55 years have passed since John Cage spoke about the freedoms afforded to the composer thanks to technological advances – in his case, the invention of high fidelity magnetic tape. Yet even as we passed into the increasingly sophisticated era of laptops and audio software, these freedoms did not always manifest themselves in the live setting. The sight and sound of the artist standing behind their laptop, doing very little to very little effect, barely attempting to disguise the pre-ordained nature of their construction was all too common. Much in the way that a certain number of restrictions can, paradoxically, encourage invention, here was an example of freedom leading almost to paralysis, as if the work had become so complex that it could not be recreated, nor even reinterpreted – merely replayed.
Of course, this stasis was by no means universal. In the 15 years since they launched Icarus into the experimental end of the UK’s drum n bass scene with their Kamikaze album, Sam Britton and Ollie Bown have done more thinking than most about the flexibilities they have as composers within Cage’s sound space. In particular, they have concerned themselves with precisely where to draw the boundary between what they do and do not control, and the implications of this for the predictability or repeatability of their work.
Their Not Applicable label has afforded them the opportunity to engage fully with improvising musicians, while their creative tools have extended to take in Cageian ideas of chance and indeterminacy, as well as those of generative music. These concurrent developments progressed so far that by 2010, they were able to absent themselves physically from live performances entirely: a “quartet” performance with the trumpeter Tom Arthurs and clarinettist Lothar Ohlmeier occurred in which Britton and Bown were represented by a computer programme which was able to make musical decisions within set parameters on their behalf (as Long Division, it is now available as a free download from the Not Applicable website).
Given the increasing levels of variation which has resulted from these ways of working, not for nothing was the last Icarus album entitled All Is For The Best In All Possible Worlds: there was a real sense that they were thinking about new dimensions. Their latest release Fake Fish Distribution is a step further in that direction. Created after an extensive period of research and development at STEIM in the Netherlands, Fake Fish Distribution intrigues by virtue of the fact that all 1,000 copies are different: that is they each contain a unique variant of all 8 tracks. This, clearly, is not an album in the conventionally understood sense. Which presents some difficulties in the context of an album review.
For having heard ten versions of the album, they do indeed vary. At certain points, a certain musical event may or may not occur, a rhythm may choose to follow a different path at a junction, and a given section may last for a seemingly random duration (indeed the overall album length can vary by around ten per cent between versions). So I could tell you about the way ‘Two Mbiras’ gradually builds to its percussive centre, but I have no confidence that the one you hear will do so. Similarly, that evil swarm of noise that ‘Colour Field’ dissolves into may be entirely absent on version 893. And what point is there in me mentioning the intricate rhythmic section eleven minutes into ‘Old D’ when your version of the track is less than ten minutes long?
However that is not to say that your version of ‘Old D’ would be unrecognisable as still being, in a sense, ‘Old D’: decisions on timbre, volume and so on are still being made within parameters set by Britton and Bown, so the end results are only being given a certain amount of freedom to diverge. One way of thinking about the way that the percussive patterns on ‘MD Skillz’ vary between versions would be to consider that they had asked a drummer to improvise a complex solo on an extended kit. And then asked him to repeat it (of course they couldn’t ask him to repeat it 999 times, as it would ultimately tend towards some near singularity. It feels more like they have captured 999 of those second attempts, as impossible as that would be in practice).
Some of the sounds within those tracks, or sets of tracks with the same name, however we want to define them, are also recognisable as being things which belong to the grouping of Icarus sounds too. Over the course of their career, they have developed a strong sonic identity thanks to the way they process instrumental sounds – particularly strings and percussion, playing with their speed, reversing them, slicing them unforgivingly. On Fake Fish Distribution, with this digital enhancement it more than ever sounds like they are trying to add emphasis to the voice of this other active participant: the computer. To this catalogue they have added a number of new sounds, such as samples, including some snatched seemingly from the airwaves, Scanner-like and sinister. To a newcomer to their work (or possibly also someone who hadn’t heard anything since Kamikaze), their sound world would sound quite unfamiliar, and rather disconcerting.
Cornelius Cardew, famous for his groundbreaking graphical approach to the musical score, which gave considerable interpretative freedom to the performer, said he composed “systems”. Perhaps we should think of Fake Fish Distribution in a similar way, as a system, rather than just a set of compositions or as an album. It is clearly a larger subset of Cage’s sound space than the traditional album, being a system of parameters which can produce a family of 1,000 versions, each of which is unique but unmistakeably related. But why stop at 1,000? Why not 1,000,000? Indeed, why not an infinite number?
Icarus have pointedly imposed this numerical restriction on themselves, in order to accord with certain current conventions: the need for there to be a saleable physical product (and a saleable quantity of it), and the need for there to be something compatible with common current playback software (although it should be pointed out that they diverge from standard practice by giving purchasers some of the rights to their individual musical work, rather than retaining all the rights for all 1,000 themselves. In fact, the unique version is deleted from their servers when it is downloaded). It is entirely possible to imagine a future release of theirs being a piece of software complex enough to be able to generate far more than 1,000 copies of a work, on demand, and in precise forms that the human composers themselves could only have begun to have imagined. That is for tomorrow, perhaps. From where I stand today, I don’t see many who challenge our expectations of the role of the electronic music composer in the way Icarus do.