The following guest post comes courtesy of Daniel Kalder.
I like many types of music, ranging from Russian monophonic chant to Gothic German techno-metal to screechy avant-garde nonsense. My beard, however — well that’s a different story. His tastes are very specific, quite rarefied and were formed mostly in the first half of the 1970s, ending shortly after I was born. He likes droning, ambient noise, stuff that suggests the depths of space, or a long, slow descent into madness.
What then is he doing listening to Squarepusher’s Ultravisitor, which was released in 2004 and contains very little droning indeed? Recently I asked him a few questions to find out.
ME: So Mr. Beard, what’s this I hear about you and Squarepusher? He wasn’t even born until 1975 by which date most of your favorite records had already been cut. Indeed, many people would argue that IDM is not beard music at all.
BEARD: What’s IDM?
ME: It’s an embarrassing acronym for abstract electronic music that defies categorization, much of it released on the Warp label. You know, things like Aphex Twin and Autechre. It stands for Intelligent Dance Music.
BEARD: That is embarrassing.
ME: But not as embarrassing as the synonymous term Braindance — now that’s really shit.
BEARD: Quite. But I think you may have stumbled upon something. Back in the 90s, Squarepusher and his associates were regarded as hyper cutting edge future music. Of course in the 90s I did not exist — you were as of yet a beardless youth. Therefore sufficient time had to pass before a beard might manifest itself and enjoy this music. So in the 90s, perhaps the music was beardless. Since then the situation has changed.
ME: But I didn’t listen to this stuff when I was beardless.
BEARD: Never mind, I shall continue. What I’m trying to say, is that if you listen to Squarepusher’s Ultravisitor, you will realize that it is 70 minutes of technical virtuosity on bass guitar and other instruments, combined with thousands of hours spent learning how to program computers, filtered through a jazz sensibility, and what could be more bearded than that?
ME: Not a lot, I’ll grant you.
BEARD: Indeed. It’s one of the great ironies of the 90s and early 2000s that much of the music that was considered ultra hip — indeed as music to take drugs and have sex to — was obviously generated by obsessives who spent a lot of time alone indoors. DJ Shadow is the most obvious instance — a seemingly autistic savant with OCD who spent thousands of hours in old record stores, and then thousands more listening to his obscure vinyl purchases and fiddling about with tiny aspects of the sounds he found.
ME: So what are you saying?
BEARD: I’m saying that perhaps this music was always secretly bearded, even if those who enjoyed it most were usually boys with acne scars. By the time 2004 had come round however Squarepusher was openly sporting his beard on the cover of Ultravisitor. The hip affectation was gone: the truth stood revealed. This music has hair on its face.
ME: Interesting. But you haven’t said much about the music.
BEARD: Well you see, because I had not listened to any of Squarepusher’s earlier work, I was not afflicted with the kind of baggage that affects anally retentive electronic music fans who moan about the lack of the “Amen Break” in his recent work, the insufficient quantity of glitchiness, or this or that act of wandering from the church of drum n’bass. I think what I immediately liked about the record was its astonishing excess. It just goes on and on, and it seethes with ideas. After 40 minutes you feel quite exhausted; then it continues for another 30 minutes or so.
ME: And this is a good thing?
BEARD: Yes. Ultravisitor is a record of constant changes, shifts and mutations. It fluctuates between extremely frenetic programmed pieces, grating noise and gentle Segovia-esque melodic interludes. Squarepusher is that rare thing — an electronic artist who is also a musician, and an extremely proficient one at that. The members of Kraftwerk were all classically trained, but they effaced that skill from their work so that they might sound more like machines. But their conception of a machine was simple and nostalgic. This had a deleterious effect on their musical heirs, who could rarely be bothered to learn much more than basic keyboard skills so that they might make pretty melodies.
Squarepusher‘s vision of machine music is much more complex than Kraftwerk’s; it’s the essence of the cyborg, half man, half computer, and he pushes the capacities of each as far as they will go. Consider the interesting playfulness in Ultravisitor’s production — Squarepusher edits audience noise into his compositions, thus generating the sense that the tracks were recorded live, although clearly they weren’t. There is thus a constant shifting from ‘organic’ to ‘machine’ and then back again. Where does one end and the other begin? What came first, the moustache or the beard? Ultravisitor is real ‘fusion’ music.
ME: Speaking of ‘fusion,’ lots of people comment on Squarepusher’s jazz fusion leanings and I understand you are not a fan, even though this style of music — after prog rock — is quintessentially bearded.
BEARD: You are correct, but this is an anomaly I cannot explain. Even Joe Zawinul’s production on Salif Keita’s Amen sets my bristles on edge, and yet the Weather Report influence on that album is limited to a few cheesy synth farts. I think what draws me to Squarepusher and Ultravisitor in particular is that it is not jazz, it is not drum n’bass, it is not Andre Segovia. It is an unholy bearded collision between all these things and much more, propelled forward by a unique musical intelligence as adept with computers as it is with frets and finger work.
ME: Thank you, Mr. Beard, eloquent as always. One last question: what do you think of Squarepusher’s band project Shobaleader One? It’s been getting quite a slagging in the press.
BEARD: That is the result of the innate reactionary mentality of electronic music dullard-obsessives. They weep because it does not remind them of their youth. Shobaleader One is — by Squarepusher’s standards — as radically minimal as Ultravisitor is maximalist. It is an interesting irony that the addition of other players has resulted in a stripping down of his sound. I conceptualize this record as follows: a robot has discovered feelings, and it is trying to articulate them through words and melodies. But do not be fooled — in the apparent space and simplicity a great deal is occurring.