Monday, September 21, 2015

low bit rate nostalgia

Pitchfork's Adam Ward with a piece on the poignant turn-of-millennium associations of 128 kbps, 64 kbps, even 58 kbps...

"For a certain point on the timeline of music discovery, quality wasn’t a defining factor. In the dawn of mp3 players, the big draw was the amount of music you could carry with you....  Low bit-rate mp3s colored the experience of music discovery in the early 21st century.... Especially considering the original iPod had only 5 gigabytes of hard drive space, listeners wanted to bring as many songs along with them as possible. 128 kbps used to be the baseline... I’ve come to love these awful quality files. In most cases, listening to their lossless versions just doesn’t sound right to me.....  With each layer of compression you can practically hear the thousands of others who shared and copied the same mp3, like a destructive digital fingerprint. Songs ripped from CDs, uploaded to streaming sites, shared via P2P, and burned back to a CD mixtape have incredible amounts of distortion, something akin to today’s over-compressed Instagram memes. ....

"....There’s a certain point where the desire for flawless sound is outweighed by your nostalgia for hearing it in a familiar way. It explains the near universal admiration for a crackling vinyl record, or the recent fascination with VHS distortion....

"The underwater compression of a low-quality mp3 is our generation’s vinyl crackle or skipping CD. It’s a limitation of technology that defines the experience of an era......  When we talk about the coldness of digital music in comparison to the "warmth" of vinyl, we neglect to highlight the peculiar characteristics of digital compression."


  1. Excerpt from a discussion between Architect Peter Eisenman and Director Michael Haneke. Thought of this blog when I saw it

    Michael Haneke: I think it’s interesting what you’re saying about the late style. I don’t want to be preposterous but if you look at the music of Bach, at the time it’s written the music is already old fashioned. He has taken everything that was developed until then and brought it to flourish, and of course it’s the greatest achievement until that point in time. Bach is someone who takes from what happened before – he doesn’t really open new doors. He brings together everything that was done in the previous century. And
    I think generally in art, there are such periods where people just reap the rewards of their [predecessors]. But this is, in a way, the blessing of the historical moment.

    Full Interview:

  2. Fascinating - so Bach was essentially, what, the Jack White of his era?

    i will have to pull this quote out and give it its own post to highlight

    i think you could probably say the same about many super-eminent artists of an era, though -- Eno has said that the Beatles were the end of something rather than the start of anything (which i don't agree with actually - what about 'tomorrow never knows', 'strawberry fields' and many others) but there could be an argument that they pull together a whole bunch of existing things - chuck berry, American soul and r&b, music hall - and do this consummate synthesis that in combination with their personalities feels incredibly new and exciting.

    Elvis Costello is also a synthesist. i'm not sure this is the same as retro though. Costello does retro moves (Get Happy is soul flashback etc) and songs in particular dated styles, but Armed Forces and bulk of the content of most other albums aren't revivalist or particularly nostalgic or referential/reverential, just pulling together a bunch of elements into a new-ish, new in effect, agglomeration

    don't know enough about Bach but i doubt he'd have thought oh i'm trying to refer back to such and such for 50 years ago

  3. Yes I don’t believe Bach was consciously trying to evoke retro or playing with pastiche but I find the comment interesting.

    I’m an architecture student who recently discovered this blog. While there isn’t really a retro movement in architecture (closest thing I can think of is the anti-modern New Urbanism of Leon Krier and those who still do pomo, or maybe kids on Tumblr who post brutalist architecture) I find there are many other parallels to be found, all symptomatic of a late period in my opinion. When something’s at its end and the technology and tools are completely developed and all the tropes and signifiers of a style are explicit and easy to find it’s much easier to do collage and pastiche and play “dress up” while never having to innovate or put a foot in the new.

    Overly tasteful four to the floor Detroit revival and British dance music that has all the nuumologically correct signifiers, and which only superficially updates its sound with contemporary influences (but only the most tasteful and therefore dull and boring) or makes constant side steps but never grows or evolves, only changes, reminds me of a kind of architecture practiced by many young architects in Japan and elsewhere. SANAA is the best known firm that does this architecture. Their work is unmistakably contemporary but it feels like the most tasteful elements of 100 years of architecture and design that in their own time were responding to cultural/economic/social moments has been removed from their context and blended together into a reductive, static, and dull beige of architecture that is responsive to nothing and strictly and end in itself. No inspiration. Timeless in the worst sense of the word. I often can’t tell if I’m looking at something from 1997 or 2014 when I see this architecture. I can only think of clicky, percussing microhouse when I see this stuff. Shohei Shigematsu of Rem Koolhaas’s OMA calls in “Muji” architecture, which I think is fitting.

    Arca, SD Laika, Evian Christ, and the less boring nu grime acts on labels like Tri Angle really are doing something new (Kanye’s Yeezus is the definitive work of this moment. Why doesn’t it get talked about when discussing newer tendencies in music?), but at their laziest they often fall into experimental (I hate this word) IDM soundscaping which reminds me a lot of the computational/parametric architecture of Patrick Schuemacher or overly formalistic work of Coop Himmelblau and Eric Owen Moss. This kind of architecture looks very new and sci-fi but it is really just complex facades made possible by computer fabrication that have been tacked onto conventional structures and is more appropriate as movie set design than it is as architecture. I don’t know whether pseudo new is any better or worse than nostalgia but it’s definitely a tendency that’s there. Silicon valley/Elon Musk/TED talk architecture is also a thing but I don’t think music has a parallel to that, maybe Kanye West’s ‘rants’’ but not his music.

    The other obvious comparison is the phenomological architecture of Herzog & De Meuron and Peter Zumthor, which often privileges sensual phenomenological experiences above all else. I can only think of guitar dudes who care way too much about their “tone”, or bedroom producers with too many vintage synths. Appropriateness and consideration of the cultural moment isn’t given a moment’s thought.

    I’ve only recently begun looking for the new so these views are pretty inchoate. I think there are definitely newer tendencies that could develop into exciting things, at least in music and architecture. The work of REX’s Joshua Prince Ramus reminds me of the structural weirdness of some of the aforementioned “nu grime/post-dubstep?” artists. The main problem in this area seems to be that attempts to race forward usually end up as a dead ends that may be interesting in themselves but lack sufficient inspiration to be developed by other artists.

  4. wow, that's incredibly interesting

    i know very little about architecture i must confess, but what your're describing, as far as i can follow it, sounds very convincing

    i don't suppose you'd want to pad those thoughts out slightly and offer it as a guest essay here on the blog? you'd have to identify yourself though i would have thought

    but to be honest it also sounds like a thinkpiece-y essay to submit to somewhere like Frieze...

    i wish i enjoyed the arca / neo-grime stuff more - i can see it's impressive and possibly going-somewhere, but i never feel like putting it on

    there was interesting review of, i think, the new Visionist album in the Wire, by Adam Harper - he talked about the more interesting nu-grime stuff as not really an evolution of it - but more like they'd taken aspects of it and made them more extreme - i'm quoting from memory here - basically without saying it he was offering a model that was different from continuum-theory -- rather than nu-grime being an extension of the internal / latent logic of grime, its DNA or somesuch organicist metaphor - it was a relation of abstraction - i thought that was interesting alternative theory of how newness could come into being - not the unfolding of a teleology immanent in a genre, but a series of fractured, breakaway distortions and manglings

    meant to quote from it and riff off of it because it was an interesting alternative way of seeing how the new could come into being

  5. I'm afraid I'm very lazy and terrible at attribution. These were just some ramblings of things I've been thinking lately. I'd be happy to develop these thoughts and provide examples if you are interested.
    My email is

    With neo-grime I think there is a zeitgeist thing going on, too. Any ambitious artist (I don’t know if they’re ambitious) has to figure out what is doing it and what can be developed because some kind of innovation or difficulty or problem solving is necessary for something to be good (I would say). I imagine these guys end up sounding the way they do because they are trying to avoid sounding obvious and it just happens to be the paradigm of grime which is allowing them to produce new sounds. Tomorrow it might be something else, but for now it’s grime. I doubt modernity or anything like that crosses their minds but I’m sure they don’t want to sound obvious. You find none of these self-referential nuum tropes that you get in “real” grime or “true” dubstep which makes me think these guys aren’t that invested in the culture and are using it because it has life in it.

    I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many producers in fringe genres (skweee, footwork, post-hop, etc.) incorporated dubstep once it became huge. You could say this is trend hopping but I reckon a huge part of it is seeing potentional for new sounds and structures. Again I look to architecture just because it is much slower and architects tend to have a longer career window that spans multiple cultural moments. Rem Koolhaas’s ideology has been pretty consistent over the past 25-30 years but his buildings always look contemporary. He has always absorbed whatever was new and worth developing. Compare his buildings from 1989 and 2015 and they look completely different, but you still see his ideology. I don’t know of anyone in music who I could say the same about. Maybe Madonna, maybe Bjorke, maybe Kanye, but none of them have consistently gone from giest to giest. They have been “experimental” and willing to change their sound and image, but I don’t think any of them have been consistently on the fore of whatever current cultural/poltical/social/economic moment the way Rem Koolhaas has.

    Yeezus is maybe the best example of a contemporary zeitgeist album. You do hear acid and Pan Sonic and other things but structurally it is very innovative. The choice of producers is no coincidence either. This is most cleary an example of an artist seeing potential for innovation in a style and adapting it to their purposes.

    The most gratuitous example of this is the switch from representational to abstract painting done by many artists in the early 20th century. Or the birth of modern architecture.

    It is a gross generalization but both of these things came about from perceptive artists clinging to whatever scraps of innovation potential they could find in the 19th century decadent late period that must have seemed utterly hopeless time for ambitious artists. You find completely shameless, non-sentimental innovations in this period. Look at Adolf Loo’s work from the early 20th century and you see someone trying so hard to break free from a hopeless cultural moment and do something new. Then look at El Lissitzky’s Wolkenbugel concept from 1924 and you see a fully developed modern expression of architecture, one with seemingly endless freedom to innovate in many directions.

    While I can’t imagine the sexually ambigious Arca and Lotic as the hard-eyed tastemakers of the early 20th century, I can imagine the attraction to grime has a lot to do with its being the one and only avenue in music with any real potential to develop right now.