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An Interview With Musicologist Adam Harper

In part one of two, the musicologist and writer talks about the limits of lo-fi and a new future for music, haunted by the past

Adam Harper tells me on Skype that he is currently working for Hearing Landscapes Critically, “a musicological research network about where geography and music meet and ideas of place and landscape in it” (“a bit of a receptionist job at the moment”) at Oxford, where he has been doing his Musicology PhD since 2010, concerning lo-fi music.

It was while studying Music at Magdalen College as an undergraduate that he started writing about music, becoming interested in “aesthetics” – the “beauty” of music. After his degree ended in 2008, he went onto Goldsmiths College in London for his Master’s, “a very conservative historical course” – “it just wasn’t for me. What I really missed was writing about music, and what I’d never really done before was write about the music I really like, which is underground electronic music.” He found time for his blog, Rouge’s Foam, “where my music criticism career… got started.” Not long afterwards, he was writing for The Wire, then Dummy and The Fader. Back at Oxford, he was “looking at the history of indie”.

“It had occurred to me that.. the whole indie aesthetic, maybe its legitimacy had been lost; its time had passed; it was now working against the very kinds of underground motivations that it originally started for and it was now time to try and look at something new, and I called that ‘the hi-tech aesthetic.’”

He explains how “it’s a lot more expensive now to make lo-fi music” due to its increasing popularity and the fact that there’s only a finite amount of vintage equipment out there. Hence, producers have turned to the possibilities of computers, much of the time with “a view to exploring the modern world as opposed to recreating the past.”

“People like John Maus are a sort of turning point, really, because lo-fi used to be just about guitars… and pianos and other really old instruments, but there was there was this really interesting moment in the ‘00s… when people started using synthesizers and looking at the ‘80s again.” Now though, “I’m sure that in the next five to ten years we’ll see people who are simply using their phones and making really good albums on them.”

One of the artists at the forefront of the hi-tech aesthetic is James Ferraro, whose 2011 album Far Side Virtual made large waves in the underground electronic music community, being named Release of the Year by The Wire.

“[Far Side Virtual] really to me sounded like the ‘90s; it reminded me of games like The Sims;” “it’s nostalgia for the past, but it’s nostalgia for a view of the future from the past, which is very romantic. You know, when you look at something that was intended to be utopian and lasting and powerful and you notice that it’s become old and frail and strange.”

This romantic tragedy, as can be seen in art influenced by hauntology (see, is likened by Harper to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, in which is relayed the inscription of an ancient statue, now fallen:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

“Being nostalgic for the failed past” plays a large part in the online microgenre of vaporwave, which heavily uses samples and graphics from the 1980s, accentuating bland consumerism. Many critics and music fans see it as ironic, although Harper disagrees. He sees the experience of listening to vaporwave (and other strains of online music which are often dismissed as insincere) as “a process of discovering what sincerity is.”

“Instead of thinking of things as being ironic or not, I like to think of things as exploratory and ambivalent, and I think that’s the best way of reading vaporwave, certainly. On the surface, it’s like ‘this is really kitschy music and it’s throwaway music and it’s the music of capitalism; it’s the music of the Man and it’s the music of dads and, like, parents and all this kind of stuff.’ But after a while, you listen to it, it’s got this really romantic quality to it, I think, and it’s sentimental, it’s soppy and it draws you in and it’s kind of spooky as well. What it is is utopian, like a lot of indie music. It imagines a future and a better world through, for example, shopping or late night advertising or something like that, and you start feeling for this music; that’s what I did.”

And, after a few months of listening to it, I’m starting to feel for this crazy music too.

Recommended listening:

John Maus – Believer

James Ferraro – Global Lunch

Oneohtrix Point Never – Problem Areas


By Mitchell May

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