Carl Stone and the Complexities of Real Life

There was a strange but minor uproar on experimental music Twitter recently. A Pitchfork review of the new Carl Stone retrospective, Electronic Music From the Eighties and Nineties, ruffled some feathers and, when you read it, it is very easy to see why.

The review, by Daniel Martin-McCormick, comes across as a piece of writing that lays the writer’s own insecurities on the table and then attempts to talk about them somehow objectively, eschewing any kind of self-awareness.

Straight out of the gate, the reviewer positions the work as the product of the “cloistered realm of academia”. His main argument from there on out is that Carl Stone has simply reinvented the wheel, removing all emotional resonance out of sampling techniques that were, at the time, novel but are now old-hat. He writes:

Though noteworthy on technical and historical levels, ‘Electronic Music’ flags emotionally, vacillating between maudlin optimism and a half-baked minimalism. … [Stone] seems all too concerned with making sure his listeners feel safe and attended to, and the work suffers as a result. In the academy, an appealing artist statement and a complex process can go a long way, but for music to make a real impact you need to take a leap beyond the page. ‘Electronic Music’ jumps up and down with impressive energy, pointing excitedly towards the future, but in the end stays put in a quickly receding past.

Is he reviewing the album here or just Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s historicising liner notes…? If you were confronted by an album that left you stumped, which you didn’t know what to feel about and sought refuge in the words on the sleeve, this is the sort of review I’d expect to read.

The biggest issue that many seem to have with the review, however, is elsewhere. Just one sentence. Even if you’ve chosen to go through the wringer of overly generous defences of subjective taste, it is a moment that feels like an egregious leap into territory that I don’t even know what to call:

Stone is clearly reaching for an emotional connection, but he remains oddly disengaged from the complexities of real life.

Many on Twitter have rejected criticisms of the review, informing those offended few that Carl Stone is not some sacred cow who cannot receive a negative appraisal. There is, of course, a tremendous difference between a “bad review” and a bad review… Frankly, I think this sentence above might be one of the most incredible sentences I’ve ever read in a context such as this.

For me, this jars with when Martin-McCormick makes reference to the way that “an appealing artist statement and a complex process can go a long way” in the context of critiquing stuffy academia. What is today considered by so many to be a painfully pretentious crutch for mediocre expression is something to be championed here, it seems, over this relatively austere and minimal anthology of “dated” works.

Compare this second retrospective album by Carl Stone to Laurie Spiegel’s The Expanding Universe, also released by Unseen Worlds back in 2012. The CD liner notes of that release are extensive, particularly in reissued form. Inside the booklet, technical information and context are offered freely whilst, on the cover of the album itself, Spiegel conducts an interview with herself. After rattling quickly through her CV and evading pressures to overly define her sound, she waxes lyrical about her entangled process of creation and research in a way that is very much of its time, betraying a residual spirituality, a hippie sensibility, which jars with her cutting edge and pioneering computer music.

Spiegel rejects the conservatism and anally retentive practices of conservatoire students before she goes on to write about her music in a way that was, I imagine, at the time, refreshingly candid, affective and uninhibited. She writes:

My pieces are most strongly concerned with feelings, actually, but no matter what I feel, my mind is always active. Every piece is different, and I suspect that every good piece has all the aspects of being human in it which are integrated into its creator, probably in the same balance. Each piece I do reflects what’s happening in me at the time I create it. Sometimes a particular idea or emotion will dominate my awareness while I’m working, but the rest of me is still acting on the piece as I work. The intellect is a great source of pleasure, and wants expression just as the emotions do. They are not really separable.

When this reissue came out, I myself was a second-year undergraduate art student and I remember reading Spiegel talking to herself and thinking: “Yes! Why should I smother my own work in jargon-laden over-explanations and technical exposition? What is missing from my art school education is feeling. That’s what I want to express.” And so I did, ditching an “artist statement” at my degree show for a mix CD instead — describing what I was doing with sound made just as much sense as describing what I was doing in half-understood words. I’m sure it remains a common feeling felt by young art students and always has been. There will always be those who are serious about play but resent the game.

Carl Stone, I must confess, I know nothing about. Maybe he felt the same as Spiegel in making these compositions. Or maybe Martin-McCormick is right. Maybe he’s some fuddy-duddy academic composer who plays with technique but has forgotten how to feel. I don’t know how Stone lives his life but, living with this music, embracing its distinctly non-academic mystery, I’m captivated. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I read a review that I disagreed with on quite so many levels. (Although I also don’t remember the last time I read a review on Pitchfork…)

Opener “Banteay Srey” feels heavily reminscent of last year’s PAN complication, Mono No Aware, despite predating it by almost 30 years. “Woo Lae Oak” is a minimal slab of Steve Reich violins and pan flutes, a jarring combination if ever there was one, which nonetheless evokes a new underside that is both other and complimentary to its Different Trains-esque sonic frontierism.

Stone is certainly channelling many iconic modern composers here but what is most endearing about this release is the blissful new heights it takes these motifs and the understated manner in which it does so. It’s one of the most enchanting records I’ve heard so far this year. If it is devoid of reference to real life’s complexities, perhaps that’s because it is music for soothing them. And to do so with such grace, this side of the 2010s ambient revival, with an archive release no less, is no mean feat.


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