Closed Circuit DIY – Indulging in the Pleasures of Introvert Imperfection
Post by Yngvar B. Steinholt
In 1974, San Fransisco-based conceptual artists The Residents outlined their Theory of Obscurity, according to which the less a work of art is sullied by interaction with an audience, the closer it comes to representing pure art. To test the potential and limits of this guiding principle, The Residents recorded the album ‘Not Available’ in complete isolation from any form of audience feedback, and kept it locked away until its reluctant release in 1978.
A less dogmatic and more practically-minded answer to the Theory of Obscurity can be observed in various forms of DIY music making, which give privilege to the pleasures of the creative process, whilst remaining largely indifferent to the demands of a finished product, of dissemination, or of audience response. The St Petersburg duo Sedlo, interviewed in 2010 for our research project ‘Post-Socialist Punk’, clearly subscribed to such an approach by defining as the nexus of their activity part kitchen conversations, part poetic and instrumental improvisations between the two members. The forming of an external audience, who took pleasure in their creations, they regarded as a purely coincidental, if fortunate development, albeit one that had little or no impact on their extended creative process. Other St Petersburg bands we interviewed shared certain aspects of this approach to music making, highlighting the value of creative collaboration, process over end product, creative autonomy, aversion to being stylistically defined by third parties, emphasis on the unexpected and spur-of-the-moment spontaneity.
Since focus is centered on the aesthetic process rather than on an aesthetic end-object, perfection becomes secondary, if not altogether irrelevant. What generates pleasure is sometimes the violation of the rules of perfection, whether deliberate or accidental, sometimes the excitement of the occasional near achievement, combined with the ever-present threat of impending failure. Once a member of a radically introvert, stubbornly dilettante, and moderately anti-aesthetic musical collective, I base this observation as much on personal experience as on qualitative research fieldwork. Our band rehearsal was an end in itself, its sole aim to entertain the participants. Certain unwritten rules emerged which regulated our aesthetic activities and development. Nobody should play an instrument that they had been taught how to play. To practice your assigned instrument between the weekly collective rehearsals was frowned upon. Since the goal was not to achieve skills, the band would attempt at – and invariably fail in – accomplishing highly advanced technical tasks. This could be playing a traditional instrument previously unknown to the band member, or the collective trying to hold on to different sequences, measuring different numbers of bars in a structure designed to never repeat itself.
Initially, first-time performances of the improvised compositions were recorded on a single microphone. The ensuing tapes enhanced the creative pleasure of band members by enabling us to re-live certain phases of our creative journeys. Correspondingly, their pain-inducing properties efficiently extended the already existing chasm between the band and any potential third party. The absence of an audience meant that certain decisions, normally of primary significance to a band, such as naming, could be extended indefinitely. The members only agreed on a band name on a temporary basis, and the name would change each time the rehearsal space changed. Exceptions from some of the above mentioned rules were admitted only when the band began practicing for our first concert. The idea of a concert came up as a deliberate challenge to the predictability of dogmatic consistency. As a matter of principle, our debut concert should therefore be more entertaining to us than to the audience. It should also double as our final live performance. During the weeks leading up to the gig, a set of songs was rehearsed. The one-off gig became a great success, attracting a paying audience (5 people) substantially larger than U2 on their first-ever public performance (3 people). Having already become ‘bigger than U2’, the band decided that we had exhausted our potential, split up at the height of our ‘success’, and re-formed under a new name never again to perform live.
A few name-changes later, the band dissolved for good. A key member later embarked on a career as a much-acclaimed musician and composer. Meanwhile, two of us continued to indulge in the practice of recording musical improvisations in isolation. Under ever-changing names our new duo reinstated the principle of performing each composition only once, but progressed to four-track recorder (later, hard-disc recorder). Over the years our musical ‘composting sessions’ generated tens of hours of recordings. When, a few years later, Norwegian public broadcaster NRK opened the web service urort.no, where amateurs can upload their compositions, we were tempted, despite past rigid principles, to select some of our gems and expose them in to a wider public. After painstakingly searching through our vast material, we were left with a total of four and a half minutes of tunes deemed worthy of sharing with the outside world. The rest, we agreed, would forever appeal only to ourselves as improvisers. We alone could share the excitement of nearly getting this bit right; re-live the breathtaking exercise of holding rhythm through that tricky bit, feel gratification at having added that hilarious synth sound at exactly that pitch at exactly that point when, meanwhile, everything else is left staggering along miserably out of sync. The totality of anomalies and errors in our tunes kept our brains on edge trying to arrive at an acceptable compromise between relative success and total failure. Thus, our listening pleasure depended on a combination of our creative investment and the eerie balancing act of the recorded result. The whole tension, the whole nerve, we decided, would be completely lost to us if we attempted to iron out the abundance of errors. Any attempt (some were actually made) to approach perfection would erase enjoyment from our compositions. It would stop us rejoicing with each movement away from the abyss of collapse and stop us shivering with every new movement towards it. Perfection would turn our exciting playground into a featureless parking lot.