Thinking outside the laptop’s tiny scope

Entertainment Life

Denise Koller is blown away by the experimentation showcased at the weekend of avant-garde post-digital music at Modern Art Oxford

The basement of Modern Art Oxford is pitch dark, save for the eerie laptop glow that illuminates Tim Hecker’s face. The sound system his computer is connected to is monumental, and the music is very, very loud. A hundred pairs of ears, stuffed with fluorescent foam earplugs, tremble against the force. Then a deep, symphonic thump, and the building seems ready to collapse.

It’s the first night of DIGITAL IS DEAD, a festival of (post)digital music practice curated by two musicology postgraduates. It’s sweltering in the underground space, the intensity of Hecker’s music matched by the thrill of sweaty, sardine-like audience arrangements. Over the next two days, Hecker will be joined by contemporary artists from New York to Reykjavik in a line-up that has won warm recognition from the likes of Robin Rimbaud and Sound and Music inside its first year.

digital is dead

But what, actually, is going on here? Broadly, it seems to be about people making music with computers. That music sounds little like anything you’d hear on the radio; Brooklyn duo Mountains, for instance, blend distorted Americana with swathes of analogue synthesis, while Berlin’s BJ Nilsen melds subtle ambient recordings with steely, airless tones. Only, it’s apparently also about people making music without computers. Ex-Easter Island Head, a Liverpool three-piece who play their guitars with drum mallets, blast out a mesmeric forty minutes of microprocessor-less techno; a clear festival highlight.

For Joe Snape, one of the organizers, this is the crux. “Digital technology is no deader than any other kind; what we’re driving at is that there are ways of listening to and talking about this music that are far more productive than simply identifying how it was made. Too often in contemporary music discourse, ‘digital’ is used as a placeholder for lots of interesting things we could otherwise be talking about. Sure, the medium is cool. But so is music.”

During his Saturday lecture, festival headliner Markus Popp seemed to make a similar point: “Everything is now digital. It’s not something that seems to me to set things apart. Does that make it dead? It seems to me as a concept it was never living, even. 20 years ago, I made anti-music, sound that was about technology. Now it seems much more interesting to make music with a capital ‘M’. So there’s a lot of music on my new record”.

His evening performance is just as idiosyncratic: clearly canned fragments of his 2010 release O alternate with incongruous sounds from elsewhere. Like his words, these sounds make a strange kind of sense, though they elude simple description. Weird, colourful, and eclectic, the only way I can find to talk about them with my fellow gig-goer is as “laptop music”. This, it would seem, is exactly the problem.

All in all, a weekend of rare quality: ambitious programming, stylish presentation, and a bold, unfussy tagline. With another edition on the horizon for next year, a series of smaller shows and a book project in the works, Oxford music seems set to take an exciting turn indeed…

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