By Tamas Vilaghy Photo by Jeremiah Chiu
2006 marked a pivotal year for weirdo electronica. Amid speculations on the successor to harsh noise –the scorch-and-burn response to the post-9/11 cultural landscape fizzling out by this time– there appeared the bedroom synth wizards. Bands like Yellow Swans started thinking, If you can’t destroy everything, at least make it feel nice. The black metal aesthetic of Wolf Eyes and the rest of the static fetishists gave way to the otherworldly colors of the American Southwest: alien triangles and high-saturation polaroids dominated the game. Emeralds released their beautiful, breakthrough synth drone statement, Allegory of Allergies in 2007, and analog synthesizers reappeared on the scene for the first time since the 70s.
This is a quaint history: people traded out screams for sine tones, alcohol for weed, cocaine for acid, and things were chill. Yet the process is also a hidden reversal: The noise crowd’s inspiration, Throbbing Gristle’s antics at the turn of the 80s, followed the dreamy Krautrock of the 70s now idolized by the keyboard kids. The salutary destruction of industrial music cast aside the general haze of the era. The historical progression reversed itself, then: the burnt-out hippie culture of the 70s found a newer New Age as a response to the punk nihilism of mid-00s noise. The pot smoke again covered the coffee and cigarettes.
The sense of mirrored recurrence is noteworthy, because it characterizes contemporary music generally. On the one hand, older trends resurface as noteworthy objects in themselves, uncritically recreated as “retro” homages to past perfection; on the other, previous musical elements are recombined without regard to their origins. This is not to say that these approaches do not create anything new. In fact these methods, so clearly nostalgic (Latin retrogradus, from retro ‘backward’ + gradus ‘step’), create new objects despite themselves. The American synth wave of the late 00s is not German music from the 70s, no matter how hard it wants to be.
Discogs.com, the de facto standard of online music cataloguing, actually tallies more Krautrock releases from the 2010s than from the 70s. This is a bit surreal, as virtually no new practitioners are German, not to mention rockers. The phenomenon thus speaks to the cultural hall of mirrors we find ourselves living in, but also to the productivity of the American DIY scene, eagerly pumping out cassettes, CD-Rs, online releases, and anything else it can afford. All this busy activity would suggest that we are at the end of an era, or (the same thing) the beginning of a new one. The last, unintelligible gasp of negative modernism, noise music, has failed to transform music as such. From now on, there is only interpretation and the remix: in short, the acceptance of a given, to be reformed.
The concert I’m supposed to be focusing on (I’m getting there) was the 6th annual Bitchin Bajas performance of Terry Riley’s In C. At this point, this is a tradition. The first Bitchin Bajas performance of this piece coincided with the release of their debut album, Tones/Zones in 2010, and as such, this most recent show can be seen as taking stock of both Bitchin Bajas and the greater synth scene which produced them. It’s not really about Riley’s piece at all. The band was loyal, of course, to the gamelan worship of the original, but this only speaks to the triumph of minimalism: its focus on tone and texture has permeated music at large. In C, in other words, is a given.
The band itself is Chicago’s premier group of friendly, unkempt synth stoners. Two years ago, the first time I met them, I hung out in the back of their van, where the third row of seats was supposed to be. Less than an hour later, they were weirding up the Leviton Gallery downtown with their dense waveforms. These dudes are max chill. They love synthesizer drones, and they’ve been working at their craft for close to a decade. One of them showed up Sunday night in a yellow polyester jacket. The strangest thing though, is not that I’m using the words “bitchin'” and “bajas” in a review of “classical” music. What I’m about to describe was a greater, though subtler, kind of strangeness.
The choice of Constellation as venue is telling: the synth underground has achieved, if not international recognition, at least professional graduation from its juvenile bedroom phase. Bitchin Bajas’ hometown popularity was on full display, as the show was near sold out, and the rows of extra plastic chairs crowding the stage rendered the iconically sparse venue a bit cluttered, though endearingly so. The lowbrow aesthetic was complimented by the neon clouds blooming upwards on the video projection even before the concert, and the lively mix of people that drifted in, ranging from yoga moms to crust punk lesbians. I counted at least three people reading.
What happened during the concert itself is a little harder to describe. At the ordained time, the lights dimmed, and the band announced that it was starting in 15 minutes with a laugh that resembled a spit in the face. So we waited around some more. When they did start, it was with little fanfare. A piano pulse could be heard. This was quickly drowned by the synth tones, and remained largely irrelevant for the rest of the hour-long piece. Most members stared exclusively at their keys and knobs during this time. The sound organically swelled and receded while the video projection showed psychedelically altered images of deserts, stained glass, housing developments, and jellyfish. Two sections stood out in the music: a sparse one which resembled birdcalls, and a jazzy riff near the end that could have been a saxophone run. Abruptly, the band stopped and walked off stage without a word.
Perhaps I am to blame for showing up sober, or sitting too far back, but the only thing more underwhelming than the musicians’ stoned nonchalance was the sound at Constellation. The usual crispness of the room does wonders for the ECM roster, but little for fans of tape hiss and analog warmth. Mp3s have been blasted at higher volumes, with results that were less limp. I had a feeling the band’s monitors were louder than the house PA when I heard one member say something casually to his bandmate, obviously confident that no one else would hear it. When the soundmass did reach full volume, it lacked the exhilaration of a developed drone, instead introducing some new episode which never quite arrived.
Now, I’m an unabashed dance music fan, and some of these shimmering moments just begged for a kick drum to complement the internal pulse. But it’s not entirely from selfish reasons that I think this concert would have gone better on a club soundsystem. The low end would have come through better, adding to the physicality of the performance, and the whole spectrum would have had more space to be heard. This music is meant to be loud, and Chicago clubs understand that.
But the comparison itself is actually not so strange: contemporary Germans distinguished the beatless Berlin School of Tangerine Dream et al from the Düsseldorf School of Kraftwerk and other electro pioneers. The history of electronic music can be conceived as the negotiation of these two tendencies. Ambient techno already exists, but a full drone set on dancefloor speakers is something I’d love to experience. Electronica remains varied and contradictory, its direction very much up in the air, and I would have preferred a venue which took account of this multifaceted moment in its totality. To focus on Riley’s piece, as a program for the evening, was to miss the forest for the trees.
There’s a reason the noise scene reinvented itself as the harsher vanguard of techno, with acts like Prurient and Pete Swanson channeling societal disintegration and misanthropy into heavy four-on-the-floor music. The synth scene itself paralleled this development, mining the echoes of digital trash to create the Vaporwave of Oneohtrix Point Never and James Ferraro. In the post-postmodern purgatory of timeless culture, white noise needs only to be sequenced to be understood, and the people will dance to it. Other people will come out just because their friends are playing, and still others will want to hear In C. But the analog kids staring at their plastic keys for spiritual nourishment will nonetheless drift further into the past.