Abstract Music – Eumig
Abstract Music (on improvisation, ambient, drone and other amorphous sound art)
Music and Non-Music
If you are reading this then it’s safe to say that you probably listen to some pretty weird music. It’s also highly likely that you make music or produce sound of some kind. In this article I intend to share some of my ideas, thoughts, and experiences on making and performing abstract music and a good place to start is dealing with a statement I occasionally come up against;
“That’s not music”.
This is a subjective statement and occasionally it’s a valid point, but it’s grounded in a listener’s expectations rather than in a failing on the performer’s part. “There’s no lyrics” was a criticism often leveled at 90’s chart music, as if that alone was the ‘make or break’ point. Four hundred years of classical music managed just fine without a sing-along chorus. “There’s no beat” is a trickier one to counter and explaining that there’s a rich history of Mongolian throat singing which has never relied on fat beats isn’t likely to win you a new fan. You could try pointing out the subtle pulsing of a certain frequency within your track, but your mark has probably walked off by now. In all honesty statements like the above mentioned do not warrant a response. Music can be defined as ‘the organisation of sounds’ though and anyone mentioning John Cage thereafter can just fuck off.
Instruments and Non-Instruments
Another area of concern for the casual onlooker is the apparent lack of instruments being played – or worse, the presence of instruments that are seemingly not being played (or played in an unorthodox manner). People just like to see something happening I think. Proof, I suppose that a) an effort is being made and b) that your ears are in the good hands of a competent professional.
I can get on board with this to a certain extent; I remember all too clearly the rise of the laptop on stage, which I still struggle to separate from watching someone check their emails. The LCD glow often creating a disconnect between performer and audience. It has its place of course although the presence of instruments as sound sources is an essential validation to my mind. ‘Emailing Musician Syndrome’ and the pale white light of the bitten Apple is now thankfully less common.
People like to see ‘stuff’ though, I quite like to see things that people have made or subverted in some way. Some of the best noises I’ve ever heard have come from modified Tupperware containers, circuit bent Gameboys and repurposed coffee cans. Ex Easter Island Head’s use of xylophone mallets to batter an ensemble of tuned Fender Stratocasters made absolute sense to me and Fuck Buttons’ use of children’s toys was indispensable for them in realising the utter apocalypse of sound they sculpt. A track I once played on Otherwires a few years ago was described by my co-presenter, who was standing in at short notice, as being “…a bit Harry Partch”. I think it was a compliment, I took it as one in any case.
Performer as Virtuoso
Some of the best gigs I’ve been to have involved watching someone do very little and for me, it’s not too much of an issue. For some people, however, it’s the be-all and end-all; the idea being that it needs to be a) observably difficult and b) that it needs to be done in front of me and, by the same measure I guess it needs to be c) understandable too. But seeing Surgeon standing impassively behind the decks while the earth churned before him was always perfectly ‘correct’ for me, it’s what comes out of the speakers that counts, right?
Mostly, yes but then I always trusted that Surgeon was actually ‘doing stuff’.
I saw Underworld relatively recently and while they certainly looked like they were ‘doing stuff’ it was patently obvious to anyone with ears that they were not, unless ‘stuff’ includes ‘pressing play’. It was shit.
On the flip side, the sight of Kieran Hebden and the late Steve Reid laughing and goading each other on, daring each other to dig deeper and go harder was as tumultuous as the sound they created together. You saw it happen, as well as heard it. That was back in 2007 and it was a definite turning point for me. I’d been collecting Four Tet records for a few years and had by then started listening to stuff like Black Dice’s ‘Beaches and Canyons’, but the switch was yet to fully switch. Keiran Hebden & Steve Reid’s Exchange Sessions albums were, for me, a sea change. Away from ‘dance’ music and towards ‘abstract’ music. The audience in Manchester that night was made up of techno heads, actual proper jazz-folk and indie kids (perhaps coming at it from the Fridge angle?)… it was diverse. Loads of people were dancing but just as many were standing and listening, watching dumbfounded.
The idea of ‘performer as virtuoso’ is deeply seated in rock music (the lead guitarist) and dance music (the ‘turntablist’) but this need not apply quite so acutely in abstract music. Yes, the operator of the controls will need to understand the equipment being employed and yes, there will need to be some sort of ‘overall idea’ playing out for the duration of the performance. But in the absence of recognisable musical albatrosses – lyrics, beats, melodies, etc. – the listener becomes part of the performance or, more specifically, the listener’s experience defines the performance. Performer-as-audience-member makes a bit more sense in this regard. Abstract music events can be fluid, interactive things when done well and the performer can and should be as surprised by the outcome as the audience. Very often the space itself affects the sound greatly, perhaps more noticeably so than with other forms of music.
Preparation not Practice
The best performances of abstract music I have ever seen have been improvisations, without exception and by a huge margin. Supersilent with John Paul Jones at the Village Underground, Stale Storlokken with Matt Calvert and Tom Rogerson of Three Trapped Tigers at Punk’d or Shabaka Hutchings with Evan Parker at the Vortex. These were performances featuring some of the best imaginable musicians in situations where they had to improvise. It also stands true with lesser-known artists I am familiar with, Rorquals 2018 performance at Control Voltage in Southend is a case in point. His main piece – a tightly rehearsed abstract drone piece – was very good, but when asked to continue he just improvised with what he had and it was nothing short of incredible. When improvisation is good, when it comes together, it eclipses a well prepared set every time.
People who are interested in this type of music usually like gadgets, instruments, hardware and so on. I think it’s very important to know how these things work and how they can be used to realise your goals, but maybe the aim of abstract music forms should be ‘this is NOW’. Each performance should find its own form and, if things go well, rewarding new sonic situations will arise and surprise both performer and audience alike. I am more than prepared to get on board with someone’s ideas, even if they are struggling to realise them, when I feel that they are laying themselves on the line. A sense that “This might just work” or “I didn’t expect that to happen” is often more rewarding than “That all went to plan”.
Whenever I perform live, which isn’t very often, I always wrestle with the same demons;
That the audience might get bored! The urge to fill the space with sound, to overwhelm the audience and validate yourself, is very strong. This comes from within however and in my experience the audience is invariably far more focused on the details of the music being produced than the performer is. The performer is usually too busy doing ‘stuff’ to know how it’s coming across. My advice is to do less and let things happen. Respect an audience’s resolve and taste but don’t try to satisfy it.
That my piece or set must have an overall direction, crescendo or understandable form. These ideas describe traditional music forms and, while it’s important to understand them, they are not so meaningful here. Your own ideas will always be better ‘in-the-moment’ and if it doesn’t work out then so what?
That I should look like I’m doing something. As discussed above, this is not a necessity but everyone has their own opinion on it. If you’ve arrived at the point where you are performing abstract music, you’re probably less interested in the ephemera of being a performer and you’ve probably thought long and hard about doing it, so enjoy it, be yourself and if that means dressing like a chicken, then so be it.
Managing these demons is essential if you have any hope of reaching beyond the limitations of your imagination. So I’ll close by setting out a plan for vanquishing demons and achieving your ultimate self;
- Do not ‘write’ material. Just know your equipment really well.
- Aim to get lost. The sooner you do that then the sooner you’ll be in new territory.
- Avoid safety nets. If things aren’t going to plan, relax and work your way out of it.
- Trust your audience. They will go with you further than you think.
- Record as much as you can.
I’ve spent most of 2019 putting a new setup together and I had to sell many interesting pieces of equipment to fund it. I’m hoping to play live again in 2020 and I’ll be trying to adhere to the sentiments set out above. I hope to see some of you there.
Much love and respect,
To hear ambient works of Eumig, click here.