Digital is Dead

Digital Is Dead consists of a series of three concerts held at Modern Art Oxford from Thursday 2nd to Saturday 4th May. The festival, organised by members of the Oxford University Music Faculty, celebrates post-digital music practice, and aims to foreground the questions that contemporary electronic music production raises. Auditory technology is advancing with stunning rapidity, enabling us to hear new never-before heard sounds (such as the sound of atoms) and to record, with remarkable quality, in environments previously unthinkable (for example, underwater). Digital Is Dead is an exploration of how electronic composers and sound artists have reacted to the rise of digitalisation, pushing at the boundaries of what technology and music can achieve.

The opening concert, on Thursday evening, features North American drone acts Mountains and Tim Hecker. Mountains’ music is characterised by transformations that move at glacial speeds, slowly building and receding. Unlike many of the artists performing during the festival, Mountains layer purely electronic sounds upon their initial acoustic sources, rather than digitally altering them. Mountains are likely to perform works from their most recent album Centralia (2013). A Montreal-based sound artist, Hecker has collaborated with an impressive array of artists, from experimental musician Daniel Lopatin (better known as Oneohtrix Point Never) and progressive metal band Isis. His music has been referred to as “structured ambient”, a label that indicates his directed exploration of the relationship between noise, dissonance and melody.

Friday evening will see performances by two Scandinavian sound artists: Bjarni Gunnarsson, from Iceland, and BJ Nilsen, from Sweden. From Sigur Rós to Terje Isungset, many Scandinavian musicians have evoked the wintry landscapes of their region, and Gunnarsson and Nilsen are no exception. The ambient, atmospheric soundworlds that the two composers inhabit are deceptively complex, and often full of minute details. Both artists’ works suggest an organic, acoustic core, which is then reinterpreted and warped through digital manipulation. Nilsen is especially interested in the effect that the sound of nature has on us, and the ways that sound affects our perception of time and space.

On Saturday there will be a rare chance to hear Markus Popp, co-founder and only remaining member of revolutionary art project Oval, talk about his compositional processes. Popp will be in conversation with Anne Hilde Neset, an editor at The Wire and director of NY Musik, and the event (which takes place at 2pm at Ertegun House) is free and open to the public. Oval are widely considered to be the pioneers of glitch, an electronic genre that embraces digital imperfections. Whereas many glitch artists’ works are recorded with an intentional lo-fi aesthetic, or exploit technological malfunctions, Oval came to be known for their unique compositional approach. Their innovative – and controversial – method of producing music involved intentionally damaging CDs (with anything from felt pens to knives) in order to mutate the sound produced, and the resulting audio was then looped. Parallels can be drawn with John Cage’s piano preparations; just as Cage reimagined the acoustic instrument, and employed a seemingly destructive approach to the instrument for compositional purposes, Oval did the same with digital equipment. This deconstruction for art’s sake exemplifies the issues of postmodern (and ‘post-digital’) aesthetics that the festival explores, and for those interested in such subjects this talk is a must. Those readers intrigued by Oval’s compositional approach are also thoroughly recommended to listen to their influential albums Systemisch (1994) and 94 Diskont (1995).

Popp will also be performing on Saturday evening, with a set consisting of songs from his recent 70-track album O, which combines digital manipulation with acoustic-based sources (including prominent drumbeats, absent from Oval’s earlier work). Popp conceived O as a ‘second debut’, and his denunciation of the project’s earlier methods will no doubt be touched upon in his conversation with Neset. Supporting Popp are two British acts, Simon Scott and Ex-Easter Island Head. Simon Scott will be performing his below sea level~ set, which was recorded in the Fens in East Anglia using hydrophones (microphones designed for recording underwater sound) and other custom-built recording devices. While Popp, and glitch in general, exploits and celebrates technology’s flaws, Scott embraces the opportunities that have arisen from technological advances. His use of analogue and digital timbres creates an environmental soundscape in which the acoustic and the electronic are ambiguously intermingled. Ex-Easter Island Head, the second support act of the night, will be playing a specially commissioned new work. The group, a trio from Liverpool, explore the hypnotic soundworlds that can be produced through the use of mallets on electric guitars. Their highly unconventional use of a common instrument demonstrates yet another side to post-digital compositional practice.

Rarely does Oxford host such a wealth of talent from the electronic music world, and the high-profile names present during the festival are testament to the ambitions of the organisers. For all those interested in electroacoustic music, sound art, glitch or ambient, Digital Is Dead promises to be unmissable.

J. Wadsworth

Digital Is Dead runs from Thursday 2nd to Saturday 4th May. Festival passes cost £27 (£23 conc.), and you can also buy tickets for each of the concerts for£11 (£9 conc.). All concerts are held at Modern Art Oxford, and start at 8pm. Markus Popp’s conversation with Anne Hilde Neset on Saturday is held at Ertegun House, and begins at 2pm. For more information about any of the events, and directions to the venues, please visit or contact Joe Snape by e-mailing Digital Is Dead is supported by the Mica and Ahmet Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme in the Humanities, Oxford University Music Faculty, the John Fell Trust (Oxford University Press), Modern Art Oxford, and the Sonic Arts Research Unit at Oxford Brookes University.

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