the instruments/modules/plugins into things which interact with themselves and with me.

I don’t know about “the medium is the message,” but the medium is a co-creator of the message, and the message also is a co-creator of the medium.

I feel like with my music, I’m making pictures rather than movies… the flow of time in it is an artifact of its being music, rather than a flow of events in a narrative arc. (I think I have a weird relationship with time.) But those pictures might themselves be representative of something – the setting in which a story is set – or they might be non-representative. I have tended to call them all “abstract” either way.

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I don’t really get the lines drawn in this discourse. re: the quote in the first post, the best 20th century electronic music was often both abstract and narrative (thinking of the GRM in particular but there are many examples). Similarly, dance music, which accounts for a huge share of electronic music, is rarely devoid of story, narrative, feeling, emotion, or whatever other signifiers people tend to invoke against abstraction. What am I missing here?

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“Devoid” implies we are speaking in binaries. It’s a gradient. A difference of degrees.

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That doesn’t conflict with my point at all. Unless I’m unclear on what you’re trying to say.

I’ve been working on my second-ever generative piece for five days. As I type this, version 20 is recording. The process has been a lot fun, and quite educational. Now, after dipping my mind into this thread, it has a title: ‘A Greatest Story’.

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I’d love to hear more of your thinking. What moved you to name this piece that… and how do you see the work embued with a story… and how did you achieve that?

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