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Theory & Context

'Aesthetics of Error in Music: History and Influence' 1004 words


Digital technology developed for over seven decades starting from simple mechanical implementations of math and deciphering machines to holographic images and internet. This certainly changed the world globally, and our way of life. But while we wanted to create machines which would become an example of unprecedented dexterity and perfection, a substitution for our imperfect nature, we inevitably faced instability in our creations which was even stronger resemblance of human natural features. People created systems to execute specific tasks with precision but instead, they often met computational errors. Error has an etymological root that emphasizes wandering. 'There is, etymologically, an ambivalence at the heart of error, a tension, that is between merely aimless wondering and a more specific aberration from some path.' (Bates, 2002) This essay examines the impact of digital errors on music and sound art within historical and theoretical context. In the mid to late 1990s experimental music witnessed a huge interest in new tools that rapidly expanded with a mass take up of digital technology. People accessed new market of affordable computers which soon became a central part of small independent studios, and surge of experimentation took place. (Kelly, 2002) Musicians in a search of new sounds, often pushed the limits of their devices far beyond the original intent, until they collapsed or simply stopped working. It was an entirely new and unexplored field of sonic experimentation, where unexpected sounds could be found through degradation and destruction, creating the new. Digital wave gave to world many medias such as CD, MD, DVD, DAT etc. and technologies of reproduction that used to be the end point, became a source for generation of original sounds and performance. But long before corrupted digital media and computers were used as a creative tools, older technologies such as phonograph and vinyl disks were abused in all sorts of ruthless experimentation. The nature of the vinyl is that each playback gradually destroys the disk due to a needle scratching the surface. By the end of twentieth century, experimental musicians modified phonograph to an extreme extent where it merely plays the recordings. By many of them recordings were slowed down, sped up to 2000 rpm, scratched, covered in tape and even completely burned. Such techniques often allowed to fill the music world with noise most unpredictable, random and rich segment of the sound spectrum. Musicians and composers made use of the malfunctioning technology, for example Christian Marclay used multiple mutilated vinyl recordings to create sound collages in late 70s, Yasunao Tone used damaged CDs in his performances. The beginning of a digital error age often linked with German and Sweden scene, in particular band Oval (that later became one-man project) and compilations of Mille Plateaux record label which first started popularisation of 'error based' music. In a thirst for original sound Markus Popp (Oval) started to sample sounds coming from scratched CDs, or more often with a pictures and patterns on the optical surface made by marker. He made the rhythms out of digital clicks and used Aphex Twin 'Selected Ambient Works' album for continuous gloomy soundscape that went throughout the composition. Later, this technique was extended by developing special computer 'OvalProcess' used for sequencing of samples. There was nothing entirely created by Oval, instead advanced manipulation of corrupted recordings gave new sense of arrangement, utilising and 'recycling' existing music into something unheard before. Another representative of german school is Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto), who invented his own unique mark by looping oscillators and tone generators, creating dense rhythms with static tones and bursts of noise. Another most important part of Glitch movement is use of 'Circuit bending' 'the creative customization of the circuits within electronic devices such as low voltage, batterypowered guitar effects, children's toys and small digital synthesizers to create new musical or visual instruments and sound generators'. (Wikipedia,

In the modern days, an era which has been called 'Post Digital' by many, take its dominance, and most aspects of creative process are concentrated around software such as Max/MSP, Bidule, Csound and Collider, which allows great flexibility of realisation with its modular or text based programming environment. Most destructive techniques of sound modification were transferred to their software implementations such as bit depth and sample frequency reduction, various stutter effects and buffer shufflers. Discussing the aesthetics of failure in music, there is an obvious tendency to relate the surge of interest in this field to an exploration of control and stability of the machines that we created. 'failure has become a prominent aesthetic in many of the arts in the late 20th century, reminding us that our control of technology is an illusion, and revealing digital tools to be only as perfect, precise, and efficient as the humans who build them.' (Cascone, 2002, journal article, p.2) This post digital aesthetic gave birth to a whole array of musical genres such as minimalism, post-neo-classicism, glitch-hop, new flavours of techno and digital sonic art. All these genres and sub-genres incorporate various advanced techniques which would not be possible if the idea of exploration of technological deficiency did not push it to those limits. In addition, with the advanced software nowadays computer failures started being imitated by certain algorithms, which makes the whole situation ambiguous and glitch genre contradictory. At this level all computer generated faults are no longer natural short length occurrences, but human modelled replications of that nature. Being drawn to those first acts of randomness in 90s, signs of digital life, we gradually forget its origins and emulate them, which means erasing the initial notion that has been discovered and substitution by another kind of audio effect. Despite new trend of failure recreation, the vast amounts of musical works were done since such approach was explored, as it made a huge impact on the whole electronic and even acoustic scene. Seeing that more and more new technologies are coming out, it might be logically correct to assume that more explorations of digital faults will be made, and hopefully open a vast new area of sounds.


1. Bates, David. (2002) 'Enlightenment Aberrations: Error and Revolution in France'

2. Kelly, Caleb. (2009) 'Cracked Media', MIT Press 3. Cascone, Kim. (Winter 2002) 'The Aesthetics of Failure: Post-Digital Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music', MIT Press. [Online] Available at: (Accessed 07/03/12) 4. Andrews, Ian, (2000), 'Post-digital Aesthetics and the return to Modernism', MAP-uts lecture, [Online] Available at: (Accessed 07/03/12) 5. Glitch, Wikipedia online encyclopedia, [Online] Available at: (Accessed 07/03/12)