Dark Ages

A short playlist of music I’ve been reminded of by current events. Most of this is music I’ve liked since I was younger that seems more relevant now than it did at the time.

Dead Kennedys – Nazi Punks Fuck Off. With today’s news of the demonstration in Charlottesville, the latest example of the rise of the far-right in the US, this track came to mind instantly.

Propagandhi – Less Talk More Rock. Just as Dead Kennedys wrote Nazi Punks in reaction to the neo-fascists attending their gigs, Propagandhi wrote this one against homophobes.

Sun Ra & His Arkestra – Nuclear War. In reaction to president Trump banning transgender people from the US military, Bandcamp supported the Transgender Law Centre by donating all its share of sales on 4th August. One of the things I bought on Bandcamp that day was this.

SNFU – Black Cloud. Looming over us all now, thanks to US and North Korean political leadership. Another nuclear-apocalyptic song, this one with a really nice vocal melody.

NoMeansNo – Dark Ages. Describes the general bleakness of living in late capitalism in 2017. I’ve always liked the biblical style of language in NoMeansNo’s lyrics, with dark imagery and tales that centre on humanity’s flaws. Small Parts Isolated and Destroyed is a good example of this, and it’s one of my favourite albums. It’s only after buying that Sun Ra single and exploring his other music that I realise how much of an influence he’s had on NoMeansNo.

Joy Division – Leaders of Men. Another beautifully bleak song about torment and hopelessness.

Napalm Death – Multinational Corporations. Around the time I was doing my A-levels I painted a mural for a friend on his bedroom wall, and in return he paid me with a couple of Napalm Death albums, one of which was SCUM. My copy is the orange version. Multinational Corporations is the first track, a simple anti-capitalist anthem.

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On. The whole album is a thoughtful reflection on hard times, and the title track represents many of its observations on class, politics, race, the environment, employment, love and war. I used to think the title was a question, but it’s a declaration: THIS is what’s going on. It’s grim, but it leaves you with hope.

Posted in Music | Leave a comment

Ladybower camp

It rains more often than not at the place where we usually go camping, in some woods near Ladybower reservoir, but this time the weather was good. We’ve been coming to this same spot for 20 years now. Other than building a fireplace out of stones and burning wood that’s dropped naturally, I hope we’ve had a minimal impact on this environment. Over time you see the wood itself also changes; this time we found a newly-felled limb from a beech tree near the fire place, which created a gap in the canopy that let the early evening sunlight in. It’s too green to use now but it will be good for the next camp.

Posted in Nature | Tagged | Leave a comment

Classical Music Complexity

An article in The Guardian today discusses music and complexity. In
Don’t apologise for classical music’s complexity – that’s its strength‘, Alan Davey writes that “the inherent beauty, complexity and mystery of classical music will see it endure”. He’s arguing against those who doubt that “as a genre it would survive the shortened attention spans of the Twitter generation”.

A problem with this argument is the assumption that classical music is uniquely complex. A genre label as broad as ‘classical’ includes music of a very wide range of complexity, and it would be as easy to find examples of simplicity in classical music as counter-examples of complexity in another genre. As such, complexity cannot be “its” strength. Davey’s argument is that classical music’s complexity can be appreciated with time and effort; you get out of it what you put in. But that could be said of almost anything. The belief that ‘only classical music is complex’ comes from putting too little time and effort into other kinds of music.

Although it is no more or less complex, classical music does tend to be longer. Having a greater duration means you can fit more in, so it can allow for greater complexity but that doesn’t mean it necessarily is more complex. In other words, duration is a significant factor but it is a poor measure of complexity. The tests I’ve done using audio compression algorithms to measure the complexity of different kinds of music support this.

Currently I’m working on a research project for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to investigate the barriers that prevent people from studying classical music and performing arts at university. The problem is that these courses tend to be filled with young people from wealthy White families, who are more likely to make it into a career, and that there are pay gaps due to gender, social class and ethnicity that only increase throughout professional life. The evidence I’ve seen so far suggests that if there is a threat to the survival of classical music, then it is connected with the socio-cultural and economic factors that have made it exclusive and elitist.

Posted in Complexity, Music, Research | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment


Tobias Reber has released Kolapse, an album of remixes from his previous album Kola (iapetus, 2013). I remixed the track Piñata.

My approach was to try to keep the sounds mostly the same but change the timing. Tobias said the original track has the tempo 100 bpm, but it’s quite hard to hear this because each instrument – kick drum, pitched percussion and metallic sounds – has a different rhythm. I split each of the stems into fragments, sorted the fragments in various ways, then arranged them on a new tempo. For example, the kick drum stem was split into just over 1500 fragments, and sorted in order of information content as measured by the quantity bytes per second: b/s = file size of each fragment (bytes) divided by duration (seconds). You get different results depending on the file type. With uncompressed file types like WAV the b/s measure is proportional to duration, irrespective of the audio content, whereas with compressed files such as FLAC the b/s reflects the audio content. This technique was developed from my research into audio complexity, which explores how different information-based measures of complexity deal with different kinds of sound.

Posted in Music, Research | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment


After all the crap that’s happened this year, it seemed like there wasn’t much point in writing an end-of-year list. Given the deaths of so many musicians, the rise of authoritarian nationalism and xenophobia in Europe and the US, and the continuing climate catastrophe with its decimation of habitat and loss of species, then writing about music seemed about as futile as “dancing about architecture”. But in choosing to engage with music we contribute to one form of economic activity or another, which has consequences in the ‘real world’ (that made-up place from which creative and intellectual people are supposedly isolated). Music is therefore political because it is a culture through which we interface with society and a medium to express those interactions. It becomes more so when the opportunities for people to engage in music are threatened by some of the recent developments in social, economic and environmental conditions. To put it more simply: music makes the world better, and to that extent it matters. Despite – or because of – the fact that it’s been such a shitty year, there’s been a lot of good music in 2016. This isn’t really a ‘best of’ as much as a list of some things that have interested me and moved me, with a few words on how and why.

In terms of buying and selling music Bandcamp is great. Its simple design works well, and it offers a better deal for artists. For those reasons, I’ve tried to buy music this way whenever possible, and I’ve included these links below. For streaming music Resonate looks good. It’s a new cooperatively owned streaming service where you only pay for what you listen to, and you get to own what you listen to most.

One artist who’s made the most of Bandcamp’s subscription service is Kevin Drumm. As Al English said on Twitter, “The Kevin Drumm @Bandcamp subscription is a gift that keeps on giving.” In this case it works because Drumm is prolific (currently there are 79 releases available to subscribers) but without sacrificing quality control. Similarly, Jim O’Rourke has put out a steady stream of music on his Steamroom Bandcamp, although this doesn’t have the option to subscribe.

My favourite musical discovery this year is a 12″ from 1981 – Shauri Yako by Nguashi N’Timbo with L’Orchestre Festival of Zaire. The musicianship and production are incredible. If this doesn’t get you in a good mood, I don’t know what will. I found this in a list of recommendations by members of Vibracathedral Orchestra, and you can grab a download of the EP here.

Kindohm – RISC Chip (Conditional). An album made with TidalCycles live-coding software. I first heard this on the Conditional Radio #8 radio show on Resonance Extra, and had to ask host Calum Gunn to identify the track that had caught my attention with its changing patterns of pounding beats (it was 32 Bit Falcon). Mike Hodnick has generously shared the code he used to make the album: https://github.com/kindohm/risc-chip

Beatrice Dillon – Curl / Karen Gwyer – Common Soundproofing Myths (Alien Jams). This makes me want to move. I also like Karen Gwyer’s Prophase Metaphase Anaphase Telophase EP, named after phases of mitosis (cell division). It reminds me that when I used to work as a biology technician, I would demonstrate mitosis by cutting and staining the tips of garlic roots, mounting them on microscope slides to see the cell nuclei pulling apart (like this).

Fis – From Patterns to Details (Subtext). Fis’s Speech Spirits EP, with remixes by Oren Ambarchi and Kassem Mosse, was amongst my favourites of 2014. Whereas that EP sounded like urban industrialisation, this album develops Fis’s broader theme of ecology, with influences including soil science and permaculture. Like Paul Jebanasam’s Continuum, also released this year on Subtext, this is cinematic music, and it’s not an easy listen. It’s the sound of the Anthropocene – the geological era demarcated by humanity’s pollution; it sounds like a tortured earth as species struggle to survive and adapt.

Hieroglyphic Being – This Isn’t Your Typical 90’s Era Techno / IDM Revisionist View (Technicolour). This Is 4 The Rave Bangers is a track that pretty much does what it suggests. The album The Disco’s of Imhotep is equally good, but its tracks are less structured than this single – they start and end suddenly, changing without having a clear direction.

Sote – 10inch04 (Repitch Recordings). More banging techno, like the Hieroglyphic Being single, but these are actual old-school tracks from the 90s unearthed from the back-catalogue of Iranian producer Sote.

Rian Treanor – Pattern Damage (The Death of Rave). The 2nd release from Treanor, following A Rational Tangle which was a favourite of mine last year. This EP has similarly Razor-sharp sounds providing a minimal palette along with fractured bouncing rhythms.

Graham Dunning – Auxon (Seagrave). This is an album compiled from Dunning’s live performances of mechanical techno over the past couple of years. Whilst the technical ingenuity and skill are impressive, the quality of this music stands on its own. Solid techno.

Ancient Methods – A German Love (Metaphysik). On a split single La Saignée with Theologian, A German Love is a dark industrial track built on a tale about a date that “started off like really nice but ended horribly.” As the tale unfolds, the words that refer to self-harm and masochism are cleverly cut-up and repeated, transforming the subject from the girl to the country.

Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe – Cognition / Observation (DDS). Deep, echoey modular synth workout in two parts. The first track sounds very similar to a piece of music I was working on a couple of years ago, except this is much better.

Eric Frye – On Small Differences in Sensation. The title of this album got my attention because it relates to some things I studied for my PhD. It comes from a classic paper on psychophysics by C.S. Pierce and Jared Jastrow (1885) which explores the idea of the ‘just-noticeable difference’ developed by Gustav Fechner in Elemente der Psychophysik (1860). Eric Frye’s album explores just-noticeable differences, with variations in sounds that test the limits of perception and challenge the listener’s identification of musical structure.

Drøne – Reversing Into the Future (Pomperipossa Records). A collaboration between Mark van Hoen and Mike Harding, this is a single long-form piece of music called This Strange Life made from field recordings and electronic sources.

Machine Woman – Genau House (Where To Now?). Soft synth pads, vocal snippets, and hard beats combine in these tracks about love and pain.

EVOL – DO THESE (Presto!? Records). An album of solo synth playing frantic filtered sequences, with a nice matching red mug. EVOL also released HARDCORE vol. 1 – 11 hours of new/rare music and a video, including 11 ALSO THESE tracks, and 3 new versions of Opus17a – variation #9 is made with pitched percussion, #10 with a squelchy acid bassline and kick drum, and Easter Opus with vocal samples. Like DO THESE, Right Frankfurt, a clear vinyl 12″ on Diagonal, has a warmer and more analogue sound, as if EVOL are using a new synth.

Jung An Tagen – Das Fest Der Reichen (Editions Mego). Beginning with blasts of filtered noise, this album then introduces a complex glassy arpeggio, a bit like Martin Neukom, before morphing into stranger sounds. Abstract and academic, the music has developed from the Virtual Institute Vienna, a research group of interdisciplinary artists.

Calum Gunn – Unorganized Music (Tsuku Boshi). If music is organised sound, then…

NYZ – DRN4 (.meds), ALG118B (ComputerClub) & DRNH (Gamma Mine). All 3 albums released on cassette, these are Dave Burraston’s music made with cellular automata and other algorithms on a wide variety of electronic hardware. Mostly these aren’t the busy and complicated kind of algorithmic music you might expect to hear, given their technical background. Rather, these are subtle drones that have more in common with the minimalism of Eleh or Elian Radigue.

Jay Glass Dubs – III (Seagrave). Quality spaced-out dub. Pared down to a bare minimum of instruments and reverb-soaked delays.

Goto80 – 80864. TR-808 beats + Commodore 64 chiptune sounds = 80864. Nice graphic design too, with a colour theme from the 808 and a 12″ sleeve like a floppy disc.

Rashad Becker – Traditional  Music of Notional Species vol. II (PAN). I really liked vol. I, and this is more of the same, but even more uncannily synthetic-animalistic.

Russell Haswell – PANTHER nO!se (Haswell Studio). After flirting with danceable music on the Diagonal label, Haswell is back to doing what he does best – full-on noise. It’s almost impossible to describe these sounds, and I guess that’s kind of the point. This is music that exceeds our ability to fit it into the conceptual categories of traditional musical language. Best just to turn it up and soak it in.

S. Olbricht – ZZM EP (UIQ). Mellow techno from Lee Gamble’s label. This EP was a real grower. It’s the sort of thing you could dance to at a club and chill out to afterwards. UIQ released a few good EPs this year, including Renick Bell’s algorithmic music which you can see and hear and demo of: http://empty-lake.u-i-q.org

Peder Mannerfelt – Controlling Body (Peder Mannerfelt Produktion). This album is mostly built up from manipulations of vocal sounds provided by Glasser. The track BZ Reaction refers to the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction, a chemical oscillator that is often used as an example of non-linear thermodynamics, and which generates self-organizing fractal patterns.

Oren Ambarchi – Hubris (Editions Mego). Krautrock-style excursions with two long-form pieces of music separated by a short guitar-based composition. Made with the collaboration of many musicians including Jim O’Rourke, Ricardo Villalobos, Mark Fell and Keith Fullerton-Whitman. Each adds a layer to the constant driving patterns that build in intensity.

Autechre – elseq. (Ae_store). Autechre continue to stun, with a huge digital-only album of tracks that sound more closely connected with their recent live work, recordings of which are also available at the Ae_store.

Jens Harder – Alpha …Directions (Acte Sud). This book covers 14 billion years of history from the inception of the universe just before the big bang to the present day Anthropocene era. Harder builds this immense narrative through layouts that combine hand-drawn reproductions of images from science, religion and art. As he explains in an interview, “I always had the wish to show not only the development of the world, but also the development of our view on the world.” This is the first in a trilogy of books, and it focuses on the physical, chemical and biological complexification of our world. Beta will cover human history, and Gamma will imagine a future beyond that.

Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gescom – Motor EP

Playing some of my old vinyl the other day, I noticed something on the record label of the Motor EP by Gescom: part of the printed text has been deleted with black marker pen.

The deleted text is probably ‘rob brown and sean booth’. There’s a also a mis-spelling of ‘distributed’. The version of this EP listed on Discogs is different; it doesn’t say ‘recorded by…’ and the spelling is correct. My copy probably dates from around the same time I saw Gescom live at the Cumberland Arms in Newcastle, where they performed in complete darkness from start to finish.

Motor is less complex than other Gescom stuff, but it’s still got a good sound. Here’s a rip of the first track, Motor1:

Posted in Audio, Music | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Present Shock

Front cover of of the book Future Shock

Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock is about the experience of living in accelerating complexity. It looks at the social, economic and political conditions that are changing increasingly rapidly and the psychological effects this is having on our perception of the world and our behaviour towards it. ‘Information overload’ is one of the concepts that the book popularised. Published in 1970, Toffler’s analysis is grounded in the contemporary events of that time, but it’s striking how much of it applies to the present in 2016.

It’s in the final chapter, ‘The Strategy of Social Futurism’, that Toffler crystallizes his diagnosis of the problem. Extrapolating from here to a future crisis, he sketches out what would be needed for a political approach that might answer the question, ‘How can we live in a society that is out of control?’

That is the question posed for us by the concept of future shock. For that is the situation we find ourselves in. If it were technology alone that had broken loose, our problems would be serious enough. The deadly fact is, however, that many other social processes have also begun to run free, oscillating wildly, resisting our best efforts to guide them. Urbanization, ethnic conflict, migration, population, crime… (p.403)

Part of the causes of these problems, and part of their solution, is planning. Toffler defends the idea of planning against the tide of super-industrialisation and “econo-think”. Where critics say that soviet-style technocratic planning neglects socio-cultural values, he agrees. But to the extent that corporations “go to enormous lengths to rationalise production and distribution, to plan their future as best they can” and governments adopt the methods and language of this corporate managerialism, planning nevertheless occurs in capitalist economies even while they ostensibly reject the theory of central planning. Therefore, “The problem is not simply that we plan too little; we also plan too poorly.”

How else can we explain global warming, for example? In the attitudes that have led to situations like this, Toffler sees a “revulsion against intelligence”. Climate-change denial wasn’t yet a thing when he was writing, but it matches what he describes as a “disillusionment with science” which, he says, breeds from mounting evidence that society is out of control. There is also a foreshadow of ‘post-truth’ politics: “…when they plunge backwards into irrationality, anti-scientific attitudes, a kind of sick nostalgia, and an exaltation of now-ness, they are not only wrong, but dangerous.” And in describing the risk of violent reactions to the condition of future shock that call for a return to pre-industrial institutions, Toffler appears to pre-state the threat of terrorist organisations like ISIS, warning that “Nothing could be more dangerously maladaptive.”

The final section in the last chapter is called ‘Anticipatory Democracy’. It identifies a need for a revolution in the way we formulate our social goals, based on the premise that our current methods have been made obsolete by accelerating change.

Our first and most pressing need, therefore, before we can begin to gently guide our evolutionary destiny, before we can build a humane future, is to halt the runaway acceleration that is subjecting multitudes to the threat of future shock while, at the very same moment, intensifying all the problems that we must deal with – war, ecological incursions, racism, the obscene contrast between rich and poor, the revolt of the young, and the rise of a potentially deadly mass irrationalism. (p.439)

Tofller’s prescription for the future is less convincing than his identification of the symptoms of the present. I’m not convinced that it’s possible or necessary to ‘halt the runaway acceleration’. Some of the predictions haven’t been borne out, yet most of the observations are accurate and the argument is coherent. The idea that we are living on the breaking crest of a wave of logarithmically-intensifying complexification is not particularly original. But the fact that many of these ideas that were shocking in 1970 seem ordinary or even truer today shows that Toffler got it pretty much right overall.

Toffler died in July this year. Today, the films of Adam Curtis are about the closest thing to Future Shock. Both offer persuasive arguments that simultaneously reflect and alter our view of the world. Whereas Toffler used contemporary events as the basis for building a vision of the future, Curtis uses history to create a narrative of the present. Curtis’s carefully constructed sequences of video footage, music and on-screen text/off-screen voice owe more to the ‘collage technique’ of the USA trilogy by John Dos Passos than the literary style of Toffler. His latest film, Hypernormalisation, covers roughly the period of time since Future Shock was first published. It explores some of the same themes. It’s about how we arrived at where we are now, “a time of uncertainty and confusion”, living through events “that seem inexplicable and out of control.”

Watch Hypernormalisation on BBC iPlayer. There’s some background to the film on Curtis’s blog. And there’s an article by Gavin Millar (AKA worriedaboutsatan) on his role as music supervisor. Millar also tweeted a track list:

[Page numbers refer to 1970 edition, published by Pan, London. Photo is of my copy, on a suitably ’70s Formica desktop.]

Posted in Complexity, Music, Writing | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment