A sound’s substance manifests from the material properties intrinsic to the tools that created it. This is most obvious with acoustic instruments: a snare drum can’t sound like a bass drum because its diameter is too small; a violin can’t sound like a cello because its strings are too short. The materials from which these tools are created define their sonic properties, and in turn, the working parameters in which they are able to create sound. In digital and computer music, it is less apparent how the material properties of our tools affect sound creation.
Consider Pierre Schaeffer’s “experiments in interruption” from L'Objet Sonore which catalyzed a new type of electronic music: musique concrète. The idea of the “closed groove” emerged from the accidental scratching of a shellac gramophone disk that repeated an endless loop. The “cut bell” originated from playing back tape reels with a botched splice, demonstrating that even the smallest segment of a “complete” sound can take on a new sonic identity. These novel techniques and the resulting aesthetic emanate from the technology’s intrinsic material properties.
Where does this leave us with digital technology? In our contemporary audio culture, the digital is perceived as immaterial, as pure and pristine, and as a black box capable of anything; it is seen as being immune to the material failures of analog technologies, like scratched vinyl discs and hissing magnetic tapes. This collection of work, Stoppages, explores the manipulation of the physical materials that form digital technologies in order to access their seemingly immaterial qualities. This body of work identifies the limitations, failures, and discontinuities inherent to these materials and questions what aesthetic practices can emerge from this instability. In addition to sound production, digital technology is understood as the most sophisticated tool at our disposal for a wide range of contemporary concerns including the regulation of our global economy, communications networks, law enforcement, and militaries. This practice of disrupting the material structure of the “immaterial” digital questions the tangible influence digital technology has on the form and contour of these contemporary concerns. In essence, activating a stoppage within a digital audio system’s material construction is an echo of the same critical intervention required to negate the larger digital systems used to manipulate the forces that drive contemporary capitalism and control our everyday life.
Stoppages Vol. 1 [∞] is a collection of unedited recordings synthesized by a digital feedback circuit that exposes the material limitations of a computer’s CPU. Every piece of data generated, stored, or received by a computer is physically represented as an electrical charge within a piece of silicon. Like any other physical material, silicon has a finite amount of change it can handle at a given moment. This digital circuit asks a silicon constructed microprocessor to output an audio signal of a size and intensity that this CPU cannot physically reproduce. In turn, the CPU reaches a physical limit, a stoppage. This stoppage allows the computer’s sonic identity to emerge, a state of hysteresis where fractures and discontinuities are amplified and brought to the ear’s attention as a result of the CPU’s physical inability to reproduce this audio data. This music exposes the material collapse of a silicon microprocessor pushed to its limit. The duration of each track is the length of time the code ran before crashing.
— Hunter Brown
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what it feels like to compose. What are the characteristics of that very particular state when music really happens? It’s a way of being that so strongly resists our language, our powers of description: to describe it is really just to be in its orbit. Sometimes it feels indecent or even dangerous to talk about – in doing so, there is the possibility of tainting or dispelling it. Nonetheless, it feels important to put to words, if only to better understand ourselves and our work.
Guston, via Cage, got close to the feeling when he said: “When you start working, everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all your own ideas – all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave,” (Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations; Pg. 4). In making, as in listening, we can achieve a loss of self - an abdication of identity that elevates instead the otherness of our materials. Those phrases, ‘to lose yourself in the music,’ or ‘give yourself up to the music,’ begin making sense. As we allow ourselves to be enveloped and dominated by the form of our sounds we begin to shed ourselves, our egos, and our subjectivity. What about our desire though? Where does that go?
Our desire doesn’t really ever go away: it becomes, instead, our listening – which gives way to our composing. As Bill Dietz writes: “the desire to listen can also be seen as a desire to realign the normative play of ‘personhood’: a desire to be other,” (Universal Receptivity, Destruction Beyond Death, Bill Dietz). Listening is, in fact, an expression of this desire to shed our subjectivity, to loosen the bounds of this normative, modern personhood. The compositional process that works with the computer seemingly takes us one step closer to this self-abdication – at its most extreme, the logics of form and material can be entirely decided by the internal, computational processes of the technology. It’s a kind of 21st century indeterminacy – but the algorithm still needs to be encoded, the sonic synthesized, the rupture realized, and the tracks selected for release. After all this consideration and calculation, how could it really be a glitch?
In Hunter’s Stoppages, a meticulous and raw collection of works, where can we locate his particular wanting? Behind the technological and computational rigor, the austere aesthetic, and the cold, caustic, digital sounds is something much softer, much warmer. At the core of these pieces is a desire that things be different – that the world as shaped by our malicious impulses, our greed, our insecurity, and our violent lust for acknowledgment were to be re-formed. If you know Hunter then this begins making quite a bit of sense: beneath the surface is something extremely gentle. Does Stoppages suggest an action towards the transformed world and way of being that the work so desires? I’m not sure I have an answer yet, but my instinct tells me it has something to do with the rupture, of breaking things apart and letting our desire leak out. Hunter does the work necessary to cause the first crack - it’s up to us to place our ears against the hole and listen as the gap widens.
- Dominic Coles
What does it mean when a work embraces an aesthetics of failure, does that mean that the work itself is not at risk of failure? Much art that falls under this category enacts failure as a way of illustrating the elusive aspect of the art object, problematizing the oversimplified division between subject and object. It may also point towards other existential anxieties such as the impossibility of fulfillment and that control is illusory. Errors are fundamentally human - Nietzche claimed that they can be a source for creativity, but also a way by which a sense of individual free will can be obtained from the constraints of belief systems or systems of knowing. This subversion of control forms the basis of experimental practice - a process of breaking something once it's gained some kind of stable form in order to undermine it and extend granularity. This art against art is a condition that Adorno finds essential, “...that they negate their own status as things…”
Although Hunter Brown’s Stoppages considers an aesthetics of failure as a starting point, encapsulating the points made above, this project seems to orbit its own space outside of other post-digital glitch music practices. The politics of this piece may center around control, but rather than merely exploiting system failure and bringing to our attention the fallible nature of digital technology as still very human-based, this album expansively allows us to dream.
The unveiling of the black box’s physical limitations actually creates another spectral veil of sorts. The computer is enchanted with a sense of a body, and with that body, it is given a voice. Materializing the immaterial casts a spell on the listener. Hearing the computer strain against itself reveals its hidden world, its hidden mind. The ghost in the machine speaks. One cannot listen without hearing intention - silences feel rhetorical, gestures emerge, chords and rhythmic repetitions reveal themselves. These are not really system errors. Hunter Brown is carefully composing this material and taming the volatility of these thresholds. His use of feedback as a tool acknowledges that feedback’s very nature exhibits a human-like unpredictable logic of its own. It reacts in dialogue with itself and its environment in further and further spiraling iterations. In this way, Stoppages gives shape to a radical form of sound synthesis: one in which the sound is synthesized through the transgression of the computer's physical limits.