dublab — The Future of Composition: From the Ivory Tower of Academia to the Basement of Electronic Sound

Max Alper, more commonly known by his handle “la meme young” is without a doubt singularly unique even if just with regards to his maverick pedagogic tendencies. But he’s not a sonic arts anomaly. He belongs to a whole confederation of deep listeners and practitioners who inhabit a virtual landscape of infinite (and infinitesimal) proportions. That is to say, no sound is too simple or small. No composition, too unintelligible or unorthodox.

Written By

Angela Rose Brussel

I think my notion of the composer when I was younger was someone marked by some kind of solemn religiosity or supernatural genius. A puritan not concerned by worldly affairs, someone who played for kings and popes and emperors. The tortured genius and maybe their patron. It most definitely wasn’t someone admining an instagram account using equal parts trollery, humor, and brilliant broadsides against the music industry at large who had a sonic stem file collection encompassing everything from flatulence to sputtering failed-state generators.

Max Alper, more commonly known by his handle “la meme young” is without a doubt singularly unique even if just with regards to his maverick pedagogic tendencies. His hot (but totally spot on) takes such as “whatsapp voice memos are an unsung form of audio culture”  and “video games and 10+hour youtube video mixes/loops are the bridge to sonic arts that kids are inherently tuned into” show a super nuanced understanding of the millennial and gen z zeitgeist. But he’s not a sonic arts anomaly. And by that I mean that he belongs to a whole confederation of deep listeners and practitioners who inhabit a virtual landscape of infinite (and infinitesimal) proportions. That is to say, no sound is too simple or small. No composition, too unintelligible or unorthodox.

“As someone who has two feet in two doors,” said Alper, “one being the more academic music circles and one being the really deeply underground noise shit, the niche electronic and extreme kinda weirdo communities of musicians, it’s kind of interesting to me to see the chthonic bridges, or rather hearing similarities in both of these worlds, but feeling such a disconnect between them. To me it was, like, why does the underground circle feel closed off to the conservatory circle and vice versa?”

A composer, according to the OED, is someone who “writes music, especially classical music” and the example they use is “Verdi was a prolific composer of operas.” This hearkens back to my own original understanding of the designation, which was basically synonymous with 18th or 19th century Vienna, dusty attics, and gilded halls. The composer of today, though, lives in a world where information proliferates at a rate the likes of which we have never seen. The composer of today is a shape-shifting avatar, as potentially mutable and regenerative as the consumer technology and apps that are at their disposal.

When I asked Alper about the semantic baggage that the word carried, he responded cuttingly, bridging a gap that many of his more prehistorically inclined contemporaries wouldn’t dare to due to purported reverence toward what they deem a “high art.”

“The terminology itself makes being a composer seem inaccessible because we still call producers producers and composers composers at the very least in the academic setting. But what is the difference in 2022 if everybody both in PhD programs and EDM clubs are all using fucking Ableton? Why are we making these distinctions, right?”

Alper is particularly qualified to speak on behalf of what is clearly becoming a bogus classification system. An adjunct instructor of music tech while he was a graduate student at Brooklyn College between 2016 and 2018, he bore first-hand witness to how the forthcoming generation was engaging with sound. Not to mention his own deep dives into YouTube’s sidebar and the niche electronic underground. No stone seemed to be left unturned. There were field recordings captured on iPhones, hip-hop beat makers used on iPads, completely non-sequitur make-shift instruments constructed out of the throats of rubber chickens and airpods. A lot of it is not exactly conventional harmony. But it’s also not, not music. When, then, does the mememaker become the arranger? The sound archivist, the composer? The world of field recordings actually helps to shed a lot of light on this.

“Problematic fav og noise guy is Vatican Shadow,” said Alper when I asked him if a single stem field recording can be considered a composition. “He made an untouched field recording somewhere in Wisconsin and when you read the liner notes of the tape you find out that it’s where his best friend’s girlfriend was murdered their senior year in high school and it’s this tribute to her, but also suddenly it becomes true crime creepy pasta real heavy terrifying stuff. The stillness of it. Suddenly the context has informed the content and you as a listener are engaged in a totally different way. That to me is composition.”

According to the classical canon, melody, harmony, and rhythm are the hallmarks of music, of composition. But what about context? Narrative? I recently started working on my own sound pieces, for instance, in which I mash up film dialogue with music. My last attempt was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Nico Muhly, and Tuxedo Moon. Though I endeavored to use the cadence of the character’s speech and laughter as makeshift instruments, there’s no distinct melody. It’s a hodgepodge. A soundscape, which, in its most literal sense, is a combination of sounds that create or arise from an environment. But in this case it’s a synthetic environment manipulated in accordance with my own canon of aesthetics, tastes, and proclivities.

“I would say that composition is an umbrella term that includes everything from what you’re doing to Top 40 pop production all the way through homemade electronic instruments,” said Alper when I asked him if he thought what I was doing could be considered composing. “It’s really the expansion of the definition here because at the end of the day everything is being bounced to a stereo audio file for us to hear from a digital device.”

In our expansion of the definition, though, something else has happened. The tyrannical roles that melody and harmony once assumed in the classical canon of yore have now been usurped by the discordance (acoustically, socially, and otherwise) of the modern world. In other words, some music practitioners seem to be resoldering the very restrictive structures they claim to want to dismantle, railing against conventional harmony as rabidly as their academic contemporaries rail against “noise”. 17-year-old composer Alma Deutscher remarked on this dichotomy when presenting her composition Waltz of the Sirens, which was inspired by Vienna’s acoustic ecology.

“Some people have told me that nowadays melodies and beautiful harmonies are no longer acceptable in serious classical music because in the 21st century music must reflect the ugliness of the modern world. Well in this waltz instead of trying to make my music artificially ugly in order to reflect the modern world I went in exactly the opposite direction. I took some ugly sounds from the modern world and I tried to turn them into something more beautiful through music.”

Alma’s composition is not the first of its kind. But what makes it so poignant, I would argue, is the narrative that drives it and the fact that it was formulated by someone so young. It also has a great deal to do with how she chose to infiltrate the classical world. Ruled neither by the hegemony of the classical or “noise” canon, Alma displays reverence for both by digging up the dormant melodies buried in police sirens and blaring car horns. And when broken down to its sonic component parts, it really isn’t such a far cry from those earbuds being shoved into that rubber chicken’s throat.

“There are things that appeal to younger people that definitely have to do with breaking rules whether it be for humor or sound or art’s sake,” said Alper. “I think that’s the way forward. To let them do that. Let the kids be rebellious in that way. Rule breaking is a way to learn larger concepts and also push the culture forward.”

The social and political reckoning of the past few years has seen the culture being pushed forward in a myriad of ways. Paradigm shifts are transpiring on every front and consumer technology has without a doubt played a pivotal role in this. How it has manifested in the world of composition, from the basement to the ivory tower, and what it can reveal to us about the future of society, sound, and even tech-capitalism, is becoming increasingly evident.

“If we’re looking at anything related to how music is going even at the highest level of our electronic scenes we’re seeing that everyone’s broke,” proclaimed Alper when I asked him about the future of composition. The broad strokes of his reply, though, could be applied to many creative industries at large.

“I rail against over-consumption, gear acquisition syndrome, like a shit load of modular synths and pedals just because you want to make an instagram video showing off your gear. But on a more positive side, I think that technology at the most basic consumer levels, basic Droids and PCs, the costco phone, are now powerful enough to start to engage with these deep tools. We don’t need to purchase anything else.”

There is no doubt a brazen attempt amongst more and more people to live in a more equitable world. To break free from the yoke of elitism, the supremacy of the “system” and its potemkin institutions. Nevertheless, there’s still a heavy reliance on one of capitalism’s more incapacitating byproducts: built-in obsolescence.

“It’s about distinguishing what we want vs. what we need and what we need is to make sound immediately and there are ways to do that on your phone right now. And I’m hopeful that within the next decade there will be more ways to do that with regards to things that I’m not even thinking of.”

It’s difficult to conceive of a future when it feels as though our present is being so mercilessly beaten to a pulp. The surfeit of content and merchandise can also suffocate. And corporations are becoming even more virtuosic at convincing people that they don’t have enough. But perhaps the future knows a freedom we don’t, which is no preoccupation with itself at all. Just the present, a fierce determination, and working with the tools we’ve got.