Friday, 31 July 2009

what what what what what what what

I caught Whistla on SubFM for the first time the other week and once again I’ve found something which I’ve completely slept on. Whistla, I gather, is the main exponent of the “future garage” movement which is some sort of 2-step revival thing. His tracks and those by other artists among of movement have reignited my love of 2-step and the joys of “vocal science”.

According to Mr Reynolds in his 1999 article Adult Hardcore, “vocal science” was coined by Bat of ukdance to refer to the vivisection of a diva’s vocals into little chunks which then would be played like a drum kit. The resulting disembodied wails and stuttering screams would not “resemble a human being so much as an out-of-control desiring-machine”. Through the use of studio techniques such as acceleration, pitchshifting, timestretching, looping, filtering etc, the human voice is made to sound inhuman. This tension, according to Reynolds, suspends some of the binary divisions persistent in rave music, in particular, human versus machine, soul versus posthuman, organic versus synthetic (I recommend reading his article if you haven’t already, it’s great!)

For me, the appeal of Whistla’s tracks is that they eschew complex bass mechanics and overwrought drum trickery in order to foreground the delicious vocal gymnastics. Of course he is not the first, Whistla continue the old tradition established by Todd Edwards et al. but I suddenly find myself excited about it all over again. My favourites include Whistla’s remix of Duncan Powell’s Care 4 Me, Take Me On, and in particular London Love Story where more vocal samples are added as the track progresses ending in a wonderful cacophony of disembodied voices.

I’ve also been listening to a lot of Juke lately which incidentally also makes liberal use of vocal samples, albeit in quite a different way. In many tracks short spoken phrases or shouts are looped endlessly over the requisite instrumentation of heavy bass and crazy 808 toms. With little fx processing these vocal samples are usually easy to understand but tireless repetition starts to affect the perception of the sound. Similar to how a word loses meaning if you say it to yourself a hundred times, the looped phrase starts to decompose into its sounds and syllables as the verbal meaning behind the words melts away. Through repetition we become more aware of the hidden texture and subtle timbres of the particular sample. The effect is heightened when multiple vocal loops are layered and we hear a rhythmic jumble of syllables freed from verbal meaning. An example of this can be heard in DJ Slugo’s I’m Higher Than a M.F. where the main vocal is split in half and both halves are layered over each other to create a sort of incomprehensible stoned mantra.

Another common technique is to rapidly play a specific syllable of a repeated phrase to highlight a particular sound. For example, the phrase “what that move you do” may have the “what that” or simply “what” played in a machine gun manner to emphasise the specific textures of those words and deemphasise the literal meaning behind the phrase as a whole.

Although their approaches are different, both 2-step and Juke use vocal editing to emphasise the sound of the human voice over the meaning of what that voice is saying. And by doing this using hardware or software, they create that tension between human and machine, organic and synthetic. However, one thing which does unite 2-step’s and Juke’s differing vocal sciences is the avoidance of heavy fx processing. The voices may chopped and looped but they are rarely vocoded, auto-tuned or “coloured” in some way. Juke and 2-step producers mine vocal samples for their inherent human timbres and textures, leaving them mostly intact but editing and rearranging them into something non- or beyond human (although pitch-shifting and timestretching are used heavily, I believe those techniques leave the recognisably human qualities of voice intact) .

A vocoded voice is still human, just strange, but a barrage of vocal snippets or crushing repetition is the sound of something non-human appropriating the human voice for its own devious ends.

- juke it juke it juke it juke it juke it juke it juke it juke it juke it juke it juke it -

You can hear Whistla’s tracks on his MySpace and he’s on SubFM every Tues 8-10pm.

For some Juke I’d recommend going to this dissensus thread for some mixes and links to artists etc.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009


Looking at these examples of relatively recent architecture, one could say that they look affected, distorted, broken, wonky. It doesn’t take much imagination to associate these building with that trend in electronic music known as wonky. In fact, it is possible to spot a number of parallels (well, wonky lines) between trends in contemporary architecture and “wonky”.

Most obviously, the buildings literally look wonky. They bend, they twist, they appear to collapse or leap, their masses shift and cantilever – put simply their forms appear “out of place, out of key and misshapen” to borrow from Alex SBA.

Second, recent architecture has been awash in bright colour due to increasing whimsy on the architects’ behalf as well as advances in synthetic cladding. This calls to mind the common synesthetic tendency to associate the multi-textured and pitch-bent synths of wonky with bright day-glo colour.

Brisbane Square - bright colours for an optimistic city.

Third, quite like the way a wonky track with its unquantised percussion interrupts the steady rhythmic flow of non-wonky tracks in a mix, there are buildings which create an intentional disharmony with the surrounding urban form.

The Nationale-Nederlanden building in Prague (below), colloquially known as “Dancing House", takes the classical European urban form and distorts it by placing the windows in an unexpected pattern off the established grid set by the adjacent buildings ("unquantised windows", if you will), thereby disrupting the conventional rhythm of articulation on the façade. Moving further along and around the corner, the building squeezes itself into an organic hour-glass shape, the glazed façade allowing us to the see the supporting beams and columns twisted and distorted in defiance of the engineer’s grid, before it returns to a less affected pattern to "mix-out" into the neighbouring classical building.

A final parallel could be seen between the overall extravagance and visual sensation of these buildings and the dramatic arpeggios of a producer like Zomby. The rapid climb of notes in Kaliko (painstakingly transcribed by RF here) is akin to the dramatic oblique ascent of windows on Gehry’s Stata Centre, the twisting beams of Calatrava’s Turning Torso or the interior of Libeskind's Denver Art Museum.

This analogy between wonky music and wonky architecture is an easy one to draw and similar ideas have been expressed about the similarities between wonky and the avant-garde processes in art of the early 20th Century (Rouge's Foam once again).

However, it can be said that there is more than just an aesthetic dimension which relates wonky with architecture - both practices have a duty to perform. For the former, it is to sustain a rhythm (for dancing or listening pleasure), for the latter, it is to provide useable indoor space. For all its wonkiness, wonky is still dance music and must sustain an identifiable rhythm. How obvious the rhythm is or isn’t is part of the appeal of this music but nevertheless, it has to be there, in some form, with at least the kick drum returning to the first beat of every bar or two. Here I would refer to Kode 9 and Kodwo Eshun’s concept of “metric drift” which describes the way elements of a track “drift” away from the metronome but return to the first beat of the bar to maintain the rhythmic pulse.

Just as wonky must maintain a constant rhythm despite itself, wonky buildings must contain useable floors. As weird as wonderful as the building may be, the floors must still be horizontal and there must be enough of them to provide the useable real estate to justify its existence. Although it is common for the floor-to-ceiling height of each floor to vary, standardisation means that there is an identifiable “rhythm of floors” within a building , particularly apparent in commercial skyscrapers.

Wonky on the outside, the section view of Max Reinhardt Haus reveals the contrast and interplay between the rigidity of the building’s commercial duty to provide floorspace and the architect’s desire to transcend it.

Just like the music, wonky architecture is predicated on the requirement to perform a function characterised by repetition. And it is this precarious balance between performing this function and failing beautifully which is essential to the idea of “wonkification”.

The Role of Digital Design

In his book Skyscraper, Eric Howeler writes “the complexity of some recent skyscrapers reflects the increased use of the computer as a design tool. Many of the projects in this chapter would never have been built without computer-aided design and 3D-modelling software”. Although he’s talking about buildings, he might as well be talking about electronic music. Matthew Woebot Ingram points to the rise of softsynths, synthesisers that run completely on a pc or mac and which allow for total micro-control, as a key factor in wonky. By “simplifying the technicalities”, producers are afforded ample room for experimentation, just as architects are freed from the constraints of worrying if their buildings will stand up when powerful software can do that for them.


Although this analogy of architecture as wonky may be stretching it in some respects, it is easy to see some similarity in the processes and products of each practice. And with this post I hope to prove that it is indeed meaningful to dance about architecture (ha! groan) .