In Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff’s book-length examination of compressed attention in the age of the perpetual present, Rushkoff lays out two understandings of time understood by the ancient Greeks: chronos and kairos. “Chronos,” writes Rushkoff, “is the type of time registered by the clock… this is time of the clock, meaning belonging to the clock…” . By contrast, kairos belongs to an elusive, metaphysical, sense of opportune and qualitative introspection.
“Kairos is perfect time relative to what is going on, where chornos is the numerical description of what happens to be on the clock right then. Chronos can be represented by a number, kairos must be experienced and interpreted by a human.” 1
More often than not, digital music consumption resembles chronos; it is condensed to the cult of the numerical order; it is binary and static. The cloud implies fluid and volatile eruptions but in fact crystallizes in flat metrics: play-counts, likes; the pixilated stream prioritizes the present without regard to context. As methods of efficient consumption and attention seize the inter-textuality of modulation and multiplicity, flexible distribution becomes the anodyne, passive ingestion of apportioned content: music becomes pure metronomic entertainment: a decorative art which anesthetizes the listener in order to produce the ideal consumer.
The stream—the interface built upon rapidly expanding networks of surveillance to stabilize mood and taste—organizes attention to fixate on this crystallization of time; the perpetual present, the node of action, vital to the task of organizing capital toward data miners. Anesthetized consumption is capitulation to the corporatization of the individual and co-option of the spiritual into this hidden exchange of data. In the terrain of the digital mediator, the scope of body is reduced, affixed to its digital extension and mined for profit.
The view is myopic, there is no before or after, the new arrives and is immediately replaced, a trajectory accelerated until even the permanent present appears a relic, what Paul Virillo terms the picnolpetic from the Greek word for frequent: non-time in which, “the senses function but are necessarily closed to external impressions. The return being just as sudden as the departure.” 2 Or as the artist Fatima Al Qadiri puts it, “there’s no such thing as the most recent update. It immediately becomes obsolete.” 3
“With digital technology, the environment created is one of choice. We hop from choice to choice with no present at all. Our availability to experience flow or to seize the propitious moment is minimized as our choices per second are multiplied by a dance partner who doesn’t see or feel us.” 4
Whether subliminally or overtly, the music of Alex Gray confronts these expectations producing a necessary mutation that confirms and refutes the tyranny of the now. An artist of constant collaboration and prolific output—he works with Sun Araw, HEAT WAVE Dreamcolour, DEEP MAGIC among others—Gray develops perhaps his most extreme refusal to surrender to the anodyne when recording under D/P/I.
“There are so many concepts that are ready to be mined,” says Gray as he sits in his Los Angeles home on a slow-lit evening to talk about his latest D/P/I release “Ad Hocc”. “Computer music or something like that, something very stark and quote unquote 'cold' can be a lively emotional piece if represented in the right context and the right way. Putting people in this place where they get experiential value out of it instead of just expecting the recording to be enough.” He reaches periodically to drink heavily from a gallon plastic jug of water, the ideas flicking from him enthusiastically. “Whether they are spur of the moment ideas or multi-dimensional ideas and dealing with different time frames and the presentation of sound or a record. I'm just not interested right now in doing anything, or even being immersed in anything that doesn't have some catalyst or guiding link to the piece that makes it meaningful.”
The sense of moment, the attempt to foster shared and communal experience, to push the capacity for infinite absorption made possible in digital space back into the physical where time, introspection and awareness regain their primacy, these are the ideas that resonate most in Gray’s music. “I want to be creating things,” he says, “experiments, half-experiments in all their high and lows points and also be creating artwork that people can input and feel a certain way about.”
In D/P/I’s renderings, this moment of binary capitulation is flipped and inverted, samples ingested into a propulsive articulation of shocked rhythms and fractured textures place the listener on uneasy footing generating a lack of comfort that necessitates conscious engagement. The impression of the digital terrain is made visible, the logic of modular attention a fluid ingestion of multiple trajectories and assumptions. It is music that demands participation and contextualization precisely because it makes both positions so untenable.
In keeping with the willfully misspelled name of his recent album, the music is ad hoc; it mutates and re-organizes in a volatile state free of permanence uneasily co-opted by the strategies of mobile consumption.
"I wanted this to be something that would be different, that would make you engage you as sound and make you aware of how it was input into your ears, and get away from laptop speakers. It's a conscious decision to emphasize that more but also it fit the spirit of the record. Everything was recorded on-sight in random locations with voices and things caught in the heat of the moment. This was like a year's worth of work on individual pieces and chiseling away at ultimately thirty or forty pieces, weaving those together over a years time with new field recordings from last week and stuff I worked on in the band and all these different time frames. It didn't fit into the idea of an LP, you can't really listen to two sides of this, it has to be this giant amalgamation of sounds.”
On Ad Hocc, the source material becomes consumed in the act of re-combination, obliterated into senselessness. The temporal imprint of his encounter is both consumed by the act of re-configuration and made fluid in the present. It escapes the terminal velocity of the binary horizon by engaging the language of potentiality, of absolute freedom to demarcate qualitative time and resist easy compartmentalization.
That his music itself can illicit these types of heady inquiries is inspiring but it is in the method of delivery that Ad Hocc suggests the greatest potential for re-imaging the act of listening in the age of digital consumption. Inspired in part by a series of private multi-channel concerts organized in his house, the album—released on Zona Music, the label Gray started with friends—comes on a business card USB drive filled with randomized artwork and six variations of the album the listener is encouraged to play from multiple speakers.
“I've been feeling this really present blurriness between the media this “thing” is being represented on and the music itself; the work itself and how it actually sounds. I feel like people aren't really trying to understand that distinction. The idea of multi-channel and the flashcard is really about giving people a flexible way to listen to the record and go further with it, open other dimensions of the experience.”
It is a gesture that in part calls to mind Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet: an installation that separates out forty choral voices into individual speakers arranged in a circle. Like a sonic exploded axonometric, Forty Part Motet makes the listener inescapably aware of the physicality of music and space. The individual voices contracting and expanding to form both individuality and unity: the architecture of the now and the intimacy of the original act that has been documented existing on a simultaneous plain. In Ad Hocc, as with Forty Part Motet, the moment of spectacle or the staging of the event becomes boundless; a performance without end, an artwork without frame.
It is surprising that even though digital work stations—with the capacity to engage the studio using methods that even recently would have been impossible—composers are still limited by stereophonic imaging developed half a century ago. A paradox of regressive innovation wherein even as digital capacities have rapidly grown, our engagement with the physicality of sound has for the most part tapered to the sonic precincts of the stream and the narrow spatial organization of laptop speakers. In short, we’ve gone backwards.
“Yeah, it’s strange that quadraphonic sound never took off. That multi-dimensionality is really a phenomenon that when you're in it feels really strange and really abstract. A lot of times it will communicate things you can't predict. In getting the different speakers to all be the same volume and everything involved, there's always some sort discrepancy. When you find the mid ground, not too loud, not too quiet, each sound hits but its not overwhelming when the little things are going around you, you really feel the sense of that; there are multiple sounds moving around you. You can be subtle with it.”
“The three different versions that are not including the dry signal are only computer processes, so those to listen on their own are more interesting for me to listen to because I'm not fully in control of them.”
D/P/I posits queries into the nature of improvisation, commerce and metaphysics that suggests an engagement with composition that goes beyond the narrow scope of digital awareness and materiality.
“Free Jazz is what got me into anything, that's some of my favorite stuff. When I heard Albert Ayler's “Spiritual Unity” that was kind of the first one, the sparseness, just the recording, I heard that when I was 17 and it did something to me... I couldn't believe there were records and music made like that. There's a really weird dimension to that record. It's a mono record, but you're hearing the room and it feels so alive. That record introduced me to the idea that something can be so abrasive and yet represent so much human emotion, so much human soul... Just a lot of pain and struggle and bliss coming out at once. It's just about listening really. It's musicians that can actually listen to each other and actually react in a linguistically and musically conscious manner.”
As with the precedents of Free Jazz, and installation art, music that re-territories the event away from the capitalized networks presents a way to think beyond the corporate internet, seeking to free the body both toward infinite territorization and localized awareness. It’s aggressively out music posited as a fissure between noise and epiphany and it is with this gesture that Ad Hocc so empathically rejects the notion of chronos; the album becomes an invitation to engage with the act of construction, to keep the moment oozing forward in a molten state. In this sense, it becomes absurd to speak in the language of social metrics; what constitutes a play when each return is inaugural? It is an eloquent reminder of the physicality of music, post-digital in its refusal to be quantified.
At a moment when our sense of time has retracted to the sub mono, Gray’s efforts using his own label to experiment with multi-channel releases and re-imagine the physicality of music feels full of promise; earnest in it’s hopefulness for the listener to escape passive engagement. This remains the potential for independent labels and why it necessary that as listeners we reward that hopefulness by engaging fully, both monetarily and with our time to become more than consumers. Artists and labels that emphasize exploration, collaboration and community are vital for discovering methods we can use to regain the digital terrain from corporate appropriation.
The promise for music in the digital era remains in this capacity, to transcend the limitations of the sedentary, of chronos, developing digital mutations that resist quantification and demand qualitative expansion. To unlock this potential, time must be regained from the mono-optic toward the continuous, away from the banality of the permanent present and pointed instead toward the future.