Sunday, January 27, 2013

Rough vs. glossy

I'm realizing again — while working on my ever-in-progress Europe 2009 photo gallery and listening to Basic Channel BCD-2 for the first time — that there's a strong parallel between my aesthetic preferences for music and those for building.

In both cases, I value simplicity. More than ever, I like to listen to (and make) minimal music that's built from as few elements as possible. The more muscular releases by the Basic Channel family; Robert Hood; Skudge; certain almost simplistic but powerfully danceable tracks out of the hardcore continuum, especially old jungle and garage — these are the most satisfying listens for me. A track can be anywhere from full of wide open space to quite dense with polyrhythms, as long as it's composed from a paucity of elements that assemble into a funky machine. Best of all is when it's necessary for every one of those few elements to be there to make the composition move my body, so that it's truly skeletal. And for my own music, I have long preferred radical simplicity of sources: only using simply-generated oscillators processed with effects to make the sounds. I've strayed into samples for quite a while, but the wondrous frequencies of dub techno have inspired me to delve back into pure synthesis, with new ideas for building great sounds from simple tonal and noise generators. (The most recent example is that white noise fed through Reason's vocoder on its EQ setting can get you noise with complex coloration due to the EQ's array of bandpass filters, which works really nicely for high percussion. You're welcome, Reason synthesists.)

I have similar taste in building: less is more, basically.

BUT there's a catch, similar in both realms. Architecture that's simple but too glossy and perfected — too machinic — is really unappealing to me. Partly that's because it takes a huge amount of effort to get things so perfect in form, so basically you're getting a simple product out of a complex process, which feels wrong — again, I much prefer when a simple (or complex) product results from simple processes and few ingredients. Also, in physical/aesthetic terms, glossy/high-tech materials are far less suitable for composing human habitation, I think, than rougher materials closer to nature — wood, earth, stone. (Glossy materials have their places as accents, but in low proportion to the rough/matte materials.) When a modernist/minimalist formal sensibility combines with the use of natural, rough materials, a real sweet spot can be found. Hence I was delighted to learn of Wang Shu when he won the 2012 Pritzker Prize. Best of all is when the construction process is simple and efficient and allows physical imperfections as a result, so that wabi-sabi can endure in the product, rather than working over the materials to geometric precision.

You can probably see where I'm going here with music, and that of course is the well-trodden path of preferring rough/matte/raw sound, most often achieved with analog synthesis in electronic music, over cold digital perfection. (Similarly to architecture, unnervingly glossy sounds have their place, but again in low proportion to more lived-in sounds.)

Of course the analog vs. digital divide is an oversimplification. I think it's still very possible to get rough/matte qualities very similar to analog sound if you know your way around your DAW (and of course then there's the middle ground of digital hardware). Maybe not just the same, but close enough for my taste. And I still prefer this for my own setup despite my analog sympathies because I don't want to have to acquire all the physical objects that make up a useful analog studio, for practical reasons (not enough space in my bedroom, no other space to set up in) and because I just don't want to acquire much more stuff than I already have. This comes directly out of my desire for economy of means, just as do my tastes in music and building, so I'm comfortable sticking with it.

E2A: An example of glossy music that I tend to like a lot, against the general pattern, is Night Slugs releases, and I'm sure it's because they're often built with simple, strong elements that lend the tracks both a good amount of space and a certain comprehensibility. This is brought to mind by a listen through the samples of Night Slugs Allstars Vol. 2.