Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Star Crossed Critics

Having finally read Rouge's Foam (RF) account of the Hardcore Continuum debate I was very happy to see star constellations used as an analogy to distinguish its subjective and 'objective' components. I believe this is the most accurate (or least problematic way) of understanding how Simon Reynolds and writers in his wake have engaged with the 'objective' elements of the scene as it highlights how contingent it is on point of view. I know that sounds obvious but the constellation analogy is the most satisfying so far and it has provided some Oprah style closure to the debate for me.

The other reason I was happy to see the constellation analogy is that I've toyed with a similar idea in the past as a way of conceptualising dance music genres. In no way am I staking any claim for the idea as only after reading RF's post did I bother to think about it in any meaningful way. I'm posting it here just for shits and giggles really.

RF described the HCC as a constellation with the "data or evidence involved in the nuum notion (club nights, records, people etc) to be the stars that comprise it". In my model I was only concered with the records/tracks themselves. Imagine that you were to assess dance tracks along a number of linear dimensions. These could be technical or emotive, e.g. bpm, degree of 'darkness', rhythmic complexity, foreground of bass etc. So the more of X a track had, the further along that axis that track was placed. The same would be done for a Y axis and so on for how many dimensions you wanted to have.

If the number of axes were limited to 3 it would be possible to visualise tracks as points within a 3-Dimensional space. I know this is absurdly reductive but the point is that what you would end up with are cluster of points where tracks exhibited similar degrees of certain qualities. These fuzzy clouds would be mathematical representations of 'genres'. There would be no clear boundaries, only evidence of general tendencies.

If more than 3 dimensions were used the space would be purely theoretical but the idea is the same.

Now, I didn't really think beyond this point until RF mentioned constellations in his HCC post. How would this peculiar and clunky model account for the HCC? Well, if you were to have 'time of track release' as one of the axes and you found that a number of clusters inhabited a similar space differing only in their position on this time axis then that would be the 'nuum.

Ok, so what? Well, the application of this model is dependent on what and how many axes were used. For example if your particular tastes in music were concerned with rhythmic complexity, bpm and 'sense of intensity' then you would end up with a particular scatter cloud formation. However if you were to add an axis gauging the use of the mentasm sound existing clouds may elongate or come apart in response. Tracks that once stuck together may now be far apart now that you have prioritised the mentasm sound in your model. The result would be a visual multidimensional representation of how prevalent the mentasm stab is in electronic dance music.

The other important thing to realise is that by simply shifting the observer's vantage point within the space different clusters or continua can be seen. To borrow from RF once again, if we were somewhere else in the galaxy, the constellations we would see would be entirely different. So when we see relationships between tracks it's all just a matter of theoretical tromp l'oeil.

The HCC is an example of this. While I'm not saying the HCC isn't/wasn't a 'real' phenomenon, it is highly contingent on what musical values and point of view one has. The HCC has gained considerable currency since the sonic signifiers valued by those concerned with the HCC are taken as self-evident. But shift the track-space, add/subtract/subsitute its axes or shift your point of view and I'm sure any number of continua can be spotted.

The glaring hole in this model is the complete lack of consideration for social aspects of music scenes such as the demographics of its audience/artists or the continuation of personnel throughout various genres which RF includes in his/her more appropriate use of the constellation analogy. Increasingly, I believe these social aspects are what really drive the formation of scenes, genres and the names given to both so consider my "theoretical multidimensional track-space model" an exercise in caffeine induced whimsy.


  1. Brilliant post! And not just because you seem to have mirrored my own thoughts on plotting data as stylistic coherency and development. I've added your conclusion to the bottom of 'Science, Analogy and Criticism'.

    Your thoughts remind me of Alan Lomax's 'Cantometrics' project (literally, 'song measuring'), outlined in his 'Folk Song Style and Culture' and others. He attempted to do what you describe by defining the many variables at work in any folk song style, quantify them, and thus plot a graph-like 'cantometric profile' which could be compared against other folk song styles and, together with considerations of each folk song style's cultural meaning, conclusions could be reached about how folk song styles relate to cultural aesthetics - a stunning project.

    Thanks too for the invaluable consolidation of pieces on the nuum. K-punk says he's planning a post on 'Fans, Trolls and Masters' for later today, a title which makes me nervous...

  2. Thanks very much for your kind words and the addendum to your post! Alan Lomax's project sounds very intriguing. It would be fascinating to see how such a model is actually applied. Thanks for that.