On “Elemental Music” – a Thought Experiment


I’m sitting on the subway up here in northern Europe, and I’m having myself a little moment. Listening to a lovely electronic track by Max Million called “Monogramma” on SRS Podcast. Suddenly a street musician begins playing his electric violin in the background. And magically, he is in perfect sync with the music. Certainly rythmically, and close enough tonally that it works. The distance – both in space, with him a wagon behind me; and in the slight musical aberrations – creates a quite sublime feeling. I’m enraptured – rejuvenated. Bear with me now, as I’m about to delineate, in my quasi-Borgesian way, how a new genre could be established out of this strange, serendipitous coincidence.

To create such a style of music, out of several noninterrelated sources, one would first have to do away with, or at least suspend, some central notions of authorship. In a way, this would be a quite advanced vision of the death of the author. Our proposed piece of music emerges out of the coincidental noncooperation of two or more nonauthors. The piece of work is not the parts themselves, nor the sum of the parts, but the unknowable and unrepeatable frisson in the space between coherence and incoherence. For the sake of simplicity, let us imagine two sources, though one could easily expand this theorem. Let us call the two (or more) involved performances, “the elements”. To recreate the happenstance of one electronic track and one violin performance overlapping, it would be enough to instruct the musicians to keep their performances vague enough that there would be space for the unknown element. Players would have to keep this space alive in their own performance – not imagine what the unknown element will be, but rather intuit it while knowing that doing so is futile. It is easy to experiment along these lines: create a number of noncollaborations and have a group of musically-minded people sort the results in regards to musical quality. One imagines that there would be many failures – performances where the elements fail to sync up, or where the resultant mix is in some way inferior to the elements themselves. From this could probably be extracted some criteria which when applied would make a successful combination of elements more likely: for instance, which tempos, modes, keys et cetera work best when working with unknown elements. One would then apply these criteria to new attempts, conduct new trials, and in time this would most likely coalesce into new subgenres and styles. This structured, intellectual exercise would thus ironically recreate the fortuitous conditions in which I had my little epiphany on the subway. The fact that one of the elements came from outside of the main piece of music will be key: this genre would likely only work on a surround-sound system, as the unknown elements really need to sound distant from each other to approach the sound I heard. It should not – and I say this forcefully – sound like a piece of music with another instrument or two added, but as a piece of music with an unknown element intruding from outside! This will likely be an early obstacle to overcome.

I’m calling it now: this brand-spanking-new genre will be called Elemental Music. (Trademark pending. Inquire at BOF Records or your nearest Grand Lodge.) It shall have its place beside rock and classical and whatever. Each recording will be made up of one element, which when listened to will automatically be combined with a random element from a vast, underground database. (It is important that it be underground.) The listener will be able to add more elements at will, with the understanding that the more they add, the less likely musical coherence will be. Live performances will see a vertical stage of two or more compartments, completely isolated from each other. On the bottom level, a symphonic orchestra thunders; on the middle level, let’s say a five-piece band with a DJ; on the top level, a famous comedian plays the electric bassoon. Thus, they can neither see or hear each other, as the levels of the stage are soundproof.

And why not go one level further? The world wide web’s global broadband connections will, for the first time ever, make it possible to also randomize which element is heard at which venue. The sound could easily be randomized so that the top level of a concert in Tokyo is actually heard in Detroit, while the noncorresponding sound from Detroit is streamed somewhere completely different.

We live in an era where music styles come and go in cycles. Even if new styles are invented, these styles rarely if ever change the very way music is conceptualized on a deep level. Elemental Music is the first completely new genre in decades. How would the way musicians approach their craft change based on the notions I have just delineated? Could this unlock hidden, instinctive potential to break completely new ground? Only the elements can tell. I give you this thought experiment and urge you to try it out. It can be used as a tool while composing, much like Eno’s “oblique strategies”. It could be developed further in other directions, possibly even as a kind of therapy. In time, and if my theories are correct, we might achieve the status of religion, with its gloriously sacred promise of tax exemption (…)

2 thoughts on “On “Elemental Music” – a Thought Experiment

  1. Pingback: The best and the worst | a truth called nothing

  2. Pingback: Tales from the Old City 1 | a truth called nothing

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