The Total Mountain
If you've ever felt like watching someone in a glamourous wig singing the text of Twitter posts about Katy Perry's links to the Illuminati in the full-throated of classical opera, then Jennifer Walshe may be just the composer for you.
The Total Mountain is a forty minute video and performance piece. It chops together YouTube clips with screengrabs of Wikipedia pages, text messages from an ancient manuscript with selections from the Department of Homeland Security's flagged words list. It's got One Direction, lots of swearing, doge, Valley Girl accents, and the aforementioned Twitter opera. It's also a major new work from a highly respected classical composer that received its premiere at the prestigious Donaueschingen Musiktage in Germany.
So why is a Brunel University music lecturer —whose orchestral music has been performed all over the world— scrolling through memes on her iPhone for inspiration? "Everybody is using these devices and they're not really thinking about it," she tells me via Skype. "The only way I can pay close enough attention to it to try and figure out what it means to me, is to make work about it."
Walshe's Total Mountain is to receive its official UK premiere at this year's London Contemporary Music Festival (LCMF) at Ambika P3 in December. It's scheduled on the last of seven themed nights, under the title 'Requiem for Reality', billed as an attempt to explore the way some of the ideas dubbed 'post-internet' in the art world might play out in the world of musical composition.
The 'post-internet' idea first came to prominence on Gene McHugh's blog of the same name in 2009–10. For McHugh, post-internet meant at once art that was made with a built-in awareness that it would be shared online (whether you like or not), art made literally just after spending time surfing the web, and a situation where the net is "less a novelty and more a banality." Contemporaneous with McHugh, artists like Marisa Olson, Oliver Laric, Brad Troemel (aka The Jogging), and others, set about making videos, sculptural, and photographic works in response to this condition, with all its wild and sometimes messy implications.
But before I came across Walshe's music, I'd scarcely heard anyone talk about post-internet music. If pushed on the matter, I might have fingered the fast-cut, glitch aesthetics of Holly Herndon or the ambiguous digital sheen of PC Music. But classical music? Like, violins and clarinets and conductors in tailcoats holding batons? I figured I'd better ask her what it was all about.
"It's music written after the internet is as much a part of everyday life as electricity or indoor plumbing," she tells me. Or as Sam Mackay, one of the curators of the LCMF (along with Lucy Railton, Igor Toronyi-Lalic, and Aisha Orazbayeva) put it, "It's not simply that such music couldn't have come about without the internet, but that it actually probes and reflexively approaches that situation."
Back in the spring, Walshe had introduced the idea of a 'post-internet music', appropriately enough, on Facebook. Her thread quickly ignited a lot of discussion among composers. "What I found is that, when I talk to people in the new music field, not many people understand the term. A lot of people are saying, my work is related to the internet because I download sounds off the internet," she told me. "And I'm like, well that's not quite what I'm talking about. Or they were talking about telematic works, where you've got people in different cities, all linked up, usually at a computer music centre. And that's not really what I'm talking about."
So how do you hear the net in a piece of music? "I would say that there's a texture to it," Walshe replies, "– and I don't even necessarily mean the sounds. It could be the text that's used, the images that are used, the fact that, maybe, the body's involved. But there's something that makes me think, this wouldn't have been written until this point in history."
She cites a track by Drew Daniel (of Matmos and the Soft Pink Truth) called "Party Pills" which saw Daniel searching anything hashtagged 'Party' on YouTube and stitching together the results. "While we can trace that from Marcel Duchamp onwards," Walshe says, "there's an agility to it and a speed that is different on the web."
Along with Jennifer Walshe, the LCMF's 'Requiem for Reality' will feature music by James Ferraro, PC Music associate Felicita, Neele Hülcker, a German sound artist working with ASMR, and Brigitta Muntendorf. A graduate of Cologne's Hochschüle für Musik, since 2013 Muntendorf has been working on a series of pieces under the collective title 'Public Privacy' in which live musicians (first a solo flautist, later trumpeters, pianist, electric guitarist) perform in a kind of dialogue with YouTube clips of musicians playing at home, projected onto the stage behind them.
When I reached out to Muntendorf by email, she was a little sceptical about the term 'post-internet' itself, but she did say she was interested in exploring the way real and virtual worlds were "melting together. I see the digital space and real life as two mirrors positioned at opposite sides," she said, "with an endless feedback. I see my music inside of this process of mixing 'realities'."
"Whenever I've seen anything I would describe as a post-internet-type video installation, there's always loads of music throughout," Jennifer Walshe said to me. "Music is really important to the rhythm of it and how it's edited."
A few years ago I was chatting to James Bridle —the self-described, "writer, artist, publisher, technologist and a number of other things"— and I suggested to him that a lot of the strange digital flora he was collecting on his New Aesthetic blog —glitches, weird loops, texts spontaneously generated by AI bots or across distributed networks— had been going on in music for years. He was inclined to agree, citing Holly Herndon and Laurel Halo, in particular, as artists whose music just "sounds like the internet."
Earlier this year, Max Pearl and Michelle Lhooq, writing here in THUMP, argued persuasively for the connection between the sound and of PC Music and the post-internet video work of Ryan Trecartin.
Except from Ryan Trecartin's I-Be-Area film
But maybe some ideas take a little longer to trickle down from the club to the conservatoire. Jennifer Walshe seemed to think so. "If post-internet art was about, ok, we're going to make [internet art] function back in a gallery; it takes even a little longer to filter back into the concert hall. Concert music requires long periods of prep. People have to go to a concert, they have to sit down, they have to focus." Then again, maybe the world of classical music was way ahead of everyone.
One of the most surprising names to feature on the LCMF's post-internet programme is Milton Babbitt. One of the most notoriously abstruse academic composers of the twentieth century, Babbitt is about as far from the gleeful hyper-gloss of PC Music as you can get. He was dead before your mum got a Facebook account. Snapchat hadn't even been invented. But LCMF curator Igor Toronyi-Lalic thinks there's more to Babbitt than most people give him credit.
"He was the first [modern] composer to really apply mathematical principles to music," Toronyi-Lalic tells me over the phone. "If the internet is anything, it's about coding the real world. And Babbitt was doing that, trying to translate the real into the codified."
Toronyi-Lalic is quick to point out he doesn't consider Milton Babbitt to be a 'post-internet' artist in the strict sense – it's more that he fits the larger theme of analogue reality dissolving into digital simulation. After all, who even had access to the internet in 1975 when their chosen piece Reflections was composed?
As it happens, Milton Babbitt did. Or at least, he might have done. Maybe. From the late 1940s to the early 70s, Babbitt was on the music faculty at Princeton University. Princeton wouldn't go online until the early 80s, but just up the road in Fresh Pond, Massachusetts, Bolt, Beranek & Newman, an engineering firm with a staff list heavy on ex-Princeton mathematicians was engaged in a U.S. military contract to build the Arpanet, the forerunner to today's web.
Babbitt had first trained as a mathematician, and it's fair to say he had kept up to date even after switching to music. Might an old friend have given him a quick demo of the new network one night? And might that have inspired a piece like Reflections, in which a piano part and a synthesized tape part enter a dialogue, jostling back and forth like two mirrors positioned at opposite sides with an endless feedback? We can only speculate...
The London Contemporary Music Festival takes place 11-17th of December at Ambika P3. Head here for more information.