Songs as Systems: Objects, Ecologies, Weather, Viruses
Text and illustrations from a paper presented at the conference ‘Future Present: Current Practices in Pop Music Studies’, Uppsala University, Sweden, 19-20 June 2018. Versions of this paper were also presented at ‘Crosstown Traffic’, the IASPM UK & Ireland Conference, Huddersfield, 3-5 September 2018, and at the ELLAK International Conference, Sookmyung Women’s University, Seoul, Korea, 13-15 December 2018. Some of the extemporised connective material is missing from this version.
Recent years have witnessed an intense interest in the roles played by objects in the world. While clear distinctions exist between the influential work of Bruno Latour, the ‘thing theory’ of Bill Brown, the speculative realism of Graham Harman and the ‘new materialisms’ proposed by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, these approaches are bound by a recognition of the vital interdependence of human and non-human actors. My current research aims to establish the importance of music in this new terrain of scholarship by analysing how songs represent objects, how songs themselves become meaningful objects and how songs rely on a wide range of ever-changing objects to assure their survival. Using the connecting thread of materiality, the project offers an approach to musical analysis that both connects with recent object-centred scholarship and tries to overcome existing musicological distinctions between music as thing and music as process.
This paper highlights a specific aspect of the project’s second strand by detailing some of the ways in which systems-related approaches have been applied to the production and reception of pop songs in recent years. Concept albums such as Björk’s Biophilia (2011) and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Kid (2017) are marked by organic approaches to electronic sound that create new song forms. These forms are frequently written about by critics in meteorological terms, as weather systems or ecosystems that model an affective fragility and fluidity. Of equal interest, and in seeming contrast, are viral metaphors which focus on the durability of song forms, where song is understood as something that not only sings the singer, but also retains a survival instinct that outlasts specific human and nonhuman songholders precisely by showing adaptability to non-traditional forms. Artists I’m thinking about with regard to these issues include Björk, Smith, FKA twigs, Grimes, David Sylvian and James Blake. In thinking about these artists and the critical discourse surrounding them, I want to ask firstly whether the systems-based song analysis identified here offers an alternative to earlier analytical systems and secondly whether the materiality of song offers new ways of considering object-centred philosophy.
The idea of song forms
I fully expect that other work to be presented at this conference will present a more thorough analysis of the development of pop song forms (past, present and future) than I can offer here, and I very much look forward to hearing that work. What I want to highlight is a critical language I see developing around the attempt to describe the work of certain singers and the shape, or shapelessness, of certain songs. This is partly what I mean by ‘the idea of song forms’, but I also want to think of song forms as real-and-imagined things. Whether I’m reading published work on Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook or reviews of contemporary song-based music, I’m often struck by explicit or implicit reference to a real-and-imagined age of more fixed song forms. Real because we really do have all those classic songs and many do conform to recognised models of song construction. Imagined because the boundaries that are drawn between these song forms and other variants (boundaries that are often presented as historical, as though something suddenly changed with the Second World War or rock and roll or the 60s or wherever your particular golden age ended) can be hard to pin down precisely.
Familiarity and strangeness
On the one hand, the study of song form seems a very familiar thing. It’s an area in which people have been working for a long time, albeit from a range of different, and sometimes competing, disciplines. Sometimes it feels as though not much more needs to be said about song form. At the same time, the very notion of music’s thingness has been comprehensively challenged; we’re asked to think about music as process rather than thing, or we’re reminded that thinking about music as an object is engaging with what Joanna Demers calls ‘thought fictions’. We have to carry on dealing with those fictions, as Demers suggests, but we also need to critique them.
For all seeming familiarity of song, we are constantly made aware of new songs, new song ideas, new mutations in the fabric of song. Listening to the work of Holly Herndon, Laurel Halo, Grimes, FKA Twigs or James Blake, we might wonder what has become of the song when it can be presented as so fragmented, so ethereal, so untethered to almost everything we thought of (and which our musical dictionaries defined) as making up a song.
This response to James Blake’s debut album in 2011 is fairly typical: ‘fragile, beautiful songs floating over warmly alien, sometimes seemingly formless musical structures’; as is this from Pitchfork on Grimes: ‘tensions between pop structure and diffuse atmosphere, between technology and the human body’; ‘Boucher spends most of Visions singing in a vaporous falsetto’; ‘To reach out and touch this music would be like putting your hand through a cloud.’
The constant mutation of song forms demands new approaches and calls forth new metaphors and modes of explanation, new thought fictions. In the words of the Icelandic poet Sjón, reflecting on the discoveries made by his collaborator Björk: ‘a song could be shaped like a coconut … with purple fur’.
As Mandy Suzanne Wong puts it, ‘Music’s mode of being depends to a significant extent on what we call it – on the terminology that listeners, composers, performers, and scholars use to describe it. With its undeniable influence on our attitudes towards phenomena in general, terminology alone may transform music and sound from experiences to things — from encounters to commodities, from interactions to forms of domination’. One of the things to highlight is the relationship between music and the ways we talk about music. These interact dynamically with each other and I don’t believe we should assume that one always comes before the other.
Meteorology / Virology
While thinking about objects and illusions and weather systems last year, I read this in a Wire review of a CD by Rhodri Davies, David Sylvian and Mark Watsell: ‘David Sylvian has yet to achieve again the sublime integration of Blemish (2003) in which then-new forms of improvised electronic music opened up into songs like weather-systems, their air heavy with cryptic longing.’ Shortly after, in the November issue of the same magazine, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s songs are described as ‘synthesised ecosystems’. This is Ken Hollings; a few months later he’s at it again, this time in a review of an album by Svitlana Nianio: ‘Hardly touching – let alone springing from – the earth, her music seems to be the product of some mystical entwining of air and water. More like a rhythmic flurry of water crystals or the regular billowing of a breeze through mist than conventional song structures’
From meteorology to virology is not such a great leap. As recent research has shown, viruses are being carried by weather systems and raining down on the earth.
This is ‘Virus’, with a lyric by Sjón. The song describes a viral longing or starvation, the desire to join, to spread, to be hosted. This is described by both natural and human-made objects: the virus that needs a body, the soft tissue feeding on blood, the mushroom on the tree trunk, the ‘flame that seeks explosives’.
Both Nicola Dibben and Alex Ross highlight the way that the music subdivides and proliferates on ‘Virus’. Ross provides his comment on the song in his contribution to Björk’s Archives project; Dibben’s analysis comes bundled with the Biophilia app, providing an unusual case of musical exegesis accompanying the musical object at the moment of its release. The app encourages the idea of getting inside songs, of songs as journeys through space, as constellations and as objects in wider constellations. The stems of the songs, meanwhile, were given over for remixing and to educate schoolchildren in music theory. As is often the case, Björk’s songs provide a compelling study of the possibility for transmutation to be thematised in song and practised in the deployment of the song object.
These issues are taken up in critical writing about Björk, in both academic and journalistic discourse. I’m tracking this discourse in various ways for Björk and for other musicians I’m including in my study. Here, for example, is a wordcloud taken from the texts of twenty reviews of Biophilia, where there’s a strong focus on the interaction of nature and technology.
The bringing together of the natural and the technological can also be thought of in ecological terms. If we turn to the work of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, we find songs that thematise the cosmic, the technological and the organic and a critical discourse that does the same.
Ben Salmon for Paste: ‘Listening to the last three Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith solo full-lengths is like watching time-lapse footage of vibrant flowers blooming’  Salmon writes that Smith uses ‘vocals to further humanize her bleeps and bloops’, a point comparable to Nicola Dibben’s claim that Björk ‘naturalizes technology rather than technologizes nature’. In his review for The Wire, Ken Hollings discusses the relationship between technology and nature, going so far as to suggest that ‘nature is simply another form of technology’. He explains, ‘As a species we are better adapted to surviving on board the International Space Station than in the Amazonian rain forests – cities are our new arcadia. Similarly electronic music, whether voltage controlled or digitally shaped, is best appreciated as an ecosystem: an integrated intuitive environment that we inhabit rather than listen to’. Writing for Exclaim!, Tom Beedham describes one of the instrumental tracks as ‘a humble interlude full of fauna but with enough room to breathe and exist in the environment Smith’s sculpted’. Like Hollings, Andy Beta uses the ecosystem metaphor: ‘Blipping birds and frog frequencies warble, an incessant arpeggio ripples like a creek, Smith shaping it all into an electronic ecosystem’. It also appears in Bob Cluness’s review for The Quietus, which speaks of Smith’s ‘utopian drive to create and build a digitised Gaia – one that mirrors the idea of delicate and synchronous ecosystems that inspired so many new age composers in the 70s and 80s’.
For me, the music of James Blake fits into the metaphorical languages I’ve just mentioned, given as it is to a play between the formed and the formless, between being and becoming. But if I sense something of the meteorological or the virological in Blakes’s music, other writers have been more taken with the hauntological and what we might call the osteopathological: with ghosts and skeletons. This language is one derived from a certain critical response developed initially for dub music and later for dubstep (both genres that influenced Blake): Ian Penman and Kodwo Eshun were among those who developed the former; Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher the latter. Here is Fisher on James Blake:
‘Listening back to Blake’s records in chronological sequence is like hearing a ghost gradually assume material form; or it’s like hearing the song form (re)coalescing out of digital ether. A track such as “I Only Know (What I Know Now)” from the Klavierwerke EP is gorgeously insubstantial—it’s the merest ache, Blake’s voice a series of sighs and unintelligible pitch-shifted hooks, the production mottled and waterlogged, the arrangement intricate and fragile, conspicuously inorganic in the way that it makes no attempt to smooth out the elements of the montage.’
Fisher argues that Blake’s subsequent work presented him writing and recording ‘proper’ (as in not deconstructed) songs, with the electronics now adding effects to stable song forms rather than being the jittery field from which the songs emerged.
Fisher, noting Burial’s template for 21st-century pop: ‘It was as if Burial had produced the dub versions; now the task was to construct the originals, and that entailed replacing the samples with an actual vocalist’.
It’s interesting that Fisher emphasised this as inorganic, which contrasts with the reception given by reviewers of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, FKA Twigs and Björk. However, I think Fisher was dealing in a meteorological discourse – forms taking shape from the ether, waterlogged sounds, and so on – but perhaps wanted to emphasise the technological and machinic as inorganic, nonhuman. I think one of the special qualities of Björk’s work – and perhaps that of Smith and others – is that it doesn’t seek to offer nature and technology as binaries, but rather thinks them together (as Dibben has observed).
I sensed a newness in the responses to the particular kinds of formlessness uncovered by the musical examples I’ve been considering, something along the lines of the ‘gathering formlessness’ that Simon Reynolds mentions in his analysis of Burial’s music: ‘tracks that crumble away suddenly, like a sandcastle reclaimed by the surf, or halt is if suddenly vacated by the will to continue’, which seems to me an apt description of much of the music that has influenced or crossed over into mainstream pop in recent years.
At the same time, I’ve also been wondering just how new this critical language is. Here’s Kodwo Eshun reviewing Techno Animal in 1995: ‘seven minutes-plus of billowing gusts and eddies … humming with dread and humidity … overlapping ripples that oscillate between the celestial and the imminent … formless swirls … impossible mirages … Acid-squelched birdsong and radioactive bees swarm in Ligeti clusters … the aural stratosphere bursts into towering peals of astro-fuzz guitar, swathes of sawing viola, gushing streams of processed harp, a roaring, planetary cyclone.’
This historical reference is illuminating both in terms of music being made at the time and the ways it was being written about; Ian Penman’s contemporaneous writing on Tricky is worth referencing here too. It would be worth doing a teleological account of these particular kinds of formlessness and also worth noting how critical languages develop alongside musical forms (as Rob Young has noted in a recent survey of The Wire’s archive of electronic music reviews from the 1990s). The music and the critical language would be seen to also be gatherings, hyperobjects with no obvious beginning or boundary.
In working through musical forms and the forms that the critical responses to them take, I wonder to what extent the critical language is an enabling technology that not only recognises but actively creates music’s changing forms. Does the critical language shape the music it is ostensibly describing? Music criticism is never prepared to think of music as emerging from a void; music always has to be compared to other examples that have come before even while novelty is hyped. So reviews of FKA Twigs’ first records would often place her as a hybrid of Aaliyah and Björk, and occasionally Kate Bush, while still insisting on her own unique aesthetic.
Each new artistic turn takes up its place in an ecosystem created by previous artistic and critical turns.
It’s also worth asking whether the music and its critical companion can shed new light on the way we think about objects. These would not only include the viral objects that Björk sings about – mushrooms, tree trunks, tissue, bodies, explosives – but also the hyperballads she sings and the hyperobjects that Timothy Morton and others write about. It would also include the hyperobject that is the Internet, that work of art that not only disseminates the music and discourse I’m talking about, but also inspires them. FKA Twigs, James Blake and Grimes are all artists of the internet age inasmuch as they declare digital and online culture as a direct influence on their aesthetics.
Perhaps songs are hyperobjects. I have been thinking of songs as objects that outlast songholders, whether those are thought of as human or nonhuman. By this I mean that songs have come down to us through what we call oral tradition and transmission (music as process) and through a whole range of physical formats (music as thing). But I also want to think of songs as increasingly autonomous units: just as we are getting ready for driverless cars, we must prepare for singerless songs. Or perhaps this is yet another area where music is way ahead of the game and we’re already living in that era.
Bonus Track / Rework
Another artist I’m looking at presently is the American footwork producer Jlin, whose day job in a steel mill is invariably mentioned in reviews that seek to connect metaphors of industry and the machinic to her particular form of electronic dance music. References to the body are also strong in writing about this music, both the dancing body but also the body of the music, constructed as it is from multiple tiny fragments. The vocal body is similarly fractured and multiplied, made viral and transmutated in fascinating ways in Jlin’s work. In March 2018, as I was preparing this paper, Björk released an EP of remixes of her song ‘Arisen My Senses’, featuring a reworked version my Jlin. I had no idea this collaboration was on the cards when I started looking at these two artists independently; needless to say, I’m delighted it happened, not least so I can explore the ways that Jlin has chopped and changed Björk’s song object to create her own. As with Björk’s collaboration with Timothy Morton, it encourages me to see these connections being made in practice as well as theory.
 Joanna Demers, Anatomy of Thought-Fiction: CHS Report, April 2214, (Winchester: Zero Books, 2017).
 Matthew Bennett, review of James Blake’s self-titled album, Clash (6 January 2011), http://www.clashmusic.com/reviews/james-blake-james-blake; Lindsay Zoladz, review of Grimes, Visions, Pitchfork (17 February 2012), https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/16211-grimes-visions/.
 Sjón, ‘The Triumphs of a Heart: A Psychographic Journey Through the First Seven Albums of Björk’, in Björk: Archives, by Biesenbach et al. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 112.
 Mandy Suzanne Wong, ‘Sound Objects: Speculative Perspectives’ (PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2012), 4-5. ProQuest 3532410.
 Dan Barrow, review of Rhodri Davies, David Sylvian and Mark Watsell, There Is No Love, The Wire 403 (September 2017): 50.
 Ken Hollings, review of Svitlana Nianio, Lisova Kolekciya, The Wire, no. 409 (March 2018): 66. In the same issue, though this is more relevant to glitch, a review of Oval reissues refers to an interest in ‘the material substance of music … music that made its media not a thing to conceal but a transparent and essential component of its message.’ Robert Barry, review of Oval reissues, The Wire 403 (September 2017): 51.
 Alex Ross, ‘Beyond Delta: The Many Streams of Björk’, in Björk: Archives, by Biesenbach et al. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 17-32.
 Kelsey J. Waite, review of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, The Kid, The A.V. Club (6 October 2017), https://www.avclub.com/here-are-6-new-albums-you-should-know-about-this-week-1818847950. ‘Listening to the last three Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith solo full-lengths is like watching time-lapse footage of vibrant flowers blooming’ Ben Salmon, review of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, The Kid, Paste (3 November 2017), https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/11/kaitlyn-aurelia-smith-the-kid-review.html
 Nicola Dibben, Björk (Equinox, 2009), 98; Salmon finds the music tangible; comparing Smith’s first two albums, Salmon writes, ‘Euclid exists on a musical plane; EARS feels reach-out-and-touchable’ In contrast, listening to Smith’s third album The Kid is ‘like being dropped into the middle of a bizarrely beautiful sound-world and enveloped by the warmth and wonder of one woman’s relationship with a machine named Buchla’ Salmon, The Kid review.
 ‘Surveyed as a whole, The Kid is an expansive overgrown landscape of an album; sprouts and tendrils are everywhere, writhing, curling and mutating. This is organic life as a blended series of variations and repetitions. It may look wildly out of control but closer inspection reveals the symmetry and order that supported the garden’s historical design.’ Ken Hollings, review of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, The Kid, The Wire, no. 405 (November 2017): 53.
 Tom Beedham, review of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, The Kid, Exclaim! (3 November 2018), http://exclaim.ca/music/article/kaitlyn_aurelia_smith-the_kid; Bob Cluness, review of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, The Kid, The Quietus (1 November 2017), http://thequietus.com/articles/23508-kaitlyn-aurelia-smith-the-kid-album-review
 In his critique of The Kid in Spectrum Culture, Daniel Bromfield argues that ‘it’s too liquid to be pop, too pop to really swim in’ Daniel Bromfield, review of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, The Kid, Spectrum Culture (10 October 2017), http://spectrumculture.com/2017/10/10/kaitlyn-aurelia-smith-kid/. See also
‘as lush, heady – and occasionally trying – as a rainforest’, Ben Beaumont-Thomas, review of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, The Kid, The Guardian (5 October 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/oct/05/kaitlyn-aurelia-smith-the-kid-review-western-vinyl.
 Mark Fisher, ‘The Secret Sadness of the 21st Century: Mark Fisher Recommends James Blake’s Overgrown’, Electronic Beats (18 April 2013), http://www.electronicbeats.net/mark-fisher-recommends-james-blakes-overgrown/.
 Fisher, ‘The Secret Sadness’. Note that Blake worked with Beyoncé on Lemonade and is on two tracks on the Black Panther soundtrack, collaborating with Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Future, Ab-Soul and Anderson Paak. His 2016 album The Colour in Anything features Frank Ocean and Justin Vernon, artists who have been responsible for innovative song forms in recent years.
 I haven’t yet had the chance to check the extent to which this is a gendered response to the music and this is something I’m keen to do. I have to admit that I expected that Blake’s music would be heard with the kind of organic and meteorological metaphors found in the other examples I cite here, but have not generally found them.
 Simon Reynolds, ‘Why Burial’s Untrue …’ – to which I’d add those gusts that Eshun speaks about with regard to Techno Animal, and the more general metaphor of wind as something that comes from nowhere, takes no discernible shape for the most part [excluding tornadoes] and halts suddenly).
 Kodwo Eshun, review of Techno Animal, Re-Entry, Post, The Wire, no. 136 (June 1995): 48. The group’s first album was called Ghosts and released on Pathological Records.
 Rob Young, ‘Archive Portal: Liquid Sky Diving’, The Wire website (March 2018), https://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/the-portal/archive-portal-rob-young-on-liquid-sky-diving.
 Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).