On Loop Aesthetics

One of the claims Hayles makes throughout her first two chapters has to do with the dialectic between the analog and the digital, where she takes the middle ground that neither category, at this point, would be particularly useful without thinking through the other. In addition to this, Hayles is interested in what we might call the organicity of language, one of the main categories that structural linguists, after Chomsky, use to cleave apart a difference between natural and “artificial,” or computational, language. The Chomskyan argument goes something like this: we acquire a thing we can call natural language, rather than learn it, and the ability to acquire language is universal among all human subjectivities. The particularities of one’s first learned language, in this system, are arbitrary, involving a kind of flipping-on of switches within an underlying universal grammar during one’s critical period (before the age of 3, certainly). Results that might be unthinkable within the grammatical rules of one’s first language, or L1, are totally possible within other languages. We might say, for example, that Hayles’s assumption about the material impossibility of a word containing 100+ syllables is a mistaken one grounded within her L1, if her L1 is English (43); while the morphological and syllabic structure of English might not allow for a 100+ syllable word, an agglutinating language like Turkish would certainly allow for it, regardless of its seeming material clunkiness in English.

Is it yet clear how overseriously I took my early undergraduate coursework in linguistics? One of the things that now bothers me about this Chomskyan, evolutionary model has to do with its overreliance on generational transmission that seems to fail to account for intragenerational changes in culture and use — any advancement related to changes in the distribution of human universals, like changes in harmonic or rhythmic sensibility in music (which is thought of just as language in this kind of structural/neurological model) would have to take place over several generations–one would not be able to see it, clearly, within their lifetime. When we look at the way digital technology interacts productively with analog convention, I simply cannot accept that this is the case.

I’m interested in the way looping technology, over the last twenty years or so, has transformed the landscape of what musicianship might mean and what musicians might be capable of doing. My interest in this proceeds from my own embeddedness within a guitarist (and guitar pedal) culture that has, to my mind, experienced a sea-change over the last couple decades.

By the late-90s and early 2000s, the amassing of an unreasonable number of unreasonably expensive guitar pedals had become a cliché of high-minded alt- and indie-rock. This leads to images like this one, of the pedalboard Kevin Shields used for the My Bloody Valentine reunion tour in the late-aughts:

shields board

Unfortunately, much of the discourse surrounding this kind of textural obsession/ridiculousness RE: guitar playing is rather poisonous (if you want that exact sound, you need that pedal).

At the same time, a single feature on a single pedal, the Line 6 DL4, has substantively changed the way musical composition occurs in such highfalutin musical settings. It looks like this, goes for ~$150 used, and most touring guitarists seem to have one, or a pedal like it:

The loop sampler function, which becomes engaged when the user switches the left-most knob to the 6 o’clock position, is the function embedded within this pedal that most interests me. It turns the pedal into a live sampler that transforms its input(s) into a recorded digital output meant to be layered-over by the performer — in essence, the top-down studio view of music as modular and digital, in Hayles’s sense, which looks like this:

maxresdefaultcan now be controlled by one’s foot, in real time; I would argue there is a sense of democratization of this kind of top-down understanding of musical composition implicit to the use of the DL-4. Here is an example of the sampling function of the pedal in live use:

Here we see the live-loop logic, co-opted from hip hop and DJ culture away from the the human body by digital studio convention, brought back into more-dynamic relation with such a body (though I would hesitate to remove the particularities of racial history from this technical history).

I would argue that guitarist culture, or musical culture generally, has moved away from a textural logic, present in the infinite-pedal dream of 90s alt-rock, to a logic of meter and rhythm through the sampling of loops. I would admit this has created a sometimes silly state of affairs, where for example the late-aughts Animal Collective were almost unrecognizable from earlier “folk”-based iterations, having the appearance of just pressing buttons and turning knobs over and over (for better or worse):

At the same time, we can also see how this kind of digital, loop-based thinking might provide altogether new possibilities for musical composition. I remember being floored by the sense of melodic and rhythmic simultaneity created by Thom Yorke’s rearrangement of his song, “The Clock,” on a single acoustic guitar, when the original had had a very rhythmic, loopy bleep-bloop feel to it:

(here is the original for comparison:


I believe that the question of productive interaction between digital and analog processes can be seen in recent developments in music technology, and wonder what will come next, though it seems clear that any sense of analog virtuosity (be it guitar shredding or pedal-collecting) has given way to much more-streamlined interactions between the human and the digital.

One thought on “On Loop Aesthetics

  1. Kevin Shields’s pedal board! My Bloody Valentine being, still, the acme of all things shoe gaze… I agree, such toy chests were objects of sometimes guilty desire for a generation of indie rockers.

    That first video is an interesting one because it blends Yorke’s vocal skill, his deft musical certainty with the trial-and error that non-quantized looping tends to demand. All of the Boss-sponsored “loop station” contests feature musicians for whom there is no distinction; fluency with the looping tech is part of the musicianship. See, for example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHS-W6xZFNk for example.

    I really like your isolation of the (digital) loop pedal era as a domain of inquiry. I wonder, though, hasn’t the one-person band, interacting with one’s own recorded ideas to compose new work, been accessible since the advent of the 4-track?

    If so, what may be special here is the speed with which one may cycle through the recording-playback-layering process (analog or not) and that, as shown in your examples, this heightened speed, combined with the portability of toys like the DL4, has allowed this process to be taken on stage and folded into live performance. There was a window of years in which people were running pro-tools at home but not doing a lot of live looping. Now the matter might be parsed down to one of temporality, that real-time embodied creation and interaction with looped audio that digital toys make so accessible.

    Returning to your opening use of Hayles, I think your apt opposition of the analog to digital might also interact in fascinating ways with the embodied/disembodied dyad Hayles recovers from *How We Became Posthuman* (I’m looking at 2 in the Prologue).

    That is, in the videos that seem to interest you we see bodies revealing (perhaps revelling in) the spectacle of their musical disembodiment, that instantaneous digital citation of their efforts. The duplicating apparatus has become too darn useful to go onstage without. In doing so, the performer no longer affects the purity of Neo-Romantic inspiration, but instead performs both the embodied origination and digital capture of sound.

    Let me be a pain for a second about a really great idea you include in your post. You write, “I would argue that guitarist culture, or musical culture generally, has moved away from a textural logic, present in the infinite-pedal dream of 90s alt-rock, to a logic of meter and rhythm through the sampling of loops.” I find this an engaging provocation, and do see what you mean in general, yet can also see the loop pedal phenomena as a possible trajectory of the infinite-pedal dream (love that phrase!). After all, what could be more infinite in the temporal sense (as opposed to infinitely draining on one’s bank account, like collecting pedals) than a pedal that will keep a few sounds repeating as long as there’s power in the grid?

    Also, My Bloody Valentine (which that pic put in my head) might both affirm and complicate this shift. I don’t know, really, but it may be that their technical skill on albums like Loveless was a bit wider spectrum than just guitar toys. They certainly used sampling and looping at times. (www.whosampled.com/My-Bloody-Valentine/). I’d say more, but I just learned to my chagrin that Loveless isn’t as good as I think it was: http://www.sfweekly.com/shookdown/2012/05/08/why-my-bloody-valentines-loveless-isnt-as-good-as-you-think

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