In 偽承諾 Pseudo Promitto, Sydney producer Chunyin has delivered four electronic dance tracks that both reflect on and contribute to the endless circulation of online DIY music subcultures. This is essentially a ‘club music’ release, but one that speaks to the strange retreat of club music into private listening: it is listening through headphones, while many browser tabs lay open, and Twitter and Facebook notifications cause sporadic distractions. Chunyin (who also creates and performs under the moniker Rainbow Chan), has created a digital EP that is self-conscious of the context of its own circulation. After all, how many artists nihilistically announce a record as consisting of “tracks to contribute to the din” of our already saturated media environment?
The EP opens with ‘Terms’, a short track punctuated by sporadic and unpredictable kick drums, 808 snare sputterings and a distorted, meandering buzz synth line. This piece is sketch-like and seems more intent on gesturing toward the structure of club tracks rather than being one itself. Considering its title, ‘Terms’ is probably a nod to the omnipresent online ‘terms and conditions’ or user agreements, that are accepted but often not read in digital spaces.
In this sense, Chunyin’s EP is timely. Its April release coincidently followed extensive media reports on data analytics company Cambridge Analytica. These reports surfaced the unsurprising nature of our contemporary unreality in digital media spaces: an unreality where algorithmic communication is easily manipulated to mystify users. Many read the news in March and April with discomfort, as reports outlined how third parties exploited Facebook users’ data to toy with emotional sentiments, including the 2016 US election. During Mark Zuckerberg’s US Senate hearing, which came about as a result of the reports, the Facebook CEO was grilled on the fact that his platform’s user agreement exists “to cover Facebook’s rear end, it’s not to inform your users about their rights”.
Chunyin is critical of this digital media environment, while also acknowledging herself as an inevitable, yet self-conscious, participant. The present is a condition in which online platforms are suited to the logic of algorithms, beneficial for the circulation of capital in cybernetic spaces, but ultimately not all that good for our confused and manipulated minds in meatspace. These nascent references only become more defined on the EP’s second track.
In ‘Look Back On This’ the inclusion of text-to-speech samples of Facebook notifications makes for a more literal allusion to Chunyin’s subject matter. The phrases “Change how much you see of your former partner … ‘Block’ or ‘unfriend’ your former partner”, which are read in monotone by a pitch-shifted, synthesised voice, sardonically lead into a down tempo, hypnotic and syncopated rhythm. As the longest track on the EP, ‘Look Back On This’ gives its compositional ideas ample breathing room to develop into the strongest piece musically on the record. The text-to-speech samples add social commentary to the track, but are inserted with enough musicality to not be overly didactic. What remains is an entrancing dirge that is equally fit for the warming up of a sweaty club night, as for the soundtrack to a dystopian sci-fi film.
The third piece, ‘Adidos’, is named in playful allusion to counterfeit sportswear. This reference to an intriguing phenomenon of globalised consumerism isn’t necessarily apparent in the track beyond its title, but the piece is sonically interesting just the same. ‘Adidos’ opens with heavy sounding, metallic and atonal stabs, large spatialisation through the use of reverb, and the sonic pyrotechnics that tend to define a lot of what has been bunched together by music journalists in recent years under the term ‘deconstructed club’ music. The phrase has been used to describe experimental electronic dance music associated with producers such as Lotic, KABLAM, and M.E.S.H (all affiliated with Berlin record label and event series Janus). For me, what is pulled apart in deconstructed club music is not just the musical syntax of the genre, but its intended listening context. Wide stereo images and complex spatialisation are not necessarily best heard through a club sound system, where bodies may be anywhere in relation to the speaker distribution. ‘Adidos’ is therefore a track well suited to a generation that socialises increasingly in digital space, with headphones on.
The final track, ambiguously titled ‘Tyrian’, is a sparse and paired-back composition, built on a synthetic woodblock sound, with minimal drum machine percussion dancing around it. Like the first piece, ‘Tyrian’ is short at just a little over two minutes long. This seems at first unusual for a club-oriented track, where the durational cuts of a 12” record are built for several-hour long sets. While this could suggest that the track is something of a sketch-like experiment in the textures of club production, it more seems that Chunyin’s project speaks to the curious exit of club music from the public club and into private-public digital space. 10-minute long club edits are no longer necessary for music that increasingly exists in an impatient online context.
Even the dance music media platform Boiler Room, which makes its business off allowing people to live-stream parties from the digital comfort of their bedrooms, has recently announced grants for young party organisers to “prove wrong” the assumption that millennials are staying in (online) and partying less. While Boiler Room certainly wouldn’t exist without the groups of IRL bodies that make up their live-streamed parties, their model has capitalised on condensing these parties into brief, 30 second to one minute long Sponsored Posts showing up on the feeds of Facebook users. The collectivity of the rave is turned into a highlight reel, usually centred on the particular moment of the ‘drop’. Participation takes place through ‘reactions’ or in the comment section, rather than through dancing.
The press release for Pseudo Promitto invites speculation on these new modes of collectivity via music, stating, “May the lo-fi rips and dodgy phone videos uploaded onto YouTube/WeChat ensue…” In talking of lo-fi rips and “pirated artistic forms”, Chunyin’s EP evokes the concept of the “poor image”, coined in a 2009 essay by Hito Steyerl. This notion refers to degraded JPEGS and AVIs that circulate within unofficial, yet democratised, internet media spaces. Films, images and media that were once rare due to their non-commercial or politically radical nature, are now given a new life online as pirated poor images: we now circulate, share and view these images on a daily basis. In this way the lo-fi aesthetic of the rip can thus be affiliated with a promise of democratised media. However Steyerl’s essay is in some ways aging quickly as the ‘official’ channels of social media and streaming platforms weed out their pirate competitors with greater sophistication, culling the circulation of poor images. Chunyin recognises this: the EP often laments the ‘false promises’ of contemporary, democratised digital media.
Yet in saying this, there is also something anachronistic about the suggestion of “lo-fi rips” in 2018. It’s a suggestion that’s at odds with the actual delivery of content encouraged by contemporary music streaming platforms in the present day. Chunyin’s EP is released across these monopolised platforms, for free (or at least low cost). She offers high fidelity streaming and downloads on SoundCloud, Apple Music, Spotify and Bandcamp. This is no longer the rough-and-ready days of early P2P sharing and lo-res watermarked pirated MOVs. Today, bedroom electronic music producers are able to create content that is increasingly high fidelity, increasingly immersive and increasingly—if not more—engaging than what is available in non-digital spaces.
The technical means available to contemporary DIY electronic music producers, coupled with a pressure within platform capitalism to constantly capture one’s audience, perhaps explains what I would liken to a neo-baroque aesthetic undercurrent in online music subcultures. The Baroque movement of the 17th and 18th centuries made use of high drama realism, immersion, and illusionism to create a sense of awe in viewers. There is a similar interest in online music subcultures with the use of immersive and elaborate aesthetics, and responses of shock and awe.
Take the aforementioned ‘deconstructed club’ music, which is an apparent influence on the production of Chunyin’s Pseudo Promitto. With an emphasis on sound design, sonic pyrotechnics and atmosphere, this music is immersive and maximalist, often using highly textural sounds that elicit ASMR (auto-sensory meridian responses, or an involuntary tingling sensation in listeners). It is visceral music that seeks to invade the embodied experience of the listener. Scrolling through a SoundCloud feed today, one can find countless clusters of artists sharing and replicating these aesthetic concerns. Not so distantly removed are the aesthetics of the original Baroque movement, which made use of immersive architectural spaces and trompe-l’œil painting techniques to draw people into the cultural world of the Catholic Church. In today’s online music cultures there too is an air of secular religiosity in the ritual nature of subcultures, with their general purpose of belonging to a collective project.
Yet it’s not only the sounds of these music scenes that evoke a neo-baroque sense of scale in their strategies to immerse the music fan. SoundCloud pages are often decorated with spectacular digitally rendered banners and profile pictures merging pseudo-religious iconography with dystopian sci-fi aesthetics. Some contemporary electronic musicians (Berlin producers Amnesia Scanner come to mind) often style their visual matter with the particularly baroque characteristic of gore and fleshy, visceral images. Pseudo Promitto’s cover image by Wu Mei Chi takes the approach of high sheen, hyperreal imagery evocative of 1970s and 80s photorealist painters. The EP’s cover features a still life of fruit in glistening crystal bowls, surrounded by shiny surfaces and colourful light refraction. It is cover art that suggests that it is glossier, more tantalising and more desirable, to live on the platform than to live offline.
Chunyin’s Pseudo Promitto is a digital EP of club music for a generation self-aware that the club has been substituted for the private space of the home, and that the private space of the home has been turned inside out as a public playground for advertisers and neoliberal consumption. It is an EP for a moment in which support for the arts comes not from the shrinking public purse, but rather from Red Bull.
While the language around Pseudo Promitto makes some quite bold claims regarding globalisation and the “false promises of consumer culture”, these claims are evoked with enough self-consciousness as to not overzealously promise any definitive solutions or concrete responses. The themes of the EP sit like open questions, punctuated and glued together by well crafted productions that are at times fleeting vignettes (Terms, Tyrian), at other times self-assured and fully realised (Look Back On This).
Jared Davis is a writer and curator with an interest in independent music, sound culture and its politics.