Music is a Machine

By Our Guest Writer

From Nine Inch Nails to his new opera in the metaverse, composer Alastair White explores how machines have always been a part of music, and how music itself can be seen as a form of mind-bending, futuristic technology. Find out more here in Industrial Rocks. Find out more here in Music is a Machine By Alastair White

Image on left hand side CHENPENG

I remember that day with perfect clarity. You probably have a similar story. It’s the story of being a teenager, when, back then at least, everything is still new. Nine Inch Nails’ Broken EP erupts out of my CD player: drum machines, guitars, angst, raw sound. “PIGS WE GET WHAT PIGS DESERVE,” Trent yelled.

Fuck yes, I thought. Together with bands like Test Department, Laibach, and Throbbing Gristle, Nine Inch Nails created a nexus of unreconciled opposites that are in fact the same. They drew influence from dance music and hip-hop, combining them with heavy metal to create something neither fish nor fowl yet entirely itself.  

Alastair White. Image by Gemma A. Williams.

This became industrial music. It wasn’t just machines making sounds, this was the sound of machines and their bodies. Banged bits of metal. The screeching of iron against iron. A blast furnace of noise and ideas. This was where I fell in love with rock and roll and began a journey that would take me all the way to one-day writing opera for the metaverse (though I’m getting ahead of myself).

Metaverse Fashion Opera. Image by CHENPENG.

Spurred on by this alchemy of human and machine, my first album, as part of the band Blank Comrade, was an industrial pop attempt to realize these ideas in the more recent age of iPods and Myspace

Alongside artists such as Nurse With Wound, we signed to Graham Bowers’ Red Wharf label to make laptop music: low-passed vocals, bit-crushed pianos, hip-hop drum beats, tacky synths over guitar noise, all barely hanging together. Music where each part seemed separate, forced together through the industrial logic of a computer program that could put any number of things side by side, as though different shards of metal furnaced together in factory heat. 

Over the years, though, I saw the limits of this process. It wasn’t just that the computer was controlling what I was writing. Yes, the programme had its own unmistakable effect. But this was nothing compared to the music itself. I had thought I was a free agent, a subject writing out the ideas I had imagined of my own volition. 

But I began to ask, why am I imagining these melodies? Where do they come from? Of course, nothing emerges from nothing. In the same way that the textures of the music were dictated by the limits of the computer, my own imagination was dictated by the limits of the music.

I became drawn to systems of notation in music: bars, clefs, notes, sharps, and flats. This was sound that you could scribble in a notebook on the tube (what sorcery!) or on the back of a napkin, if you wanted to drink alone. Music that was not really music at all. It sat there silent, in black-and-white, like hieroglyphs on candlelit tomb walls. 

From Alastair White’s The Snake That Eats The World. Published by United Music Publishing. 

What I learned in my exploration of this method is the fact that music does not exist in some kind of external relationship with technology. It is itself a technology, a virtual machine, even as it is a human machine, one that extends our perceptual abilities far better than any Oculus or illegal substance ever could. Albeit a technology that existed before we even had the word.

Close your eyes in the middle of a work by the German contemporary classical composer Lachenmann. What are these things that you can now see, and feel? They have no names. Not happiness, sadness; not blue, green, grey. This is a new territory of experience, brought about by a musical object. And though seemingly immaterial, untouchable, it is still certainly an object. As much as a hammer or a gun.  

New technologies like AI annoy us because we, too, could be seen as nothing more than machines. Vainglorious, preening, peacocking machines, but machines nonetheless; from our shuttered biological limits (only five senses?) to the reminder that our Stone Age minds are so ill-equipped for the digital, global future. 

We sit blinking as the apocalyptic climate crisis approaches us like a comedic steamroller. “Aaaargh,” we cry, or sing, or paint. Our lights blink. We don’t fucking move though.

How do we get beyond this ridiculous predicament? The answer lies in the possibility of extending ourselves: through an impossible, magical art. Art as augmentation, protrusion, like an extra eye, or limb art that widens our perceptual potential beyond the limits of our society, and even our biology. 

Art that, through its own mechanic logic, catapults us over the limits of the human machine into the space beyond, dragging our measly brains into the multiverse. Is it possible?

To let go of language, meaning, of the up and down, of oxygen, of Thursday? What would we find there? What is more than a machine? Beyond the human, in the realm of art and joy, our truly human selves await us. 

And this is precisely what I discovered that the notation of music allows you to do. If used properly, it can capture and deploy nothing less than ideology, than limit itself. Maybe think of it like this: instead of the fish, you create the water in which it swims.

Such ideas led me, along with a host of collaborators including the curator and writer Gemma A. Williams, conductor Ben Smith, soprano Kelly Poukens and fashion brand KA WA KEY among many others, to develop a new genre that we called Fashion Opera.

RUNE: A Fashion Opera. Image by Jarno Leppanen and KA WA KEY.

This methodology combines, not only opposing artforms, but also irreconcilable beliefs and ideas. Organising not just sound but ways of understanding and perceiving it.

Such a development can be justified through the relationship between technology and the individual; between the industrial base and its cultural effects. 

Think about how society and even the very structure of our brains, have been changed by the advent of the internet. In this way, the quantum computer will bring the reality of a non-Newtonian universe crashing down into our daily lives. How can we continue to ignore the implications of quantum mechanics, of multiverses, when they are helping us predict the weather? Or even changing the nature of the global financial system? As much as the actual technology, we need to adapt to its implications. 

Rather than reducing our humanity, these are the very things that make us human. Our wheelchairs and glasses, our flint arrowheads and stone bowls, our quills and keyboards, bone flutes and amphitheatres, drum machines and figured bass.

Our latest project, #CAPITAL, takes fashion opera into the metaverse, which is kind of like a retro version of the film The Matrix, a decentralised internet that you experience immersively. We want to excavate the history of this technology, telling its story from the very beginning of human experience to its realisation in MVFW 23, which the opera will open. 

It’s a tale of dematerialization and symbolism: from the first time someone exchanged a token for an object, or a symbol, a word, for a being in the world, all the way through gold bars and bank notes, or the virtual reality of art to bitcoin, avatars, and the creation of Web3.

As for me, it means a return to electronics. Scored for classical soprano, yes, but also synth and drum machine. Plus ça change, you might say, indignant. And you’d be right. A Greek blood curse, a fury, our limits chase us through our lives, condemn us to cells of unchanging similitude.

Only if they catch us, though. Trent, unchanging in my memory, sings out across the years how


Metaverse Fashion Opera. Image by CHENPENG.

For Metaverse Fashion Week 2023 on 28th March, the immersive, reality-bending imagination of China’s first metaverse platform Dragon City is to host Alastair White’s latest fashion opera (“a whole exciting new genre of art” — BBC Radio 3): #CAPITAL.

Led by the fashion week’s ambassador Gemma A. Williams and Dragon City’s Roy Zou, the project will be performed at a new “fashion opera house” within Dragon City specially designed by award-winning global architects Sybarite. It features and is inspired by, the designs of the LVMH Prize-nominated label CHENPENG, a brand that sees no boundary between the possible and the impossible, and which has been characterized as both “anti-tradition and deviant”. The work is sung by the award-winning Kelly Poukens and danced and choreographed by Zara Sands.

If you enjoyed reading  Music is a Machine then why not read Man, Machine, Action Here

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