I’m not alone in struggling to find a neat definition for music or culture. Both terms, although perhaps on different scales, have come to be used quite broadly, quite diversely and sometimes quite contradictory. Terms like homogenisation, modernisation, westernisation, loss of culture, diversity, progression are all terms often used when we talk about modern-day culture (especially to denote the leering dominance of western culture onto the rest of the world). Yet we have come to recognise that these processes are not a simple, one way stream. In Homi Bhaba’s analysis of the colonial framework he postulates that instead of the dominant and imposing European’s being able to wipe out and replace pre-existing cultures, they were instead hybridised to create a translated version (Bhaba 1994). Although part of a wider argument I think it’s a helpful way to start thinking about culture as an active process. Similarly Bruno Nettl argues that many ethnomusicologists suggest that music today is more homogenised and westernised, and less localised or linked to historical, traditional music (Nettl 1985). In opposition, Nettl sees that music has become more diversified. What he calls dominant and receptive cultures, have sprouted new forms of music, ones which would not have been possible without the coming together of cultures.
It is certainly difficult for me to see music as ever being homogenous. Throughout history, encounters have challenged people’s ideas of what music might be; added to them; allowed them to be taught, imposed; or simply presented to a new audience. A homogenous vision of music denies much of the beauty and complexity of what music is and what it means. One of the ideas I want to explore is ways in which music can be understood as an active reflection of the culture it is in rather than just a presentation. Again, the problem of definition occurs but I think for the purpose of this essay I would like to think of culture as a community identified as one unit through shared characteristics. I’ve purposefully left it basic enough so it could include a broad range of identities such as Dutch, student, and digital.
So what is the relationship between music and culture? When one ‘culture’ encounters another, their music is can often be seen as representative of them, a signifier of their identity. Within social sciences there is a clear link between identity and culture and music. All three can be seen as performative in the sense of being an act you participate in and in turn, by participating in, you become identified by. I can recognise limits of viewing music and culture in this performative way, but would also argue that music and culture are used in this way, and hence performance is an unavoidable aspect of both terms. Within the idea of performativity, repetition is key, identity is acquired through doing something rather than representing it (Butler 2010). If we use Small’s idea of musicking we have a more performative based definition of what music is. Musicking becomes an act that we participate in. Through participating in the music we validate it as existing, as I will explain below.
How do we come to form musical knowledge?
Following this stream of thought, education is also a key influence in how we come to understand and experience music. For Landy, the typical western curriculum which pulls students through a stream of classical European music is an elitist system. It limits what student’s foundation of music is. Learning European notation and music history has many benefits and there might not be need to change the curriculum, but what is required is a recognition and awareness from students that this is a single and limited perspective of what music is. He poses that schools should consider tackling digital music softwares in classes and allowing students to perform this way (Landy 2009). Learning technology and music together, performing and producing using software is similarly a limited view of music, but it is (arguably) more relevant to children today, connected to the music that they are exposed to in popular culture and media. There are a number of problems, implementing new curriculum is always difficult but here we also have a sense of replacing one music culture for another rather than trying to step back and perhaps find a way to include both in schools. This isn’t the argument I want to explore here, but what we can take from this is how education is seen to largely contribute to each persons musical knowledge. Outside of school, education can come from anything such as listening to our parents records or even music being played at parties or in shops. Becoming fluent in a language of music is slightly limiting what education means, I want to instead think of it as becoming familiar with the music.
What is glitch music?
What is possible in music? And what is then impossible? When we think of the term music we are limited to our experience with music, so it’s an inherently subjective question. If what we see to be possible if based upon what we have experienced then it is clear that encounters with other cultures, which adds to our musical repertoire, will add to our understanding of what is possible in music. In this way music evolves within a culture to include new parts and to embrace new meaning.
Glitch music is a genre which embraces technology’s failures, or all of the ‘not possibles’. It uses inadequacies of the technological and digital world to create music. When analysing how artists use glitch music it becomes apparent they are finding ways in which they are transforming technology into a material rather than just a vehicle for music. When a CD player skips, it’s frustrating and annoying, the CD player is broken and the music is interrupted. This is a glitch in the technology. When a musician purposefully scratches a CD in order to use that skipping as a feature in the music, they are challenging the structure of the CD player, the technology behind it and the designer’s intention. More than that they are challenging what we consider music. A CD skipping is still a glitch, it’s a technical fault, but when used in the context on a song it becomes a note, a part and a piece of music. For glitch musicians and listeners, hearing a CD skip in a cafe is not necessarily that frustrating interruption, instead it could be overlooked as simply part of the music. Here I recognise that perhaps glitch music, because it’s still relatively limited in popularity and history, is not widely considered to be music, but the communities that do recognise glitch are growing, aided by a huge representation online and even in festivals.
The following video is of a track from Oval’s 1996 Systemische EP. The German project painted CDs so they skipped and then manipulated the re-recordings in order to produce the album. Oval are often seen to have started the genre, not entirely due to being one of the first to develop this sound but also partly because they started making glitch music quite accessible, as you can hear this song still has a melody and isn’t as experimental or noise based as some other acts.
“The growth of the power of the music industry, a product of the ability to reproduce music, is one of three contextual threads related to musical marginalisation, alongside that of music education and the attitudes of many of the musicians involved with contemporary music” (Landy 2009:519). These three threads work together in a loop of spreading awareness of music as well as reflecting the dominant musical attitudes. In the building up of glitch communities, there must surely also be an increase of the accessibility of the music and therefore eventually this will be reflected. By this I mean to say that already many people have glitch included in their musical repertoire, but many others are still limited to thinking that a failure, a noise, an irritating error, a glitch, does not fit into their understanding of music.
How does glitch contribute or challenge our understanding of music?
Most glitch musicians are self-taught (Cascone 2000). Their musical knowledge is built upon software programming, digital materials and experimentation as opposed to the notations, rhythm and tones of classical European musical knowledge. Virillo argues that in order to create or invent something you have to invent the accident of the invention: ‘to get what is heavier than air to take off in the form of an aeroplane or dirigible is to invent the crash, the air disaster’ (Virillo 2006). So in terms of a CD player we could think of the accident being the CD skipping and not able to play. The task of the CD player is then to steadily play the CD in one go, smoothly reading the data and translating it into music as the artist intended. The accidents and the failures already exist, they are necessary in order to create something. The void or absence that lead to the actual. Glitch musicians make music with technology instead of through technology. They become the agents rather than sharing agency with the software resulting in newly realised possibilities within a pre-existing structure. With the Gibsonian idea of affordance we can see that glitch is using the new digital culture language and translating it into affordances of possible music (Gibson 1976).
Glitch is just one of the most recent examples in a long history of experimental music that includes Futurist, Luigi Russolo, expanding musical repertoire to include noise and everyday objects as instruments, John Cage forcing his audience to recognise the experience and setting of a performance as part of the music itself, and Throbbing Gristle using cut up tapes, spoken word and white noise in their performances. All of these were once not included in what we now define as music and to some they still might not be. Here it’s important to consider why they wouldn’t be and why they weren’t before? Which returns us to earlier ideas of exposure and familiarity.
“There has always been an urge among composers and musicians to experiment with and expand upon the conventional sound possibilities of established instruments” (Sangild 2004:199).
Inside Sangild’s quote we can infer that new possibilities and new music are expansions on the conventional or existing ideas. Glitches is some form or another have always existed, but they have not been recognised as a concept within music, let along as a genre. Considering Heidegger’s concept of techné is useful within glitch as forces us to ask “what are the parts that make up music?” Heidegger gives the examples of a hammer, which when broken is then not seen as a hammer anymore but as individual, constitutive parts (Smith 1991). Glitch enables us to recognise that digital music is created within the digital world. For example music produced through software programmes will be influences by what is possibly and what is not possible in the programme. Glitch uses the actual structure of these possibilities and limitations as material for the music. Although to an extent glitch still operates within the confines of what the structure is, it is through these types of experimentations that we are able to progress and evolve in music.
Is this framework useful when looking at music?
How can we come to analyse and understand evolution in music? If music is evolving it is definitely not a quick process. Evolving is a term much better than changing or developing as music remains essentially the same thing, it’s not disconnected from it’s older form, and it also doesn’t have an aim, it’s not necessarily getting better (nor worse). Instead it is mutating to fit into its ecological environment. Evolving infers an accumulation of changes.
Music is multi dimensional. Looking at music in terms of possibilities and affordances is limited to looking at music alongside an actor (or a listener). There has to be a perceiver in order for there to be either. Yet, arguably music doesn’t exist without an actor or a listener. Entering the digital world, music has been able to grow, the changes that have taken place have reflected but also contributed to the changes in culture. We became a mobile generation who listened to music on the move with a CD player, technology moved forward and we were able to forget about the middle man (the CD) and use a digital file on an MP3 player. In the same way I could argue that our increasing mobile use of music drove the industry to reduce the CD player to a more convenient MP3 player.
“The medium is no longer the message in glitch music: the tool has become the message. The technique of exposing the minutiae of DSP errors and artefacts for their own sonic value has helped further blur the boundaries of what is to be considered music, but it has also forced us to also to examine our preconceptions of failure and detritus more carefully” (Cascone 2000:17).
Music is evolving much the same way that cultures are evolving. They are both adapting to their ecological environments, helping to construct as well as being constructed by them. As we perform music and culture, we are constructed those concepts whilst we are also becoming identified by those concepts. Glitch music reflects the digital music culture that now exists, but it also challenges it because it recognises the structure of digital music. In a sense it deconstructs the digital and uses it’s parts as material for music. How glitch becomes understood as music is though gaining associations, meanings and familiarity. Music evolves then by acquiring new possibilities, new affordances, new materials, new styles, new instruments.
Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. ‘Of mimicry and man: The ambivalence of colonial discourse’  in: The location of culture. London [etc.]: Routledge, 85-92.
Butler, Judith. 2010. “Performative Agency”, in Journal of Cultural Economy 3:2, 147-161.
Cascone, K. (2000). The Aesthetics of Failure: ““Post-Digital”” Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music. Computer Music Journal, 24(4), 12-18.
Landy, L. (2013). Music Technology, Music Technology or Music Technology? Contemporary Music Review, 32(5), 459-471.
Nettl, B. (1985). The western impact on world music : Change, adaptation, and survival. New York: Schirmer Books.
Sangild, Torben. 2004. ‘Glitch: The Beauty of Malfunction.’ In Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate, ed. Christopher Washburne and Maiken Derno. New York, London: Routledge. (pp. 198-211)
Smith, G. (1991). Heidegger, technology and postmodernity. The Social Science Journal, 28(3), 369-389.
Virilio, P., & Rose, J. (2006). The Accident In Time. Log, (7), 119-125.