Legendary Fluxus artist and former member of Tokyo’s Group Ongaku Yasunao Tone has for some time been more interested in sound as an abstract artistic tool rather than a component of popular music. His hugely celebrated 1997 album Solo For Wounded CD (Tzadik), is one of the essential modern noise opuses, one which saw him cover the underside of a CD with perforated adhesive tape and then record the outcome as the beleaguered CD player attempted to process the seemingly random interruptions in the information it received. The result was an almighty whirlwind of ecstatic crackle and roar that seemed to decompose and then reassemble musical signals into something more abstract, yet more thoughtful.
MP3 Deviations #6+7 follows on from the approach of Solo For Wounded CD, expanding into the realm of MP3 manipulation (topical, of course, and I’m rather grateful he bypassed the rather ignoble Sony Minidiscs!). Tone worked with a team from the New Aesthetics in Computer Music (what a great name!) and Tony Myatt of the University of York, intending at first to develop new software based on transforming MP3 files. As he says in the album’s liner notes, “Primarily I thought the MP3 as reproducing device could have created very new sound by intervention between its main elements, the compression encoder and decoder.” All a bit Greek to a technological moron like me, and, rather thankfully, what resulted deviated (aptly) from these intentions, thanks in part to the very nature of MP3 files themselves.
With amusing understatement, Tone states that “the result was not satisfactory”. However, attempts to process the files caused them to become corrupted, spewing out 21 error messages, and these could be utilised, with Tone and co. sampling and collating them with varying play-back speeds to create the final result that is MP3 Deviations #6+7. Apart from Hecker, Anne-James Chaton and maybe Tony Conrad, I can’t think of anyone taking such a scientific approach to music in this day and age.
The main force of MP3 Deviations #6+7 lies not with it’s actual “music” (and, to be honest, it is hard to really consider it as such), but rather in the electrifying stereo interplay. Listen to it with headphones, and you can actually alternate between each earphone and hear two different sonic landscapes. As with Solo for Wounded CD, the impression you get is of a piece of technology being overloaded with unfathomable data and manipulations, causing it to vomit forth sounds in a desperate attempt to make sense of what it’s receiving and deliver a coherent result. In an odd way, given how abrasive the results are, it’s a strangely humanising approach to the musical machines that surround us on a day-to-day basis.
But what of the results? Well, even in a noise landscape that has given us the extreme sonic walls of Vomir, The Rita, Merzbow, Incapacitants and Werewolf Jerusalem, MP3 Deviations #6+7 is an overwhelming experience. Highly-digitised squalls, screes and bleeps fly at you like arrows, seemingly at random and with little coherence. I can only beg anyone unfamiliar with Tone’s work to give it a chance. Like the Harsh Noise Walls of Vomir or Werewolf Jerusalem, if you release yourself into MP3 Deviations #6+7, you start to hear patterns and even melodies, as your mind recomposes the data much in the way Tone and his team have recomposed the corruptions of the MP3 files and made something strangely coherent with the result.
MP3 Deviations #6+7 feels like the most advanced exploration of John Cage’s “Indeterminacy” concept, pushing the unpredictability to its apex by handing the sonic elaboration to an overdriven machine. If it certainly doesn’t make for “easy listening”, it does present fascinating new challenges to the way we approach and listen to sound.