The NewAesthetic and the Sound of the Future

Two interesting articles passed the transom recently. Bruce Sterling started it all with a post on the NewAesthetic - a tumblr that has been collecting visual examples of our current age under the non-manifesto title the “New Aesthetic.” Most of these images are inspired by computer imagery, data mining, and new GIS technologies. Part of what they have in common is recording the breakdown of the digital and the unexpected appearence of the digital in the analog world. Call it the “uncanny” of cyberspace.

Ian Bogost followed up with an article at the Atlantic: The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder. Bogost talks a bit about his new book Alien Phenomenology and the possibility that he new aesthetic is working toward a new epistemology of objects. If you read the article you’ll see how it all links into various ideas that he has been talking about for a while, especially object oriented ontology.

I’m curious what the #NewAesthetic will do with music. Just what does it mean to perform or compose modern music?

A trip to yesteryear

Today I came across a notice that Important Records is going to release a 12-cd collection of early tape recording experiments by Pauline Oliveros. The recordings date from the 1960s, but as I started listening to some of the previews I started wondering if this isn’t my stereotypical sound of the future. The sound is all electronic - glitches, fragments of found sounds, feedback. To me it sounds futuristic. But it’s really almost 50 years old.

Oliveros was one of the pioneers of using technology to rework the everyday soundworld. The invention of the magnetic tape recorder occurred during the 1940s and 1950s. Artists, like Oliveros, recognized the possibility of using these machines to do more than just record sounds; they could manipulate sounds as well.

The tape recorder became more than just a record of sounds but also a creator of sounds. Jazz artists, such as Sun Ra, would use feed the output of one taperecorder into another and get unique echo effects.


Here’s an example of Oliveros “Bye bye butterfly” in 1967.


The cutting edge of current synthesis

I’ve also been listening to a number of videos and demonstrations of current sound design programs over the past few weeks. I started looking for cool sound programs on my iPhone and then descended down the rabbit hole to listen to Moog recordings, analog drum kits, modular synthesizers and more.

One of the programs I found was Ableton Live, one of the many Digital Audio Workstations that are available. Many of these programs work by giving the artists a bunch of samples which are combined together to create a new song.

Here’s an example of a tutorial in Ableton Live.


The modern DAW is so good that “mistakes” are almost impossible. Programs automatically match beats, keys, and any other sonic attributes that might create dissonance we don’t want. The result is modern, hyperreal, but feels completely different than the haunting explorations carried out by Oliveros and Sun Ra.

DJ culture is another example of this same phenomenon. Controllerism is essentially tape manipulation taken to a new digital level and perhaps the closest we come to a #NewAesthetic in music today.


Ian Bogost writes:

For another part, the New Aesthetic fails the ultimate test of novelty: that of disruption and surprise. Misguided as they may seem a century hence, avant-garde movements like Futurism and Dada were not celebrating industrialism nor lamenting war so much as they were replacing familiar principles with unfamiliar ones on the grounds that the familiar had failed. The New Aesthetic is not surprising, but expected. After all, the artists now wield the same data access APIs, mapping middleware, and computer vision systems as the corporations. In some cases, the artists are the corporations.

I agree. There’s just something missing from musical mashup aesthetics that fails to raise the hairs on the back of my neck and make me wonder at the world. I’ll listen to Girl Talk or Beardyman when I want musical nostaligia invoked but I’ll return to Oliveros or Sun Ra when I want to hear the uncanny.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.