The Romanian composer, producer, and philosopher George D. Stanciulescu recently published a PhD discussing the role of Postmodernism as a cultural phenomenon in music. For better or for worse, this anecdote is central to Stanciulescu’s musical production as LeVant, his electronic project. A choice quote from the thesis abstract: “Postmodernism functioned as an implementation of fragmentation and discontinuity in the consistency of the expressive plans.” Postmodernism is in essence the denial of institutions, of institutional knowledge and of the human ability to objectively separate and analyze aspects of reality. This is an excellent framework for digital and acoustic exploration; many popular contemporary musical tropes can be viewed in this framework. LeVant presents an intriguing and challenging musical interpretation of postmodernism with the two tracks “Touch/Drifter.”
Some philosophers will declare postmodernism dead, but as a cultural tool it is not going anywhere. Now more than ever, the central tenets of truth, objectivity and freedom are coming into question and invading our daily lives, through which postmodernism only accrues more cultural capital. This is about more than music, but as a form of communication (and art), music has put in a lot of legwork in fleshing these concepts out. The writing of Mark Fisher, particularly his antipathy towards capitalism and the pace of modern life, as well as the philosophical concepts of “nauseau” and “schizophrenia” as described by Sartre and Deleuze, are finding musical applications. Foucault and Baudrillard are around somewhere, too. Don’t bother reading anything they’ve written by the way—just remember the names in conjunction with a heaving, orifice-filled industrial rhythm object, kind of like that atomic flesh blob at the end of Akira.
Like many composers who laboured upon the fringes of digital sound, constructing highly experimental free-improvisation and pure noise environments, LeVant has slowly drifted not just towards postmodernism, but also towards that rhythmic, sweaty abyss of dance music, the black hole that has veritably swallowed pretty much every musician who’s spent enough time on a laptop. A live set on his soundcloud page is testament to this -- one foot in the club, one foot in the deep end of post-classical experimentation. Church choirs give way to arpeggiators, jazz flute, break beats, machine noises, every peak in the evolution of electronic music is measured and abstracted, usually followed by a burst of furious static. Venetian Snares, Floating Points, and, to a lesser extent, certain American minimalist composers of the 1960s have all demonstrated how breath-taking and intense the juxtaposition between classical music styles and dance-oriented music can be. LeVant thrives within the postmodern context because his music has no qualm with lacking objectivity. Postmodernism embraces immersion, a never ending quest to peel all the layers away from the onion of subjectivity, a subjectivity that may restrict our ability to process the world. The delicacy and impermanence of things—eroding and exploding not unlike the way stimulus constantly shifts during an LSD trip—appears unstable to someone that isn’t used to LeVant’s aural quicksand. But the uncertainty inherent to such music should be an invitation for deeper, more meaningful musical conversations.
At its core, postmodernism is having its day because it is a reactionary disengagement from known structures and institutions. It also describes the anxiety, “nausea” in Sartre’s language, caused by hyperreality. Hyperreality, the augmentation (or distortion) of a subjective reality, is already in its technological infancy. But as a global society, we are beginning the see considerable influence it wields and the ways in which hyperreality can be abused to...well, pretty much brainwash people. Deleuze’s “Schizophrenia” is part of this anxiety as well. It is not quite the same as the mental illness—Deleuze attempts to describe the person who finds themselves completely outside of the structures one might feel anxious about conforming to. These people are dangerous to society because they cannot be forced to conform and accept reality as is. Moreover, both concepts can be explored musically. Think about the emergence of auto-tune as an artist’s alternative persona, giving them more than one voice to inhabit. Now think about the jarring shifts of focus on “Touch/Drifter.” There is a familiarity between the disparate sections, but the music never sits still. It is uncomfortable with conforming, as Frank Ocean, uncomfortable with his own identity, sought to introduce many different phantom personas on Blonde, which simultaneously thrilled and alienated his audience.
Hyperreality also presents a literal post-modern threat in the form of a stagnation of meaningful technological development. As enunciated by Dave Graeber, mechanical technological advancements have largely stalled in lieu of more profitable, but arguably less useful, virtual technological advancements. While virtual technology is fascinating in its ability to categorize and repackage information, it has done very little work to advance the global poor, and has arguably made the average human’s life more overwhelming and confusing. Virtual and hyperreal technologies imitate physical processes and nothing more. Basically, the future will either look outward or inward, and if hyperreality is truly the upper limit of human inquiry – evolving into cyborgs, hooked up to a simulation, dying a slow death at 125 in a nursing home – then we can anticipate more fear, outrage, and great art in the meantime.
Hyperreality as a philosophical concept and workflow has been put to great use by electronic composers. Consider the deconstruction of pure, acoustic audio and repackaging of it in an alien context. That organic thump of a tabla sample sounds so eerie when it shares space with an 808; they are kin, but many generations removed. LeVant endeavours to “reveal a few selected incarnations of the virtually infinite possibilities of sonic becoming.” The problem with his latest work is there is simply very little to hold the listener's attention outside of the novelty of the experiment itself. The eclectic deconstructionism of artists like James Ferrero, Second Woman, and 食品まつり a.k.a foodman serve to disorientate and surprise, but there always plenty of space in the music to process what’s going on. The jarring juxtaposition of odd samples against hypnagogic, pseudo-classical MIDI flourishes, familiar in “postmodern” electronica and explored superficially by mainstream creative forces like Kanye West, occasionally becomes grating on “Touch.” It is truly an assault on the ears the way Times Square’s late-capitalist excess is an assault on the eyes. Fascinating, colorful, but occasionally vertigo-inducing. If Levant’s latest provided some sort of resolution to the chaos, then this sense of vertigo would probably dissipate. Instead, I just end up scratching my head.
“Drifter” carries much more weight. It begins sounding like a hyper-condensed hardcore techno set, before erupting into a section straight out of an early-2000s cell phone commercial. The free jazz / free electronica arrives after this breathtaking interlude, before being cut off by applause and some well-designed whooshing sounds. For new listeners to Levant, the design and “space” his sound palette occupies will stand out. In relation to his other releases, “Touch/Drifter” seems more conceptually complete, despite the critical lack of coherence.
Stanciulescu is an adept sound architect. His ideas are full of explosive energy, and he is willing to push the limits of his own creativity, sometimes at the expense of the listener’s comprehension of what’s going on. There are many high-minded ideas on display on his latest work, and while some motions fail to connect, the experience as a whole is exciting. Music that aims to bewilder and upend convention always deserves applause, but it does not always win repeat customers. With “Touch,” I attribute this to a lack of humanity.
Released Jan 1, 2017