COVID-19 introduced headphones, microphones, and bundles of cables and plugs, into the interpreter’s regular daily professional milieu. Mostly liberating and at times frustrating, remote interpretation brought with it, by way of the electronics, the strangely euphoric and occasional ear-popping sounds produced by signal failure. I am not here to complain about it, no, but to introduce you to a new way of thinking about those annoying sounds. It is the genre of musical noise called Glitch. In this week’s article I will tell you about how the genre of Glitch came into being, and why I regard composers related to the genre among the most brilliant in modern classical music. The pandemic forever changed the interpreting profession, and at times, we are forced to struggle with feedback, echo, and distortion through our headsets. Listening to artists who emerged from Glitch reminds me that we not only can we make good from a bad situation; we can make art too!
The basis for Glitch began in 1913 with an Italian eccentric named Luigi Russolo. Russolo wrote a manifesto called the Art of Noises  as a corollary to the Futurist movement in visual art. In it he describes his vision for music written with sounds from the machinery of the industrial revolution and the organic sounds of nature. One of his compositions, for example, is aptly called Awakening of a City and another Meeting of Automobiles and Airplanes. For me, what is most fascinating about Russolo was his ingenuity for designing and building instruments. Of the twelve instruments he invented are the hummer: to resemble the sound of electric power plants, the crackler: for a metallic crackling sound, and the croaker: to resemble frogs at night. That the instruments of a modern orchestra had all been invented 150 years before his time, underscores Russolo’s genius. He goes on to describe the six families of noises for future orchestras.
Russolo seems to suggest the human ear has evolved to delight in and decipher an ever-increasing complexity of sound, and that the mind has evolved to create harmony where there was none previously. Amusingly his principal motivation: boredom. The things of the past…to hell with them. Onward says this Futurist!
On April 12, 1914 he holds one of the first concerts with his “noise orchestra” at the Teatro del Verme in Milan. The concert stirred up such a controversy among Futurists and the professors from the Royal Conservatory, 11 people needed medical attention. As he later commented, “They brought their own noises.”
How I discovered the benefits of failure
I’ve enjoyed ambient/experimental music since I was a kid in the late Eighties. On Sunday evenings my dad would crank up a large stereo in the basement, while my brother and I sat in front of mammoth wooden speaker towers to listen to a radio program on NPR that came on at eight o’clock in the evening called Music from the Hearts of Space. Maybe you remember it. It had then, and still does today, carry the tag line, “Slow music for fast times”.
The electronic musicians I grew up on were interested in experiencing sound out of context, not necessarily creating music. It is exactly sound out of context which is the most fascinating to me. Listening to a recording of something banal—an egg frying—conjures up memories. It’s a completely different experience. Glitch and its sub-genres using looping machines or samples of sounds, are experiences beyond what we’ve been taught to appreciate.
The glitching sounds featured in glitch tracks usually come from audio recording devices such as a CD skipping, electric hum, digital or analog distortion, circuit bending, bit-rate reduction, hardware noise, software bugs, computer crashes, vinyl record hiss or scratches, and system errors. Sometimes devices that were already broken or used, and sometimes devices are broken expressly for this purpose. Hip hop was one of the first genres where artists successfully created music relying on sounds of failure. The record scratching and needle drops used by Theodore Livingston  are a hallmark of the era of the 80s.
In 2004 an essay titled, The Aesthetic of Failure , was published by Kim Cascone, an electronic artist in the movie industry. It’s an interesting essay because it describes failure as the essence of progress. It flies in the face of stubborn American ideologies like perfection and acquiescence. Moreover, when listening to a machine fail, or noises of failure, it’s the knowledge that it is failing which makes us cringe, not necessarily the sound. We are accustomed to reacting adversely. I think we should work to change our national psyche and accept imperfection, even look for it.
Glitch includes a few composers who have found success commercially and musically. I would need several articles to cover the work of these artists, but I’ll drop just a few names of those I’ve come to appreciate. You’ve probably heard their music without knowing it as they sometimes write movie soundtracks too.
- Ryuichi Sakamoto
- Alva Noto
- Ryoji Ikeda
I am a student of Carl Jung and his ideas on the archetypes of the collective unconscious, and I believe composers like these are tapping into deeper layers of the psyche. Their creations are not simply for pleasure or entertainment, but discovery of the Self. Their music is capable of stimulating a creative, hypnogogic state of mind, which produces the theta waves of dreaming. Although I have not found evidence anywhere, I am certain Cascone is aware of this too, as he was a collaborator with movie producer David Lynch of the 90s series Twin Peaks. Lynch is a vocal advocate for the practice of transcendental meditation. For this reason, and several others I’d love to talk about, the composers of this genre are the future of classical composition. Take a moment this week to find a quiet place and listen to Monomom, Uoon II, Data.Matrix. I promise you will be awakened and possibly delighted at where those annoying sounds have wound up.