.Microsound During Wartime: On Perpetual Techno-War, and the Aesthetics of Extreme Computer Music

Writing in 1989, Paul Virilio offers us a prescient glimpse at the strategic core of 21st century ‘shock and awe’ militarism by stating that

'…destroying the enemy is less a matter of capturing him than it is of captivating him. It is a matter of inflicting upon him, before his death, the horror of death.'1

Of course, the target audience here is not only the distant ‘enemy,’ who becomes the proverbial, subjugated, ‘deer in the headlights’ through the implied spectacle of ‘full-spectrum’ digital bombardment, but also the potential insurgents and skeptics populating the homeland. The ‘less-lethal bombardment’ of audiovisual flak that bursts from the screens and subwoofers of the ‘captivated’ merely instills that ‘horror of death’ by projecting its inversion: a perpetual youthfulness that can be achieved in a highly inorganic empire of their creation. As such, a message of tacit support for perpetual war can be easily injected into other would-be transmissions of rebellion (for example, “enjoy this wild assortment of sexy, colorful images and sounds, whose very existence has been brought to you by the wars to harvest resources from our client states.”) Similar tactics were deployed during the record-breaking 2003 Iraq war protests, the official tolerance of which “proved” the relative benevolence of U.S. hegemony and justified its expansive actions. Faced with this sophisticated means of recuperating alternative ideals back into its swelling body of propaganda, how can even something like new computer music be a radicalizing art form, and not a pose which ‘proves’ the benefits of being a subject of the military-scientific complex?

Within the microsound and ‘post-digital’ music community, there is a certain faction that uses aural violence as a catalytic tool, and which doesn’t shy away from the aestheticizing of destruction (for example, the technique of using digital bit reduction to achieve an abrading effect has commonly been referred to as “decimation.”) With their proclivities for swarming granulated passages, for stealthy quick alterations in spectral dynamics, and for outright crushing physical output, artists like Russell Haswell and Zbigniew Karkowski stand as the penultimate incarnations of Italian Futurist poet F.T. Marinetti’s metallic dreams: Marinetti being no stranger to singing the shock-and-awe glories of the war machine. While these artists can hardly be accused of advancing Marinetti’s fervent belief –echoing Clausewitz’ On War- that war revitalizes national life and purges society’s dysfunctional elements, there is a certain romancing of generalized conflict that can be inferred from their overload aesthetics. However, like the ‘war universe’ of William Burroughs (a concept on loan from Sri Aurobindo), it is simultaneously frightening and invigorating, and envisions conflict not exclusively as a means towards re-organizing the political landscape, but as an essential characteristic of the phenomenal world- the gravitational friction required to keep everything from simply flying into space.

Another noticeable characteristic of this noise-based art is its frequent avoidance of any narrative element: this serves to heighten its ambiguity and its allure to resisters of the doctrinaire. Although there are major exceptions to this rule, digital noise culture is remarkably light on manifestoes and grand proclamations of intent, indeed Karkowski sees logical positivist / cognitivist concessions as damaging to the aims of the music:

'I don't believe in thought and intellect, I'm convinced that truth cannot be explained in ordinary logical systems […] The real art communicates before it is understood.'2

With this in mind, naming conventions for microsound pieces often favor post-Dada flirtations with meaningless but evocative strings of phonemes and with unpronounceable pictograms, mathematical equations and coding beyond the reach of the typical ‘layman’ music fan (see the CDs of Florian Hecker for some prime examples of this phenomenon.) The use of such mathematical nomenclature as mere objects of contemplation, or as aesthetic framing devices, gives them an uncanny spiritual resonance on par with the tactile, spherical sound blasts launched from these artists’ humble microprocessors. Such steadfast refusal to build a universally comprehensible latticework of text around its main structure is indicative of a larger trend, that of its rejection of ‘civilizing missions’ where new converts are forcibly reined into the culture. Karkowski maintains that “where language ends, music begins,” and when opposing them in this way, it’s tempting to view language as the vehicle for human exceptionalism (first with regards to nature, and then with regards to other ‘enemy’ civilizations) and to view music as re-invigorating a more holistic view of things.

So, it could be said that the real power of this noise-as-art over the noise of the war machine lies in its elusive relationship to teleology: through its non-verbal ambivalence and its refusal to have even its (largely invisible) creators as its authoritative center, this physically and psychologically exhausting niche of microsound jettisons the concept of ‘ultimate meaning’ or ‘final destiny’ that invigorates the current imperial enterprises. Even the failure of technology -the embodiment of our purposefulness- is warped into something of strange beauty by those who build their repertoire from glitches, distortions and other electromagnetic disturbances that are not carriers of specific meaning (see also The Incapacitants’ Toshiji Mikawa, who claims his music has “no meaning except being loud.”) This activity is in direct opposition to techno-eschatology or the purely techno-utopian sentiment which has, through the misapplication of Moore’s Law and its ‘exponential growth curve’ to countless areas of human development, simply become a substitute for religious eschatology. The lust for technological emancipation from our mortal shells (and for the natural resources needed to reach this developmental phase) has re-fueled the military’s engines of colonialism just as the ethos of ‘muscular Christianity’ once provided the conquering rationale for the British Empire. As such, I see no irony in the fact that leading techno-utopian Ray Kurzweil is himself an advisor for the U.S. military, and sits on the board of directors of a robotics firm with close ties to the armed forces. Consequently, it is no surprise that the underground adopts those philosophies which deny the exceptionalism of mankind and which see constant forward action, with no pause for contemplation, as abhorrent- if anything, I’d argue that the noisier representatives of the microsound community return us to a space where action and contemplation are not mutually exclusive. The kind of noise made by these artists may not be immediately distinguishable from the bombardment noise which is the soundtrack for the developed world’s armed march towards its questionable destiny, but the spirit animating it makes for a very different kind of noise indeed.